Public order issues are primarily a matter for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, in line with the devolution settlement. However, I meet them both regularly to discuss a range of issues, which often include public order matters.
Does the Secretary of State share the concern felt by many people in Northern Ireland about the apparently partisan way in which the PSNI has dealt with public order offences? On the one hand, members of the loyalist community who have been involved in street protests have been arrested, had their homes raided, been refused bail, and gone to jail; on the other hand, a prominent Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly who obstructed the police and encouraged others to attack them was merely given a warning. Does the Secretary of State not agree that public order offences must be dealt with firmly but also evenly, because otherwise confidence in the police will be lost?
I agree that it is always important for the police to be fair and even-handed, and I believe that they have shown those qualities in dealing with all the public order incidents that have occurred in recent years. I know that they take their duties of fairness, even-handedness and respect for human rights very seriously. I urge those who might become involved in violent protests not to do so, because such action is disastrous for them and negative for the community, and, of course, I urge all elected representatives to support the police in every possible way, given the difficult duties that they must fulfil.
Obviously, the need to deal with public order issues and to try to contain the threat from dissident republicans requires an increasing number of police officers. It is therefore extremely worrying that a steady flow of experienced police officers is haemorrhaging away from the Police Service of Northern Ireland every single month. What assurances has the Secretary of State managed to extract from the Treasury that there will be funds to guarantee recruitment to the PSNI?
A guaranteed total of £200 million in the current spending review and £30 million in the next will be provided to assist the PSNI in its national security work, which will of course enable it to be more effective across the board. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Executive and the PSNI are currently discussing the additional funding that will be needed in 2015-16 to enable the PSNI to commence the recruitment that the Chief Constable believes is necessary.
Given the impact that public order has on policing and budgets in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that the recommendations in the Haass report, which stated that there should be a legally enforceable code of conduct for all parades and protests, would go a long way to changing behaviour on the ground?
There is much to be said for the proposals on parading in draft seven of Richard Haass’s work. It is disappointing that the parties have not felt able to agree with those proposals as yet. Further work is clearly needed before we can get an agreement among the five parties. I urge them to see whether they can find a way to resolve their differences, including on the issue of a code of conduct and what sanctions should accompany it.