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2 Dec 2002 : Column 666—continued

David Burnside: What are the acts of completion? The Government set a date of 2008 as the deadline for the completion of decommissioning. That does not inspire confidence.

Angela Smith: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept the assurance. The Prime Minister's words are clear. He referred to exclusively peaceful means that are real, total and permanent and that satisfy everyone and give them confidence. I do not understand how we can be much clearer about the Government's intentions. I am sorry that hon. Members are not prepared to rely on that.

Let me consider specific questions.

Lembit Öpik: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Angela Smith: I shall try to take questions later, but I am short of time and I want to respond to hon. Members' points.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) praised the Government for publishing the additional text for consideration. He said that it was right to do that. I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). He said that we

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cannot heal in a week or a fortnight but that the healing process was under way through the Good Friday or Belfast agreement. He outlined the challenges, which were evident from our debate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) praised the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the chief constable for their work in tackling violence and criminality wherever they occur and whoever perpetrates them. The work of the organised crime taskforce shows the Government's commitment to tackle organised crime from paramilitaries or any other source.

The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked about the Patten report and former prisoners serving as independent members on district policing partnerships. Patten did not recommend that they should or should not serve. He said that district policing partnerships should have a mix of political and independent members and that the rules for independent members might be put on equal footing with those for political members. Former prisoners can already serve on district policing partnerships as councillors. They are therefore eligible for appointment as political members, but the Government have made it clear that that is conditional on acts of completion in the future. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford welcomed that comment.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way and am pleased to see the Minister on the Front Bench for the winding-up speech.

I want to draw to Ministers' attention the careful wording that Chris Patten used on the day that the report was published. He warned

He clearly recommended that

Angela Smith: The hon. Lady picks out a point from the Patten report that will be discussed in the long and detailed debates on the Bill.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford welcomed several points in my hon. Friend the Minister's speech. I welcome his comments about the policing board and the way in which it has operated. I regret that I could not welcome all of his remarks. He accused us of underestimating the intelligence of the people of Northern Ireland. I assure him that, from the short time that I have been a Minister in Northern Ireland, I am not likely to do that.

The hon. Gentleman also accused the Government of easy card shuffling tricks. The issues are complex and such accusations are unhelpful. The Belfast agreement is not for renegotiation. He should consider how far it has brought us and what we have gained from it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about police manpower. The Patten report said that there should be a minimum of 7,500 officers on the basis of peace and normality in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 13.9 states that

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There are currently approximately 6,900 full-time regular officers and almost 2,000 full-time reserve officers. Since last November there have been 580 recruits and more than 200 are currently in training. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart and the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and for North Down asked about the 50:50 recruitment policy and whether it applied to civilians. Paragraph 15.9 of Patten makes it clear that the ratio should apply to officer and civilian recruitment. It is a shame that the hon. Member for East Londonderry cast aspersions on the merits of officers who are recruited under the 50:50 policy. I assure him categorically that there has been no dilution in the quality of police officers. I hope that he will accept that.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Angela Smith: The hon. Gentleman has not been present for the debate and I am therefore reluctant to give way to him.

Concern has been expressed about 50:50 working. If the measure does not work, the Act makes provision for it to be set aside, but there is no evidence that 50:50 recruitment is not working. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) asked whether, if a Catholic trainee resigned, a non-Catholic trainee would also have to resign. It is patently absurd to suggest that that would be the case. There would have to be no such resignation.

The hon. Member for North Down made a point about intimidation. I take on board the seriousness that she attaches to that issue, and I commend her for doing so. Intimidation is clearly a major factor, and we all want to see it end immediately. There are other factors involved in these issues, however, including a lack of identification with the Police Service, and the fear of a loss of contact with family, friends and community. I have to say that a lack of encouragement from community leaders also plays a part. It is time for leaders from all parts of the community to encourage support for the police, and also for them to stop coming out with this nonsense that we have somehow diluted the ability of the police by introducing 50:50 recruitment. The PSNI can recruit enough trainees: 540 have been recruited this year, even though Patten envisaged only 370.

The hon. Member for North Antrim asked whether 50:50 recruitment would prevent the chief constable from recruiting officers from Great Britain. Such recruitment occurs at constable level, so the chief constable is not prevented from bringing in experienced officers from elsewhere, and we must ensure that we bring in such officers more quickly. If the policing board were to ask for an exceptional measure to help to facilitate that, we would, of course, consider such a request very carefully, but there is no obstacle to the chief constable bringing in on secondment officers from Great Britain at any level. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question. He asked whether the ombudsman's powers to investigate would be retrospective; that is not our intention. He also asked whether her powers had been restricted. We do not

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believe that the draft clauses have that effect. It seems right, however, that, in circumstances in which she may play a similar role to that of the policing board—for example, in investigating police policies and practice—she should be subject to the same caveats in relation to information that she may seek from the chief constable.

I would like to thank all hon. Members for their contribution to the debate. It has been a helpful debate in the context of the Bill, but, without the agreement—some hon. Members have made it clear that they are very unhappy about the agreement and do not support it—there would not have been the relative peace that we have seen in recent years. I accept that the situation is imperfect, but it is certainly better than what we have experienced in years gone by. In my first week in Belfast, a bomb was defused in the city centre. On the Friday evening, I was stopped and welcomed by a Belfast resident who discussed with me what had happened that day. She said, XWhen I heard about the bomb today, I wondered whether we were going to go back to how it was." She told me how scared she had felt that this could herald a return to the situation in which she had grown up. She did not want her children to grow up in a similar environment. It says far more than any statistics I could read out at the Dispatch Box that she felt that her children's lives were different from the life that she had had as a child.

The critical condition that must be met if the agreement is to operate fully is that we obtain an assurance from all those involved that they are committed to the exclusive use of peaceful means. I repeat the Prime Minister's words from his speech on 17 October, in which he said that republicans must

and that we cannot carry on

The fork in the road has come.

In our view, the future of Northern Ireland is best guaranteed by the fullest possible implementation of the agreement, which, crucially, means democratic politics, with violence entirely removed from the picture. That is what the House wants, and I also think that it is what the people of Northern Ireland want.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 6, Noes 298.

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