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Dangerous Wild Animals Act

3. Rev. Martin Smyth: If she will extend the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 to Northern Ireland. [32129]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington): Yes. The Government propose to introduce legislation equivalent to the 1976 Act under the Order in Council process.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I welcome that answer, but will legislation be introduced very soon? Although some of us believed that the days of Buck Alec's wee lion were over, we discover now that--in Seskinore and in other parts of Northern Ireland--people are keeping wild animals in abysmal circumstances, which are detrimental to animals and dangerous for people.

Mr. Worthington: Yes, it is a disturbing case and I have discussed the matter with the noble Lord Dubs, who is the Minister responsible. He is doing everything he can to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible.

Devolution

4. Mr. Nicholas Winterton: What representations she has received on the devolution proposals contained in the framework documents; and if she will make a statement. [32130]

Marjorie Mowlam: Those issues remain under intensive consideration within strand 1 of the multi-party talks.

Mr. Winterton: While many people believe that the devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales are designed to bring government closer to the people, will the Secretary of State agree with me that the devolved assembly under the framework is seen by many on both sides of the water as being for the purpose of taking Ulster out of the United Kingdom and putting it under the control of a foreign country?

Marjorie Mowlam: No. The devolution procedures are there to increase accountability and increase transparency and, as I made clear in answer to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), they will be made only with the consent of the parties, and of the people, of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Maginnis: Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Ulster Unionist party has made it clear from the beginning of 1995 that the framework documents do not define a way forward in terms of the future of Northern Ireland; and that we have not negotiated on the basis of the framework documents, because they actually stymie negotiations and one cannot negotiate from a fixed position? Will she further acknowledge that, that apart, my party has done everything possible and made no unreasonable case to hinder negotiations, but that hindrance has come, almost exclusively, from the IRA, which refuses to move forward the parallel process of decommissioning and has had the connivance of two Governments in hindering it in that way?

Marjorie Mowlam: As I said in answer to an earlier question, a number of documents are on the table--the

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framework document, the Downing street declaration and papers submitted by different parties--and the point to which everybody around the table is trying to get is to reach an accommodation, whether or not that is in line with one of those documents. If it reflects consensus among the parties, we shall readily accept the decision of the parties.

In answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I acknowledge the courage and determination of all the parties in the talks. They have all made changes and have all tried to move to find an accommodation and I hope that that continues in the weeks ahead.

Mr. McNamara: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever the outcome of the talks, the aspiration to a united Ireland will still be permitted, allowed and, hopefully, attainable for those people who argue and work for it democratically? Will she inform the House of the number of occasions on which the Ulster Unionist party has sat down with Sinn Fein to discuss the various proposals in strands 1, 2 and 3?

Marjorie Mowlam: The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is that it is about democratic participation by all in the talks, and that is where we want to arrive. As for parties siting down with each other, there has been sitting down between some parties in various locations. I am unable to give the time and place of all those occasions, but I can tell the House that, in a poll last Thursday, a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland wanted the parties inclusively to sit down and try to find an accommodation.

National Minimum Wage

5. Mr. Boswell: What assessment she has made of the local economic implications of the introduction of a national minimum wage. [32132]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, a sensibly set national minimum wage will increase the incentive to work, will encourage firms to compete on the basis of quality, not just price, will help promote employee commitment and reduce staff turnover, and will encourage investment in training. I am pleased to note that the Bill to introduce a minimum wage has received the formal approval of the House.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister will be aware that the average wage in Northern Ireland is only 60 per cent. of that in Greater London. He will also be aware that a greater proportion of the work force in Northern Ireland is paid less than £3.50 an hour. Will he confirm that he is alert to the implications of that and has drawn those issues to the attention of the Low Pay Commission?

Mr. Ingram: We are aware of those facts and they have been drawn to the attention of the Low Pay Commission.

