Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Integrated Schools

3. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: What plans she has further to develop the integrated schools sector. [20853]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington): The pace of development of the integrated school sector will be driven by parental demand. I will continue to respond positively to viable, cost-effective proposals both for new schools and from existing schools which wish to transform to integrated status. In the past year, approval has been given to eight proposals for integrated schools, which is the highest number ever approved in a year. I am pleased to say that this morning I was able to give the go ahead to the transformation of Kircubbin primary school to integrated status.

Mr. Thomas: I welcome my hon. Friend's reply and especially the news that another primary school has been granted permission to transform to controlled integrated status. Does he agree that there remains considerable unmet parental demand for integrated education in Northern Ireland? Will he assure the House that his Department will continue to work actively alongside the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education to encourage existing schools to meet the criteria to transform into genuine, integrated schools?

Mr. Worthington: I can give that assurance. Obviously, we have to lay down fair criteria on the number of parents, on the balance between the two communities, on finding sites and on the impact on other schools. There was a recent problem when we had to turn down a couple of applications because we were fearful of the impact on other integrated schools that were building up. We shall continue to work with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education to stimulate more integrated schools where parents want them.

Mr. William Ross: Northern Ireland has a state sector that is open to all and a Church-dominated sector that is also open to all. Why, then, is a third sector being created? Will it be cost-effective in the cost per pupil?

Mr. Worthington: The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue before. Where schools already have a balanced intake but do not call themselves integrated, it is open to them--and we would welcome it--to say that they would like to be integrated schools.

Mr. Barnes: Would it not be a boost for integrated education in Northern Ireland if teacher training colleges provided integrated education? Currently, there is a teachers training college for Catholics, which means that the state system is comprised virtually of Protestants who make use of it. If the problem of teacher training integration was tackled, integration might then spread into primary and secondary education.

Mr. Worthington: My understanding is that the issue was tackled some 10 years ago, but its impact was not integration but disintegration. Colleges are now entering into closer relationships with the university sector, which is to be welcomed.

Mr. Öpik: Given that 80 per cent. of Northern Ireland's parents support integrated schooling for their

14 Jan 1998 : Column 336

children, but only 2 to 4 per cent. of schooling is formally integrated, does the Minister agree that there is a job of work to be done to accelerate the process?

Mr. Worthington: As I have already said, integration will be driven by parental demand. If 80 per cent. of the parent population want integrated schools, they should express that by getting involved in a campaign to demand integrated education, rather than saying vaguely that they would like it. If they involve themselves in a campaign and say that they want to send their children to integrated schools, that is what they will achieve.

Mr. Moss: If any of the integrated schools are also prep schools, is the Minister going to hammer them in the same way that he is going to hammer prep school pupils and their parents through his proposal to remove funding? Where does he expect to find the preposterous savings figure of £1.5 million? Does he not realise that if less than half of prep school pupils move to the state primary sector, he will save nothing? If more move, he will face increased costs. Is this new Labour economic ineptitude or old Labour class dogma?

Mr. Worthington: I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government cut the contribution to prep schools a few years ago. Why, then, is he today questioning our decision to consider a similar proposal?

Beef Farming

4. Mr. Thompson: If she will make a statement on the problems facing the beef farming sector in Northern Ireland. [20854]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy): The beef farming sector is facing a difficult period, but the Government have been working on a number of fronts to alleviate the problems. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced a substantial package of financial aid amounting to £85 million just before Christmas. Northern Ireland will receive about £14 million of that. We have also succeeded in persuading the European Union to restore intervention and, most important, we are pressing hard to get the beef export ban lifted.

Mr. Thompson: I thank the Minister for his reply. May I emphasise to him that even when the beef crisis is over, there will be a considerable period before the export market builds up? Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that intervention continues during that initial period?

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows--and as we speak--the College of Commissioners is meeting in Strasbourg and the Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels. I very much hope that the Commissioners will agree to recommend to the Committee that it endorse the proposal for a certified herd scheme which will lead to the lifting of the ban. That will help farmers in Northern Ireland.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about export markets. I understand that the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association believes that it could restore 50 per cent. of the former export market within a year of the ban's being lifted.

Mr. Hume: In the light of the expected very positive and welcome statement this afternoon in Strasbourg by

14 Jan 1998 : Column 337

the European Commission to relieve the beef crisis, will the Minister--I join the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) in asking this question--take the necessary steps to assist our farmers to recover their lost markets? Agriculture is by far our biggest industry, and this has been by far our biggest crisis. Are the Government willing to take action to compensate farmers for the massive losses that they have already suffered, and to urge the European Commission also to go forward by implementing the date scheme?

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We should pay tribute to him and to his two colleagues in the European Parliament for all the work that they have put into ensuring that the Commissioners are meeting to consider lifting that ban. I take the points that he has made closely into consideration. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met leaders of the farming industry in Northern Ireland. I believe that--with the lifting of the ban and the other factors that my hon. Friend mentioned--the future is brighter for farmers in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Traditionally, beef has been regarded as being of a very high health status and of equal status north and south of the border. Is it the Government's view that beef is still the same healthy food that it should be, and that it should be treated equally north and south of the border?

