Human Rights and Equality in Northern Ireland

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Mr. Ingram: I do not underestimate the difficulties that victims and those in the community have in coming forward. However, if we are to succeed, we need people to stand up and be counted as we do in any normal, civil society. Given the threats of violence, that is a big demand to make of people, so we must put in place support mechanisms. Those should rest not only with the Northern Ireland Office or the security forces, but with the wider community too, who, as I mentioned, must play their part in the condemnation of violence.

In respect of how a ceasefire is analysed and acted upon, attribution usually rests with the Chief Constable. He or the security forces gives us advice on attribution; civil servants do not act on their own volition in that respect. I do not accept the phrase that the hon. and learned Gentleman uses to describe civil servants.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): What information does the Minister have about prisoners released under the early release scheme being involved in punishment beatings? Are statistics available, and if he does not have them, will he make them available in due course?

Mr. Ingram: All along, we have said that those who are deemed to be in breach of their licence under the early release programme will be returned to prison. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the notorious case of Johnny Adair and the resolute way in which the previous Secretary of State acted then. At least one other early release prisoner has been in breach and has been returned; other ex-prisoners have been returned, but not for being in breach of the ceasefire.

We do not hold statistics because that would mean that we had information, and we do not have such information. Let me make it very clear that any evidence that someone was in breach of the licence that would stand up to the full rigour of the law would mean that that person would be returned to prison.

Security Situation

3. Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): What additional measures he is taking to enhance security in Northern Ireland. [148629] The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Secretary of State keeps the security situation under constant review. He and I receive regular briefings on it from the Chief Constable and our security advisers. Operational security measures are a matter for the Chief Constable, who keeps security at a level appropriate to his assessment of the prevailing threat.

Mr. Donaldson: The Minister says that security is a matter for the consideration of the Chief Constable, yet are not the Government engaged in secret negotiations involving Sinn Fein-IRA? The agenda contains major proposals for a downscaling of security in Northern Ireland, including the proposed dismantling of two watchtowers in South Armagh and further moves to scale down the RUC, especially the full-time RUC Reserve, yet security threats and terrorist activity are increasing and there is a crime wave on our streets. Surely the Government's first priority in Northern Ireland is the protection of its citizens. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will not barter their security—and that of the people of the whole of the United Kingdom—for simple political expediency?

Mr. Ingram: I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance to that effect. His implied criticism of the Northern Ireland security forces ill behoves him. They do a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances. He says that secret negotiations are under way, but discussions are not secret just because he is not part of them.

The agenda of the Prime Minister and those with whom he is engaged in discussions—including the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party and other party leaders in Northern Ireland—is to bring about all the things that were envisaged in the Good Friday agreement. It is about the achievement of decommissioning, of a normalised society in Northern Ireland and of the policing reforms that were part of the Good Friday agreement and are set out in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. The people of Northern Ireland voted for those things. We never said that progress would be easy; there were bound to be difficulties, but we have to have discussions—not secret negotiations—with all those who helped to bring about that agreement for the betterment of society in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us think that some easing of the security arrangements in South Armagh has been a good thing, given that there has been a tenfold decrease in the number of people on the republican side who are implacably—perhaps violently—opposed to the regime? Some de-escalation of security arrangements is vital to ensure that those in the area who are still of a violent inclination can no longer say, ``Look, they've done nothing—you might as well join us.''

Mr. Ingram: Any change in the security profile depends on the assessment of the Chief Constable acting with the advice of the General Officer Commanding. We take all that advice on board, along with that which we receive from our own security advisers. There are difficult decisions to make, but changes in the security profile in Northern Ireland have been welcomed both in and beyond the communities that have been mentioned. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the changes that have been delivered up to now have reduced the security forces' capability to bring people to justice and to thwart attacks mounted on them. Those matters are judged on the basis of the best security advice available.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Will the Minister confirm that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) was amiss when he said that he had not seen anything happening in South Armagh? As I understand it, among other things, the sangar in Crossmaglen has been removed. Will he also agree that there is something wrong when we hear a security person saying that the towers that are to be removed face in a different direction? From my limited training as an Army cadet, I know that one does not look in only one direction, especially if one is guarding a fort of some description, so I should have thought that towers had to face all around. Finally, has the mountain climber ceased to operate in secret negotiations, or is he unaware of those?

Mr. Ingram: I shall not comment on what the hon. Gentleman calls secret negotiations. I have said that certain discussions are taking place with elected representatives. If people give them titles other than the names by which we know them, that is a matter for them.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I shall not discuss the nature of the security profile in South Armagh or the functions and efficacy of towers. I can confirm that the Borucki sangar in Crossmaglen was demolished: that was done on the back of a clear assessment by the Chief Constable and a report by the General Officer Commanding that its demolition would not put at risk those who operate on the ground on behalf of the security forces in South Armagh. It would not have been taken down without that assurance of safety.

House Purchases

5. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): How many applications are being processed at present by the Chief Constable of the RUC for certificates to support house purchases under the special purchase of evacuated dwellings scheme. [148631] The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I should point out that the special purchase of evacuated dwellings scheme is administered and funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. It is a devolved matter for which the Minister for Social Development has ultimate responsibility. Therefore, I cannot comment on matters relating to its administration, resources or general policy. However, the Chief Constable is involved in the processing of certificates for persons seeking to move under the scheme, and he has informed me that 118 certificates were issued by him during the period 1 February 2000 to 31 January 2001 inclusive. A further 12 applications are being considered by him.

Mr. Beggs: That answer illustrates the large number of home owners who are seeking to have their properties purchased under the SPED scheme. I appeal to the Minister to impress on the Chief Constable how he can minimise the trauma of families. One of my Protestant families in Seacourt in Larne, driven out, has had to enter into arrangements with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. While continuing to pay a mortgage, they are now paying rent for their property; their source of income has been lost and they face tremendous difficulty. Many families are in similar circumstances and they cannot wait six months for resolution. Through the Minister, I urge the Chief Constable to give the matter priority, so that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive can purchase these properties through the SPED scheme.

Mr. Howarth: The Committee is aware of the difficulties that have occurred in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the recent past. We have absolute sympathy with those who have been hounded out of their homes in a very unpleasant way. I shall certainly ensure that his concerns about the efficiency and speed of the arrangements are passed on as appropriate, either to the Chief Constable or to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I am sure that they will share the hon. Gentleman's sense of concern.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Mr. McWilliam, I believe that you and I are to meet the Chief Constable next week. I think that we last met him two and a half months ago—

The Chairman: Order. The question should be to the Minister, not to me.

Dr. Godman: I prefaced my question in the hope that I might get some sympathy from you, Mr. McWilliam.

Has my hon. Friend the Minister or the Chief Constable issued certificates or letters of commendation to those RUC officers who served so honourably and bravely with the United Nations international police force in Kosovo?

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Prepared 8 February 2001