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It might help the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), if I remind him what was said by his noble and learned Friend Lord Mayhew, one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a former Attorney-General. During the passage of the 2002 Act, he said:

I can only hope that the hon. Gentleman will find his noble Friend’s words persuasive when he considers his—very well-intentioned, I am sure—amendment. Equally, in
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the light of the information that we are beginning to discuss together, I hope that he will perhaps see why, on balance, the criminal justice review reached its decision after careful consideration and why his hon. Friend said what he said.

Clause 4 extends the scope of the order-making power in section 86 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to provide for the possibility that Executive functions may be devolved even where the legislative competence is to remain reserved. That would provide Parliament, in due course, with greater flexibility to ensure that practical responsibility for functions sits at the most appropriate level, while still keeping legislative competence for that matter reserved to Westminster.

Let us be clear about what the Bill is not. It is not a Bill that will devolve policing and justice. Parliament has already set out the arrangements for that, in section 4 of the 1998 Act, which depends on the triple lock, whereby a motion requesting devolution needs to be tabled in the Assembly by the First and Deputy First Ministers acting jointly. After that, the motion would need to be approved on a cross-community vote in the Assembly, and then the Secretary of State would bring forward transfer orders to Parliament in Westminster for approval and debate. The Bill will not impose devolution on a majority if they later choose not to exercise that power.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the costs of setting up a new system run into hundreds of millions of pounds and that there is a further £70 million funding shortfall across the agencies involved in the process? Does he accept those figures, and what implications does he think they will have for the Assembly, which will inevitably be required to plug the gap?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman may not be surprised to hear that I do not accept those figures. Northern Ireland had—[Hon. Members: “Higher!”] It is always pleasing to take part in the Dutch auction of Opposition Members. I do not accept those figures. I begin with the premise that in the comprehensive spending review, policing and justice in Northern Ireland had a very good settlement. There are considerable historic reasons why Northern Ireland demands such a settlement. This is in no way to question the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland or any of the other agencies there, but many chief constables look at the settlement achieved by the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland with a great deal of jealousy. I say that with huge respect for the work that is done, but the fact is that there is one police officer in Northern Ireland for every 215 to 220 people, whereas in my constituency in Merseyside, the numbers are dramatically different and, I regret to say, we have extremely high crime rates.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP) rose—

Mr. Woodward: I will give way in a moment.

Despite the considerable work that is done, the fact of the matter is that the settlement in Northern Ireland was a good settlement.

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The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) asked about additional requests that have been made for money. As a matter of course, new pressures might arise following the making of the CSR. We are asking other police forces across the United Kingdom to deal with new demands by reordering their priorities, not giving them more money. Part of what Northern Ireland must do, in being normal, is to do the same as any other police force in any other part of the United Kingdom. There may be issues—I say “may”, because it is not a matter of fact or record that they can at this stage be described as justifiable pressures for new money—that need to be resolved. That is why the Prime Minister has asked Jeremy Heywood to chair a committee that will involve officials from Northern Ireland, my office and the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers, as well as civil servants from Departments here, coming together to look at the so-called needs for extra money.

In this economic climate, people need to be sensible and realistic. I understand why people will make demands. However, at the same time, they need to recognise that those issues may not be unique to Northern Ireland, that some of the pressures being felt there now are being felt by other police forces around the country and that Northern Ireland, whether it is under the Secretary of State or its own Minister for Justice in a devolved Department, will be expected to adhere to the same responsibilities as anybody else would. I expect people to make the case, but it does not follow that because people make a case, that case will automatically be met. There is some hard work to be done. I am grateful to the First and Deputy First Ministers and to others who are taking part in the important process that is now under way and which has its first meeting later today.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Some issues remain to be resolved before devolution can take place, one of which is the need to recognise the valiant contribution of the part-time Royal Ulster Constabulary reserve in Northern Ireland over the period of the troubles. I know that the Minister of State is currently reviewing that, but will the Secretary of State give a commitment that before devolution takes place his Department will properly recognise the contribution that those men and women made to safeguarding the entire community in Northern Ireland? Many of them paid with their lives and many still carry the injuries that they suffered during that campaign.

Mr. Woodward: I will of course use this opportunity to endorse what the right hon. Gentleman says about the work and the extraordinary bravery of those people. However, as he also rightly said, my hon. Friend the Minister of State is looking at those matters. Tempted though I might be to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question directly, it is precisely right that my hon. Friend does the work with his review. Just as the right hon. Gentleman and the First Minister have pressed their case previously, I am sure that they will continue to press it. Indeed, it concerns one of a number of issues that I am sure we will need to work through together in the coming months.

