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House of Commons

Thursday 26 October 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


City of Westminster Bill

[Lords] ( By Order ) Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [26 June]. Debate to be resumed on Thursday 2 November.

Oral Answers to Questions


Interviews (Tape Recording)

1. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to require that all interviews between police and suspects should be tape recorded; and if he will make a statement.     [36899]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): All interviews in police stations in Northern Ireland designated in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 are tape-recorded where the facility is available. Electronic recording of interviews with terrorist suspects is currently being considered following my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement on 12 June in the debate on the renewal of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991.

Mr. Mullin: I am glad to hear that some progress is being made. I know that the Royal Ulster Constabulary is not keen on tape recording, but it is about time the Minister stood up to it. If he is looking for some sort of concession that shows a return to normality in Northern Ireland and that would enjoy the support of all reasonable people of all political persuasions, is not the tape recording of interviews with suspects, whether terrorist or otherwise, an obvious one?

Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has pursued that issue consistently for some time. I fully understand the nature of his concern. There is much merit in proceeding with that development. As I have said, it is being considered, and I hope that good progress will be made in due course.

Mr. Worthington: The Minister will agree that it is very important to keep up the momentum of the peace process. The lack of progress on all- party talks is frustrating, but there are other tracks that we should be pursuing, including the justice system. Before the recess, the Minister announced a review of the emergency legislation, but we still do not know who is to head it or

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the terms of reference. There was also a statement about a White Paper on the police. On both those points, could the Minister tell us what progress is being made and what time scales are involved?

Sir John Wheeler: I am glad to be able to tell the House that the Government are aiming to start the independent review of the continuing need for anti-terrorist legislation in the United Kingdom, including the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, as soon as possible. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is taking the lead in this, but I hope that it will be possible to announce the name of the reviewer and the commencement date in the very near future.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I very much hope that the White Paper on the tripartite structure of the policing system in Northern Ireland will be published before Christmas.

Inward Investment and Tourism

2. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of investment inquiries and tourist statistics since the ceasefire.     [36900]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram): The statistics are most encouraging. They show a threefold increase in the number of United States investors visiting Northern Ireland since the ceasefires. Tourism figures are even better now than we estimated at the end of June: the first eight months of 1995 saw a 68 per cent. increase in holiday visitors compared with the same period in 1994.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: I am delighted to welcome those agreeable trends, which are clearly the direct result of the brave initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. Relative tranquillity has now been restored, a tranquillity that those of us who served in Northern Ireland in the early part of the 1970s, the bad old days, doubted would ever come about. Although the House will recognise that it is a sensitive issue, does my hon. Friend agree that any significant dilution of the pre-conditions for the next stage of peace talks could put these marvellous achievements at risk?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and very much take his points, given his experience in Northern Ireland. I certainly agree that prosperity, and increases in prosperity, both in terms of inward investment and tourism, will greatly depend on stability in the Province. At the end of the day, that stability can be underpinned only by confidence. Of course we will take seriously any areas where confidence has to be created or could be diminished by other actions.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe: The Minister is aware that all visitors to Northern Ireland are given a warm welcome. Does he agree that it would be a good idea for the Department of Economic Development, the tourist board and others, including the planning service, to co-operate with one another to provide more accommodation? Will he investigate allegations that Department of the

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Environment plants are discharging pollution into rivers, which is certainly discouraging fishermen from visiting Northern Ireland as tourists?

Mr. Ancram: On the last point, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responsible for the Department of the Environment is sitting on the Front Bench and I am sure that he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. Talking about the need to look at providing further accommodation in Northern Ireland is indeed a problem of success. It is also indicative that the tourist board estimates a doubling of holiday visits by 1997, possibly creating as many as 8,000 additional jobs by 1997-98. Some 30 projects to do with accommodation are currently being assisted by the Northern Ireland tourist board and another 24 are in an advanced state of negotiation, totalling £62 million of investment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that, while the problems of success are hard, they are meetable.

Mr. Tim Smith: Does my hon. Friend support the ambitious targets set by the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge of achieving a 10 per cent. growth in exports, a 5 per cent. growth in gross domestic product and 60,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland by 2000? If so, will the Government work with the private sector to achieve those objectives?

