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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 128: debated on Thursday 25 February 1988

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Northern Ireland

Order. It was a mistake to have read that out, as I have just read an announcement that the hon. Gentleman is unable to be present.

Stalker/Sampson Report

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the disciplinary proceedings of the Royal Ulster Constabulary following events reported in the Stalker/Sampson report.

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he has discussed with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary relevant issues arising from the Stalker/Sampson report.

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any discussions during the past three weeks with the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in relation to incidents which were investigated by Mr. Stalker and Mr. Sampson.

As the House will be aware, the first part of my statement on 17 February dealt with the aspect of possible disciplinary proceedings as a result of the investigations carried out by Mr. Stalker and Mr. Sampson. I undertook to inform the House of further developments.

As I also told the House on 17 February, I have discussed the relevant aspects of the Stalker-Sampson inquiry report with the Chief Constable. In particular, he has accepted in principle all the recommendations made by Mr. McLachlan.

How can the Secretary of State claim any credibility for the disciplinary proceedings when senior officers who have perverted the course of justice are still in command? John Stalker was suspended as soon as any accusation was made against him. Given that the E4A unit was responsible for murder — [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw"] — will the right hon. Gentleman suspend from duty the man described by Stalker as

"the senior police officer with the bulging briefcase,"
the man who set up the unit, Assistant Chief Constable Trevor Forbes, head of the Northern Ireland special branch?

What I could hear of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question consisted partly of a farrago of stories gathered from various press sources, for which I am not sure how much authenticity he would claim.

I do not accept the original premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. Matters concerning ranks of chief superintendent and below are the responsibility of the Chief Constable. Mr. Charles Kelly and his team have already started work and are in the Province now. The more senior ranks are a matter for the police authority. I can inform the House that Sir Philip Myers is already in touch with the authority.

May I ask the Secretary of State a question that I asked him on 17 February, which escaped him in the course of his answer? Since we all agree that the RUC cannot operate effectively without the confidence of the public, and since the right hon. Gentleman is now seeking to resolve that unhappy episode, would it not be wise to inject an independent element into the inquiries so that it cannot be said that this is merely police officers being investigated by yet more police officers?

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the last thing that Northern Ireland and the police need are further inquiries of the length and scale that the right hon. and learned Gentleman might have in mind; there has already been an exhaustive inquiry. I made it clear to the House that there was no question of Mr. Stalker's work being suppressed. His work and that of the bulk of his team was available to Mr. Sampson, and that work was carried through. It is necessary to bring these disciplinary matters to an independent conclusion with the arrival of Mr. Kelly and with the appointment of a police authority to tackle its responsibilities.

As the deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester, Mr. John Stalker, was suspended for the most spurious of reasons while investigating matters in the north of Ireland, does the Secretary of State not find it a curious contradiction that the Chief Constable of the RUC, who is under inquiry by the Northern Ireland Police Authority, remains on duty directing that force? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the expressions of absolute confidence in the Chief Constable of the RUC by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister must inevitably prejudge the findings of the inquiry?

It is vital that the House remembers—it owes it to the RUC—that the events giving rise to these difficulties occurred in 1982. Before the reports and action of the Attorney-General, many hon. Members in all parts of the House paid tribute to the impartiality and determination of the RUC and to the courage that it showed in doing its work. I hope that hon. Members will not forget those words and that they will recognise that the credit for a substantial amount of the improvements that have taken place over the years must inevitably be given to the man who has led the force during that period.

Is the right hon. Gentleman in a position to answer the question that was put to him last week by the representative of the police body in the House, namely that those police officers who were brought to court and charged with murder but who were found not guilty will not be tried or disciplined again under the present inquiry? Does he agree that it is wrong for hon. Members to pick out police officers and name them without substantiating the charge being made against them?

While I do not wish to imply that those officers will be affected, I must say that it is now Mr. Kelly's responsibility. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Jones, who is the Deputy Chief Constable, are working very actively with their team on this matter and it would be wrong for me to anticipate their findings. What I do know—I think that the hon. Gentleman also knows this—is that there is great feeling in Northern Ireland, after all the years that this matter has taken, that it is important to resolve it at the earliest possible date. With regard to this matter, I do not wish to comment on individual cases.

