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5 July 2006 : Column 257WH—continued

9.58 am

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate. He touched on a number of important matters. I have some sympathy with much of what he said, although I come to these issues from a different direction.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman spoke generally about the political situation and the prospects for devolution, and he linked possible political developments to the attitudes of the various parties in Northern Ireland to policing and to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He criticised the Secretary of State’s response to his party’s attitude on those matters. I am not averse to criticising the Secretary of State from time to time for how he handles political affairs in Northern Ireland. However, I am at one with him in warning people about the dangers of turning objectives—no matter how valid—into preconditions. The history of our political process should tell parties that doing so only creates self-frustrating demands.

The worthy objective of ensuring full support and co-operation for the Police Service should not be made a precondition for the restoration of our political institutions. Flawed and wrong as Sinn Fein’s position on policing and justice is, it did not bring about suspension. Such matters should not be made into preconditions for the restoration of the institutions. If the factors that caused the suspension of the institutions are, in the judgment of the Government, the Independent Monitoring Commission and so on, resolved and settled, then restoration of the institutions should take place and parties should pursue all the other issues through all the appropriate means and channels—challenging each other, testing themselves and so on. That is how things should be done, or else we will get lost in another pub crawl of preconditions.

Sinn Fein will have preconditions for its support, or nominal support, for policing, and funding community restorative justice schemes in a way that suits it and its
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personnel could be exactly one of those demands and preconditions. I warn the hon. Member for East Antrim that in making Sinn Fein moves on policing almost a central prerequisite for restoration of the institutions, he could assist Sinn Fein’s attempts to extricate concessions on the quality and fabric of policing and justice, about which he expressed such concern.

There are huge contradictions in Sinn Fein’s position on policing, and it should be tested and challenged on them. It should not be comforted by the Government with all sorts of side deals on community restorative justice. Nor should it be assisted by the creation by other political parties of a framework within which it can happily do various side deals—some of which we might see, others of which we might not.

The new dispensation in respect of policing derives from the Patten report. The Patten commission was established by the Good Friday agreement, and its report set out 175 main recommendations; it was a 10-year plan to change the nature and face of policing. We are in only the fifth year of that plan, but there is already huge progress; nearly 90 per cent. of the recommendations have been delivered. That huge success rate is due to the leadership in the Police Service and to the role and work of the Policing Board. If the SDLP had followed Sinn Fein’s advice and approach and refused to take part in the board, that board would not have been established and would not have driven implementation of the Patten plan. Essentially, we would have been left with the status quo.

Sinn Fein needs to be challenged and tested, by the Government and others. I welcome the Minister, who deals with policing and security matters, but I hope that he will strike a tone different from that of his immediate predecessor, who seemed obsessed with spending a lot of time flattering Sinn Fein. During one broadcast, he actually credited Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein with the Patten report and its implementation. He bent over backwards to humour Sinn Fein and told a very basic big lie, which was an offence to all the good and responsible people who took part in the leadership and management of the Police Service, or were on the Policing Board or in the district policing partnerships. The Government need to come to the issue with more consideration than they are showing.

Alongside the Patten commission, the Good Friday agreement established a criminal justice review. That review, among many other things, saw a role for restorative justice and, rightly, positively identified a place for such justice within the entire suite of the criminal justice system. The Social Democratic and Labour party fully supports that recommendation, just as we support the criminal justice review more widely. However, there is a difference between restorative justice as part of the fabric of the administration of justice—as one of the options or channels that can be pursued—and setting up the highly privatised version of administering justice that the Government seem to favour in their guidelines.

We should remember that in their approach to community restorative justice the Government set about accepting the existing schemes as a given. They did not conduct consultation on the broad principles and precepts of restorative justice. They did not ask questions about what qualities, principles and protections they needed to build in, what resources they needed to commit or
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what legal framework they needed to build, so that people from anywhere in Northern Ireland could have access to the good model of restorative justice. The Government did not engage parties on what they saw, or on how examples from elsewhere in the world—Australia, Canada or wherever—could be applied to Northern Ireland, or how they could be varied to do so.

No, the Government set out to fix a funding problem for some existing schemes, particularly those run by an organisation called Community Restorative Justice Ireland. Those schemes’ philanthropic funding was going to run out, and there was a crisis about how to keep them going. As part of keeping Sinn Fein engaged on policing and politics, the Government obviously decided, “Well, we’ll see what we can do to fix things for you. We’ll come up with a way of funding.” That is where the whole question of guidelines and so on came from.

The Government had to consult on the guidelines only because a number of people identified and raised questions about what was going on. Initially, the Government denied that such engagement was even going on and that such plans were even afoot. Ministers did not know what we were talking about—there was total, blank denial that it was going on. Even the Prime Minister made it clear that he did not know. In meetings with us, he said, “Where did this come from anyway? I don’t know what it means.” Even he was in denial, but as the documents emerged, it was clear that things had not happened suddenly; there had been exclusive engagement between the Government, the groups directly involved in the scheme and one political party only. That was simply wrong. Anything that comes from such behaviour and dubious engagement is bound to be dubious itself.

