I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill provides for further provisions for policing in Northern Ireland and it is by no means an unimportant matter. It will implement the Patten commission and last year's review of policing. It has already gone through the other place, where their lordships considered it in great detail and made some useful amendments for us to consider. I am grateful, too, to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for its work on the Bill's consequences and matters.
The House is aware that the Belfast agreement laid the foundations for a better future and for lasting peace in Northern Ireland; it is also aware that the institutions of government in Northern Ireland now lie suspended. The Assembly is suspended, as are the north-south bodies and, of course, the Executive who govern Northern Ireland. As a result, the four Northern Ireland Ministers and I must, reluctantly, rule directly in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made points of order about clashes of parliamentary business. I shall look into the matters that they raised; it was certainly not the Government's intention that there should be a clash or that there should be problems with Commons business. However, they know that the Assembly would have passed 22 Bills during the remaining months of its Session and that, as I have reported to the House on several occasions, those Bills will take the form of orders. There is a time problem with Privy Council approval of the orders, so, although I shall look into the points that were made, the hon. Gentlemen will be aware that the imperative is to ensure that those matters are resolved.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State's reassurance. I do not want to prolong something that is slightly peripheral to the main debate, but does he accept our frustration at the fact that we repeatedly raised those points? The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can probably cover both items of business effectively, but it will be difficult for the minority parties, especially those from Northern Ireland, to do so. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although a large amount of legislation has to be passed, not so much of it is to be dealt with on the Floor of the House that it will be impossible to stagger measures and allow Members to attend?
I shall, of course, look into the matter, but the hon. Gentleman will realise that the House is doing the work of two Parliaments at present. Our undertakings on the legislation that the Assembly would have passed were time constrained. However, I shall look into the points that the hon. Gentleman made and try to ensure that a clash is avoided.
Of course, I accept in the good faith in which he made it the Secretary of State's assurance both that there was no intention on the part of the Government that debates on two aspects of Northern Ireland legislation should coincide and that he will look into the matter. I appreciate the full force of the words "look into" when they are spoken by a Minister on the Treasury Bench. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although discharging the role of two Parliaments—as he rightly puts it—is a considerable burden, it really cannot be beyond human ingenuity, let alone the ingenuity of his Whips Office, to find a way of staggering the business so that we can all take part in all the deliberations on Northern Ireland legislation?
Indeed. I share the hon. Gentleman's view of the ingenuity of Whips so we shall see what happens over the next few days. I take the points that both he and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made.
Of course, if it were not for the fact that the Assembly is suspended, we would not have that problem. Our greatest and most important aim is to ensure that the Assembly returns and that there is an Executive in Northern Ireland, with government for the people of Northern Ireland by people from Northern Ireland. That is the Government's aim, and I believe that it is shared by the Taoiseach and the Irish Government. Most significantly, all political parties in Northern Ireland want the restoration of devolution.
Hon. Members will know that the Assembly lies suspended due to the breakdown of trust and confidence between political parties in Northern Ireland. That resulted in several events, which led to the suspension of the institutions. We need to ensure that we tackle the central issue that confronts us: paramilitary activity.
Other issues, too, must be addressed to implement the Belfast agreement in full. The House is aware that, in two days' time, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will meet at Hillsborough, where they will discuss, individually, with pro-agreement parties how we can overcome the problems and, we hope, ensure that we move forward.
The House also, I believe, needs to be made aware of the events that occurred particularly but not exclusively in Belfast over the past week or so as a result of the loyalist feud, which resulted, unhappily, in the death of members of one side of the feud; they also resulted in members of the other side of the feud fleeing, as they would put it, to Scotland.
The House should be aware that the police have played a uniquely important role in ensuring that those problems are minimised. More than 70 members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland have been exclusively engaged in working on that loyalist feud. There have been 40 arrests, and 20 people have been charged with various offences—attempted murder, conspiracy to murder or possession of firearms with intent.
I have had a meeting today with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland. Obviously, we discussed those matters to try to ensure that the weight of the law and the police force fall directly on what is essentially criminality—gangsterism and mobsterism—masquerading as political loyalism.
I am sure that all hon. Members on this side of the House would agree that that disgusting loyalist violence should be condemned and that it shames the face of loyalism in Northern Ireland, but, in informing the House about events in the past week, would the Secretary of State like to add the disgraceful bomb explosion at a nightclub in Colombia and the great loss of life there? It seems that the bomb was exploded using a method that resulted from the technical training of members of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA who are standing trial in Colombia. Will he include that in his condemnation?
Obviously, I cannot comment on legal proceedings in another jurisdiction. I can, however, deplore what occurred in Colombia and any activity of that nature, whether in south America or on our own continent, and irrespective of whether it is started by terrorists of one side or the other. The question of paramilitary activity goes across the board—it is not just loyalist, and it is not just republican. The reason why the Assembly lies suspended and why politicians of all persuasions in Northern Ireland and the two Governments must address paramilitarism has been brought to the fore dramatically in the past few days.
It is also important to put on record the fact that there is a difference between the criminality that we have seen and the political loyalism that we have also seen over the past few years, which has helped in many ways to develop the peace process. There are loyalist politicians who, like us in this House, abhor such activity; nevertheless, it is important that all of us in government and, indeed, in the House of Commons are conscious of the effect of such activity on the political process.
I share the Secretary of State's views about gangsterism, but does he share the concern of decent folk on the Shankhill road who believe that the police did not act properly when they allowed others to come down the Shankill road, with guns firing, to clear people out of the area? They are glad that the others have gone, but they think that it would be better if the police did their job and protected them, instead of leaving it to mobsters.
I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view about the police; I entirely share his view about the peaceful, law-abiding citizens who live along the Shankill and other roads in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. There are certainly loyalists in the Shankill area who want nothing to do with that sort of gangsterism and mob rule. I believe that those people need to be led by politicians who understand where they are coming from, but it is understood by all politicians in Northern Ireland that it is only through the political process that we can achieve peace, prosperity and stable institutions. As I have said, I have spoken to the Chief Constable, who assures me that the police were very rapidly on the scene and that they did all that they could to deal with the situation. I know, too, that the Policing Board has met the Chief Constable to discuss those issues.
Is not it time that the gangsters among the loyalists in Northern Ireland ceased to be able to hide under what to them is a respectable umbrella term—paramilitary—and were instead described by the Government, and by everyone, as the criminals that they are?
I agree. The time has come for any kind of paramilitary activity—it does not matter from what part of the political spectrum it comes—to end. That will be the purpose of the discussions and negotiations over the next couple of days and weeks.
The Secretary of State will have read the same press reports that I read at the end of last week about people fleeing the Shankhill road to houses bought in central Scotland and in south-east England; some of them were not people whom one would normally expect to be in a position to buy a second home. Last year, the House gave very significant powers to the police under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Will he assure us that there will be the fullest co-operation between his office, the Home Secretary and Scottish Ministers to ensure that those powers are fully exercised in respect of those individuals?
The hon. Gentleman refers directly to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the Assets Recovery Agency, which has now started its operation in Northern Ireland. That will be a great boost in taking ill-gotten gains from criminals and mobsters. As for his point about Scotland, I spoke at the weekend to the First Minister and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
I emphasise that this is not a one-sided matter. Perhaps some of the reason that we do not hear so much about the activities of those who are termed dissident republicans is that they have been thwarted, intercepted and nullified by the very effective security forces that we have working in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that they do not exist: we need only cast our minds back to Omagh to reflect on how awful the activities of so-called dissident republicans can be. I know that the House agrees that all this paramilitary activity must be consigned to history. It is not part of the politics of any modern, democratic, peaceful society.
I fully agree with the Secretary of State that all such activity should be consigned to history. One way of bringing completion is to bring some clarity to the belief and the fact that members of the very same organisations on both sides were used by the security services for security reasons. One of the factors that led to the Ulster Defence Association in all its guises having such power in Belfast was its relationship with the security services and its imperviousness to arrest by them in a certain period.
My hon. Friend is right to bring to the House's attention the fact that, during the 30-odd years of troubles, awful things happened right across the political board, under different Governments. Obviously, the purpose at the moment is to try to ensure that we move forward out of the problems and the mess of the past, which— until the signing of the Belfast agreement—brought us to nowhere.
Having said all that, Northern Ireland is a much better place now than it was when I first became involved in Northern Ireland politics in 1994. It is a safer, better and more prosperous place to live. Economically, Northern Ireland is now developing faster than any other region of the United Kingdom. The other weekend, I went into Belfast city centre to do some shopping. When I first did that, in 1994, I saw police everywhere, it was difficult to shop, it was difficult to go into a restaurant, and it was difficult to lead the kind of ordinary lives that the rest of us can lead in our constituencies. I am not saying that it is now perfect—far from it—but I am saying that there have been improvements. Those improvements have come about because of the changes that we have seen as a result of the Belfast agreement and because of the determination of leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland to want to move to a better society and a better place in which to live. Of particular note is the way in which the police force has developed in the past few years. That has been the most significant change in the three years since I left the Northern Ireland Office as Minister of State.
I have greatly enjoyed visiting Northern Ireland and I explain to folk that it is the safest place in western Europe. On the state of life there, will my right hon. Friend's Department publish details on or carry out an audit of crime outside terrorism? The police in Northern Ireland tell me that there is less "normal" crime there than there is in Surrey. It is a very law-abiding society. We need to proclaim that and, if need be, to document it.
In some ways, that is true, but in other ways, the situation is deteriorating. I mentioned the loyalist feud over the past week or two. Some years ago, that might have been described as semi-political activity, but no one could describe it as such now. The drug activity, the extortion and other activities by paramilitary organisations need to be taken into account.
One accepts the pressure that the police have been under. Did the Minister hear the interview this morning in which the Sinn Fein Assembly representative from Omagh castigated the Police Service of Northern Ireland despite all the changes that it has implemented? Despite all its tremendous good work, it has not yet won the approval of Sinn Fein, which it again sees as a target.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I understand that 18 police officers were injured in Omagh. That is to be deplored. As I said, in the three years that have elapsed between my leaving the Northern Ireland Office as Minister of State and returning to it as Secretary of State there have been huge developments in the police service. The police force is just and fair. It is accountable, professional, effective, impartial and free from partisan control. All those things were set out in the Good Friday agreement as what a police force should be, and I believe that the PSNI operates under those terms. The new Policing Board, which was set up in November 2001, has been powerful and credible. It agreed a new badge and uniform in 2002, and appointed a highly effective new Chief Constable. It issued its first annual policing plan and this week will publish the PSNI code of ethics. It is, I believe, genuinely cross-community, and I pay tribute to all its members.
There have been developments in the district policing partnerships. Nearly 1,500 people have applied to join them, so there is enthusiasm for that scheme. The police ombudsman has increased transparency in the police service and has worked with dedication. I pay tribute in particular to the Northern Ireland Police Fund and the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation. Both those organisations do good work for past and present officers, widows and families, and for others connected with the police service in Northern Ireland. More and more Catholics have joined the police force. In the first year alone, there were more than 530 new recruits. The Government have also recognised that the illegal financial activities of criminals should be tackled through the Organised Crime Task Force, chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and the new Assets Recovery Agency.
The police have led efforts to combat extortion, illegal drugs and money laundering. This weekend, drugs worth more than £3 million were seized in Craigavon. In the run-up to Christmas, the police seized counterfeit goods valued at £500,000. In January, police and customs officers seized 6 million illicit cigarettes in Coalisland. Those are a few examples of what the police force has been doing in recent months. I pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and effectiveness of the police force in Northern Ireland and to the fact that it is by no means afraid of change—far from it: in many ways it has led change most effectively in the past three years.
The Secretary of State has given us some interesting figures on organised crime. Could he inform the House how many members of the Provisional IRA and how many members of mainstream loyalist terrorist organisations—the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force—have been arrested and convicted for involvement in racketeering, especially drug dealing, in the past 12 months?
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the interesting changes in Northern Ireland society in some areas where there was great scepticism about policing is a greater willingness to accept the rule of law rather than vigilantism? One example lies in the concerted efforts of families bereaved through car crime, particularly joyriding, to effect changes in the law with the apparent support of the local community. I do not think that that would have happened 10 or 15 years ago.
I am sure that it would not. Those changes demonstrate that the community at all levels and in all its variety supports policing to deal with so-called joyriding.
Having set out its context, I shall now turn to the Bill, which focuses on strengthening the role of the Policing Board and clarifying its relationship with the Chief Constable and me in my role as Secretary of State. That is consistent with Patten's vision of a more accountable police service. Clause 1 requires the Secretary of State to consult the board with a view to reaching agreement when drawing up both long-term policing objectives and codes of practice. The board in turn must take account of the Secretary of State's objectives in framing its policing plan, as laid out in clause 2. The final piece of the jigsaw is the obligation on the Chief Constable to take account of the Secretary of State's long-term objectives, only insofar as that is consistent with the board's policing plan. At the specific request of the Policing Board, and in light of its experience over the past year, the Bill gives it greater flexibility on the frequency and spacing of its public meetings, as well as flexibility in the timing of the publication of the best-value performance summary.
As for reports and inquiries, the Bill introduces two changes to bring the law more fully into line with Patten, followed by provisions allowing for the handling of sensitive information by the board and measures against any misuse of it. Clause 21 would require the board to set up a small but representative committee to deal with sensitive information. Wherever the Chief Constable was sharing with the board or the committee sensitive information as defined by the Bill, he would be obliged to flag it up as sensitive. That is particularly important as, under clause 20, it would be a criminal offence for a member of the board or of the committee to disclose any information shared with them by the Chief Constable that had been specifically identified as sensitive.
Clause 18 places a general obligation on the Chief Constable to supply the board with such information as it requires to carry out its functions. Finally, on the approval of proposals relating to inquiries by the board, clause 11 amends the threshold of board members required to vote for an inquiry, reducing it from 10 to eight, provided that that is the majority of those present and voting.
When the right hon. Gentleman described the proposed powers or conditions in clause 20 to impose confidentiality on members of the Policing Board, he said that members both of the committee and the board would face criminal sanctions if there was a breach of confidence. Could he confirm that he meant "and", and that it is not simply members of the committee.
I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman, in case I say the wrong thing. As far as I can see from the information before me, it would be the committee and the board, but I will clarify that before the night is out.
Clause 12 gives the police ombudsman the power to investigate current police practices and policies, rather than, as at present, simply research them. Under the clause, the ombudsman will have access to all the information that she requires although, as already noted, the existing safeguards on disclosure of information are retained. The Bill also clarifies the extent of the ombudsman's remit in this regard relative to the separate supervisory arrangements set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. There has been extensive and fruitful consultation with the ombudsman on all the changes that I have just described.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that the increased powers of the police ombudsman do not include power to investigate restrospectively—that "current" means current and on-going into the future, not trawling back through the past?
I can confirm that.
At the request of the board, the Bill places an obligation on the Policing Board to secure representativeness in appointing independent members to district policing partnerships, and clarifies the position for appointing individuals who have previously been removed from a DPP. Clause 16 makes it clear that policing with the community is to be one of the core policing principles, along with the human rights-based approach to policing that is enshrined in the new code of ethics. For policing to be effective, it must have at its heart the fundamental principle of human rights for all and it must command the support and co-operation of all sections of the community. The Bill reinforces those principles.
The Bill will enable the Chief Constable to make fixed-term appointments at ranks from sergeant to chief superintendent in order to facilitate secondments with policing powers from non-UK police forces. Part 2 contains important measures brought forward at the request of the Chief Constable with the support of the Policing Board. They build on provisions introduced for England and Wales by the Police Reform Act 2002. Clauses 23 and 24 give the Chief Constable greater flexibility in the deployment of civilian staff, including contracted-out staff, under his control. The duties that those individuals may take on are set out in schedule 1. They are mainly the roles of investigation officers, detention officers and escort officers.
Clauses 29 and 30 make it clear that designated civilians are subject to the same requirements in relation to notifiable memberships as apply to police officers, and they are to be guided by the police code of ethics. In addition, where there are complaints about the exercise of police powers by these civilians, those complaints will be handled by the ombudsman. These measures will allow the Chief Constable to use civilian staff, including contracted-out staff, on some of the more routine policing duties, such as escorting detainees and operating custody suites, thus freeing up officers for front-line duties.
I should not close without saying something about the "text for consideration" that the Government published last November. During the passage of the 2000 Act through Parliament, the Government made it clear that it was our hope that in the future the sensitivities surrounding the issue of ex-prisoners joining DPPs would subside. I give the House an assurance today that the changes proposed in the "text for consideration" will be brought forward only in the context of acts of completion on the part of the paramilitaries, and I emphasise that by "acts of completion" I mean, in the words of the Prime Minister,
"commitment to exclusively peaceful means, real, total and permanent . . . an end to tolerance of paramilitary activity in any form".
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way a second time. He will be well aware of the recommendation in the Patten report that the independent members who serve on DPPs should bring with them
"expertise in matters pertaining to community safety".
How can anyone with a criminal conviction or a terrorist conviction bring with them expertise in community safety? How does that implement Patten?
The hon. Lady has her interpretation of Patten. Similar individuals can serve on boards as a result of political appointments. However, the proposed appointments are independent ones. The hon. Lady saw the "text for consideration" and knows that it contained considerable safeguards, first by way of a five-year gap between having served a sentence and serving on one of the new bodies, and secondly, by giving the House order-making powers so that the House would be conscious of the time necessary for that to happen. I also say to her that, if we indeed see a major change in the way in which Northern Ireland develops over the next few months and years, there may well be circumstances in which members of parties that have been linked to paramilitary activities in the past would play their role. I re-emphasise, however, that that has to be done in the context of major changes that have been defined by the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and me.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. In respect of the last question asked by Lady Hermon, surely it is perfectly possible for a reformed terrorist to consider local community matters, policing interests and community safety as issues of importance. Is that not further defined in the code of practice relating to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, so that there are clear criteria about the obligations that an individual must fulfil?
That is entirely right. The Select Committee considered that issue in relation to the Bill. As I said, the context of such events is one in which Northern Ireland is free from the grip of paramilitarism that has been there in the past. There is justification for suggesting that all parties in Northern Ireland may eventually serve on policing boards, but all that must happen in the context to which I referred.
Before I conclude my speech, I shall put the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford out of his misery regarding his earlier question. The criminal sanction applies to both the board and the committee, so my guess was right.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way one last time. I shall interrupt him again only on this occasion. Since membership of DPPs will be finalised in the next few days—all the membership will be known in the 26 district councils—will he confirm that there will be no changes until the next district council elections two or three years hence?
I understand that that is the position. The time when DPPs change will be 2005. That is when those changes will occur.
Northern Ireland has undergone considerable change in the three short years since I was last there. In many regards, it has altered beyond all recognition. People shop, work and walk the streets as they could not have done only a few years ago. The fear that accompanied everyday life for people in Belfast and elsewhere is receding every day, but nowhere has that change been more dramatic or difficult than in policing. The change from the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland marked a new beginning for policing in the Province. The PSNI has been in the vanguard of the changes in Northern Ireland, just as it has been in the vanguard of its fight against terrorism.
This Government and this Bill will continue to support and strengthen policing in Northern Ireland—policing which I am confident will be welcomed and sustained across all communities and by all traditions. I commend the Bill to the House.
I should like to begin by endorsing what the Secretary of State said about the apparently very active policing undertaken in the difficult area of north-west Belfast over the past week or so. As he knows well, speaking from the Opposition Benches, I have also done everything that I can to encourage the Police Service of Northern Ireland increasingly to take an attitude of zero tolerance to violence or at least to maintain the standards and attitude regarding outbreaks of violence that we would expect elsewhere in the country.
Our attitude to the Bill will be determined by two considerations. First, will it improve the effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland? In other words, is it useful in itself? Secondly, will it assist the peace process? In other words, is it expedient to introduce the Bill at the present time in terms of our other objectives? I do not think that the Government have made even the slightest serious attempt to argue that the Bill is necessary for the cause of good policing in Northern Ireland or, indeed, that it has anything to do with strengthening policing in Northern Ireland. In fact, some of the Bill's provisions will serve only to weaken effective policing and the administration of justice there.
Let us take as an example the extraordinary proposal in clause 19 to remove one of the protections that formed part of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000: the inhibition on the Policing Board's ability to ask for information from the Chief Constable or to launch an inquiry, when, according to section 59 of the 2000 Act, doing so
"would, or would be likely to, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders".
The Secretary of State must surely agree that the prevention or detection of crime, and the apprehension and prosecution of offenders, go to the heart of the criminal justice system and of good policing, yet that protection—which the Government themselves decided was required in the 2000 Act—is now being removed. That seems extraordinary to anyone who cares about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. Neither the Secretary of State this afternoon, nor the Government, when this Bill was debated in another place, has attempted any justification for its removal, in terms of the needs of policing.
Most strikingly of all, the Bill says nothing about what is undoubtedly the major policing problem in Northern Ireland at present: the great deficit in police numbers. According to the Patten report, the regular force should number 7,500. That figure was based on the assumption of the completion of the peace process and the end of political and paramilitary violence, but we all know how far away we are from that. The current strength of the regular police force is about 6,900. The Bill does not address that problem; it contains no proposals for dealing with it. Nor does it address the failure of recruitment under the 50:50 procedure. We support that procedure in principle, but it has led to a situation, in the last round of recruitment, in which the Chief Constable had only 26 Catholics who met the required standards and was therefore able to recruit only 52 new officers.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, in the final stages of the passage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill in 2000 in another place, his colleagues in the Conservative party objected to and voted against 50:50 recruitment? What has changed in the two years since then to convince the hon. Gentleman to support the principle?
I am very happy to answer the hon. Lady and, as I hope is my wont, to give her a frank and honest answer. I am also happy to answer the hon. Gentleman, and to take the credit—or the blame; the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman can choose—for this. Naturally, when anyone is appointed to a job on the Front Bench, on the Government side or the Opposition side, it is their responsibility to look through the existing party or Government policy on the matter that has become his or her responsibility and to decide whether it is sensible to build on that and to take it forward, or to revise it.
