All Ministers are required to affirm the pledge of office before taking up office. This includes a commitment to uphold the rule of law, based, as it is, on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts, as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement.
I welcome that reply, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that any commitment made on the police and upholding the rule of law is permanent, rather than transitory? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that Ministers encourage their supporters to give information to bodies such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains?
I think that all party leaders, including Sinn Fein’s leader, have urged that in respect of the disappeared—to whom I think the hon. Gentleman was referring at the end of his question—information should be brought forward. That is welcome, because those who have lost loved ones are in the worst possible circumstances if they do not know what happened, or where those people’s remains might be.
In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s broader question, all people, especially those holding ministerial office, and all major parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, need to comply with support for policing, which was why the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle—its executive—meeting of 29 December was so important in committing the party to exactly that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the uncertainties at the moment on a number of issues—both political and in relation to MI5—should be an excuse for any party to hold back from offering clear and absolute support for the rule of law and those charged with upholding and enforcing it? Will he also address the Government’s statement of today indicating that there will be no diminution in police accountability under the new formula agreed between Sinn Fein and the British Government? Will he tell us how there will be no diminution in the accountability of intelligence policing if primacy for intelligence policing goes to MI5, yet if MI5 is not subject to the access or powers that the police ombudsman has at present regarding its information and activities?
On the first point, yes. Irrespective of anything else, all parties, including Sinn Fein, should sign up to policing and support for the rule of law. I take heart, as does everyone in the House, from the executive decision made by Sinn Fein on 29 December. The executive is meeting again, hopefully with a view to calling an Ard Fheis, which is necessary to complete the process of preparing for the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, and power sharing in Northern Ireland.
I agree absolutely about there being no diminution in the accountability of the police service. The existing accountability arrangements will stay regarding the ombudsman and also in every other way, including for intelligence work carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and any necessary liaison that PSNI officers have with MI5. There will of course be no diminution in that accountability. The five principles that the chief constable has put forward are embedded in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement of today.
Finally, on the other point, I can tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is currently engaged in a discussion with the security service about how she can have access to sensitive information. She certainly has such access in certain circumstances, and I believe that she will have more access in the future.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that the triple lock will remain securely in place when there is devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland? The triple lock means that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must agree to that devolution, and that there must be cross-community support in the Assembly and an order in this House. Will he confirm that that devolution will not be imposed in Northern Ireland without cross-community support?
Of course, and I said as much to an Assembly sub-committee yesterday. I want the appointment of a justice Minister and a deputy justice Minister to be achieved by a cross-community vote in the Assembly, with the so-called triple lock, to which the hon. Lady referred, in place. The Act passed by Parliament last year made no attempt to change that, but we need to get on with the process. All the Unionist parties, including hers, and all the other parties support the principle of devolving policing and justice. The Government are committed to that, and if there is delivery on policing, we want to meet the St. Andrews time frame of May 2008 for that devolution.
The House will be grateful for what the Secretary of State has just said, but will he give us another unequivocal assurance—that those who accept ministerial office in any Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive will have placed on them the same requirements and obligations as are placed on those who serve in the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point, but in some respects the obligations in Northern Ireland are greater. The ministerial pledge of office, as amended in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which this House passed last November, makes it clear that Ministers must support the police, the rule of law and the courts. The Ard Chomhairle motion passed by the Sinn Fein executive on 29 December specifically authorised its members to take the ministerial pledge of office, and that is encouraging for the future.
Does the Secretary of State accept that words alone are not enough when it comes to policing and support for the courts and the rule of law? Sinn Fein’s support for the police, the courts and the rule of law must be tested against its actions over a credible period. In the past, we have learned to our cost that Sinn Fein’s words are meaningless when it comes to translating them into action. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that people in Northern Ireland believe that Sinn Fein should sign up for policing and the rule of law without conditions or concessions? That means that the May 2008 date for the devolution of policing and justice cannot apply, as there can be no commitment to any date when we do not know whether Sinn Fein will deliver.
I of course agree that Sinn Fein should sign up to policing and the rule of law, and to the justice system in every other respect. I also agree that there has to be sustainable delivery. There is no question about that, but the May 2008 timetable agreed in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act is a Government objective, to which all parties should work. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the date set out in that Act, which was passed by Parliament, is very clear. On March 26, there will either be the restoration of devolution or there will be dissolution. That date cannot be moved. We are proceeding towards devolution and I think that we can achieve it, but there will be dissolution if we do not.
May I ask the Secretary of State to be a bit more specific and state the criteria that he and the Government will use to judge whether Sinn Fein’s hoped-for support for policing is delivered in actions as well as in words? Such actions are needed to make the devolution of policing and criminal justice possible.
We will want Sinn Fein representatives to display full co-operation with policing in every respect, and I know that the hon. Gentleman wants the same thing. For example, that will mean that they will report any crime carried out in their communities, and that they will assist the police in every respect. We also expect them to join the Policing Board for Northern Ireland and the district policing partnerships. As I said earlier, the executive motion passed by Sinn Fein on 29 December commits that organisation’s representatives to all those things, and it is therefore important that we get on with the process.
Does the Secretary of State envisage that the Independent Monitoring Commission, or some other body apart from the Government, will play a role in monitoring Sinn Fein’s performance at living up to its words in practice, so that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have some objective evidence and assessment available to them, as well as the views of Ministers, to guide their opinion on whether delivery has been achieved?
An IMC report is due at the end of the month, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there will be continual IMC reports over the coming months and years in order to ensure full compliance with what is needed. May I also say to the hon. Gentleman that what is at stake is an historic prize, of devolution and support for the rule of law and policing? We have never been in this position before, where all parties want power sharing and all parties are ready to stand up and support policing and the rule of law. Let us grab that prize and go for it, because the clock is ticking and we need to achieve by 26 March—with full restoration and delivery on policing in place. [Interruption.]