Policing (Strangford)

– in the House of Commons at 6:42 pm on 17th October 2002.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford 7:01 pm, 17th October 2002

It was Edmund Burke who said:

XGood order is the foundation of all good things".

In that vein, it is crucial to the maintenance of order throughout this country that the laws that exist to protect people's rights are enforced to the letter. It is our duty to strive to ensure that those who would wish to see law and order undermined and damaged are punished accordingly.

Responsibility for the enforcement of law and order rests with police forces throughout the country, supported by the judicial system. However, if the criminal is not brought before the court to face conviction, the processes of law and order cannot be applied and the offender remains outside the system. In addition, pressure on police resources, which is growing on a weekly, if not daily, basis, means that officers' ability to apprehend offenders is decreasing at a proportionate rate. Without a vehicle to enforce the law effectively, the law itself is undermined. The unparalleled lack of manpower being experienced by the Police Service is having a hugely negative impact on the force's ability to maintain law and order and is affecting all areas of Northern Ireland, including Strangford.

Strangford consists of a section of the Castlereagh district command unit, the majority of the Ards district command unit and part of the Down district command unit. In the past, Castlereagh, which has a population in excess of 70,000, has been serviced by two police stations at Carryduff and Dundonald. As a result of the cuts imposed by Patten, Dundonald and Carryduff stations have had their operational capacity removed and now remain only as a cosmetic police presence in those areas. All calls are now diverted to the DCU headquarters at Castlereagh, where a response is committed. The Castlereagh area takes in Ballybeen, Northern Ireland's second largest housing estate, which has 10,000 residents and is covered by the police station at Dundonald. Between April 2001 and April 2002, Dundonald police station received more than 6,000 telephone calls from the public, 5,317 of which required police attendance.

As a result of the Patten report, Dundonald police station now has only one inspector, one beat manager and five beat officers attached to it. It also has a further eight officers fulfilling security and guard duties. Of that cohort, two officers must deal with inquiries and firearms renewals on a daily basis. When shift patterns are taken into consideration, that means that Dundonald station is unable to provide any full-time beat services for its immediate area or to the second largest housing estate in Northern Ireland, and must rely on services from Castlereagh, several miles across the city.

Similarly, Carryduff police station is situated in an area of suburban Belfast that has witnessed a huge expansion in population over recent years. Over the past year, more than 13,000 calls were made to Carryduff police station, yet earlier this year the people of Carryduff were forced to lead a campaign to prevent its closure, which had been proposed in order to cut back on expenditure. Public meetings were held and a petition carrying several thousand signatures from both sides of the community was presented. An alternative shop-front facility had been proposed, but given the clear and present terrorist threat, that would neither protect the officers from terrorist attack, nor encourage members of the public to enter it.

Carryduff police station has one sergeant and four officers attached to it, again resulting in its capacity to provide a proactive service to the local community becoming a practical impossibility. To meet the constraints of the Patten Commission recommendations, provision of security has been centralised to DCU headquarters at Castlereagh. Of a total of 111 regular officers currently serving, only 27 are available for response duties, which breaks down to about seven per shift to cover the whole area. Moreover, they have only four cars and one motorcycle available to them.

The story in the Ards district command unit is much the same. In the town of Newtownards, which has a population in excess of 30,000, 45 officers are registered for day-to-day duties. Taking into account those officers who have been seconded elsewhere, there are about 10 full-time officers to cover each shift. Of those 10, two or three officers will carry out security and administrative tasks, and taking into account those on sick leave and holiday, six officers are left to look after a significant town. That means that there are two in a car, two on the beat and a relief back at the station.

As for the police stations at Comber, Donaghadee, Greyabbey and Portaferry, none operates on a full-time basis. Officers who are able to work must complete security and administrative duties. That has minimised, if not removed, the force's ability to provide a visible presence on the ground and a deterrent against crime. The service falls far short of the security that residents demand.

The Patten report recommended that there should be a core of 7,500 full-time officers in a normalised environment, yet at present there are only 6,911 full-time officers, who are required to meet an ever-increasing burden. In April this year, Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan admitted that officers in some areas were being forced to work up to 80 or 90 hours a week to make up for the shortfall in manpower.

