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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The single equality Bill will bring together all existing Northern Ireland equality and anti-discrimination law in one legal instrument and, as far as is practicable, harmonise protection and extend protection to new grounds where appropriate. The resulting legislation will be more consistent and coherent, will clarify rights and responsibilities and will simplify the law to make it more effective.
Mr. Hendrick: The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the late right hon. Member for Redcar, was instrumental in setting up the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which is responsible for dealing with sexual discrimination, disability discrimination, fair employment and race relations. The single equality Bill has been consulted upon for several years, but when will this legislation finally become law?
I pay tribute to my former right hon. colleague, Mo Mowlam, who put a lot of work into ensuring that the single equality Bill came before the House. As Ministers, we are determined that Northern Ireland will not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of the introduction of legislation. There is potentially about one year for work to be undertaken and we are committed to undertaking the legislation either by a Bill in the House or via the devolved Assembly if that is the appropriate way
forward. As the direct rule ministerial team, we certainly wish to see the legislation before the House.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Will the Minister accept that any proposed equality Bill needs to ensure that, for example, the public sector recruitment ratios that have shown in recent years a significant under-representation of the Protestant community are addressed and reviewed so that genuine equality of opportunity is offered to each section of our community?
Mr. Hanson: I certainly understand the hon. Gentlemans point. I wish to see more people from the Protestant community employed in the sectors that he mentioned. I ultimately want to see people treated as equals and not on the basis [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Hanson: I wish to see a situation in Northern Ireland in which all individuals are treated as equals and on their merits. That is what the legislation is about and that is why I hope that we will bring it before the House in due course.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system for Northern Ireland based on the current value of peoples homes. Through housing benefit and the new rate relief scheme, more than 185,000 households in Northern Ireland will receive assistance in paying their rates. In addition, those in full-time education and training, as well as all 16 and 17-year-olds and young people leaving care up to the age of 21, will be exempt from rates.
Stephen Pound: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that comprehensive and welcome response, which is an example of reform tinged with sensitivity. As he now wears proudly the mantle of champion of the elderly, is he not aware of the 250,000 pensioners in Northern Ireland and will he not look at special support for a group that may be property rich but are often cash poor?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that I have taken on the role of older peoples champion. Older people, for this purpose, are determined as those over 50, and I am 49 and a half, so I am just about there. The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system, and the number of people who will receive benefits for their rates will increase as a result of the changes that we are bringing forward. Under the old rating system, some 175,000 people had help with their rates. Under the new proposals, 185,000 will have help and more of those will have greater benefits than before. I am committed
to ensuring that people on low incomes have the best deal possible from this Government in paying their rates.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): What help will be given to pensioners paying their rates who live in their own homes but support a family member in care? If there is a 5 per cent. cap in England, why is there not one in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Hanson: We have tried to put in place a new benefits system that will help those in need to pay. There are many well-off pensioners who might not benefit from any schemes, but there are many low-income pensioners who will benefit from rate relief. The circumstances differ, but overall more people will benefit under the proposed new scheme.
I have taken a decision not to cap the rates in due course. That will affect approximately 3,000 properties. There are 700,000 properties in Northern Ireland. I am concerned about ensuring that the system is fair for the vast majority of propertiesthose who live in the largest properties can afford to pay a significantly increased contribution to their rates. That is my objective, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and in due course the Assembly, will share it.
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I welcome the Ministers answers relating to those on low incomes, but unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), I do not believe that they will work out in practice. Does the Minister accept that the parameters of low income are far too tight and that many people with pensions and very small savings will not qualify for any relief? Does he accept that people with disabilities will require their homes to be specially adapted before they qualify? There is a plethora of single-person households, carers and all the rest who will not qualify for relief.
Mr. Hanson: No, I am afraid I do not accept that. To give an example, a pensioner couple living in a house worth £500,000 with a combined pension and income of £21,000 and £15,000 in savings will still benefit under the rate relief scheme. I believe that the scheme is fair and appropriate, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): By the very nature of the scheme, more people will be paying higher rates, and that will lead to a lower disposable income across Northern Ireland. That will lead to lower demand for goods and services, and that will lead to fewer jobs. How does the Minister square that with his intention to make more people in Northern Ireland economically active?
Mr. Hanson: Our figures show that 55 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland will pay the same or less in their rates than currently. We are not raising one single extra penny from the rating system in Northern Ireland. We are rebalancing that system and ensuring that it is fair for all.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): Substantial progress has been made in recent months, including a report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which opens the way to a settlement at the summit at St. Andrews that will start later today.
