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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 October 2008

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—

Drug-related Crime

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland in relation to drug-related crime. [225763]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Police Service of Northern Ireland is committed to building on recent successes in disrupting the supply of drugs in Northern Ireland by increasing the number of significant arrests and seizures and further reducing levels of drug-related crime.

Andrew Selous: Does the Minister share my concern about dissident paramilitary groups undertaking their own policing of drug issues? In particular, Declan Gallagher was apparently told by the Real IRA this month that he would be executed on sight for alleged drug offences and that the Real IRA is well armed and organised. What does the Minister have to say about that?

Paul Goggins: I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning activity of the kind that he has just described. Dissident republicans in Northern Ireland currently pose a threat, particularly to police officers. That needs to be dealt with, and it will be dealt with. There is no excuse whatsoever for any kind of parallel policing arrangements in Northern Ireland. The rule of law and order is there, and it should be seen to be followed.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Although we commend the success of the PSNI in obtaining large drug hauls, does the Minister share my concern, which is common to all communities in Northern Ireland, both urban and rural, about the daily peddling of drugs in the streets by so-called small fry? Our immediate concern as a community is to get the small peddlers away from our children and our streets. Will he ask the PSNI to redirect some of its energy to picking up all the small fry, who are well known to the community?

Paul Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for his support on that important issue. He understands that we must tackle the problem at several different levels. We need to take out the organised criminal gangs that bring in
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drugs and distribute them to networks in local neighbourhoods, and we need to make sure that people who peddle drugs on the street are arrested and dealt with, and that young people in particular understand the dangers and harms associated with drug misuse. In that context, I met members of the district policing partnership and the community safety partnership in Craigavon yesterday. They are working to make sure that parents and children are well informed and that there is proper enforcement of the law in relation to drugs offending. A lot of very good work is happening locally.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister is right that there have been significant drug hauls in Northern Ireland, many of which have taken place in my constituency since the port of Larne began to be used to import drugs. Does he accept that, as has been said, the problem is not being dealt with at street level? The assets of those who clearly live off the proceeds of such crime are not being seized in sufficient quantities. The real way to hit criminals is to put them behind bars and take their money.

Paul Goggins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to take assets off criminals. I disagree with his view that that is not happening, because it is happening. Our approach has been reinforced by the coming together of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is beginning to make a difference. We need to take assets off criminals, and we need to make sure that where there is evidence of criminality, people are brought to court and dealt with.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What further progress can be made on the proceeds of crime? Where does Northern Ireland lie in the league table of confiscating criminal assets, especially from drug barons?

Paul Goggins: In Northern Ireland, we have a solid record on taking assets from criminal gangs and indeed from individual criminals. That effort has been reinforced by the coming together of the agencies, as I have described. I am committed to reporting to the Northern Ireland public on a quarterly basis how effective we have been in that particular quarter in relation to asset recovery. My hon. Friend is right: people want to see criminals being brought to book and having their assets taken from them, and they want to see those assets being put into funding front-line policing and other community services.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the Minister acknowledge the continued significant problem of cannabis in Northern Ireland, where seizures of cannabis increased by 16 per cent. last year? Will he also clarify whether the PSNI will have success in implementing the Home Secretary’s published policy of three strikes and out, given that the police national computer will not record the first offence when a warning is issued?

Paul Goggins: There has been considerable success in recent months in the closing down of 77 cannabis factories in Northern Ireland. Much of that cannabis was not for consumption in Northern Ireland and was for export to elsewhere. There have been 71 arrests, and cannabis worth £15 million has been seized. I am sure
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that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating the PSNI on its very effective work in that regard. Cannabis is, of course, being reclassified to class B, and anybody who is found in possession of cannabis in Northern Ireland will be referred to the Public Prosecution Service.

Criminal Justice and Policing

2. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the devolution of responsibilities for criminal justice and policing. [225764]

4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the devolution of responsibility for criminal justice and policing. [225766]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I regularly meet the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to discuss progress on devolution. The Government’s view is that devolution of policing and justice should be completed and that, in relation to those powers already involved, the Executive should meet regularly.

Mr. Vara: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Given that the relationship between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is rapidly deteriorating, does he believe that there is a realistic chance of a working Executive in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Woodward: Yes I do, is the short answer to that. The Executive have not met since June, and that is a serious matter for everyone who wishes devolution well in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely in the spirit of the St. Andrews agreement that there should be stable government. There are, of course, many instruments to stable government and one of them is the meeting of the Executive. It is essential that the Executive should meet to make decisions about fuel poverty and other issues; we recognise that. However, we equally recognise that the devolution of policing and justice needs to be completed in the spirit of the St. Andrews agreement. It is also our view that if good will prevails, no single issue on the table cannot be resolved by the politicians elected in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mackay: What does the Secretary of State make of the Stormont Assembly and Executive Review Committee’s vote yesterday? It has set a timetable of five weeks for the discussion on the devolution of policing and justice in the Province. Does he think that the five-week target will be met? If it is not, will he ensure that alternative action is taken so that minds are concentrated?