I am happy to tell the hon. Lady—I hope that she will note this down and not ask me the same question again—that I came to the conclusion that the 50:50 principle was right, and that we should support it. Despite the fact that the principle is dubious in itself and contrary to human rights, it nevertheless seemed to me that, in the context of Northern Ireland, it should be upheld and that other considerations should be overridden, because of the overriding need to produce a police service that the people felt to be owned by both communities, and to get away radically, decisively and clearly from the difficulties that we have had in getting acceptance of the legitimacy of the police force from the people of Northern Ireland. I am, therefore, very happy to tell the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman that this is an area in which our policy has evolved. I am also very happy to defend our present policy. We strongly support the present Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady wants to intervene again. I must make some progress, but if she wishes to insist on intervening, I will try to come back to her on another occasion.
The hon. Gentleman is far too kind. To let the House understand his strength of feeling on this matter, will he tell us how far he is prepared to depart from the point of principle on 50:50 recruitment? Would a ratio of 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 or 5:1 be acceptable? How strong are his principles on this issue, and how far and for how long would he depart from them?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me or whether I have misunderstood him, but 50:50 means just that—it does not mean 250:50 or 150:50, it means 50:50. I accept the principle that, for the immediate future, normal, mainstream recruitment at constable level to the PSNI should be based on the assumption that the number of recruits who are deemed to be from the Protestant community should equal the number who are deemed to be from the Catholic community. We should accept that system for the time being. However, that is clearly a derogation from the normal principles to which we adhere in the Opposition and it must, by its very nature, be temporary—like other forms of so-called affirmative action, which make no sense at all unless they are temporary. That should be the case on this issue. How quickly we manage to achieve something like 50:50—not arithmetically exact but something like 50:50—will depend on progress in recruitment. In recent recruitment rounds, that progress has not been satisfactory, as I have said.
I will give way in a moment. If this Bill is given a Second Reading—and we will not try to stop it being given a Second Reading—we intend to introduce amendments that will directly address this issue. I may be able to give the Secretary of State a flavour of those amendments. For example, candidates or would-be recruits who are deemed to be Protestants, who make the grade but who are held back from taking up a position in the PSNI because there is an insufficient countervailing number of Catholics, should not have to go through the process over and over again. Once they have qualified, they should be able to move into the ranks of the PSNI when the 50:50 process permits them to do so. We will introduce a number of ideas of that kind. However, I notice that the Government have been completely barren of practical suggestions to address this serious problem. My strictures, to which the Secretary of State appeared to object because he wanted to spring to his feet, have been more than justified.
As he now supports the 50:50 recruitment policy, the hon. Gentleman ought to be aware of what it is based on. It is not based on 50 per cent. Protestant and 50 per cent. Roman Catholic; it is based on 50 per cent. "others" and 50 per cent. Roman Catholic. In the recent census, almost 10 per cent. of the population came under the category of "others"—that is, non-Protestant. The hon. Gentleman can therefore see that we are not talking about a 50:50 ratio for Protestants and Roman Catholics; we are talking about a rather lower level of Protestants.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that I have changed my policy. I have not. I have always said the same thing on this subject. It is important to be clear about that.
However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point. I have heard it before and I accept it. In Northern Ireland politics and history, there is a sort of convention that people from a Jewish background, for example, were counted as being Unionists or Protestants rather than Catholics. That is the kind of absurdity of life that one gets into when one starts to categorise people. I must emphasise again that I do not like categorising people. I do not like such distinctions. I think that they are anomalous, unpleasant and undesirable. The trouble is that the consequences of getting rid of the mechanism are worse. Sometimes in life, there is a conflict between two principles to which one is attached. One has to decide which principle will carry the day, and I have made my decision.
I am astonished at the suggestion that the consequences of getting rid of this mechanism would be worse. As everyone knows and as the recent census shows, the target population from which the police would recruit—namely young men in their late teens and early 20s—is fairly evenly balanced. Indeed, in some age cohorts, there are Catholic majorities. If we have equal participation, we will have equal recruitment. Therefore, we should not focus on this artificial device but on equal participation. Crucial to that is the attitude adopted by the civic and political representatives of the nationalist community who have yet to implement Patten's recommendation on that point. We should focus on that rather than on something that is a denial of the human and civil rights of the people concerned.
I am grateful for that intervention, but there is no trade-off. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right. An extremely serious problem is continuing intimidation and implied intimidation by republican paramilitaries of would-be Catholic recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I hope that he has not forgotten the fuss that I made at the Dispatch Box when an attempt was made on the life of a young Catholic recruit in Ballymena and what I said at that time about the refusal of the president of Sinn Fein to condemn that.
However, to try to solve the problem in as short a time scale as we can, we self-evidently need not only the end of intimidation—the right hon. Gentleman knows that I feel every bit as strongly about that as he does—but this mechanism as well. I understand that it is a rather unpalatable concept to the political tradition that he represents so ably, and I have great respect for the opposition of principle that he has to it. As I have said, it is a matter of conflict between principles.
The only thing that I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about is the suggestion that recruits should principally be young men. I do not think that that there should, in principle, be more men than women. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue on his part. Furthermore, I do not want to exclude the idea that we should recruit people into the PSNI from older age categories. Perhaps we do not share the same strong views on those matters as we do on intimidation of any kind.
In such a debate, it is reasonable to take a number of interventions, but I have been successfully sidelined from my main theme. I know that the Government would like me to be sidetracked from that theme, because the Bill does not deal with it or with any of the real problems of policing.
Something else is very curious about the Bill. It follows just over two years after the introduction of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. I see Mr. Mandelson, who was responsible for that Act, in his place, and it is known in many quarters in Northern Ireland as the "Mandelson Act". However, in none of the documents that I have read, in none of the explanations that the Government have given this afternoon or over the past few weeks in the other place, in none of the explanatory notes, which I have read, and in none of the myriad reports on the PSNI that have been carried out over the past few years—the latest is the Constantine report—has it ever been argued that the provisions of the 2000 Act have been proven to be defective and need to be revised. If I am wrong and have missed something, I hope that the Secretary of State will intervene to put me right.
There is therefore more than the suspicion—in fact, it is quite clear—that there is no pragmatic justification for the Bill. Parliament is being asked to legislate on policing in Northern Ireland, but it is not being asked to do so for the sake of policing in Northern Ireland. The motive lies elsewhere. When the Government are pressed, as they have been by my noble Friends in another place, they always say that the changes proposed in the Bill are required by the Patten report and that the Bill is designed to implement Patten. However, the 2000 Act was designed to implement Patten. So did the 2000 Act implement Patten, or not?
The hon. Gentleman helpfully says that it did not. Well, now we know.
If the 2000 Act did implement Patten, clearly Patten cannot be used again as a justification for this new and different Bill. If it did not implement Patten, the Government clearly misled—I use that term advisedly— the House and the public in saying at the time that it did. Indeed, that was the whole announced purpose of the 2000 Act. The Secretary of State remains remarkably and uncharacteristically quiet while I say all this. It clearly must be one thing or the other, and I hope that he will tell us which.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for having permitted me with such courtesy to intervene.
If I heard the Secretary of State correctly, he intimated that a number of provisions towards the end of the Bill were requested by the Chief Constable in order to facilitate the civilianisation and the release of policing resources in relation to detention and investigation officers. Again, if I heard the Secretary of State correctly, the Bill's earlier provisions were included at the request of, and initiated by, the Policing Board. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, to ask who initiated the increased powers for the ombudsman and the change in the composition of the DPPs.
My expectation was justified—the hon. Lady did act as a proxy for the Government. She came up with the answer to my question that I was expecting the Government to come up with, but they did not—perhaps they did not think of it quickly enough. It will not wash, of course. I am well aware that the Bill contains the provisions that the hon. Lady mentions regarding the use of contractors and protection for contractors who come in to work for the police, but that is no reason to include in the Queen's Speech a major Bill that requires Second Reading, days in Committee, and so forth. It is certainly no reason for the revisions to the Mandelson Act—the 2000 Act—which is being substantially changed, indeed, in many respects emasculated, by the Bill.
I have no intention of acting as proxy for anyone, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the explanatory notes on this part of the Bill, which state:
"The purpose of the Bill is to implement more fully the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland"— that is, the Patten report. That is the Government's position in this respect, and, for a change, I accept it.
Of course the hon. Gentleman accepts the position of the Government—these are the changes that the SDLP has been pushing for, and the Bill is part of the bargain that has been done between the Government and the SDLP, so it is hardly news that the SDLP is happy with the situation. It would have been an extraordinary state of affairs, which would have opened up questions about the rationality of all concerned, if the SDLP, having pressed the Government to introduce the Bill, were to stand up and criticise the changes that it proposes. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman has revealed that the Bill was not designed to address objective problems of policing and to strengthen policing and the administration of justice. We have been through all that and we have seen that it is not the case at all.
I shall of course give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment to see whether he denies this. The Bill was designed explicitly to fulfil the promises that the Government gave to the SDLP at the Weston Park meeting. It is a political Bill with a political origin that emerges directly from a political negotiation and agreement between the Government and the SDLP.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he will support the Bill? He told us that he would not go into the Division Lobbies to vote against it, but is he in favour of it? As far as proxies are concerned, my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon gave a very good proxy on behalf of the Government and Lady Hermon did not do a bad job either. The hon. Gentleman himself gave a marvellous proxy on behalf of the Government in relation to the 50:50.
I am sorry that, to score a point, the Secretary of State suggests that 50:50 is a party political issue. The right hon. Gentleman should welcome bipartisanship on that. We support it because we believe in it; it is the right approach. When we believe that the Government are doing the right thing, we support them. When we believe that they are doing the wrong or dangerous thing, we disagree with them and try to head them off. As he knows, I do not agree with the Government's tactics or substantive proposals on many matters. However, when I agree with them, I am happy to support them.
We want to find out exactly what the hon. Gentleman believes. Does he oppose or support the Bill? Is he simply indifferent to it? Hon. Members do not know.
They will know when I finish my speech. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is becoming impatient, he can have a preview.
We would not have introduced such a Bill now. It is unnecessary and undesirable when a police Bill was enacted so recently. As the Secretary of State admitted, further police legislation will be necessary. Clauses of a measure that make concessions not to the SDLP but to Sinn Fein have already been published. Will a third, fourth or fifth Bill be introduced? Will he present measures to assuage the anxieties of the Democratic Unionist party, to bring the loyalists on board or to help the nationalists or republicans with some problem? Will the Police Service of Northern Ireland simply become a ball that the Government toss endlessly between the different Northern Ireland parties? I sincerely hope not. That is the wrong approach. I shall argue shortly for a different approach to the peace process.
However, the Bill exists. The Government did a deal with the SDLP whereby the SDLP supported the Policing Board and the new police service and got the concessions. If we voted against the Bill and thus killed it—I like to believe that we would be so eloquent that we could persuade a majority of hon. Members to vote against it—we would deliver a humiliating blow to the SDLP on the eve of important elections on
We shall allow the measure to progress to its next stages, and table substantive amendments to try to make it more justifiable and more directly able to deal with the problems of policing in Northern Ireland. If we achieve substantial success, we will support the Bill on Third Reading. If not, we may vote against it. We shall see what happens. I hope that that satisfies the Secretary of State.
The Government increasingly gave the game away this afternoon by conceding that the Bill contains no substantial provisions that policing in Northern Ireland requires. The Secretary of State spoke about the Patten report and the 2001 implementation plan. When the Government were taxed with similar criticisms in another place, they continually referred to the report and the plan. However, the implementation plan does not answer the question or get us any further. It is simply a statement by the Government. It amounts to the Government justifying what they say today on the grounds that they said the same thing yesterday. It is tautologous. It adds nothing to the argument for the measure's legitimacy or credibility. However, it betrays the Government's true purposes, which I have already revealed. The Bill is a political measure that reflects the commitments that the Government made at Weston Park. I do not know why they could not say that instead of leaving me to make the analysis. They know that what I said is true. Mr. Mallon implicitly acknowledged that. Why therefore do not the Government have the courage and frankness to tell hon. Members the truth and the genuine reason for the measure? They would have gained in dignity and hon. Members would have gained in understanding if that had happened at the outset.
The 2000 Act—the "Mandelson Act"—was intended to implement Patten in a way that would minimise the affront to Unionists. It did, of course, affront them greatly by abolishing the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and in other ways. Now the Government are presenting another Bill to deliver on the promises that they made to the SDLP. There is, I think, a fear that this method of legislating for policing in Northern Ireland has no natural end, and that we shall see an endless series of police Bills occurring every year or so, each addressing a different group and trying to provide some of its desiderata.
That, as I have told the Government many times, is a hopeless way of proceeding. We have a better idea, which we have suggested to the Government. I suggested it to them long before the present Secretary of State took his post. We have always proposed a single, global, comprehensive negotiation with all the parties on the implementation of the Belfast agreement and on all points outstanding, followed by the implementation of a single, final package. That package would have to include policing—and, no doubt, a police Bill, but one alone, one that would stand the test of time, and one to which all could sign up without feeling that it had been designed merely to deliver a specific set of concessions to a particular party.
The Bill clearly cannot meet the first test that I identified at the beginning of my speech, namely whether it contributes usefully to policing in Northern Ireland. It was not even designed to undergo that test. It can be judged only on the second criterion—whether it is relevant and helpful to the peace process. I intend to devote the rest of my speech to that second issue.
As the House knows, we are at one with the Government on the objective in Northern Ireland—the objective of peace and normalisation. We are at one with them in believing that the Belfast agreement provides the best, perhaps the only, basis for that peace and normalisation. Our differences with the Government, which have at times been radical, have related to tactics, important as tactics are.
I say "have". I use the past tense optimistically, because I retain the hope that the Government may finally come round to our point of view, not so much because of our eloquence in advocating it—although I hope that we are eloquent—but because of the even greater eloquence of the facts: the even greater eloquence, sadly, of the serious reverses that the Government's tactical errors have brought to the peace process over the past five years.
Let me be clear about what the Government's essential error has been. It has been to neglect the intrinsic interlinkage of all the issues involved in the process. Those issues are IRA decommissioning and disbandment—I do not accept the euphemism "acts of completion"; let us be candid and clear—loyalist decommissioning and disbandment, demilitarisation, the end of expulsions and beatings, the future of law and order, policing, justice for victims, arrangements for ex-prisoners, amnesties, human rights Bills and all the rest. All those are inextricably linked.
When I used the word "interlinkage" in the days of Dr. Reid—I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman for this—he would jump to his feet and explicitly reject the use and appropriateness of the term. He was, in my view, entirely wrong to reject the concept of interlinkage, and I believe that it was because the Government rejected that concept and did not perceive the essential interdependability of all the elements in Northern Ireland that they made many of the mistakes that they made.
Would the hon. Gentleman include in this inextricable linking of all the circumstances and facts from violence to non-violence what is now known as Stormontgate—the activities of a spy ring at the very heart of the institutions of Government of the United Kingdom? Should not any political party involved in that, and convicted of any offence, be excluded from the executive of the process?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I think such parties should have been excluded from the institutions, because I argued that very strongly at the time. Not only that, but last July, well before we knew about Stormontgate, I had said that because the Government had completely failed to react to the various abuses and breaches of the ceasefire and agreement that had already occurred, there would inevitably be more. I said that they should take powers to deal with that by being able to exclude from the power-sharing Executive—on the decision of the Secretary of State, not by putting forward a motion in the Assembly—a party in breach of, or in concert with parties in breach of, the ceasefire and agreement. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who took a major part in our debates, will recall my saying that in July.
Had the Government accepted my advice in July, they would have had that power to exclude a party in breach when Stormontgate was revealed last autumn. That would have enabled them to target the guilty rather than dismantling the whole structure of devolution, targeting everybody—innocent and guilty—and bringing about the present crisis.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that I have given way very generously. I may give way later, but I should like to make progress now.
The Government made a series of great errors, including four colossal ones that I shall enumerate in a moment. They were all a result of a misconceived, false analysis of how progress can and cannot be made in Northern Ireland. It is all a result of the failure to grasp the importance of interlinkage and consequently the attempt to proceed by partial agreements, by side deals, by what the Prime Minister called inch by inch negotiations, by trying to buy off one faction, then finding that they have alienated somebody else and trying to find something to appease them with. The history of the police Bills, which I have just outlined, is part and parcel of that sorry process.
In the course of, and as a result of, that mistaken and misconceived policy, the Government made four cardinal errors. The Secretary of State may have heard me list them before, and he will hear me list them again as long as I think there is still a danger that the Government might repeat them. It is very important to draw lessons from the past, and where there have been major disappointments and reverses—as there have been—in the peace process, we must not fear to face up to the errors that have been committed.
The first error was that the Government released all the prisoners without any decommissioning whatever. That was an extraordinary and naive error, which probably cost the best opportunity of fulfilling the Belfast agreement within the two years provided for in the agreement.
Secondly, the Government compounded that error by offering new concessions, not required by the Belfast agreement, to those who had not implemented their undertakings under it. It makes no sense when people have not delivered their part of the bargain to give them a bonus for non-delivery, which is what the Government did. That was the story of the special status for Sinn Fein MPs here—incidentally, another humiliation for the SDLP at the time, perhaps deserving of some compensation for the SDLP subsequently.
That was also the story, the disgraceful story, of the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, which was promised by the Government at Weston Park. According to that promise, which was in writing, it was to be delivered by the end of 2001. Thanks to our opposition, that commitment was never delivered—and thank heaven it was not, because, thanks to us, that card still remains in the Government's hand, and a very important card it is.
Thirdly, we have the policy of not responding to breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement, the policy of turning a blind eye. As I said at the time, not responding to such abuses makes it inevitable that there will be more, and so it has proved: Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh and then Stormontgate. Finally, there was the error of suspending Stormont as a whole and not just those who had caused the crisis.
All those errors had in common not only that they involved throwing away leverage on Sinn Fein, but that they also guaranteed the disillusionment, sense of betrayal and sometimes—I regret it, but one understands it—alienation and rejection of the whole Belfast process, which we have seen across the board among other parties in Northern Ireland.
I fervently hope that the Government have learned the error of their ways. The Secretary of State has mentioned this week's discussions, and I welcome the fact that they are taking place. During those discussions and the further intensive discussions that will certainly be required and which hopefully will take place in the coming critical weeks before the May elections, and, if necessary, during the six-week period provided thereafter for an Executive to emerge—that is a very tight timetable indeed—there must be a new approach. There should be no more attempts at side-deals and partial implementation, because they simply will not work. There should be no more mealy-mouthed phrases and no more euphemisms. It should be quite clear what the Government mean when they speak of "acts of completion": let them say "decommissioning and disbandment". If they want to use another word that has the same finality as "disbandment", that is fine, but let them not try to deceive themselves—or, worse, anybody else—as to the seriousness and completeness of what is required by way of those acts of implementation.
A settlement, if it is to be viable, must be four things. First, it must be comprehensive, for the reasons that I have explained. Secondly, it must be transparent—I know that this, too, is a new one for the Government—otherwise, there can be no trust, and no one will make the difficult moves if he or she suspects that others are getting a private deal. This is the mistake that the Government have been making all along: creating everywhere the suspicion that somehow, someone else was getting private assurances. Obviously, that made it very unlikely that the party with those suspicions would feel able to put all its cards on the table. Thirdly, a settlement must be balanced. Never again must there be an appearance—I fear that, often, there was much more than an appearance—that all the concessions are going one way. Sadly, as I have explained, that has been the case with, among other things, police Bills such as the one before us today.
Finally, a settlement must be definitive, and for two compelling reasons. First, no one in Northern Ireland will make a significant move unless they know what portion of the total price to be paid such a move represents, what they will get in return and by when, and what will happen if the other party, or parties, do not deliver. In other words, everyone must see, and be signed up to, the end game. That is why there is no such thing as a partial settlement—it must be a definitive settlement. It is no good people holding something back for the next round, and it is no good if people think that there is going to be a next round; this must be it: it must be definitive.
The second reason why the settlement must be definitive is simply that there is very little time. I very much hope that it will be possible to reinstate the Executive during the next few weeks before the elections. However, if it is not, and if there are elections, under the rules there will have to be agreement on an Executive within six weeks. There will be no agreement on an Executive unless there is decommissioning and disbandment by the IRA, because the Unionists have rightly made it clear that without it, they will not rejoin a power-sharing Executive. So unless there is a global settlement—because all these things are interlinked—there ain't gonna be an Executive formed within six weeks of the May elections. If an Executive are not formed within that time, the Secretary of State knows perfectly well what must happen. We must have either new elections, or another suspension of devolution and the restoration—sine die, this time: in other words, indefinitely—of direct rule.
I do not believe that the credibility of the peace process could survive the extraordinary state of affairs whereby we ask the electorate to go to the polls on
We fervently hope that the attempts over the next few weeks will be successful, but I repeat that they will be successful only if there is a comprehensive, global, full, definitive and balanced settlement. If the Government pursue those discussions and conversations on a realistic basis, they will have our full support. If not, not.
Before I address the Bill specifically, I think that we should remind ourselves of the problem of policing a divided society such as Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State is right to say that the problem is about much more than policing. It is a problem of allegiance and identification with the state. It is a problem with the recognition of the legitimacy of the state within which people live and the Administration who govern them, and the police service that serves them.
It is right to say that policing is much more than what the Policing Board will decide, in its wisdom or otherwise, to do. For that reason, it is worth repeating that the attempt to solve the policing problem in Northern Ireland goes way beyond the operations of the police service. It goes to the heart of the problems that people such as me have had to face, politically and in many other ways. Therefore, we should consider carefully everything to do with policing. That is what I have tried to do these past 30 years. I have tried to examine the problem, even when it was not popular to do so.
It will never be popular to talk about policing in relation to Northern Ireland, but it is crucial that we do so, because if we do not get policing right other things will follow. It will not be possible to keep an Administration or other political institutions going if we do not have a solution to the policing problem. The issues are so closely linked that we must examine—honestly, as I have tried to do—how one is dependent on the other.
What did the Good Friday agreement say about policing? It offered a new beginning for policing. I am convinced that that is possible and that it will happen. What has happened so far has already begun to unlock, in a limited sense—although it will be much less limited before this month is out—the constitutional logjam that policing faced in relation to the nationalist community in the north of Ireland. It has not fully achieved that, but it is on the way. That is why the Bill is crucial.
I am probably regarded as a fairly conservative, reasonable nationalist, although some people might not choose to use the word "reasonable" in relation to me. However, I am not an extreme nationalist and, as such, there are two ways in which I can achieve the changes in policing that are necessary for me to give my allegiance not only to policing in Northern Ireland but to the institutions of the state. The first is through legislation and the second is through implementation.
