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Police Service of Northern Ireland: Security and Data Protection Breach

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 4 September.

“As you know, Mr Speaker, I was keen to do a Statement on the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s data breach on 8 August, so I am pleased to have this opportunity. I am also happy to provide an update to the House on this matter. However, since writing this Answer, and as the right honourable Gentleman will know, news of the PSNI’s chief constable’s resignation has broken over the past few minutes. I thank Simon Byrne for his years of public service. The right honourable Gentleman will know that the appointment of a new chief constable is a matter for the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and I will continue to liaise with the senior management team of PSNI while the process of appointing a successor gets under way. The PSNI continues to have my and the Government’s full support in responding to the data breach, and we are focused on providing appropriate and proportionate data and expertise.

The breach, where the personal information of more than 10,000 officers and staff was accidentally published in what appears to be a human error involving a number of spreadsheet fields, happened on 8 August. Without it being realised that the relevant document contained a hidden table, the initials and surnames of every rank and grade, the location where an individual was based—but not their home address—and their duty type were published online for approximately three hours. The data breach is deeply concerning and significant. Recent events in Northern Ireland, including the terrible attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, show that there is still a small minority in Northern Ireland who wish to cause harm to PSNI officers and staff in Northern Ireland. I take this opportunity to thank all those individuals who work to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe. They have my many thanks, and we all owe them our gratitude.

I recognise, too, that there is significant concern about the consequences of this data breach. Many PSNI officers and staff have raised concerns about themselves and their families, and they have my support and understanding as they go about their important work, keeping communities safe in these worrying and most testing of circumstances. To them, I again say thank you.

In response to these concerns, the PSNI and wider security partners are taking appropriate action and are working around the clock to investigate the incident, provide reassurance and mitigate any risk to the safety and security of officers and staff. As of 30 August, 3,954 self-referrals have been made to the PSNI’s emergency threat management group. That is part of the welfare and support services that have been made available to PSNI officers.

The House will understand that the PSNI is devolved and has operational independence. That has been the case since April 2010 with the creation of the Department of Justice. However, as the House would expect, the Government have remained in close contact with the PSNI since this breach and other data breaches came to light. My officials and I have been receiving regular updates and the Government’s focus has been on providing specialist support and expertise to the PSNI in its handling of this issue. Officials in the Cabinet Office have chaired regular meetings, and I will update the House further, I hope during this Urgent Question.”

My Lords, the breach of security in the PSNI was absolutely catastrophic for both the morale and the security of all the people who work for it, including civilians. Nearly 4,000 people —40% of police officers who work for the PSNI—have self-referred to its emergency threat management group. It has led to the resignation of the chief constable of Northern Ireland, whom we thank for the service he has put in, and brought particular distress to Catholic officers—but not exclusively, of course—because of possible attacks by republican dissidents. Indeed, it will affect future recruitment of Catholics to the PSNI.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. Who is now ministerially responsible for the PSNI in the absence of a Security Minister in Northern Ireland? Will the Secretary of State have a role to play when the internal inquiry is finally concluded? Will he have a role to play in trying to ensure the security of all officers? Finally, can he guarantee any costs arising from the breach, which will be considerable and which the PSNI simply cannot afford?

I am very grateful to the former Secretary of State for his comments and his questions. Of course, I share his concerns over the security breach that took place. I was in Northern Ireland a day or so after and I was fully briefed at the PSNI headquarters by the then chief constable, who, as the noble Lord reminded the House, handed in his resignation yesterday. I place on record my appreciation for his service and wish him well for the future.

Nobody underestimates the seriousness of the breach. The noble Lord referred to the number of self-referrals to the emergency threat management group, which is absolutely correct. I assure him that the PSNI and His Majesty’s Government take the safety, security and welfare of police officers and support staff as the very highest of priorities. The Government have been keeping in very close contact at official and ministerial level with the PSNI, and we have offered specialist assistance wherever we can.

On the noble Lord’s specific questions, as he rightly alludes to, there is no direct ministerial direction within the Department of Justice. As he knows, policing is a devolved issue and is the responsibility of the Department of Justice. There is no Minister there at the moment. A number of inquiries have been launched, in particular one by the Policing Board, whose results we hope to see in the autumn, possibly as early as October. Any assessment of that report will obviously have to wait until it has reached its conclusions and been published.

