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I thank the members of the Independent Monitoring Commission for their 11th report, their second report
on security normalisation in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to note that they consider that the Government continue to fulfil their obligations to the people of Northern Ireland by ensuring their safety and security are protected.
I also thank the members of the Independent Monitoring Commission for their 12th report, and acknowledge the painstaking, methodical and objective way in which they have conducted their assessments of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland during the past three years.
The best commentary on it are the words of the IMC itself and I believe that they should be studied with care. As they note, the situation in Northern Ireland has been transformed from what it was three years agoparticularly in regard to the IRA.
As the report concludes, the IRA is not the same organization it was three years ago. The IMCs clear conclusion is that the leadership of the IRA does not consider a return to terrorism in any way a viable option; and that it continues to direct its members not to engage in criminal activity. Importantly, the IMC assesses that the IRA has disbanded its structures which were responsible for procurement, engineering and training and has stood down volunteers.
The IMC also concludes that the leadership has maintained a firm stance against the involvement of members in criminality and taken action against members who have continued such activity. We also note that the report says that where individuals have been involved, as individuals, in criminality, that has not been sanctioned, and it should not call into question the leaderships position.
The IMC concludes that there is convincing evidence of the IRAs continuing commitment to the political path and believes that it is no longer credible to suggest otherwise. The significance of these statements cannot, and should not, be underestimated.
I also acknowledge and welcome the reports finding that the work of IRA members, along with that of loyalist paramilitaries, contributed significantly to the most peaceful marching season since the 1960s.
Like the IMC, the Government, however, believe that further progress needs to be made on the issue of policing, though welcoming the reports conclusion that the IRA leadership has accepted the need for engagement
It is also important to note the reports conclusion that some members of the UDA and UVF continue to try to move their organizations away from violence and criminalitythough, like the IMC, I agree that there is much more to do if the loyalist organizations are to match the profound change brought about by the IRA.
The Government believe that the necessary progress can be made at the upcoming talks in Scotland. But, while we accept that individual parties will, quite rightly, make their own assessment, we believe this report does lay the basis for the final settlement of the conflict in Northern Irelandand, as such, presents a unique opportunity for this generation to reach that final resolution, an opportunity the Government hope the parties will now seize.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): This fifth report marks another milestone in the work carried out by the UK Steering Group, currently chaired by the Northern Ireland Office, formed as a result of Patten to examine alternative policing approaches to the management of conflict.
After consultation with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence I placed in the Library a copy of the fifth report on 20 September. The UK Steering Group was set up to establish whether an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the baton round is available and to review the public order equipment which is presently available or could be developed in order to expand the range of tactical options available to operational commanders.
Since then the work has continued apace. I am grateful to the Steering Group and to the many contributors to the programme, including those in Government service, the police, academics and other experts, for their sustained commitment.
While initially established to address a specific Northern Ireland issue, the work of the Steering Group has intentionally been developed within the context of policing across the United Kingdom and has provided a vehicle for identifying and selecting less lethal technologies for police use in the wider UK context.
There has been considerable progress from the situation on which the Patten Commission reported, when it stated that the police had essentially, three optionsthe baton, the PER or live fire. In June 2005, the UK Steering Group introduced the new Attenuating Energy Projectile (AEP), a safer replacement for the L21 Al baton round. The introduction of the AEP does not represent the end of the Groups work, as it continues to progress towards the assessment of the suitability of the new Discriminating Irritant Projectile (DIP).
The work of the Steering Group has necessarily had a strong focus on the science and technology required to produce an effective and less potentially lethal alternative, but has also had a particular emphasis on its systematic approach, where the potential to reduce the lethal nature of weapons is enhanced not only through technological developments but through the development of stringent training and operational guidance and the accountability measures that are in place, designed to maximise the safety of all concerned. Overall this approach is now internationally recognised as a world-leading model of best practice.
The Government will continue to keep all commercial products and technological research under review. It will ensure that those appearing to have real potential are tested and medically evaluated if appropriate.
However, I have not lost sight of the concerns shared by a number of interested groups on the issue of less lethal weapons. For our part, it is the Governments intention to continue to engage with these groups. As before, I have invited their comments on this report.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am pleased to announce that I have appointed my right hon. Friend, the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
My right hon. Friend takes up appointment as the Labour party nominee in succession to the right hon. Baroness Jay of Paddington. His appointment was effective from 1 October 2006, and is for three years in the first instance.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman):
Level crossing orders are made by the Secretary of State under the Level Crossings Act 1983 and specify the protective equipment (lights, barriers, signs, etc) to be provided at a particular crossing. In practice most orders have been considered and made by Her Majestys Railways Inspectorate (HMRI) on behalf of the Secretary of State. With the transfer of HMRI to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) earlier this year we had intended to enter into an agreement with ORR to make level crossing orders on behalf of the Secretary of State, replacing a similar agreement originally entered into in 1990 when HMRI became part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The Railways Act 2005 (for ORR) and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (for HSE) however permit only functions of an administrative nature to be delegated to ORR and HSE, and we have concluded that the making of level crossing orders fails
this test because it is a function of a legislative nature. Consequently I have tabled an amendment to the Road Safety Bill which provides for the making of level crossing orders to be delegated to ORR and validates those orders made by HSE since 1990. This will restore the position to what we thought it was, which has worked well over the years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): On 3 May 2006 in a written ministerial statement, I announced details of a strategic review of the Independent Living Funds which, it was then planned, to be concluded by the end of December 2006.
The review is currently under way. The joint independent consultants, Melanie Kenwood and Bob Hudson, have developed a consultation strategy to gather evidence to inform the reviews recommendations. As part of the consultation strategy, consultants have requested concise, written submissions from key stakeholders by the end of August 2006. Following several requests from stakeholders, my Department has decided to extend this deadline to the end of September 2006. This extension will result in the review being completed later than originally planned.
The Independent Living Funds enable thousands of severely disabled people to live independently and the Government need to consider the future direction of the Funds in the light of both our goal of equality for disabled people and the wider context of proposed changes in social care. It is therefore important that we provide sufficient time for our stakeholders input to this review.