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23 Oct 2002 : Column 270—continued

Coalfield Communities

Q7. John Mann (Bassetlaw): What plans he has to raise aspirations in coalfield communities. [74033]

The Prime Minister: We are firmly committed to regeneration in coalfield communities through education and job creation. We have already made substantial provision to support this commitment: #385 million for English Partnerships' national coalfield programme, more than #90 million in funding for the coalfields regeneration trust, and #10 million for

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the coalfield enterprise fund. I hope that this is an indication of how we desire to make the investment necessary to raise aspirations in coalfield communities.

John Mann : At the public inquiry into heroin that I conducted recently, former miners were in tears when they talked about the lives of their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters being destroyed by heroin addiction. Will the Prime Minister reflect on the recommendations for action in the report that I have delivered to him? Will he note that, if drug courts are to be introduced, my community wants to be one of the first to have them?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for many hon. Members from up and down the country. I have received his report, and I will study it carefully and come back to him with some decisions and recommendations on it. The point that he makes is right. What we are trying to do—obviously, this involves the up-coming criminal justice legislation—is to make sure that we have proper drug treatment in local communities, and proper orders that the courts can give. An example is the drug treatment and testing orders, which are being very successfully implemented in many parts of the country. We must also make sure that we do not have a situation in which people who genuinely want help to get off their drug addiction do not have the chance to do so. We are increasing investment in drug abuse programmes, and in addition, we need to use the measures outlined in the proceeds of crime legislation to try to attack the assets of the drug dealers who have caused such misery in our local communities. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says about drug courts, and I shall certainly bear it in mind.


Q8. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Does the Prime Minister accept that Sinn Fein's recent actions, including referring to him as Xthe naive idiot", have not only let him down and undermined his quest for peace, but betrayed all the people of Northern Ireland and of the United Kingdom? Will he therefore ensure that Sinn

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Fein MPs cannot use offices in the House of Commons for their plotting, nor draw public money, through parliamentary allowances, that may later be used for terrorist activity? [74034]

The Prime Minister: First, I understand that office facilities are a matter for the House, not me. [Interruption.] I can only imagine what Opposition Members would say if I said that they were a matter for me.

I said what I had to say about Sinn Fein last week, but I have something to say to the Conservatives on the matter. When we were in opposition, we worked really hard with the then Conservative Government on a bipartisan approach. I think that it is a shame that we no longer have such an approach. If the Opposition are worried about the Government having dealings with so-called terrorists or with Sinn Fein, there is something of which I want to remind them. I remember this, but I do not know whether the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) was in the House at the time. The then Conservative Government were engaged in secret talks with the IRA when an IRA bombing campaign was going on. That Government told the House that they were not involved in those talks, but later had to admit that they were.

The then Opposition took the view—and John Smith was the leader of the Labour party at the time—that, even though the Government had misled the House, such difficulties were likely to exist in those circumstances. We believed that it was worth trying to overcome the situation that prevailed and get to a more peaceful future.

There are difficult matters in all such cases, but the hon. Member for Blaby should look at what has happened in most places in Northern Ireland over the past five years. There are no troop movements in two thirds of Northern Ireland, and in the summer people can sit out in the centre of the city of Belfast in a way that they never could before. The hon. Gentleman should consider the number of people who have been killed, the general standard of life and of jobs and investment in Northern Ireland. Even with all the difficulties, the peace process has been worth it. I shall continue with it if I can.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to register the intense frustration felt by my Northern Ireland colleagues at the perceived filibustering during Northern Ireland Question Time. The Secretary of State and some of the other Northern Ireland Office Ministers gave long-winded responses and answers to questions. I think that the House noted your own frustration today, Mr. Speaker. Discussion of Question 1 went on until after 2.50 pm, and we only got as far as Question 4. In Prime Minister's questions, we got to Question 8.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to register again your disapproval of long-winded answers, and to encourage those responding to questions to enable us to challenge the Northern Ireland team properly.

Mr. Speaker: I would not use the term Xlong-winded", but some of the questions were rather long, as were some of the answers. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, at Northern Ireland Question Time, not only do I have to worry about the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, but I also have to accommodate two parties from Ulster on one side of the House and one party on the other. That requires me to give a longer run to some questions, which can have an impact on how far down the Order Paper we get.

However, the point of order gives me the opportunity to say that the shorter the questions are, the shorter the replies will be.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office have grown considerably, and the growth in the size of the ministerial teams shows that Ministers are responsible for a hugely increased range of matters. I appreciate the point that you made, Mr. Speaker, about the number of parties in Northern Ireland and about how some questions will run for a certain amount of time. However, given the necessity that we deal with as many questions as possible, is not there now an overwhelming case for a significant increase in the amount of time available for Northern Ireland questions? Would not it be desirable, as we move into a new Session, to make a very significant change in that respect?

Mr. Speaker: I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, but he will realise that these matters are not within my powers. I suggest that he approach the Leader of the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that we now have five Northern Ireland Ministers on the Treasury Bench, all of them doing important jobs and with important responsibilities? However, given that under present arrangements it is almost impractical to expect that they will get a chance to answer even one question on their various areas of responsibility, may I reinforce the point been made by the First Minister?

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Mr. Speaker: I can only make the same suggestion. The hon. Gentleman may wish to take the matter up with the Leader of the House.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have said that I am more than happy that discussions on these matters take place through the usual channels. I would, however, like to make two points that were mistaken in the premise put forward by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). First, Northern Ireland Question Time was reduced to half an hour before devolution when there were the same number of Ministers on the Front Bench. Secondly, although of course I am open to discussion, as we always are, on bringing scrutiny to bear on these matters, we must get a balance between the need for scrutiny and the need not to create a backlog in the legislation that has previously been put through the Assembly. Much of it has already been discussed; it is very important for the good governance of Northern Ireland and the benefit of the people there.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is on a different matter. Tomorrow's Order Paper, as you are well aware, contains the continuation of the debate on local government finance formula grant. Bearing in mind that it is a continuation, Mr. Speaker, can you confirm that there will be no opening speeches from the Front Benches but that the maximum time will be given to the very large demand for Back-Bench speeches in that important debate, and that the Minister will only wind up the debate?

Mr. Speaker: As the right hon. Gentleman has said, tomorrow's debate is billed as a continuation debate. Effectively, therefore, the opening speeches have been made. I intend to call the Minister to launch the debate, but I expect him to confine his remarks to no more than two sentences.

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