8 Feb 2006 : Column 859

House of Commons

Wednesday 8 February 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What proposals for the revised curriculum which will operate from September will broaden the types of religious and non-religious value system education in schools in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [48304]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): The revised curriculum aims to develop young people as contributors to society by fostering citizenship. Pupils are given the opportunity to learn about a range of religions, values and ethics, and about the importance of respecting diversity.

Mr. Allen: Thinking back to the beginning of the troubles, almost 30 years ago, where does my hon. Friend think we might be today, had we started then to introduce more secular education in Northern Ireland and not allowed further faith schools of any denomination to be built? I know that she is conducting an education review. Will she put herself in the position of being at the Dispatch Box in 30 years' time and begin that process in earnest now, so that young children are not indoctrinated with one religion or another at school, but only if their parents choose to do so at home? Will she take steps, through the review, to introduce such a proposal and to have more secular education in Northern Ireland?

Angela E. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his confidence that I will be at the Dispatch Box in 30 years' time. He makes a plea for integrated education, and there is clearly a great unmet demand on the part of parents for such education. The Government have obligations in that regard and dealing with this issue is a challenge, but we must also meet the challenge of falling school rolls. There are 50,000 spare places and one in eight school desks are empty. The review that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has initiated will consider how we can be smarter in managing the school
8 Feb 2006 : Column 860
estate and how we can ensure that we meet parental demand for integrated education, along with every other form of education.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I am sure that the Minister views with horror the prospect of standing at the Dispatch Box in 30 years' time as the Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland. Does she accept that having six different education providers in Northern Ireland has wasted resources and contributed to the overcapacity in school provision to which she referred? Will she explain to the House why she did not take the chance that she had under the review of public administration to cut the number of funded providers and why she continues to open Irish-medium schools and integrated schools, for example, in areas where there is a surplus—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary is fine.

Angela E. Smith: I suspect that there is little difference between the hon. Gentleman and me in respect of the review that we are taking forward. He is right to say that having so many different education providers has proved very expensive, but the review of public administration cuts the number of education administrators. In examining the existing types of education during the forthcoming review, the key issue has to be parental choice. He suggests that parents do not want Irish-medium education and integrated education, but such demand does exist. We have to be a bit smarter in how we provide such education and see whether we can share services to cut bureaucracy and administration while still meeting parental choice.

Paramilitary Organisations

2. Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): If he will make a statement on the level of co-operation between loyalist paramilitaries and the Independent Monitoring Commission. [48305]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr.   David Hanson): The Government will continue to    work with loyalist representatives to ensure decommissioning. The IMC will make itself available to talk to a wide range of organisations, but it does not disclose the nature of such contact or the level of co-operation.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for that perfect parliamentary response, which is entirely accurate but tells me nothing. Does he agree with the IMC's latest assessment of the progress—or lack of it—made by loyalist paramilitaries toward decommissioning their weaponry?

Mr. Hanson: I am disappointed to note that the IMC has concluded that the Ulster Defence Association in particular is deeply involved in violence, especially in the events in Whiterock last September. The Government and I encourage organisations on the loyalist side that are involved in violence to move away from it. I am confident that we will have the opportunity to discuss proposals to ensure that those organisations do move away from violence, and I hope that progress will be
8 Feb 2006 : Column 861
made this year in that regard. As with all violence associated with paramilitary activity, it is not acceptable to the Government. We need to take violence and intimidation out of the politics of Northern Ireland. The IMC has identified that it still exists and I repeat that the Government find that unacceptable. We need to find mechanisms to ensure that we move on from that situation.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I am sure that the Minister is aware that the IMC has been advised that

Does the Minister agree that there are three lessons to be learned here? First, much of the social deprivation in areas controlled by paramilitaries is in fact caused by paramilitaries. Secondly, socio-economic problems should be addressed irrespective of paramilitaries. Thirdly, the addressing of such problems should not be regarded as a reward for ceasing to commit crimes of violence and terror, as has happened in the past. These issues should be disconnected and socio-economic matters should be addressed irrespective of what the paramilitaries are doing.

Mr. Hanson: I am happy to say that I agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of the situation. The report being compiled by my chief official in the loyalist areas task force, Alan Shannon, has identified the influence of paramilitary activities as one of the specific blocks to making progress on social and economic matters in those areas. We need to address those deep-seated problems, but the Government will not be held to ransom by a trade-off between taking action on them and decommissioning. Decommissioning is central to making political progress in Northern Ireland: we want it to happen, but we also want there to be social justice, and to tackle economic deprivation.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Minister is aware of our proposals about the districts that need help and I heartily endorse what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said. Such aid cannot amount to a reward system for paramilitaries who say, "If you do this, we'll do that." Will the Minister give me an assurance that the elected representatives in those areas will be the first to negotiate with him about these matters? They have been elected by the people to do so.

Mr. Hanson: The right hon. Gentleman will know that I have undertaken a number of engagements—I think 46 so far—in various areas across Northern Ireland, and that I have looked at these problems. It is right that paramilitary influence is one of the major stumbling blocks to making progress in many of the areas of economic deprivation, and I have met 12 or 13 Members of the Assembly from the right hon. Gentleman's own party to discuss the matter. As my hon. Friend said, we need to tackle social and economic deprivation, and at the same time take the gun out of Northern Ireland politics. That applies both to the IRA and to the loyalist paramilitary organisations and is an essential prerequisite to progress. The continuation of
8 Feb 2006 : Column 862
threats, intimidation and armed activity is one of the blocks to tackling social and economic deprivation in many parts of Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is not the biggest stumbling block the continued involvement of paramilitaries from both sides in organised crime?

Mr. Hanson: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is examining that very issue. He will know that organised crime is a key problem and that, sadly, many paramilitaries—especially on the loyalist side now—are still involved. We must decide how to tackle that, and all the ministerial team agree that there will be no room in Government for lack of action against criminality and paramilitary involvement in crime. We must look at how, in the long term, we can take the gun out of loyalist politics—a point that takes us back to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). That is central to Northern Ireland's economic success, and especially to those deprived areas that in part are held back by the influence of the loyalist paramilitaries.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): There is evidence that paramilitary organisations, both loyalist and republican, are moving assets from criminal enterprises into legitimate businesses. In view of that, can the Minister give an assurance that the police and the Assets Recovery Agency will continue to pursue the profits of crime, even if they have been laundered in that way, so that no paramilitary group can benefit from preying on the communities of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: I am pleased to give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal yes to that question. It is clear to the Government that profits are being made from criminality throughout Northern Ireland. That problem is being dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon.    Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr.   Woodward). They have made it clear that the Assets Recovery Agency has a mandate to pursue the profits of crime, and the hon. Gentleman will know that it has made major efforts in that respect over the past couple of weeks. People in Northern Ireland who are involved in criminality or paramilitary activity need to know that the Government will close them down and remove the assets when we find out who is responsible for their generation.

Next Section IndexHome Page