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Helen Jones : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. The announcement in the Budget was welcome to pensioners in my constituency. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that all pensioners who should receive the extra allowance are aware of it and know when it will be paid, so that they can be reassured?
Mr. Boateng: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will certainly be taking measures to ensure that all pensioners are aware of that to which they are entitled. I commend my hon. Friend for all the work that she does in Warrington to ensure that pensioners are fully aware of their entitlement. I know that she will include in that the recent reforms to council tax benefit, which will mean that more than half of all pensioner households could be eligible.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Does the Chief Secretary accept the TUC's criticism of the policythat it is badly targeted not only because it will help wealthier pensioners, but because it will do nothing for people on low pay who have been hit by the increase in council tax? Is not the only answer to a bad council tax policy to scrap it and replace it with a fairer tax?
Mr. Boateng: No. The average council tax per dwelling in 200405 for Labour councils is £870. Let us compare that with £971 for Liberal Democrat councils and £1,072 for Conservative councils. So, we will take no lessons from Opposition Members in that regard.
Over the past four weeks I have faced sustained parliamentary and media criticism over our system of immigration controls. I understand why people feel so strongly about these issuesthey touch on some of our deepest concerns about the security and identity of our country. I have done my best to answer honestly and directly whatever questions and allegations I have faced, and to ensure that we look hard at the issues raised to see where we might need to take further action.
I am confident that at all times I have acted properly and in the best interests of the people of this country, and I am proud of what I have achieved over the past two years. None the less, it has become clear to me that, however unwittingly, I may have given a misleading impression in my interviews on Monday night about whether any of the concerns expressed about the operation of clearance controls from Romania and Bulgaria had crossed my desk at any stage in the past two years.
On Tuesday, in order to prepare for the next phase of the Sutton inquiry, I asked for all the relevant files and paperwork to be reviewed in order to ensure that everything was correctly disclosed. During this process it was discovered that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) had written to me a year ago drawing my attention to pro forma business plans submitted by UK solicitors in Romanian and Bulgarian cases. I did, in fact, take action at that time on advice from officials to address those concerns. I realised that that was what my hon. Friend was referring to when he mentioned that correspondence to me briefly in the Lobby recently.
On Wednesday, having re-read the interviews that I gave on Monday, I realised that what I said then was not fully consistent with that correspondence. Once the full picture was clear to me, I asked to see both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to explain that I had decided that I could not continue. I have always said that in my political and my personal life nothing is more important than my integrity, and although I did not intentionally mislead anyone I have decided that I cannot in conscience continue to serve as immigration Minister.
I believe strongly that on an issue as sensitive as immigrationone so open to misunderstandingthere is a special obligation on me as Minister to set the highest standards, not only in my personal integrity, but in the policies that we pursue. I am proud of what we have done in turning round the asylum system, which has had huge problems over many years. I know that there is more to do in immigration. I know it will be done, but I do hope that in doing it we can strike a balance between the necessary rules and order and recognition of the contribution that many generations of migrants have made and will continue to make to this country.
I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to serve as a Minister during the past five years in the most successful Labour Government in our party's history. I am proud to have played a part in our achievements, and I look forward to continuing to work for our party from the Back Benches.
Last, but not least, I want to thank my family and friends, local party members and constituents, the Prime Minister and ministerial colleagues, and all my right hon. and hon. Friends in the parliamentary Labour party for their strong support, especially during recent weeks. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the Home Secretary for his personal support and friendship over many years and the opportunity to work with him in government.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): I am sure that the House will have been impressed by the dignity of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes).
At Weston Park in the summer of 2001, the British and Irish Governments announced their intention to appoint a judge of international standing to look at six casesthe murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, Pat Finucane, Lord Justice and Lady Gibson, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright. Both Governments acknowledged that these were the source of grave public concern. The two Governments are determined that where there are allegations of collusion the truth should emerge. These murders were horrific events, causing pain to the families that still continues today.
In May 2002, the two Governments announced the appointment of the Honourable Justice Peter Cory, a retired member of the Canadian Supreme Court, to conduct the investigation. Justice Cory presented separate reports to the British and Irish Governments on 7 October.
I am grateful to Justice Cory and his team for their hard work and commitment. In undertaking this important task he has laboured long hours at significant personal cost. I am grateful to the families who spoke to him and to all those who made submissions to him.
In presenting his reports to the Governments, Justice Cory expressed the hope that his investigation would contribute to the very difficult task of achieving peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and I share that wish.
