House of Lords
Tuesday, 27 March 2007.
The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.
My Lords, The Definition of Terrorism report by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, was published on 15 March 2007. The Government’s response will be published in due course.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that brief reply. I am sure that she would join me in expressing appreciation to the noble Lord for the thorough and important piece of work that he has undertaken. Does she agree that the credibility of the definition at the centre of our security and legislative arrangements is essential? Will the Government therefore give special attention to what the noble Lord recommends on the difference between influencing and intimidating target audiences, on including racial or ethnic causes in the definition, and on the role of the Attorney-General in extraterritorial cases and the issues to be considered by him? Does she agree that, notwithstanding the conclusion of the noble Lord, very careful consideration is needed of the position of those who may be faced with similar tyranny and state terrorism to that faced by Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa?
My Lords, I offer our congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, on this excellent report. I note that the Minister said that she would give her reply “in due course”, rather than the conventional “shortly”. Therefore, we presume that it will be some weeks, quite rightly, before the Government give their response, as the report came out only on 15 March, some 12 days ago. I know that this was not one of the recommendations made by the noble Lord in his report, but one of the propositions that he put forward was that no definition was needed. Will the Government also consider that as a possibility?
My Lords, we certainly intend to give full consideration to each of the recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. As noble Lords will know, he took a great deal of care and attention in this. He spent about nine months going across the country speaking to a number of people to ascertain the proper way forward. We will give every consideration to everything that he says in that report.
My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little more. The first of the 16 conclusions is:
“There is no single definition of terrorism that commands full international approval”.
Does she feel that such a definition internationally would be useful in the fight against terrorism? If so, how do the Government intend to achieve that?
My Lords, I agree that there is no single definition for terrorism, which is because no one can agree on what that definition should be. One has to take that reality into account, as we certainly intend to do. When we look at the four main recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, I assure the House that the Government see a great deal of sense in much of what he says. We have to give the report full and proper consideration in order to make a cogent and complete answer, which we will share with the House and the other place, as will be appropriate.
Health: Global Health Partnerships
My Lords, the report of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, highlights the valuable contribution that the UK can make to strengthening health capacity globally. The Inter-Ministerial Group on Health Capacity in Developing Countries, chaired by my colleague Rosie Winterton, will oversee the way in which this is taken forward. A small working group with representatives from the appropriate departments will undertake further analytical work to review the operational and financial implications of the report and suggest a phased approach for its implementation. We also have one immediate response, which is to commit £1 million over two years to help the Global Health Workforce Alliance to tackle the urgent need to find solutions to the lack of healthcare workers in poor countries.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that encouraging and helpful reply. Does she agree that this excellent report, based on an inquiry chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, contains a large number of recommendations, all of which require serious consideration? What action are the Government taking to enhance the opportunities for healthcare professionals in the developing world to undertake improved patterns of education and training? Further, can the Government give an assurance that the career progression of UK doctors wishing to work in the developing world will not suffer under Modernising Medical Careers? Finally, bearing in mind the crucial importance of collaboration between governmental and voluntary organisations, will the Government give their support to the Tropical Health and Education Trust, which is much concerned with this area?
My Lords, the Government warmly welcome the thrust of the noble Lord’s report. It is an excellent document and, as I said, we intend to act on the vast majority of its recommendations. However, we have to examine it in detail. The noble Lord asked me about doctors working abroad. We are looking at this carefully because while we want doctors to work abroad, we also want to ensure that that does not have serious repercussions for our own health services and that doctors’ careers are enhanced when they undertake such missions. On the issue of doctors in developing countries, we want to assist them to stay in their countries where that is possible. Finally, on the Tropical Health and Education Trust, I am afraid that I do not have an immediate reply on that but I shall look into it and respond to the noble Lord in writing.
My Lords, in response to my noble friend’s Answer, is there not a problem with brain drain professionals from developing countries? Even if they would like to go back, their working conditions when they return are so unfavourable that they are deterred. What can the Government do about that?
My Lords, it is indeed a problem. Inadequate health services in developing countries mean that doctors either do not want to train there in the first place or they do not want to return when they have trained in this country. They, like health professionals here, want to have a career. For that reason, DfID has provided £55 million over six years to fund an innovative emergency human resources programme in Malawi. The programme is helping to build up the health service there so that professionals will want to be trained there and to stay there. So far as we can see, there is evidence that fewer staff are leaving the service. We are now seeking to identify more remote areas for such an incentive package.
My Lords, will the department provide incentives and resources to primary care trusts and GP practices to cover for leaves of absence, particularly of doctors, midwives and public health specialists, who can be of particular assistance in the developing world?
My Lords, we are looking closely at that issue at the moment. We are aware of the problems. We want to ensure that doctors can leave when they need to, but we must examine that in detail. I will come back to the noble Baroness when we have a proper response.
My Lords, before I answer that question I must congratulate the noble Lord. He has a trust, the Swinfen Trust, which is cited in the Crisp report as a demonstration of excellence in the IT and telemedicine fields.
The Government are aware that NGOs need greater co-ordination. We are working on that in DfID, from a DfID perspective, but as this report relates to health matters I am sure DfID and the Department of Health will be looking at this issue and trying to co-ordinate NGOs better on the ground.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the best NGOs, which is well known throughout the world for developing health advocacy, is BRAC? Will she join me in congratulating in particular Dr Fazle Abed, who has developed this method? I hope that this is worthy of all our attention globally.
My Lords, BRAC is the most extraordinary NGO. I had the privilege of meeting the founder not long ago. He is a truly extraordinary man who is changing the face of the world, not only in Bangladesh but in places such as Afghanistan and in many developing countries. He certainly deserves our very warm congratulations.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there is a real need for doctors to go out to these developing countries and to be able to improvise? For instance, there is a surgeon in Nigeria who has mastered the art of improvisation. He operates by sunlight on ladies with fistulae because he has no electricity. He has to move the table around quite a lot during the course of the day, but improvisation—making do with the available resources—is a very important principle.
My Lords, improvisation, as the noble Lord has argued, is extremely important. I am sure we wish to look at ways of supporting such fantastic innovation. As I am in the business of congratulations today, I must congratulate the noble Lord on his work for Mercy Ships.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Tropical Health and Education Trust, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walton, has particular expertise in, and knowledge of, the health services in Somaliland? Will she guarantee that in developing these global partnerships we will pay particular attention to the needs of Somaliland, which is an oasis of peace and stability in an otherwise very difficult and war-torn region?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that another good example is the Mildmay Mission Hospital in Hackney, which also has a hospital in Africa, and deals with very difficult cases of HIV/AIDS and dementia? I am sure those at the hospital would be delighted for her to visit it. It is most interesting.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that where the larger aid organisations so often go wrong is when they set up parallel health structures because they are frustrated with local government? Can she ensure, in the light of the Crisp report, that that will not happen under DfID?
Yes, my Lords. DfID is acutely aware of such parallel structures. DfID is looking at that issue, but I know that the UN body is also looking at it, because those structures cause problems for countries on the ground rather than provide solutions at some stages.
My Lords, the Government are committed to improving child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—including therapeutic services, in line with the vision set out in the National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services. We have invested more than £400 million over the past four years to develop services. Evidence-based national service guidelines on therapeutic and preventive interventions with child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation are scheduled for publication by the Department of Health in the spring of 2008.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but if a child broke a leg, would it not be remiss if the NHS failed to follow up with appropriate therapy? Are not children who suffer abuse, particularly sexual abuse, also deserving of appropriate therapeutic services to make sure that they have a proper and happy life in the future? In view of that, will my noble friend urgently consult the NSPCC about its pilot studies establishing the scope of the problem and the financial needs to deal with it?
Yes, my Lords, children who suffer the horrors of sexual abuse deserve proper therapy, over a long period, if that is what is needed. This issue is being explored in the context of the victims of violence and abuse prevention programme—guidelines which are being developed to help universal services to identify and respond to the needs of abused children.
We have just received information about the NSPCC pilot programme. It is being assessed by the department and we will decide what to do in the light of that assessment.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the services required for abused children are much wider than simply mental health services, important as they are? Does she agree that services such as those provided by Childline, where children can come forward and talk about their abuse when they would not do so otherwise, and Stop It Now!, which provides an educational programme so that other young people can come forward, should also be within the programme?
My Lords, Stop It Now! and Childline are extremely important programmes. In fact, my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Care Services met Mary Marsh, the NSPCC chief executive, in October to discuss them and my right honourable friend the Chancellor announced that the Government will provide additional resources to the NSPCC to help support an extension of the very important listening services that it provides.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that some children who are abused will not talk openly about it but may develop eating disorders, an increase of which in very young children has been reported today in the press? Will she make sure that people know that eating disorders may not be just eating disorders but may be an underlying cause of abuse which needs to be investigated?
My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Countess. One of the purposes of the guidelines is to increase awareness of sexual abuse and the things which can point to it in children, such as eating disorders. When people see that a child has an eating disorder, they can look to see what lies behind it. In that way, we can treat those children so that they do not suffer in later life.
My Lords, the figures are quite staggering—they are shameful. Apparently, about 10 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls have been sexually abused. Those figures are quite disgraceful, but they show us the extent of the problem that we have to deal with. The problems have existed over many years but in the past we have not been able to talk about them. Now we can, and we must take action.
My Lords, given that 72 per cent of people jailed for a grave offence had been abused when they were children, does the health department plan to make the services of CAMHS specialists available to crime prevention charities, which often find children being disruptive and naughty at an early stage?
My Lords, despite the horrendous statistic of 10 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls being sexually abused, does the Minister accept that while child sexual abuse and mental health problems continue deeply to stigmatise all communities, they remain very difficult issues in minority communities in particular? Is she satisfied that government departments have ensured that enough attention is paid to those vulnerable children?
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for publicising these terrible figures, of which I have been aware for some time. When 42 ladies in their 40s, all with eating disorders, recently met and discussed their problem, it emerged that all of them had been sexually abused as children. Will she comment on that?
My Lords, the effectiveness of child and adolescent mental health services is often seriously diluted if a child inpatient is placed on an adult mental health ward, where they can be subjected to abuse of various kinds. What are the Government doing to ensure that children who need mental health treatment are treated in an age-appropriate setting?
My Lords, as noble Lords will have gathered from recent discussions in this House on the Mental Health Bill, we are doing everything to ensure that age-appropriate treatment is available to children whenever possible. We recognise that there will be a very few circumstances where a child is admitted for urgent treatment and might have to go to a ward where there are adults. However, we are determined to ensure that, wherever possible, a child will receive age-appropriate treatment.
Committee on Standards in Public Life
My Lords, an announcement on successor arrangements for the chairmanship of the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be made shortly. No chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has ever been appointed for more than one term. Only this morning, at the committee’s annual public meeting, Sir Alistair Graham said that it was “entirely appropriate” that he serve one term as chair.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Might there not have been an unusual, one-off case for renewal of Sir Alistair’s chairmanship, bearing in mind his outstanding work in highlighting the decline in standards of governance? Will the Minister confirm and put it beyond doubt that the Government have no plans to scrap this committee?
My Lords, as I have indicated, it is no comment on the quality of Sir Alistair Graham’s execution of his role as chairman that he is serving only one term. All his predecessors served only one term, and they, too, served with distinction. The noble Lord will know that the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place has been investigating a range of public appointments and standards in public life for over a year. It is due to report shortly. The Government are awaiting its report before they announce further action.
My Lords, the Government appreciate Sir Alistair Graham’s work; that is recognised in the letters exchanged on his imminent departure. I have no doubt that these points will be made public in the fullness of time. Certainly, Sir Alistair served in the post well, as did his predecessors.
My Lords, I agree entirely with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and having worked with Sir Alistair I have nothing but the highest regard for his probity and independence of spirit. Will the Minister confirm or deny reports to which he has alluded that the Government’s decision is part of a wider plan to amalgamate the Nolan committee with, among others, the Appointments Commission and the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments? If that is so, a number of your Lordships would regard it as a very retrograde step.
My Lords, what is the Minister’s reaction to Sir Alistair’s statement in his letter to the Cabinet Secretary earlier this month to the effect that the Prime Minister’s failure promptly to appoint Sir Alistair’s successor,
“risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life”?
My Lords, any such criticism would be unfair. However, we would certainly be open to criticism among Members in the other place and noble Lords if the Government were to act and take decisions about the future before the Select Committee had produced its recommendations.
My Lords, has the Minister seen the latest international report on supposed corruption in British public life? Does he agree with the conclusions of that report that the United Kingdom is almost entirely free of corruption in political life? Does he agree, too, that the successor to Sir Alistair, whoever he or she may be, ought to try to avoid briefing journalists apparently to the contrary? Finally, does he agree that as the Liberal Democrats’ main donor at the last election is in prison, perhaps the noble Lord opposite and his colleagues should work out how to return the £2.5 million that he gave them instead of lecturing the rest of us?
My Lords, I shall ignore that last remark, but I am grateful to my noble friend for putting things into perspective. Of course we should strive to follow the highest standards in public life, and all of us are committed to doing so. But we should recognise that this country can hold its head high in comparison with most other political systems in its freedom from corruption and the general standards in public life. I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding the House of that fact.
My Lords, following the remarks, which have already been quoted, from the retiring chairman about the absence of ethics and the lack of trust at the centre of British public life, has the Minister also noted his recommendation that a Civil Service Bill should be enacted that does not require to attend the report from the Commons committee to which he referred? Sir Alistair regarded that as central to providing a clear and explicit basis to guide the behaviour of civil servants and Ministers. It is long overdue and, according to Sir Alistair, only the lack of political will is holding it up.
My Lords, I note, as the House does, Sir Alistair’s views. However, most of his recommendations related to the discrete work of the committee, its inquiries and conclusions. Noble Lords should therefore look on some of his other comments rather more as a personal stance on these matters than as the views of his committee duly arrived at. But the noble Lord is in good company when he stresses that a Civil Service Act would contribute to some of these issues. Nevertheless, a Civil Service Bill is very difficult to draft.
My Lords, perhaps I can advise my noble friend. He will not be aware that, about 20 years ago, I sat with Sir Alistair Graham on the general council of the TUC. I am very pleased to hear my noble friend commend Sir Alistair’s work on behalf of the Government since then. However, does he agree that perhaps more than enough mischief has been caused by the press in this matter, given that Sir Alistair has been treated the same as his predecessors?
My Lords, my noble friend should not assume my ignorance about trade union relationships over the past 20 or 30 years; I assure him that I was all too well aware of his close relationship with Sir Alistair in those terms. But my noble friend has a significant point: we need to keep these matters in balance. When issues are under serious investigation, we must await the outcome of those investigations. I assure the House that the Government look forward, as we all do, to the deliberations of the widely respected Public Administration Select Committee. It will undoubtedly conclude its deliberations in time for the changes necessary to improve the standards of public life to be effected at the top of government.
Business of the House: Standing Order 47
My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The purpose of this Motion is to allow the House to consider all stages of the Northern Ireland Bill to be introduced in the other place later today. Provided that the other place does not amend the Bill, it will not be reprinted when it arrives in this House. The Second Reading will be taken shortly after the Bill arrives, probably at around 7 pm. I hope that this will allow enough time for the completion of the Committee stage of the Serious Crime Bill, but if necessary the stage will be interrupted at a convenient moment. The speakers list for the Second Reading is already open in the Government Whips’ Office.
At the end of the Second Reading there will be a short adjournment in case any Member wishes to table an amendment. The Public Bill Office will accept amendments as soon as the Bill is introduced in the other place. The remaining stages will then be taken, followed by Royal Assent, which must be achieved before midnight. The exact timings for the Bill will be shown on the Annunciators.
In order to accommodate the Bill, the three Defra orders that were scheduled for the dinner break tonight have been moved to last business tomorrow. I am sorry for any inconvenience caused to noble Lords interested in those orders. I beg to move.
Moved, That Standing Order 47 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to allow the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill to be taken through all its stages today.—(Baroness Amos.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Climate Change Bill: Joint Committee
My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider and report on the draft Climate Change Bill presented to both Houses on 13 March 2007 (Cm 7040) and that the committee should report on the draft Bill by 13 July.—(Baroness Amos.)
On Question, Motion agreed to; and a message was sent to the Commons.
Tourist Boards (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2007
Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the two Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft orders laid before the House on 30 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 20 March.—(Baroness Morgan of Drefelin.)
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20 February be approved. 10th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 20 March.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (Renewal of Temporary Provisions) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee, Considered in Grand Committee on 20 March.—(Lord Rooker.)
rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House, having regard to the changed circumstances which render reverse discrimination counter-productive, declines to approve the draft order”.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order renews for a further three years the temporary provisions on recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. These provisions are commonly known as the 50:50 recruitment arrangements and seek to ensure that recruitment to the police service comprises 50 per cent persons from the Catholic community and 50 per cent non-Catholics. Because applications to the police service in recent years have predominantly been from persons of a Protestant background, the legislation has discriminated against persons from that background. This is sometimes referred to as positive discrimination, for the object of the legislation is to increase the Catholic percentage in the police service. This is a desirable objective and I make it absolutely clear that I, and others who may speak to the measure, are entirely in favour of it. That has always been the position, right from 1922 when the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, arranged to reserve one-third of places in the police service for Catholics. Unfortunately, that was never achieved due to circumstances beyond his control or that of any Administration in the intervening period, but the objective is generally supported.
However, what is not supported is the method that has been used, because it involves discrimination against people. As I said, the term “positive” is used. Discrimination is always positive for those who benefit from it and always negative for those who suffer from it. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, there is no distinction between one form of discrimination and another. But the amendment does not focus on that issue. I should like your Lordships to focus on the “changed circumstances” mentioned in it. I shall explain what those are. I am not referring to the events of yesterday or the decision, which I expected, by the Democratic Unionist Party to enter into an Administration with Sinn Fein. I refer to the decision by the republican movement, formally taken in January although signalled long in advance, whereby it dropped its objections to the police service and formally committed itself to support the present police service and policing and the legal system generally. That is a very significant step. Some folk expressed reservations about whether republicans had moved far and fast enough. In that sense yesterday’s events are significant, because I am quite sure that they will reinforce the decision of republicans to support the police and help further to change the atmosphere.
In the Northern Ireland target population from which the police are recruited—young persons from 18 to 25—there is broad equality in numbers of Catholics and Protestants. It varies slightly from one year to another but we need not go into that. If there were equal participation from both communities, you would get rough equality in appointments. Up until now there has not been equal participation, but that is changing. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, brought to our attention the fact that in the previous competition for applicants to the police service, which I believe took place in September last year, 41 per cent of applicants were from a Catholic background. That was the highest figure achieved so far and, as he said, the figure is rising.
Given the decision of the republican movement to support policing, it is expected that that figure will rise further. Indeed, there is reason to believe that because a significant number of young people with a Catholic background have been dissuaded from applying because of republican hostility to policing, there is a strong probability that there will be a surge in recruits from a Catholic background.
If that happens—and that strong probability should be taken into account—we could have within a short period, perhaps in a matter of months or a bit longer, a situation in which more than 50 per cent of applicants to join the police were from a Catholic background. If that happens, then the 50:50 provisions specified in the order, which hitherto have penalised those from a Protestant background, will start to penalise those from a Catholic background and will slow down the achievement of the Government’s objective, which is to achieve 30 per cent Catholic membership of the police service. I would have thought that it was in the interests of the Government to reach that target sooner rather than later and to do that in a way that minimised any upset, disappointment and hurt that people might feel as a result of discrimination. One can only imagine what the reaction will be within the nationalist community in Northern Ireland when it discovers that provisions that it thought were to its advantage work to its disadvantage.
During the debate in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did not dissent from the basic analysis that I have presented. He said that he expected that the majority of applicants would soon be from a Catholic background. At one stage he said in reply to me:
“The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is absolutely right—two seconds before he raised the point, I satisfied myself on the answer—that if the proportion of applicants is 41 per cent, the highest it has been, and rising, it will not be long before it is more than 50 per cent. I will then make the same speech to members of the other community supporting the 50:50 in order to achieve the policy objective as I must make today. The same situation will apply; there cannot be any difference”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 176.]
I confess that I find that response perverse if the objective is to increase the Catholic percentage to 30 per cent—and the sooner that that happens the better. I would have thought that the Government should take this matter into account.
