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3.58 pm

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the provisions of this short but none the less important order. The Conservatives will not oppose it if it is pressed to a Division.

I do not intend to follow the Minister by going into detail, but the order effectively enables the Secretary of State to consult the Police Authority for Northern Ireland on regulations for new recruits made under section 41 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 rather than the new Policing Board that was recommended by Patten and is legislated for in the Act.

The 2000 Act was, of course, debated at length in the previous Session. Although it was a highly contentious measure, the Opposition welcomed much of it, but there was also a great deal in it that concerned us or that we opposed—the name change; the scrapping of the cap badge; the inclusion on the Policing Board of former terrorists or the representatives of organisations that insisted on keeping their illegal weapons; and the district policing partnerships.

The House will be relieved to know that now is not the time to go over that territory again, but as with the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001, which we passed on Monday, it is important that the House understands why we are debating this order. Quite simply, despite all the painful changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary that have been, or are in the process of being, made—changes that have led to alarmingly low levels of morale among the police—republicans and nationalists still refuse to give their support to the new policing arrangements. As such, they refuse to take up their entitlement to nominate members of the Policing Board—rightly or wrongly, the central element of democratic accountability over policing in Northern Ireland proposed in the Patten report.

The nationalists' argument is that the legislation that we passed in the House last year does not faithfully implement the Patten report. That is a matter of debate, but I tend to agree with Dr. Maurice Hayes, who served on the Patten commission, that it is better to get 90 per cent. of something than 100 per cent. of nothing. Meanwhile, to the best of my knowledge, republicans have never even endorsed the Patten report—diluted or

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not. Their attitude seems to be that the Patten report was just a starting point in a process that would lead to their vision of a disbanded RUC.

The fact is that there was a good deal in the Patten report, or the legislation that followed, that none of us liked, but that is not an argument or an excuse for running away from our responsibilities to get behind the police and give them our backing in their efforts even-handedly and impartially to uphold the rule of law in extremely difficult circumstances. I cannot be alone in finding an inconsistency between politicians exercising ministerial functions in part of the United Kingdom, yet at the same time refusing to support the police.

Far from softening their stance, however, nationalist and republican demands on policing have merely increased. Despite the Patten report and the legislation passed in the House last year, policing is now placed on a par with decommissioning and so-called demilitarisation as one of the outstanding issues to be resolved before the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. Well, I am sorry if I missed something, but I was under the impression that the issue had been resolved when the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 became law last year. It seems that nothing will satisfy the republicans on the issue until the police have been left completely demoralised, gutted and unable to perform any effective function in Northern Ireland, while the whole paramilitary infrastructure is left untouched.

Policing formed a central part of the discussions at Weston Park last week, and it will certainly be a key element in the paper that the British and Irish Governments present to the parties in the coming days. May I tell the Minister that the Conservative party continues to have the gravest reservations about giving any more ground on the issue in advance of the clearest evidence that the war really is over, that weapons are being put beyond use and that the structures of terrorism are being dismantled? In particular, we are greatly concerned about any new measure that will compromise the operational independence of the Chief Constable; that removes the bar on independent members with criminal convictions serving on the Policing Board and the DPPs; that allows the DPPs to raise 3p in the pound to spend on additional policing services; that would prematurely phase out the full-time reserve or reduce police numbers; and that would put constraints on the equipment currently available to the police to maintain order.

In that context, we utterly reject the totally naive comments made yesterday by the chairman of the Human Rights Commission, who called for an end to the availability of plastic baton rounds. I ask for an assurance from the Minister that there can be no question of going down that route, which would put the lives of police officers seriously at risk.

As we have seen in the past few days and weeks, politically motivated and carefully orchestrated violence from republicans and so-called loyalists continues to scar life in Northern Ireland. It is left to the men and women of the RUC to hold the line. Once again, we pay tribute to the bravery, skill and sheer professionalism of the RUC in serving the whole community in Northern Ireland and to the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, as he seeks to guide the force through such difficult times.

Recent violence in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland, in addition to the prevailing terrorist threat from dissidents or those organisations that have failed to

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decommission, highlights once again why we need effective policing in Northern Ireland. We need policing based on common sense, rather than a set of politically correct soundbites. We need a police service in Northern Ireland that is able to get on with the job without any operational interference from politicians and that has the capacity to combat terrorism and the resources that it needs to do so. In short, we need the RUC and the RUC is entitled to the support of the House.

4.6 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): It is a matter of regret that article 2 of the order, which substitutes the Police Authority for Northern Ireland with the Policing Board, has been required at all. A year has passed since the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 was introduced in the House, and it is disappointing that the board has not yet been set up.

To be frank, by declaring that they will not take their seats on the Policing Board, the members of the Social Democratic and Labour party have effectively held up many of the reforms that they wanted. I would counsel the SDLP to think hard about its position in the hope that it might reconsider it. Having said that, given the decisions made by the Northern Ireland parties, the Government can do little else if they want to maintain the effective and regular policing activities necessary across the United Kingdom and, obviously, in the Province, too.

I seek clarification of the circumstances of individual firearms training. I understand from what the Minister said that the arrangements under the order will bring police firearms training in Northern Ireland into line with the practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that she will confirm that that is the case in her concluding remarks. She spoke about whether Parliament should debate such orders, and it is very welcome that Parliament can now debate them. That is sensible and it will allow us to cover any outstanding issues.

We shall reconvene three months from now—a long time in politics and a very long time in the politics of Northern Ireland, and who knows what progress may have been made by then. I hope that we really have reached the endgame. We have to take a couple of steps back from time to time as we move questionably forward in the politics of Northern Ireland and the search for stable peace.

I remind the Minister of yesterday's exchange in the House on police funding. Without detaining the House too long, I remind her that the police are talking about the need for adequate resourcing. They estimate that there will be a shortfall of about £117 million in the money that they require to carry out fully the work expected of them in the Province. The Minister gave an assurance yesterday, and I hope that we shall spend more time discussing those issues than having to fall back on technical measures such as the order.

As I look around the Chamber, I see seven of the finest Labour Members and six of the nicest Conservatives that one could hope to meet.

Mr. John Taylor: Seven.

Lembit Öpik: There are now seven, and it is only a matter of regret to me that the leadership campaign is not

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being fought between the Conservative Members who are here. I also see five of the most enjoyable and pleasant Northern Ireland politicians.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: I shall give way to one of the finest Conservatives that one could hope to meet.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I agree with him. To complete the picture, how many Liberal Democrats does he see as he looks around the Chamber?

Lembit Öpik: We save the very best for these debates. I should clarify that my comments were about the right hon. Gentleman's personality not his sartorial elegance. [Interruption.] I am talking about his tie.

Considering the fine quality of politicians present, I hope that common sense will prevail and we shall not be driven to a Division. Such technical orders are an indication of the fact that there is still delay in Northern Ireland politics, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said. There are individuals who could have prevented this order from being required. More to the point, there are those who have it in their capacity to deliver the outstanding issues in the Good Friday agreement.

No amount of technical discussion in this Chamber about police orders such as this will ultimately deliver the long-standing stability that we seek. I hope that we shall not have to make such coarse corrections too often on the way to such stability. I hope that people in Northern Ireland will recognise that the order puts more pressure on those who can deliver what they must in the Province to do so.

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