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21 Mar 2007 : Column 309WH—continued

3.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I thought that the comment by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that no one should have a greater say than anyone else was quite appropriate. It is interesting that in a debate that has ranged so widely and in which so many questions have been asked, I should get the least say when it comes to trying to answer those questions. However, I shall do my best and I apologise now to hon. Members who spoke at length if I cannot deal with the points that they raised; I would very much like to do so.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on initiating the debate. This is clearly an issue about which he and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) feel very strongly indeed. I do not think that I have responded to any other Adjournment debate—indeed, any debate in the House of Commons—in which I have had so many challenges. I have been told that I will ignore the comments at my peril and live to rue the day. I appreciate the very strong feelings that people have on the issue.

I hope that the hon. Member for Ludlow will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today. I will do my best to answer questions
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that have been raised, but if I was to respond to some of the questions that have been put to me, I would be commenting on the merits or otherwise of a particular proposal, and clearly I cannot do that until Ministers have had the opportunity to consider all the information that is put to them.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made a comment about rumours. May I assure him that a decision will be made and there will be a written statement to the House of Commons in the appropriate way? That is how the decision will be announced.

For clarification, I take exception to the disgraceful comments from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar about back-door deals. I can give an assurance to the hon. Gentlemen who have raised these issues already that all the information provided to Ministers will be considered in the course of the examination of the issues. I was asked specifically about the reports, including Professor Chisholm’s report. I can give an assurance that that matter will be looked at by civil servants and they will report to Ministers. We will have regard to all the information when making decisions. I hope that reassures hon. Gentlemen.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Minister give way?

Angela E. Smith: I will give way, but I may not have a chance to answer other questions.

Daniel Kawczynski: On that specific point, will it be possible for Parliament to examine the way in which the bid has been assessed? Will we be able to see all the e-mails and assessments by civil servants on this issue?

Angela E. Smith: No, of course not, and the hon. Gentleman is wasting time by suggesting such a thing. There is certain information and advice to Ministers that under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 it is not open to everyone to see, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the assurances that I have given him—or perhaps he is suggesting that my assurances have not been given in good faith. Information will be fully examined and fully considered, and all the information will be taken into account before decisions are taken. I hope that that explanation is sufficient for the hon. Gentleman to understand the process. If I have time in the few minutes available to me, I will go through the criteria against which the proposals will be examined.

There seems to be some confusion about why this matter was brought before councils in the first place. Perhaps it will help hon. Gentlemen if I say that there is no political conspiracy. I was not aware of the degree to which hon. Gentlemen thought that it was a party political issue; indeed, I had not seen it as such at all. Representations were made to Governments over many years, showing that there was considerable concern about different structures in different areas and asking whether there would be an opportunity for some councils to make proposals for a unitary authority. The invitation was issued with that in mind, not because of anything to do with funding. Incidentally, the figures given by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on funding are completely inaccurate. In respect of the
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funding for his council, I think that the increase was 2.9 per cent. on a like-for-like basis. This is not about funding.

Daniel Kawczynski: The figure was from the finance director of the council.

Angela E. Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman let me address the points that he has raised in debate? I do not want to leave questions unanswered in the debate and I am doing my best to address all the points that he and his hon. Friends have put to me.

This issue had nothing to do with regional government; it had nothing at all to do with funding. It was about putting the citizen at the heart of service delivery and asking in each area what is the best way to achieve service delivery. If councils in an area want to make a bid for a unitary authority in the interests of a better service to constituents, it is open to them to do that, but I take the point that we cannot have ongoing confusion and change in local government. There was a window of opportunity. People can find the two-tier system quite confusing and inefficient in many ways, and the opportunity has to be there.

The hon. Member for Ludlow asked about the status quo not being an option. Our goal is more efficient services for the public. The White Paper referred to the

The councils themselves will find the best ways of addressing that confusion, duplication and inefficiency. Shropshire county council and others in that area have come forward with a proposal for a unitary authority, but authorities may want to, as the pathfinders will, enhance two-tier working. Both of those are options that are open to local authorities, but in this case the bone of contention for the hon. Gentleman is that Shropshire county council has not wanted to put forward a two-tier model.

I was slightly amused—I know that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham will forgive me—when he reported that the county councillors, who I assume had a fairly lengthy debate on the issue, did not know what they were voting for until he told them, but all members of the public who voted had examined the issue in detail. I assume that if there is confusion, it has gone across the board and it is not just councillors who may have been confused.

We in government have to look at the information that is presented to us, and all the information will be
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taken into account. Each of the 26 proposals has been carefully considered over the past eight weeks against the clear criteria set out in the invitation. Once a decision has been taken on which proposals can go forward, a full decision letter will be sent to the authorities, setting out the reasons for the decision, whether that is to move forward with the proposal and go out to consultation or not. It might be helpful if I explain to hon. Gentlemen the criteria that we take into account.

First, the proposals must be affordable. The change to a unitary structure must represent value for money and must be met from councils’ existing resources. Proposals must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. In addition to affordability and support, we also need to check whether proposals provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership in an area, deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, and deliver value for money and equity on public services.

