Northern Ireland Assembly: Executive Committee Business: Justice Bill: Consideration Stage (22 February 2011)
I thank the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Justice Committee for the skilful manner in which they have led the Committee and for the thorough way in which the Committee has dealt with all the matters before it. I thank the Committee staff for their thoroughness and endless assistance. I also thank the Department’s officials for their help and co-operation, which, as colleagues said, was first-class.
In relation to clause 20 and the establishment of PCSPs, the SDLP is of the view that that is a proper and timely reform of DPPs and community safety partnerships. We see it as an enhancement of the original concept of the DPPs, which were created as a result of the Patten Commission. It is important to maintain that link with the community, to expand the original role of the DPPs into one of considering community safety in general and to increase community involvement. One of the weaknesses of the present system is insufficient community involvement at DPP level. That fusion is important, and I think that it will work. It is right and proper that the Department came to the Committee with that concept and encapsulated it in the draft legislation. It is important for the Assembly to support that concept and its objectives, which are to provide a greater sense of security and safety for local — I emphasise the word “local” — communities. The more local people and local organisations are involved, the better.
I commend the Committee for emphasising the need for meaningful consultation, for encouraging the Department to expand the way in which the PCSP would operate and for ensuring that the partnership will give full consideration to the views of local organisations and the local community. The addition of the related amendments is extremely helpful because they strengthen the need for the partnership to take into consideration, in a genuine and sustained way, the views of local communities. That is vital to the future success of that organisation.
There was much discussion about antisocial behaviour. I am grateful to the Department for drawing the attention of the Committee to the definition of antisocial behaviour in the Anti-social Behaviour (Northern Ireland) Order 2004:
“ an anti-social manner, that is to say in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household”
That is a useful guide to what constitutes antisocial behaviour because we could talk for ages without reaching a precise understanding of what it means. We all know what it means in our lives and in the lives of ordinary citizens, but a definition in those terms is helpful to the Committee and the House.
Along with colleagues, I disagree with the way in which clause 34 has been drafted. Perhaps I will go a little further than most colleagues by saying that, even if amendments were brought to the House in the way that the Minister took quite some time to describe and outline, I am not certain that I would support clause 34. It imposes too heavy a duty on public bodies and would give rise to considerable additional public expenditure and costs. It would also give rise to litigation that could result in actions for compensation, which could be detrimental to the way in which public bodies operate. It might not enhance their view of developing community safety. Instead, it might damage and weaken them and make them risk-averse. In any event, the clause places too heavy a duty, at this point, on public bodies. We should be careful about expanding statutory duties to public bodies at large. There are many statutory duties on public bodies. If we add another one, we will add a not insignificant burden to public bodies.
The Department has not properly costed the proposal. I am not certain that the Department could properly cost the proposal in practice. Imposing a statutory duty on public bodies would mean taking into consideration not just the PSNI or local councils but lots of other bodies, such as the Housing Executive. It is important for us to estimate the cost of that for a wide range of public bodies. The cost could be substantial, which, in times of economic stringency, would not be particularly helpful to those public bodies. I ask colleagues to consider that extremely carefully. It is important that those matters be costed. The Minister will probably be able to reply in more detail on this, but I am not certain that his ministerial colleagues are aware of or are sensitive to what the clause might mean for their Departments.
I am perhaps more strongly opposed to clause 34 than some of my colleagues on the Committee and in the Assembly. I am not convinced that any future amendment would change my point of view, but I will not rule that out completely. There was a timely intervention by the Attorney General on the matter. I sensed that he was not fully satisfied with the draft amendments that were put to the Committee. Whether or not he is now satisfied with them, I do not know, but his points were very influential in shaping the minds of Committee members on the matter.
On the issue of payment to members of partnerships, it is important that people are properly remunerated for the work that they do. It is public work, and it is important, but it means cost in respect of time, particularly for independent or lay members. It is important that those people receive proper remuneration for their time. It is also important that those who are public representatives and are involved in such bodies be properly remunerated. I will add one caveat to that: if we are looking at local government at large — I am sorry if I am straying a little, Mr speaker is in charge of proceedings of the House of Commons in..." class="glossary">Deputy Speaker — we should consider giving local councillors a decent salary, which would end the need for some of them to join committees and outside bodies to enhance their remuneration. As I said, it would be much better if councillors received a decent salary and forwent any outside or additional payments. That would be the proper way to approach things, and, although it is an individual view, it is one that is worthy of some consideration in the House.
There was a difference of opinion between the Committee and the Minister on the issue of designated organisations. I prefer the way in which the Committee has approached the matter, and I support that position.
It is right and proper that councillors, who are elected public representatives, should be able to be chairpersons of partnerships. It is important that we maintain that democratic mandate. That would not take away from the standing of independent members of partnerships, and I disagree with the Minister on that point. Independent members are appreciated and have a very real value to add to partnerships’ deliberations. However, there is a special position for councillors. They have a democratic mandate that should be respected. They should be able to become the chairpersons of the partnerships, not just the chairpersons of the policing committees.
There is not a great deal of disagreement over this group of amendments. It may appear that there is, but, in the main, the Committee and the Minister and his officials saw eye to eye. Clause 34 may be the exception to that, but that deals with quite a substantive issue on which disagreements are sincerely held.