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There is an historical aspect to this issue, which the NIO has never admitted. When Sinn Fein could muscle in big time on community safety locally—it could never be seen to participate in community policing—that was the origin, I think, of the split thinking in the NIO. Presumably, all that has gone now that Sinn Fein in particular has embraced so fully the PSNI and that its members right down the line are going to participate in
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the district policing partnerships. However, one query remains. Just this week in my Down district local paper, I read that Sinn Fein councillors cannot yet participate in district policing partnerships—or, indeed, in district safeguard committees—because of police attendance. That raises the question of just how deep the conviction is to sustain independent, impartial and accountable policing. However, I will leave that question hanging.

As I said, I would like to know why district policing partnerships are being kept divorced from community safety partnerships, given that they perform a like service from a like source. When schedule 8 to the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 comes into play, perhaps it will round off the advances in policing. I would like to think that the double-speak that has taken place in our communities on policing for so long is over at long last, and that all the communities will truly—truly—give service and allegiance to policing, while at the same time holding the police forcefully and totally to account for their actions.

The attitude towards, and the support of moderate opinion—particularly moderate nationalist opinion—for the process of justice and, thereby, of policing has taken a severe dent lately. The Public Prosecution Service failed to take any court action—or any action at all—against those who were involved in the murder of Pat Finucane. According to the Stevens report and other police inquiries, there was prima facie evidence that those people were involved in his murder, and that the state played a complicit role. The NIO and the PSNI do not recognise how damaging that decision was to the community.

8.47 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I begin by welcoming the Minister of State to his new, exalted position, and by welcoming even more so the Secretary of State to his new role. However, and without meaning to seem disrespectful, I do find it curious that the job was not first offered to me. I have been in this position for 10 years now, but I bear the Minister no grudge. In the spirit of the tripartite consensus that has led us to this relatively happy time in Northern Ireland politics, I offer him the benefit of my experience in my own quiet way, as I have done to his five predecessors since 1997. He takes on the role at a tremendously exciting time. Northern Ireland politics is changing—from being the debate of sectarian divides to being a debate about economics, health and all the things that rightly occupy politicians in peacetime. I hope that he will enjoy his role and contribute proactively to the normalisation of attitudes in politics in the Province in the years ahead.

It is an indication of the level of progress that this measure, which appeared so controversial when we debated it in Standing Committee, Northern Ireland Grand Committee and on the Floor of the House, does not even prompt the presence of some of those who objected so fiercely to it. That is not a criticism of those absent today, but a compliment to the détente that appears to exist between former foes. The attitudinal shifts that have taken place, momentous as they are, make it possible for this measure to pass without controversy into law this evening.

The DPPs of course embody a democratic accountability that is vital if the police service is to win
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the trust of all elements of the Northern Ireland community. In essence, the measures that we are discussing today will ensure an engagement between the public, the politicians and those who seek to maintain law and order in a codified and structured way. I am optimistic that that will be the case.

My optimism is founded on two points. The first is the evident support from the DUP for these measures, and the second is the evidence of the practical commitment by Sinn Fein to rein in the volatile and criminal elements with which it has been formerly associated. I am sure that the promises made at the ard fheis will be kept. I have sometimes been in a minority when I have said that Sinn Fein’s word is usually its bond, but that is why I am confident that the measures, once passed, will be embraced by the republican community as well as by the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, together with their political representatives.

It is appropriate for us also to give credit to the progressives who supported these measures at a time when to do so was not easy, but hard. I have already paid tribute to the SDLP in that regard, but we should also recognise the progressives in the Ulster Unionist party and in the finest party of them all, the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, which persevered unfailingly in an attempt to reach some kind of consensus at times when that seemed far away.

We have already heard from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that it was not only political pressure, but criminal pressure—coercion—that was being used to try to thwart the very measures that we are passing now. Those who were responsible for that, and who have had a Damascene conversion to support for these measures, need to recognise that they would not exist if others, perhaps more courageous, had not taken the lonely decision to support the measures at a time when that was used against them politically.

As for the consequences of the order, the main question is whether the safeguards are adequate to prevent criminality and corruption from seeping into appointments to the district policing partnerships, a point that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) elucidated in some detail. I see it like this: in theory, it is a risk, but in practice, it is not a very big one. There will be an onus on those choosing whom they want as members of the DPPs to exercise a degree of common sense. I accept, as my late father used to say, that sense is not always common, but there are elements in the decision-making process for appointing members of the DPPs that cannot be guaranteed through further legislation. There would be a bigger danger in over-legislating, rather than allowing a degree of autonomy and accepting that with that comes a degree of risk.

By the same token, the sub-groups are likely to provide a political balance, because that is the mood music of the cross-party and cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland politics at the moment. I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt because sometimes we see more problems than we need to try to solve. If that does not work out, it will need attention, but we do not need to worry about that just now.

