HL Deb 23 July 2001 vol 626 cc1810-24

11.8 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 18th July be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order was made in the Privy Council on 18th July under Section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, debated in the other place on 19th July, and will, if approved by your Lordships, come into effect on 30th July. The order makes three essentially technical amendments to policing legislation: two concern the new police recruits referred to in the Act as "police trainees", and the third makes an amendment to parliamentary procedure that I hope will be welcome.

Before detailing the amendments, I should like to set out for those not familiar with Section 85(8) of 1998 Act how it works. In brief, Her Majesty the Queen at Privy Council makes the order, as happened on 18th July. It must then be approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament within 40 sitting days. If it is not, it ceases to have effect.

Perhaps I may explain the provisions in the order. New police trainees under Section 36 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 do not acquire the status and powers of police officers until after they have successfully completed their recruit training. As a consequence, existing police terms and conditions regulations do not apply to them. Therefore, Section 41 of the Act provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations setting out the terms and conditions of trainees. The Secretary of State must consult the Policing Board, among others, before these regulations are made.

It is a fact that the Government have not as yet been able to appoint a board. Although we hope to be in a position to do so shortly, it will not be in place in time to be consulted before the trainee regulations need to be made. We want to have these in place in time for trainees to be appointed in September. The order accordingly substitutes the existing community accountability body, the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, for the board. It does so for the purposes of consultation and to undertake any of the board's functions under the regulations until we have the board in place. The appointment of new recruits clearly cannot be delayed, and in the circumstances I hope that your Lordships will agree that this represents a sensible approach.

The proposed amendment to the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 also relates to recruits. As the legislation stands, the Chief Constable would need to issue trainees with individual firearm certificates in order to train them in firearms handling. Clearly that is disproportionate. The amendment provides a practical remedy by exempting trainees from the requirement to hold firearms certificates. The remaining provision in the order will amend Section 76 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Section 76 in its present form requires a draft order to renew the 50:50 recruitment provisions under Section 47(3), and draft regulations on flags and emblems for the new policing service under Section 54, to be laid in Parliament for 40 days before they come into effect. It does not, however, require them to be debated. That was our intention when the provision was inserted in the Bill on 20th October 2000 in this House. The amendment does what the Lords Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform proposed for the Bill and ensures debates in both Houses by applying the affirmative resolution procedure, following which the legislation would take effect immediately. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 18th July be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I begin by making the point that in the past two weeks we have asked on more than one occasion for a full debate on Northern Ireland. We asked through the usual channels and were refused. We asked again—as I believe other parties did—and were refused. Finally, I personally asked the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal on a private basis but was also refused.

Why do we end up discussing this order at this time of night and with little or no warning of its arrival? Once again the Government demonstrate their disdain of the parliamentary process. We are debating Northern Ireland in the middle of the night at the tail end of a Session. Why is the order before us tonight? First, it is because—as so often happened in the previous Session of Parliament—we had sloppy drafting of the original Act. As the Minister has pointed out, it failed to allow for exemption of police trainees from the Northern Ireland firearms legislation during their initial training period. Secondly, the order is before us because the Government's strategy of endless concessions to the republicans has led them absolutely nowhere.

The policing situation and, indeed, in some areas, the security situation in Northern Ireland is at its worst, and there have been the worst riots, since 1981. The Government's appeasement policies have led to the release of over 400 hard-line terrorists, including murderers; to the placing of terrorists in government; and probably worst of all, to the wanton destruction of the Northern Ireland police force. They have not led to any disarmament on either side. They have not—contrary to what Patten intended—taken the politics out of policing. They have not led to a united community police force but to quite the opposite: massive polarisation of the communities.

We are here tonight because the nationalists and the republicans have not signed up to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act which flowed from Patten and it would appear that they have no intention of doing so in the near future.

I believe that the Government have lost control. The political situation is deadlocked while the republicans increase their demands and the RUC, having lost 25 per cent of its more experienced men and women resulting from the Patten pay-offs and more than 200 men injured in the recent riots mostly organised and co-ordinated by the paramilitaries, struggles to maintain law and order.

Its struggle is made doubly difficult by the restraints placed on it by the glib phrases used by human rights lawyers, the ridiculous business concerning the firing of plastic baton rounds in self defence and the power of the police ombudsman. The Minister will remember only too well, I hope, the points I made to him at Report stage of the Act concerning the powers of the police ombudsman in this respect.

