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House of Commons

Thursday 19 January 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

City of Westminster Bill

[Lords] (By Order) Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 26 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

NORTHERN IRELAND

Larne-Belfast Rail Route

1. Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what consultation has taken place between the chairman of Northern Ireland Railways and the Northern Ireland Office on the reduction of customer services along the Larne-Belfast rail route.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss): None. This is an operational matter which properly falls within the remit of the Northern Ireland Railways management.

Mr. Beggs: Millions of pounds have been spent on the Belfast cross- city rail link, which has enhanced links between Larne and Belfast. Northern Ireland Railways has reduced services and abolished even request stops at Glynn and Magheramorne in my constituency. How does that contribute to the Minister's transport policy for Northern Ireland? How does Northern Ireland Railways expect to increase customer use by preventing access to the rail link? Will the Minister ask Northern Ireland Railways to review the decision?

Mr. Moss: I understand that market research undertaken by Northern Ireland Railways suggested that long-haul business could be generated by a reduction in running times through rationalisation of the intermediate stops. The hon. Gentleman referred to the cross-harbour rail link; he will be pleased to note that there has been a 10 per cent. increase in passenger journeys on the Belfast-Larne line since it was opened last November.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Does my hon. Friend accept that improvement in the economic geography of Northern Ireland, including development of its rail and other transport systems, will help to continue to reduce unemployment? Does my hon. Friend share my joy that the level of unemployment in Northern Ireland is now at its lowest for 13 years? Does he recall that the last time Northern Ireland's unemployment was at the same level as Great Britain's was in 1968, before the troubles started?

Mr. Moss: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. That is the best news that Northern Ireland has had for many years.


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Ceasefire

2. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest position on the ceasefire by paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew): Four and a half months have elapsed since the IRA's ceasefire and three since that of the Loyalists. Everyone welcomes that. We must now secure that violence in Northern Ireland is over for good, and that means that the so-called punishment beatings must stop too.

Mr. Winnick: I certainly agree with what the Secretary of State has just said. Does not the ending of a number of Army patrols in Northern Ireland demonstrate that, without terrorism, there would be no need for the Army to patrol in Northern Ireland at all? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that it is important, both for the ceasefire and in the overall national interest, that the Government do not abandon the creation of meaningful cross-border bodies? Is he also aware that there is a grave suspicion that the Government will act as they did last night, and abandon what is essential for peace in Northern Ireland and for good relations with the Republic to buy the votes of the Unionist Members of Parliament, who will then support the Government--as they did last night--so that the Government can survive in difficult circumstances?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman spoilt a good opening with a cynical conclusion. Of course he is right to say that we all look forward to the day when there is no need for the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be helped by the Army: the RUC, the Army and the people of Northern Ireland all look forward to it. But no change will be made except on the professional advice of my security advisers. That has been the case hitherto, and it will continue to be the case.

In our quest for a shared understanding between the two Governments--which we nowadays describe as a joint framework document--we are trying to find a means by which proposals can be made that will help the political parties to sit round the table together.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Does the Secretary of State concur with the view expressed by the assistant chief constable that the IRA should be kept intact? Did he tell students recently that the Sinn Fein leader should be propped up?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The RUC has a great record, which is a source of pride to everyone in Northern Ireland and in the entire United Kingdom. I think it very desirable, for example, for the RUC to recognise the need to examine the transition to peacetime policing--if I may put it like that-- and, similarly, for the police authority to consult, as it is now doing.

As for the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I note that there is now a ceasefire and that exploratory dialogue is taking place. That strikes me as a change for the better, and I do not wish to disturb the trend.

Mr. Trimble: Does the Secretary of State share our concern about the repeated threats from Sinn Fein/IRA to resume--most recently, earlier this week by Mitchell McLaughlin--and the rumours that the IRA is trying to


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acquire additional weaponry, especially rocket launchers, and that the Derry brigade is re-equipping? Does he agree that it is now essential that those who said that this was going to be a permanent peace--I am thinking of the Dublin Government, the SDLP and especially the leader of the SDLP--should bring pressure to bear on Sinn Fein/IRA to prove that they are committed permanently to peace?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: Any sign that a political party-- Sinn Fein and the IRA in particular--is associated with a policy involving the use of violence for political purposes is extremely reprehensible, disgraceful and unwelcome. I do not comment on rumours, but I note that it is widely believed that the IRA continues in existence. Equally, I note that, with the disgraceful exception of the murder of Mr. Kerr in Newry, in November, there have been no deaths and no terrorist injuries since the end of August. That is something of which I am extremely glad, as is everyone in Northern Ireland. I want every possible influence to be brought to bear on all who have previously been associated with paramilitary organisations to persuade them to desist and to put violence wholly behind them for good.

