Wednesday, 24 January 2007.
The Committee met at quarter to four.
[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Thomas of Walliswood) in the Chair.]
Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007
I remind noble Lords that in the case of each order, the Motion before the Committee will be that the Committee do report that it has considered the order in question. I should also make it clear that this Committee is charged only to consider orders, not to approve or not approve them. The Motion to approve will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007.
The noble Lord said: Before I make what will be a fairly brief speech, I should like to say that if the noble Lord, Lord Laird, were not laid up in hospital, he would be with us this afternoon. On behalf of all Members of the Committee, I send him best wishes for a very speedy recovery, so that he is back at full strength before too long.
Before turning to the substance of the order, I should like to set out the Government’s position on decommissioning more generally. Decommissioning is a matter of considerable public interest; it has an essential role in building the trust and confidence necessary for political progress in Northern Ireland.
In September 2005, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that it, and independent witnesses, had,
“determined that the IRA has met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation”.
Subsequent reports by the IICD and the Independent Monitoring Commission have verified that the IRA has undertaken the historic and major step of decommissioning its weapons.
To put this in context, I quote from the IMC’s 12th report, which states that three years ago the Provisional IRA,
“was the most sophisticated and potentially the most dangerous of the groups, possessed of the largest arsenal of guns and other material. It is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime”.
The British and Irish Governments welcomed the move as a landmark development. The Governments said that the significance of the IRA's decommissioning needed to be acknowledged and recognised and that it was the clearest signal ever that the IRA’s armed campaign was over. This act of decommissioning has not been matched by other paramilitary groups, and it is vital that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD and make the full transition from conflict to peace.
Before turning to the substance of the order, I want to make one final general comment. The order is effectively an annual event. It is essential to keep reminding ourselves of the distance we have travelled towards a peaceful Northern Ireland. Last summer, Northern Ireland witnessed the most peaceful parading season in recent years. It is notable that on 12 July, the Army was not deployed on the streets of Belfast in support of the police for the first time in decades. This is a great achievement, which would not have been possible without the efforts of many hundreds of people across Northern Ireland.
In political terms, there have also been enormous developments. Following the St Andrews talks, we are on the brink of restoring the power-sharing institutions with the prospect of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein forming an Executive. This marks incredible progress and heralds hope for a return to stable devolved Government in Northern Ireland. There is more to do to secure a peaceful future, but no one would have predicted at the debate on the previous decommissioning order that we would have come so far in a year. This positive trend on many fronts offers hope for continuing progress.
As I said, this order is a renewal order—an annual order, which appoints 20 February 2008 as the date before which the amnesty period identified in a non-statutory decommissioning scheme must end. The amnesty period is the time during which firearms, ammunition and explosives can be decommissioned in accordance with the scheme. The amnesty provides immunity from prosecution for the offences set out in the schedule to the 1997 Act, offences that might be committed during the decommissioning process. Most such offences relate to the possession of weapons but others may stem from a person’s participation in decommissioning, not necessarily centred on the weapons involved but on the behaviour that may accompany such participation, such as withholding information or making arrangements with the terrorists.
Section 2 of the 1997 Act, as amended by the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Act 2002 and the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, requires that a scheme must identify the amnesty period, and that it must end before 27 February 2010 unless the Secretary of State, by order, appoints a later day. The order currently in force appoints 23 February as the day before which the amnesty period must end. The purpose of the order before the House is to extend that period for a further year.
The September report of the IICD concluded that the IRA had met its commitment to put all its arms beyond use in a manner called for by the legislation, an assessment that it has since confirmed. The IICD’s report also observed that the arms of loyalist paramilitary groups, as well as other paramilitary organisations, remained to be addressed. That is why we are bringing forward this order. The Government are committed to securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. To that end, discussions continue with the representatives of the UPRG and the PUP, who represent the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations, the UDA and the UVF, respectively. Work with these groups is ongoing with a view to helping them to make the transition from conflict to peace. Decommissioning is a crucial feature of that transition.
The IICD reports that the UDA and, albeit indirectly, the LVF are in contact with it, although the UVF has yet to re-engage. Both Ministers and officials will continue to press for progress but, in parallel with that, it is essential that we continue to provide the statutory framework necessary to make decommissioning a reality. That is what this order does and is the sole purpose of why we are here today. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2007. 5th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
I thank the Minister for his usual clear, forthright outline of the order before us. I also associate myself with his words in wishing our noble colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Laird, a speedy recovery. He will be welcome back as soon as he is able to make it.
The Minister spoke a little bit in general terms about decommissioning. There is no doubt that the opportunity that a decommissioning amnesty gave terrorist groups was a very useful political and practical way in which to move forward in the peace process, especially in its early days, and towards ending what must have been one of the nastiest and dirtiest of terrorist campaigns that those involved in it at the time ever remember. Let us not forget that the IRA campaign towards Northern Ireland and the border was seriously nasty and dirty and almost a civil war. We should never forget that, and our thanks should go to all those who took part in helping to end that.
There is no doubt that that amnesty and decommissioning played a small part in the early days, when people never believed it would happen. The miracle of decommissioning did happen: and decommissioning by the IRA was of great assistance in attempting to demonstrate to the population that the IRA had had enough of dirt, war, murder and carnage and wanted to return to the table and to democratic governance.
As the Minister said, we still have to encourage the remaining paramilitaries in Northern Ireland not to follow suit, which is not the appropriate phrase, but to decommission themselves and put their arms away. Let us get violence of that sort out of politics in Northern Ireland.
As far as the future is concerned, which the Minister also mentioned, I sincerely hope that we will find ourselves redundant in the role that we are in today and that it will be carried out and pursued in the place where it ought to be—in Stormont with a devolved government. I support the order.
I thank the Minister for elucidating the main points in this order, which has been a hardy annual now for many years. Every year we hope that we will not have to renew it again and we certainly hope that this will be the final time. I would also like to associate myself with the Minister’s wishes for the speedy recovery of the noble Lord, Lord Laird.
As the Minister said, we have come a long way and the most heartening thing has been the decommissioning by the IRA, which is now more or less complete. But it is clear from the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission that paramilitary groups are still active in Northern Ireland and therefore there is still a need for a decommissioning scheme if any of these groups are ever to decommission their weapons. The report was very clear on the threat level that still exists from the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and dissident republican groups in general. If there is an agreement for Stormont to be revived, I fear that we may see some protest activity of a nasty kind by any such groups that are particularly annoyed with Sinn Fein.
Equally, we must remain deeply disappointed at the lack of decommissioning there has been from loyalist paramilitary groups. That is very worrying. There has been no progress despite endless discussions, to which the Minister referred. The recent ombudsman report shows just how nasty these loyalist groups have been in the past and they are still a threat. There may be an upsurge of activity from them if there is a revival of Stormont, because they too may be against any power-sharing agreement.
Republican and loyalist groups are seriously involved in organised crime and continue to carry out paramilitary assaults in Northern Ireland. The Minister has said that there are ongoing discussions with proxies for the loyalist groups, but can he give us further assurance that greater efforts will be made to get these groups to engage with the international decommissioning commission?
We do not believe that, in a democratic society, there is any place for illegality or illegally held weapons and have always called for full decommissioning by both loyalist and dissident republican paramilitary groups. We have been supportive of the progress that has been made on this issue to date. We recognise that decommissioning is a process and that no paramilitary group was going to decommission all its weapons at once, but we urge the Government to put pressure on loyalist paramilitary groups to move away from crime and decommission their weapons. We support the order.
In his introduction, the Minister drew attention to the fact that this event has happened each year for more years than we would have liked. He referred, quite rightly, to the significant IRA decommissioning that has recently taken place and said that decommissioning is essential for confidence building. Unfortunately, decommissioning has not built sufficient confidence in society in Northern Ireland. In fact, the decommissioning that took place recently has passed by without making a ripple of an impact on public opinion. The reasons for this are quite simple: first, decommissioning has taken much longer than expected; and, secondly, it has been done in a way that has not been helpful.
In saying that it has taken longer than expected, I recall that on 10 April 1998 the Prime Minister, in writing, stated quite clearly that the view of Her Majesty’s Government was that decommissioning should start immediately decommissioning schemes were put in place in June 1998. It would have been good had the Government stuck to that point and ensured that it happened. Unfortunately, the Government never brought effective pressure to bear on republicans and I am very much of the view that decommissioning would never have started but for the actions of myself and my colleagues. It started, but it has continued in a way that has not built confidence because the decommissioning commission, in my view quite wrongly, agreed with republicans that decommissioning should be carried out in secret—and, of course, things that are done in secret will never build confidence. Although the Government, through the Minister, have said that this is essential for confidence building, they have not realised or joined up in their minds the desirable objectives of decommissioning and the folly of agreeing to things being done in secret.
I do not want the Minister to say in reply that there was some obligation of confidence in the legislation. It is an excuse that the Government have used in the past and, if the Minister feels inclined to use it, I would refer him to a contribution I made in another place four years ago in which I went through the legislation and the schemes in detail, showing quite clearly that the Government’s contention was wrong. I recall that on that occasion the Minister who replied to the debate was silent on the issue, which I took to mean that he had no reply to the points I made.
Nevertheless, decommissioning by republicans has happened and cannot be repeated. We are then left with the situation that there has been no significant decommissioning by the main loyalist elements or by dissident republicans. Here again, it is deeply regrettable that there has not been progress on these issues. A year ago there was some hope that the UVF would engage in significant action and rumours were put about that it was planning to do something in July of last year. Unfortunately, the way in which the Government’s current political initiative has been handled has created a certain amount of uncertainty and that plan has gone backwards. The uncertainty has been created by foolish comments, mainly by commentators, but to a certain extent by Ministers, about a plan B if the present proposals do not succeed. The uncertainty about that has, we understand, led the UVF to put on hold whatever it had been planning to do last July. That is highly regrettable. We have made the point repeatedly to loyalist paramilitaries and their representatives that they ought to have taken a lead in decommissioning and that they still should act promptly on the matter. Holding back does not give any added influence either to themselves or to anyone purporting to represent the unionist or loyalist community.
In this context and the context of the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred—namely, the police ombudsman’s report—which goes into considerable and quite distasteful detail about the activities of the UVF, and particularly its leadership, I wonder whether the Secretary of State was wise to speak in the way that he did at the funeral of Mr David Ervine. I can understand his attendance there, but not him speaking in a way that lavished praise upon Mr Ervine, and, by extension, his associates. There is no doubt as to who they were, because I am told by better-informed persons than myself that the entire leadership of the UVF was there, prominently, sitting not too far away from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must have received this report by that time, and if he had no knowledge of the character he was praising on that occasion before he saw that report, he must have done when he received it. I am simply amazed at his behaviour in that respect. I doubt if the Minister is in a position, or even has a desire, to comment on that, but I felt that it would not be right to let the matter pass without querying the behaviour of the Secretary of State on that occasion.
We hope that matters will progress and it would be nice if we were not here in a year’s time, doing the same thing. We do not know, of course, how things will develop, although I am encouraged by the way that things are going and there is a prospect of serious progress—but I shall not speculate further on that because there are persons present here who might, if they feel like it, give us further information and better particulars on those matters. I shall leave that to them. I am optimistic that there will be that progress, which I hope will be followed by loyalists waking up to the reality that their activities and continuing existence as paramilitaries are doing nothing for them, nothing for the persons that they purport to represent or “protect”, and that they would be much better bringing their armed organisations to an end.
As to the threat from dissident republicans, I am afraid that that problem will exist. We have the consolation that the security forces appear to have the measure of those groups quite effectively and I hope that that will bring us as close to normality as we can expect to be. I hope that we will not find ourselves here again next year.
I want to make a few brief points. First, I identify myself with the Minister’s kind remarks about the noble Lord, Lord Laird. We all look forward to his early return to his work here in the House and wish him a speedy recovery.
On the order, will the amnesty for those who are in the process of decommissioning apply only to persons within Northern Ireland, or will it apply to persons caught in the Republic of Ireland who will claim that they are in the process of decommissioning? Will it apply to persons in third countries who could claim that they are in the process of decommissioning? For example, some security sources suggest that IRA/Sinn Fein are now involved in the training of terrorists in Iraq. Will such people be able to claim that they are in the act of decommissioning and receive an amnesty?
