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Northern Ireland

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dissident Republican Groups

1. What steps the Government are taking to prevent the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. (269403)

Dissident republican groups have nothing to offer but violence and suffering and are funded by criminal activity. Resources for the prevention of recruitment are shared between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Office.

Is the Secretary of State aware of reports that dissident groups are using social networking sites, websites and blogs to recruit young people, some of whom may be as young as 13? Will he say what he is doing to tackle that and, in particular, whether he will consider taking down any offensive material promoting terrorism or violence that appears on social networking sites, or blocking access to any such websites?

I have been made aware of this, and the police are indeed investigating it. The site itself has vowed to remove materials that it considers illegal, defamatory or fraudulent or that infringe or violate any individual’s rights. There are clearly some legitimate concerns, and obviously the police will act if there is any evidence of activity of a criminal nature going on. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Whether this activity is done on social networking sites or in any other way, these organisations are criminal organisations and we need to ensure that young people realise that they are just that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one good way of helping to disarm the dissidents of some of their twisted logic would be for us to achieve completion on the political institutions and policing through the devolution of justice and policing? Does he also agree that a bad way of trying to convince young people to stay out of dissident violence is for some people to pretend that violence in the past was somehow morally justified or circumstantially different from the awful, brutal and futile violence now? It was always counter-productive—then and now—and young people see through hypocrisy and dishonesty when it comes from an older generation.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. I simply say that it is incumbent on all of us to ensure in whatever way we can that we reach young people and make them realise that these criminal groups have nothing to offer them now and will have nothing to offer them in the future. I also agree with him that we should now complete devolution, because that will clearly be the strongest signal of all that politicians in Northern Ireland have the confidence to say to young people, “Leave the future to the legitimate, elected people of Northern Ireland.”

Would this be a fitting moment to pay tribute to Sir Hugh Orde, who has constantly warned us about dissident republicans and the threats that they pose? Has he not been an exemplary leader of the PSNI and given incalculably good service to the people of the United Kingdom throughout his period in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for this opportunity to endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about the contribution of Sir Hugh Orde as Chief Constable. For seven years he has provided outstanding leadership and helped to change the face of policing in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely not in any way to diminish the extraordinary work that was done by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but it is to recognise that, in the face of the Patten report and the changes that came about, and by building confidence across the entire community in Northern Ireland, he has led that change and been a great leader. We owe him a very great debt indeed.

May I agree with my right hon. Friend about Hugh Orde? As Secretary of State, I could not have had a better or more astute Chief Constable with whom to deal.

On the dissident threat, does my right hon. Friend agree that it was aimed not least at trying to torpedo the agreement between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, on the programme and principle of the devolution of policing and justice? Does he agree that it is absolutely essential that none of the parties is deflected by dissident attacks and tragic murders from pursuing their course and completing the process of devolution that is so essential to entrenching stability and peace in Northern Ireland?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is very clear that the criminals behind the so-called dissident attacks set out to destabilise and damage the confidence of the people in Northern Ireland in the peace process and the political process. Of course what they also did, regrettably, although I continue to pay tribute to those who were murdered, was reveal the strength, depth and width of the political process and the peace process. It is stronger today than at any point before, and people in Northern Ireland can have great confidence in their political institutions.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the security forces informed two of their former members in recent days that they were to be murdered by the so-called dissident republican terrorists? Failure to take resolute action to eliminate terrorism will consign the people of Northern Ireland to more years of terrorism. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the light of the severe threat to former members of the security forces, they will be granted the right to hold personal protection weapons?

I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment in the House on individual circumstances and whether individuals might be subject to threats. However, I am prepared to say that we take threats extremely seriously, and the Chief Constable will take all necessary and proportionate measures to protect individuals who may be the subject of those threats. That is why, for example, he is reviewing measures on the retention and use of personal protection weapons.

I am sure that the House is looking forward to the announcements later today from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has had the opportunity to examine our proposals to the Treasury for additional help to ensure that we have a police service in Northern Ireland that can deal with all criminal elements, including threats from so-called paramilitaries.

