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Policing (Northern Ireland)

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

Order. In view of the climatic conditions, it would be in order for Members to remove their jackets if they so wish.

I hope that the temperature does not rise because of anything that I say. The weather is sufficient to warm the Chamber this morning.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate grants us. However, I am somewhat torn, because I would have liked to be with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs this morning in Northern Ireland, where it is launching its report on organised crime, an issue of equal importance. If the goal of devolution is to be realised, agreement on policing in Northern Ireland will be an essential component of any arrangement. While this debate takes place, the Committee is launching its report just outside Armagh. It is significant that a Committee of this House has taken its message on that aspect of policing to an area associated with so many of the criminal activities of IRA-Sinn Fein. A range of witnesses gave the Committee the messages that dealing with organised crime is essential to political progress in Northern Ireland and that the unwillingness of one political party—IRA-Sinn Fein—to back the police in that endeavour makes the task more difficult.

The effective policing of communities by the Police Service of Northern Ireland is equally essential to political progress. However, that objective becomes impossible if a major political party openly discourages the public from co-operating with the police and undermines them at every turn. That creates a policing vacuum, within which people have to live, and there can be no confidence in any political institutions that require the inclusion of those who, while making laws, will not support the very people and organisation who have to enforce them.

There is an important political message to send out from this debate. The Democratic Unionist party is committed to achieving devolution. We have made it clear that we will work with IRA-Sinn Fein in government, although that may be unpalatable. That is a big step for people in my community, and, indeed, for the whole community in Northern Ireland, who have suffered at the hands of IRA-Sinn Fein for 35 years. We will work with them in government, but in return, we require them to relinquish terrorism and criminality and to support the police.

Support for the police means not only sitting on the Northern Ireland Policing Board or on district policing partnerships. It means giving a lead to the public by helping the police with investigations and supporting them when they take on criminal godfathers—I do not really care what side of the community those godfathers come from. It is totally reasonable to make that a requirement of entry into government, but the Secretary of State has rejected it as the creation of a new precondition. He knows that it is nothing of the kind, of course. It is simply the outworking of the commitment that all parties were supposed to give to work towards exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Sinn Fein has rejected a move in that direction, because it requires the demonisation of the police in Northern Ireland and the use of its own armed wing to keep control of its core areas. Its criminal connections are a useful source of funds, so it cannot afford normal policing.

Rather than face down Sinn Fein, the Secretary of State has reacted in a weak, and I must say, politically cowardly way. He has chosen to ignore what would be regarded as an essential requirement of any Minister or any party in the rest of the United Kingdom—to support the police in the execution of their duties. He has sent a message to Sinn Fein that he will facilitate its intransigence. In doing so, he makes the task of achieving devolution by the deadline of 24 November even more difficult. Oddly, he has made it clear that all Sinn Fein has to do is promise to support the police at some time in the future. But it does not have to practise that support for its members to become Ministers in Northern Ireland.

More worrying is the way in which the Administration seek to facilitate Sinn Fein when it comes to policing, especially in republican areas. The Administration are prepared to alter policing arrangements locally to facilitate the Sinn Fein-IRA version of community policing: policing that they control.

That brings me to the heart of what I want to say. In December, the Government issued a consultation document, “Draft Guidelines for Community-Based Restorative Justice Schemes”. There are 18 such schemes in Northern Ireland—four in what would be regarded as loyalist areas, mostly staffed by ex-paramilitaries and people who were involved with loyalist paramilitary groups, and 14 in republican areas, almost exclusively staffed by people who had associations with the IRA, of whom most have served time in prison for terrorist offences. Until now, the schemes have been financed mostly from America. The money was running out and the funding period coming to an end, and there were moves to try to bring the funding into the mainstream. That meant that there had to be guidelines on how the schemes would qualify for funding.

The idea is that the schemes deal with those who have committed offences in local areas. Victims report the incidents and those administering the scheme take action to administer punishment and, sometimes, to resolve the disputes by bringing victims and perpetrators together. However, the schemes are seen by many as an IRA court and an IRA police force. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has described it as the lords of gangsterism becoming the law lords in those areas. The schemes give Sinn Fein considerable control over a local area, and since it neither recognises the legitimacy of the police nor co-operates with them, Sinn Fein is, in effect, an alternative police force in republican areas.

I see the same happening in loyalist areas, and the schemes provide local Sinn Fein representatives, or indeed local representatives of one of the loyalist political parties, with considerable ability and strength. If there is a problem in an area, they refer the person and the perpetrators to a scheme that they control, and they get it sorted out. On one occasion in my council ward of East Belfast, someone came to me about people who were behaving antisocially next door to them. I went through all the normal channels—the environmental health department, the noise monitoring service, the police and social services—but still the behaviour went on. The lady met me in the road one day and said, “It’s okay, Sammy, I got it sorted out.” She named one of the people who sat with me on Belfast city council, and said, “I went to him. The boys came round and they sorted it out on Friday night.” Now, that undermines legitimate public representatives who do not have access to that kind of muscle. Secondly, it undermines the bodies set up by the state to do such jobs. That is why Sinn Fein wants that form of policing in republican areas. It gives it control, enables it to hold its grip on its communities and, in effect, gives it the power to police its own areas.

I will go through the guidelines and would be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The Government have issued guidelines that only strengthen the ability of the community restorative justice schemes to ignore the police and the criminal justice system and to exercise their own control. Once public funding goes into the schemes, they will become an integral part of the criminal justice system. The objective of the draft guidelines, they say, is to make the schemes an integral part of the system. Yet at the same time, the funding facilitates the schemes in ignoring the most vital part of the criminal justice system, which is the police.

At every turn, there are ways for the schemes to bypass the police. Of course, the reason is quite clear. Those who are involved, especially on the republican side, do not recognise the legitimacy of the police. They will not accept that the police are an acceptable police service in their areas. The danger is that if we proceed down the road that the Government are following, we will make schemes an integral part of the criminal justice system while the police are kept outside. The schemes are part of the Government’s efforts to get Sinn Fein to accept policing in Northern Ireland. Rather than make it live up to its responsibilities, as any other democratic politicians would have to do, and to accept that the police service that is in place is the legitimate police service in Northern Ireland, the Government are seeking to find alternative ways to allow it to police particular areas.