Mr. Woodward: The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue in observing the decision made yesterday by politicians elected in Northern Ireland to proceed with work by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on policing and justice. The proposal that went from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the summer this year to that Committee, and on which the Committee is now working, represents a
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significant step forward in building confidence in all communities in Northern Ireland. It is for the Committee to decide on matters of timetabling, but the progress is welcome. Whatever the arguments taking place on the timing of this issue, it demonstrates a willingness by everybody to proceed with completing devolution.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I welcome what the Secretary of State has said and endorse his determination to seek progress. I remind the House that, operationally, policing is pretty well devolved already, through the Policing Board. However, it is the unfinished business of the settlement last year and it is crucial, especially to the nationalist and republican communities, that the devolution of policing and justice should occur. The republicans signed up to an historic move to support policing and the Democratic Unionist party deserves great credit for insisting on that. However, the other side of the bargain was that devolution should take place. The whole House should fully support the Secretary of State and all those involved at Stormont in achieving that as soon as possible.

Mr. Woodward: I thank my right hon. Friend for everything that he did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He played a very significant part in helping to achieve the agreement that allowed devolution to go forward in the elections last year, and his continued work through the BIIPB—British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body—is an extremely important part of the work of politicians in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

This issue is a matter of relationships between those people elected in Northern Ireland. Progress has always basically been made in Northern Ireland as an article of faith and trust. It is essential that we build that faith and trust to go forward, but as I have already remarked, our view is that there is no issue on which the parties need not find resolution if they wish to.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State help things by injecting a truth check with Sinn Fein that this issue was not nailed down in the St. Andrews agreement in the way that it claims? Will he further help things with a reality check to the Democratic Unionist party that devolution of justice and policing is an imperative, as a legislative assembly is not worthy of the name if it does not take responsibility for criminal law? We can achieve the best meshing of plans, budgets and policies across related services with the devolution of justice and policing. The best way for all parties to unite to confound the dangerous agenda of republican dissidents lies in securing devolution sooner rather than later.

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes a set of extremely telling remarks about the state of the relationships between individuals in the Assembly and the Executive. It is a matter of trust, perhaps more than truth, being established in order to go forward. However, I share his view that a substantial risk to stability in Northern Ireland is caused by the new threat of dissident groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA—not PIRA as in the past—which are exploiting the political vacuum that risks being opened up by a perception that politics is failing in Northern Ireland. It is our view, and I hope that of the House, that what has been demonstrated in Northern Ireland is that politics can triumph over violence and bring peace and prosperity. It is essential that we
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continue to build that trust so that those who might turn to crime are prevented from doing so.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State add his voice to those saying that it is deeply unacceptable for Sinn Fein alone to block meetings of the Executive when all the other parties want those meetings to happen and the people of Northern Ireland want decisions made for the good of everybody—in the interests not only of Unionists or nationalists but of the people of Northern Ireland—and that the blame for there being no such meetings clearly lies with Sinn Fein? Does he also agree that it is wrong to continue to assert that Unionism signed up to any kind of date for the devolution of policing and justice, which would involve people who were murdering the police a short time ago being involved in running the police? As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) pointed out, this matter was not agreed at St. Andrews, and Sinn Fein received no such commitment from Unionists.

Mr. Woodward: It goes without saying that it is essential that government is seen to be stable and functioning in Northern Ireland. The Executive are a tool of the institutions. It is essential to resolve the problems that have arisen, which have resulted in some decisions on the Executive agenda not being agreed, thereby preventing meetings from taking place. The hon. Gentleman will know that one of the critical issues for Sinn Fein rests on agreement about producing a date on which policing and justice will be transferred. I share his analysis of the St. Andrews agreement. However, within that agreement between the British and Irish Governments, it was perfectly clear that it was the view of both that it would be possible, within a timetable of 12 months, to complete that transfer, given confidence in the community. I remind him that we have to be very careful about allowing confidence building to be an excuse for indefinitely delaying the transfer. I know that the leader of his party is working extremely hard in expressing his view that it is an ideal, as well as a manifesto commitment, that his party completes it. However, this is about trust and working in the spirit of St. Andrews, and it remains the case that, if the politicians so choose, a way can be found to resolve the matter and for the Executive to meet.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In endorsing almost everything that the Secretary of State has said, may I ask him to talk immediately to those who have chosen not to take the seats that they could take in this House, and to tell them that if they remove their block on the Executive they are more likely to achieve what everybody wants than if they maintain it?

