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SDLP response to the proposals for the new police service, Monday 20 August 2001

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Research: Martin Melaugh
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The following is the full text of the statement issued by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in response to the proposals for the new police service, Monday 20 August 2001


Ever since 1920, policing has been at the very heart of the political fault-line in our society. No issue has been more difficult, more divisive and more controversial in the history of the north of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement offered us the chance to break with this bitter legacy of the past. It promised a new beginning in policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of sustaining support from the community as a whole.

The SDLP has always been determined to realise this new beginning to policing, and to play our part in its creation. We made detailed submissions to the Patten Commission. When its report was published, we welcomed it recognising in it many of the recommendations for policing change that we had advocated.

However, we were deeply disappointed by the Police Bill published by the previous Secretary of State.

It failed to implement many crucial Patten recommendations and critically weakened the basis for the promised new beginning to policing.

That is why - when others sat on the sidelines - we campaigned at Westminster, in Washington, in Dublin and throughout the North, to ensure the full implementation of the Patten report and to bring about radical policing change.

That campaign has borne fruit. On the floor of the House of Commons, we proposed over a hundred amendments to the Police Bill. In response, the British Government was obliged to revise the Bill substantially.

However, significant problems remained and, as a result, the SDLP was unable to endorse the plans for a new police service devised by the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson MP.

Through long negotiations this year and last - at Downing Street, Hillsborough, Weston Park and elsewhere - we continued to argue for far-reaching change. With the publication of the Joint Proposals of the two Governments on 1 August, and the subsequent publication of the radically revised implementation plan, we believe that we have now achieved this.

This document sets out all of the changes made to policing arrangements agreed to by the British Government since it published the Police Bill in May 2000. It substantiates the judgment of the Irish Government - which we share - that what is now on offer can "comprehensively deliver the spirit and substance of the Patten report."

The following gains are particularly important:

  • assurance on the implementation of the Patten recommendations on name, flag and badge;

  • an enhanced role for the Oversight Commissioner who will recommend changes to the current policing legislation;

  • commitment by the British Government to amend the current policing legislation to deal with key SDLP concerns;

  • radical strengthening of the powers of inquiry of the Policing Board; an enhanced role for the Policing Board - which will enjoy powers formerly restingwith the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State;

  • new powers for the Police Ombudsman to access documents and investigate police policies and practices;

  • commitment to secondment of Gardai to new police service; strengthened commitment to human rights; greater focus on community policing. phasing out of Full Time Reserve, and expansion of the Part Time Reserve ahead of Patten's schedule.

    In all, the SDLP has identified 94 important gains since the Police Bill was published in May 2000. In view of these changes, we believe that the time is now right for us to play our part in delivering policing change.

    We therefore intend to participate in the new Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships. We also intend to encourage nationalists, particularly the young, to join the new police service in order to help make and shape a new service acceptable to all. We believe that this will benefit not only the nationalist community - but all in the community. For it is only through a police service that is accepted by all that we can enjoy true security and peace of mind.

    In arriving at our judgement on this matter, we are also conscious of the rising criminality in our community. Joy-riding, racketeering, drug-dealing, intimidation, punishment beatings and sectarian attacks all pose a real threat to our future.

    We believe that such threats are best addressed through participating in a new acceptable police service. We are also mindful that key decisions on policing are imminent for example on training, Special Branch and human rights.

    It is important for the SDLP to participate to maximise the impetus for change. On the Policing Board we will also be in a better position to get answers and help ensure accountability. Also, we will be able to campaign more effectively for a prohibition on plastic bullets.

    Patten did not recommend a ban on plastic bullets - instead, he recommended a research programme to find alternatives. On the Board we will have full access to the research, which will help us to make the case for prohibition of these weapons.

    A gulf of distrust exists between the nationalist community and the current police. Realising a new beginning to policing will therefore be no easy task.

    However, a determined start must be made. Mindful of the support of the Irish Government and others for the new policing arrangements, today we are willing to play our part. And we encourage others to play theirs.



    When the Police Bill was first published in May 2000, the SDLP identified countless defects. Since then, we proposed over a hundred amendments in Parliament.