The objective of the guidelines is to help

“promote confidence in the criminal justice system”.

How can they hope to promote confidence in the criminal justice system if they allow one arm of that system, namely the community restorative justice schemes, to ignore the police and to set them aside?

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far. The Minister was quoted in a document entitled “Partnership policing key to success”, published on 31 May, saying:

“Effective policing is about working in partnership with local statutory and voluntary groups; it’s about listening to and responding to the concerns of local communities.”

It is impossible to achieve that if a major political party representing part of that community disparages co-operation with the police force, in which case what is said here stands for nothing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that perceptive intervention. It goes even further. The Government are going to fund one of those community partners and say, “We will find ways of allowing you to bypass any involvement with the police.”

Let us look at what the guidelines say. I hope that the consultation, which the Minister will have received, will lead to significant changes and a substantially different emphasis. The guidelines will not even apply to some schemes, because as paragraph 2 states:

“the guidelines do not relate to non-criminal matters, or to anti-social behaviour which does not reach the criminal level.”

Some schemes claim that 80 per cent. of their case load involves dealing with antisocial behaviour. I am not sure how the distinction is made. To me, antisocial behaviour in most of its aspects involves some degree of criminal behaviour. I suspect that that is an easy way of exempting some schemes from the guidelines and escaping even some of the weak requirements that could be placed on them.

In most countries where community restorative justice schemes are used, the normal method is that someone commits an offence, the police investigate, the case goes to the public prosecution service and then it goes to court. Then, the court can recommend that the person is dealt with by the community restorative justice scheme. Indeed, even before the case goes to court, the police can say that they believe that it would be more appropriately dealt with by the scheme. That will not be the case in Northern Ireland, however. Paragraph 6 of the guidelines makes it clear that the initiative will be taken by the victim, who can opt whether he or she goes for the community restorative justice scheme or whether the case is referred to the police.

Of course, the guidelines make it clear that

“neither victim nor offender should be coerced, or induced by unfair means, to participate in the process or to accept the outcome.”

The people who will give advice to victims or perpetrators might well be people, certainly in republican areas, who do not accept the legitimacy of the police. Of course, they will have a vested interest in saying, “You go down this route”, and I suspect that, in many cases, rather than giving advice, they might give instructions that that route should be followed.

When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee went to Northern Ireland, we met people who had been victims of crime, had gone down the community restorative justice route and were very unhappy with how their case had been dealt with. In fact, they claimed that in some cases they were pushed down that route because the people who perpetrated the crime had associations with a local paramilitary group that, of course, had control of the community restorative justice scheme. Those victims found that they, rather than the perpetrator, were the ones being punished and ostracised.

The danger with the guidelines is that they allow such things to happen. Despite the fine words in the document, I do not believe that people will be able freely to make a decision. I believe that many community restorative justice schemes would rail against referrals to the scheme by the police, since they do not accept the legitimacy of the police in the first place.

I want to consider the way in which the police are to be actively excluded from the schemes. Paragraph 7 suggests that the only role of the police will be to investigate a crime. The police will have no role in what happens in the community scheme. Where an offence has been committed, the job of the police is to take measures to bring the offender to justice. The paragraph states:

“The Police Service…has responsibility for the investigation of crime, and carries out its functions with the aim of securing the support of, and acting in cooperation with, the local community.”

After that, it is passed to the community restorative justice scheme without police involvement. Indeed, the next paragraph shows that any police involvement that there might be can be circumvented. Rather than having to interface with the police, the scheme can go through the probation board of Northern Ireland or the youth justice agency, which

“may assist in the communication of information to PSNI”

about the offence, and what is happening to the offender under the scheme. They do not even have to have face-to-face communication with the police: it can be circumvented by the use of intermediaries.

If the guidelines are meant to build confidence in the criminal justice system, why have the Government gone out of their way to ensure that the police are held at arm’s length if the scheme organisers decide that that is what they wish to do?

To extend the point that my hon. Friend is making—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), too, has made the point on a number of occasions—the risk is that in some of areas the paramilitaries, or proxies for the paramilitaries, will become involved in the schemes. That is one reason for the desire to hold the police at arm’s length; the paramilitaries want to present themselves as an alternative form of policing in local communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that that is already happening under the system that pertains at present.

I turn to those who will be involved in running the scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) pointed out, they are by and large from paramilitary backgrounds. The Government, using fine and honeyed words, speak of the schemes operating to

“high standards in order to comply with human rights requirements”.

Those are fine-sounding words, but how can the Government ensure that the schemes operate to the highest standards? Indeed, the guidance continues by saying that it would be

“unacceptable for anyone involved in paramilitary activity or criminality to work in schemes.”

Again, everyone would say that that is right; but how can the Government ensure it?

The proposal is that the schemes will police themselves, and assess the suitability of their staff in light of that. It is unlikely that anyone applying for a job in a scheme will say, “By the way, I am a paramilitary” or “I’m a criminal”. In fact, those who interview them will probably know very well that they are criminals or paramilitaries—they might even be mates. None the less, the schemes will assess their own staff.

It is suggested that one way of determining whether an individual is suitable will be to put them through the “protection of children or vulnerable adults” machinery. However, that will record only whether someone already has a criminal conviction. The only way to vet those who do not have a criminal record is to use normal police procedures and police intelligence. The police will know whether someone is currently involved in paramilitary or criminal activity and has not been caught. Again, however, that would involve the police.

On the face of it, the consultation provides a safeguard, but when we dig deep we find that there is no safeguard. Indeed, a researcher from Magee college at the university of Ulster has written a paper called “The Restoration of Restorative Justice”. In it, he says:

“What about CRJ indeed being a new role for the IRA?”

