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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Child Maintenance and Other Payments

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Campbell, Mr. Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Davies, Mr. Quentin (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Harris, Mr. Tom (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
McCrea, Dr. William (South Antrim) (DUP)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Mackay, Mr. Andrew (Bracknell) (Con)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 109(4):
Goggins, Paul (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Tuesday 24 July 2007

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

4.30 pm
The Chairman: If Members wish to remove their jackets, they may do so. Members will know the form for this Committee: we have half an hour of questions and then two and a half hours of debate on the motion, followed by an Adjournment debate.

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Numbers

4.31 pm
1. Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): Whether he plans to increase the number of police officers in Northern Ireland. [151711]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Prior to answering my hon. Friend’s question, I would like to say that ordinarily my assiduous shadow, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, would be in his place for questions and the debate this afternoon, but given that he represents Tewkesbury, I am sure that hon. Members understand why he needs to be in the Chamber for the statement on flooding. We extend our sympathies to him and his constituents. I am sure that he will join us as soon as possible.
The Chairman: I thank the Minister for that.
Paul Goggins: There are no plans to increase the number of police officers in Northern Ireland.
Dr. McDonnell: I put it to the Minister that crime is fairly widespread, particularly in the part of Belfast that I represent, and especially on Friday and Saturday nights. The police are stretched to their limits and there is an urgent need to increase the number of officers. May I urge him to ensure that funds are provided to do so?
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend is of course right to point out that many people in Northern Ireland, and indeed elsewhere in the United Kingdom, are concerned about and fear crime in their communities, although sometimes the level of fear goes beyond the reality and statistics on recorded crime. We must take this issue seriously, but it is more about how police officers are deployed in the community than about their total numbers. In my view, at 7,500, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has an adequate number of officers, but how they are deployed is critical. I think that the Chief Constable’s commitment to enhance neighbourhood and community policing is very important.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I take the points that the Minister has made about the number of full-time officers in Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable’s determination to introduce community police officers, but does the Minister have any plans to introduce special constables, such as those in this part of the United Kingdom, so that volunteers who wish to contribute to policing in their community have the opportunity to do so?
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. Historically, those who make up the part-time reserve in Northern Ireland have made a commitment that is broadly comparable to that of special constables in England and Wales. Also, of course—this is a very important commitment for the future—police community support officers will be part of the future Police Service of Northern Ireland. We have plans to introduce over a four-year period some 400 police CSOs, who can enhance the work of regular officers by being the eyes and ears of the police service. They will not be tied up with bureaucracy, but on the streets and in the communities helping to detect crime and to reassure the community.

Reserve Police Officers

2. Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): If he will examine the case for making pension provisions for part-time reserve police officers in Northern Ireland. [151712]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Government recognise the service and sacrifices made by part-time reserve officers in Northern Ireland. A stakeholder pension scheme has been available to them since 2001.
Mr. Donaldson: I thank the Minister for his response, but the difficulty with the stakeholder pension provision is that it is self-funded. It is not acceptable in this day and age that part-time workers such as part-time police officers are not given pension provision. A European directive provides for pension provision for part-time workers. It is important that the Government recognise the excellent contribution made by part-time reservists in Northern Ireland, which the Minister just mentioned. A number of reservists died or suffered serious injury during the troubles. Will the Government now recognise that and introduce properly-funded pension provision for part-time reservists?
Paul Goggins: May I say at the outset that I fully endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the role played by part-time reserve officers? I understand that 53 of them were murdered during the troubles and nine were murdered after they had retired and ended their service. The whole Committee will acknowledge their contribution.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): May I join the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley in encouraging the Minister to think further and to think positively on this issue? He says that the Government recognise the service and sacrifice of the part-time reserve, but given the sense of duty shown by part-time members of the police reserve, they are not being credited in the pension arrangements provided by Government with the debt that is owed to them. Although nominally part-time reserves, many of those people have served long hours—almost the equivalent of a full-time capacity—and faced an absolutely full-time risk and threat, because the threat was faced not only in the line of duty, but off duty, when so many of them were viciously murdered and attacked. In all circumstances and in all conditions, as we move on and try to reflect positively, I encourage the Government to be more generous and more practical in dealing with this group of people, who carried an enormous burden.
Paul Goggins: I acknowledge the strength of feeling in this Committee, which was reflected in a recent debate in the Assembly in which Members from all parties spoke powerfully. Members of the Assembly acknowledge, as we do here, the tremendous role that the part-time reserve officers have played. I say again to the Committee that it is now possible for every part-time reserve officer to have a pension, either through the occupation that they had in addition to being a part-time officer or through the stakeholder pension that is now available. I am pleased about that because it is important for us all, whatever our walk of life, to be able to save for retirement, so that we are not faced with poverty then, but have a reasonable income.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): But surely the Minister must agree that there seems, on the outside, to be a real manner of not caring for these people. After all, if they go for a pension, what they earned as part-time officers will not be taken into that consideration. That means that they have done a term risking their lives every moment of the day—the leader of the SDLP reminded us of that—yet they will get nothing as far as a pension is concerned.
Paul Goggins: May I begin my answer to the right hon. Gentleman by congratulating him on his recent award as Opposition politician of the year? He was voted as such by hon. Members from all parties. It is a unique achievement to be Opposition politician of the year and First Minister at the same time. I am sure that the Committee will want to congratulate him.
The right hon. Gentleman again speaks with great passion and force about the value of the part-time reserve officers, their commitment, the role that they have played and the sacrifices that they have made— not least those who have given their lives. It is not that Ministers do not care about them: we deeply care about what they have done.
As I have explained to the Committee, the stakeholder pension is now available for part-time reserve officers. Others will benefit from other pensions. The right hon. Gentleman put his finger on an important point. Because the payment received by some of these officers, who may not have worked that many hours in each week, might have been small, it might have cost them more to belong to an occupational scheme, because of the contributions that they would have to make, than they would have got out of it. We have gone into this in great detail. The fact that we are not prepared to accede to the questions and pressure that we are being put under is the result not of Ministers not caring, but of the practical problems are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

Prison Costs

3. Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): What his most recent estimate is of the cost of keeping a prisoner in Northern Ireland. [151713]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The overall cost per prisoner place in Northern Ireland in 2006-07 was £90,298. The target for 2007-08 is £82,500, and appropriate steps are being taken to achieve that, including the implementation of a three-year pay and efficiency package.
Sammy Wilson: I thank the Minister for that answer. The Committee will be aware of the huge discrepancy between the cost of keeping prisoners in Northern Ireland and the cost in other parts of the UK. A recent Human Rights Commission report recommended that money should be spent on providing a new, stand-alone prison for women in Northern Ireland, with separate training, health and education facilities and the capacity to separate long-term, short-term and remand prisoners—all for 47 prisoners. Will the Minister assure us that undue weight will not be given to the report to the detriment of the essential investment needed in the main prison estate, where 50 per cent. of prisoners are sharing cells?
Paul Goggins: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in prisons. Just yesterday, I visited Hydebank Wood and saw for myself the improved facilities in Ash house, which now has in-cell sanitation for all the women there and which seemed to have a good and constructive atmosphere. Hon. Members will welcome that.
We need to consider developing an overarching policy for the accommodation of women prisoners, because we can work in better and more constructive ways with the smallish number of women in the prison system. I am deeply conscious of my responsibilities to the whole prison population and the prison officers and staff who look after them, all of whom deserve and need decent accommodation. I take that responsibility seriously, as I do the need for efficiencies, so that we can drive down the cost per prisoner place, because £90,000 per prisoner place, which is the figure for last year, is unaffordable in the long-term. We have to find those efficiencies.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that a review of the prison estate is under way. If he knew about a prison such as Magilligan, where staff morale is high, there is evident support for an on-site rebuild and there could be significant cost savings if staff did not have to avail themselves of transport expenses from the Prison Service for a relocation, would he take those significant factors into account when considering the review?
Paul Goggins: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate of there continuing to be a prison at Magilligan, for the reasons that he has outlined. From my visits to that prison, I am well aware of the professionalism and dedication of the staff there. I am also aware that the accommodation there is far below what is acceptable for the prisoners or the staff, and I am determined to do something about that. He will know that I have asked officials to prepare a range of options for me to consider about how we replace the current, unacceptable accommodation at Magilligan. One such option will be to replace the accommodation at the current site, but there will be others. I promise to keep the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members informed about my thinking as it develops. I hope to see all those options after the summer recess, and I hope to make a decision before the end of the year.

Sentencing Policy

4. David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): What recent discussions he has had with the judiciary on sentences handed down by the courts in Northern Ireland for serious crime. [151714]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): No such discussions have taken place, Mr. Ainsworth. Sentencing in individual cases is entirely a matter for the independent judiciary. Cases are dealt with on their individual merits, with sentences based on the specific events and circumstances and on the aggravating and mitigating factors that come into play.
David Simpson: A recent series of written parliamentary answers to questions that I tabled revealed that the average sentence handed down in Northern Ireland courts in the past year for rape was 105 months, the average sentence for attempted rape was 87 months, and only 19 per cent. of cases brought before the courts resulted in a conviction. Does the Minister really think that those figures are acceptable, and what kind of message do they send to women who have been subject to such attacks?
Paul Goggins: First, Mr. Atkinson, I apologise for having called you Mr. Ainsworth. I hope that the Hansard writer will bear that in mind.
It is evident from the debates that the hon. Member for Upper Bann has initiated and from the parliamentary questions that he has asked, not least in the past few days and weeks, that he wishes to see justice done for the victims of serious sexual crime and rape, as do I. I pay tribute to the passion with which he has followed that issue, and I feel sure that he will continue to do so.
The maximum penalty for the crime of rape is a life sentence. That penalty is available to the courts, but it is for the courts to determine what is appropriate in particular circumstances. I intend to introduce very specific proposals to change the legislation in Northern Ireland. At the other side of the summer, I shall publish draft legislation that will end automatic 50 per cent. remission and introduce extended and indeterminate sentences for public protection, so that those who are violent and dangerous and who commit such dreadful crimes can be sent to prison for longer.
The Chairman: There are no more questions, so we move on to the main debate. I remind the Committee that the debate may continue for up to two and a half hours. I have no power to impose time limits on any speeches, but I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the fact that a number of hon. Members will want to take part in the debate and to tailor their contributions suitably.