The Government are happy to create twilight-zone arrangements, on the edge of or underneath policing, that might suit Sinn Fein. The Government are prepared to create a policing twilight zone in another direction, outside the Patten principles and the Patten plan; they have plans for an expanded and enhanced role for MI5 in Northern Ireland, to give MI5 primacy in intelligence policing. The Patten report is, however, very clear that intelligence policing should be in the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The difference is that in a matter of national security the Chief Constable should report not to the devolved interest, whether that is the Policing Board or a devolved Minister, but to the national Government, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It seems clear to me that the Government are quite happy to do a deal by which they try to tell us they will bacon-slice the Patten report from two sides. On the one hand bits of policing and the administration of justice will be privatised by way of community restorative justice and recycled paramilitaries. In many cases in the communities affected it will be a case of warlords turned law lords. On the other side, the bacon-slicing of Patten will consist of the expanded role that is to be given to MI5 in intelligence policing in Northern Ireland; so we may have crooks on the one hand and spooks on the other. Of course, the Government will then tell us that there is a balanced approach and that what we are left with in the middle, between the two sides that have been sliced, is the core of Patten. Of course, that will not be so.

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I ask the Minister and the Government to think again and to return to Patten. I hope that the Minister will not rely on the briefings that he is getting from his Department to the effect that the changes are consistent with Patten. I hope that he will read the Patten report properly and come at the issue honestly and straightforwardly.

The hon. Member for East Antrim raised specific points about community restorative justice. One was about the way the proposed guidelines would strengthen the ability of people involved in the schemes to ignore the police, bypass the formal justice system and pretty much do their own thing. The main way in which that will happen is through the notion of what is called third-party referral. Let us consider that notion. Only last year Ministers, like the rest of us, condemned Sinn Fein’s sidestepping evasion in response to the murder of Robert McCartney. When Sinn Fein belatedly started to answer some of the challenges and questions about Robert McCartney’s murder, the most it did was begrudgingly say, “Yes, this was a terrible crime for which people should be brought to book, and if people have any evidence they can maybe make it available”—although it fully understood why they would not make it available to the Police Service.

The ruse that Sinn Fein came up with was giving the information to a third party. It made it sound very good and strong by including the police ombudsman among the third parties to whom it suggested people could give information. Some people did make statements to the police ombudsman. Some people made such statements and then did not sign them, which made them worthless as evidence. Some people made fairly vague statements to the police ombudsman, and, of course, many people made no statements at all. That was in relation to a vicious murder, which had been followed by a clear effort to clean up the bar and stage a cover-up, and which involved pressure being put on witnesses. The ruse to show that Sinn Fein was making an effort was the notion of reporting to a third party.

People rightly perceived the cynicism of that. The Government told us that they thought it was terrible—awful. The Prime Minister told parties that it was terrible and awful. He told the McCartney family that it was a terrible, awful, crude and cynical thing, which should not be allowed, and that he was making it very clear to Sinn Fein that that approach was not of an acceptable standard and was not on. But what have the Government gone and done now with the guidelines? They have incorporated exactly that standard as the new going rate for approaching the question of justice and policing. They are rewarding Sinn Fein’s cynicism and saying, “That will do nicely. That will be the rule, the law, from now on. We will work it that way.” People can pretend that so long as they engage under such justice schemes with a third party, that will be it.

That of course undermines the role of the police. Let us be clear. I should have my doubts in some situations about whether some police officers and senior police officers might abuse community restorative justice to abdicate their responsibilities in certain areas. Some police officers would be happy to take the line, “Well, we just police the highways and we let someone else police the alleyways and byways”, and to use people in the community in that way. Many police officers would
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be happy to wash their hands of some of the details and use the existence of the schemes to abdicate responsibility. I am not basing my objections and concerns about community restorative justice on the idea that only the police have a role and the police are wonderful; they, like other public services, will try—pardon the pun— to cop out, when they can and to land responsibility elsewhere. Indeed, that is already happening. In many cases, senior police officers are saying, “Well, there is nothing, really, that we can do. You should maybe go and talk to so and so. Have you talked to such and such about that? They might be able to do something.”

We want a system of policing and justice like the one Patten promised. We want something consistent with the Patten vision, which was equal access to acceptable, active policing—not police who are more active in some areas than others or a localised form of policing that does one thing in one area and has a completely different standard in another. We do not want to privatise policing to former paramilitaries, as though it is some sort of occupational therapy for them, or a way to recycle those groups as they decommission and withdraw from active criminal behaviour.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made other points about how widely permissive the Government’s guidelines are in enabling community restorative justice schemes to do their own thing—setting staffing criteria, investigating complaints against themselves and so on. I do not accept the idea that the schemes can investigate themselves—first, because of the point made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) that we have not accepted that the police should investigate complaints against themselves. We have been very demanding about requiring a full independent investigation mechanism, through the police ombudsman’s office, so why should we accept something less in relation to the matters in question, which affect people’s rights, and policing responsibilities, fundamentally?