Mr. Anderson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The whole House should welcome the progress that has been made and hope that more progress will be made this week. Have any specific discussions taken place that will allow the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been forced into exile over the past 30 years to return to their homes in safety?
Mr. Hain: As my hon. Friend knows, the security situation has been transformed these last years under this Government, with not one soldier on the streets on 12 July for the parading season for the first time in nearly 40 years, and with last weeks IMC report confirming that the Provisional IRA no longer has a war machine and no longer poses a terrorist threat. That opens the way for delivering a political settlement, starting in St. Andrews today.
Is the Secretary of State aware of how damaging it would be to the prospects for restoration if the Government were to return to the issue of on-the-run terrorists being given what amounts to an amnesty? Although we welcome the earlier answer from the Minister of State that no legislation is to be brought before the House, will the Secretary of State reassure the House and settle the nerves of my colleagues and me by assuring us that no other procedure will be used to allow on-the-run terrorists to return?
Mr. Hain: There is no other procedure. There is no prospect of an amnesty. The legislation was tried; it was withdrawn when support for it collapsed, not least in this House, and we have absolutely no intention of bringing legislation back. That, I think, should reassure the hon. Gentleman. What we shall look for in the next few days is deliverynot promisesfrom Sinn Fein on policing and respect for the rule of law, and then a commitment from all the parties to a power-sharing Executive.
Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that he believes that if power sharing and devolution are to be durable in Northern Ireland, as we both want, they must be based on every political party and every potential Minister recognising the authority of the police and the courts as legitimate, and giving those institutions full practical support?
I am happy to agree unequivocally that Sinn Fein and everybody else must sign up to the rule of law. Anyone who seeks to hold ministerial office in Northern Ireland must support, co-operate with and report crime to the police, and ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is able to do its job of enforcing law and order.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sympathy and condolences to the families of those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few months. We pay tribute to their courage, their bravery and the importance of the work they do. This country is proud to have the armed forces that we have.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today, including, of course, hosting the talks on the future of Northern Ireland.
Michael Jabez Foster: The excellent accident and emergency and maternity services at Hastings Conquest hospital are testimony to the massive improvement under Labours national health service[Hon. Members: But.] There are no buts. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend how local people can challenge the bizarre proposals by bureaucrats to downgrade those valued and cherished services?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to say that there has been enormous progress in the health service. Waiting lists are down by some 400,000. The number of deaths from heart disease has fallen since 1997 by about 150,000. We now have no one waiting for more than six months; when we took office, thousands were waiting more than 18 months. There have been improvements in cancer care, treatment for cataracts, and in accident and emergency services.
Any changes that are proposed locally will have to be fully consulted on, and the decisions will be taken locally by those who are responsible for the local health service. That is the sensible way to proceed. This Government have put enormous investment into our national health service and it is important that the right decisions on its future are taken locally.
I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those soldiers who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few months. We must make sure that they did not die in vain.
The Prime Minister: As the Home Secretary has just pointed out, absconding is at its lowest for 10 years, so the idea that we are going to put the public at risk is absurd. No people will be put in open prisons who are a risk to the public. [Interruption.] As the Home Secretary has just pointed out, the figures on absconding are the lowest for 10 years. Let me point something else out to the right hon. Gentleman. When he was advising the Home Secretary at the Home Office under the previous Administration, many, many category A prisoners as well as other category prisoners escaped. I am pleased to say that under this Administration there have been no category A escapes.
this will mean almost inevitably that the abscond rate
will go up in Cat D prisons
medium term burglars and robbers
likely to abscond.
Mr. Cameron: Hold on a minute. I know the Prime Minister has only a few more goes. Let us look at something else that he said. He said that any foreign national convicted of an imprisonable offence should be deported automatically. The Home Secretary is now bribing prisoners with up to £2,500 to get them to go home. Whatever happened to automatic deportation?
The Prime Minister: The Home Secretary is, very sensibly, making sure that we can ensure that all those foreign secretaries [Laughter.] There is not much of a recovery after that one. He is making sure that all those foreign prisoners can be returned as early as possible. It will obviously cost money, but in order to ensure that it happens more quickly we are making sure not that they are given a cash paymentthat is absolutely wrongbut that we pay for their return before their sentence is completed, so that we reduce the pressure on British prisons and so that, when their sentence is completed, prisoners are returned immediately. That is the only way we will get the foreign prisoners back quickly.
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