Policing Reform

4.47 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of policing reform in Northern Ireland (progress to date).
The Committee will be well aware of the very significant changes in policing that have taken place in Northern Ireland during recent years. Given the recent publication of the final report of the policing oversight commissioner, this is perhaps a particularly appropriate moment at which to take stock and to consider the subject of policing reform. Now is also the right time to think about the challenges that policing will face in the future, and about what further changes might be necessary.
It might help if I begin by briefly summarising the key elements of policing reform, which began in September 1999 with the Patten report and its 175 recommendations. The best guide to the progress that has been made so far is the oversight commissioner’s final report, which was published in May this year. It marks progress against the 13 broad categories that Lord Patten identified, a few of which I would like to examine in a little more detail.
As noted by Al Hutchinson in his report, considerable efforts have been made during the past few years to make the protection of human rights a key priority in policing. That has been a basic principle of the reform programme. As the Patten report said:
“Policing means protecting human rights.”
The core purpose of the police is to serve the public and protect the rights of citizens. Patten recommended a number of improvements in that area, and progress in delivering them has been very positive. A human rights plan and a subsequent programme of action have been published—most recently in December 2006, the police oath has been institutionalised, and a code of ethics is in operation. Similarly, human rights training is now a standard part of the training curriculum. The Policing Board, in its monitoring role, has appointed two eminent human rights advisers and produces an annual report on this area of work.
Another area in which there has been significant progress is in policing with the community, which is now a core function of the police service. The leadership of the police service—in particular the district command units—have embraced the opportunity to build closer ties with the local community. Despite the obvious difficulties that are created by security alerts, public order incidents, and other pressures on resources, the oversight commissioner was able to praise what he described as the “solid progress” that has been made in this field since 1999.
The reality of policing in the community is that often the simple things are the most effective—for example, ensuring that more police officers are out on the beat on foot patrol, making use of the high-visibility jackets that they now have to emphasise their presence. As Members will know from experience in their constituencies, communities everywhere want more visible policing. In Northern Ireland, an emphasis on community policing underlines and reinforces the fact that policing now has the support of the entire community.
The oversight commissioner has also noted the progress made toward greater police accountability, with all but three of the 36 recommendations on that having been fully implemented. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the reality of a police service accountable to the public is being achieved in Northern Ireland through the Policing Board and the development of district policing partnerships. I look forward to adding to that sense of strong local accountability when the time comes to hand over my responsibilities for policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Other areas of policing in which particular progress has been noted include public order policing, where all nine of the Patten recommendations have been met; management and personnel, where only two of 18 remain outstanding; and culture, ethos and symbols, where all recommendations have been met.
As I mentioned, the accountability architecture supporting policing in Northern Ireland has been strengthened considerably since 1999. The establishment of a Policing Board in November 2001 followed one of the Patten report’s key recommendations. The board has recently been reconstituted and now includes representatives from Sinn Fein. Every major political party now fields members, and the first two public meetings of the newly reconstituted board have left little doubt that it will vigorously discharge its duty to hold the Chief Constable and the police service publicly to account. Meanwhile, district policing partnerships, established in 2003, are also being reconstituted in accordance with legislation passed in the House only a few days ago. After reconstitution, which will be completed in the coming months, DPPs will also be fully representative of the Northern Ireland community.
Another important element of the accountability structure is the police ombudsman, whose remit is to investigate complaints and examine police service practices and policies. That important role has been undertaken with great spirit and determination for the past seven years by Nuala O’Loan. In November, when her term of office ends, the work will be continued by her recently appointed successor, Al Hutchinson. To date, the ombudsman has carried out investigations into just over 19,000 complaints, many of which have helped to reinforce the fact that modern policing in Northern Ireland is managed, led and carried out to the highest standards.
It might be helpful in the context of our debate if I take the opportunity to correct a story that recently appeared in the media. Hon. Members might have seen an article in The Guardian last Friday implying that the Government had invited the police ombudsman to reopen the inquiry led by John Stalker into whether the Northern Ireland police had operated a shoot-to-kill policy. That is not the case. The PSNI historical inquiries team is re-examining all murders between 1968 and 1998. Where any information suggests that a police officer was involved in any way, cases are referred to the police ombudsman. All the cases considered by Stalker are therefore open to consideration. How the ombudsman will take that work forward is a matter for her.
It is a tribute to the work not only of the police ombudsman, but of the Policing Board, the DPPs and police officers, that the latest available figures for the Northern Ireland crime survey show that 79 per cent. of people believe that the police provide an effective day-to-day service.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): There was a report of Council of Europe pressure for the reopening of the case. Does the Minister know anything about that?
Paul Goggins: I saw that report in the media, and I take it that it refers to the Government’s article 2 obligations to ensure that proper investigations are carried out when deaths occur. We discharge those responsibilities concerning unresolved deaths during the troubles through the historical inquiries team and its work. I took it to be a reference to the European convention on human rights and article 2 considerations. That was my understanding.
On public confidence, 79 per cent. of people believe that the police provide an effective day-to-day service while 61 per cent. believe that they do a good job overall. Overall confidence in the police and policing arrangements has risen from 73 per cent. in 2003-04 to 75 per cent. in March this year. There has been steady and sustained improvement.
I should also like to draw the Committee’s attention to the police service’s continued and impressive work on assets recovery, which is a vital tool in the fight against crime, because every penny taken from a criminal’s pocket is proof that crime does not pay. It is therefore right that asset recovery is being fully integrated into law enforcement activity at both local and national level. Just last week, the Chief Constable announced 60 new financial investigators for Northern Ireland. That sends a clear signal to all those involved in criminality that if they persist, they will be caught and brought to justice, and will have their flash cars, fancy villas and lavish lifestyle taken away from them. The cash and assets that are removed from criminals will be ploughed back into front-line policing and other initiatives to benefit the wider community.
The Assets Recovery Agency is building on its good work in Northern Ireland. In the first quarter of the current financial year, it took almost £900,000 out of the hands of criminals—double the entire amount recovered last year—and it is well on the way to meeting its target for the current year. I believe that the planned merger of the Assets Recovery Agency with the Serious Organised Crime Agency will only help to strengthen the fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.
I freely admit to the Committee that initially some concerns were voiced about the merger. I believe that that was due to the high esteem in which the Assets Recovery Agency is held in Northern Ireland because of its work. I have sought and received assurances from the Home Secretary that the fight against organised crime will not in any way be diminished or compromised by the merger. On the contrary, the merger will combine the expertise and experience of both agencies to take the fight to organised criminals. I am happy to reaffirm the Home Secretary’s assurance that we will maintain at least the current level of resources provided for assets recovery in Northern Ireland.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend paints a most attractive picture, but some of us were slightly disturbed at the bringing together of the two agencies, particularly in the area of cross-border co-operation. Is my hon. Friend absolutely convinced that the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland will continue to have the same very positive, very good, very productive and very close relationship with the merged Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA that these bodies have enjoyed in the past? Overall, the news is good, and even Lupin the werewolf would tread in fear with the high level of policing, but I am concerned about the cross-border element.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend is right to be concerned because, as he knows from his experience of and long commitment to the work of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, the land border between north and south is used by organised criminal gangs to make profits from crime. It is important that the Guarda Siochana and the PSNI work closely together, and that the ARA and SOCA work closely with the CAB. I assure him that that will remain the case. In fact, even in the recent past—at my instigation and in discussion with colleagues in the Home Office—we have further strengthened the law so that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will be able to pass information from its records to the CAB in Dublin to ensure that civil powers can be used to take back assets from individuals who are known to the CAB and who have action taken against them by the CAB. We are constantly looking for ways in which to toughen up the law and to ensure that we strengthen that co-operation and partnership.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Many people welcome the amalgamation of the ARA and SOCA, especially since a lot of republican money laundering now crosses over into England, Scotland and Wales. Not only should the resources be kept within Northern Ireland, but the policy should not change. In other words, there should not be a policy now of going after the Mr. Bigs while ignoring many of the middle and lower-ranking money launderers and racketeers. Will the Minister assure us that attention will still be paid to people who are involved in criminal activity at that level, whose assets should be taken from them?
It is clear in a host of ways that the institutions associated with policing now deliver a police force that is as accountable as it is modern, policing all parts of the community without fear or favour. Over the years, policing reform has occasionally been mistakenly characterised as in some way a “corrective” programme that applies to the police and only to the police, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although the police have undergone substantial and often very public change, it must be seen in the context of the colossal changes that have taken place across Northern Ireland as a whole. Those changes have seen a society mired in conflict transformed into one governed by law and order. The PSNI has changed not for appearance’s sake or for the sake of change, but to reflect the more normal conditions that now prevail.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister has just referred to “normal conditions”. Does he accept that in normal circumstances people of every religion would expect their application to join the police to be considered purely on merit and not with undue influence and reference given to the religious persuasion of one section of the community, as is the case in Northern Ireland?
Paul Goggins: I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman voices and I know that they are shared by many in his party and beyond. However, one of the most profound discoveries made by Patten and his fellow commissioners was that only 8 per cent. of the police service in Northern Ireland was from the Catholic community. He saw that one of the most important things that needed to be done was to transform that and to make the police more representative. That is why we initiated what I acknowledge are an unusual set of arrangements—the 50:50 arrangements, as they are called—to increase rapidly Catholic representation. Although it stood at 8 per cent. at the end of the 1990s, Catholic representation is now at 21 per cent. and we believe that it will be 30 per cent. in the year 2010-11. I acknowledge that the price of that for some individuals is that, although they finished higher in the merit order than others who were appointed, they were not appointed. I acknowledge that and I have acknowledged it many times in debates, but the overall aim and ambition to make the police service more representative of the community that it serves is crucial to the confidence of the community in the police service and to its effectiveness. I believe, therefore, that the measure is necessary. I emphasise that it is a temporary measure and that we hope not have to renew the powers again. Once we have got to 30 per cent., we will have a representative police service and then the normal recruitment provisions will apply.
Rev. Ian Paisley: The position with the 50:50 scheme is that it is not 50 per cent. for Protestants; it is 50 per cent. for Protestants and others—all others. Would it not be a good step to take it to 50 per cent. for Protestants, rather than what is currently being done? A person from another religion altogether is linked into that 50 per cent. and added to it.
Paul Goggins: I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view on this issue, but I think that it is very important that the 50 per cent. Catholic representation is the figure on which we should focus. If we sustain our current strategy, we will get to the 30 per cent. representation by 2010-11 and then we can disapply the special arrangements and allow the recruitment process to proceed absolutely unhindered by any special arrangements. We have made our calculations and we are confident that on the current trend we will get to 30 per cent. by 2010-11. That will give us a police service that is both fully representative and has the confidence of the wider community, and will add enormously to the sense of safety and security in Northern Ireland as a whole.
The ultimate test of policing reform is, of course, whether the changes made help to cut crime. Again, the evidence is encouraging. Last year—2006-07—Northern Ireland’s recorded crime level fell by 1.7 per cent., which means that there were more than 2,000 fewer crimes than in the year before. There has been a fall of 15 per cent., equating to more than 21,000 fewer crimes, since 2002-03. More than half the decrease in recorded crime since 2002-03 can be attributed to reductions in domestic burglary and vehicle-related theft, which were identified as priorities by the Policing Board. In those areas, the targets set were surpassed by 10 and 43 percentage points respectively. Those figures show that the PSNI has become more effective and efficient in tackling the type of problems that plague every community.
The PSNI is committed to doing even more. As the Chief Constable noted in his latest annual report, its aim remains
“to achieve reductions in the number of burglaries, thefts, fraud, vehicle crime and robbery throughout all areas.”
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I am very pleased about those neighbourhood policing figures for Northern Ireland. In fact, I have before me the figures for Wales, so I can let hon. Members know that performance in Northern Ireland is as good as that virtually anywhere in the whole of Wales. In my own county of Denbighshire, there has been a drop in crime of 34 per cent. The second best has been a drop of 24 per cent. Therefore, the Northern Ireland average is as good as what is happening anywhere in Wales.