First, I would like to be associated with earlier speakers’ compliments to Sir Hugh Orde on his great work in Northern Ireland. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Apropos the question, does the Secretary of State know that a consequence of the horrific murders of the soldiers and the police officer is a tendency for police officers to withdraw from the communities that they serve, resulting in an increase in crime and antisocial behaviour? If that continues, there is a danger of recreating no-go areas, which we will not tolerate or accept. Such withdrawal is understandable for personal protection purposes, but it has to be addressed. I ask the Secretary of State to use his best endeavours to ensure that that tendency and drift is stopped and reversed because it assists the recruitment of dissident republicans, including very young people, in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pays tribute to the work of Sir Hugh Orde—I imagine that many hon. Members wish to endorse his comments. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. It is incredibly important that we all do all we can to reach those young people and make them realise that they have no future in engaging in criminal activity. On policing areas that may be especially affected, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that one of the distinctions of Hugh Orde’s policing leadership has been to ensure that the officers of the PSNI carry out community, normal policing. We are doubly resolved to ensure that it remains good community and neighbourly policing, and that there will be no no-go areas in Northern Ireland.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and the Secretary of State about Sir Hugh Orde, who is moving to another job. He did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances, and we should all be grateful for his work. We wish him the very best in his new endeavours.

The most effective way in which to prevent young people from joining dissident groups is a strong legal deterrent, with a very real prospect of arrest and conviction. Under existing legislation, some individuals who are linked to terrorism and convicted of firearms offences have received only suspended sentences. Is the Secretary of State considering reviewing that legislation?

I am always happy to review legislation, with a mind to improving it and making it more effective. However, let us be clear: between the signing of the Good Friday agreement and today, there has not been a significant increase in the numbers of people joining so-called dissident organisations, which we know to be criminal. That does not mean to say that—as with any regrettable gang culture—young, impressionable, alienated, albeit completely wrong-headed, people may feel disposed to be recruited to those gangs. We will take any measures that we can to discourage them—whether legislation, working with the Executive or other steps. However, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that one of those arrested for the murder of one person in the attacks in early March will be charged with being a member of a proscribed organisation.

Let me look at the issue from a slightly different angle. Following the Omagh bombings, the former Prime Minister passed legislation changing the rules on admissible evidence. However, it was so unworkable that it was repealed weeks after he left office. Is the Secretary of State considering legislating for new and usable powers to curb terrorist activity effectively?

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have a strong record of working closely with the Chief Constable and the PSNI to ensure that he has all the tools available, whether in legislation or resources, as the hon. Gentleman will discover later today, to achieve public order and public safety. I am prepared to look at any appropriate, proportionate measure. However, for the benefit of the House, I would just say to him that, in relation to the attacks that happened at the beginning of March, the PSNI has made some spectacular progress, which has led to the arrest of individuals and charges of murder in the case of both attacks. I am confident that the police service has what it needs, but I am always prepared to enter into more negotiations.

May I associate those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches with the comments made earlier about the ending of Sir Hugh Orde’s tenure? He was always vigorous in making the case for the proper resourcing of the PSNI. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Treasury will not see his moving on as an opportunity to diminish the resources given to policing and, in particular, to community safety partnerships in tackling the recruitment of young people to dissident republican groups. Does the Secretary of State agree that community safety partnerships have a particularly important role, as do all parties in all communities in Northern Ireland?

Of course community safety partnerships have an extremely important role to play, both in the context of the resources in the original comprehensive spending review settlement for the PSNI and crucially, as the hon. Gentleman will see from what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor may have to say later today, in relation to the police service and the resources required in Northern Ireland to meet the current criminal threats that are operating there. The hon. Gentleman will see that the Government are indeed a staunch friend of law and order in Northern Ireland.

Cross-Border Traffic

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on levels of cross-border traffic between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to take advantage of different duty levels. (269404)

I have had no such recent discussions. Policy relating to rates of duty is the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, while responsibility for the promotion of business in Northern Ireland is largely devolved to Northern Ireland Ministers.

