Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Trimble: I rise in defence of the amendment and to point out to the Minister that she is getting confused between the census figures arrived at by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for those persons who do not want to declare a religious affiliation, and the figures that the Minister derived from the fair employment monitoring procedures, which attribute community origin to people whether they like it or not. The census figures for those who want to have a religious affiliation are 45 per cent. Protestant, 40 per cent. Catholic, and 14 per cent. other—those persons who do not declare. Once community backgrounds are attributed in accordance with fair employment legislation, the figures are 53 per cent. Protestant, 44 per cent. Catholic, and 3 per cent. other. The Minister's figures should therefore be compared with the 3 per cent. figure, not the 14 per cent. figure. She is getting confused, and I do wish that she would get around to dealing with my point that the target age group is roughly balanced, so the 50-50 requirement is not needed if participation rates are equal. That is the problem.

Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The numbers of applicants do not reflect the breakdown in the age groups but, for the reasons already given, intimidation continues against young men and women from the Catholic community applying to join the PSNI. I should not let that point be made without stating what might be perceived as the obvious, which is that intimidation from any quarter, which prevents young people from applying to serve in the PSNI, is unacceptable. I shall talk about our efforts to tackle that intimidation when concluding my remarks. I have not confused the figures. The point made by the right hon. Gentleman does not deflect me from my conclusion that the Liberal Democrat new clause is unworkable. It would not assist the current situation in any way.

New clause 2 would replace the 50-50 recruitment arrangements with a provision that would make statutory provision for affirmative action measures to encourage applications from groups currently under-represented in the PSNI. Similar amendments to those discussed today have been debated during the passage of this Bill and that of the 2000 Act, and I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is unfamiliar with the Government's arguments.

The Patten commission and report fully recognised the importance of affirmative action measures in bringing about compositional change in the police service. Indeed, the commission made a range of specific recommendations to that effect on, for example, the role of community leaders, establishing links between schools and universities and the police service, and developing advertising strategies. However, Patten's clear view was that the imbalance

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between Catholic or nationalist and Protestant or Unionist was so extreme that exceptional measures were justified for a temporary period to lend some impetus to the process of compositional change.

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The right hon. Member for Upper Bann says that the scheme is not working and is unnecessary, but the impact of 50:50 recruitment can already be seen. The proportion of Catholics in the regular police service has risen from 8 per cent. at the time of the Patten report in 1999 to 12.2 per cent. as of 1 March this year. That compares with an increase of slightly more than 1 per cent. in the 10 years prior to the Patten reforms. The impact on the overall composition of the police service will be taken into account as part of the review of the 50:50 recruitment arrangements, to which I referred earlier, provided for under section 47 of the 2000 Act. That will take place early next year. The 50:50 arrangements also apply to police support staff, and although the independent recruitment agency has only recently been appointed, the recruitment measures are already having some effect, with an increase from 12 per cent. to 13.5 per cent. in the proportion of Catholics working among police support staff.

As I have said, under-representation of women and ethnic minorities is also a live issue for the PSNI. Section 48 of the 2000 Act provides for the board to make an action plan to address the under-representation of women in the service, and the Act also provides for the application to the police of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which places a duty on them to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. That provides an appropriate vehicle under which the matters raised in the new clauses can be taken forward. However, the under-representation of Catholics remains our current priority.

Mr. Wilshire: I want to take the Minister back a moment. She said that the arrangements apply not only to the police, but to civilian support services. What is the situation for contracted-out services? If something is put out to contract—catering, for example—will the contractors be required to follow the rules too? If so, how could the contractor plead when hauled before a court under human rights legislation for providing catering in a discriminatory way?

Jane Kennedy: Contracted-out services are not subject to the 50:50 recruitment requirements.

As the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has stated, goals, timetables and affirmative action measures are unlikely to produce the necessary change in the composition of the police for a considerable period. It is not that the measures would not change the composition, but that they would not affect it for some time. We need to see a more balanced and representative police service in the shorter term, and the 50:50 recruitment rules will enable us to achieve that.

New clause 3 would place a requirement on the Secretary of State, if requested to do so by the board, to make an order suspending the 50:50 provisions

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either if the required number of police trainees or support staff could not otherwise be appointed or if the number of serving officers or police support staff were below complement at the time of consideration. A similar proposal has already been discussed at some length in another place. It is worth reiterating that the Secretary of State's existing discretionary power under the 2000 Act to amend the 50:50 quota provisions has not been used. He has the power to amend the provisions when sufficient numbers of police trainees or support staff cannot otherwise be appointed, but he has never been invited to use it.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister has been scrupulous in her dealings with the Committee, but she is now being somewhat complacent. I will put to her the point that I made earlier, regarding the severe difficulties and under-manning of the PSNI.

Last autumn, the Chief Constable sought to undertake civilian recruitment to free up officers and put them on the beat. According to the Chief Constable, 250 applicants were Protestant, and only 26 were Roman Catholic. As a result of the 50:50 rule, he was able to make only 52 appointments. The arithmetic is straightforward: 26 from one group and 26 from the other, which meant that approximately 224 Protestants who were willing to be recruited were not recruited. These are serious numbers. Will the Minister stay with the 50:50 rule even in the face of the fact that it is leading to severe under-establishment in the PSNI?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman refers me to a text that I do not have in front of me. I am not aware of the recruitment effort that was made to which the Chief Constable referred. I am aware of problems in one particular area that have now been addressed by the appointment of recruitment agencies to take recruitment matters forward. Since their appointment, all recruitment drives run by the two agencies have been so good that it has always been possible to appoint the required numbers of recruits under the 50:50 arrangements.

We are not complacent. If a problem has been caused by the 50:50 arrangements, we are prepared to listen to a clear case when it is made to us. Undeniably, there are shortages of skills and experience in certain areas. The PSNI and the Policing Board have together developed a human resources strategy to address the current manpower difficulties.

The Government have made it clear on several occasions during the debates that we are aware that Policing Board members are considering seeking a limited exception to the 50:50 recruitment arrangements, to allow the Chief Constable to address the current shortage of experienced officers at the rank of constable with specific specialist skills.

Mr. Taylor: On that point, may I make it clear to the Committee that as recently as 11 October 2002, the total number of regular officers in the PSNI was 6,905, against an establishment figure of 8,488. The police service was therefore light by 1,500 regular officers. That is a serious situation. It is not the time to be lecturing the Committee about the fairness of the 50:50 system and the need to recruit more Catholics into the

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police force. Of course there is a need to recruit more Catholics into the police force, but there is also a need for the police force to be up to strength. It has 1,500 officers too few.

Jane Kennedy: I recognise the 6,900 figure, but not the 1,500 discrepancy to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I will look into the matter.

Given that we received representations that the Chief Constable wished to recruit constables with a particular skill, and the Policing Board unanimously agreed that an exception should be made, the chairman of the board wrote to the Secretary of State yesterday to ask the Government to make an appropriate amendment to the 2000 Act to facilitate that. I am aware that from time to time difficulties are created.

Mr. Harris: In response to the comment made by the hon. Member for Solihull, would the Minister agree that, unfortunately, a number of police forces throughout the UK regularly fail to reach their full complement of officers? It is therefore unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that because that has happened in Northern Ireland, it is due to the 50:50 recruitment policy. It regularly happens to other police forces that do not have such a policy. Would the Minister agree that the hon. Gentleman may be using the matter as a red herring, when there are many other reasons why police officers

 
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