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Northern Ireland

Volume 502: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Older People (Security)

I recently launched the “Safer Ageing” strategy for older people, which was developed in partnership with representatives from older people’s groups, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Policing Board. The strategy sets out how Government and partners will work together to reduce the crime and antisocial behaviour experienced by older people in Northern Ireland.

While I welcome the new “Safer Ageing” strategy, is it not the case that the recent spate of burglaries and attacks on older people in Northern Ireland has had a devastating impact on the individuals affected, and will it not in turn have created a deeper fear of crime across the older population? What practical measures are there in the new plan to reduce that corrosive level of fear?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been considerable public concern in Northern Ireland about the spate of attacks on older people there, and the impact on individual older people is devastating. He is also right to say that not only does it have an impact on them as victims, but that it has a wider impact in terms of the fear of crime.

Two elements are very important here. The first is to have highly visible policing, which is certainly happening in the wake of the attacks. The second is the practical initiatives to which my hon. Friend referred, and I draw his attention to one in particular—the HandyVan scheme, which provides free locks, door chains, smoke alarms and other safety devices for older people. It helps them to feel safer, and it is an important initiative that my Department supports.

The Minister will be aware that there has been an increase in burglaries right across the Province of Northern Ireland. In my constituency, there have been at least 15 burglaries in three weeks in the town of Portadown, and in Lurgan and Banbridge. Does he agree that the reduction of 90 officers in Upper Bann and the closure of the Portadown police station are unacceptable at this time?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about any crimes that take place in his constituency, or indeed anywhere. However, he has referred to the loss of 90 posts in H district, but these are not police officers who are being cut out of the police provision for his area. These are 90 police officers who have been identified by the Chief Constable as officers whom the hon. Gentleman’s constituents never see because they do jobs in the back office. The Chief Constable wants to get them out of the back office and into the community, where they will be more visible and able to deliver a more personal policing service.

Weapon Decommissioning (Loyalist Paramilitaries)

2. What recent assessment he has made of progress on decommissioning of weapons by loyalist paramilitary organisations. (306251)

The Government remain optimistic that, building on the success of decommissioning already this year, further acts will be completed before the deadline of 9 February 2010.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Will he tell the House what approaches have been made to the Northern Ireland Office by, or on behalf of, the Ulster Defence Association for funding in anticipation of decommissioning? Is he aware of loyalist paramilitaries making similar approaches to the Irish Government for multi-million pound funding?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my focus is on decommissioning, and that my concern is to ensure that decommissioning takes place by 9 February of next year. As for discussions between those engaged in legitimate political activity and the Northern Ireland Office, we will of course be happy to talk to people who are wholly engaged in legitimate political activity and who have eschewed violence of every kind.

Obviously, the entire community wants there to be further progress on loyalist decommissioning. However, will the Secretary of State continue to work in the loyalist working-class estates, where some paramilitary groups have had a stranglehold in the past, to try to ensure that the young people in those communities are not weaned into paramilitarism, but are weaned away from it in favour of the democratic principles that we all espouse?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the grip in which some communities were held in the past by the activities of those who do not respect the rule of law and order. Regrettably, communities in some areas are still held in that same grip. We will do everything that we can, including encouraging and working with the Northern Ireland Executive, to help all communities that have been held in the grip of violence. We will continue to work with them so that they too are able to enjoy the fruits of a normal society.

In its discussions with loyalists about decommissioning, can the Northern Ireland Office explain to the House what efforts it has made to glean any information about the whereabouts of Lisa Dorrian, a constituent of mine who was murdered and disappeared almost five years ago by people with loyalist connections?

The hon. Lady has on many occasions raised constituency issues, not least but not only that of Lisa Dorrian. I remember dealing with this when I was a junior Minister, and the hon. Lady never gives up on behalf of the family. It is a tribute to her that she continues to work so hard for her constituents. Of course that remains an ongoing case. Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. We may set the framework and the deadline of 9 February, but when that deadline comes to an end, I can promise the hon. Lady that our interest and concern for the family of Lisa Dorrian will continue.

