The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Our aim is to develop a modern police service that is effective and widely accepted throughout the community that it serves. Good progress has already been
Mr. Murphy: I welcome that answer, as I do the long overdue police reform in Northern Ireland, but does my hon. Friend agree that the families affected by the Omagh atrocity are not helped by the fact that people of considerable influence, including some politicians, refuse to assist the police in their inquiries into the Omagh events? Does she also agree that, despite the important work carried out by the Policing Board, the undignified public squabble between the police ombudsman and other authorities only adds a sense of frustration to that of loss and anger, which is already felt by the bereaved families?
Jane Kennedy: Everyone wants the perpetrators to be brought to justice. To convict those responsible for that appalling crime, the police need evidence. Speculation and intelligence are not enough. This remains a live investigation, and I hope that the recent publicity about the tragic events in Omagh on 15 August 1998 will encourage those with information to come forward.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): If the Minister is keen to have a good police service in Northern Ireland, does she agree that it needs to be properly funded? There is a deficit of more than £40 million for this year, and it will probably be £80 million next year. Without resources, how can we have good policing in Northern Ireland?
Jane Kennedy: The Government are fully committed to ensuring that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources that it needs to continue to deliver a high-quality policing service to all in the community. The police grant for this year amounts to £656 million, which represents a high level of commitment by the Government. In August, the Secretary of State allocated an additional £10 million to the police grant to relieve pressures arising from the costs of policing disturbances earlier in the year. I am pleased to announce today that a further £16 million has been made available to the PSNI to meet all the remaining pressures identified by the Chief Constable in this financial year.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Does the Minister agree that the most fundamental and necessary principle of law and order in any society is agreement on the system of governmentin other words, agreement on the system of order? When that is absent, no matter where it is, the police service will always be seen to be on one side or the other. Unfortunately, that was the situation in Northern Ireland.
Now, that fundamental principle has not only been put in place, with agreement on our system of government, but overwhelmingly endorsed by the people. That being so, does the Minister agree that it is the duty of members of all democratic political parties who regard themselves as democrats fully to support the policing service and to take their place in all the bodies relating to it?
Jane Kennedy: The Police Service of Northern Ireland is recruiting well, and levels of recruitment from both sides of the community are at a higher level than even Patten envisaged in his report. I am encouraged by the response that the communities have given to the reforms in the police service in Northern Ireland, and I have every confidence that we will have all the officers that we need to police Northern Ireland in the future.
Northern Ireland Questions: Wednesday 13th February 2002.
Thank you for your interest in Northern Ireland, and your help in tabling questions. I attach a suggested question . . . If you would like an alternative, or would like the question tabled on your behalf, please contact either myself, or Shona McIsaac, PPS to Jane Kennedy MP, Minister of State for Security and Policing . . . If your question is listed and is likely to be called, there will be assistance available with supplementaries".
Further to the question of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), will the Minister accept that she told us on Monday that the number of victims of paramilitary violence was now 50 per cent. higher than when Patten wrote his report, and that the staffing level of the police service is now 300 below the level envisaged by Patten? Does she agree that this would be the wrong time to start disbanding the full-time police reserve?
Jane Kennedy: In one short question I have been asked about police staffing, police resources and the very difficult matter of Omagh. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to suggest which of those issues we should not be questioned on?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): All aspects of the Belfast agreement have now been started. Our task is to ensure that the implementation process continues on all fronts.
Roger Casale: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Now that the new institutions are operational, will he continue to do everything that he can to encourage all parties, including the Unionists, to work together in those institutions? Will he also continue to support the economic development of Northern Ireland, which is one
Mr. Browne: I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are faithfully implementing the agreement. As he rightly points out, implementation is not a matter only for the Government; it is a joint enterprise. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for the significant work that they are doing in this regard. The Government have consistently encouraged and persuaded others to fulfil their obligations, and we are still doing so. We continue to face challenges, but we also continue to make steady progress on all aspects of the agreement.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister aware of the existence of the recently formed Ulster Political Research Group, whose aim is to address the political alienation from the Good Friday agreement process felt by loyalist communities in Northern Ireland, particularly in north Belfast? Would he be willing to accept representations from that group, and from one of its leading contributors, Mr. Frankie Gallagher?
Mr. Browne: The Government recognise the potential contribution that the Ulster Political Research Group could make to progress in this regard. That is why officials from the Northern Ireland Office met a delegation from the group on 28 January. There was a constructive exchange of views, and it was agreed that further meetings could take place when appropriate.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): While welcoming what the Minister has just said about engaging with loyalism, may I ask the Government to consider their own position? When are they going to demonstrate that they fully respect the letter and the spirit of the agreement's constitutional provisions, particularly those that recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland's place as part of the United Kingdom? When are the Government going to respect that? They completely failed to do so in certain aspects of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Are they going to repeat that mistake with regard to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, or will they allow the proper expression of British national symbols in the courts of Northern Ireland on the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom? That is the logic and the spirit of the agreement, but the Government have not yet recognised that.
Mr. Browne: I have already assured the House that the Government are implementing the agreement faithfully, including aspects mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. As for his specific point, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the Government's position clear on Second Reading of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, and in Committee yesterday I had an opportunity to repeat what he had said. We are prepared to consider all aspects of that Bill, and the Secretary of State is considering the points made to him by the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Browne: That is of course an important aspect of the agreement, in that the agreement requires the symbols and traditions of both sides of the community to be acknowledged and respected. The Government will continue to implement that provision.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): The whole House will have noticed that the Minister of State spectacularly failed to answer an important question about the Government's commitment to running down the full-time police reserve in Northern Ireland. I am afraid that the whole population of Northern Ireland will draw very pessimistic conclusions from that evasion.
I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State and his colleagues sincerely share my disappointment that there has been no further act of decommissioning since the Sinn Fein-IRA single act of decommissioning last October. Is the Under-Secretary of State surprised?
We want more decommissioning, as, I think, do all Members. We maintain, and must maintain, local, national and international pressure on all terrorist groups in order to make further progress. This is not just a republican issue, however. We must not lose sight of the need to encourage movement from loyalists: indeed, to some extent that must be our priority.
Mr. Davies: Is it not time the Government learned that giving rewards and concessions to people who do not fulfil their obligations is not a very clever way of inducing them to do so? Will the Minister assure us that, short of the completion of decommissioning and the abandonment of the armed struggle by terrorists and former terrorists, there can be no question of an amnesty for terrorists on the run? If the Government proceeded with such an amnesty in the present circumstances, they would have no defence whatever against the charge of a complete sell-outa sell-out of all the law-abiding people in Northern Ireland, in both communities, and indeed of all principles of judicial propriety and good sense.
Mr. Browne: The Weston Park proposals set the issue in its proper context. It arises from the Belfast agreement, and is a logical extension of it. As we have said repeatedly, the Government are still considering how this might be achieved, and when our considerations have been concluded we will publish our proposals for debate here.