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17 Oct 2002 : Column 578—continued

7.23 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) for choosing policing as the subject of our debate. She raised many issues on policing in general, as well as specifically in the Strangford area. Although I cannot comment in depth on the circumstances in specific areas—the deployment of police resources is, of course, a matter for the Chief Constable—as Minister with responsibility for security, policing goes to the heart of my responsibilities. I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the anxieties that she raised. I have only a short time, so I shall respond in greater depth in writing, if she is happy with that, after the debate when I have read the details in Hansard.

On the hon. Lady's general point about the overall effectiveness of the criminal justice system, I draw her attention to the law and order group that the Secretary of State has established, in which he meets the Attorney-General and Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. They are advised and supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable. We are examining every aspect of the criminal justice process to ensure that the process and management of the criminal justice system are as effective as we can make them.

The hon. Lady is right to talk about a sense of growing problems involving crime. She draws attention to concerns that we all share about the continuing security situation that is faced by the police and security forces in Northern Ireland. However, I would refute the main thrust of her argument, which is that the Belfast agreement is the cause of the current security situation in the Province. She would expect me to say that, but there are many issues on which we agree.

I argue that since the signing of the agreement, the overall security situation has improved. However, serious terrorist and public order challenges remain. The hon. Lady rightly quoted horrific statistics of shootings and bombings. Since the middle of May and throughout the summer months, there have been serious and sustained violent incidents in the Short Strand area in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

There are still sporadic outbreaks of violence in the north of the city too. During the violence, police have been attacked with blast bombs, petrol bombs, acid bombs, bricks and other missiles. We must consider what sort of a mind makes acid or petrol bombs, and hands them out to teenagers to throw at police officers. The police face extremely serious problems. They have even come under live gunfire from both traditions. Since the beginning of the year, more than 600 police officers have been injured in north and east Belfast. Recently, the police and the Army established a high-profile presence on both sides of the community in east Belfast. It has brought a welcome degree of peace and calm to the area. However, the hon. Lady knows as well as I do that that can never be a permanent solution to the problems.

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In Belfast, the police can call on up to seven level 1 and 10 level 2 tactical support groups. That is a total of 502 officers to be deployed in the Belfast area, at any one time to deal with public disorder. As has been the case throughout the troubles, military resources are deployed in support of the police. However, as the hon. Lady rightly says—she has drawn attention to the concerns expressed by Mr. Cramphorn, the then acting Chief Constable, in August—the demands that public order policing have placed on the service directly affect police capabilities elsewhere.

For our part, I assure the hon. Lady that the Government will continue to do everything that we can to create an environment in Northern Ireland where the need to commit such a level of resources is no longer necessary. It remains the responsibilities of others with influence in the community to do everything that they can to help us achieve that goal. On an occasion like this it is important to look to the past as we consider the current arrangements for policing.

I want to respond to the comments that the hon. Lady made several times in her contribution when she talked in general terms of what she described as the wanton destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As we

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look back, we must never forget that, over their history, the police in Northern Ireland have borne the brunt of a sustained and brutal terrorist assault. They have responded with gallantry and professionalism. They richly deserve the support and gratitude of all in Northern Ireland.

It is hard to believe that it is more than two years since Her Majesty the Queen visited Hillsborough to confer the honour of the George cross on the RUC. On that historic occasion, Her Majesty paid tribute to the police.

She said that the award was:

The Government have now set up the RUC George Cross Foundation to ensure that those sacrifices and achievements are remembered and honoured in a dignified and appropriate manner.

I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to respond to her other comments in writing.

Question put and agreed to.

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