The Secretary of State has paid tribute to the RUC. Is he aware that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, who for 20 years have been subjected to a brutal and callous terrorist campaign, have the utmost confidence in the RUC? They view it with the greatest pride and treasure the memories of those RUC officers who have been murdered violently by the Irish Republican Army.

The hon. Gentleman may recall my closing remarks when I was announcing the disciplinary procedure. I said:

"This is a particular tragedy for a police force of the courage and professionalism of the RUC today, who have given ample recent evidence of their commitment to protecting the whole community from violence from whatever extreme it may come." — [Official Report, 17 February 1988; Vol. 127, c. 980.]
I stand by those words.

I warmly welcome the steps that my right hon. Friend announced a short time ago. However, will he accept that there was a degree of amazement at the response of the Republic of Ireland, which considers that the Government somehow preside over a banana republic in which the judiciary can be affected by a political decision? Will he at once lay to rest any such suggestion?

I am seeking to address some of the differences of view both on the Benches in this House and on the Benches in Dublin. The discussions that we had yesterday were most useful in that respect. These are very difficult issues and anyone who approaches them must honestly be conscious of the extraordinarily different—indeed, totally different—views on a number of issues. We are seeking a rather better common understanding.

Will the Secretary of State more firmly refute the allegation made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay), who suggested that the police were guilty of murder? Will he confirm that the police who were tried for murder were found not guilty, and will he also tell the House how he intends to deal with the situation where John Stalker, at a time when he was supposed to be carrying out an objective investigation into the RUC, was in fact communicating with the Manchester Evening News, conjecturing as to when Sir John Hermon might retire and suggesting that Mr. Anderton might like to succeed him? He later showed how subjective he was when he suggested that he, himself, was doing such a magnificent job that he might succeed Sir John Hermon as Chief Constable of the RUC. Is that not a disgraceful demonstration of unprofessional conduct by a man placed in a trusted position?

As I made clear to the House in my statement, much of the work done and various recommendations that I announced flowed from the inquiry carried out by Mr. Stalker and his team and all the recommendations were accepted in principle by the Chief Constable. I must add, however, that certain other aspects of the inquiry give cause for concern—not least what appeared in The Guardian, if it was correct—about the degree of confidentiality that was preserved. I am also concerned about the recent letter of a superintendent on Mr. Stalker's team and about the anxiety of a number of members of that team about the number of leaks during the inquiry.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the special branch in Ulster carries out its duties with great courage and at no small risk and that we should show our appreciation of that? Will he also confirm that those killed in the original incidents were given funerals with full military honours by the IRA?

On the latter point, that was certainly true in some cases. Undoubtedly, the special branch has performed outstanding service in Northern Ireland. It has saved very many lives in the security forces and among the general population. At the same time, as I made clear in my statement, it cannot be a force within a force. There were things that needed changing after 1982, and I believe that those changes have been understood. It is very important that, in the final analysis, whichever part of the police force a person may belong to, he is ultimately accountable.

I am sure also that the whole House will agree with the last sentence of the Secretary of State. I am sure also that the right hon. Gentleman will recall the comment of Sir John Hermon that the family tree incident was "untrue and deeply offensive". If it was untrue, it was certainly deeply offensive. The Secretary of State will also recall that Mr. Stalker said:

"It is supportable by evidence".
Does the Secretary of State agree that this is no longer a private matter between two very senior and experienced police officers, but that the integrity of both of them is now at issue and that, in the interests of the police, it is essential that Mr. Stalker should now put his evidence into the public domain?

I should like to think a bit more about what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am not at all sure that I think that it is anything other than a private matter,. It is a most regrettable matter, and I do not want to enter into judgments upon it.

Security

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the security situation.

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what improvements have been made in cross-border co-operation, to deal with the terrorist threat, in the last 12 months.

Since I last answered questions in the House on 28 January, three members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and one civilian have died. The House will be aware that, sadly, two of those were the members who were killed last night close to the centre of Belfast.

