Previous Section Index Home Page

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. The intention behind the new clause, which is clearly thoughtful and caring, is shared by hon. Members across the House. The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), alluded to my past. In the first 15 years of
17 May 2006 : Column 1072
my working life, I worked with children as well as troubled children in care. I hope that some of what I learned then will inform my new responsibilities in Northern Ireland.

There is a debate about whether the responsibility placed on the trust to appoint an independent visitor should begin after three months or 12 months. Some may regard three months as too early, some may regard 12 months as too late. There is genuine discussion and reflection to be had. There is, however—I think that the hon. Lady recognised this—a technical difficulty with the new clause to which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) alluded. The provisions on independent visitors apply to all children, whether they are in voluntary accommodation or the subject of a care order. The inclusion of a reference to article 21 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 would mean that the facility to appoint independent visitors applied only in relation to children in voluntary care. It would take away any requirement to appoint independent visitors for children who were the subject of care orders. That presents us with a difficulty.

I feel strongly—I sense from the discussion that right hon. and hon. Members agree—that there is a need to ensure that children in care in Northern Ireland have a stronger voice within the various discussions that we have. I was pleased on Sunday to host a fun day in the grounds of Hillsborough castle for the fostering network and to meet representatives of Voices of Young People in Care, who said some interesting things to me. They carried out some research as recently as last year that highlighted a number of the issues facing young people in care in Northern Ireland. They want more contact, where it is possible, with their familyand friends. They want to have greater input in the decisions that affect them, as well as to highlight some of their difficulties in learning to trust and to engage with new people.

I was pleased, therefore, in coming to this new role, to find that the children and young people funding package that was launched by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in March contains an additional £660,000 to provide an independent advocacy and peer mentoring service for children in care across Northern Ireland. That package and the resource it brings will help us, along with other measures, to promote greater stability and continuity of care placements, which are so important.

Mrs. Iris Robinson: May I flag up an issue that is close to my heart? A lot of young vulnerable people in care homes are self-harmers. When they are released back into the community, they sometimes, sadly, become suicide statistics. We must look at the whole question around mental health provision. We must allow more money to be spent on those young adolescents who suffer mental illness following whatever traumas they have suffered throughout their young lives.

5.15 pm

Paul Goggins: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue. In my first few days in post, I have seen submissions, reports and correspondence on suicide and self-harm. I hope to build on the work of my predecessor and address the problem for children in
17 May 2006 : Column 1073
care and more widely, because suicide and self-harm rates in Northern Ireland are worryingly high. I look forward to discussing that concern with her in future.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made an important point about the need for better educational outcomes for looked-after children. I hope that the packages that we are developing will help young people in care to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives and future. I intend shortly to consult on proposals to place the independent advocacy service on a statutory footing, which is a significant step forward, and I look forward to hon. Members’ contributions and observations. It is important that the new service complements, and does not obstruct, other provisions for independent visitors and the personal advisers appointed when children leave care. I agree that it is important to follow through—we should not abandon children when they leave care.

Sir Patrick Cormack: In view of the widespread concern among Members on both sides of the House, will the hon. Gentleman give evidence on his new package of measures to the Select Committee so that we can look at them?

Paul Goggins: Who could resist such an invitation? I should be delighted to explain the package at an appropriate time. I repeat that it must be developed in consultation and discussion with professionals, children who have been in the care system, and hon. Members. In urging the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) to withdraw the motion, I pledge to make sure that she and other hon. Members are included in the consultation so that the solution commands broad consensus and will be of genuine benefit to looked-after children in Northern Ireland.

Dr. McCrea: Will the Minister confirm that his Department is already dealing with those issues and that its proposals will be introduced shortly? There is grave concern in the community that the problem should not be left to the long term, as we need active solutions on the ground.

Paul Goggins: I hesitate so early in my new post to give a specific time scale. Work is under way, and there is a £6 million package to promote fostering in Northern Ireland, which could transform the fostering network, recruit more foster carers, and give them better training and support. A series of measures will be introduced, and our debate has confirmed my view that the matter is urgent. We have a debt and obligation to looked-after children, and we must all fulfil it. In response to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and other hon. Members, I will introduce proposals on a wider package as soon as possible.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for a typically thoughtful and full reply. I am glad that the traits that he demonstrated in his previous incarnation at the Home Office have been carried over to the Northern Ireland Office.

