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French Lorry Drivers' Strike

3. Mr. Beggs: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the effect of the French lorry drivers' strike on owner drivers and road haulage contractors in Northern Ireland and on the Northern Ireland economy. [7317]

Mr. Ancram: The effect of the strike on owner drivers and road haulage contractors, and on the Northern Ireland economy, will become apparent only when the relevant details become available.

Mr. Beggs: A number of road haulage contractors, small businesses and owner drivers have been affected by the French and Danish blockades. Does the Minister share my concern about reports that the French police assisted the strikers and about the reports that British claims for compensation that arose from disruption in 1992 have still not been settled? Can he assure me that those Northern Ireland businesses that submit legitimate claims for compensation will have his support and representation for early settlement by the French Government?

Mr. Ancram: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, as I am sure he shares with me the view that blocking roads anywhere damages commerce and trade.

On compensation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has obtained firm assurances from the French Transport Minister that claims for damage to vehicles or loads and for loss of earnings will be considered as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend is

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also aware of the delays on previous occasions and he is resolving detailed arrangements for making claims for compensation with the French authorities. He will continue to monitor the situation carefully.

Mr. John Marshall: As the free movement of people and goods was the foundation of the European Community and the Single European Act, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should raise the subject at the forthcoming summit in Dublin and suggest to the French and the Greeks that their blockades are not very communautaire?

Mr. Ancram: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that those who claim to believe in the free movement of goods within the single market and the European Union will look carefully at the results of those industrial disputes.

Housing Benefit

4. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the average level of housing benefit paid to recipient households in Northern Ireland; what are the principal categories of accommodation in respect of which the benefit is paid; and if he will make a statement. [7318]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss): The average housing benefit paid applies only to private sector tenants and at 15 November 1996 was £45.01 a week. Public sector tenants receive housing benefit in the form of a rent rebate for which an average of £34.12 a week was paid.

The principal categories of accommodation are public sector accommodation, private sector accommodation and owner-occupied accommodation.

Mr. Greenway: Would it not be true to say that the housing situation in Northern Ireland is under control, and that--given the figures my hon. Friend has given to the House--there is not the level of homelessness in that part of the nation that has been suggested and that those who pretend there is should withdraw their remarks?

Mr. Moss: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. It is true that we do not have a homelessness problem in Northern Ireland. Housing benefit is paid to some 77 per cent. of all public sector tenants and is certainly targeting social need.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe: Will the Minister tell the House what strategy has been set up for co-operation between the Housing Executive and the Social Security Agency to deal with any fraud in the system that has not yet been considered? What is the up-to-date situation?

Mr. Moss: Research into the level of fraud and inaccuracy in housing benefit in Northern Ireland began on 1 October 1996 and we hope to have a report by the end of March 1997. At the moment, there are effective liaison arrangements between the Social Security Agency and the Housing Executive, but I accept the premise behind the hon. Gentleman's question that perhaps more could be done. The Social Security (Fraud) Bill, which

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is in Committee, will include provisions to ensure that claimants cannot exploit, for example, the postal redirection system to claim benefit fraudulently from different addresses. That issue was raised recently by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Illsley: Is the Minister aware that the rent increase announced by the Department this week is above the national average and will mean that housing benefit payments will increase? Is he also aware that, in 1995-96, 10,768 families presented themselves as homeless, suggesting a probable true figure of 22,000 people? In July and August alone, 600 families were made homeless as a result of Drumcree.

Is the Minister aware that the Budget cuts announced this week of £23 million--which will impact on grants and improvements and could threaten the whole new build programme for the following year--will have another devastating effect? Homelessness is increasing by 7 per cent. a year. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Budget cuts will be compounded by the cuts to the action for community employment schemes, which will result in hostels for the homeless being closed? Rather than imposing a £23 million cut in the housing budget, does the Minister not consider that it would be better to allow the Housing Executive to put up private finance?

Mr. Moss: The average weekly rent increase proposed for Northern Ireland in the next year will be 4 per cent., which is 2 per cent. above inflation. That will result in an increase of £1.32 a week, which is £7 a week lower than in England and Wales. As for the overall Housing Executive budget, we expect that there will be a reduction in the new build, but only of 100 housing new starts next year.

Punishment Beatings

5. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on punishment beatings and killings in Northern Ireland since the end of the IRA ceasefire. [7319]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler): Between 1 February and 8 December 1996, the RUC has recorded 274 so-called punishment beatings. Of these, 149 are attributed to republican and 125 to loyalist terrorist gangs. These attacks are intended to intimidate parts of the Northern Ireland population and are without any justification. There have also been 14 murders this year arising from the security situation.