If my analysis is correct, the proper course might be not to approve this order. If the Government want to be more cautious in their approach, it has been suggested to them that they drop this order, which provides for arrangements to last for three years, and bring forward an order that would continue the current recruitment arrangements for a further year—and during that year they could examine circumstances and developments to see what happens. There is an argument for proceeding in that way.
Obviously, in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was not in a position to change these matters, because that would require a policy decision by the Secretary of State. I know that the Secretary of State has had a few other matters on his plate in the past few days, but I hope that he has had the opportunity to consider this matter and that he is in a position to respond to this situation. As I said, I am not arguing against the scheme as a whole; it is a question of what is likely to happen in the near future and how best to achieve the Government’s objective. It would be best if that objective were achieved with as little discrimination as possible. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House, having regard to the changed circumstances which render reverse discrimination counter-productive, declines to approve the draft order”.—(Lord Trimble.)
My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and thank the Minister for his patience. We had a long debate in Grand Committee. He understood clearly where the arguments were coming from and why they were being put. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, indicated, we have had discussions today between the parties and the Minister outside this Chamber.
There are three pertinent issues. The first is that we are at the mercy of this appalling method of trying to manage Northern Ireland affairs, given that it has to be done by statutory instrument. The Minister does not have the power today to amend a statutory instrument—for example, from three years to one year—nor was he able to give a commitment in Grand Committee to do that. I understand that the Secretary of State, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, might have had a couple of jobs to do since Monday or even since Thursday last week, but it is most unfortunate that the rules of this House do not allow for the amendment of statutory instruments at any time.
Later we shall talk more of this historic day or the historic day that we are approaching, but I make one final point. Noble Lords will know that I, like others, live in Northern Ireland, and at the moment the community there is unsure and hesitant about where the future will take it. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, made the argument well. As leaders of the community, in whatever shape or form, we have to try to create a feeling of, “It's going to be okay; we are there, and we are going to go forward”.
One thing that really burns holes in people is government legislation, such as this, that continues to set in stone such a division. To continue to operate a law such as this 50:50 recruitment is a complete anathema. It is against human relations, against professionalism, and against everything that is just and right in a free society. Ultimately, when it comes to the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, it becomes totally ridiculous. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, said that she already had numbers of Catholic families complaining to her that it is working against the Roman Catholic and the nationalist community as much as it is against anyone else. In our opinion, this legislation, which the Government wish to enshrine for yet another three years, is totally unnecessarily and is already working against both the Protestant community and the nationalist community. I beg the Government to find a better way.
My Lords, I, too, echo what the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has said and some of what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has said, although I do not go all the way with him. The Patten proposal for 50:50 recruitment was important as a means of inducing a necessary balance in police recruitment. There is no doubt about that and we supported it every time it came before the House. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has pointed out, quite considerable progress has been made, which is all to the good, and a further three-year extension of the 50:50 provision now seems excessive. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, implied, it would have been useful to have discussions on this had the Government decided to investigate it before the order was drafted. It is a great pity that that did not happen. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, we are where we are. We too would have preferred a one-year extension, renewable if necessary on an annual basis, but three years seems altogether excessive. We shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, if he presses it.
My Lords, yesterday, 11 young potential leaders, Protestant and Catholic, from Northern Ireland, came to look round Westminster. When I had them on my own, they said that this kind of discrimination did not work. On one side, young Catholics were saying that they had friends who would like to apply to join the police but could not because it was oversubscribed, and on the other side were the Protestants. Like many in the House, I believe that people should get jobs on merit. As I said in Committee, I do not understand why the two derogations in European law are for the police and education—the two pillars on which we would hope to build.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. If the Government have to think, a year is sufficient. There is already a big interest in both communities in joining the police force, which can only be for the good. It sort of tinges it a bit when you read that positive discrimination got you your job.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity of this short debate, if only to put some of the figures on the record and, I hope, dispel one or two myths surrounding the policy, although I understand why the speeches we have just heard have been made. I know—if I did not know before from both the recent debate in Grand Committee and the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Laird, about a year ago—of the principled misgivings about the measure.
However, when the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, led by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, made its report, it reflected the principles of the Belfast agreement that the Police Service of Northern Ireland should be representative of the society that it polices. The report pointed out in paragraph 14.2 that,
“real community policing is impossible if the composition of the police service bears little relationship to the composition of the community as a whole”.
In paragraph 14.3, it went on:
“If all communities see the police as their police, there will be a better, cooperative partnership between community and police, and therefore more effective policing”.
The report highlighted the imbalance between the number of Catholics and Protestants as “the most striking problem” in the composition of the police, above issues of gender and ethnic minority representation, which the commission acknowledged were important. The report recommended the recruitment of Protestants and Catholics—or, more correctly, Catholics and non-Catholics—on an equal basis as an exceptional measure to try to provide a more representative police service within a reasonable timeframe.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary was, by any stretch of the imagination, a fine police service with many attributes to which I am glad to pay tribute. Despite much effort, however, it was not representative of the community: only 8.3 per cent of regular officers were from the Roman Catholic community. I recognise that the temporary provisions remain an anathema, but I want to be clear on the extent to which positive discrimination has prevented some young non-Catholics from joining the police service. While a number of young candidates have indeed not been appointed due to the temporary 50:50 provisions, the vast majority of unsuccessful applicants are failing to be appointed simply because the demand to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland is so high.
In the first 12 competitions, which stretched over six years, there were over 46,000 applications from non-Catholics, of which only 708 will have been rejected as a direct result of the temporary provisions. I emphasise that: less than 2 per cent of all non-Catholic applications have been rejected as a direct result of the 50:50 provisions. The total figures are that, since the provisions were brought in, 73,000 applications have been received to join a police service that has around 7,500 officers. I have chosen the eighth campaign, in September 2004, to illustrate the point, although I could give all the figures separately. Of the 5,695 applicants, 35 per cent of whom were Catholic, over 1,100 got through all stages of the process. Obviously, not all applications have the merit to get through to the final stage, where they qualify to be appointed a UK police officer under UK rules. There were only 220 jobs available because there are 440 jobs a year in two groups of 220. With 1,100 out of 5,600 applicants getting through and only 220 jobs available, the real reason why the vast majority of qualified applicants from both communities did not get a job was the scale of the numbers applying, not the policy implementation of the 50:50 provisions.
That is a reason we can be proud of, even if it is temporary. It shows that confidence in the policing structures is rising and that there is a new generation of young men and women who are committed to entering a career in the service. Over this period, some 2,500 officers have been appointed, which is more or less a third of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If noble Lords are in Northern Ireland and the opportunity arises, they should visit the police college and see at first hand the calibre of these people. The Oversight Commissioner, who was appointed to oversee the implementation of the Patten report, has acknowledged that the recruitment campaign has been a success and has provided the police service with the opportunity to select only the most highly qualified recruits, which is an enviable position for any police organisation in today’s competitive labour market.
We believe that the temporary provisions are justified to correct the acute historic imbalance in the composition of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, I want to assure noble Lords that the provisions will not stay in place a day longer than necessary and I hope and expect that this will be the last occasion on which we will have to consider the renewal of this policy. The object of the policy is to get Catholic representation in the Police Service of Northern Ireland to 30 per cent by about March 2011. This order renews the provisions for only three years, and we hope and expect it to be the last one.
We are on course to achieve the percentage. In less than six years under the 50:50 temporary provisions, Catholic composition among regular officers has risen from 8.3 per cent to 21.4 per cent. At the same time, female composition, which has not been the subject of positive discrimination as a policy objective, has, as a by-product, risen from 13 per cent to more than 21 per cent.
I have looked at the demographics, as I have been challenged on this. A fixed number of recruits come in each year—440—and there are currently 7,557 officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We know the age structure of the input populations, but we cannot be certain about which applicants will qualify—not all of them will. It is clear from our analysis that, if we abandoned this policy now, we would not achieve our aim of increasing the Catholic proportion to 30 per cent.
There is no doubt that immense political progress has been made and the distance that we have travelled should not be underestimated, although I do not think that anybody here is doing that. Sinn Fein’s commitment to policing and its calls for republicans to join the police and the structures associated with it, to report crime and to come forward with information are welcome, but we have some way to go—as can be seen with the 21 per cent figure before we have a police service that is representative of the community that it serves.
I realise that some noble Lords believe that the new political dispensation will lead to a natural rise in the Catholic composition. That is undoubtedly so: 41 per cent is the highest of all the competitions. The proportions have ranged from 34 per cent to 41 per cent over the period, up from 36 per cent previously. But we cannot guarantee that we will achieve 30 per cent in a reasonable timescale as envisaged by the Patten report.
In view of the issue, we have looked at how the situation can be addressed. The current renewal order ends tomorrow, 28 March. We are constrained by that fact and face two choices: we either renew the policy today or it ends forthwith. There is no middle ground for us to consider at present. I understand the annoyance about that.
In terms of transparency and accountability, and given the recent momentous events, which we will discuss in more detail later today, it is important that we continue to monitor applications and appointments and see how the composition is affected by the applicants and how they get through the system. Therefore, I am prepared to give an undertaking—and I have discussed this with ministerial colleagues—that we will return to the House on an annual basis and report on the progress achieved.
If things start to change, we will have to monitor the issue in a transparent and open way and discuss it. The object of the exercise, which is why the temporary policy is there, is to get the Catholic population in the police service to 30 per cent and then stop the policy. That has always been the situation, as was known from the day it started after the Patten report was accepted. We can offer more monitoring—we can offer monitoring on a weekly basis with Parliamentary Questions—but we will come specifically to the House to report on the progress that has been achieved.
I suspect that we will be doing a lot more by 8 May next year, in looking at what has happened in the first year of devolution, because there will be the issue of devolution of the criminal justice system and, indeed, of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to the Government of Northern Ireland. Therefore, this will be an element of that reconsideration. We are more than happy to come to the House and report on what has been achieved one year from now.
That being so, I sincerely ask the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, not to press his amendment. He envisages a hypothetical situation, which I cannot deny may happen—clearly, no one can. But we have a policy that is clearly working, as one can see how the population of the police service has changed in a systematic way. That is happening not by accident but because of the policy. Other issues that arise because the climate in Northern Ireland has changed may in turn cause major changes in the figures. If that happens, we will review and adjust the situation and report back to the House. In the mean time, this temporary policy is delivering on the objective, and we must all support that objective.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he has said, but before he sits down I want to clear one question out of the way, which could be rather unpleasant—it sounds to me from the statistics and where we are now that it might be. Are we keeping 50:50 because we do not have confidence in the quality of applicant coming from the nationalist community?
My Lords, I am not casting aspersions on the noble Lord, but nobody who has been appointed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the past six years has failed to be appointed on merit. All have gone through on merit and have qualified as United Kingdom police officers. They have all got through the bar into the pool. I quoted the eighth competition with 5,695 applicants. That was not big. The 11th competition had 7,861 applicants for 220 posts. That is the scale of the applications. Therefore, it can clearly be seen that everyone who has been appointed as a police officer has got through the merit bar.
I am not saying that, once they have got through the bar, some will not be higher than others, but the fact is that they have all got through the bar and been chosen on the 50:50 basis from the highest compartment of Catholics and non-Catholics. I am not denying—no one can—the two bars. The level is the same but, above the bar, there may be more people above a certain level than others on the 50:50. But the fact is that nobody from the Catholic community has been appointed who is not qualified to be a United Kingdom police officer. Neither will they be.
My Lords, I will not try to respond to everything that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said, because some of what he said is not relevant to the issue before us. The total number of applicants and the total number of disappointed persons are not relevant. What might be relevant peripherally is the number of people who have been discriminated against, which the noble Lord concedes is 708. That figure of 708 matters, no matter what the context; any number would matter, no matter what the context.
However, there is one thing in the background on which I have to take issue with the noble Lord. He said that the Patten recommendations reflected what was in the Belfast agreement in 1998. I am sorry, but that is not the case. Nowhere in the report was there a recommendation that discrimination be adopted. There was, however—this was in Patten as well—clearly an obligation placed on all sections of society to encourage people to join the police and to remove obstacles to people joining the police. Had that duty being implemented across the board in Northern Ireland, we would have had equal participation, in the number of applicants, and equal appointments, in broad terms. The Patten recommendations that involved discrimination were put forward only because certain community and political leaders failed to discharge their obligations to remove obstacles and to encourage people to join. I hope that that has now changed—that is the changed situation to which I am referring.
The noble Lord referred to the order ending tomorrow and said that that was a problem, but of course it is not. Recruitment is not continuous; a number of discrete competitions happen from time to time. I do not know when the next competition is coming, but I am sure that, if the Government had the will, they could drop the order and bring forward an amended order for one year only. They could do that in a very short time. It would require only a small amendment to the order to change the wording and I am sure that it would go through this House quickly. We would do everything to facilitate it going through. That could be done before the next competition. So the business about the order ending tomorrow is not relevant.
What is relevant is the noble Lord’s statement—I think that I am quoting him accurately—that,
“the provisions will not stay in place a day longer than necessary”.
My point is that we are rapidly reaching a position where we will get, through the normal course of operation—through equal participation by both sections of the community in applications for the police and through the process operating on merit—the numbers that the Minister wants. The numbers will be at least as good as, if not better than, the numbers currently being achieved. But the order puts the present arrangements in place for another three years. Three years is clearly more than a day longer than necessary. I am sure that it will prove to be so.
It is all very well for the Minister to offer an annual report, but how long after this measure starts to become counterproductive will we get that report, and how long after that will we see action? It would have been much better had the Minister taken up the suggestion that, as he knows, was made to him before today’s proceedings: that the order be dropped and an order brought forward to operate on an annual basis. That would be a much better way of proceeding.
In order to emphasise that point and to encourage the noble Lord to go that way, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Motion agreed to.
European Union (Information, etc.) Bill [HL]
Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.
Welfare Reform Bill
Read a third time.
Clause 11 [Work-focused health-related assessments]:
1: Clause 11 , page 9, line 25, leave out subsection (8) and insert—
“(8) In subsection (7), “health care professional” means—
(a) a registered medical practitioner, (b) a registered nurse, (c) an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 (c. 8), or (d) a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as may be prescribed.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 9. These amendments come following considerable debate in Grand Committee and on Report. Noble Lords were keen to amend the wording of the Bill to ensure that it includes a more specific definition of a healthcare professional. There are concerns that the existing definition is too broad and that unqualified people might therefore qualify as healthcare professionals and be allowed to carry out medical examinations.
During our previous discussions, there was strong cross-party agreement that we should use only appropriate and trained healthcare professionals to carry out such examinations. I can categorically state that we have no intention of doing otherwise and would want to use only healthcare professionals who are members of a regulated profession. I agree therefore that it is right to set out in the Bill that “healthcare professional” means only such healthcare professionals who are members of a regulated profession. The amendments achieve the effect proposed by noble Lords. I believe that this amendment provides the assurance noble Lords sought in relation to healthcare professionals. I beg to move.
My Lords, I like to think that I never make long speeches. Today I will be even briefer than usual in my one response to all the government amendments. However, my thanks to the Minister are no less sincere for that. I am extremely grateful for his willingness throughout the stages of the Bill to listen to our debates with an open mind. Amendments Nos. 1 to 9 describe “healthcare professional” in a better and fuller way than was originally in the Bill. In other words,
“Tis a far, far better thing”,
than you do now, and so on. I am also very glad that the Minister and his colleagues have come around to our way of thinking on contracting out. Government Amendments Nos. 2 to 7 ensure that all decisions relating to conditionality will remain under the control of Jobcentre Plus and will not be contracted out to private or non-governmental organisations.
Many of the debates have been concerned with what will be in the regulations that flow from the Bill, the important ones of which will be affirmative the first time around thanks to the activities of the Regulatory Reform Committee. I will watch these with an eagle eye, especially the parts concerned with good cause and the length of time given for showing it. I know that the Child Poverty Action Group has recently written to the Minister on this. I would be most grateful if he could give me further comfort on the subject, even at this late stage.
That said, I am also very pleased that we have been able to come to a mutually agreeable compromise on housing benefit sanctions. I have been unhappy about this clause from the start, but I am prepared to accept that it should be given a fair trial. I look forward to reading the reports of such pilot schemes as there are when they are produced. I am especially pleased that, as a result of Amendment No. 8, they can go nationwide only after further primary legislation.
Clearly, I can now look forward to the Minister’s co-operation in our next legislative encounter on pensions, with the expectation that he will be just as accommodating. Finally, I thank the Bill team and all the lobby groups who have provided so much information and assistance as this Bill has passed through the House.
My Lords, I am not sure whether we are following the groupings. I thank the Minister for this amendment, which I believe is in response to an amendment originally proposed by my noble friend. We are very grateful. My further remarks apply to the group after next, so I shall stick to the groupings list.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their support on these amendments. I will speak to the next two groups when we come to them shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked me to comment on matters relating to good cause and my recent correspondence from the Child Poverty Action Group. As he will acknowledge, during the passage of the Bill we have had considerable debate on the opportunity to show good cause in relation to conditionality. The principle of good cause for work-focused interviews is well established and must be considered by the Social Security Advisory Committee as part of the regulations relating to Pathways to Work.
As we have set out previously, the first use of regulations for work-related activity under Clause 13 will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. For the work-focused, health-related assessment, we are considering whether there should be a consistent approach to the period for showing good cause for a failure to participate, in line with the work-focused interview regulations. I will keep the noble Lord in touch with developments on that matter.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 16 [Contracting out]:
2: Clause 16, page 13, line 4, at end insert “, except the making of a decision to which subsection (2A) applies (an “excluded decision”)”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 3 to 7. These amendments give effect to my commitment on Report to remove from the Bill the ability to contract out decision-making leading to sanctions. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has already acknowledged this.
The amendments to Clause 16 achieve this by creating a category of excluded decisions and provide that regulations cannot allow these to be contracted out. The category of excluded decisions contains all the decisions that can lead to sanctions as well as decisions about the actual sanction itself. The amendment to Clause 26 is consequential to this. Having circumscribed the powers in Clause 16, it will no longer be possible to make regulations that allow the Secretary of State to authorise providers to undertake decisions leading to sanctions. The provision in Clause 26(1)(c) is therefore redundant because it refers to such types of regulations and makes them subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I believe that these amendments meet fully the concerns of noble Lords about contracting out and decision-making. I beg to move.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
3: Clause 16 , page 13, line 6, after second “decisions” insert “, except excluded decisions,”
4: Clause 16 , page 13, line 9, after “decisions” insert “, except excluded decisions,”
5: Clause 16 , page 13, line 14, leave out “mentioned in” and insert “falling within”
6: Clause 16 , page 13, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) This subsection applies to the following decisions—
(a) a decision about whether a person has failed to comply with a requirement imposed by regulations under section 11, 12 or 13; (b) a decision about whether a person had good cause for failure to comply with such a requirement; (c) a decision about reduction of an employment and support allowance in consequence of failure to comply with such a requirement.”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 26 [Parliamentary control]:
7: Clause 26 , page 19, line 18, leave out paragraph (c)
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 31 [Loss of housing benefit following eviction for anti-social behaviour, etc.]:
8: Clause 31 , page 26, line 17, at end insert—
“(3) The preceding provisions of this section have no effect after 31st December 2010.
(4) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument make such provision as he thinks necessary or expedient in consequence of the operation of subsection (3) for the purpose of securing that, with effect from 1st January 2011, housing benefit to which a person who is a former occupier (within the meaning of section 130B of the Contributions and Benefits Act) is entitled is not subject to any restriction as mentioned in subsection (4) of that section.”
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we accepted that the assurances we had given about the degree of parliamentary scrutiny which would be necessary for a national roll-out of the housing benefit sanction following eviction for anti-social behaviour have not been enough to allay the concerns expressed in this House and the other place. However, it remains our intention to pilot the use of a housing benefit sanction as an incentive to households evicted for anti-social behaviour to take up offers of rehabilitation and support in order to address the causes of their problem behaviour. We therefore propose in Amendment No. 8 to insert a sunset clause. The effect is that we will be able to go ahead with piloting the sanction to ensure that it works as we intend and that there are no unforeseen consequences for vulnerable groups. The amendment will also ensure that for there to be a scheme in place after 31 December 2010, further primary legislation will be required. We have said that we intend to pilot for two years, and two years only, starting as soon as is practicable. The end date for the pilots will be set out in regulations. I beg to move.