Mr. Ancram: Certainly, the Government will work closely with the private sector to try to achieve not only those objectives but the best objectives possible. It is interesting to note that the Coopers and Lybrand review published on Tuesday showed that the Northern Ireland economy had out-performed most other regions in the United Kingdom, and predicted that if the ceasefires hold, the potential for Northern Ireland's economy will be higher than it has been for three decades.

Mr. McGrady: We all share the Minister's delight at the tourist boom with the first summer season of the ceasefire. He is possibly well aware that a gross under-provision of beds and accommodation requires urgent attention. What specific action do the Minister and the Department intend to take to eradicate the enormous amount of red tape and raise the low level of bed and breakfast provision? Will he provide some additional resources--human and financial--to the Northern Ireland tourist board in order to expedite the other projects that he has mentioned, which very often in my experience are bogged down in negotiation? Could he in some way streamline the process? Next summer we hope to have twice as many visitors, and where will they sleep?

Mr. Ancram: As the hon. Gentleman has heard, we are very much aware of the nature of the problem, which is caused by success. One of the problems that has arisen as a result of growth in Northern Ireland is pressure of applications on Departments and agencies, which has increased commensurately. Obviously, steps are being taken to try to ensure that applications are dealt with as speedily as possible. Wherever possible, the Northern Ireland tourist board is trying to help facilitate such developments.

Mr. Viggers: Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the increased investment intention of Montupet, which intends to expand its factory in west Belfast? Does he agree that that is a justification of a

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brave decision and that in the calmer climate in Northern Ireland, there are now excellent investment opportunities throughout the Province?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and would certainly give the same words of encouragement. Indeed, in March the Secretary of State visited Montupet in France. Montupet and others, such as Daewoo Seagate, Dae Ryung industries, from Korea, and Fruit of the Loom have between them created an enormous amount of inward investment over the past nine years, totalling more than £1,678 million in Northern Ireland alone. I certainly support and encourage such investment--the more the better.

Mr. Dowd: I, too, welcome the improvements suggested by the figures that the Minister has given. It is common ground that economic development is a parallel strand of the peace process and is critical if we are to ensure that any settlement will endure. As the role of the Government is vital in sustaining and promoting that development, will the Minister assure the House that he and his colleagues will do all that they can to protect their departmental budgets from the Chancellor of the Exchequer's frantic attempts to find spending cuts, in the vain hope of bribing people with their own money in advance of the next election, and that Northern Ireland Ministers will continue to support that essential investment in peace?

Mr. Ancram: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench, and welcome him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. We look forward to many more such appearances. On behalf of both myself and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office, I can assure him that we are always anxious to ensure not only that we secure adequate resources but that we use them in the best practical way for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

Paramilitary Groups

3. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on disarming the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.     [36902]

Mr. Ancram: No arms or equipment in the hands of paramilitary groups have been decommissioned to date. There is, however, no place for unlawfully held arms in a democratic society. In order to create the necessary trust and confidence for all-party talks to proceed, the Government believe that progress on the issue is essential. I believe that that progress can and will be made.

Mr. Townsend: Can the Minister assure the House that the sensible suggestions about decommissioning made by the Secretary of State in his Washington speech earlier this year have not been watered down in any way by the events of the summer? Will he tell us what international support he expects for the decommissioning process at present?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can certainly assure him that the so-called three Washington criteria not only remain in place but represent the only way that the Government can see of creating the confidence to enable all-party talks to proceed. That, after all, is the bottom line. We are now considering, with the

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Irish Government in what is known as a twin -track initiative, the setting up of an international body to examine the ways in which decommissioning might take place. International influence would, of course, be present there.

Mr. Maginnis: Is it not a major hindrance that the IRA approaches disarmament merely in terms of its guns and explosives, totally failing to address the moral and ethical aspects of the issue? Can the Minister reassure us that his approach clearly reflects society's justifiable expectations, or is there a danger that he is restrained within the parameters that dictate IRA-Sinn Fein's approach?