The business of the political process is to deal with legislation. However, this measure deals with a failure of legislation because the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 did not adequately deal with how Patten, in his wisdom, suggested that I and the community that I represent could make changes. The very fact that we are holding this debate is recognition of legislative failure on policing. I do not like having to say that. As someone who has supported Labour from the day and hour when I knew what politics was about, I do not like saying that legislative failure put us in this position.
Implementation—the second aspect—will be achieved in several ways, including through the Policing Board. Our party had the courage to join that board. It also had the courage to ask young nationalists and Catholics to join the police service. There were no ambiguities—no ifs or buts: we simply asked people to do it. We asked the community to take part, too. Young people can implement change by joining the police service. Political parties can do so by sitting on the Policing Board. People throughout the community can do so by making it clear to everybody—not least those involved in paramilitarism—that they want a police service that they can be proud of, and that they will defend and sustain it. That is the crux.
As the Secretary of State rightly said, we are a substantial way down the road to change, but we must consider the failure of the 2000 Act. That measure was passed by the House on the basis of a number of side deals—to which reference has constantly been made this evening—even at one minute to 12, to which Members who were present on that occasion and are in the Chamber today can bear testament. I look forward to hearing their confirmation of that fact.
Mr. Davies made great play of the fact that my party—the Social Democratic and Labour party—had committed some heinous crime by taking part in negotiations organised by the Government: at the invitation of the Government, we went to Weston Park and committed the awful crime of negotiating a good position based on what Patten had said. We told the Government for the umpteen hundredth time that, if they did not get to the heart of the problem, we could not be involved in the Policing Board; we would not be able to deliver because they were not giving us the legislative basis on which to do so.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; I know that he has much more to say.
What is the difference between negotiating at Weston Park at the invitation of the Government, at Hillsborough castle at the invitation of the Government, in Downing street at the invitation of the Prime Minister or in Castle buildings at the invitation of the two Governments? I am proud that our party went to Weston Park and told the Government: "You have made a legislative hash of this: now start to change it, because if you don't you will not solve the policing problem".
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He had a smile on his face when he was making the remarks that he directed at me, but as the readers of Hansard will not know that I want to set the record straight. In no way did I intend to imply—nor did I imply—that there was something wrong with the SDLP going to Weston Park and negotiating with the Government. Indeed, far from committing a heinous crime, the hon. Gentleman did a very good day's work. As I said earlier, the Opposition do not want to be party to depriving the hon. Gentleman of the fruits of that occasion. There are many much less deserving parties in Northern Ireland and he can be pleased with the good negotiations that he conducted.
I was in fact criticising the Government for having conducted a series of partial deals and concessions. One or two of those concessions were thrown at the hon. Gentleman, but bigger ones were made elsewhere. Given the hon. Gentleman's analysis, I think that he would agree that—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening—I know the point that he tries to make—but the reality is that there were no side deals. What happened at Weston Park was put in the public domain—not by us, but by others—within a month of the Weston Park agreement. There was no sideshow; there were negotiations between ourselves, as a political party, the British Government and the Irish Government, whom we demanded should be the guarantor of what was agreed at Weston Park. That was what we sought to negotiate, and it has resulted in the Bill.
Of course hon. Members will recognise some of the flannel that has been thrown in to cover up the legislation—for example, the financial provisions, which cover a number of pages. We all recognise flannel when we see it—we are long enough about the political process—but, in the context of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I did not apologise for anything that we did at Weston Park. I have a great sense of sadness that it took the Government a year—they wasted a year—to get to Weston Park and that it took a very considerable period to redress the administrative damage that was done.
I am sad that we all lost a year in terms of the Policing Board and in developments in policing. We lost that time because some found it difficult to face up to the facts. There were those who knew better than Patten or than others, such as myself, who live in the north of Ireland, and they thought that they would be able to pull a fast stroke that would solve the problem. However, when it comes to fundamentals such as this, no fast stroke or sleight of hand will work, and this is the classic example of a stroke going wrong. That is why we are debating it today.
When the hon. Gentleman's party took the very courageous decision, for which I warmly commend it, to join the Policing Board in the autumn of 2001, the Irish, British and American Governments and the Catholic Church all said that what had been agreed was in the spirit and letter of Patten. I think that my memory serves me well. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that his party has been undermined by further Government concessions to Sinn Fein, which did not take its seats and have the courage of his party?
I thank the hon. Lady for asking that very valid question. That is the humiliation referred to by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. Let me deal with it. Before hon. Members cast their vote on the Bill, I would like all of them to go through it to find the changes that were not negotiated by the SDLP and that were not publicly stated before we went to Weston Park. The public were told, "Here's what we are going for. If we get it, we'll go on the board. If we don't get it, we can't." I ask the hon. Lady whether she can identify those things in the Bill that result from negotiations that were not done by the SDLP. She can let me know if she finds them and perhaps then I can answer her question more accurately. I leave that as an offer to the hon. Lady and, no doubt, she will reply to it later.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the concessions that are to be made to Sinn Fein are not contained in the Bill, but were set out in what the Government described as texts for consideration. The reality is that we will be dealt yet another blow if the Government must persuade Sinn Fein to join the Policing Board by offering further amendments and concessions that go beyond the Patten recommendations and what is in the Bill. Is not that the reality to which my hon. Friend Lady Hermon refers?
I hope that I do not detect a scepticism bordering on cynicism in what the hon. Gentleman says. If he is asking me to put my hand on my heart and say that I know that this matter has been dealt with properly, fully and adequately, I will do so when it gets Royal Assent. I have every confidence that, in this instance, the Secretary of State will deal honourably with our party in negotiations as the Bill passes through the House. I have every confidence that, as a man of integrity, he will stick by the word of the Government. I have every confidence that the legislative process in this House will solve the problem of policing, not little deals done wherever they were done in the past at one minute to midnight. I am confident of that, but, for my answer to be definitive, I shall give it when the Bill receives Royal Assent. I thank Mr. Donaldson for the point that he makes.
I want to make several other crucial points. I have heard the debates about what will be given to this, that and the other party. I am no longer at the heart of negotiations, so I do not know what has gone on under the counter with Sinn Fein. I do not know what has gone on under the counter with the Ulster Unionist party. I do not know what has gone on under the counter with the Democratic Unionist party. What I do know is that we have negotiated with integrity and honour and that the decisions in respect of the Policing Board were taken with integrity and that our members are applying them. We will continue to do that in relation to policing. I trust that everyone will take that approach to this matter.
I regret that I was late in arriving for this debate, but the mother of my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell, who is my party's spokesman on this issue, has been taken seriously ill, and I only came here today on a call from the hospital. I hope that the House will give me that indulgence.
It is very unlikely that the Democratic Unionist party that I lead could give anything at the table, as we are never called to the table. We are not there. I have written to the Prime Minister to ask him why he does not call all parties to make representations. As we take an anti-agreement stand, we are not even called to the table to put our views. In those circumstances, it is hardly likely that we have had such a chance. All that I would say to the hon. Gentleman is this: what does he think was the reason that the other paper was produced giving the IRA-Sinn Fein demands? Will the Government not do something—
I think that the hon. Gentleman means part of the Bill that is not in legislative form: in other words, the text that is added on depending on how the card game goes between now and the end of the month. The Social Democratic and Labour party does not negotiate that, and he would not ask me to stand over something that we did not negotiate. I agree that independent members of the district policing partnerships should not be disbarred. There is no logic to a situation in which one ex-paramilitary can sit on a DPP because he has been a district councillor but another who served his time in the next cell cannot because he was not elected to the district council. I want to be clear that that is not part of the Bill. The text on that may, or may not, see its way into legislation, which is why some of the debates in Standing Committee could be interesting.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the distinction that the Secretary of State drew in 2000 between those who were appointed to DPPs because they were councillors and those who stood as independent members was the electoral mandate? That is the crucial difference between councillors who go on to serve on DPPs and independent members.
I obviously agree with the hon. Lady, but I thought that the terms that were rattling about related to the principle of the text rather than the definition of electoral mandates. Perhaps I am wrong. I am sure that the Standing Committee will clarify some of those matters.
Rev. Ian Paisley referred to Sinn Fein. Our party took a lot of stick—we were attacked—when we rightly decided, on the basis of Weston Park, that we would nominate people to the Policing Board and ask young Catholics to join the police service. Members of our party had their houses attacked and cars burned by people in, what I would widely call, the republican community. If we had taken a different stance, what would have happened? There would be no Patten proposals to move us forward. Would the PSNI exist? I doubt it. Would the symbols used in policing have changed? The old policing authority would still be in place. The Democratic Unionist party and the SDLP would not be appointed to it, so we have that in common. There would be no new Chief Constable because, in the circumstances, he would not have come in. The ombudsman's report on Omagh would have been ignored, and there would have been no changes to special branch visits.
I say clearly to Sinn Fein that we do not deal with problems in the same way. If it wants to retard progress for its own political reasons, it can do so, but we are not going to join in. We did not join it in the past and we shall not join it in the future.
The hon. Lady's question is valid but, unfortunately, I cannot answer it. Nobody can, but we all know of the presence and intimidation in both communities that is not voiced, does not involve any action and cannot be traced—but it is there. Interestingly and sadly, the same problem is experienced in both communities. How did some of the people whom we have seen on television in the past few weeks make millions dealing in drugs and prostitution when everyone knew that that was happening? Was anybody giving that information to the police? Was anybody in the Shankill road, where those poor people were caught, providing information? They did not do so, because they were dead men and women the next morning if they did. We must ensure that people such as the hon. Lady and me support young people who join the police and their families—that is the heart of the matter. We must make it clear in our communities that we will not allow people to be bullied out of the career that they choose.
Governments need to get the legislative arrangements for policing right, but the onus is on us to get the implementation right. Patten made that clear—legislation could only do so much; the rest would have to be done through the Policing Board. I pay tribute to the members of the Policing Board and the remarkable way in which they have conducted their duties since its formation. I include all members of the board in that tribute; at a time when political processes and Administrations were falling, and when north-south bodies and power-sharing Executives were being suspended, the Policing Board was taking the pressure, and it was a revelation that it was able to keep going. I should like to place on the record that that is my view—I appreciate the efforts that those people made.
I look forward to the day when Patten's vision is fully realised. We are in the second year of a lengthy programme. If we are reduced to looking at things in terms of Catholic and Protestant or focus on the inevitably niggly aspects of legislation we tend to lose sight of the larger vision. I am still convinced that, on the basis of the wishes of people in the north of Ireland of all political persuasions and of all religions, we can achieve the protection of our communities and the betterment of society through good proper policing. We all face that challenge now, but some of the challenges that we have faced in the past are behind us. Many people have helped to make that possible. As the Bill goes through Parliament, we must realise that the more we get the legislation right, the easier it will be for people to get its implementation right.
I welcome the opportunity to say again what I believe about policing. With regard to what was said earlier, this is probably the last time that I shall speak on the Floor of the House about policing—at least, I hope this is the last time I speak on the Floor of the House about policing. If we get the Bill right, as we will, we will provide the foundations for the political institutions to be sustained and for the rest of the political developments to progress.
Let us not waste any more years. Let us not waste any more legislative opportunities. Let us take those opportunities and make policing work in its totality. Yes, there are political and practical implications, and implications in terms of religious denominations. I wish those implications did not exist, but they do. That is the reality. But if we get our end of things right, we can help to make sure that other people will do the same.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Mallon, who made a thoughtful and well-considered contribution to the debate. I found a great deal of wisdom in what he said. I am acutely aware that on matters relating to Northern Ireland, I do not come close to the pedigree of the hon. Gentleman or hon. Members on the Unionist Benches. Listening to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, I feel ever so slightly humbled.
Liberal Democrats are pleased to give the Bill a broad welcome. It comes to us having already been in the other place, so we have the advantage that much of Government thinking is already on record. As regards drafting, the Bill comes to us in much better shape than is often the case with Bills that start their life with Second Readings in this place.
The coincidence of timing—the debate comes in the wake of events in the Shankill last week—gives our discussions of policing a potency that they might not otherwise have had. The importance of policing in the process of normalisation cannot be overestimated. A further indication of that is the fact that, as has been mentioned, the Bill comes fairly hot on the heels of the 2000 Act.
Reading press reports last week as the two factions of the Ulster Defence Association fought it out in the streets of the Shankill, I was struck by the fact that the apparently victorious faction went on record as saying that the drug-dealing scum were all gone. The fact that that man said that at that time and in that way shows the distance that we still have to go in relation to the normalisation of policing. Two thoughts immediately spring to my mind when I hear such things. First, I would require a great deal of persuasion that those who were doing the chasing out were any better than those being chased out. Secondly, it is surely fundamental in any democracy that if drug-dealing scum or any other sort of scum are to be removed from the streets, those who remove them must be in the police force. What we saw last week suggests that we are a great distance away from that.
I was pleased to hear much of what the Secretary of State said. I was curious when he referred to the disclosure offence in clause 20. Subsection (7) of proposed new section 74A of the Policing (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 states that the offence will be
"liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale."
It is easy to envisage circumstances in which such an offence could be of the utmost gravity. I should be interested to know why the Government have restricted the penalty that is applied in relation to such offences to a financial one. Why is the option of custodial disposal not given to the courts in their consideration?
The Secretary of State referred to the tremendous progress that has been made by the Policing Board since its inception, as did the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. I do not intend to rehearse those remarks, but I point out that the appointment of the new Chief Constable and the new badge and flag for the police stand in the board's credit column. Some of the clauses represent a strengthening of the Policing Board's role and give it more flexibility, which may bring it more into line with what Patten envisaged.
In particular, the Liberal Democrats welcome the requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the Policing Board and the Chief Constable before introducing new objectives or codes of practice or altering the existing ones. The extension of an explicit obligation on the Secretary of State to undertake that consultation with the board with a view to reaching agreement seems to us an eminently sensible provision that does not diminish his powers to determine or revise long-term policing objectives if he fails to reach such agreement with the board. The Liberal Democrats have always supported a strong Policing Board, which we hope will bring policing closer to the community and the community closer to the police.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. On that very small point, will he explain how the Policing Board is strengthened by a reduction from 10 out of 19—a majority—in the number of members needed to initiate an inquiry? The original legislation ensured that a public inquiry could be initiated only by 10 members of the board, but the Bill reduces that number to a minority of only eight members. With regard to collective responsibility, how is the board strengthened if a minority can compel the undertaking of an inquiry?
As ever, such matters are a question of checks and balances. My understanding is that there is a balance to that particular check, as the majority of the board's members have to be present and voting. I am aware of the objections raised by the hon. Lady's party in the other place, but I think that a view has to be taken on such matters. The Government have taken their view and I can see some grounds for objection to it, but that is certainly not a point on which I would die in a ditch, if I may use that expression.
One of the issues about the Policing Board that troubled my colleagues in the other place was the provision reducing the minimum number of public meetings that it should hold each year. The Minister will recall that when Patten produced his report, the board was to meet in public once a month. The 2000 Act reduced the number of public meetings to 10 a year and the Bill further lowers that number to eight. On the basis of what was said from the Government Benches in the other place, it seems that the Government's thinking is that there were low attendances at the public meetings that have so far been held and that that is some sort of justification for the reduction. I caution the Government against pursuing that logic. Public meetings of this House are not always particularly well attended, but if they were to suggest that we should meet less frequently because of that, there would be something of a backlash. I hope to hear from the Minister exactly why this further reduction has been proposed now.
Clause 16, which covers core policing principles, is particularly important and the Liberal Democrats are pleased to endorse it. It places at the heart of policing the concept of community policing, which is something that we have always sought to advance in relation to the remainder of the United Kingdom. It is an indication that we are proceeding down the road towards normalisation that we can talk about the development of policing in Northern Ireland in the same terms as we do for the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank the Minister's colleagues in another place for the reassurances that they have given that these principles represent exactly that, and that they are there to help to guide officers in relation to the way in which they should carry out their functions, rather than to give a ruling on that. I also welcome the reassurances given in relation to the European convention on human rights and the need for police officers to adhere to a code of ethics that is fully compatible with the convention and with other international human rights standards.
I turn briefly to part 2 of the Bill, and, in particular, to the civilianisation of the police. The Government will be aware that we have some reservations about this process but, again, I want to thank them for taking on in the other place our concerns about the use of civilian officers for the performance of intimate searches on people detained in custody. That issue was first raised by my noble Friend Baroness Harris of Richmond during the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002, and I am grateful to the Government for tabling amendments in the other place to make it clear that only medical staff may carry out those intrusive searches.
We still have some concerns about the use of civilian staff and, in particular, about how they will be trained. It is certainly fair that it should be up to the Chief Constable to determine the amount of training that civilian officers require, but we do not think it unreasonable that the House should have a say on what guidelines he will be given on the amount of training appropriate for each type of civilian officer. This is not a criticism of the Minister, but, when I hear her colleagues from the Home Office talk about the civilianisation of policing, I am left with a lingering suspicion that they somehow think that policing is not really that difficult, and that we can pick and choose aspects of it that can be divorced and given away to people who are something between a traffic warden and a police officer. I speak as one who, before coming to the House, worked in the criminal courts, albeit in Scotland, and I feel that this is a subtle but effective way of undermining the professional standing of the police in the community. I hope that the Government will be mindful of the importance of this issue as they go down that road.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the police themselves have clearly identified a number of tasks that they do not think they should carry out, and that, in those circumstances, there is a good case for civilianisation?
Of course there is, and that is why we do not oppose civilianisation in principle. But it is a question of where we draw the line—of what powers we expect these civilian officers to have and what areas we expect them to operate in. For example, I have no real difficulty with the designation of civilians for court escort duties and the like, provided that the appropriate safeguards are put in place.
The one area that concerns me is the question of what constitutes proper grounds for a search under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. According to that provision, the law is perfectly straightforward. In fact, such a massive body of case law has built up around that one section that it is now a minefield for working police officers of considerable standing and experience who have had full training, let alone a civilian officer who might stumble into that kind of situation in all innocence. Because such officers would not have the appropriate background or complete training, they might not be in possession of the whole picture. They could therefore jeopardise a significant drugs case without having any intention of misconducting themselves in any way.
May I assist the hon. Gentleman by saying that the provisions towards the end of the present Bill have been replicated more or less verbatim from the Police Reform Act 2002? During the Standing Committee on that legislation, the point was raised about intimate searches being degrading treatment, and I understand that the Home Office gave an undertaking at the time that civilian officers would be made familiar not only with the provisions for training laid out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 but with human rights provisions.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It points up the extreme caution with which we must approach the civilianisation of policing. Eventually, we must ask whether, if we have to give civilian officers such comprehensive training on the wider rules of criminal procedure and evidence, it might not be the right thing to do to employ more properly and fully trained police officers in the first place. This is an immensely difficult issue and it is only fair to the community, the police, and the civilians who are going to be put in that position that the fullest consideration should be given to the manner in which this legislation is introduced. The Standing Committee on the Bill will certainly want to examine the matter in greater detail.
The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve a policing service that is responsive and sensitive to their needs, and which is also held fully accountable by the Policing Board. The Bill represents a modest step down the path towards normalisation. In so far as it moves us down that path, it is welcome, and the Liberal Democrats will support it.
As a general rule, ex-Secretaries of State should not try to do the job of their successors. I rise, therefore, with great modesty and trepidation, knowing that, when we talk about policing in Northern Ireland, we are always walking on eggshells. Although the contents of the Bill are really very limited, fairly inconsequential and bordering on the arcane, one or two aspects of it trouble me. That is why I want to speak this afternoon. I have discussed some of these issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and he knows that, in my approach to these matters, I have the utmost regard for and trust in the way in which he is carrying out his responsibilities in the very difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland.
I would like to clear up one deep misunderstanding at the outset. The Bill has nothing whatever to do with implementing further recommendations of the Patten report. If it were the case that recommendations had been left unimplemented, or that certain provisions of the report were unfulfilled and now needed to be implemented, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would have identified those provisions and recommendations. He did not. Implementation of Patten was achieved in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000; that was certainly the Government's view and I was a member of that Government. Indeed, in many respects, that Act was Patten plus, with knobs on. Given the difficult circumstances and conditions persisting in Northern Ireland at the time, we went out of our way, to the very outer limits of our ability, to implement Patten lock, stock and barrel. We did that because of the immense importance of creating a fresh start in policing in Northern Ireland. I do not need to rehearse the arguments. They are well known, I am sure, to all those who are here this afternoon. Creating confidence in the police across the community in Northern Ireland, and securing commitment to a new police service from both sides of the political and sectarian divide, was an immensely and supremely important prize. It is testimony to the application of politicians both here and in Northern Ireland at the time, and, if I may say so, it is testimony to the strength, robustness and durability of the original legislation, that that fresh start in policing has indeed been achieved in Northern Ireland. That has certainly been surprising for some.
We implemented Patten and achieved a fresh start in policing while understanding and bearing in mind two very important things throughout. The first was that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was not being dishonoured. The existing force was not being disbanded. Weight was attached to retaining the good will of serving officers whose morale was crucial to maintaining the operational efficiency of the police service in that very troubled part of the United Kingdom. The second was that the arrangements that were being put in place for the governance and accountability of the new police service had to be sufficiently robust to instil public confidence across the community, but not so robust as to make the job of practical policing any more difficult to achieve. Getting the balance right was difficult, but I thought that it was extremely important that we should do so.
I can remember saying this again and again to the wonderful officials who worked for me on the drafting of the original Bill and throughout its passage. Although we had to accept that policing was political—as, of course, it is, everywhere but even more so in Northern Ireland—my bottom-line requirement was that politics should not so intrude into policing that the police became hampered operationally and less able to do their job with complete efficacy. The systems of accountability and of insight and investigation into the police could not be turned into a battering ram to be used by less scrupulous people against the police. I felt that scrutiny and inquiry into the new police service under the new arrangements should not become a means of constantly raking up the past, thus politicising—more than is normally the case in Northern Ireland—the work of the new service. It is testimony to the tremendous sense of responsibility on the part of the Policing Board that was appointed—and the Policing Board as it is presently composed, a point that I would underline—that all the risks and dangers have, in the main, been avoided, and that the very careful equation that we constructed, with the checks and balances that we wrote into the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, has been operated with common sense and maturity.
How would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House that there is not a multiplicity of inquiries that hinder the police, when even the firing of one baton round is inquired into, costing £2,000? Over and over again, we have had such inquiries because one man fired a baton round. Surely it is getting right down to the very minutiae of police activity when an inquiry is held into every baton round that is fired?