My Lords, since we are talking about regulations, perhaps this is the moment for me to ask a question that arises as a result of the Minister’s welcome announcement on Report. The change in the permitted work rules that now allows those on the income-related strand of ESA to earn up to £86 a week for 52 weeks is very welcome, as these people are fully passported on to housing and council tax benefits, so the tapers do not apply. However, it appears that those on the contributory strand of ESA who are also on housing and council tax benefits, which are of course means-tested, are still to be subject to the existing tapers and thus their housing cost benefits could be reduced quite significantly. Can the Minister confirm that he and his colleagues will consult before the regulations are drawn up just to ensure that there are no unforeseen consequences as a result of this most welcome change?
My Lords, I support my noble friend in what she has said and add my commendations and congratulations to the Minister and the Bill team for listening to the arguments and being so accommodating. During the passage of the Bill a good number of the points so powerfully put from Benches other than the Government Benches have been well recognised. That is understood and all sides are grateful for that consideration.
My noble friend raises a point that I can set in a more general context. The David Freud report, which is an interesting piece of work, has come a little too late to feature as prominently as perhaps it should. It deals with substantially the same subject area as is contained in the Bill, which is now being read for a third and final time. My plea would be that consultation be maintained between the Government, both Houses and the stakeholders outside this place in order to try to clarify some of the issues my noble friend mentioned, such as the difference between contributory ESA and means-tested ESA. There is a wider dimension to that in Schedule 3, which derives from the different treatment means-tested and contributory benefits have had historically. There are some inelegancies there. However, the benefit simplification team will be considering the David Freud report, going forward. Once the Bill is put to bed and the regulations come through, I hope the Minister is willing to keep as open a mind at that stage.
We all look forward with confidence to getting these systems right, because this is a very important piece of legislation. I am sure all sides of the House wish it well. If the Government can continue with the positive engagement with the stakeholders and both Houses of Parliament, that will augur well for the development of our systems in future.
My Lords, now that the Minister has moved all the government amendments, I thank him and the Bill team for what they have done. I shall put a slightly different complexion on it from that of my noble friend, who has recently come from the Commons. When I reported back to my Commons colleagues on the effect of our scrutiny in this place—the vote that we won and the other amendments that the Government accepted—they said, “That’s absolutely marvellous. When can we join the Lords? What arguments did you use to persuade them?”. I said, “Basically the same ones you used in the Commons. The difference is that here they have to listen to us because no party has an overall majority”. That is an interesting reflection on the way business is done in the two Houses.
I thank the Minister, as I did at an earlier stage, for his approach to the Bill. I believe we have improved the Bill. Again I thank the Bill team, which has done very well. But why, oh why, did we have to go so far and for so long in the other place, only to finally change the Bill here? Please can there be a little more liaison between government Ministers in the two places? That would save us some time in this House. I am sure we have ended up with a better Bill than when it started.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the concession he made, which from my perspective will make life a great deal easier—at least for 12 months. It will encourage our people to get going and become involved in small amounts of work.
Without wishing to seem churlish, I wonder whether there is any possibility of some kind of flexibility at the end of that 12-month period, perhaps by starting a period again. I can see the value of having some form of cut-off at which point one might really be putting some pressure on people to get into work, but I can envisage, without any difficulty, a number of people who would clearly be just about managing until that point, but would be some way yet from being able to get into what we would call open employment. I feel that the detriment of the sudden ending of this provision without any kind of flexibility could be very unhelpful, and I would be interested to know what the Minister has to say about that.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to our mini-discussion at the end of the Bill’s progress. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to the David Freud report. As we have put on the record previously, we see that as a substantial piece of work, and the Government are committed to responding to it before the summer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, talked about flexibility after 12 months with regard to the permitted work rules. It is an interesting point and we will take it away. There are always judgments to be made about work incentives as well as trying to encourage people closer to the workplace. We will certainly reflect on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, reminded us of the arithmetic at this end of Parliament. One other feature is that we tend not to shout at each other too much at this end, which is a very constructive approach.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, spoke about housing benefit and council tax benefit in relation to alignment of the permitted work rules. The extension of the permitted work rules means that people on income-related ESA will be able to earn up to £86 a week without their housing benefit being affected. That means that customers in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit will continue to receive their full eligible benefit rather than it being reduced if their income-related benefit stops, as happens under the current rules.
The position of people receiving contributory ESA will be no different from that of those claiming incapacity benefit now; we have not changed that. Where their earnings exceed £20 a week, housing benefit is reduced by 65p in the pound and council benefit by 20p in the pound. We believe it is reasonable that people who receive contributory benefits should be treated in the same way as any other person claiming housing benefit who is in work. Income levels are the key: people on contributory benefit who also meet low income tests will also be eligible for housing benefit. We have made no final decisions yet on the amount of the ESA benefit rate. As in other areas, we will consult key stakeholders about the implications for ESA customers of the changes in the permitted work rules.
I should like to take this opportunity of thanking noble Lords for the courtesy they have shown me and my noble friend Lady Morgan; this has been our first DWP Bill, and the first of several this Session. I hope that we will continue to have a constructive debate on future Bills. I acknowledge that the constructive and positive debate we have had on these reforms will make a real difference to the lives of millions of people. The process has had significant commitment from Opposition Front-Bench Members, for which I thank them, as well as the passionate and knowledgeable engagement of Cross-Bench Members. I look forward to an equally constructive arrangement on the Pensions Bill.
It was believed that reforming incapacity benefits would always be contentious and hard fought, so it is important to recognise the work that has been done in building proposals that are right for the nation and that we can all support. Through the passage of this Bill the Government have listened to the concerns of the House and of the many organisations that have made representations to them. We have taken many of these concerns on board and can feel proud that the reforms now meet our shared aims and represent real progress in an important area. I thank all noble Lords for that.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 62 [Northern Ireland]:
9: Clause 62 , page 48, leave out lines 3 to 5 and insert—
““health care professional” means—
(a) a registered medical practitioner, (b) a registered nurse, (c) an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 (c. 8), or (d) a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as the Secretary of State may prescribe.”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Serious Crime Bill [HL]
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]
Schedule 6 [Data matching]:
I advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 115 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 116 or 116A.
115: Schedule 6, page 68, leave out lines 12 to 21
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 116 and 117 as well. As has been remarked, if I had been minded to press the first amendment in the group, I then could not have addressed the other two. This reflects the complexity of this group. I would have preferred to assist Members of the Committee by unpacking it but I found it impossible to do so in Committee, where it is important to have a rounded debate on substantial issues. Therefore, as I remarked to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, earlier today, I treat this very much as a probing exercise at this stage, but, because these are contentious issues—perhaps the most contentious in Part 3—I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response and consider how the amendments should be brought back on Report. The overall objective of this small but powerful group of amendments is to limit data-matching to serious crime, but it would substantially restrain an overweening power given to the Secretary of State to extend the purposes for which data-matching may take place.
At present, data-matching may be conducted only for the prevention and detection of fraud. That is achieved by the drafting of new Section 32A(3) in Schedule 6(2). It would amend Section 18 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. However, the same schedule inserts new Section 32G, entitled “Powers of Secretary of State”, which confers on the Secretary of State a power to extend the purposes for which data-matching may be conducted. Those powers can be extended by statutory instrument subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
The Bill provides by way of illustration a non-exhaustive, broad list of additional purposes. It includes prevention and detection of all crime—with no restriction at all—the apprehension and prosecution of offenders and the recovery of debts owed to public authorities. The schedule therefore appears to give the Secretary of State an open-sesame password for extensive and possibly objectionable powers in the future. Our amendments would restrict those powers and ask the Government to justify their attempts to future-proof the Bill in this way, because it leaves the system open to abuse and could result in the inappropriate invasion of individuals’ privacy. The schedule effectively says, “Well, so far, we’ve thought of taking more powers in this way, but we won’t guarantee that we’ll stop there. Give us the powers to do as we please in the future”. That seems extraordinarily broad. As we have said repeatedly during our debates on the Bill, it is important to make the best use of modern data systems to detect or prevent fraud. However, we have serious reservations about the detail of the privacy implications of Part 3.
I suspect that the Minister’s full and informative answers on Part 3 so far will persuade us that we need to bring back only a small number of amendments for further elucidation. The noble Baroness said that she would write to noble Lords to answer those questions that we have not had time to address. However, we are approaching the core differences between us on Part 3.
Amendment No. 115 would restrict the use of data-matching to fraud by removing subsections (1) and (2) of new Section 32G, which provide the Secretary of State with the power to extend the purpose for which data-matching can be undertaken by increasing the involvement of private bodies in data-matching exercises and amending the Data Protection Act 1998. New subsection (2) provides the non-exhaustive list of additional purposes.
Amendment No. 116 would insert a new subsection to prevent the Secretary of State expanding the use of data-matching to include assisting the recovery of debt incurred as a result of serious crime. Amendment No. 117 would remove new Section 32G(3).
We are concerned at how the provisions of this part of the schedule could be used in the future. For example, will the Minister explain how the Bill would guarantee that the national identity register could not be used for data-mining or data-matching purposes, except in cases of serious crime? The Minister will recall our extensive debates on the Identity Cards Bill and her assurances regarding the use of the NIR where serious crime was involved.
When I looked at the Bill, I could not easily see the guarantee that I seek. My noble friend Lord Henley asked the Minister questions from another angle about the national identity register when he moved Amendment No. 110B last night, but he does not recall her answering those questions. I looked at Hansard this morning and did not find an answer, although it may be an issue on which she intended to write to my noble friend. However, today I seek guidance on where in the Bill I might find the guarantee that the information that is to be opened up to data-matching and data-mining by these provisions would not include the national identity register.
It is far from clear that any assertion that data-matching can prevent fraud is justification itself for the extensive powers in Schedule 6. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee pointed out in its report that it felt that the Government failed to justify fully the need for this power of modification in their Explanatory Memorandum. I would be grateful if the Minister could today provide that fuller justification that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee obviously felt should have been provided.
In this part of the Bill there is a strong case for saying that any changes by order are not appropriate and that we should seek to extend purposes only by way of primary legislation. Noble Lords have just seen a prime example of the limitations on this House in dealing with a statutory instrument. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, moved what would have been a fatal Motion on Northern Ireland matters. I am not commenting on that; I abstained in that regard. The Minister will be aware that it is extraordinarily rare for my noble friends to vote on a whipped vote to kill a statutory instrument, which cannot be amended but only rejected. Of course, there may be free votes, but I have not taken part in the 10 years that I have been here in a whipped vote to kill a statutory instrument. It is so rare that when the Criminal Justice Act went through, the Minister will remember, the Government gave a specific assurance that, if a statutory instrument were brought forward to enable the abolition of jury trial in serious fraud cases, the Government would accept that my noble friends might well choose to vote down that statutory instrument.
It is not sufficient for the Government to say that there is an affirmative process. In some circumstances, with matters of constitutional importance, one may of course vote, but they are so rare that it is important always to see whether the procedure is appropriate. In this case, unless we have acceptable assurances—at the moment I cannot see how they might be—changes to extend the Secretary of State’s purposes, adding matters to the schedule, should be by primary legislation not statutory instrument. I beg to move.
As we come to the close of the Committee stage—not quite yet, but we are getting there—it is about time that I put on record my gratitude to the Minister of State and her noble friend for the full, detailed and courteous way in which they have handled these matters. That is one of the joys of this place, when one debates such matters. This is a serious Bill for serious crime—I apologise for the cliché, but it is an important Bill, and I understand what the Government are getting at. It is our job to try to redress the balance between the state and the private individual. Having said that, proceedings in this place seem so much more constructive, and there is an element of give and take that has been for some years rather absent in another place.
My name and that of my noble friend Lord Dholakia are attached to Amendment No. 115, which has already been covered extremely competently by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and on which we have had discussions and briefings from Liberty. It would require Parliament to pass primary legislation to add further purposes for which data-matching or mining may be undertaken. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, the reasons for such provision have been demonstrated. At present, the only purposes for which data-matching may be conducted are the prevention and detection of fraud. The Bill would, however, also confer a power on the Secretary of State to extend the purposes for which data-mining may be conducted. It also provides a non-exhaustive list of additional purposes including,
“the prevention and detection of crime … the apprehension and prosecution of offenders … the recovery of debt owing to public bodies”.
Data-mining may help to detect fraud and may also have benefits in relation to those other purposes. Nevertheless, as we have discussed and I have mentioned, it is far from clear that those benefits are sufficient to justify the sweeping invasions of privacy that indiscriminate data-sharing and data-mining inevitably involve. Given the serious privacy implications, it is important that Parliament retain strong powers to control the purposes for which data mining may be conducted. The Bill provides that any order to extend the purposes for which data-mining may be conducted would have to be approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. We do not consider that sufficient in this context because of the limited time that is usually allowed to debate draft orders and particularly because Parliament would not be able to amend such an order.
The Government could, for example, propose that the following extra purposes be added: first, detection of serious crime; secondly, preventing terrorism; and, thirdly, identifying people who might be interested in taking part in a No. 10 policy forum. Parliament may agree that purposes one and two justify the invasion of privacy and that data-mining is correct in those circumstances but that purpose three does not. However, Parliament would not be able to delete purpose three and would have to vote for all or nothing. That is perhaps rather an extreme example in my notes but it brings home the point made so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. I hope that the Minister will respond to the compelling points that we have raised.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for exploring the issues as they have. I absolutely accept that the noble Baroness is trying to achieve clarity in understanding better how the provisions will work and whether it will be possible to make inappropriate extensions contrary to that which we have already said. I understand that her proposal to remove new Section 32G should be read in that context.
Although the list given in new Section 32G(2)—
“to assist in the prevention and detection of crime (other than fraud) … to assist in the apprehension and prosecution of offenders … to assist in the recovery of debt owing to public bodies”—
is an illustration, I hope that it demonstrates the potential value of leaving open the possibility of extending the scope of the valuable tool provided by the national fraud initiative. I thank the noble Baroness for indicating that she accepts the value of that initiative. She and other noble Lords have made that clear throughout, so we are at one.
This effective tool for identifying irregularities through data matching could, for example, have a potential role in identifying convicted sex offenders who are working with vulnerable adults and children. The noble Baroness will know that the names of those working with children or vulnerable adults can be checked against the sex offenders register and List 99. However, current checks are expensive and not as effective as they should be. Given the comments made so often in this Chamber, I cannot imagine that any noble Lord would want to discard a potential method of identifying those working with vulnerable people who should have been prevented from doing so.
Of a different level of potential seriousness, but none the less important, the national fraud initiative should, subject to parliamentary approval, be allowed to help recover public debt from persons who have left without making payment or giving any forwarding address. I do not believe that we should close the doors to such possibilities now.
The national fraud initiative requires only a limited amount of information from each data set that is held by a body. It does not indiscriminately swallow vast amounts of personal data in a way which may cause prejudice to innocent people. Instead, it carefully matches only the relevant information which has the potential to uncover where fraud, or possibly in the future, other crimes or irregularities, may have occurred.
It should also be remembered that the power to add the new purposes will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure of both Houses. Of course, I hear what the noble Baroness says about that, but she and I have experienced this House’s increasing willingness to challenge, and its ability to do so when that is right and proper. I have never been slow to accept the reality of that position. One of the beauties of adding issues to the list by way of affirmative resolution is that the House has an opportunity to say “yea” or “nay” to such a change. The process is an increasingly powerful one and one which this House has not hesitated to take recently.
I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said—that this House, and increasingly the other place, are working hard together, particularly on these issues, to find sensible resolutions to problems. I have the happy advantage of having worked with the noble Baroness on so many Bills that they are too bountiful to recall, though some stand out with glowing memory. This is a very important safeguard, ensuring that any new purposes are appropriate and justified.
Amendment No. 116 offers an alternative to limiting these further purposes, which would extend the national fraud initiative powers beyond fraud only where it relates to the prevention and detection of serious offences as defined by Schedule 1 to the Serious Crime Act 2007.
Although it is certainly possible that data matching might assist in preventing and detecting these crimes, Schedule 1 does not set out an appropriate list by which to constrain the types of crime contemplated in extending the purposes of the national fraud initiative. Schedule 1 would not enable the commission to undertake data matching to identify where convicted sex offenders may have wrongfully gained employment working with vulnerable people. Nor would the commission be able to undertake data matching for the purpose of identifying the whereabouts of individuals who have absconded, leaving behind public sector debt, such as tenant rent-arrears owed to a local authority. Regrettably, the indications are that these sums are substantial.
It is important to remember not only what the national fraud initiative tool can do but also what it cannot do and what it is not. The Audit Commission has no intention or need to use this tool invasively to look into the lives of the law-abiding public or to extend this tool to private companies to collect debt owed by customers. The national fraud initiative is a flexible tool that could be adapted to serve the public interest—I emphasise, the public interest—not only in preventing and detecting fraud, as the Bill currently does, but in other areas, too, subject to Parliament’s future approval.
The noble Baroness mentioned the assurances we gave on the national identity register. Those hold true. The intention would be only to use the register to identify crime where a specific provision was made in the law introducing it, or where the Government had decided not to do so because its use would be voluntary. The Audit Commission would wish to use the register only for serious crime, in any event. I do not believe that there is any dissonance between the position that we explored when we discussed the national identity register and the current position.
The noble Baroness’s Amendment No. 117 would remove the power to add bodies subject to mandatory participation in the national fraud initiative. Currently, only bodies subject to audit and inspection by the Audit Commission are included on the mandatory list. Over time, reorganisations occur and governance and accountability can change at a local level. This clause allows the national fraud initiative to be flexible to such potential changes and, thereby, to keep pace with the developing ways in which criminals endeavour to take advantage of the public sector. Again, it should be noted that this power is subject to the affirmative procedure in both Houses.
I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, are concerned about the apparent elasticity in this clause, but I hope I have gone some way to explain why it is essential that the national fraud initiative has flexible and appropriate powers at its disposal.
The noble Baroness pressed me on the justification for the further extensions. I hope that I have been able to persuade her that we require a flexible tool that can be used where needed and can allow cross-border matching. For example, we cannot now match between northern England and southern Scotland, which leaves a loophole for fraudsters to exploit. I am confident that neither the noble Baroness nor the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, would wish that to continue.
On the identification of people who wish to take part in the policy forum, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, giving that purpose to the Audit Commission could not be justified. He does not need to worry about that.
I hope that I have said enough to reassure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that we do not need to return to these issues, but I accept that the noble Baroness will want to look carefully at what I have said, in addition to the issues that we explored in previous amendments. I accept that once she has done that, she may well wish to come back and hone any further amendments on Report. Before that, I would be very happy to discuss any of those issues with her, if she wished to do so.
I apologise for not being in the Committee when my noble friend moved her amendment. I had not intended to rise, except to say, as on previous occasions when we have debated these matters, that I wholly support what she said about the affirmative resolution procedure and the undesirability of giving extensive powers by such a route.
I am tempted to my feet by what the noble Baroness, in the course of her always helpful and thorough explanation, said about subsection (2). The clause raises a question about the use of the words “in particular”. The noble Baroness did not add clarity by saying that the clause sets out a number of items “by way of illustration”. I am not sure that we should have legislation “by way of illustration”. It seemed to me that her example of the convicted sex offender did not really add enlightenment. Surely, if the purpose is to assist in the prevention and detection of crime, other than fraud, the case of the convicted sex offender must already be covered. I ask myself, what is added? The same is true of her other example, the national fraud investigation review arrangements. Surely, that is covered by paragraph (c), which says,
“to assist in the recovery of debt owing to public bodies”.
I am rather puzzled by the inclusion of the words “in particular”. Surely we can be more straightforward than that and specify exactly what purposes may be added, particularly if they are to be added by way of the affirmative resolution procedure. I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain to me, a non-lawyer, in words of one syllable, exactly what we are gaining from this provision.
When the Minister was speaking about adding to Schedule 6 by way of an order, she defended that by saying that the House was increasingly emboldened to question orders. She suggested that, from time to time, the House might be very happy to kill an order. This afternoon we had a vote on a very important order, but the House did not approve the amendment, despite a considerable vote. In using orders for these very important purposes, are the Government really saying that they are quite happy for the House continually to question orders and to try to amend them? It seems to me that there could be a very uneconomical use of public time if the Moses Room was used for extensive discussion of an order and then there was another discussion in the Chamber on whether it lives or dies, with a rather unsatisfactory result. Are the Government really saying that they are quite happy for that to happen increasingly and often? I do not think I have heard a Minister say that before.
