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Will he now confirm and make it abundantly clear that, if we do not have devolution on 26 March, the Government will still keep the rate cap as in England and that, indeed, he will provide extra relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: I have said that issues about rate cap and pensioners arose as a result of representations from parties during the St. Andrews agreement. In the event of no agreement taking place, I will have to reconsider whether we wish to progress down those lines with regard to the cap and help for pensioners. We introduced those proposals because of the St. Andrews agreement; if there is no agreement, I will have to reconsider what I do in the light of that action.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State and his ministerial team have often, and quite rightly, said that decisions about the future of Northern Ireland should be taken by local politicians from the Province. Indeed, they asserted just as much yesterday. Given that the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP voted against the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in Committee on 25 October, how can its introduction be justified against such local opposition?

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Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been consulting on the matter, as the direct rule team, from the start of 2002, when the Assembly brought forward proposals to introduce changes. All parties in Northern Ireland are committed to changing the current system. They have differences about how we do that but, in the absence of devolution, we have a duty to look after the good government of Northern Ireland. We shall progress the order on that basis.

Equal Opportunity

5. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What steps are being taken to ensure recruitment in the public sector in Northern Ireland demonstrates equality of opportunity to people irrespective of religious affiliation. [100590]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): Under fair employment legislation, public sector employers must ensure that their recruitment processes demonstrate equality of opportunity. Specified public authorities are deemed to be registered with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and must monitor and review their employment practices and, as appropriate, take affirmative action. The commission will advise employers on their duties.

Mr. Campbell: I thank the Minister for that reply, but despite the nice words, we now have the most stringent equality legislation in the entire United Kingdom— [Interruption.]

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you please ask the House to be silent?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Sometimes the hon. Members who cheer me when I ask the House to be silent are the ones who immediately start talking.

Mr. Campbell: We have the most stringent equality legislation in the United Kingdom. Yet despite that, the most recent figures in Northern Ireland show that Protestants make up only 34 per cent. of recruits to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, only 46 per cent. of the general service grades in the civil service in Northern Ireland, and less than 50 per cent. of employees in the Child Support Agency. What will the Minister and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland do to offer genuine equality of opportunity to our community in the public sector in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: I accept that there are disparities in employment in certain areas. Too few members of the Catholic community are represented at senior level and there are difficulties in recruiting members of the Protestant community to posts at junior levels. We need to remedy both problems. Catholic representation at senior levels has improved steadily, but we are commissioning research to identify the underlying reasons for low levels of applications from members of the Protestant community for junior grades. I understand that the point is serious, and the figures that I have given the hon. Gentleman in parliamentary
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answers indicate that. We need to examine the underlying causes and improve the situation, to ensure that we have fair treatment of people from all sides of the community.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): May I ask the Minister, in the light of his comments, what steps he has taken to ensure equality, fairness and openness in opportunities for promotion in the senior civil service, and to ensure the recruitment of Irish nationals to the civil service on a fair and equitable basis?

Mr. Hanson: We are trying to ensure equality of opportunity for people and equality of outcome if we can. We need to ensure that we improve Catholic representation at the senior levels and that more people from the Protestant community apply for positions at junior levels. On Irish nationals, my hon. Friend will know that we are considering regulations to ensure that all citizens from the European Union have an opportunity to apply for posts in the civil service in Northern Ireland.

Rating System

6. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What progress has been made since 7 November 2006 on implementing changes to the Northern Ireland rating system. [100591]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made by the Privy Council on 14 November. It will come into operation on 1 April next year.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he explain why a retired teacher living in a house in Northern Ireland that is worth £300,000 will pay £700 more in rates than the Prime Minister will pay on his £3 million house in Connaught square?

Mr. Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman does his homework, he will find that the situation has changed, because of the cap that we have introduced as a result of the St. Andrews agreement, which I hope he will support. Before he starts telling me, my Government and my party about fairness in local government, he should remember that it was his party that introduced the poll tax. That is what we remember about local government finance. The system that we propose is fairer than the current system and fairer than the poll tax, which his party supported.