I said that it was important to be clear about what the Bill is not. Crucially, it will not decide the model for the new Department of Justice; rather, it adds one more model to the menu. It remains for the Assembly to
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choose which model it wants to pursue. What the Bill does is give legal expression to the work of elected politicians in Northern Ireland. In considering the Bill, we should have due regard to the work and wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland and those who produced the Assembly and Executive Review Committee report.

In addition to enabling the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland to be realised, we should also send a clear political message today to the small numbers of criminals in Northern Ireland who do not want to see peace and stability on the streets. There are criminal groups styling themselves as republicans for whom the idea of political progress, shared power and fully devolved institutions is abhorrent; they do not want to see that. Regrettably, we always feared that this would be the case. We also feared that, at the moment at which great political progress was being made in Northern Ireland, they would try to seize such an opportunity.

Regrettably, we have seen increased activity by this very small number of dissidents in the past few months, and it has been targeted particularly, but not only, at police officers. The PSNI will need to work incredibly closely with the community to ensure that the response to this activity, while increased, is also proportionate. This is not like the old days. This involves a group of people who have absolutely no support and who are condemned by everyone across the board. They thrive in an atmosphere of fear and in the vacuum that they hope to create if the political process can be stalled. Today in this House, the Bill provides an opportunity yet again to send a clear message to those who do not want political progress, who wish to stall the work of the people and the political parties of Northern Ireland, and who wish to frustrate and challenge the courage of those who are leading their political parties and Northern Ireland to a different place.

The message that this House sends, in supporting the Bill, is that the political process is winning, that it has transformed Northern Ireland, and that if we allow this transformation to continue to its logical conclusion, so that those elected in Northern Ireland become responsible for policing and justice in the months ahead, there will be no clearer signal to these people that, while they might try hard and while they might pose a threat to some, we hope that they will never have the chance to succeed, and we will never let them succeed. They are criminals, and criminal threats will never be allowed to halt legitimate processes. This House, in supporting the Bill, will send an unequivocal message that politics in Northern Ireland is winning.

3.2 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for outlining the main provisions in the Bill and the Government’s rationale for bringing it before the House today. I also thank him for giving the Opposition early sight of the legislation, and for the helpful manner in which his officials have answered our questions.

The last Conservative Government began the peace process, and their work was built on by the current Labour Government. As I said in the debate on the programme motion, it has always been our policy in opposition to set party politics aside on issues concerning Northern Ireland, and broadly to support the Government in their approach to the peace process and devolution.
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In doing so, we have not given the Government a blank cheque, however. While trying to be as supportive as possible, we have made constructive and detailed criticisms.

At the outset, I reconfirm that we emphatically support the Belfast agreement and the current devolved institutions that followed on from it. We would like to see the institutions that were established by ensuing agreements working effectively for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland. We have therefore always supported the eventual devolution of criminal justice and policing, when the conditions were right and once the proposed model for devolution had the support of all communities. Devolution of criminal justice and policing was, after all, envisaged in the Belfast agreement and re-affirmed in the joint declaration of 2003, and subsequently at St. Andrews in 2006.

Thanks to the efforts of the last two Governments, Northern Ireland has been transformed. However, when considering the Bill today, we should remember that the current circumstances are not normal. Although the horrific levels of violence experienced during the troubles are now largely behind us, there is still a real threat of brutality from dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist paramilitaries, as the Secretary of State has just mentioned. The dissidents have openly stated that they intend to kill a police officer.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the main, the fact that the dissident republicans have not been able to kill a policeman is down to excellent police work, and that it is thanks to Sir Hugh Orde and his team that those people have been contained so effectively? Does he also agree that the co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana is now helping to contain the dissident republicans?

Mr. Paterson: I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments; I am about to make similar comments myself. I particularly agree with him about the collaboration with the Garda, which I have noticed in the border areas.

The year before last, two officers had lucky escapes in Londonderry and Dungannon. In more recent months, the attacks in Craigavon, the rocket attack in Lisnaskea and the bomb in Rosslea thankfully did not succeed. As recently as February, a 300 lb bomb was found in Castlewellan. So-called loyalist groups also pose a real danger to police officers. It is disgraceful that they have not decommissioned weapons as we approach the 11th anniversary of the Belfast agreement. A police officer was shot in the back in Carrickfergus, and of the 20 officers forced from their homes in the past 12 months, five were driven out by loyalists. The above list is far from comprehensive, and I pay tribute to the bravery of all those involved at every level of the police and security services for minimising the damage that these violent criminals wish to inflict on the law-abiding majority. As we debate the Bill, we should all remember the dedication of these public servants.

Some dissident groups have moved into drug crime, and this continues the violence. Masked men who shot a man dead in Londonderry in February were thought to be dissident republicans involved in drugs. Fuel smuggling is estimated to cost the Exchequer £100 million a year. In some areas, both dissidents and republicans are, amazingly, working together to smuggle fuel.

