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11.2 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Patten report speaks to a very different Northern Ireland from that which we have known in the past. The Good Friday agreement provided the basis for ending 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland and the days when the pillars of the state in Northern Ireland failed to represent the society that those pillars served. Chief among them, in nationalist eyes, was the Royal Ulster Constabulary--the police service in Northern Ireland.

Like the Good Friday agreement that spawned it, the report of the Patten commission promised nothing less than a new beginning. It promised a modern, civic police service rooted in all parts of the community, drawing strength and legitimacy from all parts of the community. With this Bill, our task is to bring the vision of the Patten report to life--to reality--and to draw a line under recent history, but not to forget, and certainly not to disown, that history.

Three hundred and two officers of the RUC have lost their lives. Thousands more have been injured. Families and friends suffered bereavement. I know from my meetings, contacts and encounters with those friends and families how the terrible pain of that bereavement continues in the lives of those people--mothers, wives, offspring.

The courage of the RUC in the face of such sacrifice was immense; I think that the whole House will want to salute it. The professionalism of RUC officers was extraordinary, and we respect it. It is for that reason that, in the Bill, we will create the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation. That will mean that the name of the RUC, its proud history and record will live on in perpetuity and will be for ever honoured.

Over the last few weeks, and particularly over the last five days or so, in Drumcree and across Northern Ireland, in the face of bottles, bomb blasts, blast bombs, and acid squirted in the faces of RUC officers, we have seen that professionalism again and again and again, night in and night out, as hoodlums--thugs--have hijacked what I regard as legitimate protest. I believe that we will all want to pay tribute to the RUC for bearing the enormous brunt of that violence over the last week.

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The RUC has paid a price in more than one way. Its members have certainly paid a price with their lives but, over the past 30 years, the fact that the RUC has been the bulwark against a brutal terrorist campaign has led to its being identified more with one side of the community than with the other. That identification may not be deserved--it has certainly not been sought--but that is the perception of a substantial section of the community, and it is a perception that, in the Bill, we are addressing and seeking to correct.

The Patten commission's starting point was that the police service must respect the values and reflect the pluralism of Northern Ireland's society as a whole, not just a majority of that society but the whole of it. The police service must enjoy widespread support from, and must be seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole. It must do that if it is to be an effective police service. That is very hard when there is a 9:1 religious imbalance in the composition of the police.

The hard reality of policing in Northern Ireland, and the reason why policing was remitted to the Patten commission in the first place, is that, while 80 per cent. of Protestants are content with policing, less than 50 per cent. of Catholics are satisfied. That is shown in a number of opinion surveys. Eighty-eight per cent. of the police are from one section of the community, in spite of the efforts of the Chief Constable and the Police Authority to achieve a more balanced service. Those efforts have been great and they have been sustained, but they have not been successful.

Of course, intimidation by the IRA has been a factor in preventing Catholics, and discouraging nationalists, from joining the RUC; but it is only one factor. Lack of community support and of identity with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, fear that they would lose contact with family and with friends, fear that they would have to submerge their Catholic identity or nationalist politics if they were to join the RUC, and fear of harassment in their community or within the RUC--all these have played a part.

I did not simply take the Patten report at face value. I looked behind it. I looked into it. I talked to people right across the community, and made my own judgments about what was right and what needed to be done. I was persuaded that radical changes were needed to redress that extreme religious imbalance that has resulted in the RUC's being unrepresentative of the community as a whole, and therefore all the less effective as a police service as a consequence.

The radical changes that needed to be made included changing the name. That is a difficult decision, and it is a painful decision for people right across the RUC family. Indeed, it was a painful decision for me, and one that I would not have taken if I did not believe that it was essential to the new beginning that Patten envisages. If I had felt that we could have gone ahead and created a new start, and created a new beginning for policing without changing the name, I most certainly would have done that.

I am also persuaded that widespread support means not alienating the Protestant and Unionist traditions in the community. Yes, they must accept change and, in this case, radical change, but we must be sensitive to the fears and concerns of all in the community of both traditions. Change must be built on consensus wherever we can achieve it. That is an important principle to apply to the

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implementation of Patten. Wherever it is possible to secure agreement and consensus, draw the traditions together and put them behind the changes that we want to see, we should strenuously seek to do so and we should not give up easily when at first we do not succeed.

