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Northern Ireland

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fine Payment Defaults

1. How many people were in custody in Northern Ireland for defaulting on fine payments at the latest date for which figures are available. (204415)

Today 30 people are in prison in Northern Ireland for fine default. Although the numbers can fluctuate and at any time be quite low, fine defaulters represent about 2,000 prison receptions per year. Next month, I shall begin consultation on a range of proposals for dealing more effectively with fine defaulters.

Before putting my question to the Minister, may I ask the whole House to condemn unanimously the attack on a PSNI officer earlier this week? We send our support to all parties that have condemned the attack and we send our best wishes to the police officer and his family.

Will anything be done to disincentivise the sending of fine defaulters to prison? At the moment, that seems an easy option. Nine in 10 people in prison for defaulting on fines are there for fines of less than £600. Other methods must be found to make sure that people do not use it as an easy option.

First, the whole House will join my hon. Friend in condemning the cowardly people who perpetrated the dreadful attack on Police Officer Ryan Crozier on Monday. The heartfelt, warm wishes of the House go out to Police Officer Crozier and his family. He was seriously hurt, but is beginning to recover in hospital. The Chief Constable aptly described the attack as having been carried out by those who are “lashing out” because they “are in their endgame”. He is right, and we all condemn their actions.

I turn to my hon. Friend’s question. Of course we need a substantial, sustainable alternative to imprisonment for fine defaulters. We have begun that by bringing in the supervised activity order through the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. However, people should pay the fines given to them in court, and next month I shall bring forward proposals to make sure that if people will not pay, the fines will be deducted from their earnings or benefits and that there will be much stricter enforcement by the courts.

May I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and the Minister about that cowardly and brutal attack on Police Officer Crozier? It was good to see that Mr. McGuinness was among the first visitors to the hospital.

I also associate myself with the other remarks made by the hon. Member for Blaydon. Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to understand—let alone explain and justify—the fact that people with a few hundred pounds owing are put in jail, while people who have defrauded the Exchequer of millions through fuel smuggling appear to get suspended sentences?

In individual cases, it will always be for the judges to decide the appropriate penalty. My role as Minister with responsibility for criminal justice and policing is to make sure that courts have sufficient powers and a range of powers. I want on the one hand to be tougher, but on the other to make sure that when fines and other non-custodial sentences are handed out, they are properly adhered to.

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the issue of sentencing. I am pleased to confirm that following Royal Assent for the criminal justice order last Wednesday, I shall tomorrow sign the order to commence the new indeterminate and extended prison sentences, so that anybody who tomorrow or any day afterwards commits a serious sexual or violent offence and is deemed to be dangerous can be sent to prison on an indeterminate sentence.

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the remarks made in respect of Police Officer Crozier, whom we wish a speedy recovery.

On the remarks that the Minister has just made, I welcome the implementation this week of the new law in relation to indeterminate sentencing and the abolition of the automatic 50 per cent. remission for serious sexual offences. My party fought for that for a long time; it was also demanded by the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say what sort of impact the changes are likely to have on custodial sentences and prison places?

There is, of course, universal condemnation of the attack on the police officer, just as there is universal support for the criminal justice order and the new provisions. There will be a net increase in the number of prisoners in the system over the next few years as a result of the longer sentences and of people who do not keep their licence conditions being brought back to prison, where they will face a further period of incarceration. There will also be more people on community sentences, and that is entirely right. I say to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and colleagues on both sides of the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will begin carefully to prepare the path towards the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

May I join all others, including the Minister, in condemning the callous and cowardly attack on the police officer on Monday night and wish him a speedy recovery? I wish equally that we will have a speedy return to justice for those who perpetrated this deed. It is appropriate that we pay tribute once again to the courage and bravery of all those who serve in the PSNI and other services.

On some estimates, the prison population in Northern Ireland will double by 2020. Given the issue of fine defaulters and the other issues raised by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), can the Minister be a bit more specific about how he and his Secretary of State are going to address the growing pressures that this will undoubtedly place on the Northern Ireland Prison Service?

