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House of Commons

Wednesday 25 April 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—

Security Situation

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland. [132681]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): The security situation continues to improve beyond all recognition, as the 15th( )report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which I have published today, makes clear. But the report also points out that loyalist paramilitary groups need to move more quickly to cease their activities, and a significant security threat remains from dissident republican groups.

Mr. Bellingham: Although it is good news that the Sinn Fein ard fheis has decided to support the police and criminal justice system, does the Secretary of State share my grave concern that the IRA still has not disbanded its army council? Sinn Fein is about to go back into government and appoint Ministers. How can it justify its sister organisation keeping in place an army council whose sole purpose is to retain a terrorist capability?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, at the appropriate moment, everybody would like to see such structures go, because they have no purpose. It was interesting that, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Independent Monitoring Commission report a few reports ago said that the structures of the IRA were helping to drive out criminality and any remnants of paramilitary activity, and that the organisation was delivering on what it promised on 28 July 2005. In the report that I have published today, it is significant that in paragraph 2.15 the IMC said:

As the demand has been for the disbandment of the paramilitary terrorist capability, which the hon. Gentleman, together with other right hon. and hon. Members, has quite properly pressed for, it is significant that that is where the IRA now is.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Secretary of State rightly highlights the positive security outlook reflected in the IMC report, but he also reflects the fact that the IMC makes it clear that the loyalist situation is well behind where it needs to be. In circumstances where we hope that there will be something significant and decisive from the Ulster Volunteer Force, do we not need Government and all parties to give a clear message to the Ulster Defence Association that its refusal still to have anyone engaging with General de Chastelain’s decommissioning body and its continuing range of activities is completely unacceptable? It is hard for people to see how the Government are sending a clear message to the UDA—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the supplementary question must be brief.

Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend about the fact that gangsterism and remnants of paramilitary activity among loyalist groups including the UDA are still unacceptable. The IMC report says that, although it is also significant that the IMC report says that the leaderships of both the UDA and the UVF are seeking to move their organisations away from that dark and violence-strewn past. It is important that loyalism moves into the mainstream, otherwise it will get left behind. The last thing that the loyalist community needs is to be further isolated because there are those within it who cling to the past. I am clear that the leadership of both the UVF and the UDA want to move their communities into a better future to follow the transformation of the political and security situation in Northern Ireland, but there are still elements that do not. Finally, in respect of the Ulster Political Research Group funding, there was a trial period which showed that its leaderships were delivering on what had been promised. That is why we extended it. It is part of the transformation that we seek and have successfully delivered in Northern Ireland in the recent period.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I welcome the positive aspects of the report that has been published today, which is an indication of the continuing success of the policy advocated for years from these Benches—that there had to be delivery from the republican movement and others before they could in any shape or form be considered fit for government. Does the Secretary of State accept that there can be no room whatsoever for the continued existence of any paramilitary structures, either loyalist or republican, in Northern Ireland, and that it is imperative that every move is made to ensure that all the remnants of paramilitarism and terrorism are removed from society? Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that no policy in the Northern Ireland Office, no programme or strategy will be used during the period of devolution that will promote the continued existence of any paramilitary organisation?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. Once again, may I say that the supplementaries are getting very long?

Mr. Hain: I can give the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) an absolute assurance that from a Northern Ireland Office point of view—I know that the hon. Gentleman will be a member of the incoming Executive and that the same will be true of the Executive and its funds—that nothing will be directed at supporting any paramilitary structures. I also acknowledge that the firm stance that he and his colleagues have taken on the matter have helped, along with other factors, to move the situation in such a dramatic way as has occurred over the recent period. I welcome what he said.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State has rightly drawn attention to the fact that there remains a threat from loyalist paramilitaries and dissident republican paramilitaries. There is also a problem with existing criminality. Is he not therefore a little concerned that the police could be diverting very important and scarce resources to historical inquiries? Has he discussed that situation with the Chief Constable, and what was the outcome of such discussions?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is an historical inquiries team which was quite properly set up by my predecessor and provided with funds. As I mentioned to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week, the Chief Constable says that about 40 per cent. of his time is now spent on the past, including assisting with the inquiries that have been set up into Bloody Sunday, Hamill, Nelson, Wright and so on. That is a disproportionate demand on him. We should be working towards a situation whereby he is able to concentrate on the here and now and the future rather than being completely dragged back into the past. We need to continue to monitor that very closely.