    The British Government, in response, was obliged to make many important changes to the Bill. However, the British Government rejected many of the amendments the SDLP was seeking. But now:

  • The British Government has had to agree to new legislation on policing, which will reflect key SDLP amendments that they had rejected.

    For example, amendments will be made to:

  • ensure that community policing will be a core function of the new police service if necessary, to ensure that only the name Police Service of Northern Ireland is used.

    This means a complete end to any use of the term Royal Ulster Constabulary. ensure that the Policing Board can get reports and inquiries, removing and clarifying existing exceptions abolish undue restrictions on setting up inquiries strengthen the role of the Policing Board in setting long term policing objectives and ensure that the Ombudsman can investigate police policies and practices.

  • The British Government is also prepared, following the Oversight Commissioners review, to allow ex-prisoners sit on DPPs and give fuller powers to the four sub-groups of the Belfast District Policing Partnership.

  • The British Government may also make further changes to the Act recommended by the Oversight Commissioner.


    The British Government originally refused to give assurances that there would be only one neutral name for the police: Police Service of Northern Ireland.

    They also refused to give reassurances that the new flag and badge would be in line with Patten - who recommended that the Union flag should no longer fly over police buildings and that the flag and badge of the police should be free of any association with the British and Irish States.

    But now:

  • The British Government has confirmed that the new name is the Police Service of Northern Ireland and that it expects the name Police Service of Northern Ireland to be used for all operational and working purposes, including whenever and in whatever circumstances the police interface with the public.

  • The Oversight Commissioner will monitor the use of the new name.

  • If there are difficulties, the British Government has committed that it will pass new legislation.

  • On flag and badge, the British Government has made it clear that its bottom line is the Patten recommendations.


    The Policing Board is responsible for holding the police to account. The Bill when it was published fell far short of Patten. It gave too much power to the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable, and too little power to the Policing Board, particularly regarding the establishment of inquiries.

    The SDLP sought far-reaching improvements.

    These are being delivered:

    The British Government attempted to give the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State the power to block inquiries on the following grounds:

  • efficiency and effectiveness, the administration of justice, repetitiousness and vexatiousness ongoing investigations by the police and other authorities or because an inquiry would serve no useful purpose.

    These sweeping exemptions would have meant that the Policing Board could only have conducted inquiries at the grace and favour of the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State. Now, all of these exemptions have been abolished.

    The Act still gives the Secretary of State the power to stop inquiries because it would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime. New legislation will remove this.

    The power of the Chief Constable and Secretary of State to indefinitely delay inquiries has been abolished.

    The power of the Chief Constable and Secretary of State to stop ongoing inquiries has been abolished.

    Originally, initiating an inquiry required 12 votes in favour - out of 19. That would have made it almost impossible to get inquiries. This has now been reduced to 10 votes in favour.

    New legislation will reduce it further to 8 votes in favour a key demand of the SDLP.

    The Board now has the clear power to request key bodies such as the Police Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General to conduct inquiries.

    The Bill prevented the Policing Board ever looking at the past. Now although not fully satisfactory the Act allows the Board to get information on matters in relation to the past.


    Patten recommended a number of important functions for the Policing Board. These were not taken forward in the original Police Bill. But now:

  • In line with Patten, the Board will be responsible for inspection of places of detention.

  • In line with Patten, the Board will monitor public order situations.

  • In line with Patten, the Board not the Secretary of State has the lead in ensuring financial accountability.

  • In line with Patten, the Secretary of State will only be able to set long term objectives for policing.

  • New legislation will require the Secretary of State to seek the agreement of the Policing Board on these long term objectives.


    The Police Bill originally provided for the work of the Policing Board to be conducted behind closed doors. Now, however:

  • Inquiries must be held in public unless the person holding the inquiry decides that it is necessary in the public interest not to do so.

  • The Board not the Secretary of State decides whether the findings of inquiries should be made public. A summary of the findings must always be made public.

  • The Police Ombudsman must always get a full copy of the findings of a Policing Board inquiry.

  • There must be at least 10 public meetings of the Board each year.