As far as finance is concerned, the noble Lord is aware that policing is a devolved issue, as I said. The Department of Justice has a budget of £1.2 billion. There are certain matters for which the Northern Ireland Office is responsible. It is too early to reach conclusions, but we will have to look at the findings of the various inquiries once they report.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for those clarifications to the noble Lord’s questions. Policing in Northern Ireland is always challenging and this very unfortunate release has made it even more so. We have lost the chief constable and replacement will also be challenging. Given what the Minister has said—namely, that policing and justice are devolved, although there is a role for the Northern Ireland Office—does that not reinforce the case for those people who are genuinely concerned about policing, and indeed all other services in Northern Ireland, to recognise that we cannot go on kicking things backwards and forwards between Westminster and a non-existent Assembly or Executive? This is just another case in which those who are blockading the re-establishment of the Assembly are preventing the resolution of the very issues that they are raising concern about in a proper fashion using the devolved Administration that was created for the purpose.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which does an amazing job across the entire community, policing in a very difficult situation. Irrespective of the data breach, it faces pressures that are unknown to other police forces within the United Kingdom. Obviously, the breach has caused great anxiety. In respect of the thrust of the noble Lord’s questions, he is absolutely right: we need an Executive back in Northern Ireland as quickly as possible. We are doing everything we can to bring that about; that will obviously include the appointment of a Justice Minister within the department who could give political direction.

As well as questions for the chief constable, who has rightly resigned given the series of gaffes and debacles that have happened under his leadership of the PSNI, are there not questions for the Policing Board of Northern Ireland, the body that holds the police to account directly, given the reports that members of the Policing Board, which is supposed to be completely independent of operational matters, tried to direct the chief constable and how he should behave in certain respects? In relation to the financial issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, will the Minister give a guarantee that ordinary people in Northern Ireland will not suffer as a result of the money that will be diverted into clearing up this mess of data leaks?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions, as always. He will be aware that the Policing Board itself has asked the Department of Justice to undertake an inquiry into its activities; we should await the outcome of that. On funding, I reiterate that funding is primarily a matter for the devolved Administration out of the £1.2 billion that has been allocated to the Department of Justice. We will obviously have to look again at the various reports and investigations, and the conclusions that they come to.

My Lords, given the problems raised by my noble friend Lord Murphy, it is doubly unfortunate that Northern Ireland is now left without a chief constable. Can the Minister say something about the timeline for the appointment of any new chief constable, since that will obviously affect the questions raised about the occurrences we have been faced with? Secondly, can he say whether that will be exclusively a matter for the Policing Board, or will it be in any way affected by the absence of an Executive and a Justice Minister?

I am grateful to the former Secretary of State for his questions. He will understand that the timeline is entirely a matter for the Policing Board, which appoints the chief constable. I am sure that it will wish to seek a resolution for this issue very quickly. It is important that the PSNI has strong leadership restored as quickly as possible, but that is entirely a matter for the Policing Board. It is within its power to appoint an interim chief constable while the formal recruitment process is ongoing, but that is its own issue. On the lack of a Justice Minister, in the unfortunate circumstance that the appointment be made before the Executive is re-established, we would have to take powers for His Majesty’s Government to ratify any appointment that would normally be ratified by the Justice Minister. That happened back in 2019, when the outgoing chief constable was appointed and there was no Executive and Assembly functioning.

My Lords, could I revert to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce? Would my noble friend, for whom we all have the utmost respect, discuss with the Secretary of State the calling together of the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland yet again—I know it has been done before—because it is essential that the Executive are re-established? It is essential that the people of Northern Ireland do not continue to be let down by the failure of their elected politicians.

I am grateful to my noble friend. I am not sure whether it is in order to refer to people sitting outside the Chamber, but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State might well have heard my noble friend’s question direct. I completely agree with my noble friend that the imperative is to restore the Executive and to get the institutions established by the Belfast agreement fully functioning, up and running, at the earliest opportunity. I can assure my noble friend that the Secretary of State and the entire ministerial team are focused on that outcome and that my right honourable friend has been having a number of discussions over the summer with the political parties towards resolving the issues that are preventing the re-formation of the Executive.