Mr. Murphy: It is certainly not for me to respond on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Ireland on what they do with their beef industry. I will, however, confirm that it is our Government's view that the measures that they have taken over the past few months are absolutely right in ensuring that the safety aspects of the beef industry are considered, and that, ultimately, we must consider the health of the people in this country who eat beef.

IRA Activity

5. Mr. Robathan: What assessment she has made of current IRA activity. [20855]

Mr. Ingram: All indications are that the Provisional IRA ceasefire remains stable. Consequently, terrorist activity levels overall continue at a significantly reduced level.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister will be aware of the sixth Mitchell principle, which states that punishment beatings must stop. I do not know whether he has ever seen the effects of a knee-capping--a glib term for a cruel and vicious act designed to maim--but is he aware that there have been three such shootings in the past week, in Short Strand, Lenadoon and Clonard? Is he aware that they were allegedly, or most probably, committed by an organisation called direct action against drugs--a gangster organisation used by the IRA as a front to cover its drug-running activities? Does he therefore have any confidence that the political representatives of the IRA will genuinely adhere to the sixth Mitchell principle?

Mr. Ingram: The Government are very much committed to the Mitchell principles, and we realise the

14 Jan 1998 : Column 338

impact of events in Northern Ireland on victims and their families. All those factors must be considered. However, I should tell the hon. Gentleman that it is not appropriate for the Government--or for him--to spread speculation or allegations made by others. The Mitchell principles state that matters and facts should be demonstrably proven. Once that has been done, under rule 29 of the Mitchell principles, those matters can be considered by the talks participants. We have at all times to consider the facts of the situation and to deal with those facts, not with speculation.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Is the Minister aware that Families Against Intimidation and Terror is to petition Senator Mitchell, the chairman of the talks process, on the vastly increasing number of shootings and beatings, which that concerned organisation attributes to both loyalist and republican paramilitaries, who are represented in the current talks by the loyalist parties and by Sinn Fein? Everyone in Northern Ireland--particularly those who are informed--is aware that a coach and four is daily being driven through the Mitchell principles.

Mr. Ingram: I recently had a worthwhile and useful discussion with the FAIT group. I know only too well the concerns that were raised. Of course that group was not unique in raising those concerns. However, I would refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the answer I gave the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). It is easy to make allegations, but, in respect of the Mitchell principles, matters have to be demonstrably proven before action can be taken. As an hon. and learned Member, he should be only too well aware of the need to prove a case before justice or any other progress can be achieved.

Mr. Forsythe: Given that responsibility for the Bannbridge bomb has not yet been claimed by the Continuity Army Council, can the Minister tell the House whether or not the allegations that the IRA planted that bomb are true?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is right that no particular group has claimed responsibility for that, although the Continuity Army Council often takes some time to claim responsibility for its actions. Indeed, that was the case in respect of the Markethill bomb. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the most recent incident that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The RUC investigation, with the support of the Army, will continue examining the forensics and the way in which the bomb was constructed and deployed.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Does not the Minister leave himself open to the charge of hiding evidence against paramilitary organisations? Is he not aware that, forensically, guns used in shootings and killings have been linked to organisations whose representatives are sitting around the negotiating table with him and his right hon. Friends? Is he not further aware that there was an admission in respect of the Bannbridge bomb? I have police documentary evidence of an admission by the Provisional IRA, that a warning was phoned in to a County Louth radio station and to the Samaritans in Newry? Is it not very clear, therefore, that the terrorist organisations are calling the tune and the Government are dancing to it?

Mr. Ingram: Those are very strong words indeed, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not my

14 Jan 1998 : Column 339

responsibility to assess evidence. The RUC is charged with that. I have no responsibility for hiding evidence. Certainly I receive reports on such matters, but at the end of the day it is for the RUC to proceed with its investigations and to take them to a conclusion. The hon. Gentleman has said that he has evidence contrary to what has been said publicly. If he has, I suggest that he takes it to the RUC and asks it to carry out the job that it has been charged to do.

Mr. Wilkinson: Is it not particularly important at this critical juncture in the negotiations over the political future of Northern Ireland that the IRA and its spokesmen should not be allowed to intimidate participants in the negotiations into an outcome that is against the democratic will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland? In that context, will the Minister make absolutely certain that the decommissioning of terrorists' weapons receives the priority that it rightly deserves?

Mr. Ingram: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, there is no evidence in the way that he asserts or indeed at all in respect of participants in the talks. As for decommissioning, this morning I attended a meeting of the liaison sub-committee to deal with that issue. Once the commission has established its full framework on handling decommissioning, and the two Governments--our own and that of the Republic of Ireland--have in place schemes--and we hope to have done so by about the middle of February if various technicalities can be resolved--we shall proceed in the way that the hon. Gentleman has suggested and the matter will be given high priority.

Next Section

IndexHome Page