The hon. Gentleman's question serves to illustrate the concern that I am about to come on to in the remarks that I will make on the new piece of legislation rather than the original Act.
A police service that is constantly at risk of being inquired into and investigated, with its policies and actions questioned and challenged, its judgments called into question, and its practices constantly put under a microscope by the accountability bodies—and, for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there is more than one such body—cannot easily get on with the job of policing.
If memory serves, while the right hon. Member for Hartlepool was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and while the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill was being debated in this House, he wrote a very good article in the Irish News. In that article, he made it clear that the distinction that he drew between independent members and elected members of district policing partnerships hinged on the electoral mandate. Will the right hon. Member explain whether his view has changed? Does he now accept that independent members with criminal or terrorist convictions can come on to DPPs without any electoral mandate?
I will respond to the apparent inconsistency that the hon. Lady has identified. At the time I said—and this was the Government's view—that an electoral mandate should override any other consideration, even that of a previous criminal investigation. That remains my view. However, I also remember saying at this Dispatch Box that, in time—and time heals a lot, if not all, in Northern Ireland—we would want to revisit the issue and consider it in the light of the experience of the peace process and political developments in Northern Ireland. I suspect that that is what lies behind the Government's contemplation of the change to which the hon. Lady refers.
I want to go back to my remarks on the constant, unrelenting pressure on the police, with their every move, judgment and action scrutinised, brought out into the open, put into a goldfish bowl, and debated. My fear—and I would put it no more strongly than this—is that the provisions of the new Bill will tilt further in that direction, creating risk in the evolution of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
A balance must be struck between constantly reviewing the police and allowing them to get on with their job—a balance between the need to secure inclusiveness and accountability in the governing arrangements for the police and their ability to get on with their job. A balance must be struck between the party and independent members on the Policing Board and on the district policing partnerships. There must also be a balance between the Chief Constable, who is rightly responsible operationally for what the police do, and the Policing Board, which has responsibility for holding him to account in a general sense but not on particular aspects of the operations that he superintends.
I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is always a danger of over-regulation, but that might be the price that one has to pay to build confidence in those parts of the Northern Ireland community that did not trust the police. However, does he not accept that one of the biggest frustrations for a proportion of the police force is not what is in this Bill, but the fact that there is mandatory 50:50 recruitment? To follow the logic of his argument, it would be appropriate for the Government to review that provision if they want to remove some of the pressure on the police.
That is a matter for the Government. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would be perfectly happy to hear their arguments for any changes that they might contemplate in that regard.
All sorts of checks and balances were involved in the original Act. There was not just a balance between the board and the Chief Constable, but a balance and check between the differing responsibilities of the board and the Secretary of State and a balance relating to the respective roles and powers of the ombudsman, the board and the Secretary of State vis-à-vis the police service. By no means, do I claim perfection for the original Act, but we took great care at that time to get it right in policing terms and not just in terms of what was being demanded politically by the different parties in Northern Ireland.
It goes without saying that everything in Northern Ireland involves negotiation. Given the history and nature of the conflict there, every day, every week, every issue and everything is rightly subject to negotiation. That is in the nature of the peace process and the conflict resolution in which we are all engaged. Compromise is the order of the day, and that is right. However, we must be careful not to confuse compromise with political expediency when such important practical matters as policing and the upholding of the rule of law are at stake. We must certainly not confuse compromise with the political expediency that downgrades or displaces the professional needs of the structures of law and order in Northern Ireland that have such a responsibility placed on them in the particular circumstances of the Province. I certainly do not suggest that Ministers are disregarding the professional needs of the police and the structures of law and order—quite the opposite. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State well enough to know that he would never move an inch in that direction.
However, we must bear in mind that nowhere in the United Kingdom—indeed, in very few places in the western world—are the structures of law and order under greater pressure than they are in Northern Ireland. They are under pressure not just from terrorist activity from the residual number of dissidents, but from organised crime, sectarian violence, intra-community killings and the continuing civil disorder of the sort that we have seen just this last weekend. That provides the backcloth, and the Government need to consider carefully any move that risks unbalancing the existing political framework and the existing system of checks of balances that were so carefully weighed and so carefully written into the original Act. If a wrong move is made, that may make the job of the police even harder than it already is.
For example, the Bill proposes to reduce the already limited safeguard that enables the Secretary of State to question the board's desire to launch inquiries into the police. The board's right of inquiry is of the utmost importance, but Rev. Ian Paisley illustrated how one can take that right to excess and apply it improperly in a way that discredits the very right that it is important to build into the legislation. In other words, that right must be exercised with caution and not with an excessive political zeal that threatens to destabilise the police or, at the very least, almost drain them of their energy and ability to carry on their normal policing functions.
We must remember that what will take the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to Hillsborough this week are the possible circumstances in which Sinn Fein and republican members join the Policing Board and the district policing partnerships for the first time. I welcome that; it is long overdue. Sinn Fein has been trading for too long on its commitment to the Good Friday agreement and the peace process without actually signing up to a crucial, central part of the agreement that was made. However, we should not pretend that this would not introduce an entirely new political dimension to policing if and when republican members join the police bodies. We must be aware of the impact that that could have on the governing arrangements of the PSNI.
The Bill also proposes that, out of the Policing Board's 18 or 19 members, the new required number of members needed to approve an inquiry is only eight. If one considers police authorities in most parts of the United Kingdom, most people would think it extraordinary that it would take only eight members of a board to bring about the instigation of what could be a very major and expensive inquiry with major long-term implications for the police. I recall that there was huge pressure to agree to the paltry figure of eight in the original Bill, and the Government believed that the figure of 10 was very much on the low side. We made it absolutely clear that, if we conceded to an ever-lower figure, that would risk exposing the police to unreasonable political pressure that would reduce the credibility of any such decision by the board. After all, it is a major step to set up an inquiry and, if it can be agreed by eight out of 18 or 19 members, that is bound to reduce the credibility of the decision. If the power was unreasonably or improperly used, it could lead to an unravelling of confidence by the police and the public in the PSNI's governance. I have heard the reassurances offered by Ministers on that point, but I have yet to be fully convinced that this particular change is necessary or desirable.
The same is true of the proposed extension, after a short period, of the powers of the ombudsman in Northern Ireland. She is only just beginning to make proper use of her existing powers, and not without controversy. It is important to recall that Patten always intended the focus of those powers to be on individual complaints about wrongdoing by the police, so that someone who had got on the wrong side of the police, or had suffered from some improper use of police powers, would have somewhere independent to go in the knowledge that their complaint would be thoroughly and rigorously examined, as it should be. The Bill expands the role of the ombudsman by shifting it away from the investigation of individual complaints to embrace wider and more general investigations into police practices and policies, which are properly the domain of the Policing Board, not the ombudsman, given the original conception of his—now her—role in the Patten report.
Under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the new office of a chief inspector of criminal justice has been established—although the appointment has not yet been made—and the police ombudsman's office will fall within his remit. Does that reassure the right hon. Gentleman about the ombudsman's extensive and increasing powers?
No, I am afraid that it does not. The ombudsman has a very important job to do in addressing individual complaints brought by members of the community against the Police Service of Northern Ireland. She is only human and cannot be expected to embrace such a wide canvas, or waterfront, of possible calls to investigate not only individual complaints, but the general policies and practices of the police. I am not entirely reassured by the change that the hon. Lady mentions.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the key benefits of the parliamentary ombudsman is that they are able to identify systemic failures arising from individual cases, and does that not reassure him that some of the changes in the Bill will not be as draconian as he fears?
If that were the case, one could rely on the undertaking that I gave from the Dispatch Box at the time of the previous legislation that, should the ombudsman identify a pattern of behaviour, she would be able to make it public and present her views to the board and to the Secretary of State without further changing legislation and investing in her, additional powers and responsibilities that she does not have the capacity to undertake at this stage in the development and evolution of her role.
I want to tell the Government this: there is a very complex political situation to be negotiated in Northern Ireland, given the suspension of the institutions and given our overriding desire to restart those institutions, to get devolution under way again and to achieve the full and enduring implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I had to smile slightly when Mr. Davies complained that the Government were contemplating doing deals in Northern Ireland. I have to say to him in his absence that if he does not understand that politics in Northern Ireland is about is doing deals to secure the peace process and the advances and progress that we have already achieved, he remains, despite his long service in his job, a stranger to the affairs of Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Government's handling of the negotiations or of their present complexity, but care must always be taken never to play politics with the police's effectiveness and ability to do their job, because on that rides the public's confidence in the peace process and political negotiations of which policing forms a part. If the public begin to think that risks are being taken with their security and safety, we will quickly see a rapid erosion of their wider confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland.
We have to be clear that the long-term prize that is at stake is enduring stability, ceasefires and peace in Northern Ireland. The ability of the police, with the rest of the community, to help to transform the Province, for the first time that anyone can remember, into a thoroughly law-abiding, law-upholding place, is fundamental to the achievement of that prize. It is therefore important that nothing is done, for the sake of what might appear to be short-term political progress, to undermine the security of Northern Ireland and the long-term integrity of the peace process.
The Government will take many decisions in the coming days and weeks that bear on the short term and the long term in Northern Ireland, some of which will relate to policing and some of which will relate to the normalisation of security and to the infrastructure that supports its maintenance, and they will of course have my full support in taking those necessary political steps. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State needs to be aware—I know that he is, as I was when I did his job—that he will have to ward off pressures for short-term fixes and concessions that, however expedient or harmless they may look today or in the short term, can bring unforeseen and uncovenanted dangers in the longer term.
Given the right hon. Gentleman's experience of having been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and his understanding of the feeling in the wider Unionist community about what is called the transition and reform in policing, can he foresee, in the circumstances that will arise over the next few weeks, that the Government of whom he was a member could start to put together a deal that would make it impossible for the law-abiding Unionist parties—the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party—to continue to participate on the Policing Board if the price was a deal to bring Sinn Fein on to that board when it is still involved in terrorism and violence?
I would regard it as unthinkable for the Government to contemplate any set of actions that would result in it becoming impossible for Unionist representatives to continue to be members of the Policing Board, and I have absolute confidence that they are not contemplating and would not contemplate such a set of actions.
I know, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that the Government will need to weigh carefully all their decisions—not only on the Bill, but on bigger and weightier matters that will be on their plate in the coming days and weeks—and I have no doubt that they will do so. I hope that the outcome is political success, completion, closure—in every sense of the word—and restarting devolution and the political institutions in Northern Ireland. Every member of the community can and should take pride in the institutions' work and the extent to which they have served the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. They will continue to do that if they are given the chance.
It is an honour to follow Mr. Mandelson. He was an exceedingly good Secretary of State in his all-too-short time in Northern Ireland. He was sensitive about reforming the RUC and he recognised the sacrifice of the 302 officers who gave their lives defending all communities in Northern Ireland from terrorism. The Patten report did not recognise that properly. During his term of office, the RUC was awarded the George Cross. I regret that he was hounded out of office after the period of suspension that he announced in February 2000.
Mr. Davies is no longer in his place. I was sorry that he felt unable to take several "friendly fire" interventions. I hope that I did not misunderstand him, but he said that the name "RUC" had been abolished. However, the title was changed only for operational purposes. Section 1 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 clearly states:
For legal reasons, the title "RUC" continues. For operational purposes, the body is the "Police Service of Northern Ireland."
I am pleased that Mr. Mallon and I are in agreement. Both of us are weary of the number of measures that amend or introduce police reform. They include the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998; the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and the Bill that we are considering today. Like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that the Government have now got it right and that we shall have no more piecemeal amendments to policing and police reform. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appreciates that every time a change is made to policing, it is construed—rightly or wrongly—as a concession to republicans.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will elaborate on that later. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that there were no concessions to republicans on the face of the Bill. I agree. However, we anticipate that, if the Provisional IRA is stood down—the euphemism that is being used for disbanding—and it undertakes a final act of decommissioning as it promised the people of Northern Ireland in its statement in May 2000, the Government will further amend legislation. They have such a huge majority that the amendments will unfortunately be accepted, even if they do not implement the Patten report.
I have already alluded to clauses 19 onwards in an intervention on Mr. Carmichael. They repeat the provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002. It introduced four categories of officer: community support officers, investigation officers, detention officers and escort officers. It is therefore curious that the Bill omits community support officers. The Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, is under continuing pressure for resources, and one would therefore expect the Bill to provide for community support officers.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made a valuable point. The contracted-out services will be given to civilians. Expecting them to abide by a code of ethics is not sufficient. The Secretary of State will recall that the Patten report contained the famous words,
"human rights should be seen as the core of policing" in Northern Ireland. If we want the Patten report to be implemented fully, civilians who undertake escort or investigation duties must receive human rights training as well as training under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. The Bill does not go far enough.
I am also worried about district policing partnerships. Clause 13 states:
"In appointing independent members of a DPP the Board shall so far as practicable secure that the members of the DPP (taken together) are representative of the community in the district."
"Representative of the community" has become a popular phrase. It was contained in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, which established the Parades Commission. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Evelyn White, a young lady from the Garvaghy road, challenged the composition of the Parades Commission because its nine members are all men. Not a single woman serves on the Parades Commission. The Lord Chief Justice heard the case and the phrase "representative of the community" was interpreted in the context of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 as a balance between Catholics and Protestants, not men and women. That is unacceptable.
I ask the Government not to leave the bare phrase,
"representative of the community in the district".
If they genuinely wish to implement the Patten report, they should consider paragraph 6.26, which states:
"Taken as a whole, each DPPB should be broadly representative of the district in terms of religion, gender, age and cultural background."
It would be helpful if those words were included in the Bill instead of the bald phrase, "representative of the community". In previous case law, it was interpreted narrowly. That is unacceptable. All members of the community, including women, should have a say in a district policing partnership.
I hope that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh will forgive me if I paraphrase him incorrectly, but I believe that he described the Catholic-Protestant provision as "the niggly bit". He said, "Let us not disagree over the niggly bits." I say with the greatest respect to him and to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford that although both are keen for the 50:50 recruitment procedure to continue, I have a difficulty with that.
That is not what I said. I referred to the Catholic-Protestant divide, purely because it is an element of the overall legislation with which we are dealing. A completely distinct point that I made was that policing legislation in general contained many niggly parts. Perhaps that stems from the fact that we are a niggly people living in what is currently rather a niggly place. My plea was that we should not lose sight of the ultimate vision in Patten simply because we considered some elements to be niggly. In no way was I disparaging either Catholics or Protestants, or indeed making my point in relation to them.
I am grateful for that clarification.
As I was saying, my difficulty with the Bill is caused by its failure to deal with the 50:50 recruitment procedure. Why do I find that so terribly offensive? Along with, I would have thought, all who support the Belfast agreement—which I still passionately support—I find it offensive because, in referendums, the majority of people in Northern Ireland and in the Republic voted in favour of an agreement that, unusually, repeated not just once but twice its reference to a commitment that
"parties affirm in particular . . . the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class or creed."
It also stated that
"the British Government intends as a particular priority. . . to promote equality of opportunity in relation to religion and political opinion."
That was said in 1998, and the overwhelming majority of the people of the island of Ireland endorsed it. I find it grossly offensive that, two years later, in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, the British Government legalised religious discrimination in the recruitment of police officers. Had they not negotiated an exemption from European Union directives that would have made it illegal by December 2003, we would not be faced with this terribly divisive and counter-productive recruitment procedure for constables. Young Catholics are warmly welcomed into the new Police Service for Northern Ireland, and I am pleased to see them there; but I am deeply concerned about the possibility of their being made to feel that they are there not on merit, but because of their religion. I find that offensive.
During the time of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, many young Catholics bravely entered the force although they and their families had been targeted. The intimidation was dreadful and harrowing for all concerned. Although, I am delighted that so many Catholics are entering the police service, they should be doing so because intimidation has ended and not as a result of a discriminatory recruitment procedure.
I remind the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford of a High Court decision from July 2002. When a young constituent of mine, Mark Parsons, challenged the procedure, Mr. Justice Kerr, a distinguished Northern Ireland judge, considered its compatibility with our human rights obligations under the European convention on human rights. It is, in fact, tolerated because it is of a temporary nature. Section 46 of the 2000 Act is entitled
"Temporary provisions concerning composition of the police".
There should therefore be a review in spring 2004, but the longer the procedure remains the more disenchanted the Unionist community becomes with the Government's failure to keep faith with the Belfast agreement that they supported in 1998. It continues to undermine Unionist confidence in the Government's commitment to the agreement.
I said earlier that it was possible to make a strong and intellectually respectable, indeed morally respectable, case against the 50:50 provision in Patten. I understand that case, although I explained earlier why I felt that it must be overridden by other considerations. The hon. Lady should recognise, however, that, according to her logic, she rejects Patten. That has serious implications for the peace process, because the question of what she will replace it with arises immediately, as does the question of how any new consensus on policing involving both communities can begin to be built if Patten has been thrown away. If the 50:50 mechanism, with all its imperfections and anomalies, which I fully acknowledge, is thrown away, Patten is thrown away. The hon. Lady must make that choice.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that under the terms of reference given to the Patten commission by the Belfast agreement, the commission was asked to produce proposals that could enjoy widespread support from the community as a whole. I hardly think that legalising religious discrimination can gain such support. It is deeply divisive. When the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs took evidence, the Secretary of State said that such action would be counterproductive, and warned strongly against it. I do not think that the Patten commission fulfilled its terms of reference.
I am afraid that, rather uncharacteristically, the hon. Lady has evaded the question. The terms of reference do matter; the fact is that we now have Patten as it stands, and she must either reject it or accept it. If she throws away the 50:50 procedure, the whole thing will unravel and she will have rejected Patten. My question remains: what will she put in its place? What better basis has she conceived for bringing in the nationalist community and creating a police service that genuinely commands the support—and in due course, I hope, the affection and respect—of the people of Northern Ireland, on both sides of the sectarian divide.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for another helpful intervention. He will know that during my husband's time as Chief Constable of the RUC, his deputy was a Roman Catholic, as were certain other Assistant Chief Constables. The Patten commission confirmed that there was no discrimination whatever in the RUC.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee examined the composition of and recruitment to the RUC in 1997. It concluded that the main cause of the low Catholic recruitment was not discrimination but intimidation. If members of a political party—Sinn Fein—hesitate and faff around and cannot condemn, as the hon. Gentleman rightly did, a vicious, nasty, murderous attack on a Catholic recruit in Ballymena, and instead sit on the fence, intimidation will continue. That is shameful and disgraceful of Sinn Fein.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble said that according to the demographic figures there is an almost equal balance between young Catholics and young Protestants of both sexes, so both should be entering the police service quite naturally. It is one of the reasons why I wish Sinn Fein would have the courage that the SDLP showed in the autumn of 2000 in coming on to the Policing Board, because it will mean that the war is over if it is encouraging young republicans to enter the police service. It cannot tolerate them being shot in the back at the same time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Patten report is not holy writ and that the Government are not compelled under any circumstances to accept every recommendation in every report produced by an independent body? Therefore, there was never a question of either accepting or rejecting.
I thank my hon. Friend for his very helpful intervention.
After 30 years of some of the most stringent anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland, I find it personally offensive—I ask the House to bear it in mind that I have lived there all my life—that the British Government should legalise religious discrimination and negotiate exemption from a European directive that would make such discrimination as we have before us illegal. I thought that I would never see the day. It is intolerable, and it brings disrepute upon those who maintain this provision and wish to see it in the Bill.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I rest my case.
I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches and to other hon. Members for the fact that I may not be here throughout the winding-up speeches. There was a complaint earlier about the conflict of time and interest. I am not sure that I put that down to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It may have more to do with the modernisation reforms. Perhaps I should leave the matter there.
When my hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker earlier, he described this debate as a trivial event in relation to other matters that he wanted to discuss. I think that that is a wrong term. This debate is probably not an earth-shattering event, but having listened to it I have begun to realise why it is important that we are here tonight and why the matters that we are discussing are of considerable significance.
I had wanted to refer to the debate as the further implementation of the Patten report, but, having listened to Mr. Mallon and my right hon. Friend Mr. Mandelson, I think that it might be safer to say that it is part of the ongoing reform of policing in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, it will get us all out of a difficult situation.
It is clear that the provisions of the Bill are about trying to strengthen the role of the Policing Board, given the early experience of its operation, and about trying to clarify the board's relationship with both the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State. The second part of the Bill relates to giving the Chief Constable more flexibility over the deployment of officers and civilian staff. Although people may have differing views about how that part should be pursued, I believe that most would agree that there is a pressing need to have more front-line officers out on the streets in Northern Ireland, so anything that civilianisation can do in that respect should be welcome.
I should like to echo a criticism that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made about the way in which the Bill was pursued, an issue highlighted in the report of an inquiry on which my hon. Friend Mr. Bailey and I served. I refer to the time scale for dealing with this matter. I appreciate that there is an argument, which the Minister made to the Committee, that elements of the Bill have been widely discussed elsewhere. But there is something rather strange about a state of affairs in which the draft clauses are published on
I want to pick out a few clauses, some of which have already been referred to, and to suggest why they probably make sense and why it is worth our while to pursue them.
I start with clause 3, which is about the meetings of the board. I think it was Mr. Carmichael who said that it was wrong for the board to choose to meet less often and therefore be less publicly accountable. There is little doubt that when Patten reported initially one of the reasons why he stipulated that there should be 12 meetings a year was that he was anxious that there should be a fairly open, consistent, publicly accountable process. But I understand that the board has said that it should not be necessary to lay down in legislation that it must meet 10 times a year. I believe that as well as asking for a reduction it also asked for a provision to allow for occasions when it wants to meet more than once within a 28-day period, so we are simply being asked to show a bit of common sense about its operation in the light of experience so far. If most of us are prepared to acknowledge that the board has acquitted itself fairly well so far, it would be absurd not to listen to its experience and try to adjust matters accordingly.
Over the years with regard to the Belfast agreement, and even tonight with regard to the Patten report, we have been lectured that we should not be cherry picking. Surely consistency would say that we should abide by Patten even on this point. Will the hon. Gentleman accept the possibility that if the board asks permission to meet more often it might be to make a more up-to-date request for an increase in salary for the independent members, since they must be working hard?
I leave the hon. Gentleman to conduct his own trade union negotiations. Everyone will have heard his point.
