|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): As I approach the end of my first year as a parliamentary apprentice, I see this House as a place of contrasts. Sometimes kindness is directed towards Members, while at other times there is cruelty when Members are in full flight after some hapless Minister like a pack of hounds. When I see how Members behave towards each other, I sometimes wonder where the anti-cruelty vote came from.
There can also be a contrast between tedium and drama, as you will have experienced on many occasions, Madam Deputy Speaker. Going through the detail of a Bill with very few Members in the Chamber can be tedious, yet sometimes we see the drama of close votes and Back-Bench revolts. One of my favourite occurrences took place in July when the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) had decided to speak against her own party. It was late at night, thunder was pealing outside and, just as she
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1757
reached her main point, lightning flashed around the Chamber. My hon. Friends were impressed that the Labour Whips had such power, as we had thought that it was reserved to the leader of our party.
Over the past few months, I have found several contrasts between the Government's attitudes towards issues in England or in the international sphere and towards similar issues in Northern Ireland. I want to raise with the Minister the Government's contrasting attitudes to terrorism, because my constituents want answers on that. Not so long ago, a lone protestor outside Downing street was arrested for reading out a list of names of soldiers murdered in Iraq. Yet this weekend the case was dropped against members of Sinn Fein who were in possession of lists of policemen and prison personnel, many of whom had to leave their own homes, at a huge cost to the taxpayer of more than £30 million, as a result. Sinn Fein has tried to turn that into an intelligence scandal by saying that it is terrible that the police and MI5 were recruiting informers from within the IRA and Sinn Fein. Many in this House would be appalled if the security forces were not trying to recruit informers and gather intelligence. The spotlight seems to have been directed towards the police or the Government, whereas the real questions must be answered by Sinn Fein. Why did it have those lists? To what purpose did it intend to put them? Why were the fingerprints of some leading Sinn Fein members all over them? How can people in Northern Ireland trust Sinn Fein?
The question that my constituents want the Government to answer is this: if those people abuse their position in the Stormont Assembly and use their offices to capture information that could be useful to terrorists, why on earth are the Government pursuing an agenda that will put those same people back into their offices and back into office? Of course, such people are not to be trusted, and there is not the required level of trust.
Another contrast in the attitudes to terrorism was shown in the revolt by Labour Members not long ago in relation to holding terrorist suspects for more than 90 days without charge. Within a couple of weeks, however, those Members were tamely trotting through the Lobby to support legislation that would allow terrorists in Northern Ireland, who have charge lists as long as one's arm and have been found guilty of some of the most heinous crimes, to walk off without even appearing in court, let alone spending 90 seconds in jail. That Bill has been considered in Committee in the past couple of weeks, and the Government must bring back amendments that deal with the serious issues raised by Members in all parts of the House, including Government Back Benchers, and by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the police and others.
Secondly, there is a contrast in the attitudes to education. The White Paper presented to the House will afford schools in England new freedoms in deciding on their admissions criteria. Despite the hysterical reaction from the Secretary of Statewhich, of course, we understand, as she must placate her Back Benchers, and it now seems that she must placate some Cabinet membersthere is no doubt that those freedoms will enable schools to match children to the type of education to which they are best suited. We can call that academic selection or whatever we want, but it allows
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1758
schools that freedom. I have no difficulty with calling it academic selection, common sense or whatever; I believe that it is right, and schools in England will benefit from it.
The contrast is that while the Government are introducing those freedoms to schools in England, they are removing them in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that teachers, schools, parents and the public, in consultation after consultation, including Government consultations, have widely supported continuing to match children to the school that they attend through an assessment of their educational needs, aptitudes and abilities. Last Friday, I met several principals who serve schools that take a large number of my constituents. They are all baffled as to how the Government can continue to fly in the face of public opinion in Northern Ireland on this issue. Unfortunately, a White Paper that will be introduced to the House in the new Session will remove in Northern Ireland the very freedoms that the Government intend to introducefor which they will probably seek our supportin England. The Secretary of State must explain why the two parts of the United Kingdom are treated differently.
Thirdly, there is the attitude to the economy. The Chancellor has problems with the UK economy. Growth rates are half what he predicted in the Budget last year, public finances face a huge gap and a black hole, and the golden rule is in tatters. The Chancellor has rightly tried to talk up the economy, as he does not want confidence in it to be lost. What a contrast that is with the attitude of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who flies off to New York to meet investors and tells them that the Northern Ireland economy is unsustainable. The Chancellor of the Exchequer talks up a flagging economy in the House of Commons, while the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland talks down the economy of which he is in charge.
I understand that there are problems with the Northern Ireland economy. Our dependence on the public sector is too great, and the private sector is too sluggish. The private sector faces all kinds of problems, what with uncertainty and organised crimeby the very people, incidentally, whom the Secretary of State hopes to get into government in the next yearand the planning delays caused by the bureaucracy of the planning system, which has not improved. That has affected a number of projects in my constituencymajor, multi-million-pound projects. I hope that the planning delays will be dealt with, so that the £80 million investment in Magheramorne quarry, and the investment in the village of Glenarm and in Carrickfergus are not held up.
There is also a contrast in the attitudes to finance. Only yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that he had secured a great deal when he gave away £7 billion to the European Union, although he had not achieved any reform in the common agricultural policy, or even any promises of reform, and although he had promised that he would not renegotiate the rebate, period. That largesse towards the EU presents a contrast. When my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) asked at the end of the statement who would pay for the additional money that would go into the EU's coffers, he did not receive an answer.
I note that my constituents in Northern Ireland are already bearing a heavier tax burden because of a 19 per cent. increase in the regional rate, a promise of new
20 Dec 2005 : Column 1759
water charges in the new year, and cuts in both the general and the waste management grants to councils. To my constituents, that means that the general grant to Larne, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus councils will have been cut by 50 per cent. as a percentage of their budgets since 2002, and the waste management grant will be cut by 33 per cent. this year. All that, at a time when the Government have increased the regional rate, means that councils will have to increase the district rate. It is another way of passing on cuts and financing that through additional local taxation, which of course makes it more difficult for new private-sector firms to find their feet.
I also see a contrast in the attitude to international issues. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned those. I have attended lobbies in the House when constituents have come to speak to me about making poverty history in Africa. I have met representatives of schools. I have also have spoken in schools in my constituency, where youngsters have written letters and carried out projects, and teachers have done a great job in raising awareness of the unfairness in the distribution of wealth across the world and the impact that it has.
The Prime Minister has, I have to say, done an excellent job in raising awareness of African issues through the Make Poverty History campaign, the Commission for Africa and everything else. At the same time, however, that contrasts with the lack of action on getting rid of the inequities within the common agricultural policy, which have led to the destruction of many African and other economies through heavy export subsidies that favour the rich world rather than the poor. Those contrasts must be dealt with and we must have answers to questions about them.
I trust that, in the new year, we will have some answers and perhaps a change of heart, and I hope that some of the issues that I have raised this afternoon will be dealt with. Meanwhile, I hope that Members and the Minister will take note of the contrasts that I have highlighted. In closing, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all members of staff a happy Christmas.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|