Mr. Hope: Does my hon. Friend agree that workers in Northern Ireland forced to live on poverty wages deserve

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the same legal protection and floor under their wage levels that are about to be enjoyed by other workers in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram: I am sure that all the low-paid workers, and others, in Northern Ireland will say three cheers to that and will fully endorse the National Minimum Wage Bill, which the House has recently passed.

Mr. Beggs: My hon. Friends and I are totally committed to the principle of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. I urge the Minister to bear in mind the fact that, because of our relatively high levels of unemployment, if the level of the national minimum wage in Northern Ireland is set too high, it could damage existing jobs and the potential for new jobs. Will he assure us that the Government will be cautious, sensible and practical in setting the level of the national minimum wage in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram: That is a fair point, which we have to address. As the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, we have to take account of the fact that there is a significant amount of low pay in Northern Ireland. We must be careful not to unbalance the economy as a result of the decisions on the national minimum wage. The Government are fully aware of the problem. We shall work with trade unions and industry to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy continues to prosper in the years ahead.

Mrs. Fyfe: Has the Northern Ireland Office assessed the cost to the British taxpayer of subsidising bad employers that pay terrible wages? The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) alluded to such low wages. Does my hon. Friend agree that the money could be spent in better ways to benefit the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram: I have no knowledge of such an assessment, but my hon. Friend has given me an idea that I may work on as we look forward to the findings of the Low Pay Commission.

Peace Talks

6. Mrs. Ann Winterton: What assessment she has made of the Unionist community's reception of the progress and direction of the all-party peace talks. [32133]

Marjorie Mowlam: My assessment of the Unionist community, as with all communities in Northern Ireland, is that change is difficult, but we must all change and no one can have 100 per cent. of what they want. I know that it is not easy, but together we can build a future of non-violence that is different from the past.

Mrs. Winterton: Will the Secretary of State concede that the Unionists in Northern Ireland must feel betrayed and devastated that the peace process, which they joined in good faith, has been hijacked by Sinn Fein-IRA and could now correctly be described as the appeasement process?

Marjorie Mowlam: No, I obviously do not agree with the hon. Lady's interpretation. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland feels a lack of confidence, and fear,

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because of the bomb at Moira, the bomb at Portadown and the deaths of Mr. Trainor and Mr. Allen. That is what creates fear. We are trying to create a future that does not include such events. I have already referred to last week's poll. The Unionist party leaders who are in the talks had much greater support in that poll than those outside. That is what the Unionist community thinks.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Is it not alarming and disappointing that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has used such language when the Secretary of State, the Government, the Irish Government and the constitutional parties are trying to work for a settlement? Is not the key the fact that the majority of both communities want peace? Should not that be the driving force? Should not Members of Parliament support the Government in what they are trying to achieve?

Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Consent is the over riding principle in our policy in Northern Ireland. I hope that my hon. Friend spoke for the whole House.

Mr. William Ross: Is the right hon. Lady not yet aware that by far the greater bulk of the population in Northern Ireland are astonished, dismayed and horrified that the Government seem unwilling to accept the plain fact that the terrorist wings of some of the parties participating in the talks in Northern Ireland are still engaged in terrorist violence, including murder as the ultimate form of intimidation? Is not she also aware from what has been said today and in recent days that there is great concern in Northern Ireland that the sentence for murder appears to be a three-day exclusion from the talks process? What does she intend to do to increase the confidence of the great bulk of the population of Northern Ireland in the Government listening to the democratic voice of the people rather than the guns of murderers?

Marjorie Mowlam: We have backed wholesale the security forces--they have done an excellent job--in trying to find the people responsible for the terrorist activity that has gone on since Christmas that has been carried out by splinter groups that are not part of the ceasefire and do not support the talks process but, in fact, want to destroy it. It is clear that if any party violates the Mitchell principles in relation to the talks--and we have concrete evidence that paramilitary groups associated with parties in the talks have behaved contrary to the Mitchell principles--we will act. We excluded the Ulster Democratic party when that happened; we excluded Sinn Fein. If it happens again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will act accordingly.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--


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