Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 20 November 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Jeffrey Donaldson (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Mr Danny Kennedy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr George Robinson

The Chairperson (Mr Donaldson):

Before we start, I declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Privy Council. Do any other members have any relevant interests to declare?

Mr I McCrea:

I declare an interest as a member of Cookstown District Policing Partnership.

The Chairperson:

For information, members have been provided with a copy of the conclusions of the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission on the issue of normalisation. The report was published on 17 September 2007 and covers the six-month period from 1 March 2007 to 31 August 2007.

Members will recall that the Committee has previously discussed whether to call the Chief Constable to give oral evidence on his assessment of public confidence about the devolution of policing and justice powers. We will need to consider where we may fit that oral evidence session into our schedule before we complete our work. It will have to take place before mid-January in order to give us time to complete our report.

The Committee Clerk will give us an update on our timetable and where we may slot that session in. We will want to give the Chief Constable some notice.

The Committee Clerk:

The work programme that has been provided to members takes us up to a proposed meeting on 11 December 2007. That was based on the decision that was taken two weeks ago that the Committee may want to call an expert witness, or perhaps more than one expert witness. Given that the Committee did not meet last week, that timetable has slipped — technically, at least. However, that will be discussed as a substantive item of business later.

The Committee has parked a number of issues on the matters to be transferred, and it needs to revisit those. Consensus has not been reached on the ministerial model, and that will also need to be revisited. There is also an issue regarding the various parties’ positions about the proposed departmental structures, and the Committee may want contributions from expert witnesses on that issue. Therefore, with trying to fit all that in, it is my assessment that mid-January is probably the latest date by which the Committee can afford to call the Chief Constable.

The Chairperson:

It will have to be either 8 January or 15 January 2008. However, we have held oral evidence sessions on days other than Tuesdays; therefore, those dates can be changed, if necessary, to accommodate the Chief Constable.

The big issue for the Committee, subject to members reaching consensus on most of the other issues, will come down to the question of public confidence and the question of the timing of the devolution of policing and justice powers.

Committee members should let me or the Committee Clerk know if there is anyone else, apart from the Chief Constable, whom they want to call to give evidence on the issues of confidence and timing. That will enable us to make preparations. At the moment, I cannot think of anyone else, but it is an issue that members may want to ponder.

Are members happy that we approach the Chief Constable’s office to explore the possibility of an oral evidence session for either 8 January or 15 January 2008?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

Various questions regarding departmental structures, governance and accountability arose from the research papers that were kindly provided for us.

The Committee asked each of the parties to give a response, but so far it has not received any responses. That does not surprise me, because the issues are very complex. I have not consulted my party colleagues on the matter, but my view is that it is going to be very difficult for each party to have the expertise to respond to some of the complex questions.

I throw this comment out for consideration: we could produce four party-political views on the matter, but I do not think that that would get us very far. We have considered, and will consider this morning, the possibility of seeking help from expert witnesses. To borrow John’s phrase, are we putting the cart before the horse at this stage in asking the parties to provide responses to these very valid questions? The research papers have produced some useful information. However, one issue is the composition of a management board for a future Northern Ireland Court Service. I could consult the legal people in my party — and the other parties could do the same — but that would just give a DUP legal perspective, a UUP legal perspective, and so forth. The Committee needs to seek expert advice on these complex issues.

We have not had any responses from the political parties at this stage. I suggest that perhaps we should not push for responses now if we are to get advice from expert witnesses. Before we start committing ourselves to paper or having an informed discussion about the questions that must be resolved, perhaps responses should be held back until we see where those deliberations will take us.

I am conscious that time is marching on and that we have a timetable to work to, but, at the same time, I do not want us to waste a meeting talking about four party-political perspectives, when we might be better employed taking expert advice and then having the discussion. Those are just some thoughts on the matter, which leads me on to the question of the expert witnesses. Do members any party-political updates that they want to provide before we do that?

