NI Justice Minister: “It is important to note that, in setting some minimum standards, I am not prohibiting the Board from adding to these minimum criteria…”

Whilst Brian may regard them as “surely sensible” changes to the criteria for the next Chief Constable, and they may well be, as I mentioned in updates to a previous post, no sooner had the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, the Alliance Party’s David Ford, announced those changes than the NI First and deputy First Ministers promptly agreed to exercise their prerogative to call his decision into the dysfunctional NI Executive semi-detached polit-bureau  [Where it will be put to the sword… – Ed].

By this morning, as the BBC report, the NI Justice Minister was being attacked as a “little Nero” by the DUP’s Jonathan Craig, and for “[attempting] a solo run” by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly.

Still, at least by agreeing, this time, those two parties have avoided another costly visit to the High Court…  Although the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly has accused the NI First and deputy First Ministers of “a dangerous precedent of political interference in policing” – “It is more worrying, however, that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister believe they can interfere in policy making decisions of the Policing Board.”

ANYhoo…  According to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly

Speaking today Mr Kelly said:  “David Ford’s unilateral decision to  change the recruitment criteria for the  position of Chief constable is unwelcome and ill-timed.

“He has  taken this decision without seeking the agreement of the Executive or  indeed the Policing Board whose responsibility it is to recruit to this position.”

But it’s worth noting the detail from the NI Justice Minister’s initial press release

David Ford said: “In light of changes to appointment procedures and requirements elsewhere in policing, during the second half of 2013, I sought the views of the Policing Board, the PSNI and other key stakeholders with regard to the criteria when appointing a new Chief Constable in Northern Ireland. This is part of an ongoing review of police terms and conditions in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

“I have decided to remove the mandatory requirement that the Chief Constable must have served as (at least) an Assistant Chief Constable for two years elsewhere, but that such experience should be retained as a desirable criteria for the Policing Board when appointing a new Chief Constable. I have also added the mandatory requirement that the successful candidate will have successfully completed the Strategic Command Course (or an equivalent).

I considered it important to ensure the criteria allows for as wide a pool of candidates as possible. It is however for the Policing Board to consider the experiences of those involved and whether they consider applicants to be suitably qualified.”

David Ford continued: “It is important to note that, in setting some minimum standards, I am not prohibiting the Board from adding to these minimum criteria as they consider the skills, experience and competencies required of a new Chief Constable.” [added emphasis throughout]

[They can still sack the Justice Minister! Ed]  For now.  But they’d need to agree a replacement first, and they’d need to hurry up…

Adds  The subject of the proposed changes to the criteria for the appointment of a new Chief Constable was the focus of most of the topical questions to the NI Justice Minister in the Assembly today.  Here are the relevant parts of the exchanges from Hansard.

1. Mr Brady asked the Minister of Justice to comment on his intervention to change the legislative stipulation on the criteria for the appointment of a new Chief Constable and whether he thinks that it is appropriate to do so as he did not discuss it with the Policing Board, and to outline the implications of his intervention now that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have forced him to take it to the Executive. (AQT 621/11-15)

[…]

Mr Ford: I am sure that Mr Brady’s comments will be picked up by his colleagues if I fail to answer them adequately at this stage.  I must, first of all, correct his suggestion that I did not consult the Policing Board.  The Policing Board raised the issue with me in May last year.

Given the significant interest in this issue over the past 24 hours, I hope, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me to take a little longer than I usually take to answer questions to set out my position, because it is important that the issues are properly understood and that debate and comments are informed by the facts.  I fear that we have heard a number of public comments reflecting a lack of understanding about the process and the implications of my decision.

The post of Chief Constable is a vital one, and my sole intention has been to ensure that the process for appointing a Chief Constable is governed by fairness, common sense and equality.  I have no agenda beyond that.  Indeed, my decision gives me as Minister less control over the process and gives the Policing Board more control.  It might be helpful if I outline, first of all, my powers in this area, which are set out in regulation 11 of the Police Service of Northern Ireland Regulations 2005.  The regulation states:

“no person shall be appointed as Chief Constable of the police service unless he holds or has held such rank, in such force and for such period,”

— as the Minister —

“shall determine in respect of such an appointment.”

I have made clear my intention to change the arrangements.  A determination by me would issue in accordance with regulation 46 of the 2005 regulations.  No other legislative process is required, so the decision will not delay the process of appointment.

It is also essential to understand the board’s role and, indeed, primacy in the appointment of a Chief Constable, which is enshrined in section 35 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.  The section clearly states:

“The Board shall, subject to the approval of”

— the Minister —

“appoint the Chief Constable.”