The threat remains high, but the courageous and determined efforts of the security forces are continuing to yield results. In particular, they have recovered a number of significant caches of arms and ammunition thought to have belonged to both Loyalist and Republican terrorist organisations.

So far this year 34 people have been charged with serious offences and 222 weapons, 63,000 rounds of ammunition and 3921b of explosives have been recovered in Northern Ireland. In addition, already this year the Garda Siochana has made a number of very significant finds of arms and ammunition. These include some 125 weapons, 80,000 rounds of ammunition and almost 6001b of commercial explosives.

Following yet another statement from my right hon. Friend about atrocities and murders, is he aware that some Conservative Members voted for the Anglo-Irish agreement, which we have always supported, and that we have looked to it to improve border security, but that if it does not continue to do so we shall have to think again?

I note what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps he could explain to me how we are likely to do better in border security if we do not co-operate closely with the Government of the Irish Republic, because that defeats me. We face a serious threat in Northern Ireland at the moment which is considerably enhanced because of the involvement of new weapons which it is believed, on good grounds, come from Libya. That threat is clearly not just to Northern Ireland, but to the whole island of Ireland. In those circumstances, the closest co-operation with the Government of the Irish Republic is absolutely essential.

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to the remarkable success of the French and Spanish authorities in dealing with the Basque separatist movement through close co-operation? Will he assure the House that the respective heads of police from the North and South will meet shortly to improve coordination? Is he aware that he will have nothing but the full support of Conservative Members if he can achieve coordination between North and South on a far more advanced and sophisticated basis than over the past decade?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, one can look at some of the figures that I was able to announce to the House about the success of the Garda Siochana. I am afraid that part of that is due to the scale of arms and explosives that may be present in the island of Ireland, but it is also a clear indication of the substantial commitment that it has been making on this matter.

I hope that we shall have an early conference — I think that we shall have a full conference—and, as I have said, I want to include cross-border security matters and to see the closest co-operation between the Chief Constable and the Commissioner. I make no secret of that fact, because it is most important. Because the RUC and the Garda are in the lead, they must co-operate closely in this, which they do.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that complete confusion has arisen in Northern Ireland from the events of the past four weeks, and does he recognise that we do not know who to believe? Following the meeting in Dublin yesterday the Secretary of State announced that the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana would be meeting the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary at the next meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference, but the Dublin Government immediately contradicted that statement. Who are we to believe?

If there is any confusion, I am sure that I can rely on the right hon. Gentleman to try to help us to clear it up. I am sure that he will play a leading part in that.

I made it clear that we had an excellent meeting yesterday. I think that the Tánaiste, Mr. Lenihan, and I found it valuable to discuss a number of issues. On the right hon. Gentleman's particular point, it is agreed—he will see this if he reads the communiqué — that there should be a full meeting of the conference in the near future. I have made it clear that I should like that to involve cross-border security operation. There is clearly some misunderstanding on the question of participation, but I intend to see whether that can be resolved at the earliest opportunity.

Following the shooting of Aidan McAnespie by a young 19-year-old British soldier, and the release after three years of Private Thain, who himself was a young man when he was involved in the killing of another person, does the Secretary of State agree that the policy of putting young military personnel into sensitive security positions should be looked at again? Will he also accept that we on these Benches strongly believe that the Anglo-Irish Agreement should be consolidated and strengthened, and is the best way to proceed in fighting terrorism?

The House will recognise the heavy obligations and responsibilities that are laid on the security forces, and that is particularly so for young new members of regiments. The mainly outstanding way in which they have discharged those responsibilities is a tribute to the training and calibre of the troops that have served in Northern Ireland over the years. If anyone should ask why that soldier was in that sangar at that time, I would only say that every road block, vehicle checkpoint and watchtower in Northern Ireland exists thanks to the IRA and the terrorist.

Following the brutal murder last night of two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, have the Government of the Irish Republic informed the Secretary of State whether they have any desire to hold an inquiry into those two deaths? Have the Government of the Irish Republic given any knowledge to the Secretary of State's office that they intend to hold an emergency debate in the Dail over those two deaths? Have the Government of the Irish Republic requested a special meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference as a result of those two deaths? If they have not, does the Secretary of State think that that is indicative of their political bias?