I want to make clear at the outset the Government's unequivocal view that, without the professional and steadfast work of the police, Army, Prison Service and many others in the wider public service over many years, we would not have achieved the progress that we have made towards securing a permanent peace and an enduring reconciliation. That is, I believe, both a justified and necessary acknowledgement, which I warmly give to the House.
I am today publishing the four reports that were presented to the British Governmentthose relating to Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright. In line with Justice Cory's terms of reference, the only redactions that have been made are those that were necessary to ensure that the privacy and right to life of individuals is protected, and that the Government's obligations in relation to ensuring justice and protecting national security are maintained. Redactions are clearly shown in the text of those reports. As agreed with the judge, redacted text will be placed in secret sealed appendices.
Justice Cory presented his reports on 7 October. They are extensive and in total are around 500 pages long. Since we received the judge's reports we have had to consider most carefully a number of important issues, as we said we would in the judge's terms of reference: national security, the protection of life, the criminal justice process and fairness to those named in the
We have considered carefully our obligation to ensure fairness to individuals. At our request, Justice Cory has added a foreword to the reports, which makes it clear that it was not his task to make final determinations of fact or attributions of responsibility, and his findings are necessarily provisional. I would, of course, have liked to publish the reports sooner, but the Government have a duty to ensure that they meet all their obligations, including fairness not only to the families, but to those who could be identified in the reports.
Justice Cory's approach has been to adopt a very wide definition of collusion that covers both inaction as well as action, and patterns of behaviour as well as individual acts of collusion. On that basis, the judge has decided that there are instances in each case where it could be provisionally found that there was collusion. In each case, he recommends that those questions should be examined and tested further in the course of inquiries. For that reason, the Government have not taken a view on Justice Cory's provisional findings, which he has reached as a result of his wide definition of collusion, but his reports raise matters that will cause serious concern. I agree wholeheartedly with Justice Cory's view that the public must have confidence in public institutions.
The Government stand by the commitment that we made at Weston Park. In the Wright case, there are no outstanding investigations or prosecutions, and the inquiry will start work as soon as possible; it will be established under the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) 1953.
In the Finucane case, an individual is currently being prosecuted for the murder, and the police investigation by Sir John Stevens and his team continues. It is not possible to say whether further prosecutions will follow, and the conclusion of the criminal justice process in that case is thus some way in the future. For that reason, we will set out the way ahead at the conclusion of prosecutions.
The police investigation in the Nelson case continues, but it is expected to end in the next few months. The Chief Constable has advised me that the establishment of a public inquiry would not prejudice the investigation, and the inquiry will therefore begin work as soon as possible. It will also take place under the 1998 Act, and it will examine the actions of the police and the Northern Ireland Office.
I recognise that the requirement in the Finucane case to wait until criminal proceedings are complete will disappoint some, but public interest demands that prosecutions should be pursued to their conclusion and that wrongdoers should be punished. As Justice Cory says:
I know that concern has been expressed in this House and elsewhere about the length and cost of some public inquiries. In particular, there are concerns about the cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry£129.9 million to date, with a predicted final cost of £155 million. I understand that unhappiness, but setting up that inquiry was the right thing to do, and I commend the work of Lord Saville and his team. Having been established, the inquiry must run its course if it is to be fair to individuals and if the truth is to emerge.
We will, of course, take all reasonable steps to control costs in the inquiries that I have announced today, including capping legal costs where appropriate. We will ensure that the inquiries have the maximum powers, as well as aiming for better, quicker inquiries. Even so, these inquiries will inevitably mean the commitment of significant resources. The Government recognise people's desire to see public funds spent on delivering better public services and effective policing. I recognise public concern about further expenditure on inquiries into the past.
This Government have shown repeatedly that the state is open to scrutiny for its actions. We established the Bloody Sunday inquiry. The investigation by Sir John Stevens continues and has yielded prosecutions. We appointed Justice Cory, with the Irish Government. Wrongdoers will be brought to justice. I firmly believe that the only way we can put the past behind us in Northern Ireland is by seeking to establish the truth; but that must be the truth about the actions of all those who have been involved in the tragedy of the past 30 years.
I started this statement with a warm tribute to the police, the Army, the Prison Service and public servants in general, and I underline that. Too many of those people have lost their lives to terrorism, and their sacrifice is not forgotten. However, Justice Cory's reports raise serious questions that it is right to address further.
I am under no illusions about the fact that confronting the past is a difficult and painful process. The Government and their agencies are ready to play their part. We need to find a way of remembering the past, while not allowing it to hinder progress in future. Northern Ireland needs greater reconciliation between the communities; that is where all our attention needs to be directed. We should ensure that we do not concentrate on divisive issues from the past at the expense of securing the future.