That is the sort of thinking of many who support the scheme. To allow schemes to vet their own staff would be an abrogation of responsibility. There should be an oversight body to vet the staff, with information being supplied by the police; it would be same as the normal vetting procedure for a job of such significance.

The schemes will be responsible for training their staff. Paragraphs 19 and 20 contain high-sounding words about the highest possible standards, but how can we ensure such standards? There will be occasional inspections to ensure that the training is adequate. Again, I believe that an oversight body is necessary; it should be responsible for the training and personal development of those staff who have been vetted and selected. The schemes will also be able to handle complaints against themselves. Given those who currently people many of schemes, anyone making complaints against them might want to think twice.

On the question of schemes considering complaints against themselves, is it not the case that the police were required to move self-investigation and establish the office of the police ombudsman for the purpose of ensuring impartiality in investigating complaints against the police? Surely we should not expect a lesser standard to apply in respect of community restorative justice schemes.

My hon. Friend reads my mind. He anticipates what I was about to say. He is right that the police require independent investigation of complaints against them, yet self-investigation and self-assessment seem to be allowed for the schemes. I believe that the Government are seeking to find ways to accommodate those who want the lowest common denominator when policing their own communities and who are therefore making those kinds of demands.

The guidelines are an abdication of policing in republican areas. They a sop to Sinn Fein and an attempt to allow it to fill the policing vacuum caused by its opposition to the PSNI. The Government have shown a typical lack of backbone on policing. I trust that this debate will at least help raise the importance of the issue. I emphasise again—I hope that the Minister carries this back to the Secretary of State—that political progress will depend on how the Government deal with policing in Northern Ireland.

I made it clear at the start that we are up for devolution. We are even prepared to take on the hard decisions that devolution may require, including with those who were previously wrecking our economy, but we will not do it on the basis of allowing them to choose the kind of policing that should be acceptable in Northern Ireland. That kind of Government would not be stable, it would not be acceptable, and it would not be supported by the majority of the population.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate. He touched on a number of important matters. I have some sympathy with much of what he said, although I come to these issues from a different direction.

In his opening remarks, the hon. Gentleman spoke generally about the political situation and the prospects for devolution, and he linked possible political developments to the attitudes of the various parties in Northern Ireland to policing and to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He criticised the Secretary of State’s response to his party’s attitude on those matters. I am not averse to criticising the Secretary of State from time to time for how he handles political affairs in Northern Ireland. However, I am at one with him in warning people about the dangers of turning objectives—no matter how valid—into preconditions. The history of our political process should tell parties that doing so only creates self-frustrating demands.

The worthy objective of ensuring full support and co-operation for the Police Service should not be made a precondition for the restoration of our political institutions. Flawed and wrong as Sinn Fein’s position on policing and justice is, it did not bring about suspension. Such matters should not be made into preconditions for the restoration of the institutions. If the factors that caused the suspension of the institutions are, in the judgment of the Government, the Independent Monitoring Commission and so on, resolved and settled, then restoration of the institutions should take place and parties should pursue all the other issues through all the appropriate means and channels—challenging each other, testing themselves and so on. That is how things should be done, or else we will get lost in another pub crawl of preconditions.

Sinn Fein will have preconditions for its support, or nominal support, for policing, and funding community restorative justice schemes in a way that suits it and its personnel could be exactly one of those demands and preconditions. I warn the hon. Member for East Antrim that in making Sinn Fein moves on policing almost a central prerequisite for restoration of the institutions, he could assist Sinn Fein’s attempts to extricate concessions on the quality and fabric of policing and justice, about which he expressed such concern.

There are huge contradictions in Sinn Fein’s position on policing, and it should be tested and challenged on them. It should not be comforted by the Government with all sorts of side deals on community restorative justice. Nor should it be assisted by the creation by other political parties of a framework within which it can happily do various side deals—some of which we might see, others of which we might not.

The new dispensation in respect of policing derives from the Patten report. The Patten commission was established by the Good Friday agreement, and its report set out 175 main recommendations; it was a 10-year plan to change the nature and face of policing. We are in only the fifth year of that plan, but there is already huge progress; nearly 90 per cent. of the recommendations have been delivered. That huge success rate is due to the leadership in the Police Service and to the role and work of the Policing Board. If the SDLP had followed Sinn Fein’s advice and approach and refused to take part in the board, that board would not have been established and would not have driven implementation of the Patten plan. Essentially, we would have been left with the status quo.

Sinn Fein needs to be challenged and tested, by the Government and others. I welcome the Minister, who deals with policing and security matters, but I hope that he will strike a tone different from that of his immediate predecessor, who seemed obsessed with spending a lot of time flattering Sinn Fein. During one broadcast, he actually credited Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein with the Patten report and its implementation. He bent over backwards to humour Sinn Fein and told a very basic big lie, which was an offence to all the good and responsible people who took part in the leadership and management of the Police Service, or were on the Policing Board or in the district policing partnerships. The Government need to come to the issue with more consideration than they are showing.

Alongside the Patten commission, the Good Friday agreement established a criminal justice review. That review, among many other things, saw a role for restorative justice and, rightly, positively identified a place for such justice within the entire suite of the criminal justice system. The Social Democratic and Labour party fully supports that recommendation, just as we support the criminal justice review more widely. However, there is a difference between restorative justice as part of the fabric of the administration of justice—as one of the options or channels that can be pursued—and setting up the highly privatised version of administering justice that the Government seem to favour in their guidelines.

We should remember that in their approach to community restorative justice the Government set about accepting the existing schemes as a given. They did not conduct consultation on the broad principles and precepts of restorative justice. They did not ask questions about what qualities, principles and protections they needed to build in, what resources they needed to commit or what legal framework they needed to build, so that people from anywhere in Northern Ireland could have access to the good model of restorative justice. The Government did not engage parties on what they saw, or on how examples from elsewhere in the world—Australia, Canada or wherever—could be applied to Northern Ireland, or how they could be varied to do so.

