Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. ÷pik: We have had a full debate. I shall keep my comments short because I hope to return to this matter on Report.

I respect Ministers at all times, and I do not doubt that they want nothing but the best for Northern Ireland. That is proved by the extraordinary generosity of spirit that they have shown at least twice today. I do not criticise or disrespect the Government's approach-it has been clearly established that we all agree with it. I see that the Minister is nodding. The question is not what we are trying to achieve, but how to do so.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) rightly noticed that I was upset when he commented on the Liberal Democrat gender balance in Parliament. However, I do not believe that positive discrimination is the solution. When the Welsh Liberal Democrats were selecting our candidates for the Cardiff Assembly, we had a debate about positive discrimination, but the proposal was rejected. However, we worked in an affirmative manner and secured a 50:50 balance in the Assembly. We achieved that not through positive discrimination but through positive affirmation, which is more than the hon. Gentleman's party has done.

Mr. Savidge: With regard to affirmative action and gender balance, the Conservative party and the Ulster Unionists have adopted the same approach, and we should take note of the gender balance in those parties.

Mr. ÷pik: That suggests that of all the parties that are in opposition, the Liberal Democrats are best placed to give guidance about how to get it right.

The hon. Member for Leominster challenged me to say what affirmative action might be taken. There is much that one could do-for example, one could work in Catholic schools and ensure that joining the police was regarded as a legitimate career option, which should be promoted by careers advisers in schools. Nothing could be more obvious than that, although it might be difficult to do. Alternatively, one could work with nationalist and republican leaders to ensure that they sincerely promote working in the police force as a positive and worthwhile career. That will not be easy to acheive, but we must do so in order to reach the result that we all want.

Conversely, if the hon. Gentleman does not believe that affirmative action could be effective, what on earth is the point of having a quota? That would simply create a force-fit situation that would be even more injurious than creating sectarianism and resentment by forcing the acceptance of lower quality applicants from Catholic communities than from Protestant communities.

The hon. Member for South Down suggested that the measure is not contrary to EU law. Why then is there such talk from the Secretary of State about needing a derogation to depart from EU law? I suggest that it is a matter of timing. One could compare these proposals with existing provision in respect of sexual discrimination. It appears to be only a matter of historical accident that we have not excluded such proposals on the grounds that they are unacceptable. Perhaps, as some members of the Committee have suggested, the principle is utilitarian-a case of the greatest good for the greatest number.

If this is acceptable behaviour with regard to religious inequality in the Northern Ireland police force-where a population of less than 1 million Catholics is being discriminated against by being dissuaded from joining the police service-why not extend the derogation and fight for equal respect for the needs of the 30 million or so women who are regularly discriminated against in several walks of life? The Government would not try to do that, because they know what the reaction would be across the United Kingdom if such positive discrimination replaced the forms of affirmative action that they have rightly sought to implement through employment law by working in harmony with European legislation. It is not the whole story to say that the Northern Ireland case is more deserving than others.

I could advance many more arguments. The mathematical example cited by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone classically highlighted the difficulties. He underlined the point that one can foresee a situation in which, in order to fulfil the 50:50 recruitment quota, the standard required to become a member of the police might be reduced if the application was registered as having come from a Catholic. I am sure that none of us thinks that that is the right way to move forward, yet, crucially, it may be the consequence of what we have been discussing. The police could be sectarianised as a direct result of the Government's attempt to rectify the situation by using an incorrect process.

I have given a few examples of my concerns, but we have not even scratched the surface. I do not intend to keep repeating the argument throughout subsequent debates pertaining to the same issue, so I have tried to highlight the main points during my remarks on this group of amendments. However, many other aspects could be covered, such as why we oppose discriminatory quotas on the basis of moral, pragmatic and legal concerns, and of precedents for the rest of the United Kingdom. We could discuss what the Minister said earlier about having to implement the proposals because Patten is unequivocal about them. I remind him that he is picking and choosing in that respect. He has chosen not to implement other parts of Patten because the Government do not believe that it is appropriate to do so. As I said on Second Reading, they cannot have it both ways: they cannot argue, ``It is in Patten and therefore we have to implement it'' if at other times they choose to reject the recommendations.

I ask the Government to think again. Merit is the way forward, and that militates against having a 50:50 quota at the tail end of the recruitment process. At the same time, this is a serious argument and one must accept the points that have been made by those who support the current wording of the Bill. It is more difficult to increase the percentage of a certain kind of applicant than to have a simple quota, but that would lead to the right result. What sort of message is sent if a Protestant applicant goes home and says, ``I was better, but someone else got the job because she was a Catholic''? [ Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The Committee is becoming a little too noisy.

9.45 pm

Mr. ÷pik: That is absolutely possible under the Bill. It is all very well for people to speak from a sedentary position, but anyone who has had such debates either within their local party-I am sure that that happened a lot before the general election-or in other walks of life when questions of positive discrimination are proposed knows that I am not grandstanding, but making a statement of fact about one of the potential consequences of implementing quotas.

I remind the Committee that I am not one of those people who rises to his feet to score political points. I try to argue my case on the basis of merit. It is probably evident that I feel passionately about the matter, although not because I am trying to show Ministers to be ineffective or incorrect in their aspirations. I am worried that one part of an otherwise pretty good Bill could needlessly increase injustice to one section of the community when we all know that the only way in which we can solve the problem of percentages and create faith in the police service in Northern Ireland is by making it a legitimate and trustworthy career for anyone in Northern Ireland. We cannot do that by tackling the problem at the tail end. We must tackle it at the start.

Will the Government accept in good faith that I am making my points sincerely, having been through the mill on this subject a number of times? I was a professional human resources manager in a company where I was responsible for a large part of the recruitment activities and I had such discussions then.

Let us do the right thing tonight and have application targets instead of quotas. I am asking the Committee to accept that fairness is more important than force-fit.

Mr. Ingram: I shall try to be brief, but a number of important points have been raised. I shall deal first with those raised by the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) who used an odious comparison. I hope that he will not again compare what the Government are trying to do with anything relating to nazism or fascism and the way in which that moved into Poland. If he does not understand our arguments, we are prepared to argue them at length and to point out the errors of his ways, but I ask him please not to use such comparisons again in this or future debates because they are deeply offensive to many people who have stood firmly against fascism.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to positive discrimination and we hold our hands up. Clause 43 refers to discrimination and appointments and there is no point in saying that that is anything other than positive discrimination. The Government took that decision in response to the Patten recommendations. We are confident that we can provide a proper legal basis for the special measure under both domestic and European law. We would not have been justified in proceeding on that basis if we thought that we would be out of compliance with other legislation.

I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said about what should apply in normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances and Patten spent a long time analysing that. The hon. Gentleman gave us free advice on the European convention on human rights. I am glad that it was free, because it was wrong and I would not have paid for it. We do not accept that the 50:50 recruitment arrangements breach the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under article 9 of the ECHR.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman claims that applicants will feel indirect pressure, but we do not believe that it will interfere with their freedom to practise their religion. Indeed, the provision is intended to promote equal access to the service for people of both religions.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned article 14 of the ECHR, which deals with the prohibition of discrimination, but neither it nor the other convention articles are free standing. It applies only in relation to convention rights such as those listed under article 9, and article 9 does not apply for the reasons that we have given.

There is another reason why I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We have assessed the Bill in relation to the ECHR, and the Bill makes it clear that, in the view of the Secretary of State,

    the provisions of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.

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