The hon. Gentleman makes the political point that he wishes to make in that contribution. I would merely add that the Irish Government have at no time suggested holding an inquiry into an affair in Northern Ireland.

Given the recent decision to release Private Thain, which most reasonable people would believe strains the normal limits of compassion, will the Secretary of State accept from me, and many others who were politically involved in the early 1970s, that in that highly emotive period, when sectarian conflict was at its height and when 60,000 people changed homes in Belfast because of that sectarian conflict—the biggest movement in peacetime Europe—and with all the atrocities committed at that time, such as Bloody Sunday, and so on, it is understandable that young people from both sections of the community were sucked into the terrible violence, for which they are serving long sentences? In the light of the decision relating to Private Thain, would not normal compassion demand that we show the same compassion to all those young people? If the Secretary of State were to do that, it would have a powerful beneficial impact on the security and political situation in Northern Ireland.

The only qualification that I would make is that it would be wrong to equate the position of a soldier serving his country in Northern Ireland in a particular position with that of a young person of the same age who may have been involved in a terrorist purpose. None the less, I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point that young people who may easily be influenced by older people found themselves drawn into a situation which they now bitterly regret. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State looks at these cases carefully, bearing in mind the youth of the person involved. Of course, the very nature of "Secretary of State's pleasure" cases means that a person must have been under 18 when the crime was committed. We do look sympathetically at such cases, but we must obviously take into account the risk of reinvolvement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, where there is terrorism on both sides of a common frontier, one might well expect the maximum degree of cooperation in dealing with that terrorism, whether or not there is in existence something called the Anglo-Irish Agreement?

I certainly believe that it is in the interests of both our countries. It is significant that, in spite of the recent difficulties and tensions over certain problems, the Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, has made it clear that, although there may be an impasse on one or two particular issues, there is certainly no impasse on close cross-border security co-operation. That is in the interests of both our countries. Mr. Haughey has spelt that out in the Dail, and I never cease to spell it out in this House.

Does the Secretary of State realise that when double standards are seen to prevail, as in the case of Private Thain—which he appears to dismiss rather too lightly in my opinion—that strengthens the hand of terrorism, because the terrorists see that what happens on one side does not happen on the other? Was not a group of people let out in that case, rather than just one person? Is it not a disgraceful situation, and will it not strengthen the IRA?

I have tried to explain the background in response to the question of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), and I cannot add much to that. I am sympathetic, as is the House, to very young people who find themselves caught up in the web of terrorism early in life, but the House must also have regard—and I should be failing in my responsibilities if I did not take account of this—to the risk of reinvolvement of people who are released. I must consider that carefully, as complaints would soon arise if we took the wrong decisions.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Conservative Members note with great satisfaction the enormous improvement in security since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, particularly as reflected in the huge finds of arms and ammunitions on both sides of the border, and in the increase in the number of arrests on both sides of the border for terrorist offences? Does he agree with me that, if the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Conference had not been in place, the very difficult times through which we have been in the past three or four weeks would have been a great deal worse?

I certainly accept that. There have been difficulties in the history of the relationship of this country with the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Mr. Lenihan and I recognised yesterday, at our meeting, the benefit that is now coming from the working relationship and the understanding that have developed. I repeat the phrase that I used—we do not speak the same language, but we are beginning to learn to translate. That is important if we are to have a happier future.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Minister in charge of day-to-day security in Northern Ireland is the Minister who has returned Private Thain to the Army? Is he further aware that that Minister was also responsible for refusing a request to furnish the Fair Employment Agency with a reference supplied by a Catholic seeking a job on HMS Caroline, so that the Belfast Recorder said that, in all probability, he had refused to disclose the reference because the man was a Roman Catholic, and found the Ministry of Defence guilty of unlawful discrimination? In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State agree with The Daily Telegraph that that casts most serious doubts about his judgment as a Minister, particularly in the Northern Ireland Office?