I wonder whether the Government realise just how worried people are about the identity register. The Minister has explained that it has a limited part in this Bill. I shall be interested to hear what my noble friend Lady Anelay says about that. Does the Minister realise that people are beginning to rumble what the identity register will mean and how it will operate. They have noticed that opinion is building up about that, which is making more people think about it. Are the Government being careful about this and do they realise that they are on delicate ground when they make it possible for the register to be used, for example, in this Bill?
First, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, that we are structuring these provisions carefully. She will see that safeguards in the Data Protection Act and other legislation are transferred and mirrored throughout the Bill in many ways.
Secondly, on affirmative resolution, I was certainly not exciting the Committee to become more rebellious; far from it. I know the sagacity and care with which the House of Lords scrutinises orders. I am suggesting that, to date, we have dealt with this consensually. Noble Lords have become accustomed to working in partnership, ensuring that issues can be agreed upon, often exploring them before they come before the House. When there is difficulty, with no consent or assent, it must be appropriate that we return to the affirmative resolution procedure to enable the House, if it is so minded, not only to challenge and explore the orders, but to—and I still invite the Committee to say “in extremis”—defeat them.
The noble Baroness’s experience in the House is far longer than and superior to mine, but she has probably experienced, as have I, occasions when an order has been debated and it has been decided, with great wisdom, that it would perhaps be preferable to withdraw it and bring it back another day in a manner with which noble Lords are content. That is how we do business here, a model increasingly being adopted elsewhere. I am by no means inviting her to construe my words as an opportunity for open rebellion.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, asks why we need the flexibility. My examples illustrated the breadth and nature of the issues currently in the list. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, framed her amendments to remove those because she wished to test what would be included or what might be gained by it. I appreciate that the noble Lord did not have the advantage of hearing the noble Baroness elucidate her points in her normal, skilful way, but she made it plain that it was to give us an opportunity to explore what those issues encompassed, and see whether the flexibility was or was not merited. I was responding to that invitation, and hope that I have illustrated why these issues would be helpfully dealt with in this way.
I remind the Committee that when we are dealing with situations like my example of the convicted sex offender, the mischief that we seek to address is not that they have a previous conviction, but to locate those with a previous conviction who may have slipped through the net and be working with children or vulnerable people when they should not. I know from the antipathy expressed towards such poor behaviour that noble Lords have always abhorred it, and wish to do everything they can to bring it to an end. That is why I hope that the noble Baroness feels it unnecessary to press her amendments, either today or at another time. I absolutely accept, however, that she will need time for proper reflection, as she has indicated.
Before we leave this point, I should say that I was specifically questioning “in particular”. If you leave those words out, the clause essentially means exactly the same. I am always suspicious about extra words in Bills in case they mean something that I do not understand. As I understand the new section, it specifies—with reasonably clarity for once—that:
“The purposes which may be added include”.
It is clear that there may be other purposes not specified, but why do we have “in particular”?
I hope I made clear that this is not a restricted, closed list, so it will enable us to add things in other areas. I understand that the noble Baroness is expressing concern and testing whether that is appropriate. The reason for “in particular” is to indicate that this is not an exclusive, closed list. The noble Baroness will have to consider what she thinks of that.
As ever, I am grateful to the Minister for her further elucidation. She will not be surprised that we are still adrift from each other to some extent. I will read and consider carefully what she said.
Amendment No. 115 was very broad and tried to remove the Secretary of State’s power to amend; it was a probing amendment. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke and supported the various aspects of the issues raised by my amendments. With regard to Amendment No. 115, the Minister said that there is potential value in leaving open an extension of the Secretary of State’s power, but one has to consider for whom there is value. Just because extending the power may be of value to the Secretary of State does not necessarily mean that it is justified or proportionate. It has to be valuable to the public and proportionate in the way that it is carried out. Otherwise, one could simply say that it might be valuable to the public to ensure that every person has his DNA registered at birth. That could be of value but is not something that we do now or that the Government have yet proposed—but I am not holding my breath because it may happen soon. These are the debates that one has to have before the Secretary of State has open-ended powers to extend his authority by way of order.
Amendment No. 116 limits the definition of serious crime to that in Schedule 1. I listened to what the Minister said, and she has a forceful argument. I do not expect that Amendment No. 116 will see the light of day again.
Amendment No. 117 refers to the list of bodies. I did not get a guarantee from the Minister that the national identity register could not be brought into play. She approached her assurances from a different angle—from what is currently in other legislation, rather than in this legislation. I will look carefully at whether there might be a more appropriate amendment that I could table for Report specifically to exclude the wrongful use of the national identity register.
We come to the issue that raised the most interest—new Section 32G(2)—which was particularly addressed by my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lady Carnegy of Lour. It sounds mild and technical, but it lists those areas that may, in particular, be added to the remit of the power of the Secretary of State to extend the purposes. One talks around this in technical language, but it really means that the Government are pre-empting our future ability to act in considering statutory instruments. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell questioned what “in particular” adds, and my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour tested out how receptive the Minister might be to a continuous succession of opposition in this House to the Government’s statutory instruments.
However, my concern is different. New Section 32G(2) states:
“The purposes which may be added include in particular”.
Why not do it now? If the Government say that the purposes in new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) may be added in future, why do they not come clean now and try to justify that? Why are they leaving it to the future? If this House were to accept new subsection (2) worded exactly as it is by Third Reading and the Government later brought forward a statutory instrument that included new paragraphs (a) (b) and (c), could not they turn round to this House and say, “Well, it was in the primary legislation. You saw it then. Why are you complaining about it now?”. Would we not prevent ourselves later objecting to a statutory instrument that included new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) if we let this part of the Bill go unamended? I ask the question at this stage because it is an unusual circumstance in which we find ourselves, and one I will have to consider very carefully. Why should we not be upfront and do this now? If not, why leave the provision there so that, in effect, the Government are asking us to sign up to new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) and prevent opposition later?
Substantial issues remain that need to be addressed. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for saying that before Report she will, as is her custom, give noble Lords the opportunity to meet her to discuss matters of issue. I shall be grateful to take up that invitation. I notice that she wishes to speak.
I just want to assist if I can. I got the impression—and the noble Baroness will obviously have to think about this—that we are not adrift in relation to those three areas. They seem sensible, and from the indications I am getting she will agree. This is all new. We had hoped to have an opportunity to consult people more generally—stakeholders and others—to make sure we got the list right as to what to include. Although at first blush one could say, “Well, let’s include them now”, it would not allow us to hone those things to ensure that what we think looks sound at the moment is in fact sound after discussion.
I say that because the noble Baroness may need to think about it. We might all go, “Yes, that is a closed list”, and then find after we have spoken a little more that we would like to include things that at first blush we have not sought to include. That is the reason I rose to my feet. We could do a bit more work, which would make us all feel more certain that this is something complete.
That was helpful. The noble Baroness addressed three issues. First, there may in the end be no difference between us as to the proper inclusion of the illustrations listed in new subsection (2) but, if the Bill goes through and the data matching is extended, with that experience we may change our mind on those three matters. Secondly, the difficulty is that consultation has not taken place. We are not in a position properly to judge whether the three examples, new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), in the list might be appropriate and valuable in the proper sense of the public good.
That brings me to the third point, and the difficulty I still face. In a sense the Government have made their life more difficult by giving the illustrative list in the schedule. That puts me in the position that, if I advise my noble friends that we do not oppose new subsection (2), I am essentially binding them in the future that they may not oppose a statutory instrument that brings it forward. I need to have that kind of discussion with my noble friends and the Minister, because I certainly have not come across a case where I am being asked to prevent opposition in the future to the contents of a statutory instrument, as was so clearly given as an illustration. In this case, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 116 and 117 not moved.]
Schedule 6 agreed to.
Clause 66 [Abolition of Assets Recovery Agency and redistribution of functions etc.]:
118: Clause 66, page 36, line 38, at beginning insert “Subject to subsection (3A),”
The noble Viscount said: The amendment is in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Glentoran and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond. My noble friend apologises to the Committee, but he is currently engaged on the Northern Ireland Bill that will come to the Chamber later this evening.
Clause 66 marks the start of the Government’s provisions to bring the work on the recovery of assets closer to the intelligence-gathering and investigative functions carried out by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The Minister stated at Second Reading that that would allow for easier sharing of information and intelligence and would maximise the skill and expertise of both agencies. The Explanatory Notes state:
“On such day as an order under clause 66(1) provides, the Assets Recovery Agency (which is established by section 1 of, and Schedule 1 to, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 ... and the corporation sole that is its Director, will cease to exist ... Such an order is to be made by statutory instrument, but it is not subject to any parliamentary procedure ... Schedule 7 amends POCA and other relevant legislation to repeal or transfer functions currently conferred on the Assets Recovery Agency ... and its Director”.
“Schedule 8 enables the Secretary of State to make a scheme to provide for the transfer of both the Director and staff of the ARA together with its property, rights, liabilities and other matters to SOCA or the National Policing Improvement Agency”,
which was established by last year’s Police and Justice Act.
Amendments Nos. 118 and 119 would insert a new subsection to ensure that the transfer of the director, staff and everything else of the ARA can occur only subject to the director of SOCA locating within Northern Ireland a unit of SOCA responsible for asset recovery work specifically in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in another place said in its report Organised Crime in Northern Ireland:
“Paramilitary organised crime continues to threaten the stability of communities in Northern Ireland and poses a real threat to future political progress. We are deeply concerned by the control which paramilitary groups from both communities continue to exercise over those communities, the fear that this creates and the attendant negative consequences that this has for the reporting of organised crime”.
As my noble friend Lady Anelay kindly highlighted at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Glentoran and I are concerned that the proposed merger will mean a narrower focus. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is particularly worried that that narrowing will effectively result in a reduced focus on Northern Ireland, with the risk, for example, that the intimidation of neighbourhoods and persistence of protection rackets in sectors of the local economy will simply not appear high enough on any scale of the SOCA priorities in London.
The House of Commons committee believed that the Assets Recovery Agency had made a significantly positive start within a short space of operational time. Indeed, it envisages the ARA continuing to play a key role in action against organised crime. Paragraph 40 of the report states:
“We welcome the growing number of referrals to the Agency, and the Agency’s assurance that it pursues all viable cases referred to it, regardless of whether the cases have a loyalist or republican link. We cannot stress enough the importance of the law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland continuing to refer cases they believe can be pursued by the Agency”.
I also highlight the attention that the committee drew to the better success record of the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland and the additional powers that the CAB there enjoys. I would be interested to know how the Minister envisages the proposed ARA-SOCA set-up working with the CAB.
Can the Minister inform the Committee whether the Government took into account that Commons committee report when drafting the Bill? Indeed, have they consulted the Police Service of Northern Ireland or the Government of the Republic of Ireland in considering the provisions in the Bill? I understand that both consider that Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances have been overlooked and are concerned that there will be a cut in the resources available for asset recovery work—resources that the committee considered inadequate in the light of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. What assurances can the Minister give us that resources will not be filtered away from Northern Ireland asset recovery work? Will she undertake to consider a review of the adequacy of the resources in the light of the Commons committee’s conclusions? It would seem to be an appropriate time if everything is to be merged.
I understand that Vernon Coaker has suggested in another place that the merged SOCA-ARA body will have a designated officer responsible for Northern Ireland. A designated officer is not good enough, especially if he or she is not even based in Belfast. Will the Minister please clarify the situation and explain why, if there is to be a designated officer, the Government have not considered maintaining a unit that is actually based in Northern Ireland, as the amendment suggests? It would be a great help if, in her reply, the Minister could confirm that the Government will transfer all the Northern Irish ARA responsibilities to SOCA. Alternatively, is there truth in the rumour that tax evasion work may be transferred to Revenue and Customs?
Asset recovery work is best pursued with the necessary dedication and vigour by people on the ground rather than by those based far away in London. It is essential that staff have an in-depth understanding of the history and peculiarities of Northern Ireland. The ARA has successfully built up a significant working relationship with the Garda and with units in the United Kingdom, the USA and beyond. Indeed, I believe that the measure of the ARA’s success is that it is said to be hated by the paramilitaries. It is essential that those who have built up working relationships with the police service and other key agencies there are not lost, thereby setting back work possibly for months, if not longer. The Minister acknowledged that the ARA has contributed to the total amounts recovered in recent years and has made a significant impact in disrupting serious criminal groups and freezing their assets. What commitment can she provide to the Committee that the service that the Government have provided for Northern Ireland will not be lost in the newly merged units?
In summary, we would like a dedicated unit, based in situ in a dedicated team with its own management and, most important, its own budget. We do not want a situation in which work cannot be undertaken in Northern Ireland because the budget has been used up in Birmingham. We also wish to make certain that the money recovered in Northern Ireland is reinvested in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
I agree with everything that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, has said. We on these Benches support the amendments, to which I have attached my name. I shall speak in particular to Amendment No. 119. Merging the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland with the Serious Organised Crime Agency is an eminently sensible proposal. However, as the noble Viscount has said, simply having a designated officer with responsibility for asset recovery work there is woefully inadequate.
We know the magnitude of offences committed in Northern Ireland. Property and land assets worth millions of pounds have been directly acquired from crime and as a consequence of it. We have also heard of many other serious crimes, such as fuel smuggling, excise duty evasion and VAT evasion, to name but some of the criminal activity with which the Assets Recovery Agency has to deal.
The ARA does an absolutely excellent job, as the noble Viscount has said, and it deserves our highest commendation for the work that it has done. I commend it unreservedly. It is therefore vital that this work is built on and at the highest level. I believe, like the noble Viscount, that that means having a specially constructed and dedicated unit in Northern Ireland. Such a unit must be where it is all happening, so that this important work can be continued.
It gives me considerable pleasure to add my voice to those of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, in their praise for the work that the ARA has done on our behalf in Northern Ireland. It has done a superb job; there is no question about it. Therefore, I fully understand the implicit concern in the amendments of the noble Viscount that the current level of commitment to asset recovery in Northern Ireland should be maintained when the Serious Organised Crime Agency takes over the good work of the Assets Recovery Agency. That was the powerful statement coming through in what the noble Viscount and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, said. I am happy, therefore, to repeat the earlier assurances given by the Government in this regard.
The Assets Recovery Agency is a success story in Northern Ireland. The new arrangements will not change that. We will still pursue criminals and their assets with the same force as we have done to date. I endorse the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on how the agency has been of particular significance in Northern Ireland. That it is disliked so much is a badge of honour and not something of which it should feel the least bit ashamed.
We have made provision in paragraph 143 of Schedule 7 to the Bill that the Serious Organised Crime Agency must appoint and designate one of its staff as a person with responsibility in the organisation for asset recovery in Northern Ireland. In a letter of 1 March to Lady Sylvia Hermon in another place, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said:
“SOCA are happy to confirm that the current asset recovery team in Northern Ireland will retain its distinct identity, and SOCA will ensure asset recovery retains an appropriately high public profile, reflecting the important contribution it has been making to crime reduction and community confidence”.
Our aim is that this will improve and enhance our efforts on the recovery of criminal proceeds. There will be no diminution in the resources available for asset recovery work in Northern Ireland, as all staff in the Assets Recovery Agency in Belfast will have the opportunity to transfer to the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The agency will dedicate at least the same level of resource in Northern Ireland as the Assets Recovery Agency currently spends, and SOCA’s presence in Northern Ireland will be at least as large as the current office of the Assets Recovery Agency. As at present, asset recovery work in Northern Ireland will continue to be focused on local priority targets. The Northern Ireland public can be assured that the asset recovery effort will benefit from guaranteed resourcing. We shall be looking for challenging targets to increase further the performance in the Province.
I hope that we can agree that we have addressed the concerns in this amendment by the separate provision in the Bill requiring SOCA to appoint a member of staff with clear responsibility for proceeds of crime in Northern Ireland and by the earlier assurances that I have given. For these reasons, we are not persuaded that we need to make specific provision in the Bill as proposed in the amendment. Further, we are not convinced that a statutory requirement to set up such a unit of the Serious Organised Crime Agency in Northern Ireland would necessarily result in our achieving the most operationally effective way of tackling organised crime, or attacking criminal proceeds in Northern Ireland in the future. Rather, it could limit the director-general’s operational capability and flexibility.
For example, at some future date the director-general may wish the Assets Recovery Agency staff in Belfast who transfer to SOCA to be part of a larger unit with a wider range of responsibility linked to the recovery of the proceeds of crime in order to maximise their effectiveness. I would also question whether the director-general should be required to set up a dedicated asset recovery unit but not, for example, specialist units for other areas of SOCA activity in Northern Ireland, since the needs of Northern Ireland have to be met as broadly as anywhere else where SOCA will have responsibility.
For all those reasons, the amendments are not necessary, but we understand why they have been tabled. The noble Viscount and the noble Baroness are properly reflecting anxiety expressed in the Province because of the inherent risks that there always are when any of us contemplate change. It is absolutely right that we all want to achieve at least the maintenance of the high performance that we have now. We would like to do a lot better, and we believe that it is possible to do even better than we do now. Given that we have made express provision in the Bill for SOCA to have an officer assigned to, and with responsibility for, asset recovery activity in Northern Ireland, I hope that I have addressed the spirit of these amendments and that the noble Viscount will be content.
The noble Viscount also asked me specifically about the cross-border relationship with the Republic. I assure him that we have very good relations and welcome the close links that have been forged between the Criminal Assets Bureau and the ARA. We are committed to continuing this close co-operation when the ARA and SOCA are merged. We will legislate separately to enable better exchange of information between HM Revenue and Customs and the Criminal Assets Bureau on civil recovery of criminal assets, which will be a significant contribution to the combined efforts of the UK and the Republic against organised crime.
The Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin and the ARA operate in different ways. As the noble Viscount has identified, the CAB is a different model. The CAB model works well in the Republic of Ireland because the organisations involved have a national remit. Northern Ireland is one region of the UK and organisations operating there, such as HMRC and SOCA, have UK-wide responsibilities that would not be devolved to a regional unit. However, the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland provides a vehicle through which all organisations engage and come together to co-operate, including on assets recovery. One sub-group of the OCTF looks specifically at criminal finance. I hope that I have reassured the noble Viscount that that is something with very much value, which we want to consolidate and improve on if we can. Those links have been very beneficial for the CAB and for us.
I hope that I have answered all the questions raised by the noble Viscount, but if I have neglected any, I will be very happy to respond further in writing.
I am most grateful to the Minister for that very comprehensive explanation, in particular her reassurance about relations with the Republic of Ireland. Even with the developments from, I hope, the passing of the Northern Ireland Bill today, Northern Ireland remains a very different place, particularly as regards the crime with which this amendment deals. I thank the Minister for her good intentions, but we are just a little worried about whether the Government will be able to deliver on this. I hope that I have had some reassurance on centralisation, about which we have had misgivings. I shall read very carefully the Minister’s reply.
Perhaps I may reassure the noble Viscount further. He is right that we are on the brink of significant changes in Northern Ireland. I reassure him that my honourable friend Vernon Coaker, who is dealing with this matter, and my honourable friend Paul Goggins in the Northern Ireland Office have had conversations in Northern Ireland with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland about these concerns. We are taking these issues very seriously to ensure that they will be well embedded in any new structure that may arise. This matter is being given appropriate attention.
120: Clause 66 , page 36, line 40, at end insert—
“( ) SOCA shall, on an annual basis, lay before Parliament a report detailing the activities it has undertaken as a result of the functions conferred on it by this section which shall include—
(a) information on the sums of assets recovered; (b) information detailing from whom assets were recovered; and (c) information on the costs incurred in recovering assets.”
The noble Lord said: On his earlier amendment my noble friend Lord Bridgeman set out what Clause 66 seeks to do. This amendment is self-explanatory. It would insert a new subsection (3) requiring SOCA to lay before Parliament an annual report. Paragraphs (a) to (c) dictate that the report should include,
“(a) information on the sums of assets recovered;
(b) information detailing from whom assets were recovered; and
(c) information on the costs incurred in recovering assets”.
