Order for consideration, as amended, read.
To be considered on Thursday 8 December .
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram): None. This is an initiative of the Irish Government, within their own jurisdiction, to enable democratic parties to consult and share in dialogue together.
Mrs. Jackson: Is it not time that the Government built on the real hopes of all the communities in Northern Ireland, which have been increased by the cessation of violence in the past three months? Should not the British Government now agree to send a representative to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which has been established by the Irish Government, especially as they have been invited to do so?
Mr. Ancram: If I may, I should, first, correct the hon. Lady on a misapprehension. The British ambassador was invited to the opening session of the forum. That is the only invitation that the British Government have received. As for talking to parties, as the hon. Lady is aware, we have been holding bilateral discussions with the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland for a considerable time. It has been announced today that a proposal has been made to hold an open meeting for exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein on Wednesday 7 December in Belfast.
Rev. Ian Paisley: As the Government have announced today that they will talk with the men of blood next week, and as that is highly resented by a vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, will the Minister tell us whether he rules out full-blown talks with the IRA so long as it keeps its killing machine intact and holds on to its guns and explosives?
Mr. Ancram: We have made it clear over a long period that the exploratory dialogue would have three purposes: first, to explore the basis on which Sinn Fein would come to be admitted to an inclusive political talks process,
Column 1316secondly, to exchange views on how Sinn Fein would be able, over a period of time, to play the same part as current constitutional parties in the public life of Northern Ireland and, thirdly, to examine the practical consequences of the ending of violence. Only after those exploratory talks are completed will the issue that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned arise. He might like to note that the last of the elements of exploratory dialogue would cover the decommissioning of arms.
Mr. John D. Taylor: As the southern Irish Forum for Peace and Reconciliation has not been particularly successful in resolving disputes between the Dublin political parties, does the Minister agree that much greater importance should be given to the two forums that the Minister has announced in his own jurisdiction?
Dr. Spink: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although forums are important, the only real way to peace and reconciliation will be through the paramilitaries on both sides handing in their arms so that those guns and explosives can be taken off the streets and decommissioned?
Mr. Ancram: I hope that it is clear to my hon. Friend, who asks an important question, that, if we are to get around the table to discuss the future governance of Northern Ireland and the relationships between the north and the south and, indeed, between the two Governments, then around that table can be only parties that are there on an equivalent basis. Obviously, in that regard, the decommissioning of arms is an important element.
Mr. Winnick: Whatever may be the political position in the Republic of Ireland, it is a democracy and it will settle its differences in the normal way. Does the Minister agree that its outgoing Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, played a particularly important role in the peace process and that tribute should be paid to him for the contribution that he undoubtedly made in seeking to end the violence in the island of Ireland?
Are not the Government doing precisely what they promised to do when they said that if violence ended there would be talks? As long as that continues to be the position and the Provisional IRA makes it clear that terrorism will not start again, there is every justification for doing precisely what the Government have said. They have the almost entire support of the House for saying that talks with Sinn Fein should begin.
On the hon. Gentleman's first question, I pay tribute to the acting Taoiseach--as he now is--for the role that he has played to bring about the present cessation of violence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that a similar tribute must be paid to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his role in that regard.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew): We wish to see a much greater degree of democratic accountability restored in Northern Ireland. We hope shortly to publish our own understanding of how that might fairly and workably be achieved, in the context of a wider settlement addressing all the relevant relationships.
Mr. Molyneaux: Does the Secretary of State agree that the two economic forums--the one to be held in December in Belfast and the other in mid-January, at which local government representatives will meet the Prime Minister--will have the desirable effect of bringing together the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives so that they may work together in peace, which will in turn lead to the equally desirable objective of enabling them to design between themselves a practical and workable system for the governance of Northern Ireland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: Everything that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned can only be beneficial in its effect. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is very anxious that there should be as wide an opportunity as possible for elected representatives covering the whole spectrum of parties and of Northern Ireland to express their views, deriving from their local and elected responsibilities, on how the economy of Northern Ireland can best be progressed.
