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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 November 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

NORTHERN IRELAND

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland. [29664]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): We continue to see dramatic improvements in the security situation compared with the height of the troubles and paramilitary attacks continue to decrease. Those dramatic improvements could not have occurred without the enormous sacrifices made by the security services over 35 years. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the award of the George cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary by Her Majesty the Queen. That award recognised many cases of exceptional valour, which we remember again today.

Mr. Bellingham: Although conventional terrorism is obviously under control, it has been replaced by a ruthless form of racketeering, which is being carried out by both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that parts of the Province are descending into anarchy? Surely now is not the time to disband the two Territorial battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment.

Mr. Hain: On the home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, discussions are currently taking place about compensation for those affected and their families, and I hope that it will be as generous as possible, because they deserve no less. On the overall situation, it is true that there is still too much criminality. Indeed, the feud between the loyalist groups in the summer was largely about gangsterism rather than the original political objectives of the Loyalist Volunteer Force and the Ulster Volunteer Force. It is also true that there is still criminality among republicans, and the Assets Recovery Agency and the Organised Crime Task Force are cracking down on it together with the police.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): A BBC television programme that was aired last night revealed that the police have warned a friend of the late Robert
 
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McCartney that there is a threat to his life from the Provisional IRA. How does that sit with ministerial statements that the Provisional IRA has turned its back on terrorism, and why will that organisation be rewarded in a debate later today?

Mr. Hain: I have received no evidence from the police or any other quarter about a threat to Robert McCartney witnesses or friends by the Provisional IRA, but I have received reports that individual republicans in that locality have made threats. Those matters are being dealt with by the police and arrests have taken place, and we will continue vigorously to crack down on such activities.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Will the Secretary of State outline the precise level of engagement by any of the loyalist paramilitaries with either the de Chastelain commission or the Independent Monitoring Commission?

Mr. Hain: I know that the hon. Lady takes a close interest in that matter, which she has discussed with me, and I am grateful for her interest. We hope that some of the loyalist groups will start to engage with the de Chastelain commission, and it is important that they do so. I understand that some preliminary contacts have been made and it is important that they progress to allow us to reach the same end as that achieved with the Provisional IRA.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Was the Secretary of State ever a supporter of the troops out movement? If so, has he changed his mind?

Mr. Hain: I dealt with those matters a long time ago. Following the Good Friday agreement, all the old arguments were transformed, including that one.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Will the Secretary of State comment on any recent incidents of loyalist violence? The Independent Monitoring Commission October report covers March to August this year, but there were loyalist riots in September over the Blackrock parade and the LVF has stated that its feud with the UVF is over. To emphasise the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), have any loyalist paramilitaries met the decommissioning commission? If the LVF means what it says, it should give up its weapons, too.

Mr. Hain: I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the Whiterock parade, but she has made an important point. I agree with her that it is important that the LVF, the UVF, the Ulster Defence Association and any other loyalist paramilitaries give up their weapons and engage with the de Chastelain commission, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has argued.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that some senior members of Sinn Fein-IRA have declared openly that their intention is to establish so-called community restorative justice schemes as an alternative to policing by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Has he seen the comments
 
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by a spokesman for the rape crisis and sexual abuse centre in Northern Ireland, who said that members of community restorative justice schemes have

She continued:

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that the Government will provide sufficient assurances in their forthcoming guidelines on community restorative justice to ensure that nothing like the appalling practices reported by the rape crisis and sexual abuse centre can recur?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I am happy to provide that unequivocal assurance. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, because a great deal of mischief and misinformation has been spread about community restorative justice schemes. The guidelines for the new schemes will be published on 5 December by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), when he meets the Policing Board.

Let me make it emphatically clear that, whatever claims are made by Sinn Fein members or others, these schemes, which operate in republican communities among others, are currently unregulated. We intend to bring them under proper regulation if they wish to attract public funds, although no provision has been made for that. I can unequivocally state that under our guidelines nobody who has been involved in paramilitary activity or organised crime would be allowed to work on the schemes. Appointments principles would be overseen by an independent body. There is no way in which those schemes will have a policing role in determining guilt or innocence. They will have no investigative role and will have to work with all the statutory agencies, including the police service.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful for those words, but can the Secretary of State also assure the House that he will provide an independent statutory basis for complaints against members of community restorative justice schemes? He will know that at present there is real fear on estates in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere that if these schemes are licensed by the Government, that will amount to licensed control by paramilitary mafia.

Mr. Hain: It is emphatically not the case that any community restorative justice schemes that we endorse will in any way allow for control by paramilitary mafia, militia, or whatever else the hon. Gentleman chooses to call them. I agree with him on that. He should remember that these proposals stemmed from the community justice review some years ago and were widely endorsed on a cross-party basis. We needed to establish proper guidelines and regulation of what is now a bit of a free-for-all. In doing so, there will be an opportunity to consult, as the hon. Gentleman will see when we publish the guidelines on 5 December. We will consult him and other parties, as well as others in Northern Ireland, on the exact terms of the guidelines.
 