Members on these Benches recognise that the proposed merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA could be a matter of simple common sense but, following the merger, it is important that people know what is happening. Does not the noble Baroness agree that the work of the merged agency should be a matter of public knowledge and needs to be in the public domain? It is important that the issues listed in the three paragraphs of the amendment continue to be published so that the effectiveness of the combined skills of the agencies can be measured. Transparent monitoring is central to accountability. Although it might be a point of principle, could it be considered efficient, for example, if SOCA ended up spending more money on retrieving assets than the sum of the assets retrieved? One might expect a period of adaptation, but if it were to become an ongoing situation year after year, we would have to question whether the funds were being used in an effective and efficient way. That is what lies behind the amendment. I beg to move.
I agree with the noble Lord that it is entirely right and proper that the Serious Organised Crime Agency should be fully held to account for its performance on the recovery of criminal assets in the same way that the Assets Recovery Agency has in the past been held to account. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that we cannot support the amendment simply because we do not believe it is necessary. I hope that when I explain why I say that, the noble Lord will concur. Nevertheless it is right that this amendment has been moved because it gives me an opportunity to put the explanation on the record, as well as recording my assent to what he has said about the need for accountability.
Under Chapter 1 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, SOCA is already required to issue an annual report on the exercise of its functions. Paragraph 140 of Schedule 7 to this Bill includes an amendment to the 2005 Act so that one of SOCA’s statutory functions will be the recovery of assets. The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the annual report before Parliament, and Scottish Ministers must lay a copy before the Scottish Parliament. Under Section 7 of the 2005 Act, SOCA’s annual report must include an assessment of the extent to which its annual plan has been carried out, while under Section 6 of the 2005 Act the annual plan must include a statement of, among other things, current performance targets and the financial resources expected to be available.
The Assets Recovery Agency’s costs and revenue recovery data are at present published each year in its annual report. Similar information on the recovery of criminal assets will be included in the annual report of the Serious Organised Crime Agency when both bodies are merged. I hope the noble Lord will agree that it would be inappropriate and—dare I say?—a suboptimal use of SOCA’s resources, to require it to lay before Parliament a separate report specifically on asset recovery.
We should also bear in mind that SOCA is only one of a range of front-line agencies carrying out asset recovery work. The police, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the main prosecuting agencies and Her Majesty’s Courts Service are also major contributors to the delivery of the Government’s targets, so a specific annual report from SOCA on its asset recovery performance would present an incomplete picture of the overall effort. It is for those reasons alone that the amendments tabled are unnecessary, and I hope the noble Lord will feel content, if not happy—in fact, he might even be happy—to withdraw them.
As I read this amendment, I think I exactly anticipated what the Minister’s reply was likely to be. Indeed, I found myself almost writing it word for word. I have two questions. One relates to the amendment we have just dealt with about Northern Ireland, where we received an assurance that at least the same resources would be devoted to Northern Ireland as have been under the present arrangements. Are we likely to see any information that confirms or does not confirm that aspect covered in SOCA’s annual report?
The other question is: are there any changes in the responsibilities of SOCA resulting from this legislation that would not be covered under the existing annual reporting regime resulting from the 2005 Act, or is the Minister saying that the annual reporting obligations fully cover even any changes that may result from this legislation? If she is able to give that assurance, I for one am satisfied.
I am. When we merged the two agencies, we put in amendments to enable SOCA to perform its functions in a more comprehensive way. Therefore, everything that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seeks with his amendment is covered by its annual report. I agree with him that that has to be done, and it is; it is done through a different vehicle, but it is there.
My noble friend Lord Crickhowell said that he exactly anticipated what the Minister’s reply was going to be. Her reply was that my amendment would be, and I hope I have got the words right, “a suboptimal use of resources”—in other words, a waste of time. At least, I presume that is what “a suboptimal use of resources” means, but the Minister, as always, was being polite to me. I shall remember that most of my amendments are a suboptimal use of resources. I shall possibly throw that expression back at her from time to time.
I listened carefully to the Minister. She seemed to be saying that SOCA was going to report the information anyway, but then seemed to be saying that it was not. For that reason, I was grateful to my noble friend. As far as I can make out, the report that comes out from SOCA will deal with the three points that are dealt with in sub-paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of my amendment. With the Minister’s assurance in response to my noble friend, I will withdraw my amendment—but I will remember her words about suboptimality for some time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 66 agreed to.
Schedule 7 [Abolition of Assets Recovery Agency and its Director]:
120A: Schedule 7, page 74, line 14, at end insert—
“68A In section 417(2) (insolvency etc: modifications of the 1986 Act)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. 68B (1) Section 418 (restriction of powers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (3) In subsection (3)(d) for “, 52, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”.
68C In section 419(2)(b) (tainted gifts)—
(a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68D In section 420(2) (modifications of the 1985 Act)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. 68E (1) Section 421 (restriction of powers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (3) In subsection (3)(d) for “, 52, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”.
68F In section 422(2)(b) (tainted gifts)—
(a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68G In section 423(2) (modifications of the 1989 Order)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. 68H (1) Section 424 (restriction of powers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (3) In subsection (3)(d) for “, 52, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”.
68I In section 425(2)(b) (tainted gifts)—
(a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68J (1) Section 426 (winding up under the 1986 Act) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (3) In subsection (5)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68K In section 427(3)(b) (tainted gifts)—
(a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68L (1) Section 428 (winding up under the 1989 Order) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (3) In subsection (5)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68M In section 429(3)(b) (tainted gifts)—
(a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68N (1) Section 430 (floating charges) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (3) In subsection (5)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. 68O In section 432(7) (insolvency practitioners)—
(a) in paragraph (a) for “, 55(3), 56(2) or 57(3)” substitute “or 55(3)”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 203(3), 204(2) or 205(3)” substitute “or 203(3)”.”
The noble Lord said: This group of amendments deals with two issues under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The Bill amends the Act to improve and extend its operation and efficiency so that we can build on its undoubted successes.
Amendments Nos. 120A and 133 are purely consequential on amendments already made in Part 1 of Schedule 7. Those amendments abolish the confiscation provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act relating to the Assets Recovery Agency. This forms part of the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The provisions in the 2002 Act providing for what happens to property, which is subject to both criminal confiscation and insolvency legislation, need tidying up. They still refer in places to the confiscation provisions which are to be repealed. Consequently, the cross-references in the insolvency provisions also need to be repealed.
Amendments Nos. 121A and 121B delete an unnecessary reference in Schedule 10. The schedule allows extension of the search, seizure, detention and forfeiture of suspect cash under the Proceeds of Crime Act from constables and officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to accredited financial investigators. All operational staff of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are covered by the term,
“officers of Revenue and Customs”.
The definition of this term is provided in Section 2 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005.
Paragraph 11 of Schedule 10 provides for compensation to be paid by agencies in cash recovery cases. It provides that the commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have compensation liability for accredited financial investigators who are members of staff, but not officers, of HMRC. This is an unnecessary provision and will be deleted. Section 302(7) of the Proceeds of Crime Act already provides for compensation to be awarded following the actions of officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I beg to move.
It is quite important because the Revenue and Customs applies to Scotland. If that has not been done, it is very strange. I hope that the Minister will do slightly more than send me a note and that, if necessary, proper amendments will be tabled.
121: Schedule 7, page 80, line 33, at end insert—
“(8) Any guidance issued or changes to guidance made under this section must be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament.”
The noble Lord said: This follows quite neatly our earlier debate on Amendment No. 120. Schedule 7, according to the ever-ready and wonderfully written Explanatory Notes—although they could have been improved by the noble Baroness—amends the Proceeds of Crime Act and other relevant legislation to repeal or transfer functions currently conferred on the Assets Recovery Agency and its director. Part 6 of the schedule inserts new Section 2A to ensure that the exercise of SOCA’s new functions from the Assets Recovery Agency must be in the way best calculated to contribute to the reduction of crime. In doing so, it must have regard to guidance set out in subsections (3) to (7).
Amendment No. 121 would insert an additional subsection into new Section 2A of the Proceeds of Crime Act which would ensure that any guidance issued or changes to guidance made under this section will be published and laid before both Houses of Parliament. The aim of the amendment is to probe the transparency of the work that SOCA will take over. Indeed, in the previous debate, I highlighted the fact that the work and procedures of the Assets Recovery Agency to date were relatively transparent, particularly when compared with SOCA, whose approach, as my noble friend Lady Anelay said on Second Reading, one might call “quasi-secret”. We need to question what impact these changes will have on how SOCA is currently run and to whom it will be accountable.
The amendment also offers the opportunity for a discussion on what might be included in the aforementioned guidance. Do Her Majesty's Government have targets in mind? They usually do—they are rather keen on targets. If so, how are we to see that such targets, or even the aims and objectives behind them, are being reached unless an annual report is published? Indeed, the argument works both ways. How can we judge if the annual report shows SOCA’s new powers are being used efficiently and effectively if we do not have sight of the guidance as a benchmark by which to measure them? I hope that the noble Lord can give more of an indication as to what the Government are hoping for in this guidance. I beg to move.
Although our names are not attached to the amendment, we on these Benches support it, for the very reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, asserted so succinctly. It is for Parliament to have sight of any guidance issued to the various agencies in respect of how they are exercising their functions to contribute to the reduction of crime. There is no other way that we can measure the performance. It is important that this guidance is laid before both Houses to enable proper scrutiny.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for moving the amendment. I think that I can satisfy his concerns and perhaps persuade him that it is not necessary.
Noble Lords know that reduction of crime and fear of crime, including organised and international crime, are key government aims. The Serious Organised Crime Agency and the main prosecuting bodies have an important role to play in helping to achieve those aims because of their role in attacking the proceeds of crime. SOCA and the prosecuting authorities will use their powers to remove illegally gained wealth from circulation. That will in turn disrupt organised criminal gangs by removing the money that fuels their enterprises.
Under this section of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the main prosecuting authorities must exercise their functions under the Act in the way they consider is best calculated to contribute to the reduction of crime. In doing this, they must have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State, the Attorney-General or, for that matter, the Advocate-General for Northern Ireland. The guidance must indicate that the reduction of crime is in general best secured by criminal investigations and proceedings. This principle must therefore underpin the way in which SOCA and the other relevant authorities under this section exercise their asset recovery functions.
The current guidance, under Section 2 of the Proceeds of Crime Act, which was issued to the director of the Assets Recovery Agency, provides that she must do her best to facilitate and promote criminal investigations and criminal proceedings. That guidance is published on the agency’s website.
I can give an assurance that the new guidance under this section will be based on the same principles as the current guidance. It will not, however, seek to influence decisions on which individual cases to pursue. There is no power for the Secretary of State to give such guidance, nor do we think it right or appropriate.
I can also assure Members of the Committee that the guidance will be published and copies will be placed in the Library of both Houses. However, it should not be necessary for the Secretary of State or the Attorney-General to lay the guidance before both Houses. There is no such requirement for the current guidance given to the director of the Assets Recovery Agency. Having given that commitment, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I have had an assurance from the Minister that the first half of my amendment will be covered in that the guidance will be published. Therefore, I probably have to accept that it would be a suboptimal use of resources to go that one step further and lay it before both Houses of Parliament. I therefore accept the advice of the Minister that my amendment is unnecessary. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.
Schedule 8 agreed to.
Clauses 67 to 69 agreed to.
Schedule 9 agreed to.
Clauses 70 and 71 agreed to.
Schedule 10 [Powers to recover cash: financial investigators]:
121A: Schedule 10, page 95, leave out lines 32 to 35
121B: Schedule 10, page 95, line 37, leave out “another” and insert “a”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Schedule 10, as amended, agreed to.
Clauses 72 to 74 agreed to.
Clause 75 [Extension of powers of Revenue and Customs]:
122: Clause 75, page 42, line 4, leave out “regulation of”
The noble Baroness said: The amendment would delete “regulation of” from the first line of Clause 75. Clause 75 merely introduces Schedule 11 and explains in parenthesis that it,
“makes provision about the regulation of investigatory powers of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs”.
Schedule 11 contains 31 paragraphs. Four of them amend the Police Act 1997; 25 paragraphs amend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; and two amend the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. Not a single paragraph refers to the regulation of investigatory powers, notwithstanding the Title of the 2000 Act which I have just mentioned. Each and every one of them grants additional powers to HMRC.
I come from the call-a-spade-a-spade school of legislative drafting, and I hope that the Government will welcome my amendment because it would make plain what they intend with their Schedule 11. Schedule 11 is one part of a much broader initiative to increase the powers of HM Revenue and Customs. When HMRC was created out of the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise last year, the existing scheme of powers was broadly maintained on the basis that there would be a review of them in due course. Before the merger, Customs and Excise had many more powers than the Inland Revenue. Many of us warned at that time that the review of powers would be an excuse for levelling them up, and we have been proved right.
I shall come to some substantive points about increasing HMRC’s powers in my later amendments, but, for the present, I wish with Amendment No. 122 simply to ensure that the Bill is honest in stating that it is increasing HMRC’s powers and not regulating them. I beg to move.
I hate to disappoint the noble Baroness, particularly on her first outing on the Bill today, but I must say to her that both the regulation and the scrutiny are important. Simply because the extension of the powers is referred to does not mean that the regulatory nature of the safeguards in Schedule 11 is in any way diminished. For that reason, I shall resist the amendment.
As the noble Baroness said, Clause 75 introduces Schedule 11, which makes changes to the investigatory powers of HMRC and is headed:
“Revenue and Customs: Regulation of Investigatory Powers”.
I get the impression that the noble Baroness is more familiar even than me with this schedule. Clause 75 states that Schedule 11 makes provision about the regulation of investigatory powers of HMRC. The amendment would change this so that Clause 75 referred to Schedule 11 as making provision about investigatory powers of HMRC with no reference to the regulation of those powers. This description of Schedule 11 would be inconsistent with its title and would not be as accurate as the current wording. Schedule 11 seeks to regulate as well as investigate: it relates to the regulation of the investigatory powers. I know that the noble Baroness has in the past emphasised the need for both. The current wording is accurate and allows the schedule easily to be identified from its description in the clause.
I thank the Minister for that reply. This is a warming-up amendment. I am not sure that the Minister responded to the points that I made. She said that regulation is not diminished by the schedule—I never suggested that it was. The only point that I was trying to make was that the schedule does not introduce regulation, except to the extent that some of the extra powers come with regulation attached. The purpose of the schedule, therefore, is not to introduce regulation; it is to increase powers, and it just so happens that a bit of regulation comes tagged on the back of them. That is why it is not honest to state in Clause 75 that this is what the schedule does. However, these are not points of substance for today and I shall not press them further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
123: Clause 75, page 42, line 5, at end insert—
“(2) The Secretary of State may by order make arrangements for the effective public scrutiny of the use by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of the powers contained in Schedule 11.
(3) Schedule 11 shall not be brought into effect until the arrangements mentioned in subsection (2) have been put in place.
(4) An order made under subsection (2) shall not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
The noble Baroness said: The amendment deals in more substance with Clause 75 and Schedule 11. It would insert three new subsections into Clause 75. I shall speak also to Amendment No. 126, which would delete the major part of Schedule 11. These are probing amendments, designed to tease out some of issues about the extra powers that are being given to HMRC.
The Inland Revenue was equipped with powers which were appropriate to the paying of tax being a civil obligation. On the other hand, when Customs and Excise was set up, it was equipped with powers which were appropriate to policing our borders and dealing with the physical activity of smuggling. When we introduced VAT, it was, for reasons largely lost in the mists of time, placed with Customs and Excise rather than the Inland Revenue; hence, VAT attracted more extensive powers in relation to business taxation than have ever existed in relation to taxes dealt with by the Inland Revenue.
Both VAT and the Inland Revenue taxes are fundamentally civil obligations and for the vast majority of taxpayers the criminal law is irrelevant. The Inland Revenue worked well in the past by involving the police whenever criminal activity involving a tiny minority of taxpayers was suspected. It did not need police-type powers. The Chartered Institute of Taxation believes that there are important public policy reasons for the administration of tax and the enforcement of criminal law being conducted by separate agencies and that changes to that will strike at the heart of the nature of the relationship between taxpayers and tax administrators.
The Chartered Institute of Taxation believes that the extra powers for HMRC should not be sought until a fully independent review, such as the one conducted some years ago by the late Lord Keith, is carried out. The view is echoed by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, that if any directional change is made it should be to level down the powers of HMRC to the civil Inland Revenue powers, provided—and this is an important proviso—that the police and agencies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency have sufficient powers to tackle the important areas of fraud and other criminal activity in relation to tax matters. I emphasise that no one suggests that a full battery of powers should not exist for tax fraud, especially with regard to organised crime. That is why I have tabled Amendment No. 126—so that the powers of HMRC are not increased. The Minister may be mystified why I left in the Bill the first four paragraphs of Schedule 11, which grant more Police Act 1997 powers. I can say only that it mystified me, too, when I came to prepare my speaking notes—but since this is a probing amendment, I decided that the amendment could stand for the purposes of today’s debate.
This is the first legislative opportunity for the Government to make their case on new powers for HMRC. I hope that the Minister will deal with the rationale for overturning the underlying premise, which is that the payment of tax is fundamentally a civil obligation that should be matched with appropriate non-criminal powers. I am aware that the Government have also announced that the Finance Bill will include some more levelling-up powers, which increases the sense of dismay among those who believe that the HMRC and the Treasury are pressing ahead without a proper independent review and without meaningful consultation.
I have little or no hope that that the Minister will accept Amendment No. 126 or even an improved version of it. Therefore, as a fallback position, I have taken the suggestion of the Chartered Institute of Taxation that if additional powers such as those in Schedule 11 are granted, there should be proper independent oversight mechanisms in place. My Amendment No. 123 addresses that point, adding a new subsection (2) to Clause 75, giving the Secretary of State power to make arrangements for the effective public scrutiny of how HMRC uses the powers granted in Schedule 11.
The amendment is not specific about the nature of the public scrutiny; clearly, there are many options available. I would say only that it should have a proactive scrutiny process and not a reactive one, such as with the adjudicator arrangements with the Inland Revenue, which are directed at specific disputes or complaints. Parliament would obviously want to satisfy itself that the scrutiny arrangements were appropriate, which is why new subsection (4) involves the affirmative procedure, and it would also be important that the new powers in Schedule 11 were not brought into effect until the scrutiny arrangements were in place. New subsection (3) provides for that.
I hope that the Minister recognises that concerns are felt about the development of HMRC’s powers. This debate is rather odd in connection with the Serious Crime Bill but, since the Government have chosen this mechanism to introduce the new powers for the first time, we feel that we cannot let this part of the Bill pass without a proper debate. I beg to move.
I shall say one or two words about both amendments. I am sympathetic to Amendment No. 123 and I think that my party would be, because we think it important that we ensure that there is an appropriate level of scrutiny for the exercise of these powers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is right to say that the criminal law is rarely invoked in tax matters, which are usually dealt with on a civil basis, largely because it is very difficult to find 12 good people and true who are sympathetic to the demands of HMRC. That is different in respect of Customs and Excise, with which there have been many criminal cases. Nevertheless, the Revenue must have a full armoury of powers to deal with tax fraud.
Can the Minister explain why the HMRC powers are being substantially increased? None of us has any sympathy for tax evaders because, as I said last night, the more that is evaded, the more is paid by others. However, when the Bill was passed that merged the Revenue with Customs, there was considerable debate about culture in the two organisations. The Revenue culture has always been one of compliance by consent, which sometimes could not have been said of Customs and Excise. I should be grateful to hear a little more about this from the Minister. We shall consider her comments before Report.
I support my noble friend on this issue. I read with concern the evidence sent to a number of us by the Chartered Institute of Taxation, which is expert on this subject—much more expert than I am, as is my noble friend. The institute accepts fully that tax fraud needs to be investigated and that surveillance techniques may be required, but it points to the difficulty that sometimes may arise for individuals in distinguishing between the protection of Revenue and criminal activity and strongly urges that there should be a form of external monitoring of HMRC to ensure that there is no abuse of what is potentially a very intrusive power.
Among the most remarkable bits of evidence obtained in January by the Treasury sub-committee in another place was the fact that at that time in the Inland Revenue there were 20,000 people with power of arrest. It was welcome to hear that that number was to be reduced to about 2,000. None the less, as the institute points out, the situation had been allowed to grow so that there were 10 times the number of people with power of arrest than are apparently needed, which supports the case for effective monitoring of these organisations so that such a situation is not allowed to develop in future. The institute points out, too, that there seems to be nothing in the Bill or Explanatory Notes that positively restricts HMRC’s use of surveillance techniques to criminal investigations.
