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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 March 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]



Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Service

1. Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): If he will abolish the 50:50 recruitment policy for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. [222756]

4. Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): If he will make a statement on 50:50 recruiting to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. [222760]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): In 1998, when the Patten Commission was conducting its investigation, only 8.3 per cent. of regular officers were from the Roman Catholic community. As of 1 March, that figure stands at 17.18 per cent., with 1,733 recruits having been selected for appointment on a 50:50 basis. Our goal is to increase Catholic representation to 30 per cent. by 2010–11, the date that Patten envisaged was adequate in achieving that aim. I am pleased to say that we are very much on target to achieve that goal.

Mr. Donaldson: The Minister should be aware, however, that the 50:50 recruitment policy is discriminatory. Some 80 per cent. of applicants from the Roman Catholic community are successful; only 25 per cent. of applicants from the Protestant community are successful. The people I represent want more police officers on the streets. It matters not to them whether those officers are Protestant or Roman Catholic or of some other faith. What matters is that we recruit the best police officers to do the job—to tackle crime, terrorism, paramilitarism and all the other evils that confront our society. I welcome the increase in Roman Catholic
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recruitment to the PSNI, but is it not time for the Government to scrap this discrimination against the Protestant community?

Mr. Pearson: I acknowledge that 50:50 recruitment is discriminatory. Indeed, Parliament acknowledged that when it passed the measure. It is an exceptional means of addressing an exceptional problem, and the Government strongly believe that these temporary provisions are justified to rectify an acute historical imbalance in the composition of the police force in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Robinson: Is the Minister aware of the massive amount of taxpayers' money being used in the recruitment process? Leaving aside the appalling discrimination that young Protestant candidates face—they see less qualified Roman Catholics gaining posts in the service, for which they are refused—does he agree that those highly-qualified Protestants should automatically go into a central pool without having to go through the whole costly recruitment process?

Mr. Pearson: First, costs are closely monitored by the Policing Board and by the Government. Let us be clear about the scale of what we are discussing: since 2001, there have been 44,000 applications from Catholics and Protestants to join the police force in Northern Ireland, so the PSNI is clearly a highly popular place to work. Our figures on discrimination against the Protestant community by the policy show that, to date, 440 people have been discriminated against. That is unfortunate for those concerned, but we have to address the acute problem of a historical imbalance in the police service in Northern Ireland. That is what we are doing through this policy.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The 50:50 policy is about restoring trust and understanding between the two communities in Northern Ireland. Three years ago, the two Governments signed the international agreement on policing co-operation, allowing for exchanges and secondment. Will the Minister please tell me, three years on, how many members of the Garda Siochana have served in Northern Ireland and how many Northern Ireland policemen have served in the Republic?

Mr. Pearson: I can tell the hon. Gentleman—I am not sure whether he is aware of this—that only last month the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable signed protocols on cross-border secondments. It is absolutely true that it has taken some time to get to this stage, but there is a commitment, north and south, to ensure that we have those secondments in place in the future.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am doing the parliamentary police scheme with the PSNI. Can the Minister explain to the House how the existing policy, which in broad-brush terms one supports, helps to advance candidates who are part of the Chinese community of Belfast or of the growing number of Asian communities, which are not primarily of the Christian faith? How are they advanced by being in the
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non-Catholic 50 per cent? I just do not understand how that is consistent with our obligations to promote in their interest. Explain and discuss.

