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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 March 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 19 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Recruitment

2. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): If he will make a statement on the Police Service of Northern Ireland recruiting patterns. [101440]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Since February 2001, 644 recruits have been appointed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the statutory 50 per cent. Catholic, 50 per cent. non-Catholic basis. The fifth recruitment campaign was launched on 7 March.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the Minister agree that in competition three, for example, the training has been undersubscribed by about 70, that none of the targets has yet matched up to requirements, and that we are haemorrhaging more officers than we are getting in? Does she also agree that the Chief Constable's desire to have more bobbies out serving the people would be best achieved not by abolishing the PSNI band but by changing the 50:50 recruitment requirement?

Jane Kennedy: No, I do not agree with that. The figure to which the hon. Gentleman referred in the third competition is not one that I recognise, although I will investigate what he has said. It remains true, however, that more than 530 recruits entered training in the first year. That is well in excess of the figure of 370 suggested by the independent policing commission—Patten's figure.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Does the Minister agree that the constitution of the new local policing partnership boards will have an effect locally on how recruitment will go? If the boards do their duty well, it

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will improve the status of the police force in their area. Will she, however, take on board the fact that there is a great deal of concern in Northern Ireland about how the boards have been appointed? Is it the Government's rule that ex-members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary should not be appointed to them? A prominent former member of the RUC—an assistant chief constable—was banned, as was the former chairman of the Police Federation. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister can now reply.

Jane Kennedy: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's opening comments about the importance of the establishment of the district policing partnerships. This is an important and positive step forward for policing in Northern Ireland, which will develop the accountability of the police to their local communities and improve the working relationships between them. It is impossible for me to comment on the individual cases that he raised about appointments to the DPPs, but if he cares to write to me on the subject, I will look into it.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I was recently in Belfast, where we had discussions with Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable. He said that one great obstacle to better recruitment from the Catholic or nationalist community would be removed if Sinn Fein lifted its objections to joining the police force in Northern Ireland. What assessment has been made of the likelihood of that happening?

Jane Kennedy: Obviously, the establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with the support of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Catholic Church and, internationally, the Irish and US Governments, has transformed the nature of policing in Northern Ireland. As a result of that new beginning, the proportion of Catholics applying to the PSNI has been unprecedented. My hon. Friend is right, however: it is now time for all political parties and all community leaders to support policing and to encourage young Catholics to join the police service and take up a career in policing.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): How successful have the policing action plans been in increasing the number of female applicants and recruits to the PSNI? Also, given that an almost exclusively Catholic and Protestant police service is little more representative of the whole community, would the Minister be willing to have at least a discussion about the prospect of action plans to encourage applications from those who do not categorise themselves as either Catholics or Protestants?

Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman knows from the discussion in Standing Committee yesterday with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), and myself, we have made it clear that we constantly review the success of recruitment arrangements, but the success of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in attracting women to join

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the police service, not just to apply but to complete training successfully and start as regular police officers, has been phenomenal.

Strategic Investment Programme

3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): If he will make a statement on the strategic investment programme. [101441]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The strategic investment programme is a key product of the reinvestment and reform initiative. It will provide the most radical infrastructure investment in Northern Ireland in a generation, backed by a major reform agenda. The programme will involve additional investment totalling about £2 billion over the next five years for new schools, hospitals, roads and improved water and public services.

Dr. Iddon : That £2 billion of extra expenditure is certainly needed in Northern Ireland, but can my hon. Friend assure me that the money will be spent effectively and will benefit all the communities in Northern Ireland in improving the infrastructure that he mentioned?

Mr. Pearson: Obtaining good value for money for public funds is obviously a key priority for the Government. That is why we decided to set up the Strategic Investment Board, which was formally constituted on 17 March. It will bring in a team of experts to advise on the delivery of the strategic investment programme and will add value to the whole process to ensure effective public procurement of badly needed investment in Northern Ireland's infrastructure.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Minister will be aware of the strategic importance of the site of the former Maze prison in my constituency. I welcome the recent establishment of the advisory panel, but will he give me an assurance that the local community will be fully consulted before any final decision is made about the development of the Maze site?

Mr. Pearson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the advisory panel. It is very much the right way to go, and decisions will be taken some time in the future about the Maze site which, as he knows, is of regional significance, so we need to ensure that there is wide involvement. The views of the local community are clearly important in that process, and I can certainly give him an assurance that they will be heard.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I am sure that the Minister will agree that the announcement last month of £70 million in investment in the Larne to Stranraer ferry, with new terminals in Northern Ireland and Scotland and improved crossing times, will indeed be of benefit to strategic investment in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, it will encourage more trading links between

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Northern Ireland and Scotland and investment in the two countries, and will be the basis for further trading opportunities.

Mr. Pearson: I very much welcome the recent announcement of improvements to the Larne to Stranraer line. Those links are important, as is air access to Northern Ireland. There is an agenda there that needs to be developed. In addition, we are having discussions with our colleagues in Scotland about the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry and what can be done to ensure that there is a ferry service over the summer.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): Can the Minister confirm that while many people in Northern Ireland welcome the strategic investment programme, there is concern among ratepayers about the possibility of significant and substantial rate increases to pay for that programme?

Mr. Pearson: Nobody likes to pay extra, whether in rates or income tax. I understand the concerns in Northern Ireland, and I want to confirm absolutely that the £2 billion strategic investment programme does not rely on any increase in the regional rates other than that previously agreed by the Executive. I also want to take the opportunity to say that some politicians in Northern Ireland are living on a fantasy island if they believe that they can get money from the GB taxpayer to invest in all Northern Ireland's future infrastructure requirements. The clear message is that if improvements in infrastructure are wanted by people in Northern Ireland they will have to go some little way themselves to pay for the cost of them.

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