I heard today through the press that the chief constable has let it be known that he intends to retire in the course of the next year. In the light of that information and the current state of play with regard to policing in Northern Ireland, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will enlighten the House in some small way about how the Government propose to improve the law and order situation.

I sincerely hope that they do not propose, as I read in yesterday's Sunday Times, to put on offer an indemnity law amounting to a general amnesty to include all those involved in Omagh and other recent atrocities. This, I suggest, will do little to please Sinn Fein, especially if it includes Bloody Sunday, and will infuriate law-abiding people everywhere. How many more times are we to see the rule of law set aside for political expediency? Given the widespread concern about the matter, when the noble and learned Lord responds will he take the opportunity to give the House an assurance that those reports are without foundation?

I know that the noble and learned Lord is not a member of the Northern Ireland Office team of Ministers and so he may find this difficult. We need a police service in Northern Ireland which is able to get on with the job without any operational interference from politicians and which has the capacity—we spoke about the resources last week and the shortage of funds—to combat crime in all its guises including terrorism. We on this side of the House have not been impressed with the Government's record in Northern Ireland so far. While we continue to wish them well in their endeavours in Northern Ireland, in order to maintain the bipartisan agreement positively we shall expect more adherence to the democratic processes. Perhaps Ministers will also listen to the advice of those from around your Lordships' House who have lived and worked in Northern Ireland for many years. However, I am afraid that that is probably too much to expect.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his explanation of the order I have one question and one observation.

Bearing in mind that by definition police trainees are probationers, is it a good idea for them to have an exemption from having individual licences to bear arms? I understand why the regular police have the exemption but bearing in mind that those trainees are probationers I wonder whether it is a wholly wise move.

It is gratifying that a significant number of Roman Catholics have been applying to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is the greatest pity that the political leaders of the Catholic and nationalist community have not followed their example by joining the Policing Board. It is high time that the chicken and egg fandango (if I may mix my metaphors) is short circuited so that the Patten proposals can be fully implemented and an acceptable policing system implemented. That is important. One would hope that the SDLP at least would agree now to join the Policing Board. We on these Benches have adopted a pro-Patten stance, and fully backed it. At this particularly crucial time, we would expect to see some move on the part of the nationalist community in that regard.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I support the order, which makes a number of amendments to the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The fact that the order is required at this time should come as little surprise to many of your Lordships, who will remember the passage through the House of that legislation, which implemented the recommendations of the Patten report. Your Lordships will also remember that many of those recommendations were flawed and inadvisable and caused great offence to the greater number of people in Northern Ireland. I assure your Lordships that those strong feelings have yet to wane.

Unfortunately, the effects are beginning to tell. Noble Lords may have read in the newspapers recently that more than 970 RUC officers have left the force since the beginning of this year. That includes many senior officers. Your Lordships may also be interested to know that, at 31st March this year, the RUC was supposed to have encompassed 8,488 regular officers and 3,202 full-time reservists. The actual numbers were 7,810 regulars and 2,496 reservists. That is a shortfall of 1,384 officers from establishment. Those numbers have fallen even further since then, with the departure of another 594 officers. To put those figures into a mainland context, if the same proportion of shortfall occurred in the Met, that force would be down 4,483 officers. If ever figures were able to tell a story, that drop of 1,978 RUC officers does so. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is fast coming dangerously close to being a police service in crisis.

I believe that your Lordships will share my sense of regret that Article 2 of the order, which substitutes the Police Authority for Northern Ireland for the new Policing Board, has proved necessary. I hope too that your Lordships will be in no doubt as to why that is the case. It is because representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour Party have refused to take their seats on the board, seemingly in the hope of squeezing out yet further concessions to their objectives on policing and other areas during the negotiations, which the Government claim reached their climax at Weston Park just over a week ago.

We await the outcome of those talks in the form of a so-called package of measures, which our Government are currently in the process of drawing up with the Irish Government. It is rumoured that a "take it or leave it" package is due to be given to the pro-agreement parties by the end of this week, although it is proving difficult to get confirmation of that fact.

In addition, I should like to highlight what I understand to be meant by "pro-agreement parties". To the mind of any sensible person—perhaps presumptuously, I like to include myself in that category—"pro-agreement parties" means parties in favour of the agreement. That means the whole agreement, not just the parts that we want.