17 May 2006 : Column 1074

I welcome the announcement of increased advocacy arrangements for young people in care. In light of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), who speaks on health matters for the Democratic Unionist party, it would be helpful if they volunteered to join Colin Reid—the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children policy adviser who has helped to advance a wide range of children’s issues on behalf of the charity—and myself in an early cross-party meeting with the Minister and his officials before his grilling by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Paul Goggins: I confirm to the hon. Lady that I would be more than happy to do that, on a cross-party basis and with the advice of the voluntary sector, as she suggests.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful for that assurance and commitment given so early on by the Minister. With the consent, I am sure, of the hon. Member for Strangford and certainly that of the hon. Member for Belfast, South, may I say that we look forward to meeting the Minister very soon. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 7

Amendments to section 30 of the 1998 act

‘(1) Section 30 of the 1988 Act (exclusion of Ministers from office) is amended as follows.

(2) After paragraph (1)(b) insert—

“(c) because he is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.

(3) After paragraph (2)(b) insert—

“(c) because it is no longer committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.

(4) After paragraph (7)(d) insert—

“(e) is committed now and in the future to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.'.— [Mr. Laurence Robertson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 8— Amendment to section 30 of the 1988 Act—

‘In Section 18 of the 1998 Act after subsection (8) insert—

“(8A) A Northern Ireland Minister shall not take up office until he has made a declaration before the Assembly pledging to uphold the rule of law.”.'.

Mr. Robertson: I add my welcome to the Minister. I hope he finds his time in the Northern Ireland Office fulfilling. I know that he will find it challenging and interesting. I look forward to working with him.

17 May 2006 : Column 1075

New clauses 7 and 8 revisit topics that we discussed in a slightly different context during earlier stages of the Bill. They refer to the requirement that Ministers in office uphold the rule of law, and that before they are appointed to office, they make a declaration before the Assembly pledging to uphold the rule of law. The new clauses add to sections 30 and 18 of the 1998 Act and the pledge of office.

On earlier amendments we debated support for the rule of law and for the police, so I do not intend to speak for too long, but as I did not take part in that debate, I hope I shall be allowed a few minutes to express my opinions. As has been said by various Members, we cannot allow a situation in Northern Ireland where Ministers are in control of the police, yet do not support the police. We cannot accept that situation or move towards it.

Last week I visited south Armagh. The people there, the Army and the police were clear that the situation had improved immeasurably, and I accept that it has. However, it may be useful to the House, especially to Members who may not visit Northern Ireland regularly, if I describe the situation there. The Army still accompanies the police when they go around south Armagh, particularly in Crossmaglen. The police are often refused service in shops. They are concerned about what will happen as the Army pulls out of the area. Criminality is continuing and, in the words of the people in the area, there is a long, long way to go before normality is reached.

Given that background, it is reasonable that we should ask any Minister who has the potential to be in control of the police, and of the other offices of Northern Ireland as well, to make a declaration before the Assembly pledging to uphold the rule of law. I do not see that there can be any objection to that requirement, other than one: there may be a party—Sinn Fein—that would object to that requirement. If we allow that party to get in the way of writing the requirement into the Bill, what does that say about the entire process?

We feel strongly about new clauses 7 and 8. Yes, there is a requirement in the Bill to pursue non-violent and democratic means, but the Bill, like the 1998 Act, should require the additional declaration before the Assembly pledging to uphold the rule of law. If that were the requirement, the constitutional and legitimate parties in Northern Ireland would find it much easier to move towards the full restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mark Durkan Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It would be extremely helpful to the Chair if the hon. Gentleman were to make a positive indication of wishing to contribute, because he might have lost his place.

Mark Durkan: New clauses 7 and 8 are better than the provisions that we examined in Committee, but we are still concerned on a couple of counts. On the new grounds for exclusion, the question whether people are committed to upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Earlier today, I mentioned the attitude of parties to the Parades
17 May 2006 : Column 1076
Commission’s rulings, to the performance of the police in enforcing such rulings and to the ensuing violence in the case of Whiterock. It is possible to question many parties other than Sinn Fein about their attitude to upholding the rule of law.

