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Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP):
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that the triple lock will remain securely in place when there is devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland? The triple lock means that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must agree to that devolution, and that there must be cross-community
support in the Assembly and an order in this House. Will he confirm that that devolution will not be imposed in Northern Ireland without cross-community support?
Mr. Hain: Of course, and I said as much to an Assembly sub-committee yesterday. I want the appointment of a justice Minister and a deputy justice Minister to be achieved by a cross-community vote in the Assembly, with the so-called triple lock, to which the hon. Lady referred, in place. The Act passed by Parliament last year made no attempt to change that, but we need to get on with the process. All the Unionist parties, including hers, and all the other parties support the principle of devolving policing and justice. The Government are committed to that, and if there is delivery on policing, we want to meet the St. Andrews time frame of May 2008 for that devolution.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The House will be grateful for what the Secretary of State has just said, but will he give us another unequivocal assurancethat those who accept ministerial office in any Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive will have placed on them the same requirements and obligations as are placed on those who serve in the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales?
Mr. Hain: I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point, but in some respects the obligations in Northern Ireland are greater. The ministerial pledge of office, as amended in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which this House passed last November, makes it clear that Ministers must support the police, the rule of law and the courts. The Ard Chomhairle motion passed by the Sinn Fein executive on 29 December specifically authorised its members to take the ministerial pledge of office, and that is encouraging for the future.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State accept that words alone are not enough when it comes to policing and support for the courts and the rule of law? Sinn Feins support for the police, the courts and the rule of law must be tested against its actions over a credible period. In the past, we have learned to our cost that Sinn Feins words are meaningless when it comes to translating them into action. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that people in Northern Ireland believe that Sinn Fein should sign up for policing and the rule of law without conditions or concessions? That means that the May 2008 date for the devolution of policing and justice cannot apply, as there can be no commitment to any date when we do not know whether Sinn Fein will deliver.
I of course agree that Sinn Fein should sign up to policing and the rule of law, and to the justice system in every other respect. I also agree that there has to be sustainable delivery. There is no question about that, but the May 2008 timetable agreed in the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act is a Government objective, to which all parties should work. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the date set out in that Act, which was passed by Parliament, is very clear. On March 26, there will either be the restoration of devolution or there will be dissolution. That date cannot be moved.
We are proceeding towards devolution and I think that we can achieve it, but there will be dissolution if we do not.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to be a bit more specific and state the criteria that he and the Government will use to judge whether Sinn Feins hoped-for support for policing is delivered in actions as well as in words? Such actions are needed to make the devolution of policing and criminal justice possible.
Mr. Hain: We will want Sinn Fein representatives to display full co-operation with policing in every respect, and I know that the hon. Gentleman wants the same thing. For example, that will mean that they will report any crime carried out in their communities, and that they will assist the police in every respect. We also expect them to join the Policing Board for Northern Ireland and the district policing partnerships. As I said earlier, the executive motion passed by Sinn Fein on 29 December commits that organisations representatives to all those things, and it is therefore important that we get on with the process.
Mr. Lidington: Does the Secretary of State envisage that the Independent Monitoring Commission, or some other body apart from the Government, will play a role in monitoring Sinn Feins performance at living up to its words in practice, so that Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have some objective evidence and assessment available to them, as well as the views of Ministers, to guide their opinion on whether delivery has been achieved?
Mr. Hain: An IMC report is due at the end of the month, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there will be continual IMC reports over the coming months and years in order to ensure full compliance with what is needed. May I also say to the hon. Gentleman that what is at stake is an historic prize, of devolution and support for the rule of law and policing? We have never been in this position before, where all parties want power sharing and all parties are ready to stand up and support policing and the rule of law. Let us grab that prize and go for it, because the clock is ticking and we need to achieve by 26 Marchwith full restoration and delivery on policing in place. [Interruption.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle):
We welcome the landmark report published last month by Professor Sir George Bain, which recommended improving the quality of education in Northern Ireland through better use of resources, better planning of schools and improved sharing and collaboration. It is a blueprint for excellence in all our schools and will enable all Northern Ireland children to get full value from the
efficient use of the massive 60 per cent. real-terms increase in resources committed to education by the Government at a time of falling rolls.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she briefly explain the relationship between the Bain review and the policy documents issued by the Department with specific reference to the planning of new schools and the rationalisation of schools? Paragraph 9.3 of Bain states that any planning of new schools must reflect the make-up of society in Northern Ireland, but that does not appear in the Government document for consultation. It further states that each sector must be supported in its plans, but only one sector seems to be relevantthe Department, which will dictate exactly what happens. Will the Minister please rationalise that?
