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Northern Ireland

Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Policing

1. What funding was allocated to policing in Northern Ireland in each of the last three years; and what the forecast budget is for 2008-09. (151122)

The total resource funding allocated to policing in Northern Ireland in each of the past three years was £860 million in 2005-06, £889 million in 2006-07 and £960 million in the current year of 2007-08. The allocation for policing in Northern Ireland for 2008-09 will not be determined until the comprehensive spending review has been concluded.

I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware that the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Chief Constable are concerned about a possible reduction in the police budget in the forthcoming financial year, and that there are increasing pressures on the budget as a result of policing the past, the ongoing inquiries, and the cost of the legal advice that the police need to secure in order to participate in them. However, does he agree that it is right that the Government provide adequate funding for the ordinary policing in the community that tackles all the matters that concern the people of Northern Ireland? Does he accept that there should not be a reduction in the police budget, given the increasing costs of the inquiries that I have mentioned? Will the Government do something to reduce the cost of the inquiries, and ensure that adequate policing is provided for all the victims of crime in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Speaker, we had the Adjournment debate yesterday, and in it we covered much of the territory in the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, I shall start with the facts. This year’s budget for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is £100 million more than it was two years ago. As for the CSR discussions, I assure him that we want to maintain the same police numbers—that is, 7,500 officers—as we have at the moment. For obvious reasons, that is rather more than one would find in the average police service in the rest of the UK. What matters too is how those resources are deployed. That is very important, and the Chief Constable’s commitment to neighbourhood policing is very welcome.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) touches on another important issue that no doubt will be touched on later in our proceedings today. We cannot go on spending on investigations into the past without there being a knock-on effect on both present and future services. The CSR considerations that are going on at the moment will be important in that respect, but I am committed to making sure that we continue to provide the necessary funding for the PSNI, and I am determined that that will happen.

Will the Minister assure the House that budget constraints in the future will not curb or compromise the roll-out and full implementation of the Patten vision for policing? This morning, the Police Service has had to seal off a number of streets in Derry city centre because of hoax devices. Will he join me in condemning the so-called dissident republicans responsible for such attacks? At a time when Derry city centre is seeing the fruits of normalisation and the removal of military installations, the attacks serve only to bring the British Army, in the form of the bomb disposal units, back on to the streets there.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully signed up to what he describes as the Patten vision, and that we will continue to deliver on it. That will include making sure that the PSNI reflects more fully the composition of Northern Ireland’s population. Over the past three years, we have committed £178 million to fulfilling the Patten vision for policing in Northern Ireland. He has told the House about the events in Derry, and I of course join him and others in condemning dissident republicans who continue to think that violence and conflict are the way forward, when the truth is that politics is the way forward. Equally, however, I condemn those loyalist paramilitaries who were involved in the shooting of a police officer at the weekend. That is just as damnable, and such actions are increasingly marginal in a Northern Ireland society where real politics is taking over and determining the future.

Does not the Minister’s very proper condemnation of the events of yesterday and the weekend underline the necessity for keeping an absolutely first-class police force in Northern Ireland, under the inspired leadership of an admirable Chief Constable? Will he ring-fence expenditure on the past and try to ensure that is totally separate from the running budget for police needs?

The special fund of £34 million that we have provided for the historical inquiries team to look into the unresolved murders of the years of the troubles is, of course, additional money that does not come out of the day-to-day policing budget. It is important that we focus all the resources that we can on day-to-day policing—that is, on neighbourhood policing and dealing with antisocial behaviour, for example—but we must also deal with the remaining threats from dissident republicans, loyalist paramilitaries or those involved in organised crime networks. I know that the hon. Gentleman cares very deeply about such matters, and that he will agree that we must remain very strongly focused on them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Assets Recovery Agency has an important role to play in deterring crime, as well as potentially obtaining more funds for policing in Northern Ireland? Can he outline the progress the Government have made in obtaining funds through that source?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is right: where assets are seized and turned back into cash, it can be put back into front-line police services. I am pleased to say that with some of that money the Police Service of Northern Ireland has just taken on 60 new financial investigators, who will further improve the capacity for that work. The ARA is doing a tremendous job in Northern Ireland and its work will be redoubled and strengthened when it merges with the Serious Organised Crime Agency next year. Of course, partnership with our colleagues in the Republic is also an important element of that work.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on their appointments and thank them very much for their kindness this week following the terrible flooding in my constituency. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and the House for having to leave shortly after this question to attend to those problems.

