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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 June 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Mr. Speaker: I appeal to hon. Members. Many hon. Members are here for the Northern Ireland business, so hon. Members have to be quiet. I know that it is difficult.

Police Service

1. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What estimate he has made of the likely proportion of Catholic officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland in each year from 2007-08 to 2010-11. [144664]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): The percentage of Catholic officers in PSNI has been forecast as follows: at 31 March 2008, 24.04 per cent.; at 31 March 2009, 26.28 per cent.; at 31 March 2010, 28.29 per cent.; and at 31 March 2011, 30.23 per cent.

Mr. Hollobone: Can the Minister confirm that the present recruiting arrangements are a temporary scheme; and can he tell me what steps have been taken to recruit from ethnic minorities?

Paul Goggins: I can confirm that a short while ago the temporary powers that allow for the 50:50 procedures to be in place were renewed, and they will stay in place until 2010 at the earliest. Clearly, if we reach 30 per cent. before that date, those powers will be terminated, but our expectation is that we will reach that target around that time. While Patten recommended a specific scheme to ensure that we recruited greater numbers of Catholic officers, he was also aware of the need to recruit from ethnic minorities, and I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that although the numbers are small, there are officers from 25 different ethnic minority backgrounds in the PSNI.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): The figures that my hon. Friend quoted are encouraging, but in the future, respect for law and order will be at least partly contingent on support for the police force from all communities, especially the Catholic. Will he continue to pursue those policies to ensure that the police service is representative of all the communities in order to ensure that support in the future?

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Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend is right. In recent months, historic decisions have been taken by Sinn Fein to support the police and the rule of law. The fact that the PSNI more truly reflects the community that it serves gives added confidence in the forces of law and order to people of all communities.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): When will the Minister concede that using quotas is wrong, given that statistically in 2007 Catholics are now more likely to become police officers than Protestants are to become housing officers in the Housing Executive? Having failed to assist Protestants in one branch of the public sector, will the Minister now reintroduce the merit principle for all branches of the public sector in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman will be as encouraged as I am that in the last recruitment round for police officers in Northern Ireland, 41 per cent. of all the applications came from Catholic applicants, but that still is not 50 per cent. Unless we have the 50:50 procedures in place for the police service, we will not reach the 30 per cent. in the time frame that we have set.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Since everybody now agrees that anti-Catholic discrimination is at an end in the police service, why do the Government insist on institutionalising prejudice in the form of positive discrimination, which has done little to allow ethnic minorities into the police? If a senior Liberal Democrat were in charge, he would never allow that to happen.

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged views on that issue many times and it surprises me that he, of all people and given the party that he represents, does not see the merit of having a more representative police service in Northern Ireland. Encouragingly, the police service now more fully reflects the composition of the community in Northern Ireland in terms of religious background, gender and the ethnic minority population.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Surely the Minister should also keep in mind the large percentage of Protestants that applied to become policemen and passed all their examinations, but got a letter saying that because of their religion they could not have a place in the police force.

Paul Goggins: I acknowledge to the right hon. Gentleman that precisely 708 non-Catholic applicants finished higher in the merit pool than Catholic applicants who were appointed. I know that it is disappointing for the individuals involved, but it is very important that the PSNI fully reflects the composition of the community. More than anyone, the right hon. Gentleman will understand that that underpins the new political settlement in Northern Ireland.

DNA Sampling

2. Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): For what reasons DNA samples of Northern Ireland citizens acquitted of criminal offences, or who have had charges dropped before trial, are retained on the national database. [144665]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): Under article 64 of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, police do not have to destroy samples taken from an arrested person in connection with an investigation of an offence, even if the person is not subsequently charged or is acquitted. The aim is to allow police the fullest use of speculative searches for the prevention and detection of crime.

Dr. McDonnell: Does the Minister agree that it is totally unfair that innocent people, or people who are found subsequently to be innocent, have samples taken and retained? The retention of DNA can suggest an implication of criminality, so does the Department have any plans to amend the relevant legislation?

