HL Deb 10 December 2001 vol 629 cc1138-41

3 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman asked Her Majesty's Government:

What their policy is in regard to organised crime and community policing in Northern Ireland.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government's policy is to attack organised crime in a systematic way and to promote community policing in Northern Ireland. The Organised Crime Task Force has been in operation for just over a year with very considerable success.

Our policy is to support, in every possible way, the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in order to deliver effective community policing.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. In view of the serious problem, and the fact that a large number of senior police officers have taken advantage of early retirement and that absenteeism in the force is unacceptably high, can he give an assurance that the phasing out of the reserve force will not take place while the terrorist threat and the high level of intimidation and organised crime remain? Further, can he assure the House that the Government will do everything they can to enhance the effectiveness of the Special Branch in carrying out its anti-terrorist operations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly the Chief Constable is very alert to the management of the reduction of officers at senior ranks. Plainly, we take a good deal of advice from and we pay a good deal of attention to the Chief Constable. In my experience it is extremely difficult to contemplate an effective fight against terrorism without using all intelligence capacity, which includes Special Branch.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, do the Government have any evidence that there is any connection between organised crime and terrorist groups in Northern Ireland?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a good deal of evidence to show that that is precisely the situation. The line between organised crime and alleged political activity is thin to the point of disappearance on many occasions.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree with the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force that more than half the groups involved in drug dealing in the Province have paramilitary affiliations? Further, does he agree that the police in Northern Ireland must continue vigorously to pursue all paramilitary groups, whether they claim to be on ceasefire or not, if Northern Ireland's drug problem is to be arrested?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, not for the first time, I am in substantial agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. There is no justification for trying to draw a distinction between politically motivated crime in Northern Ireland at the present time and crime which is motivated by the usual criminal motive, which is greed. As I said in a previous answer, it is not possible to draw the line. We do the community a disservice by pretending differently.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord referred to the success achieved by the task force in just over a year of its operation. When will it next make a public announcement to tell us about its successes or the problems that it continues to face? In particular, with regard to community policing, how is it endeavouring to deal with the kind of violent demonstrations that occurred yesterday in both Belfast and south Armagh?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the police have a very difficult task to carry out in Northern Ireland. We should not view that with equanimity. The truth is that no police force is capable of operating in any community without the whole-hearted support of all parts of that community. The task force has been extremely effective. It will be a longer haul to get cross-community acceptance that the new Police Service of Northern Ireland is there to serve the entire community—every single part of it and every single individual in it.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House whether, in the context of community policing, we can be assured that there will be no giving way to Sinn Fein's demand that former paramilitaries should be allowed to represent the community in the new DPPs, the local community police organisations? It has been widely reported that that is what it wants. But that does not coincide in any way with the recommendations of the Patten report which specifically said that it would not recommend that.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know of the recommendation in the Patten report. I do not know of any plans to deviate from its conclusions.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend say what preparations the Government are making to prevent organised crime from using the new euro notes and coins for nefarious purposes? Further, does he agree that if the euro is useful for criminals, why cannot the rest of us use it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we shall adopt exactly the same stratagems and policies to deal with euro-crime in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom. Many commercial organisations in this country are quite happy to use the euro following 1st January. If the noble Lord has any francs left, he needs to change them before 17th January.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the historic reasons for disaffection and disengagement from the institutions in Northern Ireland—not least from the Royal Ulster Constabulary but also from the civic institutions—and the motives for boycott and disengagement have been removed by the creation of these new policing arrangements and civic institutions? We need to be far more proactive in promoting, especially within the nationalist community, reasons for engagement and involvement.

Further, can the noble and learned Lord tell us what is being done to encourage young nationalists to think about a career in the Northern Ireland Police Service?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is an extremely important point. It is gratifying that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has positively encouraged members of that faith community to come forward. The SDLP has done the same. It is legitimate for us to say, "Where are you?" to Sinn Fein. The recent intake, as the noble Lord will know, will be 50 per cent from the Roman Catholic community and 50 per cent from the non-Roman Catholic community. They should be trained and fully operational by early next year.

Baroness Blood

My Lords, this subject is very opportune for me. I have just returned from the United States. I went with a senior group of police officers from Northern Ireland and members of the new policing board to look at community policing. Does the Minister agree that community policing is a sexy term? Everywhere we went community policing was put forward as being the answer to problems. Yet we never heard exactly what was meant by community policing. I prefer to call it community-orientated policing because in Northern Ireland "community policing" meant the soft side of policing. If this becomes part of the Government's policy I am fearful that policing will not be seen in real terms.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not sure that community-orientated policing is any more or less sexy than other community policing. If one has a description for any form of activity, the more often it is used the more it tends to become jargon. There are many models in England and Wales where community policing has been extremely effective. I take the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, that one cannot just take two words—community policing—and regard those as a panacea for all ills. As I said earlier in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, it will be a very long haul in Northern Ireland to overcome many generations of fear and suspicion.