I disagree totally with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Smith, about loyalist paramilitaries. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. Noble Lords may recall that when the two Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and southern Ireland met in Armagh city, and announced a plan B for involving Dublin in the affairs of Northern Ireland, the loyalist paramilitaries immediately announced that they were withdrawing from the process of decommissioning. That was a signal for what lies ahead. I do not believe that loyalist paramilitaries would involve themselves in terrorism to bring down a power-sharing assembly at Stormont, but I feel a growing threat in Northern Ireland that the loyalist paramilitaries are holding back to see what plan B will be if the power-sharing executive fails. I fear that if it does fail, there could well be a response from loyalist paramilitaries.
On one hand I regret that 10 years on we are still having to renew this Act, but on the other I fully appreciate that substantial decommissioning has taken place, as outlined in the recent reports of the IMC and the IICD. That is to be welcomed, and I hope it can be extended to the other paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland.
Weapons will have to stay decommissioned. I hope there are ongoing investigations into the substantial amount of money that was taken from the Northern Bank, and that the people responsible can be brought to justice. It always worries me that money from raids like that can be put to use to purchase new weapons, and that therefore decommissioning would be ineffective. On balance, I welcome the extension of this Act.
I had not intended to speak on this order, but I have been encouraged to do so largely in support of what my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has said, but also because it has again been brought to my attention that while we talk about decommissioning of loyalist arms, the Government—this is not peculiar to the present Secretary of State; his predecessor and the Secretary of State before that did the same—have indulged in a fairly overt “hug-a-provo” tactic, whereas no similar encouragement has been given to others. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, has cautioned the House about that previously. This is not the first time he has indicated that while the Government currently repudiate any effort by loyalists to move forward, however slowly, they are sticking to the tactic of, “Let’s hug a provo”.
It disgusted me, as it did similarly many others, to see certain people at the funeral of David Ervine. When I came into politics, I knew David Ervine. I had some regard for him in so far as I believed that, whatever his associations, he was a changed man from the young man who served a prison sentence, and that he could see prospects for bringing Northern Ireland forward. Everything the Government did, however, was to discourage what he was attempting to do. When, quite recently, he wanted to form an alliance with the leader of my own party to move things forward, the Government and every other party sitting in that Assembly, without exception, jumped up and shouted, “Foul! We can’t allow that to happen”. The reality is that for those same people, including the Secretary of State, to turn out to say kind things when the poor man had died is nothing short of hypocrisy.
I am not going to ameliorate what I have to say on this. We must get rid of the hypocrisy that emanates from the Northern Ireland Office. There are some very evil people in loyalist paramilitary organisations. I am totally opposed to them, and I would like to see every last one brought to justice. But when I see an orchestrated event like I have seen over the past couple of days, when I see a report coming forward from the police ombudsman—who is qualified in neither an investigative nor a judicial sense—to blacken the names of those who worked at huge personal cost, I cannot believe, bluntly, that we do not have more guts and more principle coming from those who govern us at the moment. They should not allow the name of the RUC GC to be blackened. The Ministers can smirk if they like, but the double standards and hypocrisy that I have witnessed over the past few weeks lead me to ask whether they would be encouraged to give up their guns if they were loyalist paramilitaries. Thank God, I grew up in a different environment.
I do not want to gainsay noble Lords from Belfast but urban terrorism will continue until we get fair play from the Government. So, along with this Order in Council, I implore the Government to let us have fair play. Let us not have an exclusive “hug-a-provo” tactic for the next year because, if we do, there will not be a single solitary gun decommissioned. I know that is what will happen. It is not what I want, but I know it.
IRA decommissioning has not altogether taken place. A few weeks ago, the IRA had a show of arms outside a police station, which its members were about to blow up together with the gallant men of the RUC—or the PSNI—who were inside. Where did those arms come from if they have all been decommissioned? The reason the ombudsman has brought forward her report at this vital stage in the affairs of Northern Ireland is obvious to all who have eyes to see: it is in order to let Sinn Fein off the hook. I hope it does not have that effect.
As regards the so-called loyalist paramilitaries, they are not loyal to anyone or anything; they are loyal only to themselves and to what they can make for themselves. Loyalist paramilitaries put a bomb outside my home a few years ago and caused a bit of damage there, so I have very little time for paramilitaries of any kind, whatever they may call themselves.
I associate myself with the remarks of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I have known him for a very long time. His mother and I served together in the city council, the old corporation, and his father served with the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and my husband in the old Stormont. I hope he will soon be better.
As regards the noble Baroness’s first point, if she is referring to the Brookeborough parade, there is an allegation that some of the arms were part of an historic collection and not operable weaponry. However, the matter is under investigation and updates will follow. I take her point—I understand the central point she made.
I could take offence at some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, but I will let them pass. This order is an invitation—albeit a repeated one—to the loyalist paramilitaries to decommission. It is reaching out to them to say, “Look, come to the table because there’s something in this for you if you can make that move. You can walk away with some success, because that’s what it's all about”. This is not the time for crowing one way or the other. I understand his criticism about other decommissioning done in secret. It is known that, once the process and the mandate are complete, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning will publish its information on the inventory. One can understand the obvious reason why it would not do that as it goes along.
This is not a question of defeat or victory for the parties concerned or of using that kind of language. There is some success for the communities in Northern Ireland in reaching out and using the peaceful process. That is what this order is all about. It is regretted that it is taking so long and nobody regrets that more than the Government and the people of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it is important that we renew the invitation for the others who have yet to decommission to do so.
On the central point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, one thing that I can claim without ever having to take advice is that I am helping to legislate only for the United Kingdom. Those other matters are way outside the remit of this order. I can be certain about that. His point is legitimate and I fully understand why he has made it several times, but there is no plan B for a joint authority. I make that absolutely clear. We want the Assembly back. That is what we are working towards. The fear among some members of the community is that if the Assembly is not revived there will be some kind of joint authority over Northern Ireland, and that is not on. There is no point in holding weapons back in case they are needed if something really bad happens as far as the community is concerned. From that point of view, “really bad” would be a joint authority. I have said that before and I am happy to repeat it.
I thank the Minister for those comments. But after the meeting in Armagh city attended by the two prime ministers, the Dublin Government said that plan B did provide for the southern Irish Government to be increasingly involved in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. We are not talking about a joint authority. It is easy for the Minister to deny that there will be joint authority, but does plan B include increased southern Irish Government involvement in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland? If it does, we have a major problem.
I fully accept that. Please believe that I am not playing with words. I understand that point and I understand what was said after that meeting, but we have been clear about the consequences of failure. We have put orders before the House to enable practical co-operation on the island of Ireland on matters that benefit everybody; whether animal disease control, or the electricity authority. A joint market for electricity is an example of north-south co-operation set out in the Good Friday agreement.
However, the noble Lord talked of controlling internal affairs. North-south co-operation is not about control from the south into the north, it is about what we can do together to benefit our two communities—north and south. The examples of animal disease control, food production, avian flu and the all-Ireland electricity market are matters of supreme economic benefit for north and south. But they will not involve the apocalypse that people might envisage in part of the loyalist community. That should be made quite clear.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point, he will be aware that the Irish Republic announced yesterday a €180 billion development plan and indicated that it would expend 8 per cent of that €180 billion in Northern Ireland. Have there been discussions, not only with departments but with unionist parties about that? Has that been explained or do people see it—like those who have spoken to me during the past 24 hours—as another stealthy incursion of Irish republican influence in Northern Ireland? It will affect our roads—no one begrudges money spent on roads so don’t throw that one back to me, please—it will affect our hospitals and it will take away the Northern Ireland identity that unionists have sought to defend.
The answer to that is no, I do not know the details of what was said yesterday. I have come here today to deal with the decommissioning order, which is why I do not know about that and why I am not going down the road of discussing the role of the police ombudsman. The House has a topical Question on that on the Order Paper in the morning which I will be expected to answer, so I am not going to raise it today. There may be economic benefits for investment in Northern Ireland from wherever. Indeed, in parts of Northern Ireland—or the north of the island of Ireland, which is the Republic—as regards the infrastructure and the health services in Derry, for instance, the hospitals are closer to people in the south than their own hospitals, and we have arrangements for that. I understand that investment has been made in the airport there because there was good economic benefit to both the Republic and Northern Ireland. That is not stealth or something to be disparaged.
I will give way in a moment. The fact is that I am now being diverted and I am not going to be because this order is about decommissioning and an invitation to those who have not decommissioned to do so. I had better give way to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way and I know that he does not want to be diverted. However, so much has been said on this matter that I feel impelled to throw in a ha’p’orth. The Minister talks about doing things where there is economic benefit and reference has been made to the plan published in Dublin. I want to draw his attention to the proposal in that plan for the Irish Government to put down—I believe it has been put on the table several times in meetings with Ministers and officials—their contribution to the restoration of the Ulster canal, which would be of considerable economic benefit. In developing the tourist and leisure industry, this is a hugely significant project as anyone who is familiar with what has happened to the canals in England during the past 20 years must know. I hope that when the Minister speaks to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office he will urge them to see that that bid for valuable co-operation moves forward at last.
I will be glad to do that, but I am returning to the issue. Two other points were made in the debate which I shall answer. I do not want to raise the temperature and I appreciate that the Secretary of State has gone round unknowingly upsetting some noble Lords. However, I have to say that I agree with the Secretary of State’s remarks in relation to David Ervine. I had only fleeting contact with David Ervine, but I knew him more from the television over here. Certainly, the evidence was that he was a courageous and remarkable individual who strived to bring loyalism through a transition to a peaceful path. That must be worth paying tribute to in the context of Northern Ireland. On the point about him trying to make an arrangement with the Ulster Unionist Party and the Assembly group, I understand that it was a matter for the presiding officer of the Assembly to resolve. Apparently, she took independent legal advice before she ruled that the Ulster Unionists and the Progressive Unionists were not a party for the purposes of the Assembly. That was where that proposal fell by the wayside.
The order has received a broad welcome and I do not think that anyone will make an indication against it—although we do not vote in Grand Committee. It is an invitation repeated with the best of intentions to enable the loyalists, the paramilitaries, with dignity to decommission their arms. That is the way to the future.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
The noble Lord said: As the title suggests, the purpose of the order is to further amend and update the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, commonly known as PACE, which introduced the now well-established statutory framework for the exercise of police powers in Northern Ireland. This framework is, of course, closely modelled on the one that was first introduced in England and Wales in 1984.
It is now well over a decade since the last major review of PACE in Northern Ireland. In that decade, society has changed radically and that is reflected in the areas of policing and criminality. A joint Home Office/Cabinet Office review of PACE took place in 2002 and there was a further Home Office review in 2004. These produced a range of proposals aimed at modernising police powers. Many of those proposals have now been enacted in England and Wales via the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. As a result, the PACE regime in Northern Ireland is now very out of step with England and Wales in a number of areas, and the order before the Committee today simply aims to address that.
Making amendments to the PACE (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 will provide the Police Service of Northern Ireland with a PACE regime very similar to the one that is available to their colleagues in England and Wales and it will enable them to combat crime more efficiently and effectively in the 21st century.
Several of the changes in the order are of a purely technical nature and, with your Lordships’ leave, I shall concentrate my remarks on the amendments of substance. Part II deals with police powers to stop and search, and I shall highlight two of those. The first relates to fireworks. Most people enjoy fireworks responsibly but, in the wrong hands, they can cause not only annoyance and misery but serious injury and death. A small and dangerous mindless minority use them to intimidate and terrorise those around them. The police in England and Wales have the power to stop and search a person or vehicle and to seize fireworks if they have reasonable suspicion that possession is illegal under the terms of existing fireworks legislation. Although Northern Ireland already has a strict fireworks licensing regime, I believe that this power should also be provided to police to deal with those who are intent on deliberately breaching the law.
The other change in relation to search powers will require police constables, prior to commencing a search of a person or vehicle, to provide their name in addition to their police number and police station. The same requirement will apply to the completion of a record of a search. This is important in Northern Ireland as the police service moves towards greater transparency in its contact with the public.
Noble Lords should note that, as in England and Wales, officers will not be obliged to supply their name in the case of inquiries linked to the investigation of terrorism or where they reasonably believe that, by doing so, they may be endangered.