Assets Recovery Agency

3. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): If he will make a statement on the performance of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. [132684]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): The Assets Recovery Agency plays a key role in the fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland and has an excellent record, exceeding its targets for freezing and restraining assets in each of the past three years.

Mr. Dunne: As the Minister says, the Assets Recovery Agency has a good track record in Northern Ireland in disrupting serious criminal groups and recovering or freezing their assets, in contrast to its rather less impressive performance on the mainland. Why, then, does he propose putting its success at risk by merging it with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is untried in this area in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: The decision to merge SOCA and the Assets Recovery Agency is not my decision to take: it is a decision for the Home Secretary, although one that I fully endorse. As effective as the agency has been, we believe that combining its track record and powers on the civil recovery of criminal assets with SOCA’s
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capacity to undertake criminal investigations and gather intelligence will give us an even more effective law enforcement agency.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): But is the Minister unconscious of the concern rightly or wrongly expressed by some people that the abandonment of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland is part of a pay-off—an unspoken deal? That notion is being canvassed around Northern Ireland. Is there not a case for matching as regards the comparable agency in the Republic of Ireland? If we are going to have different arrangements in England, Wales and Scotland, surely the Assets Recovery Agency should stay in Northern Ireland doing its work as a self-standing statutory agency.

Paul Goggins: Let me say to my hon. Friend, who takes these issues very seriously, that we are not abandoning the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. The agency will be merged with SOCA to create an even more effective law enforcement agency. I can say to him absolutely categorically that the decision to merge was not part of any political deal or fix with any party in Northern Ireland. He makes a strong case for close collaboration with the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin. That collaboration is in place, and effective working across the border will be a key element of assets recovery work in the years to come.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that the transitional costs of merging SOCA with the Assets Recovery Agency will be taken as additional funding from the Home Office rather than out of the budgets of the agency and SOCA, because those budgets should be used to fight crime, not to cover this merger?

Paul Goggins: All the costs related to the merger of the two agencies will be borne by the Home Office, which is the parent Department for the new agency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a categorical assurance from the Home Secretary that the level of resources committed to assets recovery work in Northern Ireland will remain at least at the level that we have at the moment. I take great encouragement from that. The message is very clear that assets recovery work, and indeed the whole fight against organised crime, will continue as never before in Northern Ireland, and rightly so.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): As the merger between the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency progresses, will the Under-Secretary assure the House that the battle against organised crime and to remove the illicit assets of criminals and terrorists will not be undermined? What progress has been made on recovering the Provisional IRA’s £26 million, which it stole in the Northern bank robbery?

Paul Goggins: Any assets that have been gained through criminal activity are a target for the Assets Recovery Agency and the new merged agency when it comes into operation. Let me say categorically to the hon. Gentleman that the work of the Assets Recovery Agency has continued apace, even since the announcement that was made a short time ago. Indeed, since then, the agency has
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frozen and restrained nearly £10 million of criminal assets. That is important. Wherever assets have been gained and whoever has gained them are a target for law enforcement in Northern Ireland. That work will continue.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): The Under-Secretary knows that there are genuine fears among the police in Northern Ireland that a consequence of the merger could be that the new combined agency’s priorities will be set to raise the greatest amount of revenue on a UK-wide basis rather than in terms of how best to disrupt organised criminal activity. Will he match his assurance about resources with a clear assurance that, in future, assets recovery work and priorities in Northern Ireland will be determined by Northern Ireland’s need to disrupt the evil work of organised criminal gangs?

Paul Goggins: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks. Indeed, anything less would not be good enough. I confirm to him and the House that the Home Secretary has agreed that a designated official will be in charge of assets recovery in Northern Ireland. That will be a senior figure in the new agency. No monetary threshold, as exists elsewhere in the UK, will operate in Northern Ireland. That means that we can go for Mr. Small as well as Mr. Big—that is important. We will have our own strategy and targets in Northern Ireland, which will reflect the needs of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Lidington: I welcome that answer. May I press the Under-Secretary further? Does he agree that it would be a good idea and make for an even more effective assets recovery operation in Northern Ireland if the ARA or SOCA in future had the additional powers that the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland already enjoys?