Maria Eagle: No, the Department has no such plans. The current law has been tested all the way up to the House of Lords and has been found to be compatible with article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The importance of allowing the police to search a database speculatively was shown recently, when four burglaries were cleared up as a result of speculative searches of the database of evidence taken from the scenes of the crimes. That has contributed to a 25 per cent. fall in burglary offences over the past year. Anything that enables the police to tackle crime so effectively should be supported by the House.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): What assurances can the Minister give that those already convicted of terrorist-related crimes will have their DNA and fingerprints retained and not destroyed? Retention will allow further inspection by the PSNI if those people are suspected in a different criminal offence.

Maria Eagle: As I have said already in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), we have no plans to change the current arrangements, which mean that samples, once taken, remain on the DNA database and can be searched again speculatively for the purpose of detecting and solving crime.

Terrorist Groups

3. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security threat posed by each of the Irish terrorist groups proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. [144666]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Provisional IRA no longer poses a terrorist threat, and has not done so for some time. However, dissident Republicans, though few in number and isolated, continue to pose a serious threat to the security situation. Given the recent statement by the Ulster Volunteer Force, I have commissioned a review of the status of specified organisations, in line with my obligation under the legislation. We have always maintained that we will encourage those who want to work to a positive agenda, and it is vital that the welcome statement be followed through with actions.

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Mr. Hands: Why does the IRA still exist?

Mr. Hain: It is not for me to explain the IRA’s position, but the hon. Gentleman should follow the example of virtually everyone else in the House and acknowledge the fantastic transformation in the security situation under this Government. The IRA has given up its war: it has continued to support peaceful and democratic means, and Sinn Fein has signed up to policing and the rule of law. I should have thought that he would welcome that.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): May I commend my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to bring about that improvement, and invite him to celebrate the final flight of an Army aircraft out of Bessbrook barracks in Armagh? However, in the middle of those celebrations, may I also invite him to protect the personal safety and professional integrity of retired police officers who served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary? They are occasionally subject to investigation and scrutiny, but there is no reciprocal scrutiny of the republican terrorists whom it was the officers’ responsibility to oppose.

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the integrity of retired police officers, and the fact that they should be treated properly. I thank her for what she said, and also pay tribute to her for her work as Minister of State in Northern Ireland, when she paved the way for the historic breakthroughs of the past few years.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I acknowledge the transformation in Northern Ireland, and thank the right hon. Gentleman for the significant part that he has played in that. As what might be his last service as Secretary of State, will he hold a meeting with Sinn Fein members to persuade them that they can now make no greater contribution than to disband the IRA?

Mr. Hain: I saw the president of Sinn Fein on Monday and discussed the future situation with him. He is well aware of where republicanism has gone under his leadership. Republicanism is now committed overwhelmingly to a democratic and peaceful future.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what criminal activity— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Allow the hon. Gentleman to address the House.

Dr. McCrea: Will the Secretary of State inform the House of what criminal activity the Provisional IRA is still involved in? What is the present position regarding the investigation into the Northern Bank robbery by the Provisional IRA, and will he demand immediately the end to the paramilitary structures of the IRA, especially the IRA army council?

Mr. Hain: The leader of the Democratic Unionist party, whom the hon. Gentleman is sitting next to, and other senior Privy Councillors in the DUP had a security briefing on Monday on these and other matters. As the
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hon. Gentleman knows, the Independent Monitoring Commission has made it absolutely clear that the IRA has driven criminality out of its organisation. That is not to say that individuals are not, for lifestyle reasons in disobedience to the leadership of the IRA, doing their own thing on criminal activity.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the police continue to investigate the Northern Bank robbery and are continuing to pursue their inquiries rigorously, as they should.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The last IMC report said that members of the Ulster Defence Association were heavily engaged in crimes, such as drug dealing, extortion, the sale of contraband and counterfeit drugs, and loan sharking, as well as in acts of violence, including ones that were sectarian or directed against foreign nationals. Since then, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to determine the status of the UDA’s weapons and, since the last IMC report, has there been any reduction in violence and criminal activity by the UDA? I am sure that he will agree that such actions have no place in a civilised society and especially in a country that is struggling to come to terms with the past, but also taking giant steps forward.