Paul Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That comparison shows Northern Ireland in an extremely positive light, but what is achieved does not happen by accident. It happens because the Chief Constable makes it a priority, because the Policing Board holds him to account and because people work together to that good effect. I am sure that the whole Committee is deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations.
Amid all the debate about policing, one thing is certain: none of the changes to which I have referred would have been possible if it were not for the willingness of the officers on the street to adapt to a new era of policing. They have taken on that task with a great deal of skill and commitment, which has been clearly demonstrated at three recent events. The first event was the “Policing the Future” conference, which was held in February. An international audience came to Belfast to take part in the conference, which highlighted the progress that has been made on policing in Northern Ireland. Chief officers of police from north America and other parts of the world paid tribute to the progress that has been made.
The second event was the policing with the community awards, which was recently held in Belfast city hall, where rewards were given to the officers who have made a real commitment to the communities that they serve. It was evident to me and all others who were present at that event that the officers concerned take a real pride in the work that they do.
Finally, Queen’s university recently hosted an event to recognise publicly the work of Lord Patten and to allow him to give his final assessment of the work that has been done since the publication of his report. In his speech, he reminded the audience of the commission’s determination to offer a totally fresh approach to policing and of the difficulty of balancing continuity and change, which he thinks is key to directing the commission’s work. Each of those events underlined the positive changes to policing that have taken place since the Good Friday agreement.
The reform of policing in Northern Ireland has been inextricably linked to the political settlement that resulted in devolution on 8 May. Sinn Fein’s commitment to policing and the rule of law enabled power sharing to take place and also means that no part of Northern Ireland should now be closed off from policing. Indeed, quite reverse to being closed off, there has recently been engagement between the police and local communities in west Belfast and south Armagh. As the settlement matures, so too should our optimism about the prospect for the devolution of policing and justice. The pressure and challenges will, of course, not disappear. The need to ensure that we get value for money from policing is vital and the threats posed by dissidents and international terrorists still need to be faced and dealt with. As has been pointed out, tackling organised crime must remain a priority. Dealing with antisocial behaviour, hate crime, sex crime and domestic violence must also be a priority.
The PSNI has the scope and the skill to deal with the threat from outside and the pressures within local communities. Some costs should be reduced as a result of policing a more normal and settled society, including, for example, the costs of policing the past and the expense involved in policing parades. New challenges and approaches will emerge, including the introduction of police community support officers. My strong belief is that the accountability and oversight arrangements that are now in place, together with the leadership, expertise and commitment in the police service, will mean that the PSNI is capable of sustaining public confidence across Northern Ireland and of dealing with crime as effectively as any force anywhere in the world.
5.13 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Atkinson, and may I welcome you to the Committee? I apologise for being late and for the fact that I will have to leave early. Everybody will be aware of the circumstances in Tewksbury. I have to leave in a few minutes to meet the Secretary of State for the Environment so I will not detain the Committee. I thank the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for personally telephoning me to express his sympathies. Indeed, the Minister of State has also been very helpful today. The situation in Tewksbury has, I am afraid, become tragic as there has been loss of life and I am sure that the Committee sends its sympathies to my constituents. I also apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There was a breakdown in the normal channels and he was unfortunately not put on the Committee in time, but he sends his apologies.
The Minister raised a number of issues in relation to historical inquiries. We are concerned about striking the right balance on that issue, as he said himself. We also share concerns about the devolution of policing and justice and the continuing policy of 50:50 recruitment, which I know that members of the Democratic Unionist party are also concerned about. I am also concerned, having analysed the figures, about the decline in the numbers of police and reservists. Also, there are some areas, particularly south Armagh—the Minister touched upon this at the end of his speech—where I am not convinced that policing is absolutely normal yet, and that is a continuing concern to me.
I know that the Committee will not consider it a discourtesy if do not speak for any longer. I wanted to give my apologies and thanks, but, seeing as I have to leave, I shall not detain the Committee further.
5.15 pm
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to be in the Committee today under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson.
When appointments were made to the Policing Board in late 2001, my party took the decision to join it and fully commit to our part in delivering the new policing arrangements. At the time we faced demands from others that we should not do so. In particular, Sinn Fein insisted that, because we did not have the total implementation of Patten report, we should not join the Policing Board. That seemed to us about as logical as saying that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement should not be operated until we had full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. According to our reading of the Patten report, the Policing Board would have a key role in helping to deliver, oversee and drive the implementation of the report. For that reason, we went on the board.
It was not just three political parties that took their places on the Policing Board. So too did a range of independent members. The hybrid nature of the board needs to be remembered. The key aspect of Patten was providing not just for inclusion at a political level, modelled on the formula for the inclusive political Executive, but for non-political inclusion as well. The presence, contribution, personal professionalism and professional experience of many independent members of the Policing Board has been a key element in its success.
The board faced challenges in its early days. People did not believe that it would be able to agree readily on such things as uniforms, badges and all the rest of it, but it did. It also faced difficult issues arising from the report by the police ombudsman into the Omagh investigation and the reactions to it. While there were all sorts of emotions and pressures and many different opinions on the board, it was to the board’s credit that it produced a 19-point response that served not just to secure the further delivery of Patten but to deliver Patten-plus on some of the issues about special branch and the role of intelligence policing and how it relates to other aspect of policing.
Of course, the Policing Board also delivered very good appointments. I have always said that Hugh Orde as Chief Constable was a good appointment by a good Policing Board—people should remember that—as have been those of all the other senior officers appointed by the board. Most of them have a long record of policing service in Northern Ireland in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and were able to come forward and be part of the new policing dispensation and deliver in the professional and vocational way that has always motivated them. In that sense, we need to reflect on policing reform as, in many ways, helping to emancipate the professionalism and vocational effort of so many people involved in policing in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, because of our history, divisions and difficulties, many people did not see or appreciate the professional integrity of many people involved in policing.
One of the benefits of policing reform and of creating the new beginning to policing is that it allows those who have been involved in policing to both perform and be perceived in the best, proper professional light, without suffering all the hang-ups and hangovers that have been projected on to policing because of our difficult history.
Of course, reform was needed, and for many years my party was struggling with the difficulty that we faced. There were parties on one side of us that said that change was not needed, and a party on the other side of us that said change was not happening. The fact is that change was needed and was happening, and I think that we all now see the benefits of that.
The Minister rightly took us through some of the main observations of the oversight commissioner’s final report. Of course, the Office of the Oversight Commissioner has played a very important role in being able to monitor, proof and, indeed, prove the delivery of change. It needed to be proofed so that people could believe all the claims that were being made, and proved because people were claiming that change was not happening and were trying to deny that change was being delivered. It was for that reason that my party lobbied not only to ensure that the Office of the Oversight Commissioner was properly created as recommended by Patten, but that its period was extended so that it could continue to play that positive role.
I shall not rehearse all the areas that the Minister has gone over with regard to marking the progress against the 13 broad categories defined by Patten. However, the fact is that we are seeing, only halfway through the 10-year period of the Patten reform plan, total delivery in some of those categories and a high rate of delivery in others. In overall terms, we are heading for 90 per cent. delivery or substantial delivery of Patten’s 175 broad recommendations. That is progress that we should all welcome and can all benefit from.
With regard to management and personnel, I think that we have seen a particularly important contribution made by the Policing Board. Obviously, there are serious issues and challenges still under way, and, of course, there will be budgetary issues in all that as well. I do not think that we can really have a debate on marking policing reform to date and further progress without some consideration of the resource requirements, because fully delivering Patten and seizing the benefits of the new peaceful environment and the opportunities of normality will require proper investment in recovering and improving the police estate and in new information technology and, of course, a redistribution or reprofiling of resources in personnel.
The Minister rightly emphasised the importance of the civilianisation effort to ensure that more police officers are available on the ground and on the beat in community-facing and criminal-confronting activity. That is what we want to see, but if that is to be delivered, the issue of resources is highly relevant. In the context of the comprehensive spending review, I understand that the Policing Board has concerns about the adequacy of the allocation that will be available, and that it will mean that there would have to be some curbs on the planned roll-out in relation to the police estate, information technology and, indeed, personnel. I urge the Minister to be much more assiduous in that area, too, because although we can celebrate success, we cannot say that the job is done. Patten has been broadly delivered, but the real fulfilment of the Patten vision means continuing to recruit and invest more, and to reinvest when assets are released through normalisation and fewer sites are needed.
The Minister mentioned the people delivering policing change, and I have already paid tribute to the Chief Constable and to senior officers. That tribute applies not only to the broad leadership at the central level in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but to the district command level. Officers have managed change professionally, and they have engaged with community interests, with other key public services and positively and proactively with people in the third sector. That has been marked in several crime areas by innovative developments that have improved both the quality of the policing service and the engagement between the police and other service providers.
The issue is about changing or improving the performance not only of the police, but of those other service providers, so that they can better understand what the police can do, what they need, and the way in which, together, they can best serve those members of the public who are in need of lawful support and assistance. That is particularly important in matters such as hate crime, violence against women and domestic violence. The contribution of many people at the district command level needs to be recognised as well as that of those in the central leadership of the PSNI.
The Minister referred to policing the past and policing the future. We must recognise that the way in which the past is dealt with is a fundamental and important issue with many sensitivities. It is serious. Elsewhere, I have cited the Russian proverb that to dwell on the past is to lose one eye, to forget the past is to lose both eyes. We must bear that in mind. People cite the high cost of a certain public inquiry, saying that the cost applies to everything to do with the past or to all public inquiries, but it does not, it should not and it need not.
We must recognise also that the nature of our past, and the issues that confront many people, which they still carry through no choice of their own, cannot be neatly buried or locked away. We cannot simply take a political decision to bury the past, because some issues are so radioactive that we cannot contain them in that way. If we bury them, we do not know where their roots will run, so we need a considered and proper way of dealing with issues from the past. Because those issues must be dealt with, the right and proper decision was taken to create a dedicated facility to address them. That is why the historical inquiries team was set up, and why a budget was promised to it. We must remember that, for six years, about £34 million was allocated to it. However, some people give the impression that the money spent on the team is at the absolute expense of every aspect of day-to-day policing. If we consider the money in the context of an overall policing budget, it simply is not.
Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. The consequential demands on the police service raise questions about how it should manage those demands and, indeed, about how far, in fact, it does manage them and how much falls to the historical inquiries team. I am not sure whether the team’s work leads to the degree, or possible degree, of demand that the hon. Gentleman says the Chief Constable is talking about. Although the latter has stated particular concerns resulting from public inquiries and recommendations, I am not sure that the figure cited by the hon. Gentleman concerns the historical inquiries team alone. Indeed, I have heard different figures cited: 70 per cent. 40 per cent. and 60 per cent., so we will probably need an idea of what is required.
If police officers need to be that careful and assiduous in dealing with such issues, it actually shows that those issues must be serious and sensitive. The answer is not to forget the past, but to deal with it realistically; and neither must we raise false expectations of what can be achieved. However, an effort needs to be made. We cannot take a shortcut approach to the past; we cannot say, “For our convenience and expedience, no longer will we pursue issues of the past”, because they will turn to confront future generations. They cannot be controlled or turned off; the past will confront us in inadvertent and unplanned ways. If our generation makes a choice based on convenience and expediency, people in the future will not think that we made a decent or proper choice. We have ways of going forward.
The success of implementing policing change and policing reform has shown that how we deal with the past need not be at the expense of policing the present. We should have much more confidence about how we will police the future; indeed, we have experience of dealing with awkward issues from the past. The past has not bedevilled us and dragged us down in the way that others have suggested. We should not have an aversion, as some people have, to dealing with the past in a positive and proper way.
On making progress on such issues, obviously the historical inquiries team is in place and working, and I think that it would be a travesty if families that have met and dealt with it were to be told suddenly that, for budgetary reasons, or for other considerations about which many people will be very suspicious, we are no longer mandating such work and efforts. Those efforts must continue.
