Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 03 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Jimmy Spratt (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Simon Hamilton
Mr Alex Maskey
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Alan McFarland
Mr John O’Dowd
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr

The Chairperson (Mr Spratt):

I remind members that this part of the meeting, which is on policing and justice issues, is being recorded by Hansard. I intend to proceed in the usual manner. Last week, the Committee agreed to resume at issue J, which has now become new issue I on the category two list of issues. I sometimes think that we should have started by discussing the last issue before moving to discuss issue I, but we will take them in the order in which they are laid out. New issue I states:

“In relation to Recommendation 30 of the Committee’s original report, who should undertake the advisory role in relation to the appointment of the Police Ombudsman?”

Mr Paisley Jnr:

As I believe I said last week, I am happy to consider and hear suggestions on how that should be taken forward. My gut instinct is that, because the role of the Police Ombudsman is supervisory and over-arching, the Secretary of State should make that appointment. My reason for suggesting that is so that the Police Ombudsman has a level of independence from the institutions here. However, neither I nor my party is hard and fixed in that view, and we will consider any other suggestions that are made and come to an arrangement of the matter. We think that there is merit in ensuring that that appointment is seen to be transparent and outside of the influence of parties here that may have to question or be questioned by the ombudsman.

Mr A Maskey:

Sinn Féin’s preference is for the matter to reside with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). I take Ian’s point, and, at the centre of the issue, we must consider the independence of the system. However, that is built in, and is being built in, by the provisions and the recommendations that we are making. Therefore, given the cross-community nature of OFMDFM and the importance of that function, our preference is for that matter to reside with OFMDFM.

Mr McFarland:

Where did this issue lie in the expectations of the NIO on its famous chart? I understood that, under the current legal remit, the ombudsman answers to Parliament and that that was not due to transfer across when policing and devolution is devolved.

The Committee Clerk:

Perhaps there is some confusion. The specific question is about who should give the advice on who should be appointed as the Police Ombudsman. The Committee has already agreed on the financial allocation of the Police Ombudsman, so you are now considering only the issue of the appointment of the ombudsman.

Mr McFarland:

Where is the ombudsman to go? In the past, that issue has been kept well away. We discussed the matter with the Policing Board last year, and the view was that, as Ian said, the Police Ombudsman was to be so independent that it had nothing to do with us here. It would, so to speak, be on a link into Westminster rather than into us.

The Committee Clerk:

The proposal which, I believe, the Committee endorsed was that the Office of the Police Ombudsman would be an executive non-departmental public body that would be answerable to the Department of justice. However, that is not the issue that we are now considering.

The Chairperson:

We should be considering the appointment of the Police Ombudsman.

Mr McFarland:

I presume that the appointment of the Police Ombudsman will be similar to that of judges and the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC).

The Chairperson:

It has been suggested that OFMDFM undertakes the advisory role in relation to the appointment of the Police Ombudsman, and Ian Paisley Jnr has suggested that the Secretary of State deal with it. Ultimately, we are considering who should play an advisory role on the appointment. It will fall within the remit of the Department of justice, and the role will, therefore, be scrutinised by the associated Committee.

Mr McFarland:

The selection procedure will be sensitive, as is the case in the appointment of judges. The judges were put out to the JAC so that it would not be possible to prevent or allow favoured candidates to be successful. That is less of an issue now, because the rushing round that was part of the ombudsman’s remit previously will transfer elsewhere, so he or she will be dealing with police officers only — as we thought would be the case originally. It is, therefore, likely to be less of a neuralgic issue.

The Chairperson:

The position of Police Ombudsman will be advertised publicly, I believe. The Committee is trying to establish from where the advisory role will come.

Mr McFarland:

I thought that the appointment lies with the Secretary of State.

The Chairperson:

The Secretary of State does make the appointment at present.

Mr McFarland:

I understood that his Department makes the selection as well; there was no advertisement previously.

The Chairperson:

I think that there was, Alan.

Mr McCartney:

It was advertised.

The Chairperson:

It was a public advertisement; but we will check that, because I suspect that there are different opinions on the matter. We need to do more research and find out the criteria when Al Hutchinson was appointed, and how that was done. That should provide us with some assistance in making our decision. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

We proceed to new issue J:

“What procedures and protocols will there need to be between the Minister, an Assembly Committee and any newly established department and its associated agencies?”

Some of that was relocated from issue O in the category one list of issues on 25 November. It is, probably, bound in with issue K. That is where I felt that issue K should be discussed before issue J. However, we agreed on the order, and it must be followed — unless I am directed to deal with issue K first. Are members happy to proceed with the issues as they appear?

