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16 November 2000 Edition

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Patten has been ``gutted''

Former Patten commissioner slams British Police Bill


One of the independent members of the Patten Commission, Dr Clifford Shearing, has comprehensively denounced the Police bill, which has just undergone its third reading in the House of Lords.

Patten has not been cherry-picked - it has been gutted.
In an article for The Guardian on 15 November, Shearing, a South African-born criminologist at the University of Toronto, argues forcefully that the bill ``dismantles the foundations on which the Patten Commission plan was built'' and that the ``core elements'' of its report ``have been undermined everywhere''.

Focusing on just some of the huge number of discrepancies between the Patten report and the bill, Shearing says that the new legislation rejects the concept of policing as ``a collective responsibility'' and instead ``reflects the limited conception of policing [which] the Patten report sought to transcend''.

He is particularly critical of the bill's proposals in respect of the creation, funding and powers of the new policing board, which, he comments, would be such ``in name only''. The Patten report envisaged that the new policing board would have genuine powers to ``require the chief constable to report on any issue pertaining to the performance of his functions or those of the police service''. This bill, says Shearing, ``completely eviscerates these proposals'' and ``would allow the chief constable to question almost any attempt by the board to require a report or get behind a report they have received''.

The bill's provisions also allow for the Secretary of State to overrule any decision by the board to request an independent inquiry into any aspect of policing or police conduct. This provision, comments Shearing, makes ``it possible to hide and obscure'' the truth.

These already weakened powers would be further undermined by the fact that they are not retrospective. Past misdeeds by the RUC, both collectively and by individual officers, will continue to go unpunished; there is no proper system for rooting out serving officers who have been responsible for human rights violations. The powers of the newly appointed policing Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, are also already severely curtailed. Like the proposed policing board, she will not have meaningful, unrestricted access to RUC documents and what authority she does exercise will also not apply retrospectively.

Shearing concludes by stating unequivocally that the bill ``does not fulfil the hopes and vision of the Belfast Agreement. It is not a new beginning. It will not serve the people of Northern Ireland''.

This is not the first time that Dr Shearing has voiced his deep unease about the progress of the police bill. At a public meeting in Toronto some weeks ago (An Phoblacht, 12 October), he said that he had been ``taken aback'' at the British government's failure to recognise the crucial elements of Patten. On the question of the name and symbols of the new police service, he insisted that these must be neutral in order to encourage nationalists to join it. If these symbols remained aligned to unionism - as the bill proposes - nationalists would be as disinclined as ever to join making the new service ``worthless''.

Dr Shearing's most recent criticisms come after a host of other condemnations of the bill. In June this year, for example, Professor Brendan O'Leary, co-author of `Policing Northern Ireland' and also writing in The Guardian, was scathing about the bill, referring to it as a ``mockery'', a ``travesty'', and ``almost a parody'' of the Patten report. O'Leary called the bill ``a fundamental breach of faith, perfidious Britannia in caricature. It represents Old Britain, it was drafted by the forces of conservatism, for the forces of conservatism; the bill will ensure... that the RUC remains unreformed''.

This was written when Peter Mandelson still had the opportunity to rectify what O'Leary calls, ``this disgrace''. He chose not to do so, opting instead, in his quest to ensure the political survival of David Trimble, for only the most insubstantial of amendments to the bill, which did not address any of the criticisms levelled at it. This policy has now reached its logical conclusion where, as Clifford Shearing points out: ``Patten has not been cherry-picked - it has been gutted.''

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