House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2000-01
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates
Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 8 February 2001


[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

2.30 pm

The Chairman: If there is a Division during the sitting, I intend to suspend proceedings for 15 minutes.

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked— Cancer Services

1. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): What representations he has made to the Chancellor and the First Minister over increased funding to develop cancer services in Northern Ireland. [148627] The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): None. It is a matter for Ministers in the devolved Administration, whose officials deal directly with Her Majesty's Treasury as necessary on day-to-day funding issues of that kind.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the Minister's response, but he will be aware that the Select Committee on Science and Technology presented a fine report on the necessity for cancer services in which it paid tribute to what was happening in Northern Ireland. However, it is estimated that £25 million is needed to bring services up to the required standard in Northern Ireland, which has been deprived of proper cancer services for years. Now that a lead role is being played within Europe and internationally, will the Northern Ireland Office support the First Minister and others in pressing the Treasury for the money that is needed, not only for Northern Ireland, but for the whole United Kingdom?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman is right. As twice former Northern Ireland health Minister, I am aware of the fine work that has been done in the past and that continues. However, it is a matter for the Assembly and the Executive. The 2000 spending review set firm three-year spending plans for all Government Departments and devolved Administrations. The allocation of public expenditure among the services controlled by the Northern Ireland Executive is for the devolved Administration to determine. However, we make appropriate representations to the Treasury when there is an obvious case to be made on behalf of Northern Ireland.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I was surprised to see that this question had been tabled because I thought that cancer services in Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, are a devolved matter.

I make a plea to the Minister that any discussion with Mrs. de Brun, or other Northern Ireland Assembly Members, will not overlook the concerns of people who suffer from prostate cancer. Does he agree that prostate cancer treatment has been deplorably underfunded everywhere in the United Kingdom, that more research needs to be carried out and that much more money needs to be spent on the treatment of that killer?

Mr. Howarth: I have a great deal of sympathy with the sentiment behind my hon. Friend's question, as I have lost close personal friends and members of my family to prostate cancer. I will ensure that his concerns are passed on to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Punishment Beatings

2. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): If he will make a statement about punishment beatings in Northern Ireland. [148628] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): These brutal attacks are completely the opposite of what the Good Friday agreement is about. In the agreement, people voted for a new start and for a society based on the rule of law. The attacks are carried out by ruthless people who seek to exercise power and control over their communities through fear and acts of intimidation. Those who sanction them and carry them out are the enemies of a transition to a peaceful society in Northern Ireland. By their actions, they show contempt for human life and the human rights of their fellow citizens. The Government unreservedly condemn these attacks, from whatever quarter, and call upon anyone with information on them to co-operate with the police and help to create the new and better society afforded by the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. Taylor: Is it not true that as conventional terrorism—whatever that is; one must not be reconciled to it—occurs less frequently in Northern Ireland, beatings and, in particular, banishment have increased alarmingly, and that 1,000 people have been forced to move to the mainland since the Belfast agreement was signed? Is that not the very enemy of anything called a peace process?

Mr. Ingram: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's conclusion, as I made clear when I set out the Government's view. There is no question that paramilitary assaults continue at an alarming and unacceptable rate and that people—sometimes whole families—are forcibly exiled from their communities. I welcome the investigation that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is undertaking into that aspect of Northern Ireland society and I await its report with considerable interest.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to Royal Ulster Constabulary figures, in periods of ceasefire or during the peace process, paramilitary intimidation shootings reduce dramatically but are replaced entirely by paramilitary beatings? As horrific as the shootings are, the beatings are horrendous. To quote Professor Knox and Dr. Monaghan:

    ``Beatings are carried out using weapons such as baseball bats, golf clubs, pickaxe handles, drills, iron bars, hammers, and hurley sticks spiked with nails to inflict puncture wounds.''

Some people choose to be shot in their legs rather than to be sent into exile; whether they would choose the beatings, which are worse in many ways than the shootings, is doubtful. Should not paramilitaries end those barbarities, especially paramilitary groups that have political wings operating in the Northern Ireland Executive?

The Chairman: Order. The only bit of that speech that was a question was the last sentence.

Mr. Ingram: I shall answer that question. I agree, and the Government have constantly called for all those groups, no matter from which quarter, to cease those activities. Those who claim to support the Good Friday agreement should recognise that any organisation carrying out such actions in their name acts inimically to the Good Friday agreement and all that for which the people of Northern Ireland voted. I agree with thrust of my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Given that there are so many beatings but very few apprehensions and convictions of those who commit them, are the Government concerned and what other measures do they think might be necessary to secure more convictions?

Mr. Ingram: Again, I agree that there are too many such incidents and too few arrests, charges and subsequent convictions. We have found that people do not come forward as witnesses; and if they do, they sometimes back off at the last moment, just before or even during the trial. The Government have to encourage people, through witness protection programmes and by creating a more normalised society, to engage with society and be brave enough to give evidence against those who carry out the beatings.

The other part of the approach is to get the message over to the people who carry out the actions that that is not what people want: they are a denial of human rights and the opposite of all that the Good Friday agreement stands for. Rather than chase headlines, the more people who say that and stand up to those people, the better the chance we have of succeeding.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Minister agree that no matter how often we, as elected representatives, condemn and deplore that behaviour, it suits the purposes of the paramilitary organisations to extend control over the areas in which they operate? Rather than looking to a situation in which RUC numbers are depleted, should we not give greater attention to improving resources to gain the convictions to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) referred? We will not gain control of the situation unless we have positive results and prosecutions, because there is widespread fear in communities of supplying evidence.

Mr. Ingram: There are resource implications related to that issue. I am confident that the Chief Constable is tackling the problem with as much vigour as possible by the deployment of resources on the ground. However, it is implicit in the hon. Gentleman's comments that he agrees with my analysis. At the end of the day, it is the members of the community who must come forward as witnesses and give evidence. On too many occasions, young people end up in hospital as a result of shootings and beatings but will not say what happened, or stand up to the bully boys and thugs who commit such offences. Changing that attitude is a difficult process in which we are involved. The problem concerns all elected representatives, community groups and members of civic society in Northern Ireland, who must totally condemn such behaviour to give courage to both the victims of assaults and those whom we need to come forward as witnesses of assaults.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Does the Minister agree that it is unreal to expect people who are the victims of alleged punishment beatings and live in ghetto areas under the control of paramilitary groups to give evidence against those who have injured them or others? Their families—brothers, sisters and children—live in areas where adequate police protection cannot be afforded. Does the Minister also agree that there is no political sanction against the paramilitaries because the duty of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is to view in the round the essentially political decision of whether groups are in breach of their ceasefire, but officials from the Northern Ireland Office can say that a murder of a community member, such as Charles Bennett, is not a breach of ceasefire because it is merely a matter of internal housekeeping?


House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 8 February 2001