Community Relations Policy

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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In the happy event of securing a further tranche of Peace II funding, will the Minister ensure that efforts are made next time around to cut the bureaucracy and form-filling, and to reduce the complexity of the forms that community groups and others must complete to obtain funding? Will he ensure that there is more flexibility in terms of the range of groups that can access that funding?

Mr. Pearson: We have already cut the bureaucracy in the Peace II programme. Various community organisations have identified the issue, which is why we brought in consultants. We have created an action team to de-layer the programme and reduce the bureaucracy. That is not to say that everything is perfect, but there is significantly less bureaucracy than previously. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's comments about the future of the programme if an extension is secured.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Does the Minister realise that the Government took the decision and that the three Members of the European Parliament fought not to have the provision stopped, but the Secretary of State and the First Minister and his deputy got that overturned at a meeting that we attended and at which we protested rigorously? The south of Ireland successfully received a new tranche of that money, while we were left out.

Mr. Pearson: I am not absolutely sure about the detailed circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman

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referred. I am sure, however, that the Government are committed to doing all that we can to achieve an extension to the programme. The Peace programme was negotiated and agreed with the Commission and has a definite time limit. The issue for us is to extend the time limit from December 2004 to December 2006, in common with other funding programmes. We are optimistic that we shall be able to secure that extension.

Police (Reserve)

4. Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): If he will make a statement on the future of the Police Service of Northern Ireland full-time reserve.[178653]

7. Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): What discussions he has had on the retention of the full-time police reserve in Northern Ireland.[178656]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Chief Constable has publicly stated that he will review the position of the full-time reserve after this summer's marching season and that he will then put forward his advice to the Policing Board and the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Robinson: The Minister will know that there is a significant rise in paramilitary activity, particularly in my constituency, where we have witnessed murder, intimidation and the mass movement of families from the Ballybeen estate in particular, where people are fearful of their lives and have to get out. There is an ongoing turf war between different factions of the loyalist paramilitaries. Does he agree that there is no justification for the removal of the full-time reserve, bearing in mind that the PSNI is finding it difficult enough to cope adequately with the demands placed on it, and that we are not yet enjoying normality, as stipulated in the Patten report?

Mr. Pearson: I am aware of the problems in the hon. Lady's constituency. It is important on these occasions to emphasise the Government's position that all paramilitary activity must cease. Clearly, such activity is continuing. The Independent Monitoring Commission report graphically illustrates the scale of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland today. As for the full-time reserve, I can state categorically that no decisions have yet been taken in that respect. The Chief Constable has said that he will review the situation after the end of the marching season; he will then want to discuss it with the Policing Board. The Government will reflect on what the Chief Constable and the Policing Board tell us.

Mr. Donaldson: The Minister might not be aware that in Dromara village in my constituency on Saturday evening, at the annual community festival, several people were assaulted by some thugs who had entered the village, and because there was no police presence even though the organisers had requested that the police be there, it took more than half an hour for the police to arrive on the scene. There are 80 full-time reserve officers in the Lisburn district command unit—the largest such unit in Northern Ireland. If the

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Chief Constable and the Government decide to remove those 80 officers, how can the people of Dromara expect to be properly policed in future? What hope can they have for any realistic level of policing if the full-time reserve is scrapped?

Mr. Pearson: I am sorry to hear of the problems in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Like him, I want effective policing and effective community policing in Northern Ireland. The Chief Constable is committed to delivering that. I can only repeat that no decisions have been taken on the full-time reserve. The matter is one for the Chief Constable to review, which he will do after the end of the marching season, when it will be discussed with the Policing Board. Let us not prejudge the issue, but tackle it when it arises later in the year.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Many district command units rely heavily on a high proportion of full-time reservists, and those men are involved in the full gamut of policing, not just in minding the gate. The Minister says that no decision has been taken; will he share with the Committee the criteria on which a decision will be made? What policing arguments would lead to the services of those men being dispensed with?

Mr. Pearson: The issue has arisen because of a decision taken in October 2002 resulting from the agreement of the Policing Board and the Chief Constable in the context of their human resource strategy. It stated that, if the conditions were right, from April 2005 there would be a phased run-down of the full-time reserve over 18 months. No decisions have been taken. It will be important for the Chief Constable to decide on the appropriateness of his human resource strategy in future. Clearly, we need effective policing in Northern Ireland; it is up to the Chief Constable to decide operationally how that is delivered. As I said, he will review the situation and will talk to the Policing Board in the autumn about his human resource planning.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): The Minister referred to human resources. We have to bear in mind the arguments that have been advanced and the fact that, for some time, there has been uncertainty for the families about their future. The impression is given that human resources are required only if there are problems, but problems still exist. The marching season is a figment—it is wrong to cite it because terror, burglaries and petty crime are continuing and the reservists bear much of the responsibility for dealing with such matters. I speak for south Belfast when I ask whether it is not time that we use a system of the unilateral transfer of men who have been trained in policing rather than recruit novices to deal with such matters?

Mr. Pearson: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about transfer. He might not be aware, but more than 150 members of the full-time reserve have already been appointed as PSNI trainees through the current recruitment procedures. That is a significant and welcome step. That opportunity is currently open to members of the full-time reserve.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I shall be grateful if the Minister will explain the

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significance of waiting until after the marching season. If I have learned nothing else about Northern Ireland, I have learned that when one marching season is over, another follows pretty sharply on its heels. Although I accept the reasons why sees no long-term future for the full-time reserve, will he assure the Committee that, when it is eventually disbanded, communities will not be left exposed because of a lack of effective resources? Secondly, will he assure me that the politics of such a situation will not be allowed to take precedence over the fair treatment of the many men—they are mostly men—who have given good service to the community through the full-time reserve?

Mr. Pearson: I happen to think that it is sensible of the Chief Constable to have decided to review the situation of the full-time reserve after the marching season. Clearly, he will want to use his resources in the best possible way to deliver effective community policing in Northern Ireland. It is up to him to come up with a strategy to do so. I have no doubt that he will come up with plans and will discuss them with the Policing Board. Those discussions will take place in the coming months.

European Parliamentary Elections

5. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): If he will make a statement on the implications of the results of the European Parliamentary elections for re-establishing devolution in Northern Ireland.[178654]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): Following the elections we remain determined to continue the process of political dialogue with the parties with the aim of restoring devolution at the earliest possible moment.

David Burnside: I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the two democratic parties on their success in the European elections. I refer to the Democratic Unionist party and Jim Allister topping the poll and to Jim Nicholson, our Ulster Unionist candidate. It was a great victory for democracy.

The right hon. Gentleman will realise that we do not have devolution because Sinn Fein is not a democratic party. Can he outline what alternative routes the Government will embark on to establish devolution within the Province because Sinn Fein-IRA refuse to give up their terrorist army and their criminal empire? What will the Government do to establish administrative devolution and voluntary coalition? What form of devolution will we get at Stormont?

 
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Prepared 17 June 2004