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Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The motion was considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments this morning; I am grateful to its members for calling an extraordinary meeting.
Mr. Forth: That is extremely helpful. It shows how flexible the House is that even between the printing of the Order Paper and today's debate we can have such an immediate response from the Joint Committee, which no doubt deliberated seriously and considered the matter closely. That leads one to ponder what scope there is for the House, either in full session, as we are now, or through the medium of the Joint Committee, for example, to consider an instrument of this kind given that it has emanated from no less a source than the Court at Buckingham palace.
We must not take our constitutional role in any way for granted. I shall leave aside for the moment, as you would not want me to digress, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether we might some day consider how far the House has any proper role to play in matters such as this. Northern Ireland is obviously a serious and sensitive subject and matters such as this, which the Government consider to be urgent, cannot be treated lightlynor can Orders in Council emanating from the Court at Buckingham palace be dealt with lightly.
Having said that, and given the speedy response of the Joint Committee and the fact that we are now considering the matter, one is left wondering just what scope there is for proper consideration or indeed flexibility. Although the Minister, quite properly, made some little play on the fact that the Government's generosity was allowing us the affirmative resolution procedure, you know, Mr. Deputy
Presumably, when the Joint Committee sat in all solemnity this very morning and gave the matter its consideration, it was in the same difficult position. Perhaps some day we might return to this lacuna in our procedures.
I ask the Minister for some guidance. I am being tentative because I have rarely if ever sought to involve myself in Northern Ireland matters: I am conscious of the fact that those of us who have an imperfect understanding of such matters tread on the ground at our peril. However, I was slightly worried by the exemption of the need to issue individual firearms certificates to trainee police officers.
If I understood the Minister correctly when she said, very properly but rather briefly, that the measure would be of practical value and would bring the Northern Ireland force into line with those on the mainland, I was left wondering whether the argument was that trainee police officers would have no requirement to, and would not even be allowed to, use firearms during their training, or whether it was deemed acceptable that the safeguard of issuing individual firearms certificates and all that goes with it was now to be put to one side and a bulk certificate issued.
As a lay person in these matters, that would give me pause for thought, given the sensitivities about firearms generally. Tragically, there have been recent incidents involving the use of firearms by the police, so our mind should be concentrated on the issue, be it in Northern Ireland or on the mainland. Any measure to alter the arrangements for giving police trainees access to firearms should be considered very carefully.
Are we saying that police trainees are not required to be trained in the use of firearms, or that the existing safeguard of issuing individual licences is no longer necessary? That would worry me, because there must have been a long-standing presumption, which I share, that we should do everything that we can to be satisfied of the suitability of an individual to have access to a firearm, even in the context of all the disciplines of police training.
I am all in favour of proper measures to make all our police forces as effective as possible, but given the current environment, not only in Northern Ireland but here in London, and the anxieties that have arisen in the light of recent events, we should all show even greater sensitivity than usual.
I am sure that the motion will be approved, but we must not allow such procedures to happen too often. I would not want the Government to think that all they need to do is to come up with something that emanates from Buckingham palace, say how important it is, convene a meeting of the Joint Committee, have it nodded through and then put it before the House the day before we leave for the summer recess, reassuring Members that everything had been done properly.
In the normal course of events, I hope that such a measure would be allowed more time and that the plea of urgency would never be used to evade proper scrutiny. The presence of the Secretary of State and the Minister, with all their integrity, reassures me that that is not the case, but I want to make the point that this should be treated as an exception, not a rule.
We are having this debate because the Government are unable to proceed in establishing the new Policing Board, the nationalist parties, and the SDLP in particular, having failed to give the board their support. It is interesting that none of the SDLP's representatives is here to explain why the SDLP is not prepared to support it.
It is fairly clear to observers of such matters that the SDLP has not yet obtained enough concessions from the Government on policing to bring it to the point where it is prepared to support the board. That is most unfortunate, because we need all the political parties in Northern Ireland that have signed up to the democratic process to support the forces of law and order. It is regrettable that one side of the community has so far refused to support policing structures designed specifically to win its support.