Part III of the order deals with police powers of entry, search and seizure. In this modern age, criminal evidence and the proceeds of crime can be moved very quickly between locations in an effort to thwart police investigations. Therefore, it is important that we reduce the current bureaucracy associated with search warrants to reflect changes in working procedures and patterns of criminal activity. I should add that the bureaucracy was put there by this House in the first place. It is not the police’s fault; they have to work under the legislation.
At present, a constable is required to apply in person for a warrant which can be used to search a single premises on one occasion only and within one month of the date of issue. Applying repeatedly for warrants for different premises owned by the same person can cause delays and impede investigations. By broadening the scope of search warrants and the way in which they are applied for and executed, the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing warrant structure will be substantially improved. This draft order will allow for a warrant to be issued covering one or more specified premises; it is not a fishing expedition. A new warrant will also be introduced authorising a search of any premises occupied or controlled by an individual, whether or not all addresses are known to the police at the time of the application. In addition, warrants may authorise access on more than one occasion and will be valid for three months as opposed to one month.
In widening the range and scope of search warrants, I am fully aware of the need to ensure that there are stringent safeguards and protection for those whose premises are being searched. Under the new arrangements, there will be a greater requirement on police officers to satisfy a lay magistrate by providing specific information and justification when making application for a warrant. Also, no premises may be entered or searched more than once without the written authority of an officer of at least the rank of inspector.
Some important changes in the area of arrest are set out in Part IV of the draft order. The right to liberty is a key principle of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the power of arrest represents a very obvious interference with that basic right. Arrest is, however, a crucial weapon in the police armoury for tackling crime, and PACE has done much to regulate the power of arrest by establishing a systematic structure based on the principles of seriousness and necessity. As well as a statutory power of arrest for “arrestable” and “serious arrestable” offences, a police officer in Northern Ireland has a general power of arrest, if considered necessary, for all offences, and the criteria justifying such an arrest are set out in Article 27 of the PACE order as it currently stands.
However, much has changed in terms of crime and criminality and the nature of offending in the 18 years or so since PACE was first introduced, and the current arrangements are far from straightforward. Indeed, they were described by Association of Chief Police Officers at the time of the Home Office review of PACE as a “myriad of complex laws” and there is, undoubtedly, a need for greater clarity.
In line with the changes made in England and Wales in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, Article 15 of the draft order will abolish the categories of “arrestable” and “serious arrestable” offences and replace them with a power of arrest for all offences, but, crucially, one that is based on the concept of necessity. Seriousness will remain a key consideration when a constable decides to make an arrest, but will now be one of a number of “necessary” factors to be taken into account. The officer must consider the necessity for an arrest in order to decide whether to effect one; and necessity requires the officer to set out the reasons why a person is being arrested and not dealt with by another means.
In addition, a new accompanying PACE code of practice, dealing solely with arrest, will shortly be laid before the House. Based on a similar code introduced in England and Wales, the new code will regulate the exercise of the new arrest provisions. The new arrest powers have been in operation for over a year in England and Wales where they have bedded in well. We are confident that they will have a similar beneficial impact in Northern Ireland.
Part V of the draft order makes a series of changes to the detention provisions aimed at reducing bureaucracy and making current procedures and processes more efficient and effective. In particular, new provisions will be introduced to allow police to review a person’s detention by telephone or video-conferencing facilities. I have also decided to remove the unnecessary and cumbersome provision that requires a person who is released on police bail to return to a police station no later than 28 days after being released.
The importance of identification data in the investigation of crime cannot be underestimated and, as forensic science and technology advance at an unprecedented rate, it is vital that the police are provided with the necessary tools as they investigate crime and seek to bring criminals to account for their deeds.
Part VI of the draft order deals with the questioning and treatment of persons by police, which have been amended on a number of occasions in recent times in line with England and Wales, but the draft order before the Committee makes a number of further changes in this area, again in line with England and Wales. For example, police will be able to take footwear impressions, photograph persons elsewhere other than a police station and take fingerprints without consent in order to confirm a person’s identity.
As part of the drive towards greater operational efficiency and the reduction of bureaucracy, authorisation levels have been reduced from superintendent to inspector in a range of duties. These include carrying out an intimate search, the taking of intimate and non-intimate samples, delaying a suspect’s right to have someone informed of their arrest and delaying access to legal advice.
I should also draw noble Lords’ attention to a new power that will allow police to carry out a speculative search of fingerprint/DNA databases from samples taken from deceased persons or body parts. That will be particularly valuable in the identification of victims of natural disasters such as the tsunamis in Asia and the hurricane in New Orleans.
We were most grateful to those who responded to the consultation process on the draft order. After full consideration of all the points raised, we have decided to make a small number of changes to the published draft to reflect concerns expressed by a number of respondents. The main change relates to how 17 year-olds should be dealt with under PACE. That age group has been treated as adults since the inception of PACE. However, various international conventions define children as anyone under the age of 18. Indeed, just over a year ago, the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland was changed to reflect this, but no corresponding change was made to PACE. Although England and Wales continue to regard 17 year-olds as adults under PACE, this aspect is currently being considered by the Home Office. We have therefore decided to amend the definition of a child to include those aged 17. However, that important change presents the police and criminal justice agencies with some operational difficulties, and it will not be possible to commence it until those are fully considered and addressed. We have asked our officials to take that forward with some urgency.
I believe the amendments contained in the order will greatly enhance the police and criminal evidence regime in Northern Ireland. In conjunction with radically revised, updated and expanded codes of practice, they will give police in Northern Ireland broadly the same range of powers as those already available to their colleagues in England and Wales and provide them with a much more modern, effective and efficient range of provisions in the fight against crime. But, in keeping with the spirit of PACE, they strike a fair and, we believe, proportionate balance between police powers and the rights of the individual. I therefore commend the order.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Police and Criminal Evidence (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.—(Lord Rooker.)
Again, I thank the noble Lord for laying out the order before us with such clarity. It took him 13 minutes and it was extremely well done, but my point, which I make every time, is that this is a classic situation of a Statutory Instrument for Northern Ireland that ought to be debated as a Bill. It has huge effects on the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland and PACE affairs. I suspect it will have a direct impact on almost every human being in the province one way or another. It will have a major impact on the PSNI. I am very sorry that we have to deal with this legislation in that way.
The comfort, however, having had discussions with officials this morning, or yesterday morning, is that I am as confident as I can be that this is very much a copy—a blueprint—of legislation that is now operating in the remainder of the United Kingdom, which has, I assume, been debated in full in both Houses. I ask the Minister to give me an assurance that there is nothing in this legislation today that has not been debated in relation to legislation standing in the remainder of the UK. I understand that to be so, and if it is only detail we do not have to worry about it.
I was interested that the Minister mentioned the business about 17 year-olds, because that was one item going through with officials that hit me right in the face and made me think how ridiculous Europe was. We have, in moving legislation in this Chamber, to reduce the age of consent and the age at which marriage, buggery, fornication, smoking, drinking and practically everything else you can think of is permissible down to the age of 16—and we are talking about bringing the age for voting down again. Yet here we are, discussing the criminal justice system, and we are going to call live, strong, adult people of 17 children. Somehow that does not make sense. But I understand that that is a European instruction and has to be, and if that is the way it is we cannot argue.
Having made those comments, I support this legislation in principle. It is high time that the PACE legislation was upgraded and updated for Northern Ireland, and I hope that perhaps in two or three years we will do it again because it is vitally important that we keep moving forward and stay in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and—I suppose—Europe.
I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the order. We understand that it simply brings Northern Ireland PACE codes into line with changes that have already been made for England and Wales. The Minister admitted to a certain sense of déjà vu, which I also felt, on seeing some of the arrangements in the order. We both worked on Bills that I shall outline in a moment, so he will not be surprised at some of my concerns—and I have more concerns than the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, expressed.
Liberal Democrats had a number of concerns when provisions were debated during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, the Police Reform Act 2002 and, in particular, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. This Act, although I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will remember, was pushed through Parliament in the days before dissolution, just before the May 2005 general election, and did not receive adequate scrutiny. It was a very large Act.
We have a number of concerns relating to the order. The first relates to the arrest provisions contained in Article 15. While we do not object in principle to the simplification of the criteria for arrest, we are concerned that this article grants too much discretion to individual officers. I have made that point before and I make it here again. That will lead to large numbers of unnecessary arrests. We are concerned at the use of the phrase that talks about being “about to” commit an offence. Preventive detention otherwise than for the purpose of initiating criminal prosecution is not permitted by Article 5 of the European convention. The police and others have powers to use reasonable force in the prevention of crime. We are concerned about the general power of arrest. These conditions are drafted very broadly and it would be very easy for an officer to justify an arrest under one or both of them; since officers often have to make rapid decisions about whether to arrest, it would be natural for relatively inexperienced officers in particular to err on the side of caution, which could lead to further overcrowding of custody units and suites and increased use of police time and resources in dealing with people arrested for minor offences.
In addition, we are concerned that there is considerable scope for abuse of these provisions and that they may be applied arbitrarily or in a discriminatory fashion against certain sectors of the community such as, for example, ethnic minorities. Article 5 of the convention does not permit arbitrary procedures for arrest. Can the Minister assure us that the provisions will, at the very least, be monitored and reviewed by the Government?
We are also concerned that giving officers the power to arrest for a minor offence could lead to a higher number of arrests of children and young people. It would be very useful to have a system to analyse the effect of this provision on young people.
We very much welcome the provisions in Article 18 of the order, which amend the current definition of an arrested juvenile under PACE from a person under the age of 17 years to a person under the age of 18 years. That will rectify the disparity between the extension of the youth justice system to 17 year-olds under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and their continued treatment as adults under PACE. This was in contravention of domestic law under the Criminal Justice (Children) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 and international standards, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, or Beijing rules, which define children as anyone up to the age of 18 years. It is right that 17 year-olds are afforded the same safeguards and protections as juveniles. We are pleased that the Government have recognised that, although I am disappointed that it will not come into force until some time in the future.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear my concerns about the provisions of Articles 32 and 33 which lower the authorisation level from a superintendent to an inspector for the taking of intimate and non-intimate samples without consent. I remember being very concerned about these when we debated the Bill on the Floor of the House. I never won my battle on that issue, but I seek the Minister’s reassurance that inspectors will be given appropriate and adequate training in this respect.
Finally, the provisions in Articles 31 and 36 on photographing suspects and taking their footprints are also problematic. Under the present PACE codes, additional safeguards should be in place when the young or vulnerable are required to undergo any intrusive act at the request of a constable. If young or vulnerable people are taken to a police station for those activities to be undertaken, the requirement is usually that an appropriate adult is with them. Those protections appear to go out of the window under the new provisions. I would be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance.
The Minister will no doubt be glad to hear that I do not intend to comment on the detail of the order. I just want to unburden myself of some general observations.
I am delighted that the legislation is bringing Northern Ireland into line with the provisions currently available in England and Wales. That is highly desirable as a general principle. Northern Ireland is a small place; we are not going to generate an awful lot of litigation or experience on any procedures that are operating there in and of itself. Furthermore, most of the media that people consume in Northern Ireland are national media, so their knowledge, expectations and experience in terms of dealing with authorities, particularly on a matter as important as policing, are largely conditioned by national sources of information. They are not likely to be aware of local divergences. For that general consideration, it is most unwise to have any significant variation in the law, particularly where authorities such as the police and others are interacting with ordinary people, unless there are good, compelling reasons for there to be a variation. As a general point, that applies particularly in criminal law but also in a number of other areas. It is highly desirable that the law is kept in step, particularly when we are dealing with a legal system that is fundamentally the same as that in England and Wales.
That leads to observations that I have made many times before and are on record, if anyone cares to look at them. It is a disgrace that the law in Northern Ireland is not kept up to date. Mind you, those who have carriage of this issue in Northern Ireland probably think that they have done a really good job, in that there is a gap of only two and five years between the passing of the English legislation and them managing to stagger forward with their own Northern Ireland equivalent, which is exactly the same and could have been copied in the course of a day or two by anyone familiar with the legislation. But they probably are pleased that they have managed to achieve this. I do not believe that they have any cause for congratulation; in fact, the delays in this are quite inexcusable.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that this should have been debated as a Bill. Yes, the Bills in which it should have been debated were the equivalent pieces of legislation for England and Wales. It would not have been difficult to have introduced into those Bills amendments for Northern Ireland at the same time. If that had been reported in the media at the time, when people in Northern Ireland saw commentary in the press they would have known that it applied to them, too. There is no sensible reason for the jealous way in which people in Belfast protect the integrity of the Northern Ireland statute book, as it is called. I know that it is their rice bowl, but they do not serve the public interest in doing so.