Mr Hamilton:

We could deal with them simultaneously, but discuss issue K first.

The Chairperson:

I will have to read issue K. Will we discuss issue K first, or will that be confusing the issue again, because we did separate them?

Mr Hamilton:

In that case, keep them separate.

I will address issue J. There is a relationship between the resolution of issue K and issue J. As discussed previously, we should see how day-to-day relationships between the Committee, Minister and the Department work in other jurisdictions.

Scotland , for example, had to increase the number of its justice Committees from one to two so that different aspects of the work could be carried out. I am not by any means proposing that we have two Committees, but it would be interesting to see why Scotland had to do that and how it operates on a day-to-day basis. We should also examine how the system operates in the Irish Republic and other places with similar systems. We can learn lessons from other jurisdictions. That is why there is a benefit in going to the jurisdictions to see how their systems work.

Mr A Maskey:

The same procedures that apply to Ministers, their Departments and agencies will, by and large, apply to the new Department of justice.

Mr McFarland:

If there is to be a normal Department, it should be treated as a normal Department. The only slightly confusing issue is the business of the Policing Board.

The Chairperson:

That has been dealt with already.

Mr McFarland:

It is the same issue: how the Committee links in with the agencies. The Policing Board is an agency and part of the Department. Part of the overall picture is how the different organisations will operate. Logically, they would operate on the same basis as a Committee — if it has an interest in an issue, it calls forward interested parties, such as the chairman of the Policing Board or the Chief Constable, and is able to have a relationship with them and have a chat with them to find out what is going on.

Mr Hamilton:

I failed to make that point earlier, and other members have. I cannot see any radical difference in the structure or operation of a Committee scrutinising the Department of justice than any other Department in the Executive. However, Alan has made a reasonable point. There is a difference with the Policing Board, which is unique, and we will have to construct our own lines of demarcation between ourselves and the Policing Board. There are also issues of sensitivity, and that creates a different perspective. By and large, I think that it would operate in exactly the same way as any other scrutiny Committee.

Mr McFarland:

The Committee has, I believe, built a fairly good working relationship with the Policing Board and the Chief Constable. When we first approached the matter, it could well have been an issue, but it has ended up not being an issue. From our previous experience on the Preparation for Government Committee, there was an issue with the judiciary and the level to which politicians should be involved. It was made clear to us that politicians should not go anywhere near Court Service matters. Some exploration must be done in linking in with that part of the Court Service, because, clearly, there are sensitivities – perhaps for very good reason – and the worry is that politicians will start interfering with judicial decisions.

The Court Service itself is fairly easy. When David Lavery appeared before the Preparation for Government Committee, he was quite open to the idea of coming to talk to a Committee. Therefore, we have some exploration to do with the more formal structures of the criminal justice system.

The Chairperson:

For the purpose of the Hansard report, I state that the SDLP is not present. Alex Attwood has left the Committee to go to the Chamber.

There is a fair degree of consensus on how we will deal with this issue. The only provision is that we will probably want to look at what is happening in other places. We are agreed that it will work on the same basis as any other Committee. Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:

We will do some more work on that issue when we have looked at Scotland, the South, and whatever other places we hope to examine, and add a few more bits and pieces to it. That will also include a paper on the PPS, on which the Committee Clerk is working and which should be ready in a couple of weeks’ time.

The Committee Clerk:

If that is not ready for next week, it will certainly be ready for the following week.

The Chairperson:

We now move on to the final issue – new issue K in the category two list of issues:

“What would be the status of the Minister’s position in, and relationship with, the Executive Committee; and would the Minister be required to bring significant, or controversial, matters to the Executive Committee?”

Mr Hamilton:

This matter is extremely important, and the Committee is committed to resolving it. However, the issue will require further discussion, and my party would like some time to do that.

Mr A Maskey:

We are still considering the matter. It is an important issue, and we have not finalised our view on it.

Mr McFarland:

Our view, as you well know now, is that it should be a normal relationship, a normal Minister, identified in the normal way, and who has a normal ministerial relationship with the Executive.

The Chairperson:

Although the SDLP are not present, I assume that they would echo what you have said.

Mr A Maskey:

Just as a matter of interest, what is a “normal” Minister?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

If you find one, point him out. – [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

More work, therefore, needs to be done, and there needs to be more discussion. So, we are parking that issue in the meantime. That brings us to the end of policing and justice matters for today.

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