At a time when complying with Patten is forcing a cut in manpower, both domestic and terrorist-related crimes are spiralling out of control. Between 1 April 2001 and 31 March 2002, recorded crime in Northern Ireland increased by 16.6 per cent. to 139,786 offences. At the same time, the overall clearance rate decreased by 7 per cent. to 20.1 per cent.

In Castlereagh, the number of recorded crimes increased from 3,218 to 4,802—an increase of 50 per cent. on the previous year, while the detection rate decreased to a miserable 16 per cent. We now face a situation where crime in Castlereagh has risen by an incredible 125 per cent. since the signing of the Belfast agreement in 1998. Problems in Castlereagh will be compounded this year by the fact that 23 officers have accepted the severance deal offered through Patten, while only six officers will be made available to the local commander.

In the Down district, the number of offences rose by more than 500, an increase of 12 per cent., while the detection rate has dropped from 27 to 17.5 per cent. In the Ards district, the number of crimes has also risen by more than 500 to 5,112, an increase of 11 per cent., with the detection rate dropping to 24 per cent.

In Newtownards recently, the proprietor of a local petrol station that had been robbed on several occasions contacted the police regarding the suspicious activity of a car in the vicinity and of a number of youths who had come into his shop. The police confirmed that the car had been stolen and the shopkeeper decided to close early for fear of being robbed again. He asked the local police if they would send a car to patrol the area while he removed the day's takings, but was refused as the only car on patrol was dealing with an incident and there was insufficient manpower in the station to send officers to the area. That petrol station is just 400 m from the police station.

It has been highlighted in the provincial press in recent days that overall confidence in policing is declining, with approval figures decreasing by 3 per cent. to 66 per cent.

A recent development in Killyleagh witnessed a number of individuals obtain housing in the town after they had allegedly been forced out of Downpatrick by paramilitaries, accused of antisocial behaviour. What was described as a mini crime wave commenced in the town, and it was attributed to the individuals in question. Pensioners were attacked and robbed in their homes, cars were damaged, stolen and burnt out, yet the police were unable to apprehend the culprits. Two local residents then took it upon themselves to approach those being accused of the trouble and were subsequently charged with assault and ordered by the courts to stay out of the town in which they both lived and worked. A petition was subsequently organised and several thousand signatures were put to it requesting that the two residents be allowed back into their home town. Those who signed the petition were not, as one might expect, the supporters of paramilitaries or vigilantes but respectable people from Killyleagh whose patience with the criminals had run out and whose confidence in the police's ability to defend them had plummeted. I am sure that the House will agree that that is a most worrying development.

On the basis of the unparalleled rise in non-terrorist crime alone, there is a rock-solid argument for increasing policing resources in my constituency. Problems being experienced elsewhere in Northern Ireland are having a direct and negative effect on the ability of the police in my constituency to do their job properly. It cannot be denied that since the inception of Patten and the destruction of the RUC morale within the ranks of police officers in Strangford has sunk to an all-time low.

The Government need to wake up to the fact that we do not have the peace that was the working assumption on which the Patten commission relied when making its manpower recommendations. It is difficult to understand how the police could ever be expected to operate effectively when they are coping in non-peace circumstances with a manpower level below that recommended for peacetime.

That has compounded the problem for officers dealing with local policing issues in Strangford. The continuing threat of terrorist violence across the Province, and the almost constant street conflict in Belfast that has been stoked up by IRA-Sinn Fein, have necessitated the diversion of Strangford police resources to the conflict areas. In Castlereagh, for example, during the period from June 2001 to January 2002, 20 per cent. of the district's resources had to be transferred to other areas in Northern Ireland to assist in tackling street violence. That represented approximately 30 officers being taken every day out of the area in which they were based, to address paramilitary orchestrated violence.

The levels of violence outside my area are having a deeply negative impact on the Police Service's ability to maintain law and order in my constituency. Street violence has now reached a level not witnessed since the height of the troubles in the mid-1970s. According to official police records in 2001, almost 1,600 people were injured as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland. There were 353 shooting incidents, more than 350 bombing incidents, 332 incidents of paramilitary-style punishment attacks, and 107 firearms and explosives finds.