Similarly, the work of the police ombudsman on past issues has been positive and helped to mark and seal the difference between policing in the past and policing in the present. It has been positive in highlighting the need for standards. So far, her work has been fair in appreciating the pressures and circumstances under which people were operating and in reflecting properly the due expectations of families and victims. We must consider also the ombudsman’s work on current activity, in which the public have a high level of public confidence. There is a high rate of confidence among police officers who have engaged with the ombudsman as well.
Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is touching on a sensitive point. The big difficulty seen in Northern Ireland is that although the historical inquiries team has dealt with historical inquiries at a low level—they have sometimes simply opened files to people or taken them to the crime spot where their loved one was killed, and they have not pulled in players from the past because to do so would be politically too sensitive—the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has pursued the cases referred to her with vigour. Policemen have been pulled in during dawn raids and they have been held, sometimes without medication being given, and a high profile has been given to those arrests because the media have been informed.
One of the difficulties in the approach to historical inquiries is that, for victims of IRA and loyalist terrorists, there has been little redress, whereas there has been a vigorous pursuit of policemen who have been named or who are alleged to have been involved in misdemeanours in the past. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is what has caused great anger in Northern Ireland, especially among ex-police officers?
Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. He has somewhat melodramatically misrepresented the conduct of the police ombudsman and her office in a number of these cases. If he is saying that the way in which the police ombudsman has pursued issues of the past should equally apply to other aspects of the past, I would agree with him. The police ombudsman’s serious pursuit of these issues sets a proper standard, and I do not believe that ulterior considerations should be used to close off legitimate inquiries in respect of people who are victims of unresolved crimes at the hands of various paramilitaries. The names to which such trails might lead are not reasons why we should not properly pursue those issues of the past.
I firmly believe that all victims have the right to truth. That right applies not only to victims of the state or people who can say that they are victims of complicity on the part of the state, but to all victims. One of the issues that concerns some of us about superficial compromises in relation to the past is that an awful lot of rewriting of history is going on in Northern Ireland. Some people would now have us believe that the troubles were just an inevitable, unnecessary prerequisite of a peace process and that we could not have what we have now were it not for the vicious violence and the horrible suffering that people went through. That is not the case.
Some people are also saying that we all have blood on our hands. That is a terrible insult not only to many of us who absolutely made the choice that we would never support violence and would never compromise from the proper standards of the rule of law in any terms, but to many victims who have suffered. There is a suggestion that we are all really victims, that we all made each other victims and that we all carry the guilt in that sort of way.
There are other issues to be considered—for example the Assets Recovery Agency. The Minister touched on that, but I do not have time to dwell on it now. I would be in broad sympathy with even what the Members opposite would say. The Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland has performed remarkably well and the SDLP is concerned about the proposals just to merge it into SOCA. We are concerned that its distinctive bite and profile, and its strong regional accent in going after the local Mr. Bigs that might not figure on SOCA’s priority screen, might be lost. I know that the Minister and others have been trying to respond to those concerns and to reflect them. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North indicated, we also need to ensure that the strong relationship between the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland and the Criminal Assets Bureau in the south is not lost or compromised in that.
We want to take this opportunity to reflect on positive delivery of policing reform. In the context of work with the Policing Board, I pay tribute to our party members Alex Attwood, my hon. Friend the Member for South Down and Joe Byrne, who all served on the first Policing Board, for working well with their Assembly colleagues on the board as well as with independent members. They, along with the leadership of the policing service, helped deliver the Patten vision in ways that Chris Patten himself has spoken so positively about. I do not think that he believed that only five-plus years into the Patten plan, he would see the rate of progress that has been delivered.
We must remember that that progress on policing was delivered even in the absence of parallel progress on politics. People did not expect that, so it should give us even greater confidence in the integrity and stability of policing for the future. As we now reflect on positive political developments, we can look forward to the consummation of policing and political change when we achieve the devolution of policing and justice. Doing so will make the statement that we have delivered policing change and that the new beginning for policing is an absolute given, and it will confirm that we have political stability and agreement.
Mr. Campbell: Does the hon. Gentleman accept what some of us suggested about the devolution of policing and justice—that it should take place when there is community confidence in it and in the persons to whom the policing and justice portfolio will be devolved?
On the basis of the confidence in politics and policing, the argument becomes all the more compelling for those developments to be consummated by the delivery of devolution of justice and policing so that the Assembly’s devolved responsibilities are at their full complement. In the context of that devolution, the hon. Member for East Londonderry has asked who will take the justice and policing portfolio. Whoever it falls to, in whatever party, by whatever arrangement—the Government have produced all sorts of vacuous models for devolution; they are producing more vacuous models than a reality TV show—we must ensure that devolution of justice and policing makes no difference whatever to the Policing Board’s standing and role under the Patten recommendations.
My concern is not so much who or of what party the Minister might be as that the Minister’s role does not change. One thing that history in Northern Ireland tells us is that policing and justice should not be seen to be the property of any one party. It should not be seen as an accessory of any partisan interest. Once it is seen or suspected to be so, we will have serious problems; front-line police officers in particular will have serious problems. We must ensure that the Minister’s role, which is currently more about getting the budget than setting the budget for policing and providing the necessary criminal justice legislation, stays defined as such, and that the argument is not used on devolution that “If we have a Minister in the Assembly, we don’t need a Policing Board of Assembly Members and all these independents.” My concern is not so much the party colour of who might be a Minister, but that devolution would undo the finely tuned balance that exists as a result of the Patten recommendations. We absolutely need to protect the integrity and independence of the Policing Board.
5.45 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley: Dealing with organised crime is a key policing challenge in Northern Ireland today. The recent announcement that 60 extra specialist investigators will specifically target criminals locally is very welcome. It is encouraging to see the sums that have been recovered from criminals over the past few years being ploughed back into the fight against crime—all right-thinking people applaud that.
I welcome many of the Minister’s remarks. There is no doubt that many of the issues that are before us, and have to be before us, will kindle controversy. We need to face that. There is a hard climb before us and there are hard decisions to be taken. The decades of terrorism in Northern Ireland have allowed a very efficient and clever criminal industry to develop. During the early years of the political process, both Labour and Conservative Governments turned a blind eye, to some degree, to the illegal activities of paramilitaries who were engaging in such practices and feathering their own nests. The discipline structures allowed those men and women to spawn lucrative criminal empires. Those in influential positions in paramilitary organisations became multi-millionaires, and they used their gains to get other illegal gains and to hold both the Government and people to ransom.
Now that the level of paramilitary activity has decreased—it has not ceased—there must be a strong focus on those who are lining their pockets with the proceeds of previous crime. The Independent Monitoring Commission recognised organised crime to be a major continuing legacy of terrorism, with 60 per cent. of all the organised crime gangs in Northern Ireland, and two thirds of the most serious gangs involved in international activities, having had strong paramilitary links. It points out that those paramilitary associations brought to organised crime a ruthlessness, expertise and infrastructure that was new to Northern Ireland or any other part of this United Kingdom. Tackling organised crime in Northern Ireland proves particularly difficult on account of the sophistication of those criminals. They are clever men and women who know what they are doing. There is evidence of highly developed methods of marketing, distribution and selling. The criminals are flexible and resilient, and some operations involve vast sums of money and the services of skilled lawyers and accountants. Violent crimes such as cash-in-transit robberies have increased, as have so-called tiger kidnappings, which have a huge psychological impact on victims and their families.
Chris Ruane: What assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of criminality in the south, especially in the Dublin area? Are there lessons to be learned from the actions that the Irish Government have taken against the super-criminals there that could be applied to the north?
Rev. Ian Paisley: That is a strange question for the hon. Gentleman to ask me. I would not dare go across the border and dictate to them. I would go and see the Boyne water flowing, but I would not dare to dictate to them what they should do. There is massive crime—very serious crime—in Dublin. I visit Dublin occasionally, and the police look after me. I have conversations with them at times. I was amazed to know that, in parts of the south of Ireland, there are areas that are almost—I use this term deliberately—no-go areas, where people who are aliens are settling in the south and building areas in which they seem to be in control. I can say nothing further about that, but it is happening. It is a serious matter, because if we got rid of all our troubles in Northern Ireland and the south had an outbreak of trouble, we would be back to buts again, repeating what has already been repeated many times in our history.
I say to the Government—it was the first thing that I said to the new Secretary of State and I want to say it today and put it on the record—that I do not think that they should be pushing anyone, especially the Unionist community, to rush into devolution of the powers of the police, the courts and the security forces. That would be a very dangerous thing. We are walking on serious territory and we have to take great care to continue to strengthen the very brittle bridge that we have reached at present. I do not think that the Government should push. They will have to recognise that the law leaves the onus on the First Minister to propose devolution of powers in the Stormont Chamber.
I could not at the moment even think about that, nor could the vast majority of Unionists and others. I use the word “others” intentionally, because delegations of people who used to spit at my very name now come to tell me their troubles. They have told me, “You know, we don’t want things rushed into. Things are going quietly. The police are coming in and we can call them and talk to them. We do not want to be pushed so that we go back and lose all that we have gained.”
I stress to the Government that our position is crystal clear. We want to see powers devolved. We have consistently urged that the transfer of any powers relating to policing cannot occur until there is the necessary confidence and support in the whole community. That support is not there at the moment. It will come only when we continue on the path that we have been following and rebuild confidence with care, which is a hard and difficult task. The majority of Unionists and others would not vote willy-nilly for a complete turnaround on the matter.
I want to repeat what I have said to Sinn Fein’s face: it must have done with its army council. We cannot have a political party that is still allied to an army council. That must cease, and I am determined, as are we all, to see that it will. I trust that that message will get through. In politics in Ireland, if you tell a man that he must not do something, he will do it. If you tell him not to do it, he might then do what you want. We have to take care, because that is what happens. It might happen among politicians over here, too—I do not know and I would not pass judgment.
We must face up to the fact that we are in a serious position. We want to keep the harvest that we reap. We do not want it to be squandered, and the Government must work with special care.
I feel sore about the Patten arrangement because it is not a fair arrangement. I have mentioned the 50 per cent. issue, and this is irksome on Northern Ireland’s people. I have been visited by young men who have passed through the process to join the police, and have a letter saying that although they have passed the exam and could be accepted, they cannot be accepted because they are Protestants. When the Minister replied to a question that I asked in the House, he made clear that a large number of Protestants had done everything necessary and were available to join the police, but could not do so because of their religion.
I do not accept the nice picture that has been painted by the leader of the SDLP, because there are serious considerations about Patten that must be faced with a strength of purpose. I do not want to prevent anyone from getting a job because of their religion, but all parties must adhere to the principle that appointments should be made not because of someone’s religion, but because of their ability. We must come to that point.
I do not want to prevent my colleagues from speaking, but I want to mention one other matter. A recent report by the Chief Constable raises questions about how troubles-related cases should be progressed. It is indicated that approximately £14 million will be spent in 2007 and that 288 staff will be dedicated to investigating murders from the troubles. As a result of the troubles, there have been more than 2,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. The families of those victims deserve justice, and it is important that the police are enabled fully to investigate those crimes.
Unfortunately, there has not been a level playing field for victims. While a few murders have been investigated through costly inquiries, hundreds of other murders have not received the same attention. That has created a hierarchy of victims that is not acceptable in the community. It is important to have a clear framework for inquiries in Northern Ireland. They must not become politically motivated exercises costing millions of pounds. The Londonderry inquiry has already cost £107 million and has taken us nowhere. I hear people on both sides saying, “We don’t care what the answer is; we don’t not accept it.”
I was a victim of having to go to that inquiry and sit for a day, although I was not even in the country when the events took place. It had not one line of anything that I had ever said. I was out of the country and had said nothing, but I was kept there for a day. A young barrister told me that that it had been a good day’s work and that he was going home with a full wallet.
That it is not the way to do the job. The matters are serious, and we all have a responsibility. We must be careful what we say and what we do, but there is an opportunity at the moment for the people of Northern Ireland to join together to see this through to an honourable finish that will bring real peace to a war-torn community.
5.59 pm
Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): In the debate on Northern Ireland, a word that is used more and more is “normality”. The situation will soon be as normal in Northern Ireland as it is in Wales, and we have been hoping that that will happen.
