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15. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): What steps she is taking to improve the NHS complaints procedure. [63701]

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jane Kennedy): I compliment my hon. Friend on the interest that he takes in this subject. I refer him to the written answer that I gave to his question dated 20 December last year. Since that answer was given, however, we have published the White Paper "Our Health, Our Care, Our Say", which made a commitment to

Mr. Simon: My constituent Jenny O'Connor, who was misdiagnosed last year in this country, went abroad for an operation that she did not need and was given another operation that she did need, along with an explanation of what should have happened in the first place. She came back and asked for her records. Finally, after three months, she obtained the records. When she complained, she was told that she could not do so because time had run out. The trust involved is now under different management, and making great strides. Could the Minister have a word with it about the need to take complaints a little more seriously, not just in this case but across the board?

Jane Kennedy: I am aware of the case that my hon. Friend has raised. In general, it is important for all complaints to be thoroughly and properly investigated, and for the complainant subsequently to be given an explanation and, when appropriate, an apology. I undertake to look into the details of the case, and will be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Northern Ireland

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): First, let me warmly welcome you back to the joys of Northern Ireland business, Mr. Speaker. I know that there will be cross-party unity on that in Northern Ireland.

With permission, I wish to make a statement about the future of Northern Ireland. The last 10 years have seen many crucial decision points in the peace process. One was eight years ago, when the people chose peace over conflict, consent over coercion and a positive future over a poisonous past. Now there is another choice. Before the end of this year, Northern Ireland's political leaders and elected Assembly members must decide whether to take responsibility for their people's future, as they have been mandated to do, or to opt for political cryonics. They must decide whether to bring an end to Northern Ireland's democratic deficit, or to see locally unaccountable direct rule stretch into the foreseeable future.

I firmly believe that Northern Ireland is governed best when governed locally, and I firmly believe that that view is shared by the people of Northern Ireland. Now is the time to prove them right. Direct rule was a 1970s solution to a 1970s problem. Since then, Northern Ireland has moved on and changed beyond all recognition. It is light years away from the troubles. Where once there was economic stagnation, there is now vibrancy. Where once there was the futility of cyclical violence, there is now the stability and prosperity of peace. And where once the political landscape was riven by sectarianism, there is now a shared desire among all the parties to move forward and take their proper places in the devolved institutions to which they were elected. The only real argument is when and how.

The experiences of devolution in Scotland and in Wales have demonstrated the huge benefits that local politicians exercising locally accountable power can reap. Both nations have seen increased self-confidence, increased economic growth, increased social cohesion and an increased international profile. Northern Ireland has also undergone a positive transitional experience, but the potential of full devolution remains tantalisingly out of reach.

The blunt truth is that Northern Ireland is in great danger of being left behind as not only the rest of the United Kingdom strides on successfully, but the Republic of Ireland continues to be one of the biggest global success stories of our generation. It is now for Northern Ireland's politicians to catch up—and catch up fast. Northern Ireland's people demand nothing less. From sport to science and from culture to business, Northern Ireland has some of the brightest talent anywhere in the world. It is time that its politicians lived up to that promise and showed vision and courage.

The arrangements that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach outlined on 6 April give Northern Ireland's politicians the chance to close the chapter on the mistrust that has blighted the process since the suspension of the institutions in October 2002. However, if the parties do not choose to close that chapter of mistrust soon, the Government will be forced to close the book on devolution for the foreseeable future.
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The Independent Monitoring Commission has stated unequivocally that the IRA no longer represents a terrorist threat. That is momentous and should be acknowledged as such. Where there are issues around criminality, they must be—and indeed are being—addressed by the police, with the support of the whole community. Where there are issues of trust, they can be resolved only by political dialogue.

