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10 Feb 2003 : Column 693—continued

Rev. Martin Smyth : Over the years with regard to the Belfast agreement, and even tonight with regard to the Patten report, we have been lectured that we should not be cherry picking. Surely consistency would say that we should abide by Patten even on this point. Will the hon. Gentleman accept the possibility that if the board asks permission to meet more often it might be to make a more up-to-date request for an increase in salary for the independent members, since they must be working hard?

Mr. McCabe: I leave the hon. Gentleman to conduct his own trade union negotiations. Everyone will have heard his point.

Of course, when it is convenient hon. Members give dire warnings about cherry picking. My view is that people who are seriously committed to the process in Northern Ireland should be prepared to adjust, reform and review as situations develop. I do not believe that there is no scope for that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me and other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that there may well be an argument for the Committee at some point to review the whole development and operation of the Patten process. There is nothing wrong with learning from experience and trying to adjust accordingly. In fact, to do the opposite is to put on a straitjacket, and that is hopelessly unhelpful in politics.

I turn to cause 12, relating to changes with regard to the police ombudsman. I have been slightly surprised to hear the differing views in the debate. On the one hand, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool told us that the provisions were to extend the ombudsman's powers. Simultaneously the Select Committee heard during the inquiry that the ombudsman's office had actually complained that the changes were designed to reduce the ombudsman's power. We therefore need to discover what is actually happening in respect of these provisions. In fact, this is one of the clearer parts of the Bill, and I am surprised that people are having trouble making sense of it.

The concerns that were expressed related to whether the ombudsman should have retrospective powers, and the changes made through clause 12 have clarified that issue. The use of the word "current" has sought to address that problem, and the use of the word "investigate", rather than a phrase such as "power to make a report", makes the role of the ombudsman much more specific. There has to be a clear case, incident or set of circumstances that the ombudsman is required to investigate. The use of the phrase "public interest", rather than "public concern", addresses the anxiety that synthetic public concern might be whipped up by those who would want to use, or even to abuse, the office of ombudsman. So the concerns that have been expressed in different quarters have been addressed, and if anything, this clause is much tighter and clearer than it could possibly have been at the outset.

I turn to the question of representativeness, by which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), among others, has been somewhat exercised today.

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When the Minister was questioned on that issue during the Select Committee inquiry, she made it clear that she was referring the Committee to paragraph 6 of schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, and to the criteria that must be considered in respect of the nomination of independent members. I will not go through those criteria in detail, but they include the criterion that the individuals concerned must

we will all have our own opinions on how that one will be tested—

So although people were right to be anxious about representativeness, which is a thorny issue in the Northern Ireland context, it is clear that it will not be possible to nominate and select anyone we care to imagine regardless of consideration of their background, or to use representativeness as a way to override other considerations.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am exercised by the composition of district policing partnerships because the Government repeatedly tell us that they want to implement the Patten report, but that they cannot cherry pick from it and do not wish to do so. The report states clearly:


The Patten recommendations make no mention at all of those with criminal or terrorist convictions. How does the hon. Gentleman square what he is saying about the Bill's proposals with the recommendations in Patten?

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I square that very easily, because I do not take the view that we should regard the situation in Northern Ireland as frozen or rigid; I am looking for progress and development. It is clear that there are certain people who could not serve on the Policing Board at the moment, but I look forward to a day when that may be possible. The crucial issue is identifying some clear criteria against which nominations should be judged, and they should include interest and competence in the subject. It is fair to say that through the text under consideration, the Government have indicated which other factors might apply to those with criminal convictions—should their eligibility be considered at all at some future stage.

I had not been particularly concerned about the 50:50 question, until I listened to today's debate. I should say to the hon. Member for North Down in particular that applications from the Roman Catholic community have, I think, risen steadily since the introduction of that proposal. Against that background, we should perhaps judge it as a success.