Of course, when it is convenient hon. Members give dire warnings about cherry picking. My view is that people who are seriously committed to the process in Northern Ireland should be prepared to adjust, reform and review as situations develop. I do not believe that there is no scope for that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me and other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that there may well be an argument for the Committee at some point to review the whole development and operation of the Patten process. There is nothing wrong with learning from experience and trying to adjust accordingly. In fact, to do the opposite is to put on a straitjacket, and that is hopelessly unhelpful in politics.
I turn to cause 12, relating to changes with regard to the police ombudsman. I have been slightly surprised to hear the differing views in the debate. On the one hand, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool told us that the provisions were to extend the ombudsman's powers. Simultaneously the Select Committee heard during the inquiry that the ombudsman's office had actually complained that the changes were designed to reduce the ombudsman's power. We therefore need to discover what is actually happening in respect of these provisions. In fact, this is one of the clearer parts of the Bill, and I am surprised that people are having trouble making sense of it.
The concerns that were expressed related to whether the ombudsman should have retrospective powers, and the changes made through clause 12 have clarified that issue. The use of the word "current" has sought to address that problem, and the use of the word "investigate", rather than a phrase such as "power to make a report", makes the role of the ombudsman much more specific. There has to be a clear case, incident or set of circumstances that the ombudsman is required to investigate. The use of the phrase "public interest", rather than "public concern", addresses the anxiety that synthetic public concern might be whipped up by those who would want to use, or even to abuse, the office of ombudsman. So the concerns that have been expressed in different quarters have been addressed, and if anything, this clause is much tighter and clearer than it could possibly have been at the outset.
I turn to the question of representativeness, by which Lady Hermon, among others, has been somewhat exercised today. When the Minister was questioned on that issue during the Select Committee inquiry, she made it clear that she was referring the Committee to paragraph 6 of schedule 3 to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000, and to the criteria that must be considered in respect of the nomination of independent members. I will not go through those criteria in detail, but they include the criterion that the individuals concerned must
"have a demonstrable interest in the local community, community safety or policing issues; be resident in, or have a close connection with the . . . area; be able to think and exercise sound judgement"— we will all have our own opinions on how that one will be tested—
"be able to present information clearly and logically; and have experience of working with others and maintaining networks."
So although people were right to be anxious about representativeness, which is a thorny issue in the Northern Ireland context, it is clear that it will not be possible to nominate and select anyone we care to imagine regardless of consideration of their background, or to use representativeness as a way to override other considerations.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am exercised by the composition of district policing partnerships because the Government repeatedly tell us that they want to implement the Patten report, but that they cannot cherry pick from it and do not wish to do so. The report states clearly:
"As with the Policing Board, the independent members should"— should—
"be selected to represent the business and trade union interests and to provide expertise in matters pertaining to community safety."
The Patten recommendations make no mention at all of those with criminal or terrorist convictions. How does the hon. Gentleman square what he is saying about the Bill's proposals with the recommendations in Patten?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I square that very easily, because I do not take the view that we should regard the situation in Northern Ireland as frozen or rigid; I am looking for progress and development. It is clear that there are certain people who could not serve on the Policing Board at the moment, but I look forward to a day when that may be possible. The crucial issue is identifying some clear criteria against which nominations should be judged, and they should include interest and competence in the subject. It is fair to say that through the text under consideration, the Government have indicated which other factors might apply to those with criminal convictions—should their eligibility be considered at all at some future stage.
I had not been particularly concerned about the 50:50 question, until I listened to today's debate. I should say to the hon. Member for North Down in particular that applications from the Roman Catholic community have, I think, risen steadily since the introduction of that proposal. Against that background, we should perhaps judge it as a success.
I apologise for having left the Chamber briefly, but I did watch the debate on the television and I heard what Lady Hermon said. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that a steady rise in applications is not necessarily evidence that the 50:50 rule is responsible for it? More to the point, the real balance that we have to strike relates to whether the resentment caused by 50:50 is worth the benefit, which may indeed have accrued anyway because of changes introduced to the Police Service.
Well, a sustained increase in applications from members of the Roman Catholic community does seem to have coincided with the introduction of the 50:50 rule, but the hon. Gentleman may be right, in that no inquiry or clear-cut evidence has wholly supported that connection. However, if we are looking for areas in which to root out some of the past sense of injustice, we should not ignore that one, on which Patten has rightly focused attention.
The facts about 50:50 recruitment are actually the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Since 50:50 recruitment was introduced, the number of Roman Catholic applicants to the police service has consistently dropped with each recruitment batch. Given the difficulties consequent on that, the Chief Constable has been unable to recruit the number of police officers that he would like, and the full quota for each intake of new recruits has not been met precisely because not enough Roman Catholic recruits are coming forward. So in that respect, 50:50 recruitment is not working.
Well, perhaps this is a phenomenon peculiar to Northern Ireland, but the hon. Gentleman seems to have access to facts that differ from those in my possession. We might have to continue our argument another time, but nothing that was reported to the Select Committee, or which I have seen made available to this House, disputes the notion that there has been a consistent rise in applications from Roman Catholics. I should be happy to continue this debate with the hon. Gentleman at a future date.
When today's debate began, I did not anticipate that we would learn of an entirely new Opposition policy in respect of Northern Ireland, but that is what we got from Mr. Davies. I am rather sorry that he is unable to be here at the moment, because I would have liked the opportunity to pursue exactly what he was telling the House. As I understood it, he said clearly that there must be interlinkage—the word that he used—between policies in Northern Ireland. He made it clear that it was not a question of incremental progress or of inch-by-inch reform. Presumably, therefore, he favours the big-bang, comprehensive solution that allows no time for reflection or adjustment. Interlinkage is a permafrost policy. It is not about edging forward or about the disgusting negotiations in which people are inclined to engage in their genuine attempts to avoid further killings or the breakdown of political progress. Interlinkage, as a policy, says that everything is too complex and that if we cannot solve the problem in one fell swoop, we should not bother at all. That approach derides everything that people are trying to do. If it is the policy of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who is now back in his place, I worry about what progress we can anticipate in any area of life in Northern Ireland.
The whole experience of change in Northern Ireland has been inch-by-inch progress, and sometimes we have seen reversals. The last Conservative Prime Minister is often credited—rightly—with taking the first tentative steps and edging the process forward, and he did not get the support that he deserved. If he had not taken those brave decisions, I wonder where we would be today. The present Government have continued that process. At times it has felt like two steps forward one step back, but on balance even those in Northern Ireland who are disillusioned with parts of the process would acknowledge that life for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland is probably better now than it was 15 years ago.
I was disappointed to hear that the Bill should be dismissed as inch-by-inch reform. That is the sort of politics that we should discount as the way to proceed in Northern Ireland. The essence of the Bill is the reverse of the policy described by the hon. Gentleman. We are being asked to reflect on adjustments and changes to policing reform in Northern Ireland, partly as a result of further negotiations and partly as a result of experiences after the implementation of parts of the Patten report in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.
I cannot see a better way forward for policing or any other area of life in Northern Ireland. Unless we have the option of listening to people's genuine doubts and concerns and adjusting policy to reflect the matters that they raise, some elements of the community will be excluded whenever changes are made. That is an atrocious approach which would ultimately wreck the policy. I urge all hon. Members to acknowledge that we should all unite in favour of incremental change in Northern Ireland, with time to reflect and adjust if necessary. We certainly should not be scared of introducing further legislation to change our arrangements in the light of experience or representations from important elements in the community. That is how we should proceed, and I hope that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman will reflect on his own views before he develops the all-or-nothing policy that he outlined today.
I wish to echo what Mr. Davies said earlier, when he mentioned the real reasons for the Bill. My constituents are not writing to me or stopping me in the street to ask for new policing legislation because the Policing Board needs more power: they tell me that we need more police officers. Crime is on the increase. We cannot get police officers to respond to crime when we need them, because there are not enough and they are tied up in other activities. That is the problem.
How can I convince my constituents that the Bill will put more officers on the front line in Northern Ireland? That point is recognised in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which specifically concludes:
"There is in Northern Ireland a particularly urgent need to release more officers for front-line police work."
There is nothing in the Bill that will achieve that, and that is why I agree with my hon. Friend Lady Hermon when she said that the Bill needed a clause that rescinded the 50:50 recruitment policy. That would enable more officers to be recruited immediately.
Recently, the Chief Constable tried to recruit more civilian staff, which would have released more police officers on to the front line, but because of the constraints placed on him by the 50:50 recruitment policy, he was not able to recruit anything like the 300 civilian staff that he wished to recruit.
The hon. Gentleman provokes me to respond. He argues that the constraint on recruitment is the 50:50 policy, but does he accept that it is the physical structure of Garnerville itself that places the greatest limitation on the number of recruits that the Chief Constable can accept?
No, I do not agree with the Minister. In the last recruitment batch, the quota for the intake was 60. However, only 36 were recruited. That was not because there was not enough room: it was because only 18 applicants from the Roman Catholic community were successful in the recruitment process. The police had to tell some of my constituents, who had also been successful, that because they were Protestants they could not be recruited as there were not enough successful Roman Catholic applicants. It was not because of a lack of accommodation in Garnerville. The Minister is wrong. The police cannot recruit enough new officers because of the 50:50 recruitment rule.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall an occasion on which I asked whether the Chief Constable would be restricted in that way and Ministers gave the explicit assurance that he would not?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right, because it would be incredible if we needed more police officers and the only problem that we faced was the lack of accommodation at Garnerville. That problem could be resolved, even if only temporarily, pending the construction of the new police training college. I am afraid that I cannot accept the Minister's contention that the problem is accommodation, not the 50:50 policy. That flies in the face of reality.
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the Chief Constable has not been able to achieve his quotas. That constraint bit before any constraints imposed by the capacity of Garnerville. Does he recall that one of the recommendations in the Patten report included the need for a new police college? It was recommended that the appropriations for the new college should be made in the next financial year. Does he agree that the Government have been derelict in their response to that recommendation, because we still do not have a new police college?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly there have been significant delays in implementing the recommendation that there should be a new police training college. As I understand it, the problem lies in finding the right location. However, I am told that that will be sorted out within the next three months so I hope that there will be no further obstacles and that the new college will be constructed and handed over to the Chief Constable.
Surely, it would not matter if the finest police college was sitting there already. Under the terms of the legislation, Protestants would be banned from it. That is what the rule amounts to. The Chief Constable tells me, "My hands are tied. I can't even get detectives in from across the water because of the rules". If that is so, why are we talking about a college that has not been built? Even if it had been built, the rule would still be 50:50 and the rooms could not be filled with recruits. Furthermore, why persist with the idea that people have constantly to reapply and take the tests even if they have passed them two or three times? Why must they be turned down only to start over again?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Young Protestant constituents have visited my office and shed tears of frustration. One young lady from Lisburn had successfully passed all the tests and examinations three times, only to be told, "We cannot take you because you are a Protestant". What does it do to enthusiastic young people who want to serve in the police and make a contribution to the community when they are told that because of their religious viewpoint—because of the church that they attend on Sundays—they cannot be police officers? That is downright blatant discrimination; it is a breach of human rights and the sooner the 50:50 rule is scrapped the better for all of us.
It is an insult to young Roman Catholics to tell them that they have been put in a privileged position. They do not want that; they want to join a police service in which everyone is equal, everyone is accorded equal respect and their religious views are not the issue. Sadly, the 50:50 rule sectarianises the recruitment policy of the police and creates a problem that will exist for many years to come.
Two classes of police officer are being created and that will not help to establish the police service that we want for the future. Like the hon. Member for North Down, and, I think, all hon. Members from Northern Ireland, I want to see more Roman Catholic recruits for the police service. An elderly lady in my constituency told me that the police took a considerable length of time to respond after her home had been broken into recently. She was obviously distressed and said, "It doesn't matter to me whether the police officer who answers my distress call is Protestant or Catholic. All that matters is that there is a police officer to help me when I need help." That is the heart of the issue.
I am trying genuinely to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument and I understand that he is making a sensitive point. He says that whether the officer is Protestant or Catholic does not matter to him and I have no reason to doubt him. However, can he conceive of a situation where it might matter? For example, it might matter in a society that is perceived to be unjust and unfair and one group appears to be in the ascendancy and dominates certain functions—[Interruption.] I am not talking specifically about Northern Ireland. That situation has applied in many societies in the past and may still apply nowadays. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there could be a perception that the police force was not balanced or fair and that we have a duty to address that?
If the hon. Gentleman talked to some of his own constituents he would probably find people who do not believe that the police are fair or balanced. There are people throughout society—in all our constituencies—who are anti-police or have a grievance against them. That is not unique to Northern Ireland. However, even if that were the problem—which I do not accept—the 50:50 recruitment policy is not the answer.
To clarify my earlier intervention during the hon. Gentleman's speech, it is true that, in general, the number of Roman Catholic recruits entering the police service is higher than in previous years. However, my point is that although when recruitment to the new police service began there was significant interest from the Roman Catholic community, the number has dropped consistently in each subsequent batch of recruits. In the last intake, the number of successful Roman Catholic recruits was down to 18, so the total number of recruits, which was 60, was reduced and restricted to 36. That means that there is a shortfall.
The same policy applies to civilian recruitment. The Chief Constable recently initiated a campaign to recruit additional civilians to free up police officers for transfer or secondment to the district command units. However, the 50:50 rule meant that there was a substantial shortfall in the number of recruits for civilianisation, so officers who could have been released from headquarters duties are not available to the Chief Constable or the district commanders. That is a direct consequence of the 50:50 policy. By not including a provision to rescind that recruitment policy, the Government have created a serious flaw in the Bill.
Other hon. Members have referred to other aspects of the Bill that could undermine the operational capacity of the Chief Constable and make it more difficult. I refer to clauses 9, 10, 18 and 22, which deal respectively with reports of the Chief Constable, inquiries by the board, the provision of information to the board and the disclosure of information and the holding of inquiries.
As the other place acknowledged, some of those provisions change the balance between the Chief Constable and the Policing Board in relation to political or policy issues. We have some concerns about that. Clause 10 provides that the number of members who can cause an inquiry to be held should be reduced from that set out in the 2000 Act. That is unacceptable, as was pointed out earlier. The Bill should include further safeguards to deal with that aspect of the legislation.
As Mr. Mandelson said, the problem is one of public confidence. If we want to recruit more young people—male or female—to be part of the new police service, public confidence is essential. As a representative of a majority Unionist constituency, I have to tell the House that public confidence in policing is lower than it has been for some time. Lisburn, in my constituency, has the largest district command unit in Northern Ireland. From talking to the commanders there, I know that officer numbers are a critical problem. Because of the shortage of manpower, they have had to take measures such as closing police stations at hours when they are normally open to the public and taking officers away from community duties to give them other responsibilities.
Patten told us that we were moving towards community-based policing, yet people in the communities that I represent see fewer police officers today than they did during the height of what was known as the troubles. Their community police officers are being pulled away to do engage in other duties. Therefore, if the Patten report is the ideal, as some have suggested, the legislation and its implementation are clearly not delivering what Patten envisaged: community-based policing.
The SDLP recently proposed the closure of a number of police stations, arguing that doing so would free up more police officers. I am not convinced by that argument. Indeed, many of the police stations that the SDLP talk about are almost effectively closed as it is. I should like them to be opened up as community facilities. Why do we not use some of the part-time officers who are being recruited to man those police stations and to patrol the vicinity of those stations? That would at least make a positive contribution to community-based policing.
We were fortunate that the district command unit in Lisburn was identified as one of the pilot schemes for part-time recruitment. I welcome that and have been urging my local police commander to use those part-time reservists to increase the profile of policing in the community so that people can see that there is some substance to the concept of community-based policing, but there is a problem with police numbers, so the police cannot respond to crime in the way that they would like. That is having a detrimental effect on police morale at the moment.
Public confidence—this is crucial—is being damaged by the large outflow of experienced police officers under the voluntary severance scheme, and recruitment has not been able to match that. That is acknowledged by the Policing Board. In fact, one of the key decisions behind the renewal of the full-time reserve for a further period to 2005 was taken precisely because the severance scheme had resulted in fewer police officers than had been envisaged and recruitment had not been able to match the number that had left.
The full-time reservists, who have made a very valuable contribution to policing in Northern Ireland in the past 30 years, deserve a little better. I urge the Government to consider the position of the full-time reserve and to look beyond 2005. I fear that, because of the way things are going at the moment, we will need the full-time reserve for some time to come, and I should like the Government to take a more positive attitude towards it, as well as expanding the part-time element.
The Government have also referred to the text for consideration. It does not form part of the Bill, but it is the Government's very unusual method of indicating to one political party in particular what they would be prepared to do in the event of that party making certain moves. Of course I am referring to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Government have indicated—the Secretary of State used this terminology earlier in the debate—that in the event of the IRA engaging in acts of completion, which he defined as a commitment to exclusively peaceful means and demonstrating that in tangible terms, the Government would be prepared to remove the current bar on convicted terrorists becoming independent members of the district policing partnerships.
We fought very hard against that proposal when the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 was passing through both Houses of Parliament because we believed that it was unacceptable. I believe that it continues to be unacceptable that someone with a terrorist conviction should have a role as an independent member of a district policing partnership. Public confidence in the DPPs could be seriously undermined if that were to happen. The fact that the Government are holding that out as some kind of incentive and are bartering the issue in return for some political movement by the republicans is unacceptable.
We have heard the phrase "a commitment to exclusively peaceful means" for a considerable time. In 1997, all the paramilitary-linked parties signed up to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. That was supposed to be about a commitment to exclusively peaceful means, as is the agreement itself, but we are now being told that the IRA needs some further incentives to bring them to the point where they make that commitment to exclusively peaceful means.
What are we getting? We are told that the Government are also prepared to enhance the powers of the four Belfast subgroups. I am concerned that that will result in the Balkanisation of policing in Belfast. In political terms, west Belfast is more or less controlled by Sinn Fein, so it will also control the west Belfast subgroup. I should not like to be the police commander in west Belfast who has to account to a subgroup, with the kind of power that the Government propose, in the event that the IRA engages in some act of completion.
The Secretary of State referred to the text for consideration and said that, in the event of those acts of completion, the Government will introduce certain amendments to the legislation. Perhaps the Minister can tell us in summing up when the Government believe that might happen. Are we working to some kind of time scale? Clearly, the House will consider the programme motion on the Bill, and it must have some implication on whether the Government could accept the additional text. At what stage would the Government be prepared to accept it? The House is owed some clarification about the matter.
The Patten report declared that a clear objective was to take politics out of policing. Well, Mr. Mallon made it absolutely clear that the Bill is a consequence of a political deal between the SDLP and the Government. That is why the legislation is being enacted. The Government are now saying that they are prepared to do another deal—this time with Sinn Fein-IRA—and to make further changes to policing on the back of another political deal.
There could be no greater politicisation of policing than the way that the Government are doing one-off deals behind our backs with political parties and then amending the police legislation. That is seriously damaging the Unionist community's confidence in the Government's ability to be in any sense impartial about policing.
Policing has become a political deal. If people want a concession or some political movement, they offer something on policing. I do not believe that that will achieve Chris Patten's stated objective of taking politics out of policing. Policing has become a political football. It has become something to barter with, and it has become common currency in the political negotiations. What does that do for the integrity of the policing institutions in Northern Ireland?
Of course Sinn Fein will not stop there. It is demanding the devolution of policing and justice as the next phase in so-called policing reform. Why does it want that? I believe that it has probably set its sights on capturing the ministry for policing and justice. I cannot imagine anything more absurd than a republican Minister in change of a department for policing and justice in Northern Ireland in the context where the IRA continues to exist as an illegal terrorist organisation.
Of course policing is only part of the Sinn Fein shopping list. Reference was made earlier to the policing implementation plan that accompanies the legislation, but the Government are working to a much bigger implementation plan. This implementation plan, which will evolve over the next few weeks during discussions between the Government and political parties, is about addressing Sinn Fein's demands: the so-called shopping list, which it covers by describing as the full implementation of the agreement. Policing is one part of that shopping list, and I am told that republicans are also pushing for retrospective powers to investigate allegations of police collusion to be included in the deal. We know that they want some kind of arrangement for members of their illegal organisation who are presently on the run. We know that they want substantial demilitarisation, as they describe it: the removal of the watchtowers in south Armagh, further troop withdrawals and further security base closures. All those are on the shopping list. They have a string of demands on human rights and equality issues, and they wish to scrap the legislation on suspension so that, if they do in future what they did at Castlereagh, Stormont or in Colombia, we will not be able to suspend the political institutions. No doubt all those items on the shopping list will appear on the Government's new implementation plan, to be published at some time in the next few weeks, as the Government's contribution to resolving the outstanding issues.
The Government need to be very careful. In their quest to win republican support, they may push the unionist community over the edge. The result may be that they secure republican support but lose unionist support. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said in response to an intervention that none of this would be effective if one section of the community in Northern Ireland withdraws its support for these institutions. If the Government continue along the route on which they seem to be embarked, a real danger exists that that will be the result, particularly if they are seen to concede on a number of the issues that I have mentioned, simply to buy more support from the republican movement on matters to which it should have given support several years ago.
The Government are indicating, as we know, that this Bill is the latest instalment in an ongoing process whereby they barter concessions on policing, justice and security in return for so-called political progress on the part of the republican movement. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said that we must not barter the security of the people of Northern Ireland, and he is right, but that is precisely what the Government are doing. My concern is that they may do it against the advice being given to them at the moment by Army chiefs who are very concerned about some of the proposals to withdraw military installations. Political expediency demands, however, that those concessions be made to the republican movement. Where will it end? What further price will have to be paid because the republican movement's appetite for concessions is insatiable?
I was just coming to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Policing in Northern Ireland cannot be seen in isolation from the wider political context, and I was simply trying to set the context in which the Bill has been presented to the House. Mr. Mallon said that he hoped that this would be the last time that he would have to debate policing; I fear that it may not be. I believe that the Government intend to make further concessions; indeed, they have indicated and confirmed already some of the concessions that they are prepared to make to Sinn Fein-IRA in return for movement on the arms issue.
The Government should proceed with caution, because there is a real danger that the people whom I represent, and the people who are represented by hon. Members on this side of the House, will lose patience with the direction in which they are going. We want a peaceful, normal society in Northern Ireland. We want an end to the terrorism that has plagued Northern Ireland over the last 30 years. The Government have not so far succeeded in achieving that objective through making concessions, and they need to be very careful that such concessions do not result only in a further collapse in public confidence, particularly in the unionist community.