No, the Government set out to fix a funding problem for some existing schemes, particularly those run by an organisation called Community Restorative Justice Ireland. Those schemes’ philanthropic funding was going to run out, and there was a crisis about how to keep them going. As part of keeping Sinn Fein engaged on policing and politics, the Government obviously decided, “Well, we’ll see what we can do to fix things for you. We’ll come up with a way of funding.” That is where the whole question of guidelines and so on came from.

The Government had to consult on the guidelines only because a number of people identified and raised questions about what was going on. Initially, the Government denied that such engagement was even going on and that such plans were even afoot. Ministers did not know what we were talking about—there was total, blank denial that it was going on. Even the Prime Minister made it clear that he did not know. In meetings with us, he said, “Where did this come from anyway? I don’t know what it means.” Even he was in denial, but as the documents emerged, it was clear that things had not happened suddenly; there had been exclusive engagement between the Government, the groups directly involved in the scheme and one political party only. That was simply wrong. Anything that comes from such behaviour and dubious engagement is bound to be dubious itself.

The Government are happy to create twilight-zone arrangements, on the edge of or underneath policing, that might suit Sinn Fein. The Government are prepared to create a policing twilight zone in another direction, outside the Patten principles and the Patten plan; they have plans for an expanded and enhanced role for MI5 in Northern Ireland, to give MI5 primacy in intelligence policing. The Patten report is, however, very clear that intelligence policing should be in the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The difference is that in a matter of national security the Chief Constable should report not to the devolved interest, whether that is the Policing Board or a devolved Minister, but to the national Government, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It seems clear to me that the Government are quite happy to do a deal by which they try to tell us they will bacon-slice the Patten report from two sides. On the one hand bits of policing and the administration of justice will be privatised by way of community restorative justice and recycled paramilitaries. In many cases in the communities affected it will be a case of warlords turned law lords. On the other side, the bacon-slicing of Patten will consist of the expanded role that is to be given to MI5 in intelligence policing in Northern Ireland; so we may have crooks on the one hand and spooks on the other. Of course, the Government will then tell us that there is a balanced approach and that what we are left with in the middle, between the two sides that have been sliced, is the core of Patten. Of course, that will not be so.

I ask the Minister and the Government to think again and to return to Patten. I hope that the Minister will not rely on the briefings that he is getting from his Department to the effect that the changes are consistent with Patten. I hope that he will read the Patten report properly and come at the issue honestly and straightforwardly.

The hon. Member for East Antrim raised specific points about community restorative justice. One was about the way the proposed guidelines would strengthen the ability of people involved in the schemes to ignore the police, bypass the formal justice system and pretty much do their own thing. The main way in which that will happen is through the notion of what is called third-party referral. Let us consider that notion. Only last year Ministers, like the rest of us, condemned Sinn Fein’s sidestepping evasion in response to the murder of Robert McCartney. When Sinn Fein belatedly started to answer some of the challenges and questions about Robert McCartney’s murder, the most it did was begrudgingly say, “Yes, this was a terrible crime for which people should be brought to book, and if people have any evidence they can maybe make it available”—although it fully understood why they would not make it available to the Police Service.

The ruse that Sinn Fein came up with was giving the information to a third party. It made it sound very good and strong by including the police ombudsman among the third parties to whom it suggested people could give information. Some people did make statements to the police ombudsman. Some people made such statements and then did not sign them, which made them worthless as evidence. Some people made fairly vague statements to the police ombudsman, and, of course, many people made no statements at all. That was in relation to a vicious murder, which had been followed by a clear effort to clean up the bar and stage a cover-up, and which involved pressure being put on witnesses. The ruse to show that Sinn Fein was making an effort was the notion of reporting to a third party.

People rightly perceived the cynicism of that. The Government told us that they thought it was terrible—awful. The Prime Minister told parties that it was terrible and awful. He told the McCartney family that it was a terrible, awful, crude and cynical thing, which should not be allowed, and that he was making it very clear to Sinn Fein that that approach was not of an acceptable standard and was not on. But what have the Government gone and done now with the guidelines? They have incorporated exactly that standard as the new going rate for approaching the question of justice and policing. They are rewarding Sinn Fein’s cynicism and saying, “That will do nicely. That will be the rule, the law, from now on. We will work it that way.” People can pretend that so long as they engage under such justice schemes with a third party, that will be it.

That of course undermines the role of the police. Let us be clear. I should have my doubts in some situations about whether some police officers and senior police officers might abuse community restorative justice to abdicate their responsibilities in certain areas. Some police officers would be happy to take the line, “Well, we just police the highways and we let someone else police the alleyways and byways”, and to use people in the community in that way. Many police officers would be happy to wash their hands of some of the details and use the existence of the schemes to abdicate responsibility. I am not basing my objections and concerns about community restorative justice on the idea that only the police have a role and the police are wonderful; they, like other public services, will try—pardon the pun— to cop out, when they can and to land responsibility elsewhere. Indeed, that is already happening. In many cases, senior police officers are saying, “Well, there is nothing, really, that we can do. You should maybe go and talk to so and so. Have you talked to such and such about that? They might be able to do something.”

We want a system of policing and justice like the one Patten promised. We want something consistent with the Patten vision, which was equal access to acceptable, active policing—not police who are more active in some areas than others or a localised form of policing that does one thing in one area and has a completely different standard in another. We do not want to privatise policing to former paramilitaries, as though it is some sort of occupational therapy for them, or a way to recycle those groups as they decommission and withdraw from active criminal behaviour.

The hon. Member for East Antrim made other points about how widely permissive the Government’s guidelines are in enabling community restorative justice schemes to do their own thing—setting staffing criteria, investigating complaints against themselves and so on. I do not accept the idea that the schemes can investigate themselves—first, because of the point made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) that we have not accepted that the police should investigate complaints against themselves. We have been very demanding about requiring a full independent investigation mechanism, through the police ombudsman’s office, so why should we accept something less in relation to the matters in question, which affect people’s rights, and policing responsibilities, fundamentally?

