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Equality Commission

4. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on proposals for the appointment of new commissioners to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. [296669]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Secretary of State appointed four new equality commissioners in September this year, following a fair and open competition. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, responsibility for making such appointments lies solely with the Secretary of State. He wrote to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to notify them of the launch of the competition, and he informed them when the appointments were made.

Philip Davies: Will the Minister warn the new commissioners about the unease that is felt about the commission, particularly among many Unionists, and will he ensure that it does not add to the compensation culture in Northern Ireland or fuel the already crippling burden of political correctness there?

Paul Goggins: How did I guess that the phrase "political correctness" might just creep into the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue on a number of occasions, including occasions on which I have been at the Dispatch Box, and I think it fair to say that we do not agree on it. This is not about political correctness; it is about putting fairness, justice and equality at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That is what the Good Friday agreement did when it established the Equality Commission. The hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the difference that the commission has made, and the distance that it has taken us in terms of the progress made in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Surely it is difficult for the Equality Commission to demonstrate fairness, and to be a paragon of fairness, when the composition of its own staff is so out of kilter with the community in Northern Ireland. There is a serious under-representation of Protestants. How can the commission go to local councils and other public bodies and ask for fairness and equality when it has itself failed to practise those virtues?

Paul Goggins: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the staff, but the commissioners themselves reflect communities across Northern Ireland. In appointing commissioners, the Secretary of State must have due regard to their community background, although there is of course an open competition. The appointments to which I referred in my first answer were made in a fair and open way, and the Equality Commission plays a very important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

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Loyalist Decommissioning

5. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): What recent progress has been made on loyalist decommissioning; and if he will make a statement. [296670]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The House will note the report from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which was placed in the Library last month and which records very significant acts of decommissioning by loyalist groups. The House will also know from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the decommissioning order will end unequivocally on 9 February next year.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Secretary of State has made clear that the amnesty will end in February. That being so, what more can he do to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to participate in the decommissioning process so that it can be completed once and for all? Will he also make clear that those who break the law can expect the full rigour of the law to come down upon them, and that they will face due process?

Mr. Woodward: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question is yes. As for his first question, we are making that requirement clear. That is why we are, I believe, making substantial progress on decommissioning, although we expect more. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very unfair on the Member asking the question, and on the Minister answering it.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): My party welcomes the progress made towards total decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries. When that process has been completed, will the Secretary of State publish an inventory of the weapons decommissioned by both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries?

Mr. Woodward: As the hon. Lady knows, as part of the process there will at the end of it be a full statement by the IICD.

Historical Inquiries

6. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effect of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past on the operation of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [296672]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Government have recently concluded a consultation on all the recommendations made by the Consultative Group on the Past and are currently considering the responses. Meanwhile, the Historical Enquiries Team is continuing to carry out its important work with great sensitivity and professionalism.

David Taylor: The primary task of a police unit to pursue criminal justice seems inimical to the mandate of the HET to resolve unanswered questions, which would surely be better handled by a legacy commission. Does
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the Minister believe that recent new money for the Province will be adequate to finance the HET and that it will not become bogged down in an expensive legal morass of Savillian proportions?

Paul Goggins: I reassure my hon. Friend first that the PSNI does a fine job in pursuing criminals and keeping Northern Ireland and its people safe. We have made no decisions yet in relation to the recommendation by the Consultative Group on the Past on a legacy commission, but I also reassure my hon. Friend that the HET is a very cost-effective way of dealing with the issue of unresolved murders. Substantial resources will be made available to the Northern Ireland Executive if policing and justice powers are devolved, but how that money is spent will, of course, be for the Justice Minister and Executive to determine.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I have already written to the Minister about the money being spent by the HET and the alleged inefficiencies in how it is being spent. What steps is he taking to ensure that the tens of millions of pounds currently being spent by the HET are spent in an effective and efficient manner?

Paul Goggins: I believe that that money is spent in an effective and efficient manner, and, indeed, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has paid great tribute to the HET for being both effective and independent. Many hundreds of cases that have been opened and dealt with by the HET have been resolved, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's assertion that it is inefficient in any way; it is doing a very important job very well.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State accept that there is still much work to be done before the needs of many of the innocent victims are met? A scurrilous rumour is going around that he intends to bin the report of the Consultative Group on the Past. Does he have any plans for making progress?

Paul Goggins: There is certainly absolutely no intention whatever to bin-as the hon. Gentleman puts it-the work of the Consultative Group on the Past. The work it has done has been very important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened up a further consultation on its recommendations. That consultation is now completed. [Interruption.] We are considering the outcome of the 230 representations that were made as part of that consultation, and we will publish a summary of those responses in due course. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that Members will have the courtesy to listen to the questions and then to the answers.

Local Government Reorganisation

8. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What progress has been made on reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [296674]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The reorganisation programme is the responsibility of the Minister of Environment in Northern
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Ireland, who recently made a statement to the Assembly that plans to reduce the number of district councils from 26 to 11 are on track and that the new structures will be in place by May 2011.

Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for that answer. As he will know, the new local councils are not yet in place, and I am grateful to him for confirming that the date of the local elections in Northern Ireland is May next year.

