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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 132: debated on Thursday 28 April 1988

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Northern Ireland

Unlicensed Black Taxi System (Belfast)

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will take action to stop the unlicensed black taxi system in Belfast.

All taxis operating in Belfast are licensed either as public hire or private hire taxis.

It has long been known that the black taxi system in Belfast has provided financial support for terrorism in that city and the Province. As we now have gruesome evidence of its involvement in terrorism and in the recent murder of two British soldiers, will my hon. Friend take steps to ensure that that particularly unacceptable form of transport system is hounded out of the centre of Belfast, for the protection of all its citizens?

We are aware of the connection between paramilitary organisations in both communities and black taxis, although there are many black taxi operators in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland who do a very good job. The Chief Constable has established an anti-rackets squad to deal with rackets generally in Northern Ireland, and that is a high priority. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is bringing forward provisions in a new prevention of terrorism Bill which we hope will go a long way towards knocking out all forms of rackets in Northern Ireland.

Is it not a fact that these battlewagons, as some of these black taxis have become, contributed largely to the appalling murders of two British soldiers? They are not simply used for monetary gain, but as battlewagons. Such activities should be stamped out. If some innocent people suffer, It is better than innocent lives being lost.

As my hon. Friend is probably aware, two taxi drivers and the chairman of the Falls Road Taxi Association have been charged with offences in connection with those horrific murders. Clearly, any such misuse of taxis is absolutely disgraceful, but my job as the Minister for the environment is to ensure that both public and private hire taxis are properly licensed and controlled. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend said, the police must be given the powers to ensure that they stop any terrorist or paramilitary activity by black taxi operations or their drivers.

Irish Foreign Minister

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last met the Irish Foreign Minister; and what was discussed.

I last met Mr. Lenihan on 25 March at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Conference. The joint statement issued after the meeting, a copy of which has been placed in the Library, sets out the wide range of matters that we discussed.

Who authorised the execution of the three IRA members killed in Gibraltar?

I trust that the hon. Gentleman is sufficiently well informed to know that the events in Gibraltar will be the subject of a full inquest before a jury. It is absolutely intolerable to make such comments in advance of the proper process of the law.

When the Secretary of State next meets Mr. Lenihan, what message will he give him for Mr. Haughey? Will he give the message given by the Foreign Secretary commending Mr. Haughey as a true and great patriot, or will he give the denunciation by The Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday?

I shall have great pleasure in endorsing the messages of my right hon. Friend The Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary when I next meet Mr. Haughey. I see no difficulty in that whatsoever. I should not have thought that there was any hon. Member who would not regard Mr. Haughey as a true patriot for his own country, or who would deny that we look for the fullest co-operation, not least in the defeat of terrorism and in the fight against the common evil represented by terrorism in the island of Ireland. We look for the fullest co-operation, and that is enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

When the Secretary of State next meets the Irish Foreign Minister, will he confirm to him that the statesmanlike views expressed by the Foreign Secretary represent the views of The Prime Minister and the Cabinet? If that is the case, will he then confirm to the Irish Foreign Minister that the petulant display by The Prime Minister at Question Time on Tuesday was the result of irrational pique rather than rational political judgment?

I suspect that they are what one might call two sides of the spectrum. There is some attempt to divide my right hon. Friends, but we are together on these matters. We share a common approach. I would say seriously to the hon. Gentleman that if he reads the speech by the Foreign Secretary he will see that my right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that the agreement that we have signed carries commitments and responsibilities on both sides and involves obligations on both sides. It is not part of a process sliding towards somewhere else, but, in the phrase that I have used, it is an end in itself. It is a resolution of the difficulties that have bedevilled the relationship of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and any change in that relationship will be subject to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland.

Has my right hon. Friend discussed with the Irish Foreign Minister the Irish Parliament's unilateral imposition of restrictions on extradition from the Republic to the United Kingdom on the unjustified ground of concern for the quality of British justice and spurious concern for the rights of so-called Irish citizens who are extradited to Britain? If so, what is the Government's reaction to that unilateral restriction on the due legal process between our two countries?

My hon. Friend will know that he picks up an extract from the speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, in which he says that there is no monopoly of grievance. He made no secret in that speech of our grievances about the way in which the extradition issue has been handled, but he said that we seek to resolve such problems within the normal relationships between our countries. I certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that I am most anxious, as I am sure all those responsible within the Republic of Ireland must be, to ensure that there are, at the earliest moment, effective extradition arrangements between our two countries.

