Oral Answers to Questions

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): Northern Ireland has been proactive in tackling the challenges associated with climate change. That includes contributing to the UK climate change programme objectives and targets as well as specific Northern Ireland actions such asthe formulation of the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy and support for renewables through funding packages.
Dr. McCrea: What policies and strategies have been developed by the Government to enable Northern Ireland to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change, and are the Government considering introducing annual carbon reduction targets?
Maria Eagle: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are introducing legislation at Westminster to deal with climate change. There are specific strengths and weaknesses to Northern Ireland’s ability to produce energy and to make use of alternative sources. The Secretary of State has made it clear that we want to be an exemplar region, and that is why the sustainable development strategy is focusing on developing alternative energy sources and the Government have committed themselves, through a £59.2 million environmental renewable energy funding package over the current two-year period, to developing such alternative technology.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Would the Minister care to comment on speculation that there are plans afoot in the Northern Ireland Office for electricity generated by wind farms in Northern Ireland to be used to supply the market in the Republic of Ireland?
Maria Eagle: The Department does have plans, as the hon. Lady will know, to proceed with a single electricity market across the entire island. To the extent that any generator, whether wind powered or more traditional, can produce surplus electricity to sell, it will be possible for that to be sold throughout that market. However, it is important for our own security of supply that we have the capacity to import energy and produce more of our own energy from alternative sources, rather than just relying on fossil fuels, which, as everyone knows, are running out.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Legislation

5. Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): How many responses he received during the consultation on the sexual orientation discrimination legislation expressing opposition to its introduction. [105400]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): Three of the 373 responses to the consultation document expressed outright opposition to the introduction of the regulations, with most of the remaining respondents expressing concerns about the extent of the religious exemption, but not outright opposition.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister will be aware of the widespread concern among Christian groups about the implications of the regulations for them, not because they wish to discriminate, but because they wish to preserve the ability to exercise their beliefs and lifestyles. He will also be aware of the opposition from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to the process and to the timing of the legislation. In the light of that, will he give a commitment that the legislation will be passed to the Northern Ireland Assembly where it should be properly dealt with, rather than to Parliament, where it will be dealt with through an Order in Council ahead of legislation in the rest of UK?
Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemanfor raising those points. We have had a very full consultation on these matters, and he will know that several points have been raised. The Government have listened to those points; indeed, the Evangelical Alliance has publicly acknowledged that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which I currently represent, has drafted an exemption that ensures that the alliance’s core doctrinal beliefs are not underestimated, but taken into account. We should progress with the regulations on 1 January, and it is fair and proper that we do so. Goods and services should be provided on the basis of equality to people who are gay or lesbian, and I shall proceed with the regulations accordingly. In terms of the United Kingdom and of England, Scotland and Wales, the British Government plan to bring in the regulations shortly. We have had extensive consultation, which has shown that we have a modicum of support for them, and I intend to bring them forward accordingly.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Surely the Minister is aware that the period for a playback forthe people of Northern Ireland was not even within the reaches of that set by the Government. Why is that? The Government say that we should have a certain number of weeks or months to find out our views on such matters, but, on this very issue, they have cut that time. What is more, there is grave concern among all the Churches of Northern Ireland—it is not often that they all agree, but on this they do—that this is a matter of such momentum and will have such an influence on people that consideration of it should at least run parallel with the time given to it in the rest of the United Kingdom and that it should not be brought forward, which is what the Minister has done.
Mr. Hanson: Section 62 of the Equality Act 2006has given my Department the power to make the regulations, and that Act was passed by both Houses of Parliament. We undertook a consultation between29 July and 28 September, during which we received extensive responses. In the light of that consultation, we have made some changes to the regulations. We have tabled them before the House and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, he and members of his party have prayed against them. I expect a debate not only in the House of Commons, but in the other place in due course, when there will be an opportunity to discuss the matter. There will be an opportunity to decide accordingly in principle at that stage.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Minister accept that although there is genuine apprehension on the part of some Church groups, the exemptions and clarifications offered by the Government mitigate many of the genuinely expressed concerns? Does he agree that no one will be compromised or discriminated against because of their religion, but also that no one should be discriminated against because of anyone else’s religion?
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): What is the rush here? Given that the Government seem divided at the highest level—there are reports that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government opposes the regulations for England and Wales and that the Government are therefore not bringing them in—why does the Minister insist that they be brought forward in Northern Ireland where there is the greatest opposition? He should answer that and be clear and straightforward with the Committee. The real reason is that he wants to avoid a devolved Assembly having powers on the matter, even though he tells us all the time on other issues that Members of the Legislative Assembly should take responsibility. He is denying them the opportunity to do so.
Mr. Hanson: The key point that the hon. Gentleman has raised relates to the fact that there have been more than 3,000 responses to the consultation in Great Britain. That is much wider than the responses to the consultation in Northern Ireland, which have basically focused on one point: religious exemption. We have listened and made changes, and, as I have said, the Evangelical Alliance has publicly acknowledged that. We can prepare and make ready for the regulations, and I do not see any reason for delay. That is why I am bringing them forward. There will be an opportunity for debate in both Houses, and we shall see what happens in due course.

