Oral Answers to Questions

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Mr. Hanson: As a Member of Parliament, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to the city of Belfast; I am also grateful for his question. Since the St. Andrews agreement, there has been tangible progress on the involvement of policing and recognition that it is a crucial issue. He will know that during the recent passage the Bill that became the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, we put in place a firm pledge of office that includes upholding the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews Agreement. The hon. Gentleman knows that when the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) take their pledge of office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, hopefully in March next year, they will be committing themselves to the provisions of that pledge of office, in which support for policing is key.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also knows that I want Sinn Fein to hold an early conference to examine the question of policing, and he knows that I want Sinn Fein to accept not just the principle of policing, but policing on the ground as he and I would accept it, including reporting crimes and co-operating and working with the police. Those are key issues, and I believe that there has been tangible progress on them. It is in part due to the assistance that we have had from the hon. Gentleman and from members of Sinn Fein that we have been able to get to this stage. There is more work to be done, but there has been tangible progress.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I ask the Minister about the mechanics of the situation? Sinn Fein repeatedly tells me, including this week, that it will not sign up to policing—indeed, it will not call an ard fheis to suggest such a move—until it gets a date for devolution. Under the present arrangements and legislation, such a date cannot be given, because it will be the Assembly that decides it. Are we not going round in a circle? What can the Minister do to break that circle, and can he stress to Sinn Fein that it should sign up unconditionally to policing, regardless of anything else?
Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the nub of the ongoing discussions, of which he, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), and, indeed, all members of the Committee will be aware. We are trying to get a commitment from Sinn Fein to take forward the issue of policing. At the same time, we have an understanding that, at some point in future, policing may be devolved to the Assembly, when the Assembly and the parties agree to that. It is a complex matter to get to that stage.
We need to resolve the policing issue if we are to get devolution back on 26 March. It is self-evident to all members of the Committee that that is crucial. We need to continue the discussions that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are having on these matters. I believe we can get there. I am hopeful that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party will come to an agreement on how to make progress on these matters.

Victims Sector (Funding)

9. Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): How much has been allocated to fund the victims sector in Northern Ireland over the next five years. [105404]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The provision for the victims and survivors sector for 2007-08 is £5.3 million. Funding for the following three years has to be considered as part of the current comprehensive spending review. I expect shortly—in the new year—a report from the interim commissioner for victims and survivors, which will have a bearing on funding and the direction of funding.
Mr. Donaldson: Surely the funding for victims ought not to be an issue for the comprehensive spending review. There is an obligation on the Government to help those who, as the Government acknowledge, have for a long time not received the help that they deserve. The victims sector wants some certainty about its future, but it does not have that at the moment. Mrs. McDougall published an interim report on funding some months ago, but the Government have not yet responded to that. Why do they need to wait for her final report before they do the decent thing and give a clear indication of the funding for the victims sector for the next five years?
Mr. Hanson: There are two parts to that question. Why have we not responded to the interim report? It is because it is an interim report, which was put out to consultation for victims groups to comment on. I am expecting shortly—in the next week or so—a full report from Bertha McDougall on the funding issues relating to victims, for publication just after Christmas. I hope that that will inform the debate about future need and the future direction of funding.
I would like to put in place a three-year funding package for victims, but at the moment not a single penny of Northern Ireland expenditure, either devolved or non-devolved, for 2008 to 2011 has been agreed because we are in discussions with the Treasury as part of the comprehensive spending review. When we get final figures for the three-year period, as we will in summer next year, I would hope to be able to give certainty of funding over three years. I want to see, not an annual basis for funding discussions, but a three-year basis, so that individual organisations can have certainty. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and I believe that we will get shortly to where he wants to be.

St. John's Residential Home

10. Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): If he will take steps to ensure that the recommendation of Down Lisburn Health Trust to close St. John's Residential Home is not implemented. [105405]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): The proposals put forward by the trust are fully in line with the reform and modernisation agenda set by the Government, which is reflected in the Eastern health and social services board’s strategy for older people’s services. Older people want to be supported to live independent lives in their own homes. The policy direction is about developing high-quality safe services to meet that legitimate aspiration. It would not be right for me at this stage, therefore, to interfere in what is a properly constituted consultation process about the future of services for older people in the Down Lisburn Health and Social Services Trust area.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for her reply. Apparently, she does not like to interfere in these processes, but I would like to remind her that it is the duty of Government to ensure, under the national health legislation, that services are accessible by all their citizens. St. John’s in Downpatrick is the only statutory bed provision for old people in the entire district. As we have an ageing population and a need for provision that gives patients a choice, I would sincerely like to think that, at the end of the day, the Minister will exercise the ultimate authority and intervene, and not let the closure happen as a consequence of cost saving.
Maria Eagle: My understanding is that the Down Lisburn trust has six resource centres for the elderly and that the proposals involve the closure of two. The centres have been identified by the trust as suitable for closure due to a decrease in demand for 24-hour residential care and the resultant excess capacity. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the £1.8 million of savings likely to accrue will be reinvested in providing intermediate care services for the elderly in the area.


11. Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): What steps are being taken to improve training within the Police Service of Northern Ireland and local councils in the use of antisocial behaviour orders. [105406]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Northern Ireland Office community safety unit has provided training and guidance to those who have the power to apply for antisocial behaviour orders. In addition, the PSNI has specialist district trainers who provide training at local level when new legislation comes into force, and they did so in this case.
Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, I would like him to address a really serious issue, which is that only 11 ASBOs have been issued in Northern Ireland in the past two years. Given that the Northern Ireland Office managed to spend £30,000 on bottled water during the last financial year but spent only a fraction of that—a quarter—of that sum on training on ASBOs for councils and the PSNI, will the Minister tell the Committee what the increase in the budget will be for training for ASBOs for councils and the PSNI?
Mr. Hanson: I cannot give a figure off-hand for the increase in the training budget for the PSNI as it is slightly outside my area of responsibility, but I shall write to the hon. Lady.
We take antisocial behaviour very seriously. We have created ASBOs and a number of orders are in the pipeline. There was a glitch because of the recent judicial review, which checked the hunger of many bodies to use them, but I believe that that bottleneck is over. The ASBO is a weapon of last resort, but it is an important means of ensuring that individuals behave properly in the community and that when they err, they will be given the strong message of an antisocial behaviour order. I wish to see the orders applied appropriately and more often. I shall consider the figures given by the hon. Lady and write to her shortly.

The Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy

1.32 pm
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I remind the Committee that the debate may continue until 4 pm. I have had no indication as to the number of hon. Members who wish to participate. However, that may become evident, in which case I should be obliged if contributions were brief so that I can include the largest number of speakers.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of Lifetime Opportunities—the Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland.
I echo the remarks about the warm welcome that we have had from Belfast city council and the Mayor for the use of these facilities.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Did the Minister say a “warm” welcome?
Mr. Hanson: Far be it from me to increase the cost to the ratepayers of Belfast by asking for the heating to be turned up; I have their interests solely at heart on such matters.
Belfast city council has made the City hall available to us, and I thank the Mayor and his staff for their welcome, for the luncheon that they offered those hon. Members who were able to participate and for the use of the facilities generally.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I remind hon. Members that this building has been a safety net for the people of Northern Ireland. Their first Parliament met here for the first time. When the Assembly was thrown out of Stormont, they opened its doors to us; they even brought the Minister in today, which shows how liberal they are. I congratulate the city council, and we are delighted that for the first time in the history of Ireland a Grand Committee has met in Belfast, and in this company.
Mr. Hanson: I would never argue history with the right hon. Gentleman; I accept all that he says. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle speaks from a sedentary position; I have not started my speech but already we have discussion and dissent.
I return to the point: I thank Belfast city council for allowing us to use these facilities. I also thank you,Sir Alan, as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, for your interest in acting as Chairman of the Committee. It was a commitment for you and for Mr. Speaker to let you participate in today’s proceedings, for which I am grateful.
I welcome today’s debate on lifetime opportunities and the Government’s anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy for Northern Ireland. I hope that the debate today will gives hon. Members the opportunity to have a say on some of the issues, and to make suggestions and comments. It will, undoubtedly, be a political debate. It is important that I hear genuine comments from hon. Members on the applicability of the strategy in their constituencies and its general tone and tenor.
It will be no surprise that tackling poverty and social exclusion is at the heart of the Labour Government. That is why we are in business, why we made an historic commitment to end child poverty by 2020, why we voted for the minimum wage and put in place child tax credits, and why we put in place pensioner credits. We have an interest in rebalancing and giving lifetime opportunities to people, and we put in place the policies to make a difference on the ground.
Here in Northern Ireland, we are experiencing a continued period of growth in employment, falls in unemployment and rises in education, health and housing. For example, between 2002 and 2005, relative income child poverty fell from 26 per cent. to 24 per cent. for all children in Northern Ireland, and 12,000 children have been taken out of poverty in those two years.
In the labour market, the unemployment rate of4.3 per cent. is the lowest recorded rate ever recorded in Northern Ireland. As a whole, the average gross weekly earnings for full-time employees have increased, not just in money terms but in real terms.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Minister indicated that 12,000 children have been taken out of poverty. Does he accept that it is totally unacceptable that 110,000 children are still deemed to come from homes that are living in poverty?
Mr. Hanson: I am simply describing some of the changes that have happened as a result of policies that we have put in place since 1997. I am not going to stand here and accept a position in which more than 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are defined as living in poverty. That is what the poverty strategy is about, and later in my speech I shall come to some of the specific measures that we will take forward. I accept that the hon. Gentleman wants some changes, and so do we. I simply say that we have made some progress, but that there is much more work to be done for the future.
For example—I know that children is a topic that interests the hon. Gentleman—in 1996, the year before the Labour party came to power, 17 per cent. of pupils in Northern Ireland did not achieve five or more GCSEs. That percentage has been reduced dramatically to14 per cent. On levels of education and skills, in 1992 more than 37 per cent. of adults of working age had no qualifications whatever, but the figure is now 26 per cent. of adults of working age.
Over the last 10 years of the Labour Government, life expectancy has increased by three years for males and by two years for females. The rate of premature death has fallen by one fifth. Those are real and tangible improvements.
One of the biggest issues in our success in tackling poverty has been the impact of housing on the population’s well-being. In 1996, approximately 6 per cent. of households lived in unfit accommodation and, by 2001, that figure had halved. The number of children living in overcrowded conditions has fallen from 14 per cent. at the start of the Labour Government to 6 per cent. in 2004-05. There is more to be done and there is work that we and the Assembly must do in due course, but there is progress to date. There are 112,000 people on pension credit, 205,000 pensioners receive winter fuel payments and action has been taken on the minimum wage. To make a political point, I remember staying up all night in 1998 to vote for the minimum wage. Conservative Members stayed up all night to vote against the minimum wage. Real improvements have been made by the Government’s actions over the past 10 years.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Will the Minister share his thoughts about the fact that poverty is a political issue and that the pernicious and chronic under-investment of 18 years of Conservative Government were our inheritance and that it will take at least that long to undo the terrible social and economic consequences of that inheritance?
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Prepared 13 December 2006