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Northern Ireland

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Military Sites

1. How many military sites there are in Northern Ireland serving security purposes; and if he will make a statement. (175916)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Of course, all of us across the House welcome that further symbol of normalisation. Has he received any representations on handing over some of the disused sites, either to local communities or to the Northern Ireland Assembly, for their overall benefit?

I have indeed received a number of representations. It may be worth reminding the House that following the reinvestment and reform package in 2002, five sites were transferred to the Executive. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are in correspondence with the Executive on questions to do with making available further sites that arose following the joint declaration.

Further to that answer, will the Secretary of State elaborate on any discussions that he is having with the Ministry of Defence, given that some sites are now coming into the public domain and are offering economic regeneration, such as Fort George and Ebrington in Londonderry? If other sites were available, they could act as an economic driver in deprived communities, offering them employment opportunities.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. May I congratulate him and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) on the work that they have done to try to attract investment to Northern Ireland? Obviously, I wish every success to the investment conference in May, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will support in every way that we can. The gifting of military sites is obviously an important issue for the Assembly and the Executive, and the five sites that were gifted in 2002 are an important part of the process. Discussions are taking place with Members of the Assembly and the Executive, and with the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Doherty), about the two sites in Omagh. I do not want to raise expectations about what the Government may be able to do, but I should just say that the proposal for an educational campus is an extremely good and imaginative one. The Government remain committed to helping to encourage investment and development in Northern Ireland in every way that we can, as we did through the £18 billion investment package and the comprehensive spending review.

Given that before demilitarisation in south Armagh the police expressed concern about their ability to deal with the security situation there, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of general safety in the area, and the ability of people there to work with the police? No arrests have been made following the Paul Quinn murder, and there has been an increase in fuel smuggling. Is not the situation in south Armagh rather difficult? How happy is he with that?

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues about the security situation in south Armagh, particularly in relation to the investigation into the murder of Paul Quinn, murder that everybody has condemned. I met Paul’s parents immediately before Christmas to discuss the progress of the ongoing police investigation, which, as hon. Members will know, is being conducted by the Garda, because the murder took place south of the border. There is extremely close co-operation between the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Chief Constable has observed that there is unprecedented co-operation from the community in south Armagh, but it is of course a very difficult investigation.

On the wider issue of criminality in south Armagh, as Independent Monitoring Commission reports have observed, there are clearly still problems of criminality in that part of Northern Ireland but, again, that should be seen in the context of an improving situation, improving—

Order. I do not wish to stop the Secretary of State, but I must have briefer replies, in fairness to those whose names are on the Order Paper. I call David Taylor.

Devolved Government

The restoration of devolved government in May last year has given Northern Ireland what it wants: locally elected, accountable politicians taking decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.

As Northern Ireland’s institutions bed down, devolved government is starting to deliver a shared future of peace and partnership for nationalists and Unionists—a future of which a past generation, involved in that all too recent nightmare of sectarian violence, could only have dreamed. Is not the logical next step to encourage a political realignment and framework on the island of Ireland under which more parties are organised on a 32-county basis, thereby denying Sinn Fein fundamentalists the effective free rein that they too often enjoy?

My hon. Friend makes an important observation. Political parties and political organisation is a matter for people who live and work in Northern Ireland. However, as he remarked and I underline, it is an illustration of just how different life is today in Northern Ireland that the discussion now is about the future of democracy and political institutions, and a vibrant political culture it is, too.

We all welcome the progress that has been made in devolution in Northern Ireland in terms of stability moving forward, but does the Secretary of State accept that in both communities in Northern Ireland there is little appetite for the devolution of policing and justice powers? Does he accept that as far we are concerned, it is not on the agenda? Does he further accept that continuing to push against a door that is not only locked, but triple locked, is counter-productive?