Mr. Hunter: With regard to the restoration of democratic accountability, although I warmly welcome this morning's announcement, I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that many people are concerned. Will he take this opportunity to reassure them that this Government will not barter with the IRA, that there will be no surrender of principle and no appeasement and that this Government will not fete or flatter Mr. McGuinness, Mr. Adams and their henchmen because we cannot forget the evil that the IRA has done, and nor should we do so?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of his personal support and for giving me the opportunity to acknowledge that suspicions of the sort he characterised remain. I have dealt with them before, but it is necessary to continue to state that the Government recognise that there are suspicions--on the one side of some clandestine deal and, on the other, that there is an intention to restore an unreformed Stormont Administration. Neither is true and neither is capable of being true, but it is very important that I continue to say so. The Downing street declaration, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister signed nearly a year ago with Mr. Reynolds, is informing and shaping the future of Northern Ireland, and will continue to do so.
Mr. McGrady: In his response to the original question, the Secretary of State did not refer in any way to the diminution of democratic responsibility in Northern Ireland in the past couple of years, whereby
Column 1318local representatives have been taken off health and social services boards and are being threatened with removal from education boards. A plethora of quangos have been appointed, as well as nine next steps agencies, and accountability in Northern Ireland, such as it is, has been diminished under this Administration. Are we to wait years before the people of Northern Ireland can get answers to the questions, which they need answers to, about local administrations?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I very much hope that, implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question, is support for the restoration of local democratic accountability in Northern Ireland. I believe that everyone who is concerned about the good governance of Northern Ireland very much believes that that restoration is sorely needed, but it must take place in a way that takes account of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, and as part of an overall settlement. It is rather unjust, and uncharacteristically harsh of the hon. Gentleman, to say that democratic accountability has diminished under the present Administration. I do not think that that has been so at all.
Mr. Bill Walker: My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the long historic connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is he aware that many Scots are watching with concern the movement towards democratic accountability--of which they approve--as action may be taken that will have a damaging ripple effect on Scotland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am aware of the anxieties to which my hon. Friend refers, but everybody in Scotland has grounds for being extremely thankful that their society and community is not divided in the way that Northern Ireland's is, and that neither are there antagonisms deriving from a history that is special to Northern Ireland.
Ms Mowlam: I acknowledge that the Secretary of State has had a rather difficult time recently with not only the uncertainty in Dublin but minority government at home and, in the past 24 hours, a fair bit of external pressure. We should like to welcome the beginning of exploratory talks with Sinn Fein next Wednesday. Given the importance of economic changes to the future stability of Northern Ireland, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make clear what the status of Sinn Fein and the former loyalist paramilitaries will be at the Government's economic conference in 12 days?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: On the hon. Lady's original remarks, I must say that I have come to believe that Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland are born with difficulties as the sparks fly upwards. None the less, it remains an excellent job to have. We have made considerable progress with the investment forum, and acceptances are coming in at a satisfactory rate. We have today decided to write to individual elected members of the two committees concerned with economic development on each of the main city councils, Belfast city council and Derry city council, so that those people --by right of their elected responsibility for the matter in their localities--will have an opportunity to come to the investment
Column 1319conference. The parties involved will, of course, include Sinn Fein if it chooses to come. I believe that that is a proper step to have taken.
Mr. Fabricant: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the steps now being taken, including the announcement made today, on the road to a lasting and permanent settlement are a vindication of the Prime Minister's role and that of the acting Taoiseach in making their historic declaration more than a year ago? Is not the joint declaration still a road to peace that the new Taoiseach should take?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who is of course absolutely right. The Downing street declaration was a very simple declaration of fundamental principles. It declared that democracy, and the wishes of most of the people in Northern Ireland, would decide its future. Both Governments are shoulder to shoulder in support of that principle. Parallel with that is the belief that there is no place for violence, and what has happened since the declaration was inevitable.
Those who were previously using violence to further their political ambitions had to recognise that they must stop, unless they were to declare for all the world to hear that they had realised that they could not get their way by democratic means and that they would go on using the bomb and the bullet. That would have been unacceptable, and recognition of that led directly to what has followed.
