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Volume 463: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

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.