Mr. Ancram: We are talking not only about the IRA arms but about unlawfully held weapons in the hands of all paramilitaries, from whichever part of the spectrum they come. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in my original answer that there is no place for unlawfully held arms in a democratic society. The security forces continue to search out, and where possible recover, such weapons. If the hon. Gentleman needs what he said about the morality of the position to be underlined, I can tell him that the vast majority of people not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland, have expressed in survey after survey their desire to see the arms taken out of the equation.

Rev. William McCrea: Bearing in mind the terrorist credentials of Adams, McGuinness and McLoughlin and their refusal to condemn IRA violence, does the Minister have any firm foundation for believing that the IRA ever intends to surrender its arsenal of weapons of murder and destruction? Far from disarming, is it not true that the IRA is regrouping, recruiting, and restocking, and that it is training its forces? Surely such actions speak volumes about IRA intentions--much more than their propaganda soundbites for American consumption. Who is being fooled by the whole exercise?

Mr. Ancram: I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman's personal experience of IRA violence--the whole House is conscious of it. The bottom line is that we must have a situation in which all parties can come together to discuss and negotiate the future of Northern Ireland. To achieve that, we must create an environment of confidence that will allow all parties to come to the table. We have made it clear that we do not believe that those circumstances of confidence will exist until the question of decommissioning arms has been addressed in the way set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State in Washington.

Dr. Hendron: An integral part of the problem of disarming paramilitaries is the question of prisoners. The Secretary of State will understand that there cannot be meaningful discussion of the peace process while the plight of prisoners is ignored--whether they be loyalist or republican, in Belmarsh, the Maze or Magilligan. I therefore ask him, and the Home Secretary, to give urgent consideration to the plight of prisoners. I can assure him that thousands of people in west Belfast, in the Catholic Falls road and in the Unionist Shankill road, would be very grateful for such action.

Mr. Ancram: I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. As he knows, I do not have responsibility for prisoners, but my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will have heard the

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hon. Gentleman's remarks. He must accept, however, as we have said many times, that there are no such things as political prisoners in any part of the United Kingdom. Those in prison are serving terms of imprisonment for committing crimes.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: In addition to the issue of arms, will the Minister confirm that it is about time that the paramilitary groups dealt with the question of beatings and bodies? They should stop going in for vigilante justice and say where the bodies of people whom they have murdered are, so that the victims' families can know where to find them.

Mr. Ancram: I very much support what my hon. Friend has said. There is genuine resentment and grievance about the fact that relatives and friends have disappeared with no account of where their bodies are--that must certainly be dealt with. A question that we may reach later today relates to punishment beatings, so I shall leave it to the Minister of State to respond in due course.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Has the purchasing of decommissioned equipment from the paramilitary forces ever been considered? I understand that there has been a great deal of experience of that in various parts of the world.

Mr. Ancram: What is important is not how weapons are disposed of but the fact that they are disposed of. The British Government have made it clear that we want those weapons taken out of commission in a way that will prevent their being used for political ends in future. In the course of that process, all ways of disposing of the weapons which can achieve that objective can be considered.

Peace Process

4. Sir Thomas Arnold: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the peace process in Northern Ireland.     [36903]

5. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are his intentions for the next stage of the peace process.     [36904]

9. Mr. Hain: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is his latest assessment of the prospects for peace.     [36908]

Sir Patrick Mayhew: Northern Ireland continues its welcome return towards normality. There is still a long way to go before a true peace and a democratic settlement are reached. The Government intend, however, to develop the substantial progress already made by steadfastly pursuing their policies, which are already well known to this House.

Sir Thomas Arnold: Will my right hon. and learned Friend now take further steps to reassure the Unionist parties of the integrity of the Government's intentions?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I hope that no further reassurance on that is necessary. The Government's position has been made consistently and abundantly clear over a long time. I have just given an undertaking of our steadfast determination to pursue it.

Mr. Hughes: On a specific point, given the good reputation of the five education and library boards for

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promoting co-operation across the community boundaries, can the Secretary of State assure the House that consideration has been given to whether the proposal to reduce the number of boards to four--for financial reasons, as I understand it--will not have the disadvantage of making the boards far more segregated and far less able to do the very good job that they have done in the past?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The proposal is under discussion with the parties. That is the first way in which the matter should be examined, and that is what has happened.

