Northern Ireland Grand Committee
Thursday 2 July 1998
[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]
The Chairman: We begin with oral questions, and I remind the Committee that this item of business must end by 10.30.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was asked
Disabled People (Access)
1. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast South): What plans she
has to amend Article 103 of the Planning (Northern
Ireland) Order 1991 in respect of access for disabled
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tony Worthington): There are
no proposals to amend article 103 of the Planning
(Northern Ireland) Order 1991, but I may be able to
provide more information when I have heard the
Rev. Martin Smyth: I am puzzled that there are no
arrangements to amend, when there is a proposal before
the House. Does the Minister accept that insufficient
consideration is being given to the need for open access
for people with disabilities as distinct from those who
drive invalid cars? Government policy is to provide open
access for people with disabilities, but the proposal will
restrict such people from part of Belfast.
Mr. Worthington: There are no proposals to change
the order, but a consultation document has been issued.
The problem arises throughout the United Kingdom.
When it is necessary to provide exemptions for some
vehicles in pedestrianised areas, there are complaints
about abuse of those areas. The Department is not
prohibiting access for disabled people to Belfast city
centre; it has simply issued notice of its intention to
maintain pedestrian priority and to reduce the number of
vehicles using the main shopping area. We are introducing
special arrangements to provide six parking places for
holders of orange badges in the central pedestrian area
and approximately 70 parking bays for disabled people on
the periphery of the central pedestrian priority area. There
has been consultation with organisations for disabled
people, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts
that we need a balance between people's general desire
for pedestrianised areas with access for some categories
of vehicles and the difficulty that arises when there are
15,000 holders of orange badges in the Belfast area.
Rev. Martin Smyth: The Minister will accept that the
15,000 holders of orange badges do not go to the city
centre at the same time. I accept the concept of limiting
the use of the orange badge, but those with certain
disabilities will be unable to go to Belfast city centre. Will
the Minister keep the matter under review because the
disability lobby has contacted me with its concerns?
Mr. Worthington: Of course we understand those
concerns, and I urge organisations for the disabled to
return to the Department for discussions. The consultation
paper has been issued and I hope that the Department's
invitation will be accepted.
Repair Grants (Houses)
2. Mr William Ross (East Londonderry): What plans
she has to review repair grants for houses in Northern
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ((Mr. Tony Worthington): Repair
grants have been reviewed and a proposal for a draft
housing order to be published later this year will include
a number of changes to Housing Executive grants,
including repair grants.
Mr. Ross: The Minister will recall that the previous
major change to repair grants altered the criteria from the
state of the house to the capacity of the individual to pay,
plus changes in relation to landlords. That has had some
unforeseen consequences. In some areas, not least the
Londonderry and Limavady council areas, there have
been long delays at one stage, up to two years between
initial application and initial inspection. That delay has
been reduced, but what steps do the Minister and the
Housing Executive intend to take to reduce that delay
further and to ensure a more equable distribution of
funding throughout Northern Ireland?
Mr. Worthington: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will
respond to the consultation paper that is shortly to be
issued. The Department thought it necessary to review the
grants because of the considerable lack of consistency of
approach by environmental health officers. One of the
criteria for getting a grant has been the issue of a pubic
health notice, but the procedure by which owner-
occupiers can apply for a public health notice has led to
abuses of the system. Other changes are proposed, but I
urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the consultation paper
and check with the Department of the Environment to be
sure that the consultation has been fair.
Mr. Ross: The other point is that replacement grants
will have to be carefully considered, because some of the
sums granted for replacement dwellings are surprisingly
high. Something will have to be done in that respect,
because those who sought replacement grants as an
alternative to a repair grant never expected or, indeed,
wanted what we have actually seen.
Mr. Worthington: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's
comments. Again, I urge him to look at the document,
because he will find that that aspect is covered.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): In the past, there has
been fraudulent use of grants; I hope that that has now
passed. Are security measures in place to prevent such
fraud in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Worthington: I do not have detailed knowledge
on the question of fraud. When discrepancies occur in the
issue of public health notices, one assumes that the strict
criteria for the awarding of the grant have not been
applied. Following what was said by the hon. Member for
East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), there is a desire to limit the
amount of money that can be paid out in grant,
particularly when one suspects that it is not the best use
of public money.
3. Mr William Thompson (West Tyrone): What is the
maximum number of prisoners eligible for release under
the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, by
quarter, over the next two years. (47188)
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office
(Mr. Paul Murphy): Under the terms of the Sentences
Bill, which has been considered by the House and is now
in the other place, it will be for the sentencing commission
to determine whether prisoners are eligible for release.
It is obviously not for me to prejudge the decisions of
Mr. Thompson: I am disappointed in the Minister's
reply. I should have expected the Department to know
the maximum number of prisoners who could be released
during the various quarters, given that it knows all about
the sentencing conditions and the number of days still to
be served. I am disappointed that the Minister has not
been able to supply that information. The Minister hit on
the word eligible. What are the Department's figures on
the number of prisoners who could be released each
Mr. Murphy: The hon. gentleman might be less
disappointed had I anticipated his supplementary question.
I obviously cannot say who will be eligible, because when
the sentencing commission is up and running it will be a
matter of judicial function. However, I can give the hon.
Gentleman an estimate of the number of prisoners who
seem to have been convicted of qualifying offences that
is, persons who were sentenced to five years or more, or
for life, for a scheduled offence that was committed before
10 April and not scheduled out by the Attorney-General.
In that category, there are approximately 418 prisoners.
However, as I said to the hon. Gentleman, whether those
prisoners satisfy the other conditions will be a matter for
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Can the Minister
confirm that the criminal almost certainly a murderer
who perpetrated the explosion at Canary Wharf, which
signalled the end of the previous IRA ceasefire, will also
be eligible for release after two years? The crime was
committed on the United Kingdom mainland against
people who could not vote in the referendum of the peace
agreement. Is the person who was responsible likely still
to have access to large quantities of explosives such as
Semtex, or will some of those explosives have been
handed in by then?
Mr. Murphy: Obviously, I cannot comment on the
hon. Gentleman's last question, but I can deal with his
first one. Matters connected with that question may of
course be the subject of further legal proceedings and it
would be improper for me to prejudice those proceedings
by commenting on the court's decisions. I cannot
comment on whether an individual prisoner will qualify
for release, or on when a prisoner could be released, under
the legislation. As I have said, no prisoner will
automatically qualify for release. Only prisoners serving
sentences in Northern Ireland will be eligible to apply.
Prisoners sentenced in England and Wales who are
transferred to serve sentences in Northern Ireland could,
of course, apply to the commissioners who would decide
whether those prisoners satisfied the legislation's
conditions. Prisoners so released will be on licence, and
can be recalled if the terms of the licence are breached in
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): I congratulate my hon. Friend
and the Government on yesterday's successful inaugural
meeting of the Assembly. In view of the questions asked
this morning, does he share my opinion that it would be
entirely wrong to break the agreement? I understand the
worries of those who voted no in the referendum or in
the elections. However, does he agree that, as democrats,
we should accept and implement the agreement in good
faith, and move towards the future positively?
Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that
point, especially with regard to the Assembly, upon which
we may touch during this morning's debate. As he says,
the agreement is a package that consists of more than just
constitutional matters. The Northern Ireland people's vote
in favour of the agreement by a substantial majority was
in many ways replicated in the Assembly elections.