This is the first occasion on which I have been able to speak in a major debate on any aspect of Northern Ireland policy. I am glad to contribute, and I trust that the House will respond to me as someone who has attended many debates, heard many questions and listened to many hours of discussion on the Floor of the House. What I offer may not be to the agreement of the whole House, but it has been long considered.
I have come to this issue by a curious route. For many years in my former occupation as a lecturer, I taught my students about how Belfast was a model of the way forward. I taught them about how Belfast as a city—and Northern Ireland—was reinventing itself. Socially and economically, it was the driving force. It was challenging perceptions of itself—outdated perceptions—as a city with wall-to-wall policing, in which one could not walk safely, and as a city full of slums, which had armed police on every corner. The students were shown how that was changing—the painful way in which it was changing—and how a city could re-engineer itself. Let me say to Members on the Opposition side of the House that we contrasted it, as a shining example, with examples from across Europe of cities that had reinvented themselves such as Barcelona and the port city of Bilbao.
I present that context because, when I went to Belfast in May last year for the first time, as a new Back Bencher only five or six months into my job, my eyes were opened to what had been happening. They were opened, too, to the immense confidence of people on the street, whether I walked down the street with loyalists or with a Sinn Fein councillor, and the confidence that came through when I talked to people involved in a community operation. That confidence that the process was moving forward was in stark contrast to some of the political deliberations that were going on at the time.
From my limited and distant viewpoint, I could see that, in the whole of Northern Ireland, and in Belfast in particular, people were choosing for themselves a way forward that rejected the bloody and wearing conflict of the past. There was an inexorable movement forward. That is not an easy path, but it is an essential one; not a path without pain, but one with a definite purpose. Today, this weekend, and in recent months, we have seen how painful that path is to follow, but we also see with increasing clarity that it is the right path. This Bill is part of that path, which leads away from the rule of the past and the rule of terror towards social, economic and political stability.
If you will indulge me for a moment longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to say that, in May, I also saw two clear images, which impact forcibly on the debate today and on the passage of this Bill—the two faces of Northern Ireland. The first and negative face was the almost complete divergence of views held by the many politicians I met formally—"divergence" is perhaps too insubstantial a word. I understand from recent press reports that scientists have found a new colour, which is known as "superblack". As I went from one discussion to another in Northern Ireland politics, I saw superblack and superwhite, and nothing in between. There was no subtle shading. The reverse and positive face was the recognition by many, if not all of the same politicians, when speaking informally or over a pint, of the many shades of compromise and of the colours and tones. The latter gave me hope; the former—the public soapbox politics—gave me only despair.
As a traveller to Northern Ireland, I know that many people approach the problem with the certainties that only an outsider can have. I was clear in my mind where the solutions lay and knew that, somewhere in between the many positions, a common thread would show the definite way ahead. I came away with all my great certainties much diminished. That was probably right and proper. It was a little too optimistic to hope that the angst that had been generations in the making would be unravelled by a novice in a few days, but I did glean some important insights that are relevant to the Bill.
I came away with the powerful optimism, which many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber share, that the benefits of the peace process—the oft-named dividend of fewer lives lost and economic growth—were so cherished that the people of Northern Ireland would not let them slip from their grasp. I am pleased to follow Mr. Donaldson because some of my comments are relevant to his concerns. We have tip-toed around the additional text for consideration, which stands as a separate clause outside the Bill. I am also worried about that and want reassurances on it, but I come at the problem from a different angle. For me, the whole process has been one of painful compromise as we have made incremental progress, inch by inch.
There has been hurt and difficulty on both sides. Much of the anguish has been personal as people who suffered at the hands of former terrorists have had to swallow hard. Many of those same people have also said, however, that they want progress to continue. That has to be done delicately and, as the hon. Gentleman said, we have to keep everyone onside. It is not good enough to move too far to one side to bring one group on board if we lose everyone else off the ship. Everyone has to go forward together.
Despite the reassurances I seek, I am sure that we have made progress on the road to a better future, and that this Bill is right in word and spirit. But the devil is in the detail, and never has the phrase been so apt. Elements of the Bill seem like Faustian pacts. One of the greatest objections from the Unionist community is that it foresees the possibility of Sinn Fein sitting at the top table of the Policing Board and on district policing partnerships. I do not need to rehearse the well-aired objections to that, centring on the failure of the IRA to decommission fully and to put its arms beyond use, but my message to colleagues, Unionists and others, is simple and direct: that particular little devil must be exorcised before representation of Sinn Fein on the Policing Board is allowed. I seek an assurance on that.
We can achieve that by acts of completion. Hon. Members have asked what constitutes an act of completion. By now, after so many hours of debate on the Floor of the House and so many lines within newspaper columns, we know that they mean putting the guns and the arms permanently aside. That applies to the IRA, but it must also apply to any so-called paramilitaries who maintain the idea that the best way to influence a settlement in Northern Ireland is to keep the threat of violence as a bargaining chip. If there are no acts of completion there can be no place on the Policing Board or the DPPs. Accept the rules and become a player, or stay on the sidelines if it is not possible to agree to the rules of the game. I want the process to move forward and to be as inclusive as possible, but I also want the certainty that people are fully committed in word and deed to the peace process. The phrase "turning over a new leaf" is too light and flippant to represent that commitment properly.
Let me make it clear, however, that it is desirable—this is where I approach the problem from a different angle—to have Sinn Fein members on the Policing Board at the appropriate time if the party can demonstrate that its members and elected representatives are completely committed to peaceful democratic processes. That is the ultimate painful path of reconciliation and progress towards long-term peace and stability for Northern Ireland. As we have seen from the long haul in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the world where conflict has ravaged a society, the solution is to bring in the outcasts from the cold to make them part of the process and the political structures.
As we have seen from the faltering phases of the peace process, the inexorable climb towards democracy is painful, but all partners recognise how much there is to lose by opting out. Once the benefits of participating in democracy are realised—once people have worked for and achieved progress—no party that is seriously committed to a peaceful solution will ever want to pull out. That is why, with the right safeguards and at the appropriate time, I am fully committed to all members of the democratic community being represented on the policing boards and elsewhere.
Let me put to the Minister those aspects of the Bill on which I seek reassurance. There are no vacancies on the Policing Board that would allow Sinn Fein or any new candidates to be considered for membership. At present, all 19 members are directly appointed by the Secretary of State under direct rule. If, however, acts of completion were to occur, those conditions would allow the restoration of devolution, which would allow the board to be reconstituted. That would then allow political nominations to be made under the d'Hondt formula, which would give Sinn Fein the opportunity to recommend members.
The other area of controversy, for similar reasons, is the eligibility of ex-prisoners and those convicted and given a custodial sentence, whether suspended or not. Again, I understand that the Government do not feel that the conditions are right to include any changes to the eligibility criteria until and unless further conclusive acts of completion by paramilitaries are carried out to the satisfaction of those involved. While there is a chance that paramilitaries might resume diplomacy down a gun barrel, it is inconceivable that those with related sentences of imprisonment could be allowed to sit inside the criminal justice system. Equally, however, it would be wrong to rule out that possibility for those who have turned their back on their past ways and who may genuinely want to be involved in ensuring the future successful implementation of policing in Northern Ireland.
I understand that the Government have undertaken to review that in the light of a commitment by paramilitaries to acts of completion. That is to be welcomed, although I find it inconceivable that that commitment will be made at this time. The additional texts put in place three safeguards—the triple lock. Any individual who wishes to be considered must agree to a declaration of non-violence and must accept a quarantine of five years before undergoing a separate commencement order subject to an affirmative resolution. That will bring independent members in line with political members. It does not suggest that we ignore past misdemeanours. We would have to recognise, however, individuals who have made it clear that they intend to play a full part in a democratic society. As I said, the idea of turning over a new leaf does not do justice to the transformation that such people would have to make. Such an approach gives hope to those who would renounce violence in any civil society, as we have seen across the world, and who would adopt instead legitimate means of representation.
Above and beyond that, clear criteria are laid out. They include a demonstrable interest in the local community, such as community safety or policing issues, and the requirement that a person must be a resident of, or have a close connection with, a council area. Those have to be satisfied. They are the guiding criteria beyond the triple lock and other considerations. All that is conditional, however. As the Prime Minister stated last year, the phrase "acts of completion"
"does not merely mean a statement or a declaration of words, it does mean giving up violence completely and totally, in a way that gives everyone satisfaction and confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, so that we can move forward with democratic process, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same rules."
It is not difficult to understand that message. It is not ambiguous or opaque, but clear and direct—disarm, give up violence, sign up to democratic and peaceful means exclusively. You can join the club, but those are the rules, which are set by politicians who believe in democratic debate. "Can you sign up to those rules?" is the message that we must put out beyond the Chamber.
That message has been clear and explicit ever since the Prime Minister's Belfast harbour speech, when he stated that republicans must
"make the commitment to exclusively peaceful means real, total and permanent."
If that can be achieved and if the rules are signed up to, we can, as the Prime Minister said,
"implement the rest of the Agreement, including on normalisation, in its entirety and not in stages but together."
In the Bill and the additional text, we are waiting to see if those rules are acceptable to those who are not yet completely weaned off dependency on the threat of violence. How much do they want to join the democratic club? Do they recognise that the majority of people in Northern Ireland subscribe to those rules, and do not want a return to the old ways? Do they recognise the desire of many in the House and outside to see them fully on board and fully engaged with the rules set by rational society? When they are so engaged, they will have too much to lose to let go. I hope that they will engage, because it is in everyone's interest to move forward and regain the momentum on long-term peace and prosperity that has temporarily stalled.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman because I was following his speech closely. He will remember that the IRA issued a statement on
That is a hugely valid point, as that sort of incident destroys confidence in the whole peace process. I am therefore categoric in saying that we must seek clear assurances on complete disarmament, the destruction of weapons and taking the gun out of the hand—there can be no grey areas. I began my contribution by saying that, in the politics of Northern Ireland, I was struck by the extremes of opinion on both sides. However, this is one issue where things do have to be black and white—we must have that assurance. I want representatives of Sinn Fein and every other group who have made that commitment to serve on the boards—that is their duty as representatives of all the communities in Northern Ireland. However, the hon. Lady's point is extremely valid.
I have relatives, not in the north of Ireland, but in the south or Eire. I recall a conversation with my relatives in Dublin when the peace process was starting many years ago. They told me, "You are too optimistic about what you see from across the water in south Wales. You see the problem in far too simple terms. It is not going to happen because our troubles are too embedded. The factions in our society are too deep-rooted, and the problems run through generations." However, I think that both we in the House and the people of Northern Ireland are proving them wrong. We must have confidence in the peace process and paramilitaries must put their weapons beyond use. With the right assurances, I believe that the Bill is another step forward in that process. I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed, but we have a duty to move that process forward a little bit more.
We listened with great interest and care to Huw Irranca-Davies. We welcome his first visit to Northern Ireland and appreciate the things on which he picked up. However, let me tell him that we who sit in Parliament do not speak for people from afar—we go down into the ring. He met people over a pint—he can be sure that I would not drink such a thing at all—and they told him all those things, but they are not elected, are not sitting in the Chamber and do not carry the burden in the heat of the day. They do not know what it is to have their homes bombed, their friends maimed or their families attacked.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman's great experience and the fact that he represents the very communities that we are talking about. However, in case I was not clear, I sat down and talked with people in those communities—not people back in south Wales—who told me what was going on.
I was simply commenting on a speech that you did not rule out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker; I therefore thought that I was in order.
Some of us have to go down into the fight, and have to fight for our votes. When we are returned, we speak with a mandate. I have the largest Unionist mandate of anybody in Northern Ireland, and am not being boastful when I say that I have been elected at the top of the poll five times for Europe. However, the hon. Member for Ogmore has not analysed the character or motivation of Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism. I shall provide a simple illustration. There was a terrible bombing in an Orange hall at Tullyallen on the Armagh border, in which men were murdered. I went down to see families in the neighbourhood who were connected to the church that I belong to. I asked a lady who had lost her husband, "Do you have any idea, dear, who did that?" She said, "Yes, the man who did it is sitting in there, at the top of my husband's coffin. He is weeping and calling him by his Christian name, saying, 'Who would do that to my friend?'" When the net started to close around the murderers, that man left everything and skipped the country, because he was a guilty man, never to return.
That does not change overnight. We are asking tonight not for words but deeds. The IRA must disband and shut down its murder operation. It must say goodbye to that, and its weaponry, stained with the blood of our kith and kin and of its Roman Catholic colleagues and neighbours, must be put to the fire. That is the issue—the House would be foolish to think that one representative standing up and telling us that the war is over will end anything, because it will not. The hon. Member for Ogmore said we should have trust, but he knows perfectly well that the party that I represent is not enamoured with the Bill, the Policing Board or the way in which it has worked. We had no part in it—more than that, we opposed it. Lady Hermon had much to tell us, but our attitude was entirely different in that debate.
However, the Policing Board came into existence, and because we had the numbers, we were told that we could have places on the board. I went to see the then Secretary of State, one back from the present one. I said to him, "Can you give me a promise that if I move on this and put two men on to the Policing Board, you will not use that as a lever to try and get the IRA on the Policing Board?" He replied, "Certainly not. What's more," he said, "if you don't join up on that day"—he pointed to a date in the calendar—"you'll not be in until there is an election, and then the matter will be reviewed." I asked, "Are you telling me what you are telling the IRA: that if they don't come in now, they will not be in until there is an election?" He said, "Yes." I said, "I'd like to believe you," but I did not believe him.
We were hardly into the Policing Board before agitation started to get the IRA on to the board. The police chief has been a propagandist. He wants the IRA on the board. How can I have any confidence in those who say that they will keep the IRA out of the Policing Board? The IRA could have been on the board. Let us not forget that. Some hon. Members seem to think that IRA members were shut out of the board. They shut themselves out of the board. I must be fair: the police chief would not have had members of my party on the board, and I think some of the Unionist members would not have been on the board, either.
We must face the facts, and we do not believe what the Government are saying. We have heard it all before; they have said it all before. The last statement from the hon. Member for Ogmore about what he was asking sounded to me like a planted statement—exactly what the Government would like to respond to. I have sat in the House for more than 30 years. There is nothing green about me. I will listen with great interest to what the Minister says on the matter. I have made my own comment.
In Northern Ireland, we have serious trouble. There is deterioration. I was amazed to hear a former Secretary of State tell us that things were moving and so on. I have only to switch on my radio at 6.30 am and listen to the first news: muggings, murders, elderly women raped, homes ravaged—a catalogue of darkness, every morning. My hon. Friend Mr. Dodds knows all about it, because it happens in his area. He sits up half the night taking calls, then takes out his car, goes to the affected area and tries to instil confidence in people who have lost confidence.
What we need is not a fancy Bill, cobbled together to get murderers into position on policing boards. We need real policing in Northern Ireland—policing that will shut up and shut off the people who are doing those things and gaining strength. The amazing thing is that we have, sitting unemployed, a body of men who are fully skilled and fully trained and know all about such matters. They could be called in at a moment's notice and brought back for the current emergency, but because of the 50:50 principle in the Bill they will not be called back and they will not be brought in to do a job that they could do in the present situation. So the bombings, burnings and murders will go on and the situation will deteriorate. Of course, the IRA wants that to happen, because it is only from a state of mayhem that it will get the concessions that it seeks.
On the 50:50 principle, let me say to the hon. Member for Ogmore and the rest of the House that it is not right to make a concession to anybody when that concession is wrong. The 50:50 principle is wrong. It is wrong in European law, it is wrong in moral law, and it is illegal under our own laws. People are told, "Oh, you'll be recruited this time, because it's 50:50." Some of them go away angry because they are not recruited, but the reason they are not recruited is not that they are Roman Catholics, but that they do not come up to the required standards. They are not accepted because they do not have the necessary qualifications. Slowly, however, the standards are coming down.
The general public do not know that the new recruits are allowed to do some things and not allowed to do others. A new recruit in the RUC is not allowed to fire a baton round for a long period, until he is passed to do so. I mentioned in the House this afternoon the excessive expenditure on the ombudsman's inquiries. At present the police have to report to the ombudsman on every occasion a baton round is discharged. That results in an inquiry by her office and a full printed report. Even when the baton round was fired without complaint, it is investigated and reported. The cost of such investigations is £2,000 per baton round fired. That is the situation in Northern Ireland.
An investigator is employed at £13 per hour, and a senior investigator at £41 per hour. To date the reports have simply recorded that the rounds were fired as a necessary part of policing, yet the cost of the investigations is excessive. In the past nine months, the police ombudsman has spent £3.5 million on such investigations and reports, with an average complaint and report costing more than £1,000.
There is mayhem, murder and burnings on the streets. Old people cannot go out at night. There is no peace. I say to the House that our first duty is to give the people the right to live. They cannot live under the present circumstances. That is why the people of Northern Ireland have had enough, and why public representatives in the House must take a tough line on the issue. There can be no compromise. Those who commit the acts that I have mentioned must be made to obey the law. If they will not obey the law, they must be imprisoned.
The Government must be firm. The courts must impose much stiffer sentences. The court system needs to be tightened up and should be a real threat to lawbreakers. We need to devise a new anti-terror law that will bring all agencies together in one common battle to defeat terrorism. We need to postpone the fourth year of the Patten severance policy. We need to offer immediate contracts to former RUC officers to fill the gaps that now exist, but cannot be filled. There is no way in which they can be filled. The police thought that they could bring policemen from over here, but they cannot do so, so we have a serious problem. We must upgrade.
Various Governments have treated the full-time reserves abominably. The reserves have been insulted. They comprise men who gave up their jobs and entered the full-time reserve without proper security for the future, and they have now been dumped simply because they IRA did not like the fact that they were RUC men. Sinn Fein, which did not like the RUC, does not like the present Policing Board. It is issuing the same attacks on the Policing Board as it issued against the RUC in its literature. I come from a constituency where terrorists tried to kill a young Roman Catholic who had been recruited, and his father and mother. The policy is the same. What is more, this House should be aware that the IRA has been feeding into every firm in Northern Ireland a piece of literature saying "Treat ex-RUC men the way we always treated them." That is official. It is in the paper. Would Members believe that, after a man has circulated that at a place of employment, people can get up and say "It's all over"? We believe that such men are liars and murderers. What do they care about the truth? They know nothing about it.
Political policing needs to stop. We have political policing in Northern Ireland. When somebody joins, they are asked "Are you a Protestant or a Roman Catholic?" After they have passed the test, whether or not they are a decent fellow, they are told "We're very sorry, but you're not going to be a policeman here because you don't go to the right church." That is what happens and it is wrong. If that happened on the other side of the fence and Protestants were doing that, we would be hounded. We are told that we must make concessions. To whom are we making concessions? We are doing so to men who have devised the greatest system of terrorism in the world. We are seeing in Colombia their ability to teach others to repeat the same acts.
It is all coming out in the wash, but why do the Government want to put these men into office in Northern Ireland, when at an international level they want us to hound them? It is about time that the Government started to hound these men, no matter what side they come from. I have had my bedroom windows smashed with bullets from so-called loyalists. My wife, a local councillor, has been attacked by them. I know all about them. We have only to read the literature that these men circulate—I am talking about so-called loyalist gunmen—about me to know that they look on me as danger man No. 1. I have been through all that. When my son was at Queen's university, the nuts of his car wheels were screwed off to the last thread. When he came out and started to drive, if one of those wheels had come off, he would probably have been killed and the car would have been wrecked. I have been through all that and I want to say that better men than me have died in this battle. I am here tonight to say to the House and plead with it: let us get the job of real policing done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He speaks with great passion, but does he agree that the best way to move forward is not to attack the institutions, which I think are being established in the right way and with the right structures, even though there is much comment about them, but to insist that civic leaders of all political persuasions should rally behind them and encourage people to get involved and behave responsibly towards them?
That is a beautiful thing to say in the House of Commons, but we do not have democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. This House, in its wisdom, destroyed democracy. Votes do not count. The people on Shankill road do not get any counts. It is hard-working councillors such as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North and others who get the vote, but they are taken by the hand of the Government. What did the former Secretary of State say about Adair? She said that he was an unsung hero of the peace process. That is what we are up against.
Your colleague led me astray, Madam Deputy Speaker. He will have to be blamed for the sin that he has committed, but I understand your guidance. I am glad to continue, as I need to deal with some matters of utmost importance, but the principles must be established. The principles of good policing are that it is legal and morally correct, and can stand up and face scrutiny.
We have heard about the office of ombudsman. Of course, the ombudsman is currently a woman. When she was appointed, I stood on my feet in this House and called attention to her political relationship—her husband is an active member of the SDLP and I believe that he is to stand as a candidate for election as a Member of the Legislative Assembly at the next election. He is also a serving councillor on Ballymena council. If any Government had given to the wife of an official Unionist the office of ombudsman, Labour Members would have been shouting out and crying aloud about what a terrible thing had been done. If the Government had dreamed of giving the appointment to a Democratic Unionist, all hell would have been let loose on the Labour Benches. Of course, we are not on the quangos. They do not allow us to join any quangos. We are lepers. This Government keep us off everything, but the day will come when the people will have something to say. It is perhaps going to come more quickly than they think. All that I am saying is that the ombudsman's office needs to be made democratic.
I do not believe that policemen who have served and retired should have their past dug up by an ombudsman who has the power to investigate all back-cases. A line must drawn in the sand to say "So far and no further." If such investigation starts, what will happen? Every other policeman in the force will be demoralised. That is what is happening. There was supposed to be somebody to oversee the ombudsman's office, but where is that legislation? The Government are not rushing that through the House. Of course, the IRA would not give any concessions if they did so. I am saying that we should have an independent inquiry into the ombudsman's office. After all, the Policing Board wanted her to investigate certain things and she was reticent about doing so. It was only after the board met again that she was prepared to do those things. We know what happened at the debacle in Omagh. These people in Omagh are not DUP supporters; many of them are SDLP supporters.