Secondly, I do not accept the idea because community restorative justice as it is practised in Northern Ireland has already been subject to a number of complaints and challenges, including in the context of the McCartney case; personnel from the CRJ were involved in that. Subsequent to the murder there was a meeting in the Short Strand area to establish a restorative justice scheme, and among the people on the committee was someone known to have helped to direct the clean-up of Magennis’s bar and someone else who was definitely and clearly identified as having been involved to some extent on the night. Those are the sort of people involved. We have put that evidence directly to the Prime Minister and his shocked Secretary of State—his shocked Secretary of State—but to no effect, because the guidelines, and the Government’s intention, roll on.

My final point about complaints concerns Jeff Commander, a friend of Robert McCartney and the McCartney family who was viciously assaulted. His family has been trying to get that criminal offence dealt with properly, as the McCartney family did. One of the issues that has arisen is that a senior figure in Community Restorative Justice Ireland actually witnessed the assault on Jeff Commander, but he has still failed to give his evidence to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The Government are still acting as though that is okay and as though that will be the going rate for co-operation on policing and justice issues. The CRJI is not even trying to deny that the crime was witnessed, and the family is being offered mediation with the CRJI and the republican movement. Indeed, it is being offered anything but justice—any way of handling, burying or sidelining the issue, but not justice.

I ask the Minister to think thoroughly about this issue and to talk to people who know how the CRJI works and who have seen it completely mishandle cases in which it has been way out of its depth. In cases involving sexual abuse, other sexual crimes and domestic violence, it has brought the victim and the perpetrator together in a way that is absolutely inappropriate and that breaks all the rules, all the guidelines, all the advice and all the standards. Do the Government not care about that? They let these people do their own thing and set their own standard, but that is not justice or policing. No notion of law will be worthy of its name if the Government say, “That’s the way your society is to go.”

Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 10.30 am, but if hon. Members co-operate, both of those who want to speak will get in.

I concur with the comments of my hon. Friends. However, it is important to put some facts on the record.

As we all know, the Government are downscaling the number of British troops in Northern Ireland. In 1994, at the time of the IRA ceasefire, the number of soldiers was approximately 12,700. That number has since been cut to 9,300, and the plan is to reduce it to 5,000 by next July, and further if the Assembly is restored after talks with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party.

Further action will include the withdrawal of the military from five of the 10 joint police-Army bases, the closure of two military bases, which will bring the total to 22, and a 28 per cent. reduction in the flying hours of British Army helicopters. Part of the plan also involves the defortification of police stations to make them resemble normal buildings, which will involve the demolition of towers and observation points.

Public safety must the overriding priority, and there is enormous pressure on the Police Service of Northern Ireland to fulfil the role that will be left when the Army goes. That pressure is ongoing, and funding is necessary over and above that needed for the ordinary operation of the force. I completely agree with the Independent Monitoring Commission’s report, which made that point, and I should like the Government to walk up on the issue.

In all that is being done, it is police officers on the streets who are being overlooked. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has visited the Province on many occasions, and we have seen at first hand the difficult conditions in which police officers must work. The facts that I have just given, and the number of officers out there, mean that there is enormous pressure on people to do their job. Unless matters are handled in a coherent and co-ordinated way that is, most importantly, accepted by all political representatives across the community, I fear that officers who put their lives on the line every day for the peace that we all so want will be put under further undue pressure and that the aims that we all have will not be fulfilled.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), and I entirely agree with the thrust of his remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this extremely important debate. A wide range of general political and more specific issues has been highlighted, and it is absolutely right that they should be. No issue is more important for the people of Northern Ireland than their security, and policing is central and fundamental to people’s confidence as they move forward.

On the general situation, I listened to the warning from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about making support for policing a precondition. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have referred to that on several occasions. I have to say that the Prime Minister looked extremely uncomfortable during a television interview in which a leading reporter put it to him that it would be absolute nonsense to suggest that someone could be in government in any other part of the United Kingdom who would not even recommend that people should give evidence or information to the police about a rape, burglary or murder. We put the same point to the Prime Minister when he visited Belfast last Thursday, and he admitted that that situation would be absurd. He talks about a deadline of 24 November, but if that situation is absurd today, or on 23 November, it will be equally absurd on 25 November, if not more so. It will be absurd if Martin McGuinness or some other member of Sinn Fein has responsibility for producing and for proposing laws in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but refuses to tell his people, or anybody else in Northern Ireland, to help the police to implement them. That would be absolute nonsense.

It is not the creation of a new precondition to say that support for the police and the institutions of law and order is a prerequisite for being in government. As we have said all along—the authors of the Belfast agreement voted this into the agreement—there must be a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. In my estimation, and in that of most reasonable, ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland, someone who is committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means should support the police—that is not rocket science. We should not get into the business of saying, “We would like you to support the police. We hope that you will in due course. However, it shouldn’t be a precondition.”

Let us face the fact that if Sinn Fein gets into government in Northern Ireland and does not then support the police, there will be absolutely no pressure on it to start supporting them. The hon. Member for Foyle referred to the lessons to be learned from the current process, and the biggest lesson, which the Ulster Unionist party did not learn—costing it its seats in this House and its position in Northern Ireland—concerns what happens when we pander to Sinn Fein and do not take a zero-tolerance approach to such issues, but say, “We’ll have a parallel process. We’ll let you into government.” The Ulster Unionist party did not learn what happens when we say, “You can decommission alongside”, or, “You can get involved in the democratic process and wean yourself off criminality, terrorism and paramilitarism when you get into government and start to work Government institutions. That’s the way to go.” When Sinn Fein went into government, it was quite clear that it did little or nothing about any of the rest of the stuff; it carried on with its paramilitarism and criminality and did not decommission its arms. The lesson that we must learn is that if we want Sinn Fein-IRA to commit to supporting the police and the institutions of law and order, they must do so before they get into government. After that, there will be no means to exert pressure on them to do anything else.