Mr. Hain: Does the Secretary of State agree that prison issues are important in building the trust and confidence needed to carry forward the peace process? Given the new arrangements from 1 November, will he specifically urge the Home Secretary to expedite prison transfer requests so that they go through without unnecessary bureaucratic delay? Will the Secretary of State examine, on compassionate grounds, the case of Patrick Kelly, who is in Whitemoor? He is seriously ill with cancer and wishes to transfer to the Irish Republic, where he can be near his family.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The offender whose name has just been mentioned is within the jurisdiction of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, as the hon. Gentleman knows. My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard what the hon. Gentleman says. It is worth reminding the House that ratification by the Irish Government of the European convention will take effect only from 1 November. Our own country ratified it several years ago--I think in 1984. Thereafter, it has to be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to consider, in the light of individual circumstances, whether it is appropriate to repatriate, if that is requested, a prisoner to the Republic of Ireland, where he or she is domiciled. I am certain that those matters will be examined by the two relevant Ministers in Dublin and London.

Mr. Bellingham: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the peace process is not helped by crimes such as the one that took place today, in which a 16-year-old girl was dragged out of her house by paramilitaries in Twinbrook, beaten up and covered in paint? Will he condemn that crime and make every effort to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I condemn that, as everyone in the House will condemn similar brutal beatings. There is no need for the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be encouraged to try to bring those people to justice and to prevent similar crimes from taking place. I agree with the words with which my hon. Friend began his question.

Mr. Trimble: Is it not the case that, following the action by the Irish Republic last month in giving way to the threats of violence from Sinn Fein-IRA, it is extremely unlikely that the necessary confidence can be created for talks in the near future? In the light of that, is not the best way forward to take up the suggestion made by Unionist parties that there be an elected body so that parties to any future negotiations can obtain a mandate and, in the interval, debate and investigate issues relevant to future negotiations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his accession to the leadership of his party.

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This is the first time that we have had the occasion to do that and to say that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), was held in great affection by all in the House. We do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman's tenure will be just as distinguished.

I do not accept the words with which the hon. Gentleman began his question. I do not accept the conclusion that he drew from them. I should like to assure him that the Government are committed, with the Irish Government, to promoting the concept of a twin track or parallel approach. We believe that it is important that all relevant parties and future participants in the negotiations to which we all look forward should have the opportunity to sit down and talk. One of the solutions that the hon. Gentleman and his party hold to is a form of assembly. It is an interesting solution and one which we hope could usefully be discussed in the talks which form the political track. So I hope that that may be a means by which that interesting and possibly fruitful suggestion may be ventilated and explored.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is Government policy shortly to introduce remission of 50 per cent. on prison sentences for terrorist offences? If that is so, how can he square it with the life sentences that are served on grieving relatives, for whom there can never be any remission?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the continuing effects of such serious crimes. I thought it right to point that out when I made a speech at Queen's university Belfast on 25 August, setting out the Government's policy on restoring to pre-1989 levels the point in sentence at which an offender is released, if he or she is convicted of a scheduled--that is to say a terrorist--offence and sentenced to five years' imprisonment or more. In 1989, that category of prisoner had entitlement to remission reduced from 50 per cent. to one third, by reason of the need at that time for a greater deterrent factor. As I said in August, the Government believe that current circumstances warrant a restoration of that pre-1989 position. I believe that to be the case and I shall be recommending it to the House. We shall have to see what it has to say.

Mr. Mallon: I also congratulate the new leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and wish him well, as I wish his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), a happy retirement.

Does the Secretary of State agree when I say that I hope that the semantic phase of the peace process will soon be over, and we will stop worrying to death words such as clarification, permanence and decommissioning, as they have clouded the issue and the two central problems? The first is how we rid Northern Ireland politics of arms for ever and the second is how we set up the type of political arrangements and structures upon which to build a peaceful future. Will the Secretary of State accept from me that most people who share those objectives fully support the twin-track approach as being the only viable way to deal with those two objectives? Will he also tell the House what alternatives have been presented to him by others who might disagree with that twin-track approach?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the twin-track approach, which represents

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perhaps not the only but the best way forward in this difficult position. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said about the overriding necessity of confidence being established. There is no point in calling a conference to negotiate the political future of Northern Ireland, when it is certain that a number of chairs will be empty. That would destroy the very process on which all future progress depends.