Mr. Canavan: In view of the concern that was expressed before the resignation of Mr. Reynolds that the British Government seemed to be moving at a much slower pace than the Irish Government in furthering the peace process, will the Secretary of State stop dragging his feet and arrange talks as soon as possible with the new Taoiseach, with a view to speeding up the peace process?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: It is an uncomfortable thing to drag one's feet. I am not in the practice of doing so and I have never done so since I took on my responsibilities for Northern Ireland. A lot of criticism was levelled at the British Government initially, when, after the announcement on 31 August, we did not say that it was marvellous and that we would enter into exploratory discussions straight away. That criticism of our caution has died away and I do not hear it now. On the contrary, I hear widespread recognition of the fact that we were wise to be cautious. Widespread recognition has equally been made of the fact that the Prime Minister was right to say in Belfast at the end of October that we were now making a working assumption, which has led us now to make the decision to enter into discussions on 7 December.
Column 1320position of the IRA, or of those who claim to speak on behalf of the loyalist paramilitaries, but the joint action taken by two sovereign Governments, working together to an agreed programme? Nothing should be allowed to interfere with that. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman also agree that the core of that agreement is those Governments' joint commitment in the joint declaration of 15 December to remove the cause of conflict, to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions that have resulted?
Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what action his Government have taken to date to achieve those objectives, or are both Governments planning to allow the principles of the joint declaration to remain on the piece of paper and gather dust as nothing more than principles?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's statement, but, as to the second part of it, the underpinning of confidence in Northern Ireland is of critical importance by reason of the suspicions to which I have already referred in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter). It has been of critical importance to furthering the objectives to which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) referred that the Government have time and time again repeated that it is acceptance and agreement by most of the people living in Northern Ireland that will determine the future of Northern Ireland, that nothing will be sought to be imposed upon them and that the two Governments mean what they say in the Downing street declaration that democracy will decide the day. That is the most important thing that we could have done, and we have done it well and truly.
Mr. Beggs: When the Secretary of State meets the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, will he inform him that, in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, there is widespread distrust and suspicion of corruption arising from the failure of the former Prime Minister of the Republic to appoint a High Court inspector to look into the scandalous International Investment fraud, which was operated from Dublin? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman urge the new Prime Minister to appoint such a High Court inspector as a means of building a little confidence on the way towards peace in Northern Ireland? Can he assure the House that the Northern Ireland Office was guilty of no collusion in assisting the authorities in the Irish Republic to cover up that scandal?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am quite sure that I can offer the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he has requested. I do not think that it is helpful for me to intervene in matters within the jurisdiction of another sovereign state, although they are of undoubted great importance and gravity, and I do not propose to do so.
Column 1321reasons for and the correctness of his cautious approach to the peace process are widely applauded by the people of Britain?
May I just say, Madam Speaker, slightly bending the rules, that, if I failed to appreciate the significance of what the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) said, I shall look into it? I may have done so.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): We have always made it clear that, when terrorism is seen to have ended permanently, but not before, it will be possible to remove the preventive measures that have had to be put in place to protect the community.
Various adjustments, based on security advice, have already been made, including the lifting of border road closures: the need for other measures is kept under review.
Mr. Austin Mitchell: As it appears that the Government have been pushed by the Americans into advancing those talks, and as this minority Government now depend for their continued existence on the support of the Ulster Unionists, and will therefore find it difficult to treat them impartially in any talks, would it not be sensible to make the one gesture that the Secretary of State can make--withdraw the troops from the streets? A return to normality is the best way of underpinning confidence.
As for the issue of withdrawing troops from the streets, it is for the Chief Constable to decide the level of security arrangements as operational necessity dictates, and local commanders will decide how much support they require from the armed forces in their areas.
Rev. William McCrea: In view of the stupid question from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who knows little about what is happening in the Province, and in view of the visits by members of the security forces to members of my constituency to tell them that they are being actively targeted by the IRA, how can the Prime Minister and Secretary of State agree to the removal of border road closure orders, particularly as many of the people who are under threat live along the border?