Given that the security situation has improved so much, is it not rather unfortunate that over the past 10 years the level of policing has dropped from 8,500 to 7,500 officers, and also that the full-time reservist force has dropped from 3,000 to fewer than 700 and the part-time reservist force from 1,300 to fewer than 900? Although we hope that the security situation continues to improve, are not those figures of a little concern to the Minister?

On behalf of my right hon. Friend, may I express our sympathies to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents for the difficulties that they face?

At 7,500, the PSNI has greater strength than any other police service in the United Kingdom. Significantly, confidence in the PSNI shows an encouraging story: 75 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland express full confidence in the police service that they receive. We should all take encouragement from that.

Maze Prison Site

The future of the Maze prison site is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. To date, they have not sought discussions with me on the matter, but of course I would be happy to meet them to discuss it further if they wish.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and thank him for that reply. The estimated cost of building a national stadium at the Long Kesh Maze site is between £43 million and £400 million. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House a definitive figure, to the extent that he is able to do so, after taking account of all contingency and additional costs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

The matter is now devolved and it is for the Executive in Northern Ireland, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. Suffice it to say that it is under review; the Executive are looking at a business case and I understand that they will bring it back in the autumn.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. He will be aware that the people of Northern Ireland are pleased that the question of the future of the Maze is now in the hands of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but will he make sure that every piece of information relating to the stadium is put into the public domain so that people such as Northern Ireland football supporters do not have to go to freedom of information legislation to obtain information about various aspects of the process that seem to have been kept very secret? Will he assure the Minister for Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland that every bit of information will be put into the public domain?

The Secretary of State will be well aware of the almost total opposition of Northern Ireland football supporters to the siting of the stadium at the Maze. He will also be aware of the total opposition of Unionists to the provision of a shrine to hunger strikers at the Maze—something that is already happening, promoted by Sinn Fein. Will he give an assurance that no agreements made in the past by direct rule Ministers or actions taken by direct rule Ministers in the future will limit the ability of the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland to be the final arbiters of what happens to the Maze site and the location of the national stadium?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, of course, this is now a matter for the Executive—the final decision will be theirs—but I remind him that when direct rule Ministers looked at the issue, it was the subject of enormous consultation and that the decision was endorsed by all three major sporting bodies—those for soccer, rugby and Gaelic football? However, these are now matters for the Executive.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s observations about what some have described as a terrorist shrine, there is no question of its being a terrorist shrine and, frankly, to suggest that it is, as I think that he knows, denigrates the work done by the Maze consultation panel. It came up with proposals and a way forward on all this, and it would be best to remember the words of the Deputy First Minister, who said yesterday:

“I am not arguing for any kind of shrine…If we want a conflict transformation centre, then it has to concentrate on how we resolve conflict.”

Historical Inquiries

3. How much has been spent on ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151124)

6. How much has been spent on ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151127)

7. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of ongoing historical inquiries in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (151128)

The Bloody Sunday inquiry, the Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright inquiries and the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s historical inquiries team were established to address specific issues arising from Northern Ireland’s past. The total cost of the four public inquiries, as at April 2007, is £211 million. The estimated expenditure of the historical inquiries team at end March 2007 is £9.9 million. I have placed a more detailed breakdown of expenditure in the Library today for the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members.

Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of how many of the 3,268 murders related to the security situation that are being investigated by the historical inquiry team are likely to lead to the establishment of a separate public inquiry?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the historical inquiries team was specifically set up by the Chief Constable to focus on providing resolution, where possible, for the families affected by those deaths in a way that would command the confidence of the wider community. There is no question but that it has been successful, particularly in its specific purpose of engaging with families. As for prosecutions, that is, of course, a matter for the Chief Constable.

Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who supported setting up the Bloody Sunday inquiry would not have done so if we had known that, by now, it would cost £180 million? It has not yet concluded, and it almost certainly has not brought the closure that we all desired.

Undoubtedly, the costs of the Bloody Sunday inquiry are higher than many people would like. Of course, the Government are committed to ensuring not only that the inquiry has the resources to do the job, but that we can bring about best value for money for the public purse. The fact of the matter is that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, justice must take its course. The inquiry has had to interview more than 900 witnesses. There have been endless judicial review proceedings. None the less, it is now proceeding towards its end, and we expect and hope that its resolution will come soon.

I apologise for not have heard all the answer, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State has been helpful in what he has said, but will he tell me whether he in the Department or someone in the devolved Administration decides which inquiry will take place and determines the extent of the investigation and the budgetary parameters? Who decides whether it is appropriate to hold an inquiry and on what terms?

The conduct of most of the inquiries that are taking place is already set out, and they are already proceeding along their courses. A number of inquiries are under way. I am not quite sure which inquiry the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but I am happy to discuss that with him or to pursue it by letter. Of course, inquiry matters are for me to set out, but once under way, they are matters for the chairman or the judge involved.

The Secretary of State says that justice must take its course, but does he accept that many of the innocent victims in Northern Ireland see no justice? What they see is hundreds of millions of pounds being spent for political purposes by the Government and others to pursue a vendetta against the security forces and those who work to defeat terrorism. I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position, but will he do something to redress the balance in favour of the victims and against the terrorists and those who would seek to rewrite history?

There is no question in anybody’s mind of inquiries being confused with vendettas. The inquiries are there precisely to establish the truth, and it is absolutely right that they continue to do so. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the future of inquiries and how we handle the past. That is why my predecessor—I pay tribute to the work that he did not only in this area, but during his entire time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the previous two years—set up the consultative group. Its purpose, under Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, is to see whether, across the entire community of Northern Ireland, we can find a consensus on how to deal with the past. There is no question but that we must continue to discover the truth about the past. That will never be sacrificed. However, we also have to find a way to deal with the past that does not leave us in a divided past, but allows us to use our inquiries as a way of healing for the future.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to their new positions and offer the best wishes of my party to them in doing what remains, potentially, a very difficult job. I share many of the concerns about the price of the inquiries, but we should never lose sight of their value. The Secretary of State just referred to the Bradley and Eames commission on the past. Does he accept that that is an inquiry of a different order? Will he ensure that its deliberations are properly resourced and that any recommendations it makes will be properly implemented?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and I am sure that he will be extremely successful. I also welcome the co-operation that he has already offered me in my job. I agree with most of what he said, but, on the other hand, I cannot second-guess the outcome of the work of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. I have every confidence that if a consensus can be found on how to deal with the past for the future, they are the people who will help to find it from within the community. It is my intention to publish the findings of their report, but that will be based on consultation with them.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his office and wish him well. We were both elected as Conservative MPs in 1997 and it is an interesting reflection on the different ways in which we have spent the past 10 years that we hold our current posts. I intend to build on the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who supported the Government through the current process, but did not offer them a blank cheque. On the question of cheques, will the Secretary of State estimate the total cost of all the current and future inquires, and say when he thinks they may be completed?

Since the hon. Gentleman invites me to look at the past, and the time when we were both elected, I will say to him that it took me two years to realise that the Conservatives were the party of the past and that Labour remains and will be the party of the future. Even though he has remained in the Conservative party for eight years longer than I did, if he wants to come across now, I am sure that we can always find a place for him here.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question about the cost of future inquiries, in the case of the four public inquiries currently under way, we anticipate further expenditure of about £60 million. We have set aside for the historical inquiries team £34 million, of which £10 million has already been spent, leaving a further £24 million, which we expect to be spent by the various agencies in Northern Ireland in looking at the past.

