(By Order) Read a Second time and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.
(No. 4) Bill-- (By Order)
[Lords] (By Order)
(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order)
(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 4 June.
1. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to respond to the letter of 6 May of the hon. Member for Linlithgow about his proposals for resolving the constitutional dilemma of Northern Irish representation at Westminster, in consequence of the restoration of devolved powers to Stormont.
Sir Patrick Mayhew : The so-called West Lothian debate will engage us in our consideration of the matters that are being dealt with under strand 1 of the political talks. No doubt the question will be no more straightforward in 1992 than it has been in the past.
Mr. Canavan : Would not it be a deplorable double standard, even by this Government's low standards, if they were to agree to resurrect the Stormont Parliament while refusing to set up a Scottish Parliament? How can an entire nation be deprived of a democratic right that is given to a mere six counties of another nation?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : For the moment I shall do my best to look after the affairs of Northern Ireland. I understand what lies behind the hon. Gentleman's question, but it must be remembered that Scotland already has a far greater degree of devolved government than Northern Ireland currently enjoys. Also, experience suggests that it is usually unwise to draw general conclusions from the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Robert Atkins) : This is a matter for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, but I have been advised by the chief executive that metal-framed windows are replaced when they can no longer be serviced or when they reach the end of their useful economic life. The executive expects that all remaining metal windows will be replaced over the next 15 years.
Mr. Walker : I thank the Minister for that informative answer. Is he aware of the great problems that the windows are causing for tenants, particularly in terms of maintenance and heat loss? Will he now grasp the nettle and order their replacement as a matter of the utmost urgency?
Column 481Mr. Atkins : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will know better than I, at least at this early stage in my tenure of office, that this is a substantial programme which will take time to resolve and will cost a great deal of money. As I understand it, the Housing Executive has decided that, over a period of time and as and when there is refurbishment or renovation to be done, the windows will be replaced. I am mindful of what the hon. Gentleman said about the concerns being expressed throughout parts of Northern Ireland about the quality of metal-framed windows and the Housing Executive will act upon it as soon as it can.
Rev. Ian Paisley : Does the Minister realise that it is unfair for all the metal windows to be replaced on one housing estate and for the equally rubbishy windows on another estate not to be touched at all? Will he inquire as to when a metal window ceases to be weatherproof and will he inspect the windows that are causing the controversy now and reach his own conclusion, irrespective of the Housing Executive?
Mr. Atkins : The hon. Gentleman has raised an entirely fair point. I have not yet been able to see all the windows in all the estates, but it is merely a matter of time before I do so. Clearly, the chairman of the Housing Executive is as concerned as the hon. Gentleman that this programme should be implemented as soon as possible. Clearly, we cannot do it all at once, but we will try.
Mr. McGrady : Does the Minister agree that this problem is a minor but important symptom of the Housing Executive's budget shortfall, which will be £14.1 million, £14.5 million next year and £12 million the following year? It is unable to fulfil the new-build programme, let alone tackle the unfitness problem in rural parts of Northern Ireland. My rural constituents' houses suffer from the highest levels of unfitness. Is that not symptomatic of the Government's not giving sufficient funding to enable the Housing Executive to carry out the job that it was given by the Government?
Mr. Atkins : The one thing that I have learned since I have been in Northern Ireland is how highly regarded the Housing Executive is throughout the Province. I know that the hon. Gentleman will share that support with me. Certain deficiencies need to be remedied, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for finance will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about funds for the Housing Executive. However, it has done pretty well so far, and it is my intention that it should continue to do well.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Mates) : The two Governments announced at the last meeting of the intergovernmental conference on 27 April that, in order to allow further opportunity for political talks to take place, there would be no further meeting of the conference before the week beginning 27 July 1992.
Mr. Bellingham : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment, which was extremely good news. I can think of no one better qualified. Will he confirm that, despite the representations from the Irish Government, there are no plans to withdraw the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment?
