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10 Feb 2003 : Column 685—continued

Lady Hermon: Under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the new office of a chief inspector of criminal justice has been established—although the appointment has not yet been made—and the police ombudsman's office will fall within his remit. Does that reassure the right hon. Gentleman about the ombudsman's extensive and increasing powers?

Mr. Mandelson: No, I am afraid that it does not. The ombudsman has a very important job to do in addressing individual complaints brought by members of the community against the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She is only human and cannot be expected to embrace such a wide canvas, or waterfront, of possible calls to investigate not only individual complaints, but the general policies and practices of the police. I am not entirely reassured by the change that the hon. Lady mentions.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the key benefits of the parliamentary ombudsman is that they are able to identify systemic failures arising from individual cases, and does that not reassure him that some of the changes in the Bill will not be as draconian as he fears?

Mr. Mandelson: If that were the case, one could rely on the undertaking that I gave from the Dispatch Box at the time of the previous legislation that, should the ombudsman identify a pattern of behaviour, she would be able to make it public and present her views to the board and to the Secretary of State without further changing legislation and investing in her, additional powers and responsibilities that she does not have the capacity to undertake at this stage in the development and evolution of her role.

I want to tell the Government this: there is a very complex political situation to be negotiated in Northern Ireland, given the suspension of the institutions and

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given our overriding desire to restart those institutions, to get devolution under way again and to achieve the full and enduring implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I had to smile slightly when the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) complained that the Government were contemplating doing deals in Northern Ireland. I have to say to him in his absence that if he does not understand that politics in Northern Ireland is about is doing deals to secure the peace process and the advances and progress that we have already achieved, he remains, despite his long service in his job, a stranger to the affairs of Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Government's handling of the negotiations or of their present complexity, but care must always be taken never to play politics with the police's effectiveness and ability to do their job, because on that rides the public's confidence in the peace process and political negotiations of which policing forms a part. If the public begin to think that risks are being taken with their security and safety, we will quickly see a rapid erosion of their wider confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland.

We have to be clear that the long-term prize that is at stake is enduring stability, ceasefires and peace in Northern Ireland. The ability of the police, with the rest of the community, to help to transform the Province, for the first time that anyone can remember, into a thoroughly law-abiding, law-upholding place, is fundamental to the achievement of that prize. It is therefore important that nothing is done, for the sake of what might appear to be short-term political progress, to undermine the security of Northern Ireland and the long-term integrity of the peace process.

The Government will take many decisions in the coming days and weeks that bear on the short term and the long term in Northern Ireland, some of which will relate to policing and some of which will relate to the normalisation of security and to the infrastructure that supports its maintenance, and they will of course have my full support in taking those necessary political steps. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State needs to be aware—I know that he is, as I was when I did his job—that he will have to ward off pressures for short-term fixes and concessions that, however expedient or harmless they may look today or in the short term, can bring unforeseen and uncovenanted dangers in the longer term.

David Burnside: Given the right hon. Gentleman's experience of having been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and his understanding of the feeling in the wider Unionist community about what is called the transition and reform in policing, can he foresee, in the circumstances that will arise over the next few weeks, that the Government of whom he was a member could start to put together a deal that would make it impossible for the law-abiding Unionist parties—the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party—to continue to participate on the Policing Board if the price was a deal to bring Sinn Fein on to that board when it is still involved in terrorism and violence?

Mr. Mandelson: I would regard it as unthinkable for the Government to contemplate any set of actions that would result in it becoming impossible for Unionist representatives to continue to be members of the

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Policing Board, and I have absolute confidence that they are not contemplating and would not contemplate such a set of actions.

I know, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that the Government will need to weigh carefully all their decisions—not only on the Bill, but on bigger and weightier matters that will be on their plate in the coming days and weeks—and I have no doubt that they will do so. I hope that the outcome is political success, completion, closure—in every sense of the word—and restarting devolution and the political institutions in Northern Ireland. Every member of the community can and should take pride in the institutions' work and the extent to which they have served the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. They will continue to do that if they are given the chance.

6.30 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). He was an exceedingly good Secretary of State in his all-too-short time in Northern Ireland. He was sensitive about reforming the RUC and he recognised the sacrifice of the 302 officers who gave their lives defending all communities in Northern Ireland from terrorism. The Patten report did not recognise that properly. During his term of office, the RUC was awarded the George Cross. I regret that he was hounded out of office after the period of suspension that he announced in February 2000.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is no longer in his place. I was sorry that he felt unable to take several "friendly fire" interventions. I hope that I did not misunderstand him, but he said that the name "RUC" had been abolished. However, the title was changed only for operational purposes. Section 1 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 clearly states:

For legal reasons, the title "RUC" continues. For operational purposes, the body is the "Police Service of Northern Ireland."

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and I are in agreement. Both of us are weary of the number of measures that amend or introduce police reform. They include the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998; the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and the Bill that we are considering today. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that the Government have now got it right and that we shall have no more piecemeal amendments to policing and police reform. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appreciates that every time a change is made to policing, it is construed—rightly or wrongly—as a concession to republicans.

David Burnside: Rightly.

Lady Hermon: Perhaps my hon. Friend will elaborate on that later. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that there were no concessions to republicans on the face of the Bill. I agree. However, we anticipate that,

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if the Provisional IRA is stood down—the euphemism that is being used for disbanding—and it undertakes a final act of decommissioning as it promised the people of Northern Ireland in its statement in May 2000, the Government will further amend legislation. They have such a huge majority that the amendments will unfortunately be accepted, even if they do not implement the Patten report.

I have already alluded to clauses 19 onwards in an intervention on the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). They repeat the provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002. It introduced four categories of officer: community support officers, investigation officers, detention officers and escort officers. It is therefore curious that the Bill omits community support officers. The Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, is under continuing pressure for resources, and one would therefore expect the Bill to provide for community support officers.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made a valuable point. The contracted-out services will be given to civilians. Expecting them to abide by a code of ethics is not sufficient. The Secretary of State will recall that the Patten report contained the famous words,

in Northern Ireland. If we want the Patten report to be implemented fully, civilians who undertake escort or investigation duties must receive human rights training as well as training under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. The Bill does not go far enough.

I am also worried about district policing partnerships. Clause 13 states:

"Representative of the community" has become a popular phrase. It was contained in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, which established the Parades Commission. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Evelyn White, a young lady from the Garvaghy road, challenged the composition of the Parades Commission because its nine members are all men. Not a single woman serves on the Parades Commission. The Lord Chief Justice heard the case and the phrase "representative of the community" was interpreted in the context of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 as a balance between Catholics and Protestants, not men and women. That is unacceptable.

I ask the Government not to leave the bare phrase,

If they genuinely wish to implement the Patten report, they should consider paragraph 6.26, which states:

It would be helpful if those words were included in the Bill instead of the bald phrase, "representative of the community". In previous case law, it was interpreted narrowly. That is unacceptable. All members of the community, including women, should have a say in a district policing partnership.

I hope that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh will forgive me if I paraphrase him incorrectly, but I believe that he described the Catholic-Protestant

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provision as "the niggly bit". He said, "Let us not disagree over the niggly bits." I say with the greatest respect to him and to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that although both are keen for the 50:50 recruitment procedure to continue, I have a difficulty with that.

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