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10 Feb 2003 : Column 689—continued

Mr. Mallon: That is not what I said. I referred to the Catholic-Protestant divide, purely because it is an element of the overall legislation with which we are dealing. A completely distinct point that I made was that policing legislation in general contained many niggly parts. Perhaps that stems from the fact that we are a niggly people living in what is currently rather a niggly place. My plea was that we should not lose sight of the ultimate vision in Patten simply because we considered some elements to be niggly. In no way was I disparaging either Catholics or Protestants, or indeed making my point in relation to them.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful for that clarification.

As I was saying, my difficulty with the Bill is caused by its failure to deal with the 50:50 recruitment procedure. Why do I find that so terribly offensive? Along with, I would have thought, all who support the Belfast agreement—which I still passionately support—I find it offensive because, in referendums, the majority of people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic voted in favour of an agreement that, unusually, repeated not just once but twice its reference to a commitment that

It also stated that

That was said in 1998, and the overwhelming majority of the people of the island of Ireland endorsed it. I find it grossly offensive that, two years later, in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, the British Government legalised religious discrimination in the recruitment of police officers. Had they not negotiated an exemption from European Union directives that would have made it illegal by December 2003, we would not be faced with this terribly divisive and counter-productive recruitment procedure for constables. Young Catholics are warmly welcomed into the new Police Service for Northern Ireland, and I am pleased to see them there; but I am deeply concerned about the possibility of their being made to feel that they are there not on merit, but because of their religion. I find that offensive.

During the time of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, many young Catholics bravely entered the force although they and their families had been targeted. The intimidation was dreadful and harrowing for all concerned. Although, I am delighted that so many Catholics are entering the police service, they should be doing so because intimidation has ended and not as a result of a discriminatory recruitment procedure.

I remind the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford of a High Court decision from July 2002. When a young constituent of mine, Mark Parsons, challenged the procedure, Mr. Justice Kerr, a

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distinguished Northern Ireland judge, considered its compatibility with our human rights obligations under the European convention on human rights. It is, in fact, tolerated because it is of a temporary nature. Section 46 of the 2000 Act is entitled

There should therefore be a review in spring 2004, but the longer the procedure remains the more disenchanted the Unionist community becomes with the Government's failure to keep faith with the Belfast agreement that they supported in 1998. It continues to undermine Unionist confidence in the Government's commitment to the agreement.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lady Hermon: I should be delighted.

Mr. Davies: I said earlier that it was possible to make a strong and intellectually respectable, indeed morally respectable, case against the 50:50 provision in Patten. I understand that case, although I explained earlier why I felt that it must be overridden by other considerations. The hon. Lady should recognise, however, that, according to her logic, she rejects Patten. That has serious implications for the peace process, because the question of what she will replace it with arises immediately, as does the question of how any new consensus on policing involving both communities can begin to be built if Patten has been thrown away. If the 50:50 mechanism, with all its imperfections and anomalies, which I fully acknowledge, is thrown away, Patten is thrown away. The hon. Lady must make that choice.

Lady Hermon: I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the terms of reference given to the Patten commission by the Belfast agreement, the commission was asked to produce proposals that could enjoy widespread support from the community as a whole. I hardly think that legalising religious discrimination can gain such support. It is deeply divisive. When the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs took evidence, the Secretary of State said that such action would be counterproductive, and warned strongly against it. I do not think that the Patten commission fulfilled its terms of reference.

Mr. Davies: I am afraid that, rather uncharacteristically, the hon. Lady has evaded the question. The terms of reference do matter; the fact is that we now have Patten as it stands, and she must either reject it or accept it. If she throws away the 50:50 procedure, the whole thing will unravel and she will have rejected Patten. My question remains: what will she put in its place? What better basis has she conceived for bringing in the nationalist community and creating a police service that genuinely commands the support—and in due course, I hope, the affection and respect—of the people of Northern Ireland, on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Lady Hermon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for another helpful intervention. He will know that during my husband's time as Chief Constable of the RUC, his deputy was a Roman Catholic, as were certain other