I was chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party in April 1998, when the Belfast agreement was assented to. Only recently have I given up that rather testing position. As anyone who follows these matters will be only too well aware, throughout my period in office my party experienced difficulties with many aspects of that agreement. However, despite those problems, we held in there and stuck the course; we fought for that agreement and we popped the bitter pills. But we did so because we believed that what we were doing was right not only for ourselves but for all the people of Northern Ireland.

We could so easily have taken the easy way out. Had we done so, my tenure as party chairman would have been far less testing, as, indeed, would have been that of David Trimble, my party leader. But we took the more difficult option. We did everything that we could to implement the aspects of the agreement over which we had power. We have now come to the crunch—the end game, to use a phrase which has become popular with the media in recent weeks.

Two major stumbling blocks remain, if the agreement is to be fully implemented. The first is obviously that of decommissioning. For what it is worth, I wish to call yet again tonight on the paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, to put away their weapons beyond use, permanently and without delay. As democrats, my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party and I shall continue to make that plea until it happens. Let us hope that it happens soon, if not now.

The second major stumbling block is the refusal of Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP to move forward on policing. Again, for what it is worth, I call on the republicans to fulfil their obligations under the agreement, which they claim to support, and to assent to the new arrangements, including those concerning the Police Board. If anything, it is now more vital than ever for the SDLP to climb down from its lofty high wire and nominate to the new Police Board. In doing so, it will leave the republican movement more isolated than it has been for many years. Inevitably, as party leader, the onus for that will be on John Hume. Since he was announced as joint recipient, people have called often on David Trimble to demonstrate his worthiness as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and statesman. I believe that he has done so on more occasions than I can even begin to remember. It is now time for his fellow Nobel laureate, John Hume, to do the same.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, with great respect. I have watched from afar with admiration the stand taken by the party of which he was chairman and the price which it has had to pay for that, not least in the recent general election.

We are here tonight, albeit at half-past 11 on the penultimate day of this Session, not to resume for another three months, because the Government have got into trouble with their timetable. No one who has served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes a party point about that; we have all been there. However, while there is no argument about the need for these orders, there is plenty of anxiety, and, therefore, room for argument, about the reasons that have made them necessary. Yet we have not been offered the opportunity to debate in this House those reasons, which are grave.

When this matter was made the subject of moderate complaint by my noble friend Lord Glentoran on the Front Bench, I am afraid that I heard the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, say that he was not surprised that we had been refused a debate. Either the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that they were not surprised.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think that that is totally unfair and I hope that the noble and learned Lord will agree that he misheard.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, neither of us said a word.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, of course I withdraw that at once. I can only say that I heard those words from somewhere and I was rather shocked. I find that I am not alone on this side. I accept at once the assertion that has just been made.

At any rate, I am surprised. It is extremely important that whenever a government get into difficulties in Northern Ireland they should come to this House and the other place and say what is happening. In my experience, having got into quite a lot of trouble in my time, I always received a sympathetic and informed hearing. If the Government want to carry Parliament with them, they should do that.

In the other place the Minister of State, Jane Kennedy, said: In spite of the Government's considerable efforts to bring about the necessary agreement on outstanding police issues to enable the Policing Board to be established, it is not yet in place; nor is it likely to be in time to be consulted before the regulations for the trainees are needed. It is planned that the trainees will be appointed in September. The order accordingly substitutes the Police Authority for Northern Ireland for the hoard for the purposes of consultation".—[Official Report, Commons, 19/7/01; col. 484.] We quite understand why that is necessary, but we need to know—this is our only opportunity to discuss this matter in the next three months—what those efforts were. What have been, the Government's considerable efforts to bring about the necessary agreement"? What have been the sticking points? What ground was put forward by republicans and nationalists for not agreeing to the board's role? We need answers to those questions. Why will not even the SDLP take up its entitlement for nominations? The Government must have been told the reasons but Parliament has not been.

Whatever the viewpoint of republicans and nationalists, what do the Government make of the RUC's assessment of the shortfall from its need? That was referred to in the debate in the lower House. I do not know whether it is accurate or not but it was said in that debate that the RUC estimates that, there will be a shortfall of about 117 million in the money that they require to carry out fully the work expected of them in the Province.—[Official Report, Commons. 19/7/01; col. 487.] At a time when the RUC is once again in the middle— it is facing violence from paramilitaries from both sides of the community—it is, I venture to suggest, enormously important that it does not feel that it is being denied the basic requirements for its duty to all people in Northern Ireland in order to keep the peace. Do the Government accept that there is a shortfall? What is their response to the point made in the lower House? That point was raised not by the Minister but by a Back-Bencher.