Patten was clear that the RUC was not being disbanded. That argument was made strenuously by some in Northern Ireland, and it was rejected. Patten was also clear that the link between the RUC and the new police service must be recognised. It is in his report. For that reason, because I want to ease the transition in the best way that I can, because I want to build as wide a consensus for change as possible and because I want to address the fears and concerns of both traditions and people across the community, we have accepted a description moved in Committee by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) which incorporates the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in effect, in the title deeds of the new service.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary, as Patten himself recommended--he wanted that link established between the RUC and the new police service--is being carried forward. The body of constables known as the RUC will form part of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and it will be incorporated in the new police service. At the same time, we have introduced a new name--the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We did that, having accepted the amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman. The name "Police Service of Northern Ireland" will be used for all operational and working purposes, wherever and in whatever circumstances when the police interface with the public.

It is critical that we strike the right balance throughout in the way in which we carry forward the changes. People across the community must know and respect the officers in the new service. Both sides must feel that the service genuinely reflects their values, needs and traditions. They must emphatically not feel that, by joining the service, let alone supporting it, they are in some way betraying members of their tradition and their side of the community in Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, what the police do--how representative they are; how they are trained and equipped--matters more than what they are called. The Government are determined to ensure that the police have the necessary resources and capabilities to protect the community and uphold law and order.

Hon. Members have referred to what they sometimes call the mafia society in Northern Ireland. It is certainly a society that carries the legacy of 30 years of conflict and the operation, persistence, and contamination of paramilitary organisations. Under the new political dispensation, we have the opportunity for society as a whole and its policing service to unite in standing up to, and facing down, each and every one of those paramilitary organisations. If we do not, we will never succeed in creating the decent, civic society in Northern Ireland to which we all aspire.

The Government are determined, therefore, that the policing service that is being created is not simply rebadged or renamed, but is a truly effective, capable policing service. It is true that, in a sense, the Patten report was an important part of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland--quite rightly. That is why it was spawned by the Good Friday agreement.

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Equally, what the Patten report and its implementation must be about is, above all, efficient and effective policing, to cope with the threat and the dangers that persist in Northern Ireland. In some cases, some interpretation of the Patten report has been needed. Patten did not give a detailed blueprint for everything. In some cases, also, we have been able to move forward and implement Patten without legislation; not every change, alteration, modification, needs to be provided for in law.

Indeed, Patten himself did not contend that his report spelled out every particular, and in parts he deliberately avoided being too prescriptive on the detail, so as to allow other voices to be heard. Those other voices have been heard since the report was published, and they will continue to be heard as we proceed along the path of its implementation.

So when we introduced the Bill on 16 May, we acknowledged that it would need some changes and adjustments. I never said at the time that the Bill was the last word. It was the first stab--I happen to think that it was a good, honourable and faithful stab--at implementing the Patten report. It does not deserve some of the descriptions made of it, in many cases--not all--for straightforward ulterior political purposes by some individuals in Northern Ireland who never had, and never will have, any intention of supporting the police, reformed, renamed, rebadged or otherwise.

I have listened to constructive comments on the Bill and have made, and shall continue to make, where the argument is persuasive, necessary changes to meet legitimate concerns. Indeed, on a number of points, as will be known to hon. Members who followed the Bill's progress through its Committee stage, we have acted: in relation to the Policing Board, its objectives, its planning, the code of ethics and other codes of behaviour and operation, and on reports and inquiries by the board. I have shifted the balance since the Bill was published to reflect concerns that there were too many safeguards. I think that I struck the balance in the wrong place. There were too many limitations. I have listened and I have moved.

The wording of the oath is now more in line with Patten, and all serving officers are required to understand the new oath and the need to carry out their duties in accordance with it. Those who made that case were right, and we have moved to accommodate their view. We have also removed the 10-year cut-off for 50:50 recruitment. I, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary have been, and remain, open to argument, to further debate and change, which no doubt will take place as the Bill leaves this House and moves on to the other place. That is because I recognise the historic importance of this opportunity and of this legislation that we have been considering in Committee and again today.

This is perhaps the best chance that we shall have to create an outstanding modern police service, one that will be a model of its kind for the rest of the world to emulate, and to allow the police to change and develop in a way that they have wanted for years. The RUC did not want to be trapped in the identity, the character, of a security force. The RUC members and officers themselves, led by an able and outstanding Chief Constable, wanted to evolve into a community-based partnership policing

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service as circumstances and conditions allowed, to make the transition from an anti-terrorist security force to a community-focused and community-based police service; in other words, a new police service for a new political dispensation, a new society, that is emerging, with difficulty, in Northern Ireland. That is Patten's vision and I believe that the Bill is entirely faithful to it. It is a full, honourable and faithful implementation of every part of Patten's recommendations. That is why I commend it to the House.

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