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2 Dec 2002 : Column 642—continued

Mr. Davies: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman—whatever we do, we must do it even-handedly and fairly. He has heard me use those two terms time and again in the past year, and we must always be reminded of them, but unfortunately they have sometimes been forgotten in many contexts. I should say that I am struck whenever there is agreement between himself and the hon. Member for North Antrim. It would be a brave man in Northern Ireland politics who wanted to take on both of the hon. Gentlemen on a particular matter.

There are other matters that have gone favourably. In particular, I want to congratulate all concerned in the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the way in which the new recruitment programme has proceeded. That we should over-ride normal human rights criteria by establishing a quota for the two religious categories in recruiting to the Police Service of Northern Ireland is of course an anomaly. However, the Opposition strongly endorse the need—temporarily, at least—for that anomaly, so that we can try to get away from the distortions that we inherit from the past.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I shall, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me I shall not do so too frequently as I do not want to take up too much time.

Lady Hermon: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. I understand that the Conservative party is in fact a pro-agreement party. The agreement twice makes provision for guaranteeing equality of opportunity, irrespective of religion. Why is policing legislation allowed to override the agreement by permitting religious discrimination in the recruitment of police officers?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Lady is absolutely right—the Conservative party very much supports the Belfast agreement. She is a distinguished lawyer, and I thought that she would try to catch me out on this particular

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inconsistency. However, I thought that I answered the point before she intervened, by acknowledging that the position is anomalous. If she wants to tell me that I am being illogical, she will win the argument. Unfortunately, to solve practical problems in life one sometimes has to accept anomalies and contradictions. Where a choice exists between two courses of action, neither of which is entirely logical or desirable in itself on first principles, one has to make a pragmatic judgment such as the one that I have set out. I should emphasise that, in doing so, it is very important to be aware that such an anomaly exists, and that a distortion is being introduced to counterbalance a worse one; one must not try to pretend that it is something other than a distortion or an anomaly. In any event, the provision is justified only over a temporary period; that is the basis on which it has been introduced, and on which we support it.

Some aspects of Northern Ireland policing have not been going so well, however. The Minister, with a tendency towards a certain euphoria in these matters, skated over these issues. I am sorry that she did because she has fundamental responsibility for them, and I know that she conducts her responsibilities with enormous conscientiousness. She is very much aware of the facts; she probably genuinely worries about them every night and morning, but she does not want to come before the House of Commons—it would be contrary to the whole culture of new Labour to do so—and set out the facts, which are uncomfortable and disturbing.

The fact is that police numbers are badly down. The Patten report provided for a police force of 7,500 men and women on the assumption of the establishment of peace and normality in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady will have the exact figures—I do not—but the regular force in Northern Ireland is less than 7,000. That is a matter of considerable concern, and for the hon. Lady not to mention it was slightly artificial. Of course, we have a full-time police reserve, and I congratulate the Government on doing what we pressed them to do for months in renewing the contracts of the full-time police reserve when they came up in September. However, that only gives us a three-year time scale and it is very important to look forward to ensuring that the policing numbers in Northern Ireland are sufficient to meet the tasks that are, sadly, much greater and more formidable than Patten assumed they would be four and a half years after the agreement.

Morale still appears to be low in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I hope that I am wrong here and that the Minister can give me the right figure, but, according to newspaper reports, on average one man or women in ten in the PSNI reports sick at any one time. If so, it is very worrying, and I hope that something can be done about it.

The Minister is also keenly aware of the constant threat of disorder and intermittent violence in inner-city areas in Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast. I am thinking particularly of Short Strand and west and north Belfast. Sometimes one thinks that the various measures taken to de-escalate the violence are working, but suddenly there is the disappointment of another outbreak. That is very worrying. I do not want to go into this in too much detail, but I should like to say something in public that I have already said to the Minister in private and to others in Northern Ireland—

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the House will appreciate who I might be speaking to on these matters. It is important that we make it a matter of urgency greatly to increase the number of CCTV cameras in inner-city areas in Northern Ireland.

Against this variegated background, which has both light and shade, the question is what the Government are doing about policing. They have been behaving very erratically. Following the initial consultation on the Patten report two years ago, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who is not in his place this afternoon, went out of his way to reassure Unionists. In his statement to the House of 19 January 2000, the right hon. Gentleman specifically downgraded the role of the district policing partnerships and deferred any decision on giving them powers to raise money to buy in additional policing services, which was in the original Patten report. In the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, the right hon. Gentleman then introduced a number of safeguards in the relationship between the policing board and the chief constable to ensure that operational independence would be preserved. In an effort to reassure Unionists, he also introduced the disqualification on those with criminal convictions from serving as independent members of DPPs.