    In order to succeed, the Policing Board must be representative of the community as a whole. Patten recommended a Policing Board with 10 political members, selected by dHondt and nine independent members appointed by the Secretary of State. Originally, the Secretary of State had sole control of who would be independent members and the competition ran by the NIO for independent members last year yielded a very disappointing outcome. Now, however:

  • The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must be consulted on the appointment of independent members of the Board.

  • A new competition for independent members of the Policing Board will be run to ensure that we have credible independent members from all sections of the community.

  • Members of the Board cannot be removed due to declared previous criminal records.


    The Patten report stated that the fundamental purpose of policing should be the protection and vindication of the human rights of all. However, the British Governments original plans did not reflect this strong commitment to human rights. But now:

  • The Board not the Chief Constable will have the final say on the Training, Education and Development strategy for the new police service. This will be central to ensuring a new human rights culture.

  • The Board not the Chief Constable will be responsible for designing the appraisal strategy for the police service, including appraisal of human rights performance of police officers.

  • The Board not the Chief Constable will be the lead agency in developing a new human rights code of ethics for the police.

  • The Police Ombudsman, Equality Commission and Human Rights Commission must be consulted on the code of ethics.

  • The Board must monitor the effectiveness of the code of ethics.

  • The Secretary of State must, as far as practicable, reflect the new code of ethics in police disciplinary regulations.

  • The Chief Constable must ensure that all police officers have read and understood the code of ethics.

  • The police oath obliges police officers to respect the traditions and beliefs of individuals.

  • The Chief Constable must ensure that police officers understand the police oath and the need to comply with it.

  • The Chief Constable and the Policing Board will incorporate the terms of the new human rights oath into the code of ethics, which all members of the force will be obliged to respect.


    A key problem with policing in Northern Ireland has been the under-representation of Catholics and other groups, especially women. The original Bill fell short of what Patten required. However, the SDLP ensured a number of important improvements:

    In line with Patten the 50/50 quota for Catholic/Protestant recruitment to the police service can last for more than 10 years if necessary.

    The 50/50 quota will apply to the police support staff, where more than five similar posts are to be filled.

    In considering whether to renew the quota, the Secretary of State must have regard to the progress made towards a representative police service.

    If there is a shortfall of Catholics applying in any one year, this can be made up in subsequent years.

    The Board must, in consultation with the Equality Commission, develop an action plan for increasing the number of women in the police.

    The Equality Commission must be consulted on recruitment arrangements for the police.


    Even with the 50/50 quota for recruitment, there will be a shortfall of Catholics in senior ranks of the new police service. The SDLP has consistently argued for Garda Siochana to serve in the new police service, either permanently or on secondment. Originally, the British Government did not accept this and barriers preventing it were left in place. Now however:

  • Secondments of Gardai to the new police service in specialist areas will begin forthwith.

  • A new Treaty between the two Governments will provide for more far-reaching secondments. The British and Irish Governments have also committed to passing new legislation on this.

    The Governments have accepted in principle that:

  • those seconded should suffer no financial detriment

  • Gardai will be encouraged to work in the North, and the experience obtained will be fully recognised

  • The new police service will engage in outreach with the Gardai

  • Secondments should be possible at all levels above Inspector

  • Qualifications and experience of Gardai will be fully recognised.

    The Board and Chief Constable must encourage lateral entry to the police in order to improve representativeness. This will help ensure recruitment and secondment of Gardai.

    Lateral entry of Gardai is fully protected under fair employment law.


    Patten recommended that the Full Time Reserve be phased out. He also recommended that the Part Time Reserve be increased by 1,200, the new recruits coming from areas with few reservists or none at all. This would dramatically boost the number of Catholics in the police service. However, the British Government gave no timetable for implementing these recommendations and tried to increase the Part Time Reserve in a way that would reduce nationalist recruitment. But now:

  • The Part Time Reserve will be expanded by 1,500, more than Patten envisaged.

  • 1,200 of the new recruits should be Catholics, more than Patten envisaged.

  • The Part Time Reserve will be recruited over three years, faster than Patten envisaged.

