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Policing reform in Northern Ireland:
Control or Consent?  



A number of changes have been made to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill following widespread criticism of the original version. The amended version, which goes before the Lords this week, however, still fails to implement a number of the central recommendations of the Patten Report.

The key proposal was to set up a totally different form of policing in Northern Ireland. Instead of a hierarchical centralised police force, Patten recommended a devolved police service which would form part of a network of interlocking agencies and organisations pro-actively developing a series of initiatives to deal with a range of clearly identified problems. According to Patten: 'Policing is a matter for the whole community and not something that the community leaves to the police'.

The model was informed by a range of research from around the world, which showed that the only effective way of dealing with anti-social and other harmful behaviour was through the consent and co-operation with everyone. 'Neighbourhood policing should be at the core of police work'. Policing can not be achieved by officers sitting behind desks or in vehicles; they have to be in close touch with the people on the ground. This will involve a radical retraining for many officers away from traditional policing roles.

Patten recommended that the police should be accountable, representative, effective, efficient and free from control of any one section of the community and operate within a human rights framework. Although the proposals represent a radical departure in policing in Ireland, they are not radical when compared with developments in Canada and the United States where representative, democratic accountability and an increasing acceptance of the need to decentralise control are now the norm.

The new Bill fails to implement Patten in the following areas.

Locally based policing. There is no legislative provision for the development of a non-hierarchical, decentralised policing service. The only concession is the statutory provision for District Policing Partnerships and for each police district to have a designated district commander. There is no provision in the Bill for the devolution and control of finances and personnel to the District Command level. This is seen as an operational matter and is left with the Chief Constable. Patten also recommended that four District Policing Partnership Boards should be set up in Belfast. The Bill, however, provides for up to four and the decision on the number and the boundaries is left with the Chief Constable.

Accountability. Patten recommended that 'the statutory primary function of the Policing Board should be to hold the Chief constable to account'. To emphasise the importance of this function Patten recommended that the concept of 'operational independence' of the Chief Constable should be replaced by 'operational responsibility' to reflect the need for retrospective accountability. The Bill fails to incorporate this fundamental principle in the general functions of the Chief Constable.

The Bill also denies the automatic right of the Policing Board to request reports and to establish enquiries. The original version of the Bill provided no fewer than five situations in which the Chief Constable could refuse to produce a report or accept an inquiry into some aspect of policing demanded by the Police Board. These have been reduced to four. In addition, the final decision rests with the Secretary of State. In the case of a report, the he may set aside the request if he considers that information should not be disclosed for any of the listed situations. In the case of an enquiry, he may refuse it for any of the four situations and if it 'Would serve not useful purpose'. Moreover, the SS must approve the person appointed by the Board and no enquiry may take place into any act that occurred before the act came into force. These provisions place the Secretary of State in control of the police and not the Board. Moreover, it makes the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State above the law.

Patten recommended that the police take steps to improve its transparency and proposed the principle that everything should be available to the public unless it was in the public interest- not the police interest - to hold it back. The Bill continues to ignore this. Moreover, there is no provision for the Police Board to keep itself informed about the most contentious area of policing - the trends, proportionality and patterns in use and outcome of police powers and police decisions to charge.

Composition. Patten recommended that the period for achieving a more representative police service through the policy of recruiting one Catholic for every one Protestant was ten years. He also recommended that the policy should also cover civilian support staff. The new Bill reduces the time period to 3 years. Moreover, in relation to police support staff, the recruitment policy of one and one only applies if the vacancy is one of at least six vacancies.

Human Rights. Patten recommended that Human Rights should be at the heart of policing. The government has now accepted that the Police Board, and not the Chief Constable, in consultation with a number of bodies including the Human Rights Commission should produce the Code of Ethics. The Human Rights Commission is still excluded, however, from consultation in a number of other areas. For example, there is no provision for it to be consulted in relation to the Code of Practice for District Policing Partnerships nor specifically in relation to the Secretary of State's long term policing objectives.

Independent Supervision. Patten recommended that an Oversight Commissioner 'to supervise the implementation of our recommendations'. This proposal was ignored in the original version and has been included in the new Bill but limits the role to overseeing the changes 'decided by the government'. Patten also recommended an Ombudsman - an independent institution to provide an effective mechanism for holding the police accountable to the law. The institution is now in place, but it has no retrospective powers.

Culture, ethos and symbols. Patten recommended that the badge and symbols of the police should be free from association with the British or Irish States. He also recommended that the name should be entirely new. The new Bill now provides for 'The Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster constabulary). It also now gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations prescribing the design of an emblem and a flag and when it may be flown. All of these are contrary to Patten.

The model of policing, which Patten proposed, was progressive, radical and enlightened. It was based on the latest social science research which show what works and what does not work in the field of policing. He imagined a 'new beginning' in which politics could be taken out of policing. Ironically, it now appears that all communities in Northern Ireland will be deprived of an effective, efficient and accountable policing service because of the politics of the peace process.

Background briefing

Patten's radical model of policing is emasculated in Police (Northern Ireland) Bill: Policing Northern Ireland
The Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and the "Secretary of State's Implementation Plan": detailed comparison with the 175 recommendations in the Patten report:  Analysis  (pdf file)
Suggested amendments to the Bill: Amendments


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