HC Deb 13 February 2002 vol 380 cc189-91
1. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

If he will make a statement on police reform in Northern Ireland. [33133]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

Our aim is to develop a modern police service that is effective and widely accepted throughout the community that it serves. Good progress has already been made in restructuring the police and in establishing a Policing Board with representatives from across the community.

Mr. Murphy

I welcome that answer, as I do the long overdue police reform in Northern Ireland, but does my hon. Friend agree that the families affected by the Omagh atrocity are not helped by the fact that people of considerable influence, including some politicians, refuse to assist the police in their inquiries into the Omagh events? Does she also agree that, despite the important work carried out by the Policing Board, the undignified public squabble between the police ombudsman and other authorities only adds a sense of frustration to that of loss and anger, which is already felt by the bereaved families?

Jane Kennedy

Everyone wants the perpetrators to be brought to justice. To convict those responsible for that appalling crime, the police need evidence. Speculation and intelligence are not enough. This remains a live investigation, and I hope that the recent publicity about the tragic events in Omagh on 15 August 1998 will encourage those with information to come forward.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

If the Minister is keen to have a good police service in Northern Ireland, does she agree that it needs to be properly funded? There is a deficit of more than £40 million for this year, and it will probably be £80 million next year. Without resources, how can we have good policing in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources that it needs to continue to deliver a high-quality policing service to all in the community. The police grant for this year amounts to £656 million, which represents a high level of commitment by the Government. In August, the Secretary of State allocated an additional £10 million to the police grant to relieve pressures arising from the costs of policing disturbances earlier in the year. I am pleased to announce today that a further £16 million has been made available to the PSNI to meet all the remaining pressures identified by the Chief Constable in this financial year.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Does the Minister agree that the most fundamental and necessary principle of law and order in any society is agreement on the system of government—in other words, agreement on the system of order? When that is absent, no matter where it is, the police service will always be seen to be on one side or the other. Unfortunately, that was the situation in Northern Ireland.

Now, that fundamental principle has not only been put in place, with agreement on our system of government, but overwhelmingly endorsed by the people. That being so, does the Minister agree that it is the duty of members of all democratic political parties who regard themselves as democrats fully to support the policing service and to take their place in all the bodies relating to it?

Jane Kennedy

I entirely agree with everything my hon. Friend says.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Will the Minister please address a serious issue? The Patten report recommends that, over 10 years, the strength of the police service should be 7,500. That represents a significant fall in a short time. What is being done to redress the balance as regards that dangerously low level of policing?

Jane Kennedy

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is recruiting well, and levels of recruitment from both sides of the community are at a higher level than even Patten envisaged in his report. I am encouraged by the response that the communities have given to the reforms in the police service in Northern Ireland, and I have every confidence that we will have all the officers that we need to police Northern Ireland in the future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I have here a letter from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It states: Dear Colleague, Northern Ireland Questions: Wednesday 13th February 2002. Thank you for your interest in Northern Ireland, and your help in tabling questions. I attach a suggested question…If you would like an alternative, or would like the question tabled on your behalf, please contact either myself, or Shona McIsaac, PPS to Jane Kennedy MP, Minister of State for Security and Policing…If your question is listed and is likely to be called, there will be assistance available with supplementaries". Does the Minister agree that it is a pretty good waste of Parliament's time for her and her colleagues to answer questions cooked up in her office?

Further to the question of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), will the Minister accept that she told us on Monday that the number of victims of paramilitary violence was now 50 per cent. higher than when Patten wrote his report, and that the staffing level of the police service is now 300 below the level envisaged by Patten? Does she agree that this would be the wrong time to start disbanding the full-time police reserve?

Jane Kennedy

In one short question I have been asked about police staffing, police resources and the very difficult matter of Omagh. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to suggest which of those issues we should not be questioned on?