Other points were made in the lower House that were extremely worrying. It was reported that in, 1997–98, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee noted that 'the major reason preventing young Roman Catholics coming forward to join the RUC is the fear of violence which would be offered towards them and to members of their family)'". That is beyond question. But what do the Government say about the matter? Have those fears of violence diminished or do we now believe that that is really the reason why people are not coming forward in sufficient numbers? I welcome what has been said about the increase in the number of people coming forward from the Roman Catholic community. What is the Government's view, however, of intimidation? We know perfectly well how rife that is in the civilian community.

In the debate in the lower House it was pointed out that, "the Gaelic Athletic Association"—refuses to repeal, its offensive and discriminatory rule 21".—[Official Report, Commons, 19/7/01; col. 489.] That rule stops members of the RUC from taking part in Gaelic football matches. That is a really important symbolic matter. Can the Government report any progress in that regard? How do they explain why that ban continues?

I shall not go on at this time of night. There are other matters that other noble Lords will wish to raise, but I state with considerable force that it is a great pity that at this stage we have been denied a debate on Northern Ireland. That denial suggests a rather contemptuous attitude towards Parliament.

I hope that we can all be relied upon to take a grown-up and sensible view at what is always a sensitive time in the negotiations which are taking place. But we need to be told what is happening. I have too much experience of responsibility for the affairs of Northern Ireland to believe that any government are faced at any time with simple choices. No government ever are. But equally, I know from experience that any government who preside over continuing horrifying violence in Northern Ireland, coupled with cynical goalpost-moving by those who refuse to start giving up their arms, need always to take Parliament into their confidence. If they do not do that, that serves only to add fuel to suspicions that there is something disreputable in the offing. There is already far too much fuel for that suspicion.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this order. I realise that it is necessary. But sadly, it brings more uncertainty to the running of our police force and, therefore, leads to a reduction in its efficiency. That is for all the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and several other noble Lords.

I am not talking about local crime in my area, to which, no doubt, the Minister would tell me that we all have to put up with a certain amount of crime but that members of the police force do all they can. I wish to draw attention to the recent reduction in activities which the police used to carry out. That is due to a lack of manpower and finance and to the recent reforms in the police force, introduced by this Government. I am not talking about speeding and normal every-day crimes. I wish to talk about terrorist-related crime. Over the past 25 years, the police have been expected to carry out certain duties in that regard. They no longer find themselves capable of performing those duties, but those duties still require attention.

I must declare an interest because my brother-in-law is the Northern Ireland general manager of Securicor Cash Services, which I now use as an example. That company undertakes 85 per cent of all major cash movements in the Province. I am sure that noble Lords and the Minister will understand that the very fabric of business life, which is what has held Northern Ireland together for so long, relies on such a service. The company has 65 of those armoured blue vehicles that one sees around the streets operating every day from bank to bank, bank to business and in reverse. It provides a really important service. I am using it as an example, but it is not the only example. However, it is an example which should demonstrate to noble Lords that, in this case, I am not worried about County Fermanagh, since County Fermanagh is perhaps one of the poorer regions; I am interested in the fabric which holds Northern Ireland together at present.

In the calendar year 2000, there were 30 attacks or hits when the cash in those vehicles was stolen in the Belfast and larger Belfast area. This year, there have been 40 such attacks already. There were seven last week and three on Friday. The total amount of money that has been lost is £500,000 this year. The individual amounts of money being carried by those vehicles is important because below £100,000 per load, security firms are not insured. Therefore, all that money has been lost in loads below £100,000. In England or in London, that would be headline news: "Armed hijack of Securicor van in the Wandsworth Road" or—dare I say it?—"outside Westminster". The Minister should not dismiss that because it is taking place and it is tangible. I understand that the Minister is not a member of the Northern Ireland Office. However, representations have been made to the Security Minister in Northern Ireland in the last week or so. I understand that in the next couple of days the director of security for Securicor will make a representation to Mr Blunkett. So it is an important issue.

