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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 May 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—

Security Situation

1. Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland. [72220]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): The 10th report by the Independent Monitoring Commission was the most positive yet and confirmed that the security situation has shown enormous improvement. Although loyalist paramilitaries and dissident republicans continue to pose a threat, I am confident that we continue to move towards the kind of peaceful future that we all want for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dodds: As regards that peaceful future, the Minister will be aware of the full-scale republican paramilitary parade through Londonderry at the weekend, which was attended, it is reported, by Martin McGuinness—an interesting commentary on his commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Given that we are going to have an orchestrated campaign against Orange and other dignified and lawful parades in Northern Ireland, can the Minister tell us what his Department, the police or the Parades Commission have done, or will do, about that illegal display of force by republicans in Londonderry?

Paul Goggins: I can tell the hon. Gentleman what I am personally doing at the moment, which is to engage in a round of meetings with all parties—political parties and other groups as well—that have a particular interest in a peaceful period of parades over the next few weeks and months. I know that he is committed to that, as am I. Of course, all these parades should happen in a lawful and legal way. The Parades Commission has an important role to play in determining routes that make them safe.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): In terms of improving the security situation in Northern Ireland, I am curious to know what contact Northern Ireland Office officials have had with any of the loyalist
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paramilitary groups, but particularly the Ulster Volunteer Force, in order to persuade them to begin the decommissioning of their weapons.

Paul Goggins: As I said in answer to the previous question, I have been engaged in a round of meetings. I met representatives of the Progressive Unionist party and again reiterated the importance of ensuring that we have a peaceful climate as we prepare for the parades season. I received a very encouraging response.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. I also welcome the Under-Secretaries, the hon. Members for Inverclyde (David Cairns) and for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), to their responsibilities at the Northern Ireland Office and express my appreciation to the hon. Members for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) and for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) for the work that they did during their time there.

Has the Minister had time to consider the conclusion by the Independent Monitoring Commission that loyalist and republican paramilitary groups are using community restorative justice projects as a way of imposing control over local communities? In the light of that verdict, will the Government undertake not to support such schemes or to impose new guidelines unless they have the clear support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Policing Board?

Paul Goggins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. He asked whether I have had sufficient time to look into this. I have had sufficient time to know that this is a very tricky area and one that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is considering very carefully. He will bring forward some clear guidelines in the near future.

Mr. Lidington: May I further encourage the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends to ensure that their proposals on community restorative justice are placed on a clear statutory basis by embodying them in secondary legislation rather than just leaving this very important matter as the subject of administrative decision by the Minister of the day?

Paul Goggins: I can further confirm to the hon. Gentleman that when the guidelines are published, they will of course be underpinned by the rule of law and will indeed be operated in full partnership with the police. It is very important that it is done in that way. Restorative justice, as a concept, can have a role to play, but it must be part of the rule of law and operate within proper systems.

Northern Ireland Assembly

2. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [72221]

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): First, I thank the shadow Secretary of State for the voluminous praise that he bestowed on my excellent team of Ministers.

Last week, the Assembly was recalled to begin its task of forming an Executive. As soon as that is achieved, I can end suspension, thus restoring power to locally elected politicians, who are fully accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Evennett: Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be helpful if all parties in the Assembly condemned all criminality and paramilitary activity and that that would be the best way forward for the future of the Province?

Mr. Hain: Absolutely. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is essential that all parties, especially those whose members hold ministerial office, are completely distanced from and condemn all paramilitary activity and criminality, and operate within the rule of law.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): May I refer the Secretary of State to his statement that he would make a further proclamation this week about creating a restoration committee for Northern Ireland, which he hopes that the party leaders will attend? Does not he believe that that might frustrate the work of the Assembly, the primary purpose of which is to restore Executive functions? What gives him the hope that, for example, the party leaders, who will not come together in the Assembly, will do so outside it in a restoration committee? Does not that make the shadow Assembly of even less substance by transferring its primary function outside that body?

