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Thursday 26 February 2004
[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): Will the Minister make a statement on the Chilcot report on the break-in at Castlereagh special branch on 17 March 2002?
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a written statement to the House on the Chilcot report in July. He explained that the report came to certain conclusions about how the incident might have occurred and made recommendations. He also explained that he was constrained by the wider aspects and implications of national security from going into any details on these matters. I am afraid that that remains the case.
David Burnside: Dear oh dear, oh dear. What an answer from the Minister. The usual answer to the same question on the Chilcot report. The Minister is well aware that Bobby Storey is in charge of intelligence in the Belfast brigade of the Provisional IRA. She knows that there was only one line of inquiry into the break-in at special branch at Castlereagh. She knows that the same command structure carried out the breach of the IRA ceasefire against Mr. Tohill last week in Belfast. How long will the Government continue to appease the Provisional IRA in Belfast and the Sinn Fein leadership, which is one and the same organisation?
Jane Kennedy: I do not consider that the criminal investigation that is being undertaken into this matter and the very serious charges that remain against a number of those key individuals are in any way an act of appeasement. The police investigation is continuing. That work will continue and will eventually be determined in the courts. I do not see how that can be described as appeasement.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Surely the Minister must be aware that, as we meet today to discuss things relevant to the economy of Northern Ireland, the matters that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman are of the utmost importance to help the economy to get out of its current rut when we have terrorists committing these acts publicly and in full view of people on the streets of Belfast. Does she not feel that she should do something immediately so that the people realise that action is being taken by the Government?
Jane Kennedy: In the incidents to which the hon. Gentleman refers, charges have been made. The detail is now sub judice. He refers to events that were widely
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reported in the press in Northern Ireland. The protestations of the leadership of Sinn Fein about those events would be laughable if the situation were not so serious. It is also worth bearing in mind that much progress has been made. The actions against those individuals will continue. The police investigation will be followed through to its conclusion and those matters will be dealt with in the courts. As we work within the democratic society, it is fit and proper that we abide by the rules of that democratic society, but by the same token, those organisations who wish to participate in that democracy must also share their part of the responsibility and behave in a democratic and proper manner. All such paramilitary activity, which is abhorrent to all of us here in this Committee, should cease forthwith.
Dual Sensory Impairment
2. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): How many (a) children and (b) adults who are deaf-blind are registered in Northern Ireland; and what services are provided for them?
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): The information requested is not collected in the form requested, but the four health and social services boards indicate that there are up to 500 people with varying degrees of dual sensory impairment in Northern Ireland.
Services are provided by the trusts' sensory impairment teams. Those consist mainly of social workers and rehabilitation workers, but can draw on other professions as required. They provide a range of rehabilitation and support services and can also arrange for the provision of daily living aids, as well as home adaptations. Specialist voluntary sector support is provided by Sense and Deafblind UK.
Mr. Beggs: I thank the Minister for that answer. In 2001 the Department of Health issued guidance for local authorities about what service deaf-blind people should be entitled to receive. I want to ask the Minister to encourage the health and social services boards in Northern Ireland to assist Sense, which is the national deaf-blind and rubella organisation here on the mainland. It is seeking to complete an overall survey of the services provided for deaf-blind people. It has also asked me to inquire when section 7 can be extended to Northern Ireland.
Mr. Spellar: I shall certainly have to write to the hon. Gentleman regarding the last part of his question. With regard to the previous part, Sense has been in receipt of departmental core funding since 1992. Funding in the current three-year cycle will amount to almost £62,000. As he knows, Sense also provides advice, information and support to families, carers and professionals, as well as campaigning for the needs of deaf-blind people. We are working with Sense and very much appreciate the service that it provides, as well as with Deafblind UK.
3. Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of the inter-party talks?
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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): The review of the operation of the agreement formally began, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, in Belfast on 3 February. It involves all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the British and Irish Governments. We have proposed an indicative calendar for intensive discussions between now and Easter across the range of issues that the parties wish to raise.
As the right hon. Gentleman will also know, the review discussions this week were largely concerned with the implications of an alleged abduction attempt attributed by the Chief Constable to the IRA. That is a very serious and troubling development, and the Government and the parties will want to focus on the question of paramilitary activity in forthcoming review discussions. We believe that there cannot be political advance while such activity continues. We look forward to the early report that we requested from the Independent Monitoring Commission.
Mr. Trimble: I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to the attempted abduction of Mr. Tohill in Belfast, and to the Chief Constable's view. I should be grateful if he could give us his view, bearing in mind the emphatic statements made by Mr. Ahern yesterday evening, in which he made clear his position about the responsibility of the republican mainstream for the incident. I hope that the Minister will have the courage to tell the truth on this occasion. I note also that he does not foresee any prospect for political advance while there is continuing paramilitary activity, and I endorse that. In the light of that, would not it be more useful, in the long term, if the Government redoubled their efforts to clean up society in Northern Ireland from the scourge of paramilitarism? I suggest to him that they should focus, in cleaning up politics, on ensuring that all dirty money is excluded from the use of political parties; on cleaning up society by ensuring that racketeering—especially republican racketeering, which seems to have led a charmed life—becomes the focus; and on cleaning up the streets, by ensuring that there are sufficient policemen there. On the latter point, he will know the importance of retaining the full-time reserve of the police.
Mr. Spellar: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, and a number of those areas are already being covered. For example, the question of political funding will be the subject of a consultation leading towards—
Mr. Trimble: Get round to doing something.
Mr. Spellar: The actual legislation as passed by Parliament expires in February 2005, and that is why we shall be consulting and making decisions within this period to deal with the legislation on political funding. We await the representations from the various parties with regard to that.
Equally, with regard to the Assets Recovery Agency, considerable work is being undertaken in targeting those who benefit from criminal activity. As I said, we have also requested the Independent Monitoring Commission not only to include this incident in its report but to bring its report forward from July to May. We await its report with interest. I
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reassert that there cannot be political advance while such activity continues, and I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the reply from the Prime Minister to him during yesterday's Prime Minister's questions.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Given the uncompromising and explicit language used by the Chief Constable on Saturday, and in the light of the description by the Secretary of State and the Taoiseach of Friday's events as a serious breach of article 13 of the joint declaration, will the Minister reconsider whether it is adequate for the Government to say that business can continue as normal while we await various consultations and reports? Will Ministers urgently consider imposing sanctions on those whom the Chief Constable has blamed for that alleged attempted kidnapping? If that cannot be done through action in Northern Ireland, perhaps Ministers would consider action against privileges and allowances enjoyed in this place.
Mr. Spellar: If I may I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the words of the Secretary of State's statement. He said that
''all the indications are that there has been a serious breach of the requirement set out by the British and Irish Governments in paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration for an end to all forms of paramilitary activity.''
''Such behaviour is wholly unacceptable.''
He recognised that the developments
''have inevitably had a serious impact on this week's discussions''.
That is why the Government have asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to report on that activity and bring its report forward from July to May.
We have also clearly stated that
''the achievement of a sustainable basis for political progress in Northern Ireland requires a full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity.''
The Prime Minister endorsed those sentiments in his comments during Prime Minister's questions yesterday.