We should all welcome what is happening in Northern Ireland, which is positive, after all the years that we have gone through. However, we must be realistic. I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for North Antrim that we need to see real progress on the ground and things really moving. There is a plethora of organisations in the justice system in Northern Ireland. We have mentioned before the human rights bodies over there, and its penal system is different from over here. The whole nature of the police service is different.
What we in the House need is real confidence in what is happening on the ground, especially if we are to transfer real power from the House to the people over there so that they can do business with the police and the justice system on our behalf. I wish to ask the Minister two specific questions that will help me to see whether we are making the real progress that we all want.
In the past year, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced a report on the use of community restorative justice programmes. Has there been any real progress on the ground with those programmes, and their people and structures, linking in with the police and working with them in the positive way that we advised and the Government supported? If so, that is a step in the right direction. What support are our Government, and, hopefully, the Government in Northern Ireland, giving to that work?
This might be a more difficult question to answer: what is the situation on so-called exiles being able to come back and live in Northern Ireland without fear of violence or threat? We want real normality, but if people cannot come back to their homes and there is a fear of vigilantism, that is out of order and clearly needs to be addressed. That question might be about a longer-term issue than my first, but if we want to be sure that things are normal, we need answers to such questions.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, I remind the Committee that the debate must end at 7.16 pm, and perhaps hon. Members would like to hear the Minister’s winding-up speech. If hon. Members bear that in mind, they will all get to speak. I call Alan Reid.
6.2 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson.
Policing in Northern Ireland has changed significantly since the signing of the Belfast agreement in 1998. In his most recent report, the oversight commissioner, Al Hutchinson, said that the rest of the world could learn from the changes made through the reforms recommended by the Patten commission. It is appropriate at this time to pay tribute once again to the hard work and huge sacrifices of police officers and their families during the 30 years of the troubles. Without the courage and dedication of many of those officers, the terrorism in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom would have been far worse than was experienced.
At that time, however, the police did not have the support of about half the community in Northern Ireland. Liberal Democrats therefore very much supported the Belfast agreement in its call for a police service for Northern Ireland that would be effective, efficient, fair, impartial, and free from partisan political control. We wanted a police service in Northern Ireland that had the support of all sections of the community.
We are now a long way down that road. A recent omnibus survey published at the beginning of July shows that there is increased confidence in the PSNI’s ability to provide an ordinary day-to-day policing service for all the people of Northern Ireland. On 31 May, Al Hutchinson published his last report on the progress of policing reforms in Northern Ireland. His report lays out clearly the changes that have been made to policing in Northern Ireland, taking us through the enormous strides that have been made in implementing the 175 recommendations that the Patten commission made.
“the Police Service needs to demonstrate that human rights are being delivered as planned in all training; to increase the knowledge of recruited trainers in human rights; to systematically observe teaching activity by teams from inside and outside the police to confirm and ensure that human rights content is delivered as planned; and to evaluate the impact of human rights training on subsequent behaviour.”
Will the Minister tell the Committee how progress on that will be monitored?
Huge strides have been made, too, in ensuring that the police are held accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. The Policing Board is now well established in its role of holding the Chief Constable to account. Earlier this year, we welcomed the decision by Sinn Fein to support the policing structures in Northern Ireland and to take its seats on the Policing Board. Of course, we would have preferred to see Sinn Fein make that decision much sooner than it did and we hope that it will continue to play a constructive role in furthering community relations with the police.
The Patten commission recognised the importance of policing with the community to the functioning and acceptance of the police service. We were pleased to see the progress that has been made towards a more community-based approach to policing in Northern Ireland. It is important that the police are accessible to the community and are seen to work constructively with ordinary people to solve local problems. That is a significant way in which to gain the trust and respect of people, and I note from the oversight commissioner’s report that work on five of the eight recommendations for policing with the community has been completed, with substantial progress having been made on the remaining three.
I hope that when police and justice matters are devolved to the Assembly, it will help to ensure the accountability of the police and the confidence of the community in the police. The Government hope that policing and justice matters can be devolved by May next year. I hope that that can be achieved, too. It is important that the timing be governed by community confidence. The devolution of policing and criminal justice powers to the Assembly must be handled with great sensitivity. It goes straight to the heart of people’s sense of security and, more than any other aspect of current or potential devolved responsibilities, the conduct and control of policing is at the heart of the political disputes and conflicts that have afflicted Northern Ireland. Although we accept the target of May 2008, we believe that the timing of the devolution of policing and criminal justice powers should primarily be determined by the conditions within society. Will the Minister tell the Committee what discussions have taken place between the political parties and the Government on that? What work will be done between now and next May to ensure that the conditions are right for devolution?
One of the most fundamental tests will be whether the Assembly believes that it is ready for the devolution of police and justice matters. Northern Ireland has had devolved power restored to the Assembly for two months now. However, we firmly believe that for policing and justice to be devolved, the Assembly must feel confident, stable and secure in its future and there must be support throughout the community. That is something that the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Government must work together to achieve.
6.9 pm
Mr. Campbell: Whenever considering reform, one normally starts by examining the organisation of which reform is required. The police in Northern Ireland have, from the foundation of the state, periodically come under attack. That attack was manifested in various ways, but members of the wider community outside will be aware that the sustained campaign waged by terrorists over 35 years had an awful impact on the police, their relatives and members of their close family. I shall not go into the underlying rationale for the necessity of reform, because the policing service as it was was a body of fine upstanding police officers who faced a relentless and brutal onslaught for three-and-a-half decades. The reform has taken place, however, and the Minister, in introducing today’s debate, painted what might be described as a rosy picture of policing.
There is much to report about the improvements to policing. However, there are thousands of young people in Northern Ireland whose context for analysing whether policing reform is working is not whether there is a reduction in crime or whether they think the police service personnel widely reflect the community balance. It is based on one factor only: the letter that they received after applying in good faith to join the policing service and passing the necessary evaluation—the letter that effectively told them that they were good enough to be police officers, but that they were the wrong religion. Any policing reform whose essential element is blatant discrimination in recruitment is anathema. It cannot be justified, defended or excused.
The Minister said that it is a temporary measure, and although I do not wish to put words into his mouth, he appeared to say that the greater good at the end will be worth the pain of discrimination that the young Protestants feel. That is not how they see the situation, however. If we analyse police recruitment over the past three years, about 35 to 40 per cent. of all applicants have come from the Roman Catholic community. The target set by Patten was 30 per cent., so without any 50:50 recruitment, as it is called, one element of applicants to the police exceeds what Patten wanted.
Patten set the benchmark at 30 per cent., and currently, almost 40 per cent. of people applying to join the police are Catholics. One must assume that in the absence of 50:50 and a broadly similar applicant-to-appointee ratio, about 40 per cent. of recruits will be Catholics. Who could complain about that? We in the Unionist community could not complain, and I should hope that nationalists could not complain, because the merit principle would have been applied. More Catholics would be recruited; those Protestants who were not recruited could not complain, because the merit principle would have been applied; and those Catholics who were recruited could say, “I am here because I am the best qualified officer.” There is one significant and outstanding sore running through the reform of policing in Northern Ireland and it is recruitment on the basis of religion.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim mentioned that the ratio is not really 50:50, and he is correct. Currently, 50 per cent. of people recruited are Catholic, and the other 50 per cent. are “all others”, so if we examine the figures, we see that 50 per cent. of recruits are Catholics, 48 per cent. are Protestant and 2 per cent. are others. Minority Protestant recruitment to the police is masquerading under 50:50. How on earth does that make the thousands of young Protestants who apply feel when they are turned down, not because they are not well qualified or unsuitable to be police officers, but because the state tells them officially and formally that they are the wrong religion? It is intolerable.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman has suggested that thousands of young Protestants are being turned away because of the 50:50 provision. In fact, the figure is hundreds—hundreds of Protestants have been turned down because of the 50:50 provision. The thousands of young Protestants who have been unsuccessful in applications to join the police service are matched by thousands of young Catholics who have also been unsuccessful, because far more people want to join the service, which is a good thing. Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the fact that more young Protestants have been recruited to the police service in the years since Patten than were being recruited to it in the years before Patten?
Mr. Campbell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We had a debate along these lines—in the Chamber, I think—some considerable time ago. Unfortunately, his facts were wrong then and they are equally wrong now. More than 3,000 Protestants have received a letter indicating to them, in effect, that they are of the wrong religion. When they applied for employment in the police service, they were unsuccessful not because they were not qualified, but because they were Protestant.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that more Protestants have been recruited since Patten. That is correct, because before then nobody was being recruited. That was a fact. Unfortunately, according to a reply the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Belfast, South, the police service will not be recruiting additional personnel in the near future, but because since Patten and until now, it has recruited additional personnel, and because of the 50:50 provision, it has had to recruit some Protestants.
The point that many people of all religions in Northern Ireland make is that we do not need a discriminatory benchmark; it is unnecessary because there are adequate numbers of people from both communities and from beyond Protestant and Catholic communities applying. If 40 per cent. of the applicants applying to the police force are Catholic, that is above the benchmark that Patten set. Therefore, we do not need the 50:50 recruitment, and that is the way it ought to be.
There ought to be absolutely open applications from all sections of the community, and when we get that—we hope that we will get it before 2010 or 2011—all sections of the community can take pride in the fact that they have police officers serving the community who are there on merit and who are there not because of their religion but because they want to serve their community. Then, everyone in society can feel the utmost indebtedness to and respect for those police officers, irrespective of the community from which they come. The Minister ought to address that and the Government should fundamentally reassess their view of the 50:50 provision.
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Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I declare an interest at the outset as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and as the chair of the Assembly and Executive review committee, which will prepare a report for the Assembly on the preparations for the devolution of policing and justice powers.
As a member of the Policing Board, I can confirm what the Minister said in his opening remarks: the board is working well. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann and I are part of the new board that has recently been formed following devolution on 8 May. For the first time, we have members from Sinn Fein joining the board and making a contribution. I welcome the fact that Sinn Fein, at long last and, indeed, for the first time in its history, has given its support to the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. I believe that that is significant and that it is right that the Democratic Unionist party should take a large measure of credit. We pressurised Sinn Fein and made it absolutely clear that devolution would not occur until it gave its support to the police and the rule of law. We held out, despite the pressure that was applied by others. We held the line because we believed that it was essential that if any party was to be in the Government of Northern Ireland in any circumstances, it should support the police and the rule of law. That, for us, was a key principle, and we welcome the fact that Sinn Fein crossed that line, gave its support to the police and the rule of law and, in taking ministerial office, gave commitments to continue that support.
It is clear from reports to the Policing Board from police commanders throughout Northern Ireland that there has been remarkable improvement in places such as south Armagh and north and west Belfast, where the police have traditionally found it difficult to gain co-operation from the community and where Sinn Fein and others have sought to influence the community against co-operating in crime investigations. People are coming forward to give evidence to the police and to help them with their inquiries. It is happening on an unprecedented level in such places.
The former Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, sent a letter recently to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in which he stated in reference to the PSNI and the RUC George cross:
“For years they did their duty, reaching out to individuals and neighbourhoods, often in the face of extreme violence, determined to deliver a service to everyone. It is that commitment which has now helped convince all sections of the community in Northern Ireland to embrace and support policing and the rule of law.”
It is right that he should recognise the contribution of the RUC, and latterly that of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in helping to hold the line and stand in the gap between those who favour democracy and those who were trying to undermine it. They brought us to a place where we have a relative degree of peace. It is not perfect by any means, but it is a big improvement on where we were before.