Maria Eagle: One of the main recommendations of the Bain reviewone that will enable us to achieve maximum efficiency in the spending of increased resourcesis the concept of area-based planning. It will no longer be sensible or possible for individual sectors to plan only within their sectors, which would be a recipe for pouring our extra resourcing down the drain. It will be important for all sectors to involve themselves, in conjunction with the Department, in planning for schools, and to spend increased resources on an area and geographical basis, not just within sectors.
Sammy Wilson: There is absolutely no justification for continuing with the unfair and wasteful policy introduced by Martin McGuinness, which requires the Education Department to fund integrated and Irish-medium schools with an intake as low as 12 pupilsat a time when there is massive overcapacity and the Minister is closing down schools with far higher intakes in the maintained and controlled sector. That is unfair, divisive and wasteful, so will the Minister end that policy?
Maria Eagle: I certainly do not agree that integrated or Irish-medium schools are divisive, as they are meeting a need that parents in Northern Ireland want to see met. That is legitimate. However, I accept that we will not get full value from the extra resources going in if we keep supporting extremely small schools, as we have in the past. Bain set out some minima below which it will be important to review the continued educational sustainability of schools, and it is important to take those recommendations forward speedily and in all seriousness. I hope that all education stakeholders in Northern Ireland will join me, and the Department, in taking them forward in a positive and constructive manner.
Regarding the death of David Ervine, I knew him for more than a decade, and in my book he was a true statesman of Northern Ireland politics. He was also a friend. I shall miss him, and I am sure that everyone who worked with him feels the same way about his passing.
In his report, Sir George Bain underlines the need for more religious mixing in schools, so how can the Minister refuse new integrated schools in Antrim, Ballymoney and Strabane, and deny existing schools in Armagh and Belfast integrated status, especially as that would have no impact on existing schools? Will she reconsider that that is a bad decision?
Maria Eagle: Under the present Government, we have seen the biggest push ever towards increasing integrated education. As I have already said, the integrated sector is a vital part of creating the shared future that is crucial to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Whenever I consider proposals, I do so with a view to being positive and constructive. I have accepted proposals that had previously been turned down, and I have just accepted four proposals to create, transform or expand integrated schools. I shall consider further proposals constructively, but each proposal must be considered on its merits and on the basis of the legal framework pertaining; unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to turn one down.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of the two servicemen killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the Christmas recess. They were Lance Bombardier James Dwyer of 29 Commando Regiment and Sergeant Graham Hesketh from 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancasters Regiment. We also send our profound sympathy to the family and friends of Sergeant Wayne Rees, of the Queens Royal Lancers, who died at the weekend while on patrol in Iraq. They were performing vital roles in working for the security of our country and the wider world, and we send our sympathy and our prayers to their families.
Traditionally when a Government Back Bencher refuses to toe the line, they are invited to a little interview without coffee with the Government Chief Whip, but what does the Prime Minister do when collective responsibility has effectively collapsed and his Chief Whip, aided and abetted by the Home
Secretary and his party chairman, has become a rebel on national health service cuts, in defiance of his health policy?
The Prime Minister: Unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. MPs who are Ministers are perfectly entitled to take part in local consultationsit is not even a local decision that has been made in my right hon. Friends constituencies. What is utterly absurd is to be in the Conservative partys position: having opposed all the additional investment in the national health service, the Conservatives now oppose each and every change in principle.
Q2.  Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): There was much speculation last week about the future size of the Royal Navy surface fleet. That has caused concern in my constituencyPortsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navycoming as it does on the back of the naval base review. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the Royal Navy plays a fundamental role in defending our national security, and that it should have the resources necessary to perform the vital tasks that we ask it to do?
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why, in terms of investment in new ships, we have the largest warship building programme that we have had for many years in this country, and why, as opposed to the position under the Conservative Government, we are increasing defence spending in real terms year on year. Let me say to my hon. Friend that I understand that 17,000 people are employed in the Portsmouth naval base, including 8,800 civilians, and that there are a further 26,000 jobs in the wider defence industries in the region. It therefore performs a vital task, not only for Portsmouth and the region, but for our countrys security.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Bombardier James Dwyer, Sergeant Graham Hesketh and Sergeant Wayne Rees. They died serving their country and we honour their memory.
Yesterday, the police revealed that details of British criminals, including rapists and murderers, who have committed offences abroad were sitting in boxes in the Home Office and that nothing had been done. Can the Prime Minister at least reassure us that all their details have now been entered on the police national computer and, where appropriate, the sex offenders register?