My right hon. Friend and I have set aside some £14 million in the current spending period to commit to the Prison Service to ensure that more places, and the relevant programmes, are available. We have also invested in an unprecedented way in the delivery of the probation service. There will be more than 50 additional probation officers as a result of the investment that we are making because we need provision in the community and extra provision in prison. I can further tell the hon. Gentleman that we are investing £70 million in building 400 new prison places that will be available over the next three-year period. We are building capacity, we are building the programmes, and the message that goes out is: “If you are committing offences in Northern Ireland you will be brought to justice and dealt with appropriately.”

Cross-Border Fishing

2. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the Government of the Republic of Ireland on cross-border fishing issues. (204416)

Irrespective of that, can the Minister confirm whether there will be a cod swap next year to provide restitution to the Northern Ireland fishing industry of the Irish sea cod that was lost to it owing to the unfair application of the Hague preference?

I know that the hon. Lady is very well informed about these matters, perhaps far better informed than I am. I will certainly be happy to convey her comments and concerns to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, who I am sure will be interested to know about them. I can assure the hon. Lady that, particularly in relation to north-south co-operation on these issues, which is very important, there is regular contact between the Minister and her counterpart in the Republic, not least in terms of the preparations for the annual European Fisheries Council in December in Brussels, which is also very important. I am sure that that co-operation will continue, and I will happily ensure that the hon. Lady’s remarks are given to the Minister.

Does the Minister know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reports to the European Union in the context of fishing? Along with the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I ask the Minister to agree that the fishing industry in Northern Ireland has experienced unparalleled decline in recent years, that all measures within the power of this Government must be taken to ensure that the industry remains viable, and that the UK Government should follow the lead of the French and Spanish Governments and take advantage of measures such as those provided for through de minimis arrangements to assist UK fishing fleets as a whole, but particularly in Northern Ireland, where the industry is on its knees.

Again, the hon. Lady is very well informed on these issues and cares passionately about them. One of the things that I have discovered in recent days is the complexity of the responsibilities in relation to marine matters. I know, for example, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is responsible for the sea bed, but what swims around in the sea above it is a devolved matter. We are absolutely at one—this was evident in the very successful investment conference that took place last week—as to the need to have a thriving and vibrant economy in Northern Ireland. That includes the fishing industry, and we will continue to lend what support we can.

Gang Violence

Gang violence in Northern Ireland has traditionally manifested itself through paramilitary activity and organised crime. While the latest Independent Monitoring Commission report indicates a general downward trend in incidents of paramilitary violence, Monday’s cowardly attack on the young police officer, Ryan Crozier, reminds us of the continued threat posed by a small number of dissidents who today have no support whatsoever throughout the community.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Can he tell the House when paramilitary groups such as the Irish republican liberation army will no longer have the umbrella of decommissioning to hide under and instead be charged as criminals for holding weapons?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the long term, the kind of structures that we have introduced to ensure that we could get to the peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland of today will be phased out. When that moment comes, I am more than prepared to work with all hon. Members and political parties. I hope that we are beginning to approach the moment when we can signal that we will do so, but I still regret that, unfortunately, a small number of people continue to operate in such a way. Although we are nearly in a normalised society, regrettably we are not quite there.

I also would like to be associated with the earlier speakers in their sympathy for Constable Crozier, who to me was an expression of the new dimension in Northern Ireland. That young man joined the police force only three years ago, and he is the expression of our hope for the future. I hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice as soon as possible.

On the Government’s intention to address the root cause of gang violence, particularly the knife-wielding culture, does the Minister agree that there must be a combined approach between Government and community? If so, how does he reconcile that intention with the recent decision to withdraw extended schools funding in Northern Ireland, which was used by schools to put in place innovative and inclusive programmes for disadvantaged areas? A cross-cutting policy simply does not exist in that area.

Like all hon. Members, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for Police Officer Crozier. Although we no longer have specific responsibility for schools in Northern Ireland, it none the less falls on us to have responsibility for criminal justice and policing until hon. Members and political parties are ready to assume devolution of those matters. That is why in the new Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order we will be introducing specific powers to deal with knife crime in relation to gang culture, raising the age at which knives can be purchased and, critically, dealing more severely with those who abuse that. Regardless of when the devolution of policing and criminal justice takes place, it will fall on the community itself, as well as those elected from the community, to deal with the issue. It is one that we should all feel responsibility for.

