HL Deb 01 March 2004 vol 658 cc441-3

2.58 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of pressure from all parties for investigations of past crimes, whether the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is adequately resourced to carry out the tasks with which he has been charged.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that the Chief Constable is resourced to deliver a professional and progressive police service. There are many competing demands for resources, and the issue of how they are deployed is an operational matter entirely for the Chief Constable, who must manage those resources and prioritise accordingly. The subject of the past is a difficult and sensitive matter for many people across the community of Northern Ireland. The Government welcome debate, because this is not a question that we can settle on our own. Any solution must be based on a broad consensus.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Would she not agree with me that now is not the time for the phasing out of the full-time reserve, without which the Police Service of Northern Ireland would be unable adequately to counter the terrorist threat?

Furthermore, will she tell the House what sanctions Her Majesty's Government intend to take against Sinn Fein following the Chief Constable's confirmation that the Provisional IRA was involved in the recent beating and attempted abduction of Mr Tohill?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, may be aware that the Chief Constable and the policing board announced in October 2002 a human resource strategy to meet the staffing needs of the police service over the next eight to 10 years. It was stated that from April 2005 there will be a phased run-down of the reserve during an 18-month period, subject to no further deterioration of the security situation and the continued success of the recruitment campaign for the Police Service". The position of the full-time reserve is to be seen in the context of that whole human resource strategy.

As regards the incident, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, may be aware that we have asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to examine it in the context of the preparation of its first report on paramilitary activity.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, given the enormous backlog of unsolved murders, it is clearly a matter of both conciliation and prioritisation. What plans do the Government have for developing reconciliation and what advice and guidance are they offering the Chief Constable with regard to this matter? It is not merely an operational issue; it is also one of much wider political consequence in Northern Ireland. I should have thought that the Government would offer guidance to him on this matter.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as I said in my Answer, this is an issue of great sensitivity in Northern Ireland. The Chief Constable has undertaken to ensure that where the evidence is available, it will be looked at by the new team established for this very purpose.

On reconciliation, there have been calls from a number of quarters for a truth and reconciliation commission. At present, we are saying that debate on the subject is welcome. It is not an issue the Government can settle on their own; we need to address it in a way that commands widespread acceptance and co-operation.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that when the Patten commission made its recommendations on the shape and size of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, it had in mind that it would be doing the normal job of a police force? It did not have in mind that it would be doing a series of Bloody Sunday inquiries too, with all the costs that that entails not only in people but in money. Surely, it must be accepted that the present staffing of the police is in no way commensurate with the work that will be required. This is a new situation.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, that is precisely why the Serious Crime Review Team was established from Monday, 16 February. The work in which it is presently involved includes formulating a response to all external inquiries relating to historical murder investigations. It is proposed that the review team carry out a review of any of those investigations where evidential opportunities have been identified. The noble Baroness is right that the burden on the Police Service of Northern Ireland of undertaking large-scale inquiries is such that the work of this team will be important in taking forward any matter on which it has evidence and has identified where further investigation should take place.

Lord Elton

My Lords, given the present security and political situation, does the Minister believe it appropriate to wait until May for a report on the Tohill incident?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we have asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to bring forward its report from July to May precisely because we were concerned to have information on the matter as quickly as possible.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, given that the situation has been getting worse for some time and that at the time of the Good Friday agreement some 70 per cent of murders by republicans and 50 per cent by loyalists were unsolved, why has it taken so long to set up this new unit?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, issues needed to be addressed in relation to the work that the unit would do. That has now happened. As I said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, the review team was resourced from Monday, 16 February and its task has been set out clearly. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with further information on that.