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13 Nov 2002 : Column 96—continued

8.22 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). He is not only a former constituent of mine but followed me in the college at which we were both privileged to be educated. In that context, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), who asked for an examination before anything was done about changing to a comprehensive system, looked at the example of Glasgow. I came from a working-class area of Belfast and, as a result of the scholarship system, managed to get into a Methodist college. Consequently, like many of us in the area, I managed to move on. We have got to provide an education system that allows people to develop their skills, which are not necessarily academic.

I therefore differ to some extent from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who said that specialist schools will take us back to the old grammar schools because they do not provide choice. The harsh reality, as the illustration used by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend,

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East of two comprehensive schools in Southend showed, is that parents do not have choice. They are misled when they are told that they have parental choice, as we have discovered in my constituency, where parents trying to get their children into a local primary school discovered that they may have to send them to a more distant one. South Belfast has been denuded of state secondary education, so people from working-class and poor families have to travel more than three miles. There is no transport entitlement, as the distance has been measured and is just under the three-mile limit. People therefore do not qualify for transport allowance. No one, however, could walk through those areas, whether nationalist or so-called loyalist, especially if they were wearing a uniform. Someone coming from another area would get into trouble—even a loyalist in a loyalist area.

We should therefore abandon the concept that everything can be done in a particular way. I share the belief that one style is not necessarily appropriate to every problem. When the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East talked about common sense, I could not help but think of an old professor who used to say to us, XGentleman, common sense—the most uncommon of all the senses." Sometimes a collective Parliament can get it wrong—we think that we have common sense because we are commoners elected by the people.

We must examine in greater detail what is happening. I regret that we have not been allocated a day on which to deal with foreign affairs, in which we take an interest. I fear that successive Governments—I am not making a party political point about the present Government—have been far too enamoured of the alluring European Union and have been prepared to sacrifice the first principle of government, which is to provide for and protect their own citizens. Because we like to have the support of the Republic of Ireland in Europe, we are prepared to sacrifice Northern Ireland. Similarly, the Spanish could help us greatly to get away with things in Europe, so Gibraltar could be sacrificed. As the protector of the citizens of the United Kingdom, the House should be prepared to deal with the international issues where we are too often the fall-guy.

It is understandable that the passage in the Queen's Speech on the Belfast agreement is of concern to us in Northern Ireland, and I shall come to that in a moment. First, however, I want to comment on other more general issues. On health, I regret that we have not proceeded with the health Bill. I accept that it may have had weaknesses, but there are even greater weaknesses in the present provision of health services. The sooner they are tackled, the better. We must try to assess what is happening. We may pride ourselves on waiting lists going down, but the harsh reality is that management, to meet the demands to reduce lists, often steps in and tells consultants that they must deal with less-important operations. As a result, consultants are becoming disillusioned—there is a loss of morale in the health service—as they believe that their priority is their duty to patients, and patients with the greatest need should be dealt with first. As a result, people who require serious operations have been put on a longer waiting list, while those needing less-urgent operations have been treated to bring down the number on the waiting list. We must watch that carefully.

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I have discovered something fascinating, which other hon. Members may have noticed too. Constituents come to me with their problems and tell me that they have been to their doctor or consultant, who has told them to speak to their Member of Parliament. Why? That is playing the political game and blaming politicians for not providing the facilities. We all know that we have been pouring more money into the health service, but it has not always been used wisely or well. We must re-examine that policy.

Constituents also come to me with problems such as noisy neighbours, vandalism and destruction. They tell me that they have been to the police, but the desk sergeant has told them to speak to their Member of Parliament. Again, the police are playing the political game, blaming politicians for the fact that they do not have enough money or manpower. It is the structures of our society that need to be addressed.

In that context, I welcome the Government's proposal to deal with antisocial behaviour. I understand that that may be extended to Northern Ireland, as this Chamber is responsible for law and order in Northern Ireland. I hope that the legislation will apply to Northern Ireland, rather than being set side until the devolved Administration is re-established and can deal with the matter. The matter is urgent. Only yesterday, I received a plea from a cross-communal body campaigning for a change in legislation dealing with so-called joyriding and car theft. Most of those people came from what would be known as nationalist areas, where children have been killed by joyriders who have walked free, or in some cases received a six-month sentence, and who have no sense of accountability. The group is urging that action be taken.

The Queen's Speech refers to

and the introduction of legislation on policing matters. I do not know what those matters are—that has not been trailed, but we have been told regularly that it was agreed at Weston Park. My understanding is that it was not agreed within the so-called conference at Weston Park. Colleagues who were there say that it was not discussed in their presence, and nothing was agreed in their presence. However, it is obvious that the two Governments, with a section of Northern Ireland society, decided to go forward in a particular way. That is not in the Belfast agreement.

Before we go any further down that road, we might be wise to take an in-depth look at the Belfast agreement. I have no difficulty with an Assembly in Northern Ireland. I may not like it if members of a party that opposes mine are in government, but they are there because of the will of the people. However, under the system of government that has developed, the Executive are not accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive are not cohesive. Forming an Executive under the d'Hondt principle will allow the electorate only to change the number of seats that a party might have, but in the foreseeable future the four main parties will still be required to provide the Executive, and they are not acting collectively.

What do I mean by that? A young girl was savagely raped at the weekend in west Belfast. Another 17-year-old girl from the area was interviewed. Women in the area were terrified and horrified, and did not know how

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they could go out, in such circumstances. The Assembly Member for the area, who is Minister of Health and a woman, was interviewed on the same programme. Asked how she felt about the situation, she said that she did not like it. Asked whether she had advised her constituents to report incidents and give information to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, she said that she had told her constituents to advise those people whom they could trust in the constituency and who have been looking after things in the constituency. She was unwilling, as a Member of the Executive, to advise her constituents to speak to the police service serving the community. That is one of the problems of cohesion. It is near time that the Government in this place introduced legislation to deal with antisocial behaviour, rather than adding changes to the police, who are already under tremendous pressure.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and I share the view of those who try to curtail speeches in this place, although if I was tempted I could go on for 45 minutes without any bother. I want to deal with a topic that must be dealt with by the House in the foreseeable future—university research in Northern Ireland. In a Westminster Hall debate on the research assessment exercise, I praised and supported university researchers but pointed out the disparity between the allocations for universities in Northern Ireland and those elsewhere. The percentage per capita in Scotland is three times that in Northern Ireland, in England twice the amount and in Wales even more. In the recent round, the Government rightly increased the amount going to university research establishments, but in the recent draft Budget in Northern Ireland not a pound extra was given to the universities. I believe, as I think others in the House believe, that the future of our nation, and certainly of our Province, will depend on knowledge-based industries. It is deplorable that the two universities that have served the community well should be so treated. Queen's university, which took itself into the first division of British universities, achieving, at the last assessment, 19th place, has been told that it has done well and should try to do better, but that it will receive no help. The university of Ulster has also improved its position in the university league table, but it too has not been rewarded.

As a result, university entrants will look around, and many English and Scottish universities that have gladly taken young people from Northern Ireland will be happy to take more, and people such as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will be serving here, to which I have no objection, but will be lost to Northern Ireland. That is one of the prices that we have to pay if the Department in Northern Ireland and the Treasury supporting it do not allow that extra money to restore the differential between university research in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Biomedical, biotechnology and engineering research in Northern Ireland is world-renowned. I believe that I speak not only for Northern Ireland but for the United Kingdom when I say that that would be money well spent.

I shall not detain the House further, but simply remind hon. Members not to take too seriously the concept of the Belfast agreement because it did not come down from Mount Sinai.

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