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10 Feb 2003 : Column 728—continued

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made a similar point when he more or less accused Labour Members of dilettante comments because they had not lived in Ireland all their life. However, there is a new practical imperative in some cases, such as the less than happy caravan of

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individuals who disembarked at Cairnryan at the start of the weekend, creating interesting policing challenges in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting some backbone into me. The plain fact is that Members who represent Northern Ireland represent parts of my country. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, of which I am a citizen. I am elected to Parliament to represent a constituency in the United Kingdom, so perhaps I should have been a bit bolder in the first place.

Mr. Peter Robinson rose—

Mr. Taylor: I have started something now.

Mr. Robinson: I hope that when Members read what was said, they will accept that I have no difficulty with Members from other parts of the United Kingdom giving their advice and views on matters relating to Northern Ireland. However, I object to Members from other parts of the United Kingdom telling us that they know better than us what the people of Northern Ireland think and believe.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman would certainly acquit me of that. I have never told anybody from Northern Ireland what was good for them. He may be interested to know that, before he came to the House, the late Enoch Powell said something almost identical to me.

I must move on in accordance with convention and with one eye on the clock. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), with all his experience and power of recall, spoke of deterioration and loss of morale—I agree with what he said—and, in a separate context, of participation in policing boards, about which there is a good deal of domestic argument in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) would have preferred a more radical solution. The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) spoke warmly of the past record of the RUC—let us not forget the RUC George Cross Foundation—and even anticipated a united Unionist family. I remind him that my party had the word "Unionist" in its old long title, but I do not think he had me in mind.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) spoke with approval of what he called profound changes, and paid tribute to those in the police who had enabled them to take place.

The text for consideration is a disturbing matter, in our view, and is scarcely to be contemplated as it stands. It would be conceivable only in the context of acts of completion, as they have come to be called, and as defined.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) set out the Democratic Unionist party's case for participation in police bodies, but castigated the 50:50 proposals. He invited Labour, I think, to stand in

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elections in Northern Ireland. Before doing that, the Labour party might allow people in Northern Ireland to join it.

I shall not seek to redeploy the arguments set out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford. We shall not oppose the measure tonight, but we shall seek to amend and improve it in Committee, as my party did in another place.

9.41 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I begin by referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). The lecture that he received as a young boy, which he described to us, still echoes in his memory. It serves to draw the attention of the House to the dangers continuing to face those who have the courage to serve as police officers in Northern Ireland.

I regret the somewhat churlish response of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) to hon. Members representing constituencies elsewhere in the UK. It does nothing to enhance his argument when he dismisses out of hand thoughtful, incisive and constructive comments and contributions to a debate that impacts on all citizens of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) warned about deals being done to weaken policing. He joined the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and a number of other hon. Members to urge the Government to proceed with great care and to listen to the concerns that would be expressed by the Unionist community. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley called on us to proceed with great caution. May I assure hon. Members representing Unionist traditions in the House that I have listened carefully to the comments that they made? In the other place, a great deal of thought and consideration was given to representations received by the Government.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee drew attention to the shortage of police officers. Hon. Members went further and said dismissively that there was nothing in the Bill to put more officers on front-line duty. On the contrary, the Bill proposes important measures that give greater flexibility to the Chief Constable in the deployment of civilian staff, including contracted-out staff. The measures, which have been included at the express request of the Chief Constable, are vital to free up officers for front-line duties. I know that the Policing Board supports him in that regard.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, in a typically robust contribution, challenged us about what the Bill does not do, as opposed to what it does. Hon. Members who have indicated that they may oppose the Bill in a vote oppose it for what it does not do, in particular because it is silent on the 50:50 procedures for recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Given the exchanges with Madam Deputy Speaker that took place earlier, Mr. Speaker, I venture down this path with some trepidation, but I believe that it will help the House if I try to pick up on some of the debate about the 50:50 policy, which is obviously still an extremely sensitive issue. I shall try to shed some light on the exchange that took place between my hon. Friend the

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Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. My hon. Friend was right to say that there had been a substantial increase in the proportion of Catholics applying to join the police. In the four recruitment campaigns that there have been so far, the proportion has been consistently at or above 35 per cent. The highest proportion applying to the Royal Ulster Constabulary was 22 per cent. Frequently, it was a good deal less. Chris Patten himself envisaged in his report an annual recruitment figure of 370. In the first year, no fewer than 530 recruits entered training. The Police Service of Northern Ireland hopes to recruit a broadly similar figure this year. The Chief Constable is currently considering with the Policing Board the scope for bringing in experienced officers from GB forces.

It has been suggested that 50:50 is not working. On the contrary, we believe that the level of response from the Catholic community since the implementation of Patten's recruitment measures has been unprecedented. Overall, 36 per cent. of applicants have so far been Catholic. The proportion of Catholics in the Police Service of Northern Ireland regulars has already risen from 8 per cent. to 11.3 per cent. That is well on target for achieving the quadrupling of the proportion of Catholics within 10 years, as Patten envisaged.

Hon. Members may be right to question whether that is entirely the effect of 50:50 recruitment. Other factors may well be at play, such as the fact that we now have a police service that is supported by the Catholic Church and welcomed by the Social Democratic and Labour party, and which has also been welcomed by the Irish Government and internationally and is recognised as a new beginning for policing. It may be all those factors that are attracting recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland from the Catholic and nationalist communities.

Mr. Carmichael: May I suggest to the Minister that she might be going too far in attributing all that success to the 50:50 policy? Surely, the real contribution is the reduction in intimidation.

Jane Kennedy: That is the point that I was trying to make. Perhaps I was not being clear enough, as I broadly agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The fact is, however, that intimidation remains and continues to be a problem. It is therefore an issue that needs to addressed, and I hope to return to it in a moment.

Although precise figures are not yet available, it is worth noting that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has appointed recruits from areas such as Londonderry, Strabane and Newry. Appointments from such areas would have been almost unheard of prior to the implementation of the Patten report.

David Burnside: I thank the Minister for giving way. As she said, the intimidation still takes place and all of us in the House condemn it and wish that it did not exist. Will she confirm to the House that that intimidation comes from Sinn Fein-Provisional IRA and not some dissident republicans?

Jane Kennedy: The overt intimidation is coming directly from dissident republican organisations.

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I believe that the failure to condemn it is a serious failing for which Sinn Fein needs to answer. There is no excuse for adopting the position that it took in failing to condemn the attacks on young new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

A number of hon. Members asked why applicants to the Police Service of Northern Ireland are required to requalify and constantly to reapply. We have considered that issue afresh and sought advice from the Equality Commission. Hon. Members may wish to test the matter further in Standing Committee. In the light of our further considerations, we have concluded that the current practice of discrete competitions should continue. Rolling the pool of candidates forward to subsequent competitions would present the Police Service of Northern Ireland with major practical difficulties and would not give roll-over candidates any significant advantage.

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