These are very extensive powers. This is a hugely powerful and, by its nature, intrusive organisation, which intrudes into all our affairs, though usually for perfectly proper reasons. But surely there must be very strong monitoring of such powers. For that reason, I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment.
My noble friends have raised very important points and we shall all listen with a lot of interest to what the Minister says in response to these huge issues. I want to ask another of my rather annoying small questions. The first four paragraphs of Schedule 11 amend the Police Act 1997 to bring the Revenue into the drafting, which previously referred only to Customs. However, the Police Act 1997 is not a Scottish Act. Are amendments intended to the relevant Scottish Act, too? Perhaps they are elsewhere in the Bill—I may be wrong.
I am happy to give the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, a more comprehensive answer on these issues than perhaps I came ready to give. I see that the amendments are exploratory so that she can gain a fuller answer on the Government’s rationale. I hoped that I had partly satisfied her on Second Reading, but I am more than happy to assist the Committee at this stage as I think that it will help us as we go forward.
As the Committee will know, these measures are about making the existing surveillance powers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs available against all tax crime where it is serious and organised. There are comprehensive safeguards around the use of these powers, which can be used only for investigations into serious crime.
The noble Baroness asked a number of questions, as did the noble Lord, Lord Burnett. The first was: why do we need the changes and what benefit will they bring? The changes are needed to allow HMRC to effectively tackle serious criminal attacks on ex-Inland Revenue taxes and tax credits. They will allow HMRC to more effectively tackle these crimes and bring the individuals involved to justice. When HMRC was established in 2005, Parliament made it responsible for investigating crime connected with taxes and duties, including serious crime. To tackle those crimes effectively, specialist knowledge of the taxes and duties is required as well as the investigative skill. As I think the Committee will agree, HMRC has that specialist knowledge. There are more than 50 police forces in the United Kingdom and it would be extremely difficult to equip them all with the tax knowledge needed to deal with these crimes. It could lead to a loss of economies of scale and a dilution of experience and knowledge.
The proposal to make these surveillance powers available for investigations involving ex-Revenue matters was covered in the HMRC consultation document published in March 2006. Of the 58 responses to the consultation, 15 commented specifically on making the powers available for the investigation of serious tax crime related to Revenue matters; and 11 of those 15 respondents supported the proposals providing that they continued to be subject to the same safeguards and controls. I can confirm that the safeguards and controls will be unaltered and the powers will be used only for criminal investigations into serious tax crime. The powers have been reviewed to see whether they are appropriate to HMRC. That review has considered these powers and fully consulted, and most people agree that these changes make appropriate powers available. We therefore think that the framework is sound.
As the noble Baroness will remember, when HMRC was set up, the powers of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise were transferred but ring-fenced so that they could be used only for the purposes for which they were previously used. Customs and Excise had access to those powers for criminal investigations but the Inland Revenue did not, so the situation was preserved. When Parliament considered the Bill to establish HMRC, it was announced that the powers would be reviewed and, where necessary, that appropriate changes would then be made, rather than making changes in haste. Those powers, as I indicated, are the ones that have been reviewed, and I have tried to give the Committee a little information about the consequences.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, will understand the serious crime that takes place in attacking tax credits and the way in which we now have to address those issues. I was glad to receive affirmation that that is seen as something that should be addressed and is of serious intent. Serious crime involves other ex-Inland Revenue responsibilities as well as tax credits; for example, serious crime can involve dishonest advisers, a professional preparing false income tax repayment claims, or gangs dealing in forged tax certificates. The powers are needed to effectively tackle those serious crimes as well as where tax credits are involved. The law ensures that the powers can be used only where they are proportionate and necessary to tackle serious crime. Where those tests are met, the availability of the powers should not depend on whether a serious fraud involves VAT or income tax. For example, at the moment these powers could be available where appropriate to tackle a VAT fraud involving £10 million, but would not be available for a fraud involving £10 million of income tax even where the criminal behaviour was the same. I know that noble Lords will see the unfortunate consequence of that.
The extension of the powers was appropriate, and they have been dealt with sensitively. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, says that there is nothing to restrict the use of these powers to investigate serious crime. Legislation such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 restricts the use of the powers to criminal investigations into serious crime, so that provision exists. It is not something about which noble Lords need to be concerned. The noble Lord also asked about training and whether the powers could be used for civil matters. The training provided to HMRC staff investigating serious tax crime and the stringent safeguards and procedures that come with these powers will ensure that the powers are used appropriately. The procedures ensure that any possible use of one of these powers is subject to strict internal scrutiny before an application can even be made for its use. The powers are used only where other methods of investigation have failed or would clearly not succeed in obtaining the intelligence being sought.
I hope that I have been able to reassure the Committee about the structures, the way in which the powers will be extended, and the fact that we see it as important to mirror the safeguards that have been created to reflect the new structure and new ability to bring further criminal activity under proper control by these provisions.
Amendment No. 123 concerns the public scrutiny of the use of these powers by HMRC. Several stringent safeguards—some of which I have referred to—and systems of oversight are already in place for these surveillance powers. Clause 75 and Schedule 11 make no changes whatever to those. In particular, use of the powers is already subject to scrutiny by the independent Interception of Communications and Office of Surveillance Commissioners, and the scrutiny provided by those commissioners covers the use of the powers by a number of agencies including HMRC and includes the publication of annual reports. There is also an independent tribunal to consider complaints about the use of these powers. HMRC is also subject to inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and is within the remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. We therefore think that further arrangements for scrutinising the use of these powers are unnecessary.
Amendment No. 126 would remove paragraphs 5 to 31 of Schedule 11. These paragraphs update references to Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This amendment would not prevent the clause fulfilling its intended purpose of making the relevant surveillance powers available where appropriate for all criminal investigations by HMRC into serious crime. However, it would make the legislation difficult to understand and interpret. Although the powers would apply consistently to HMRC, they would still refer to Customs and Excise and the Revenue as though differences remained, which could lead to mistakes and misunderstandings.
For these reasons I cannot accept that amendment either, but I absolutely understand that the noble Baroness tabled them to give us a vehicle through which we could debate these matters, as she said. She is not suggesting that they are accurate or appropriate but they enabled a proper debate to take place. For the reasons I have given, I hope that she will be content to withdraw these amendments.
I apologise for interrupting but I realise that I did not respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. I reassure her that I now have the Scottish position on every amendment. Therefore, she must feel free to ask about it, if in doubt. The measures that we are now discussing apply consistently across the United Kingdom and apply in Scotland in precisely the same way as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I do not believe that it does. We scrutinised the Act very carefully to make sure that the provisions which referred to Scotland were included and that those areas where it was unnecessary to refer to Scotland were excluded. However, bearing in mind that I know that the eagle eye of the noble Baroness will scrutinise this further, we will certainly check it and I shall write to her so that she has the assurance that she needs.
I am glad that we have managed to put to rest the Scottish question. I shall be happy to read in Hansard what the Minister said on Amendment No. 123 and consider it before Report. I am grateful to the Minister for her full explanation on Amendment No. 126. It is good to get on the record the fact that these powers will be used only to combat serious tax crime. On that basis, I am happy to let the Conservative spokesman say a few words.
The noble Lord is very gracious in letting me decide what to do with my own amendments.
I thank all noble Lords who spoke and the Minister for her comprehensive reply. There are really two issues here. First, should HMRC have the additional powers? I made the points that were put by the very significant professional bodies involved with tax compliance. I hear what the noble Baroness says about consultation. There is a feeling abroad that HMRC has been judge and jury on the consultation on its own powers. HMRC issued the consultation document, considered the responses and decided what to go ahead with in legislative terms with HM Treasury, with which, as we all know, it now cohabits in Parliament Street. There is a feeling outside that there has not been the opportunity to have the kind of independent review that was undertaken by the late Lord Keith, as I mentioned, which resulted in changes to the powers of Customs and Excise on VAT.
That issue will not go away, as the other powers will be brought forward in other pieces of legislation, but if we put it on one side we come to public scrutiny; I thank the Minister for setting out the areas of public scrutiny. I should like to think carefully about that and take advice on whether the mechanisms for public scrutiny meet the concerns that have been expressed. I reiterate the contextualisation of those concerns—that we are shifting a fundamentally civil-based tax administration to a system which has very significant police powers. In the old days it was never a problem for the Inland Revenue to work with police forces as necessary, lending its expertise in tax matters to police forces investigating fraud and criminal matters. That system worked in the past. If we are to change it, that is a significant issue which requires proper public scrutiny. That is why I need to consider carefully whether the existing mechanisms meet that need. I am grateful to the Minister for setting them out in detail. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
124: Clause 75, page 42, line 5, at end insert—
“( ) The Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs may delegate the exercise of the powers contained in Schedule 11 only to named officers who are considered by the Commissioners to have the appropriate seniority and skills and whose functions include the investigation and prosecution of serious crime.”
The noble Baroness said: Some of what I shall cover in moving this amendment was touched on briefly by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell on the previous amendment. In the previous group of amendments, I probed the need for the relevant powers and the need for some oversight procedures. Amendment No. 124 is a further probing amendment, which concentrates on who in HMRC may exercise the powers.
Amendment No. 124 proposes that the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs may delegate the Schedule 11 powers only to named officers who satisfy two tests: first, that they are considered to have the appropriate seniority and skills; and, secondly, that their functions include the investigation and prosecution of serious crime.
I said that this was a probing amendment. I do not think that it is quite right because, having looked again at Schedule 11, I see that some of the powers are granted directly to HMRC officers and not by way of delegation from the commissioners. The Minister will see, however, that my amendment probes the kind of HMRC officer who will in practice exercise the powers.
The Law Society has said that it is concerned that any use of the new powers should be authorised at an appropriately senior level. In the case of the police, the senior authorising officers are chief constables or the commissioners for the City and Metropolitan police forces. The Law Society believes that the Act should make clear the level of authority required for use of the powers. As I read the Bill, it is silent on that.
As we know, the powers in Schedule 11 are extensive. I hope that the Minister will agree that junior officers should not be entrusted with them. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell referred to the evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee in another place in January, when the astonishing fact was revealed that there were some 20,000 officers, presumably including some junior ones, but that that figure was to be whittled down to a smaller number. I hope that the Minister will place on record exactly what those plans entail and when they will be implemented. Will they ensure that the powers will be available only to officers who have the “appropriate seniority and skills”?
The second leg of my amendment focuses on the functions of the people who will operate the powers. The Chartered Institute of Taxation is concerned that the new powers, which may be appropriate and proportionate for the investigation of serious crime, may be inappropriate and disproportionate for the administration of the tax system and the protection of revenue. I understand that HMRC intends to separate its criminal and civil activities—if I may use that shorthand—and that the powers will be used only for the pursuit of crime and not by officers who are not concerned in that work. Will HMRC’s plans equate to the wording in my amendment and confine the powers to officers whose,
“functions include the investigation and prosecution of serious crime”?
In respect of both aspects of my amendment—confining the powers to those whose functions include investigation, and the appropriate level of seniority of officer—will HMRC’s arrangements be in place when Schedule 11 is brought into effect? It is important that people understand that robust arrangements will be in place when the powers are implemented. Indeed, is there any reason why these requirements should not be in the Bill to ensure that HMRC could never use the powers other than in accordance with this provision?
As I mentioned, the Chartered Institute of Taxation is genuinely concerned about a possible reduction in the right to privacy if information gleaned by HMRC officers dealing with the criminal side were to be shared with the civil tax administration side. It believes that there should be an absolute rule that someone who is involved in the criminal aspect should never be involved in the civil aspect. Going that far would never be realistic, but can the Minister describe the extent to which different activities within HMRC would be Chinese-walled? This matter strikes at the heart of the confidentiality between HMRC and taxpayers, and the civil nature of that relationship. Some clarification would be helpful. I beg to move.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, will not mind if I speak for her. I have not had the advantage of a brief, either from the Law Society or the Chartered Institute of Taxation, although in the other place I received many briefs from them on countless Finance Bills. These powers are far-reaching and require to be exercised by individuals who are experienced and intelligent. The work is sensitive and complex and, if there is to be a delegation of functions, the Committee would wish to ensure that those to whom the functions are delegated are properly trained and are the appropriate people to carry them out. Perhaps the Minister can say which individuals will carry out this work and what qualifications they will have.
I understand the nature of the noble Baroness’s amendment and I shall try to concentrate not on its form, but on its intent.
Amendment No. 124 seeks to ensure that the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs may delegate the powers in Schedule 11 only to named officers with appropriate seniority and skills and whose functions include the investigation and prosecution of serious crime. I should make it clear to the noble Baroness that no officer of Revenue and Customs is responsible for prosecutions, as that is now the responsibility of independent prosecutors such as the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office. So we have that distinction and specialisation. Otherwise, the amendment could lead to confusion and prevent HMRC from using the powers at all for any matter, including where those powers are currently available for use by the department. This includes combating serious smuggling and tax crimes such as carousel fraud, about which the noble Baroness knows well.
In addition to that technical matter, applications to use these powers, as the noble Baroness is aware, are already subject to rigorous internal controls and authorisation procedures and, under administrative law, the commissioners can delegate their powers only to suitable officers. The powers in question are available for HMRC to use only to prevent or detect serious crime. Only five senior civil servants in HMRC’s criminal investigation section can authorise applications to use them. Each of those five officers has extensive experience of criminal investigations and the use of these powers.
For example, any possible application to a surveillance commissioner for approval to use intrusive surveillance must first be considered and approved by one of those five officers. Those authorising officers and the officers whose applications they consider are responsible only for criminal investigations and do not undertake other work, such as civil inquiries into tax matters. The noble Baroness asked how the Chinese wall works. That is how it works—and to some good effect.
Before approving an application, the authorising officer must be satisfied that human rights have been fully considered and that the action proposed is proportionate and necessary to tackle serious crime. Only after those stringent procedures have been followed can an application be made to an independent surveillance commissioner, who then considers the application.
I hope that I have explained how these issues will be dealt with. I know that the noble Baroness said that 20,000 people had the power of arrest and asked how that would be reduced. We hope that there will be an opportunity to look at that matter and to implement appropriate measures in the Finance Bill 2007. Powers will be available only to authorised officers who have appropriate skills and seniority. That is the result of the review that has given rise to these other proposals.
We do not believe that there will be the confusion that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, were concerned about in terms of keeping the civil and the criminal issues appropriately separate. The law ensures that the majority of these powers can be used only to tackle serious crime, and HMRC’s stringent internal processes and controls will ensure that officers could not apply to use them in civil matters. Therefore, the system should work well. We have been very careful to replicate the existing stringent safeguards to address the mischief that the noble Baroness feared regarding the manner in which the powers might be used.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and I apologise for including in my amendment prosecution, which I know full well was separated out by the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. She said that five officers would carry out authorisations, but clearly a larger number of officers will be involved in using the controls. I was trying to find out whether, when the new powers come in, they will be used in more situations than are the existing provisions, which cover only matters in relation to the former Customs and Excise. Will the new provisions allow only senior people to authorise and use the powers?
A feeling of transition emerged from the evidence to the Treasury Select Committee in another place. At the moment, lots of people—presumably only those in the old Customs and Excise part of HMRC—have access to powers, and we are now reducing that number while increasing the scope. That would make it possible for inappropriate persons to use the powers, unless there was a clear transitional plan. Can the Minister say any more on that?
I can certainly assist in relation to how the system works at present. I suppose that the noble Baroness is asking how we operate the RIPA issues. The use of these powers is also subject to the rigorous internal tasking and co-ordination mechanisms that currently exist. Under Part 1 of RIPA, for example, the case being considered is placed before a committee of HMRC senior directors, who consider whether there is justification for the use of covert support. Regarding RIPA Parts 2 and 3, police applications are routed through internal line management and the covert assurance bureau.
The applicant must satisfy the authorising officer that HMRC has fully considered the subjects that we talked about earlier, including whether infringement of human rights is necessary and proportionate, and the authorising officer must believe that the actions specified to be taken on the ground are likely to be of substantial value in the prevention and detection of serious crime, as defined by law in both RIPA and the Police Act.
Within that context, these powers are rigorously managed, so that there is control and appropriate tasking for more junior officers to produce the information on which the more senior officers will make the decision. Quite tight internal regulation and mechanisms have been put in place. As now, the powers will be available only to appropriate and properly trained officers. We believe that systems are in place to ensure that that is delivered in a consistent way and to a high quality. These are very difficult and important issues, which traditionally have excited the most precise attention.
I thank the noble Baroness for that explanation. I would like to return to the bodies that, as I mentioned, have expressed concerns about this and invite them to consider the points made by the Minister. I am grateful for the trouble that she has taken to lay them out. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 75 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 125 not moved.]
Schedule 11 [Revenue and Customs: regulation of investigatory powers]:
[Amendment No. 126 not moved.]
127: Schedule 11, page 97, line 24, at end insert—
“The following amendments shall have effect only for the purpose of tackling serious crime and not for any other purpose notwithstanding any provision of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.”
The noble Baroness said: This is the last of my amendments, at least at this stage. The amendment concerns the additional powers in Schedule 11, which we have been discussing. When HMRC published its latest consultation document on its powers in January this year, it stated that it was the Government’s intention to extend various powers to former Inland Revenue activities now contained in Schedule 11. The document said:
“Ministers have decided to put the proposed extension before Parliament in the Serious Crime Bill. It remains the case that under the proposals these powers would not be available for use in any HMRC activity except criminal investigations into serious crime”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, repeated that when she responded to Amendment No. 123. My amendment seeks to ensure that that clear and unequivocal statement is in the Bill because, as far as I can see, it contains no such restriction.
The Minister will be aware that Sections 5 and 32 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act go beyond the prevention or detection of serious crime. Those sections concern intercept warrants and intrusive surveillance respectively. They are also available for use in the interests of national security and the safeguarding of the economic well-being of the UK.
We are not clear that it is appropriate that those wider circumstances should be available to HMRC. It seems to us unrealistic to think that HMRC will be involved with matters of national security, but if any such issues arose, the proper course would be to involve the appropriate authorities which could themselves, if appropriate, seek to use the RIPA powers.
Safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK is, at first sight, an interesting idea. But we believe that if HMRC needs extra powers, they should be available only if the tax issues concerned raise matters of fraud. If we take the example of missing trader intra-community fraud—better known as carousel fraud, to which the noble Baroness referred earlier—it is clear that the scale of that fraud is of national importance and potentially harmful to the economic well-being of our country. But it is fraud, none the less, and the rationale for using such powers by HMRC would be fraud-based and would need no other justification.
The Minister will be aware that HMRC, with the encouragement of the Government, have been steadily blurring the distinction between tax avoidance, which is perfectly legal, and tax evasion, which is not. There is a concern that if HMRC were equipped with powers that went beyond criminal activity, it might start to interpret the economic well-being of the UK to encompass the use of tax avoidance techniques.
Let me be clear that we do not carry a banner for tax avoidance. We do not encourage or condone it. But it is not illegal and should not be exposed to techniques such as surveillance. HMRC already takes extensive powers in tax legislation to deal with tax avoidance—that is why our tax code is so long and complex and now rivals India’s as the longest tax code. But if powers designed for serious crime or seditious activity were to be used for more routine tax administration, that would raise big issues of the nature of the state's revenue-raising arm and such issues should at least be considered by an independent commission, as I referred to when speaking to the Keith Committee report on an earlier amendment.
I hope that the Minister will agree that these new powers for HMRC should be confined to issues of serious crime and that she will agree to my amendment. I beg to move.
I hope I shall be able to persuade the noble Baroness that her amendment is unnecessary. I understand the basis on which she puts it and her desire to see the words “tackling serious crime” on the face of the Bill.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the relevant powers, such as intercepting communications, are available for a number of purposes including those outlined by the noble Baroness; namely, where they are necessary in the interests of national security or for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. Those purposes are mentioned in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 as the powers are available to a number of law enforcement and security agencies, some of which may need to use the powers for those purposes. However, the noble Baroness will know that HMRC only ever applies to use those powers for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime as set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. HMRC does not apply to use the powers for national security purposes or to protect the economic well-being of the United Kingdom as HMRC’s functions do not include those purposes and an application would be inappropriate and no doubt unsuccessful.
