NI Affairs Committee asks Government to consider extending Police Ombudsman powers

Published Date: 23.02.2005

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has recommended that the Government should look at the issue of extending the powers of the Police Ombudsman's Office to allow it to deal with complaints from police officers and to investigate complaints about the Army.

The Committee's Report into the functions of the Police Ombudsman's Office, which has been published, has proposed changes to legislation to allow the Office to mediate in disputes between police officers and members of the public in situations where an investigation may not be necessary.

Overall, the Committee, which is chaired by Michael Mates MP, said it was impressed with the work achieved by the Office.

"Nowhere does the responsibility rest more heavily on ensuring that the public have confidence in the police service than on the Police Ombudsman and her staff. We do not underestimate those difficulties of her task."

The task of establishing the Office has been considerable and we have been impressed by the dedication and leadership demonstrated by Mrs. O'Loan and her staff in constructing from scratch a credible police complaints service in Northern Ireland," it said.

The Committee considered a view from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the powers of the Police Ombudsman's Office be enhanced to allow it to deal with complaints from police officers and complaints about the army.

"While it is not clear that the extensions to the Police Ombudsman's remit sought are justified, we do believe these proposals have illuminated potential weaknesses in the present complaints arrangements and have been identified by the Police Ombudsman herself. We believe these deserve further, thorough consideration by Government."

The Committee rejected requests for further mechanisms which would have oversight of the Police Ombudsman's Office but instead made recommendations for changes to the government's existing system for dealing with complaints against the Office.

"We think the present arrangements should be given a chance to 'bed down', subject to the Government accepting our recommendations."

The Committee also made a number of recommendations:

It noted that while the Police Ombudsman's standing with the general public was good, it's standing with police officers of the PSNI 'is less so':

"Everything possible must be done to improve officers' confidence in the present system of complaints. We warmly welcome the agreement between the PSNI, the police staff associations and the Police Ombudsman to work jointly to improve confidence. This is a solid start on which we expect all parties to build."

The Committee also noted that the relationship between the Police Ombudsman's Office and the Policing Board could be improved by more regular communication:

"These bodies need to take steps to ensure that their working relationship is satisfactory at all levels."

The Report also noted that the IT system installed for handling complaints had proved inadequate:

"The Northern Ireland Office must ensure that the Office has the resources and skills to procure and install a cost effective and fully efficient system with a reasonable life span."

The Police Ombudsman, Mrs. Nuala O'Loan, has described the Committee's Report as both supportive and constructive:

"I and my staff are pleased that the Committee has recognized the work we have done in setting up a police complaints system 'from scratch' and one that, to use its own words, has secured a high level of confidence in both communities.

"The Committee has also recognized some areas of the police complaints process where more work needs to be done. The Report has noted that we have begun much of that work. I will work with the community and with police officers to continue to address those issues."


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