Given that this is the last Northern Ireland questions before the end of the arms amnesty on 9 February, can the Secretary of State give reasons for his reported belief that the UDA will decommission some weapons over Christmas, when it is also reported that the UDA is seeking assurances on the future of power-sharing before it does so? Does the Secretary of State agree that laying down such conditions is unacceptable, because there is no reason or excuse for illegal arms to exist in any part of the United Kingdom?

May I take this opportunity to wish not only the hon. Gentleman but the entire House a happy Christmas on this important occasion? I hope the amnesty means that all hostilities between us will cease. That may be a slightly premature Christmas present, so I am not expecting anything in that box.

On decommissioning, I am interested only in making two things clear: first, that illegally held weapons have no place in society in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, and secondly, that on 9 February the arrangements for decommissioning will come to an end for good, for ever—the end. The IICD will be engaged with a number of organisations. At the end of that process, I hope to report to the House further progress on decommissioning. I am not interested in discussing conditions with any group.

Police Recruitment

3. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of police recruitment in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (306252)

Since the introduction of the temporary recruitment provisions in November 2001, there have been 3,751 appointments to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Catholic composition within PSNI regulars currently stands at 27.69 per cent. We remain on track to reach the target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March 2011.

That is extremely good news and everybody involved should be congratulated. It has not been easy. Can the Minister give an assurance to the House that once we reach the 30 per cent.—the sooner, the better—the special arrangements will cease and we will return to straightforward recruiting?

I welcome the endorsement from the right hon. Gentleman. That is deeply appreciated. It is a mark of how far things have come that we have gone from 8 per cent. Catholic representation to 27 per cent. and on to 30 per cent. I give him the assurance that he seeks. We intend to come to the House in March next year to ask for a renewal of the temporary powers for a further year. We are confident that we will get to 30 per cent. within that year. Indeed, if we reach that level before the end of the year, Ministers intend to come back to the House and rescind the special arrangements.

In a reply to a parliamentary question that I received yesterday, the Minister informed me that there are currently 5,305 Protestant police officers and 1,904 Catholic police officers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to correct this imbalance?

I repeat to my hon. Friend the progress that has been made. There were only 8 per cent. Catholic officers in 1998; that figure is now 27 per cent. and moving to 30 per cent. It was essential that we got a more representative police service in Northern Ireland so that there could be confidence in all sections of the community. It is worth saying that when we go back a decade ago, a plan for policing was emerging in Northern Ireland that many people thought was barely possible. Today we have almost 30 per cent. Catholics; we have every party represented on the Policing Board; and we have all parties unanimously choosing a new Chief Constable. These are amazing achievements in Northern Ireland, and they have come about because of the political will to deliver them.

Does the Minister accept that before the introduction of a 50:50 quota system, the level of Catholic applications to the Royal Ulster Constabulary stood at 25 per cent., so it is not all down to the 50:50 rule? Does he accept that people want to see the rule done away with and there to be a move towards selection and appointment on merit, untrammelled in that sense? Does he agree that recruitment is important, but that it is also important to retain experienced police officers, both regular and full-time reserve?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that people from the Catholic community applied to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and there were many fine Catholic officers in the RUC, but not enough of them. That is why the temporary provisions were put in place. I can tell him that the application rate from Catholics is now at 38 per cent., so it has moved on. That is encouraging, because once the special provisions are removed, we will want to encourage applicants from all sections of the community so that the police service remains fully representative of the community that it serves.

To pick up on the Minister’s very last point, may I ask what the Government are doing to ensure that the drive towards a representative police force goes beyond the question of simply Protestant or Catholic communities in Northern Ireland? It must include and embrace all communities.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is not mentioned often enough: we want a police service that is representative of the whole community. It is therefore encouraging that, broadly, ethnic minorities are represented in the police service in the same proportion as they are present in Northern Ireland. Crucially, in the lifetime of the PSNI, the number of women regular officers has doubled from 12 per cent. to 24 per cent. That is also an indication of the influx, the interest and the commitment of women who want to be effective police officers, and it is ensuring that the police service is fully reflective of the community that it serves.