Perhaps I may say on a personal level—although one is always speaking for the Government—that I agree very much with the thrust of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. I found it difficult to understand in the year that I was a direct rule Minister, in terms of legislation, why we could not make additions to England and Wales Bills—not UK-wide Bills, due to the Scottish legal system. There are many arguments as to why you should follow one route or another—I freely admit that—and the Secretary of State has tried on some occasions to try to get Northern Ireland material added into England and Wales Bills. It does not always go down well with the usual channels, because of the size of the Bill. They do not like big Bills, which may take some time. There is also the point relating to those in Belfast who want to protect the integrity of Northern Ireland’s statute book. I fully understand that.
That is a pity, because, in many ways, the operation of the police has changed. I remember PACE being introduced when I was a constituency Member of Parliament. I got the message that it was the way that the police went about their job; there was a big change and a lot of training was carried out. By and large, you would expect the same country to have the same set of rules, so that you would know where you stood and what the powers were. To that extent, I apologise on behalf of the Government for the delay in updating. I certainly apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and others for bringing this legislation forward in this way. We much regret that and there has to be better way of legislating for Northern Ireland and we have made a commitment in terms of devolution that I repeat now—although this would not be a matter for the Assembly—we wish to find another way of legislating in Westminster. We have to do that and it is not fair to people who represent opinion in Northern Ireland, as noble Lords do here, or Members of the other place.
In answer to the question asked on this order by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, it is only on the issue of the 17 year-old that Northern Ireland is now ahead of England and Wales, although as the noble Baroness said, it will not come into force straight away. The chances are that it will come into force in Northern Ireland before England and Wales. That is the only divergence, it is basically a matter of bringing the laws up to date.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has already undertaken extensive training programmes to bring officers up to date with the new powers and the revised codes of practice. Training is currently being undertaken across the police service at district command level and the police service is very confident that officers will be ready to exercise the new powers operationally on 1 March 2007.
I say to the noble Baroness that, where there are changes—for example, from superintendent to inspector levels—those will have to be checked and monitored and proper training will have to be effected. There is a good reason for that. As I said, it mirrors what has happened in England and Wales. I fully accept that such a move could be treated with a degree of healthy scepticism but it is important to look at how it works in practice.
The police are not free agents. The noble Baroness referred to the articles on powers of arrest and, although she did not express it in this way, from the way she spoke, anyone would think that the police will be arresting people willy-nilly. That is not the case. Their actions are incredibly circumscribed and, of course, they will operate under the codes of practice, so challenges can be made.
However, I fully accept that there has to be adequate training. I am assured that that is taking place and that there will be adequate monitoring and a review of these changed powers. Ultimately, this House and the other place can be certain that the legislation will be operated in the way that Parliament intended, and I think that it will be subject to review by the Select Committees in the other place.
As I said, this is a modest change. I referred to the major changes and to the fact that many are minor technical changes, but they will improve the situation in Northern Ireland. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The legislation will be monitored and we will be able to assess the practicalities and fairness of the new scheme.
I shall try not to take more than 30 seconds of the Minister’s time, but I missed something in his admirable summing up of the enormous care that is taken by police officers and others on the ground. Can he confirm that continual training might be needed in the special case of Northern Ireland, perhaps on a six-monthly basis? The Police Service of Northern Ireland is very flexible in its outlook and training, but will any minor glitches or problems be corrected fairly quickly? That is of particular importance in Northern Ireland—perhaps more so than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I was very grateful for the Minister’s kind words and clarity in his winding up but that one small thing came to mind. I seem to remember in Northern Ireland a reference to the mouse that roared, and I am that mouse, asking a simple question. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that point for me, either straight away or in writing.
If I have not answered the noble Lord’s question, I shall be more than happy to drop him a note. For historical reasons that people in this Room know far better than I do, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has gone through changes in processes and working practices which, by force of circumstance, are far different from those on the mainland. It has been incredibly professional in dealing with those changes. However, I repeat that the police service across Northern Ireland has undergone extensive training in relation to this programme. That is currently being carried out at district command level so that the new powers in this legislation can be operated in conformity with the codes of practice. I am given to understand that the highest level in the police service is confident that officers will be ready and fully trained. Training does not stop with the introduction of the legislation, but they are confident at the highest level that the officers will be ready to exercise the new powers operationally when they are introduced on 1 March. I know from my own personal experience that training is constant in Northern Ireland, and it will not stop. If I can give the noble Lord any further information, having taken advice, I will write to him.
That is a very good question. I should imagine it is costing an absolute bomb—these things always do—but I do not have a figure. Nothing comes free. This is not done to save money, I am fairly certain of that. I will be happy to check to see whether the cost can be codified, compared with what happened in England and Wales. The notes say that,
“The measures in the Order are not expected to impose any material cost to business, the public or the Exchequer”,
so my saying it would cost a bomb is obviously inoperable.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.
The noble Lord said: I expect this to be incredibly controversial; I know how controversial going around and digging up the roads can be. The idea is that we want to bring a bit of order to it. The purpose of the order is to introduce stronger powers for the control of street works, with the aim of minimising disruption and reducing traffic congestion. It seeks to introduce provisions for the control of street works—I have to keep a straight face now—broadly in line with those already in force in England and Wales—as though they were perfect; I am sorry, I have to be professional about this—by the enactment of Parts 3 and 4 of the Traffic Management Act 2004.
I will comment briefly on the order and say a few words about the detailed provisions, but I will not detain the House too long. The order includes the power to introduce a scheme requiring utilities to obtain permits before they could carry out street works. Conditions could be attached to the permit: it could be a requirement, for example, that only one lane of a road would be dealt with at a time. A permit could set out various terms and conditions to ensure that the work is managed with the minimum of disruption. We are also proposing that street authorities will have direction-making powers. For example, it could be specified that work could be done on days of the week, as well as at times of the day, when they would cause less disruption.
Other new measures include a requirement for utilities, in certain circumstances, to resurface roads or to contribute to the costs of carrying out that work, and a restriction on certain street works for a prescribed period following the completion of substantial street works. After all, how many times have we seen streets dug up? There is a lot of disruption but everyone thinks, “Well, it’s got to be done”—but then, blow me, a couple of weeks later the same street is being dug up again. That is very frustrating for motorists, pedestrians and others who use our roads, so the power is being given to prevent that kind of thing happening. Maximum levels of fines could be increased for certain offences and a range of fixed penalty offences created, as well as a charging mechanism by which utilities would pay for the duration of their occupation of a road and for overrunning any agreed period of occupation. The public consultation revealed support for the proposals, with only the utility companies not supportive of all of the proposed measures. That tells us we may have got this right on behalf of the public.
We recognise that utilities provide services that are essential for the economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland, but we need to provide a better system for regulating the way in which roads are dug up and the number of times it can happen. The order will enable us to do that. We intend to put in place a system that is fair to the people who have put in the services, to those who want to use them and to road users who often face a great deal of disruption. Our intention is not to prevent work being carried out—far from it—but to ensure that it is done in a more efficient and better co-ordinated fashion.
The Government are confident that the proposed new powers should give us a more efficient system for managing street works and that, as a result, there will be a reduction in the disruption and congestion suffered by road users. I fully hope to see that put into practice when I visit Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Street Works (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007.—(Lord Rooker.)
I thank the noble Lord for the professional way in which he explained the order to us. I read it very much with tongue in cheek; I went through the Explanatory Memorandum in detail. I spent many years in the construction industry, which is closely associated with street works of one sort of another, and pound signs were bouncing around in front of my eyes. The contractors will find great excuses for getting control of a little more money for special restrictions. I can think of all sorts of ruses that the construction industry could dream up to find ways of forcing up the cost of works and putting more pound notes in the companies’ pocket. I seek an assurance from the Minister that this will be tightly managed.
I would like to know how the industry as a whole will be instructed; as the Minister said, the provisions are very detailed. How will the industry be inducted into it and how will complaints be dealt with? I imagine that the process of letting contracts will have to be changed to ensure that everything is signed for, understood and undertaken by contractors that have taken on public works in this field. Quite a lot of things need to happen on the ground, administratively and in practice, as a result of the order. Having said that, as a user of the roads in Northern Ireland—I do not have a car in this country—I am delighted that some order will be put in place. It is very necessary because we have some huge infrastructure schemes at the moment. Oil lines and gas pipelines are going backwards and forwards across the country, and when there is more capital investment in the water service, water lines will be renewed. All that will have a major impact on traffic flows at varying times in various parts of the country.
In principle, I support the order. In practice, I shall have my tongue in my cheek while I see how well the Government are able to make the order work.
The Minister will be pleased to hear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the order. We support its main objectives to achieve more efficient management of street works carried out by the utilities and, we hope, to reduce disruption levels. We also hope that the proposed increases in the powers of the department will help in a more co-ordinated and cohesive approach to the management of street works.
We recognise the concerns expressed by the utilities companies in Northern Ireland. There is concern about increasing bureaucracy and costs, particularly if those costs impact on consumers’ bills or cause difficulties to the utilities companies in providing their services to all parts of Northern Ireland. Can the Minister reassure the Committee on that point?
I apologise for being absent—I was at another committee meeting. The provision is very welcome, as there is nothing more irritating in Northern Ireland than to see a road that has been reconstructed and resurfaced and then, within a few weeks, to see a public authority come in to excavate again.
In some cases, the order gives total powers to the department that President Chavez of Venezuela would be delighted to have. It says:
“Conditions may be attached to permits in order to minimise disruption”—
and that is fine; but then it goes further and refers to,
“a restriction on the execution of street works for a prescribed period following completion of substantial street works”.
We do not know what that prescribed period is. I hope that common sense will prevail and that it will not be 100 or 50 years. What is the maximum?
The order refers to undertakers, but who are they? Is this simply directed against construction contractors or is it directed against former public authorities, such as the NIE and British Telecom? Will it apply to public authorities, such as the Water Service? The “prescribed period” may have to be changed following the issuing of the order: there could be an emergency in the road, such as a burst water main or sewage pipeline. Is there any provision for emergencies in the order? Once the prescribed period has been designated, how does one get round it if there is an emergency?
Yes, but. Perhaps in saying that I agree with it in principle, I should say that I have some admiration for the road service. Over the years, I have seen the efficiency of the service increase, and I pay tribute to people such as Malcolm McKibbin and Geoff Allister, as well as my own local engineer, Pat Doherty. They have done very well. With the major road works on the west side of Belfast, which affect me every time I come into the city, minimising the disruption is something that we appreciate. Perhaps this is the place to recognise that.
The order has 28 articles and two schedules and, as other noble Lords have intimated, it is far too complex for an Order in Council. It should be dealt with as primary legislation by a Northern Ireland Assembly. I wish that when a Minister came with a piece of legislation of any sort he had to carry with him all the paper that would form the paper trail attached to it. With this one, he would need more than the four aiders that he has sitting behind him to bring in the amount of paper that is going to be used. This provision will entail a huge increase in the number of bureaucrats—the people who will oversee the multitude of papers that will arise from the legislation. The Minister will probably guess the question that arises from this, but the provision will also require a huge budget. I am not an expert but, from what I can glean, it may be £30 million. I want to deal with that point.
We all want to see traffic moving easily and less disruption on our roads, but here we are using a sledgehammer—or should I say a jackhammer—to crack a nut. The only costs that I can see here are those that will arise if people infringe the legislation; that is, the penalties. I do not see anything that indicates what the provision will cost. The public utilities—the people who provide gas and water—will have huge bills. It is reckoned that, of the £30 million, the Water Service will probably have £15 million extra to pay. That is the advice I have had. Has that been budgeted for by the Water Service? What is going to happen in that regard? How will it retrieve its expenditure? Will that cost be added on to the already, for some of us, alarming cost for water?
People whom I have talked to within the public utilities have indicated that they had not been made aware of some of the issues or that they had not been consulted to the extent that they would have liked. Have provisions been made within the budget of the Water Service for these costs? Will the water consumer now pay for street works as well as water usage? Did consultation on water charging include this issue of additional costs arising from street works? Has the General Consumer Council offered a view on water customers paying extra charges to cover street works? Of course, I could repeat those same questions for the provision of gas or communication services of whatever sort.
