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Paramilitary Organisations

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

1. What recent assessment he has made of the threat to security from paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (14502)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the level of dissident republican activity in Northern Ireland. (14504)

With permission, I would like to make a brief comment about the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), and his deputy, the shadow Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), as this might be their last outing in their current positions. We should put on record our gratitude for the work that they did when in office and for pulling off the great final stage of ensuring that policing and justice were devolved. We all owe them—and everyone in Northern Ireland owes them—a debt.

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. The security forces continue to bear down on these terrorist groupings. So far this year, there have been 163 arrests and 56 persons charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. The numbers involved are small in terms of the overall population, but not insignificant in some areas. Everyone must play their part in demonstrating that these people have nothing to offer but suffering, damage and the diversion of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

I join the Secretary in State in condemning attacks by dissident republicans on police personnel, property and community. I also join him in thanking the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for their work in Northern Ireland over recent years.

I would like to move on in respect of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland to today’s findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which state that the Ulster Volunteer Force leadership sanctioned the murder of Bobby Moffett and that it could have stopped it if it had wanted. I am sure that the Secretary of State and all Members would agree that that should be viewed very seriously. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it undermines the assurances that we were given about UVF decommissioning? Does he have no concerns that a decision not to re-categorise the UVF ceasefire will send a signal that a planned killing is par for the course and represents an acceptable level of violence? Does he further agree that all this raises the question of when is a ceasefire a ceasefire?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. This was a disgusting murder, carried out at just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon in front of good, ordinary people going about their daily business, and it should be utterly condemned. The IMC report makes clear how extremely serious the matter is, but it does not recommend that we consider specification. We in Westminster, those in Stormont, the police, those responsible for security in Northern Ireland and, above all, the community have to bear down on this small number of people. I pay tribute to the very large number of people who turned out for the funeral, showing what the local community really thinks.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent attack by dissident republicans in my constituency, in which two young children almost lost their lives. My understanding is that six or seven people were arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but all were released. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the frustration of my constituents at the fact that no one has been charged for that and other offences, or is it the case that the PSNI no longer has the experienced detectives that it needs?

I am very sympathetic to the problems that the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency. This small number of people are wholly unrepresentative of the community. What they are doing is utterly irresponsible and risks serious damage to lives—it has to be utterly condemned. We have to respect the operational independence of the police. As I cited earlier, arrests are up and charges are up this year. We have had 56 charges as against 17 last year, but it is not for me to interfere with the processes of the police or of justice. The hon. Gentleman has good contacts with the local Minister and this is a devolved matter. If the local judicial system can be accelerated, that is now in local hands; we should not tamper with the independence of either the police or the judiciary.

I also pay tribute to the work of the shadow Secretary of State when he was in office, and I particularly thank the shadow Minister of State for the very courteous way in which he treated me while I shadowed him for a number of years.

Given the pressures of historical inquiries and the inevitable budgetary pressures that all public sector workers and departments are facing, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the PSNI has adequate resources to counter the threats we face—not only from dissident republicans, but from any terrorists in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. We will stand by Northern Ireland, and we will do what is right. As for police numbers, we know that there could always be more—there is not a chief constable in the United Kingdom who would not like more—but I am in regular contact with the local Justice Minister, the Chief Constable and those who are bearing down on dissidents, and we will ensure that we do the right thing by Northern Ireland.

I echo the words of thanks to the former Secretary of State and his former security Minister. We had several bruising encounters—some good and others not so good, but very enjoyable none the less.

Let me turn to the dissident threat. Will the Secretary of State give us a progress report on the automatic number plate recognition system that his security Minister announced in the House not long ago? Has it been introduced, and what progress is being made in countering and surveillance activities relating to dissident republicans?

At the previous Question Time, we announced that we had approved the final tranche—the £12.9 million that was required for the new technology, which I expect to have a real impact in bearing down on the small number of dangerous people. Its implementation is in the hands of the local Minister and the Chief Constable. I shall meet them in the forthcoming days and ask how they are progressing, but at the time of my last meeting with them, they were well on the way to introducing the technology.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State and, indeed, other Members who have made generous remarks this morning. I wish the Secretary of State and his deputy every success in their responsibilities.

Dealing with threats to security in Northern Ireland requires full public confidence in a police service that is representative of the community it serves. Although policing has now been devolved, the legal framework for ensuring that 30% of officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland come from the Catholic community remains the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Will he take this opportunity to confirm his commitment to achieving that target as soon as possible?

As the shadow Minister knows, the Patten commitment was to achieve a figure of 29% to 33% by this year. The current figure is 29.33%, so we have achieved the Patten threshold. The renewal of the measure was due to last one more year, and we agreed to that when we were in opposition. What we do next is up to us to discuss with the local Minister responsible and with those who now run the police service, but I hope that we have established enough momentum to ensure that people throughout the community will see joining the PSNI as a worthwhile career, and will be attracted to it.