Community Relations Policy

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Mr. Spellar: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the restoration of the devolved institutions can take place only in the context of a definitive end to paramilitary activity. That is why over the past couple of days we have had extensive discussions with the political parties on how to achieve that. We are meeting again next week. We will come back with a summary of discussions held this week and previously to try to bring what I am sure we all desire—a restoration of the devolved institutions.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I note that the Minister did not take the opportunity that the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) gave him to congratulate the poll-topping achievement of

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the DUP candidate Jim Allister. I again give him the opportunity to do so, and commiserate with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party on its worst election performance in its history.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman must come to the question. Other hon. Members are waiting to ask questions, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to direct his question to the Minister.

Mr. Robinson: I was just coming to my question, Mr. Benton, and your encouragement will make me do so all the faster.

There is now a clear mandate for those who say that an Executive in Northern Ireland cannot contain representatives who have a private army. There is a demand for the full decommissioning of all weapons held by all organisations and a complete end to all paramilitary and criminal activity. Will the Minister stand with those who have that democratic mandate, and will he ensure that the achievement of those aims is the outcome of any process?

Mr. Spellar: First, I comment only on the results of Labour candidates, which were extremely good in my borough: the results showed a decline from 55 councillors to 52 out of a total of 72. That result seemed particularly satisfactory, as did those in many areas of the west midlands. Indeed, the figures for many other areas are quite good. My colleague was extremely pleased—

The Chairman: Order. I ask the Minister to respond to the question.

Mr. Spellar: To respond to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I reiterate that restoration of the institutions can take place only in the context of a definitive end to paramilitary activity. As he is well aware, in the past two days we have held discussions on precisely that subject. We will be holding further discussions in order to achieve our mutually desired end, which is the restoration of devolved government and a devolved Executive, and such matters being decided, as is proper, by the locally elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

Teacher Training

6. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If he will make a statement on Government policy towards integrated teacher training in Northern Ireland.[178655]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): A consideration of initial teacher education is currently under way, involving the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Education and the main stakeholders. It will embrace all aspects of current policy and provision.

Mr. Barnes: I know that teacher training provision in Northern Ireland is of a high standard, but should not integration in education start with the training of schoolteachers? Such integration happens at university level at Queen's university, but as St. Mary's university college is essentially for Catholics, the Stranmillis university college becomes, de facto, for Protestants. If students and teachers are divided in such a way, will

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there not be consequences when teachers go into schools and start teaching? Would not education for mutual understanding benefit from integration at student teacher level?

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for his acknowledgement of the high standard of training for teachers in Northern Ireland. Indeed, all teacher-training institutions initially train teachers to teach in any school with any ethos. All five are open to students of any religion or none. There is some cross-enrolment between the schools of education. The University of Ulster and Queen's are mixed and Stranmillis university college makes arrangements for its students to take the certificate in religious education—which, as my hon. Friend is aware, is required for teachers in Catholic primary schools—through the University of Glasgow if they wish to. I am advised that there are teachers who have trained in St. Mary's working in controlled schools, and teachers who trained in Stranmillis teaching in Catholic schools. However, we are looking at initial teacher training, and will be taking comments such as those of my hon. Friend into consideration.

Police (Resources)

8. Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): If he will make a statement on police resources in Northern Ireland.[178657]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): The Government are committed to ensuring that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is resourced to deliver efficient and effective policing. Some £726 million is available this year to provide a day-to-day policing service, and a further £90 million is available to meet the costs of implementing the Patten recommendations.

Mr. Dodds: Does the Minister accept that one of the greatest concerns among my constituents in Belfast, North, which I hear continually from residents' groups and others, is the lack of police visibility—the manpower and resources—on the ground? Does he accept that the following two measures could go a long way to improving and enhancing resources? First, we could allow lateral entry for members of the full-time reserve into the regular force. Secondly, we could scrap the iniquitous 50:50 rule, which is holding back well qualified and fully qualified Protestants from joining the force and is totally discriminatory.

Mr. Pearson: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about his constituents' perceptions that there are not sufficient police on the ground. That is a familiar theme, which many Members of Parliament will recognise. However, £726 million is a significant sum to devote to policing: amounting to £400 per head of population per year in Northern Ireland, it is more than twice the average for the rest of the UK. A high level of resources is therefore going into policing in Northern Ireland. Operationally, it is for the Chief Constable to decide how it is best to deploy the resources made available by the Government to ensure that we have effective community policing in Northern Ireland.

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The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said about the full-time reserve. The Government believe that the 50:50 rule is a success. It was a key recommendation of the Patten report and it is important that we continue with that policy.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the main debate is set for two and a half hours. Depending on how many hon. Members want to speak, and if contributions are brief, everyone should get a chance to speak.

Community Relations Policy

3.2 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the future direction of community relations policy in Northern Ireland.

This is a timely motion, in that it demonstrates the importance that the Government and the House place on improving relations within and between communities in Northern Ireland. It is also timely as we approach the marching season. I am sure that the Committee shares my hope, and the Government's, that everyone with influence will use it to ensure that that period is peaceful.

David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): Symbolism and community relations are so important. The Minister constantly refers to the marching season, which, historically speaking, is not how we refer to our commemorative parades throughout the Province. Why does the Minister keep referring to a marching season, which implies some sort of militaristic aspect? They are the commemorative parades of our historic British and Orange culture.

Mr. Spellar: As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, an alternative phrasing is the parading season. The marching season is understood more widely, but I take the point, which one of his colleagues made during discussions yesterday. I also welcome the fact that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is considering hate crime in Northern Ireland. I will say a little more about that later.

Current policy on community relations was established at a particular period in the history of Northern Ireland between 1987 and 1990. Since community relations policy structures and programmes were established, there has been significant change in the political, economic and social environment in which they operate. Although those policies and actions have served Northern Ireland reasonably well, it is timely to review their operation and consider how a new policy framework should be shaped.

I am reminded that the participants in the Belfast agreement recognised the importance of developing reconciliation, mutual understanding and respect between and within communities and traditions in Northern Ireland. They noted:

    ''An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including''

initiatives

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    ''to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing.''

In their programme of government, the Northern Ireland Executive undertook to review current community relations policy, put in place a cross-departmental strategy for the promotion of community relations and ensure an effective and co-ordinated response to sectarian and racial intimidation.

What were the emerging themes of the consultation? ''A Shared Future'' posed two alternatives. The first was to accept that the existing pattern of segregation and division was likely to remain for some time and focus our efforts on stabilising and managing the worst consequences of division, within and between the two communities. The second was to try to promote rapid progress towards a more integrated and shared society.

It is clear that those are not alternative futures, but overlapping realities. No one can argue for an artificially homogenous Northern Ireland; no one will be asked to give up or suppress their chosen identity. However, to move forward, we must all be prepared to think creatively. The overwhelming response to the consultation so far is that standing still is not an option.

 
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Prepared 17 June 2004