It is important that the Minister gives us considerably more information. Ideally, I should love him to say at the end of this debate that he will take the legislation back and that we will deal with it in the Assembly as a proper piece of legislation. But I know that he is not going to do that.
Before I leave that point, I draw the Minister’s attention to an Irish news story today, which indicates that the increased costs could add £80 on to household bills as a result of the legislation.
There are other aspects of the order that I cannot understand. We know that we can cut a nice clean track in the road by sawing it—we do not dig it up any more—and that it is easily replaced. It is important that repairs are done efficiently, but why would we impose on the utilities the need to resurface the entire road? How would that be decided? I can see that it could happen but at who’s whim? I do not think that there is anything in the legislation to indicate how it would be done. If you dig a track in the road, put in a sewer, fill it in and top it off, it does not matter that you have repaired the entire width of the road. The important place that needs to be inspected and reinspected will be where the track was, because with the settling of ground and so on it may need to be resurfaced on more than one occasion. So what is the sense in saying that the whole road must be resurfaced?
If I had any reassurance that there was a fixed lifespan for every major or A-class road between normal resurfacing, where one could see where damage had been done, then, depending on the length of time until the next major resurfacing, a charge might be suitable. But would it not be nonsense to ask the utility companies to resurface a road now if the road was to be completely resurfaced by the road service in spring or early summer of this year? Nothing in the order appears to indicate partnership. It seems that the public utility companies, including the water service and gas suppliers, are being penalised.
What about the private developers—the people who really disrupt traffic? Where are they catered for here? How are they to pay part of the charges? I may be wrong, and the Minister may be able to reassure me, but I see absolutely nothing in terms of provision for private developers. Why are they not asked to bear some responsibility? Perhaps it is because this legislation has been put together in such a complex way that it would be virtually impossible to police every private development. That may be the answer but it is not good enough and it gives me concern.
Without wishing to offend the Minister, although I have done that already, there are things in the legislation to which I would refer as nonsense. The idea that someone with a bowler hat and rolled umbrella can come along and tell the engineer, “Take your apparatus from that road. It is a main street. Put it down that side street”, is—
As someone who is totally colour-blind, I could not possibly comment. This really is a matter for consideration. If we employ professionals, we require them to have properly trained people who should come along and say, “You must move your equipment off-site because it may cause a diversion”.
Those are some of the questions that I must ask about this legislation. I should like to know whether there is a schedule of road works, because that would have an impact. If there were a fixed schedule of works for a class of road, one would be able to consider this legislation in a slightly different light. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that this will not be, as I suspect it will be—and as I think he suspects it will be—a bureaucratic nightmare.
I welcome any legislation that helps to alleviate traffic congestion, but I must admit to being a little confused, because Northern Ireland’s utilities are responsible for only about 5 per cent of congestion. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for carrying out most of the work on our roads, and I understand that this legislation does not apply to the road services. Having chaired meetings in Belfast regarding the likely disruption that the Westlink would have caused to the city, and having chaired Making Belfast Work, which brought together all the statutory agencies—transport, water, sewerage and roads—I am pleased to say that we were able to obtain a co-ordinated plan that, in general, alleviated some of the concerns that Belfast traders had over the potential disruption that could have been caused. So, I praise the road services and the Minister for bringing that about.
There are some concerns, however, that this would cost the utilities somewhere in the region of £15 million, as has been mentioned, while the Government say it would only be £7 million. I hope this discrepancy will not be passed on to taxpayers. Under the reform of local government, the responsibility for local roads will return to local authorities. I hope the money necessary to maintain our roads at a high standard will also transfer over. Those are a few of the difficulties I have but in general I welcome this order.
I am grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, an ex-mayor of Belfast. My visits there are not very frequent. I was there on the first weekend in January and before that on the first weekend in December. I was going to say that whoever has planned the infrastructure, it will be a man in a bowler hat—and there is nothing wrong with a professional engineer wearing a bowler hat, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis.
Professional engineers come in many guises. Some of them are women—even in Northern Ireland, I suspect. It might even be a woman who has organised this. My visits are less frequent than they used to be, but whoever has planned the timing and co-ordination of those massive infrastructure works in Belfast deserves a medal. It has been quite remarkable to watch, as I have done over the past 18 months or so during my visits there. Yet all we had from the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, was a whinge against bureaucrats who he thought could not organise things. Here is a classic example of something that has been really well organised.
The noble Lord has asked a series of legitimate questions.
Well, some of them are legitimate. If there are any emergencies, as one noble Lord asked, there is a provision for works to be classified as “immediate activities”. Utilities would not be required to give permits for emergency work, but, within two hours of starting work, they would need to tell the roads authority that they were on the job. That is not unreasonable.
We have had a lot of figures bandied about. The order will not come fully into force for quite a while because of the work that has to be done following the original legislation, but less congestion will be a benefit. You cannot put a cost on congestion, although economists attempt to do so when we are looking at new roads and so on. The cost of congestion is an enormous figure over a year, but it is difficult to say how it affects the individual wallet. However, all utilities, private or public, are regulated, and it would be up to the regulator to ensure that the costs passed on to the customer were consistent and that the customer was not simply ripped off.
I shall answer noble Lords’ specific questions in no particular order. Where a department intended to resurface a road, there would be a plan for that. There would be a programme of works, depending on the budget that was allocated. These things are not done willy-nilly; they have to be planned months, and in some cases years, in advance. The utilities might be asked to contribute towards the cost where they have been active in the excavations.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to private developers—presumably of housing or office blocks—who may be building or be required to build roads and access as part of the planning gain or planning permission. They will be required to put in and pay for the road infrastructure as part of the development, but they are not going around digging up the road for repairs. Essentially, we are talking about the utilities—the undertakers with responsibility for water, gas, electricity, telephone lines or perhaps TV cables. We are referring to all those things that are under the road or cross the road and may need repairing or upgrading from time to time.
I think the Minister misunderstood me. I was talking about occasions when private developers need to get access to existing sewers and other services. That happens quite frequently. In fact, unless it is an entirely new development with its own new infrastructure, such access will be required. Even then, that new infrastructure is often conjoined with something that already exists.
That is a fair point. I misunderstood the question. The answer to that point may just have been handed to me. The provisions of the draft order will not be applied to other works on streets—for example, road works or work carried out by private developers. The order will apply only to street works because work carried out by others in streets is controlled by separate legislation. It would not be appropriate to use street-work legislation to apply the provisions of the order to those parties.
When resources become available, the department proposes to review legislation concerning the works of private developers and others outside street works on roads and to introduce appropriate measures to control them better. In other words, we would need to look at other legislation. The noble Lord makes a fair point and I am sorry that I misunderstood his original question.
The figure of £80 was raised in relation to individual household bills. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, referred to an Irish news article in that regard. At the moment, it is impossible to say what extra costs will be added to utility bills. That will not be known until the regulations and codes of practice are developed in consultation with the utility companies. There is quite a bit of work to be done once this legislation gets on to the statute book. It will not happen overnight but will take a couple of years. A regulatory impact assessment will also be provided at that stage to ensure that the measures are good value for money.
I am in danger of being accused of whingeing, although I suppose that in some respects I am here to whinge when the Government put the cart before the horse. Is it not a good idea—the Minister admits that the situation is otherwise—to have some general costings before one puts a plan into operation? It seems ridiculous for the Minister to stand here and tell me, “We are going to do this. This will be the legislation, and then we will see what it costs the average household”. Targeting social need was supposed to be one of the platforms that this Government stood on with regard to the electorate. I worry about £80 or £100 per annum being added to the bills of the poorest households.
Frankly, that is unreasonable and scaremongering. This is partly enabling legislation. It gives powers for getting the permits and then, once they are secured, for consultation about the phasing and implementation of the measure. There is consultation with those affected, including the utilities which need to dig up the roads to replace or upgrade their services, a regulatory impact assessment and discussions with the regulators of the various utilities—gas, electricity and water—about how they will ensure that the public are not ripped off by costs being added to the bills. That seems to me to be good governance. Saying, “We’ve got all the answers; here is a piece of legislation”, is crazy when the evidence from the past indicates that that would not be the case.
It is wholly reasonable to take this approach. It is scaremongering of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, to bandy about increases of £80 or £100 being imposed on the poorest people in Northern Ireland. No such figures have been produced by anyone of repute. They cannot do so because we have not yet gone through the regulatory impact assessment.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked about the prescribed period. I am not sure that I have the cart before the horse. This refers to a prescribed period in which roads authorities can say that the road has been dug up a couple of times recently and there must be a moratorium before someone else comes along after a short period of time. The prescribed period for which a restriction on works may be imposed would be in the regulations. These will be developed with the involvement of the utilities. We need some regulatory authority through the Northern Ireland Road Authority and Utilities Committee. Prescribed periods could be between six months and three to five years depending on the type of road. So we are saying in advance to people who use the road that they have suffered a lot of disruption but, unless there is an emergency, there will be no more permits for work on that road for a period of time. That would be good for business as well as for commuters.
The figure I have on costs, according to the initial estimate, is that the permit scheme could cost all the utilities around £7 million annually, but work has to develop to determine the level of fees and how they are going to be set. That is some way down the road. By the way, I should like to think that a Northern Ireland Minister in the Assembly will be answering to Members in the Assembly on the way in which the detail is brought in. Clearly, that would be much more satisfactory.
I was asked who the undertakers were. They are Phoenix Gas, Northern Ireland Electricity, the Water Service and other people who place apparatus in or under the streets. The Water Service will be a government-owned company from April, but this is not the place to debate the water rates or the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, has had free water for far too long and should now be paying for it. I know that I should not have said that because I am making a rod for my own back.
Detailed provisions will come through in regulations. We have to contain costs; it is not a free for all. If the roads people say to utilities that they cannot close the whole road but can only work on one lane, or we want the work done between midnight and 6 am, for example, their staff will be paid more to do that in overtime. But, if that reduces the overall congestion and disruption to people’s lives, a public good comes from that.
The utilities were fully consulted during the consultations on the policy proposals in 2005 and on the proposals for the draft order in 2006. In November last year officials met representatives of the Private Utilities Group—seven utility companies that formed an alliance to lobby against the department’s proposals to discuss their concern. Officials have been asked to continue in consultation with the utilities in developing working practices for implementing the new measures. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, it has to be a partnership; it will not work if there is war between the utilities and the authorities. Doing this in partnership would be seen as a valuable contribution to the lives of the people in Northern Ireland.
I thought that debating this order would take about two minutes.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.
The noble Lord said: The draft order was laid before the House on 27 November. I would first like to provide some background to what I hope will be accepted is a relatively simple order. In Northern Ireland, the boundaries of local government districts and the number and boundaries of the wards into which each district is divided are drawn up by a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The role of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner is to group the wards into multi-member constituencies or district electoral areas for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.
On that point, why do we still have wards? What is the point of them? The relevant unit for electoral purposes now is the district electoral area. Why preserve the ward, which ceased to have significance more than 40 years ago but still lives on for no good purpose? It results in DEAs being drawn up in an awkward way.
I cannot comment on the detail of that because the electoral system in Northern Ireland is somewhat different to the one with which I am familiar, because of PR. If I had my way we would be doing the same in England, but I am not getting my way at the moment. The wards are the electoral unit with which the vast majority of people are most familiar.
Well, the intention is there. They are identifiable if one focuses on the natural settlement of an area. The current ward structure has been the electoral unit which the vast majority of voters are most familiar with. It is a useful mechanism for ensuring proper representation of the rural and urban electorate within a council area. Some statistical measures such as deprivation are commonly presented and broken down at ward level. One of the ways in which they are most useful is in collecting and publishing statistics. We have gone beyond ward areas now to look at very small areas.
I must rule this discussion out of order. I have not put a Motion for the noble Lord to debate.
The issue is simple. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, when the Assembly is back, it will be in charge of local government, in effect. It will be able to make the rules, do what is necessary and make any changes. At present, it is not there and we have to make a modest change, which I can explain in a page and a half—I have only managed to get the first line out so far—about why we have this situation.