Mr. Hume: Does the Secretary of State agree that we now have the best opportunity for lasting peace and stability that we have ever had? Will he confirm that, at the end of the day, the only way to achieve that lasting stability is by an agreement among our divided people which threatens no section of that people? Will he also confirm that private agreements or promises for the internal politics of this House would in that situation be utterly irresponsible? Can he assure the House that there are no such private agreements or private promises?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is now a good opportunity--probably the best, certainly for 25 years-- to secure a lasting peace. That does not, of course, rest with the Government alone. We wish to do all that we can to help the peace become secure. That is something that has to be done by proper, not improper, means. Equally, consent is the basis for stability in future and there is no point in the Government taking a course that is not likely to be sustained by consent.

Mr. Hunter: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the purpose of the framework document, which he mentioned earlier, is to promote round- table talks, and not to deter them, that it will essentially be a consultation and discussion document, and that it will impose nothing, as the agreed way forward is by consent, not by coercion? Will he confirm that any agreement that may emerge from discussion on the joint document will be subject to a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I want this to be much more widely understood than it seems to be at the moment. Party leaders asked us--the two Governments-- to set out proposals that would seem to be acceptable to them as offering the best prospect of getting wide acceptance across the whole community for a political accommodation which the parties have been seeking for several years. That is what we are trying to do. There is no question of trying to impose it. We shall offer it and if it is rejected, it is rejected; if it is accepted, it is accepted. We want to use


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it to help them get back around the table again. As the Prime Minister said, the outcome of the talks process, if it is resumed, will be put to the people in a referendum.

Ms Mowlam: Does the Secretary of State agree that directness and openness are crucial for all parties as the peace process unfolds? If so, will he give a straight answer to the part of the question from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that he avoided and to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), which he described as "cynical"? When things were ruled in and out of the framework document last night to the benefit of some people in the negotiations and for the electoral expediency of the Government, was it or was it not a secret deal that will create problems in the peace process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The peace process is something to which everybody in the House is committed. There is no framework document. We hope that there will be a framework document, but a lot of work needs to be done before there is. The basis for any future arrangements in Northern Ireland must be one of consent widely shared across the whole community. That is what informs the Government's approach to these matters and will continue to do so.

Planning Law

3. Mr. William Ross: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to make changes in planning law in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Moss: A proposed draft Planning (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order in Council is under preparation. If approved, the order would come into operation during 1996.

Mr. Ross: Is the Minister aware of the problems that have arisen in regard to the agricultural policy conditions which are attached to some planning permissions in rural areas? Would it not be wise to look carefully at some of the difficulties that have been created with a view to granting an amnesty? Will the Minister take the opportunity provided by the new order to tighten up the planning regulations to ensure that the underlying objectives of the present legislation are actually achieved in future?

Mr. Moss: I am aware of the problems outlined by the hon. Gentleman and of the need to take firm action to bring about a lasting solution. My Department is reviewing the agricultural occupancy condition and its enforcement, especially in the light of the recent planning appeals commission ruling. I refer here to the so-called Harvey case. I hope to publish something in the next few months.

Sir James Kilfedder: Is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of resentment throughout Northern Ireland about the way in which planning law is implemented when, for example, planning permission is given for a development against the wishes of the majority of people in that area? Therefore, can the people of Northern Ireland, and people elsewhere if need be, have a right of


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appeal when planning permission is granted, just as someone who applies for planning permission and is refused it can appeal?

Mr. Moss: The people of Northern Ireland have a right to appeal under the current legislation. I am proposing, in addition to the proposed draft planning amendment order, four subordinate pieces of legislation during 1995. After producing the review of the planning system, which I hope to publish in the next few months, we shall put it out to consultation; the hon. Gentleman will be able to make submissions at that time.