Alex, you are very welcome. The Committee is discussing the questions arising from the research papers on departmental structures. When I considered the matter, I wondered whether the Committee was putting the cart before the horse, and I was suggesting that if we are to get expert advice on some of the issues, perhaps it would be better to wait until we are better informed before bringing party-political views around the table.

Before we do that, I welcome George Robinson. I believe that you have an interest to declare.

Mr G Robinson:

I am a member of Limavady District Policing Partnership.

The Chairperson:

Do members have any thoughts on what I have said about party-political views? Are you content with the suggestion that we delay the party-political inputs until we get expert advice?

Mr O’Dowd:

I agree with that. It is a mammoth piece of work. Despite all the excellent research, which has been very useful, we are being asked to complete a task that other states and societies have evolved over a couple of hundred years. We are trying to sit down and rewrite it. The more time and the more information the Committee has, the better.

Mr Attwood:

I apologise for arriving late. The late Harry Holland’s family had an event in front of the Royal Courts of Justice this morning, and I was delayed.

I sat down last night and tried to answer the various questions, and I produced a paper as a result of that. However, I can hold that paper for the moment, if that is the wish of other members. Whether we end up with an arm’s length relationship, or an agency relationship, with the Court Service, or a hybrid of those options, it does seem that the Committee could end up differing about the actual architecture but could end up agreeing that there are certain elements that are essential to whatever model is produced.

For example, one way or the other, the Court Service will require a management board, whether it operates at arm’s length or as an agency. The Committee might reach an agreement on who should be on that management board — for example, representatives from all levels of the judiciary, consumer groups, the legal profession, staff bodies and management. The current management board of the Court Service does not have that diversity of representation. It seems that whether the Committee agrees on the actual structure, it could reach consensus and agree on details of the structure.

The Chairperson:

That is very useful, Alex. I will leave it to your discretion as to whether you want to circulate the paper for information at this stage. I appreciate that it might be unfair for one party to lay out its stall at this stage. It does not prejudice your position one way or the other, but the decision is entirely up to you.

Alan, do you want to express a view on behalf of the UUP?

Mr McFarland:

The UUP has produced an initial observation paper, which is also complicated. Some matters are obvious — for example, operational independence and the fact that the service should be effective and efficient. We probably all agree that the service should be accountable, but the accountability mechanism is the issue.

I sense that the agency system is due to be put in place by the Government before we get devolved powers, so we will inherit an agency. It seems sensible that we should not disturb that, because at least it will be a recognisable entity. I view the Lord Chief Justice’s plan for arm’s length management as phase 2. We should stabilise the institution, and then we can look at the business in its entirety. It would be useful to get more advice on the matter before we take such decisions.

The Chairperson:

That is wise, Alan. Chaps, are you happy with that? Has anyone else prepared papers?

Several factors will influence the way in which we proceed. As Alan has rightly said, the proposal that the Government are currently legislating for is a model that, in the initial stages, will look similar to that in England and Wales, with the Court Service being under the Department’s wing. Therefore, we must consider whether we accept the transfer on that basis, and, if we accept it, whether we are minded to review it after a certain period — taking account of what the Lord Chief Justice and others have said about the evolution of the model towards the type being developed in Scotland or that which is already in place in the Republic of Ireland.

We must think about that and whether we want to give a clear indication to the Assembly about how we might handle that. Alex is right; we can agree on certain matters about the departmental structures. We can agree on those whether we choose the current model or decide that it will evolve, perhaps after a review or after a certain period has elapsed. In any event, the Assembly would have to legislate for those changes, and that would necessitate a consultation process and scrutiny of the legislation by a Statutory or Standing Committee.

The Committee can usefully do certain things to influence that future work. It can agree on either structures or key principles, which would underpin the initial devolved structures and which might inform the debate as it proceeds.

Do we have a consensus to hold the party-political positions, pending any further expert advice that the Committee might seek?

Members indicated assent.

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