I agree with a large amount of what has been said about community restorative justice. I simply make the point that there are community restorative justice projects in Northern Ireland that work alongside the police and that involve the police not only in their day-to-day operations but in their management committees. I mention Northern Ireland Alternatives, which works in my constituency, in North Down and in other constituencies. Where community restorative justice programmes involve the police and do not give rise to the problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and the hon. Member for Foyle alluded, there is a case for saying that they should be looked at differently from schemes run by Community Restorative Justice Ireland, which refuses to have the police anywhere near. There is a distinction there.

On the general point, it is essential for the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland that their local areas and housing estates are policed in a way that is transparent, so that they have confidence that things are not being run by paramilitaries or those associated with them. Community support police officers give rise to the same sort of concerns among ordinary people, who think there is a danger that local paramilitaries could gain a foothold in the policing of local areas if such officers are recruited from local communities. It is essential that we examine draft legislation and terms of employment before any final decisions are made and that, whatever happens, there are clear procedures for vetting officers, so that no one becomes a community police support officer who would not be entitled or able to become a regular police officer. There can be no double standards or lower standards in respect of anyone who seeks to become a community support officer, as there are real concerns in areas that I represent and in others that it could be a back door for paramilitaries.

The lack of public interest in the operation of local district police partnership arrangements and the fact that members of the public are not turning up to meetings has been highlighted recently, particularly in the Belfast Telegraph. On some occasions, meetings have been abandoned because there was not a quorum. Colleagues and I have been involved for a long time in local police liaison committees in my patch of north Belfast. They have worked well and have had good attendance. The police have come to meetings and responded to local concerns. Those committees believe that they are being bypassed in favour of DPPs, which are formal and structured and which do not allow the same input from the local community on bringing the police to account.

I ask the Minister to justify the millions of pounds that have been spent on the DPP structure across Northern Ireland. Many people believe that it is not working. It does not bring the police to account in the way envisaged in Patten. Rather than sticking to every letter of what Patten said, people should think about what works, what is effective, and what, in fact, delivers. Something may well have been in Patten, but it should be reviewed if it is not working. We must be prepared to be flexible and think about structures that can properly bring local police to account.

I thank the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for giving us the opportunity to debate policing in Northern Ireland. He will know that the issue that has been vexing many of us in Wales is whether the four forces of the Welsh police service should be merged. However, in comparison, the problems in Northern Ireland policing dwarf the difficulties faced anywhere else.

We have heard much about community restorative justice schemes. We have heard criticism as well as support. My judgment is that they have an important role to play in dealing with the low-level crime that most commonly concerns local communities. Such schemes can sometimes provide a more effective and productive route for both the offender and the victim. A more victim-oriented solution is possible that brings to the attention of some offenders the reality of their actions. There is some evidence to suggest that well-run CRJ schemes reduce the risk of reoffending.

In addition, CRJ may be useful in preventing young people from taking a more formalised criminal path. Such schemes seem to work well in places such as New Zealand, United States and Canada.

However, as we have heard, there must be safeguards. They were set out in the review and included upholding the human rights of all participants, receiving referrals from the criminal justice system—I shall return to that—being open to inspection by the independent criminal justice inspectorate of Northern Ireland and adhering to high standards. The real danger is of such systems operating outside the law, and we heard strong arguments about that.

I am sorry to say that many schemes seem to have fairly clear-cut, albeit indirect, links to paramilitaries, in that they employ individuals with terrorist records. They rationalise the role of paramilitaries in society and take referrals from such organisations. A recent Independent Monitoring Commission report highlighted the dangers of CRJ schemes operating without proper guidelines, or weak and ineffective ones. Therefore, any firm proposals must be accompanied by rigorous safeguards and proposals.

It is fair to say that over the past few years the Police Service of Northern Ireland has become the most heavily scrutinised and accountable service anywhere in the world. Therefore, it would be totally unacceptable for policing functions to be devolved to the community, which has much less demanding procedures in place, in a way that appears to bypass the police.

I have good news for hon. Members: in October 2005, Northern Ireland’s finest political party, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland—I believe that I can say that without fear of contradiction—[Interruption.] Perhaps not. I seem to have created the greatest controversy in the debate so far with that comment.

The Alliance party put forward several key principles that should guide any formal state co-operation with or recognition of community-based restorative justice schemes. Whether or not hon. Members vote for the Alliance party, I hope that they will consider the five key elements of the recommendations. First, there must be protections to ensure that neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator is coerced into participating with any scheme, and must have the right to exit the process at any stage. Coercion can be actual or perceived, and some schemes, particularly those with perceived paramilitary links, can carry with them the undercurrent of threat, based on who the people involved are or with whom they are associated. That is unacceptable.

Secondly, statutory agencies including the police must be represented on the boards of such schemes. Thirdly, the police must be informed of all referrals and should be able to make an independent judgment regarding whether a particular suspect would be better processed through the formal criminal justice scheme or through the scheme.

Fourthly, those running CRJ schemes must receive formal training. It is not good enough for them to say, “I will deal with this, I have plenty of experience”, not least because often that experience itself can lead to concerns that a paramilitary operation is functioning under the cloak of legitimacy. Fifthly, the operation of CRJ schemes and their funding must be subject to annual review by the Northern Ireland Office to prevent any risk of corruption in respect of funds.

CRJ schemes must not be an alternative to the existing policing and criminal justice system but a complement to it. That point was made by the hon. Member for East Antrim and others, and I very much agree. Indeed, I would not support any proposal that allowed a CRJ scheme to bypass contact with the police, for all the reasons that we have heard. However noble and thorough the Probation Board of Northern Ireland or the Youth Justice Agency may be, they are not the police.

Many people have swallowed bitter pills in the re-formation and restructuring of the police specifically to make it easier for Sinn Fein and others to participate in the police service. We can go as far as saying that if certain people are not prepared to accept the legitimacy of the police, it calls into question their fitness to operate CRJ schemes. CRJ can operate only in conjunction with the PSNI. There can be no equivocation on that point, as anything else or anything less gives succour to the argument that the police in some way are not legitimate. We must leave that thought behind.