I was saying that the number of local government districts and the number and boundaries of the wards into which each district is divided are drawn up by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, which this order is not about. The role of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, which this order is about, is to group the wards into multi-member constituencies or district electoral areas for the purposes of the local elections in Northern Ireland, which are run differently from the rest of Great Britain. At present, the District Electoral Areas Commissioner can be appointed only after an order giving effect to the recommendations of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has been made.
The purpose of the order before us today is to enable us to appoint the District Electoral Areas Commissioner at an earlier stage in the process— specifically, as soon as practicable after the appointment of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. It also adds the Chief Survey Officer of Ordnance Survey for Northern Ireland to the list of assessors to the commissioner, and makes a minor correction to the full title of the Registrar General, as it appears in the list of assessors.
This is an incredibly modest piece of legislation that is necessary simply because of what is intended for local government change in Northern Ireland. The changes have been set in motion. The date on which the new local government structure will come into being is broadly known and we want to ensure that there is no unnecessary gap between when the Local Government Boundary Commission reports and when the wards are grouped together into the multi-member constituency areas for the purposes of the election. That is the only purpose of the order. I will sit down on this point: this process was followed on the two previous occasions that a district electoral areas commissioner was appointed—in 1992 and 1984. This is not a new process. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006.—(Lord Rooker.)
In paragraph 5, the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Northern Ireland will be substituted by the Registrar-General for Births and Deaths in Northern Ireland. Do we have no marriages left in Northern Ireland? What is the explanation for marriages being omitted?
On the general principle of the same person having two different commission responsibilities—the district electoral area and the local government boundary area—I understand that the Local Government Boundary Commissioner is in the process of deciding the boundaries of the wards. Has he completed his work and when is he likely to report to the Government? I understand that the Government are expediting the work of the District Electoral Area Commissioner. I noticed in the press recently that, at a public hearing in the north-west of Northern Ireland, the people of Strabane, who have always been connected with Omagh, objected because they had been recommended to join with Londonderry. They want to stay with Omagh as they have been for decades. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner ruled at the hearing that he could not consider any changes in the district council boundaries: he could consider changes only in the ward boundaries—to return to that word “ward”—within the district council.
I also wanted to ask about the District Electoral Area Commissioner and his designation of electoral areas. Under this order, he can group between five and seven of the wards together in one electoral area. Since we will now have only seven councils in Northern Ireland, it means that we will have much larger areas than we have been used to. We have 26 councils, as the Minister well knows. Now we will have only seven and they will cover a much greater part of Northern Ireland than previously. I think there are 50 wards in each area. If you group them together in fives, it means a maximum of just 70 councillors in Northern Ireland. If you group them together in sevens, which is possible under the order, it means a maximum of only 50 councillors in the whole of Northern Ireland, if my arithmetic is correct. I am talking about electoral wards, but I said councillors. Let me start again.
If you have five wards grouped together in an electoral area and there are seven district councils, there will be a total of 70 groups only in Northern Ireland. If you have 50 district areas and seven of them are grouped together at a time, that is 49, roughly speaking. If these areas are going to be so big—we already know that the district council areas will be big because there are only seven instead of 26—and if you now put seven wards together in one district area, there will be a councillor, elected by proportional representation, representing a massive part of the council area. I am worried that councillors will not be local to the people in Northern Ireland if they are in a council representing a massive part of Northern Ireland and are also representing a very large part of that council area.
The commissioner needs to be careful that, where possible, he curtails the number of wards being amalgamated to the minimum of five and not the maximum of seven to ensure that there is some locality in representation by elected councillors. I know that the order is being rushed through and I suspect the reasons for it, but the seven councils are apparently confirmed for Northern Ireland. This was disputed by most of the political parties in Northern Ireland—the argument was that it was balkanisation. I did not necessarily accept that argument, even though my own party said it, because Northern Ireland is balkanised in any case, no matter what you do. Whether there are 26 councils or seven, it will be balkanised, and that cannot be avoided.
Chickens sometimes come home to roost quicker than you think. I take personal ministerial responsibility for the decision to reduce the 26 councils to seven, along with my ministerial colleagues. We had a very good and long debate on that issue on two occasions in Grand Committee, when the order went through setting up the boundary commissioner. I cannot go down that road today, although I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I originally thought he was saying that there would be only 50 councillors in Northern Ireland. There are 582 at present. There is a degree of latitude for the boundary commissioner. In other words, we did not fix the maximum for each council at a precise number but provided a degree of latitude. I fully accept that there will be fewer councillors than there are now and their electoral area will be slightly—not massively—larger. There is a degree of flexibility as to the number of councillors per local authority; they will not all necessarily be exactly the same.
The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s final report is due to be presented on 31 May this year. Parliament has appointed the commissioner to do this job professionally. We do not seek to interfere and I do not want to second-guess the report. A series of public meetings will be held in each of the seven new districts in January and February to allow interested parties to make oral representations on the provisional recommendations which were published in November last year.
The final hearing is expected to close on 9 February. The commission’s procedures require it to take into consideration any representations, and it may subsequently revise its provisional recommendations and publish a final recommendation. The grouping of wards is an operational matter for the district electoral commissioner.
At the moment it is necessary for local government elections to take place in the timescale that will allow new authorities to operate in a shadow form for a period before taking over responsibility on 1 April 2009. It is the intention to have the elections some time before April 2009 so that the shadow authority can take some pretty important decisions about its headquarters, the chief executive and such before the functions are fully transferred.
Since, as the Minister has confirmed, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has not completed his work, and has therefore not been able to confirm the final boundaries of the wards, how is it possible for the District Electoral Areas Commissioner to proceed now to amalgamate wards of which we do not even know the final boundaries?
He will not. This order does not do that. The boundary commissioner has to produce his report before the district area commissioner can start work. This order seeks to minimise the gap between those events, with parliamentary process and everything else.
On the point about it being exactly the same individual, Richard Mackenzie will not begin his second role until his first role is finished. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, is quite right about that. On 11 January the Secretary of State announced his intention to appoint Richard Mackenzie CB as the next District Electoral Areas Commissioner. That appointment will be for 12 months on a full-time basis. He is the current Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and a member of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland. He will not formally take up his appointment until 1 June 2007. He shall not report to the Secretary of State until the recommendations of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner have been given effect, with or without modifications, in legislation, so there is a gap.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the District Electoral Areas Commissioner is classified as an ad hoc advisory body. As such, the appointment process does not fall within the remit of the Office of the Commissioner of Public Appointments. On the previous two occasions when a District Electoral Areas Commissioner has been appointed, the practice has been, once the local government boundary commission process was completed, to appoint the existing Local Government Boundaries Commissioner as the District Electoral Areas Commissioner—in other words, the same person at a point afterwards. That occurred in 1992 and 1984, and we are repeating that practice here.
The current boundary commissioner is widely respected, and possesses experience and familiarity with the subject and the necessary considerations to be addressed by the District Electoral Areas Commissioner. That is important now, as it is the wish of Ministers that the District Electoral Areas Commissioner’s recommendations should be brought forward speedily, and that the district electoral areas should be in place for subsequent local elections.
There is no conflict of interest with the two roles being filled by the same person. The appointments are entirely separate. Mr Mackenzie will not be appointed as the District Electoral Areas Commissioner until after he has completed his duties as the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.
A fair point has been made with regard to wards. The Secretary of State wrote to the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties and the Electoral Commission in October to invite their views on whether or not the existing range of five to seven wards per district electoral area in Northern Ireland should be retained, or changed using this Order in Council. Only one response, in support of retaining the current structure, was received. In the light of that, and of nil responses to a Northern Ireland Office press release on the issue, we decided that the current five-to-seven ward structure should be retained. Parties were given the opportunity to comment on whether they wanted a four to eight structure, but no party chose to oppose the retention of the current five to seven structure.
In a way, we are in the hands of the professional whom Parliament has appointed to do the job. I understand that this is a big change for local government in Northern Ireland—I am not knocking that. It will change the role of councillors in many ways. I pay tribute to the 582 local councillors who, in the past few decades of the Troubles, have been the only elected representatives in Northern Ireland, save for the Assembly. They have carried a massive burden, far greater than their actual powers as councillors justified. In effect, they have the powers that parish councillors have in England but they carried a burden of representative democracy in all those dark years. They all deserve a big “thank you” from everyone for that. Their role is changing. Local government will change; it will be much stronger, more powerful and have many more functions than before. You could not justify retaining the existing structure if you were going to do that, but I am going down the wrong road.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.
The noble Lord said: Before I start, I want to answer one of the questions I did not answer in the previous debate, because it all goes into Hansard. It relates to the expenses of the Registrar-General for marriages. The change has been made on the basis of advice from the current Registrar-General. I do not know why the title has changed, but I will find out and write to Members of the Committee about it. I should have put that answer on the record earlier, and I apologise for missing it out.
This is quite a technical order, and there is a good reason for it. Its purpose is simply to remove any uncertainty over the definition of election expenses which will apply for the purpose of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on 7 March.
Assembly elections in Northern Ireland are conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985 and the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which are applied to Assembly elections with both specific and general modifications by the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.
Section 27 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which was commenced on 11 September 2006, repeals Sections 90A and 90B of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which define the meaning of election expenses. Both sections were applied to Assembly elections by the 2001 order. It replaces these with new Section 90ZA and Schedule 4A, which define a new meaning of election expenses. However, because these are both new provisions, it is unclear if they are automatically applied to Assembly elections by virtue of the 2001 order.
While the practical differences between the definition in old Sections 90A and 90B and the definition in new Section 90ZA and the schedule are minor—the differences are largely of form rather than substance—we do not wish there to be any room for doubt about which definition will apply for the purposes of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March. In light of this, we wish to put the matter beyond doubt through an amending instrument which will make it clear that the new definition in Section 90ZA and Schedule 4A, as inserted by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, applies. That is what the order does.
The order is not controversial: our intention was to make this amendment as part of a wide-ranging order amending the 2001 order to take account of all relevant provisions in the 2006 Act later in the year. However, as the Committee will be aware, the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which was passed last November, has made provision for an Assembly election to take place in March. This has compelled us to deal with the matter of election expenses now in a separate order, so that candidates for the March election are in no confusion about the basis on which their expenses will be handled. We have consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft order and it is content.
Many people thought that we did not need to do this because it is fairly obvious how the election expenses will be calculated, but we did not want there to be any doubt. This is something that we would have done later in the year to tidy up the legislation from 2006. However, we did not know at the time that the St. Andrews agreement would bring about the potential for elections on 7 March. This order will put any uncertainty completely beyond doubt. Therefore I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.—(Lord Rooker.)
The order may not be controversial, as the Minister said, but the Government have constantly moved elections around in Northern Ireland. A bad precedent was set in 2003 when the process of electoral interference by the Government began and it is to be sincerely hoped that this is the end of it.
I have two brief points. First, we understand why the order has been introduced. It has been brought forward to be in place before the proposed Assembly election in March this year. If the Assembly election does not take place in March, will these new election expenses apply at a later date at a subsequent Assembly election?
Secondly, I put this down as a marker. I still believe that there is confusion, certainly a grey area, about election expenses in a proportional representation election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. For example, a party could select three candidates to contest the election in the constituency and divide that constituency into four areas. The political party could say, “You will go into area A, the second candidate will go into area B, the third candidate will go into area C and all three of you will share the fourth area D”. There would still be confusion about how the election expenses would be divided. I am not asking for an answer to that, but I am placing it on the record.
I will not attempt to answer that because I have not taken part in a proportional representation election. However, political parties are voluntary organisations. The legal framework is set by Parliament. How they then conduct themselves within that legal framework is entirely up to the parties. They may decide to carve up constituencies or not. I accept that questions can be asked about the apportionment of expenses, particularly if not all the candidates win and there is some bad feeling, but that would be a problem of success—because the election would have taken place and the success was in getting the election to take place.
The definition of expense provisions in this order will be on the statute book for any future elections. We were going to bring this order forward with a group of other amendments later this year, tidying up loose ends subsequent to the 2006 legislation. We are introducing it now because the St. Andrews agreement proposed the date of 7 March.
I will answer a question that the noble Lord did not ask but I thought he was going to when he stood up. Obviously, we want the election to take place. People are preparing for it. Massive numbers have registered for it—more than 1.1 million. Some 40,000 extra people have registered in the last month, which is really good news. People really intend to cast their votes and make a difference. We want the elections to take place and the political parties will be gearing up for them to take place—as I have noticed even in this House.
