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5.12 pm

Jane Kennedy: First, I should like to address some comments to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and to the Opposition, who agreed to the meeting that took place this morning, and who allowed us to have this debate.

The process is already well under way to bring the first new trainees into the police service this autumn. The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 provides for their terms and conditions to be set out in regulations. It also provides for the Policing Board to be consulted on the regulations. I understand why some hon. Members missed my opening remarks, but I said then that the board will not be in place in sufficient time for the necessary consultation to take place. The order amends the 2000 Act to enable the Police Authority for Northern Ireland to fulfil the consultation role and any of the board's functions under the regulations until the board is established.

In addition, the order provides for trainees to receive firearms training without the administrative burden of issuing them, individually, with firearms certificates. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) both asked serious questions about these issues.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made a speech—the elegance of which was second only to the sartorial elegance displayed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—in which he asked whether the order would bring the training of police officers in Northern Ireland into line with training in England and Wales. I can tell him that police trainees in forces in Great Britain are also exempt from the need to have firearms certificates.

Mr. Forth: Is it sufficient simply to say that, because something is done on the mainland, it is okay for Northern Ireland? I ask that in the obvious context that, although Northern Ireland is rightly an integral part of the United Kingdom, we all recognise that conditions there vary in many crucial ways, as the Minister knows better than me. I ask also in light of the recent incidents involving the police and firearms. Against that background, are the Minister and Secretary of State happy that this is the time to do away with an administrative burden that may provide safeguards of the kind that people want?

Jane Kennedy: Let me try to reassure the right hon. Gentleman. Police trainees will not be issued with a

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service firearm until they have been trained in its safe handling and use, including public safety aspects. The recruitment process is such that suitability is tested in terms of firearms and all other aspects of policing. I take a great interest in this matter, given the tragic shooting in my constituency last Thursday night.

Lembit Öpik: Will the Minister confirm whether the arrangements are actually changing in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: The current arrangements will continue.

A number of arguments have been advanced. The order is concerned with the provisions on 50:50 recruitment and the regulations on flags and emblems, which have to be laid in Parliament before they take effect. I knew that this matter was bound to raise many of the questions that were debated at length in the House during the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked about the Police Federation's concerns about pension and other arrangements. These concerns are being addressed and discussions are on-going. We are listening carefully to the representations of the federation.

Members have referred to 50:50 recruitment. Undoubtedly, intimidation is an important factor. We all want it to end immediately and we condemn it unreservedly, but there are other factors. They include, for example, a lack of identity with the RUC; a fear of loss of contact with family, friends and community; and a lack of encouragement from community leaders, which also plays a part. The Government urge all political, religious and community bodies to remove barriers to those wishing to join the police. It is important to remember and place on record that only 8 per cent. of the current police force is drawn from the Catholic community.

Mr. Donaldson: Why?

Jane Kennedy: I have explained some of the factors that affect recruitment. There has been a good cross-community response to recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the new 50:50 provisions. I am not ideologically opposed to such provisions. In fact, I believe that, on occasion, it is necessary actively to seek to recruit from sections of the community that are not otherwise represented, particularly in such an important public service as the police.

The Government aim to develop a modern police service that is both effective and representative of the community that it serves, and commands the widespread confidence and support that it needs to be able to operate properly. Members made the point that the community within which the police will operate must support police officers in carrying out their duties. It is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the police service to have that representative service in place.

The hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and others referred to the talks and to policing. I restate the Government's position.

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We are committed to implementing the Patten report and we are always prepared to consider matters when parties argue that we have not done enough.

Mr. John Taylor: I repeat a question that I asked the Minister earlier. Is it not the case that the Patten report was a prescription for policing in Northern Ireland once all aspects of the Belfast agreement had been fulfilled?

Jane Kennedy: No, I do not accept that. The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland himself said that the vast bulk of the Patten recommendations were about "good and effective policing." The Government and the police are keen to move forward to introduce such modern effective policing in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I will not deal with funds as we dealt with them yesterday in oral questions. I refer hon. Members to the comments that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I made then. I have no intention of adding to them today.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) raised concerns about Democratic Unionist party membership on the police authority, and other hon. Members raised their involvement in the Weston Park talks. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have met the DUP regularly throughout the process. Indeed, I believe that the Secretary of State will meet the hon. Gentleman's party again soon. The talks at Weston Park were aimed at resolving difficulties and implementing the few remaining aspects of the agreement. Consequently, it was natural that those parties that backed the agreement should be invited.

Mr. Dodds: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jane Kennedy: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way as I have only two minutes left. I will certainly discuss the matter with him afterwards.

I will not touch on the many questions about other issues that we may deal with in implementing the reforms to the police force in Northern Ireland, because they are not subject to the order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that the order was an acceptance that the peace process was failing. That is not the case and I hope that he will not use that interpretation. He missed my opening comments, in which I said that, in spite of the Government's considerable efforts to bring about the necessary agreement on the outstanding policing issues, it has not been possible to establish the Policing Board, which we regret.

I have warm words for the full-time reserve. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) referred to morale in policing, yet he then came out with the unfounded and inaccurate comment that the full-time reserve will be wiped out. The position is as I set it out yesterday. It will be phased out, but only when—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentlemen will care to listen to this. It will be phased out only when the prevailing security situation and policing requirements permit. Those will be reviewed in the spring.

I acknowledge that I have not been able to deal with all the points raised, but I hope that the House will accept the order.

Question put and agreed to.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): We now come to the business motion. The Question is as on the Order paper.

Hon. Members: Aye.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We now come to the motion on deferred Divisions. The Question is as on the Order Paper.

Hon. Members: Aye.

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Business of the House

5.23 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I beg to move,

I apologise for my eagerness a moment ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall briefly outline the purpose of the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons. In effect, the House is being asked to approve the timing of today's debates on appointments to Select Committees.

The motion sets aside paragraph 2(a) of Standing Order No. 121, which provides that motions proposing nomination to departmental Select Committees must have at least two days' notice. Normally, that provision makes perfect sense and works to the advantage of the House as it prevents it from being bounced into nominations and ensures that hon. Members have opportunities to propose amendments. However, if we did not set it aside today, we would be unable, prior to the House rising tomorrow for the recess, to set up the Select Committees in question and make the other changes identified by the Committee of Selection.

I hope that the House will agree that in those circumstances it is right to consider the new proposals from the Committee of Selection before we rise for the summer. We are allowing up to 90 minutes to debate the appointments to the Select Committees. As I stated earlier in the week, previous Parliaments were only ever given one and a half hours to discuss the appointments to all the Select Committees.

A number of hon. Members wish to speak to the main motion and I hope that we can move on to it promptly.

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