HL Deb 18 March 1998 vol 587 cc712-4

2.54 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the new guidelines concerning deployment of plastic bullet rounds will be available to the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers has completed an extensive review of the handling of public order and of the use of plastic baton rounds. Representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers met officials recently to discuss the findings of that review. The results will be put forward soon for consideration by Ministers. Following that consideration, appropriate guidelines on the deployment of plastic baton rounds will be issued to chief police officers, including the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I expect those guidelines to be issued before the summer.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply, but I think that the Government have left it too late to introduce these new guidelines, as the officers who are intended to use these plastic bullets need a great deal of training, and the marching season is just days away. They have no new guidelines so they will be operating under the old guidelines which have, as my noble friend will be aware, caused many deaths, including the deaths of young children, and caused hundreds of people to be permanently disabled. The Government should be considering a complete ban, in line with the 1982 European Parliament decision to ban the use of all plastic bullets throughout Europe.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, as my noble friend said, the RUC already operates and uses these plastic baton rounds under force orders. It is trained, as is the Army, to use them. Plastic baton rounds are used by the police and Army in Northern Ireland only when there is a significant risk to life or property of some importance—for example, people's homes—and their use is the only means to protect against those threats. The Government regret the need to deploy them, but sadly the scale and nature of violence in Northern Ireland is such that it remains the view of the chief constable and Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary that they are needed.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Government work towards achieving the minimum use of plastic bullets generally and, more particularly, at night, because of the risk of inaccurate firing? Will they try to raise the seniority of officer who has to sanction their use in Northern Ireland aligning the position more closely with that in England?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I understand that the officer who sanctions the use of plastic baton rounds has to be the senior officer on the spot. I am not sure that we can go higher than that, given that it is important that the decision is taken in the light of the particular circumstances at the time. It may reassure the noble Lord to know that, with the exception of events during the past two marching seasons, the use of plastic baton rounds has decreased significantly; for example, last October/November one was used in each month; last December, 170 were used during the Apprentice Boys march in Derry on 13th and 14th December. We want to use them as little as possible

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the way to create the minimum use of plastic baton rounds would be for there to be no rioting or violence on the streets? If that were to happen there would be no need for plastic baton rounds.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question, and of course I very much agree with what she says. Since the troubles in Northern Ireland, nearly 1,000 members of the security forces—that is, police and Army—have been killed, and over 14,000 have been injured. Their lives are on the line every day.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, without underestimating the seriousness of the problem, is it not a source of some congratulation that this is probably one of the few countries where civil disturbances of this seriousness are put down by rubber bullets rather than live ammunition?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, yes. We use plastic baton rounds because they are less harmful than any other weapon available to the security forces.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, what research is being conducted into producing a new round which does not have such an incapacitating effect as the plastic bullet?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I do not have the answer to that question. Over time significant improvements have been made in the safety of plastic baton rounds and I assume that that continues. However, I shall write to the noble Lord with an answer to his question.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a petrol bomb is a lethal weapon and that therefore the security forces should not be inhibited from using plastic baton rounds against those who throw petrol bombs?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, yes, petrol bombs represent a serious risk to the lives of members of the security forces. We will look to the new guidelines to ensure that the security forces have plastic baton rounds at their disposal. However, they will continue to be trained to use them in limited circumstances when it is necessary to do so.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to accept that plastic bullets have been proved to be counter-productive and that throughout Northern Ireland there is massive resentment against their use? Communities on both sides have been almost alienated from the security forces by the use of such bullets, which are lethal weapons. It is a bit much to say that they are necessary to protect property in case it is damaged when they are not used to protect property anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I repeat that we would like not to have to use them and would not do so if the circumstances in the streets of Northern Ireland were such that that would be a safe course to take. They are used by the security forces only in extreme situations, normally when there is a risk to life or to property of some importance; for example, the homes of people when they are threatened. I hope that there will soon come a time when we do not have to use them.