Mr. Bill Walker: Does my right hon. and learned Friend understand that he enjoys massive support on the Conservative Benches for the firm line that he and his team have taken on the decommissioning of arms? Is he aware that that sends messages to all those throughout the United Kingdom who may be tempted into that kind of activity, particularly the lunatic fringe of the narrow nationalists in Scotland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of support. It is necessary to hold to a proper analysis of a very difficult problem and to hold steadfastly to a properly formulated policy for dealing with it. That is what the Government intend to do and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support.

Ms Mowlam: As the House has shown, we are at a delicate time in the peace process. The Secretary of State has just argued that building trust and confidence is central to the process, which is why we support the remission legislation on Monday as timely and why paramilitary decommissioning must be addressed. However, can the Secretary of State do all that he can to encourage the implementation of Government policy on prisoner transfers and will he consider expanding the twin-track approach to add a track on reconciliation, focusing on a bill of rights?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I think I should rather leave the question of a Bill of Rights until later: there are interesting arguments to be advanced on both sides.

Prisoners who commit serious offences in a particular jurisdiction must normally expect to serve their sentences within that jurisdiction according to law. Where there is an international conference or a European convention, it depends on the individual circumstances whether a prisoner will be transferred in accordance with that convention. I have already said that the jurisdiction over a number of prisoners whose names are in the news at the moment rests with the Home Secretary.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Further to the remarks of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the vast majority of those of us who believe in the historic integrity of the United Kingdom have enormous admiration for the courageous initiative and persistence of the Prime Minister and for the diligence and patience that my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have been showing over many months?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: We are all grateful for anything of that character passed our way.

Mr. McNamara: I join the House in welcoming the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to his new position. He has a difficult act to follow. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is no longer leading his party.

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Will the Secretary of State give the House the terms of reference of the new international commission that is to police the problem of decommissioning, and has he now secured the full agreement of all the main parties to the twin-track approach?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: Both Governments consider that there is a lot of promise in the idea of an international commission, comprised as it has been suggested, as forming the first of the two twin tracks that have been mentioned several times today. The terms of reference are not yet formulated. I believe that there is a wide body of support for this approach.

Paramilitary Groups

6. Mr. Connarty: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what actions are being taken to stop paramilitary groups acting in a policing role in the communities of Northern Ireland.     [36905]

Sir John Wheeler: Savage assaults, expulsions and intimidation by terrorist thugs have nothing to do with policing, or justice or democracy. Such actions are against the law and are wholly unacceptable to the Government and to the community at large. The Royal Ulster Constabulary will investigate all such cases, and when evidence is available place offenders before the courts.

Mr. Connarty: I thank the Minister for that partial reply. Does he accept there have been at least 200 beatings by the IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland since the ceasefire? Is he aware that last Wednesday the Northern Ireland youth parliament voted that men of peace should be prepared to discuss and negotiate with the men of violence? Many people gave the impression that rather than decommissioning being the problem, paramilitary beatings were the symbol of the lack of peace in their communities.

Will the Government point out to the paramilitaries that the beatings go on in contravention of paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration? Will the Minister demand from the IRA and the Progressive Unionist Party a condemnation of such beatings before any further progress is made in talks with those groups? Will he take seriously the suggestions for curtailing beatings made by Families Against Intimidation and Terror in Northern Ireland?

Sir John Wheeler: Between 1 September 1994 and 15 October 1995, 218 so-called punishment beatings have taken place, attributed on the basis of 85 to the so-called loyalist gangs and 133 to Republican groups. I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. There is no case for this tide of violence in Northern Ireland. It robs the community of confidence in the peace process and it stops the political development of the process. I use this opportunity once again to call on all who have influence over those matters to condemn it and to see that it is stopped.