Obviously the political parties have asked whether they will be compensated for the expenditure they have incurred if for any reason the elections do not take place. This matter has been raised with the Government and we are currently considering our response. Beyond that I cannot go.
I do not have the figures in front of me. I think it is 1.15 million. I am informed that 1,115,965 people have registered. We are very pleased with that figure. It represents the highest ever return of registration forms. I realise that there were some doubts about this and I saw for myself the posters in Belfast in early January encouraging people to register. Some 40,849 voters will be added to the register in time to allow them to vote in the Assembly elections as a result of the rolling register. It is excellent news for democracy that so many people have registered.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Amendment of Schedules 3 and 5) Order 2007
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Amendment of Schedules 3 and 5) Order 2007.
The noble Lord said: Before I begin in earnest, I should draw the Committee’s attention to a slight but important error in the Explanatory Memorandum at paragraph 7.6. The last sentence should read,
“The minimum duration of a sexual offences prevention order is five years”,
rather than the “maximum” duration, which is a bit of a difference. However, this does not affect in any way what the instrument seeks to achieve.
The Home Office drew this error to the attention the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments, both of which were content for this to be corrected but asked that a revised version should appear on the OPSI website—which it does—and that the change be reflected in the final published version of the Explanatory Memorandum.
The instrument seeks to amend the lists of offences in Schedules 3 and 5 to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which relate to the notification requirements, commonly referred to as the “sex offenders’ register”. In brief, any offender convicted, cautioned or made subject to a finding for an offence listed in Schedule 3 automatically becomes subject to the notification requirements—that is, they go on to the register—subject, in certain cases, to a sentencing or age threshold being met. There is no role for the courts in this process and it is not dependent upon an order from a judge.
A person who has been convicted for an offence listed in Schedule 3 can also be made subject to a foreign travel order where the conditions are met. A conviction, caution or finding for a Schedule 5 offence does not result in automatic sex offender registration because, unlike the offences listed in Schedule 3, the offences in Schedule 5 are not inherently sexual although they could possibly have a sexual motive or connotation. However, where someone is convicted of a Schedule 5 or a Schedule 3 offence, there is discretion for a presiding judge—or a magistrate at a later point—to decide whether the offender poses a risk of serious sexual harm and so make a sexual offences prevention order. The effect of a sexual offences prevention order is to place prohibitions on the offender’s behaviour as well as ensuring that they go on the register.
The instrument seeks to move three offences from the list of offences in Schedule 5, where discretion is afforded to the courts in relation to making an individual subject to the notification requirements, to Schedule 3, where the notification requirements operate independently of any court ruling. The instrument also seeks to add further offences to Schedule 5.
Home Office officials have undertaken a review of the list of offences in Schedules 3 and 5 to ensure that the right offences are included and that they are placed in the right schedule. As part of the review, the Home Office took the opportunity to consult more than 130 organisations, including law enforcement agencies and judicial bodies. The offences to be added by the instrument are those which were specifically recommended by consultees.
During the passage of the Police and Criminal Justice Act 2006—of which the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, in particular, will be aware—amendments were tabled to include the offences under Sections 48 to 50 of the 2003 Act in Schedule 3. The offences related to the abuse of children through prostitution and pornography. Currently those offences are listed within Schedule 5.
The reason we resisted the amendments at the time was because the Home Office was carrying out a broader review of the schedules. Originally, the decision to place the three offences on Schedule 5 was taken because we believed that those offences, while undoubtedly unpleasant and despicable, were not strictly sexual offences—unlike, say, rape—but rather they could be motivated by a number of factors such as simple greed. However, I recognise that while it may be true that these offences need not necessarily be strictly sexual in their nature, their perpetrators demonstrate, at the very least, a callous disregard for the sexual well-being of children. They pose a threat and so will require the monitoring that being made subject to the register will bring.
I am grateful to noble Lords on the Benches opposite for raising this important issue in the past and for generating debate more generally in the House. I am pleased to say that the instrument proposes that those three offences are moved from Schedule 5 to Schedule 3 to the 2003 Act.
As I have mentioned already, we have had a long consultation with key partners and, as a result, a number of offences are being added to Schedule 5. First, we are adding two offences of child abduction. This is in response to a general concern and also to a particular case in York where an offender was convicted of child abduction. The offence was not listed in Schedule 3, so the offender did not become subject to the notification requirements as a result of his conviction. As the offence was not listed in Schedule 5 either, the judge did not have any power to consider making a sexual offences prevention order, which would have had the effect, among other things, of making the offender subject to the notification requirements for the duration of that order.
We do not feel that it would be appropriate to add the offences of child abduction to Schedule 3. Although they are serious offences, as many cases arise in the context of custodial disputes, those offenders—usually a parent or guardian—may not warrant automatic registration. However, by adding the offences of child abduction to Schedule 5, we are ensuring that judges have sufficient powers to make offenders subject to the register in cases where they deem that the child abduction had a sexual motive.
We have also sought to include a group of offences in Schedule 5 which may be indicative of stalking behaviour and may increase the risk of sexual harm. The offences are harassment, sending indecent articles by post and sending indecent messages. Theft and burglary with intent to steal are also being added to cover stalking behaviour where, for example, a person with a sexual motive steals a woman’s underwear from the washing line or breaks into a home to commit a similar act. The offences of burglary with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm or to do unlawful damage are already listed in Schedule 5. We are also adding the common law offence of outraging public decency to Schedule 5.
The list of offences in Schedule 5 was originally drafted to be consistent with the list of violent offences in Schedule 15 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. However, we have since formed the view that it is not necessary for these schedules to mirror each other in their entirety as they serve two distinct purposes. That is why we are making the changes to Schedule 5 with the aim of better protecting the public from sexual harm.
I should stress that a conviction or caution for a Schedule 5 offence will not automatically make someone subject to the sex offender register. Taking an example already mentioned, in a case of child abduction where the child was taken in the context of a custody dispute, it is unlikely to be appropriate for the offender to be made subject to a sexual offences prevention order, and consequently the register, unless the court was satisfied, among other things—as it might be if there was in fact a sexual motive—that such an order was necessary for the purposes of protecting the public or any particular members of the public from serious sexual harm from the offender.
The courts already have powers to make offenders subject to sexual offences prevention orders and, as a result, the notification requirements, for a wide range of offences already listed in Schedule 5. By adding the offences mentioned, we are seeking to ensure that all appropriate offences are covered. Attempts and conspiracy to commit offences in Schedules 3 and 5 are equally covered.
Similar offences are being added to Schedules 3 and 5 in respect of Northern Ireland, although Northern Ireland is also adding the offence of riotous, disorderly and indecent behaviour under Section 9 of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 1968. This is being added because the Police Service of Northern Ireland occasionally uses this provision to prosecute individuals for exposure in addition to the exposure offence under Section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. We are not adding an equivalent offence for England and Wales and there have been no requests that we do so.
This instrument does not have effect in Scotland. Scotland has a slightly different system from that in England and Wales which fits better with its common law traditions and the approach taken by the Scottish courts. Scotland has no intention to amend its equivalent schedules at the current time.
With the experience of how the Sexual Offences Act 2003 has worked in practice, and having taking on board comments from those involved in its operation, we are keen to ensure that the courts and police have the right and appropriate powers to deal with sex offenders. The draft order aims to do just that. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Amendment of Schedules 3 and 5) Order 2007. 5th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
We support the making of the order. I am most grateful to the Minister for his very comprehensive explanation.
My noble friend Lady Anelay tabled amendments at the Committee and Report stages of the Police and Justice Bill last year to achieve the objective provided by this order. It goes wider than the provisions of my noble friend’s amendment, but does so in a way that we can support.
My noble friend has asked me to put on record her thanks to the staff in the office of the Minister, Mr Vernon Coaker, for their courtesy in writing to her before Christmas to alert her to the fact that the order would be tabled on 18 December.
Sections 48 to 50 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which make provision for the offences of recruiting or controlling a child involved in pornography or prostitution, are not prescribed for the purposes of notification requirements under Part 2 of that Act. These sections are not being used by the police and prosecutors because they do not have the notification that applies to most of, if not all, the other provisions relating to the abuse of children. There is no valid reason why people convicted of such an offence should not be required to notify the police of their details because they are directly involved in the abuse and exploitation of children and need monitoring and risk assessment.
My noble friend explained in Committee on 11 July 2006—at col. 619 of the Official Report—that when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 passed through both Houses we, on this side, had missed that point. Without a departmental team behind us, it is perhaps not too surprising that we did not pick up on this omission. However, as soon as the problem came to light, we resolved to persuade the Government to rectify it. The prime mover of these matters was my honourable friend Sir Paul Beresford, and I pay tribute to his untiring work on these and other related matters.
When we debated these matters last year, the Government persuaded us that we should not press the question to a vote as they were carrying out a review on how the Act was operating, as the Minister has explained in some detail. As a consequence of that review, the Government are bringing this order before the Committee today.
We accept that the order will help to fulfil the policy objectives of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in that it will assist in public protection, the prevention and detection of sexual offences and the monitoring and management of risk posed by sex offenders. Even if there is no wide usage of these powers, it is right that they should be added to the statute book. We are aware of public concern regarding the risk posed by sex offenders, and that risk should be reduced and managed as thoroughly as possible. We support the making of the order.
I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the order. We did not comment on the amendment moved during the Committee stage of the Police and Justice Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, but we believe that the offences listed in the order are serious enough to warrant notification. We therefore support the order.
We seem to have a comity of view across the Committee, which of course is highly desirable, and I am grateful for that consensus. I am also grateful for the noble Viscount’s gracious remarks. The Government were very pleased with the outcome after the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, tabled her amendment. Clearly, it has sparked further consideration and I think that we now have something which not only is workable but covers all bases. I am also grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, on this issue.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians Order 2007
rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians Order 2007.
The noble Baroness said: I am glad to introduce this order, which provides for a complete overhaul of the legislation regulating pharmacists and extends statutory regulation to pharmacy technicians for the first time. This is an order about patient safety and public protection. It fits within the Government’s programme to modernise the way that health professions are regulated. In a number of important respects, it follows the model used for dentists, nurses, opticians and other health professionals. Our work is making regulation more responsive to patients’ needs and better at protecting them.
The order will improve the way in which the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain protects patients by: making clearer the society’s responsibilities in protecting the public and its accountability in doing so; reforming the society’s registration process, bringing pharmacy technicians in England and Wales into statutory regulation for the first time; updating provisions for education and training, and introducing statutory requirements for continuing professional development; supporting an emphasis on fitness-to-practise issues; reforming the society’s statutory committee structure; and making the necessary transitional arrangements from the current system.
Pharmacists play a vital part in the provision of healthcare services. They have long been involved in supplying medicines and advising people on their use. However, the practice of pharmacy is entering a new era—one where direct clinical care of patients will become core business. For example, no longer is the prescribing of medicines just the domain of doctors, dentists and nurses. Since 2003, there have been pharmacists who have acted as supplementary prescribers as part of agreed clinical management plans, and some pharmacists are now completing additional training to become independent prescribers of a full range of medicines. That will become commonplace. For the first time, the new community pharmacy arrangements across Great Britain all contain clinical services.
The demand for clinical services from pharmacists continues to grow. In England, we will be introducing pharmacists with a special interest who, when suitably accredited, will specialise in a particular clinical area, just like GPs with a special interest. Pharmacists will also continue to play a huge part in educating, advising and supporting other healthcare professionals, including doctors and non-medical prescribers, on the prescription, supply and administration of medicines. Pharmacy technicians are also starting to provide more direct clinical care of patients. This trend is likely to continue as health reforms progress, with more flexible use of staff properly trained to undertake roles safely to increase access to medicines and care.
There is clearly great scope for pharmacists to do harm if they do not perform properly. That is why pharmacy was the earliest healthcare profession to be statutorily regulated. The latest legislation to do this was the Pharmacy Act 1954. That has served the profession well but is now out of date and limited in its scope compared with that of other health profession regulators. We wish to ensure that those who use the services of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians benefit from the same safeguards as those recently introduced for doctors, nurses, allied health professions, opticians and dentists.