  • Recruitment to the Full Time Reserve has been halted. Numbers have already fallen by 800.

  • The aim is to phase out the Full Time Reserve over three years, as Patten envisaged.

  • Police numbers are being reduced to 7,500 faster than expected.


    The Oversight Commissioner is one of the most important innovations of the Patten report.

    The Patten report stated that he should be responsible for supervising the implementation of the reports recommendations. However, the British Government has tried to limit the role of the Oversight Commissioner, American Tom Constantine. But now:

  • The office of the Oversight Commissioner has been secured in law.

  • The British Government has accepted that the Oversight Commissioner is responsible for overseeing the changes recommended in the Patten report just as Patten intended.

  • The Oversight Commissioner has been able to choose his own staff and his office is well resourced. He has put in place a comprehensive system for monitoring the reform process.

    In March 2002, the Oversight Commissioner will conduct a review of the current Police Act and recommend changes. The British Government will then introduce new legislation.


    As the Patten report points out, the Police Ombudsman is a vital mechanism to hold the police to account. The Bill failed to reflect fully Patten recommendations on the Ombudsman. However, now:

  • The Ombudsman has a right to all the documents held by the police and the Policing Board not just those that they think that it is reasonable for her to have.

  • New legislation will give the Ombudsman the power to investigate police policies and practices.

  • It will be a disciplinary offence for any police officer to obstruct the Ombudsman in her investigation of police policies and practices.

  • The Ombudsman in her reports can reveal the identity of individuals where it is in the public interest to do so.

    New regulations allow the Ombudsman to examine cases from the past.

  • The Ombudsman has a new power to mediate complaints.

  • The Ombudsman must be consulted on the Secretary of States policing objectives and will receive copies of his reports.


    The SDLP shares Pattens view that Special Branch is a force within a force. Originally, the British Government only committed to review timing for implementation of Pattens crucial recommendations on Special Branch. But now:

  • In line with Patten, Special Branch is already under one Assistant Chief Constable.

  • Special Branch has already been reduced by 10%.

  • Special Branch to be reduced to 50% in September, with amalgamation of support units into the wider police service.

  • In line with Patten, police officers are not to spend more than 5-7 years in Special Branch. This is critical to end the force within a force.


    Policing with the community is essential to achieving a new dispensation in Northern Ireland. The original policing plans of the British Government weakened Pattens provisions on policing with the community. But now:

  • The police are under a duty to, as far as practicable, carry out their functions "in co-operation with, and with the aim of securing the support of, the local community". This strengthens the duty on the police to work with the community. (79)

  • New legislation will clarify that policing with the community is a core function of the police service and its officers. This will further strengthen the duty on the police to work with the community.

  • New legislation will oblige the Policing Board to monitor the extent to which the police work with the community.

  • There will be four sub-groups of the Belfast District Policing Partnership (DPP).

  • The British Government is prepared, following the Oversight Commissioners review, to increase the powers of the four Belfast sub-groups in new legislation.

  • The prohibition on persons who have been fined under emergency legislation from sitting as independent members of DPPs has been abolished.

  • The British Government is prepared, following the Oversight Commissioners review, to abolish the remaining restrictions on persons convicted under emergency legislation sitting on DPPs.

  • District Commanders of the police must take account of views expressed by DPPs on local policing plans.

  • The Equality Commission must be consulted on the Secretary of States code for independent members of DPPs.

  • The Policing Board can guide DPPs on how best to seek the views of the public.


    A consistent problem with the police has been the lack of impartiality. A particular problem has been that police officers can be members of certain associations without declaring this (e.g. Orange Order, AOH, Royal Black Preceptory). Originally the Police Bill was very weak on these matters. Now:

  • Chief Constable will require members of such associations to notify this fact.

  • The Chief Constable must keep this information up until one year after retirement of the police officer.

  • The Chief Constable must consult the Human Rights Commission on notification of such associations. (91)

  • The Policing Boards power to access information on membership of such associations has been strengthened. (92)

  • The Secretary of State must have regard to the need to ensure that policing is impartial. (93)

  • The Policing Board must also have regard to the need to ensure that policing is impartial.

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