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Assistant Chief Constables. The Patten commission confirmed that there was no discrimination whatever in the RUC.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee examined the composition of and recruitment to the RUC in 1997. It concluded that the main cause of the low Catholic recruitment was not discrimination but intimidation. If members of a political party—Sinn Fein—hesitate and faff around and cannot condemn, as the hon. Gentleman rightly did, a vicious, nasty, murderous attack on a Catholic recruit in Ballymena, and instead sit on the fence, intimidation will continue. That is shameful and disgraceful of Sinn Fein.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said that according to the demographic figures there is an almost equal balance between young Catholics and young Protestants of both sexes, so both should be entering the police service quite naturally. It is one of the reasons why I wish Sinn Fein would have the courage that the SDLP showed in the autumn of 2000 in coming on to the Policing Board, because it will mean that the war is over if it is encouraging young republicans to enter the police service. It cannot tolerate them being shot in the back at the same time.

Mr. Donaldson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Patten report is not holy writ and that the Government are not compelled under any circumstances to accept every recommendation in every report produced by an independent body? Therefore, there was never a question of either accepting or rejecting.

Lady Hermon: I thank my hon. Friend for his very helpful intervention.

After 30 years of some of the most stringent anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland, I find it personally offensive—I ask the House to bear it in mind that I have lived there all my life—that the British Government should legalise religious discrimination and negotiate exemption from a European directive that would make such discrimination as we have before us illegal. I thought that I would never see the day. It is intolerable, and it brings disrepute upon those who maintain this provision and wish to see it in the Bill.

I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I rest my case.

6.51 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches and to other hon. Members for the fact that I may not be here throughout the winding-up speeches. There was a complaint earlier about the conflict of time and interest. I am not sure that I put that down to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It may have more to do with the modernisation reforms. Perhaps I should leave the matter there.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker earlier, he described this debate as a trivial event in relation to other matters that he wanted to discuss. I think that that is a wrong term. This debate is probably not an earth-shattering event, but having

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listened to it I have begun to realise why it is important that we are here tonight and why the matters that we are discussing are of considerable significance.

I had wanted to refer to the debate as the further implementation of the Patten report, but, having listened to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), I think that it might be safer to say that it is part of the ongoing reform of policing in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, it will get us all out of a difficult situation.

It is clear that the provisions of the Bill are about trying to strengthen the role of the Policing Board, given the early experience of its operation, and about trying to clarify the board's relationship with both the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State. The second part of the Bill relates to giving the Chief Constable more flexibility over the deployment of officers and civilian staff. Although people may have differing views about how that part should be pursued, I believe that most would agree that there is a pressing need to have more front-line officers out on the streets in Northern Ireland, so anything that civilianisation can do in that respect should be welcome.

I should like to echo a criticism that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made about the way in which the Bill was pursued, an issue highlighted in the report of an inquiry on which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) and I served. I refer to the time scale for dealing with this matter. I appreciate that there is an argument, which the Minister made to the Committee, that elements of the Bill have been widely discussed elsewhere. But there is something rather strange about a state of affairs in which the draft clauses are published on 9 December and the Bill commences its Second Reading in the other place on 16 December. That hardly allows time for pre-legislative scrutiny. If the intention of publishing draft clauses was to ensure that that was the process, then, allowing for comments to the Committee about the other pressures on time, there may be a lesson that we need to allow slightly more time if we are serious about the process.

I want to pick out a few clauses, some of which have already been referred to, and to suggest why they probably make sense and why it is worth our while to pursue them.

I start with clause 3, which is about the meetings of the board. I think it was the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) who said that it was wrong for the board to choose to meet less often and therefore be less publicly accountable. There is little doubt that when Patten reported initially one of the reasons why he stipulated that there should be 12 meetings a year was that he was anxious that there should be a fairly open, consistent, publicly accountable process. But I understand that the board has said that it should not be necessary to lay down in legislation that it must meet 10 times a year. I believe that as well as asking for a reduction it also asked for a provision to allow for occasions when it wants to meet more than once within a 28-day period, so we are simply being asked to show a bit of common sense about its operation in the light of experience so far. If most of us are prepared to

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acknowledge that the board has acquitted itself fairly well so far, it would be absurd not to listen to its experience and try to adjust matters accordingly.

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