So far this year 15,000 sick days have been recorded among the 240 staff. They have had it. The official response from a member of the RUC has been, "We can give it only passing attention". The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, will understand that previously there was never a case of a Securicor van, or a van containing anything of value, travelling without an escort. This is not an additional task; this is not not control. What has happened over the past 30 years has now ceased and that goes for many parts of Northern Ireland.

I do not ask for support for an uneconomical business. The business may become uneconomical, but I assure the House that no other business will take up that task if such an undertaking cannot be run economically. Normally somebody more efficient will take over; but no one will operate such a business in Northern Ireland. This is a crisis. I have not given that example because of my declared interest, but because it indicates what is really happening.

Recently, in another place, the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister said that whatever appropriate support the RUC required would be provided. I ask the Minister where is that support? Can he do something about it now?

One other issue is the morale of the RUC. Many people will no doubt say, "He's from Northern Ireland, from the basically unionist population and of course the morale of the police is low". Recently I have spoken to policemen in the street. Their morale has to be really bad for them to admit that outside their force. I have been a member of various organisations including the Ulster Defence Regiment—as it then was—and low morale hit us. We talked about it within the force, but we would never admit to someone outside the force that the morale was bad. The morale of the RUC is seriously low. The Minister's answer may be that the Northern Ireland people cannot agree, so where do we go? I accept that that is the situation, but the Government have to do what they can to maintain the security so that there can be a peace process with the result that society can live with itself.

11.43 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, from what has been said already this evening, the situation in Northern Ireland is not, at the moment, improving. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, has described a situation of armed robbery, which, if it took place on the mainland, would be regarded as a crisis. There would be calls for debates, the press would be full of it and there would be great public anger. However, this evening we have this order that we all agree should go through, but no proper debate on the affairs of Northern Ireland.

What is the situation in your Lordships' House? Just look around. Perhaps I should spell it out so that it is recorded in the official record: three Members of Her Majesty's Government on the Front Bench; not a single supporter behind them—not one; two Cross-Benchers from Northern Ireland; half a dozen or so Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats. We are discussing a crisis of confidence in the policing of Northern Ireland, a haemorrhage of police officers on a scale which, if it were to take place, as has been said, in any police force on the mainland, would cause outrage.Are we supposed to shrug and say, "Well, that is the way it is"? We are not even graced this evening by the presence of my noble friend Lord Patten, who could tell us how successful his reforms and proposed reforms have been. It would have been interesting to hear his views on why we have this haemorrhage of police officers.

My noble friend Lord Glentoran was brief but to the point. I have only one disagreement with him, and it is a serious one. He referred to the Government's policy of appeasement. I have never found this Government guilty of appeasement of Sinn Fein/IRA. Collaboration, yes; appeasement, no. Collaboration because their objective is precisely the same as that of Sinn Fein/IRA. It is a united Ireland, under the rule of Dublin, by what is grandly called consent—the consent of a people left without an adequate police force, at the mercy of a terrorist army which has not been required to give up a single weapon, bullet, gun, or one pound of explosive.

We have just endured the interminable communiqués and rumours from the discussions between the parties, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, which appear to have got nowhere. If they had got anywhere, we might have had a statement to that effect. We are now supposed to go away for two or three months in the expectation that things are going to get better. I doubt that they will.

I should like to hear from the Minister—and I have every sympathy with him, for he is not in the Northern Ireland Office and can only read from the brief that his officials will no doubt hand to him in a few moments— precisely what strength he expects the RUC to reach by the time we return in October. What would he regard as a crisis? Below what level would the Government act? There must be some view on the part of the Government. What does he expect to happen? Does he expect the numbers to begin to rise again, or is he complacent? Not he. But I do not want to put it in those personal terms. Are Her Majesty's Government simply complacent about this fall, or will they do something to arrest it?

It is a scandal, it is a shame, it is to be deplored, that Parliament and the Province of Northern Ireland should be treated in this way. It will not be forgotten, either in Northern Ireland or here. It seems to me quite extraordinary that in recent weeks we have been treated to the trumpeting of Ministers on the success of bringing Mr Milosevic to trial as a terrorist, when they have put terrorists into government in this Kingdom.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, we have to support this order because I can quite see that, given the haemorrhage of experienced officers, we shall need recruits. After Omagh, the House was recalled to introduce measures to deal with the terrorists. It has proved impossible to bring them to justice. I presume that the amnesty that is said to be under consideration is intended to solve that little problem.