Mr. Hain: I am giving further consideration to representations from all the parties, including the hon. Gentleman’s, on the proposal for a committee to prepare for restored government. I am listening carefully to what people are saying, and there is a case for it. I know that he will understand that the proposal made by Sir Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist party is not a model that I favour and that it has not found favour with the other parties. We must continue the consultations until I am in a position to move forward.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Cannot the Secretary of State summon the leadership of Sinn Fein and tell it simply and unequivocally that, unless it is prepared absolutely to forswear criminality, stop manipulating schemes for restorative justice and sign up to the rule of law, there can be no future for the Assembly and a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland? We all want him to succeed with that.

Mr. Hain: We all want a restored Executive and Assembly with everybody operating within the rule of law. I am encouraged by recent statements by senior Sinn Fein figures, including Martin McGuinness, condemning criminality and, unusually, saying that those who absconded in the Tohill case should return and be brought to justice. Such statements may be too late but they are nevertheless welcome and we must
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continue to put pressure on Sinn Fein, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, to renounce all criminality, for the IRA to do so, too, and for everyone to operate within the rule of law.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that no committee from anywhere will be set up to conduct the negotiations? The negotiations were promised between the Government and the parties and there cannot be another set of negotiations running alongside them. We know that the Prime Minister and the Minister are coming to talk to us. Will the Secretary of State assure me that no committee with power to negotiate will be set up? He knows the attitude of the Democratic Unionist party to that. We would not take part in any such committee. Hon. Members should be reminded that Sinn Fein is currently boycotting the Assembly’s public meetings.

Mr. Hain: I believe that Sinn Fein should be at the Assembly’s public sittings along with all the other parties. I am consulting the right hon. Gentleman’s party along with the others about the proposal for a committee to prepare for restored government. I do not intend to give it any power to negotiate. I could neither do that nor force that on anyone. However, it would be helpful if there were a forum in which issues could be identified by all the parties. Negotiations will obviously take place with the Governments but there is an advantage to everyone seeing what is on the table before they take place.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): On setting up the full Northern Ireland Assembly, may I record Conservative Members’ concern about the criminality and paramilitary activity of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association? We call on them to abandon all criminality and paramilitary activity and completely decommission all their weapons. I am sure that the Secretary of State would like the opportunity to agree with me.

Mr. Hain: I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made his point with eloquence and force. It is a point that has been made across the House, and it has been stated with particular force by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and by the members of the Democratic Unionist party sitting alongside her that all criminality by the UDA and the UVF must be ended now—and not before time.

Looked-after Children/Vulnerable Adults

3. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What plans he has to improve education provision and support for looked-after children and vulnerable adults in Northern Ireland. [72222]

4. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to improve education provision and support for looked-after children and vulnerable adults in Northern Ireland. [72223]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): In March 2006, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced £100 million additional funding for children and young people in Northern Ireland, of which £5.6 million has been set aside specifically for projects to improve the education provision and support for looked-after children and vulnerable young adults.

Jeff Ennis: I thank the Minister for her reply. I have always thought that the term “looked-after children” was a misnomer, because I have always regarded them as looked-over children. Will the Minister tell me what her Department is doing to ensure that looked-after children take the opportunity to stay on in education post-16?

Maria Eagle: I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view that looked-after children are often overlooked rather than looked after. We have a particular responsibility and obligation to do well by looked-after children, because we are effectively their parents. Part of the £5.6 million that I have mentioned will be spent on enabling children leaving care to stay on with their foster carers until they reach the age of 21. The resulting increase in stability will play a key role in improving the chances for looked-after children to achieve proper educational attainment in line with their peers. That in turn will be a key determinant in improving the life chances of this vulnerable group of young people.

Mary Creagh: Will my hon. Friend tell me what difference the new Education and Inspections Bill, which places a duty on local authorities to provide youth services for vulnerable young adults with learning disabilities, will make to such young people in Northern Ireland?

Maria Eagle: Providing support services for children and young people with learning disabilities is an essential part of enabling them to do well in life, and it is our commitment to those young people that we want them to do as well as they possibly can and to play their full part in society—including in education and jobs. The kind of support services to which my hon. Friend has referred play an essential part in ensuring that that happens.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Can the Minister give me a categorical assurance that the ongoing survey of parents, teachers and members of the public on the way in which religious education is taught in schools in Northern Ireland is not an attempt to dilute the Bible-based Christian ethos that is fundamental to the people of Northern Ireland?

