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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): To date, applications have been received from 503 indeterminate and determinate prisoners. Of those, 12 per cent. have not been processed; the prisoners being, in the main, ineligible under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. Some 48 per cent. have already been released, and a further 30 per cent. have received specified dates for release in the future. Some 10 per cent. remain to be processed by the sentence review commissioners.
Mr. Bruce: The Minister is saying, effectively, that about half the prisoners who are due to be released have been released. He will know that the terrorist organisations and their political mouthpieces signed up to the Good Friday Agreement only because they knew that they would get their prisoners out. One of their obligations is to decommission their weapons. Would it not be sensible simply to say to all organisations, both loyalist and republican, that no more prisoners will be released until they start delivering on the decommissioning of weapons? That does not destroy the agreement--it simply fulfils it. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
Mr. Ingram: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and the support that he receives from some of his right hon. and hon. Friends. However, there ain't no simple answers to a peace process. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spelt out the way forward. To do what the hon. Gentleman suggests would be to rewrite the Good Friday agreement. Maximum pressure must be brought to bear from all parts of Northern Ireland--from the community, the parties involved, the UK and Republic of Ireland
Mr. Ingram: We have no knowledge of that in terms of the way in which the hon. Gentleman raises the point. The Chief Constable has said that all of the paramilitary organisations have been associated in some way with paramilitary assaults. I would suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that we do not share detailed intelligence across the Floor of the House. [Hon. Members: "Answer the question."] I have confirmed the Chief Constable's assessment, and we have accepted it. The effective way of dealing with those people is to bring evidence forward, to bring them to trial and to put them in prison for their acts.
Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Does the Minister recognise how demoralising it is for the police force to see the release of those whom they have gone to great efforts to arrest and get convicted? Will he confirm that, if the terrorists who committed the outrage in Omagh are caught and convicted, there will be no accelerated release for them and that the recommendations of the judge or judges who take part in the trial will be honoured?
Mr. Ingram: We have made it clear consistently that the issue of prisoner releases is difficult to handle. The Good Friday agreement laid it out as a clear prospect. The Government have implemented what was requested of them in the Good Friday agreement, to which the people of Northern Ireland signed up. The Omagh tragedy happened after 10 April, so those who may be brought to justice for it will not be covered by the existing legislation.
Mr. Ingram: If the hon. Gentleman has such information, he should pass it to the RUC. I do not have that intelligence information. If he has more specific evidence that would help the RUC with its inquiries, he should pass it on.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): While we accept that there ain't no simple answers to the peace process, it is clear from the figures that the Minister has given the House this afternoon that the majority of prisoners will soon have been released. Does he accept that, although the Government have honoured all their
Mr. Ingram: I do not know that to be the case. There is still momentum in the process. Discussions are taking place as we speak to find resolutions to that complex issue. As my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have said, we want all illegally held weapons in Northern Ireland to be decommissioned. We never said that that would happen overnight. From the way in which he asked his question, I take it that the hon. Gentleman has not understood the import of the Good Friday agreement.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall): This morning I launched for consultation a Northern Ireland child care strategy entitled "Children First", seeking views on proposals for strengthening and expanding pre-school provision, child care and family support. Views are specifically sought on how best to address the aims of sure start. My discussions with key child care organisations have already identified the need to consider a different approach in Northern Ireland.
Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the launch of the "Children First" child care document. Sure start is a UK-wide initiative and plans are already under way in Scotland, Wales and England. With the launch of the document today, I hope that we can be certain that community groups in Northern Ireland, which has the worst child poverty rates, the worst child care provision and the highest number of lone parents in the United Kingdom, will get access to the resources that they need to meet the demands.
Mr. McFall: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I should like to elaborate on the launch of the document this morning. I was in contact with Childcare Northern Ireland and Barnardos to examine child care. The document, which was agreed by the voluntary groups, translates the sure start aims to a Northern Ireland context. That process starts today. There is a different context to sure start in Northern Ireland. We are building on the good work that has already been done by the voluntary and statutory services. Several organisations have told me that there is great merit in not sticking to the proposals that have been outlined for England.
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim): I am sure that the Minister will join the Prime Minister in agreeing that sure start is a vital element in looking after children and families. Will he assure the House that all the money allocated by the Treasury for that programme in Northern Ireland will indeed go towards its implementation?
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): The Government aim to have completed the legislative preparations for a transfer of powers to the new institutions by 10 March. I welcome last week's approval by the Assembly of the determination on the number and functions of ministerial offices and on areas for north-south co-operation. The Government are honouring their commitments and I look forward to others honouring theirs.
