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Mr. Murphy: I have already done that. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that I entirely share his views. I just mentioned the work that the UDP did in the talks that led up to the Good Friday agreement, and Davy Adams was an outstanding contributor to those talks. Any attempt to intimidate him is bad in itself, but also does great disservice to political loyalism.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend today, and it may be a significant step in the peace process. However, it has been met with wide scepticism in the Province. Indeed, in the papers today a Mr. Alban Maginness, an SDLP Assembly Member for north Belfast, echoed the sentiments voiced in the Chamber today by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). Only when actions are seen, not just words, will the many communities in Northern Ireland believe that this is a positive step. We took evidence last year from the Prison Officers Association, whose members have been specifically targeted by the UDA, and it would need reassurance—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The purpose of calling Back Benchers is to enable them to ask one supplementary question.

Mr. Luke: The POA seeks assurances that the UDA and UFF will desist from targeting prison officers to get their own way in prisons.

Mr. Murphy: Criminality includes the intimidation of prison officers, which we all condemn. My hon. Friend mentioned widespread scepticism, but I have read about the reaction of politicians and journalists in Northern Ireland in the past day or two and I would say that widespread caution was expressed. I did not detect anybody saying that we should not do what is proposed. Perhaps one or two people have said that, but generally speaking the political consensus in Northern Ireland—while rightly cautious and probably a little sceptical—is that we should give the UDA the chance to prove itself. If it does, everybody in Northern Ireland will benefit.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): My knowledge of the character of the Secretary of State and of the work that he has done since taking that office leaves no room for doubt about his intentions and
 
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motives with regard to securing a better future for Northern Ireland. Can he assure me that absolution for past heinous crimes cannot simply be bought by a few words and the expression of an intention not to commit crimes in the future? There is a danger that members of the public—especially on this side of the Irish sea, but even in Northern Ireland—could gain the impression that too often absolution for terrible crimes is bought at a cheap price without any benefit accruing.

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind words. We have all expressed the same theme this afternoon. Words are very important in Northern Ireland, but they are not the only criteria that we have on which to judge developments. We have to judge developments on deeds—an end to paramilitary activity, to criminality and to drug dealing. We need to see a complete turnaround so that people in those organisations—and there are thousands of them—turn their energies to addressing those very issues that have provided the basis for paramilitarism in the past. They need to concentrate on education, training, schools, jobs, housing and health. We have to tackle all those issues, particularly in deprived Protestant working class communities in Northern Ireland. If we do that, there will be no need for paramilitary activity; indeed, there is never any need for that—the hon. and learned Gentleman knows what I mean—but we can take away any excuse for it. My meetings over the past couple of weeks have led me to believe that people are sincere in what they want to do. Time will tell.


 
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Point of Order

4.11 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 12 March 2003, in the Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, I raised a concern with the Minister for School Standards—that the new procedures for co-ordinating admissions to secondary schools may, through the ranking of the schools to which parents are applying, allow schools to discriminate against those who did not rank a school as a first preference.

I was given a clear assurance by the Minister, who said:

He went on to say that

From press reports yesterday, it appears that grammar schools in particular now have concerns that some of the non-selective schools in their areas are discriminating against applicants who do not put non-selective schools as first choices. The Minister for School Standards is quoted as having replied to one such school that

May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker? What is the appropriate course of action when a Minister has given a very clear, unquestionable assurance during the passage of a statutory instrument that appears to be at variance with the code of practice subsequently issued by the Department, on which schools and parents rely?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is obviously concerned. Persistence is required from Back Benchers such as himself. He should put down parliamentary questions to the Minister and, perhaps, apply to me for an Adjournment debate—not that I agree or disagree with the hon. Gentleman; I am neutral in these matters.
 
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Orders of the Day

Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill

Lords amendment considered.

4.13 pm

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 2C. If the House agrees to the amendment, I shall arrange for the necessary entry to be made in the Journal.

After Clause 6

Lords amendment: No 2C

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

It is ironic that the only remaining issue standing in the way of the Bill has nothing whatever to do with the new pensions and compensation arrangements. By my reckoning, this is the seventh time during the passage of the Bill that there has been a debate in either House on the issue of post-retirement benefits of widows and widowers. This House has twice voted resoundingly against adding a provision of the sort proposed to the Bill—on Report, on 6 May, by 252 to 132 votes, and on 20 October, the last time that this House discussed the issue, by 270 votes to 181.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): No one would dispute the figures, but is the Minister saying that because the Government Whips can get their people to vote as the Government want, that carries the argument on merit?

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I respond to that during the course of my opening remarks. To put the issue into perspective, I was about to say that the House of Lords had twice voted in favour of a provision, once by a single vote, and most recently on 2 November. Members will recall that

estimated by the Government Actuary at about £50 million for the Ministry of Defence alone and at between £300 million and £500 million across all public service schemes—was the clear reason for the House's refusal of the Lords' previous position. That remains the Government position and indeed, I hope and expect, the view of the House.

We do not think that the figures would be reduced in the major way indicated in the context of attempts by the Opposition, in this place and then in the Lords, to limit the impact of the amendment by inserting age thresholds for payment of 70 and then 75. Clearly, it was thought that, in each case, such a constraint would make the amendment a lot less expensive and, therefore, more palatable to the Government. I want to disabuse the House on that point.

4.15 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Incidentally, I was sorry to hear the recent announcement that he will be retiring from the House at the end of this Parliament.
 
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Does the Minister really want to pursue the post-retirement pensions analogy for the Ministry of Defence and other elements of the public service? Surely, the point is that members of the armed forces tend to retire when they are much younger, so the problem bears on them disproportionately. There is no reason why there should be a read-across. Age limits could deal with the problem in a way that would not read across to other parts of the public service.


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