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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have a lot of business today. I want to call all hon. Members who are standing. The House can assist me if hon. Members ask short questions and, of course, the Minister can help also.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I welcomed the statement from the Secretary of State and the three inquiries, which will have three different objectives. Will he make it clear that Castlereagh police station is not an ordinary police station, but a sophisticated intelligence bureau and interrogation centre? Entry into it would require substantial detailed knowledge. Will he ensure that matters of national security will not in any way frustrate the investigations by Sir John Chilcot or the ombudsman? The popular belief is that many previous investigations in Northern Ireland have been frustrated by special branch. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that a full report—in the context of national security, but not frustrated by it—will be compiled?

Dr. Reid: I can confirm that Castlereagh police station is not one that people would expect to be entered as easily as appears to have been the case, although I must inform the hon. Member that it is no longer the holding and interrogation centre that it used to be. I assure him that Sir John Chilcot and Colin Smith will report to me. They will have full access to all the information necessary for them to complete the damage assessment and the security audit, and to judge some of the wider implications of the incident.

I believe that both of those gentlemen are eminently qualified for the task I have given them. Sir John Chilcot, of course, knows Northern Ireland well, and he has experience of policing and of intelligence work. Colin Smith is a former chief constable of the Thames Valley force, and is a member of Her Majesty's inspectorate of police. Both men are therefore appropriately qualified, and have been at the cutting edge. When it comes to investigation, people will accept that Colin Smith has been robust in any investigation that he has pursued.

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No one can guarantee anything in Northern Ireland, and I cannot guarantee that we will get to the truth. However, I can guarantee that I and the two gentlemen whom I have named intend to do our utmost to find out what happened.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Many of us who have been involved in Northern Ireland for many years are, to say the least, mystified and appalled that Castlereagh could be broken into in the way that has been described. We therefore applaud the Secretary of State's decision to set up an independent inquiry under two such eminent men, both of whom have very good reputations in the Province.

However, could not the Secretary of State go a little further than the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) proposed and suggest to the ombudsman that it would not be helpful of her to get in the way of the other two inquiries, for fear of muddying the water?

Dr. Reid: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. However, I do not think it is always helpful for me to suggest things to chief constables, ombudsmen or to anyone whose office carries a degree of independence. Although no decision has been taken to investigate the matter, as there is no evidence yet that anyone in the police service has committed an offence or a crime that would warrant disciplinary action, it was perfectly appropriate for the ombudsman to be informed, and for the matter to be referred to her. In addition, regardless of the outcome, a good working relationship between the ombudsman and the police service is essential.

Two key things must happen—the criminal investigation must find out who is responsible, and the wider implications must be determined. That is why I have established the review.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): My right hon. Friend will be aware that some people fear that this incident could dent confidence in the peace process. He has taken decisive action in establishing the independent inquiry under Sir John Chilcot, but does he agree that it is very important that the inquiry report directly to him? Given the pain and discomfort suffered by some of the people who have had to lead similar inquiries in the past, will he assure me that the direct line that will exist between the inquiry and himself will give the process clarity? Does he have any idea when the inquiry's report might be published, given the national security limitations involved? Will he bear it in mind that the general population of the island must be reassured so that the great work accomplished by everyone involved in the peace process can be maintained?

Dr. Reid: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments very much. He is a distinguished former Northern Ireland Minister, so his comments carry great weight. I can answer his question in the affirmative. Sir John—and Colin Smith, through Sir John—will have a direct line to me and access to me. I have met Sir John, who has already made arrangements to do just that. That is important, not

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only in terms of trying to get to the truth of the matter but in terms of there being wider public confidence that we are trying to get to the truth of the matter. I can assure my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) that that is what we are about to do. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is saying. Perhaps he is having trouble with my accent because it is from a different part of the world and a different social background. However, I will attempt to speak somewhat slower in future.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): Although I welcome and support the overwhelming part of what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to consider one point? By admitting that some people may be under threat as a result of the theft, he is inadvertently fuelling the media speculation that we all deplore. May I urge him to ensure that the assessment of the sensitivity and importance of the stolen papers is processed with the greatest possible speed and that decisive action is taken as a consequence to ensure that this media speculation comes to an end?

