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Punishment Beatings

2. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): How many punishment beatings there were in the Province in the latest period for which figures are available. [10653]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The total number of punishment beatings in Northern Ireland, which are usually referred to as "paramilitary-style attacks" and consist of both shootings and assaults, for this year is 109. That is 23 fewer than for the same period last year but, of course, any level of paramilitary activity is too much.

Andrew Selous: But is the Minister aware that the      Independent Monitoring Commission figures underestimate considerably the true number of those assaults, because the victims are often far too frightened to report them for fear of further reprisals? People on the estates that are most affected say that the problem is worse   than it has ever been. Does he agree that it is incumbent on the leaders of all communities in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Members for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) to pledge and work publicly to eradicate those beatings and other assaults?

Mr. Woodward: I think that everybody wants a reduction in intimidation and assaults, and we want everyone to co-operate in encouraging people to come forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that the figures are an underestimation of the number of assaults that take place. The consequences of those assaults are unbearable for the victims and the families, and we will do everything that we can to encourage a situation in which people who are subject to those disgraceful attacks have the confidence to come forward in future and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): The tragic events surrounding the death of Robert McCartney demonstrate that many paramilitaries see themselves as the law enforcement agencies in their communities. What are we doing to assist the legitimate law enforcement agencies in the Province?
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Mr. Woodward: We are doing everything we can to assist the legitimate law enforcement agencies, which includes making it clear that we do not tolerate in any shape or form paramilitary activity, punishment beatings or criminality. I remind the House that the Secretary of State has set a clear objective—that in order to make any progress, there must be a definitive end to paramilitary activity and criminality. That stands and will continue to stand.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Will the Minister clarify what additional support the Government are prepared to give to community restorative justice schemes, such as the IMPACT scheme in the North Down constituency, in an effort to reduce and indeed eliminate paramilitary-style beatings?

Mr. Woodward: I am assured by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for criminal justice, that we are looking at such proposals, including in the hon. Lady's constituency. We are taking her advice on board and hope to be able to report to her shortly.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Further to the details contained in the most recent IMC report, can the Minister update the House on the level of ongoing paramilitary involvement in other kinds of criminal and organisational activity, and tell us what action he proposes to take to combat that?

Mr. Woodward: In addressing paramilitary activity, one of the most important organisations that have been put in place is the Organised Crime Task Force, which I chair. This year we were able to report—obviously, this relates to paramilitary activity as well—that 28 top-level organised crime gangs were disrupted or dismantled. We recovered assets totalling nearly £12 million, which were restrained or confiscated. Nearly £10 million worth of drugs and counterfeit goods worth nearly £7 million were seized. We have a programme for next year that will include tackling illegal fuel by a scheme to tighten petrol licensing and more work on the private security industry, which the paramilitaries have tried to infiltrate. We will have a strengthened response to illegal dumping and we will safeguard charities from abuse by establishing a Northern Ireland charity commissioner.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The whole House would condemn violence from wherever it comes, including from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. The Minister is aware that much   criminality exists in the Province—mafia-style criminality, aimed at financing the activities of the IRA-Sinn Fein and the activity aimed at control of the streets on the so-called loyalist side. This criminality makes the peace process extremely difficult. What measures can be taken to end such mafia-style operations in the Province?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman is right to speak about the dangers of criminality operating in the Province. It would be impossible for us to proceed with any negotiations if we were not able to put on the table the definitive demand for an end to paramilitary activity and criminality. We have increased resources for the
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police, the Assets Recovery Agency and all the agencies, intelligence communities included, which are working extremely hard and extremely effectively to deliver an effective response to bring those perpetrating these crimes to justice and to stop those trying to organise crime being successful.

Political Situation

3. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the outcome of his recent meetings with political parties in Northern Ireland on the political situation in Northern Ireland. [10654]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): My meetings with all the Northern Ireland political parties have been extremely useful and I hope to intensify this process.

Rosie Cooper: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no single party in Northern Ireland has the right of veto over the peace process?

Mr. Hain: Indeed. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, acknowledge her strong and long interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and look forward to working with her. We want to get parties working together, not vetoing or seeking to veto efforts to take Northern Ireland forward. We will not allow that to happen. I hope my hon. Friend will be reassured by that.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I trust that the House will not be taken in by the IRA leadership's weasel words about the recent bombings in London—the last bomb to explode in London was planted by the IRA, and its leadership has never condemned that event. Has the Secretary of State asked the IRA-Sinn Fein leadership what it did with the proceeds of the Northern bank robbery? A colleague of the Justice Minister in the Irish Republic has said that Adams and McGuinness were instrumental in organising that robbery.

Mr. Hain: All parties, including Sinn Fein, have condemned the London atrocities. On the Northern bank robbery, the investigations conducted by the PSNI and the security services are still continuing, and some progress has been made. We hope that those investigations will be successful.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): In the next round of talks, will the Secretary of State pick up some of the wider issues such as the environment, unemployment and the business alliance's recent ideas? In addition to residual unemployment, underemployment is a major concern, and perhaps it will increase with the withdrawal of peace funding and other moneys.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is right to say that we must continue to dedicate our energy to ensuring that more jobs are created in Northern Ireland, but he also knows that Northern Ireland has more jobs than at any time in    its history under this Labour Government. Unemployment has more than halved, but the level of economic inactivity, which is one of the highest in the United Kingdom, is worrying. We will continue to work
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with everybody, including those in business circles, to ensure that Northern Ireland has full employment and a competitive economy that can withstand future global pressures.

Belfast Agreement

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of Sinn Fein-IRA's intentions to abide by the terms of the Belfast agreement. [10655]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Government await the IRA's response to the April statement by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), which called for the organisation to pursue its aims through purely political and democratic activity, as demanded by the terms of the Belfast agreement. I hope that the response will shortly provide credible, verifiable and definitive commitments to that end.

Mr. Robathan: The Secretary of State said that Sinn Fein has condemned atrocities that it committed. Can we cease the fiction that Sinn Fein and the IRA are anything other than a bunch of terrorists whom we cannot trust? Seven years after the Belfast agreement, we should understand that we cannot appease a bunch of terrorists, and we should cease doing so.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman has heard the statements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers, and he should recognise that the Government's paramount objective is to end criminality and paramilitary activity. That is the purpose of the process, and we will work to that end. When the IRA makes a statement, the Government are committed to ensuring that we have verifiable, positive proof that paramilitary and criminal activity have ended. That is the Government's objective.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): In a month in which the McCartney sisters have indicated that they are leaving Short Strand because of IRA intimidation, and on the day after Gerry Adams and other leading Sinn Fein members were seen at the forefront of a riot in which unprovoked attacks were made on Orangemen in north Belfast, does the Minister believe that there is any hope of IRA-Sinn Fein and its political leadership adopting exclusively democratic and peaceful means? If not, why does he insist that those political leaders should be included in the Government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: As I have said, the Government's prime objective is to ensure that we end criminal and paramilitary activity. I pay tribute to the McCartney sisters and their courageous behaviour in Belfast. We must end the murders, the shootings and the beatings, which are not acceptable in a democratic society. It is our duty to try to reintroduce devolved Government, which is both our objective and the purpose of discussions that take place in Government every day of the week. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the House come to order?
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