Mr. Pearson: Perhaps I had better not discuss it, Mr. Speaker, as I do not think that you would allow that. May I congratulate my hon. Friend on undertaking his work with the PSNI? I am sure that he will find it an extremely interesting experience. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is actively aware and adopting policies to ensure recruitment from ethnic minority communities. With regard to gender, the Policing Board has published a gender action plan, and currently, 36 per cent. of new applicants to the PSNI are women.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): But the Minister has not answered the question. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has rightly pointed out, currently, the 50:50 arrangement operates on a Catholic, non-Catholic basis, and severely disadvantages ethnic minorities, as they are largely recruited from the non-Catholic 50 per cent. Does not the Minister accept that the PSNI needs more officers from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially given the increase in race crime? What will he do to ensure that those from ethnic minority backgrounds in Northern Ireland are not necessarily discriminated against by the system that he has introduced to try to broaden the cross-section of the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Pearson: First, the House has debated the 50:50 policy, Parliament supports it, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) supports it in broad-brush terms, as he said. We must ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has proper procedures and processes in place to encourage applicants from ethnic minorities. I believe that it has done so, and is taking action in that area. The 50:50 policy is important overall, but I agree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) when he says that he wants a police service that reflects the broad community in Northern Ireland and that it is not just a question of Protestant and Catholic. His concerns are being addressed.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): May I take the opportunity to welcome the increased numbers of individuals from the nationalist communities who are seeking to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland? May I suggest to the Minister that the courageous and brave approach of some women in those republican communities might help to boost the number of Catholics joining the PSNI and help to achieve normality in that area?

Mr. Pearson: I agree with my hon. Friend's comments. The statements made by the McCartney family have been truly courageous and extraordinary and are very important for Northern Ireland politics. We are on target to meet what Patten envisaged in terms of having 30 per cent. representation from the Catholic community in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That is important as a Government policy. I am also pleased that we are seeing so many applicants from both the Protestant and Catholic communities who want to
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join the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and I am sure that that will continue in future recruitment competitions.

Devolved Government

2. Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke) (DUP): What measures he proposes to take to assist the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [222757]

3. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on the prospects of the Northern Ireland Assembly reconvening. [222758]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): The Government's ultimate goal remains the restoration of an inclusive power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. However, recent events have undermined the trust and confidence necessary to achieve that objective. While criminal activity continues to hamper the progress made towards devolved government, we are continuing to explore ways of moving the process forward.

Mr. Hunter: Does the Secretary of State accept that inclusivity is no longer on the agenda, that the provisional republican movement remains the criminal and terrorist organisation that it always has been and that it should be marginalised? It is now time to move forward and restore devolved government in the Province with the minimum further delay, involving all parties, nationalist and Unionist, which are genuinely and exclusively committed to the principles and practice of democracy.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right that the prospect of an Executive as envisaged by the Good Friday agreement, which involves all parties including Sinn Fein, is unrealistic at the moment because the issue of criminal activity must be resolved. Until that issue is resolved, we will be unable to have such an Executive. In the meantime, however, if he is suggesting a voluntary coalition including nationalists and Unionists, he of course understands that the Executive must encompass both communities. He will therefore have to persuade my hon. Friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party to join such a coalition.

Parties have made other suggestions, including the SDLP's suggestion of a restored Assembly with civic administrators running the Departments. The Prime Minister and I have made it absolutely clear that we are willing to consider those suggestions as temporary measures, although, as I have said, we still need to resolve the issue of criminality on the part of the IRA. That is the obstruction to the process at the moment.

Mr. Robertson: The Secretary of State says that that is the obstruction at the moment, but it has been the obstruction ever since this arrangement was made. The   McCartney sisters' bravery has highlighted the problem, but the IRA has never stopped being active. It has murdered people and maimed people. Is it not time to recognise members of the IRA for what they are? They are not constitutional politicians; they are murderers.
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Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the campaigning work of the McCartney family over the past few weeks, which I thought was particularly significant last week in the United States. He is right to say that activity has been ongoing since the signing of the Belfast agreement, and that we have now reached a point at which we can no longer tolerate the IRA's criminal activities and the presence of Sinn Fein on the Executive. A crucial decision must now be made by the IRA: I entirely agree with that.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): The Secretary of State has often spoken here about the need to restore trust as a prelude to political progress. Does he accept that there has been a gross betrayal of trust by the Government in their failure to implement the Cory report in respect of the Finucane case? The same Lord Cory in whom the Government must have had 100 per cent. confidence, or they would not have appointed him, says of the Inquiries Bill:

Does that not constitute a betrayal of the pledge made at Weston Park and subsequently that the Cory report would be fully endorsed by the Government?

