Policing With Consent

The Alliance party gave a broad, though not unconditional, welcome to the Patten report.

Our vision of policing in Northern Ireland is of a single, integrated, professional police service that is representative of, responsive to, and carrying the confidence of every section of the community. The purpose of the police is to serve and protect the public, and to uphold the rule of law fairly and impartially. Patten largely reflected this vision.

The Policing Bill represents some departures from Patten. While the Report’s proposals represent an overall package, its recommendations are not written in stone. Some of the changes in the police bill are positive and to be welcomed, but others are distractions that should be reversed or amended.

Improved accountability and transparency must lie at the heart of any new beginning to policing. One of the past problems with policing in Northern Ireland has been the comparative weakness of the civic oversight body.

With the Patten Report, it was hoped that the new Police Board would be considerably stronger than the Police Authority that it replaced. However, the Police Bill assigns many powers to the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable rather than the Board.

Patten was clear in stressing that the Police Board should have this power, and that the ability of the Chief Constable or the Secretary of State to block inquiries should be strictly limited to matters of national security or actively before the courts.

Under the Police Bill, there are seven hurdles to the Police Board holding inquiries. The most problematic are the broad ability of the Secretary of State to block on the grounds of the efficiency and the effectiveness of the police, and the requirement for the Police Board to pay the full costs of inquiries. The restricted ability of the Board to hold inquiries could be fatal in damaging its credibility.

It is vital that human rights are placed at the heart of policing. The rule of law and human rights must go hand-in-hand. The Bill needs to be tightened to ensure that the police not merely have regard for the Code of Ethics, but comply with it.

The District Police Partnerships should provide a useful instrument in achieving transparency and accountability in policing. However, we were concerned about the abuse of power within these boards, in particular by one political party or political persuasion in certain areas, and the contracting out of certain services to fronts for paramilitary organisations. The decisions to have one central partnership for Belfast, and to withhold the power to spend the 3p on the rates are correct.

Alliance has tried to focus the debate on the substance of policing rather than symbols. We do not accept the argument that someone cannot support both the Patten Report and the police at the same time.

We accept and support the need for a new name for the police service in order to make it acceptable to the entire community. However, we have never believed the Patten Report was a recipe for the disbandment of the RUC, but rather one for a reformed service. We are pleased that the Bill does reflect the sacrifices of the past, and the continuity of the RUC within the reformed police service.

It is fundamentally important that we make our police service representative of the community it is to serve. However, we do not believe that quotas are the way to achieve this.

Alliance fears that the use of quotas would sectarianise what could otherwise be an integrated police force. Alliance believes that police officers should be judged on the basis of their individual qualities, not arbitrarily labeled.

Quotas entail discrimination. This is indeed recognised in the language of the Bill. They will require precedent changes to Fair Employment legislation. Religious quotas will soon be illegal under two European Commission directives arising out of the Treaty of Amsterdam: “a Proposal for a Council Directive Implementing the Principle of Equal Treatment of Persons Irrespective of Racial or Ethnic Origin”; and “a Proposal for a Council Directive Establishing a General Framework for Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation”.

Quotas are a tool for tackling problems of discrimination at the point of selection rather than problems within the pool of applicants. The religious and gender balance within the RUC is appalling. However the problem has not been discrimination against Catholic who have applied, but problems in getting sufficient numbers to apply.

Ultimately, if the overall package of reforms in the Policing Bill works then a balanced rate of recruitment should emerge given that the 18-30 age group is now more or less balanced between Protestants and Catholics. There is an important role for Nationalist leaders in encouraging recruitment, and the Police Board in setting targets for the recruitment not only of Catholics, but more women and ethnic minorities.

However, if Catholics do not apply in sufficient numbers, the use of quotas will not overcome this problem. This is already recognised within the Bill in that the Secretary of State has the power to set aside these quotas.

Alliance welcomes that the use of quotas are to be reviewed every three years, but we are concerned that their use could now be open ended rather than limited to ten years.

Alliance is concerned that Unionists and Nationalists have turned the Policing Bill into a political football, and have made threats not to support the process if they don’t get their way. This process should not be a zero-sum game but a new beginning in policing to benefit us all.

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