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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 July 2006

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Policing (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. In view of the climatic conditions, it would be in order for Members to remove their jackets if they so wish.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I hope that the temperature does not rise because of anything that I say. The weather is sufficient to warm the Chamber this morning.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate grants us. However, I am somewhat torn, because I would have liked to be with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs this morning in Northern Ireland, where it is launching its report on organised crime, an issue of equal importance. If the goal of devolution is to be realised, agreement on policing in Northern Ireland will be an essential component of any arrangement. While this debate takes place, the Committee is launching its report just outside Armagh. It is significant that a Committee of this House has taken its message on that aspect of policing to an area associated with so many of the criminal activities of IRA-Sinn Fein. A range of witnesses gave the Committee the messages that dealing with organised crime is essential to political progress in Northern Ireland and that the unwillingness of one political party—IRA-Sinn Fein—to back the police in that endeavour makes the task more difficult.

The effective policing of communities by the Police Service of Northern Ireland is equally essential to political progress. However, that objective becomes impossible if a major political party openly discourages the public from co-operating with the police and undermines them at every turn. That creates a policing vacuum, within which people have to live, and there can be no confidence in any political institutions that require the inclusion of those who, while making laws, will not support the very people and organisation who have to enforce them.

There is an important political message to send out from this debate. The Democratic Unionist party is committed to achieving devolution. We have made it clear that we will work with IRA-Sinn Fein in government, although that may be unpalatable. That is a big step for people in my community, and, indeed, for the whole community in Northern Ireland, who have suffered at the hands of IRA-Sinn Fein for 35 years. We will work with them in government, but in return, we require them to relinquish terrorism and criminality and to support the police.

Support for the police means not only sitting on the Northern Ireland Policing Board or on district policing partnerships. It means giving a lead to the public by helping the police with investigations and supporting
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them when they take on criminal godfathers—I do not really care what side of the community those godfathers come from. It is totally reasonable to make that a requirement of entry into government, but the Secretary of State has rejected it as the creation of a new precondition. He knows that it is nothing of the kind, of course. It is simply the outworking of the commitment that all parties were supposed to give to work towards exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Sinn Fein has rejected a move in that direction, because it requires the demonisation of the police in Northern Ireland and the use of its own armed wing to keep control of its core areas. Its criminal connections are a useful source of funds, so it cannot afford normal policing.

Rather than face down Sinn Fein, the Secretary of State has reacted in a weak, and I must say, politically cowardly way. He has chosen to ignore what would be regarded as an essential requirement of any Minister or any party in the rest of the United Kingdom—to support the police in the execution of their duties. He has sent a message to Sinn Fein that he will facilitate its intransigence. In doing so, he makes the task of achieving devolution by the deadline of 24 November even more difficult. Oddly, he has made it clear that all Sinn Fein has to do is promise to support the police at some time in the future. But it does not have to practise that support for its members to become Ministers in Northern Ireland.

More worrying is the way in which the Administration seek to facilitate Sinn Fein when it comes to policing, especially in republican areas. The Administration are prepared to alter policing arrangements locally to facilitate the Sinn Fein-IRA version of community policing: policing that they control.

That brings me to the heart of what I want to say. In December, the Government issued a consultation document, “Draft Guidelines for Community-Based Restorative Justice Schemes”. There are 18 such schemes in Northern Ireland—four in what would be regarded as loyalist areas, mostly staffed by ex-paramilitaries and people who were involved with loyalist paramilitary groups, and 14 in republican areas, almost exclusively staffed by people who had associations with the IRA, of whom most have served time in prison for terrorist offences. Until now, the schemes have been financed mostly from America. The money was running out and the funding period coming to an end, and there were moves to try to bring the funding into the mainstream. That meant that there had to be guidelines on how the schemes would qualify for funding.

The idea is that the schemes deal with those who have committed offences in local areas. Victims report the incidents and those administering the scheme take action to administer punishment and, sometimes, to resolve the disputes by bringing victims and perpetrators together. However, the schemes are seen by many as an IRA court and an IRA police force. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has described it as the lords of gangsterism becoming the law lords in those areas. The schemes give Sinn Fein considerable control over a local area, and since it neither recognises the legitimacy of the police nor co-operates with them, Sinn Fein is, in effect, an alternative police force in republican areas.