It is also objectionable to recognise any scheme that places or entrenches paramilitary organisations in a position to control the procedure in any part of Northern Ireland, thereby subverting the interrelated values of respect for human rights, democracy and maintenance of the rule of law. We have heard good arguments about that which I shall not repeat. I am committed to maintaining the highest standards of justice and the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and, as we form the details of CRJ schemes, I am concerned to ensure that we take seriously the issues that, with the best will in the world, could create the unintended consequence of entrenching paramilitarism within the state structures. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.

We are opposed to the efforts of paramilitary groups to police communities through beatings and shootings. We must recognise that, whatever a person’s view about CRJ schemes, paramilitary beatings must become a thing of the past. Such attacks are wrong in all circumstances and should in no sense be tolerated on the spurious grounds that they fill a vacuum, pending the formation of a more legitimate police service. We have a legitimate police service. Now is the time for Sinn Fein and others to adhere to the rule of law and to participate within a law enforcement process that is there for all to see. We must recognise that paramilitary beatings constitute actual or grievous bodily harm under criminal law and are offences in themselves, not restorative justice by any stretch of the imagination.

To that end, I make a direct appeal to Sinn Fein. If there is to be public confidence in the IRA’s statement of last July, Sinn Fein must demonstrate its declared commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means by participating in the policing arrangements of Northern Ireland. Although I have a lot of respect for many in Sinn Fein and the long journey that they have made, it remains a bald fact that Sinn Fein must show that it has truly broken its links with the IRA. The best way to do that now is to indicate that there are no alternatives to the Police Service of Northern Ireland by henceforth participating in its management.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing this debate and on the typically passionate and eloquent way in which he spoke. Policing in Northern Ireland is obviously a subject close to his heart, as it is close to my heart and those of many in Northern Ireland. I do not intend to speak for long, as I want to give the Minister a chance to answer the many points that have been raised, but I entirely endorse the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the requirement for Sinn Fein to support the police.

A few weeks ago, I and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), sat in front of Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuiness and made that very point. Mr. Adams responded by saying that he was not sure that he could take his community along with him. If that is the case, I really do not know where we go from there. How can we have someone sitting in government who not only does not support the police, but does not recognise their legitimacy? The reason those in Sinn Fein do not recognise the legitimacy of the police is that they do not recognise the legitimacy of the British Government—as they refer to them—in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein does not even call Northern Ireland Northern Ireland; it calls it the north of Ireland and talks about the British Government, as if they were nothing to do with them at all.

I hope that we can get the Assembly kick-started again, because this afternoon this place will have to deal with yet another statutory instrument, which covers a number of issues. We shall have to take all of it or leave all of it—we cannot amend any of it—yet most of us on the Committee do not even live in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the Assembly can get up and running again, but is it fair to ask my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party to sit alongside people who have committed dreadful crimes in the past? People can repent and move on; but moving on is the requirement, and that means that people should accept the legitimacy of the Government and the police and do everything that they can to support them. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim said, that does not just mean joining police boards—we can all go and join a club tomorrow—but going with hearts and minds. Until the hearts and minds are right, we will not get the Assembly up and running, and we will not make progress.

I mention my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, but on Monday and Tuesday I was in Belfast for meetings with all the political parties, apart from Sinn Fein; it is not that I do meet Sinn Fein—I do—but it was not possible on that occasion. I spoke to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who said that he very much hoped to get things up and running. I asked, “Well, would you go into Government with Sinn Fein with the situation as it today?” His response was, “I think I’d want to see some movement on policing first.” So, it is not just my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party who say that. All legitimate parties recognise that there must be some movement—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) came at the issue from a different angle, but he has also been concerned about the situation for a long time.

On my previous visit to Northern Ireland, I went to south Armagh and spoke to the police there, who are very concerned about the proposed reduction in the Army numbers. They told me that their police officers cannot even go into shops in the area and be served, and that the MP for the area will not even speak to them, never mind support them or encourage his people to go to them if they have witnessed a crime. Is he to sit in the Government? In my judgment, it would be difficult for him to do so.

When I went past Magennis’s bar on Monday, I was reminded of the IRA’s continued activity. At the very time when it was negotiating to sit in Government, 18 or so months ago, it was planning the Northern bank robbery, the money from which has not been fully recovered. There was the dreadful murder in Magennis’s bar, which the IRA cleaned up to hide the evidence, rather than taking it to the police, and there was the dreadful gang rape of a young girl shortly after that. Was evidence taken to the police? No: an attempt was made to clean up the scene. Although I share the desire for the Assembly to be up and running again, for the reasons that I have given, the more often I visit Northern Ireland, the more I am convinced that Sinn Fein-IRA have to support the police in their hearts and minds.

Something odd about going over to Northern Ireland regularly is that one reads the local newspapers, which one does not much see in this country. They report much that is not reported over here, which is significant. It is easy for Members to sit in this Chamber and say, “Oh, they should join the Assembly and sit in Government—they should give it a go”, but it is very different over there and much more difficult than we perceive to say such things.

I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim and other hon. Members have said. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on making a robust speech, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on his telling remarks about the reduction in support that the Army will be able to give to the police, which is a worrying development.

I have gone on for slightly longer than I intended, but I wanted to express, on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, our entire agreement with the words that the hon. Member for East Antrim so eloquently put to us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate. He has a significant track record on such matters and was an assiduous member of the Policing Board for a number of years. Just as his presence is felt here, so I am sure his absence is equally felt there.

The hon. Gentleman raised issues of local policing, which are top priorities for our constituents wherever we are in the United Kingdom. He focused on a number of issues in relation to Northern Ireland, with which I shall deal in a moment. I am sure that he would join me in paying tribute to the fine work of police officers in Northern Ireland and their continuing success in tackling crime at all levels.

Hon. Members have referred to publication of the report later today on organised crime in Northern Ireland. The tenacity with which the police and other agencies are dealing with that threat is commendable. Equally, dealing with community policing issues is important. During meetings with the Chief Constable and senior colleagues, as well as with officers in a number of locations, such as Omagh, Foyle, Newry and south Armagh, I have been struck by their absolute commitment and dedication to ensuring that the communities of Northern Ireland can live in safety and security.