Mr. Hain: I completely agree that all paramilitary organisations—whether it is the UDA, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA—must end their criminal activities, because that is what mostly takes up their energy and time at the moment.

Political Development

4. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): What steps he is taking to address the historical issues which continue to influence Northern Ireland's political development. [144667]

7. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): What recent steps he has taken to address longstanding problems which influence Northern Ireland's social and political development. [144670]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): With the historic events of last month, I believe that the time is right to reflect on how to address the legacy of the troubles in a way that does not overshadow the future. The Government cannot tell people how they should deal with the past—only the people themselves can try to answer that question. That is why I have established a “consultative group”, headed by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, to examine the whole question of the legacy of the past, to seek a consensus across the community and to make recommendations.

Mark Tami: Great progress has been made in Northern Ireland, progress that would have seemed impossible— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I appeal to the House again. It is being unfair to hon. Members.

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Mark Tami: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Great progress has been made in Northern Ireland, progress that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago. Great credit goes to my right hon. Friend for his work in this area. I welcome the setting up of the panel on the past. How does he see it helping the people of Northern Ireland to overcome the years of hurt?

Mr. Hain: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is not for me or the Government to determine the outcome of the panel on the past. It is an independent panel that will consult widely, but I think that everybody agrees that the divided past must be replaced by a shared future. That is the progress that we would wish to see following the historic political settlement last month and the fact that the devolved Executive is working very well. However, Northern Ireland’s mindset is still very much stuck in the past in many respects, and that is what the panel will address.

Mr. Campbell: More than £100 million has been spent on lawyers and aspects of inquiries into the past in Northern Ireland. How is lining the pockets of the lawyers going to help the people of Northern Ireland? Would that money not be better spent for the people of Northern Ireland? If they do not want it, they can bring it to the north-east. I will find a use for it.

Mr. Hain: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It is true that lawyers’ fees have accounted for half the spending on inquiries so far. That is a fact. One of the aspects that the panel must address, once the inquiries are out of the way—they have to follow their course—is whether the past can be best addressed in a different way. The people of Northern Ireland have to address the question of whether they want money spent on the past or whether they want investment in the future.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Chief Constable has pointed out that 40 per cent. of police resources are currently used to service historical inquiries into the police. The new Police Ombudsman has also pointed out that politically motivated historical inquiries into the police by the Police Ombudsman’s office are affecting political progress in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister look again at the legislation that pertains to the Police Ombudsman’s office, to remove its ability to dabble in the past so that it deals only with complaints in the future?

Mr. Hain: I have no plans to change the legislative arrangements for the Police Ombudsman’s office. Nuala O’Loan has done an outstanding job and has established a good template for the future. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there should be a focus on the future. I am sure that that will continue to be the case, not just for the present Police Ombudsman but for her successor.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend the Secretary of State on his appointment of the panel on the past, on top of his other good work in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that the panel could be well guided by the Russian proverb that says, “To dwell on the past is to lose one eye; to forget the past is to lose both eyes”, and that as the panel takes forward its work
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it must be victim-centred, victim-sensitive and address the needs of all victims and the wider community in terms of truth, recognition and remembrance?

Mr. Hain: I could not have put the point better myself. The whole purpose of the panel is to do exactly that. [ Interruption. ] Since I have caught the eye of my new hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), may I say that we very much welcome him to the Labour Benches—and we hope that there are more to come?

Hon. Members: More!

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are still on Northern Ireland questions.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): May I start by acknowledging the work that the Secretary of State has done in his current office? He and I have not agreed on everything, but on this side, we have been in no doubt about his energy, his commitment and his determination to bring about peace and a better future for everybody in Northern Ireland. On behalf of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), I thank him for the courtesies that he has extended to us as Opposition spokesmen. I hope that his own side will forgive him for having described the Government in which he serves as

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