Over the past few months, we have held discussions with all political parties in Northern Ireland with a view to restoring the political institutions. However, as the Prime Minister and Taoiseach made clear in their joint statement on 6 April, we cannot, and will not, try to force Northern Ireland's politicians to take that final step forward. We can only point them towards what we believe to be the best road ahead. We have come to the point at which those outside the Northern Ireland political parties themselves can do little more to facilitate the process. I know that the decisions that will have to be taken are not easy, but honestly believe that history will not look kindly on those who miss the opportunity that stands before us.

Copies of the joint statement made by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach on 6 April have been placed in the Library of the House, as have the speeches that they delivered. I will further place the Prime Minister's speech on record in a written ministerial statement tomorrow.

The joint statement indicated that the Northern Ireland Assembly would be recalled on 15 May, with a view to reaching agreement to restore the institutions by 24 November. Last week, I nominated a new Presiding Officer, Eileen Bell. I have every hope that she will soon be overseeing the transition of the Assembly to full devolution. A woman of real courage, strength and ability, she is highly regarded by all, and could be the symbol of a new political era of co-operation and progress, leaving behind sectarianism and division.

We will aim to discuss with the parties next week how the Assembly will function after 15 May, including its standing orders. I will also be introducing an emergency Bill on 20 April, for taking through the House next week. I know that this is an extremely tight timetable, but the Bill will have only about half a dozen clauses in total and hon. Members will appreciate the urgency. We need to get the parties back in the Assembly and talking now to provide them with the maximum opportunity for securing agreement by 24 November at the very latest.

The Bill will arrange for the Assembly to be recalled with the express purpose that it sets about electing a First and Deputy First Minister on a cross-community basis, and then forms an Executive, under the d'Hondt formula. As soon as that is done, power will automatically be devolved, as happened in December 1999, and all the Assembly's other functions will be resumed.

Our hope and intention is that the Assembly will elect an Executive within six weeks, as envisaged by paragraph 35 of strand 1of the Good Friday agreement. However, if that time frame proves to be too short, the Assembly will have a further 12-week period after the summer in which to complete the task. During that period, it will be open to the parties to engage in further discussion, both among themselves and with the Government, on improving the running of the
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institutions. The Assembly will also have opportunities to prepare for government by considering issues that are crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, such as the economy and reforms to education, water charges and public administration.

The Bill will have obvious implications for Orders in Council. Some of the forthcoming Northern Ireland legislation on transferred matters will obviously be appropriate for consideration by the restored Assembly, and Ministers will naturally be willing to take account of views on such matters, if they are provided on a cross-community basis.

It would be preferable to all democrats if the parties were quickly able to take up the mantle of government so that the decisions that affect the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland were taken by locally accountable politicians. However, in the meantime, I will not delay implementing vital reforms that this Government consider essential to the better running of Northern Ireland. While those decisions may not always be popular, they are necessary in the public interest, to put Northern Ireland on the road to becoming world class.

If, however, the Assembly has been unable to achieve a power-sharing Executive by 24 November, there will be no choice but to cancel Assembly Members' salaries and allowances forthwith, and to cancel the election due in May 2007. It would be absurd to elect Members unwilling to discharge their duties to an Assembly that would not have sat for more than four and a half years.

Restoration of the Assembly and Executive would then be deferred until there was a renewed political willingness to exercise devolved power. The two Governments would then continue their commitment to developing north-south co-operation and structures as set out in the Good Friday agreement. In this scenario, the agreement would remain very much alive.

It is crucial that the parties keep talking—not just to the two Governments, but to each other. We are committed to facilitating dialogue to achieve this over the months ahead in whatever forum is required—full plenary sessions of the Assembly, smaller forums of designated members, or all-party discussions, including with the Prime Ministers.

I want to re-emphasise that the strategy that the two Governments have agreed is designed for success, not failure. Our overwhelming desire is that local politicians take power back into their own hands, just as Scotland and Wales have done to great effect. It is time for Northern Ireland's politicians to show leadership and good faith—in themselves, in each other and in the people who elected them.

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