§ Marjorie Mowlam
The 1997 Annual Report of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints is being laid before Parliament today. The report, which follows the format of previous years, comments on the work of the Commission in 1997, and looks forward to the establishment of the Office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I am pleased to see the welcome from the Commission for the establishment of the Police Ombudsman through the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill. The Commission contributed to Dr. Maurice Hayes' review of the police complaints system, and Dr. Hayes acknowledged in his report the assistance he had received from the Commission.
The Government are committed to see the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill's passage through Parliament completed, to enable the new Office to be established by March 1999. There is a good deal of work still to be done 76W at a practical level to implement the Bill; and I am grateful to the Commission for their willing and constructive involvement in this important task.
The Government have no doubt that the proposals made by Dr. Hayes, which received such widespread support, and which we believe are fully reflected in the Bill, will command public and police confidence. These, like the rest of the changes in the Bill, represent the Government's determination to secure genuine improvements to policing, and to increase further public confidence in and active support for the police service.
The report notes that 1997 was marked by an increase in complaints made against the police, to the highest level ever recorded by the Commission. The number of complaints rose from 2,545 in 1996 to a total of 3,111 in 1997, which constituted a rise of 22 per cent. compared to a rise of 9 per cent in 1996. The increase can be explained, to some extent at least, by the large numbers of complaints arising from Drumcree, the Derryhirk Inn incident and the events in the Lower Ormeau Road in July 1996, for which complaints were not lodged until 1997.
I should like to record the Government's thanks to the Chairman and Members of the Commission, particularly after such a busy year, for their excellent work. I would also like to thank the staff of the Commissions, who will form the core of the staff of the Police Ombudsman's office, and are already preparing for their new task. I am sure they will provide an excellent service to the Ombudsman.
Government policies on policing in Northern Ireland whether about police complaints and changes to policing structures in the Police Bill, or the remit given to the Commission on Policing by the Agreement, are designed to improve the police service. We want to make it even more professional, effective, efficient, fair, impartial and acceptable; to ensure it is properly accountable for its work; and that it can command widespread community support, as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Authority, and the ICPC have themselves striven, in very difficult circumstances, to achieve. Many important changes are dependent on the development of a genuinely peaceful environment. But the history of the last 30 years shows that even while terrorist threats from disaffected elements continue, worthwhile changes can be made.
We now have the opportunity for a new beginning. I believe that the RUC, the ICPC and the Police Authority, who have worked to bring this opportunity about, are eager to make the best use of it; the ICPC Report illustrates this, looking forward to a changed future, with the creation of the Police Ombudsman.