The Minister will be aware of the huge increase in volumes at the border, with people trying to take advantage of both different duty rates and the collapse of sterling, thanks to his Government. What specific involvement has he seen of organised crime and paramilitary groups in that increased trade?

The price of particular items on either side of the border will reflect a range of factors, including the value of the currency, VAT rates and duty rates. People will act rationally and make choices accordingly. However, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an important issue, which is the need to deal with those who would manipulate the border as a way of conducting illegal activity. We have established an illegal fuel enforcement group under the Organised Crime Task Force. Yesterday it had its most extensive operation yet, when 19 premises north and south of the border were raided. Huge volumes of illegal fuel were seized, as well as vehicles and cash. We take the issue extremely seriously and there will be more action to follow.

What discussions, if any, has the Minister had with the Irish Government and, in particular, with the Irish Finance Minister on cross-border activity and mutual matters?

Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to have discussions with the Finance Minister of the Irish Government, because such matters go beyond my responsibilities. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I have certainly had many discussions with the Justice Minister of the Irish Government about how we can co-operate to ensure that those who deal in illegal fuel are dealt with and brought to justice.

I acknowledge the good work that was done yesterday on apprehending fuel launderers along the border, but would the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in Northern Ireland—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to hon. Members who are here for Northern Ireland Questions that there should be so much noise.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Minister agree that there is a lot of frustration in the communities in Northern Ireland about the lack of further action against fuel launderers? Does he acknowledge that more work needs to be done between the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ensure that a real focus is brought to this issue?

That is what the Organised Crime Task Force does: it brings all those agencies together in a focused way. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that people are impatient for action when they see illegal activity being carried out. We will seize assets that have been criminally acquired, and ensure that people are prosecuted when that is appropriate. When people commit serious offences, they should go to prison.

I welcome what my hon. Friend says about trying to stop the smuggling of fuel across the border. What evidence is there that fuel is being smuggled not only into Northern Ireland but into the north of England and the rest of the mainland? What effect is that having, and what is he doing to prevent the fuel from reaching the mainland?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important issue. Criminal networks in Northern Ireland might seek to bring their illegal fuel over to England and Wales and beyond. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs leads on all this work, and operates right across the United Kingdom. We take this matter very seriously.

The Minister has already referred to the seizure of large amounts of fuel. As he said, 175,000 litres were seized yesterday, along with €22,000, four mobile laundering plants and 12 vehicles. I would like to congratulate the police and customs authorities on both sides of the border who have done extremely well in making these seizures, but it is worrying that as many as 15 to 20 organised crime gangs are involved in smuggling fuels including red and green diesel. What assessment has the Minister made of the full extent of this problem?

The assessment that I have made leads me to believe that the only way to deal with this issue is on a cross-border basis. That is why the fuel fraud enforcement group involves Revenue commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland as well as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the PSNI; it is a collaborative effort. The hon. Gentleman could add to the list that he just read out the 25,000 litres of toxic waste, which would otherwise have been poured into the environment, that was rescued yesterday. Those who conduct this kind of activity have no regard for human life or for the wider environment.

Supervision of Offenders

3. What recent steps he has taken to strengthen mechanisms for the supervision of offenders following their release from prison in Northern Ireland. (269406)

This month, I have introduced electronic monitoring and extended post-custody supervision so that more offenders will be managed by the probation service on release from prison. Both these measures will strengthen the management of offenders in the community.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and the policy. Can he reassure me that the extra burdens that the policy will place on the Northern Ireland probation service will be matched by extra resources in order to implement it? Otherwise, its impact could be severely reduced.

Until very recently, the only offenders coming out of prison who received supervision in the community were the most serious offenders who had been serving life sentences. We have now extended the provision so that anyone who receives a sentence of 12 months or more will receive supervision after their release. We have been able to increase the budget of the probation service by 20 per cent. to ensure that it can fulfil its obligations and provide the necessary support. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend that we are putting the necessary resources in place.

