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10 Feb 2003 : Column 718—continued

Lady Hermon: If everything in the Police Service is as rosy as the hon. Gentleman paints it, why did the Secretary of State's predecessor speak at length in Liverpool university about Northern Ireland becoming a cold house for Protestants?

Mr. Bailey: I do not claim that everything is rosy. I pay tribute to those in the police force for effecting an

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enormous number of changes in a short time. In those circumstances, it would be remarkable if everything were rosy.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The hon. Gentleman referred to objections from dissidents. Did he realise that a former Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly had lobbied in Washington for another investigation into the Police Service of Northern Ireland and British policing in Northern Ireland? Did he know that this morning, the Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly for West Tyrone castigated the police, who were called out in the early hours of Sunday morning to deal with a riot in Omagh? The police rather than the rioters were being blamed for the riot.

Mr. Bailey: I may not have been aware of those details, but they can only substantiate my basic point that elements of the Catholic and nationalist community are trying to intimidate those who want to make this police force work.

During one of the Committee's visits to Belfast, we had an opportunity to observe recruits in action and training. We had already had an opportunity to interview the Chief Constable, who spoke of the superb quality of the new influx of recruits. After watching them train, we spoke to them individually to try to gain an insight into their personal experience of the process they were undergoing. One could not but be impressed by their enthusiasm and dedication, which in time, no doubt, will be translated into professionalism.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I note the hon. Gentleman's approval of the quality of those young persons. Should we not be equipping them with a new police training college? Is that not one of the most important things we should be doing? The existing staff and personnel are marvellous, the existing cadets are marvellous, but the building is not up to scratch.

Mr. Bailey: I agree. Let me issue a plea to the Minister, however. The one complaint that I heard from the recruits was that the distribution of the new uniforms was somewhat arbitrary, and not very prompt. It strikes me that an easy win could be secured by at least ensuring that the uniforms were provided as soon as possible. That may not be the most profound issue affecting Northern Ireland at the moment, but I hope it will be noted. Once we have sorted it out, perhaps we can think about the new training college.

Much has been said today about the 50:50 issue. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) made some logical and passionate observations; her beliefs are obviously deeply held. I recognise that there are matters of concern, but the evidence so far suggests that the system has led to an increase in the number of Catholic recruits.

I think that this commitment is important for more than one reason. It is, for instance, symbolic of the Government's commitment to ending what I accept may have been a perceived imbalance, and perceived cultural problems, experienced by Catholics with the former RUC. Above all, however, I believe that this public commitment and the improved recruitment that has arisen from it undermine Sinn Fein's approach, which,

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as we know, involves trying to convey to the nationalist community that the RUC has not changed. For that reason alone, I think it is important to retain the policy at least for the time being.

I think it was the hon. Member for Lagan Valley who spoke of "civilianisation". I know that civilianisation has the potential to release more people for front-line policing. He said that that had been a slow process. My understanding is that since effectively it has been farmed out to a private organisation it has improved considerably. Obviously we need to review the progress that is made, because potentially it is a very important way of releasing people for front-line policing.

The overwhelming message that I received when I was over there was that the main obstacle to recruitment was the Sinn Fein objection and the intimidation arising in part from the position it had adopted.

I accept the comment of the hon. Member for North Down that the issue has to be dealt with in the long term if we are to achieve a Northern Ireland police force that is more evenly balanced between the two communities. I see the various matters incorporated into the text for consideration as perhaps an attempt to initiate a debate that may enable us to resolve some of these issues in the long term.

Before talking about the text for consideration, I should like to mention the district policing partnerships. There was concern about the appointment of independent members, which comes under clause 13, and it was recognised that in some areas there would be councils that would result in DPPs being monolithically representative of one community. These points were put to my hon. Friend the Minister and she made it quite clear that she saw the appointment of independent members as a way of balancing the situation, ensuring that there was legitimate representation of all sections within a particular community.

I shall not go through the code of practice and the requirements that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) read out. I was sufficiently reassured on that matter to think that the fears that had been raised would not be realised.

I should like to speak for a few minutes about the text for consideration. I recognise that this is a hugely sensitive issue, but I would first commend the Government for at least putting this in such a way that it is there for open, honest, transparent debate. I have heard a great deal this evening about deals done behind closed doors and so on, but here we have an issue put before the House that gives hon. Members an opportunity to talk about it, Express their fears and make their points long before there is any chance of its becoming legislation.

It is anomalous that a councillor with a prison record, but not someone who is appointed as an independent member, can after five years be acceptable as a member of a DPP. I acknowledge that there are deep concerns that former terrorists could be appointed and undermine the independence and work of the police in certain areas, but the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that this could not happen until after a verifiable completion, should be sufficient to satisfy people that this is not an immediate likelihood. At the same time, it should be debated.

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What concerns me is that I feel that there are hon. Members who will never wish the issue to be debated, however much the political scene in Northern Ireland changes. I understand the feelings of those who have argued that we should not talk to terrorists, that we should never do a deal. The thought of dealing with people who have a record of murder, violence and so on is unpleasant; it is anathema. But that simply freezes the status quo. We must at some stage have some sort of dialogue that at least gives them an opportunity to play a part in normal, mainstream, civilised society. Otherwise, nothing will change.

Lady Hermon: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. Can he point to a single recommendation in the Patten report that suggests that those with criminal and terrorist convictions should become independent members of district policing partnerships?

Mr. Bailey: I do not think that there is one. What we are talking about is the Weston Park discussions and the possibility that things may change at some point in the future, whereby this could become a legitimate issue for consideration. At the moment the time is not right, and the depth of feeling here today has been clearly demonstrated. Such a development would result in the Unionist community's withdrawal from the process, which is clearly not acceptable. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of change in the future, and I therefore think it right that it be included and discussed. However, we must also recognise that this particular way forward is simply not available at the moment, and that a profound change on the part of the IRA and Sinn Fein is required before it becomes so.

I support the Bill, which moves forward community policing by a further few inches. It offers an opportunity to debate the difficult issues surrounding the text for consideration, and above all, it puts further pressure on Sinn Fein to demonstrate that at some time in the near future, it will commit itself to a democratic process in Northern Ireland, and thereby dramatically change the way that people in that area live their lives.

9.7 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I approach this debate not as someone who has formed his opinions after an afternoon visit to Northern Ireland and a pint in the local pub, nor as someone who ran away from Northern Ireland in his teens, but as someone who has lived in that community, who has grieved with that community, who has felt the pain of that community, and who recognises that some of the most valuable contributions made in Northern Ireland in past decades have been made by those who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and who now serve in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I do not share the view, put forward by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), that the Patten report should be treated as if it were holy writ, and that everything that happens in policing in Northern Ireland should be judged by those standards, as if they were something to be admired and attained.

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The Patten report was a disaster for policing in Northern Ireland, but it was her party leader and her colleagues who were responsible for that contribution. It was the remit set to Patten in the Belfast agreement that led to the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

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