Mr. Illsley: Labour, too, condemns the so-called punishment beatings, particularly the most recent action, which has already been referred to. Does the Minister agree that, if the responsible organisations were to put a stop to those beatings, it would reinforce their democratic credentials? Does he believe that he is doing all that he can to stop these appalling attacks?

Sir John Wheeler: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the Labour Front Bench as a

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shadow Northern Ireland Office spokesman. I endorse what he says: there is no excuse for expulsions, punishment beatings, racketeering and intimidation. They are against the rule of law and I assure the House that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will do its utmost to investigate such crime and bring offenders before the courts. Arrests are being made but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that those who have influence must bring that influence to bear if that evil tide is to end.

Security Situation

7. Mr. Molyneaux: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland.     [36906]

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I shall continue to be advised by the Chief Constable on the security response warranted by a reduced but continuing threat of violence, and I shall act on that advice. Proscribed paramilitary organisations continue in active existence. Brutal beatings and arson attacks remain a cause of particular concern.

Mr. Molyneaux: As Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary concluded this week that the Royal Ulster Constabulary "is efficient and effective", will the Secretary of State assure us that resources will be made available to counter general serious crime, which can be expected to increase following the reduction in terrorist crime?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I have always made it clear, as has my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, that appropriate resources must be made available to the RUC. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a fundamental review is in progress and it is important that sufficient resources should be made available to counter non-terrorist crime, which, in some categories, is rising.

Mr. Wilkinson: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, given the markedly improved security situation, it would be ironic, to say the least, if Queen's university air squadron, Belfast, the town headquarters of which were destroyed at the height of the troubles, should now be closed? In considering representations, will he bear in mind that it would be wrong for that university air squadron and the Air Experience Flight to be closed uniquely among such institutions in the country?

Sir Patrick Mayhew: I know my hon. Friend's association with the Royal Air Force and the regard in which those units are held, but this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who must take some harsh decisions in difficult economic circumstances.

Marches and Parades

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will take steps routinely to reroute marches and parades where these are to go through areas where the residents do not wish them.     [36907]

Sir John Wheeler: The routing of parades is an operational matter for the police, who are best placed to make decisions. They do so in consultation with parade organisers and local people, and significant progress has been made over recent years in eliminating the problems arising from certain controversial parades. Of more than

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3,000 parades so far this year, only 11-- 0.3 per cent.--were classified by the RUC as having resulted in disorder, while just over 20 have been subject to rerouting requirements or had other conditions imposed by the police.

Mr. Prentice: The Minister admits that at least some marches are provocative, triumphalist and put communities under siege. What happened in July at Portadown was an absolute disgrace. How can the peace process survive such atavism, blood-curdling speeches and calls to arms by the Ulster Unionists?

Sir John Wheeler: Some parades--very few--result in controversy and difficulty. It must be said that some of those difficulties arise because of the activities of Provisional Sinn Fein and others. It is the duty of the police to keep the peace and the function of the police to negotiate with the local community to ensure that the peace prevails.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Does the Minister accept that a degree of ignorance was manifested in that question? Does he recognise and agree that the troubles come from those people who sought to turn Northern Ireland upside-down this year, beginning with the attacks during the Prime Minister's visit to Londonderry? Will he acknowledge that there was no parade on the Ormeau road when Mrs. Hughes and others were intimidated disastrously as a result of the actions of elements in that community?

Sir John Wheeler: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is no excuse whatsoever for any violence or criminal wrongdoing, as the House agreed earlier regarding the so-called punishment beatings. It is also true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that some people have a vested interest in trouble.



Q1. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 26 October.     [36929]

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Lidington: Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to reaffirm his opposition to terrorism and, in doing so, make it his policy to condemn unreservedly the selection by the Labour party in Exeter of a self-confessed terrorist as its candidate? Does not that action illustrate most clearly that the Labour party is utterly unfit for government?

The Prime Minister: I am wholly opposed to any act of terrorism, and I have no doubt that the majority of people in Exeter will feel the same.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister confirm that the changes in housing benefit revealed today will mean that thousands of vulnerable people--pensioners, disabled people and families with young children--will lose help

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