The main provisions to bring pharmacist regulation in line with other professions are the requirement to undergo continuing professional development so that registrants keep their knowledge, skills and aptitudes up to date as long as they continue practising, and a wider range of powers and sanctions relating to investigating and dealing with allegations of impaired fitness to practise. These include impairment through ill health as well as performance and conduct, and impairment related to criminal convictions. New sanctions include the ability to suspend registrants when necessary to protect the public while their fitness to practise is being investigated and adjudicated, and the ability to restrict the practice of those unfit practitioners to areas in which they are safe to practise by attaching conditions to their registration; new powers enabling the society to disclose fitness-to-practise information where that is in the public interest, and to require others to disclose information to it about fitness-to-practise matters; a new duty to co-operate with other public authorities and bodies with an interest in pharmacy matters; and new powers to require practising registrants to be covered by an adequate and appropriate indemnity arrangement, although the implementation of this provision will be delayed while we consider further, in conjunction with the other regulatory bodies, the implications of a court judgment about indemnity arrangements that was handed down over the summer.
This order also contains some provisions specific to the world of pharmacy. The Government want to take this opportunity to extend statutory regulation to pharmacy technicians, in recognition of how their role has developed. They now play a major part in dispensing medicines and other areas of pharmacy practice which used to be the preserve of pharmacists. For example, in some hospitals pharmacy technicians will take a medication history of newly admitted patients. It is entirely right that those who use the service they provide should be protected by safeguards appropriate to their level of skill, knowledge and responsibility.
The provisions relating to the regulation of pharmacy technicians relate only to England and Wales. This is because of the separate powers of the Scottish Parliament to enact its own legislation in respect of devolved healthcare professions, which are those which were not subject to statutory regulation at the time of the Scotland Act 1998. However, we have agreed in principle with the Minister for Health in Scotland that we will introduce an amending order later this year, which will need to be approved by both the United Kingdom and the Scottish Parliaments, which will extend the scope of this current order to encompass Scottish pharmacy technicians. In order to make sure that the regulation of this profession happens consistently across Great Britain, we do not propose to commence the provisions of this order which relate to the regulation of pharmacy technicians until the amendments to its scope are in place.
Another provision peculiar to these professions is the introduction of a division of the regulator’s registers to distinguish between the vast majority of registrants who are in practice and the very few who do not actively practise, such as those who have retired or are on a career break, or who, although they have qualified as pharmacists, are working in fields where they do not practise as a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. For these people it will not be practical or relevant to keep up with continuing professional development or to be covered by indemnity insurance arrangements. I am satisfied that the definition contained in the order of what is meant by “practising” is broad enough to ensure that anyone whose work may have either a direct or an indirect impact on those using pharmacy services will be required to meet the requirements for practising registrants. This includes those working in academic research, management, journalism and industry who give advice on pharmacy matters and hold themselves out to be pharmacists or pharmacy technicians. The order contains provisions in the form of offences and the provision of guidance which will support this.
Members will appreciate that a piece of legislation of this size and scope has been in production for some time. It has been suggested that issues like the consideration of this order to amend the Pharmacy Act would be better held back until after the release of the findings of the Chief Medical Officer’s review of medical regulation and the parallel review of non-medical regulation in the light of the fifth report of the Shipman inquiry. However, the contents of this order are essentially an overhaul of the regulation of pharmacists and the administration of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, which are long overdue. The extension of statutory regulation of pharmacy technicians is also in the public interest. The subjects covered by this order are issues that need addressing, irrespective of the findings of these two reviews, and they in no way pre-empt either their recommendations or the Government’s response to them.
This order has been well researched, and has found broad favour and support from those who are most affected by it. It has been subject to a full publication and public consultation as required by the Health Act 1999, under which the order is made. A copy of the report on the consultation is available on the Department of Health website. I beg to move.
Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians Order 2007. 5th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Baroness Royall of Blaisdon.)
The Committee will be grateful to the Minister for introducing this order so succinctly and clearly. It is an order which we broadly welcome. As she said, it serves to bring up to date the rules governing the regulation of pharmacists in Great Britain and, for the first time, to put in place arrangements to regulate pharmacy technicians in England and Wales under the supervision of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
The order has been the subject of extensive consultation within the pharmacy profession and outside it. As regards the principal provisions in it, we are satisfied that it reflects the society’s policy—which we very definitely share—to strengthen and clarify its powers to protect and promote the health and safety of the general public. In so doing, the order completely replaces the Pharmacy Act 1954.
I am pleased that there has been no question of diluting the role or function of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society as the body responsible for regulating the profession. We have said many times how strongly we support the concept of professional self-regulation, and in the case of pharmacists we see self-regulation, as set out here, encompassing the complete spectrum of regulatory activity, from registration to the setting of standards, and from education, training and continuing professional development to disciplinary procedures. The order is entirely consistent with the provisions contained within the society’s Royal Charter, and builds usefully upon them.
As the Minister well knows, much thought has recently been devoted, under the Donaldson and Foster reviews, to the whole area of professional regulation in medicine and allied professions. We do not yet know the outcome of those reviews. However, I should be grateful if the Minister could reassure me that, whatever the outcome in relation to other professional disciplines, she does not envisage substantial changes being necessary to the content of this order. Nothing, of course, can remain set in stone for ever, but I hope that after the very thorough work done by the society, its members and, indeed, the department, there will be no question of having to go back again to square one.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the new rules represent an improvement over the old ones is in respect of fitness-to-practise procedures. As we have seen with doctors, dentists and other professions, it is right for the relevant regulatory body to have at its disposal a menu of options—in this instance, not only the power to strike a pharmacist off the register but also powers to suspend a pharmacist or to place conditions on his registration, as the Minister has indicated. Without such powers the public could be at risk, so we welcome these new provisions.
However, in its response to the consultation, the society raised one concern which I notice was not accepted by the Government. Article 49(3) provides that, where an allegation is referred to a fitness to practise committee, the society must inform departmental Ministers, the local PCT and the person’s employer. The worry here is that if the allegation is false—and perhaps maliciously so—a huge amount of damage could be done to the reputation and standing of the individual and of his employing organisation by the fact of the matter becoming public knowledge before it is resolved. To guard against that contingency, the society suggested that notification in certain well-defined types of case need not be mandatory but could instead be discretionary, subject to clear rules. Why was this proposal not accepted?
The second conspicuous area of change in the society’s powers relates to education and training. These changes are, equally, very welcome. Up to now, there has been some uncertainty about the society’s powers in relation to education. The order not only clarifies the position but also provides for the education committee to have a wider role in such areas as revalidation and recertification. This is all part of the general drive to promote professionalism in all its varying aspects and that, surely, has to be the way forward for a profession on which the NHS, patients and the public are increasingly becoming reliant. In that connection, it is welcome to see in Article 12(5) that knowledge and use of English is included as one of the factors which may be considered as part of the overall professional qualification.
Similarly, I was pleased to see in Article 48(2) that a pharmacist’s or technician’s “attitudes and behaviour” are to be regarded as integral to the judgment of professional misconduct. The clear implication is that attitudes and behaviour are important elements of what it means to be professionally qualified, and that is surely right.
I have two further questions. As the Minister made clear, the registration and regulation of pharmacy technicians under the order applies to England and Wales. That is because in Scotland the regulation of professions recognised after 1998 is a devolved matter. We often hear that diversity in healthcare arrangements north and south of the border is one of the glories of devolution. I am pleased that the Minister accepts that there is an issue to be addressed here. With dentists and the professions allied to dentistry, it was possible to achieve what was effectively a UK-wide regulation by means of an agreement between the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments. I am pleased that the Minister and her counterparts in Edinburgh are looking to achieve a similar uniformity of regulation for pharmacy technicians. That is very welcome.
Concern was also expressed by the society that under Article 5(1), the Privy Council has a power to alter the size and composition of the council, subject to specified limitations. The society’s charter provides for the Privy Council to do so only if it receives an application to do so from the society in pursuance of a special general resolution. Can the Minister confirm that the order should not be read as meaning that the Privy Council has a power to vary the council’s composition in the absence of any such request from the society?
The order has been long awaited by the pharmaceutical profession. We wish it well.
I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the order. As we have heard, it will update, strengthen and clarify the society’s powers to protect, promote and maintain the health and safety of the public. We agree with that and we support the order.
I, too, welcome the order, which will bring pharmacists into line with other healthcare professionals. Pharmacists play an ever-increasing role in the provision of primary care. The order will recognise that fact and improve the system to ensure fitness to practice and statutorily to regulate pharmacy technicians. That will provide more protection for the public who often experience difficulty in obtaining an appointment to see their GP and are turning to their pharmacist for healthcare advice. Other professional groups, including my own of dentistry, have undertaken fitness-to-practise reforms, and it is right that the pharmacists do the same. It is important that all professional groups keep up to date and maintain a programme of continuing professional development.
The order is 73 pages long. Could the Minister remind me whether registered pharmacy technicians will be able to be an alternative to pharmacists in pharmaceutical outlets, including chemist shops and GP surgeries, where it is extremely convenient to be able to collect medicines, especially in rural areas, where there is not always a chemist in the vicinity?
Finally, when the osteopaths and chiropractic practitioners became registered they were hit with unexpectedly high registration fees and extra costs for indemnity. Has the Minister any idea—and the information may be well hidden in the 73 pages—what the cost of registration and indemnity might be for a pharmacist and pharmacy technician under these new regulations? I also stress the importance of the points made by my noble friend Lord McColl on attitudes, behaviour and language. I am sure that the Minister will have time to respond to those concerns at this stage.
I am very grateful for the broad and strong support from noble Lords opposite on this order, which is technical but extremely important.
The noble Lord, Lord McColl, asked whether changes would be made following the two reviews that are currently taking place. We must wait for the White Paper, which will be published a little later this year. We do not want to pre-empt any decisions relating to that. Some changes may be made to strengthen best regulatory practice across all regulators, but pharmacists would certainly not be singled out, as it were.
In relation to disclosure of information when an investigation is taking place, I well understand the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McColl. It is important for patient protection that those who employ or contract with pharmacists or pharmacy technicians are alerted as soon as possible when the society is investigating an allegation. In rare cases, this will be the first warning received of a serious problem that would put patients at risk if a pharmacist or pharmacy technician continued to work. Before referring complaints to the statutory committees, the registrar of the society weeds out cases in which statutory action would not be appropriate. So there would be time. It would not be a knee-jerk reaction; a procedure would be followed before people on the outside were alerted to the complaints.
I appreciate that pharmacists or pharmacy technicians and those who represent them may find the requirement for disclosure that an allegation has been made unsettling. However, this is a tried and tested approach used by other regulators and we consider that it represents an appropriate balance between a registrant’s privacy and the need to protect members of the public, which of course is the purpose of professional regulation.
I thank the Minister very much for allowing me to intervene. Do I take it that someone would be suspended only over something relevant to the safety of the patient, not for some other misconduct? Would it be related only to whether the technician was a danger to his patient?
I will write to the noble Lord with clarification, but in any case when a complaint was so serious that it was being investigated by a committee there would be some potential danger to the public involved. Therefore, I imagine that for wider interested persons to be informed there would be some danger to the public, but I shall clarify that point in writing to the noble Lord.
I shall respond to the other questions. With regard to the costs of registration and indemnity, there are no hidden figures in these pages. However, increases in registration charges can be made only after consultation with the registrant, so I would not have thought there would be any great hikes in charges. I am sure the registrants themselves would oppose such a measure. We are taking time to explore the whole issue of indemnity insurance, but many pharmacists already pay for indemnity costs, so I imagine there would be no huge change there.
On the use of English, we are glad to see that it is important in relation to attitudes and behaviours in misconduct cases. It is good and proper that the use of English is considered in all those cases. With regard to the change in the size and composition of the council, it should not be read as the Privy Council. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, asked if the Privy Council could vary the composition of the society of the council without a request. I understand that, yes, that would be possible, but there are no plans to do so. It is simply potentially possible.
I do not know if I have left any questions unanswered. Members may wish to remind me now; if not, I will gladly respond in writing.
I beg the noble Lord’s pardon. Pharmacy technicians can work in community pharmacies. We think that would be of benefit, especially to rural communities, as the noble Lord indicated, but they would have to be under the supervision of a registered pharmacist.
Having answered those questions, I am delighted that we are all in broad agreement on this order, and I commend it to your Lordships.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
If that completes the business of the Grand Committee today, the Committee stands adjourned.
The Committee adjourned at 6.58 pm.