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Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2012

3. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106611)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106612)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106615)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106618)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Those who remain intent on committing violence are defying the will of the overwhelming majority of people, who want to go about their lives without fear and intimidation. This Government remain fully committed to countering terrorism in all its forms.

Newry has unfortunately had three significant bomb threats in as many weeks. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to encourage those who have information about those involved in dissident activities to come forward to the police and stop those who are intent on driving Northern Ireland backwards?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right on how to defeat the small minority of people who are defying the overwhelming majority of people of Northern Ireland, who support the PSNI and co-operation with the Garda and who want to make Northern Ireland a peaceful, prosperous place. The former are completely unrepresentative, but we do not underestimate the fact that they are dangerous. My hon. Friend cited the Newry bomb. Had that not been disrupted by police activity, it could have caused very severe danger. We are not complacent, but the key is co-operation between the communities, the people and the police.

Given the danger that former prisoners will re-engage in paramilitary activities, will my right hon. Friend inform the House what steps are being taken to monitor prisoners released on licence, and under what circumstances those licences may be revoked?

If you do not mind, Mr Speaker, I should like to take a few moments to answer this question, which is a matter of huge consequence and debate in Northern Ireland.

The parole commissioners are an independent body appointed by the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland. The commissioners’ role is to make decisions on the release and recall of life-sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland. If information is brought to my attention, I share it with the commissioners and seek a recommendation from them regarding whether to revoke a licence. If they recommend that I do so, I will revoke, because I have a duty to protect the public. The commissioners then arrange a full hearing at which the prisoner can present his or her case and challenge the evidence against them. The commissioners make their decision on whether to release the prisoner because they are no longer a risk to the public, or whether the prisoner should stay in custody. The commissioners’ decision is binding. For those who remain in custody, cases are reviewed every one to two years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the term “alternative policing” is not only a disgrace but a worrying development that needs to be stopped?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I discussed recent events involving Republican Action Against Drugs with the Chief Constable this morning, and he described some of those activities as an obscenity in a modern democracy. There is absolutely no place in Northern Ireland for any alternative authority. The duly constituted authority, responsible to the democratically elected Assembly and Policing Board, is the PSNI, which needs to work with the full co-operation of the public. The situation is frustrating. As the Chief Superintendent said on television yesterday, the PSNI needs information from the public, so I appeal publicly to all those with any details. Some of these events are horrific and the police need the public’s help to bring the perpetrators to justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I remind the House that we are discussing the extremely serious matter of the security situation in Northern Ireland.

Given that the bomb in Newry was twice the size of the one responsible for the atrocity in Omagh, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the police and other services have all the resources necessary to maintain safety and security in Northern Ireland?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. Shortly after we came to power, we reviewed the security position in Northern Ireland and recognised that, sadly, a small number of people were flouting the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland and trying to pursue their aims through violence. Working closely with the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, we have worked out a programme, costing £200 million over the next four years, and I am pleased to say that the Chief Constable himself says we have the resources, the resilience and the commitment to meet the threat.

In dealing with security, the Secretary of State will be aware that yesterday evening the PSNI revealed that, alongside other police forces in England, it had retained body parts and human tissue in 67 cases of suspicious and unexplained deaths without notifying the families of those possibly murdered. He will no doubt share my shock and will have sympathy with the relatives being told this terrible news today and in the coming days. What action does he now advocate taking, in co-operation with those in Northern Ireland, to deal with this serious issue?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I entirely endorse his views and sympathise with those families who have heard this news. These are matters of the greatest sensitivity, and they must be very difficult for families to handle. I think we were all unaware that this material existed. It is most unfortunate that the news came out as it did. The Human Tissue Authority issued a direction to all state agencies, and the Association of Chief Police Officers advised chief constables. I talked to the Chief Constable about the matter this morning. As I understand it, the report was due to be published in good order on Monday, and he had prepared a careful plan to address the matter with each individual family in a most sensitive manner. We await the details of the report on Monday, but in the meantime the Chief Constable has assured me that he will have to accelerate his proposals to talk to the families.[Official Report, 16 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 12MC.]

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. Given that this practice apparently occurred between 1960 and as late as 2005—it is now illegal, of course, under new legislation—will he and direct-rule Administrations of the past give full co-operation to any independent review or inquiry that might be set up?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had all better wait to see what the report says, and then I will obviously discuss its implications with the Justice Minister David Ford and the Chief Constable. I suspect that most of the detail might be devolved, but I take onboard what the right hon. Gentleman says. This is a most difficult revelation, and we have to handle it with great sensitivity.

We know how much the security situation in Northern Ireland has improved—we are all thankful for that—but, as we have seen with the recent escalation in the number of attempted bombings and hoaxes, there remains a severe threat from those who wish to take us back to the past. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Army bomb disposal teams do tremendously courageous and vital work, and will he assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that they will receive whatever resources they need to do their important job?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I also thank him, on the record, for his great support in our teamwork with the devolved Ministers in bearing down on criminals in Northern Ireland. Let me reassure him that support for the ATOs—ammunition technical officers—is very much a feature of the £200 million programme that we put together two years ago.

I thank the Secretary of State for his remarks. He will be aware that this week is community relations week and I am sure that he will join me in paying tribute to all those involved in trying to create a shared future in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that legitimate grass-roots community organisations across Northern Ireland do hugely effective work in maintaining security and combating paramilitary activity? For those who rely on financial support from the European Union, will he tell the House what support we can expect from the new Peace IV funding initiative?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we will not bear down on the number of delinquents purely by a security effort. We must give credit to the efforts of the PSNI to penetrate communities and to work on the ground in places where the police have not been seen for many years. This week, we have seen an announcement showing the lowest level of crime for 14 years and the highest level of confidence in policing for a very long time. At the same time, in parallel, there has been success against the terrorists in terms of arrests. However, he is absolutely right that we need to promote the programmes he mentioned, and I have discussed this issue with the Tanaiste, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and together we will come up with a new programme.

The dissident terror threat increases in Northern Ireland, but is the Secretary of State aware that supporters of dissident terror are using illegal fundraising activities here in mainland GB, such as fuel smuggling and so on, to fund the campaign in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are aware that such individuals fund their activities by a number of illegal means, and there has to be a question mark over them, whether they are used by criminal organisations or by paramilitary organisations. All such activities are totally and absolutely unsupportable. We have the full backing of the communities. We are talking about a tiny number of people who are not widely supported, and the way to beat them is for the people in the communities on the ground to work with the police.