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House of Commons

Wednesday 10 January 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent acts of decommissioning of illegally held weapons and explosives have taken place in Northern Ireland. [113210]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): Before I answer question 1, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you, and all Members, will want to join me in expressing sadness at the untimely death on Monday of David Ervine, the leader of the Progressive Unionist party. David’s story and character were unique and he will be greatly missed by the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will attend his funeral on Friday, and I am sure that the whole House will want to send its condolences to his family.

The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning has reported that it has witnessed full and final decommissioning by the IRA. It is vital that representatives of loyalist paramilitary groups engage with the IICD and make the full transition from conflict to peace.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Obviously, I join the Minister in the sentiments that he expressed about the death of David Ervine, and I am sure that all Opposition Members would do so.

Will there be an ongoing assessment process to ensure that Sinn Fein-IRA do not rearm? How can we trust Sinn Fein-IRA when at a recent commemoration ceremony to mark the death of two Sinn Fein-IRA terrorists who had been raiding a police station, a collection of weapons was on display—albeit that Sinn Fein-IRA claimed that the weapons were from an historic collection? Can we trust that they have genuinely decommissioned, or do they yet again have an occasion for deception, which is typical of Sinn Fein-IRA?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman asks whether there is an ongoing monitoring process, and there is. The IICD continues its work and the Independent Monitoring Commission reports regularly. In successive
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reports, the IMC has reported that the Provisional IRA no longer possesses either the capacity or the will to wage violent conflict in Northern Ireland. That is an essential step in creating a sustainable long-term peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

What the hon. Gentleman says would be right if he were to point to dissident republican groups, which still pose a threat to peace in Northern Ireland. One of the strongest reasons why we need to have devolution in Northern Ireland is so that we can get all the political parties and communities in Northern Ireland united against dissident republicans who would undermine the peace process.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): May I, from the Labour Benches, add support for the words of my hon. Friend the Minister in memory of David Ervine? When I was security Minister I was privileged to work with David, and I was always struck by the courage that he displayed, very often in facing dangerous challenges from his own side. I am confident that we would not have made the progress that we have made in decommissioning, and in other areas to do with security in Northern Ireland, without the voice of David Ervine having been raised.

Paul Goggins: It is always well to have a previous security Minister watching carefully over my left shoulder on occasions such as this. I join my right hon. Friend in the sentiments that she has expressed. Indeed, it would be a fitting tribute to the memory of David Ervine if loyalist paramilitary groups were to decommission and play their full part in the future of Northern Ireland.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): May I, on behalf my party, add to the tributes paid to the late David Ervine? Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family at this time.

Can the Minister confirm that a major security operation was carried out on 11 or 12 December 2006 at the home of a leading Sinn Fein member, Declan Murphy—the brother of Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein Member of this House—in Camlough, Newry, and that important documents relating to security force members and leading politicians were removed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: I cannot comment on particular police operations. [Interruption.] No arrests arose out of those investigations.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Why not?

Paul Goggins: No charges were made. I do not know what the motivation of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) is in raising that matter this morning, but he should be— [Interruption.] What he should be doing —[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister must be allowed to reply.

Paul Goggins: In my view, what the hon. Member for Upper Bann and his party—and, indeed, all Members—
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should be doing is uniting in a call for loyalist paramilitary groups to decommission and fully to join the peace process in Northern Ireland, as well as forming part of the united community against dissident republicans, who would still pose a threat to the peace and future prosperity of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): May I associate myself and the Conservative party with the Minister’s remarks on the sad passing away of David Ervine? We agree that it would be a most fitting legacy if the paramilitary groups on the so-called loyalist side were completely disarmed and an end were put to all paramilitary activity. But would it not also be good if there could be an end to all criminality on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland? As a recent report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs highlighted, that remains a big problem in the Province, so should not that take place now?

Paul Goggins: I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about David Ervine—and he is right to raise organised criminal activity, which underpins the remaining paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and occupies my mind very much. We have the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, which is doing a good job of bearing down on the problem. I am sure that the whole House will unite in the quest to ensure that organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland is eradicated.


2. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the prospects for the agriculture sector in Northern Ireland. [113211]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (David Cairns): The prospects for agriculture in Northern Ireland are positive.

Ann Winterton: The Minister will be as relieved as farmers in Northern Ireland that recent tests on pigs found with foot lesions at an abattoir in Antrim have proved that foot and mouth disease is not present. Will he congratulate the chief veterinary officer on acting efficiently and expeditiously, and will he ensure that he has sufficient staff to monitor live imports properly, in a situation that remains volatile as far as animal health is concerned?

David Cairns: I am happy to join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Bert Houston and his staff. As soon as he was aware of the possibility of the disease, he brought the matter to my attention. I had a long discussion with him about the steps that we needed to take, and they were taken. That shows that the processes put in place following the unfortunate foot and mouth outbreak a few years ago are now working. I am happy to confirm that no such disease exists in Northern Ireland, and consumers should have absolute confidence in the industry there. I hope that everyone will buy its high-quality produce.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): One of the changes to the common agricultural policy has been a move away from production subsidies to schemes designed to benefit the environment more.
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What is the rate of take-up of those schemes? What has been the environmental benefit to Northern Ireland and its farmers?