The context for policing is changing, as I think we would all acknowledge. The political and security contexts have improved. The symbolism of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs publishing its report in Armagh today speaks volumes for the progress that we have made, notwithstanding the fact that it will highlight some of the remaining challenges. The organisational changes that have emerged from Patten are also highly significant. We know from the oversight commissioner’s report that three quarters of those recommendations have been implemented.

I was struck by the comment from the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that the policing structure in Northern Ireland is probably one of the most accountable in the world. With the Policing Board, district policing partnerships, the police ombudsman and so on, the system is very transparent. It is far too early to be sure, and it would be utterly naive to describe Northern Ireland as normal in relation to policing, but we should not be over-pessimistic either. We are moving to a situation in which things that we might take for granted in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as police being able to police in their own areas, where they live, should become the norm in Northern Ireland. In the past, that has not been the case.

I shall deal briefly with points made by the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) and his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on the reduction in the number of Army personnel in Northern Ireland. We have made it clear that as we move down the path of normalisation there will be fewer military in Northern Ireland. From August next year, there will be a garrison presence of 5,000, which will represent a reduction from current numbers. We should take encouragement from what is happening. No military personnel at all were engaged with the Whiterock parade just over a week ago. We need to acknowledge that that is a move forward.

I am sure that all hon. Members present would join me in congratulating the police officers acknowledged in the recent community policing awards, which take us to the very essence of effective local policing. I pay particular tribute to Constable Chris Murdoch in Coleraine, who received the top award for being the community police officer of the year. He was recognised as a highly visible, accessible police officer who makes a contribution to improving the quality of life in his area. He is also very good at catching criminals, which is a rather good characteristic for a police officer.

Public confidence is high. Some surveys reveal that more than three quarters of people in Northern Ireland have confidence in police and policing arrangements, and Northern Ireland is, despite all the difficulties and challenges we face, one of the safest places in the United Kingdom in which to live in terms of crime.

I shall move to some of the specific points that the hon. Member for East Antrim and others raised. There was discussion of the position of Sinn Fein in relation to policing. Of course, the Government want to see Sinn Fein take its seats on the Policing Board and support policing at the earliest possible opportunity. I gathered from what the hon. Member for East Antrim said that, for all the difficulties in the past, he, too, wants that. However, it must be active support, not just sitting on a seat, and I fully support what the hon. Gentleman said about that. I do not accept—he will not be surprised at this—his description of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The point that my right hon. Friend has made is that the pledge of office is sufficient. The commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means is an unequivocal commitment.

But the same Sinn Fein Ministers took exactly that pledge previously when they took office, and they did not support the police then. Given that, what gives the Minister any confidence for the future?

What gives me confidence is the progress made since then. That progress is backed by the IMC report, which both the hon. Gentleman and I have read. It clearly indicates the path to peace, which is now a clear commitment from the Provisional IRA. We look forward to further reports, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does. He will be looking carefully at the next IMC report when it is published in October.

Let me move on to the core issue that the hon. Member for East Antrim raised and on which other hon. Members commented: community-based restorative justice. In a way, the wrong Minister is responding this morning, in that justice as an area of policy is the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. Hon. Members will know that he has been engaged in a consultative process. They referred to the guidelines that have been out for consultation. My hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement relating to community-based restorative justice and the conclusions of the consultation in the very near future and certainly, he hopes, before the summer recess.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) made his point about how effective restorative justice can be. Previously, when I was in the Home Office, I had responsibility for a time for promoting restorative justice. Whether it is face-to-face or indirect restorative justice, it has a role to play. Particularly from the point of view of the victim, it can be a valuable experience. However, we must ensure that all community-based restorative justice schemes operate in full co-operation with criminal justice agencies. We simply cannot have a parallel criminal justice system. We need a system that reinforces confidence in the criminal justice system, rather than detracting from it. My hon. Friend will make a statement on the detail, but let me make four brief points.

First, all criminal cases referred to restorative justice schemes will have been investigated by the PSNI and will be referred by the Public Prosecution Service. There is no back-door route to restorative justice; things have to be done through the front door and with the full consent and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

The second point was raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim. Victims must of course agree to participate in any restorative justice scheme. However, their agreement alone is not enough; there must be the agreement and involvement of criminal justice agencies.

Thirdly, the police must of course be involved in all restorative justice schemes; that will be a prerequisite of all schemes. The police cannot be sidelined in that process; they must be engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made the fourth point forcefully: high standards must operate in respect of restorative justice schemes. There must be a robust accreditation scheme. Of course, no one currently engaged in paramilitary activity could possibly be allowed to participate. There will be and there will need to be oversight by the criminal justice inspectorate. That is as far as I can go this morning. We await the further details that the Minister of State will announce in due course.

I shall deal briefly with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle on national security intelligence. He invited me to read the Patten report for myself. I hope that he has enough confidence in me to know that I would do that. I draw his attention to Patten recommendation 20, which is:

“Responsibility for policing should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible, except for matters of national security.”

It is not true to say that Patten recommended that national security should stay in Northern Ireland; he recommended quite the opposite. What he recommended and what we intend to do from next year is to put Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the UK.

I do not dispute what the Minister has quoted from the Patten report, but that report went on to say that the Chief Constable would report on matters of national security to the Secretary of State as opposed to the devolved interest. That is how the difference between national security and regional policing is dealt with, not by giving MI5 the role proposed.

What I can say in the brief time left is that the Chief Constable is of course deeply involved in discussions and negotiations about the future arrangements. He has made it clear that he will sign off only arrangements with which he is entirely happy. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend confidence for the future. Basically, the arrangements will put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to national security intelligence.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) raised the issue of police community support officers, whom the Policing Board has decided to recruit. I reassure him that there will be absolutely no lesser standards in relation to recruitment criteria and vetting. It cannot be a back-door route. The same standards have to apply to PCSOs as to all police officers, but they can make a big difference. They are highly visible, out in the community most of the time, and they will make an effective contribution.