There are many matters on which I would be delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on the proposition that people in Northern Ireland are not looking forward to further devolution of policing and criminal justice, I beg to disagree. Opinion polling shows that more than 60 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland now want the Executive and the Assembly to make progress on the second stage of devolution. That is a matter on which Members have been elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland and it is what people in Northern Ireland expect. It flows from the St. Andrews agreement, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to make progress on the matter as quickly as is sensible.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising how well institutions are working. That goes to show that when everyone is committed to allowing arrangements to work, they will work well. If we want to add to the effectiveness of the institutions of devolution, surely we need to add to the confidence by ensuring the devolution of justice and policing, not just to complete the devolution project and the policing change, but so that all parties can unite to defy and deny the dangerous lie coming from dissident republicans that the policing arrangements are about Crown forces and the British police force. Is not the best way of all parties uniting against the agenda of dissident republicans is to secure the devolution of justice and policing?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best way of demonstrating that to every dissident in Northern Ireland is for politicians to reflect what people who live and work in Northern Ireland want, which is the second stage of devolution that of policing and criminal justice. In relation to the investment conference and attracting investment, there could be no greater show of the future stability of Northern Ireland than local politicians embracing the devolution of policing and criminal justice sooner rather than later.

I hate to be the one to break the cosy consensus, but does the Secretary of State accept that the operation of devolved government could be much more effective if the Executive were to take on board and to demonstrate the same commitment that his Government demonstrated towards working for a shared future? Although it is part of the ministerial oath of office, there is no reference to it even in the programme for government. The Executive could give an early indication of a small commitment to working towards a shared future if they would get on and appoint a victims’ commissioner.

The appointment of a victims’ commissioner is a matter for the Executive. I invite the hon. Gentleman to be part of the cosy consensus that we all so warmly enjoy. Huge progress is being made. It is sometimes best to judge these things not by words, but by actions. When the Executive unanimously agreed the draft programme for government, the investment strategy and budget, as they did in October 2007, we can see what progress has been made by politicians across the spectrum in Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways to make sure that the long-term settlement in Northern Ireland works is through the expansion of integrated education? At present, 95 per cent. of children do not meet people from other cultures. What can he do to encourage integrated education?

Academic selection is the issue that my hon. Friend touches on. It is entirely a matter for the devolved Administration. The Minister of Education has set out her vision for the education system. That is now a devolved matter, but I look forward to hearing more about the details of how she will take it forward.

I wish the Secretary of State a happy new year. I am sure that he is relieved to be in his place and that the predictions made by the new year blogs have so far proved incorrect. In his own new year message, the Secretary of State said that devolution would be effectively completed by the transfer of justice and policing in 2008. Further to his reply to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), does he think that that will happen this year?

Yes, I do, and I do because I see that this is something that the people of Northern Ireland want, and from which the people of Northern Ireland continue to draw every confidence. They see an Executive working effectively, being prepared to make difficult decisions and being able to embrace the clear vision and future for those areas that have been devolved. The appetite for devolution of policing and criminal justice is growing in Northern Ireland. Of course, it is based on confidence, but the embracing by Sinn Fein of policing and criminal justice and the steps that have been taken in the last few months are yet more signals of that. It is now up to local politicians to push the agenda forward and to adopt stage two.

But in the past six months, I have not met a single Unionist who either expects or wants that to happen in 2008. In the short time that the right hon. Gentleman has left, how does he propose to persuade the Unionist community that he is right and it is wrong?

I am sorry to disturb the cosy consensus in my turn, but I do not really think that it is a judgment of right and wrong. Most Northern Ireland politicians believe that it is right to move to stage 2; the issue is when. Therefore, this is not a matter of right and wrong; it is a matter of whether we should move within the St. Andrews timetable, which I believe that we should, and on which the Government will be ready to deliver. It is a matter for consensus to be achieved between the politicians and the Executive, but whenever they stand ready to ask for it, we will be ready to deliver devolution, and I believe that the confidence will be there to deliver that this year.

Antisocial Behaviour

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on measures to deal with antisocial behaviour. (175918)

Tackling antisocial behaviour is a central theme of the community safety strategy and a priority for community safety partnerships. The police and other agencies work closely through the partnerships to reduce antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime.

My hon. Friend will be aware that antisocial behaviour is not just specific to Northern Ireland, but occurs throughout the United Kingdom, and devolved Administrations have different solutions for different problems. Is it not time that we got together with the devolved areas and set up a national taskforce under the UK Government to bring together all the good practice to stamp out such behaviour once and for all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that antisocial behaviour is an issue throughout the United Kingdom, in his constituency and mine and throughout Northern Ireland. He makes an interesting suggestion. Although it would need more than my agreement before such a taskforce could be established, I am happy to consider his proposal, to discuss it with ministerial colleagues and to report back to him. But most important of all is that we must learn the lessons of good practice wherever they occur throughout the United Kingdom.

