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House of Commons

Wednesday 7 February 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Equality (Sexual Orientation)

1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On what basis the timetable was set for the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. [118050]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The timetable for the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 was set to ensure that regulations were in place for 1 January 2007. The Government wished to have the regulations in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity following the consultation.

Mr. Bone: Did not a fact that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew the attention of this House to the fact that the regulations are defective in no fewer than five areas? The Secretary of State bulldozed these new laws—which promote gay rights over religious freedom—through Parliament, not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, but because of his own political ambition to become the next Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman’s contribution does not do him good service. The House of Lords voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the regulations. They did so because they recognised that the regulations are fair and proper for gay and lesbian people in the community at large. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has made some comments, and we have agreed to lay amending regulations based on them. However, those comments do not detract from the main resolution, which has been passed by this House. Indeed, the measure was passed and agreed by the Assembly in Northern Ireland on a 38:38 vote. The hon. Gentleman should examine the equality issues and share the aspiration of this House and another place to support equality in the community.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The regulations were certainly not passed by the Assembly—it is beyond me how a tied vote represents a
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pass. The four main denominations in Northern Ireland and many political representatives oppose the regulations. They believe that they offend against religious freedom in Northern Ireland. The regulations were railroaded through, despite the fact that the Government held them back for the rest of the United Kingdom. Why is Northern Ireland continually treated as a place to experiment with such laws on behalf of the rest of the UK? This is about political expediency rather than recognising the will of the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom oppose these regulations.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman proposed the vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reject the regulations, and that vote was not carried. The other place voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and this House has done so, too. In Committee, the regulations were carried by 15 votes to three. They were supported not only by my hon. Friends, but by Opposition Members. The regulations are fair and proper, there has been consultation and I have met the Churches. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), will discuss with the adoption agencies how to implement the regulations. I believe that they are fair and proper, and I commend them to the House.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Does the Minister accept that although the regulations and the process were not perfect, there is, as he has said, strong support for the regulations from Opposition Members? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) might note that only one Conservative turned up to vote against the regulations in the Standing Committee, which suggests that the Conservative party’s objections are not very deep. There was only one vote against from the Conservatives.

Mr. Hanson: I was grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) in Committee. As was his legitimate right, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) voted against the regulations—I respect his opinions, too. The regulations are about protecting fairness and justice and ensuring that there is no discrimination and that people have the opportunity to receive goods and services, whatever their sexual orientation; they are not about discriminating against people’s views. People are entitled to hold views and to preach views, and the Churches are entitled to hold views, but they are not entitled to practise discrimination on the receipt of goods and services.

Paramilitary Activity

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the level of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. [118051]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The latest Independent Monitoring Commission report provides further confirmation that paramilitary activity is declining and that the security situation in Northern Ireland has been transformed from what it was even 18 months ago.

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Bob Spink: We all welcome the announcement by former paramilitaries that they will now support the police and security forces, which is a good first step. Does he agree, however, that words from such sources come very cheap and that it is only through sustained delivery that we can have real confidence that they have changed?

Mr. Hain: Of course there needs to be delivery. It is important that people appreciate the fact, which the hon. Gentleman has welcomed, that the leadership of Sinn Fein has said that it is the responsibility of people to co-operate with the police in dealing with crimes such as burglary, rape and the harassment of old people. It has said that republicans should join the police, and it has said that evidence, where it exists, and information should be brought forward on the McCartney murder case. Those are all positive signs that delivery is taking place. The IMC report is definitive—as it has been in the six reports since the IRA issued its statement that it was giving up its armed campaign on 28 July—that the IRA poses no terrorist threat, that it is driving criminality out of the organisation and that it is delivering on what people have demanded: no terrorism, no criminality and support for the police and the rule of law. The House should welcome that.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Given that there have been thousands of unsolved murders and serious crimes in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years, many of them committed by the Provisional IRA, and given the statement by Sinn Fein a week ago at its conference, to which the Secretary of State alluded, does he expect, as many of us do in Northern Ireland, that even though the qualified words were there, information should now be given to the police about those crimes so that they can be brought before the courts?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Chief Constable’s historical inquiries team is investigating past cases. Of course, everybody will want those cases to be pursued, and where prosecutions can be brought they should be brought. What is irrefutable, however, is that in the current context—partly, I readily concede to the hon. Gentleman, due to the pressure that his party has applied over recent years—we now have a situation whereby all the parties in an incoming Executive on 26 March support the police and the rule of law. That is an historic transformation, and it is up to the DUP to respond positively to it.