Mr. Mates : Yes, I can confirm that. The deployment of Army units in support of the RUC in Northern Ireland is a matter for the General Officer Commanding, but we shall seek to provide the maximum support with regiments of the British Army, which are provided by the Ministry of Defence to the GOC in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Maginnis : Is not the Minister frustrated and angered by the intergovernmental council and seven years of the Anglo-Irish Conference, which, we were told, would end frustration and create consensus? David Andrews, the Irish Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs, continues to indulge in megaphone diplomacy to the extent that he exacerbates problems. We know that we have difficulties, but he pours oil on the fire and embarrasses everyone who is working to bring a degree of nomality to the streets of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Mates : I am certainly not frustrated by the process of the intergovernmental talks, but I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we set up the mechanism so that these difficulties could be examined and representations made in private. I further agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in these circumstances, megaphone diplomacy seldom helps.
Mr. Budgen : Would not constitutional progress in Northern Ireland be better advanced by setting up a proper system of local government so that issues such as metal windows could be decided by the people of Northern Ireland, rather than having grandiose schemes that pander to the impertinent interference of the Americans and of the citizens of the Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland?
Mr. Mates : All these matters, and others, are being discussed in the talks that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is holding with the political parties in Northern Ireland, and they can all be resolved if those talks are successful.
Mr. Mallon : Will the Minister of State confirm that recent events in Coalisland have been matters for discussion within the secretariat of the Anglo-Irish Conference? Will he assure the House that at the next meeting serious consideration will be given to those incidents--which include one soldier in the area losing both legs--and to the brutality and offensive behaviour of the Parachute Regiment towards members of the public? In the meantime, will he take steps to ensure that the Parachute Regiment is not allowed to act as a recruiting officer for the IRA in Coalisland or anywhere else in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Mates : It is important to remember that there have been two separate incidents in Coalisland over the past 10 days. The first, which involved a bar, is now being investigated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the normal, proper way. Meanwhile, the commanding officer of the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment has suspended one of his officers from duty. It is unusual for such a matter to be made public, and the fact that that happened is a measure of how seriously my right hon. and
Column 483learned Friend the Secretary of State and I regard such matters. We are determined that the Army, acting in support of the RUC, will always keep within the law. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not wish to go further into the matter, because inquiries are proceeding.
In the second incident a group of soldiers from another regiment were set upon by a gang of thugs motivated by the IRA. Those are not my words but those of Father Dennis Faul, who condemned the attack. During the attack weapons were taken from the soldiers--one weapon is still missing--and it was in response to that incident that troops were deployed to restore the situation. I am as determined as the hon. Gentleman to keep all operations of the security forces within the law, but if the IRA stopped the terrorist attacks, there would be no need for our troops to be on the streets of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Wilkinson : I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend on his first day at the Dispatch Box. Will he make it clear to the Government of the Irish Republic that it is wholly unhelpful for their Foreign Minister to suggest which British regiments should be on the streets of Northern Ireland, and wholly offensive for the same Minister openly to criticise the Parachute Regiment? Will he make it clear to the Government of the Republic that the sooner they clear the IRA out of the South, the sooner British troops will be able to be withdrawn from the North.
Mr. Mates : I understand what my hon. Friend says about what was said in Dublin, but as I have said, it is best if such matters are kept for private discussion, and we have a mechanism for allowing that. It is not helpful to make such discussions public. My hon. Friend spoke about the Parachute Regiment. It is important to make it clear that although the incident last week in Coalisland involved the 3rd battalion of the Parachute Regiment, members of another battalion of the same regiment and their families have been living in Northern Ireland on a long tour for the past year and doing their job properly. It is certainly not for any foreign Government to dictate where and how troops should be deployed in Northern Ireland, but it is not a job for the Northern Ireland Office either ; it is a job for the Ministry of Defence.
Mr. McNamara : I welcome the Minister of State to his new post as chief of staff to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as opposed to his previous position as chief of staff for the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)--now the President of the Board of Trade. Can he assure the House that the Government are still committed to the principle of police primacy, and can he say what steps are being taken to ensure that the RUC retains effective control of security force operations--and especially that the deployment of troops should be under the overall control of the RUC? What steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of incidents such as those that occurred recently in Coalisland?
Is the Minister aware that while, very properly, there can be no part of Northern Ireland where the rule of law does not run, nevertheless the Government, and especially the GOC, should pay attention to the sensitivities of local politicians, especially when they have advance warning from a person so distinguished in that regard as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr.
