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10 Feb 2003 : Column 658—continued

Mr. Murphy: That is entirely right. The Select Committee considered that issue in relation to the Bill. As I said, the context of such events is one in which Northern Ireland is free from the grip of paramilitarism that has been there in the past. There is justification for suggesting that all parties in Northern Ireland may eventually serve on policing boards, but all that must happen in the context to which I referred.

Before I conclude my speech, I shall put the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford out of his misery regarding his earlier question. The criminal sanction applies to both the board and the committee, so my guess was right.

Lady Hermon: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way one last time. I shall interrupt him

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again only on this occasion. Since membership of DPPs will be finalised in the next few days—all the membership will be known in the 26 district councils—will he confirm that there will be no changes until the next district council elections two or three years hence?

Mr. Murphy: I understand that that is the position. The time when DPPs change will be 2005. That is when those changes will occur.

Northern Ireland has undergone considerable change in the three short years since I was last there. In many regards, it has altered beyond all recognition. People shop, work and walk the streets as they could not have done only a few years ago. The fear that accompanied everyday life for people in Belfast and elsewhere is receding every day, but nowhere has that change been more dramatic or difficult than in policing. The change from the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland marked a new beginning for policing in the Province. The PSNI has been in the vanguard of the changes in Northern Ireland, just as it has been in the vanguard of its fight against terrorism.

This Government and this Bill will continue to support and strengthen policing in Northern Ireland—policing which I am confident will be welcomed and sustained across all communities and by all traditions. I commend the Bill to the House.

4.28 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I should like to begin by endorsing what the Secretary of State said about the apparently very active policing undertaken in the difficult area of north-west Belfast over the past week or so. As he knows well, speaking from the Opposition Benches, I have also done everything that I can to encourage the Police Service of Northern Ireland increasingly to take an attitude of zero tolerance to violence or at least to maintain the standards and attitude regarding outbreaks of violence that we would expect elsewhere in the country.

Our attitude to the Bill will be determined by two considerations. First, will it improve the effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland? In other words, is it useful in itself? Secondly, will it assist the peace process? In other words, is it expedient to introduce the Bill at the present time in terms of our other objectives? I do not think that the Government have made even the slightest serious attempt to argue that the Bill is necessary for the cause of good policing in Northern Ireland or, indeed, that it has anything to do with strengthening policing in Northern Ireland. In fact, some of the Bill's provisions will serve only to weaken effective policing and the administration of justice there.

Let us take as an example the extraordinary proposal in clause 19 to remove one of the protections that formed part of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000: the inhibition on the Policing Board's ability to ask for information from the Chief Constable or to launch an inquiry, when, according to section 59 of the 2000 Act, doing so

The Secretary of State must surely agree that the prevention or detection of crime, and the apprehension and prosecution of offenders, go to the heart of the

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criminal justice system and of good policing, yet that protection—which the Government themselves decided was required in the 2000 Act—is now being removed. That seems extraordinary to anyone who cares about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. Neither the Secretary of State this afternoon, nor the Government, when this Bill was debated in another place, has attempted any justification for its removal, in terms of the needs of policing.

Most strikingly of all, the Bill says nothing about what is undoubtedly the major policing problem in Northern Ireland at present: the great deficit in police numbers. According to the Patten report, the regular force should number 7,500. That figure was based on the assumption of the completion of the peace process and the end of political and paramilitary violence, but we all know how far away we are from that. The current strength of the regular police force is about 6,900. The Bill does not address that problem; it contains no proposals for dealing with it. Nor does it address the failure of recruitment under the 50:50 procedure. We support that procedure in principle, but it has led to a situation, in the last round of recruitment, in which the Chief Constable had only 26 Catholics who met the required standards and was therefore able to recruit only 52 new officers.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, in the final stages of the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill in 2000 in another place, his colleagues in the Conservative party objected to and voted against 50:50 recruitment? What has changed in the two years since then to convince the hon. Gentleman to support the principle?

Andrew Mackinlay: I think we should be told.

Mr. Davies: I am very happy to answer the hon. Lady and, as I hope is my wont, to give her a frank and honest answer. I am also happy to answer the hon. Gentleman, and to take the credit—or the blame; the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman can choose—for this. Naturally, when anyone is appointed to a job on the Front Bench, on the Government side or the Opposition side, it is their responsibility to look through the existing party or Government policy on the matter that has become his or her responsibility and to decide whether it is sensible to build on that and to take it forward, or to revise it.

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady—I hope that she will note this down and not ask me the same question again—that I came to the conclusion that the 50:50 principle was right, and that we should support it. Despite the fact that the principle is dubious in itself and contrary to human rights, it nevertheless seemed to me that, in the context of Northern Ireland, it should be upheld and that other considerations should be overridden, because of the overriding need to produce a police service that the people felt to be owned by both communities, and to get away radically, decisively and clearly from the difficulties that we have had in getting acceptance of the legitimacy of the police force from the people of Northern Ireland. I am, therefore, very happy to tell the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that this

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is an area in which our policy has evolved. I am also very happy to defend our present policy. We strongly support the present Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon rose—

Mr. Davies: The hon. Lady wants to intervene again. I must make some progress, but if she wishes to insist on intervening, I will try to come back to her on another occasion.

Mr. McCabe rose—

Mr. Davies: I will give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, who is an assiduous participant in these debates. However, I will not be giving way to him quite as frequently as I sometimes do.

Mr. McCabe: The hon. Gentleman is far too kind. To let the House understand his strength of feeling on this matter, will he tell us how far he is prepared to depart from the point of principle on 50:50 recruitment? Would a ratio of 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 or 5:1 be acceptable? How strong are his principles on this issue, and how far and for how long would he depart from them?

Mr. Davies: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me or whether I have misunderstood him, but 50:50 means just that—it does not mean 250:50 or 150:50, it means 50:50. I accept the principle that, for the immediate future, normal, mainstream recruitment at constable level to the PSNI should be based on the assumption that the number of recruits who are deemed to be from the Protestant community should equal the number who are deemed to be from the Catholic community. We should accept that system for the time being. However, that is clearly a derogation from the normal principles to which we adhere in the Opposition and it must, by its very nature, be temporary—like other forms of so-called affirmative action, which make no sense at all unless they are temporary. That should be the case on this issue. How quickly we manage to achieve something like 50:50—not arithmetically exact but something like 50:50—will depend on progress in recruitment. In recent recruitment rounds, that progress has not been satisfactory, as I have said.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I will give way in a moment. If this Bill is given a Second Reading—and we will not try to stop it being given a Second Reading—we intend to introduce amendments that will directly address this issue. I may be able to give the Secretary of State a flavour of those amendments. For example, candidates or would-be recruits who are deemed to be Protestants, who make the grade but who are held back from taking up a position in the PSNI because there is an insufficient countervailing number of Catholics, should not have to go through the process over and over again. Once they have qualified, they should be able to move into the ranks of the PSNI when the 50:50 process permits them

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to do so. We will introduce a number of ideas of that kind. However, I notice that the Government have been completely barren of practical suggestions to address this serious problem. My strictures, to which the Secretary of State appeared to object because he wanted to spring to his feet, have been more than justified.

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