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I see the same happening in loyalist areas, and the schemes provide local Sinn Fein representatives, or indeed local representatives of one of the loyalist political parties, with considerable ability and strength. If there is a problem in an area, they refer the person and the perpetrators to a scheme that they control, and they get it sorted out. On one occasion in my council ward of East Belfast, someone came to me about people who were behaving antisocially next door to them. I went through all the normal channels—the environmental health department, the noise monitoring service, the police and social services—but still the behaviour went on. The lady met me in the road one day and said, “It’s okay, Sammy, I got it sorted out.” She named one of the people who sat with me on Belfast city council, and said, “I went to him. The boys came round and they sorted it out on Friday night.” Now, that undermines legitimate public representatives who do not have access to that kind of muscle. Secondly, it undermines the bodies set up by the state to do such jobs. That is why Sinn Fein wants that form of policing in republican areas. It gives it control, enables it to hold its grip on its communities and, in effect, gives it the power to police its own areas.

I will go through the guidelines and would be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The Government have issued guidelines that only strengthen the ability of the community restorative justice schemes to ignore the police and the criminal justice system and to exercise their own control. Once public funding goes into the schemes, they will become an integral part of the criminal justice system. The objective of the draft guidelines, they say, is to make the schemes an integral part of the system. Yet at the same time, the funding facilitates the schemes in ignoring the most vital part of the criminal justice system, which is the police.

At every turn, there are ways for the schemes to bypass the police. Of course, the reason is quite clear. Those who are involved, especially on the republican side, do not recognise the legitimacy of the police. They will not accept that the police are an acceptable police service in their areas. The danger is that if we proceed down the road that the Government are following, we will make schemes an integral part of the criminal justice system while the police are kept outside. The schemes are part of the Government’s efforts to get Sinn Fein to accept policing in Northern Ireland. Rather than make it live up to its responsibilities, as any other democratic politicians would have to do, and to accept that the police service that is in place is the legitimate police service in Northern Ireland, the Government are seeking to find alternative ways to allow it to police particular areas.

The objective of the guidelines is to help

How can they hope to promote confidence in the criminal justice system if they allow one arm of that system, namely the community restorative justice schemes, to ignore the police and to set them aside?

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so
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far. The Minister was quoted in a document entitled “Partnership policing key to success”, published on 31 May, saying:

It is impossible to achieve that if a major political party representing part of that community disparages co-operation with the police force, in which case what is said here stands for nothing.

Sammy Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that perceptive intervention. It goes even further. The Government are going to fund one of those community partners and say, “We will find ways of allowing you to bypass any involvement with the police.”

Let us look at what the guidelines say. I hope that the consultation, which the Minister will have received, will lead to significant changes and a substantially different emphasis. The guidelines will not even apply to some schemes, because as paragraph 2 states:

Some schemes claim that 80 per cent. of their case load involves dealing with antisocial behaviour. I am not sure how the distinction is made. To me, antisocial behaviour in most of its aspects involves some degree of criminal behaviour. I suspect that that is an easy way of exempting some schemes from the guidelines and escaping even some of the weak requirements that could be placed on them.

In most countries where community restorative justice schemes are used, the normal method is that someone commits an offence, the police investigate, the case goes to the public prosecution service and then it goes to court. Then, the court can recommend that the person is dealt with by the community restorative justice scheme. Indeed, even before the case goes to court, the police can say that they believe that it would be more appropriately dealt with by the scheme. That will not be the case in Northern Ireland, however. Paragraph 6 of the guidelines makes it clear that the initiative will be taken by the victim, who can opt whether he or she goes for the community restorative justice scheme or whether the case is referred to the police.

Of course, the guidelines make it clear that

The people who will give advice to victims or perpetrators might well be people, certainly in republican areas, who do not accept the legitimacy of the police. Of course, they will have a vested interest in saying, “You go down this route”, and I suspect that, in many cases, rather than giving advice, they might give instructions that that route should be followed.

When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee went to Northern Ireland, we met people who had been victims of crime, had gone down the community restorative justice route and were very unhappy with how their case had been dealt with. In fact, they claimed that in some cases they were pushed down that route because the people who perpetrated the crime had associations with a local paramilitary group that,
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of course, had control of the community restorative justice scheme. Those victims found that they, rather than the perpetrator, were the ones being punished and ostracised.

The danger with the guidelines is that they allow such things to happen. Despite the fine words in the document, I do not believe that people will be able freely to make a decision. I believe that many community restorative justice schemes would rail against referrals to the scheme by the police, since they do not accept the legitimacy of the police in the first place.