Sir John Wheeler: The hon. Gentleman is no stranger to the evil of terrorism, so I fully understand and sympathise with the anxiety that he expresses on behalf of his constituents. However, in removing border road closure orders, the Chief Constable, supported by the Army, takes into account the need to maintain security and to protect people living in border areas.
Column 1322There is no suggestion of reducing the support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary for the protection of those communities, especially in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Sir John Wheeler: I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman obtains his information, but yesterday I spoke to a divisional chief superintendent, who assured me that ordinary crime had not increased, but that there had been a welcome increase in support for and contact with the police.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the RUC's resources will remain strong and adequate to deal with the ordinary crime problem and the potential threat of any resumption of terrorism from any quarter.
Mr. Quentin Davies: Will my right hon. Friend give a clear assurance that the Government will not negotiate with a criminal organisation such as the IRA, or with those who support them, such as Sinn Fein, or drop any hints or give any assurances about the gaol terms to be served by convicts who have been convicted of serious criminal offences, or offer any amnesties to people who have yet to be convicted of serious criminal offences or agree to differential policing arrangements in the Province? Will he assure the House that, whatever happens, we will never allow justice in this country to be politicised?
Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I can give him the assurances that he seeks. There is no question of negotiation on the length of prison sentences. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, there will be no amnesty for those who have been properly convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by the impartial courts in Northern Ireland; nor is there to be any change in the criminal justice system or the effectiveness of the police service.
Mr. Murphy: Does the Minister agree that whatever security changes occur in Northern Ireland--and we hope that reductions will be made in security arrangements--the Government must do all in their power to provide jobs and training for those people working in security who will inevitably be made redundant? Will he assure the House that security changes will not mean an easier time in Northern Ireland for the burglar, the so-called joy rider or the drug trafficker?
Sir John Wheeler: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new duties at the Dispatch Box. I assure him that the Royal Ulster Constabulary is developing a series of programmes to deal with the threat of ordinary crime of the kind that he describes. There will no diminution in the resources available to the police service in Northern Ireland or any change in the criminal justice system that would enable ordinary crime to go undetected or unpunished.
Mr. Robathan: I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about greater contact between the public and the police. He will know that, notwithstanding the ceasefire, the campaign of intimidation against people
Column 1323in both communities, which involves punishment beatings and expulsions from communities, is continuing and is carried on by both IRA and loyalist groups. As the security forces are now able to go about their business without direct threat to themselves, is my right hon. Friend able to comment on the progress being made by the Royal Ulster Constabulary to put criminal thugs who are intimidating communities where they belong?
Sir John Wheeler: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no excuse at all for those who seek to usurp the law through any pretended duties of policing on the streets of Northern Ireland. The policing of Northern Ireland is a matter for the police service and for no one else. The RUC will vigorously investigate any allegations of the kind to which my hon. Friend refers with a view to making arrests and placing people before the courts.
Sir Patrick Mayhew: Useful progress has been made, but there are still substantial questions on which more work is required. We hope to give priority to these in our relations with the new Government in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr. McAvoy: Will the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition support the strategy of the peace process deployed so far of locking the paramilitaries on both sides into the process and making it impossible for them to go back to their campaign of violence? Does he accept the need to develop a peace process that encompasses the whole spectrum of opinion in Northern Ireland?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. When he next goes to Northern Ireland he will be impressed by the quite new sensation of hope that seems to be apparent throughout the community, and the belief that it is unthinkable that violence should return. Those who may be minded to return to violence for political purposes will have to take heed of that. It is necessary that what is called the peace process should continue to retain the confidence of all sections of the community. Therefore, it has to be balanced.
Mr. Trimble: The Secretary of State referred to continuing difficulties with the Irish Government in these discussions. Have the Irish indicated that they will accept their international obligations by dropping the territorial claim in article 2 of their constitution, or are they continuing their blackmailing demand that the unacceptable price for that is some form of tampering with the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and thus the Act of Union?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I do not recall referring to continuing difficulties with the Irish Government. I said that much more work needed to be done on a number of topics. Obviously, as everybody knows, the question
Column 1324of a territorial claim embodied in the Irish constitution is a matter of great importance in this process. I will not break the confidentiality of the discussions that are going on, but the hon. Gentleman and others will wish to know that the importance of that topic is well understood by this Government and by the Irish Government.