Mr. William O'Brien: When considering the review of the planning system, will the Minister have regard to the fact that many groups in Northern Ireland, especially the district councils, are remote from the planning system? If the Government believe in taking planning nearer to the people, will the Minister ensure that district councils have more involvement in planning matters than they have at present?

Mr. Moss: I should have thought that the matters to which the hon. Gentleman refers would be part of the strand one talks that which will be taking place, and would be part of the agreement between all parties in Northern Ireland on the way forward for local government.

Peace Talks

4. Lady Olga Maitland: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received from Sinn Fein regarding progress in the peace talks.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: A range of issues has been raised in the course of exploratory dialogue between Sinn Fein and Government officials. Those exploratory talks continue.

Lady Olga Maitland: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his reply. Further to the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that now that Sinn Fein has admitted that it has influence on the IRA, it is incumbent on it to insist that the IRA makes a significant demonstration of its commitment to surrender weapons? Furthermore, it must end the punishment beatings.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I agree with my hon. Friend. Any influence that can be brought to bear should be brought to bear to instil into everyone who may think to the contrary that there is no place for violence of any kind--including punishment beatings--in the democracy which is Northern Ireland.

Mr. Maginnis: Can the Secretary of State give me a single area in which the IRA-Sinn Fein delegation, led by Martin McGuinness, has made a single concession or adjustment since 31 August? Is there not a danger, if adjustment after adjustment is made by the Government in response to the ceasefire, that the IRA will feel justified in the violence that it has used and that law-abiding people will feel disheartened? Is it not time that the Government stopped, studied the situation and attempted to see whether the books could be balanced?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: Sinn Fein has got nothing out of the Government and the Government have got nothing out


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of Sinn Fein. What each of us has got is dialogue with the other and that on the back of a ceasefire, which has lasted now for four and a half months. It should, of course, have come into force much sooner, but it is in force and we welcome it. That represents, I believe, an improvement on anything that we have known for 25 years and we must build on it.

Rev. William McCrea: Bearing in mind the continuing sadistic beatings of old and young people throughout the community, the daily threats and intimidation of our people, the continuing serving of exclusion orders on our young people by the IRA, the continuing robberies and racketeering, the stockpiling and moving of arms, the recruiting, the training and the active targeting by IRA terrorist groups which is going on, will the Secretary of State tell the House specifically when, during the present talks with Sinn Fein, the Sinn Fein delegation first, renounced violence and secondly, unreservedly condemned the murder of the innocent Mr. Kerr from Newry?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are far too many signs of a continuance of the use of violence for political purposes, not simply on the Republican side of the paramilitary spectrum, but on the Loyalist side. From either side, it is totally repugnant. We know that on 31 August there was a declaration that what were called military operations had ceased. Everybody knows, and the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein know, that the Government require that there shall be confidence that the ceasefire is intended to be for good. That is why substantial progress must be made on the issue of the decommissioning of arms in this exploratory phase. As a matter of reality, we cannot move from that phase unless that happens.

Mr. Mallon: I have been involved in the peace process over the past 25 years in South Armagh, long before it came into vogue. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a perception in the Nationalist community which is damaging to the peace process, and that is that somehow or another there is a pan-Unionist front at work in Westminster? Does he also accept that it is unedifying--indeed, bad for the political process-- to have his Government's nose tweaked by the Unionists almost on a daily basis? Will he assure the House that the Government will not respond to those bullying tactics every week? In effect, he now has the opportunity, for the third time during this Question Time, to state categorically to the House that the Government will not sacrifice peace or progress to satisfy their own party political expediency in the House.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: Of course peace will not be sacrificed by the Government. The Government have done more to achieve peace than any other Government of any colour in the past 25 years, so I think that that charge will be rejected. As for the nose being tweaked, I have rather a large nose and I am not conscious of it having been tweaked at all. What I am conscious of is that in the Belfast Telegraph about a fortnight ago, the whole of one page was taken up with assertions that the Government were being hammered or were under fire by Nationalists and that they were being grilled or otherwise


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mistreated by Unionists. That seems to be about par for the course and I shall continue, for my part, to do what I believe to be right.

