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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I shall not give in to the temptation to follow the bizarre interpretation of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) of the events that led to the first world war. Given the equivocation that so often surrounds matters to do with Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely what he means when he talks of putting illegal paramilitary weapons completely beyond use?

Dr. Reid: What I mean is an acceptance of some form of action, under the remit and legislation that has been given to him, by General John de Chastelain.

David Burnside (South Antrim): What precisely does the Secretary of State mean by sanctions? We have yet another deadline: there was 22 May and the end of June, and now we have another six weeks. Will he define sanctions against republicans and rewards for democrats? In the political set-up in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party are purely and 100 per cent. committed to democracy. Other parties—Sinn Fein-IRA and loyalist paramilitary parties—still adhere to terrorism, violence and the threat of violence. In six weeks' time, what sanctions will he impose on terrorist-related parties and what reward will he give to the democrats in Ulster?

Mr. Reid: I said that a range of sanctions are open to all the parties and to the Government in a number of instances. One of the sanctions was raised yesterday by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the Deputy First Minister, and that was exclusion. The issue is not whether sanctions are hanging about but whether it is sensible and productive to use sanctions to exclude people from the process. I have made my view known, and it is that I am committed, as are the Government, not to suspending, excluding or putting people or parts out of the process, but to implementing the full agreement.

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If the full agreement can be implemented, it will create a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. Also, it is exactly what the people of Northern Ireland voted for in overwhelming numbers. I am concentrating on that. What sanctions might be available in what hypothetical situation should perhaps be considered when such a situation arises. At present, surely we should all be ascertaining what can be done to implement the full agreement, and thereby maintain the full support of the full community in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the main causes of concern in Northern Ireland has been the on-going process of concession to the IRA and Sinn Fein, with little or nothing in return? That is accepted on all sides.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept also that further concessions to the IRA and Sinn Fein as part of any fudged settlement on the question of terrorist arms would further increase alienation of the Unionist community and lead to further political instability in the long run?

All decent and right-thinking members of my constituency share the right hon. Gentleman's abhorrence of the attacks on the police that have taken place in my constituency, to which he has referred. However, they want assurances that the police will be present in sufficient numbers to protect them, that reforms such as reducing the number of police, as suggested by Patten, will not take place, and that police numbers will be maintained, with the police being strengthened, and not demoralised and decimated as proposed by the Government under the Patten reforms.

Mr. Reid: First, the hon. Gentleman seems to think that anything that has been agreed and already implemented arising from the agreement is somehow a concession. I do not accept that these things are concessions. Most constitute a major move forward in creating a new, open and democratic Northern Ireland, and should be seen as such.

Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman is asking me—if we leave the word "concession" aside—whether I realise that there is concern in Northern Ireland about how things have been implemented, with some things being implemented faster and more substantially than others, the answer is that I do.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked me about policing. The intent behind a police service that is participated in and accepted by the broad swathe of Northern Ireland society is to create the conditions, along with the rest of the agreement, where we do not have the sacrifices that had to be made by members of the RUC, with more than 300 deaths, and we do not have the widows who have been left—at the very least, not in the same numbers.

In implementing the agreement, I will listen carefully to my security advisers, including the Chief Constable. The operational capability of the RUC and then the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be of paramount importance, not least because that is what the people of Northern Ireland as a whole want. Catholics as well as Protestants are murdered. They are burgled and their cars are stolen. I want to see operational capability, but above all I want to see a Northern Ireland where the ultimate sacrifices that had to be made by so many in the RUC do not have to be made by the next generation.

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Orders of the Day

Homelessness Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.29 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope that the whole House will agree that losing one's home, and the security that goes with it, is one of the most harrowing experiences that anyone can face, and that the possibility of homelessness is often related to other life problems. Frailty brought about by old age, the breakdown of a marriage, drugs and mental health problems simply compound people's anguish.

Earlier today, I spent some time at the Passage day centre in Victoria, and I should like to pay tribute to the remarkable work of Sister Ellen and her team of staff and volunteers. They not only provide the basics of food and clothing to homeless people but help them to find jobs, rediscover their self-confidence and their families and tackle their addiction to drugs and alcohol. If ever there was a justification for righting past wrongs—which the Bill seeks to do—I heard it from some of the people whom I met this morning.

I met many people for whom the changes to be brought about by the Bill will make a genuine difference to their lives; those changes cannot come soon enough. I spoke to an ex-service man who, because he did not get the help that he needed when he left the forces, has been homeless ever since. I met someone else who, as a child, was in care; for him, the help given by the Passage, although welcome and essential, was too late. He needed help when he first had difficulties to prevent him from needing help now and from wasting years of his life.

The principal aim of any decent society should be to support those in need in practical ways and when the need arises. Local authorities fulfil that role when they carry out their homeless duties. Every week, authorities, social landlords and voluntary bodies demonstrate practical compassion in helping individuals and families to manage the trauma of being without somewhere that they can call their own home.

Members on both sides of the House know that the present system is far from perfect; the Government are determined to improve its operation. A demonstration of that commitment is the fact that the Bill—the first one to be introduced after the election—will offer hope and protection to some of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new position. He referred briefly to mental health. Does he accept that a high proportion of people who are out on the streets are suffering from mental health problems and that that has something to do with the policy, followed by successive Governments, of closing institutions where people with mental health problems could find refuge? Has he consulted his colleagues in the Department of Health about whether joint work by the two Departments can help people in that situation?

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations on my appointment. Perhaps for the first

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and last time in this Parliament, I agree with the points that he made. The record of care in the community and the way in which we dealt with people with mental illness do not do credit to previous Administrations of both political persuasions. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the need for joint working between housing authorities, local authorities and authorities that have specific responsibilities for people with mental illness. I shall talk a little bit about joint working arrangements later, but I certainly endorse the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

The Bill will enable local authorities to offer stronger protection to vulnerable families and individuals who find themselves homeless. It will lead to more effective strategies and services, both to help homeless people and, crucially, to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. It will help to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and choice of a decent home. The measure should not be seen in isolation. It is not a one-off, but part of a wider housing strategy set out in our housing Green Paper and in last year's policy statement entitled "The Way Forward for Housing".

Our homelessness measures are complemented by a massive increase in investment, which will be crucial. The investment includes doubling the Housing Corporation's budget for new affordable housing, which will amount to an extra £872 million being made available for that purpose; a target of 100,000 new or improved homes for low-cost rent or ownership over the next three years; doubling the programme of affordable housing in small rural settlements; and increasing resources for local authority investment from £750 million in 1997–98 to £2.5 billion by 2003–04.

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