Mr. Woodward: I constantly have discussions with the leaders of all the political parties, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and indeed with those politicians who currently take the view that it is not possible to agree an agenda for the Executive to meet. The hon. Gentleman makes a number of important observations. We have expressed to Sinn Fein our belief that the Executive should meet. I would like to put on record our thanks to the special envoy of the United States, who yesterday met the leaders of all the political parties to discuss with them the issues that are producing a deadlock in the Executive. I thank the special envoy and
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the President of the United States for their continued involvement in wishing to see the politicians in Northern Ireland complete devolution and ensure that government is stable.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Surely we have left the days of threats and intimidation behind us. Now we are told that if we do not have devolution of policing and justice, the dissident IRA will threaten the people of Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State not remember that the main ingredient of the triple lock given by the Government allowed confidence in the community, and that the Northern Ireland Office poll acknowledged that there was not confidence in the community in the devolution of justice at this time? Surely the Executive and the Assembly should get on with the business that they have authority over, rather than looking for something else.

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman always makes a telling observation, and I understand the position that he is marking by asking his question. First, I would correct him by saying that recent polling conducted by the Northern Ireland Office, and indeed previous polling, show that in each community in Northern Ireland there is support to complete the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to politicians there.

The hon. Gentleman is right to observe that the legislation contains a triple lock. It is of real concern to many nationalists that the triple lock could be used as a mechanism for indefinite delay. One of the most important things to be done, therefore, which includes his work, is to help to establish trust across the communities. His party and the people whom he represents must be as committed to completing devolution within a confidence-building framework as they ever have been, and he should express to them the view that if devolution can be completed sooner, having established that confidence, it would help to achieve greater stability in government.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Northern Ireland is not exempt from the economic crisis. Unemployment rose by 45 per cent. during the past year in mid-Ulster —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman be heard.

Mr. Paterson: The priorities for people outside the political bubble are the matters that affect them every day, rather than the timing of devolution of policing and justice. As the impasse is not on the principle, but on the timetable of devolution, has the right hon. Gentleman made it crystal clear that blocking the Executive is wholly unacceptable as recession looms?

Mr. Woodward: It has to be said that the Executive not meeting would be unacceptable to all those who want to see stable government, whether there is a downturn or not—or whatever description the hon. Gentleman chooses of the economic situation of the country. However, there should not be a false choice. It is not a choice between the Executive meeting or not dealing with the devolution of policing and justice. It was essential to bring the nationalist and republican community on board that the articles of faith enshrined in the principles of St. Andrews, between the two Governments, were seen as such. It remains as important today as it was
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this time last year that Unionism demonstrates its commitment to completing devolution, but that is not a choice with the Executive not meeting. The Executive must meet because there are decisions to be made. I hope—I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the Government on this point—that we can get all parties in Northern Ireland to focus on what needs to be done, which is to address the problems of the downturn, of course, but they cannot be allowed simply to park the issue of policing and justice for another day. The work on that issue needs to continue now.

Mr. Paterson: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned St. Andrews, where the British and Irish Governments agreed that devolution should go ahead only when cross-community confidence was sufficient. As all parties in Northern Ireland bought into the current settlement, will he give the House a clear assurance that the matter should be decided locally and that, if there is still no agreement from the Executive on timing in current months, he will not introduce legislation to impose it on one section of the community?

Mr. Woodward: As I have already said, it remains the view of the Government that the parties in Northern Ireland should be able to find a resolution to these issues. Equally, it remains the case that the British and Irish Governments have not simply washed their hands of responsibility for ensuring the stability of government in Northern Ireland, as it has still yet to complete devolution, not least with the transfer of policing and justice powers. Therefore, as in other areas of Government policy, we will stand with the people of Northern Ireland. We will help the people of Northern Ireland in any way that we are asked to achieve stability in government. That means encouraging not only the Executive to meet, but the political parties to complete the policing and justice process, not least because we believe that there is now sufficient community confidence to do that, and it is the duty of politicians there to proceed and execute their responsibilities for stability.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Could not the Government help with confidence-building measures on security and criminal justice in Northern Ireland by releasing to the families of the victims of the Omagh bombing GCHQ’s detailed records about the time lines and exactly what it did in response to the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s request to track and follow people who we understand were the perpetrators of those crimes?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the horrendous crimes that took place at Omagh 10 years ago. Despite the passage of 10 years, I am sure that everybody in the House will join me in remembering the 29 people who were murdered and the two unborn children.

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