Prison Estate

The Northern Ireland Prison Service has a capacity of 1,775. The prison estate comprises two adult male prisons and a third establishment that houses both young offenders and women.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for that reply. Will he tell the House how many prisoners in Northern Ireland suffer from either drug addiction or mental health problems?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The point of the question is to highlight how many vulnerable prisoners there are in Northern Ireland’s prisons, and how many suffer from mental health problems and personality disorders. There are high numbers of such people in prison in Northern Ireland, but he will be encouraged, I am sure, by the fact that about 18 months ago the health service in Northern Ireland took over responsibility for the delivery of health care, including mental health care. I expect to see substantial improvements in the support and service that is provided to vulnerable prisoners as a result of that measure.

Prisons in Northern Ireland are operating at close to full capacity, and for a long time now there have been discussions about the provision of a new prison in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister update us on that situation? Will the planned new prison be affected by the budget difficulties that are going to lead to capital cutbacks?

There are today 1,406 prisoners in prison in Northern Ireland, and that is lower than the figure on this day last year, when there were 1,481 prisoners in prisons. We are making available to the courts community sentences, electronic tagging and other measures that mean that, where appropriate, there is an alternative to prison. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to point to the need to improve accommodation. This year we have a new 60-cell block at Magilligan prison and a new 120-cell block at Maghaberry prison, and he and his hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), who is sitting next to him, will know that there is a clear commitment to rebuilding Magilligan prison. It badly needs rebuilding. The plans are in place, the work can begin in 2012 and the Government are mindful of the fact that it needs to be delivered. In all discussions between the Prime Minister and politicians from Northern Ireland, the need for a sustainable capital commitment to a new prison on the Magilligan site has always been on our minds.

Dissident Republican Groups

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the threat posed by dissident republican groups; and if he will make a statement. (306254)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the security threat in Northern Ireland from dissident republicans. (306257)

9. What steps are being taken to reduce the level of activity of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (306258)

10. What his most recent assessment is of the level of activity of dissident republicans; and if he will make a statement. (306259)

While the self-styled criminals remain a serious threat, their cowardly actions have been rejected by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. None the less, the Government are not complacent about the threat that those people continue to pose.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland, particularly with reference to a minority dissident republican group that appears to be causing trouble to try to put a stop to the peace process. Will he assure me that that will not happen, that he is working with everybody in Northern Ireland to ensure that it will not, and that that group will be named and dealt with in the appropriate manner?

I am pleased to report that that group is, indeed, being dealt with in the appropriate manner. That follows in part as a result of the extensive co-operation of the community, whose members do not wish to see Northern Ireland plunged into anything like the chaos they saw in the past. I will also say this to my hon. Friend: the dissident groups may wish to undermine the peace process, but they will do so only if they undermine confidence in the political process. If we succeed with the politics, we will preserve the peace.

Given the recent resignation of the prison governor and the sale of a judge’s home owing to dissident threats, what can the Secretary of State tell us about the action that the Government are taking to ensure the protection of prominent public figures?

The prison governor made it clear that his reasons for resignation, which we regret, were a matter of personal circumstances. My hon. Friend the Minister is making the appropriate arrangements in relation to that. As regards threats to individuals posed by the self-styled dissident groups, we will do everything we can to protect people in Northern Ireland. It is clear that this small minority of people, who have no support in the community, would like to undermine public confidence. We will ensure that those who promote peace and the politics and the institutions of Northern Ireland have the appropriate protection that they deserve.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the media have been endeavouring to connect the devolution of policing and justice with dissident republican activity. What steps are the Government taking to defeat dissident republicans? Does the Secretary of State understand that no political stunts or intimidation of Unionists will weaken our resolve in ensuring that policing and justice are devolved when there is community confidence, which means dealing with and resolving the issues, including the parades issue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that following the attacks at Massereene in his constituency in March, measures of public confidence were extremely high, not least because the public in Northern Ireland saw politicians across the divide come together with a unity of purpose. I believe, as the Independent Monitoring Commission report recently observed, that early completion of the devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont would be a potent intervention against these people. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about community confidence, but there could be no greater sign of confidence than the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

The Secretary of State will know that some in the security services believe that there is an intelligence deficit with regard to dissident republican groups. Does he share that concern, and what steps is he taking to overcome that problem?