Dr. Reid: I can please both the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr. Speaker, by saying that the answer to his questions is yes.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): Clearly, this event has caused palpable shock and concern right across Northern Ireland: it is a deeply worrying event. Is the Secretary of State in a position to tell the House that a security review not just of Castlereagh but of other key security installations has taken place and that immediate steps will be taken to tighten security at such installations in Northern Ireland? Will he give an assurance that, consistent with the need to get to the bottom of the matter and to seek out the truth, the inquiry that he has set up will act and announce its conclusions publicly as soon as possible, so that all the speculation and rumour can be put to rest as quickly as possible?

Dr. Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's first point. Although I got back only yesterday morning, I believe that steps were taken immediately to ensure that security was improved, or at least tested, elsewhere. I will speak to the Chief Constable about this issue once we have finished this private notice question. Obviously, this matter will be included as part of any damage assessment and security audit, which is part of the task that I have given to Sir John Chilcot. I assure the hon. Gentleman that Sir John is seized of the need to do this as promptly as possible, but it is not easy to get answers in Northern Ireland, even given a considerable length of time. Of course, we want to get answers.

Finally, I would like to be able to be in a position to give as much information arising out of any inquiry as possible. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that just as I am somewhat constrained today because of the wider aspects and implications of going into detail on matters of national security, that could apply to some of the information or conclusions that are drawn by Sir John in his review. I know that he will understand that.

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Child Support Agency

4.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a short statement on the implementation of the child support reforms. As the House will know, the Government are reforming the system of child support and the Child Support Agency itself to ensure that more children see the benefit of regular maintenance.

We consulted widely in 1998 and I announced our proposals in July 1999. I undertook to keep the House informed on progress towards the implementation of these important reforms. I have made it clear on many occasions that we would not implement the reforms until I was confident that the new system would work effectively.

On 1 July 1999, I reminded the House that the present system had collapsed under its own weight in 1993 because the reforms were introduced too quickly and with too little thought. That approach has been endorsed by Members on both sides of the House and by the then departmental Select Committee. Its report of November 1999 recommended


I said then—and it remains the position—that we would not repeat the mistakes made in 1993 when the Child Support Agency was introduced. The timetable then was rushed: the organisation was not ready and some key aspects of the information technology system were not finally delivered until two months after the start date. So the IT, critical to the system, was simply not there. We know the consequences—the system descended into chaos within weeks.

Let me tell the House what progress has been made since 1999 to reform the existing system. First, we have put in place the necessary legislation. The primary legislation received Royal Assent in July 2000 and the regulations are in place, with some minor provisions currently before the House.

Secondly, the Child Support Agency has been substantially reorganised to give a far better customer focus. As hon. Members will know, this has already made a difference. Levels of compliance have increased and complaints have fallen considerably.

The third issue, which is fundamental to the delivery of these reforms, is getting the IT right. We face a major task in building a new IT system that can handle upwards of 13 million payments each year. It also needs to link up with other IT systems in the Department, which are based on 1980s technology.

The new child support computer system being built by EDS is near completion. Testing has been under way for some weeks, in advance of the planned start date at the end of April. Those tests are continuing, but they are not yet complete.

I want to see the new system in place as soon as possible. We know that any new IT system will inevitably have teething problems on introduction, but we will proceed only when I am satisfied that it is working to the standards that we expect.

In my view, until the testing process is complete, I will not have the assurance that I need to authorise the start of the new system. I have therefore decided for that reason

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to defer the planned start date. The new system will be implemented only when the supporting IT is operating effectively.

I have a clear responsibility to Members of this House and the staff who have to operate the new system. Above all, I have a clear duty to parents and children to make sure that the system works effectively.

The delay is frustrating and regrettable. There was a choice: I could have taken a chance, but that would have meant taking a chance on support for children, and for parents. In my judgment, it is better to take the time needed to get it right, rather than repeat the mistakes of 1993.

The new system will continue to be thoroughly tested. I will keep the House updated on progress. I undertake to give the House sufficient notice of the date the new system will start and to confirm how we intend to bring on new and existing cases.

The House will want to know the cost implications of the delay. Inevitably, there are some, but the contract with EDS specified that the Department will not pay for the computer system until it meets the standard required, and that remains the position.

We know about the problems of the past. They arose in part because the rules were too complicated, but also because the decision was taken in the early days to press ahead when there was real doubt about whether all the necessary systems were in place. I will not let that happen again.

This was a difficult decision. I know that many Members—and parents—are anxious to see the changes introduced as soon as possible, but I judged that the risk of proceeding before testing was complete was unacceptable. I therefore took the view that it was right to tell the House the current position as soon as possible, and I will continue to report to the House on progress towards implementation of these much needed reforms.


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