Paul Goggins: We continue to examine the powers that are necessary. Indeed, there have been reviews and increases in powers for agencies not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom. Several hon. Members of all parties have raised the matter to which the hon. Gentleman referred. There is a difficulty with the transfer of information from Revenue and Customs in the United Kingdom to the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin. We are trying to remove that obstacle at the earliest opportunity. I hope that he and others will be encouraged by that.

Maze (Sports Stadium)

4. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): What the costs have been to date of work towards the proposed stadium at the Maze, including consultants’ fees. [132685]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): To date, the Government have paid out £1,148,343.71 on work directly related to the proposed multi-sports stadium on the site of the former Maze/Long Kesh prison. The figure includes consultancy fees.

Kate Hoey: I thank the Minister for that slightly strange answer. There is genuine concern, among not only football supporters in Northern Ireland but the
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wider community, about the handling of the Maze project and the lack of transparency and accountability. Does he welcome the fact that the new Administration starting on 8 May will be able to consider the whole project again and ensure that all the sports organisations and all the people of Northern Ireland know its true cost? Will the question of whether the stadium should be in Belfast be properly studied?

Mr. Hanson: I have to take issue with my hon. Friend on those points. The Maze panel is constituted from members of all the political parties in Northern Ireland. It has been supported and it has helped develop the project to date. The incoming Administration, with Member of the Legislative Assembly Edwin Poots as the Minister responsible for the project, will have an opportunity to review the matter in due course. However, my hon. Friend knows that we have considered stadium sites in Belfast and ruled them out on the grounds of cost and efficiency. We have the support of all three sports, all four parties and many people in Northern Ireland to develop the site for not only the sports stadium at the Maze but the economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland, especially Lisburn.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently praised the advantages of a city centre stadium in Cardiff compared with out-of-town and suburban stadiums in generating atmosphere and a sense of occasion, does my hon. Friend think that any lessons can be drawn for the correct siting of the stadium in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is correct: Cardiff’s millennium stadium is the best site for Cardiff and Wales. We have examined the opportunities offered by sites in Belfast at the Titanic quarter and the north foreshore, and both proved unsuitable. The three sports, the four political parties on the Maze panel and many others, including the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, wish to see the development of the Maze site. That is rightly a matter for the incoming Assembly, and I hope that it examines it. I hope that, as our team has done, it will conclude that the Maze is the best site for the stadium and the development generally.

Civil Service

6. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): What progress is being made in ensuring that applications for the general service grades of the civil service in Northern Ireland are broadly reflective of the wider community. [132687]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): Good progress has been made towards fair Catholic and female participation at senior levels in the Northern Ireland civil service. There is, however, still a need to increase the proportions of applications from Protestant males in particular for administrative and junior management positions.

Mr. Campbell: I thank the Minister for that reply, and for the reference that I did not ask for in my question. He will be aware that the Protestant
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community continues to be under-represented in the general service grades, in the civil service as a whole, in the Child Support Agency and in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. What additional steps can be taken, because those already taken are clearly not working?

Mr. Hanson: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the matter will fall to the incoming Executive shortly, and I hope that it will consider plans. We are trying to ensure fair representation. There is no discrimination in the recruitment process, but there is under-application from the Protestant community for some of the lower-grade positions in the Northern Ireland civil service. We want to see more encouragement, and I would like to work with the incoming Executive to achieve that. Many strategies can be used, including advertising jobs and encouraging people to apply, but, currently, those applications are not forthcoming.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Why on earth have the Government introduced positive discrimination for civil servants in the police—community support officers—when there is obviously no anti-Catholic bias in that regard, as there have been no CSOs to date? How can anyone believe that the Government will abandon their discriminatory 50:50 policy in the future, given that the only discrimination has been by the Government?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will know that, historically, the Catholic population has been under-represented in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. For that reason, my right hon. Friends the current and previous Secretaries of State have secured support for the Patten recommendations, which are working at the moment. Additional recruits from the Catholic community have increased its representation in the police from 8.3 per cent in 1998 to 21 per cent. in 2005. Recently, we have reinforced the provisions, allowing them to be renewed for a further three years. My hon. Friends have reviewed the matter on several occasions, and we will continue to monitor it. We need to ensure, however, that we get more Catholics into the police force.

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