Lembit Öpik: I apologise for having left the Chamber briefly, but I did watch the debate on the television and

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I heard what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that a steady rise in applications is not necessarily evidence that the 50:50 rule is responsible for it? More to the point, the real balance that we have to strike relates to whether the resentment caused by 50:50 is worth the benefit, which may indeed have accrued anyway because of changes introduced to the Police Service.

Mr. McCabe: Well, a sustained increase in applications from members of the Roman Catholic community does seem to have coincided with the introduction of the 50:50 rule, but the hon. Gentleman may be right, in that no inquiry or clear-cut evidence has wholly supported that connection. However, if we are looking for areas in which to root out some of the past sense of injustice, we should not ignore that one, on which Patten has rightly focused attention.

Mr. Donaldson: The facts about 50:50 recruitment are actually the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Since 50:50 recruitment was introduced, the number of Roman Catholic applicants to the police service has consistently dropped with each recruitment batch. Given the difficulties consequent on that, the Chief Constable has been unable to recruit the number of police officers that he would like, and the full quota for each intake of new recruits has not been met precisely because not enough Roman Catholic recruits are coming forward. So in that respect, 50:50 recruitment is not working.

Mr. McCabe: Well, perhaps this is a phenomenon peculiar to Northern Ireland, but the hon. Gentleman seems to have access to facts that differ from those in my possession. We might have to continue our argument another time, but nothing that was reported to the Select Committee, or which I have seen made available to this House, disputes the notion that there has been a consistent rise in applications from Roman Catholics. I should be happy to continue this debate with the hon. Gentleman at a future date.

When today's debate began, I did not anticipate that we would learn of an entirely new Opposition policy in respect of Northern Ireland, but that is what we got from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). I am rather sorry that he is unable to be here at the moment, because I would have liked the opportunity to pursue exactly what he was telling the House. As I understood it, he said clearly that there must be interlinkage—the word that he used—between policies in Northern Ireland. He made it clear that it was not a question of incremental progress or of inch-by-inch reform. Presumably, therefore, he favours the big-bang, comprehensive solution that allows no time for reflection or adjustment. Interlinkage is a permafrost policy. It is not about edging forward or about the disgusting negotiations in which people are inclined to engage in their genuine attempts to avoid further killings or the breakdown of political progress. Interlinkage, as a policy, says that everything is too complex and that if we cannot solve the problem in one fell swoop, we should not bother at all. That approach derides everything that people are trying to do. If it is the policy of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is now back in his place, I worry about what progress we can anticipate in any area of life in Northern Ireland.

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The whole experience of change in Northern Ireland has been inch-by-inch progress, and sometimes we have seen reversals. The last Conservative Prime Minister is often credited—rightly—with taking the first tentative steps and edging the process forward, and he did not get the support that he deserved. If he had not taken those brave decisions, I wonder where we would be today. The present Government have continued that process. At times it has felt like two steps forward one step back, but on balance even those in Northern Ireland who are disillusioned with parts of the process would acknowledge that life for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland is probably better now than it was 15 years ago.

I was disappointed to hear that the Bill should be dismissed as inch-by-inch reform. That is the sort of politics that we should discount as the way to proceed in Northern Ireland. The essence of the Bill is the reverse of the policy described by the hon. Gentleman. We are being asked to reflect on adjustments and changes to policing reform in Northern Ireland, partly as a result of further negotiations and partly as a result of experiences after the implementation of parts of the Patten report in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

I cannot see a better way forward for policing or any other area of life in Northern Ireland. Unless we have the option of listening to people's genuine doubts and concerns and adjusting policy to reflect the matters that they raise, some elements of the community will be excluded whenever changes are made. That is an atrocious approach which would ultimately wreck the policy. I urge all hon. Members to acknowledge that we should all unite in favour of incremental change in Northern Ireland, with time to reflect and adjust if necessary. We certainly should not be scared of introducing further legislation to change our arrangements in the light of experience or representations from important elements in the community. That is how we should proceed, and I hope that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman will reflect on his own views before he develops the all-or-nothing policy that he outlined today.

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