Let me say to the House tonight that it needs to open its eyes to many things in the Bill. They have not all been discussed, and we could go on all night dealing with this matter. I trust that the House will come to the point at which it is prepared to grasp the nettle. On Wednesday, the two Prime Ministers will be in Belfast. One leader—me—will not be invited, not even to meet them outside the talks to put my case. That means that the majority of Unionists who think like me will not be heard. I say to the House and to the Government: "Ignore these people at your peril, because they are the heart, and out of the heartland came your police, your Army and the people who were faithful on the day when faithfulness cost." I say to the Government: "Have sense, make no more concessions, start doing the job of proper policing and people will rally to you. The Roman Catholic population will rally to you." Some of the Roman Catholic population live in desperate peril because they are under the threat of the gunman, but the police cannot help them. They cannot call a policeman because he cannot go to help them. The Roman Catholic population knows what I am saying, and feels the same way. Let us have proper policing; when we have it, we will not need to argue about some of the things that we have had to argue about tonight, because they will not even be thought of.
May I start by apologising for missing some of the debate? I had to go to see some constituents. Some hon. Members will know my background and that I grew up in Northern Ireland. One of my earliest memories as a very young child was pointing out that our neighbour was a police inspector. The lecture that I got from my father still resounds with me, because I had also pointed out that this police inspector was a Catholic. As a five-year-old, I did not know what I was saying, but I had said it in the wrong place. That was pre-troubles, but the lecture that I got still resounds in my memory. I therefore enter this debate with some trepidation.
I try not to speak on Northern Ireland matters, because I get quite angry listening to the selective arguments justifying past actions or inactions, rehashing old positions that do not relate to the debate, fighting old battles or erecting new barriers to progress. I hear what Rev. Ian Paisley has said—I have heard what he has said all my life—but some of the issues that he raised made me quite angry, so I shall not respond to them. I would say to my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies that I do not share his optimism; I do not think that he recognises certain aspects of the Ulster psyche. That is an issue to which we need to return in the Bill.
Some of the things that have been said in previous debates about what is to happen to the Policing Board have not proved to be correct. We must also treat the siren voices with caution when approaching this Bill. They will not be proved correct, and we need to concentrate on that fact. We also need to address the fundamental question of how to bring people in from the cold. How do we persuade ex-terrorists to uphold the law? The way in which the Government are approaching that question is absolutely right.
It was stated earlier that the policing of Northern Ireland was political. Policing has always been political there, from the earliest days of the creation of the state. One of the things that worries me is that some people regard no change as acceptable. If such people are going to erect barriers, perhaps the time has come to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland in the mainland of the United Kingdom, to see whether the people here still want the obstructions from the Ulster Unionists, whether they think that the continued investment in Northern Ireland is right, and whether they want to hear the kind of comments that are being made.
Some of us have argued for a much more radical policy than the one that the Government are proposing, but I have long recognised that we cannot move faster than people are prepared to move. The Government's approach is about taking people with them—
I left when I was 18, at the height of the troubles, but Mr. Robinson must recognise that the kind of comments that members of his party make were one of the reasons why I left. There was no hope coming from that quarter. It is important, if we are to have hope for Northern Ireland, that we should move forward. I reject the siren voices that are coming from the Democratic Unionist party.
Much of the Bill is uncontroversial: the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has said as much. However, as others have said, we should move forward inch by inch—for example, on issues such as the Policing Board. This debate has reminded me of the arguments over whether the Metropolitan police should have a police authority. People said, "You can't have that," but when the authority was created, all the arguments disappeared. Many of the arguments that we have heard tonight have been hot air; they will be seen to have been unjustified when the changes arrive.
Earlier today, I thought that the Father of the House was going to be removed from the Chamber because he was talking about the middle east. He rightly emphasised what can happen, in that serious conflict, when dialogue breaks down. We have to remember what has happened in Northern Ireland when talking has stopped. There are other routes that can be taken, and we must be aware of that.
There is a provision in the Bill about which I am concerned. One of the suggested changes is that, instead of the board's objectives being consistent with the Secretary of State's objectives, it should have regard to them. If we consider other legislation—where, for example, independent regulators have to have regard to Government policy, as opposed to being consistent with Government policy—we find that Government policy is actually undermined. I am concerned that the suggested change will have that effect. I hope that the Minister can assure me that that will not happen.
There are those of us who support the Government and who feel that the way in which to make progress in Northern Ireland is through dialogue. We have to try to achieve consensus. We should not listen to siren voices that argue for backwardness and for not making any changes. If we listened to those voices, there would be no peace process.
The SDLP has taken a lot of stick in this debate. However, the party has been courageous in saying that Catholics ought to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It should be given credit for that. Unlike Sinn Fein, it has said that it wants the institutions to work. We should respond to that, and not vilify the SDLP as some have tried to do. Much of today's debate has not been about the Bill; it has been about rehashing old arguments.
We have to ensure that the tests on Sinn Fein are of the highest order so as to ensure that the party is committed to the process. If it is not—and it will soon become clear whether it is or not—the Government will have to say that they will not make the proposed changes. The Bill as it stands is the right way to go, developing consensus. This unstable world contains examples of what could happen if we get this wrong. The Bill is another step in the peace process and we ought to support it. We have to make the arguments for change and, if Northern Ireland is to have a future, we have to reject the kind of voices that I have heard all my life. One of the reasons why I do not often contribute to debates on Northern Ireland is that I get angry with some of the comments that are made, and I try not to get angry during debates.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that this Bill goes forward but also to ensure that any changes have the support of the majority in both communities. The SDLP is arguing strongly for people to join the police service and to make the institutions work. That ought to be supported.
Following the previous speaker, I will try to be an optimistic voice on behalf of my constituents. Most of the people in Northern Ireland are happy living in Northern Ireland. We like living there. It is not all depression and bad news. A lot of good things are happening in the Province and there is a lot of optimism. However, we have to be realistic as well as optimistic. I will be opposing the changes and I will do so on principle.
Not many Conservatives are present for this debate—in fact, there are not many Conservatives in the House—but I have an old-fashioned attitude to institutions that are working and that should not change, and they include this House, this Parliament and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We had a very fine police force called the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Its record against terrorism and crime was unrivalled throughout the world. Even if we take terrorist-defined crime out of the equation, it had the best detection rates of any force in the UK. It had high morale, gained respect and received co-operation from the community—both Protestant and Catholic. That force was treated disgracefully by the Patten report, which is one of the weakest parts of the peace process. It has disillusioned the Unionist community more than any other aspect of the peace process.
If I am re-elected to this place the next time or the time after that, I shall look forward to the elective dictatorship here being more finely balanced. I look forward to a few more Conservatives and a few more Ulster Unionists being here. [Hon. Members: "And a few more from the DUP."] A few more Ulster Unionists within the united Unionist family. I envisage the circumstances in which we could negotiate the legal incorporation to which my hon. Friend Lady Hermon referred. She was right when she mentioned a document in the Library referring to the incorporation of the name of the RUC, but she went to a memorial service at St. Anne's in Belfast for the old RUC. There is no visibility, and that is wrong. Perhaps the problem can be fixed, but the RUC should not have been treated in the way that it was.
Policing concessions are being made and suggested tonight and, as part of the political process, they are being negotiated behind the scenes with the SDLP and Sinn Fein in the nationalist-republican camp further to weaken policing in Northern Ireland. Deals are being done and discussions are taking place. A form of front organisation will appear at Hillsborough later this week, but the deals are being done. I do not want to be pessimistic, but the Government must understand that Unionist Members are not bluffing. We are not bluffing when we say, "If you make further concessions way beyond the Good Friday agreement, such as putting terrorists on to the district policing partnerships"—there is a different position with the Policing Board—"I, as Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament, will refer back to the decision taken by the Ulster Unionist Council before Christmas. We will not be on the Policing Board."
The Government will remove the police authority and replace it with the Policing Board. They will bring terrorists in who will present operational problems to the police's divisional commanders. That will make policing on the ground worse and it will not deal with the threat of crime in Northern Ireland. Whether it is the mafia, the drug dealing and the violence or whether we call it terrorist or criminal activity, I cannot see a difference. Such activities are all intertwined and they are all one. Such activities are committed by both republicans and loyalists.
The Government are weakening policing and they are doing so as the result of political concessions in a political process. Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists will not sit in an Executive with Sinn Fein because of its hypocrisy and because of what went on in Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormontgate. If we will not sit in the Executive with Sinn Fein, we will not sit on a Policing Board with its members. Sinn Fein is not a legitimate normal political party. It has not gone through the transition.
I look forward with optimism, because I believe that people can change. I hope that those who have been involved in violence in Northern Ireland—whether they are republican or loyalist—can have a future as well as a past. However, the evidence is that that will not happen in the foreseeable future. Sinn Fein-IRA is playing a double game. The Government may think that these and further concessions on policing will help, but they are weakening policing in Northern Ireland and that will not produce a stable political process that has the consent of the Unionist and nationalist peoples. The Government are getting it badly wrong by misjudging the mood of the Unionist people. They will see that reflected if and when there is an election on
I hope that the Government will listen to us, because I am not trying to be pessimistic, but realistic. We are saying to them, "Your legislation is not improving policing in Northern Ireland, and you have done enough harm already." Let us try to restore the morale that existed in the old RUC. Let us try to build up community policing and to get the support of the majority of the Protestant and Catholic population who always supported the RUC. Let us regain and rebuild the morale that existed in a fine force that was decimated and treated disgracefully by this Government.
In supporting the Bill, I share the humility that was demonstrated by Mr. Carmichael, as I am conscious that my involvement in and association with the issues surrounding Northern Ireland are very slight in comparison with many hon. Members who contributed to the debate. Since my involvement with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, however, I have developed a perspective that I should like to convey.
The proposals outlined in the Bill are hardly the most dramatic—by and large, they are refinements of existing legislation—but given the passion expressed by some hon. Members about even its seemingly arcane and detailed aspects, I cannot accept the view of Mr. Davies that the way to deal with the Northern Ireland situation is to take a multi-party and big banner approach to resolving all the issues involved in policing in one omnibus piece of legislation. It is obvious that the passions generated and the depth of feeling that arises as a result of even the smallest change to the existing position in Northern Ireland are such as to make that approach completely impossible. The way forward is the incremental approach that the Government have adopted in changing legislation as and when circumstances change.
Mr. Donaldson suggested an apocalyptic outcome for the approach that we have adopted, but I want to contrast what I saw when I first went to Northern Ireland in 1972 with the situation in Belfast now. That clearly demonstrates the benefits that have accrued from the Government's approach. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked about the changes that have taken place in Belfast since 1994. I went to Belfast in 1972, when I was relatively young. One in three or one in four buildings had been bombed out, the city was saturated with members of the armed forces, and pervasive tension existed everywhere. It was a frightening experience that I will never forget. I contrast that with my first visit as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in 2001, when I saw a city that seemed relaxed, self confident and prosperous—a total transformation from the vision that I had carried around with me for 30 years. It is sad that many who have not visited Belfast have the 1972 rather than the current vision of that city. Apocalyptic pronouncements reinforce that impression.
Every change to effect the transformation happened only because people were prepared to act in good faith, take things on trust, and swallow reservations and deeply held feelings and prejudices that were based on legitimate personal experience. They did that because the opportunities gave Belfast a future.
The Patten report recognised that for change to accelerate in Northern Ireland, it was necessary to have a police force that was trusted and represented all communities. When I first read the profound changes that Patten proposed, I felt a frisson of foreboding that they would never work. I feared that the prevailing culture in Northern Ireland meant that the changes would not be accepted. However, my foreboding was unjustified. The Policing Board exists. People said that it would not work and that no members of the Catholic community would participate. They are participating and the body is working.
The comments that have been made today about the Policing Board's performance are reassuring. The changes are a testimony to its commitment, ability and inspiration of trust. They would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. As well as the cross-community Policing Board, we have a new name, new badge, new chief officer, new ethical policy, a new commitment to community policing and enhanced recruitment from all sections of society.
No other organisation has undergone such profound changes in such a short time. That is a credit to those in the former RUC who have accepted and worked through the changes, whatever the extent of their initial instinctive resentment of them. It is also a credit to the moderate, nationalist community and the SDLP, which supported the changes, and the courageous young Catholics who joined the Northern Ireland police force in spite of the evident intimidation from some dissident republican forces.
If everything in the Police Service is as rosy as the hon. Gentleman paints it, why did the Secretary of State's predecessor speak at length in Liverpool university about Northern Ireland becoming a cold house for Protestants?
I do not claim that everything is rosy. I pay tribute to those in the police force for effecting an enormous number of changes in a short time. In those circumstances, it would be remarkable if everything were rosy.
The hon. Gentleman referred to objections from dissidents. Did he realise that a former Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly had lobbied in Washington for another investigation into the Police Service of Northern Ireland and British policing in Northern Ireland? Did he know that this morning, the Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly for West Tyrone castigated the police, who were called out in the early hours of Sunday morning to deal with a riot in Omagh? The police rather than the rioters were being blamed for the riot.
I may not have been aware of those details, but they can only substantiate my basic point that elements of the Catholic and nationalist community are trying to intimidate those who want to make this police force work.
During one of the Committee's visits to Belfast, we had an opportunity to observe recruits in action and training. We had already had an opportunity to interview the Chief Constable, who spoke of the superb quality of the new influx of recruits. After watching them train, we spoke to them individually to try to gain an insight into their personal experience of the process they were undergoing. One could not but be impressed by their enthusiasm and dedication, which in time, no doubt, will be translated into professionalism.
I note the hon. Gentleman's approval of the quality of those young persons. Should we not be equipping them with a new police training college? Is that not one of the most important things we should be doing? The existing staff and personnel are marvellous, the existing cadets are marvellous, but the building is not up to scratch.
I agree. Let me issue a plea to the Minister, however. The one complaint that I heard from the recruits was that the distribution of the new uniforms was somewhat arbitrary, and not very prompt. It strikes me that an easy win could be secured by at least ensuring that the uniforms were provided as soon as possible. That may not be the most profound issue affecting Northern Ireland at the moment, but I hope it will be noted. Once we have sorted it out, perhaps we can think about the new training college.
Much has been said today about the 50:50 issue. Lady Hermon made some logical and passionate observations; her beliefs are obviously deeply held. I recognise that there are matters of concern, but the evidence so far suggests that the system has led to an increase in the number of Catholic recruits.
I think that this commitment is important for more than one reason. It is, for instance, symbolic of the Government's commitment to ending what I accept may have been a perceived imbalance, and perceived cultural problems, experienced by Catholics with the former RUC. Above all, however, I believe that this public commitment and the improved recruitment that has arisen from it undermine Sinn Fein's approach, which, as we know, involves trying to convey to the nationalist community that the RUC has not changed. For that reason alone, I think it is important to retain the policy at least for the time being.
I think it was the hon. Member for Lagan Valley who spoke of "civilianisation". I know that civilianisation has the potential to release more people for front-line policing. He said that that had been a slow process. My understanding is that since effectively it has been farmed out to a private organisation it has improved considerably. Obviously we need to review the progress that is made, because potentially it is a very important way of releasing people for front-line policing.
The overwhelming message that I received when I was over there was that the main obstacle to recruitment was the Sinn Fein objection and the intimidation arising in part from the position it had adopted.
I accept the comment of the hon. Member for North Down that the issue has to be dealt with in the long term if we are to achieve a Northern Ireland police force that is more evenly balanced between the two communities. I see the various matters incorporated into the text for consideration as perhaps an attempt to initiate a debate that may enable us to resolve some of these issues in the long term.
Before talking about the text for consideration, I should like to mention the district policing partnerships. There was concern about the appointment of independent members, which comes under clause 13, and it was recognised that in some areas there would be councils that would result in DPPs being monolithically representative of one community. These points were put to my hon. Friend the Minister and she made it quite clear that she saw the appointment of independent members as a way of balancing the situation, ensuring that there was legitimate representation of all sections within a particular community.
I shall not go through the code of practice and the requirements that my hon. Friend Mr. McCabe read out. I was sufficiently reassured on that matter to think that the fears that had been raised would not be realised.
I should like to speak for a few minutes about the text for consideration. I recognise that this is a hugely sensitive issue, but I would first commend the Government for at least putting this in such a way that it is there for open, honest, transparent debate. I have heard a great deal this evening about deals done behind closed doors and so on, but here we have an issue put before the House that gives hon. Members an opportunity to talk about it, Express their fears and make their points long before there is any chance of its becoming legislation.
It is anomalous that a councillor with a prison record, but not someone who is appointed as an independent member, can after five years be acceptable as a member of a DPP. I acknowledge that there are deep concerns that former terrorists could be appointed and undermine the independence and work of the police in certain areas, but the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that this could not happen until after a verifiable completion, should be sufficient to satisfy people that this is not an immediate likelihood. At the same time, it should be debated.
What concerns me is that I feel that there are hon. Members who will never wish the issue to be debated, however much the political scene in Northern Ireland changes. I understand the feelings of those who have argued that we should not talk to terrorists, that we should never do a deal. The thought of dealing with people who have a record of murder, violence and so on is unpleasant; it is anathema. But that simply freezes the status quo. We must at some stage have some sort of dialogue that at least gives them an opportunity to play a part in normal, mainstream, civilised society. Otherwise, nothing will change.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. Can he point to a single recommendation in the Patten report that suggests that those with criminal and terrorist convictions should become independent members of district policing partnerships?
I do not think that there is one. What we are talking about is the Weston Park discussions and the possibility that things may change at some point in the future, whereby this could become a legitimate issue for consideration. At the moment the time is not right, and the depth of feeling here today has been clearly demonstrated. Such a development would result in the Unionist community's withdrawal from the process, which is clearly not acceptable. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of change in the future, and I therefore think it right that it be included and discussed. However, we must also recognise that this particular way forward is simply not available at the moment, and that a profound change on the part of the IRA and Sinn Fein is required before it becomes so.
I support the Bill, which moves forward community policing by a further few inches. It offers an opportunity to debate the difficult issues surrounding the text for consideration, and above all, it puts further pressure on Sinn Fein to demonstrate that at some time in the near future, it will commit itself to a democratic process in Northern Ireland, and thereby dramatically change the way that people in that area live their lives.
I approach this debate not as someone who has formed his opinions after an afternoon visit to Northern Ireland and a pint in the local pub, nor as someone who ran away from Northern Ireland in his teens, but as someone who has lived in that community, who has grieved with that community, who has felt the pain of that community, and who recognises that some of the most valuable contributions made in Northern Ireland in past decades have been made by those who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and who now serve in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
I do not share the view, put forward by Lady Hermon, that the Patten report should be treated as if it were holy writ, and that everything that happens in policing in Northern Ireland should be judged by those standards, as if they were something to be admired and attained. The Patten report was a disaster for policing in Northern Ireland, but it was her party leader and her colleagues who were responsible for that contribution. It was the remit set to Patten in the Belfast agreement that led to the destruction of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Since the Patten report is anathema to his party, can he explain why his colleagues have no hesitation in taking their places on the Policing Board, which, of course, was the creation of the Patten report?
I am not sure whether I should get into arguments that I might think justified in answering in a primary school, but which would perhaps be a waste of time in this honourable House. I would have thought it fairly obvious that, just because Democratic Unionists do not get their way, we do not walk off and say that we are not playing. We have to work within the institutions that are there, while we seek to change them. We are present on the Policing Board, even though we did not like its creation and the surrounding structures, and for exactly the same reason, even though we do not like the Belfast agreement, we are in the Northern Ireland Assembly, convincing people that change is necessary, and doing so very successfully. Perhaps it is our success in that area that concerns the hon. Lady more than anything else.
The Patten report led to much of the destruction of the policing service in Northern Ireland and has been the cause of many of the difficulties that we now face. Not least of those is the issue of 50:50 recruitment, which is again addressed in the Bill. It is a grotesque discrimination against the Protestant community in Northern Ireland that 50 per cent. of those recruited into the police service have to be Roman Catholic, while the other 50 per cent. come from all other denominations and none. Roman Catholic recruitment is favoured, even though that section of the community is a minority in Northern Ireland.
As I have said before, in the House, in the Select Committee and elsewhere, I want to see an increase in recruitment from the Roman Catholic community to the police service. That is desirable and would be good for policing in Northern Ireland. However, it must take place on merit. People must be recruited on the basis that they deserve to be so and have been judged against all others who wish to be recruited. People are being judged suitable to join the police service, but cannot be recruited because there are not enough people from another religion to balance them, and that is clearly unsatisfactory. The merit principle has been downgraded and the police service has not had the numbers it needs to do the job that needs to be done.
Changes are required, but the Government's disdain for the Unionist community is apparent when they introduce a Bill to meet the criteria set down by the SDLP for changes in policing, while having in waiting a further draft Bill that they hope will be satisfactory to Sinn Fein-IRA. At the same time, all the complaints made by Unionists in Northern Ireland about policing are disregarded. The Government make no attempt to address our requirements. I question the strength of the Government's position when they have to pander to two small parties—SDLP and Sinn Fein—and disregard the two larger parties in Northern Ireland. That is not a tenable position.
I have listened to the eloquent comments by some hon. Members who look forward to the day when Sinn Fein can be persuaded to represent their community on the district policing partnerships. Where were those people in all the years when the Government discriminated against my party in its representation on the police authority? I did not hear any of them arguing for our representation, but they are prepared to change laws to allow the representation of a smaller party. It shows something of the state of mind of the Government and their supporters that they are prepared to do many a thing for Sinn Fein that they are not prepared to do for the Unionist community.
The Bill is Patten plus. It goes even beyond the love of the Patten report felt by the hon. Member for North Down. The intent is to woo Sinn Fein into the policing arrangements. However, the Government should be alert to the warning signals in their recent discussions with Sinn Fein-IRA, in which the provisional movement has demanded that policing powers be devolved to Northern Ireland, so that it can have direct control over those powers. The Government should listen carefully before they try to do any deal with Sinn Fein-IRA on that basis. For just one moment, they should imagine how people in Northern Ireland who have suffered from IRA terrorism for decades would feel if we ever saw the day when those same IRA terrorist representatives were in charge of law and order in Northern Ireland. Some law, some order—if the representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA were in charge of policing under devolved responsibility in Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to think twice before going down that road, or they will bring down very hot coals on their head.
Mr. McCabe argued that the upgrading and updating of legislation is natural and normal, and that one should expect it. One should consider policing experiences and make changes accordingly. As a general principle, there is a lot of truth in that. The House should indeed be doing that. If experience on the ground suggests that changes are necessary to make policing more effective and efficient, the House should legislate for those changes. But does anybody honestly believe that the Bill, and the Bill in waiting that the Government hope to introduce by way of amendment if they can get Sinn Fein to sign up on time, are being introduced for the purpose of ensuring greater efficiency and effectiveness in Northern Ireland? They will do nothing of the kind.