We have discussed the specific content of the measures at some length in the past and other hon. Members have already considered specific elements of sections 15, 16, 19 and so on. The House will remember
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that the Liberal Democrats were supportive of the measures and the 2003 Act, when it passed through Parliament. We did not raise any major concerns in relation to schedule 9 to the St. Andrew’s agreement Act of 2006. Indeed, we supported the provisions when they were introduced in 2003 and 2006 specifically because we believed that if those measures could be implemented in a way that we could be confident would be genuinely embraced by those who have to carry them out, we would be in a much better place in Northern Ireland than we were at the time that the legislation was formed. That is where we are today. The passing of this order is an important milestone in consolidating the political stability that has to underlie any accountability structures for the PSNI.

This is a big day and a big change, and it is a long time coming, yet it must also indicate that permanent changes are being made. I am delighted to see it, because the normalisation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland involves some kind of closure. The initiatives that have been put forward indicate that some of the intractables that we have faced as obstacles in the past have been addressed. The message is a good one—at last, it is time for all of us to move on.

8.55 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who, as he reminded us, brings an element of continuity to these Northern Ireland debates. As heir to Gladstone, whose mission was to pacify Ireland, perhaps he should be referred to as the grand old man of Northern Ireland politics. However, I prefer to call him the cheeky boy of Northern Ireland politics.

I add my congratulations to the Minister of State on his well-deserved promotion. I also welcome the Secretary of State and hope that he is able to build on the real achievements of his predecessor, whom we shall miss in Northern Ireland politics.

I should also like to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) has been an exemplary spokesman on this subject. Rumour has it that he is moving to other pastures; if so, I hope he will always look back on the years when he had responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs for the Opposition with a degree of quiet satisfaction and pride. He has made a positive contribution. He has never scored cheap party points in debate. He has given support to the Government, who have deserved support, but he has never held back from constructive criticism when it was necessary. I for one will miss him in that role, and wish him every possible success in his new one.

A few months ago, we would probably not have thought that this measure would come before us so early. A dramatic development has taken place in Northern Ireland over the past few months, for which the Government deserve credit, as do all those who have played a part, particularly the politicians from Northern Ireland. The self-effacing attitude of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has been a contributory factor in building stability in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will have many more years of
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involvement in Northern Ireland politics because his sagacity and experience will be needed for a long time to come.

We are making a gesture of faith in approving the order tonight. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury will not be pressing for a Division, and it is clear that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will not do so; they are both right. It is, however, a gesture of faith, although not entirely a leap in the dark. It is crucial that those responsible for such matters keep the policing system and the DPPs under constant monitoring and review, as my hon. Friend said.

Although great progress has been made, exactly a year ago the Northern Ireland Committee produced a report on organised crime in Northern Ireland that showed a disturbing amount of paramilitary activity and crime. We took evidence—much of which we had to take in private—that was deeply disturbing. Earlier this year, we produced a report on community restorative justice schemes. While we said unequivocally that they have a real part to play in Northern Ireland, we also pointed to some of the worries and problems, and the danger of people infiltrating the systems. The hon. Member for South Down has been particularly eloquent on that subject, and rightly so. District policing partnerships are not immune to manipulation by those with evil intent. If we are truly to move to proper normality in Northern Ireland, we must have a policing service that is held in high regard and upheld by all sections of the community. I am cautiously optimistic. I believe that it will be, but we are not there yet.

The creation of the PSNI, which was not without controversy, as the hon. Member for South Down reminded us earlier, was itself a gesture of faith. It has worked, as much as anything else because of the outstanding leadership of Sir Hugh Orde, the Chief Constable, who has performed as great a service to the people of Northern Ireland as any other individual over the past few years, and it is important that we put that on record. But if Sir Hugh is to be upheld—and his successors, because he will not be there for ever—we must do more than just approve the order tonight; we must ensure that it is properly monitored and kept under constant and vigilant review.

I shall weary the House for one moment more with a little anecdote. I gave lunch today to the Bosnian ambassador. I happen to be chairman of the all-party Bosnia group, and I was one of the few who spoke out about Bosnia when the Government and the Opposition of the day were not speaking out as they should have done. I talked to the Bosnian ambassador about the developments, changes and progress, and about her travels in the United Kingdom. She has recently been to Northern Ireland, and she said how utterly taken aback and bewildered she was to see the so-called peace walls. She said, “There is nothing like that in my country.” That brought me up sharp and made me realise that, although we are understandably in a bit of a mood of euphoria at the moment, following the events of 8 May, and subsequent developments—we are all delighted about that—there is still quite a long way to go before we have a truly normal society in Northern Ireland. I am glad that the hon. Member for South Down agrees with me on that. Until those peace walls are dismantled, and until they
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stop painting the kerbstones red, white and blue, or green and orange, we will always have the seeds of incipient conflict within Northern Ireland.

The one institution that can help to ensure that we do progress to normality is the PSNI, and it can do that only if it is upheld by politicians of all persuasions and community leaders in all walks of life. The order is a gesture of faith in them. In that context, I approve of it, and I hope that my worries, which are real, will prove groundless.

