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Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 25 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the recent report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on her investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Raymond McCord Junior and related matters.

My Lords, this very thorough report by the police ombudsman has identified serious failures of duty by a small number of police officers over the period from 1991 to 2003. While the report’s contents are shocking, the fact that the police ombudsman’s investigation has succeeded in bringing this to light demonstrates how effective are the new police accountability mechanisms that are now in place. The Chief Constable has accepted the report’s recommendations, and work on reinvestigating the cases referred to in the report has already begun.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer and I declare an interest, because the police ombudsman was a member of my staff when I was vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster. She is an exemplary public servant and does not deserve the unwarranted observations made in Grand Committee yesterday by certain noble Lords. I now ask the question put to the Prime Minister by the honourable Member for Foyle yesterday in another place, which was not replied to. Can the former Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, now remain credible as Chief Inspector of Constabulary after the ombudsman’s report? He denies any knowledge of the gross irregularities that took place in Special Branch while he was Chief Constable of the RUC. Is that not dereliction on his part?

My Lords, Sir Ronnie’s position has been made absolutely clear, and the Home Secretary has said that he is thoroughly satisfied with his present position.

My Lords, can I suggest that this document on an investigation that took place over four years is totally inconclusive, is high on assumptions, is based on a dubious hypothesis and is low on evidence? Will the noble Lord confirm that yesterday at the Police Board the police ombudsman made it very clear that whatever faults she implied were not systemic throughout the RUC? Will he deplore the naming of three senior officers by Mark Durkan in another place yesterday? I know the three officers—I have worked with them; they are among the most honourable men I know. I want that to be noted by the noble Lord. What is he going to do to protect officers whose reputations have been impugned by this very shoddy document, which has been produced at a huge cost? Finally, will the Minister confirm that the officers named did not refuse to give evidence to the police ombudsman? They wrote to her and offered to give evidence in any substantive inquiry that she should conduct.

My Lords, nobody has claimed that this was systemic in the RUC; that was made absolutely clear in the report and the answers that have been given. On the second point, frankly, it ill behoves any Member of this place to criticise the use of parliamentary privilege by any Member in another place, and I do not intend to do so.

As I said in my original Answer, it has been made quite clear that the Chief Constable, of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has accepted every one of the recommendations, and is going to take further a police investigation. That is what will happen. People may have their individual views—idiosyncratic though they may be—about the report and its quality but the Chief Constable has accepted the recommendations and is now pursuing a police inquiry. We should await its outcome.

My Lords, this is indeed a serious, important and shocking report, as the Minister has indicated. Many of us believe that it needs full debate. Are protocols in place to deal with how relationships operate between informants and security forces and, if so, will a statement be made about how these now work?

Yes, my Lords, there are protocols in place regarding the handling of informants both by the police and the Security Service, but I am not sure that I can go beyond what is actually in the report.

My Lords, there is a question here of general application, in that the police ombudsman has taken the view that where the security forces run an agent who is inside a paramilitary organisation, that is collusion unless a clear set of procedures, some of which are rather bureaucratic, are followed. Senior police officers in Northern Ireland, however, regarded those procedures as being quite unrealistic in dealing with terrorism. That is the issue of general application, because we are in danger here of setting precedents that will come back to haunt us in dealing with terrorism elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, it is self-evident that, in order to counter terrorist threats to the UK from various bodies, it is essential to infiltrate terrorist groups from time to time. There is a set of rules and protocols for that. Some of the informants may, indeed, be committing criminal offences and therefore the handling of this requires the utmost professionalism. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, it is now in the interests of national security to make sure that those informants’ actions are proportionate to what the use of that conduct seeks to achieve. A source that acts beyond the limits recognised by the law will be liable to prosecution.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that we support the Chief Constable in following up the accusations that he made? That is obviously entirely right, but at the same time we recognise the difficulties and dangers of running informants, particularly at the times referred to, which were incredibly difficult. Yet intelligence gathering was essential to fighting the terrorist war and remains so now; it is a very dirty war.