We now have a potentially serious crisis and this is our only opportunity to discuss it. That is a scandal in itself. Can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether as part of the continuing negotiations there are plans to offer concessions next month to the further demands of Sinn Fein/IRA which could include the admission of former terrorists to serve in the RUC? That will keep many experienced officers in the force! Will there be more retrospective Bloody-Sunday-type inquiries aimed at the RUC or are the amnesties intended to reverse that? Will powers be given to local police authorities to sub-contract?

Is it intended to offer such further concessions even though Sinn Fein and the SDLP have, by refusing to nominate their representatives to the police authority, made it impossible to create the new police force and have left the power with the Secretary of State and the chief constable, making this order necessary?

The Minister will say that he cannot discuss what is being negotiated and it is difficult to argue against that. But I believe that we need to hear from him that the Government will not make such concessions before coming back to Parliament to amend the legislation in due process so that the issues can be debated. We cannot have a situation in which an Act which took months to pass through this House can be lightly amended because it happens to help the negotiators.

The Government must surely recognise that in all the years since the Belfast agreement was signed there has been one-way traffic, concession after concession to the IRA, and nothing in return. How much longer is the farce of the decommissioning commission to continue when it is nothing but a fig-leaf for the IRA? We should face facts and abolish a body whose existence has enabled the IRA to play its own game and to give absolutely nothing. Why do we never debate the reports of that commission? The latest, published on 30th June, admits that the commission has been unable to ascertain how the IRA will put its weapons beyond use—and they have been talking for three years. It never will learn that from the IRA because the IRA will never do so. It has always said it will never do so.

In the light of that undoubted fact, can the Government really contemplate further concessions designed to weaken the already severely depleted forces of law and order and to destroy the RUC at a time of great instability? The IRA, having gained all it can politically, is already returning to what it knows best—violence. The Government should have recognised that long ago and if they had done so they would have been respected by the people of Northern Ireland and by us. Instead, they have persisted in giving more and more and that is nothing less than a betrayal of the unfortunate people of Northern Ireland who trusted them. There was never a better example of the saying that the floor of hell is paved with good intentions.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I shall be brief because the hour is extremely late. I am deeply concerned about some of the information that has passed across the House during our debate on the order. First, it is good to know that there has been an increase in the number of recruits. However, we are told that some 25 per cent of the most senior and experienced men in the force have left as a result of the Patten hand-outs. Secondly, we are told that the chief constable is to resign.

Any organisation which haemorrhages 25 per cent of its most experienced people, plus its leader, in a short space of time will be in serious difficulty. Are the Government really thinking the matter through? If so, have they come forward with ideas about what they can do; for example, seconding to the RUC senior officers from forces in this country? I can foresee a deficit or gap in experience at the highest levels and I believe that only mischief can come from that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I deal first with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. This debate is about an order which everybody appears to agree should be approved. The noble Lord complained that there had been no debate in this House about Northern Ireland. Plainly, that is not a matter to be dealt with here but in the context of a complaint about business to be conducted on the Floor of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and other noble Lords said that no concessions of any kind should be made. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, said what the answer would be. The answer is that it is not sensible to refer to the content of negotiation. The noble Baroness said she hoped that we would come before this House if any changes were to be made to the Police Act. We would have to do so because any changes to the Act should be made only with the consent of both Houses of Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, then referred to the "wanton destruction of the Northern Ireland police force". While we take into account what is said in this House, we take greater note of the observations. of the Chief Constable of the RUC. In a report of an interview yesterday he said: I think the new structures will work He went on to say that arguments by politicians would not, debilitate our ability to deal with terrorism, to deal with public disorder and to deal with criminality The changes to modernise policing are not about concessions to any group. As has been made clear by the Secretary of State in another place, and made repeatedly clear in this Chamber, there will be no compromises over security. That has always remained the position of the Government. We take the advice of the Chief Constable on the pace of change in the police service, which is security dependent. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, knows, the Secretary of State is in constant contact with the Chief Constable to ensure that the RUC and the new police service are operationally capable.