In the first eight months of this year, 1,248 attacks against the police have been logged; more than 1,100 missiles have been thrown at police officers; 400 police officers have been injured, and more than 3 million hours of overtime have been clocked up by serving officers in an attempt to provide an acceptable level of security. At the same time, there have been 244 shooting incidents, 153 bombing attacks and 244 paramilitary-style attacks.

From 1998, when the Belfast agreement was signed, more than 100 people have been killed as a direct result of the security situation in Northern Ireland, and more than 6,000 people have been injured. There have been almost 1,500 shootings and more than 1,000 incidents involving bombs and incendiaries. More than 1,250 people have been subjected to paramilitary-style assault, more than 1,300 persons have been charged with terrorist and serious public order offences, and there have been more than 1,400 firearms and explosives finds.

The fact is that the police are attempting to provide security for the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland with the resources set for policing a peaceful society, while being forced to continue the war against terrorism. It is only logical, and inevitable, when a police service is treated in such a shoddy and unprofessional manner, that crime will rocket as resources plunge. Of course, letting more than 900 convicted thugs out of jail has hardly had a positive impact on the lives of people in communities across Northern Ireland. Communities are even more polarised, and even more under the control of paramilitary organisations. The fact of the matter is that the officer on the street knows that the implementation of Patten is to blame for the crisis in policing.

After 15 months of continuous street disorder, and with the threat from both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups running at the highest level for five years, the collective pressure on resources has left

Xlittle to deliver ordinary day-to-day policing".

So said acting Chief Constable Colin Cramphorn on 22 August this year. He went on to say:

XIn many areas we are simply responding to emergency calls and little else."

In the year to July 2002, more than 730 officers were injured, while the impact of working excessive hours has provided little respite for officers.

As Colin Cramphorn stated:

XSuch levels of activity cannot be sustained indefinitely."

In east Belfast, the number of officers required has doubled because of paramilitary activity and street violence. Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan stated on 30 August that he envisaged no end to that activity. The new Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, should never be forced into a position of grovelling for resources to prevent his force from witnessing complete meltdown.

Any suggestion that the 1,949 full-time reserve should be stood down is patent madness. Effective policing must be promoted above political expediency. It is distressing that at a time when the Government should be retreating from Patten to provide improved policing, they are planning further concessions to accommodate the IRA's insatiable demands. The drive to reduce manpower has meant that the force has been stretched to breaking point. At the same time, officers are tied up under a mountain of bureaucracy generated by the ombudsman, the oversight commissioner and the so-called Human Rights Commission, and in implementing the 190 Patten recommendations. Meanwhile, the IRA continues to be pandered to and its nefarious activities go on unabated.

The oversight commissioner, Mr. Tom Constantine, has warned that violence may wreck policing reform. Why should such politically motivated reform be a priority? Should not the provision of effective policing be the Government's primary aim? Should not the primary objective of policing in any modern liberal democracy be maintaining law and order and challenging criminals and terrorists?

In closing, three matters are clear. First, the retention of the full-time reserve is crucial to avoid a security meltdown. Secondly, police recruitment policy must be reviewed. It is vital that Hugh Orde apply to the Secretary of State for a suspension of the 50:50 recruitment rule. Many hundreds of applicants from a Protestant background have been denied a place in the force on account of their religion and nothing else. An increase in intimidation of Roman Catholic officers, and a decrease in the applications from Roman Catholics are generating a recruitment crisis. There have been insufficient acceptable Roman Catholic recruits to fulfil the requirements. The 50:50 rule means that the number cannot be made up with Protestants because they are capped at the level of Catholics who enter. The result is an unacceptable overall shortfall of officers.

Thirdly, the programme of civilianisation of posts has run aground. That policy has also been severely undermined by the 50:50 rule. It was estimated that the programme might free as many as 300 officers for other duties, but only 29 Roman Catholics have applied for those civilian positions.