Olympics 2012

3. Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): What progress has been made on meeting the capital expenditure programme set for Northern Ireland relating to the 2012 Olympic games. [118052]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): Some £50 million has been set aside for building a new Olympics sports infrastructure. The Government have made good progress on their first project for the 2012 Olympic games. Castlereagh and North Down borough councils are the final two bidders seeking to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool. We have also recently announced the
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first stage of the second competition for the other Olympic and Paralympic sports facilities, which will close on 30 March.

Mr. Robinson: I am encouraged by the Under-Secretary’s response on the physical infrastructure, but when her hon. Friend the Minister outlined the Department’s strategy, he laid emphasis on the fact that there are two aspects to this—the physical infrastructure and the human infrastructure. He defined the requirements in terms of getting greater participation in sport, improving sporting performance on the international stage, encouraging greater involvement in schools and opportunities for young people, and, importantly, improving the skills available to coaches, sports scientists and others involved in the human infrastructure. What measurements does the Under-Secretary have to ensure that progress is made in those areas so that there is a real legacy from the games?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there is no point in having facilities without young people exploiting their talent in order to achieve sporting success, and that the human infrastructure is just as important as buildings and facilities. The sports strategy for Northern Ireland that is to be published shortly—not during the election purdah period, but immediately thereafter—will set out our proposals for many of these issues, with moneys bid for under the comprehensive spending review. The strategy sets out a full range of arrangements in respect of elite athletes, for volunteering and for coaching. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that many schoolchildren from Northern Ireland have already participated in the first of the schools games, which will take place annually leading up to 2012. He will have to wait a little longer to see the details, but I can assure him that there is a fully worked out programme that should enable us to develop the human infrastructure that we need, as well as to build the facilities required.

Organised Crime

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions he has had on improving cross-border co-operation between law enforcement agencies in their fight against organised crime; and if he will make a statement. [118053]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): The Government have put in place long-standing and effective arrangements for cross border co-operation to combat organised crime, with strong links at both strategic and operational levels.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and congratulate him on the work that is being done in Northern Ireland as regards cross-border co-operation. I know that he understands that it is important to fight criminality on both sides of the border, but is he convinced that the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency will deliver benefits in tackling organised crime on both sides of the border?

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Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not only his question but his long-standing interest in the matter. I am not afraid of the merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency—it signals that we will toughen up the fight against crime in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The Home Office has given us assurances that the resources will remain at least at the current level. A lead figure will be put in charge of the asset recovery work in the new merged agency. The message is clear: organised crime will not be tolerated; those responsible will be held to account.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that there is disquiet on both sides of the border? From conversations that members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs held in Belfast and Dublin, it is clear that the premature abolition of the Assets Recovery Agency causes disquiet. Will he spell out the assurances that people on both sides of the border need?

Paul Goggins: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Indeed, I pay tribute to his work and that of the Committee in drawing attention to serious organised crime in Northern Ireland. I repeat that there is a commitment to provide at least the same level of resources to tackle such crime. A lead figure in the new agency will take the lead on asset recovery work. The agency will be able to set its local priorities in Northern Ireland in communication and collaboration with colleagues south of the border. I understand that the change causes concern because of the success of asset recovery work in Northern Ireland. However, the message is clear: the fight will go on as before.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): As the Minister said, the Assets Recovery Agency has been successful in Northern Ireland. It has conducted joint operations with the Criminal Assets Bureau in the south, such is the extent of the co-operation. Indeed, the Criminal Assets Bureau estimates that some 35 per cent. of its case load has significant cross-border dimensions. What further assurance can the Minister give us that the switch from the Assets Recovery Agency to the Serious Organised Crime Agency will not compromise that good work? The Serious Organised Crime Agency goes after bigger game than the local Mr. Bigs that the Assets Recovery Agency successfully tackles.