The Prime Minister:
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary will make a statement immediately after I sit down, but I can tell him that the Home Secretary has been informed this morning by the Association of Chief Police Officers that every one of the most serious offenders that it has identifiedon whom there is sufficient detail to be put on the police national computerhave now been entered on the system. Let me make one thing clear: until May of last year, there was no proper system, not merely in this country but elsewhere in Europe, for the details of people who have committed offences in other countries to be given to Britain, or indeed to other Europe countries, as may be. The situation changed as a result
of the decision taken by the November 2005 Justice and Home Affairs Council. Since May 2006, ACPO has been working through all the cases to make sure that there is proper protection for the public.
Mr. Cameron: Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister has just said: the names of those people have been sitting in box files and he is admitting today that not all their details have been put on the police national computer. The Prime Minister has confirmed that yet again the Government have failed in their central duty to protect the public. Let us also be clear: of the 525 serious criminals, there are 25 rapists, 29 paedophiles and five murderers. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that none of those very dangerous people has been working with children since their conviction?
The Prime Minister: The Home Secretary will make a statement in a moment that covers precisely that point. However, let me just make one thing clear. Before May 2006, there were no proper details; indeed, before 1999, no details of any sort whatever were kept. Between 1999 and May 2006, details were sent under the old voluntary system that used to apply in Europe. Very often, however, those details were not sufficient to allow us to identify people properly. That is why I said that those on whom proper information was sent to us by other European countries have been entered on the police national computer. In so far as insufficient details have not been sent to us, that is not, with respect, the fault of the Home Office but of those people who have been sending the details from other countries. All the way through there was, of course, an attempt to improve the system; however, it was only when Europe took a decision to make compulsory what had previously been voluntary that we were able to deal with the backlog satisfactorily.
Mr. Cameron: Let us be clear: I asked the Prime Minister for a guarantee and he simply cannot give one. His answer underlines just how serious this is. There are rapists, murderers and paedophiles at large in Britain who could have got through the net and could have been working with children in the NHS, in social services or in our schools. The Prime Minister says that the Home Secretary will give a statement, but is not it the fact that the Home Office is part of the problem? Last night, the Home Office said that details of the serious offenders had all been entered into the computerthat is what it said. This morning, a Home Office Minister said that they had not all been entered. Why does the Home Office keep giving such misleading information about such an important matter?
The Prime Minister:
It is not giving misleading information [Interruption.] As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman beforehand, while the system was voluntary in the rest of Europe, when details were provided on a voluntary basis, there were often not sufficient details to allow people to be put on the police national computer. Now that we have a compulsory requirement, all those for whom there is sufficient detail are, as I understand it, now on the police national computer. It is correct that it is important that we make sure that from now onnow there is a compulsory system in placeall the information is entered properly; but before that decision was taken in Europe, some countries, despite the fact
that obviously we wanted greater amounts of information, did not provide it. As a result of the decision taken in December 2005, as I explained to the right hon. Gentleman, that information is now given on a compulsory basis.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister has completely failed to answer the question. Why is it that last night the Home Office said one thing, but this morning the junior Minister said something completely different? On taking office, the Home Secretary said that he would have a fundamental review of his Department. A hundred days later, he said, Job done, yet we now know that 500 criminals are on the loose and his Department did virtually nothing about it. Is not it the case that if one of those dangerous criminals is found to have been working with vulnerable adults or with children, the Home Secretary will not be able to run away from responsibility for it?
The Prime Minister: No one is seeking to do that. I thought that I had explained the position to the right hon. Gentleman, but let me explain it again to him. All the people for whom there is sufficient information are on the police national computer, but as for those who are part of the backlog of cases, and where the information was delivered to us when doing so was only voluntary, not compulsory, there may be some of those for whom there is insufficient information. That is not the fault of the Home Office. In respect of those for whom there is sufficient information, they, I am now informed, are all on the police national computer.
Mr. Cameron: Does not this go to a much bigger problem about the Home Office? We have had illegal immigrants working in the Home Office, endless escapes from open prisons, and foreign prisoners released and not deported, and now there is this latest fiasco. Let me make a constructive suggestion to the Prime Minister. The Home Office is a huge Department, covering prisons, probation, immigration, criminal justice and terrorism. Will the Prime Minister take up my suggestion that there should now be a separate Home Office Minister responsible for terrorism, who sits in the Cabinet alongside the Home Secretary? We are on our fourth failing Home Secretary; would not that suggestion at least give him some chance of doing his job properly?
The Prime Minister: No, I am afraid that I do not think that that is the right way to proceed on security. Let me just make one thing clear in relation to absconds, which the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned. Absconds from open conditions are at their lowest level since we came to office, and absconds from closed conditions are at their lowest level. [Interruption.] Let me give him the facts. The facts are that, prior to 1997, some 1,300 prisoners escaped. For the 10 years since 1997, the figure is 137. There have, of course, been several category A escapes, including when he was at the Home Office as an adviser, but there have been no category A escapes since we came to power.
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