School Food

6. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote healthy eating in schools in Northern Ireland. [105401]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): The Governmentare committed to encourage and support healthy eating in schools and have invested additional funding of£3 million to improve the quality of food served in schools. Through that funding we are able to increase spending on ingredients and to raise the quality, attractiveness and nutritional content of the food being served. We only hope that thereafter children in schools will eat it.
Mary Creagh: Will the entitlement of children aged from 14 to 16 to learn how to cook, which was announced by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in September, apply to children in Northern Ireland? May I impress upon my hon. Friend the Minister the need for her Department to respond to the Ofcom consultation on banning junk food advertising aimed at children aged under 16? It ends on 28 December and I hope that she will make the views of her Department and the voice of Northern Ireland’s children heard.
Maria Eagle: On the latter point, it is tremendously important to say that it is not just school meals that lead to obesity or ill health through bad nutrition. There are other influences, of which advertising can be one. We shall certainly examine all sources of food in schools and not only school meals; we will take a look at tuck shops and vending machines, as well. We will consider whether sweet and soft drinks, confectionary and savoury snacks should be available, and we intend to increase the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables and ensure easy access to fresh, free drinking water.
It is important for our children to be taught how to cook in the curriculum. We will consider what lessons for the education system here arise from what is happening in England.

Royal Irish Regiment

7. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What measures have been put in place to assist those members of the Royal Irish Regiment who are being made redundant under the security normalisation procedures to seek alternative viable employment. [105402]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are extremely grateful to the men and women of the Royal Irish Regiment (Home Service) for the brave contribution that they made over the years. The Government are committed to doing all that we can to provide them with practical support in making the transition to this new stage in their lives and careers in civilian life.
Mr. Campbell: I welcome the Minister’s recognition of the service of the members of the Royal Irish Regiment in Northern Ireland. In view of that and of the fact that many people aged between 40 and their mid-50s who never served in the Royal Irish have difficulty getting employment, is it not essential that Invest Northern Ireland ensures that any difficulties that former Royal Irish personnel encounter, especially given the security considerations that still exist, should be taken into account in ensuring that they get secure, viable employment?
Mr. Hanson: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. There should be financial support for former members of the Royal Irish, and we have given £28,000 to those who were in full-time service and £14,000 to those who were in part-time service. However, money alone is not enough: we need to provide a proper aftercare service to ensure that people can get back into the employment market if they seek to do so.
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston, through the Department for Employment and Learning, is considering an aftercare package for members of the Royal Irish, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for armed forces personnel, is also actively considering what can be done in that respect.
It is important that we help and support the civilian staff of the Royal Irish as well, and a great deal of work is being done at present through the devolved Assembly Administration using the tools that they have at their disposal, and by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Minister referred to the civilian staff associated with the Royal Irish regiment who work in bases across Northern Ireland. Some of those staff will not benefit from the redundancy provisions. For example, staff of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes worked alongside the soldiers through all the years of the troubles; they put their lives at risk when they went on to military bases in Northern Ireland and were so-called legitimate targets. Can the Government not do something for them, as they deserve some form of recognition, not least financial?
Mr. Hanson: I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the packages are MOD packages, and that I am taking this question on behalf of my colleague in the Ministry of Defence. Yes, the civilian staff will receive the same £14,000-plus redundancy package as has been offered to part-time Royal Irish members. As I mentioned, we are keen for the devolved Administration to ensure that packages are specifically tailored to help civilian staff to reintegrate into the community and obtain further employment. Ministers are considering the question of entry to the new deal, and access to information about local jobs and staff vacancies in the civil service and the MOD elsewhere in Northern Ireland. I believe that there will be detailed packages that will help, but if there are problems, I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman brought them to my attention or that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and we will do our best to liaise with the MOD on the matter.


8. Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): How many meetings the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have held with Sinn Fein; and what assessment he has made of the level of support Sinn Fein offers to (a) the PSNI and (b) the courts in Northern Ireland. [105403]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Police Service of Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein representatives have held a number of meetings. Sinn Fein support for the policing and justice institutions in Northern Ireland is, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a crucial aspect of the ongoing political process. The restoration of the devolved institutions on 26 March is dependent on continued progress being made towards that goal, consistent with the St. Andrews agreement.
Mr. Robinson: As one of this city’s Members of Parliament, may I welcome you, Sir Alan, and your officials to the historic city of Belfast, which has a great future?
When the Minister left St. Andrews, did he expect that he might have been able to give a tad more detail in answering a question such as that one at this stage? Could he perhaps tell the Committee what tangible signs he will be looking for after an ard fheis has taken place, which we hope will deal with policing, that will demonstrate on-the-ground, real engagement with the police and a commitment to support the police, the courts and the rule of law?
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Prepared 13 December 2006