As the hon. Gentleman has made that personal attack, he owed it to the House to be better informed of his facts before he made it. It gives me the opportunity to tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the matters contained in the second half of the editorial to which he referred are not true.

County Down (Hospitals)

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if, in view of the recent announcements on cash limits, he will take steps to ensure that the residents of South Down served by the Down group of hospitals will not be deprived of any of the minimum medical facilities which are at present available to them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Richard Needham)

The Eastern health and social services board has recently issued a detailed consultative document on options for changes to the pattern of services in its area, including South Down. Since the board itself has not yet reached any conclusions, it would not be right for me to comment at this stage.

Is the Minister aware of the statement in the House yesterday by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, about the biggest ever capital investment programme in the National Health Service for Scotland? Will he compare that with the draconian cuts and severe budget restrictions imposed on national health in Northern Ireland? In those circumstances, will he reconsider his Budget proposals for 1988–89 for NHS provision in Northern Ireland?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern on this question of the Down services. This is the second time that we have been able to discuss the matter today. I have told him that I will consider most carefully any proposals from the board. I must point out that, as he is well aware, the level of health provision in Northern Ireland is second to none in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the serious concern in Northern Ireland about the way that he is handling hospitals? Is he also aware that if he continues on this line hospitalisation will be very difficult? It is not one section but the entire community that is suffering. I have taken an interest in the case that is before the House. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell us that it is a matter for the board. When he takes money away from the board, how can it make any other decision?

Rather than damaging the Health Service in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman should accept that the level of provision of health care is higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, as it ought to be. While I accept that it creates problems for the Health Service, the provision of 5·2 per cent. additional funds this year is the absolute maximum that can be afforded because of the pressures of the law and order budget and unemployment.

In considering any changes in hospital provision within the Eastern board's area, will the Minister always bear in mind that the most rapidly increasing population is in the Bangor-Newtownards part of the area?

I am sure that the Eastern health board will take that into account when it considers the options.

Harland And Wolff (Aori Contract)

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has now made any public subsidy available in relation to the AOR1 contract at Harland and Wolff.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Peter Viggers)

No, Sir.

In view of the Minister's predictable answer, will he assure the House that the Government are not in breach of the EEC sixth directive on shipbuilding, which must apply to Harland and Wolff as it does to other merchant shipyards? In the light of press speculation in Monday's Belfast Telegraph, can he make a statement to the House on the future of Harland and Wolff?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Harland and Wolff must comply with the EC sixth directive. I saw the speculative story to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The position has not changed in recent weeks. The future of the yard will depend upon its ability to win orders—this, too, has not changed in recent weeks — within the constraints of the EC sixth directive, which limits Government subsidy on merchant shipping orders to 28 per cent.

Does the Minister agree that there is a difference between orders for merchant ships and orders for ships for the Royal Navy, the first category being eligible for subsidy, whereas the second is not? Will he tell the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) that it is time he realised that if the AOR2 had been allocated on merit, perhaps Swan Hunter would not have received the contract and it would have gone properly to Harland and Wolff, as the AOR1 did?

The hon. Gentleman has made his own point to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). The hon. Gentleman is right about shipbuilding orders. The EC sixth directive relates to merchant shipbuilding orders. I am pleased that Harland and Wolff has now virtually completed the ATS vessel, which should be delivered shortly to the Ministry of Defence. Of course, the AOR1 is also under construction in the yard.

Will the Minister tell the House that it is the view of the Northern Ireland Office that Harland and Wolff has been making determined efforts to better its lot in the shipbuilding industry? What is his Department doing to ensure that the speculation in recent newspaper reports will not come about.

We congratulate Harland and Wolff on the efforts that it has made to improve its performance, but its future will depend on its ability to win further shipbuilding orders within the constraints to which I have referred.

May I press the Minister further on the future of Harland and Wolff? He will be aware that in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday of this week there was an article which said that closure was an option being considered by the Government. Will the Minister take the opportunity to deny that closure is on the cards? As the Minister knows, the economic future of Belfast and of Northern Ireland will be disastrous if the shipyard is closed. [Interruption.]

