Police

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:03 pm on 2nd July 2007.

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Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:03 pm, 2nd July 2007

I begin, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself, by thanking all those who contributed to the debate this evening—my hon. Friend Mr. McGrady and the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)—for their generous remarks to us. We intend to be the dynamic duo, although I hope there will not be too many surprises, as we do not have quite the same opportunities these days to mount surprises, but one never knows.

If the hon. Member for South Staffordshire is right and the hon. Member for Aylesbury is destined for other things—he smiles as I say that—I wish him well. Our debates on Northern Ireland will be the poorer without him. The revelation in his remarks that he had personally already seen five of the eight new district commanders in Northern Ireland is testament to the quiet way in which he diligently carries out his job. As much as we will miss him, however, the area of responsibility he moves into will be the beneficiary.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the progress that has been made—the way in which the arrangements for policing and accountability for policing in Northern Ireland are working—but he is also right to say that more needs to be done. We need to make further progress and the DPPs will be an important element in making sure that policing in Northern Ireland is accountable, and that across the country people are engaged in the development of policing strategies that serve their communities. The legislation we are introducing today will enable DPPs to do that even more effectively.

When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the criteria for disqualification, he put his finger on a very sore point. It is a difficult area, but all we can do in this place is to bring the rules for independent members of DPPs into line with those for the political members. All members, both independent and political, must make a declaration against terrorism and, as it is short, I shall read it out. It states:

"I declare that, if appointed, I will not by word or deed express support for or approval of...any organisation that is for the time being a proscribed organisation specified in Schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000; or acts of terrorism (that is to say, violence for political ends) connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland."

That is an unequivocal statement by any would-be independent member of a DPP of their complete aversion and opposition to acts of terrorism, so although the hon. Member for Aylesbury has identified a difficult area, I hope that gives him comfort that we are aware of the need to make progress to sustain a more hopeful future.

The hon. Gentleman asked about criminal checks. It is important to emphasise that that is a matter for the Policing Board, which has central responsibility and has set out the related procedures in its code of practice—specifically in paragraph 96. The board will of course write to the Chief Constable about the criminal record of any independent member whose appointment it is considering. There is a robust system so that the Policing Board, which rightly has responsibility, can check out each and every independent member it may be considering for appointment.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about political balance, which is a difficult matter for the reasons he gave. Section 14 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 requires the Policing Board in appointing independent members of the DPP to ensure that they, together with the political members, are representative of the district that the DPP serves. The detail is set out in the code of practice, which is out for consultation at present.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for being opaque—as he put it—about the arrangements in Belfast. As he suggested, my opaqueness was deliberate, because in the end the decisions are not for me but for the Policing Board, Belfast city council and the Chief Constable to work out together. The number can be up to four, but they must work out the appropriate arrangements for them, so opaque I shall remain in relation to that matter.

There are two points relating to political balance that I hope will give the hon. Gentleman some encouragement. First, all the sub-groups must have representatives from the four main political parties; no political party will be shut out of any of the sub-groups. Secondly, the sub-groups feed into the DPP itself, which has an over-arching, overriding role across the whole city of Belfast. It is not the sub-groups that feed into the Policing Board and the council, but the DPP that takes an overview, so there should be balance across the whole city.

The hon. Gentleman said that Belfast is different, but asked how different and whether there are other areas of Northern Ireland that might need special arrangements. We recognise in the legislation that Belfast needs some special arrangements, and that is what we have put in place. With the review of public administration, the map of local government in Northern Ireland will look different in the future, so all these things need to be kept under review. Happily, it is increasingly the case that the review is being undertaken by those who rightly have the responsibility for local government and ultimately, hopefully in the not too distant future, for policing and justice as well—local Ministers and locally accountable people.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Down for his remarks and pay tribute, as others have, to the role that he personally played in relation to policing accountability in Northern Ireland. He was a member of the Policing Board when it was very difficult to be a member of the Policing Board. He took risks, along with his colleagues, and I pay tribute to him. On every opportunity that I have to debate policing, I will always make that point, because he stood out when others did not and we are all very grateful to him for doing that. We have reflected together on the consequences, as he puts it, of his bravery and the bravery of his colleagues. As others have come on board, perhaps there is less space for his party in terms of the Policing Board and the DPPs, but if the number of seats on some of the bodies has perhaps reduced, I hope that it is of some comfort to him to know that he has played a key role in moving the whole of Northern Ireland forward to a more peaceful and prosperous future. His role in that should never be forgotten.

My hon. Friend drew a comparison between the Policing Board and the DPPs, but there is of course one crucial difference. The Policing Board was appointed, as he pointed out, by the Secretary of State, whereas the DPPs are appointed by the Policing Board. The Policing Board has an obligation to make sure that there is proper balance and, as I have said, that is set out in the code of practice.

My hon. Friend put his finger on an important issue that will be the subject of further deliberation by me, as the Minister with responsibility for security, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and those involved in policing and local authority administration. I am talking about the question of the overlap between community safety partnerships and DPPs. We have to recognise that the two arrangements have different functions. The function of the DPP is to hold the local policing arrangements to account. The community safety partnerships, on the other hand, are about delivery, so there is a difference in the core purpose of each of the bodies. That said, there is clearly an overlap. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that I have commissioned some work by officials in the Northern Ireland Office—working with the Policing Board and others—to look at the matter afresh to see whether we can develop a model that will minimise any overlap in the future and will give us the best possible structure.

We would all acknowledge the longevity of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire in the role that he plays and we thank him for his questions and scrutiny, as well as his support on a number of key issues. He rightly reflects on how far we have come in such a short space of time and he was right to pay tribute to the various people he mentioned. He was also right to acknowledge that this is another important milestone in the journey towards a more accountable police service and a more peaceful Northern Ireland. We know that the police service in Northern Ireland is now probably the most accountable police service anywhere in the world. That is why increasing confidence can be put behind it.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire, as the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, brings considerable knowledge and experience to these debates. I pay tribute to the work of his Committee on the issue of organised crime, the restorative justice schemes and various other areas. I am conscious that he and his Committee are currently taking a long hard look at the Prison Service in Northern Ireland and I look forward to further conversations with him about that.

This is, as the hon. Gentleman said, a gesture of faith, but it is not a reckless gesture of faith. We have a well-founded belief that the arrangements will work and represent another step forward towards ensuring that we have an accountable police service in Northern Ireland that can underpin the peace and prosperity that we all want. I was pleased that he rightly paid tribute to the important role of the Chief Constable. Sir Hugh Orde is performing that role well.

The hon. Gentleman was also right to remind us that for all the progress that has been made, difficulties still remain. There is still too much sectarianism in some communities in Northern Ireland. We want the structures of division that are still in place to be removed when it is eventually safe to do so. We must not be complacent. Direct-rule Ministers must continue to work hard with devolved Ministers and all structures of both civil society and government to ensure that we work with communities so that the hope, optimism and opportunity that we face are turned into a reality with a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003 (Commencement No. 2) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 6th June, be approved.