As well as addressing further north-south co-operation, can the Minister say anything about plans to expand east-west co-operation, including through the British-Irish Council, with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands?

Paul Goggins: Of course, the widest possible co-operation is essential in the fight against organised crime throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the new merged agency will be able to set its local priorities in Northern Ireland for asset recovery work. He is right, especially in his first point about the co-operative work between the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau. Only a short time ago, a VAT fraud case was settled after being tackled by both agencies to the tune of some £18 million, which was repaid to the Assets Recovery Agency and the Criminal Assets
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Bureau. That is the sort of work in which those agencies are involved. It sends a strong message that organised crime will not be tolerated.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I listened intently to the Minister’s responses to questions on the matter. Given the serious disquiet of the Chief Constable about abolishing the Assets Recovery Agency, and given that the agency will meet all its budget targets for the coming year, will he shed some light on a question? Did the Northern Ireland Office make any representations to the Home Office to prevent the annihilation of the Assets Recovery Agency?

Paul Goggins: I do not accept the hon. Lady’s comment about the annihilation of the Assets Recovery Agency. Two agencies, for which the Home Office is responsible, are being merged. The Home Office has introduced the changes as part of a review of non-departmental public bodies. It makes sense, but I understand why she and others express concern. Asset recovery work in Northern Ireland has been successful, and I assure her and the House that it will continue undiminished.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Can the Minister say whether, if the devolution of criminal justice and policing takes place, a devolved Justice Minister, possibly from Sinn Fein, would be expected to play a part in determining the priorities for asset recovery and other SOCA work in Northern Ireland, as his Home Office counterpart intimated to me in a reply last week?

Paul Goggins: I shall not speculate about the identity of a future Justice Minister in Northern Ireland, but I expect anyone who takes up that position to play an active role in the fight against organised crime. I currently chair the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group. I hope that other Ministers in future will continue to be actively involved, as I am. The strong message is that the fight against organised crime will go on, whether or not there is direct rule and whether or not policing and justice have been devolved.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful for that reply. As the Chief Constable has said publicly that he is unhappy about the proposed merger, will the Minister give an absolutely clear-cut assurance that the reports in certain newspapers that it is intended as a political concession to republicans to take the heat off in south Armagh are completely wrong? Will he assure the House that the Government are determined that there will be no let-up whatever in efforts to bring to justice the godfathers of criminality in south Armagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: There will be absolutely no let-up in the fight against organised crime. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, on which the media have speculated, of the merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and Serious Organised Crime Agency somehow being a concession to Sinn Fein. It was certainly not such a concession: the proposal emerged from a proper review in the Home Office of non-departmental public bodies. The merger makes complete sense and will strengthen the fight against
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crime. The message that it sends out, as I have said previously, is that all those involved in crime will be held to account.

Peace Process

5. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on recent developments in the peace process. [118054]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The Sinn Fein ard fheis decision to support policing and the courts was historic. The steps taken by Sinn Fein leaders in recent days to deliver that mean that all obstacles have been removed for devolution on 26 March.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Has the Secretary of State received an indication from Sinn Fein about when it will begin openly to support the police and the rule of law? Will Sinn Fein and its supporters report to the police any crime that they know about, especially as breakaway republican groups have not accepted Sinn Fein’s decision on policing and the rule of law?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, breakaway groups of dissident republicans are expressly trying to sabotage the democratic peace process on which we are embarking for an election on 7 March and devolution on 26 March. That is their objective, and we must not allow that to happen. I can confirm, however, that Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, has said that in respect of crimes such as rape, car theft and violence against all people,

As I said earlier, he has also said that there should be full co-operation with the police on a range of other matters. The ard fheis motion passed by the Sinn Fein special conference was explicit in authorising support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system. As the hon. Gentleman has been concerned about such matters for many years, he will welcome all of that.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): What consideration has the Secretary of State given to a plan B in Northern Ireland? He will be aware that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party cannot trust each other and cannot be trusted to share power. They may agree to some sort of ugly carve-up by 26 March, but the circumstances do not bode well for the future of sustainable, devolved government. Does he think that a reliable plan B is now necessary in view of the unlikelihood of establishing devolved government by 26 March?

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