It is worth noting that it has been many years now since a police officer in Northern Ireland lost his or her life in the course of duty. All of us welcome that. I have attended the funerals, as I am sure have hon. and right hon. Members from all parties, of police officers murdered in the course of duty. It is good that police officers are not now losing their lives, but it was despicable that last weekend, on the Castlemara estate in Carrickfergus, people who call themselves loyalists opened fire on the police, injuring a police officer by shooting him in the back. Those people masquerade as defenders of the community. They would say that they are men of courage. What courage is there in standing in the middle of a crowd and shooting a police officer in the back? There is none. Let us be clear that the Democratic Unionist party unreservedly condemns the actions of those so-called loyalists. They have no place in leadership in our society; they are not wanted. The communities in which they live do not want them to engage in such activities; they want them off their back.
It is time that those organisations ended such violence for good, ended their criminality and recognised that the rest of Northern Ireland is moving on. If they are not prepared to move with us into a peaceful society, they will have to be left behind, and the police must be given the resources to deal with them. They must be removed from society before they engage in more such activity and damage Northern Ireland’s prospects for moving forward. Those organisations must decide whether to move forward or stay stuck in the past, engaged in criminality and paramilitarism. We will not tolerate that, and I know that the Government will not tolerate it either.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I want to place on record my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman and his party on the statement that he is making.
I want to address resources for a moment. The Policing Board is very concerned about the prospect of a reduction in the police budget in Northern Ireland in the coming year, which is a serious issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim commented on the cost of policing the past. The Chief Constable recently attended a meeting of the Policing Board and gave a presentation in which he broke down the cost of policing the past. It is one of the tragedies of the situation in Northern Ireland that we still have more than 3,000 unsolved murders—3,447 in fact. That record does credit to no one, and it is important to give this issue attention.
We know that the historical inquiries team, which the hon. Member for Foyle mentioned, are re-examining many of those cases. I believe that 40 cases a month are reopened. I support the team’s work, but I am concerned that we are getting a hierarchy of victimhood in Northern Ireland. A huge amount of money is being spent on a small number of inquiries, which inevitably limits and eats into the overall police budget and means that what the team is able to do is also limited in some respects.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said, the budget for 2007-08 for the team and its associated legal costs is £14.47 million. That is the cost of policing the past in 2007-08, and it will take a big chunk out of the policing budget for that year. I know that the budget is much larger than that, but if the Chief Constable is coming to the Policing Board and saying “This cannot go on; something needs to be done. This is limiting my operational capacity—my capacity to deal with current crime,” we have to sit up and take note. That is not to say that we should draw a line under the past, because that would cause a lot of damage and would be an injustice to those who have lost loved ones, but we have to consider whether we can continue to fund the kind of expensive inquiries that my right hon. Friend talked about earlier, which are picking up a large percentage of the cost of policing the past.
My right hon. Friend talked about the Saville inquiry. May I give another example? Since the murder of Rosemary Nelson in 1999, the police inquiry into her death has cost £15 million—that is one murder. The historical inquiries team has not spent that much money yet on all the murders it has investigated to date. That is why, understandably, many victims’ families say to me and to my right hon. and hon. Friends that there is a hierarchy of victimhood and that some people and cases are given special attention, which they do not get. We have to level the playing field.
Sammy Wilson: The Finucane inquiry has cost more than £30 million. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the one thread that appears to go through all the expensive inquiries such as the Londonderry, Finucane and Nelson inquiries is that they were demanded by Sinn Fein? They were demanded for one reason alone, which was to make a political point, rather than to get to the bottom of the matter.
Mr. Donaldson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, although I am sure that the hon. Member for Foyle and his party will want to claim some of the credit for calling those inquiries as well. However, my hon. Friend made a very valid point: there is no doubt that the political party that makes the most noise about such issues, certainly on the Policing Board, is Sinn Fein. It must accept that there is a responsibility to consider the policing budget and the cost of those inquiries—and not only the financial costs.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said, at the moment, 288 police officers are tied up with investigations carried out by a small number of inquiries. That has a big impact on operational policing—288 police officers is more than the total number in my local policing district, which happens to be the largest in Northern Ireland. More officers are tied up with those inquiries than are on the beat in Lisburn, Dromore, Moira, Glenavy, Hillsborough and so on. It is no wonder, therefore, that I get complaints from my constituents saying, “My home was broken into last night. I called the police, but no one came!” Antisocial behaviour is another problem. People come to me and say, “Look, there is vandalism in our area and the elderly are being intimidated, but we cannot get police officers on to the streets to deal with it”. We have to look at this problem.
My party welcomes the Government’s recent decision to appoint Lord Eames and a group of interested parties to examine the past and how to deal with it. That is something that we need to consider, and I am sure that the Minister will want to comment on that in his remarks. A further consequence of this situation is on the work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. In Dr. Maurice Hayes’s original report, which set the framework for the establishment of a police ombudsman’s office, he set out what I believe were reasonable parameters for its work. That report envisaged that the ombudsman would examine cases where complaints were made within a two-year time frame.
Clearly, that original proposal would have limited the scope of the police ombudsman’s office, but it was changed, largely at the behest of the SDLP, which resulted in a large amount of the ombudsman’s time being taken up with cases that occurred five, 10 or 15 years ago. That is creating problems. Recently, the ombudsman published a report on the murder of Raymond McCord Jr., and as a result of her recommendations, the police and the historical inquiries team have had to undertake a significant body of work.
The Policing Board recently met the Chief Constable and Dave Cox of the historical inquiries team, and it was made clear that the extra costs resulting from the ombudsman’s report would have to come out of existing resources, which was going to make things very difficult for them. The board wrote to the Minister about that, and he responded by saying that no additional resources were available. I know that the board is going back to him on that issue.
If the Government are to expand the scope of the police ombudsman’s office, if it will be raking over the past and going into cases that occurred many years ago, and if the PSNI and the historical inquiries team will have to deal with the consequences, it is not right that the Government do not help by making available the necessary funding. That money should not come out of the policing. There are no boundaries to that process and none of us know how many reports there will be or what the impact on the work of the PSNI and the historical inquiries team will be. If we do not set limits and boundaries, the scope and potential to draw on the policing budget and the funding required is endless. That is why the Government must consider that issue.
I say to the Minister that there is no way that the Assembly will take on the devolution of policing and justice powers under circumstances in which there is a blank cheque for policing the past. We will have to find the money out of an existing policing budget, which will impact on the investigation of crime today and on dealing with drugs, antisocial behaviour, traffic offences and the death toll on our roads in Northern Ireland. There will be an impact on all of those areas. In addition, according to the recommendation before us, the number of police officers in Northern Ireland after 2010-11 will decrease from 7,500 to 6,028. So we will have almost 2,000 fewer police officers to deal with those issues and do the ordinary policing tasks as well. We are storing up serious problems for ourselves on the policing front. That is why the issue must be addressed, not only in terms of the work of Lord Eames and his group on how we deal with the past, but in terms of the whole funding issue. Let me be clear: we want the unsolved murders to be investigated, but we want a level playing field. We do not want money spent on inquiries into a small number of murders at the expense of the rest of society and the other victims who have an equal right to have the case of their loved ones investigated.
Finally, I reiterate the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim. In the Assembly, it is my task to chair the committee that considers the preparatory work on policing and justice powers. Let me be clear: the Democratic Unionist party will not support the devolution of policing and justice powers unless and until there is sufficient community confidence to ensure that policing and justice devolution can work effectively and have the support of the community. That will require a number of things to happen. I shall not list them for the Committee, but I will say the following. I agree with my right hon. Friend; there is no way that we will agree to the devolution of policing and justice powers when the IRA army council remains in place—no way. That is an issue that Sinn Fein will have to address and deal with.
6.38 pm
Sammy Wilson: Given the time, and the fact that there will be a Division in the House at half-past 7, I will be brief. In addition, I do not want to cover points that other hon. Members have made.
I believe that there is a new era for policing in Northern Ireland and despite the events of the weekend in my constituency when a police officer was shot in the back by someone from a loyalist paramilitary group, which was alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, I believe that the situation for police officers generally has improved. As I have already done in public interviews, I reiterate the need for full co-operation from everyone in the community to ensure that whoever carried out the dastardly act on Saturday evening is brought to justice. When they are apprehended by the police, the courts should deal with them in a proper manner. The police, and especially the Chief Constable, have time and again expressed the frustration that police officers apprehend people but that no sooner are they apprehended than they are out on bail, with a long period before being brought to trial. I hope that the whole of the justice system right through to the courts will ensure that a proper message is sent out to those who would return us to the days of the past.
I turn to the whole issue of police reform. I am a former member of the Policing Board—I was a member when many of the Patten recommendations were going through—and it worries me a little when I hear the Minister saying that, having completed most of the changes that Patten recommended, the Government are looking at what further changes they might impose on the police. I understand that policing techniques—the policing context, the various resources available to the police and some methods of policing—are always evolving and that that will require change, but I believe that those changes are best dealt with by the police and within the policing organisation, rather than imposed from a political level.
The police in Northern Ireland have gone through a period of great change. Some of those changes were necessary, the police themselves were beginning to introduce others, and earlier speakers alluded to the fact that some were done purely for political reasons. I do not know that they have made a change for the better, and some of them have certainly been for the worse.
The 50:50 recruitment process, referred to by a number of Members, is a case in point. The Minister said that confidence in the police is rising, and that is good, but he failed to refer to the fact that confidence in the police within the Protestant community has fallen. People believe that there has been political interference in the recruitment of police officers, and that is reflected in the general attitude to the police within the Protestant community.
I do not want to see a situation in which the people who mostly vote for me do not have confidence in the police. As a politician and a former member of the Policing Board, I believe that it is one of my duties to instil support for the police, but when there is political interference of the sort that we have seen it is sometimes difficult to lead people in that direction. When contemplating further reform—or, indeed, when contemplating some of the measures that cause anger now—the Government must bear that in mind.
Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but he lays 50:50 recruitment entirely at the Government’s door and talks about political interference when it was a key recommendation of the Patten report. When Patten and his team were engaged in their inquiry, they faced demands that ranged from the total disbandment of the RUC—that all officers should be stood down and that those who wanted to continue to serve should apply again—to no change.
Part of the compromise was to create an opportunity for a turnover of staff but to retain the large body of serving officers; that would be achieved by guaranteeing 50:50 recruitment until 30 per cent. of the membership was from the Catholic community. That was the compromise. The hon. Gentleman should remember the context in which the Patten recommendation was made. People accepted that compromise. If we were to ask again whether there should be open recruitment, people might say that there should have been total recruitment.
Sammy Wilson: First, the Patten proposals were politically driven as a result of the Belfast agreement, mostly as a result of nationalist and republican pressure when the agreement being negotiated. Patten himself brought a political dimension to it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry has shown that given the change in circumstances and the fact that there would be less intimidation as time went on, there would be natural evolution towards more Catholics applying to join the police, and the merit principle would probably have ensured a greater recruitment of Catholics to the police force. However, I do not want to get bogged down in that question, because it has been dealt with adequately.
Rev. Ian Paisley: Is it not true that Mr. Patten admitted that he was not getting enough opposition, so he advertised for more people to be against the police? Those are the facts. I sat through a meeting at which people were crowded in the doorways saying, “Give us police, but give us police that are absolutely impartial and do not look at their religion.”
Sammy Wilson: Certainly, at the meetings I attended in east Belfast to which Mr. Patten came along, he received that message loud and clear from the people attending. He may have received a different message when he went to west Belfast, but he knew that many of his recommendations would be politically unacceptable to the Unionist community.
I want to deal with a number positive measures that could be taken for the future of policing. First, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is perhaps the most overseen and scrutinised in the world. Until the closure of Al Hutchinson’s office, 15 bodies scrutinised the Police Service of Northern Ireland, leaving 14 bodies now. Some of them duplicate the work of others, and it is expensive for the police to service those who scrutinise them because they have to write reports and so on. As a past chairman of the Policing Board finance committee I know the amount of time that was involved for the police even when introducing something like a computer system, because about five different groups oversaw the introduction of the change. A lot of the Assistant Chief Constable and his team’s time was taken up by answering the same questions time and again. Perhaps we should consider how to rationalise or reduce that level of scrutiny without removing accountability, to free up police time so that it is used for policing rather than writing reports for the plethora of scrutineers, some of whom exist to please particular siren voices from the past.
Secondly, a number of hon. Members have mentioned police training and the emphasis on human rights. My view of human rights policing is that if I or a member of my family were arrested by the police, we would want to be treated fairly, courteously and within the law. That is what human rights policing means to me. However, some of the training and human rights scrutiny that the police go through is not determined by those practical considerations, but is driven by a human rights industry, some of which has more interest in denigrating and weakening the police than in ensuring proper policing.
