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What steps has she taken since 28 June, when that report was issued, to ensure just that?

Vera Baird: There was a backlog during 2005, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, and another £100,000 was given very quickly to the Information Commissioner to help him get that backlog under control. Since then he has had an extra 11 per cent.—£850,000—in 2006-07 for the same purpose, and we are in discussions with him about how to optimise those processes to speed them up.

I was last asked questions on this subject only a little over a month ago, when it was pointed out to me that there were in particular some difficulties with health authorities. One of the hon. Gentleman’s Back-Bench colleagues had sent a lot of requests that had not been responded to. Since then, I have caused a reminder to go out to those authorities in particular, that we do expect prompt results. If this is not moving too tangentially away from what the hon. Gentleman said, the Information Commissioner has announced that he is going to strengthen his enforcement strategy. I think he previously wanted cultural change and guidance to work, but now, where recalcitrant local authorities and “persistent offenders”, as he puts it, in the public sector are not responding, he will serve enforcement notices and use his powers.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): A real issue, and a cause of concern to the Information Commissioner, is that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not cover those functions formerly of local authorities that were transferred to trusts such as Stockport Sports Trust, which is now making decisions behind closed doors. Does the Minister agree that changes to freedom of information rules are required to bring such bodies into line with those provisions and similar ones, such as the access to information provisions in the Local Government Act 1972?

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I think that he has made it before, and I agreed with him then, as I do now, that just because we have brought 110,000 public bodies within the ambit of this provision does not mean that we have gone as far as we need to go. There is an analogous problem with the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 to the private suppliers who deliver public functions, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are looking into those problems.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): As the Minister knows, it is important that her Department set an example in the field of freedom of information, as it is the responsible Department. She has stressed—she did so last month—how committed Ministers are to that. So why does her Department have a worse record than any other in granting freedom of information requests, even when the information is readily available? The average rate for all Departments is 62 per cent. but the Department for Constitutional
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Affairs has never managed to answer even half of such requests, and in the most recent quarter it scored a miserable 38 per cent. If the Department for Transport can have a result of 78 per cent. of requests answered where the issue is resolvable, why is the DCA such a sink Department in this area? Is it not time that it got its act together?

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Vera Baird: I dare say that, because it is full of lawyers, the Department is careful and cautious in its responses and it takes its time. In fact, over the last quarter 92 per cent. of all Government requests were responded to in time—they met the statutory deadline or a permitted deadline extension—and I reckon that 92 per cent. is rather a good proportion.

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Statistics and Registration Service

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Jack Straw, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Secretary Hain, Secretary Alan Johnson, Secretary Ruth Kelly, Mr. Secretary Alexander, Mr. Stephen Timms, Dawn Primarolo, John Healey and Ed Balls, presented a Bill to establish and make provision about the Statistics Board; to make provision about offices and office-holders under the Registration Service Act 1953; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 8].

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Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Bill [Allocation of Time]


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Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be read a Second time.

The Bill is potentially the most significant for generations. It gives effect to the St. Andrews agreement with its twin pillars of power sharing on a fair and equitable basis and support for policing and the rule of law across the whole community. Those twin pillars stand or fall together. The Bill means that the vision set out in the Good Friday agreement can at last be fully realised: a Northern Ireland of equals where political difference can be accommodated, cultural diversity celebrated, division healed, and where young people can look forward to a safe, secure and peaceful future.

Since April 1998, Northern Ireland has been in transition: from conflict to peace, from instability to stability, from economic stagnation to increasing prosperity, from a divided past into a shared future. The time is now right to complete the transition, with the local parties delivering on a stable and lasting political settlement.

In Armagh last April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made it clear that 2006 was the year of decision for the political parties in Northern Ireland. I have made it clear both in this House and outside that the political process could not be allowed to become an end in itself, and that politicians could not and would not continue to be paid—now, for over four years—without doing their jobs, as if there was no tomorrow. Northern Ireland’s public will not tolerate that.

The time has come for action on restoring devolution, ending the democratic deficit and closing down direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for locally accountable, democratic government. The politicians of Northern Ireland have waited long enough to take their proper place, with responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland, and to be answerable to the electorate for their decisions. With this Bill, the Government are delivering on our commitment to bring that about. It is now up to the parties to deliver on their obligations, too.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that tomorrow, the Scottish Parliament will discuss the collapse of Farepak, which effectively robbed hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families— many of whom come from Northern Ireland—of Christmas. Surely the Northern Ireland Assembly should discuss this issue, and particularly the fact that letters were sent out on 12 September telling people that they had to pay their bills by 6 October—the week before the company went into liquidation.

Mr. Hain: I pay tribute to the fearless way in which my hon. Friend has exposed the Farepak scandal. He is absolutely right—if a Northern Ireland Assembly were
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up and running, that issue could be raised on the Floor of that Assembly, and Back Benchers could press Ministers for action to ensure that the families in Northern Ireland who have suffered so badly as a result of the Farepak scandal could get justice.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Given that we did not have a particularly lengthy debate—in fact, none at all—on the allocation of time motion, can the Secretary of State explain for the benefit of the House, and particularly of those in Northern Ireland, what justification there is for bulldozing through this House today in six and a half hours a Bill that changes the constitution of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain: I point out to the hon. Lady, whom I respect greatly, that the reason is to make progress, so that we can meet the deadline of the end of the week. The House has just nodded through the motion, thereby giving its assent to this timetable. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I shall be happy to take any interventions from her.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hain: I will.

Andrew Mackinlay: I thought that he might. He moved the motion formally, without making a speech, which I was very appreciative of. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and I, and a few others, have a dilemma, however. We want to get to the guts of this legislation, which is extremely important, but that does not excuse the Government from not allowing two days for debate—one for Second Reading and the second for consideration in Committee. The matter is urgent, but it is not that urgent. This happens time and again with Northern Ireland legislation. What is the justification for going through all the stages in one day?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is a very diligent parliamentarian—there are few more diligent—but I have already answered the point and the House has accepted the programme motion. We need to get on with devolution in Northern Ireland and to make progress, which is why we are bringing the Bill before the House in this form.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I want to take the Secretary of State back to his comment about Members of the Assembly no longer being paid after a certain date if progress is not made. Does he not think it time that we looked again at the fact that Sinn Fein Members of this House get huge sums of money? Although three quarters of their duties should be carried out in this House, they are never here to carry them out. Why are we justifying all that money, when we are blackmailing Assembly Members to get back to holding discussions in order to avoid not being paid?

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