Mr. Temple-Morris: We all wish my right hon. Friend well in not very easy times in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. Does she agree that the removal of tensions is a most important factor? One particular tension relates to the communities in Portadown, where there is a real and long-standing problem. What impact is that having, one way or the other--I fear that it is the other--on the implementation of the agreement?
Marjorie Mowlam: The successful implementation of the Good Friday agreement depends to a large extent on confidence. The situation at Drumcree is a corrosive influence on progress. The only way in which progress will be made at Drumcree is for both sides to talk and try to find a way forward. We are doing everything that we can to help with that. We have recently asked the head of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in Scotland, Mr. Frank Blair--no relation--to act as a negotiator and facilitator in that process. No one in Northern Ireland wants a repeat of last year's events at Drumcree, and we will do all that we can to avoid it. [Interruption.]
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Will the Secretary of State confirm that no institution of government in Northern Ireland can claim to be democratic if it contains the representatives of a party known to her to be inextricably linked with an organisation of terror that has publicly declared its intention to remain fully armed and in an aggressive state?
Marjorie Mowlam: As I have often said to the House, I base my judgment on the information, facts and evidence that I am given. On that basis, I do not agree with the assumptions built into the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, so I have no difficulty in believing that the
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): May I remind my right hon. Friend that two important aspects of the agreement relate to the North-South Council and the British-Irish Council and urge, on the latter, that no strategic decisions be taken by Dublin and London before the elections in Scotland and Wales? If the Council is to have a fixed location, as is the case with the Nordic Council, may I suggest Glasgow?
Marjorie Mowlam: I find it difficult to give my hon. Friend a categoric assurance, on the first part of his question, that no strategic decisions will be taken, because that would involve timing and would put the implementation of the Good Friday agreement--if progress were made on 10 March--in difficulty if certain parts were implemented and not others. We have seen the tensions that can develop if some parts move quicker than others and it is important that all move together. If the real crux of his question was a request for the headquarters to be in Glasgow, I hear what he says, but he is not the only one to make suggestions along those lines.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Last August, the Secretary of State provided the Assembly with the draft standing orders necessary to fill ministerial posts. Since then, she has not forwarded the finalised copy to the Assembly. Does she contemplate any changes and will the orders be forwarded immediately?
Marjorie Mowlam: It is difficult for me to answer that question, because I am not in Belfast. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), is dealing with the draft standing orders in Belfast today. We look forward to sending them to parties as quickly as possible, but the details and arrangements are being worked on at this moment.
Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the key elements to achieving the Good Friday agreement is the future of policing in Northern Ireland? Does she agree that making fast progress with the introduction of the police ombudsman, the community awareness project and the ending of the RUC canteen culture will bring great benefits to the people of Northern Ireland and could signal the way ahead for policing in the rest of the country?
Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The future of policing, as she rightly points out, is a difficult question and one of the big problems that we have to cope with in Northern Ireland. I hope that the introduction of the police ombudsman will happen quickly. We are interviewing this afternoon for the post, and a number of other aspects of the legislation are being implemented. The Patten commission will report in the summer and I wish to wait and see what it proposes so that we can maximise the improvements on offer.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Minister earlier referred to the peace associated with the Good Friday agreement. Does she agree that it is a fragile sort of peace when arms are not being decommissioned, and a strange
Marjorie Mowlam: I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is a difficult period. It is a difficult, tense time and it is not easy. I do not agree with the assumption in the second part of his question that stopping early releases would improve the situation. I would like to know what evidence he has to support that view, because all the evidence that I have is to the contrary.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): We are continuing in intensive consultations with all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly over all aspects of the legislative and preparations for the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. We shall work as closely as possible with them.
Judy Mallaber: My right hon. Friend knows the importance attached to the equalities and human rights provisions of the Good Friday agreement by those of us who tabled amendments to the legislation, which were eventually accepted. My right hon. Friend has to deal with many difficult issues, but is she able to give the House any idea of any plans in progress to implement the equalities and human rights provisions and, in particular, to set up the two commissions?
Marjorie Mowlam: I can assure my hon. Friend, as I did the House earlier on the other aspects of the Good Friday agreement that are being put in place in time for 10 March, that the appointments procedure for the new equality commission is in progress. We are looking forward to the working group established on setting priorities and new structures for the equality commission reporting soon. Then we will be able to move, I hope in a matter of weeks, to an announcement on the equality commission. As for the human rights commission, we have appointed the chairman, Brice Dixon, and I expect to be able to announce the other commissioners next week. I assure my hon. Friend that progress is being made on both those institutions.