Is it not the case that in several locations major gangs that were formerly associated with paramilitary organisations are operating major criminal enterprises? Could the Secretary of State indicate what plans the Chief Constable has to ensure that those gangs are broken up and the perpetrators, who are well known not only in the local community, but to the police, are put behind bars?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, since I think that this is the first time I have had the chance to do so in this House, on having been made leader elect of his party. I am sure that we all look forward to working with him when he assumes that office at the end of the month, and we will again give our very best wishes to his predecessor—when that moment comes; he is, of course, still very much a presence.

I am conscious of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course the Chief Constable has operational independence on these matters, but we do consult him. I am confident that he is more than aware of the need to break up the gangs. He and his officers have achieved some spectacular results, but we have to remain ever vigilant and deal with the issue, which as the hon. Gentleman said is regrettably still a vestige of the paramilitary past of Northern Ireland.

We on the Conservative Benches also condemn the attack on Officer Crozier. I am afraid that the Independent Monitoring Commission report, which shows how far Northern Ireland has come with regard to violence, is still littered with examples of offences. We are told that the ONH—Óglaigh na hÉireann—is

“more seriously active in the six months under the review”

of the report, and carried out its first murder on 12 February. The breakaway south-east Antrim faction’s dispute with the Ulster Defence Association led to the shooting of a police officer. Those are very worrying trends, and I am sure that the Secretary of State shares our concerns about them. What extra measures can he take to stamp out that criminal and deadly violence?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the 18th IMC report, which deals with matters relating to organised crime, too. I am sure that he will have noted that significant progress has been made on a number of fronts. However, it is perfectly clear that in one specific area—that is, in relation to Óglaigh na hÉireann—as well as others, we now need to take steps. That is why I am laying before the House today a new order that will take into account specified organisations. The order will result in the de-specification of the UVF Red Hand Commandos, but it will now specify Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Parades (Drumcree/Garvaghy Road)

4. What steps he is taking to contribute to the resolution of the Drumcree/Garvaghy road parading dispute. (204419)

We remain committed to finding a successful resolution and we support the position of the Parades Commission that local dialogue is the best way to achieve this.

Further to that point, does the Secretary of State agree that no one who refuses to engage in that dialogue ought to be rewarded for their refusal?

Let me begin by paying tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done in trying to achieve dialogue between communities on matters relating to parading, and particularly the work that he has done with the Portadown District Orange to encourage it to enter into dialogue—he was referring specifically, I think, to the Garvaghy road residents. He has helped to move the order to engage without preconditions or a predetermined outcome. I praise him fully for his work with the community. I hope that others in the community will now recognise that they should match that transformation and engage in the dialogue. I encourage all members of the community, regardless of the history, to enter into that dialogue.

Bloody Sunday Inquiry

So far, the cost of the inquiry has reached in excess of £182 million, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. However concerned all hon. Members will be about such costs, we should be careful not to confuse the cost with the value and the huge importance of the inquiry.

Let me put it to the Secretary of State that there is no question of our confusing cost and value. We can spot the fact that the process is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that if we had known at the beginning how much it would cost, particularly with legal fees, we would not have proceeded? The process has done a great deal of harm in Northern Ireland, not the good that we hoped.

Far be it from me to wish to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that in this case I must. The inquiry has been essential in enabling us to reach the point in Northern Ireland where we can enjoy the peace, prosperity and devolution that we have witnessed and the remaining stages that I am confident will take place. As he rightly says, the inquiry has taken a lot longer and cost a huge amount more than we thought. However, that is why the Government introduced the Inquiries Act 2005—to control the cost of inquiries. Although I regret the spiralling legal costs, which we have tried to control, I in no way wish to confuse that with the value of the inquiry, which has been essential to the peace process.

The families of the Bloody Sunday victims share that frustration at the length and cost of the Saville inquiry, but understand better than others the reason for them. When the Secretary of State receives the report of the Saville inquiry, will he allow lawyers acting on behalf of the Government and military days and weeks to go through it before publication, and if so, what equal consideration will be extended to the families of the Bloody Sunday victims?