One of the tests of policing in Northern Ireland and making the police acceptable is how they deal with antisocial behaviour. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to persuade the public that the police are serious about antisocial behaviour when some senior officers seem to suggest that the police should empathise with gangs of youths rather than deal with them when they engage in criminal acts? In Northern Ireland, antisocial behaviour orders are rarely used by the police. What, in his discussions with the Chief Constable, will the Minister push the police to do to ensure that antisocial behaviour is dealt with?

I have regular discussions with the Chief Constable and I had a meeting with him earlier this week when we discussed antisocial behaviour. It is a priority for him and for the PSNI, and he was able to report to me that antisocial behaviour is down by more than 3 per cent. compared with last year. So rest assured that this is a priority for him and the police, but in the end, for the short term—this is relevant to the devolution of policing and justice powers—we can manage a situation where some agencies, such as the police and the Youth Justice Agency, are accountable to Northern Ireland Ministers, but other agencies, such as the Housing Executive and social services, are accountable to locally elected Ministers. But surely the day must come soon—people should have confidence in this—when the system is joined up and accountable at a local level.

Does the Minister accept that in my constituency the police claim time and again that a lack of resources, particularly human resources—manpower and womanpower—restricts them in dealing with antisocial behaviour? How will we reconcile that situation? Can we get extra resources into policing, and not only into Belfast, South? This morning, I heard the mayor of Antrim on the radio discussing the same problem in Antrim town. Can the Minister give us some assurance that the resources will be provided and that the police are not simply left saying that they are too overstretched to tackle antisocial behaviour?

I do not accept the argument on resources; we have just had a superb settlement on financing policing for the next three financial years. It will enable the Policing Board and the Chief Constable to keep in place 7,500 police officers in Northern Ireland over the next three years.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that the police need to be applied and focused at the community level. Indeed, the Chief Constable himself is committed to the development of community policing in Northern Ireland and to working in partnership with other agencies and the community. The police cannot resolve the issues alone; they have to work with other partners. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the PSNI is committed to that.


In the past five years, crime overall fell by 15 per cent. in Northern Ireland. Domestic burglary fell by 33 per cent., and car crime by 52 per cent. Figures released by the police before Christmas showed a further reduction in crime during the current financial year.

Does the Minister share my concern at the findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission that vigilantism and extra-judicial violence, threats and intimidation by Sinn Fein-IRA are still prevalent in many areas?

Whenever such actions by paramilitary organisations and others take place, they are to be deplored. However, I put it to the hon. Gentleman that between 2001 and 2005, paramilitary attacks reduced by half; indeed, in the following year—2005-06—they halved again.

We have moved to far more normal times in Northern Ireland, where paramilitary attacks are becoming a thing of the past. However, of course criminality continues. We need to bear down on it and all the agencies concerned are committed to that.

Is the Minister content that enough is being done to tackle fuel fraud in Northern Ireland? He will know that recent figures show that only 1 per cent. of seizures end up in convictions. Has that something to do with the fact that in many cases fuel fraud results in intimidation of petrol retailers and their families? What more can be done to close down the illicit trade of the fuel thugs in Northern Ireland?

We need to do everything that we can to crack down on those dealing in fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. Criminal convictions alone are not the only measure that we should use, however, because disruption of such activities is also an important aspect of the strategy. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that in December I had a meeting with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and with the PSNI. We intend to establish within the Organised Crime Task Force a specific action group to deal with fuel fraud. I am determined to crack down on it wherever we can.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as elsewhere in the UK, much of the crime in Northern Ireland is low level crime and disorder, which can be effectively dealt with by crime and disorder partnerships? If my hon. Friend is taking up the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson)—to have a national-level crime and disorder partnership—will he look at the best practice in Wales? Of the 376 crime and disorder partnerships in the UK, the one in my constituency, in my county of Denbighshire, is the third best.