First, many of these matters relate to the operational independence of the Chief Constable, which I am sure that all hon. Members would respect. We are ensuring that the resources are there for the security services in Northern Ireland and the PSNI. The hon. Lady will know that in order to meet this challenge, the Prime Minister has made additional reserves available to the PSNI this year and guaranteed it additional money next year. As for intelligence about these dissident groups, I congratulate the PSNI and the security services, who have consistently managed to thwart these people, whose objective is to undermine confidence and damage the peace process itself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any threat to the stability of our political institutions feeds into the warped thinking of the so-called dissident so-called republican groups? Does he further agree that the sooner we can agree on the devolution of justice and policing, avoid any threat of the collapse of our institutions, and reject any speculation that Sinn Fein may be planning to withdraw from policing arrangements such as district policing partnerships, the sooner we will defy the agenda of the dissident groups?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I wish to note, and the House will wish to record, that only in the past few weeks those at Stormont have completed the passage of the Department of Justice Bill, which would enable a Justice Department to be created, and invite the identification of a Justice Minister. Progress is being made. Let us not allow the dissidents any voice at all; let us have a show of confidence and complete the devolution of policing and justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order. I know that hon. and right hon. Members will want to listen intently to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I call Sir Patrick Cormack.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and a very merry Christmas.

Does the Secretary of State agree that 2009 would have been a very much blacker year had it not been for the achievements of the PSNI in defusing some terrible bombs that could have caused enormous harm? Will he give the House the categorical assurance that the PSNI will be kept up to strength and increased in strength to combat that terrible threat?

May I first take this opportunity on behalf of the House to record our thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work in Northern Ireland and with the Select Committee? I say that conscious of the decision that he has announced in relation to next year. We thank him for what he has done, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for his work and that of his Committee.

The work of the PSNI in 2009 has been tireless and successful, despite enormous provocation. The House will wish to know that had the bomb intended for the Policing Board headquarters gone off, it would have caused certainly severe damage to the building and probably severe loss of life. Brilliant work by the PSNI and the services across the board continues to ensure that these criminals who call themselves dissidents do not succeed. I only hope that next year will be an even better year for the PSNI.

May I strongly endorse the comments of the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the performance of the PSNI this year?

We do not underestimate the threat posed by dissidents, but we firmly believe that the response must be proportionate. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that every part of Northern Ireland is policed on a regular basis to ensure the confidence of all parts of the community in the effectiveness of the PSNI?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and join in his observations. The objective of these criminals is not damage to a building or even the loss of life but to undermine confidence in the politics and damage the peace process. We must all bear in mind that they seek to wreck the political process and in turn the peace process, and I can confidently say that this House will not allow them to succeed in that.

A few weeks ago, the Conservatives agreed to endorse the substantial financial package that would follow the devolution of policing and justice. Given the current threat, has the Secretary of State considered drawing on parts of that package in advance to enable the Chief Constable to deliver more effective policing?

My hon. Friend the Security Minister and I are in regular discussions with the Chief Constable, who of course has operational independence on these matters. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made available nearly £30 million of extra money this year for the PSNI and has offered more than that for next year. That money has not been exhausted, but my right hon. Friend has made it very clear to the Chief Constable that he is always open to representations from him because regardless of circumstances, this Government stand with the people of Northern Ireland.

Peace Process (Ministerial Discussions)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State on the peace process in Northern Ireland. (306255)

Does the Secretary of State fully appreciate the support of the Conservative party for the tremendous efforts of the Americans, and particularly the Clinton Administration, in keeping the peace process on track? Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Northern Ireland, does he anticipate further economic investment there?

The people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for the investment that has been made by the United States, which has allowed several hundred new jobs to be created this year in Northern Ireland despite the international recession. The decision by Secretary of State Clinton to create a special economic envoy, Declan Kelly, meant that only last week, 14 top American companies made presentations to the Administration in Northern Ireland looking at investment for next year. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have made it clear that their support will be as unstinting and relentless as that of Presidents Bush and Clinton before them.

What work is being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office further to integrate the areas across the divide in Northern Ireland, particularly in social housing? What is the NIO doing to remove the dreadful physical barriers that divide the two communities?

My hon. Friend will know that many of those matters have now of course been devolved. However, I simply say this to him: established in the Good Friday agreement and endorsed in the St. Andrews agreement were the principles of equality and justice for everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of faith and geography, to ensure that they enjoy shared power and a shared future that is fair.