The hon. Member for Ludlow raised the issue of the local polls held by some councils across Shropshire and how we take those into account. Of course, we have to have regard to any poll that is held in an area for which a proposal has been put forward to us. That will not be the only factor that is taken into account. Clearly, there is other information as well. A poll will be one of many factors that we take into account in assessing proposals.

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “set aside”. Clearly, information will not be set aside; it will be considered. He also suggested that I would ignore the poll at my peril. I think that that is a misrepresentation. He might want to reconsider his remarks on that. All the information is considered in the process. Ministers have regard to all the information that comes through. I can give him that assurance, but we need to take into account how accurately the poll reflected public opinion. If the hon. Gentleman asked his constituents, “Do you want to be governed by a remote local authority?” clearly a poll couched in those terms would be regarded slightly differently. The wording of the question is important. We want to have a true assessment and accurately judge public opinion.

We are talking about the devolutionary principle. It is not top down from Government; it is bottom up. That is why an invitation was issued for local authorities that wanted to bid for a unitary authority to do so. The Government are obliged to consider and will fully consider the bid from Shropshire county council and others, and we will take into account all factors that have been presented to us.

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Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

4 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to address this issue. On Monday 22 January, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland held a press conference to launch her statement on the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Raymond McCord Jr. and related matters. Her statement detailed the outcome of a four-year investigation, known as Operation Ballast, into the police’s handling of informants in a north Belfast grouping of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation.

The ombudsman’s statement had significant flaws. Without offering any substantive evidence or justification, it made a series of assertions that were highly damaging to the reputations of a number of identifiable individuals and to the collective reputation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George cross. Let me make it clear from the outset that I deplore the murders of Raymond McCord Jr., Peter McTasney, Sharon McKenna, Sean McParland, Gary Convie, Eamon Fox, Gerald Brady, Thomas Shepherd, William John Harbinson and Thomas English, all of which were touched on by the ombudsman in her report. Those people were all murdered by the UVF in north Belfast, not by the RUC. There is no evidence that any police officer committed any criminal offence in connection with any of those murders.

The ombudsman’s report made allegations of guilt, but her investigation did not produce prima facie evidence that is acceptable to the Public Prosecution Service. The Director of Public Prosecutions had already directed, before the ombudsman’s statement, that there should be no prosecution of any serving or retired police officer. Similarly, no action in respect of any alleged breaches of police discipline is recommended in the ombudsman’s statement. Despite all that, the ombudsman appears to have concluded that special branch and, in certain cases, the criminal investigation department exhibited a mixture of disregard for the criminal justice system and incompetence, and that somehow special branch, rather than the terrorists, were to blame for Northern Ireland’s ills during the period in question.

Officers of the RUC, GC are very proud of the contribution that they have made to policing in our society, and particularly the contribution that special branch made to bringing relative peace to Northern Ireland. They are also proud that the counter-terrorist techniques that they pioneered in Northern Ireland are helping to save the lives of many people in other parts of the world in communities that have growing terrorist problems and significant organised crime. Officers who served in the RUC are saddened by attempts from some quarters to denigrate the immense contribution that has been made by all the police officers who served the people of Northern Ireland so well. They were not and are not prepared to be willing participants in this attempt at an Orwellian rewriting of history.

The serious shortcomings of the ombudsman’s statement may be attributable to her methodology, which appeared to be to decide the outcome of the inquiry at the outset and then to seek evidence to support the findings. That approach is particularly noticeable in the parts of the
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statement in which conclusions are based on the “absence of any explanation”. Facts that may tend to suggest alternative conclusions are conveniently ignored.

Yesterday, a number of senior retired police officers representing the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association published a comprehensive rebuttal of the ombudsman’s report. They have no personal detailed knowledge of the specific events to which the statement refers. It is their earnest hope that the renewed interest in these matters will increase the prospect of a successful completion of police inquiries into the dreadful crimes that are referred to in the statement. Neither they nor I will do anything that might inhibit those prospects. The purpose of the rebuttal is not to question the detail of police action or to revisit the particulars of the ombudsman’s investigation into that activity, but to criticise the methodology of the ombudsman’s statement—its construction, layout and findings.

The statement has, predictably, been used as a political tool. It has been used most inappropriately, because it is flawed—its findings and conclusions are based on a total absence of contextual understanding and on dubious reasoning. One must recall that at the time of the events in question, there was still a serious situation in Northern Ireland with ongoing terrorist attacks and with the UVF in north Belfast being particularly active. It is easy, after the event, to apply conventional policing methodology to a situation, but policing then had to be unconventional at times, because we were involved in a conflict situation and engaged in countering terrorism. The important points are that it was unconventional within the law and that it was in accordance with the norms of gathering intelligence to counter terrorism. It is worth bearing in mind that many people in Northern Ireland are alive today because of the intelligence that police were able to acquire by infiltrating terrorist organisations—not only the UVF, but the Provisional IRA and other terrorist organisations.