Maria Eagle: I am happy to make it absolutely clear that nothing being done by any of the Departments for which I am responsible, or by the Government, is aimed at undermining the ethos of schools or of religious education in Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Another group of vulnerable children is those who are registered blind. At present, only 30 per cent. of those who are in mainstream schools achieve five or more GCSEs, which is well below the Northern Ireland average. It
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has been suggested that one of the factors that contributes to this is the fact that, on average, those youngsters have access to only one text book for the full range of subjects that they are studying, even though the Royal National Institute of the Blind, and St. Joseph’s School for the Visually Impaired in the Irish Republic, have the facilities to translate such books into Braille or to transfer them on to disks. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that this gap in education provision for blind children in Northern Ireland is being bridged?

Maria Eagle: I have a great personal commitment to ensuring that disabled children, including children with a visual impairment, have the same chances as every other child to achieve to their utmost. I would be more than happy to look closely at what the hon. Gentleman has said and to come back to him with some more details.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I welcome the Minister’s commitment and the extra funding, but how does she reconcile that, and the commitment to special needs education, with the savage financial cuts being made by education and library boards? Those cuts are hitting the soft underbelly of education very hard, and seriously eroding those services. What we are giving with one hand, we are taking away with the other.

Maria Eagle: I do not accept that there are cuts in education spending in Northern Ireland. There has been a massive increase in spending, by more than 60 per cent., since 1997. There are demographic issues involved, however, and falling school rolls mean that the money has not always been used as efficiently as it might have been. That is why we are engaged in a strategic review of education, which will enable us to ensure that the big increases in spending planned for the future will be properly used to benefit the education of all the children of Northern Ireland.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that children in care have the same access to IT support as children in families? Will that include training?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am happy to be able to tell him that more than £2 million is being invested in an education and training credit to make sure that a grant of at least £800 a year is given to foster carers, to enable them to make sure that each looked-after child has a computer. Having access to IT is one of the key ways in which children participate and do well at school. We must make sure that our looked-after children have that same access. In that regard, we are also making sure that every child who lives in a children’s home has a computer of their own, not just one that might be available to more than one child. That should assist.

Northern Ireland Assembly

5. David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): If he will make a statement on the Government’s intentions concerning the salaries and expenses of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [72224]

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I have made it clear that should Assembly Members be unable to elect a First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Executive by 24 November, the salaries and allowances of Members of the Legislative Assembly would be cancelled immediately.

David Simpson: Since I tabled this question, the Belfast Telegraph has run a campaign in relation to mileage claims for Members of the Legislative Assembly. Does the Secretary of State agree that mileage claims for MLAs should be brought into line with those for Members of this House?

Mr. Hain: The Assembly ought to consider that issue, because many people in Northern Ireland are asking a question about that. The Assembly is perfectly free to set up a working group to resolve the issue and to make recommendations to me, and I hope that it does so.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is so noisy. Mr. Binley, perhaps your conversations could take place elsewhere.

Lembit Öpik: May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State’s new ministerial helpers? I am sure that they will all be very happy together. I look forward to working with his team in the interests of peace over the next 20 to 30 years.

The Secretary of State says that he will cancel expenses immediately on 25 November. However, what arrangements is he making to manage the legal responsibilities of MLAs with regard to accommodation and staffing contracts, most of which involve periods of notice well beyond 24 November? If he is serious about avoiding that, how will he make sure that both Governments feed into the Assembly committee—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is too noisy. Conversations should take place elsewhere.

Lembit Öpik: I will finish off now, Mr. Speaker. How will the Secretary of State make sure that both Governments feed into the Assembly committee on the restoration of devolution so that he does not have to cancel the expenses?

Mr. Hain: First, I am not sure that we will be here for 20 or 30 years, nice though that thought might be. Secondly, I do not want the Assembly to shut down on 24 November; I want restoration to succeed before then. The last thing that I want is to have to stop salaries and allowances and see the whole thing put on ice. That is the inevitability, however, if the parties are unable to agree. However, bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman’s points, I shall circulate advice to Assembly Members in the late summer to make them aware of their legal obligations and to inform staff and particularly landlords should advice centres and constituency offices have to close if they are unable to agree.

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