The amendment is also a little unclear in some respects. For example, it does not define what is meant by “serious crime”; it could be taken to be referring to the definition of that phrase in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or it could refer to the different definition of that phrase in Part 1 of this Bill.
The amendment is unnecessary as HMRC can use those powers only for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime and the situation is completely unaltered by Schedule 11. The amendment may also inadvertently introduce uncertainty into when and how the powers can be used. I know that is not the intention of the noble Baroness. One has the definition of “serious crime”, as I have already said, in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. That definition provides that it is a crime involving an offence for which an adult who,
“has no previous convictions could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of three years or more”,
or a crime that,
“involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”.
That definition is not the same as that which applies for the purposes of serious crime prevention orders in Part 1.
Safeguarding the economic well-being was made clear in the debate on the RIPA orders. It relates to activity similar to the security of the state and was, therefore, for authorisation of the intelligence services and not law enforcement or HMRC. The powers could not be used to tackle tax avoidance, only serious crime. I hope that that gives the noble Baroness the clarity she seeks.
I am grateful to the Minister both for setting that out and the confirmation that HMRC currently only uses the powers on serious crime. I think, however, that she has confirmed that HMRC could in theory use the powers for other purposes. It may be that an application is regarded as inappropriate today, but that may not be the case for all time.
The point is that HMRC can only exercise its power within its authority. It must act in the way in which it is currently constrained. I tried to explain that the provisions were brigaded in that way because a number of different agencies would use the same Act. Each agency would therefore be entitled to use those provisions, limited to the authorisation given to them by virtue of their nature. HMRC’s role is therefore constrained as I have indicated. It would not be able to use its powers on the two other categories; that would be outwith its jurisdiction.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that, but whether HMRC’s functions could not fit within the economic well-being of the UK remains untested. I hear what the Minister says about how it would be interpreted today, but that is not my point: we are leaving in the Bill the possibility that the powers could be used other than on serious crime. If that is not a problem, I hope that the Minister does not resist the principle of an amendment limiting the powers to serious crime if that is honestly what the Government seek to achieve with the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for explaining why the amendment is imperfect. That will help me to refine and hone it for a later stage of our proceedings. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 11 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 128 not moved.]
Clause 76 [Orders of the Secretary of State and the Scottish Ministers]:
[Amendment No. 129 not moved.]
129A: Clause 76, page 42, line 18, after “56(3)” insert “, 62”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 130 to 132 not moved.]
132A: Clause 76, page 42, line 26, leave out “, 61 or 62” and insert “or 61”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 76, as amended, agreed to.
Clauses 77 and 78 agreed to.
Schedule 12 agreed to.
Clause 79 agreed to.
Schedule 13 [Repeals and revocations]:
133: Schedule 13, page 106, line 43, column 2, at end insert—
“In section 417(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”. In section 419(2)(b), the word “52,”. In section 420(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”. In section 422(2)(b), the word “52,”. In section 423(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”. In section 425(2)(b), the word “52,”. In section 426(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”. In section 427(3)(b), the word “52,”. In section 428(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”. In section 429(3)(b), the word “52,”. In section 430(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.”
“In section 417(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.
In section 419(2)(b), the word “52,”.
In section 420(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.
In section 422(2)(b), the word “52,”.
In section 423(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.
In section 425(2)(b), the word “52,”.
In section 426(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.
In section 427(3)(b), the word “52,”.
In section 428(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.
In section 429(3)(b), the word “52,”.
In section 430(2)— (a) in paragraph (b), the words “or 52”; (b) in paragraph (d), the words “or 200”.”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Schedule 13, as amended, agreed to.
Clauses 80 to 82 agreed to.
House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.
Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill
Brought from the Commons; read a first time.
Then, Standing Order 47 having been dispensed with:
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I know that noble Lords will have followed closely the events of this week in Northern Ireland, and I shall not detain the House with a long speech as we have much to get through this evening. This is an historic week for Northern Ireland. When the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party sat alongside the leader of Sinn Fein in the Parliament Buildings at Stormont yesterday, they took Northern Ireland closer to a final political settlement than anyone has ever before thought possible.
The first Member of Parliament who came into my office when I became a Minister at MAFF 10 years ago was Ian Paisley, who came in about the beef-on-the-bone ban and its effect on Northern Ireland farmers. He came to see if he could get an exemption for them. The first time I had contact with Gerry Adams was when I was a Home Office Minister and Sinn Fein was sponsoring orphans from the Balkans so that they could have respite in Northern Ireland. There were problems with visas and passports. The point is that my first contacts with them were on bread-and-butter issues that looked forward rather than backwards. On my evidence, and that of everyone who has contact since yesterday, we can believe that they will work together for the people of Northern Ireland. We can put our trust in them to deliver on 8 May.
The pictures made clear that this is the time for Northern Ireland to move forward. Anyone who has a cursory look at the media and the reporting of yesterday will see that there is no question about that. We want a Northern Ireland where locally accountable politicians take responsibility for the future and work for the common good without sacrificing principle or integrity. That is far better than direct rule Ministers who are, at best, second best.
I do not need to remind the House of the tortured history of Northern Ireland over the past four decades. However, Northern Ireland is no longer known to the world as a bad news story and has not been for some time. Anyone who looks at the investment and the cranes around Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast, can see that. The security situation has been transformed. The IRA has declared its war over and decommissioned its weapons. Sinn Fein has committed to active support of the police and criminal justice institutions. There has been a new beginning to policing and the rule of law that stretches right across the communities.
While referring to policing, I shall briefly answer one of the points made during this afternoon’s debate. I do not want to recite that debate, but if that order had not gone through, there would have been a serious problem because competitions for the police are not in discrete blocks. I was aware of that, but I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, at the time. Today, we are still recruiting from competition 8, yet there have been 12 competitions. People join only as other people leave, retire or whatever. All that would have stopped dead if the order had not gone through. It is not the case that we could have waited until the next competition and then looked at it.
The final piece in the jigsaw is long-term political stability, which has proved to be elusive. There have been numerous attempts by Governments of both Administrations. We pay tribute to all Ministers of both parties who have participated over the years in public and behind closed doors and who have worked together to broker a deal that would stick. We also pay tribute to our colleagues in the Irish Government.
In our view, the best, and possibly last, hope in the foreseeable future to bring about a deal came after the talks at St Andrews last October. The St Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing and the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, we made it clear during the passage of St Andrews legislation that if a power-sharing Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time—we said from both Dispatch Boxes that it would be about three years—before an opportunity like it might come round again, quite simply because we thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own.
The Government have been delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events over the past few days. The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland; it was 26 March, that is, yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive was not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March.
This is a very tiny Bill that does a very simple thing: in effect, it turns the clock back. On Sunday, the Secretary of State signed an instrument that, in effect, brought in devolution yesterday. We have had devolution in Northern Ireland yesterday and today, but no Ministers—no direct rule Ministers and no local Ministers. The Bill turns the clock back by restoring direct rule and recreating the Transitional Assembly, which will last until 8 May. At a time before 8 May, the Secretary of State will sign another instrument bringing in devolved government. That is the situation we have been in in the past couple of days. It is not generally accepted, appreciated or reported by the press because it is quite technical and relates to the way that the legislation was drafted.
When the election was held on 7 March, everybody knew what the situation was. If we had not had that confidence, there would have been dissolution. We made that absolutely clear, so we, and everybody else, are delighted that agreement has been reached by the parties, which is much better than if it was imposed by the Government, Parliament or anybody else. It is a freely entered-into agreement. For the first time ever, a consensus has formed around an agreed way forward. That has to be the best possible approach.
There were those who said we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed, but it is not quite like that. The legal situation was set in motion. In fact, if we do not get Royal Assent on the Bill before midnight tonight, the whole thing is scuppered anyway, simply because of the legislation in November. So the situation was quite serious.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the parties. They were faced with a hard choice, whatever anybody likes to say. That was the choice. It is incredible and very good that they have agreed to make that choice together. We were twice asked by the DUP to extend the deadline, but it was told no because we could not credibly come back without an agreement. The situation would have been fatuous. It had happened before. We were not prepared to come back to Parliament and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. That is the position that we have now reached. We believe that we saw an historic agreement yesterday, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. For that reason the Bill, which moves the date of restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has agreed to their request and, indeed, I ask for the support of the House.
We have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in the other place, from both sides of the House, who have played a part over the years. I could not possibly read out the whole list. But, given his presence here, we must pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is in the Chamber tonight and who will make a contribution. Of course I include those on the Benches opposite and former Secretaries of State who are present who have gone through this process with our support. We have reached the point where we can all share in the success. It is not locked down; it will be locked down on 8 May. But when parties come to the negotiating table and leave it, each of them taking something away that it wanted, that is success. The language of victory and defeat disappears. They each have a share of the success. That is the way forward and how we can now proceed to a genuine solution. That is where we are today, which is a tribute to all those who have been concerned with the process.
As people have said in the other place—most of which debate I have actually listened to—there is a lot of hard pounding to do in the future. It will not be easy, grappling with the Northern Ireland budget and the complexities of the other arrangements. Clearly, delegations will visit the Treasury, and they will find out about working with it as some of us have to do anyway—there is nothing for free. Nevertheless, locally accountable politicians will be doing it and not direct-rule Ministers. That must be the best way forward.
We pay tribute to the political parties. The fact that this week’s agreement was brokered by the parties rather than enforced by the Governments ourselves and the Irish Government is testament to their commitment. They now have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and, above all, to do it in their own way. That is as it should be. To hasten that day, I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)
My Lords, my party’s views in the debate will be expressed shortly by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, who has spent so much time on the Front Bench on our behalf in recent years and on these matters.
My remarks will be brief and personal, and will dwell on the occasion and the fact of the Bill rather than its content and detail. But a decade and three-quarters of my life, or just under a quarter of my whole life, have been devoted to the issues of which this Bill is, at least at the moment, the culmination. I have done so either directly as Secretary of State, at an oblique distance as chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, at a further distance still as a Back-Bench member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body or as an occasional attendee at the British Irish Association, most recently last year—quite apart from attendance in your Lordships’ House. Yesterday is too remarkable a development for a bystander to let it pass by on the other side.
I feel that the more vividly since of the 15 Secretaries of States over the past 35 years, I believe I am the only one to have had a significant admixture of Ulster blood, in the proper provincial use of that geographical adjective. Like the Brookes of Fermanagh, my branch of the family also came from Cheshire and settled in Cavan, which was not a county in the Jamesian settlement, at about the same time as the Brookes of Fermanagh moved. The first MP out of six from my family to sit in this Parliament in the past 175 years was elected MP for Armagh at the election which immediately followed the Great Reform Bill.
As I said once at a great Ulster Defence Regiment dinner, if my paternal great grandfather—one of three great grandparents to have been born in the Province—had not left his rope business in Belfast in the 19th century to help his sick business partner in Birkenhead, I might well have spent the early years of the Troubles serving in the UDR. But I suppose this historic infusion of blood did at least immunise me from the Whitehall charge of going native.
Yesterday was a remarkable day. The same could not necessarily be said of all the stages over the past 17 or 20 years that led up to it, and things happened in that period which of course one would rather had not happened, but this is not the time certainly for a bystander to air recriminations. Those will be matters for historians to dissect. The purpose was to reach a democratic decision. In more ways than one, that has been achieved. The people have spoken and the politicians have listened.
As the first Viscount Slim—and it is a pleasure to see the second Viscount, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in the Chamber tonight—says again and again in his remarkable book Defeat into Victory, no news is ever as good or as bad as it first appears. In the past 20 or, indeed, 30 years, his words have been a comfort in bad times, but they are just as true in good ones, and we have to seize the day, again in more ways than one.
It is a matter of encouragement, at least to me, that in the days of the earlier Executive, at the departmental level—in other words, below the level of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who will speak shortly, and to whom we continue to owe so much—the political commentators in the Province spoke most warmly of the discharge of departmental responsibilities by the honourable Members for Belfast East and Mid Ulster, with Mr Empey, as he then was, not far behind. We wish them well on behalf of all of us, and especially on behalf of the Province.
I have never met Mr Adams. I hope that I shall not embarrass either the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, or, indeed, the Member for North Antrim if I say I have always had affection for him and confidence that in any ultimate test he would do the right thing for the Province. Of course reserved responsibilities remain with Her Majesty’s Government and this Parliament, and we shall remain vigilant. It is, however, best that devolved powers are exercised locally, rather than from hence, especially in the present configuration of the kingdom.
It is also encouraging, in the context of the responsibilities that we exercise on behalf of the long-suffering taxpayers of Great Britain—they are sustaining a public sector in the Province which is disproportionately dominant—that those aspects of Northern Ireland affairs which relate to health in the private sector have not seen political objection in the Province since 1998 to the integration of the all-Ireland economy; indeed, particularly in tax terms, the opposite. I hope that, however great the temptation to mulct the British taxpayer, at least as much energy and imagination within the new Administration will go into expanding the private sector and towards the objective that the Province will achieve the self-respect of standing, in due course, on its own feet.
That is quite enough from me, particularly if the Bill has to be through by midnight.
My Lords, it is amazing what a good night’s sleep can do to restore equilibrium. Yesterday, I was deeply disappointed with the Government, but for a specific reason. For months now, they have been telling us that 26 March—yesterday—was absolutely the final day for the two major parties in Northern Ireland to come together and form a Government. Let me, gently, remind the Minister of what he said only last week, when we were debating the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007—an order, incidentally, that allows direct rule from here. Despite my asking why we were debating it then and not waiting until we knew the outcome of yesterday’s meeting, we were told by the Minister:
“It looks like a contradiction or Plan B, but it is not. We do not have a Plan B: it is devolution or dissolution on Monday. We are at a crucial point in the political process in Northern Ireland and minds are focused on the deadline for the restoration of devolved government on Monday of next week. There are no obstacles in the way of the formation of a power-sharing Executive on 26 March”.
He went on:
“We fully expect that devolution will be restored next Monday, 26 March, which would cause the power to legislate by order to fall away anyway ... If failure occurs, however, the Government will be left with no alternative but to proceed to direct rule, and the Secretary of State has made it clear that that would be for years rather than months”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 182.]
Then he told us that,
“there would be insufficient time to lay and pass an order before the Easter Recess. We cannot take a risk on leaving that until after next Monday. Believe you me, the best brains in the Government—which do not include me—and the Northern Ireland Office have thought long and hard about this. It looks like a plan B, but it is not. There is no plan B. We expect devolution to be back next Monday. However, we have to prepare a contingency. We could not automatically assume that in the few days at the end of next week, with the Budget debate and everything else, we could get both Houses of Parliament to pass what would look like unthought-out emergency legislation. That is not what this is; we have thought about it. Purely as a contingency, we are bringing forward this order. We hope and trust, of course, that it will never be operated and that the devolved powers will return to Stormont and a devolved Assembly some time during the hours of 26 March”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 183.]
Today, after that good night's sleep, I have pondered on the outcome of soundings from within Northern Ireland and the general feeling is one of great relief and anticipation that in six weeks’ time a deal will be done between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Of course there is still deep disappointment and frustration that the deadline set down in the emergency legislation that we passed back in November was not achieved yesterday. We are now faced with more emergency legislation, but the promise—the absolute cast-iron promise—from the DUP that it will go into a power-sharing arrangement in order to govern Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein in six weeks’ time on 8 May.
Are there to be any more slippages of dates? Are the Government absolutely committed to that date and will they assure the House that if a deal is not forthcoming, they will immediately revert to their earlier promise and move to direct rule from Westminster? I just want to be sure that another promise might be forthcoming.
None of us wants to return to direct rule, which is why we will support the Bill today, but there really must be an end to the posturing and obfuscation. The Government have given in on this occasion, as they have on so many others when dates have been promised and deadlines not met. Of course we recognise, as the Minister rightly outlined, how very much has been achieved in Northern Ireland, especially since November, and then in January, when Sinn Fein’s ard fheis gave its support to policing structures there. For a number of years now, I have urged Sinn Fein to take part in policing matters, to become members of the policing board and to encourage its supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I am absolutely delighted that it has now agreed to do so.
There was much comment yesterday on the historic nature of the meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. I hope it was what it appeared—their body language told a rather different story—but let us be hopeful on that score. It is up to them now to rise to the challenge; and it is up to others, including our sister party, the Alliance Party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive criticism where and when appropriate.
Much will need to be done in the next six weeks and discussions will have to be ongoing between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Treasury about a financial package. Any new money must be used to maximum effect. Simply providing cash to allow new devolved Ministers to avoid taking some tough decisions or to provide them with the ability to have some early headline-grabbing successes would be a mistake. Simply applying the money to the existing patterns of service would be a waste.
Any new money should follow the concept of “invest to save”. It must be linked to changes in the way that Northern Ireland is run. We have long advocated integrated education in Northern Ireland as a means to bringing an end to sectarianism. The £1 billion that is wasted every year on managing a divided society could be better spent providing schools where working together across all communities is a norm and a wonderfully refreshing change from what is on offer now. Quality public services need addressing too, so that the whole community can benefit from them.
Finally, we have been very supportive of the Government over the years in their dealings and successes in Northern Ireland. Although the delay is unfortunate—and it is still unclear to me why there is such a delay—we will always support devolution and we trust that this time it will truly happen. We have always wanted a genuine, stable and sustainable power-sharing Government, support and respect for the rule of law and, finally, the creation of a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, it is quite understandable, after the language that was used over the past few weeks by the Government with regard to deadlines, that people want to reflect, as the noble Baroness has done, on the slippage, or apparent slippage, of those deadlines. But it is probably fairer to stand back from that and bear in mind that the Government, starting at the midpoint of last year, endeavoured to put into place a process that would compel the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein to take decisions. That is what has happened.
I was not at all surprised to see the language beginning to appear from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the weekend in which he said, “If the parties agree on something, that is a different situation”. Even if the Secretary of State had not used that language and had gone into yesterday firmly adhering to his deadline but then discovered that the DUP and Sinn Fein had made an agreement between them and came to the British Government saying, “We have agreed a different way of doing things”, I do not think that the Government could or should have held out against that. At the end of the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, it is desirable for these things to be done by local people. That was always preferred.
Throughout this process—and even before—it has been the explicit or implicit position of the British Government that if the parties in Northern Ireland come to an agreement, no Government here would stand in their way. So although it is natural to reflect on how the deadlines have worked, it is natural for the Government to say that, at the end of the day, the process that they put in place worked. That is not unfair.
What happened yesterday looks as though it will complete the transition that was started nine years ago. It looks as though it will finally implement the Belfast agreement. That is a good thing; I welcome that. It is essentially the same article that we dealt with nine years ago. It has been modified in some ways and I could discuss the merits of those modifications, but that is not relevant here tonight. The process will also evolve, but we now have the prospect, within a few weeks, of the institutions that were created so many years ago and have gone through such vicissitudes settling down and bedding in. That is a good thing and those who have done it to serve to be congratulated on having done so. I do that and I look forward to that.
When we started nine years ago, we had a very different political situation. We had one significant bloc of opinion representing nearly half, as of then, of unionist opinion that was firmly opposed to the agreement. We had a very significant bloc of nationalist opinion that acquiesced to the agreement. It must never be forgotten that on 10 April 1998, Sinn Fein did not support the agreement. It acquiesced to it. It is difficult to identify the precise point at which it firmly endorsed it. Its position was ambiguous. Over the years in between, both those parties have discovered that they have nowhere else to go and that no other option is available to them. With greater or lesser degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm, they are now embracing the path forward. That transition, that development within those parties and for different people within them, has been at a different rate.
I listened to some of the debate in the other place today and it is clear to me that some Members representing the DUP are still in the process of evolving. I trust that they will move in such a way that by 8 May things will run smoothly. There have been problems: I see that there has been a resignation from the ranks of the DUP during the day. Although I disagree with Mr Allister and what he has done, at least he had the integrity to resign. I wish that I had had to deal with more people with similar integrity, but I shall not go into that.
The next question is: will this work? So far as 8 May is concerned, the answer is very probably yes. Although there was still some conditionality in the language used in the other place earlier today, the resolutions that were passed and the statements that were made yesterday had very little conditionality in them. Those who think that something will happen in the next few weeks to derail the process will be disappointed. My feeling is that the leadership of both parties will be determined to ensure that things progress smoothly in the next few weeks.