Mr. Couchman: My right hon. and learned Friend has stressed the need for the decommissioning of weapons. Has he had any significant contribution from Sinn Fein, the IRA or, indeed, from the other paramilitary organisations on the other side of the sectarian divide, about the circumstances in which they would give up their weapons? Furthermore, can he tell me what seizures of weapons and what arrests for possession of weapons have taken place since the ceasefire at the end of August?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I shall not go further than my hon. Friend the Minister for State has gone, at the end of each of the sessions of exploratory dialogue, in describing what has taken place. However, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), who takes such a close and proper interest in these matters, that it is necessary to inculcate confidence in the people of Northern Ireland--not just in the Government--that the intention on the part of the paramilitaries is to give up, for good, violence, the threat of violence and the justifying of violence. That is why substantial progress must be made, in this exploratory phase of the talks, in the issue of decommissioning arms and making them no longer available for use.

Mr. Alton: Will the Secretary of State accept that many hon. Members have had considerable confidence in him and in the Government because of the way in which they have conducted the negotiations so far, but to maintain that credibility it is vital that the Government are not seen to be aligned to any group? The Secretary of State's failure to respond to questions that have been put to him legitimately this afternoon, and his failure to say that the Government are not involved in a specific agreement with one party in this House, will be read as a confirmation that they are.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. For my part, I shall continue, as I have done for the past two and a half years, to do all that I can to help all the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach an accommodation, because that is the only way in which stability can be achieved. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) has said, that can be achieved only by consent. I have to have regard to what is likely, and what is not likely, to achieve consent when I look at the whole spectrum of the options available to the Government.

Welfare of Equines

5. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he is taking to ensure the welfare of equines; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram): The Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 makes it an offence to cause, procure or permit any unnecessary suffering to any animal, including equines. Veterinary inspectors from the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland enforce this legislation and, where serious breaches are found, prosecution action is taken.

Mr. Greenway: Will my hon. Friend assure me that no horses or other equines will be allowed to be exported


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from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland for slaughter for food or for onward export in defiance of minimum values? Will he also accept my invitation to join the pledge given to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), the former Minister for Food, that he, like me, will never knowingly eat a horse?

Mr. Ancram: I can certainly confirm that I would not knowingly eat a horse although I am sometimes accused of eating like one. In Northern Ireland, the horse is a much-respected creature both as a means of healthy recreational activity and sometimes as a vehicle for speculative, if often unsuccessful, financial investment. It is certainly not regarded as a culinary delicacy. Horses which are exported through the Republic of Ireland come under welfare controls which effectively prevent their export for slaughter.

Mr. A. Cecil Walker: Given the greatly increased population of the equine species in Northern Ireland, will the Minister consider giving some financial assistance to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in its efforts to protect those animals from human cruelty?

Mr. Ancram: I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman's remark on to my noble Friend who has responsibility in that sector. However, there have been no prosecutions in Northern Ireland in relation to horses over the past three years. I understand that that is largely because people in Northern Ireland have an immense respect and affection for their horses.

Electricity Interconnector

6. Mr. Foulkes: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects the Director General of Electricity Supply to publish his report on the proposed interconnector with Scotland.

Mr. Ancram: I am informed by the Director General of Electricity Supply for Northern Ireland that he expects to publish his report by the middle of February of this year.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to the Minister. Does he accept that the interconnector would result in a 15-year monopoly with electricity prices going up and job losses in Northern Ireland? As we now know that the Ove Arup report to the European Commission said that that was not the most economic solution, if the director general comes to the same conclusion, will not the Secretary of State be obliged to reconsider that misconceived project?

Mr. Ancram: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the planned interconnector project is being promoted jointly by Northern Ireland Electricity and Scottish Power, which are two private companies and which must make their own judgment. Two planning inquiries are taking place at the moment, one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows enough to realise that, as


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Ministers will eventually have to take a view of the results of those planning inquiries, it would not be right for me to pre-empt the outcome of those inquiries at this stage.

Mr. Bill Walker: Does not my hon. Friend find it astonishing to hear a Scot not wanting to sell something that is produced in Scotland? Is not that another example of not caring about jobs in Scotland?