Mr. Murphy: I do not think so. My hon. Friend should bear in mind what has happened over the past few weeks, and what will happen in the weeks to come. Three of the four inquiries promised at Weston Park, those relating to Nelson, Wright and Hamill, will soon be up and running. As for the Finucane inquiry, Lord Justice Cory himself said in his report that he could envisage circumstances in which some of that material could be dealt with only in private. As my hon. Friend knows, the Inquiries Bill will provide an opportunity for material of national-security significance to be considered in private by a genuinely independent inquiry, whose members will be able to call witnesses and call for evidence in a way that the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 also allows.

I do not think for a second that we are not following the Cory recommendation. I hope that there will be an inquiry that will be independent, will have full powers, and will eventually get to the truth of the matter.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I hope that the Secretary of State will not accept the proposal from the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) that we should move away from inclusivity. We have been here before, and every attempt to address the Northern Ireland issue by excluding people with unpleasantly extreme views has not dealt with the problem. Does the Secretary of State agree with that?

Mr. Murphy: What I cannot do, and what no Government can do, is make people form a Government together. At the end of the day, an Executive can only be up and running if the necessary trust and confidence exist. When the Executive was there, we had that necessary trust, but it has now broken down. There is no trust and confidence because of this issue.

I agree with my hon. Friend that our aim must be an inclusive Executive, because that is what people voted for in the Good Friday agreement and the referendum
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that followed. It is important to understand, however, that we are considering other ways of addressing the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the comments of Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister, who described Sinn Fein's proposals for a united Ireland as a red herring and the proposals of a snake oil salesman? May I also refer him to the comments of the Irish Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, that the provisional movement was a threat to the democratic institutions of the Republic of Ireland? Would not it be a good idea for the Government to adopt the same candour, to display the same leadership and, instead of adopting the purely passive role outlined by the Secretary of State now with regard to alternative ways forward, to bring forward proposals to, for example, amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by the removal of the d'Hondt formula so as to free up the opportunity for the parties in Northern Ireland to find a way forward?

Mr. Murphy: I do not think that there is any difference between what the Irish Government are saying and what we are saying with regard to Northern Ireland. Both are saying clearly that we cannot have an Executive as envisaged by the agreement until we resolve the issue of criminal activity by the IRA. We are absolutely at one on that. The right hon. Gentleman says that we ought to have plans drawn up and that we might have to propose legislation to address the democratic deficit and arrive at an alternative system, and I am more than happy to do that. But, as he knows, we can have as many plans and laws as possible in this House, but unless parties agree to work with each other and to have an Executive that includes nationalists and Unionists, that is impossible. However, as I have said, I am more than happy to look at all the alternatives and am currently doing so.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's comments last week that he was not going to take part in any future negotiations or political discussions with Sinn Fein unless criminal activity by the IRA was finally addressed. Was he speaking for the whole of the Government in making that statement or—as is widely believed in Northern Ireland—are there people from the Prime Minister's office who, even in the last few weeks, have been engaging in precisely such discussions and negotiations with representatives of the Republican movement?

Mr. Murphy: I have said more than once that talks—whether classified as discussions or negotiations—are not stopping, but that there is only one item on the agenda; how to address criminality by the IRA. Until we do that, there can be no further discussion or negotiations on taking any matters further.

Mr. Lidington: Since making the message clear on crime was supposed to be the purpose of the Prime Minister's Chequers meeting with Sinn Fein, I cannot say that the Secretary of State's remarks on further discussions are encouraging. Surely there is a responsibility not only on Republicans—he and I are agreed on that—but on the Government to accept that direct rule is with us for some time, that there is a
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profound democratic deficit in the operation of direct rule and that it is time for Ministers to come forward with options as to how that democratic deficit can be addressed and direct rule made more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Murphy: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman and in my reply to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I indicated that we were looking at different options for addressing the democratic deficit. But different parties have different views as to what the options should be. The key is to ensure that we can get agreement with the parties to get something up and running. People in Northern Ireland still see the main objective as ensuring that we stop the sort of activities that resulted in the murder of Robert McCartney and the robbery of the Northern bank.

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