David Cairns: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. The Government have been at the forefront of the campaign for reform of the common agricultural policy, which in its old incarnation was distorting internal markets and wreaking havoc on producers in the third world. We have now broken that link with subsidy production and moved towards the agri-environmental schemes that my hon. Friend mentioned. About 12,000 farmers are participating in those schemes, which help to make up some of the income that they would otherwise have forgone. In addition, the schemes are benefiting the environment of Northern Ireland, and, therefore, all those who enjoy the beautiful Northern Ireland countryside.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The Minister is aware that the Ulster Farmers Union recently published a document, “Five Steps to a Better Future”, which the Assembly unanimously adopted in a debate last week. One of the proposals is the removal of red tape. Will the Government actively support that campaign?

David Cairns: I have met the leaders of the Ulster Farmers Union on many occasions to discuss bureaucracy and red tape. Recently, my officials worked with the UFU to reduce to three pages a form which, in its first draft, was 11 pages long, so that was a very productive engagement. My door is open to the UFU and I will certainly listen if it wants to discuss any forms or processes that it believes can be simplified and made clearer.

I must add that we have to balance that against the fact that we are talking about £300 million of taxpayers’ money, and it is right that we have proper accountability for that. It is also right that where some practices are impacting on the environment, we take our responsibilities to the environment and future generations very seriously. We need to balance the need to make processes as simple and clear for farmers as possible with our responsibilities for taxpayers’ money and the environment.


3. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): What steps he has taken to encourage greater participation in apprenticeships in Northern Ireland. [113212]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Government are committed to increasing the number of apprentices to 10,000 by 2010. A new flexible menu of professional and technical training provision entitled “Training for Success” will be available from September this year. There will be two levels of apprenticeship training to suit different abilities and to meet the requirements of employers and industry.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply—but to complete an apprenticeship a person needs work-based training. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that those who win public sector contracts offer young people the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships?

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Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We recently ran a pilot scheme with Victoria Square, a construction company under contract from the Social Development Department, under which we put in place some 11 or 12 apprenticeships as part of the work let by the Department. That is a good model to consider in the future. We are increasing the number of apprenticeships by 4,000 up to 2010, in parallel to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is doing in Great Britain. The Labour Government, in stark contrast to the Conservative party, are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Minister will know that if we are to achieve a world-class economy in Northern Ireland, we will need to enhance our skills base and improve the skills of our young people so that we can attract inward investment and help indigenous companies to grow. Will the Minister advise me what part the essential skills platform being developed by the Department in Northern Ireland will play in expanding the number of apprenticeships to 10,000 by 2010?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that we need to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are skilled for the jobs of the future. We have put in place three levels of apprenticeship. Both apprenticeships for 16 to 24-year-olds are key levels of training, and I hope that the whole House supports the fact that we have also put in place pre-apprenticeship training in schools for 14 to 16-year-olds, so that they can begin to examine the menu of options available to them and enter full apprenticeships after leaving school at 16. Only by ensuring that we have the top level of skills for people in Northern Ireland will we be able to compete with India, China and the rest of the world in due course.

Northern Ireland Executive

4. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What requirement exists for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. [113213]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): All Ministers are required to affirm the pledge of office before taking up office. This includes a commitment to uphold 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.

Stephen Hammond: I welcome that reply, but what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that any commitment made on the police and upholding the rule of law is permanent, rather than transitory? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that Ministers encourage their supporters to give information to bodies such as the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains?

Mr. Hain: I think that all party leaders, including Sinn Fein’s leader, have urged that in respect of the disappeared—to whom I think the hon. Gentleman
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was referring at the end of his question—information should be brought forward. That is welcome, because those who have lost loved ones are in the worst possible circumstances if they do not know what happened, or where those people’s remains might be.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s broader question, all people, especially those holding ministerial office, and all major parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, need to comply with support for policing, which was why the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle—its executive—meeting of 29 December was so important in committing the party to exactly that.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the uncertainties at the moment on a number of issues—both political and in relation to MI5—should be an excuse for any party to hold back from offering clear and absolute support for the rule of law and those charged with upholding and enforcing it? Will he also address the Government’s statement of today indicating that there will be no diminution in police accountability under the new formula agreed between Sinn Fein and the British Government? Will he tell us how there will be no diminution in the accountability of intelligence policing if primacy for intelligence policing goes to MI5, yet if MI5 is not subject to the access or powers that the police ombudsman has at present regarding its information and activities?

Mr. Hain: On the first point, yes. Irrespective of anything else, all parties, including Sinn Fein, should sign up to policing and support for the rule of law. I take heart, as does everyone in the House, from the executive decision made by Sinn Fein on 29 December. The executive is meeting again, hopefully with a view to calling an Ard Fheis, which is necessary to complete the process of preparing for the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, and power sharing in Northern Ireland.

I agree absolutely about there being no diminution in the accountability of the police service. The existing accountability arrangements will stay regarding the ombudsman and also in every other way, including for intelligence work carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and any necessary liaison that PSNI officers have with MI5. There will of course be no diminution in that accountability. The five principles that the chief constable has put forward are embedded in the Prime Minister’s written ministerial statement of today.

Finally, on the other point, I can tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is currently engaged in a discussion with the security service about how she can have access to sensitive information. She certainly has such access in certain circumstances, and I believe that she will have more access in the future.

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