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10 Feb 2003 : Column 696—continued

7.16 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I wish to echo what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said earlier, when he mentioned the real reasons for the Bill. My constituents are not writing to me or stopping me in the street to ask for new policing legislation because the Policing Board needs more power: they tell me that we need more police officers. Crime is on the increase. We cannot get police officers to respond to crime when we need them, because there are not enough and they are tied up in other activities. That is the problem.

How can I convince my constituents that the Bill will put more officers on the front line in Northern Ireland? That point is recognised in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which specifically concludes:

There is nothing in the Bill that will achieve that, and that is why I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) when she said that the Bill

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needed a clause that rescinded the 50:50 recruitment policy. That would enable more officers to be recruited immediately.

Recently, the Chief Constable tried to recruit more civilian staff, which would have released more police officers on to the front line, but because of the constraints placed on him by the 50:50 recruitment policy, he was not able to recruit anything like the 300 civilian staff that he wished to recruit.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Gentleman provokes me to respond. He argues that the constraint on recruitment is the 50:50 policy, but does he accept that it is the physical structure of Garnerville itself that places the greatest limitation on the number of recruits that the Chief Constable can accept?

Mr. Donaldson: No, I do not agree with the Minister. In the last recruitment batch, the quota for the intake was 60. However, only 36 were recruited. That was not because there was not enough room: it was because only 18 applicants from the Roman Catholic community were successful in the recruitment process. The police had to tell some of my constituents, who had also been successful, that because they were Protestants they could not be recruited as there were not enough successful Roman Catholic applicants. It was not because of a lack of accommodation in Garnerville. The Minister is wrong. The police cannot recruit enough new officers because of the 50:50 recruitment rule.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman recall an occasion on which I asked whether the Chief Constable would be restricted in that way and Ministers gave the explicit assurance that he would not?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right, because it would be incredible if we needed more police officers and the only problem that we faced was the lack of accommodation at Garnerville. That problem could be resolved, even if only temporarily, pending the construction of the new police training college. I am afraid that I cannot accept the Minister's contention that the problem is accommodation, not the 50:50 policy. That flies in the face of reality.

Mr. Quentin Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the Chief Constable has not been able to achieve his quotas. That constraint bit before any constraints imposed by the capacity of Garnerville. Does he recall that one of the recommendations in the Patten report included the need for a new police college? It was recommended that the appropriations for the new college should be made in the next financial year. Does he agree that the Government have been derelict in their response to that recommendation, because we still do not have a new police college?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly there have been significant delays in implementing the recommendation that there should be a new police training college. As I understand it,

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the problem lies in finding the right location. However, I am told that that will be sorted out within the next three months so I hope that there will be no further obstacles and that the new college will be constructed and handed over to the Chief Constable.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Surely, it would not matter if the finest police college was sitting there already. Under the terms of the legislation, Protestants would be banned from it. That is what the rule amounts to. The Chief Constable tells me, "My hands are tied. I can't even get detectives in from across the water because of the rules". If that is so, why are we talking about a college that has not been built? Even if it had been built, the rule would still be 50:50 and the rooms could not be filled with recruits. Furthermore, why persist with the idea that people have constantly to reapply and take the tests even if they have passed them two or three times? Why must they be turned down only to start over again?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Young Protestant constituents have visited my office and shed tears of frustration. One young lady from Lisburn had successfully passed all the tests and examinations three times, only to be told, "We cannot take you because you are a Protestant". What does it do to enthusiastic young people who want to serve in the police and make a contribution to the community when they are told that because of their religious viewpoint—because of the church that they attend on Sundays—they cannot be police officers? That is downright blatant discrimination; it is a breach of human rights and the sooner the 50:50 rule is scrapped the better for all of us.

It is an insult to young Roman Catholics to tell them that they have been put in a privileged position. They do not want that; they want to join a police service in which everyone is equal, everyone is accorded equal respect and their religious views are not the issue. Sadly, the 50:50 rule sectarianises the recruitment policy of the police and creates a problem that will exist for many years to come.

Two classes of police officer are being created and that will not help to establish the police service that we want for the future. Like the hon. Member for North Down, and, I think, all hon. Members from Northern Ireland, I want to see more Roman Catholic recruits for the police service. An elderly lady in my constituency told me that the police took a considerable length of time to respond after her home had been broken into recently. She was obviously distressed and said, "It doesn't matter to me whether the police officer who answers my distress call is Protestant or Catholic. All that matters is that there is a police officer to help me when I need help." That is the heart of the issue.

Mr. McCabe: I am trying genuinely to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument and I understand that he is making a sensitive point. He says that whether the officer is Protestant or Catholic does not matter to him and I have no reason to doubt him. However, can he conceive of a situation where it might matter? For example, it might matter in a society that is perceived to be unjust and unfair and one group appears to be in the ascendancy and dominates certain functions—[Interruption.] I am not talking specifically about Northern Ireland. That situation has applied in many

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societies in the past and may still apply nowadays. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there could be a perception that the police force was not balanced or fair and that we have a duty to address that?