When I was a member of the Policing Board, it was my job to visit recruits when they were going through their training and to explain the board’s work. That was usually done within half an hour and followed by interesting discussion about their training. Some came from the Irish Republic, where they had served in the Guarda Siochana, and because they were at constable level they had to go through the training all over again. Many of them were from English police forces—perhaps people who were from Northern Ireland and who wanted to come home again at constable level and had to go through all of the training again. The one thing that all of them remarked on was the absolute emphasis on human rights training. Many of them, especially those who had already served as police officers, felt that for the uninitiated who had never done any policing, the effect of the human rights training would be to make them scared to do anything when they went out on the streets. The emphasis was not on good practice in policing, but on what was politically correct and what the human rights industry people wanted to tie into policing.
I met some of the recruits last summer during my time in the parliamentary police scheme. They were coming back for their second bout of training after three months on the ground. Many of them said that during their first few weeks on the street and until they began to put their training into some kind of context, they were fearful of doing anything. Perhaps another reform that the police ought to consider is to ask some of the police recruits, rather than those from the human rights industry, what should be included when it comes to the human rights element of policing. That would be quite useful.
It has been emphasised, but it needs to be brought home to the Government that we are falling between two stools as far as historical inquiries are concerned. Many of the victims of the 3,000 murders that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley mentioned are not happy with what they get from the historical inquiries team. It seems to look in a superficial way at what evidence is left and what forensic evidence exists, and it may show people the files and take them to the scene of the crime and so on. Any historical inquiry that is referred to the ombudsman’s office is dealt with in a far different way.
I do not know how many of those who were involved in terrorist activity during the troubles have been brought in by Mr. Cox and his team to be grilled and put through questioning about the crimes in which they are suspected of having been involved. I doubt that it is many, if any. Yet almost everyone whose case was referred to the ombudsman has been arrested—every policeman, even though some of them had left the police service years before and some were in ill health. Some of them have been arrested in the gaze of publicity because the ombudsman’s office has told the media that it is about to make the arrests. They have been brought in and questioned, and sometimes even when they have been released without charge the media have been informed what they were brought in for and for what crime they were investigated. That has caused great anxiety within the police and it has not satisfied other victims.
As has been mentioned, others get even greater attention. Millions of pounds have been spent on individual cases. Even when those millions of pounds have been spent, we still get the Finucane family saying that they want a judicial inquiry next because the police inquiry is not good enough.
Mark Durkan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I ask him to think again about that ungenerous reference to the Finucane family. The Finucane family, as were the entire public, were promised by the former Prime Minister that if Judge Cory recommended a judicial inquiry, there would be a judicial inquiry. Fulfilment of that that promise has been withheld. We were told for a long time that there could not be a public inquiry because that might compromise the prospect of a prosecution. We now hear that there will be absolutely no prosecution in relation to any of the evidence or issues around the Finucane murder. We now have a travesty on top of a scandal on top of a cover-up on top of a murder. How can the Finucane family rest easy with that?
Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman has illustrated once again what happens when there is political interference in the policing process. For the Prime Minister or whoever it was to make that promise to one family while scant regard is paid to the cases of thousands of other families causes angst and anger among victims in Northern Ireland. That is why the Government now need to address such matters.
Civilianisation can save money within the police, but it must be remembered that although many jobs currently held by police officers could be done by civilians, they are held by officers who were severely injured during the troubles and who were given desk jobs because of their injuries. We must be careful when moving towards civilianisation that we do not go back on the promises that were made to those officers and the recognition that was given to them by moving them into desk jobs, and thus cause further grievances. Over time, through age and ill health, many of those posts will become vacant. I have no great opposition to them being used by civilians.
It is one thing to say that it is easy to recruit people to be police officers where the pay is quite good and where they are prepared to be mobile, but it is another to say that we shall recruit civilians to jobs at perhaps £12,000, £12,500 or £13,000 a year—jobs that are essentially local—and still expect to obtain 50:50 recruitment. In some cases, that is not possible. People will not travel a long distance to a job that carries such pay. Recruitment might take place in an area that is mostly Catholic or Protestant, so a 50:50 recruitment would not be possible. If that is so, civilianisation should not be held up simply because we cannot meet the 50:50 rules, although it can help to save money.
As for value for money, of course we have to get the best out of the resources that are made available for policing. As a former chairman of the Policing Board finance committee, I know that there is a lot of waste within the police budget, but I do not believe that the sort of cuts that are envisaged—nearly 15 per cent. of the police budget—can be found through efficiencies. Gershon efficiencies have been applied for several years and, if the Government persist in what is rumoured in the comprehensive spending review, policing will be affected detrimentally in Northern Ireland. Even if it were politically possible, I do not think that politicians in Northern Ireland would want to take on policing that is bereft of such resources and have to find them from the block grant.
6.59 pm
Paul Goggins: This afternoon’s debate has been excellent. I wish to begin by saying to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, in his absence, that our thoughts are certainly with him and his constituents. We understand why he cannot be here. However, he should take heart from some of the developments in south Armagh to which we have referred. The Army has now gone from Bessbrook. We no longer have routine Army patrols and, indeed, we have the prospect of a meeting this week at community level between people in the area and the PSNI, which I think will lead to further positive developments.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle for what I thought was a positive assessment of the current situation. On these occasions, I always pay tribute to him and his party colleagues who stood tall, took risks some years ago on policing, and were prepared to take their place on district policing partnerships and the Policing Board. They deserve great credit for taking those risks, and people should not forget what they did. I was pleased that he paid tribute to senior officers within the PSNI; I think that they are of a very high calibre.
On funding—this applies to the remarks of other hon. Members—there is no let-up in the Government’s commitment. Two years ago the policing budget was £860 million and this year we are spending £100 million more than that—£960 million. There is a commitment. We are involved in a comprehensive spending review, and, of course, we have been in discussion with Treasury colleagues about that. We hope that, as a result, we can maintain our commitment to having 7,500 regular officers throughout the period of the comprehensive spending review, in line with the Patten recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, along with several other hon. Members, raised the issue of historical inquiries. It is very important that we remember that the £34 million allocated to the historical inquiries team is intended precisely to get through to the families that are often the hidden victims—those who suffered the most, often in silence—to give them explanations and information. In my discussions with the Chief Constable, the ombudsman and others, I make the point that it is very important that we do not forget that.
The cost of historical inquiries is very high. Some £210 million has already been spent on the four big inquiries that are ongoing, along with £34 million for the historical inquiries team and the £14.4 million to which the Chief Constable has referred. Those are huge costs and that is why it is so important that we move on from case-by-case investigation into the past towards something more holistic and comprehensive. Finally, I reassure my hon. Friend that, with regard to devolution, it is not the Government’s intention to diminish in any way the role of the Policing Board, which plays a pivotal role in public scrutiny and accountability.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim for his role in general in Northern Ireland and the great leadership that he has shown, not least in getting devolution off to such a tremendous and positive start in recent months. I warmly welcome his welcoming of the 60 financial investigators who are now in place, funded in large measure from the proceeds of crime. That indicates the virtuous cycle with which we are trying to turn around the situation. The Organised Crime Task Force is unique to Northern Ireland and we should all take pride in that. The recovery of £37 million of assets last year, £22 million of which was from drugs, was encouraging, and, of course, we want to see more.
The partnership with business is helpful to deal with issues such as the cash-in-transit robberies. I share the revulsion expressed about organised criminal activity, the drugs that poison the bodies and lives of young people in the communities of Northern Ireland, and the shoddy goods that are passed off to families who can ill afford to pay for them. Those real crimes that need to be dealt with.
In relation to the devolution of policing and justice, hon. Members have said that this is not a time for push and rush—I agree with that. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the triple lock is in place, and it should reassure everyone. However, as confidence grows, we should not hold back unnecessarily. The right mood is one of constructive engagement, discussion and reflection, and that is certainly the mood that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I wish to proceed with in relation to these matters. It was encouraging and important to hear the right hon. Member for North Antrim saying that he wants to see the powers devolved, albeit in the right circumstances—when there is confidence.
Although this is from before my time as Minister, I say to the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for East Londonderry and others that, in relation to the 50:50 issue, I acknowledge that the way in which people who had applied to join the PSNI were told that they had been unsuccessful left a lot to be desired. The letter that the hon. Member for East Londonderry referred to has been withdrawn, and rightly so.
The fact is that people from both Catholic and Protestant communities who got into the merit pool through the whole 12 rounds were not appointed. That applies to young people from Catholic as well as Protestant backgrounds. It is true that 708 people from a non-Catholic background were not appointed although they figured higher in the merit pool than Catholics who were appointed. I regret that fact for those individuals, but the hon. Member for East Londonderry hit the nail on the head. We must have a representative police force. That is why this extraordinary measure is used in extraordinary circumstances to get the situation right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon asked me two specific questions. There is good news about the community restorative justice projects. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for their work. The former Northern Ireland Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), published a protocol earlier this year, and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that a number of schemes have expressed an interest in adopting it. Four organisations from Northern Ireland Alternatives have already been through the pre-accreditation inspection and they are now having further checks done before full accreditation. There has also been some interest from the republican side in adopting the protocols. However, that has to be done in proper partnership with the police—not as an alternative to the criminal justice system, but in partnership with it.
My hon. Friend touched on an important and sensitive issue in relation to exiles. I want to reflect more on the points that he made and perhaps discuss them with him and others at an appropriate time. The situation struck me forcefully when a man from Northern Ireland—an exile from the violence—came to my surgery in south Manchester just two weeks ago. That redoubled my commitment to do what we can to ensure that such people are supported appropriately.
I have one further comment for the hon. Member for East Londonderry about 50:50, about which I know that he feels strongly. I shall mention something that reflects a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle. The sheer number of applications always has to be borne in mind. We have had 72,000 applications over the 12 rounds, over a five-year period. There will be many disappointed people. However, the other side of the coin is that we have some high-calibre, highly committed people. We should all rejoice at that.
I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley on the Policing Board and to his role as chair of the Assembly and Executive review committee. Everything that I see and hear suggests that he is adopting a thoughtful approach in that role, which is welcome. He mentioned improvements in community confidence, which is also welcome. On Wednesday this week there will be a meeting in Newry of local people to discuss policing in Crossmaglen, which will be done with the PSNI. That was unthinkable until recently and it is welcome, as was the right hon. Gentleman’s strong condemnation of the violence in Carrickfergus on Saturday. I am pleased to tell the Committee that the officer involved is recovering well. That is a miracle and we are all very pleased about it. I am also pleased that three people appeared in court today in connection with that event.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the value-for-money report, which looks into the long term—beyond 2010-11—and tries to estimate the number of police officers that will be needed to police Northern Ireland in more normal times. Indeed, a figure of just more than 6,000 is estimated as the right level, but that is not something that we shall move towards in haste. That figure is certainly not in any way influencing the ongoing comprehensive spending review.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Antrim for his work on the Policing Board and welcome his largely positive assessment, although he made some sharp comments, as he invariably does. I, as a Minister, do not want to impose changes to operational policing—that would be inappropriate—but the Chief Constable himself has made changes and introduced the new structure of eight district command units, which is going very well. As Lord Patten saw, we need a period of consolidation. Perpetual revolution is not always healthy, and we need a settled period now that we have the architecture in place. The one big change that needs to happen, albeit carefully, gradually, and with reflection and so on, is that a local Minister should be accountable for policing.
The hon. Gentleman made various points about historical inquiries, oversight and human rights training. On the last of those, he referred to meeting new recruits. We should all rejoice at the quality of those recruits. The commitment and breadth of experience that they bring is superb. He also mentioned civilianisation and the need to ensure that police officers who have been injured are properly looked after and cared for. That is a responsibility of the Chief Constable, but I undertake to discuss that next time that I meet him.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the matter of policing reform in Northern Ireland (progress to date).