Mr. Ancram: My hon. Friend makes his point very well, but he will understand if I am not drawn into making a statement about the project in advance of the outcome of the inquiries.

Mr. John D. Taylor: Since the decision in favour of the Moyle interconnector between Northern Ireland and Scotland was made--the decision was certainly welcomed by most people in Northern Ireland--it has been announced that operation of the other interconnector between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is to be restored. That is the north- south co-operation which Ulster Unionists welcome. Will the Minister therefore tell the House whether the restoration of that north-south interconnector enhances or reduces the need for the Moyle interconnector to Scotland?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I understand that the two interconnectors will serve different purposes, because, in effect, the interconnector between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is for mutual support during temporary shortfalls rather than to meet future electricity requirements. The interconnector between Scotland and Northern Ireland is meant to meet the latter.

Market Testing

7. Mr. McGrady: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of the effect of compulsory competitive tendering and market testing on the delivery of health and social services and job creation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Moss: Following a market test, contracts are monitored to ensure that they provide the specified service at the agreed cost. I understand that, overall, those contracts have maintained or improved services and have shown significant savings. Market testing is about the best way of providing services; it is not about job creation.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for his reply, which is totally at variance with the experience of the people of Northern Ireland. Subsequent to competitive tendering, the quality of services has been reduced, jobs have been lost and conditions in respect of future employment and tenure of office have deteriorated. Does not that show a fault in the Minister's research? I also draw the Minister's attention to the current attempt by the Down and Lisburn unit of management to extend compulsory competitive tendering well beyond the Department's remit to include matters such as security, porterage, telecommunications, ground maintenance, meals on wheels and so on, without consulting the Department. The board refuses to meet employees' union representatives. Will the Minister intervene immediately to remedy that impossible situation?

Mr. Moss: Market testing in the health and personal social services in Northern Ireland, in all material


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respects, is the same as in Great Britain. There are only minor procedural differences between the detailed implementation of the policy of market testing in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain. The real impact of market testing has been on costs. Until March 1994, for example, more than £60 million of support services have been market tested, with identified savings of more than £11 million per annum. That money has been retained and deployed by the HPSS for the benefit of patients.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Is it, therefore, Government policy to squeeze the wages of lowly paid workers and to reward chief executives and managers for so doing? Does not that policy militate against the hands-on care of people in the community as well as of those in hospital and add to demand on the social security budget?

Mr. Moss: It may have been true to say that market testing was piloted in certain ancillary services, but, since publication of the White Paper, "Competing for Quality", in November 1991, market testing has been expanded into all HPSS support services. In overall terms, it is true that efficiencies have been achieved and the number of directly-employed staff has been reduced. It should be made clear that not all categories of staff have been reduced. For example, in the period September 1990 to September 1993, medical staffing levels increased by 6 per cent.

Mr. Spellar: In view of the Minister's health brief he will be aware of clubs' concern at the delay in the publication of his consultative paper on licensing. When will he produce that paper, and will he ensure full consultation with all those concerned, especially the clubs?

Mr. Moss: The related reviews of the liquor licensing laws and on registered clubs have now been completed. I have taken decisions on the changes that I propose to make and I intend to issue a statement next week on the main changes to be contained in proposals for draft Orders in Council. Those will be published for consultation in due course.

Framework Document

8. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the progress of discussions with the Irish Government on a framework document.

Mr. Ancram: We continue to make useful progress; there are still important questions to be resolved. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State hopes to meet the Tanaiste shortly to discuss the framework document. We hope that a shared understanding of potential areas of agreement with the parties may be reached reasonably soon.

Mr. Barnes: The framework document is of key importance to future peace and progress throughout the island of Ireland. It is therefore to be hoped that elements of co-operation in the development of jobs and travel, for example, will be extended. For instance in Ireland, but not in Northern Ireland, there is free travel for pensioners. However, might it not be pushing things too far to say that


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what should be developed in the framework document at this stage is a call for joint executive boards, which would present all the problems concerning sovereignty?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but, as he would expect, I shall not become involved at this time in detailed discussion of the framework document. It is worth remembering that the purpose of that document is to form a basis for a shared understanding between the two Governments, in order to bring the parties back round a table to negotiate a political settlement. It would therefore be unwise, to say the least, for anything to be in the framework document which would prevent the parties from coming to the table. We certainly bear that consideration closely in mind in our negotiations with the Irish Government.

