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House of Commons

Wednesday 28 June 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post-Primary Education

1. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the review of post-primary education in Northern Ireland. [79735]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Government believe that significant reforms are needed to ensure that every young person is equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to make a positive contribution to society and the economy in the 21st century. The vital changes required are included in the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which will be debated in Committee later today.

Mr. Anderson: What impact will the full reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or not as the case may be, have on the review and its subsequent implementation?

Mr. Hain: As my hon. Friend knows, the order will put an end to the transfer test—the 11-plus—and introduce new admission arrangements that will preserve academic excellence, but also give an opportunity that is currently denied to others to raise their skills and improve their opportunities. The article on academic selection in the order will come into effect after midnight on 24 November if restoration of the Assembly and devolved Government has not occurred. If it has occurred, it will be for the Assembly to decide what policy will follow the end of the transfer test that the order will otherwise bring into effect.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I note that the Minister says that the changes that will be debated today are significant. They will change forever the face of education in Northern Ireland, and for the worse. They are opposed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland, they have been voted against in this House by the whole Northern Ireland Office ministerial team, and they are now being used as a crude form of political blackmail. Does not he feel in any way embarrassed about that inconsistency, and the crude way in which these provisions are being used to try to blackmail people politically into entering into government with Sinn Fein? Will he—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Secretary of State knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased about this matter.

Mr. Hain: You are absolutely correct, Mr. Speaker; the hon. Gentleman has often expressed his vehement displeasure to me, as have his colleagues. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman, who has properly taken a close and expert interest in education policy, that this reform comes after a long period of consultation, after independent advice, and after huge support within the education profession and among many communities right across Northern Ireland. Let me also remind him of a survey in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, which shows that many grammar schools in Northern Ireland

for the next academic year. It says that the statistics

The hon. Gentleman himself is quoted as saying:

In other words, falling school rolls are forcing this change anyway. We want to ensure that everybody gets new skills.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about blackmail, he asked me to put this decision into the Assembly, and that is precisely what I have done. If he wants to restore devolved self-government by 24 November, he and his colleagues can help to shape the new admissions policy.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): The Secretary of State will be aware that under the education order to be debated today, academic ability and aptitude testing must not be taken into account for admission to secondary provision. Is he aware of the fear in the rural community that lack of proximity to secondary provision will create a postcode selection process, to the detriment of our excellent rural schools—leading to their decline, and that of the rural community? What action does he intend to take to ensure that that is not a primary criterion for admission to secondary provision, and to safeguard the rural schools and community in that respect?

Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the overall policy. He makes an important point about rural schools and the argument that there might be a postcode lottery. That is why consultation is now under way. If restoration occurs, it will be for the Assembly and the devolved Executive to carry out the admissions arrangements and the pupil profile configuration after abolition of the 11-plus. That will give schools the protection that he desires. However, I tell him, as I told the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), that falling rolls, with 50,000 empty desks in schools, rising to 80,000, mean that there must be radical reform in education and school provision right across Northern Ireland; otherwise, standards will not be where they should be, and will fall.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State is intent on ramming through the House a policy of prohibiting by law academic
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selection in Northern Ireland, although just over a month ago, he personally went into the Lobby here to defeat a measure that would have had a comparable effect in terms of selection in England. How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly justify a Government policy that rests on such flagrant double standards?

Mr. Hain: Because, quite simply, it does not. On double standards, I shall quote what the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), told sixth-formers in Basildon on 9 January 2006:

If the hon. Gentleman is consistent with his leader’s policies, and if those policies are being developed and spread consistently across the UK, he should support the order. By the way, grammar school excellence will be preserved under the new policy; grammar schools are becoming increasingly more open in their selection, for the reasons described by the Belfast Telegraph this morning.

Mr. Lidington: I am happy to stand by my leader’s and my party’s policy of defending our grammar schools where they have public support, whether that is in Northern Ireland or in my constituency in Buckinghamshire. The Secretary of State is committed to a Government policy that, in respect of England, gives parents in a particular area the power to determine whether academic selection continues. If the Secretary of State has confidence that his policy is in the interests of children in Northern Ireland, why does he not have the confidence to rely on the judgment and votes of parents, as he does in England?

Mr. Hain: I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman, and I repeat, that if the Assembly is restored by 24 November, locally elected politicians can take the decision. I would have thought that he welcomed that. As he knows, and as the Belfast Telegraph survey confirms this morning, the truth is that grammar schools will be retained, along with the excellence for which they are known. The real problem that the hon. Gentleman fails to address is that Northern Ireland’s education system has been failing those of average and below-average achievement. We need to address that; this policy will do so.

Illegal Arms

2. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What recent discussions he has had with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin on the whereabouts of illegal arms belonging to the Provisional IRA in the Republic. [79736]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): Decommissioning is a matter for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which was established by the British and Irish Governments to provide independent oversight.

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Mr. Campbell: Is the Minister aware that a few weeks ago, 10,000 rounds of ammunition were discovered in the Irish Republic? That is despite General de Chastelain telling us last September that the totality of the IRA’s arsenal had been decommissioned, and the Prime Minister himself saying that there had been final and complete decommissioning. Will the Minister join the rest of us in keeping the pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to get rid of all the guns and weapons so that we can have a democratic Executive in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: I agree that we need to get rid of all the guns and all the weapons. I am aware of the find on 1 June in County Sligo, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Irish Government have indicated to us that their initial assessment is that those munitions have been there for many years. However, the munitions have been sent for forensic examination and there will be a report in due course. I should add that the IICD has made it clear that it could not guarantee that a small number of weapons might not have gone astray or been lost over the years, but that that should not detract from the significant commitment to peace that the Provisional IRA has made.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister recall discussions on the recent report by the commission, in which we heard that the southern authorities had said that they knew nothing about any arms in the south, and that the arms were all taken away at the time of so-called decommissioning? That has been proved to be totally and absolutely false: whether they are old guns or new guns does not come in to it; they are guns. We heard that those had all been done away with. Until the IRA does away with its guns, there can be no real democracy in Northern Ireland.