Mr. Donaldson: If the hon. Gentleman talked to some of his own constituents he would probably find people who do not believe that the police are fair or balanced. There are people throughout society—in all our constituencies—who are anti-police or have a grievance against them. That is not unique to Northern Ireland. However, even if that were the problem—which I do not accept—the 50:50 recruitment policy is not the answer.

To clarify my earlier intervention during the hon. Gentleman's speech, it is true that, in general, the number of Roman Catholic recruits entering the police service is higher than in previous years. However, my point is that although when recruitment to the new police service began there was significant interest from the Roman Catholic community, the number has dropped consistently in each subsequent batch of recruits. In the last intake, the number of successful Roman Catholic recruits was down to 18, so the total number of recruits, which was 60, was reduced and restricted to 36. That means that there is a shortfall.

The same policy applies to civilian recruitment. The Chief Constable recently initiated a campaign to recruit additional civilians to free up police officers for transfer or secondment to the district command units. However, the 50:50 rule meant that there was a substantial shortfall in the number of recruits for civilianisation, so officers who could have been released from headquarters duties are not available to the Chief Constable or the district commanders. That is a direct consequence of the 50:50 policy. By not including a provision to rescind that recruitment policy, the Government have created a serious flaw in the Bill.

Other hon. Members have referred to other aspects of the Bill that could undermine the operational capacity of the Chief Constable and make it more difficult. I refer to clauses 9, 10, 18 and 22, which deal respectively with reports of the Chief Constable, inquiries by the board, the provision of information to the board and the disclosure of information and the holding of inquiries.

As the other place acknowledged, some of those provisions change the balance between the Chief Constable and the Policing Board in relation to political or policy issues. We have some concerns about that. Clause 10 provides that the number of members who can cause an inquiry to be held should be reduced from that set out in the 2000 Act. That is unacceptable, as was pointed out earlier. The Bill should include further safeguards to deal with that aspect of the legislation.

As the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said, the problem is one of public confidence. If we want to recruit more young people—male or female—to be part of the new police service, public confidence is essential. As a representative of a majority Unionist constituency, I have to tell the House that public confidence in policing is lower than it has been for some time. Lisburn, in my constituency, has the largest district command unit in Northern Ireland. From talking to the commanders there, I know that officer numbers are a critical problem. Because of the shortage of manpower, they have had to take measures

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such as closing police stations at hours when they are normally open to the public and taking officers away from community duties to give them other responsibilities.

Patten told us that we were moving towards community-based policing, yet people in the communities that I represent see fewer police officers today than they did during the height of what was known as the troubles. Their community police officers are being pulled away to do engage in other duties. Therefore, if the Patten report is the ideal, as some have suggested, the legislation and its implementation are clearly not delivering what Patten envisaged: community-based policing.

The SDLP recently proposed the closure of a number of police stations, arguing that doing so would free up more police officers. I am not convinced by that argument. Indeed, many of the police stations that the SDLP talk about are almost effectively closed as it is. I should like them to be opened up as community facilities. Why do we not use some of the part-time officers who are being recruited to man those police stations and to patrol the vicinity of those stations? That would at least make a positive contribution to community-based policing.

We were fortunate that the district command unit in Lisburn was identified as one of the pilot schemes for part-time recruitment. I welcome that and have been urging my local police commander to use those part-time reservists to increase the profile of policing in the community so that people can see that there is some substance to the concept of community-based policing, but there is a problem with police numbers, so the police cannot respond to crime in the way that they would like. That is having a detrimental effect on police morale at the moment.

Public confidence—this is crucial—is being damaged by the large outflow of experienced police officers under the voluntary severance scheme, and recruitment has not been able to match that. That is acknowledged by the Policing Board. In fact, one of the key decisions behind the renewal of the full-time reserve for a further period to 2005 was taken precisely because the severance scheme had resulted in fewer police officers than had been envisaged and recruitment had not been able to match the number that had left.

The full-time reservists, who have made a very valuable contribution to policing in Northern Ireland in the past 30 years, deserve a little better. I urge the Government to consider the position of the full-time reserve and to look beyond 2005. I fear that, because of the way things are going at the moment, we will need the full-time reserve for some time to come, and I should like the Government to take a more positive attitude towards it, as well as expanding the part-time element.

The Government have also referred to the text for consideration. It does not form part of the Bill, but it is the Government's very unusual method of indicating to one political party in particular what they would be prepared to do in the event of that party making certain moves. Of course I am referring to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Government have indicated—the Secretary of State used this terminology earlier in the debate—that in the event of the IRA engaging in acts of completion, which he defined as a commitment to exclusively peaceful

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means and demonstrating that in tangible terms, the Government would be prepared to remove the current bar on convicted terrorists becoming independent members of the district policing partnerships.