That was a helpful reply. The Secretary of State knows that the Chief Constable has stated that retrospective work is absorbing 40 per cent. of police time. Can he confirm whether, in his opinion, the time may come when, in the interests of current police priorities, it will be sensible to draw a line under further historical inquiries?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I believe that he has already taken the opportunity of discussing some of the issues with the Chief Constable. There is no question but that investigations into the past are a considerable burden for the Chief Constable, in terms of resources, manpower and time, but we should recognise that the investigations and inquiries have played a critical role in allowing us to get to where we are with devolution, the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland. Crucially, as was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Minister of State who has responsibility for security, there are unparalleled levels of confidence in policing in Northern Ireland. The way in which the Chief Constable has dealt with the past is exemplary, and that has been crucial to ensuring those levels of police confidence. As for the future, we have asked the consultative group to consider the issues and find a consensus. I will not second-guess what it will find, but I will pay very close attention to the work that it produces.

Prisons (Illegal Drugs)

Positive action has already been taken by the Prison Service, and I have asked the director to review measures to reduce the supply of, and demand for, illegal drugs in prisons—[Interruption.]

Given that so many prisoners are heavily dependent on drugs when convicted, and that so many prisoners suffer from mental illness through drug use, what extra measures will the Minister introduce to encourage the rehabilitation of prisoners while they are in jail, so that they come off drugs?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we need to deal with not just the supply of, but the demand for, illegal drugs in prisons. I was at Hydebank Wood prison earlier this week, and I saw the work of an organisation called Opportunity Youth, which works to support, help and counsel young people there. Its results are very good, in terms of lowering recidivism rates and ensuring a worthwhile future for those young people. When the director brings his recommendations to me, I expect him to include measures that will give people support and help in dealing with their addiction problems.

In the Minister’s opinion, are the sentences handed down by the courts in Northern Ireland for drug-related offences—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. In the Minister’s opinion, are the sentences a stiff enough punishment, and a great enough deterrent?

Of course, sentencing is a matter for the judiciary, rather than Ministers, but I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned with the need to make sure that for serious offences, particularly sexual crime and drugs offences, the punishment fits the crime. I can tell him and the rest of the House that later in the year I will bring forward proposals for a reform of the sentencing framework in Northern Ireland, which will include the possibility of tougher sentences for dangerous and violent offenders.

My hon. Friend will know that it is not just in Northern Ireland that drugs coming into prisons are a problem; recently in Scotland, a solicitor was sent to jail for bringing drugs into prison. Will he ensure that there is adequate funding in Northern Ireland, not only for searches—we must make sure that they are much more sophisticated—but to ensure that the consequences for people convicted of bringing drugs into prisons are advertised, so that people know what they are up against when they do it?

Of course my hon. Friend is right: the problem of drugs in prisons, regrettable as it is, is not unique to Northern Ireland. It affects the prison system in Scotland, England and Wales, too, and it requires drug testing to take place. There are also issues of support for those with an addiction problem. I assure him that we will continue to pay attention to the subject, and to invest in it, and we will continue to learn about what works best from prisons in other jurisdictions.

Illegal Drugs (Cross-border Movement)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland on cross-border movement of illegal drugs; and if he will make a statement. (151126)

There is close and effective co-operation between law enforcement agencies north and south of the border. Following the recent election in the Republic of Ireland, I hope shortly to meet the new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to discuss a range of issues, including the movement of illegal drugs.

Home Office statistics show that since 1998, when the current method of recording crime was introduced, there has been an increase of 35.5 per cent. in recorded drug trafficking offences. What additional help is being given to the police to help them identify the paramilitary groups that are involved in drug trafficking and dealing?

We take drug misuse and drug trafficking very seriously indeed, and I can assure the hon. Lady that there is close co-operation between the Garda Siochana and the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with the issue. I give them my full support as the Minister, and also as the chairman of the organised crime taskforce. We must stop drugs poisoning the lives of young people in communities in Northern Ireland, and none of us should rest until that is the case.