I want to consider the way in which the police are to be actively excluded from the schemes. Paragraph 7 suggests that the only role of the police will be to investigate a crime. The police will have no role in what happens in the community scheme. Where an offence has been committed, the job of the police is to take measures to bring the offender to justice. The paragraph states:

After that, it is passed to the community restorative justice scheme without police involvement. Indeed, the next paragraph shows that any police involvement that there might be can be circumvented. Rather than having to interface with the police, the scheme can go through the probation board of Northern Ireland or the youth justice agency, which

about the offence, and what is happening to the offender under the scheme. They do not even have to have face-to-face communication with the police: it can be circumvented by the use of intermediaries.

If the guidelines are meant to build confidence in the criminal justice system, why have the Government gone out of their way to ensure that the police are held at arm’s length if the scheme organisers decide that that is what they wish to do?

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): To extend the point that my hon. Friend is making—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), too, has made the point on a number of occasions—the risk is that in some of areas the paramilitaries, or proxies for the paramilitaries, will become involved in the schemes. That is one reason for the desire to hold the police at arm’s length; the paramilitaries want to present themselves as an alternative form of policing in local communities.

Sammy Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that that is already happening under the system that pertains at present.

I turn to those who will be involved in running the scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) pointed out, they are by and large from paramilitary backgrounds. The Government, using fine and honeyed words, speak of the schemes operating to

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Those are fine-sounding words, but how can the Government ensure that the schemes operate to the highest standards? Indeed, the guidance continues by saying that it would be

Again, everyone would say that that is right; but how can the Government ensure it?

The proposal is that the schemes will police themselves, and assess the suitability of their staff in light of that. It is unlikely that anyone applying for a job in a scheme will say, “By the way, I am a paramilitary” or “I’m a criminal”. In fact, those who interview them will probably know very well that they are criminals or paramilitaries—they might even be mates. None the less, the schemes will assess their own staff.

It is suggested that one way of determining whether an individual is suitable will be to put them through the “protection of children or vulnerable adults” machinery. However, that will record only whether someone already has a criminal conviction. The only way to vet those who do not have a criminal record is to use normal police procedures and police intelligence. The police will know whether someone is currently involved in paramilitary or criminal activity and has not been caught. Again, however, that would involve the police.

On the face of it, the consultation provides a safeguard, but when we dig deep we find that there is no safeguard. Indeed, a researcher from Magee college at the university of Ulster has written a paper called “The Restoration of Restorative Justice”. In it, he says:

That is the sort of thinking of many who support the scheme. To allow schemes to vet their own staff would be an abrogation of responsibility. There should be an oversight body to vet the staff, with information being supplied by the police; it would be same as the normal vetting procedure for a job of such significance.

The schemes will be responsible for training their staff. Paragraphs 19 and 20 contain high-sounding words about the highest possible standards, but how can we ensure such standards? There will be occasional inspections to ensure that the training is adequate. Again, I believe that an oversight body is necessary; it should be responsible for the training and personal development of those staff who have been vetted and selected. The schemes will also be able to handle complaints against themselves. Given those who currently people many of schemes, anyone making complaints against them might want to think twice.

Mr. Donaldson: On the question of schemes considering complaints against themselves, is it not the case that the police were required to move self-investigation and establish the office of the police ombudsman for the purpose of ensuring impartiality in investigating complaints against the police? Surely we should not expect a lesser standard to apply in respect of community restorative justice schemes.

Sammy Wilson: My hon. Friend reads my mind. He anticipates what I was about to say. He is right that the police require independent investigation of complaints against them, yet self-investigation and self-assessment
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seem to be allowed for the schemes. I believe that the Government are seeking to find ways to accommodate those who want the lowest common denominator when policing their own communities and who are therefore making those kinds of demands.

The guidelines are an abdication of policing in republican areas. They a sop to Sinn Fein and an attempt to allow it to fill the policing vacuum caused by its opposition to the PSNI. The Government have shown a typical lack of backbone on policing. I trust that this debate will at least help raise the importance of the issue. I emphasise again—I hope that the Minister carries this back to the Secretary of State—that political progress will depend on how the Government deal with policing in Northern Ireland.

I made it clear at the start that we are up for devolution. We are even prepared to take on the hard decisions that devolution may require, including with those who were previously wrecking our economy, but we will not do it on the basis of allowing them to choose the kind of policing that should be acceptable in Northern Ireland. That kind of Government would not be stable, it would not be acceptable, and it would not be supported by the majority of the population.

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