Column 484Maginnis). They should pay a bit more attention to such matters. If they did there would be fewer opportunities for such incidents.
Mr. Mates : Yes, I can confirm the primacy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is well established and we will do nothing other than reinforce that policy. The GOC acts in support of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and all the Army commanders down the line act in support of the respective police commanders. I should add that a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was present with the patrol during the first incident at Coalisland. Difficulties do arise, but he was there.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : The figure for 1978-79 was 16,864. In the 1990-91 academic year, the number of students undertaking higher education in Northern Ireland was 30,293. That is an 80 per cent. increase. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of participation in higher education in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Marshall : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his reappointment to the Northern Ireland Office. Does he agree that the dramatic increase of 80 per cent. underlines the Government's commitment to further and higher education? May we have an assurance that quality will not be sacrificed in the continued expansion of higher education?
Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words. The higher education participation rate in Northern Ireland of 27 per cent. compares with 19 per cent. in Great Britain. It is forecast to increase still further to 35 per cent. in 1995-96. That shows the Government's success in meeting the high demand. It is right that quality assurance and quality assessment measures must match the demand for higher education. That is why legislation to match the requirement for quality which is already here in Great Britain will be introduced in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Beggs : To what extent is the increased enrolment due to the steady growth in numbers of students from the Irish Republic? What is the cost to British taxpayers of paying tuition fees for that group? To what extent, if any, is the British taxpayer reimbursed from Europe? Can the Minister give us an assurance that Northern Ireland students are not losing places as standards for entry are increased as a means of selecting students for places in higher education in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hanley : I assure the hon. Gentleman that students from Northern Ireland are not losing places for the reason that he gave. There is competition, but the increase that I described shows that the demand is being matched by places.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, this year approximately 1,900 students from the Republic of Ireland are studying in Northern Ireland, as opposed to 1,800 students last year. Under European Community
Column 485rules, the statutory grants are met by the taxpayers of the country in which the education takes place. I stress that it is statutory grants which are paid. Statutory grants do not exist in the Republic of Ireland ; all grants are discretionary, so there is a disparity between the way in which grants are paid in the two countries. I am currently examining that matter.
Mr. Stott : The Minister may well be right when he says that the number of students in Northern Ireland has increased. I should be surprised if that were not the case. A combination of Government policies means that students in Northern Ireland face severe financial hardship. Is the Minister aware that the citizens advice bureau in Belfast published a report last year which highlighted the real difficulties facing students in Northern Ireland? The report shows that the withdrawal of benefits and the falling real value of student grants have combined with a shortage of summer jobs and high levels of unemployment to make students face severe financial difficulties. If the Minister has not read the report, will he please do so? Will he act on its recommendations, because there is a serious problem in student finance in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hanley : I have indeed read the report and I am considering what it says. There is no evidence at the moment to suggest that the new system of support has had a detrimental effect on participation rates or increased withdrawals from courses. On the contrary, applications and new admissions in Northern Ireland have reached record levels in the current academic year. I admit, however, that we must look at the whole system of student support in the light of conditions in Northern Ireland ; but I am satisfied that no student is suffering from having to withdraw from a course except in very exceptional circumstances.
Sir Patrick Mayhew : The Government's position on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is unequivocally clear. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people who live there.
Mr. Nicholls : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he report to the House on the progress of the talks taking place at Stormont between the constitutional parties ; and can he assess the prospects of those talks being brought to a successful conclusion?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I can report to the House that the talks which began in March of this year were resumed on 29 April, and that they continue. That that is so owes a great deal to the preparatory work initiated by my right
Column 486hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), whose work is greatly respected in Northern Ireland and more widely.
I should like to express my gratitude to all who have taken part in the talks so far. There has been great value in the confidentiality that has been agreed upon, and I hope that the House will understand if I do not depart from that principle, because I believe that by maintaining it we have the best prospect of bringing the talks to a successful conclusion.
Mr. Paice : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the talks would be greatly assisted if the Irish Government took steps to amend their constitution to remove all those aspects in it that lay claim to Northern Ireland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : The Government have welcomed the assurance of the Taoiseach that the question of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution will be on the table at the appropriate stage of the political talks. They certainly have a deep significance.