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Education Administration

2. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce administrative costs in education in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [29665]

3. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce administrative costs in education in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [29666]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith): The Government are determined to focus resources on front-line services, not bureaucracy. Yesterday's announcement on the review of public administration included a new Education Authority replacing the functions of the five education and library boards and other support bodies. Through these fundamental changes, along with the existing measures to cut administration costs, I am determined to ensure that our children and schools see tangible benefits.

Mary Creagh: How will the organisation reforms that my hon. Friend sets out help to deal with the impact of falling pupil numbers in schools in Northern Ireland?

Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of falling pupil rolls. There are about 47,000 empty desks in Northern Ireland's schools, and if no action is taken that figure could rise to 80,000 over the next 10 years. The new structures that I announced yesterday will ensure that we can be more responsive in dealing with that while placing a greater emphasis on strategic planning across Northern Ireland's schools estate. A failure to tackle the issue would put unacceptable pressure on school budgets. The measures announced yesterday will ensure that we go a long way towards tackling it.

Mr. David Anderson: The administrative changes may well result in people losing their jobs. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the work force will be taken care of, with, if possible, an agreement on no compulsory redundancies? Can the review look into the cost of duplication through segregated services? We should move much more towards an integrated education system so that we can save money and provide a better service.

Angela E. Smith: It is too early to talk about possible job losses, because current functions still need to be carried out, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything possible to ensure that any redundancies are voluntary. As the Secretary of State announced yesterday, we are establishing a Public Service Commission to ensure that the work force are fully engaged and involved in the decisions.

My hon. Friend asked about duplication in the schools estate, which has been highlighted. The Good Friday agreement includes a commitment to integrated education. I have also given a commitment that parents' wishes will be adhered to.
 
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Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The Under-Secretary made much of the reforms or changes that were announced yesterday. A cursory glance shows that, on top of the Department of Education, we will have a new Education Authority, a new Education Advisory Forum, a new director of children's services, a new Public Service Commission, a new Northern Ireland Network for Youth and new district youth networks in council areas in Northern Ireland. Is that pruning or increasing administration? What costs does she hope to save through the announcement?

Angela E. Smith: I think that the hon. Gentleman is having some sport with his question. There are currently 67 public bodies, which have been whittled down to 20. There are five education and library boards for a population of 1.7 million, but the new Education Authority, which replaces the five boards and the support bodies, will make a fundamental difference to organisation and cut bureaucracy. I give him a clear assurance that, as a result of the announcement, we are cutting the number of bodies that deal with the same issues.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Under-Secretary give the comparative administrative costs of the education system of Northern Ireland and those for the rest of the United Kingdom? Will she confirm the importance of ensuring that as much money as possible goes directly to pupils on the front line?

Angela E. Smith: The purpose of the changes that we announced is to ensure that money goes directly to front-line services. I am not satisfied that the current administrative structures achieve that. It is difficult to give a comparison of costs because of the different structures in Northern Ireland and in England. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if I can provide more detail for him. However, the purpose of the changes announced is to ensure that schools are not disadvantaged by overly bureaucratic systems that take money away from schools and put it into bureaucracy.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): Does the Under-Secretary agree that ending segregation in schools has an important part to play in the sustainability of the peace process? Will she undertake to discuss with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills whether there are lessons to be learned from the operation of faith schools in divided communities in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Angela E. Smith: I assure my hon. Friend that I am in regular contact with my colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills about several issues. However, we have to bear in mind the different situation in Northern Ireland. When I talk to head teachers—indeed, the headmaster of Portora Royal school wrote to me today—I find the collaboration between schools from different sectors, which aims to ensure that pupils are brought closer together, encouraging. It is important when we consider the future in Northern Ireland that schools co-operate and collaborate to ensure that there is no sectarian divide in education.
 
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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Although it would have been better if yesterday's announcement on the change to the Department of Education had been made in the House, we support the principle of trying to reduce administration costs. However, how much will it cost to dismantle the grammar school system? Why are the Government intent on destroying the best education system in the UK?

Angela E. Smith: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should get his facts right before speaking at the Dispatch Box. There is no dismantling of the grammar school system in Northern Ireland. However, we are getting rid of selection. He may find it acceptable that 95 per cent. of children on the Shankill never get a chance of a grammar school education—I do not. Every child should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. He should examine the proposals more closely.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I note the Under-Secretary's comments about the consequences of the review of public administration in education and health. The jury is out on that for the moment. However, is the Secretary of State fully aware of the impact of some aspects of the review of public administration on local democracy? Is he aware that all political parties, with the exception of the military wing of Sinn Fein, oppose the proposed changes to the number of councils? If the proposals go ahead as planned, a canton or two somewhere will be under the control of one political paramilitary organisation.

Angela E. Smith: We are looking to devolve power to local councils, and one important issue is the role of those councils. Under the proposals put forward by the Secretary of State yesterday, far more functions will be carried out by local government than before. It is worth noting that the voluntary and business sectors across Northern Ireland have broadly supported our proposals to devolve more power to local councils.


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