Mr. Jim Marshall: Has the Secretary of State given any further consideration to publishing the minutes of the three-strand talks so that the House would be in a better position to determine how the framework document might throw light on the way in which it can overcome the difficulties that the minutes may highlight?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: Quite an important part of the three-strand discussions in 1992 was the fact that they should be in confidence. That was more or less observed at the time. I do not want to go beyond that and publish accounts of what happened two years ago as I do not think that it would be helpful at this juncture.
Mr. Spellar: While developments are taking place, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman put on hold other measures that are opposed by the great majority of people across Northern Ireland--for example, the privatisation of the water industry?
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I have already made it clear that I do not anticipate introducing proposals in that regard during this Parliament. One matter that will have to be taken account of, at any time, is the very great anomalies in the charging system for water services in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Llwyd: I am sure that the Minister is aware that the House unreservedly welcomes the peace process, which brings with it the likely end of direct rule in the north of Ireland. Earlier, he said that he would favour a democratically elected assembly or forum for the north of Ireland. If that is so right--and it is--for the north of Ireland, why is it so wrong for Wales and for Scotland?
Special factors apply to the community in Northern Ireland that make its governance almost unique. It is difficult to see a reliable read across.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss): Health and social services trusts, including those providing community care services, are subject to Government policy on market testing as set out in the White Paper "Competing for Quality". In addition, they have been provided with guidance on the conduct of market testing in the form of a compendium of good practice.
Ms Squire: Does the Minister agree that Government guidelines on the market testing of NHS community care trusts in Northern Ireland are implemented more forcefully there than they are in the remainder of the United Kingdom? Does he further agree that there has been unwarranted Government interference in the operation of trusts, which has led to a deterioration in quality and in standards of patient care? Does he admit that the Government have been two-faced in their policy on health and social services and have acted against the general interests of the public?
Mr. Moss: The Government's definition of, and policy on, market testing in health and personal social services for Northern Ireland is the same as that applied to all other parts of the health service in the United Kingdom. I remind the hon. Lady that the purpose of market testing is to ensure that the resources available are used as effectively as possible for the benefit of patients.
The results for Northern Ireland show that market testing in health and personal social services has been a great success. For example, up to March 1993, more than £60 million of support services had been market- tested, with identified savings of £11 million per annum.
Mr. John Marshall: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion. Does he agree that, wherever market testing has been undertaken, it has produced savings and value for money for the taxpayer? Its opponents are more interested in jobs for the boys than in quality of service to the customer or value for money for the taxpayer.
Mr. Moss: I am most grateful for my hon. Friend's warm welcome. The savings from market testing are used in the HPSS for the benefit of patients and clients. They are pooled with funds from other cost improvement programmes and the growth moneys provided by Government to fund service developments and meet new pressures.
The Minister will recognise that in market testing and contracts it is not always wise to choose the lowest bidder because it usually turns out to be at the highest cost. Is the Minister satisfied that those in community trusts with the responsibility for the most vulnerable in our society at a time of child abuse scandals in the Province are receiving the necessary back-up and the financial support to do the job?
Mr. Moss: I agree partially with the hon. Gentleman that implementing in-house service level agreements without competition may improve efficiency and effectiveness, but they do not prove that the optimum
Column 1326levels have been achieved, nor do they satisfy market testing criteria. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I take on board the current difficulties in the Province, but I am assured that there is no lack of funds in the social services to meet the needs of the population.
Ms Mowlam: One important aspect of being cared for in the community is the ability of elderly people to be able to afford to heat their homes. Do the Minister and his colleagues realise that they ignore at their peril the opposition that exists among the people of Northern Ireland and the representatives of all their parties to the imposition of 17.5 per cent. VAT on domestic fuel?
Mr. Moss: I recognise the opposition from Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, but I refer the House to the comments in the Budget speech only this week that proper compensation is to be paid to pensioners to compensate for VAT at 17.5 per cent.