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House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before midnight.
In December 2002 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced a review of security vetting arrangements in Northern Ireland, with the aim of ensuring that these were effective; proportionate; compliant with human rights and other statutory requirements; and in line with UK-wide best practice.
The review, which has involved representatives from government departments, the police and security agencies, and government legal services, has now completed its detailed work. I have accepted its recommendations, which have improved security vetting procedures through the following significant changes:
an increased focus on risks and improved safeguards in vulnerable areas, enabling a major reduction in the number of posts requiring vetting on grounds of national security across government while improving, through better use of resources, the protective security of key areas; and
the introduction, now under way, of internal appeal processes for existing employees against the refusal or withdrawal of national security vetting clearances, to provide better transparency and fairness.
I believe that these are positive steps which will both promote confidence in the equality of opportunity afforded by government employment, and improve the protections for and integrity of important government activities and public services.
The Government attach particular importance to addressing all aspects of protective security. The work to drive the changes forward will continue. It is essential that in Northern Ireland, as in the UK as a whole, sound protective security regimes are in place to protect vulnerable and critically important public functions and activities from the whole range of threats, including domestic and international terrorism.
On 3 February 2004 I received a report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC concluded that the Northern Bank robbery was planned and undertaken by the Provisional IRA. The commission also concluded that PIRA was responsible for a number of other robberies that are referred to in the report.
The commission concluded that Sinn Fein must bear its share of responsibility and recommended that I should consider exercising the powers I have in the absence of the Assembly to implement the measures which are presently applicable, namely the financial ones.
I announced in Parliament on 22 February that I was minded to remove for a period Sinn Fein's entitlement to financial assistance payable to political parties in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, having provided Sinn Fein with an opportunity to make representations to me, I laid in Parliament a direction to remove Sinn Fein's entitlement to financial assistance for 12 months from 29 April 2005, the maximum period permitted under the relevant legislation.
The Government have received and welcome a report from the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Kit Chivers. The report is on the Juvenile Justice Centre and has today been published. Copies of the report have been placed in the Library.
I am pleased to announce that the Northern Ireland Discretionary Social Fund budget for 200506 will be £59.59 million. Some £13.32 million will be allocated to grants; £46.17 million to loans and £0.1 million will be held as a contingency reserve. The new allocations represent an increase of £1.34 million over the initial gross budget set at April 2004. This increase will be funded through higher loan recoveries, plus an increase in net Treasury funding of £0.68 million for this year. This £0.68 million is the third and final instalment of the increases to the discretionary social fund announced in the autumn 2002 Pre-Budget Report.
The loans budget has been increased to £46.17 million, an increase of £0.66 million on the initial 200405 loans budget. To improve the fairness of the scheme, budgets
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will be allocated in a way that will over time achieve greater consistency of outcome for customers wherever they live.
I am pleased to announce the approval of additional DfID funding of up to £23.8 million to the Microbicide Development Programme (MDP). The MDP is co-ordinated by the UK Medical Research Council's clinical trials unit and Imperial College, London. This funding will enable the completion of a phase III clinical trial of one of the leading candidates for a microbicide protecting against HIV infection.
The potential benefits of an effective microbicide are very significant. Research has shown that an effective microbicide could prevent up to 2.5 million infections worldwide over three years. Microbicides, prepared in the form of a gel, provide a potential means for women to protect themselves against infection.
The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): I am pleased to announce that, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, I have invited Sir Nigel Wicks to chair the panel to be appointed under the Constitutional Reform Act to select the members of the Judicial Appointments Commission. Sir Nigel, who has a distinguished record of public service including as a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has kindly agreed to do so.
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The Government are today announcing that they will be commissioning research to identify the future direction of mobile phone technology and the future need for mast developments. The research will also look at the potential for increased sharing of masts. The research will consider the effectiveness of the Sitefinder database and options for its future development. The Government are currently reviewing planning arrangements for mobile phone masts.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): Her Majesty's Government ratified Protocol No. 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms on 28 January 2005.
Protocol No. 14 is designed to maintain and improve the efficiency of the European Court of Human Rights for the long term, mainly in the light of the continuing increase in the workload of the court, to ensure that the court can continue to play its pre-eminent role in protecting human rights in Europe.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My honourable friend the Financial Secretary (Stephen Timms) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
The UK Debt Management Office (DMO) has published its business plan for the year 200506, together with an updated executive agency framework document. Copies of both documents are available in the Libraries of both Houses and are accessible from the DMO's website at www.dmo.gov.uk.
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