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.