We are always happy to learn lessons from colleagues in Wales, and I am sure that the whole House will be interested in my hon. Friend’s experience there. In the end, cracking down on low level criminality, social disorder and antisocial behaviour requires effective local partnerships. In Northern Ireland there are 26 local community safety partnerships in which the police work with local councils and a range of other agencies to make sure that those issues are dealt with. That will be in common with my hon. Friend’s experience; that is the kind of approach that works.

The Minister will be aware of recent criminal and sectarian attacks on Orange halls; most have taken place in my constituency. Will the Minister confirm that by February of this year he will move legislation through the House to enable those Orange halls and lodges to claim compensation?

We all condemn unreservedly the attacks on Orange halls. I was able to join the hon. Gentleman in a visit to Ballyworkan in his constituency, where a deplorable attack took place before Christmas. Members of the Orange Order are trying to do their best to put something into communities through their Orange halls, and I condemn unreservedly those who attack them. As he knows, I am committed to ensuring that where Government compensation is due it should be paid quickly, but we need to ensure that the commercial cover works as well. Over the next few weeks, we will do everything possible to ensure that the commercial option is thoroughly investigated and examined. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a clear commitment to the Orange Order and to members of the hon. Gentleman’s party that we will look at this again in early March.

Drug Smuggling

5. What recent discussions he has had with the police authorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on drug smuggling; and if he will make a statement. (175920)

There is close co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Siochana, and I have regular discussions with all law enforcement agencies about drug smuggling and other forms of organised crime.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that drug smuggling is becoming an increasing problem in Northern Ireland. What is he doing to ensure that the drug bosses at the very top are dealt with and prosecuted?

What is required is close collaboration between the police forces north and south of the border. They are actively engaged in that; they have regular contact and share intelligence. Indeed, in December—just a few weeks ago—a joint operation north and south of the border intercepted an organised criminal gang, some of whom were arrested north of the border and some south of the border. There have been a number of arrests and some people have been charged. That kind of effective enforcement action will, in the end, remove the drugs barons and others who profit out of the misery of drugs, who should rightly be out of the community and in prison where they belong. [Interruption.]

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Chief Constable feels that he is being severely held back by the amount of time that his force is having to spend looking back over past matters and not getting on with matters such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned—the joint pursuit of those responsible for the drugs problem. Will the Minister do all that he can to ensure that the Chief Constable is allowed to get on with his job, which is policing for today and tomorrow rather than so much for yesterday?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Every pound that is spent on policing the past is a pound that is not spent on policing the present and making the future absolutely safe. The Government have established, under Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, a commission to investigate whether there is a way of drawing a line under the past that will enable the whole of society in Northern Ireland to move forward, including on policing. We must devote all the resources that we can to ensuring that Northern Ireland is a safe place in which to live and work.

Does the Minister understand the frustration that is felt within communities in Northern Ireland when they see the godfathers of the drug smuggling industry swanning around the countryside endlessly enjoying their ill-gotten gains, many of them not having worked a day in their lives? When will we have effective measures taken against these abusers of society?

The hon. Gentleman is right to express his anger about such people. Where possible, they should be arrested, prosecuted and put behind bars. Short of that, it is also possible to seize and remove the assets that they have gained through their criminality. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that in the first six months of the current financial year some £10 million-worth of criminal assets were seized and confiscated. That is an encouraging use of the powers that we now have to track down and crack down on those criminals wherever we possibly can.

Security Situation

The security situation in Northern Ireland has vastly improved in recent years. However, the recent serious, although isolated, incidents highlight the continued threat posed by a small handful of individuals who continue to live in the past, not the future.

What success are the police having in dealing with dissident organisations that are now turning their focus from terrorist to criminal activities?

The police continue to make significant progress in dealing with criminality in Northern Ireland, which is why crime figures there are among the best in the UK. However, at no point will we be complacent about those dissident elements in republicanism and loyalism that continue to pose a small and isolated threat. Equally, let it be clear that those people have no support in the community and that we will continue to hunt them down.

While the security situation has undoubtedly improved, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be entirely wrong and a deep injustice if the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland were to be granted an amnesty?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I realise that he is effectively commenting on remarks made by the commission on the past. Let me remind him that its deputy chairman, Denis Bradley, has said that nothing is ruled out and that nothing is ruled in, and what matters is that the commission collects views. He accepted that there are some who have a view about an amnesty and that it is for others to have a view about that and for the group to make an assessment of that.