I have already said in my response to the initial question that the position has not changed in recent weeks. The future of the yard must depend on management's ability to win orders. That is not the Government's responsibility. It is the responsibility of management, and we support it in its search.

School Statistics

12.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what percentage of schools in Northern Ireland have a selective intake; and what percentage of school leavers in each sector achieve five or more higher grade O-levels or equivalent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

In most areas of Northern Ireland pupils are selected for grammar or secondary intermediate school education on the basis of a transfer test undertaken at age 11. Twenty-nine per cent. of the secondary schools in Northern Ireland are grammar schools and 71 per cent. are secondary intermediate schools. The percentages with five or more higher grade O-levels are 83 and 14 respectively.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the figures that he has given, in overall terms and indeed for pupils in non-selective schools, are significantly higher than for many authorities in England and Wales? Does he also agree that the more flexible, less ideological and more pragmatic attitude towards selective education in Northern Ireland contains important lessons for those who wish to raise standards in England and Wales?

The Government are committed to raising standards in schools throughout the United Kingdom. I can confirm that in Northern Ireland 36 per cent. of school leavers have five or more good grade O-levels, as compared with 27 per cent. in England and Wales. I have to tell my hon. Friend, however, that in Northern Ireland those who leave school with no qualifications at all represent 22 per cent. of the pupils, whereas the figure in England and Wales is 10 per cent. That is obviously a matter of concern, and we must have responsibility for children's education and the raising of educational standards right across the education spectrum.

Is the Minister not concerned that 71 per cent. of children in Northern Ireland go to secondary schools, where they have only a 14 per cent. chance of obtaining significant O-level passes? Does that not mean that the bulk of children are not receiving real opportunities in secondary education? Will he reconsider the position?

I do not accept what the hon. Lady has said. We seek in Northern Ireland to run a school system that maximises children's potential. It is a mistake to assume that the only children worth educating are those who are intellectually bright. All children have the potential for development, and we try to run a school system that produces that development.

The religious apartheid that exists in education in Northern Ireland—two systems supported by the taxpayer—cruelly divides young people during their formative years when they should be getting to know each other, and learning together. Will the Minister, who has already done considerable work in this regard, provide further money for the integrated schools in Northern Ireland, which provide a good academic education?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the commitment that he has expressed over such a long period to seeking to educate the children of Northern Ireland together, or at least in closer association than in the past. He knows that we are trying to be as helpful as possible, in a variety of ways, to reduce the present divide between the children.

Sex Discrimination Order

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many replies he has received to his request for observations on the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order.

Will the Minister state his own commitment to equal opportunities for woman in Northern Ireland, and will he amend the draft order so that it is in line with European legislation?

The Government are committed to equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. We think it right, however, that promotion of equality of opportunity in relation to gender in Northern Ireland should be handled as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom.

As for our own commitment in Northern Ireland, I am pleased to inform the hon. Lady that funding compares very favourably with that of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Great Britain. It was increased by 11 per cent. in the year before last, and by 9 per cent. in the current year.

Kilroot Power Station

16.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what decision he has made regarding phase II of Kilroot power station.

So many hon. Members are not here, for various reasons, that it has been quite difficult to keep pace with the questions.

Revised bids for the provision of new generating capacity, including the completion of Kilroot phase II, were received from Northern Ireland Electricity and Antrim Power Company Ltd. at the end of January 1988. The revised proposals are currently being examined and until that process has been completed the Government will not be in a position to make a decision on future generating capacity.

I am grateful for that reply—eventually. I hope that the Minister will be rather more expeditious when considering the various options for Kilroot power station. I hope that he will bear in mind that Northern Ireland Electricity wants to convert phase II to coal and that that will also be very important for the coal industry in Ayrshire, particularly the area that I represent. I hope that, as a penance for his appalling delay in answering my question, he will agree that it ought to be converted to coal and give a long-term guarantee that that coal will come from Ayrshire.