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Committee do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]
7.12 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I shall start by declaring an interest: like my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, I am on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I know that we are pushed for time and are trying to get this over by 7.30 pm if we can, so I shall do my best to do that and accommodate the Division in the House.
I wish to take the opportunity to mention some of the key challenges in policing in Northern Ireland. There have been some notable policing successes recently, and I do not intend to repeat a lot of them because some debates such as this are inclined to be repetitive. There have been great successes in relation to the seizure of drugs. Some £18 million-worth of cannabis was seized in Newtonards in October, which was the largest ever drugs seizure in the Province. Another £300,000-worth of cocaine was recovered on the M2 motorway in March. We all know that criminals can replace the drugs, but that shows that policing is having some success.
Last week, a new campaign was launched to encourage the reporting of domestic violence. In my constituency, my council area of Craigavon has one of the highest levels of domestic violence anywhere in the Province, and the new campaign should be welcomed and supported by everyone. I believe that, gas well as Craigavon, the campaign will initially run in Belfast, Londonderry and Lisburn. The Craigavon district command unit has one of the highest levels of reported domestic violence, and the number of cases there has increased from 912 in 2003-04 to more than 1,400 in 2005-06. Across the Province the total number of incidents reported has increased from 16,900 to 23,059 in the same period. The actual prevalence will be substantially higher, as historically only a small proportion of incidents have been reported. A cultural shift in tolerance of domestic violence is required across our society, and it must not only include the reporting of incidents but incorporate the courts and the sentences that they hand down. I shall return briefly to the issue of sentencing a little later.
Research has been published estimating the cost of domestic violence to society in England and Wales at a staggering £23 billion a year. On a pro rata population basis, that figure suggests that the cost of services and the loss to economic output due to domestic violence amounts to some £189 million a year in Northern Ireland. However, estimating the total for Northern Ireland is not as straightforward as simply reading across from Great Britain by population. The culture of paramilitarism and lawlessness that has plagued our society in recent decades is likely to mean that the situation in the Province is even worse. Domestic violence is much more common than people realise, and the psychological impact can be enormous.
A whiff of covering one’s tracks hangs around recent parliamentary questions. Why, in an answer to a question about rape convictions on 25 June 2007, did the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) give the figure as 19 per cent? And no later than 23 July, in a question specifically related to rape cases investigated by the police and referred to the Public Prosecution Service, why, instead of dealing with that specific matter, did the Minister choose to answer about rape
“or some other related offence”?—[Official Report, 23 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 771W.]
The conviction rate for rape in the Province is a shocking 19 per cent. The fact that by using that broader definition the Minister could cite a better success rate of 63 per cent. in 2005 and 50 per cent. in 2006 offers one interpretation of the answer. Why did his Department answer as it did? Ignoring the specific basis of the question and introducing other issues changed the figures dramatically.
What incentive exists for a victim of such crime to come forward when the chances of even getting to prosecution are so slim? If the case does make it to the court, fewer than one in five cases are successfully prosecuted. The problem must be tackled. I look forward to hearing in detail exactly what the Government’s proposals are to make it easier for victims to come forward, simpler for the police to get a case to court and it more likely that the guilty will be sentenced and more certain that the sentence will fit the crime.
Turning to the historical inquiries team, I have sought assurances from the Chief Constable at the Policing Board and the Secretary of State in the Chamber that there will be no interference with the team’s work on investigations that might implicate people now prominent in the political arena. The question is simple. Will the Police Service of Northern Ireland fully investigate serving politicians if they are implicated through DNA or witness evidence in troubles-related crime?
Several cases from Upper Bann and other constituencies have been referred to the historical inquiries team. I have been given the names of some of the people who are currently being investigated, some of whom are prominent politicians. If prominent people are identified as having been involved in those killings, it is vital that the team’s hands are not tied and that the investigations are free from Government influence. No matter how prominent those people might be today, it is vital that no one is above the law. The Government should be absolutely clear that there must be no repeat of the Donaldson affair, in which his role as an informant clearly played a part in the suppression of a criminal prosecution. If the team exposes a senior politician, the law should be allowed to run its course.
At the end of last week, it emerged that the police ombudsman is looking at the files on the deaths of three IRA men in Lurgan, in my constituency, 25 years ago. The deaths have been used to suggest that a shoot-to-kill policy existed, but many of us feel that, if that were the case, the security forces are likely to have adopted a very different approach over the years. The Council of Europe has suggested that there should have been a more substantial investigation into the deaths in Lurgan, and advised the Government that the cases should be reconsidered. However, back in 2004, the then Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, stated that a fresh inquiry would be a burden on the Government and referred to the Bloody Sunday inquiry as an example. Such exorbitant costs are widely recognised as being wasteful, with lawyers being the only ones to benefit. He also said that it would not be reasonable to contemplate the right-to-life provisions of human rights law so many years after the event.
The Unionist community has very little confidence in the outgoing police ombudsman and any investigation that she might undertake. Rank-and-file officers believe that she has a political agenda and clearly have an absence of trust in her investigations. That has been demonstrated by the Police Federation on numerous occasions—any outcomes are treated with suspicion. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim has already, in Northern Ireland questions in the Chamber, asked about the ombudsman’s remit and sought a review of the legislation pertaining to the role of her office in investigating historical inquiries. Investigations have to be free from political bias.
As we have heard today, there are, unfortunately, thousands of unsolved murders in the Province, and it is important that justice is served so that innocent victims can obtain closure. The issue of the Lurgan deaths again brings to the fore questions about where our focus should be with policing. The historical team investigates, in order, cases from 1969, but the longer ago the crime, the harder it will be to uncover hard evidence. Understandably, victims want justice. They have suffered more than any of us in Northern Ireland in the past 35 years. We, as a party, have delivered a victims’ commissioner and their needs remain high on our priority list. We cannot overlook the fact that every resource that is directed at the past could be used to tackle or prevent crime today. It is important to strike the right balance; we have to make difficult choices in the Province. People are sensitive because the hurt is till so raw.
An independent consultative group was established by the previous Secretary of State to deal with the legacy of the past. That group must not fail to take account of the fact that thousands of entirely innocent people in Northern Ireland were severely injured or killed, irrespective of their religious affiliation, whereas others suffered while carrying out illegal terrorist acts. That is the fundamental distinction that relatives of those who were murdered rightly insist on, while apologists for the terrorists insist on referring to a conflict rather than to a vicious, brutal and totally unjustifiable campaign carried out against innocent people.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether members of that independent group are prepared to face up to the issue. If they are, they will have done a service to all those innocents who have suffered in atrocities; if they are not, they will have unwittingly or otherwise engaged in revisionism on a massive scale.
7.25 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The hon. Member for Upper Bann, in his initial remarks, outlined several key challenges that we face in Northern Ireland, not least in the police service. He knows that Northern Ireland, compared with many parts of the United Kingdom, is a relatively safe place to live, even though all the issues of the past reach out to the present day. In terms of recorded crime, however, it is one of the safest places. When we see drug seizures, the like of which he described, we know that the police are doing a good job, and we give them our full support for doing so.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned sexual violence and domestic violence. There have been many exchanges between us in parliamentary questions and answers over recent days and weeks, but there has been absolutely no attempt from me, nor would there ever be, to try to put a gloss on the situation. The simple fact is that in Northern Ireland, too many victims of sexual crime and domestic violence do not have the confidence to come forward, and they need such confidence. They need the help of the police service, the prosecution service, voluntary organisations and others to sustain successful prosecutions and bring perpetrators to justice, and I shall join him in ensuring that we do better on that issue.
We are taking steps to ensure that such improvement takes place. We have in place better equipped care units, which the PSNI is developing to help not only women victims but child victims of sexual abuse. I am determined to launch a sexual assault referral centre in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, so that we can support victims of sexual crime and gather the forensic evidence to mount more successful prosecutions against the perpetrators of such dreadful crimes. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman to develop those measures further, and I shall consider the questions to which he drew my attention. If there is a problem with the answers, I shall redraft them and communicate them to him. However, there shall be no gloss from me on the issue; it is far too serious.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, there will be no political influence over decisions to investigate and prosecute. Where there is evidence, the matter should be investigated by the police, and where there is sufficient evidence, people should be prosecuted. It does not matter who they are or what position they hold in society, if wrong has been done and there is sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution, it is in the hands of others, not of Ministers. It is in the hands of the prosecution service and the Chief Constable, and rightly so in an open, free and democratic society.
The hon. Gentleman made various remarks about the ombudsman, and I know that some of her work is controversial. However, much of her work, particularly that which relates to ongoing and up-to-date situations, is affirming of the police, and as I said in the earlier debate, of the very high standard of policing in Northern Ireland. It is always important to note that whatever difficulties and wrongdoing may be uncovered, the vast majority of officers, both in the PSNI and earlier in the RUC, have done a fine and dedicated job, serving the people of their communities. We should not forget that.
Finally, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about victims. Victims and witnesses are the people whom we need to place right at the heart of our concerns about criminal justice. We must give them our support, not only because they need and deserve it, but because without it, we will not mount successful prosecutions.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o’clock.

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