Does the Minister have any information about the number of offenders being released from prison who might be tempted to associate with, and become members of, dissident groups in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are constantly vigilant of people coming out of prison as well as of those in the community to ensure that we have the necessary intelligence to find out who is associating with those organisations, and to bring them to justice when they commit criminal offences.

Preparing prisoners for their release from prison can be achieved more easily when we have state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities in which to house them in the first place. When will the Minister be able to announce the beginning of the construction of the new prison at Magilligan? He and I, and others, worked hard to achieve the announcement of that new, state-of-the-art facility. When will we see the beginning of its construction?

The hon. Gentleman is a great advocate for the rebuilding of Magilligan prison. I cannot give a precise date when the building work will begin, but I can say that the detailed design work and the preparations are happening right now. I would be happy to meet him and update him on the plans at a suitable time.

Community Halls (Criminal Attacks)

4. What steps the Government are taking to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland in preventing criminal attacks on community halls. (269407)

Community halls play an important role in every local area across Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland works closely with local community safety partnerships and those who run the halls to do everything possible to prevent such attacks.

The Minister will be aware of the considerable concern arising from the attacks on community halls. There has been some suggestion that the number of such attacks is increasing. Can he confirm whether that is the case and, if so, what impact it will have on his estimate of the sums payable under the applicable statutory compensation schemes?

We are constantly vigilant on the issue of attacks on community halls. The number of attacks in 2008 was a significant reduction on the number in 2007, but there is no room for complacency. The PSNI works with those who run the halls in order to protect them. We have extended the compensation scheme in Northern Ireland so that any community hall conducting charitable activities is given further protection.

The Minister will be aware of the very important role of community halls, including Orange halls, in rural and urban communities across Northern Ireland. We welcome the—[Interruption.]

Order. This noise is unfair to hon. Members who are in the Chamber for Northern Ireland questions.

We welcome the recent changes to the compensation legislation, which mean that halls will be properly compensated when they are the subject of an attack. Will the Minister continue to work with us to drive down the cost of insurance for community halls so that those who run them for the benefit of the community will not suffer the penalties that they suffered in the past?

I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those who run these halls. Whatever the organisation that runs them across Northern Ireland, they are a huge additional bonus to any community in providing very important resources. Of course, the recent extension of the compensation scheme—the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that it has taken place—has been a significant factor in helping to keep the insurance premiums down. I am happy to continue to work with him and with all organisations in order to make continued and steady progress.

Dissident Political Organisations

5. What recent estimate he has made of the size of membership of dissident political organisations in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (269408)

We believe that there are three so-called dissident political organisations, but it is difficult to estimate the number of members of them, except to say that they have extremely limited appeal because they reject both the peace process and the political process.

The Secretary of State will recall that, last month, the Minister of State told the House about the activities of dissident paramilitaries who were, as he put it, using extreme violence to extort money from drug dealers while at the same time pretending to protect the communities in which they were operating. He quite rightly said that it was necessary to bring such individuals to justice. Can the Secretary of State say what success the PSNI has had so far in that regard?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The PSNI continues to be extremely successful in bearing down on all kinds of criminal activity, including that from so-called dissident paramilitary groups. It is essential for the House to remember that the funding of those so-called dissident groups—they are also, of course, criminal—comes from criminal activity. We will pursue them rigorously.

The Secretary of State has admitted that the security forces do not even know the primary people involved in dissident organisations, let alone what attacks they are planning. Does he accept that that is partly due to the fact that the special branch of the RUC, now the PSNI, was disbanded, so those intelligence sources have been lost and we are now in the dark about what dissidents are likely to do and what attacks they are likely to plan?

I really do disagree with the hon. Gentleman. First, I pay tribute not only to the RUC, but to the PSNI and the security services throughout the period. We should recognise the number of attacks that they have stopped and the number of people who have not died because of their work, which was important not only 10 or 20 years ago, but continues to be important today.

Later today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have things to say about ensuring that the police have the resources that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised they would have. We are determined to bear down on those people and the hon. Gentleman will see actions and words together this afternoon.