In a majority of cases, victims of this kind of attack are reluctant to co-operate with police inquiries, and the groups who perpetrate these atrocities do not claim responsibility, making it difficult for the RUC categorically to apportion responsibility and carry out investigations. However, at least 20 people have been charged.

Mr. Barnes: Is the Minister aware that, yesterday evening, there were three other sets of punishment beatings in Northern Ireland? One took place in Newry, where four young men were beaten and given 24 hours to leave the country. Another was in Derry, and an executive member of Families Against Intimidation and Terror in Northern Ireland was also attacked. Two of the attacks

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seemed to have been carried out by the IRA and the other--against the Families Against Intimidation and Terror member--by Protestant paramilitary groups. Are not so-called punishment beatings running at an unprecedented level, as are recruitment to the IRA and its production of mortar weapons?

Sir John Wheeler: The hon. Gentleman's analysis is correct. The level of these attacks has been rising in recent months and throughout this year, and every 24 hours brings one of those attacks from terrorist gangs from either side. The Provisional IRA uses these savage and vicious attacks as a strategy of social and political control. The attacks are evil, without any justification and cost the people of Northern Ireland a great deal of money, as well as grief.

Rev. William McCrea: In the light of the increase in the number and the brutal nature of so-called punishment attacks, will the Minister tell the House how many persons have been brought to court and how many have been found guilty of such activities? Does the Minister believe that all paramilitary organisations have been involved in such attacks, and would that not be a breach of the Mitchell principles?

Sir John Wheeler: I cannot give precise information on the number of successful prosecutions. Unhappily, they are few and far between, for the reasons I have already given. People are intimidated and are frightened to give information to the RUC to enable it to carry out the investigation. The hon. Gentleman is right. Attacks are made by so-called loyalists as well as by republican terrorist gangs and are without any justification.

As to the Mitchell report recommendations, representatives of the smaller parties in the talks forum are committed to the Mitchell principles and have so declared themselves.

Dr. Hendron: The Secretary of State is aware that the McLaughlin family in west Belfast were nearly wiped out recently by joyriders and that Mr. McLaughlin's mother-in-law had her leg smashed. I am sure that he is also aware that we have a massive law and order problem, not only in west Belfast but far beyond it, and that we have a problem in nationalist areas with police acceptability, especially in the post-Drumcree situation?

Having said that, does the Secretary of State agree that there are no circumstances in which it can be justifiable for a young man aged 16 to be tied upside down and have his legs smashed, as happened in my constituency recently? Does he also agree that the message must go out to the Provisional IRA that, when it calls its ceasefire, as I believe it probably will just before the forthcoming general election, it must include a total and absolute cessation not only of murder but--I will not use the words "punishment beatings", as that gives the wrong implications--of brutalities?

Sir John Wheeler: I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is an example of the extreme horror that we endure every day in Northern Ireland. I say this to Mr. Adams and his cronies in the Provisional IRA-Sinn Fein: if they intend to bring about a ceasefire, these evil attacks on ordinary people in Northern Ireland must end if it is to have a scintilla of credibility. The

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attacks are without any justification. The RUC polices the whole of Northern Ireland. There is no street and no part of the Province to which it does not have access, and it will continue to police Northern Ireland and seek to bring these perpetrators to justice.

So far this year, the 300 or so punishment attacks have cost the people of Northern Ireland nearly £3 million from their expenditure--money that would otherwise have been spent on the health service and education. That is the extent of the evil for which every person in Northern Ireland has to pay.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Does the Minister agree that, in view of the increase in this barbarous behaviour and its political effect, it was strange that punishment beatings were not mentioned in the Prime Minister's policy statement of two weeks ago on Northern Ireland and the terms on which Sinn Fein might come in? Is it not both illogical and ironic that some of the parties represented in the talks on the so-called loyalist side, or the organisations that they are fronting, have been responsible this year for some 125 punishment beatings? Can those parties be allowed to continue in the talks, if the beatings are attributable to organisations that they are said to front and represent?

Sir John Wheeler: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in his statement that all terrorist activity had to cease. That is made clear in the Mitchell commission report. Whatever the activity--whether it is targeting, preparing to fire mortars, the use of guns, or the savage and brutal attacks on individuals--it would have to end. They should not occur now. The so-called loyalist politicians in the talks process have signed up to Mitchell and it is a matter to be dealt with in that process. The hon. and learned Gentleman can pursue it there.

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