Let me put on the record that the RUC successfully prosecuted more loyalist paramilitaries than republican paramilitaries, and that it had a high degree of success against loyalist paramilitaries. That is sufficient to counter the notion that the RUC was collectively and systemically engaged in collusion with loyalist paramilitarism. There is simply no evidence to support that accusation, yet some in the political realm have sought to use the ombudsman’s report to create the impression that there was systemic collusion by the RUC. Not even the ombudsman suggested that, but her report has been exploited to that end, and she has failed to rebut those allegations. That failing on her part ought to be corrected.

The ombudsman’s statement about collusion suggests no definition whatever for what constitutes collusion. The broadest interpretations of collusion are in the ombudsman’s report: it can mean an act of omission as much as an act of commission. It can mean destroying intelligence documents, which was a routine police action to protect intelligence—indeed, it is still a routine action for intelligence services in the UK.

While I am talking about intelligence, let me voice my deep concern about the way in which the ombudsman’s office is used to publish reports on paper and on the internet that expose vital intelligence-gathering techniques deployed by the police and
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intelligence services. That leaves this country vulnerable, because it is not only law-abiding people who read those reports. If I were in al-Qaeda or were a terrorist in the UK who sought to understand the methodology of the security services, I would need go no further than the website of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to find out a lot about the methodology adopted by our security services.

I draw attention to the publication, on 13 December 2006, of the ombudsman’s report into the murder of Stephen Restorick, a soldier who was murdered at Bessbrook in County Armagh. If one reads that report on the website, one will see detailed information about the intelligence-gathering techniques that are used by the security services in Northern Ireland, including techniques that are still used by security services throughout the UK today. In the context of the war on terrorism, that is a dangerous thing—it is a matter of grave concern that the Government need to examine closely. Of course there is a need for openness, but we must protect our country and our security services, which are doing valuable work to save lives. That aim is being compromised by the lack of accountability of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and by the publication of sensitive information.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) has referred to the police ombudsman’s report on a complaint about the murder of Stephen Restorick. Does he recognise that the report found that the suggestion or allegation that the Royal Ulster Constabulary could have prevented that murder was wrong? A number of the police ombudsman’s reports have discharged the RUC of allegations of either complicity in specific murders or of dereliction as far as investigations are concerned. Some of its reports have discharged the RUC of those suspicions, although others have found a suspicion to be upheld.

Mr. Donaldson: I am not suggesting that we should dispense with the services of the police ombudsman. The hon. Gentleman has completely missed my point, which is about not the ombudsman’s findings in her investigations of complaints, but the information that she publishes. My concern is that such publications potentially compromise our security services in their war against terrorism. That ought to be a matter of concern to the Minister and the Government, because it leaves our security services in a very vulnerable position and the techniques that they use might be being compromised unnecessarily. It is not necessary to publish such information in order to give the findings of a report.

Mark Durkan rose—

Mr. Donaldson: I am limited in the time that I have available, so I must move on.

I want to make a number of key points about the ombudsman’s report. There is a lack of objectivity on the part of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the role of special branch. I urge the Minister to read the report
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that has been prepared by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association, and I shall ensure that he is provided with a copy. It goes to the heart of the matter and not only touches on the ombudsman’s investigation into the murder of Raymond McCord Jr. and related matters, but opens up wider issues about the conduct of the police ombudsman’s office, its powers and the manner in which its investigations are conducted.

I regret the way in which retired police officers have been dealt with during this investigation. It was wrong for the ombudsman’s statement to identify a number of senior retired police officers, because their security has been compromised and their families have been put under stress when the officers have done nothing wrong. The ombudsman’s statement contains no evidence to suggest that they are guilty of any wrongdoing.

I must tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that statements that he made in the House following the publication of the report also compromised the security of those senior officers unnecessarily. They should not have been singled out, which was regrettable. We must not get into a situation that is about seeking out, and naming and shaming, senior police officers who have made a massive contribution to building peace in Northern Ireland and to securing a future for our people. It is entirely wrong for them to be treated in the way in which I have described. I hope that he will take the opportunity, at some stage, to apologise to those officers for the stress and the wrongdoing—

Mark Durkan rose—

Mr. Donaldson: If the hon. Gentleman is intervening to do that now, I shall give way, but if he is not, I shall need to make progress.

I want to pose the Minister some questions. Will he accept that the rebuttal report that was published yesterday by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association demonstrates that the original report published by the ombudsman on 22 January is crucially flawed? He might not have had the opportunity to read it, but I hope that he will do so.

The Minister will be fully aware that the Public Prosecution Service had directed no prosecution of any serving or retired police officer before the publication of the ombudsman’s report. Does he therefore accept that the use of the word “collusion” is not anchored in legislation, and that the word has no legal definition and has simply become a political catch phrase for use at the whim of the investigator when nothing else fits? Does he accept that correspondence clearly shows that the three former assistant chief constables, who were named in the House by the hon. Member for Foyle, provided considerable assistance to the ombudsman’s office and made themselves available for further inquiries that were not made to them?

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