The Minister of State, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are all happy to divulge the public reason for the measure. They say that it meets a commitment that was made at Weston Park. Exactly what went at Weston Park is neither precise nor clear. We know that discussions took place, which included matters covered in the Bill and in the further draft that the Secretary of State made available to us. He has not, however, been prepared to divulge the extent to which those discussions involved all the parties. The extent to which they were agreed by all the parties is certainly disputed. The extent to which other leaders might have acquiesced in some of those matters is not clear.
What is clear is that the purpose of the Bill is to make good commitments that were made to at least one party at Weston Park—the SDLP. Perhaps it also gives part of what was required by Sinn Fein. Let us not have the nonsense, introduced in this debate, that we are gathered here because it has dawned on the Government that the experience on the ground of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 demands that these changes be made. Nothing of the sort! A sordid, dirty deal was done at Weston Park. The Government have admitted that they entered into a political deal. That is the truth. The Government can spin things however they want; they can coach their Back Benchers as much as they like to drop in a word about the desirability of the changes, but the reality is that they did a deal to win the Provisional IRA and the SDLP over to the political process.
What problems should the Government have addressed in the Bill? Let them go to Northern Ireland and ask ordinary people about the policing problems that need to be addressed. The Government would be told instantly that people ring the police but they do not come round because no car is available. There are not enough officers on the beat. Resources are so low that the police cannot meet the needs on the ground. People would tell the Government that police stations are being closed at a time when a greater police presence is needed. Those are the issues that need to be addressed. The police need to be made more effective, not to be turned into a political tool to satisfy the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Huw Irranca-Davies indicated that he is angry and therefore does not attend debates on Northern Ireland Bills because he does not like hearing what Unionists have to say, as it seems to have that effect on him. Well, if that were the basis on which some of us entered the House, we would have to recognise—
I will save the hon. Gentleman from intervening. Clearly, he does not want to be associated with Brian White. I do not want that to happen, so I should make it clear that I was referring to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East. I welcome the fact the hon. Gentleman wants to distance himself from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.
Clearly, the House has to address the reality that it is about time that Labour Members listened to what Unionist Members are saying about such issues, whether or not it fits in with their own thinking. The elections make it very clear that there is a Unionist majority in Northern Ireland. The census makes it very clear that there will be a Unionist majority in Northern Ireland for a very long time.
Instead of attempting to accommodate small political parties in Northern Ireland, it is about time that the Government listened to the voice of—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State seems to think that I have said something outrageous, but I would challenge Labour Members: if they think that what I am saying is untoward, they might like to stand in elections in Northern Ireland. There is always the possibility that they could go around, trying to recruit, and they could send out the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East to find out how many people he could get to join the Labour party.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for bringing me back to the Bill. I urge the House to recognise the fact that the Bill does not address the issues that need to be addressed. It will further alienate those in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland who want only good, sound policing in Northern Ireland. One of the sad realities of the past few years is that police morale has plummeted because changes have been made for political reasons to the disadvantage of good policing in Northern Ireland. That has happened as a result of the Belfast agreement, the Patten report and the Government's action. There is nothing more hurtful to the Police Service of Northern Ireland than finding out that—after so many years in the front line of the conflict, defending the community in Northern Ireland—it is the terrorists against whom they held the line who are being rewarded and the police who are being punished.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson in this important debate. I briefly want to make a few comments on the Bill. I suppose that "Here we go again" could be the title of the debate because this is, I think, the third time that the House has discussed legislation on the police in Northern Ireland in a little over four years. That any Government should have to legislate so many times on one issue really does raise some questions.
My hon. Friend has rightly pointed to the reason why this Bill and other legislation have been introduced. The Bill has nothing to do with the necessity to address issues to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policing; it is a result of the need, in the Government's view, to introduce legislation to implement concessions to the SDLP and Sinn Fein, as part of the political process. That is the reality of why we are debating the Bill, which does not address the real concerns of our constituents in Northern Ireland. It will do nothing to improve the police resources, their effectiveness, their numbers or their morale.
I have to tell the Minister that a pipe bomb was thrown through the front living room window of three elderly pensioners in my constituency last night. The police have told me that that pipe bomb is different from those that have been discovered previously—it is more powerful. Had those people been in their living room at the time, they would have undoubtedly suffered serious injury if not death. Their living room has been wrecked. To hear some Members in this Chamber tonight, however, one would think that everything was sweetness and light in Northern Ireland.
We can add to that incident the rioting on the Limestone road in my constituency in recent days, and the dreadful and despicable events on the Shankill road and in other parts of my constituency and the constituencies of other hon. Members. We need only look at the reports of the dreadful rioting in the town of Omagh at the weekend, to which Rev. Martin Smyth referred. A Sinn Fein spokesman and a representative for that area—not a dissident spokesman, by the way, but a spokesman for the Provisional Sinn Fein movement, part of the Government of Northern Ireland—attacked the police. The police suffered 18 injuries in Omagh, and this man—Mr. McElduff, who is the MLA for the area—criticised the police, not those who were involved in the rioting. When we see those kinds of events—the number of shootings and bombings in the three years since the Belfast agreement was signed have increased in relation to the three years before the agreement—we must ask serious questions about the direction of Government policy.
It is clear that changes and legislation have been introduced as a result of Patten, which was designed to appease the SDLP and Sinn Fein. More changes have been introduced as a result of agreements entered into at the Weston Park talks, which, again, were to appease one section of the community. What kind of message does that send out to the ordinary, decent people of Northern Ireland who want effective law and order? When they ring the police station, they do not want to be told that there are not enough police vehicles to provide them with security and to answer their needs. The Government, however, only seem to be interested in legislating on political grounds and for political reasons.
Given the tenor of the contributions that have come from Ulster Unionist Members in the House tonight, I am amazed at that question. The reality is that Sinn Fein-IRA members are not acceptable on the Policing Board of Northern Ireland. That is the bottom line. In other spheres and in other realms in which terrorism is an issue, we are busy saying that we must hunt down and deal with those responsible. In Northern Ireland, however, an organisation is carrying out and is involved in terrorism as we speak, and as we sit here tonight. It is not something that they have left behind. They are still involved in and running these organisations. They are still racketeering and targeting. In republican areas, the IRA is as active today as it was before in implementing law and order, as it sees it, in terms of its own community. To suggest that somehow, in a week's time, two weeks' time or a month's time, such people will suddenly become acceptable as members who can have some say over policing in Northern Ireland will be at odds with the views of many people whom the hon. Lady represents, and, I hope—on the basis of the contributions that have been made—with the views of her hon. Friends in the Ulster Unionist party.
On the so-called text for consideration—the IRA-Sinn Fein clauses that the Government have waiting in the wings should the appropriate moment arrive—there is great concern in Belfast constituencies at the proposals for the four Belfast boards. They would put the police in a difficult situation, certainly in west Belfast. Serving police officers and senior officers have expressed concern about what that would mean in terms of accountability. They are worried about to whom they would be answerable if the Bill is successful and Sinn Fein-IRA and convicted terrorists and criminals take their places on those boards.
The idea that the Bill will do anything to improve police morale or police effectiveness has to be discounted. That is not the case at all. Police morale is at rock bottom. The Government do not have to take our word for it. If they talk to police officers directly they will tell them about the elevation of the terrorists, the appeasement of Sinn Fein-IRA and the fact that they have been set in positions over policing at a time when the police are starved of resources. Even able candidates who apply cannot get into the police for religious reasons. All of that is unacceptable. The Minister should address those concerns seriously for the people of Northern Ireland.
I broadly agree with the concluding remarks of Mr. Dodds: much of the problem on the ground relates to police resources and police morale. He put that well and it is not necessary for me to say it again. However, it may be useful for me to tell the House that I shall not detain hon. Members.
I should also explain why I have not been present throughout the debate. I was here at the start and, sure enough, I am here at the end. I do not know whether it is something that we have done to our hours and working arrangements, but for 20 years I have lived with the difficulty of being in two places at once. I now face the more difficult problem of being in three places at once and have not mastered it. It was my duty to be here today, but I also had a summons, with the authority of the House, to attend a Northern Ireland Statutory Instrument Committee of extraordinary importance. The order was 76 pages long and dealt with energy regulation in Northern Ireland. I had to be there, so it was not possible to be in the Chamber. As a consequence, I am ashamed to say that I missed half of what the Secretary of State had to say and, regrettably, all of what my hon. Friend Mr. Davies had to say. [Interruption.] There is some ribaldry, but I am being perfectly serious.
Mr. Mallon is a thoughtful and brave man. He has lived through all the problems and I listen to him with respect. Our newer colleague, Mr. Carmichael, who is a native of the beautiful island of Islay, applied his considerable skills as a lawyer and scholar in a fascinating contribution on the issues of civilianisation and intimate searches—a difficult and delicate subject for sure. He told us that a considerable volume of case law is being developed on that. It is essential that the staff involved in such searches, especially in drug-related cases, are well trained and meticulous or, to put it in the vernacular, they could easily throw an important drugs trial. He made that point well.
It was interesting to listen to Mr. Mandelson, who spoke with authority about checks and balances, not least between the ombudsman, the Policing Board, the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State. One of our anxieties is that the old so-called tripartite balance between the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State and the board is shifting.
That brings me to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool about never playing politics with the effectiveness of the police. I agree, but I am not sure that shifting the balance between the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State and the board is not political. The right hon. Gentleman told my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford that people have to do deals in politics in Northern Ireland. There is a fine line between doing deals and playing politics. One day, someone will help me with a definition, but, having participated in politics for a long time, I can say that there is a shadowy interface between playing politics and doing deals.
Lady Hermon rightly said that civilians must have human rights training as well as practical knowledge of the rules of evidence. She also helped the House by clarifying the narrow and wider definition of a representative of the community. In fact, I thought that she and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made complementary speeches. Mr. McCabe, who is not in the Chamber—I know why, because I should have been at the same dinner—spoke wisely about pre-legislative scrutiny, and his remarks may well repay reading tomorrow morning, because everyone in the House aspires to such scrutiny as a better way of legislating.
Mr. Donaldson hit the nail on the head when he said that although numbers are the real problem, the Bill says nothing about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford agrees with that and with his analysis of the real reasons for introducing the Bill.
Huw Irranca-Davies reminded us of his conversations with people who live in the Province. I thought that he brought a sincere note to the debate, but it became clear that some Members who have lived in Northern Ireland all their life may not thank those of us who have lived in England all our life for telling them what is good for them. I have always been shy of doing so myself, as hon. Members who have served with me in Committee will know.
Mr. Robinson made a similar point when he more or less accused Labour Members of dilettante comments because they had not lived in Ireland all their life. However, there is a new practical imperative in some cases, such as the less than happy caravan of individuals who disembarked at Cairnryan at the start of the weekend, creating interesting policing challenges in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting some backbone into me. The plain fact is that Members who represent Northern Ireland represent parts of my country. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, of which I am a citizen. I am elected to Parliament to represent a constituency in the United Kingdom, so perhaps I should have been a bit bolder in the first place.
I hope that when Members read what was said, they will accept that I have no difficulty with Members from other parts of the United Kingdom giving their advice and views on matters relating to Northern Ireland. However, I object to Members from other parts of the United Kingdom telling us that they know better than us what the people of Northern Ireland think and believe.
The hon. Gentleman would certainly acquit me of that. I have never told anybody from Northern Ireland what was good for them. He may be interested to know that, before he came to the House, the late Enoch Powell said something almost identical to me.
I must move on in accordance with convention and with one eye on the clock. Rev. Ian Paisley, with all his experience and power of recall, spoke of deterioration and loss of morale—I agree with what he said—and, in a separate context, of participation in policing boards, about which there is a good deal of domestic argument in Northern Ireland.
Brian White would have preferred a more radical solution. David Burnside spoke warmly of the past record of the RUC—let us not forget the RUC George Cross Foundation—and even anticipated a united Unionist family. I remind him that my party had the word "Unionist" in its old long title, but I do not think he had me in mind.
Mr. Bailey spoke with approval of what he called profound changes, and paid tribute to those in the police who had enabled them to take place.
The text for consideration is a disturbing matter, in our view, and is scarcely to be contemplated as it stands. It would be conceivable only in the context of acts of completion, as they have come to be called, and as defined.
Mr. Robinson set out the Democratic Unionist party's case for participation in police bodies, but castigated the 50:50 proposals. He invited Labour, I think, to stand in elections in Northern Ireland. Before doing that, the Labour party might allow people in Northern Ireland to join it.
I shall not seek to redeploy the arguments set out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford. We shall not oppose the measure tonight, but we shall seek to amend and improve it in Committee, as my party did in another place.
I begin by referring to the speech of my hon. Friend Brian White. The lecture that he received as a young boy, which he described to us, still echoes in his memory. It serves to draw the attention of the House to the dangers continuing to face those who have the courage to serve as police officers in Northern Ireland.
I regret the somewhat churlish response of Mr. Robinson to hon. Members representing constituencies elsewhere in the UK. It does nothing to enhance his argument when he dismisses out of hand thoughtful, incisive and constructive comments and contributions to a debate that impacts on all citizens of the United Kingdom.
David Burnside warned about deals being done to weaken policing. He joined Mr. Donaldson and a number of other hon. Members to urge the Government to proceed with great care and to listen to the concerns that would be expressed by the Unionist community. The hon. Member for Lagan Valley called on us to proceed with great caution. May I assure hon. Members representing Unionist traditions in the House that I have listened carefully to the comments that they made? In the other place, a great deal of thought and consideration was given to representations received by the Government.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, in a typically robust contribution, challenged us about what the Bill does not do, as opposed to what it does. Hon. Members who have indicated that they may oppose the Bill in a vote oppose it for what it does not do, in particular because it is silent on the 50:50 procedures for recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Given the exchanges with Madam Deputy Speaker that took place earlier, Mr. Speaker, I venture down this path with some trepidation, but I believe that it will help the House if I try to pick up on some of the debate about the 50:50 policy, which is obviously still an extremely sensitive issue. I shall try to shed some light on the exchange that took place between my hon. Friend Mr. McCabe and the hon. Member for Lagan Valley. My hon. Friend was right to say that there had been a substantial increase in the proportion of Catholics applying to join the police. In the four recruitment campaigns that there have been so far, the proportion has been consistently at or above 35 per cent. The highest proportion applying to the Royal Ulster Constabulary was 22 per cent. Frequently, it was a good deal less. Chris Patten himself envisaged in his report an annual recruitment figure of 370. In the first year, no fewer than 530 recruits entered training. The Police Service of Northern Ireland hopes to recruit a broadly similar figure this year. The Chief Constable is currently considering with the Policing Board the scope for bringing in experienced officers from GB forces.
It has been suggested that 50:50 is not working. On the contrary, we believe that the level of response from the Catholic community since the implementation of Patten's recruitment measures has been unprecedented. Overall, 36 per cent. of applicants have so far been Catholic. The proportion of Catholics in the Police Service of Northern Ireland regulars has already risen from 8 per cent. to 11.3 per cent. That is well on target for achieving the quadrupling of the proportion of Catholics within 10 years, as Patten envisaged.
Hon. Members may be right to question whether that is entirely the effect of 50:50 recruitment. Other factors may well be at play, such as the fact that we now have a police service that is supported by the Catholic Church and welcomed by the Social Democratic and Labour party, and which has also been welcomed by the Irish Government and internationally and is recognised as a new beginning for policing. It may be all those factors that are attracting recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland from the Catholic and nationalist communities.
May I suggest to the Minister that she might be going too far in attributing all that success to the 50:50 policy? Surely, the real contribution is the reduction in intimidation.
That is the point that I was trying to make. Perhaps I was not being clear enough, as I broadly agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The fact is, however, that intimidation remains and continues to be a problem. It is therefore an issue that needs to addressed, and I hope to return to it in a moment.
Although precise figures are not yet available, it is worth noting that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has appointed recruits from areas such as Londonderry, Strabane and Newry. Appointments from such areas would have been almost unheard of prior to the implementation of the Patten report.
The overt intimidation is coming directly from dissident republican organisations. I believe that the failure to condemn it is a serious failing for which Sinn Fein needs to answer. There is no excuse for adopting the position that it took in failing to condemn the attacks on young new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
A number of hon. Members asked why applicants to the Police Service of Northern Ireland are required to requalify and constantly to reapply. We have considered that issue afresh and sought advice from the Equality Commission. Hon. Members may wish to test the matter further in Standing Committee. In the light of our further considerations, we have concluded that the current practice of discrete competitions should continue. Rolling the pool of candidates forward to subsequent competitions would present the Police Service of Northern Ireland with major practical difficulties and would not give roll-over candidates any significant advantage.
As I have already warned the hon. Lady, we intend to table an amendment on this issue in Committee, if the Bill is given a Second Reading. Does she recognise that, far from creating problems for the PSNI, this would save a lot of money? At present, not only are people being frustrated by having to re-apply and go through the same procedures many times, but it is costing public money for them to do so.
Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, I look forward to debating the issue with him in greater detail in Committee. I will not answer his question now; I shall consider it so that I can give a fuller response at that time.
Mr. Trimble said in an intervention that recruitment was dependent on equal participation and encouragement from political leaders. That is very much the point that we were making on intimidation. Paragraph 15.2 of the Patten report states:
"The key to making that police service representative of those communities"— in Northern Ireland—
". . . is that the leaders of communities now actively encourage their young people to apply to join the police service."
The report goes on to detail school teachers, priests, bishops, sports authorities and others, all of whom it says
"should take steps to remove all discouragements to members of their communities applying to join the police . . . We cannot stress this recommendation too strongly."
It is time for all members of civil society in Northern Ireland to embrace that recommendation.
All I know about the incident to which the hon. Gentleman refers is that a small explosive device has gone off at the town hall in Enniskillen, causing superficial damage. The area had been evacuated and no injuries resulted from the explosion. Hon. Members may also wish to know that a similar warning was received in Omagh, but no device was found. The incident to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention simply serves to illustrate the environment in which we are working as we seek to resolve these important issues in Northern Ireland.
Rev. Ian Paisley also raised the issue of the text for consideration, as did a number of other Members. He wished to discuss it in detail and to test our thinking on laying the text in public in the way we did. The Government published various commitments relating to policing in the revised implementation plan of August 2001, which arose from the talks at Weston Park. These included commitments to consider, as part of a review, the continued need for the bar on all ex-prisoners ever serving on a district policing partnership, and the powers of the Belfast sub-groups. The consideration covered the question of whether the time was yet right to make any changes, and what changes might be appropriate when such a time came. I hope to deal with the concerns expressed by a number of hon. Members on this issue.
Several hon. Members queried whether the time was right. Having given a great deal of thought to the agreement to consider these matters, we made it clear what we would propose to do. However, our conclusion was that the time was not yet right to introduce changes in these areas. In particular, the removal of the disqualification of ex-prisoners could, in our view, happen only in the context of acts of completion as envisaged by the Prime Minister in his speech in Belfast last October. However, we believed that it would be helpful to set out how we would intend to deal with the issues, should we, at some point in the future, conclude that the time was right to legislate on them. That is why we published the separate text in a spirit of openness, wishing to dispel some of the distrust that clearly exists towards the acts of the Government.
Lady Hermon said that these provisions were in the Bill, but they are not. They are for separate consideration. Ex-prisoners can already serve on DPPs as political members if they have been elected as a local councillor. The text for consideration would bring the rules for independent members of DPPs into line with those for political members. This issue is not just about terrorist ex-prisoners; it covers all those who have served a custodial sentence at any point in their lives.
Why a five-year quarantine period? What was the thinking behind making that recommendation as a separate text for consideration? Our thinking was that it would bring independent members into line with district councillors. It is the triple-lock mechanism that was mentioned earlier. As the text shows, the provisions are modelled on those of the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. However, the House may wish to know that, in England and Wales, people are disqualified from membership of a police authority if, among other reasons, they have been convicted within the previous five years of a criminal offence and had a custodial sentence imposed. In considering this matter, I took an interest in what applied elsewhere in the UK.
My hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, in an incisive and deeply thoughtful first contribution to a debate on Northern Ireland, served notice that we should look forward to him brightening our counsels in future. The hon. Member for North Antrim was one of those who dismissed contributions such as that made by my hon. Friend, saying that my hon. Friend did not understand the nature of Irish republicanism because only those who had lived in Northern Ireland and experienced it could do so. I dispute that. I would very much like to debate it at length with the hon. Gentleman, perhaps in a more social setting. Every hon. Member has constituents who could be affected by the issues that we are dealing with today.
A number of hon. Members asked when Sinn Fein would join the Policing Board. That will be a matter for Sinn Fein, but I hope that it will be soon. Will we let the party on the Policing Board now? That is a serious question and it deserves a serious answer. At the moment, there are no vacancies on the board. All 19 members are appointed by the Secretary of State under direct rule. However, if acts of completion were to occur, the circumstances would be created in which the Government would hope to be able to restore devolution.
The Minister refers to acts of completion occurring. She does not say what those are. Will she be absolutely clear that what is required is nothing less than the completion of decommissioning and disbandment?
I could not put it more clearly than the Prime Minister himself, who has said it not only in his speech in October but here on the Floor of the House—as have my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.
This is not about bartering and deals. When we published the text for consideration, the Government made it clear that the time was not right to introduce changes such as those that we are discussing today. However, as the editorial in the Belfast Telegraph said the following day, when the guns are silenced, all things are possible.
If the current situation changes and we find ourselves in a different set of circumstances where acts of completion are a reality, the environment will be different. In those circumstances and only in those circumstances, the changes that are set out in the text for consideration would be justified. This is not about deals or bartering; it is about looking to the future and being prepared to imagine new possibilities that could arise if we saw an end to terrorism in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend Mr. McCabe complained that the time scale was too short to enable effective pre-legislative scrutiny to take place. I concede that the timetable is not ideal. However, I want to respond to the Select Committee's criticism about the Northern Ireland Office's lack of a consultation period for the Bill. The Government note the criticism about the speed involved but, as the Committee recognised, we were under pressure to introduce the Bill as soon as possible to give it the opportunity of receiving Royal Assent before the start of the campaign for the Assembly elections in May.
Even in the time available to me, I have not had the opportunity to respond to everyone. I hope that I shall have the opportunity to do so in Standing Committee. I look forward to that.