NHS Psychologists

7. Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): What plans he has for the number of psychologists to be employed in the NHS in the Province over the next three years. [100592]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): Since 2001, the number of clinical psychologists working in health and
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social service trusts has increased from 98 to 150. My Department currently funds 11 training places each year.

Mrs. Robinson: I thank the Minister for his response, and for a number of positive decisions that he has taken to improve the lot of the NHS in Northern Ireland. Is he aware that the professional body for psychologists has recommended that a senior clinical psychologist should be responsible for a population of approximately 30,000 people, and yet in Northern Ireland a psychologist will cover an area containing 100,000? Does he agree that the provision of talking therapies often proves much more effective than medication? What progress is being made in ensuring that such talking therapies are more widely available in our Province?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Lady is correct that various improvements are being made to the health service in Northern Ireland, not least in this area. She is right, too, to point to the role of counselling services in providing support to people. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), recently announced a new £1.7 million scheme to provide more counselling support to young people in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [101589] Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Christine Russell: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur continues to be of great concern? Does he also concur that the agreement brokered by the UN in Addis Ababa last Friday is the positive way forward, and that we must do all that we can to ensure that the Government of Sudan abides by that agreement?

The Prime Minister: First, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the agreement of 17 November last week is obviously the right way forward for Sudan. It would involve a cessation of violence, but, most importantly, the force of the African Union and the United Nations coming into Sudan. It is important that we keep up the pressure on the Government of Sudan, and I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has done a superb job. We will need to keep up the pressure on the Sudanese Government, and I will have an opportunity to speak to President Bashir later today. This is a very serious situation, and it has been so for some time. We have the prospect of a way forward, but we need to take it.

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Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): The Prime Minister has recently seen for himself the incredibly brave work that our troops are doing in Afghanistan. Anyone who has visited Helmand is struck immediately by the vital role played by helicopters. Is he convinced that all our NATO partners are doing everything that they can to maximise the number of helicopters in Afghanistan? Will he push that point as hard as he can at the NATO summit at Riga next week?

The Prime Minister: We certainly will do so in relation to any of the issues that our forces on the ground raise with us. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, our work in Helmand is of tremendous importance. I found that both our troops in Helmand province and those who are working on reconstruction were in very good heart at the prospects of success in what they are doing. It is true that at next week’s NATO summit, we must make sure that not just the United Kingdom but all our NATO partners are doing their utmost to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan and to give that Government the prospect of success that they and the Afghan people deserve.

Mr. Cameron: I agree with what the Prime Minister says about the morale of our troops. It is also incredibly welcome that 37 NATO countries are represented in Afghanistan. But does he agree that far too many restrictions—the so-called national caveats—are still imposed on how those troops can operate? Will he press at Riga to have those caveats reduced, so that NATO is not fighting with one arm tied behind its back?

The Prime Minister: We raise the issue of the caveats the entire time, but several countries, for reasons related to their own politics, are reluctant to remove them. We will say to those countries, however, that even if they retain some caveats on the deployment of their forces, particularly in a fighting situation, much more could be done none the less to support reconstruction and development, for example. The truth is that British troops are doing a fantastic job, and as I saw myself the other day, they have troops of other countries working alongside them. In particular, the Americans and Canadians, who, sadly, have also lost troops in defence of the Afghan mission, are working extremely well with our forces. However, it is important for NATO to recognise that not just the security of our world and the prospects for Afghanistan, but its own credibility, rests on our doing everything we can to help the people of Afghanistan in their search away from the Taliban and in favour of democracy.

Mr. Cameron : May I turn to the issue raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell)? In Darfur more than 200,000 people have been murdered, while probably more than 2 million have been driven out of their homes and are living in refugee camps. Anyone who goes to listen to their stories cannot fail to be horrified by what they see and hear. Is the Prime Minister aware that while six months ago all of Darfur was open to the aid agencies, today large parts of the area cannot be accessed? What will the Government do to ensure that aid can reach the people who need it?