Many comments have been made this evening about the number of officers who leave the RUC. Those familiar with Northern Ireland affairs will be aware that the numbers who leave suggest some mystery. The severance arrangements which lead to people at the top leaving the service are part of Patten. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is aware, those arrangements are being managed by the Chief Constable, who decides on the pace of change. As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, made clear—other noble Lords have also referred to it—this matter must be looked at in the context of the recruitment campaign which is under way. I should make it clear that the Government have total confidence in the Chief Constable. While we listen to what is said in debates like this, we listen particularly to his advice on the security situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, was the only noble Lord to ask a question relating to the order. He asked whether it was wise for trainees to be the recipients of waivers in respect of firearms. The position is that that puts them in the same position as British constables before the Act; namely, trainees are entitled to use firearms, but they will not be issued with service issue firearms until they have been trained in their safe handling and use and, in particular, the public safety aspect. It is a totally legitimate question to ask, but we believe that, having weighed it up, we have come to the right solution.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in a very impressive passage in his speech, referred to the sacrifices that the Ulster Unionist Party had made in continuing to support the Good Friday agreement. He described his own period as chairman, and said that it would have been a lot easier if that party had not supported the Good Friday agreement. But the noble Lord made it clear that in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland the party had decided to support the agreement. My understanding is that that party continues to support the agreement despite all the difficulties, many of which have been referred to in the course of the debate. As a government we are in complete agreement that the Good Friday agreement should be supported.

We also agree with two further points made by the noble Lord; namely, that the time has come for all paramilitaries to decommission their arms and for all the nationalist parties to support the new policing arrangements.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred to the problems of armed robbery, the security firm and morale in the police force. Again I refer back to the quote from the Chief Constable who specifically states that the RUC is capable of dealing with terrorism and criminality at the moment. Although we take note of what the noble Viscount has said, we also obviously take security advice from the Chief Constable.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said that the Government were collaborating with Sinn Fein, not appeasing it. He said that we shared the same aim; namely, that we want a united Ireland. That was completely wrong and based on nothing at all. The position is that the Government wish normality in Northern Ireland. I believe that that is what the vast majority of the Northern Irish people want.


Lord Tebbit

My Lords, is the Minister saying that it is no longer the policy of his party and Government that they work for the union of Ireland by consent?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is the position of this Government that we wish normality in Northern Ireland. If there is to be a union, it will only be on the basis of the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That has always been the position of the Government. I deal with the points made—I think that at this hour the appropriate course is for me to continue—

Lord Tebbit

There is plenty of time, my Lords.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, perhaps I may continue with my point. I deal with the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. The noble and learned Lord referred to the £117 million figure referred to in another place. That is a figure referred to in the annual report of the Chief Constable. The noble and learned Lord said that he had concerns about that figure. The Secretary of State has made it clear in another place, as was made clear in this House, that the proper resources would be made available to the Chief Constable to ensure that he could properly police the Province. How much they were was a matter of discussion between the Northern Ireland Office and the Chief Constable in the normal way.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred primarily to the point about concessions. I think that I have dealt with those points adequately.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he neglected to answer my question. My question was: is it no longer the policy of his party and his government to work for the union of Ireland by consent?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it has always been the position of the Government that the principle of consent applies. It is a matter for the Northern Irish people to decide. I have answered the noble Lord's question.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, with respect, the Minister has not answered the question. The question is whether it is the policy of the Government that Ireland should be united by the consent of the people of Northern Ireland or whether it is not their policy. If he would just give me an answer yes or no, it would save him prevaricating.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, before the Minister finishes, the noble and learned Lord rather dismissed a great deal of what we said about Northern Ireland because he said, "The Chief Constable says 'this' or "that". I should like to hear him say that he really takes note of what we say and that he believes that what we are saying is not meant to injure him or the Government, but is meant to sustain the police force in Northern Ireland. I should like to hear him say that he believes that what we have said—from my point of view about the increase in armed robberies—are facts, and that he will report back the fact that in this House that is a genuine concern.

There is another point about firearms licences for recruits which did not come out there but might in the reading of it. That is that recruits can get weapons without having firearms certificates. That applies only to police weapons for training and not to sporting or any other weapons. They are under exactly the same jurisdiction as anybody else for any weapon other than that which is withdrawn from an arrnoury for a purpose. I mention that so that people do not say that police recruits in Northern Ireland do not need firearms certificates; they do, for everything other than service weapons.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I accept what the noble Viscount has said. That is obviously right.

Perhaps I may deal with the first point put to me. I hope that noble Lords will not think that I was being dismissive in any way about the comments made in the course of our debate; I was not. I have sought simply to put them into the context of what the Chief Constable has said, which is an important source of information. Of course I shall report back what has been said during the course of our debate and I am sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place will read the account.

On Question, Motion agreed to.