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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Public confidence in the police in Northern Ireland is increasing. That is a tribute to the good work of the police, the Policing Board, the police ombudsman and the district policing partnerships.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As a former Northern Ireland equality commissioner, I, too, welcome the decommissioning. From my experience, I am acutely aware of the importance of instilling confidence in the police across all communities in Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend agree that to achieve that we need significant improvements in crime reduction and crime detection?
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Mr. Woodward: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the House would congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the huge improvement in public confidence in recent years. Central to that are the improvements in crime reduction and crime detection. Crime in Northern Ireland is now at its lowest level in six years. Last year, recorded crime fell by nearly 8 per cent. on the previous year, and burglary and car crime fell by 18.3 per cent. and 23.7 per cent. respectively. The public's growing confidence in the PSNI is clearly justified.
The Minister will be aware that part of the reason for the reduction in confidence in the police among the Unionist community is the legalised discrimination that has prevented 3,500 of them from joining, despite their being suitably qualified. Following the figures released last week, which show that if the merit principle had been applied 26 per cent. of recruits would have been Roman Catholic, will he establish the merit principle so that everyone can join the police in Northern Ireland on a non-discriminatory basis?
Mr. Woodward: Fifty-fifty is a temporary provision to ensure that we meet the target set by Patten that 30 per cent. of the PSNI should be Catholic. Parliament will, of course, review it in 2007. The vast majority of unsuccessful qualified candidates, Catholic and Protestant, are rejected because there are greater numbers of applicants than available places. We should celebrate the fact that so many young people now wish to pursue a career in the PSNI. It is also worth remarking that fewer than 2 per cent. of all non-Catholic applicants are rejected as a direct result of the 50:50 provisions.
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Does the Minister agree that confidence in the new Police Service of Northern Ireland would be greatly enhanced if the Northern Ireland Office discouraged the creation of the so-called community restorative justice groups, which work outside the criminal justice system, and many of which are operated by Sinn Fein, asI quote from it
When will the Northern Ireland Office act against such bodies, which seek to usurp the normal role of the police in our community and which, in their executionI use that wordin the local community, represent a gross infringement of personal human rights?
Work is ongoing to produce guidelines that encapsulate safeguards, which will be discussed with members of community-based schemes and other interested parties in due course. The Government recognise that community restorative justice schemes have a part to play in helping to secure a normal society, but it is crucial that they work actively to uphold the human rights of all and that their members are prepared to work with statutory agencies, which, of course, means the police.
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Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): How would the Under-Secretary encourage the family of Lisa Dorrian to maintain confidence in the police investigation some eight months after her murder and without the recovery of her body?
Mr. Woodward: I pay tribute to Lisa's family for their brave determination. In doing that, it is appropriate to acknowledge the hon. Lady's work. She has worked tirelessly alongside the family to ensure that justice is done. I have met the family and I shall do so again shortly. The Chief Constable continues to take an interest in the case. He is ensuring that maximum resources are used and agrees with me and my hon. Friends that we should use forensic experts to help to find Lisa's remains. The investigation is ongoing and we can only hope that we find Lisa's remains before long and bring the perpetrators of her death to justice.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Under-Secretary agree that confidence in the Police Service of Northern Ireland will not be fully achieved until it fully represents all the communities in Northern Ireland? Will he join me in praising those members of the Catholic community who have joined the police service, despite the opposition of some of their political representatives? Will he reassure me that he will continue to work to ensure that all the political parties in Northern Ireland support a policy that will enable the force to be truly representative?
Mr. Woodward: I am tempted simply to say that I agree with my hon. Friend's comments. It is essential that there is wholehearted support throughout the community in Northern Ireland for the police and those members of the police who work tirelessly for everyone in the community.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I return to the restorative justice schemes? Will the Under-Secretary guarantee that the Government will not fund any of them without the full support of the police? The police should not only be consulted but participate fully in the schemes and be present at their implementation. Will he give that guarantee?
Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Police Service of Northern Ireland sets a gold standard for ombudsman's services? Does he agree that, as the service gains support across the communities, it deserves the full support of all parties in Northern Ireland?
The police ombudsman is an important part of the police service that is offered to the community in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that confidence in the ombudsman is at an all-time high. A recent survey found that 78 per cent. of respondents were confident that the police ombudsman dealt with complaints impartially and that 78 per cent. believed that the police ombudsman would help to ensure that the police do a good job. That is a good record and we shall work to improve it even further.
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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The IRA has taken major steps this year. The 28 July statement and the independently verified decommissioning of the IRA's arsenal of weapons are historic. The IMC report published on 19 October stated that the initial signs are encouraging. It is high time that loyalist paramilitaries decommissioned too.
Mr. Robinson: Will the Secretary of State take it from me that my colleagues and I and, indeed, the whole community in Northern Ireland believe that it is time for all the paramilitary organisations, loyalist and republican, to shut down and disband? Does he also accept that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland fear that the Government are intent on repackaging the paramilitaries as community restorative justice officers or as part of some community support service? Will he assure us that we can see the back of paramilitaries rather than seeing them in a new guise? Will he give his interpretation of the statement that he read out earlier from the IMC reporta report that he flagrantly disregardedabout the IRA involving itself in political intelligence gathering?
Mr. Hain: I agree with many of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about what the people of Northern Ireland want. They want a total end to all paramilitary and criminal activity. In respect of community restorative justice schemes and police community support officers, there is no question at all of paramilitaries going straight into becoming police community support officersif we proceed with the plan to introduce them in Northern Irelandor into running community restorative justice schemes. Both programmes will be established in accordance with the rule of law, and bothespecially the recruiting of police community support officerswill be established according to the normal criteria for police recruitment. The hon. Gentleman's concerns are not well founded, and I am sure that he will come to support what we are trying to do.
"licensing regimes which would enable the closure of businesses which have been engaged in the illicit fuel trade, and would keep out of the industry all those shown to have been involved in that illicit trade".
Mr. Hain: This matter is a priority for the Organised Crime Task Force. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and we will look carefully at the IMC recommendations. He will be encouraged to know that fuel smuggling is already the subject of vigorous action, with 160 customs officers employed to break up the criminal gangs involved in oil fraud. The latest available figures show that deliveries of legitimate road fuel have increased for the third year running. The illicit market appears to be shrinking, but we shall continue to crack down on it.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister understand that the Unionist population in Northern Ireland will accept nothing less than the dismantling and disbandment of the Provisional IRA?
Mr. Hain: We all expect the promise made by the IRA on 28 Julyto close down all its paramilitary activity, end its armed campaign and stop criminal activityto be implemented in full. That is the position around which we should unite and on whose delivery we should insist.
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