PSNI: Unionist and Loyalist Confidence

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 2nd November 2021.

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Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 2:00 pm, 2nd November 2021

3. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Justice what steps she has taken to promote confidence in the PSNI within unionist and loyalist communities. (AQO 2652/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is incumbent on us all to cooperate with policing, to support the police in their work and to respect due process and independent oversight mechanisms, which are specifically designed to ensure public confidence. I will continue to work with the Chief Constable and his senior management team to help build and maintain public confidence in policing. I once again ask political and civic leaders to play their part as well. Public confidence in the police should be based on how they perform for the whole of our community. The recent narrative around a lack of confidence in policing seems to me to be based on perception rather than fact and to be far from universal, so it may be helpful for the Member to focus on some of the facts as they stand today.

Last year saw a further increase in drug seizures, with drugs with a street value of over £1·2 million taken out of circulation. Crime rates for violent crime, burglary, robberies, vehicle theft and criminal damage have continued to show a sustained downward trend. During August, the PSNI received 64,491 requests for service, processed 2,067 arrests, prepared 3,108 case files for the Public Prosecution Service and travelled over 1 million miles to respond to calls from the public. In reality, there has been a consistent increase in victim satisfaction with the police over the past four years, with 86% of victims reporting that the PSNI treated them with fairness and respect in 2021-22.

Therefore, we should all work together to support the PSNI to progress its proactive focus on those who are doing harm in communities. That is what builds confidence and, in my view, is what communities really care about.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 2:15 pm, 2nd November 2021

If the Minister thinks that there is not a lack of confidence among the unionist and loyalist community and that it is only a matter of perception and not reality, I am very disappointed by her complacency. Does she think that she maybe contributed to that lack of confidence by her action in the House a few weeks ago, when she voted against the removal of convicted prisoners from the Policing Board? Does she not think that that gives cause to the lack of confidence in the police by many in our community and feeds that view? How can she justify saying to the community that it is right to have convicted terrorists controlling the police through the Policing Board?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am rather amazed that the Member would pursue that line of enquiry given his recent run-in with — or should I say "run over" of — a police officer who was doing his duty, as he ought to do. I am surprised that the Member continues to come to the House to denigrate the good work of police officers. Disrespect from Members towards police officers who are doing their duty, with no regard for how difficult their jobs are, and the constant narrative about two-tier policing and criticism of the police undermines confidence in communities far more than any vote that I may cast in this place.

I say that with a degree of confidence. I have been to loyalist areas in my constituency and have spoken to people who live there. They have no lack of confidence in their local neighbourhood policing team or in its ability to respond to the concerns that they raised. Though strained, relationships are good. I heard the same story when I travelled to the north-west on Friday and spoke with those in loyalist communities there. However, because of the political narrative, people are afraid to be seen to engage with policing in their community. If people have a lack of confidence in policing, it is incumbent on people such as the questioner to take some responsibility and focus on supporting the police rather than undermining them at every cut and turn.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

My question follows on nicely from the Minister's response. I note that the Minister did not touch on the comments from one of the Policing Board members — one of the people whom she appointed — who referred to the RUC as a sectarian force. That Member talks about 50:50 recruitment at every opportunity; however, none of the individuals from the nationalist side seems to go out and openly encourage nationalists to join the police. Does the Minister think that that Member's comments about the RUC, which is now obviously the PSNI, were helpful or built confidence in the unionist community?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It would build confidence across the community if we did what was envisaged in the Patten report and took politics out of policing. We need to focus on the stuff that I talked about in my answer to the Member for North Antrim on delivering for communities and tackling crime.

Frankly, it is not acceptable for anyone in the House, from any perspective, to undermine respect for policing. It is incumbent on every one of us to do everything in our power to encourage more people to join the Police Service so that it becomes even more representative. There is an opportunity for people to do that and to encourage people to step forward and join the PSNI. On different occasions, every party in the Chamber supported police recruitment campaigns, physically turning up to their launches and issuing statements that encouraged people to apply.

We need to get beyond the tit for tat on policing and to focus on the job that they do and hold them to account. I know that, as a member of the Policing Board, the Member obviously wants that as well.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

In the week in which we mark the twentieth anniversary of the PSNI and the bravery and community spirit of those who serve in it, does the Minister agree that building confidence in policing is also about building confidence in the oversight structures, such as the Policing Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman, and avoiding party politicking around those structures, their clearly defined independent roles and the personalities of those who serve in them?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is important that, at the new start that we had for policing, we did not trash the reputation of what went before. Many honourable people served in the RUC, and many of them gave their lives in the service of this community. Their families have suffered a great deal. It was clear from the Patten report that there was no intention to undermine that record of service. The report provided a fresh start for policing that would allow the entire community to buy into policing, engage in support for policing and encourage people to come forward from their communities and get involved in policing. Twenty years on, that should still be our ambition. There are, of course, under-represented groups in the PSNI, and we should seek to address that issue at every opportunity. Today is one such opportunity.

The Member for South Antrim is correct, however: it is about support not just for policing but for the overarching structures that exist to ensure that policing is not politically motivated and that no Member has overarching control of it. That is how it should be. If we invest our time and energy in the structures at the Policing Board and in support of the work of the Office of the Police Ombudsman, we will have, through those tripartite arrangements, the best and most robust arrangements possible to provide the confidence that is needed in communities.

Ultimately, however, people will listen to the voices of their elected representatives. Amplifying grievance is not the way to build confidence. Addressing issues constructively is the way to build confidence. Members need to focus on that.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate the Minister's taking the opportunity to set the record straight about the fact that nationalists encourage people to join the PSNI and have done so consistently for 20 years. Does the Minister believe that reckless, inaccurate questioning is divisive? As we embrace a recruitment process in which we try to build a police service that truly reflects our entire society, the type of questioning that we have heard in the House today is unhelpful and does not reflect society

[Interruption.]

In this case, society, as it is very often, is ahead of the people who claim and purport to represent it.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Order. Ms Bradley, take a seat for a second, please. I call for order. Everybody who is called is entitled to ask a question and to be heard. Everybody else has the same opportunity to raise their hand and stand to ask a question.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Sadly, this entire line of questioning today has been unhelpful towards encouraging support and confidence in policing.

As Members, we have an opportunity not just to reflect what happens in our communities but to lead change in them. It is incumbent on every one of us to show that leadership in what we say and do, particularly on sensitive issues around policing. All parties in the House that have had an opportunity to do so have nominated representatives to the Policing Board. They have engaged with policing in a constructive way in that forum. It is important that, when we come to the House, we continue to engage in a constructive way when discussing policing issues, because we want to encourage more people to come forward, create as reflective a police service as we can of our wider community and enhance acceptance of the police right across our community. It is in the interests of those whom we serve — their safety, security, health and well-being — that they have positive relationships with the PSNI.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I will go back to the original question about the promotion of confidence. Given the high-profile murder of Sarah Everard, has the Minister had many discussions with the police about how they can raise confidence for females who meet police officers when they are out on their own?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

We have had discussions about that issue. As you are aware, the PSNI is bringing forward its own strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, which will take forward the work that it already does in that space. As a result of the work that we are doing around the new domestic abuse offence, there is enhanced training throughout the PSNI. The Member will be aware, through his membership of the Justice Committee, that similar training is being rolled out in relation to the new stalking offence.

It is, of course, concerning when somebody in a position of authority and power abuses that power. Therefore, I have said, on the record, that it is important that those in the Police Service and in other positions of authority and power are held to the highest possible standards when it comes to their interactions with members of the public. That includes interactions with vulnerable women and girls, who are vulnerable only because there are predators in our community.