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Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

2. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (901919)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists, as illustrated by the attacks that took place before Christmas. However, action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners continues to keep those groups under pressure.

Before Christmas, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs went to Belfast and met the Parades Commission. We learnt about the budgetary challenges facing the PSNI. Will my right hon. Friend review giving the Northern Ireland Executive the same powers as all other parts of the UK to levy a policing precept?

The future resourcing of the PSNI is certainly a matter of concern to many in this House. It is within the powers of the Department of Justice to introduce precepting, if it chose to do so. That does not require legislation or further devolution from this House; it is a matter for the Department to decide. Very constructive discussions are under way between the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Justice and the PSNI, with a view to resolving the resourcing question, in particular with regard to the comprehensive spending review year 2015-16.

With the public rightly concerned after the stalemate reached in the Haass talks and the severe security threats faced by Christmas shoppers in Belfast, to which the Secretary of State referred, as well as the huge costs of £55,000 a day of policing contentious parades in Northern Ireland, will she tell us whether 2014 is really the right time to be cutting the funds to the PSNI, or are the Government going to reconsider that decision?

The PSNI is actually receiving additional funds from the Government—£200 million over the current spending review period and about £30 million in 2015-16—and as I have said, discussions continue between the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive over whether further funding can be added from the Executive in 2015-16.

Patten recommended that in a peaceful situation, the PSNI should have a minimum of 7,500 officers. Given that Northern Ireland is not exactly in that peaceful situation, owing to paramilitary activity, is the Secretary of State concerned about the PSNI’s ability to recruit sufficient officers?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee for his question and his important work on this issue. The current number of officers in the PSNI is 6,795. The Chief Constable recently told the Policing Board that the minimum number he needed to perform effectively was 6,963. It is important that consideration be given to how the shortfall can be dealt with, and as I have said, I remain optimistic about the ongoing discussions between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Justice about resolving that budgetary shortfall.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to Paul Goggins, not only a good friend of mine but a brilliant security Minister who served under me in Northern Ireland. His funeral is tomorrow.

How can the Secretary of State justify her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), given that the additional security budget, which the PSNI is entitled to apply for, has been halved this year compared with the past three years—and this at a time of rising dissident threats, as we saw in Belfast city centre before Christmas?

It is just not true that it has been halved. The Government take very seriously their security responsibilities in Northern Ireland, which is why we have provided additional funds for the PSNI to deal with the deteriorating security situation we inherited from the previous Government. We will continue to be vigilant. In particular, we will continue to work closely with Irish counterparts on deepening and strengthening the cross-border co-operation that is crucial to keeping Northern Ireland safe and secure.

On policing and security and in the context of the recent Haass talks on the past, especially past terrorist crimes, will the Secretary of State take it from me that Martin McGuinness’s comments last night about extremism are seen by many on both sides of the community as not only untrue but a transparent attempt to distract from Sinn Fein’s abject lack of leadership in addressing its continued glorification of past terrorist crimes, as witnessed in Castlederg this summer, which is causing huge damage to community relations? Will she urge Sinn Fein to stop wallowing in the filth of murder?

I encourage all party leaders to continue working on the Haass issues. Perhaps the more important thing to draw from last night’s meeting of party leaders was the welcome news that they would reassemble next week and that these discussions would continue. There is an important opportunity here still to be seized by the political parties to make real progress on these divisive issues by resolving their differences and reaching agreement.

I, too, want to see those talks take place, and we hope that all parties, including Sinn Fein, will come to the table and negotiate in good faith, but will the Secretary of State recognise that severe damage has been done to policing, and to the capacity of the policing and justice system to tackle the security situation, by decisions such as the one recently to issue one of those most involved in glorifying past terrorist crimes—Gerry Kelly—with an informed warning, rather than to prosecute him, even though the threshold for prosecution was reached, for obstructing the police during a very tense parades situation? Does she not see the damage that this sort of situation is creating?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I would urge all elected representatives to do all they can to support police officers in the execution of their duties which, in Northern Ireland, can sometimes be extremely difficult and highly sensitive.

As other hon. Members have said, Northern Ireland faces a number of security challenges at the start of this new year: the terrorist threat from dissident republicans and the potential threat to law and order posed by the downgrading of the Parades Commission. In the light of those risks, will the Secretary of State assure us—and give a specific answer—that the PSNI has an adequate number of front-line police officers to cope with these challenges, and, specifically in respect of the terrorist threat, that she is liaising with Home Office colleagues to ensure proper police co-ordination across the United Kingdom?

On the last point, I had the opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland matters with the Home Secretary yesterday, and my officials stay in regular touch with Home Office colleagues. The hon. Gentleman probably did not hear my earlier answer. There are currently 6,795 officers in the PSNI, while the Chief Constable believes that he needs 6,963, so there is a shortfall and the Chief Constable wishes to start recruiting once again. The UK Government are anxious to ensure that that is possible. That is one of the reasons why we have allocated additional national security funding. We are also working with the DOJ to ensure that discussions with the DFP reach a satisfactory conclusion on the Northern Ireland Executive’s contribution.

That shortfall is a serious concern, and it is important that the Secretary of State does something about it.

Turning to another issue, I had the privilege yesterday of meeting representatives of the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland. I heard first hand the moving and disturbing testimonies of retired police officers who suffered lasting physical and mental scars through their work on the front line during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State accept that we owe a great debt of gratitude to these retired officers, and will she make representations to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive about the erosion of their injury pension rights?

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) met the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland, and I would like to associate myself with the shadow Secretary of State’s comments to the effect that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The representations made at that meeting will, of course, be taken up with the Northern Ireland Executive. My understanding is that decisions on these matters lie primarily within the devolved field.