Unionists have encountered many difficulties with the proposals on policing that emanated from the Patten report, as the Secretary of State knows. The Government need to be careful if they are minded to make further concessions to the nationalist community, and especially to the SDLP, to win its support for the new policing arrangements and for the membership of the new Policing Board. The effect of those concessions could be to undermine further the Unionist community's confidence in the new policing structures and arrangements so that we would find it difficult to embrace the changes. We already have significant difficulties, as the Secretary of State will be aware.
The uncertainty that arises from the refusal of the SDLP to back the new policing arrangements has had an enormous impact on the RUC's morale. Every day, my colleagues and I receive correspondence and telephone calls from police officers who see their position constantly being undermined. In particular, the full-time reserve members do not know what their future is. They hear rumours and read stories in the newspapers, but their future is being negotiated behind their backs, in secret.
I met the Chief Constable earlier this week. He told me that because of the pressures on his resources he cannot do without the full-time reserve. If we took the full-time reserve out of the equation in the near future, as the SDLP would like, the police could not cope with the present unrest in Northern Ireland, the increasing crime on our streets and the remaining terrorist threat posed by all the paramilitary organisations. I urge the Secretary of State, when he considers how he can win the support of the
Patrick Mercer (Newark): Surely the most eloquent argument on police numbers is that when there has been a flash of violence, of any size or type, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), the RUC has had to be reinforced with soldiers from the British Army. To my certain knowledge, a policy has been in place in Ulster for the past 10 years for the British Army to step further and further back and for the RUC to move forward. If troops are deployed almost at the first sign of serious violence, it suggests that police numbers are woefully inadequate.
Mr. Donaldson: The hon. Gentleman is right, and during the talks last week I asked SDLP members whether they wanted the Parachute Regiment drafted into Ardoyne to deal with the riots. More than 100 police officers were injured, some of them seriously, in the riots in Ardoyne. In an earlier riot on the Garvaghy road in Portadown, more than 50 officers were seriously injured. Those injuries occurred because officers were in close-quarters contact with rioters. The rioters were able to get up close to the officers and inflict serious injury. That happened because of the concern in the police command structure that if they fired plastic bullets early in a riot, the police ombudsman would be on their case.
Plastic bullets are being fired only as a last resort, and after many officers have been seriously injured. That needs to be looked at carefully by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland. I and my colleagues reject yesterday's unrealistic call from the chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for the withdrawal of plastic bullets. Police officers must be able to defend themselves and the communities that they serve from horrific attacks. Plastic bullets are important in that respect.
I was pleased with what the Chief Constable said yesterday. I hope that the Secretary of State will back up the RUC in regard to the need to retain plastic bullets. I wish that we did not have riots in which plastic bullets had to be deployed, but we have, and the Secretary of State must resist calls to withdraw those bullets from use.
The Secretary of State must resist the other, unreasonable demands made by nationalists for further reductions in police numbers, especially in the full-time reserve. We need those police officers on the streets of Northern Ireland to deal with crime and riots. They need our support. The present uncertainty must be brought to an end.
I hope that the Secretary of State will put the needs and security of the people of Northern Ireland before political expediency, and that he will not make concessionsto the SDLP and othersthat would undermine the RUC's operational capacity to provide effective policing on the streets of Northern Ireland. That is crucial.
In addition, I hope that the Secretary of State will not make concessions at this critical time: to do so would further undermine the morale of the RUC and the confidence in the policing arrangements that is felt by people in the Unionist community.
My party supports the forces of law and order, but we are very concerned about what is happening. The issue of illegal arms held by terrorist organisations is crucial, and we want it to be resolved, but the issue of policing is equally important to us. We will watch carefully to see what the Government do. The Secretary of State should not expect for one moment that we will simply roll over and accept whatever arrangements and concessions he makes with regard to the SDLP and others.