Thereafter, will it work? Will there be problems? There are people here who have plenty of experience of running single-party Governments, which they know is not easy. Running coalition Governments is a bit more complicated. Running a compulsory coalition Government is even more complicated, particularly one in which the numbers are such that, even though there are slight differences, the parties have no alternative but to agree. Sometimes securing that agreement can take a long time. Sometimes it is not easy to secure.
However, that reflects the reality of society in Northern Ireland, which has two blocks of opinion within it. In the past, there has been insufficient confidence for political institutions to be stable and to work well. I hope that they will be stable and work well in the future. There will be difficulties running it, but we need not be too concerned about the internal problems that there may be in an Executive and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I rather suspect that, after the initial shock, people will find that they can work together, and indeed will probably do so better than they currently expect. The real problems will be not so much yesterday’s issues, but issues of a different nature. During the Assembly election campaign, it was interesting how much time was taken up talking about those issues that must be dealt with in the future.
Northern Ireland did not have Thatcherism; Thatcherism never really reached Northern Ireland at all. New Labour has not reached Northern Ireland. The attempts made under Thatcherism and new Labour to modernise public services were not made in Northern Ireland. Our public sector is in considerable difficulties. I am thinking not only of the problems of underinvestment in infrastructure, although they are significant. We still have a public system that operates from a 1970s outlook and on a 1970s model. Those of us who served in the Executive in Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2002 had the opportunity only to start to get some idea of the extent of the problem. I suggest to the DUP that it must ensure that officials dig up for it the needs and effectiveness evaluations that we put in place for certain departments. Those exercises were not completed; they were only just started. They are only just starting to scratch the surface, and they will be a good starting point for moving further.
I discovered when speaking to a direct rule Minister a couple of years after the reintroduction of direct rule in 2002 that the officials had told him that the needs and effectiveness evaluations had been completed. I am sure that the official system was quite happy to bury those exercises, but it is necessary to go back to them. The challenge is to try to modernise public services. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is quite right, and I am sure that other Members will make it again.
People may well want the Government to give the new Executive a good financial start, but the fact is that public expenditure in Northern Ireland is massively greater than in any other part of the UK. Yes, there are problems, but we are no longer at the bottom of the league tables for employment and GDP. We have improved. Other parts of the UK are not as well off as Northern Ireland, and there is a limit to the extent to which the begging bowl can be used. Yes, there may be an opportunity to deal with those problems now, but the real challenge of dealing with them will come in the next few years. The new Administration will have to grapple with the problems of modernising public services as this Government and previous Governments have had to grapple with them.
I hope that that will help to reconnect politics in Northern Ireland with national politics. The disconnect that has taken place over the years between the political processes there and in the rest of the United Kingdom has not served us well. I speak here as an Ulster Unionist. It is desirable for us to reconnect with national politics, because, at the end of the day, as was said, there are reserved matters that just happen to touch on the most important aspects of public services; namely, taxation and decisions on taxation and on public expenditure generally. The local Administration will be able to operate only within the context of the decisions that are taken here on taxation in public expenditure.
I am sorry that I spent a little more time on that aspect of the future, but that is the aspect of the future that society in Northern Ireland is increasingly focusing on and which Northern Ireland’s politicians will have to focus on. Some sections of the community and some politicians may still be thinking more about yesterday’s issues, but they are yesterday’s issues. It is necessary to move on. Yesterday, I saw people’s willingness to move into a different dispensation. It will not be easy. There will be problems and hang-ups, but there are those who are moving in that direction, and the further and the faster they move, the more they will be supported by society and the easier they will find it to be.
My Lords, I hope that I might take two minutes to speak in the gap. We have just heard a most heartening and realistic speech from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who deserves a great deal of credit, and has been given it, for the events of yesterday, which we celebrate today. He paid a cruel price for having been right at the right time when too many of his friends were wrong at the wrong time.
I support the Bill with relief and admiration. I do so because direct rule is not second best; it is first worst. It induces in what I might call the political class a norm of destructive cynicism, and in my experience it induces among everyday people a sense of shame that for some reason they cannot be allowed to govern themselves. One of the saddest things ever said to me, repeatedly, in Northern Ireland was: “We are not all bad, you know”. I knew, of course, how good so very many of them are.
Ministers who have given such determined help to the achievement of this agreement deserve very warm congratulations. They have helped political leaders to come to terms together, which is something that we have been waiting for for a very long time. Those who participated in yesterday’s agreement also deserve congratulations, and I wish them great strength in resisting the lure of backsliding in the weeks and months ahead. Above all, I congratulate the people of Northern Ireland on the very real prospect of once again regaining control of their own lives.
My Lords, by the leave of the House, I shall make a few comments on the Bill. First, I welcome it enthusiastically. It has been said that yesterday was an historic day. That is a dangerous term. It was certainly a remarkable day, but you never take anything for granted in Northern Ireland, and we must wait another few years and then look back before deciding whether it was in fact an historic day. It really is the Belfast agreement with some minor changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said. I am glad to hear praise for the leadership at the time of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble; he negotiated the Belfast agreement together with Sir Reg Empey, the present leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and me. I am glad to see it reaching the stage that it did yesterday.
The Government were quite right to extend the date until May—the basis of this Bill—for if the DUP and Sinn Fein had reached an agreement, it would have been outrageous for the Government to have rejected it. We should not be criticising the Government in any way for extending that date.
Yesterday was remarkable, as I say. Those of us who listened to the live broadcast by Dr Paisley from the DUP and Mr Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein were quite amazed at the words we heard: they were both statesmanlike in their own particular ways. For those of us who come from Ulster, it was particularly interesting and welcome that both of them invoked the will of God. I say this as one who suffered from the IRA—shot 10 times through my body—and I listened to people on Radio Ulster at 12 o’clock today, many of whose families had suffered deaths and injuries through the IRA. Most of them welcomed what happened yesterday; I underline that myself.
As always in Northern Ireland, there are one or two doubts in one’s mind. The English press told us that Sinn Fein was supporting the PSNI—well, not absolutely: there were conditions, which we will have to watch. It is certainly supporting the PSNI in civic policing, be it burglary, drunken driving or what have you, but there is still a cloud over its position on security and terrorism. Just two weeks ago during the recent election campaign in Northern Ireland, one successful Sinn Fein MLA, Ms Gildernew, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said that if she saw the Real IRA running around with guns and bombs, she would not bring it to the attention of the PSNI. That worries us, as in the end it could undermine the success of what was achieved yesterday.
Sinn Fein has accepted its position in a Stormont Assembly within the United Kingdom. While it does not support Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, it has now accepted it. In turn, as things develop in Northern Ireland and relations improve between it and the Republic—and between the Republic and the United Kingdom—I hope that the Dublin Government will move further toward accepting the realisation that more than 1 million people on the island of Ireland are British. A lot more has to be done by Dublin to accept and recognise that position.
This Bill restores direct rule for a limited period. I assume that it means that those of us who have been asking questions in the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland will still have the facility over the next few weeks to keep troubling Ministers on its internal affairs. Therefore, to be brief, I commend this Bill to the House and thank the Government for their response.
My Lords, I intervene briefly in the gap simply to add my congratulations to the Government on their achievement. With my noble friend Lord Brooke and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew behind me, we represent 12 years of Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish agreement was signed within perhaps two weeks or a month of my arrival, starting a process that did not have universal admiration at the time but, I dare to suggest, made some contribution towards it. If the principle is of consent and that violence must now be put aside, with matters now being for the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland, that is the right basis.
I pay tribute to the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble; I also recall John Hume, at the time of the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, standing up and saying that it was now a matter of Irishmen persuading Irishmen. When I heard Mr Mitchel McLaughlin echoing those exact words yesterday, I thought that the message might at last have got through. I understand entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said: there are very many bruised and damaged minds and bodies, and sorrows, in Northern Ireland. One of the most moving occasions for any Secretary of State is to go to the annual meeting of the RUC widows, and to remember all those who gave their service. This is a time to remember all those who stood against the terrorism that was trying to over-ride democracy at that time, whether it is the RUC, the Army or the resolute people of all communities in Northern Ireland; they deserve credit for the position that we have now reached.
On the economic problems that Northern Ireland may face, it would be a pretty daunted Treasury Minister or senior official who meets the First and Deputy Minister coming through the door to argue the case. That will be a pretty challenging occasion, of a kind that I should think they will not have experienced before. Northern Ireland may not do badly.
I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that this is not a time for nitpicking arguments about what happened to the dates; what matters is what happened. We have all longed for that for all those years; if this is the final achievement of it, in spite of all the pitfalls and problems that undoubtedly lie ahead, this is a milestone—and I congratulate the Government, who are now in a position to try to take the next step forward.
My Lords, I am sure that this House will understand how delighted I am at the events that have taken place in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain over the past days. I am not unaware of the difficulties that lie ahead of us in Northern Ireland, nor am I unaware of the barriers that are still before us. Yet barriers can be surmounted, hills can be climbed and rivers can be crossed with good will and the help of God, as we look to Him for guidance.
The electors of Northern Ireland have spoken. It was no easy thing for the leader of my party to sit so close to a man who was the head of one of the most evil terrorist organisations known in the world, offering to share power with him in the future Government. I cannot forget the legacy that the IRA has left behind it, not only in Northern Ireland but in southern Ireland and in this country. Looking across the Chamber, I see the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in his place and I think of him and others who, like him, have been left with loved ones maimed physically and mentally. Only those who suffer in such a way know what that is, and understand truly the depths and degradation, and the suffering and anguish, which families go through as a result of terrorism. No one who has tried to detract from our stand, saying that we should not do what we are doing, ever brought an alternative to us. We asked for an alternative that they could offer us, and we would gladly have taken it, but no alternative was forthcoming.
Sinn Fein has come to the negotiating table with a lot of baggage, which has to be dealt with bit by bit. When I look at families who have been devastated, with the bodies still not returned to their parents or loved ones, it fills me with great grief and not a little anger. I think of families where little ones have had their mother or father taken from them and where the bodies are not as yet recovered. I think of the gallant forces of law and order—the RUC, the RUC Reserve, the UDR and all the other Army forces that have taken their stand to help us in Northern Ireland—and of the missing members in their ranks. We cannot forget that sorrow and we would be wrong to do so, because a nation or a country that forgets its past commits national suicide, which we cannot do.
I thank those who have spoken. I thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his kind remarks. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord King, Lord Trimble and Lord Kilclooney, and others who have spoken in favour of what is taking place. I trust and pray the days that lie ahead will be days of humility and progress when we will see something done for the betterment of all our people and for what we ask for ourselves. What I ask for my grandchildren, I ask for every grandchild in Northern Ireland and in this United Kingdom. I think also about the soldiers of Great Britain who went to Northern Ireland and lost their lives, and about their families. It is inadvertent if I have left anyone out of my thanks, but I thank the House tonight for its indulgence, and I support this Bill.
My Lords, I hope I will be forgiven for stretching the concept of “in the gap” a little, but we are dealing with legislation in a rather unusual way. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, personally for what she said, but I thank her far more on behalf of all the victims of the past 30 to 40 years. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I will not crow about a missed deadline. It is not worth mentioning in the context of all that has happened.
I would like particularly to express my thanks—and, I think, the thanks of all noble Lords—to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for the way in which he has always handled these extremely difficult affairs, both when he was a Minister in the department and, perhaps in an even more difficult role, when he has not been quite so deeply involved but has always had to carry the can for whatever has been done. I am personally grateful to him and I am sure that the House is too.
My Lords, I simply want to express my hope—against my judgment in many ways—that the new system of what I cannot call “power sharing” but I would call “power division”, which we see coming into force in Northern Ireland, will deliver a peaceful and prosperous future to that Province. It deserves it.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said that he could not quite put his finger on the moment when the IRA/Sinn Fein endorsed the Good Friday agreement. Nor can I. I am not sure that the finger has yet been found that could be put on that moment. Perhaps it is in the future. We will hope so.
It is a pity that we now expect to see those who should have been tried for conspiracy to murder taking office as Ministers in a Government in this United Kingdom. But, as the House knows, I hold some curious, old fashioned opinions about these matters, and I hope I will be forgiven for that. So tonight, I suppose, with those words, I am the ghost at the feast. I devoutly hope that I will be seen as the ghost of Ulster past and not of Ulster to come.
My Lords, I should like to make some brief comments on the events that have happened in Northern Ireland. I suspect that this House will have gathered from those who have spoken that there is no euphoria about what has taken place. All the emotive words have been used; I will not try to add to them. The dictionary has been exhausted in trying to capture the events of yesterday.
I want to say very sincerely that, as I look around this House, I see people who have been direct victims of the horrendous 35 years that Northern Ireland has had to come through. When I was but a boy—I was not very big; noble Lords might say that nothing has changed in that respect—I remember very vividly the news breaking that the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, had been shot and was fighting for his life. John Taylor, as he was then, comes from a different party from me, but I well remember that he was then a Minister in the former Stormont Parliament. I thought to myself, “Where are we going?”. Little did I realise that we would have to come through 35 to 40 years of sectarian terror, which would be waged in a most ruthless way by the most sophisticated terrorist organisation of anywhere in the western world. But we had to go through it.
The people of Northern Ireland are very resilient. They had to be, because what was imposed on them made things difficult. I want to say in this House today that all the suffering was not confined to one section of the community. Both communities suffered severely at the hands of ruthless people.
If noble Lords feel that I am not euphoric or dancing in the aisles, you will understand why. I know, from bitter experience, the legacy that has been left behind. I could challenge anyone within the sound of my voice today to come to Northern Ireland and find a family who has remained untouched by what has been called the Troubles. There would be a lot of searching and I suspect that no family would be found. All our families have been touched, some of them directly. In my family, I remember the day I got the phone call. What was his occupation? He was a mere lorry driver, whose vehicle had a bomb planted in it and he was blown on to the street. There he lay like a dog.
Let us hope that we are moving on. It has been said that we are in for a battle a day. I suspect that that is right, but I hope the battle a day will be a different battle a day, and that the battles will be fought in the chambers of power where we will debate our differences and agonise over them in that way, rather than by the bomb, the gun and the bullet.
My Lords, this legislation, true to form, has characteristic high drama and is emergency legislation. We all know that we would not have expected anything else. We also have a mutation in the concept of the gap, which I hope will not be taken as a precedent. I do not wish to introduce a sour note but I very much regret the delay to 8 May. I can find no convincing reason for that. I ponder whether it is just that the political parties in Northern Ireland cannot give up their addiction for always ratcheting up demands at the 11th hour. We must also brace ourselves for more ratcheting up between now and 8 May. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, warned against the rattling of collecting boxes, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.
We hope that events will pan out as planned. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, produced a catalogue of problems that will beset the new Executive and Assembly, and rightly pointed out that these will be quite different in character from those he faced when he was the First Minister. I also endorse the warnings given by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in this regard: the future will be very different in detail and substance from that which went before.
It is also right to acknowledge the parts played over the years by the leading political actors in Northern Ireland, London, Dublin and Washington. Senator Mitchell played a seminal role, as did President Clinton. Given the composition of this House and its political bias, no one has mentioned another significant act, so I shall raise it. I refer to the Hume-Adams talks which played a profound role in initiating the debate and dialogue in Northern Ireland for the better. We should acknowledge that, though I doubt if many others will.
There will be bumpy times ahead, to be sure, but we must hope that they do not destabilise devolution. We wish Northern Ireland well after 8 May.
My Lords, I am delighted that what has happened has happened. In my contribution to the debate held some four or five weeks ago by the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, I outlined what I believed would happen and I am happy to tell your Lordships that what I said then is almost exactly what has taken place. I also asked that those in power—the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister—would continue to be patient and steadfast and keep their nerve. That they have done, and we are where we are today.
It has been a long, long battle. When the peace process actually began, I am not quite sure. But I am certain that pretty well everyone in the Chamber will have a different opinion about it. For myself, I believe one of the basics came about when my noble friend Lord Brooke was the Secretary of State—here I thank him for his kind words—and I was able to bring the International Tall Ships’ Race to Belfast. In 1991 some 72 vessels from the world’s tall ship fleet came to Belfast Docks—before the peace process had got under way and long before the Good Friday agreement. What happened during those days was quite staggering. Sectarianism was forgotten. On the night of the fireworks the docks were so overcrowded that I had to stand on the gates and, with a manual loudhailer, try to persuade people to go home. They would not go home and they blocked the streets, for those who know it, all the way to the Albert Clock. But nobody was hurt, there were no fights, and the chief executive of the city bus company rang me the next day to tell me that the last bus had got home at three o’clock in the morning with no damage to any vehicles. That is my memory of where some of this comes from.
Behind all this, there has been a fantastic amount of work and a huge amount of courage on behalf of politicians, officials, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, the President of the United States, Senator Mitchell and many, many others in the Irish, British and American Governments. And do not let us forget the key people in our own Ulster political life: the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, Sir Reg Empey and his colleagues, Dr Ian Paisley and his team, Peter Robinson and all of them. I can tell your Lordships that I have shaken Adams’s hand. It was not a pleasant experience for me because I have lived in Northern Ireland since 1970 and have been to the funerals of my friends, as have the rest of us. I am very admiring of Ian, if I can be that familiar in your Lordships’ House, for having taken his team to where it is now. It is a tremendous gesture.
But he is only just starting down the road. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, outlined a number of the practicalities facing the new Stormont Government, including a reasonably strong economy under the circumstances, but one that is totally top-heavy with government sponsorship, staff and civil servants. The infrastructure is badly in need of an overhaul, starved as it has been of investment cash for 15 to 20 years. However, that is not the main difficulty to be faced. The main difficulty they face is to work as a team. I have forgotten who said, “I wonder if it will work? I hope it will work”. My Lords, it has to work. There is no doubt about that. These politicians, Mr Adams and Dr Paisley, owe it to everyone I have mentioned, not just the people of Ulster. They also owe it to everyone who died for us in the battles. God help them if they fail; I hope they go to where they deserve to go. They must not fail. I wish them luck. As will all noble Lords, I will give them all the support I can. Those noble Lords who pray, pray now. Those who do not, just hope. This is the start of a great road forward, but do not let there be any room for complacency.
My Lords, on behalf of the Government, I am extremely grateful for all the contributions to the debate. It has been an experience with six speakers in the gap. I shall remember that when I become a Back Bencher one day. I often have to remind colleagues that the composition of this place is such that as a Minister you are facing people who have been there: former Secretaries of State and Ministers in Northern Ireland, and those of long standing like the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. One has to be very careful. Indeed, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that I am, frankly, humbled by his remarks and deeply grateful to him. Almost two years ago he set me a test. I do not say I have passed it, but I am on the way. For that, I am grateful. I can assure him that when being briefed by officials in Northern Ireland, on many occasions one of them will say, “And by the way, we’ve got to think about dealing with Lord Tebbit”. I can assure him that that is the case.
I am not going to comment on all that has been said, but towards the end of his speech the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, made a central point which has been repeated by other noble Lords: the shape of the economy in Northern Ireland is unsustainable because the public sector is actually squeezing out the private sector. I have seen examples of enterprise being stifled. Although the public sector needs to be supported, some major changes will have to take place. The economy has been extremely successful, but there will have to be changes to modernise it.
I am very grateful, as I think the whole House is, for the content and tone of the speech we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. To the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I say yes, it will be possible in the mean time to keep asking the questions about roadworks and all the other kinds of issues. I get them not necessarily from him but from other noble Lords. Until direct rule ceases, we are responsible and accountable for everything in Northern Ireland. Soon I hope we will not be; after 8 May, we will probably not be. The noble Lord, Lord King, hit the nail on the head when he talked about Treasury officials— although I do not think he talked about tremors—who are usually so tough with the rest of Whitehall. It is a different bag of chips they are going to face now, and one would expect them to act accordingly.
I am very grateful overall. There is such a wealth of experience in this House; Members who have lived through all this and been part of the success. One has to think about the past and no one will forget it, but, as has been said, people have come to the table and gone away with a piece of success. No one is talking about failure. That is the road to the future and to success. I commend the Bill to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 pm. The House will then resume for the remaining stages of the Bill. I apologise for not being a severe Whip in the gap. I felt that this was not the occasion.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
[The Sitting was suspended from 8.20 to 8.35 pm.]
I understand that no amendments have been set down to the Bill, and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. With the agreement of the Committee, I will now put the Question that I report the Bill to the House without amendment.
Bill reported without amendment.
House resumed; Report received.
Bill read a third time, and passed.