We now face the additional problem created by the step too far by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party in incorporating the leader of the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force into the UUP Assemblygroup. I assume that the Independent Monitoring Commission’s examination of the activities of political parties in the Assembly would centre on the rights and roles in the Assembly of the new UUP Assembly group rather than distinctively or specifically the Progressive Unionist party, because the IMC has powers, which have not yet been activated, on the conduct and rights of parties in the Assembly. That is an additional complication, and, because we are all coming to terms with it and hoping that other people might resolve it for us, it would be dangerous to accept new clause 7.

New clause 8 proposes an addition to the pledge of office. As I have said, the SDLP is happy to consider in the context of a proper review of the agreement altering the pledge of office to include commitments on the rule of law or, indeed, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In that context, new commitments could be made to people who participate in all the institutions or who exercise responsibility in all of the institutions. I originally drafted the pledge of office when we negotiated the agreement, and I was careful not to build in a commitment to all the institutions, because that would be unfair to Ministers who oppose the agreement—people should not have to sign up to the agreement to take office. Equally, we did not build in specific commitments at that stage in relation to policing and the rule of law. If the circumstances have changed, we could consider that matter, but it should be done in the context of a review agreed by the parties rather than by the House acting at its own behest.

Lembit Öpik: I find it hard to disagree with new clauses 7 and 8, but they are slightly meaningless. That is not because the hon. Member for Tewkesbury(Mr. Robertson) lacks meaning—he has made a profound and ongoing contribution to the peace process—but because, to put it bluntly, Britain’s prisons are full of people who are innocent and who are willing to pledge to tell the truth and to uphold the rule of law. When I consider the recent history of Northern Ireland, I am not sure what we would achieve by including that additional pledge. If we listen to the testimony from various individuals in Northern Ireland, nobody robbed the Northern bank. Even if by some miracle the hon. Member for Tewkesbury succeeds, against all previous evidence, in convincing the Minister to listen, to be persuaded, to do some joined-up government and to accept the new clause, I still suspect that individuals may occasionally be economical with the truth.

5.30 pm

Mr. Hanson: Before the hon. Gentleman gets into the habit of saying that the Minister does not listen, will he consider the fact that I have tabled at least two amendments that reflect discussions that took place during previous debates in this House?

17 May 2006 : Column 1077

Lembit Öpik: I credit the Minister for showing signs of listening. He is doing quite well. As a general progress report, it is good to see that he is beginning to make up for nine years of parliamentary deafness by some of his colleagues, although there is some way to go yet. In parenthesis, I would say to him that the Liberal Democrats were provoked into supporting the new clause tabled by the DUP because he showed no willingness to show any empathy with a point that seemed utterly reasonable and which hon. Members made with sincerity. I do not want to have a go at the Minister—I think that he is a very nice man. I will be in his constituency in a few days’ time, and I do not want him to be annoyed with me. [ Interruption.] I shall let him know, but it is not perhaps terribly relevant to what we are discussing now.

If the hon. Member for Tewkesbury insists on pressing the new clause, I will have to vote for it in the same way that one would vote for motherhood and apple pie. I have issued a reality check about the likelihood of its making a difference. Hope springs eternal, but I think that it will take more than another pledge to bring things together in Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is good to have a Liberal Democrat who would be prepared to vote for motherhood and apple pie.

I rise briefly to support most strongly the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). I will not repeat what I said earlier this afternoon, the House will be relieved to hear, but I do believe very strongly that it is crucial that those who take a place in the Executive—let us hope that one can be formed—are utterly and publicly committed to upholding the rule of law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury referred to his visit to south Armagh. I was privileged to take the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee there last week, and everything that he says is absolutely true. Yes, there has been significant advance—nobody denies that—but one still has to travel in an armoured helicopter or an armoured vehicle, and in a convoy. We heard some pretty horrific tales of people being set upon and beaten up. We also heard tales of extraordinary courage—of young police officers who, despite suffering the most dreadful injuries, still returned to their posts wanting to serve in south Armagh because they do so love the countryside and the people. We are dealing with a very small number of evil people and a very large number of decent ones. It is crucial that there should be public and proclaimed commitment to the rule of law. That is all that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury is seeking to achieve.

I make one other point because my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who has himself taken a considerable interest in these matters over the years, has just come into the Chamber. When he and I entered this House in June 1970, almost 36 years ago, the Province was represented for the most part by Ulster Unionist party Members, who sat with us on what was in those days the Government side of the House and received the Whip. I might say that the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) entered on the same day and sat in the same place.

Next Section Index Home Page