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct in saying that the availability of the completion of Kilroot power station with coal provides an attractive option for Northern Ireland. But there is a further attractive option for Northern Ireland, and that is the indigenous brown lignite resource. We are considering very carefully whether coal or lignite is the appropriate resource for future generating capacity, and whether, if brown lignite is the choice, it should be through NIE or through the private bid which has been submitted to us.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend, in her pre-eminent position as First Lord of the Treasury, will not share any Budget secrets with the House today. Nevertheless, will she confirm that she has impressed on her right hon. Friend the Chancellor that the experience of the last nine years shows that there is nothing contradictory or irreconcilable about raising tax thresholds, lowering tax rates and increasing public expenditure, notably on the National Health Service, in the sensible and prudent way that we have done and that we discussed last night? Is it not a fact that a low-tax economy increases incentive and productivity and ultimately leads to a higher tax yield for the services that we all desire?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Lowering direct taxes is an essential part of getting the growth that we have seen over the last few years and therefore getting the resources to spend on such things as the National Health Service and increased nurses' pay. We also have to remember that nurses, too, pay income tax, and that when a nurse on £170 a week knows that she pays £46 a week in tax and national insurance contributions together she is not going to say that she wants taxes to be kept at that level. She would much prefer to have more net take-home pay through reduced taxation.

If the banning of organisations completely dedicated to securing peaceful change in South Africa does not make the Prime Minister stop her pathetic appeasement of apartheid, what will?

We do not appease apartheid in any way. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we spend considerable sums of money in helping black South Africans to get the education that some of them might otherwise not get, and on helping security in the front-line states. I wish to make it quite clear that I condemn the latest move by President Botha to suppress free argument and debate. It will be a great setback to the possibility of peaceful negotiations. However, the application of universal sanctions would not improve, but only make worse, a very difficult situation.

When the Prime Minister's words of condemnation are mocked by the Botha regime and held in contempt by the victims of that regime, is it not plain to everyone that those words deserve that contempt and encourage further repression by those in charge of apartheid? When Bishop Tutu says that South Africa is heading for war, and when her own Foreign Secretary says that he thinks that the latest bannings make violence more likely, why does she not convene the Security Council, press for comprehensive sanctions and make an effort that is really worth while?

We do not make a difficult situation any easier by adding to it starvation and poverty for those whom we wish to help.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

Will my right hon. Friend condemn the actions of those head-in-the-sand trade union leaders in the National Health Service in Scotland who led the strike yesterday, against the interests of the patients who could benefit enormously from the extra funds that would become available if the Health Service in Scotland had the benefit of the privatisation of services that applies to the Health Service in England?

Yes. It was a political strike in Scotland yesterday on the part of the nurses. Competitive tendering in England has released some £100 million a year that will go direct to extra patient care. It is appalling that there are people in Scotland who would rather waste money than save it by competitive tendering, and thus have more money to spend on patient care. We utterly condemn that strike, which led to about 400 operations being postponed.

Will the Prime Minister explain to the House how the current cuts in the family planning provisions in the Health Service will save money in the long run, given that the likely result will be greater occupancy of maternity beds or more abortions?

I hope that those who need and want such advice will continue to take it. I do not believe that any changes would have the effect that the right hon. Gentleman says.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the murder last night of two members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the return of terror tactics to the centre of Belfast? Does she agree that if foreign Governments wish to look at the security forces in Northern Ireland, they also should look at the use of the bomb-to-kill policy of Republican terrorists?

It is a tragedy that two more members of the Ulster Defence Regiment were killed last night, bringing the number of the security forces killed in Northern Ireland this year to six, in addition to the 27 who were killed last year. I hope that those who seek to undermine or criticise the security forces will remember the merciless attacks to which they are subjected and be thankful for the work that they do.

Does the Prime Minister recall how, in the wake of the Enniskillen tragedy, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) urged her to agree

"that no one should use the terrible suffering of those people of Enniskillen for political reasons?"— [Official Report, 12 November 1987; Vol. 122, c. 558.]
Does she believe that the same restraint should now be shown in regard to the tragic shooting in Aughnacloy last Sunday? Does she agree that it is unjust, unhelpful and uncharitable for Cardinal O'Fiaich to preach in his pulpit that that incident was murder?