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The Assembly should remember, when deciding whether to use the option provided by the Bill, that normal policing is extremely difficult in these circumstances and that—despite Patten recommendation 55, which states that police cars should be substituted in place of armoured Land Rovers—more and more patrols are forced to travel in armoured vehicles due to the rise in dissident violence. The dissident threat has also led to a huge increase in police overtime, with the result that £24.5million has had to be taken from this year’s budget to pay for last year. There are suggestions that the Policing Board is starting the new financial year £50 million in the red. The PSNI needs to save £263 million by 2011. Proposed police station closures are unpopular, the information technology budget has had to be reduced, and police overtime will be cut by 51 per cent. over three years.

We are therefore discussing the Bill in the context of further looming pressures on the budget. There are more than 2,000 claimants for hearing loss, which could cost a further £100 million. I have even heard reports that that could rise to £400 million. The historical enquiries team has had to cut staff. The current established figure of 7,500 full-time officers has not been achieved, and plans for police community support officers have been put on hold for three years. On the positive side, great progress has been made in increasing Catholic recruitment, which is up to 25 per cent., and on target for 30 per cent. by March 2011.

In his winding-up speech, will the Minister please confirm that police pay, pensions and conditions will continue to be set nationally after devolution? Will he confirm how inquiries into the past will be paid for in future? Who will pay for any litigation that flows from those inquiries? Could he give us an overall appraisal of the current and future financial position of the PSNI?

When the Assembly comes to debate the timing of devolution, it should be aware of the extremely difficult conditions in which the police continue to operate, and the serious financial consequences of that. I am also conscious that a number of politicians in Northern Ireland take the view that Stormont should be allowed to settle down and resolve issues such as education before taking on the additional burden of policing and criminal justice. In my opinion, however, that is strictly a matter for the Assembly.

The background to the Bill is that the PSNI is already the most accountable police force in the world. The Chief Constable is widely respected across all parts of the community and is self-evidently non-political. He reports to a Policing Board that has representatives from all political parties, and there is further scrutiny by the police ombudsman, the district policing partnerships and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Despite the ultimate responsibility resting with the Secretary of State, there is already significant involvement by representatives across all the community in Northern Ireland.

It is important to stress—as the Secretary of State did—that the Bill does not deliver the devolution of criminal justice and policing. That could have been triggered at any time since the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which gave effect to the Good Friday agreement, had there been cross-community support for it. Since then, a
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number of models for the devolution of criminal justice and policing have been proposed. There are currently seven such models. This Bill creates an eighth model, following exhaustive negotiations in the Northern Ireland Assembly, primarily between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein. That resulted in a report to the Assembly, which was published in January. We believe that locally elected politicians should ultimately be responsible for such matters, but which model is chosen should be a matter for the parties in the Assembly to agree.

At the same time, we have always insisted that powers should be transferred from this Parliament only when three criteria have been satisfied: first, that all parties represented in the Executive are committed to pursuing their objectives by exclusively peaceful and democratic means; secondly, that all parties fully support, in word and deed, the criminal justice system, including the police and the courts; and, thirdly, that such a transfer of powers commands support across the community, as expressed through Northern Ireland’s political representatives. In our view, that is not something that should be imposed according to an arbitrary deadline or timetable, so I welcome the fact that nothing in the Bill alters the existing triple lock on the transfer of powers.

The mechanism for transferring policing and justice in the 1998 Act remains unchanged. Before devolution takes place, it must have the consent of the First Minister, a majority of designated Unionists and nationalists in the Assembly and of both Houses of Parliament. I give a guarantee that any future Conservative Government will fully uphold that triple lock while respecting the decision of the Assembly.

In addition, we have always made it clear that any devolution of policing and justice powers must preserve the operational independence of the Chief Constable and his officers; the independence of the judiciary must also be guaranteed. Those are cardinal principles that cannot be compromised. There must be no question of allowing political interference in such matters in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the United Kingdom.

We support many features of the Bill, particularly the changes to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 in respect of appointments to judicial offices. In our view, it is right and sensible to give to the Lord Chief Justice the powers originally envisaged as being exercised by the First and Deputy First Ministers. One of our concerns when the 2002 Act was passing through Parliament was about the potential for politicisation of certain judicial appointments, but these changes go some way to allaying our fears.

We are not happy, however, that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland is, in the words of the explanatory note,

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s comments, and we will study the text that he referred to in detail, but we believe that devolution of criminal justice and policing would actually be strengthened if the DPP were superintended by the Attorney-General, who, according to the 2002 Act, may participate in the proceedings of the Assembly. We believe that the Attorney-General should be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice on the recommendation of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission.

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