9.3 pm

Paul Goggins: I begin, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself, by thanking all those who contributed to the debate this evening—my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—for their generous remarks to us. We intend to be the dynamic duo, although I hope there will not be too many surprises, as we do not have quite the same opportunities these days to mount surprises, but one never knows.

If the hon. Member for South Staffordshire is right and the hon. Member for Aylesbury is destined for other things—he smiles as I say that—I wish him well. Our debates on Northern Ireland will be the poorer without him. The revelation in his remarks that he had personally already seen five of the eight new district commanders in Northern Ireland is testament to the quiet way in which he diligently carries out his job. As much as we will miss him, however, the area of responsibility he moves into will be the beneficiary.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the progress that has been made—the way in which the arrangements for policing and accountability for policing in Northern Ireland are working—but he is also right to say that more needs to be done. We need to make further progress and the DPPs will be an important element in making sure that policing in Northern Ireland is accountable, and that across the country people are engaged in the development of policing strategies that serve their communities. The legislation we are introducing today will enable DPPs to do that even more effectively.

When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the criteria for disqualification, he put his finger on a very sore point. It is a difficult area, but all we can do in this place is to bring the rules for independent members of DPPs into line with those for the political members. All members, both independent and political, must make a declaration against terrorism and, as it is short, I shall read it out. It states:

That is an unequivocal statement by any would-be independent member of a DPP of their complete aversion and opposition to acts of terrorism, so although the hon. Member for Aylesbury has identified
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a difficult area, I hope that gives him comfort that we are aware of the need to make progress to sustain a more hopeful future.

The hon. Gentleman asked about criminal checks. It is important to emphasise that that is a matter for the Policing Board, which has central responsibility and has set out the related procedures in its code of practice—specifically in paragraph 96. The board will of course write to the Chief Constable about the criminal record of any independent member whose appointment it is considering. There is a robust system so that the Policing Board, which rightly has responsibility, can check out each and every independent member it may be considering for appointment.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about political balance, which is a difficult matter for the reasons he gave. Section 14 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 requires the Policing Board in appointing independent members of the DPP to ensure that they, together with the political members, are representative of the district that the DPP serves. The detail is set out in the code of practice, which is out for consultation at present.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for being opaque—as he put it—about the arrangements in Belfast. As he suggested, my opaqueness was deliberate, because in the end the decisions are not for me but for the Policing Board, Belfast city council and the Chief Constable to work out together. The number can be up to four, but they must work out the appropriate arrangements for them, so opaque I shall remain in relation to that matter.

There are two points relating to political balance that I hope will give the hon. Gentleman some encouragement. First, all the sub-groups must have representatives from the four main political parties; no political party will be shut out of any of the sub-groups. Secondly, the sub-groups feed into the DPP itself, which has an over-arching, overriding role across the whole city of Belfast. It is not the sub-groups that feed into the Policing Board and the council, but the DPP that takes an overview, so there should be balance across the whole city.

The hon. Gentleman said that Belfast is different, but asked how different and whether there are other areas of Northern Ireland that might need special arrangements. We recognise in the legislation that Belfast needs some special arrangements, and that is what we have put in place. With the review of public administration, the map of local government in Northern Ireland will look different in the future, so all these things need to be kept under review. Happily, it is increasingly the case that the review is being undertaken by those who rightly have the responsibility for local government and ultimately, hopefully in the not too distant future, for policing and justice as well—local Ministers and locally accountable people.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Down for his remarks and pay tribute, as others have, to the role that he personally played in relation to policing accountability in Northern Ireland. He was a member of the Policing Board when it was very difficult to be a member of the Policing Board. He took risks, along with his colleagues, and I pay tribute to him. On every opportunity that I have to debate policing, I will always make that point, because he stood out when others did not and we are all very grateful to him for doing that. We have reflected together on the consequences, as he
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puts it, of his bravery and the bravery of his colleagues. As others have come on board, perhaps there is less space for his party in terms of the Policing Board and the DPPs, but if the number of seats on some of the bodies has perhaps reduced, I hope that it is of some comfort to him to know that he has played a key role in moving the whole of Northern Ireland forward to a more peaceful and prosperous future. His role in that should never be forgotten.

My hon. Friend drew a comparison between the Policing Board and the DPPs, but there is of course one crucial difference. The Policing Board was appointed, as he pointed out, by the Secretary of State, whereas the DPPs are appointed by the Policing Board. The Policing Board has an obligation to make sure that there is proper balance and, as I have said, that is set out in the code of practice.

My hon. Friend put his finger on an important issue that will be the subject of further deliberation by me, as the Minister with responsibility for security, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and those involved in policing and local authority administration. I am talking about the question of the overlap between community safety partnerships and DPPs. We have to recognise that the two arrangements have different functions. The function of the DPP is to hold the local policing arrangements to account. The community safety partnerships, on the other hand, are about delivery, so there is a difference in the core purpose of each of the bodies. That said, there is clearly an overlap. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that I have commissioned some work by officials in the Northern Ireland Office—working with the Policing Board and others—to look at the matter afresh to see whether we can develop a model that will minimise any overlap in the future and will give us the best possible structure.

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