Unless the Northern Ireland Office takes its head out of the sand on the genuine problems that the police face in Northern Ireland, matters will continue to deteriorate. It also appears certain that the redeployment of resources to other districts leaves my constituency prey to criminals and vulnerable to attack.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the funding and other necessary resources are made available to the Chief Constable to reverse the predicament and avert catastrophic consequences.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 7:23 pm, 17th October 2002

I am grateful to Mrs. Robinson for choosing policing as the subject of our debate. She raised many issues on policing in general, as well as specifically in the Strangford area. Although I cannot comment in depth on the circumstances in specific areas—the deployment of police resources is, of course, a matter for the Chief Constable—as Minister with responsibility for security, policing goes to the heart of my responsibilities. I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the anxieties that she raised. I have only a short time, so I shall respond in greater depth in writing, if she is happy with that, after the debate when I have read the details in Hansard.

On the hon. Lady's general point about the overall effectiveness of the criminal justice system, I draw her attention to the law and order group that the Secretary of State has established, in which he meets the Attorney-General and Ministers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. They are advised and supported by the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable. We are examining every aspect of the criminal justice process to ensure that the process and management of the criminal justice system are as effective as we can make them.

The hon. Lady is right to talk about a sense of growing problems involving crime. She draws attention to concerns that we all share about the continuing security situation that is faced by the police and security forces in Northern Ireland. However, I would refute the main thrust of her argument, which is that the Belfast agreement is the cause of the current security situation in the Province. She would expect me to say that, but there are many issues on which we agree.

I argue that since the signing of the agreement, the overall security situation has improved. However, serious terrorist and public order challenges remain. The hon. Lady rightly quoted horrific statistics of shootings and bombings. Since the middle of May and throughout the summer months, there have been serious and sustained violent incidents in the Short Strand area in the constituency of Mr. Robinson.

There are still sporadic outbreaks of violence in the north of the city too. During the violence, police have been attacked with blast bombs, petrol bombs, acid bombs, bricks and other missiles. We must consider what sort of a mind makes acid or petrol bombs, and hands them out to teenagers to throw at police officers. The police face extremely serious problems. They have even come under live gunfire from both traditions. Since the beginning of the year, more than 600 police officers have been injured in north and east Belfast. Recently, the police and the Army established a high-profile presence on both sides of the community in east Belfast. It has brought a welcome degree of peace and calm to the area. However, the hon. Lady knows as well as I do that that can never be a permanent solution to the problems.

In Belfast, the police can call on up to seven level 1 and 10 level 2 tactical support groups. That is a total of 502 officers to be deployed in the Belfast area, at any one time to deal with public disorder. As has been the case throughout the troubles, military resources are deployed in support of the police. However, as the hon. Lady rightly says—she has drawn attention to the concerns expressed by Mr. Cramphorn, the then acting Chief Constable, in August—the demands that public order policing have placed on the service directly affect police capabilities elsewhere.

For our part, I assure the hon. Lady that the Government will continue to do everything that we can to create an environment in Northern Ireland where the need to commit such a level of resources is no longer necessary. It remains the responsibilities of others with influence in the community to do everything that they can to help us achieve that goal. On an occasion like this it is important to look to the past as we consider the current arrangements for policing.

I want to respond to the comments that the hon. Lady made several times in her contribution when she talked in general terms of what she described as the wanton destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As we look back, we must never forget that, over their history, the police in Northern Ireland have borne the brunt of a sustained and brutal terrorist assault. They have responded with gallantry and professionalism. They richly deserve the support and gratitude of all in Northern Ireland.

It is hard to believe that it is more than two years since Her Majesty the Queen visited Hillsborough to confer the honour of the George cross on the RUC. On that historic occasion, Her Majesty paid tribute to the police.

She said that the award was:

Xa singular acknowledgement of the gallantry and courage shown, the pain and suffering endured, and in all too many cases the ultimate sacrifice paid by members of the Constabulary during the past 30 years of terrorism and civil unrest."

The Government have now set up the RUC George Cross Foundation to ensure that those sacrifices and achievements are remembered and honoured in a dignified and appropriate manner.

I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to respond to her other comments in writing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.