Paul Goggins: I simply say again to the right hon. Gentleman that initial indications from the Irish Government show that those materials may have been there for many years, but quite correctly, they will make a forensic examination to establish whether that is the case. I say again that the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reiterates what it has plainly stated—that a find of that kind, which may occur from time to time, should not detract from the commitment that the Provisional IRA has made.

Security Situation

3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland. [79737]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The latest report of the Independent Monitoring Commission confirmed that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been steadily improving since the Belfast agreement, with the Provisional IRA delivering on its promise to end not only its paramilitary activities but criminality as well. Regrettably, though, this is not yet the case for dissident IRA groups or for loyalists.

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Mr. Bellingham: Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the personnel from MI5, the French intelligence service and the Garda Siochana on their successful operation that foiled the smuggling of a large arms cache to Northern Ireland? Does he share my dismay that many of the weapons involved were lethal systems, such as surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades—exactly the sort of weaponry and armoury being used day-in, day-out to kill and maim our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we not be very careful before further lowering our guard in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of dissident IRA groups. The activity that he mentioned was a major achievement by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services, co-operating, as he said, with the Irish authorities. It probably involved Real IRA dissident members. It was a major threat, involving a serious quantity of weapons. That is why we will continue to bear down on and attack the root of the organisation of the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA and any other paramilitary groups.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that this is not just a case of dissident republican groups and so-called loyalist groups, both of which we would condemn? The Independent Monitoring Commission has also made it plain that elements from the IRA are still involved in criminality and that Sinn Fein is still a long way from signing up to the Policing Board. Until there is an absolute denunciation of criminality and a signing up to the Policing Board, we will not have the true security that the Secretary of State and I both wish for. Does he agree?

Mr. Hain: I agree that it is important for Sinn Fein to co-operate in policing, and to do so soon. I think that it will join the Policing Board in due course. It is also important to acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman has, that there has been a sea change since the IRA made its statement last July to end paramilitary activity and any criminality. The leadership has taken repeated steps to drive out criminality, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are still some localised examples, which must end. None the less, I am satisfied—as are the security services and the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are trying to root out and stop criminality.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Given the present security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State kindly agree to meet Mr. Raymond McCord, whose son was brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force eight years ago and who is still awaiting truth, justice and closure in respect of his son’s murder? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to meet him?

Mr. Hain: If the hon. Lady arranges a meeting through my diary secretary, I will of course be pleased to meet him.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the Northern Ireland parties are now faced with a choice? Is the security situation so bad that they hold out against restarting the Assembly, or is it sufficiently good to justify their participation in a functioning Assembly on a cross-party basis? Does he accept that the difficult but necessary choice is whether to hold out on principle against restarting the Assembly, thereby losing out on everything from the changes in education policy that we have just debated right through to the redrawing of local government boundaries and billing for utilities? Does he further accept that that choice is entirely in the hands of Northern Ireland politicians?

Mr. Hain: I could not have said it better myself. In my view, the conditions are clear. There is no reason for the parties collectively not to negotiate on the restoration of devolved Government and to achieve it before the deadline of 24 November, which is set in concrete and in statute. If that is not achieved, the salaries and allowances will end, as well as the financial assistance to political parties, which totals some £600,000. I do not want to do that. I want self-government to be restored in Northern Ireland, with elected local politicians making decisions, as the hon. Gentleman said.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Following the 2003 security breach at the Northern Ireland Police Fund, charges against Mr. Thomas Hale were later dropped. The reason given was that a member of staff had withdrawn a statement. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the member of staff did not withdraw the statement, and will he call immediately for a public inquiry?

Mr. Hain: I certainly will not. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I will provide for inquiries to be made and those responsible for the matter will doubtless report to me. If I have anything to report to him, I shall happily do that.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that in the light of the improved security situation in Northern Ireland, the vast sums of money spent on close protection units for individuals should perhaps be reconsidered and reviewed for scaling back?

Mr. Hain: I do agree. That is precisely why we are considering the close protection scheme, which is expensive but necessary for many individuals who may be vulnerable. We are examining whether, in the changed security climate, it is necessary to pursue it to the same extent as it operates now.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State will recall that, at previous Northern Ireland questions, I condemned from the Dispatch Box loyalist paramilitaries for retaining weapons and for their activity. We are now hearing reports about dissident IRA members. In The Sunday Times, Liam Clarke wrote:

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Given that, and the fact that Sinn Fein-IRA have not signed up to policing in any way, shape or form—the last time I was in south Armagh, the police told me that the Member of Parliament for that area will not even talk to them—is it not time to put pressure on those people rather than on constitutional politicians to get the Assembly up and running?

Mr. Hain: We are indeed putting pressure on Sinn Fein to co-operate with policing, locally and in every other respect. Once the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which deals with the devolution of policing and justice, is given Royal Assent at the end of next month—as I hope it will be—it will be incumbent on Sinn Fein to deliver progress on policing, to which they have committed themselves. The hon. Gentleman is right: dissident IRA groups still pose a threat. A 250 lb bomb in Lurgan was stopped from being exploded by expert intelligence activity. We must keep at it and bear down on dissident activity, but the dissidents are operating on nothing like the scale that the IRA did. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) will support the Government’s policy on devolved Government, as we supported the efforts of John Major and Margaret Thatcher to get the peace process on the road.

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