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Session 2003 - 04
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Northen Ireland Grand Committee Debates

Community Relations Policy

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Thursday 17 June 2004

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Claudy (Public Inquiry)

2.30 pm

1. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): If he will arrange a public inquiry and review of all the evidence available concerning the IRA atrocity at Claudy in 1972. [178650]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): The Police Service of Northern Ireland informs me that investigation into the Claudy atrocity is still ongoing. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment.

Mr. Beggs: We have been getting that sort of answer for a long time. More than 30 years ago, three car bombs exploded without warning, ripping the heart out of Claudy village in county Londonderry. Five Catholics and four Protestants were murdered, and 30 others suffered horrific injuries.

Why have we not had a full public inquiry along the lines of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, as previously requested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)? Why are the Government perceived to be have persisted in covering up the involvement of the late Father Chesney of the Roman Catholic Church, the Church hierarchy, the Northern Ireland Office, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and former Cabinet Minister William Whitelaw—or ''Willie Whitewash'', as he is remembered in Northern Ireland? The bereaved families and the victims of the Claudy bombing deserve no less than a full public inquiry. We will persist until we get one.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that, as we have pointed out in other cases, having a public inquiry while a police investigation is ongoing could put at risk possible prosecutions following the investigation. Accordingly, I refer him to my original answer: there is an ongoing police investigation, and it is therefore difficult for me comment further. An inquiry could put subsequent prosecutions at risk.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I remind the Minister that it was entirely through representations from our party that the police investigation was undertaken. It is a long, long time since that task was put before the police. Could he do something to hasten the inquiry, because many interesting and startling things have been found out about that terrible massacre?

Mr. Spellar: We are advised by the PSNI that investigations into that atrocity are ongoing. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), who has responsibility for policing,

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will have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments and will no doubt take the matter up in the appropriate quarters.

Northern Ireland Civil Service

2. Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): What recent steps he has taken to resolve the Northern Ireland Civil Service pay dispute[178651]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Government will continue to take all reasonable steps to resolve our differences with the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance over pay. Officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel met union leaders on 8 and 11 March 2004. At those meetings, officials emphasised that they could not reopen negotiations on the 2003 settlement beyond the figure of 3.67 per cent. However, they were willing to explore all other reasonable means to resolve the dispute. Since then, the message has been reiterated by management on a number of occasions.

Lady Hermon: I am disappointed that the Minister did not indicate when he is going to sit down at the table and negotiate with representatives of the civil service unions. Will he explain how he can sit back and not take responsibility for bringing Northern Ireland almost to a standstill through MOT testing not being available? People will go out of business. What is he personally going to do about it?

Mr. Pearson: It is important that we take all steps to resolve the dispute. We have paid what we believe is a fair and reasonable award; it is costing the Government 3.67 per cent. for 2003. Most people have received that money in their pay packets for the past four or five months. It simply is not possible to change the 2003 pay award, and NIPSA needs to realise that we cannot negotiate over it. We are perfectly happy to discuss the 2004 pay award with the union; indeed, we shall do so shortly. We shall also take all reasonable steps to ensure that we protect and deliver high-quality services to the public.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned MOT test centres, and I shall repeat what I have said elsewhere. People with cars in roadworthy condition who have evidence that they have applied for an MOT test should have nothing to worry about as far as the police are concerned. Although such people should check with their insurers, I am assured that a range of insurance companies will provide them with insurance. We need to tackle the issue of MOT test centres, and officials are devising contingency plans to ensure that we continue to deliver the services that citizens rightly expect.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I am somewhat disappointed by the Minister's response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). His comments today and, indeed, in the Northern Ireland media suggest that the Government have reached a total impasse. He said that 3.67 per cent. is a fair deal, but other strata of the civil service have received greater increases. Has he reckoned up the cost of the proposals in terms of MOT tests, insurance, policing and social security officers' time? Would it not be better, in an attitude of preparedness, to enter into

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further talks, if not negotiations, with the civil service unions?

Mr. Pearson: I am certainly prepared to enter into talks. Indeed, the general secretary of NIPSA will meet the head of the civil service shortly, and they will discuss the dispute as part of that meeting. However, I am not prepared to change the 3.67 per cent. pay award; I simply cannot do it. The award is on a par with the awards that all Departments throughout the UK have received, and NIPSA must recognise that we simply cannot go back and change it. I am more than happy to talk to the union and, as I have always said, to find a way of resolving the dispute. However, there cannot be any more money for 2003, and that message needs to be heard loud and clear.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): If parity with the rest of the UK is the issue, what flexibility will the Minister have to negotiate the 2004 pay award? His position on the 2003 pay award is absolutely rigid, because he is bound by UK-wide negotiations.

Although I welcome the Minister's comments about MOT tests, many of my constituents, including some who are elderly and disabled, have been unable to have their cars tested and cannot tax them, because they need an MOT certificate to validate their registration. They may have to take their cars off the road and sign a declaration saying that they have done so. It is therefore possible that thousands of people, including not only car owners, but hauliers with outstanding public service vehicle tests, will be seriously disadvantaged. What will the Minister do to address that issue?

The Chairman: Order. That question was a bit too lengthy.

Mr. Pearson: Thank you, Mr. Benton.

As far as I am aware, nobody has been forced to stop driving their car because they cannot get an MOT certificate as a result of the industrial action. There are ways in which people can get certificates at the moment. There is clearly a problem because of the strike, and there has been a delay. Although I shall not repeat what I said about the police and insurance, it is important to recognise that such matters should not to be a problem as far as giving tax discs is concerned.

The hon. Gentleman talked about pay. The issue is not particularly about parity, but it is about Government pay policy. The Government have a pay policy: each Department negotiates and agrees a pay remit with the Treasury. That was true in 2003 and it will be true for 2004; we are currently in discussions with the Treasury about the 2004 pay remit. Government pay policy is about paying fair and reasonable increases to staff and ensuring that we have sufficient resources to provide for improvements to front-line services. That will continue to be the case.

Peace II

3. Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the progress made to ensure the continuation of Peace II funding from the EU[178652]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach wrote jointly to President Prodi on 18 May, formally requesting an extension to the Peace II programme. Both are to raise the issue again at the European Council meeting that begins today. We hope that the European Commission and Parliament will respond positively.

Mr. Luke: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the enormous benefits of the more than 1 billion that has come in under Peace I and II over the last 10 years. The money has made great contributions to the communities in both Northern Ireland and the cross-border regions. I am sure that he is also aware of the concerns of many small organisations. We had discussions this week with the Victims and Survivors Trust in Belfast about its worries—

The Chairman: Order. This is question time, so the hon. Gentleman must put a question.

Mr. Luke: Will the Minister do all he can to ensure that the funding continues after this year?

Mr. Pearson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right about the importance of the Peace programme to Northern Ireland. The proposed extension to Peace II has widespread support across communities in Northern Ireland. We will do all that we can to ensure that negotiations can be successfully concluded and that the Peace programme is extended. As I mentioned, the Prime Minister will raise the issue this week with the Commission and in the European Council. We hope to have a positive response shortly.


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