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The Prime Minister: The only solution is to ensure that the agreement brokered last week in Addis Ababa is implemented. What that involves, essentially, is a United Nations-African Union force of far greater numbers—some 17,300 troops, I believe, and 3,000 police; the United Nations giving logistic support; and the Sudanese Government participating not just in the ceasefire, but in re-engaging with the rebel forces. All that must be done.

It is also important for us to look at the prospect of a no-fly zone. That could play a part as well. However, the difficulty that we face is very simple. It is clear that it is not UK or American forces that can carry out this particular mission. That is clear because it is not just our will, but the will of the African countries that are there. The absolute key is to put significantly larger numbers of troops on the ground, backed by the proper logistics and support, and that is what we will be working to achieve.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman went to Darfur. He is absolutely right—it is a terrible situation—but the only solution is the one that we have put forward. It is worth emphasising from the outset that the UK, along with the United States and other allies, has been at the forefront of attempts to get the situation resolved.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister mentioned the peacekeeping force. He is absolutely right: unless it is hugely enlarged, the people in the camps simply will not leave to go back to their homes. Will he ensure that in the negotiations—which are vital—the Government do not give ground and that the force is larger, has better logistics, is better equipped and, vitally, has the link to the UN without which it will not be able to do its job properly?

The Prime Minister: I think that that is important, and that is why what Kofi Annan agreed last week with the Sudanese Government is extremely important. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been to Sudan some six times, and has been immensely active. We have the outlines of an agreement; the point is to get it implemented. All I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that we will be working very closely with our allies, particularly the United States, to ensure that that is done.

The Sudanese Government should recognise that if they do not seize this opportunity, it will raised in the United Nations and the pressure will grow for strong measures against them. I urge the African Union nations to get behind the concept of a hybrid force involving the African Union and the United Nations. It is the only prospect that we have of succeeding, and we must seize it now.

Mr. Cameron: Clearly, in the long term neither aid nor enlarging the force in Darfur will do the trick. We need a political solution.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the last town attacked by Sudanese forces, Birmaza, was the place where the ceasefire talks with the rebel groups were to take place? Does he believe that that shows a complete lack of commitment to the peace process by the Sudanese Government? What steps will he take to
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maximise the pressure on them and ensure that they see no alternative to stopping the killing and no alternative to a fundamental peace agreement in Darfur?

The Prime Minister: We will do what we have been doing up to now and ensure that we have the broadest possible support and agreement, and not just for the hybrid force. We must also ensure that we get the Sudanese Government to re-engage with the rebel groups that are still fighting. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, some of the rebel groups accepted the Darfur peace plan and some did not. Some are continuing to fight. The problem arises when the Government of Sudan then use the militia to try to defeat the rebel groups. It is not just a question of the African Union force going in; it is also a question of the Sudanese Government calling a ceasefire and then re-engaging with the rebel groups. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will do everything we can to make that happen.

We raise this issue on every possible occasion—in the European Union, in the United Nations and in the course of our relations with other African countries. I had a meeting with the vice-president of Sudan just a short time ago, and, as I said earlier, I will be speaking to the President later today. Ultimately the situation must lie there, but I think that it is clear from the work we have done, and from statements by the United States of America, that if the Government of Sudan do not seize this opportunity, we will have to consider tougher measures against them.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend leads a Government who have a proud record in compensating our miners and their widows and families for the suffering that the boys endured in Britain’s pits. The one area that is not resolved is compensation for surface workers. Some in the Department of Trade and Industry are scheming to prevent surface workers from pursuing their claims. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet with colleagues and myself to discuss that, so that we can prevent a scar from growing on the reputation of his Government and a shame descending on the Labour Benches, which will happen if we allow this injustice?

The Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend implied, we have paid out more than £3 billion in compensation. Literally thousands upon thousands of miners have had compensation that I do not believe they ever would have got except under a Labour Government. However, my right hon. Friend is also right to raise the surface workers issue, and we are looking into that very closely. I can assure him that the DTI will co-operate fully with those running the scheme in order to see what can be done, and I am perfectly happy to meet him on that issue.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Can the Prime Minister confirm that the White Paper on nuclear deterrence and the future of Trident will definitely be published before the end of the year?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we will publish it before the end of the year.

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