My intentions are aimed solely at enabling the board to have more latitude, and I remain entirely respectful of the board’s primacy.

Let me summarise how the matter has been dealt with.  Criteria for the appointment of a Chief Constable in England and Wales were amended in 2012 to remove the criterion relating to experience gained outside the current force.  In May 2013, the Policing Board made contact with my Department to ask that the matter be raised with me, pointing out concerns about the current arrangements.  I was clear in my response that I wished to know what level of support changes might receive from the board.

As required by legislation, and to take the issue forward, I launched a wider consultation exercise, going beyond the bodies that I am required to consult.  I consulted the Police Advisory Board for Northern Ireland, on which the Policing Board, the Chief Constable and staff associations are represented.  I also sought the view of the Equality Commission and the Justice Committee.

It has become clear from correspondence with the Policing Board and from the Justice Committee appearance that agreed positions have not been reached.  It falls to me, therefore, in accordance with my powers in the Regulations, to reach a view and issue a determination.  I announced yesterday my intentions and I welcome the opportunity to set out now the benefits of the changes.

[…]

Mr Ford: As things stand, and as originally pointed out by the Policing Board in May 2013, it may be anomalous to retain a provision that is no longer applicable in other forces.  Specifically, the requirement for two years’ service outside Northern Ireland may impact unfairly on certain groups; for example, females or those with dependants or a disability.  The Equality Commission tends to the view that the provision could constitute indirect discrimination.  I am keen, therefore, that we remove any such unnecessary barriers to the widest and fairest candidate pool, while retaining the board’s power to decide itself on the best criteria.

This is not a question of balance.  It is perfectly possible, in my view, to achieve both aims, simply by removing the current mandatory requirement for service outside Northern Ireland.  I am asking the board to consider outside service to be desirable, as a minimum, but not essential.  It is then entirely open for the board to decide whether that outside service is essential in the forthcoming competition.

In summary, my intention is to further empower the board to define its requirements for Chief Constable.

I am aware that there has been some comment to the effect that I have intervened in the middle of a recruitment process.  Mr Brady made that point, but that is not my intention and nor has it been the case.  The board is at the earliest stage of responding to Matt Baggott’s recent decision, and the recruitment process is absolutely not under way.  I hope that all involved can at least agree the changes that I intend to make as that will clearly aid the board in constructing and delivering its own way forward.

I am grateful for this opportunity.

[…]

3. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Justice whether he can give an assurance that he is in control, given that he will be aware that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has now intervened in the affairs of the Minister of the Environment and the Minister for Regional Development. (AQT 623/11-15)

I am sure that the Minister will forgive me for returning to the subject of the first question.

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Dallat for the question.  The issue is related to the power of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to call in procedures to the full Executive and the proportionality of their doing that.

I am absolutely certain that my decision was correct.  It was appropriate, proportionate and has not created the difficulties that were highlighted by a number of people who were ill informed about the circumstances.  On that basis, I would be very happy to go to the Executive meeting on Thursday to explain for the benefit of Ministers the details of what has been done, why it is appropriate and why it is my role as Justice Minister to carry that out.  I will also be putting that explanation in an Executive paper over the next day or so.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for his answer.  When he goes to the Executive, will he explain to them in the impassioned way that he can that an awful lot has been done to take politics out of policing?  Now that we are back in the quagmire, will he do everything that he can to minimise the damage that has been done by this row?

Mr Ford: I thank Mr Dallat for making the point.  I certainly have no intention of creating any damage to policing through this row.  I did not start it; I carried out my statutory duties in a way that was entirely appropriate in order to enhance the role of the board in carrying out its statutory duties.  I will certainly explain that to the Executive.  I am not sure that I will do it in an “impassioned” way, as he described; I will explain it in as level and straightforward a way as I can, as indeed the Principal Deputy Speaker allowed me to do in the House just now.  We will see how other Ministers respond when presented with the facts rather than some of the ill-informed comments that we have heard recently.

[…]

6. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Justice whether he thought it was appropriate not to bring the significant and controversial issue of the changing of the requirement regarding the appointment of the Chief Constable to the Executive and whether he will accept the Executive’s decision on the matter. (AQT 626/11-15)

Mr Ford: It was a narrowing of my role to enhance that of the Policing Board.  Making a very modest change — the changing of a particular criterion from “essential” to “desirable” — is not, in my opinion, relevant for referral to the Executive.  It is not controversial, except in the minds of some people recently; it is not a cross-cutting issue; and it is a matter that, in statute, is clearly the responsibility of the Minister of Justice.