The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on again securing the Adjournment debate at the end of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. He is absolutely right that policing is a fundamental part of the present and future in Northern Ireland in terms of stable and safe communities. It is so much better now that there is support for policing from all sections of the community. I join him in paying tribute to police officers of all ranks and in all places in Northern Ireland for their fantastic work in protecting communities. Policing can help to shape the future, and I take heart, as I am sure he does, from the high level of confidence in policing in Northern Ireland. The latest survey shows 79 per cent. confidence in policing there, and that is something to build on.
During the early part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman tempted me into making a comment about mandatory coalition[Interruption.] I will not rise to the bait, but whatever anyones view about mandatory coalition, it has been essential to get us to the point at which we can get into serious political debate in Northern Ireland in a way that everyone can share. History will tell us that it has been an important stepping stone along the way for however long it may last.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned parading, which is a big issue for him, not least because the Drumcree parade is in his constituency. He has done a considerable amount of work to try to help to resolve the difficulties, and I pay tribute to him for that.
The Parades Commission has a difficult job to do. From everything that I have seen, it does a good job in a conscientious way. It is not a job that meets with everybodys approval. The parading review is moving towards its final report and recommendations. Our collective hope is that some way forward can be found that will receive support from all communities and will give us a stable framework on parading and protesting for the long term in Northern Ireland that is reasonable and has everybodys support.
There is no question but that the issues mentioned in relation to Drumcree will need to be resolved at some point. I pay tribute to the efforts that the hon. Gentleman has made in that regard. He rightly says that policing will need to face up to the challenges of the future and it will need to help the people of Northern Ireland do so, too. However, a lot of the arrangements in respect of policing are already devolved, in the sense that they are under the direction and control of bodies, such the Policing Board, for example, which sets so many of the objectives and the policing plan for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The district policing partnerships in every area are also helping to hold the police to account. Indeed, the DPP, like the Policing Board, now reflects all sections of the community.
The hon. Member for South Down, who I thought was here but has recently left, and others have made great contributions to the Policing Board and to policing in Northern Ireland at a time when it was not easy for hon. Members so to do and when that came with considerable risk. Once again I pay tribute to all those who took those risks in more difficult times.
I have visited Craigavon, in the hon. Gentlemans constituency, on a number of occasions and have seen the police station there, with some tremendous CCTV equipment, which is helping to provide modern support for policing. I have also met the chairman of the Policing Board, the district policing partnership and the community safety partnership, and I must say that the collaboration between those bodies in Craigavon is second to none and is producing real benefits in community safety and, particularly, in looking at drugs, which we discussed earlier, and the conduct of young people. All of that is important.
The hon. Gentleman said, in a pointed remark that takes us to the heart of the difficult, complex and challenging job of policing, that on one hand police have to deal with disorder on the streets and, on the other, they have to deal with incidents of domestic violence, sexual crime and so on. The police service has to meet that broad range of challenges firmly but sensitively. We pay tribute to what it does.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a funding crisis. That is not language that I would choose to use, but I understand why he uses it
Paul Goggins: I will explain. I have said that when the Policing Board first made its submission under the comprehensive spending review we were confident that we could meet all its aspirations. When it revised its estimate of how much it would need upwards by £350 million, we got within £88 million of giving it
David Simpson: Surely the Minister believes that £88 million is a significant amount of money. Surely that is essential for the police service to deliver a proper service.
Paul Goggins: In addition to funding the police service, the Northern Ireland Office also has to fund the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the probation service and the Forensic Science Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that we could have just found the £88 million, that would have been £88 million less for some of those services. To get within £88 million on a £3.3 billion budget was a good result in the current climate and in the context of the 2007 spending review. In saying that, I am not denying for a minute that pressures and new challenges arise that have to be tackled. He mentioned a number of those, such as the hearing loss claims and the issues to do with pensions.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the transitional allowance. Yes, he and his party did put pressure on, as did many people, but we took the decision to suspend the second 12.5 per cent. reduction in the transitional allowance because it was the right thing to do in view of the current circumstances and the attacks that police officers are facing, which is a new pressure that has to be dealt with somehow. What I say to the him, as I say to others, is that we will work with the Policing Board and the Chief Constable to try to resolve such issues wherever we can. The figures quoted in debates and in questions change constantly, because that is the nature of budgeting in a big organisation, which this year has a budget of £1.1 billion.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Minister has covered a number of the points that were raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, but he has omitted to refer to his comments on political developments today. In the context that development, everyone on the Committee has expressed the hope for positive moves forward in relation to the devolution of justice and policing. Has the Minister no small concern, therefore, that the terms and tones in which the hon. Gentleman has spoken this evening are markedly different from those that were used by the First Minister today, when he made a joint appearance with the Deputy First Minister?
Paul Goggins: Far be it from me to put a cigarette paper between the hon. Member for Upper Bann and his leader, but I note the terms of the statement made earlier by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which will allow the Executive to return to their proper business of running the Government of Northern Ireland, and to put in place arrangements for the discharge of policing and justice functions by the Assembly. That is a balanced programme that should take us forward, and I rejoice in the positive terms of that statement. No doubt we will all await further developments and
The hon. Member for Upper Bann asked about the implications of a freeze on recruitment. I say two things to him about that: first, it would be a last resort for resolving any budgetary problems, and we know how significant that would be; and, secondly, freezing recruitment in the short term saves very little money. Therefore, if we are seeking to resolve financial pressures, we cannot resolve a major pressure in that way in the short term. Perhaps that is something that the Policing Board will want to discuss with the Chief Constable and the Government, but it is important to register that reality.
I can give the hon. Gentleman some good news; I know that he is always happy to receive good news. There was some speculation in the press about the Historical Enquiries Team, following comments and decisions by the head of the HET a few days ago. It was always clear to us that the implications of following through the Operation Ballast report by the ombudsman and getting the HET to do that would have resource implications. It is only in the very recent past that the precise amount of that resource for this year has been made known to us in any detail. We have brought forward funding and, in agreement with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and those involved in the HET, that funding will be available. Nobody will be laid off and that work will continue, as I am sure people would expect. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the welcome that the hon. Gentleman has given that news.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the full-time reserve. The Chief Constable made his decision about retaining a certain level of full-time reserve because of the prevailing threat, particularly from dissident republicans. The hon. Gentleman asked what might happen beyond 2011. The current funding period takes us to 2011and who knows? Perhaps even he might believe that beyond 2011 there might be a different way of constructing the budget for policing in Northern Ireland. Obviously, whoever is funding policing in Northern Ireland must listen carefully to the advice of the Chief Constable, in terms of what he thinks he needs to be able to continue to do his job.
Finally, I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentlemans comments about dissident republicans and the pernicious influence that they have. They are targeting police officers and that is unforgivable, deeply damaging, and the police deserve our full support. As he alluded to, the way in which they are trying to influence young people to join in with that destructive activity is unforgivable. We must all do what we can to ensure that young people can be directed in a positive way. Even as recently as today, discussions have been going on between my officials and officials in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about what we can do to ensure that we are all working with young people to point them in the right direction. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concur with that.
The debate having continued for half an hour, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at four minutes to Eight oclock.
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