Secondly, I do not accept the idea because community restorative justice as it is practised in Northern Ireland has already been subject to a number of complaints and challenges, including in the context of the McCartney case; personnel from the CRJ were involved in that. Subsequent to the murder there was a meeting in the Short Strand area to establish a restorative justice scheme, and among the people on the committee was someone known to have helped to direct the clean-up of Magennis’s bar and someone else who was definitely and clearly identified as having been involved to some extent on the night. Those are the sort of people involved. We have put that evidence directly to the Prime Minister and his shocked Secretary of State—his shocked Secretary of State—but to no effect, because the guidelines, and the Government’s intention, roll on.

My final point about complaints concerns Jeff Commander, a friend of Robert McCartney and the McCartney family who was viciously assaulted. His family has been trying to get that criminal offence dealt with properly, as the McCartney family did. One of the issues that has arisen is that a senior figure in Community Restorative Justice Ireland actually witnessed the assault on Jeff Commander, but he has
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still failed to give his evidence to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Government are still acting as though that is okay and as though that will be the going rate for co-operation on policing and justice issues. The CRJI is not even trying to deny that the crime was witnessed, and the family is being offered mediation with the CRJI and the republican movement. Indeed, it is being offered anything but justice—any way of handling, burying or sidelining the issue, but not justice.

I ask the Minister to think thoroughly about this issue and to talk to people who know how the CRJI works and who have seen it completely mishandle cases in which it has been way out of its depth. In cases involving sexual abuse, other sexual crimes and domestic violence, it has brought the victim and the perpetrator together in a way that is absolutely inappropriate and that breaks all the rules, all the guidelines, all the advice and all the standards. Do the Government not care about that? They let these people do their own thing and set their own standard, but that is not justice or policing. No notion of law will be worthy of its name if the Government say, “That’s the way your society is to go.”

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 10.30 am, but if hon. Members co-operate, both of those who want to speak will get in.

10.21 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends. However, it is important to put some facts on the record.

As we all know, the Government are downscaling the number of British troops in Northern Ireland. In 1994, at the time of the IRA ceasefire, the number of soldiers was approximately 12,700. That number has since been cut to 9,300, and the plan is to reduce it to 5,000 by next July, and further if the Assembly is restored after talks with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party.

Further action will include the withdrawal of the military from five of the 10 joint police-Army bases, the closure of two military bases, which will bring the total to 22, and a 28 per cent. reduction in the flying hours of British Army helicopters. Part of the plan also involves the defortification of police stations to make them resemble normal buildings, which will involve the demolition of towers and observation points.

Public safety must the overriding priority, and there is enormous pressure on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to fulfil the role that will be left when the Army goes. That pressure is ongoing, and funding is necessary over and above that needed for the ordinary operation of the force. I completely agree with the Independent Monitoring Commission’s report, which made that point, and I should like the Government to walk up on the issue.

In all that is being done, it is police officers on the streets who are being overlooked. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has visited
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the Province on many occasions, and we have seen at first hand the difficult conditions in which police officers must work. The facts that I have just given, and the number of officers out there, mean that there is enormous pressure on people to do their job. Unless matters are handled in a coherent and co-ordinated way that is, most importantly, accepted by all political representatives across the community, I fear that officers who put their lives on the line every day for the peace that we all so want will be put under further undue pressure and that the aims that we all have will not be fulfilled.

10.24 am

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), and I entirely agree with the thrust of his remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this extremely important debate. A wide range of general political and more specific issues has been highlighted, and it is absolutely right that they should be. No issue is more important for the people of Northern Ireland than their security, and policing is central and fundamental to people’s confidence as they move forward.

On the general situation, I listened to the warning from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about making support for policing a precondition. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have referred to that on several occasions. I have to say that the Prime Minister looked extremely uncomfortable during a television interview in which a leading reporter put it to him that it would be absolute nonsense to suggest that someone could be in government in any other part of the United Kingdom who would not even recommend that people should give evidence or information to the police about a rape, burglary or murder. We put the same point to the Prime Minister when he visited Belfast last Thursday, and he admitted that that situation would be absurd. He talks about a deadline of 24 November, but if that situation is absurd today, or on 23 November, it will be equally absurd on 25 November, if not more so. It will be absurd if Martin McGuinness or some other member of Sinn Fein has responsibility for producing and for proposing laws in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but refuses to tell his people, or anybody else in Northern Ireland, to help the police to implement them. That would be absolute nonsense.

It is not the creation of a new precondition to say that support for the police and the institutions of law and order is a prerequisite for being in government. As we have said all along—the authors of the Belfast agreement voted this into the agreement—there must be a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. In my estimation, and in that of most reasonable, ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland, someone who is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means should support the police—that is not rocket science. We should not get into the business of saying, “We would like you to support the police. We hope that you will in due course. However, it shouldn’t be a precondition.”

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