We fought very hard against that proposal when the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 was passing through both Houses of Parliament because we believed that it was unacceptable. I believe that it continues to be unacceptable that someone with a terrorist conviction should have a role as an independent member of a district policing partnership. Public confidence in the DPPs could be seriously undermined if that were to happen. The fact that the Government are holding that out as some kind of incentive and are bartering the issue in return for some political movement by the republicans is unacceptable.

We have heard the phrase "a commitment to exclusively peaceful means" for a considerable time. In 1997, all the paramilitary-linked parties signed up to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. That was supposed to be about a commitment to exclusively peaceful means, as is the agreement itself, but we are now being told that the IRA needs some further incentives to bring them to the point where they make that commitment to exclusively peaceful means.

What are we getting? We are told that the Government are also prepared to enhance the powers of the four Belfast subgroups. I am concerned that that will result in the Balkanisation of policing in Belfast. In political terms, west Belfast is more or less controlled by Sinn Fein, so it will also control the west Belfast subgroup. I should not like to be the police commander in west Belfast who has to account to a subgroup, with the kind of power that the Government propose, in the event that the IRA engages in some act of completion.

The Secretary of State referred to the text for consideration and said that, in the event of those acts of completion, the Government will introduce certain amendments to the legislation. Perhaps the Minister can tell us in summing up when the Government believe that might happen. Are we working to some kind of time scale? Clearly, the House will consider the programme motion on the Bill, and it must have some implication on whether the Government could accept the additional text. At what stage would the Government be prepared to accept it? The House is owed some clarification about the matter.

The Patten report declared that a clear objective was to take politics out of policing. Well, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made it absolutely clear that the Bill is a consequence of a political deal between the SDLP and the Government. That is why the legislation is being enacted. The Government are now saying that they are prepared to do another deal—this time with Sinn Fein-IRA—and to make further changes to policing on the back of another political deal.

There could be no greater politicisation of policing than the way that the Government are doing one-off deals behind our backs with political parties and then amending the police legislation. That is seriously damaging the Unionist community's confidence in the Government's ability to be in any sense impartial about policing.

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Policing has become a political deal. If people want a concession or some political movement, they offer something on policing. I do not believe that that will achieve Chris Patten's stated objective of taking politics out of policing. Policing has become a political football. It has become something to barter with, and it has become common currency in the political negotiations. What does that do for the integrity of the policing institutions in Northern Ireland?

Of course Sinn Fein will not stop there. It is demanding the devolution of policing and justice as the next phase in so-called policing reform. Why does it want that? I believe that it has probably set its sights on capturing the ministry for policing and justice. I cannot imagine anything more absurd than a republican Minister in change of a department for policing and justice in Northern Ireland in the context where the IRA continues to exist as an illegal terrorist organisation.

Of course policing is only part of the Sinn Fein shopping list. Reference was made earlier to the policing implementation plan that accompanies the legislation, but the Government are working to a much bigger implementation plan. This implementation plan, which will evolve over the next few weeks during discussions between the Government and political parties, is about addressing Sinn Fein's demands: the so-called shopping list, which it covers by describing as the full implementation of the agreement. Policing is one part of that shopping list, and I am told that republicans are also pushing for retrospective powers to investigate allegations of police collusion to be included in the deal. We know that they want some kind of arrangement for members of their illegal organisation who are presently on the run. We know that they want substantial demilitarisation, as they describe it: the removal of the watchtowers in south Armagh, further troop withdrawals and further security base closures. All those are on the shopping list. They have a string of demands on human rights and equality issues, and they wish to scrap the legislation on suspension so that, if they do in future what they did at Castlereagh, Stormont or in Colombia, we will not be able to suspend the political institutions. No doubt all those items on the shopping list will appear on the Government's new implementation plan, to be published at some time in the next few weeks, as the Government's contribution to resolving the outstanding issues.

The Government need to be very careful. In their quest to win republican support, they may push the unionist community over the edge. The result may be that they secure republican support but lose unionist support. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said in response to an intervention that none of this would be effective if one section of the community in Northern Ireland withdraws its support for these institutions. If the Government continue along the route on which they seem to be embarked, a real danger exists that that will be the result, particularly if they are seen to concede on a number of the issues that I have mentioned, simply to buy more support from the republican movement on matters to which it should have given support several years ago.

The Government are indicating, as we know, that this Bill is the latest instalment in an ongoing process whereby they barter concessions on policing, justice and security in return for so-called political progress on the

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part of the republican movement. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said that we must not barter the security of the people of Northern Ireland, and he is right, but that is precisely what the Government are doing. My concern is that they may do it against the advice being given to them at the moment by Army chiefs who are very concerned about some of the proposals to withdraw military installations. Political expediency demands, however, that those concessions be made to the republican movement. Where will it end? What further price will have to be paid because the republican movement's appetite for concessions is insatiable?

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