Paul Goggins: The hon. Lady will know that we delayed the elections that would have taken place this year to 2011. That is an absolutely final date so far as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are concerned, and I am pleased that the Minister of Environment has committed to put the necessary legislation in place so that that can happen.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): On an issue that is the Minister's responsibility, can he tell us whether he will bring forward legislation to allow councillors in the current set-up to retire without the need for costly unwanted by-elections as we come to the fag end of the current councils leading up to 2011?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; we do not want a succession of by-elections between April next year and May 2011. I recently published a consultation document on a number of options to make sure that we deal with the issue and do not have all those by-elections to which he referred.


9. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the progress of devolution of responsibility for criminal justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [296675]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): It is for the parties in Northern Ireland to decide when to request transfer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a settlement of upwards of £800 million available to the parties if they reach agreement.

Mr. Brazier: Is the Secretary of State satisfied that in no circumstances will intelligence-gathering be compromised under any possible devolution?

Mr. Woodward: Yes.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked-


Q1. [297503] Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): 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 five soldiers who died in Afghanistan yesterday-three soldiers from the Grenadier
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Guards and two soldiers from the Royal Military Police. The death of five brave soldiers in a single incident is a terrible and tragic loss, and I want to pay tribute, as the whole House will, to their professionalism, and to their courage and service. Our thoughts must also be with the five additional members of our armed forces who were seriously injured in the same incident yesterday. Evidence is now being assembled, but it appears that they were targeted because they were engaged in what our enemies fear most-they were mentoring and strengthening Afghan forces to make Afghanistan more secure. While we will step up and strengthen our security wherever we can, we will not stop doing what the Afghan Taliban fear most. The sacrifice of our military is great and our resolve must match it.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings today.

Mr. Reed: I am sure that everyone in this House will associate themselves with the comments made by my right hon. Friend, for those who have fallen in the line of duty in Afghanistan have done so not only on our behalf, but on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.

Many of my constituents have benefited from the Prime Minister's abolition of prescription charges for cancer patients and many more still welcome his cast-iron guarantee to introduce one-week screening for suspected cancer patients, but we need to do more. What more will this Government do to ensure that we end the postcode lottery and to ensure that people, whatever their wealth and wherever they live, get the cancer medicines they deserve and need?

The Prime Minister: We will not only make promises to improve cancer care in the national health service, we will deliver on these promises. We will not only have a two-week maximum before people can see a consultant, we will move to a one-week maximum before people can actually have the diagnostic tests they need. However, I think that people should be warned about the national health service, because the shadow Health Secretary said yesterday-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not think that we need to go into that today, Prime Minister. I call Mr. David Cameron.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the five brave servicemen who lost their lives, three of whom were from the Grenadier Guards and two of whom were from the Royal Military Police? We must honour their memories, we must care for their families and we must never forget their service. Our thoughts and prayers, as the Prime Minister rightly said, should be with those who, I understand, were badly wounded in what was clearly an horrific incident. Given that it apparently included an Afghan police officer, it does raise some very worrying questions. Can the Prime Minister tell us what inquiries will be made and when we can expect to know more about what happened in this very disturbing incident?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's condolences to all those who are affected by this terrible and tragic incident. I did say, in my
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initial comments, that evidence is now being assembled on what happened in this terrible incident and that security will be stepped up, where that is necessary, but we cannot desist from the practice that is absolutely essential for the future of Afghanistan and the security of our country: training and mentoring the Afghan forces. That means that our troops will be working with the Afghan police and the Afghan army. Of course, we need to take all the necessary security measures, but it is an essential element of the whole coalition strategy that we train up the Afghan forces so that they themselves are able to take over the security of their country, and that we will continue to do. It is in line with the McChrystal report, and it is in line with the statements that have been made by President Obama, with NATO statements of the past few days and with what we have set out as our strategy for the future. So, yes, we will step up security, but we must not allow ourselves to give up what the Afghan Taliban fear most: that we will have a strong Afghan security force that is Afghan-based and is able to face them.

Mr. Cameron: Clearly, as the Prime Minister says, the training and mentoring is absolutely essential. I have seen it in Afghanistan for myself and the work that is being done is incredibly impressive, but I think that the public will be concerned knowing as they do that British soldiers, including military police, are, even as we speak, living and working side by side with the Afghan national police across Helmand. They will want to know what immediate steps are being taken to ensure that we are safeguarding our forces after what happened yesterday.

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working very closely with the Afghan army and the Afghan police for a number of years. We are stepping up the closeness of our operations. I myself visited a joint Afghan-British operation where both military police and the Army from Britain were working with Afghan soldiers and police forces. Obviously we will review the security arrangements for this, but I repeat that it is an essential element of our strategy that we are not seen as an occupying army but that we work with the Afghan army and are seen to be training the Afghan forces so that they can take over responsibility for the country. Although this has been a terrible and tragic incident, all our commanders on the ground will want to maintain the strategy, which is to work with the Afghan forces so that one day they can take responsibility for the security of their country.

Mr. Cameron: Everyone will agree with what the Prime Minister said about working with the police, but clearly the attack raises questions about the infiltration of the Afghan police by criminals, drug dealers and militants. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Afghan police force was described as

with reports that the police were actively involved in criminal activities, including the drugs trade. We all agree on a more focused and targeted mission in Afghanistan, and at the heart of that mission, as the Prime Minister has just said, is training Afghans to take more responsibility for their security. Given that, what more can he say about the efforts to clean up an organisation-the Afghan national police-that is essential to the success of our strategy but still seems to be going so wrong?

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