The hon. Gentleman has long made a sincere and deeply felt argument on behalf of the families who are affected by the inquiry. All hon. Members recognise that the issue is sensitive, especially for those families. My hon. Friend the Minister of State met the families only last month. We have committed ourselves to involving them in the arrangements for the publication of the report, which must be presented to the House first, and I will hold them uppermost in my mind.

One of the consequences of inquiries such as Saville is that they put enormous pressure on the resources of the police service. The Secretary of State has reduced the budget for the police service in the current year, and the Chief Constable has indicated that he is close to the tipping point in regard to his ability to deliver the necessary police input for these inquiries. Will the Secretary of State look again at increasing the budget in order to offset the cost of the PSNI’s role in these inquiries?

I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I must of course disagree with the idea that we have reduced the budget. The fact is that the PSNI will have a budget of nearly £1 billion for this year. That is an extremely large budget, and I am confident that every penny of it will be well spent. The PSNI has to spend a great deal of time dealing with the past, and it matters that it should do so. I believe that it is appropriately funded to do that work, despite the pressures that it faces. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with the Eames consultative group on the past, to see whether we can find other, more effective ways of dealing with some of the issues that are undoubtedly a legacy of the past.

I should like to associate Her Majesty’s official Opposition with the comments made by the Secretary of State on the disgraceful attack on Police Officer Crozier. We wish him a speedy recovery, and we pay tribute to the bravery of all PSNI officers. We also congratulate the passer-by who showed great courage in rescuing him.

The Saville inquiry was set up 10 years ago. It last took evidence in 2004, its costs are heading towards £200 million, of which nearly half has been paid to lawyers, and there is no sign of the report appearing. Does the Secretary of State really think that that is acceptable?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, because the Saville inquiry was set up before the Inquiries Act 2005, the Government are ultimately unable to control the legal costs involved, despite the constant pressure that we are bringing to bear on the inquiry to be cost-effective. However, for the families involved, and for the nationalist community, which was so unsettled by the way in which the matter had been dealt with historically, it was absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister committed the Government to conducting the inquiry. It has taken longer and cost more than we wanted it to, but at the end of the day we have to separate cost and value, and the value of this inquiry is incalculable.

That was an unsatisfactory reply, because it showed that the delay has been caused by the manner in which the Government set up the inquiry. Will the Secretary of State give the House a guarantee that no future historical inquiry will be as open-ended and extravagant as Saville, given his new remit under the Inquiries Act 2005?

It is perfectly clear that the Inquiries Act has set out precisely how any future inquiry should be conducted. The hon. Gentleman will also know that, in all the conversations that I have had about inquiries, I have insisted that any future inquiry would have to be held under the terms of the Act.

Criminal Damage (Compensation)

6. What the timetable is for the implementation of the proposed compensation schemes relating to criminal damage in Northern Ireland. (204421)

I intend to issue a consultation document in June on proposed changes to the criminal damage legislation as it applies to community halls. Subject to that consultation, I intend to lay a draft order in the autumn.

I thank the Minister for the series of meetings that have taken place between my DUP colleagues and the Orange Institution on this serious matter, and also for the positive outcomes that have been achieved thus far. Can he confirm that he would expedite the process, should there be a continuation of this despicable campaign to destroy Orange halls?

I welcome the constructive engagement of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and of the leadership of the Orange Order. The most important thing was to ensure that we minimised the attacks on Orange halls, and I am pleased to say that, to date this year, there have been only eight attacks, compared with 58 last year. That is an improvement. We will bring forward the proposals for proper consultation and bring them into effect in due course.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is long past time for meaningful change to be made to facilitate the claims of victims, who up to now have had to prove often impossible parameters in regard to their claims? Does he agree that, where there is clear evidence of a co-ordinated attack on an Orange hall or on Gaelic Athletic Association premises, for example, a statement from a senior policeman to the effect that there has been a co-ordinated, syndicated conspiracy should be enough to prove entitlement?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of my prime objectives over recent months has been to ensure that the existing compensation scheme works more effectively so that where there is evidence of an illegal organisation’s involvement, a Chief Constable’s certificate should be issued, and where three or more people are conspiring to create damage, compensation should be paid. I am trying to make the present system work more effectively, as well as to extend the provisions as I have outlined.