Mr. John D. Taylor : The constitution of Northern Ireland covers not only its place in the United Kingdom but the means by which it is governed. Why does the Secretary of State continue to deny to the people of Northern Ireland the same rights in this Parliament that are extended to the people of England, Scotland and Wales? Why does he give to a foreign Government a greater role in the government of Northern Ireland than is given to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : That agreement gives the Government of the Republic of Ireland a consultative role which will be diminished with the advent of devolved government in Northern Ireland, to the extent that that devolved government has jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. It is the purpose of the Government--I think, with the approval of the House--to harness the abundance of political talent that undoubtedly exists in Northern Ireland to the business of governing it. That is the policy of the British Government, and it is to secure it that the talks are taking place.
Mr. Hume : Does the Secretary of State agree that people who consistently require reassurance about their constitutional status but never accept such reassurance and keep on requiring more of it will never be reassured?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : That is perfectly legitimate question to ask the Secretary of State, but I have no hesitation in repeating the constitutional guarantee that has been on the statute book since 1973. There is no question of its being changed so long as it has the support of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Kilfedder : I commend the Secretary of State on the firm and unequivocal words that he used in answer to the original question. His remarks echo the firm words of the Prime Minister, who believes passionately in the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Column 487Ireland and whose stance rebuffs those who believe that they can kill and mutilate and thereby weaken the resolve of Her Majesty's Government.
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his question. It is compatible with a reassertion of the constitutional guarantee to agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) said about the absurdity of Westminster Ministers answering questions about such relatively minor matters as potholes and, dare I say it, metal window frames on housing estates. It is to overcome that, and to restore to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland a jurisdiction over matters that pertain to Northern Ireland, that we are striving in our constitutional talks.
Mr. Burns : That news will be warmly welcomed by both passengers and freight users in Ireland, and the development is to be encouraged for the help that it will give to greater economic development between the north and the south. How many trains a day will there be, and how long will the journey take?
Mr. Atkins : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The essence of an improvement is that the trains should run faster that the journey time should be cut by 15 to 20 minutes and that there should be more trains running so as to provide a better service between the two parts of Ireland. In those circumstances, the sooner this happens, the better.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe : What progress has been made in developing a new central rail terminal in Belfast? Will it be developed in conjunction with the rail line between Belfast and Dublin, bearing in mind the fact that a rail terminal is essential for the transport infrastructure of Northern Ireland?
Mr. Atkins : The consultants who looked at this did not suggest that there was any need for enhancement either in Belfast or in Dublin, but I know that this matter has raised its head, and the consultants will be looking at it when they meet in about a week's time. As the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I will have a close look at it and make sure that his concerns are studied.
Column 488ridiculous anomaly if, for the next European elections, the rest of the United Kingdom had the same voting system as Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?
Mr. Peter Bottomley : Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the last election, the existing voting system managed, out of 17 elected Members of Parliament, to produce five different political groupings, which is what the Liberal Democrats want to see throughout the country in their support for proportional representation? Would it not be better to get the mainland parties working in Northern Ireland to get elected there, so that, rather than voting for just local parties, people can vote for national parties?
Mr. Trimble : No doubt the Minister will recall the Prime Minister, not long ago, describing proportional representation as an undemocractic form of government. The Minister might like then to consider why his Government retain proportional representation in part of the United Kingdom for local assembly elections, when we have them, and for European elections. Will he inform the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that, of all forms of proportional representation, we with experience of it can assure him that the single transferable vote is the worst of the lot?
Mr. Hanley : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's question. He is living proof of the wisdom of the first-past-the-post system. I repeat what I said earlier. Northern Ireland has special circumstances, and therefore we shall deal with it specially.
8. Mr. Etherington : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further political initiative is being made within the Anglo- Irish Agreement towards a peaceable settlement of the Irish problem.
9. Mr. Adley : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further discussions he proposes to have with the Irish Government to improve the climate for progress within the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Sir Patrick Mayhew : The Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference held on 27 April agreed that, to allow a further opportunity for political talks to take place, there should be no further meeting of the conference before the week beginning 27 July. The two Governments are prepared to consider a new, more broadly based agreement or structure if such an agreement could be reached through direct discussion between all the parties concerned.
