HC Deb 27 November 2002 vol 395 cc297-9
1. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

If he will make a statement on recent reforms to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. [81599]

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

I refer my hon. Friend to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made on 25 November. The Government remain committed to the new beginning to policing, building on the implementation of the recommendations of the independent commission on policing for Northern Ireland. Working with the police and the Policing Board, we continue to make steady progress across a range of areas.

Helen Jackson

Does the Minister agree that we now have a unique opportunity—while the Assembly is in recession, so to speak—to ensure that, through policing, we put in place the final, difficult ingredients? Is it not the case that any party that wants to play a constitutional role in the government of Northern Ireland must play a role in its civil police service, and must recognise that that is part of politics—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Minister gets the drift.

Jane Kennedy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The Government's aim is to develop a modern police service that is both effective and widely accepted throughout the society that it serves. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 17 October, the concept of republicans being on the Policing Board while maintaining an active paramilitary organisation outside of the law is an absurdity.

Mr.Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Given the evident need for good, well-qualified police officers in Northern Ireland, of whatever religion, will the Minister please explain the consequences if a police recruit from one religious denomination or another pulls out during the qualification process? Is there any pressure for a reciprocal withdrawal to maintain the 50:50 ratio?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Gentleman knows the detail of the arrangements that bring into effect the 50:50 recruitment of Catholics and Protestants to the Northern Ireland police service. He also understands that our efforts are directed towards achieving a more accountable, representative and effective police force. It is worth noting that 35 per cent. of those applying to join PSNI over the last year have come from the Catholic community. I look forward to that trend continuing over the coming years.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I know that the Minister is convinced that policing is a crucial part of the creation of peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. I note with more than a little pleasure that 14 of the amendments that have been made will be instantly recognised by those who sat on the last police Bill Committee. Will she give an assurance that, this time, nobody will be allowed to play political games with the very important issue of policing, and that no party or Government will be allowed to use it as a bargaining chip for political reasons?

Jane Kennedy

The forthcoming Bill will cover the commitments, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, to legislative change that we made in the updated Patten implementation plan that we published in August last year, and other issues that have arisen during the review.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Given that the Patten report specifically warned against the balkanisation of policing in Northern Ireland, can the Minister assure me that the new policing proposals announced this week will not lead to any such balkanisation?

Jane Kennedy

The hon. Lady knows that we are in the early stages of discussing the detail of the Bill. Her specific point would not be any part of our intention in developing the new proposals surrounding the accountability of policing in Northern Ireland. We will debate the detail as we proceed through the parliamentary stages of the Bill, and I hope that we can thrash out all those details in debate in time-honoured fashion.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry)

Does the Minister accept that further concessions on policing, such as permitting terrorists to sit on district policing partnerships, will be viewed across the community in Northern Ireland, in Unionist and nationalist areas, as totally unacceptable?

Jane Kennedy

The clauses that we have published, which we hope will form part of the Bill, give effect to the commitments that we made at the Weston Park talks last year. Those commitments, once enacted, will fully reflect the Patten recommendations. Had the Government contemplated further concessions, however, they would have been included in those clauses.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

As a precondition of convicted terrorists sitting as independent members of district policing partnerships, the Secretary of State has said that there must be "acts of completion" by the IRA. Will the Minister confirm that these "acts of completion" must include decommissioning and, crucially, disbandment?

Jane Kennedy

We gave a commitment to consider in the context of the policing review the disqualification rules for membership of DPPs and, indeed, the powers of the Belfast DPP sub-groups to which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred. However, we are not yet persuaded that the time is right to introduce changes in these areas, so they will not be included in the Bill. It is our view that the removal of the disqualification of ex-prisoners could happen only in the context of acts of completion as envisaged by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his speech in Belfast last month. I could not improve on his words.