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I can tell the hon. Gentleman that all those deaths have been referred to the historical inquiries team and they will be looked into. There is an initial period in which the death is reviewed and information is sought; a decision is then made about whether to proceed with
a full investigation or move to what is called the resolution of the particular case. That entails sharing as much information as possible with the family so that, as far as possible, the situation is explained and the family can somehow come to terms with its tragic loss. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no interference in that process by any external force. It is a policing matter and a matter for the historical inquiries team, which conducts its inquiries as it sees fit. It is perfectly independent and free so to do.
When we talk about policing in modern times in Northern Ireland as being a very positive influence on society, we in no way seek to detract from or criticise those who policed Northern Ireland in the past. It is very important to say that. Officers often had to deal with very difficult, almost impossibly challenging circumstances; we owe them a debt and pay due respect to them. It was important, however, for policing to move on as well.
At the international policing conference held in Belfast in February, senior police officers from around the world attended to hear about developments in Northern Ireland and it became clear that Northern Ireland policing now sets a standard for policing around the world that others seek to follow. I certainly pay tribute to the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, and his senior team, who have provided great leadership to the Policing Board under the chairmanship of Sir Desmond Rea. As I have already mentioned, the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Policing Board, which has helped to guide and shape policing in Northern Ireland and to hold policing to account.
There is also the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, a position held until recently by Nuala OLoan. She often showed great courage and held the position with distinction. She is now succeeded by Al Hutchinson, who I am sure will continue to carry out the responsibilities in a similarly effective way. District policing partnerships are also important. Those two rolesthe ombudsman and the district policing partnershipsprovide additional scrutiny to policing in Northern Ireland, which is very welcome.
The change has been accompanied by a growing confidence in policing. According to figures confirmed just this week, there is now 78 per cent. confidence in policing in Northern Ireland, which is tremendously encouraging when we look across the community there and think of where we have come from. There are a number of reasons for that. First and foremost, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is helping to bring crime down. I am able to say that 2,000 fewer crimes were committed last year than in the previous year and since 2002-03 there has been a 15 per cent. fall in crime. I am also pleased that the Policing Board has in setting priorities for reducing burglary and vehicle crime seen its ambitions fulfilledthere have been large reductions in those areas.
The PSNI has become more representative of the communities it serves. That more needed to be done to encourage people from the Catholic community to enter the police service was a key Patten recommendation. He reported at the time that only 8 per cent. of the PSNI was Catholic. There is now 23 per cent. Catholic representation and that is on the way to being 30 per cent. by 2010-11. A police service more representative of the community it serves will generate greater confidence.
There is also the historic decision taken by Sinn Fein earlier this year to support policing and the rule of law, enabling it to encourage people from the communities it represents to report crime, but also crucially to take their place on the Policing Board and district policing partnerships. Their support for policing has been fundamental and has underpinned the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland.
A fourth reason for growing confidence in policing is the model, or style, of policing in Northern Ireland. In the past there has had to be a more remote, security-style of policing, but now we are able to move to neighbourhood policingto community policing and policing with the communitywhich will always engender a greater degree of confidence.
Effective policing in Northern Ireland requires adequate resources and I am confident that, following the comprehensive spending review settlement, we will be able to provide the necessary financial support to make sure that Northern Ireland continues to be properly policed. At present, there are 7,500 regular police officers in Northern Ireland, and we understand why that figure is rather higher proportionally than in England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear in last weeks Northern Ireland questions that that level of investment in policing must continue to be justified, but we still face considerable risks and threats. As the Gentleman alluded to, the attacks in recent days on officers Doherty and Musgrave confirm the threat that still remains from dissident republicans. It is encouraging that all political leaders in Northern Ireland immediately, clearly and unequivocally condemned the attacks on those two officers.
What is now needed is for people deep within the communities to step forward, to stand shoulder to shoulder with their police officers and to make sure that those responsible are brought to justice. It is important that statements are made, evidence is given and the right thing is done so that the people responsible are put behind bars where they belong. I am pleased to report that when I visited the police at Dungannon last Tuesday afternoon in the wake of the shooting of the second officer, I found officers who were upbeat and confident and who remained absolutely determined to serve their community and to make sure that the right thing is done and that justice prevails.
I, of course, join the hon. Gentleman in condemning absolutely the brutal murder of Paul Quinn some weeks ago. That matter is subject to police investigation, which will continue to be led by the Garda Siochana because the murder took place in the Republic. It will report in due course, as will the Independent Monitoring Commission. I know that the hon. Gentleman will pay particular attention to comments from both those sources.
As the hon. Gentleman said, May 2007 was a significant time in Northern Ireland, and I was pleased to hear him extol the benefits of devolution. He is entirely right that having both this degree of scrutiny and political leadership in action at the local levelled, of course, by his colleague the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who is sitting with him this eveningis a huge step forward in terms of democracy and governance in Northern Ireland. It is good that local Ministers are now running the schools, the hospitals and all the important public services.
I understand why it was not possible in the first stage of devolution to devolve policing and criminal justice powers, but people did vote for the whole devolution package, and in time they will want to see the whole of it delivered; they will want devolution to be completed.
The hon. Gentleman will know the legislative procedure that we now adopt. The Assembly will make a report to the Secretary of State about the degree of readiness for the devolution of policing and justice powers in March next year. The key moment will come when the parties, together, want that devolution and the Assembly formally requests it. In the meantime, I assure him, his colleagues and all politicians in Northern Ireland that the Secretary of State and I will continue to work in partnership with the devolved Ministers to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are properly protected.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned several other issues, including parading. It is important that the peaceful parading of the past two years continues. That is why we established a review under the chairmanship of Lord Ashdown to see whether a consensus could be formed about how to ensure that parading continues in Northern Ireland in a sustainable and peaceful way, without the disruption and destruction that often occurred in the past.
The hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the police college. I assure him that we are determined to see the police college delivered. More than that, we want an integrated college that will also train firefighters and prison officers. A project board is in place, and we are determined to ensure that that project is delivered. He also asked about police community support officers. As he knows, we have taken powers in this House to ensure that PCSOs can operate in Northern Ireland. I know from recent discussions that the Policing Board and the Chief Constable remain committed to that. An implementation date for the arrival of the first PCSOs has yet to be finally determined by the Chief Constable, but I am sure that he will take that decision in due course.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the commission on the past, which is being led by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. It is important that they do their work, consulting people and communities across Northern Ireland to see whether it is possible to obtain a consensus about the way forwardthey are not trying to bury the past or ignore it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the resources that go into policing and inquiring into the past. It increasingly comes into focus that every pound spent on policing the past is one that we cannot spend on policing the present. I am sure that Lord Eames and Denis Bradley will report on that issue, among others.
beginning footsteps in a long journey.
We know that everybody in politics in Northern Ireland is now committed to that journey. I am sure that in due course it will lead to a permanent, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland where children can grow up with a bright future ahead of them.