Mr. Wilshire: Can my hon. Friend assure the House that the framework document will contain no reference whatever to all-Ireland bodies that might have Executive powers over Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ancram: It has been made clear all along that relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will form part of the three-stranded process of discussion, and that those relationships will be institutionalised. The Secretary of State has already made it clear that there will be cross-border bodies with some Executive powers, but that the centrally important factors will be the extent, nature, source and accountability of such powers. Clearly, hon. Members will wish to study those when the document is eventually published.

Dr. Hendron: Will the Secretary of State guarantee that, irrespective of the contents of the framework document, and, indeed, of that of the other document that the Government are preparing, nothing will be imposed on the nationalist or the unionist people of Northern Ireland, and that agreement and consent will be the order of the day?

Mr. Ancram: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The key to the whole process is agreement and acceptability. That is why we made it clear that the framework document will be not a blueprint to be imposed but a shared understanding between the two Governments, which we hope will form the basis for taking negotiations forward. After those negotiations, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, must come agreement with the political parties. And the Prime Minister has made it clear that even after that, before any outcome can be implemented, there will be a referendum for the people of Northern Ireland. So the whole process must ultimately depend on agreement and acceptability.

Ms Mowlam: Will the Minister try answering the question that the Secretary of State failed six times to answer this afternoon? If he does not feel up to that, perhaps he can reassure the House that items in the framework document will not, in the weeks ahead, be negotiated into or out of it according to the Government's electoral expediency.

Mr. Ancram: I am surprised at the hon. Lady's cynicism. I thought that she was going to bring a fresh attitude to her party's policy on Northern Ireland. I am disappointed that she takes this line.


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The hon. Lady must consider what the purpose of the framework document is. It is not a blueprint; it is not a settled policy as between two Governments which will then be imposed. It is the basis for further discussion and negotiation. What is in it and what is not in it will be as much a part of those conversations and negotiations as it is a matter for the two Governments at this time.

Homelessness

9. Mr. Clapham: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what measures he is taking to tackle homelessness.

Mr. Moss: The Housing Executive, having statutory responsibility for dealing with homelessness, arranges temporary and permanent accommodation throughout Northern Ireland. Its housing selection scheme gives top priority particularly to families accepted as homeless. The executive and other local bodies also provide extensive advice to those who are homeless, or who are threatened with homelessness.

Mr. Clapham: I am rather disappointed by the Minister's reply. He will be aware that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive completed only 810 units last year. He will also know that on 31 March 1994 there were 10,579 people listed as priority cases on the housing list. Shelter has estimated that there is a need to complete 2,000 housing units a year if we are to get to grips with the problem of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Shelter? If not, can he tell us why?

Mr. Moss: I certainly do not agree with Shelter. The executive is building fewer new homes because demand for houses has fallen. Over the past 13 years the urgent waiting list has fallen from nearly 19, 000 applicants to 11,100, and executive dwellings are readily available in many parts of the Province.

In 1994-95, the executive hopes to complete 830 new homes and to re-let 10,000 existing properties.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe: All right hon. and hon. Members are most anxious that all homeless people should be properly housed; but what progress has been made in overcoming the problem of benefit fraud in connection with giro drops, for which Housing Executive dwellings are being used as cover? If those houses were brought back into the general Housing Executive scheme of things, greater numbers of houses would be available for homeless people. Will the proposed reduction in Housing Executive staff have no effect on detecting giro drops?

Mr. Moss: The Housing Executive will have total resources of about £541 million for 1995-96. I am confident that that will be sufficient to enable the executive to continue to deal effectively with homelessness and to improve housing conditions.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman about fraud. It is covered by the review that I am undertaking in my Department with the DSS, to ensure that we clamp down on this unacceptable activity.


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Local Enterprise Development Unit

10. Mr. McAvoy: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has had from the Local Enterprise Development Unit about the issue of non-assisted local firms competing with assisted firms.

Mr. Ancram: None.


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