HC Deb 16 April 1999 vol 329 cc360-2W
Mr. McNamara

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, pursuant to the Home Secretary's statement to the House on 24 February 1999,Official Report, columns 389–403, (a) how she plans to respond to Sir William Macpherson's recommendations and (b) whether she will consider amending the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998. [80610]

Mr. Ingram

I have been considering the report into the brutal murder of Stephen Lawrence in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The Report focuses on the Metropolitan Police but it raises many issues for policing and, indeed, society generally. Many of the Lawrence Report's recommendations are pertinent in Northern Ireland, not only in terms of how racial differences are addressed, but also in terms of divisions along religious and other lines.

The Government attach great importance to issues of racial equality in Northern Ireland and, in the context of policing, I welcome the first meeting of the Consultative Committee on Policing for Ethnic Minorities hosted recently by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland and the RUC. This Committee will do much to ensure the views of ethnic minority groups are fully understood and their policing needs met. It will develop a greater understanding in the police service of the problems faced by ethnic minorities and provide a means by which these communities can work with the police to provide a better service and have their problems addressed.

The Criminal Justice and Policing section of the Good Friday Agreement recognises that we have a unique opportunity to bring about a society, which will recognise the full and equal legitimacy and worth of identifies, senses of allegiance and ethos of all sections of the community in Norther Ireland".

This is why the Government established the independent Commission on Policing and the Review of Criminal Justice which will report later this year. The terms of reference of these two bodies cover many areas highlighted by the report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

None the less, there are a number of areas where I will want to see comparable changes to those set out in my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's action plan for addressing the recommendations of the Lawrence Report. On the application of not only race relations legislation, but all Northern Ireland's stringent equality legislation to the police, I want to see as full a coverage as possible. Northern Ireland is already a leader in providing statutory guarantees of equality of treatment and I want to build on this.

Improving community confidence in policing generally is an essential priority. The Police Authority has set an objective in the recently published Policing Plan requiring the Chief Constable to raise public confidence in the RUC in the year 1999–2000. However, in view of the recommendations contained in the Lawrence Report, I will examine with the Authority and the Chief Constable what more might be needed to promote racial, religious, sex and disability equality and what meaningful measures can be adopted to ensure this happens. There should be no doubt of the Government's commitment to tackling all forms of discrimination.

Turning to the recommendations which affect police complaints and discipline procedure, we are making important changes. On independent investigations we are pressing ahead with the establishment of a Police Ombudsman. This will provide for completely independent investigation of complaints against the police and will provide a model for other systems. We want this system to be as transparent as possible. We will also be introducing important reforms of the police conduct and performance procedures and will consider the further changes recommended by the Lawrence Report in this area.

Whilst first-aid training in the RUC generally meets the standards recommended by the report, we are in touch with the RUC to ensure that any steps necessary to reduce intervals between refresher training are advanced as a matter of urgency. In other aspects of training, the police will build upon the initiatives taken as part of the Community Awareness Programme which already uses outside trainers from a wide variety of organisations. On inspection, similar changes to the role of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary will be made in Northern Ireland in line with those being made by the Home Secretary.

The Report raises issues about communication between the prosecuting authorities and victims. In Northern Ireland victims or their families are informed about the progress of their case by the RUC at key stages during the process, and by staff of the Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland if any decisions are taken once the case has actually come to court. The experience of those victims and witnesses who are made to feel particularly vulnerable because of the nature of the offence they are giving evidence about has been considered by a working group since last May. The group will be making recommendations to me in the Summer as to how the criminal justice system might better assist such witnesses.

The Stephen Lawrence Report highlights the need for co-ordinated action across the public sector if reforms are to be truly effective. For this reason the Government will be seeking to work closely with the new Assembly in Northern Ireland on those recommendations dealing with education and equality law. Consultation with bodies outside central Government will also be required. I have already initiated this action.

The Government consider the protection of human rights, equality of treatment and respect for difference cultures as fundamental aspects of the ethos of the police service in Northern Ireland. A service where, as the Chief Constable has indicated, there is no room for prejudice of any kind and cultural diversity is celebrated. The recommendations of the Report on Stephen Lawrence will help us in pursuing this aim.