Northern Ireland has suffered a great deal of violence, and that violence is continuing. Some individual tragic incidents have come to the public notice more than others. Our task should be the same on both sides of the border —to do everything we can to increase security and reduce the violence, because it is aimed not only at Northern Ireland; it is fundamentally aimed at the future of democracy in the Republic of Ireland.

Will the right hon. Lady bear in mind what happened in Belfast last night? She will appreciate how I feel today, when I say that one of those young men was a member of my church, engaged to a young lady who is a member of my church, and the last time I spoke to them was to arrange their marriage. The other young man who was murdered last night was from the same district. I ask her to have a word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the circumstances of the killing. Is she aware that a hoarding erected by the Lang company obscured the vision of the patrol, preventing it from seeing what was happening in the Smithfield area? The patrol had made representations to its superior officers about this, and no action was taken. Will she see to it that the matter is thoroughly investigated and that young men who go on duty are listened to?

Yes, we understand how the hon. Gentleman feels. He may rest assured that we all feel the same way and express our sympathy to the families of those people, and to the families of those who were injured. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the hoarding. The matter is being thoroughly investigated. I echo the sentiment, which I know he feels, that men of the Ulster Defence Regiment are particularly brave. We really are very fortunate that, whatever happens in Northern Ireland, and whatever the number of tragedies, people are still prepared to volunteer to come forward to protect democracy.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that in Scotland since the general election her party has lost 2 per cent. support, and it was very poor before the general election? Can the right hon. Lady tell us whether it is part of her Government's strategy that we must lose 7,000 jobs in the mining industry as the price of privatisation? Why did she bring in aid the brief supplied by the SSEB, when she knew perfectly well that the matter was about to go to the courts?

If one is interested in jobs, and we are—although I note that the Opposition support many strikes aimed at the destruction of jobs and at moving jobs elsewhere—one is interested in each and every industry being highly competitive and able to supply its material to other industries at a world competitive price as delivered to the power stations. I understand that the latter matter has now been set down for a date for hearing and, therefore, I can say nothing further.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in August 1986 the National Institute of Economic and Social Research forecast, for the calendar year 1987, growth of 1·8 per cent. and a PSBR of £11 billion? As it is now clear that growth in 1987 was 4·8 per cent. and there was no public sector borrowing requirement at all, will my right hon. Friend advise the Treasury to ignore the latest forecasts from the institute, except perhaps to advise it to buy a new computer?

Economic forecasting is, of course, notoriously difficult. I noticed an article in one of last Sunday's newspapers, which compared the actual forecasts with the outturn, and the forecasters did not come off very well. I have noticed the one to which my hon. Friend referred, but I think that it is now well understood and agreed that the most respected forecasts are those of the Treasury, and I am proud to be First Lord of it.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth). Question No. 4.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security that families should be urged to forgo a second holiday abroad to fund private health care, or does she join the Labour Benches in urging people to forgo a 1p reduction in tax to secure the health of the whole nation?

I am all for families being able to keep a bigger proportion of their own earnings, so that they can make their own choice.

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the hospital matron was unique, in that she was able to deal with consultants and doctors, understood the needs of patients and nurses, and was at the same time able to keep a very careful eye on such basic items as bed linen and bandages? I ask the Prime Minister to look at the matter urgently and reintroduce this valuable post as quickly as possible.

Yes. I think that many members of the public regret that there is now no official post of hospital matron, because they believe that it kept up the standard of hospitals in a unique way. It is possible for the head nurse still to have that title in hospital, but that is not quite the same as a post. A number of people have the title. More local health authorities can have it if they so wish. It is a matter that we shall look at in our general review.

Q7.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 25 February.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware that thousands of pensioners who live in houses with community alarms and similar apparatus, including up to 300 in Sunderland borough, have been waiting months for the NTVLRO to make a decision about whether they qualify for concessionary licences? Will she speed up this process and, further, when she instructs the Chancellor of the Exchequer what to put in his Budget, will she make sure that he leaves some money so that these folk get what they deserve, a 5p licence for their television?

I will of course call the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to what the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has said. It is not our policy to have 5p television licences for all old-age pensioners, as he knows, although that is the case in certain homes. Such a licence would only put the burden on all other television licence payers.