Mr. Etherington : May I first congratulate you, Madam Speaker, on your election and wish you many years of fulfilment in the Chair? I also congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. The post could be described as a bed of nails, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has my sympathy. I wish him well in his post.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that since the partition in 1921 of Northern Ireland every Government have failed to solve the problem? Does he agree with me
Column 489also that, in line with the wishes of the majority of people in the United Kingdom, the Government should now look at trying to work towards the setting up of a free and united Ireland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I am most grateful for the less controversial part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question in which he congratulated me. I do not need any sympathy for the job which I am privileged to hold at present. The future settlement of the conflicts and tensions between the two sides of the community in Northern Ireland will not be resolved by this or any other Government. They will be resolved by the people of Northern Ireland. If this Government can facilitate that process, that will bring to myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends great satisfaction. That is our determination.
Mr. Adley : In contradistinction to the situation in Scotland, is there not a clear cross-party consensus in this place between the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties among others as to how we should proceed with the Anglo-Irish Agreement--[ Hon. Members :-- "No."]--a broad consensus? That being so, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it will remain his policy that the Anglo-Irish Agreement should continue in existence? Does he agree with me that it would be helpful if all politicians in Northern Ireland, especially those who clamour most loudly about maintaining the links with the United Kingdom, were to give support for the agreement, which commands the support of the political parties here?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : It is the Government's policy to support and operate the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Equally, as I have said, the two Governments are prepared to consider a new and more broadly based agreement or structure if such an agreement could be reached through direct discussion between all the parties concerned. There are legitimate differences of opinion about the Anglo-Irish Agreement. My hon. Friend asked whether it would not be helpful if everybody agreed to support it. No doubt it would be extremely helpful if all agreed on the future for Northern Ireland, but we must deal with a rather different reality, and that is what we are approaching in the constitutional talks, which are continuing.
Rev. Martin Smyth : Will the Secretary of State confirm to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is up a siding and going nowhere? It has not led to peace, stability and reconciliation. In the light of the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it would appear that there are more Irish in Sunderland than in Northern Ireland, where the people are against the Anglo -Irish Agreement?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I think that I will leave the affairs of Sunderland to another time. The Anglo-Irish Agreement is in place and while it is it will be supported and operated by the British Government as it is by the Irish Government.
Sir Patrick Mayhew : As I said earlier, it is generally unwise to draw general conclusions from the specific and peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland. At the moment, I shall look forward, rather than back to the time some five years ago when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was debated and instituted. I think that I have said all that I can helpfully say today about the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Mr. McNamara : I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new post and join him in the tribute that he paid to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke).
There is broad consensus in the House on the future of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and on the nature of the discussions that are taking place, which may or may not change the Anglo-Irish Agreement. If the talks are not successful, the Anglo-Irish Agreement remains. The Opposition hope that the talks will be successful and we congratulate the participants on the discipline that they have shown so far. We hope also that the talks will develop into the widest range of the three strands, as originally considered. Is the Secretary of State yet in a position to say when he hopes to be able to call upon the services of Sir Ninian Stevens?
Sir Patrick Mayhew : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I agree with what he said about the future of the talks. As he will remember, last year it was agreed by all parties that the strands should be dealt with in series, and that strands 2 and 3 should be entered into within weeks of the beginning of the talks on strand 1. I cannot say more than that. The talks are progressing and I have that timetable very much in mind.
Mrs. Gorman : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Brook advisory service, a much respected body which helps women with pregnancy advice, is experiencing a great deal of difficulty and harassment in setting up in Northern Ireland? Is he further aware and concerned, as I am, that fellow citizens--women in Northern Ireland--cannot obtain the full range of pregnancy advice including termination, that is available to women here who want to regulate their families?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right to say that there is some controversy about the establishment of a Brook clinic in Northern Ireland. The decision to establish such a clinic was taken by the Eastern health and social services board. It was, therefore, regarded as being required to sustain the health of people in Belfast. It will be established and it will probably have about two sessions a week staffed by Northern Ireland resident staff.
On the other half of my hon. Friend's question, the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to Northern Ireland. It is not part of Northern Irish law and there are no plans to