Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. Amess. I should like to thank the Minister, who undertook this morning to provide the Committee with a schedule of the ranks of the PSNI in comparison with those of the Garda Siochana. She has done so and the papers are available under your good chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I thought that it was appropriate to thank her for acting so promptly.

The Chairman: That was not a point of order, but it is nice to have it on the record.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The liveliness of your calling us to order, Mr. Amess, has inspired liveliness all around the Committee. This has been one of the most energetic debates in our consideration of the Bill so far.

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I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) for his comments; the notes are available on the Table in front of me.

Let me draw the attention of hon. Members to section 46 of the 2000 Act, the title of which makes it clear that it deals with temporary provisions concerning the composition of the police. As I pointed out in an intervention, it is about discrimination in appointments. The 50:50 arrangements will, by their temporary nature, be subject to review by the Secretary of State next March. Renewal of the provisions would require the affirmative resolution of both Houses. There will be an opportunity for a further full and equally heated debate on this matter. Members of the Committee may wish to make a note of that in their diaries.

3 pm

Mr. Taylor: Noting what the hon. Lady said about affirmative resolution, could she tell us whether, rather than that taking place in a Committee Room, it could take place in the Chamber?

Jane Kennedy: That is not a matter for me. I would expect that it would take place through the normal affirmative procedure channels, which would be in Committee. However, I cannot predict that now.

I should like to deal with one or two of the comments that have been made today. I was surprised by the assertion that the Government had said that this would not discriminate. As I have said already, the Act is clear about this. I believe that there is a misunderstanding of the process by which appointments to the PSNI are made. Applicants for the PSNI are considered on their merits. They are considered according to the skills, experience and qualifications that they will bring to the post. They are then tested on their merits. All who achieve the appropriate standard enter a merit pool. It is only from that point onwards that the 50:50 procedure applies. Once a candidate has been appointed as a trainee to the PSNI, their appointment stands irrespective of what happens to other candidates for the PSNI regulars within that trainee pool. Once trainees are appointed, they are employees of the PSNI.

Lembit Öpik: It was three months, one week and four days ago that I asked the hon. Lady whether there was any pressure for a reciprocal withdrawal to maintain the 50:50. It sounds to me, notwithstanding what she said about existing trainees, that there is indeed a recipricocity that would cause eligible candidates to withdraw. Have I misunderstood her?

Jane Kennedy: Yes, absolutely. I hope that I have just made that plain. Once candidates are appointed as trainees, there is no pressure on them to withdraw should a trainee of the other community drop out of the process. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. It is at the merit pool stage that the Chief Constable is required to draw the candidates on a one-for-one basis when appointing them as trainees.

Mr. Campbell: The Minister is right to say that there is no question of discrimination at the point of application; I do not think that that has been

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suggested either in Committee, the House or elsewhere. But it is precisely at the merit pool stage where problems have arisen in the past. In each competition, there have been two or three times more Protestants than Catholics in the merit pool. To tell those additional Protestants that it is because they are Protestant that they are not being employed is discrimination. Surely the Minister must accept that?

Jane Kennedy: The whole purpose of this is to provide arrangements that discriminate, on a temporary basis, in order to address a serious problem that I will come to in a moment. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes bears directly upon the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made. The Chief Constable has been able to recruit to the PSNI well in excess of the levels of recruitment that even the Patten commission had expected he could achieve. That being the case, individuals are not being turned away from vacant posts within the PSNI.

Mr. Trimble: With respect, the Minister's point is specious. Yes, there were high levels of recruitment last year. If we had proceeded at the lower levels of recruitment that would otherwise have obtained, no more Protestants would have been appointed to the Police Service. However, the fact is that, presently, hundreds of people are being told that they have passed the merit stage, but that they cannot proceed further because they are of the wrong religion. That is discrimination. Indeed, as the Minister pointed out earlier, the legislation is quite bold about that; it admits that it is provision to discriminate.

The same has happened on an even worse scale with regard to civilian employees. That was not recommended by Patten. In a recent recruitment round for civilian employees, only 30-odd Catholics applied, as opposed to hundreds of Protestants. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but I believe that more than 300 were turned down because of their religion.

Jane Kennedy: I am not in a position to dispute those figures—I have not seen them—but they seem extraordinarily high. However, it is important to focus for a moment on the objective. Why are we proceeding with the recruitment arrangements? In a nutshell, their purpose is to address ''the most striking problem'' in the composition of the police service, according to the Patten commission, which is the under-representation of Catholics.

We are not endeavouring to recruit precisely according to the make-up of the population, which is the objective of new clause 1. Our goal is to rectify a particularly acute compositional imbalance that the Patten commission saw as being so significant as to have a real impact on the effectiveness of the police service. We must keep that as our focal point. What are we doing in moving the police service forward to make it as effective as it can be? The quicker we can achieve a proper balance in the PSNI in terms of community representation, and revert to conventional recruitment procedures, the better. I will certainly be among those who rejoice when that day arrives.

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We also need to bear in mind that the independent commission chose the 50:50 profile because it reflected the demographic breakdown of people expected to be in the age bracket for recruitment during the operation of the policy. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann is right. That is not to say that other under-represented groups, such as those that we have debated—women, ethnic minorities and others—are to be ignored. However, for a range of reasons, the commission did not see discriminatory methods of recruitment or specific compositional targets, which one might call quotas, as the solution to that problem.

Mr. Harris: I am sure that my hon. Friend already knows this statistic, but the number of female applicants for the PSNI is 36 per cent. of the total, and the highest of any police force in the United Kingdom.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right. The police recruitment agencies are required by the recruitment regulations to advertise ''imaginatively and persistently'', particularly in places likely to reach under-represented groups, and there has been a degree of success, as my hon. Friend points out.

The legal basis for the 50:50 provisions is also worth considering. Comments have been made about that. As has been said, the Government were able to negotiate an exemption from the 2000 EU directive on employment equality, on the basis that the 50:50 provisions would

    ''tackle the under-representation of one of the major religious communities in the police service''.

That firm legal foundation was further underpinned in the High Court last year, when the compatability of the provisions with the European convention on human rights was challenged in the Parsons judicial review case. However, the Court was satisfied that there was no violation of article 9, on freedom of thought, conscience and religion. On the article 14 challenge, which related to prohibition of discrimination, the Court considered whether the 50:50 provisions pursued a legitimate aim—in other words, did they meet a pressing social need?—and whether they were proportionate to that aim. The court found that both those requirements were fully satisfied. In its judgment, it stated that

    ''the circumstances provide formidable support for a method of recruitment that would strike at the heart of the problem''

that we face in Northern Ireland.

Can we really say that the circumstances also justify positive discrimination in favour of those classed as non-determined, as the amendment would have it? Can we identify a pressing social need of sufficient strength to withstand legal challenge to increase the proposition of non-determined officers and civilians in the police service? I do not believe that we can yes to either of those questions, but let us set that aside for a moment and consider whether the quota that the amendment proposes would be workable. Quite simply, it would not. In the three competitions completed to date, the highest proportion of non-determined candidates to reach the pool of qualified

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applicants was 0.64 per cent. Most recently, in competition three, no such candidates reached the pool. Of all the trainees recruited to the PSNI to date, only 0.62 per cent. have been classed as non-determined. All those figures clearly show that even if a quota of 14 per cent. of non-determined recruits could be justified, it is simply not achievable.

 
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