Those are two areas in which the Government now propose to make changes in the reverse direction. They plan to reduce the grounds on which the chief constable can appeal to the Secretary of State to block reports and inquiries and to make it easier for the policing board to initiate such inquiries. The motion before the House makes it clear that the Government intend, subject to certain provisos, to relax the disqualification against convicted terrorists serving as independent members of DPPs.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I know that he has given way on a number of occasions, so I will keep this brief. Are there are circumstances in which he would allow convicted former terrorists to take part in local police partnerships, given that the Government have already made a commitment that the peace process must be utterly completed before that goes ahead? In those circumstances, would he accept that such a change should be made at some point in the future?

Mr. Davies: I think that I have had slightly more experience of conducting negotiations than the people who are currently responsible for Government policy. If we are going into wider negotiations with a view to reaching a comprehensive and timetabled settlement, as I have been urging on the Government for a long time, it is not sensible to put all one's cards on the table in advance. It is much more sensible to ensure that one puts one's cards on the table only when others are doing the same. There is something fundamentally wrong with the tactics pursued by Members on the Treasury Bench. The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in his attendance at and participation in debates on Northern Ireland, which I welcome, so he knows that I have been developing my critique for a year. Indeed, the Government may even have accepted certain aspects of it—although they are not likely to give me any credit. However, there seems to have been some partial acceptance and I shall say a little more about tactics later in my speech.

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The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart should get a good mark from the Whips because he cleverly intervened just as I was drawing attention to the most embarrassing aspect of the Government's behaviour—the blatant contradiction between the policing policies adopted by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool only two years ago and those that the Government are currently proposing. There has been a complete U-turn.

The Minister will recall that when the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 was going through the House, the Government were constantly accused by nationalists of resiling from Patten in order to propitiate the Unionists. However, with this U-turn, the Government are being accused by Unionists of the contrary—of resiling from the Act to appease nationalists. If that is not contradictory, I do not know what is.

I warn the Government against proceeding in that fashion because they are underestimating the intelligence of the people with whom they are dealing. The Government should not continue to underestimate the intelligence of the public as regards any aspect of policy and governance anywhere in the United Kingdom, even though they do so constantly, but they make a great mistake in doing so in Northern Ireland—as I am sure that the Minister, privately, realises already. The political intelligence of people on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland is especially acute, because politics is an existential matter and people follow it extremely carefully.

I hesitate to make my next point, although it needs to be said: people on both sides in Northern Ireland have an especially clear vision of history going back over many centuries. They are extremely conscious of their history as they see it. When one is presented with two different accounts of the history of the same place, it is often difficult to relate them. It is like looking at a mountain from opposite sides; one has to remind oneself that it is the same mountain.

A feature of those readings of history is that in both cases there is a story of endless trickery or betrayals—or attempted trickery or betrayals—by the British. It is thus not very clever of the Government to do something that further undermines confidence in their straightforwardness or consistency.

The Government should carefully think through their policies. They will not get away with easy card-shuffling tricks when they are dealing with people in Northern Ireland, as they should know by now.

I do not believe for a moment that the Government have any intention of being duplicitous. They do not want to be two-faced, but they are in a frightful muddle because they have been going about the peace process in entirely the wrong way.

The current muddle is only part and parcel of the general muddle that the Government have got themselves into over the peace process. The trouble is that they have used a tactic of making unilateral concessions and trying to do partial deals with one party, and then finding that they have upset another party, then trying to appease the others and then—my goodness—finding that someone else has been left out

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and needs another favour, and so on. That is a hopeless way of conducting the peace process, but it is exactly what has happened over the past four and a half years, and it is a major reason why we have failed to make the progress that could have been expected following the Belfast agreement.

Yet again, I beg the Government to rethink and to consider once again the need for interlinkage. The Minister of State has heard this from me many times before. No one in Northern Ireland will make a step forward without knowing what portion of the total price to be paid that move represents, what others will do in return, and by when, and what will happen if the commitments are not fulfilled. Everyone has to see the end-game and be part of a comprehensive deal, or we will have no definitive settlement.

That is why partial proposals on individual aspects are a mistake. It would be far better for the Government to keep their cards close to their chest and hold discussions with all parties to find an agreement, which of course will never be completely satisfactory to everyone, but which they could all live with on a contingency basis. If I were Secretary of State, that is the point at which I would define my proposals, and not before.

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