The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The numbers of applicants do not reflect the breakdown in the age groups but, for the reasons already given, intimidation continues against young men and women from the Catholic community applying to join the PSNI. I should not let that point be made without stating what might be perceived as the obvious, which is that intimidation from any quarter, which prevents young people from applying to serve in the PSNI, is unacceptable. I shall talk about our efforts to tackle that intimidation when concluding my remarks. I have not confused the figures. The point made by the right hon. Gentleman does not deflect me from my conclusion that the Liberal Democrat new clause is unworkable. It would not assist the current situation in any way.
New clause 2 would replace the 50-50 recruitment arrangements with a provision that would make statutory provision for affirmative action measures to encourage applications from groups currently under-represented in the PSNI. Similar amendments to those discussed today have been debated during the passage of this Bill and that of the 2000 Act, and I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is unfamiliar with the Government's arguments.
The Patten commission and report fully recognised the importance of affirmative action measures in bringing about compositional change in the police service. Indeed, the commission made a range of specific recommendations to that effect on, for example, the role of community leaders, establishing links between schools and universities and the police service, and developing advertising strategies. However, Patten's clear view was that the imbalance
between Catholic or nationalist and Protestant or Unionist was so extreme that exceptional measures were justified for a temporary period to lend some impetus to the process of compositional change.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann says that the scheme is not working and is unnecessary, but the impact of 50:50 recruitment can already be seen. The proportion of Catholics in the regular police service has risen from 8 per cent. at the time of the Patten report in 1999 to 12.2 per cent. as of 1 March this year. That compares with an increase of slightly more than 1 per cent. in the 10 years prior to the Patten reforms. The impact on the overall composition of the police service will be taken into account as part of the review of the 50:50 recruitment arrangements, to which I referred earlier, provided for under section 47 of the 2000 Act. That will take place early next year. The 50:50 arrangements also apply to police support staff, and although the independent recruitment agency has only recently been appointed, the recruitment measures are already having some effect, with an increase from 12 per cent. to 13.5 per cent. in the proportion of Catholics working among police support staff.
As I have said, under-representation of women and ethnic minorities is also a live issue for the PSNI. Section 48 of the 2000 Act provides for the board to make an action plan to address the under-representation of women in the service, and the Act also provides for the application to the police of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which places a duty on them to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity. That provides an appropriate vehicle under which the matters raised in the new clauses can be taken forward. However, the under-representation of Catholics remains our current priority.