The Belfast Telegraph report picks out a couple of selected quotes from the debate in the Commons yesterday on the second reading of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, described at one point in the debate as a dog’s breakfast of a bill. But, although the debate ranged over the many points the Bill attempts to deal with, including a pointed exchange around “the pro-consular powers” that the Secretary of State would be given, and the appointment of the Chair of the PUP onto the Policing Board is raised at one point too, I’ll focus on the remarks on policing and justice, and what the NIO Minister David Hanson describes as “a triple lock on the devolution of policing”.In opening the debate, Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain described the process of devolving power on policing and justice in this way –
The independence and impartiality of the prosecution system and the judiciary are fundamental principles of the UK justice system. The existing legislation places a duty on Northern Ireland Ministers to uphold that. In addition, I intend to put forward concordats between our Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, to be agreed before the devolution of policing and justice, setting out the core principles of the independence and impartiality of the Northern Ireland judiciary and the public prosecution service.
The Bill does not devolve policing and justice. Instead, it supports the framework that we need to put in place to devolve policing and justice by order when—not before—the circumstances are right to do so. That was the intention of the 1998 Act. Section 4 of that Act gives me the power to transfer any reserved matter to make it the responsibility of the Assembly, subject to certain important safeguards. Those safeguards remain and nothing in the Bill undermines them. Most importantly, the Assembly must agree that the time is right for policing and justice to be devolved and must vote for it on a cross-community basis. That is set out clearly in section 4 of the 1998 Act and nothing in the Bill alters that position. The Assembly must also agree what arrangements it wants to put in place to receive the new functions—whether to have one ministerial Department or two, for example. The Government must be convinced that the proposed arrangements are robust, workable and broadly supported by the parties.
Finally, when the time comes, the order that effects the transfer of functions will need to be agreed in Parliament. There is more work to be done before we reach that point. On 16 February, alongside the Bill, I published a discussion paper that set out what the Government believe is a sensible and pragmatic framework for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. As I said then, the document is not a blueprint, but a basis for discussion. We look forward to beginning those discussions, especially with all the Northern Ireland political parties.
Leter in the debate that process is emphasised again as a triple lock by NIO Minister David Hanson –
Mr. Hanson: Can my hon. Friend confirm my understanding that again there is a triple lock on the devolution of policing? First, the Assembly must want it; secondly, the Government must support it; and thirdly, the political parties themselves need to take it forward. There will be a vote on the Floor of the House or in Committee. There is a triple lock to ensure that the matter is resolved by all parties in the interests of devolution.
While it may be the government’s intention to emphasise that devolving policing and justice powers will not occur without the maximum of safeguards, and not until after the concordats between the government and the Northern Ireland Executive, “to be agreed before the devolution of policing and justice, setting out the core principles of the independence and impartiality of the Northern Ireland judiciary and the public prosecution service”, that Peter Hain stated he would be putting forward, that triple-lock is just as likely to become a permanent lock.