Does the Minister realise that the rabble-rousing and jingoistic answer that he gave me last time I asked about the shooting of the three IRA members has intensified the situation and that there have been more killings in the past few weeks than for a long time? Does he realise that shooting to kill demands an inquiry and that the tactics used by paramilitaries on both sides of just killing should not have been adopted by us when we could have arrested the three IRA members? We should not engage in the same tactics.

I do not immediately recall what the hon. Gentleman described as my jingoistic answer. I think that I may have expressed some considerable relief, which I think the House shared, that the most powerful bomb that the Spanish police had ever seen in their lifetime, despite all their experience of ETA, did not go off in the confined streets of Gibraltar. There cannot be any decent Member of the House who is not profoundly relieved that some 200 people who might otherwise have been killed or maimed did not meet their death or injury at that time. The hon. Gentleman says that there needs to be an inquiry, and he will have heard my earlier answer that there is to be precisely that in the due legal form of an inquest before a jury. That is the proper procedure, and that is what will take place.

When my right hon. Friend next sees the Irish Foreign Minister, will he ask him whether he is as fed up as Conservative Members are of television companies raking through the gutters of Gibraltar to find people to rubbish our security services? Will he also ask him whether he is as fed up as we are with people weeping tears for an active IRA unit which would have been responsible for a major massacre in Gibraltar?

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the proposals for a television broadcast, which I understand may take place tonight. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has made representations to the chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority about that. If the reports are correct that the programme will include live interviews with people who are likely to be witnesses at the inquest, that raises very difficult issues and could run the serious risk of prejudicing the rights of those concerned at the inquest.

Many people are worried that instead of three people facing the prospect of spending a long time behind bars for taking part in and planning a most horrific offence, the Government may well have created three new martyrs for old Ireland, three more victims for the Crown. The Opposition share that worry. Is the Secretary of State aware that we very much regret the Foreign Secretary's decision to go to the chairman of the IBA to try to prevent the film being shown? Is he aware that we regard that as another example of the ministerial arm-twisting of the press and the media that we have seen since Christmas?

Is the Secretary of State also aware that by seeking to take that course of action the Government are prejudging the issues because, according to the very words that the Secretary of State used himself, that bomb was 50 miles away? The three were unarmed. Those are the facts. They should have been arrested and charged. The Government have created martyrs and they are now trying to prevent a proper examination of the Government's conduct and policies by hiding behind the theory of an inquest. We well know that there will be no examination in that inquest of the decisions made at Cabinet level about how those men and that women were to be treated. The Government are hiding behind the facts. They are running away again.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I believe that that was the most unfortunate intervention that I have ever heard. He has presumed to stand at the Dispatch Box—speaking, I understand, on behalf of the Opposition—and say that he claims to know all the facts of this matter in advance of the inquest and the evidence. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have heard the hon. Gentleman say that he knows all the facts. The hon. Gentleman has—[Interruption.]

Order. The Opposition Front Bench spokesman asked a series of questions. He is now being answered.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that those were the facts. I must tell him that, as we have said, there will be an inquest. Does he really think that it is desirable in the proper process of law and for the protection of all those who have their rights who will be giving evidence in one form or another at the inquest, that there should in advance of that inquest be trial by television in which partial witnesses will be shown in support of one particular thesis? The hon. Gentleman should consider the facts. He will hear later that a considerable amount of independent examination of these matters can be quoted to show how dangerous it is for witnesses to give evidence on television before inquiries and inquests are carried out.

Economic Prospects

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any plans to meet trades union representatives in Northern Ireland to discuss economic prospects; and if he will make a statement.

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

My right hon. Friend and I have no outstanding arrangements to meet trades union representatives, though we have met them on a number of occasions in the past to discuss economic prospects and other issues. We value these meetings.

Is the Minister aware that trade union leaders in Northern Ireland are concerned about the Government's prevarication over Kilroot phase 2, and does he accept their point that the economic logic of it is irrefutable? Is he aware that their feeling now is that the only reason for any further debate is the Government's desire to privatise Northern Ireland electricity, and that this represents the triumph of political expediency over the economic interests of Northern Ireland?

No, that is not the case, and the decision on the future generation of electricity in Northern Ireland will be taken in the interests of the consumer and of the economy as a whole. The results of an investment appraisal of the proposals for the next phase of generating capacity are currently being considered. Decisions will be taken as soon as possible, in the interests of the consumer and the economy as a whole.

When my hon. Friend is considering these matters, will he bear carefully in mind the great importance that is attached to the order placed with Harland and Wolff by Mr. Ravi Tikkoo for the Ultimate Dream? If this order is not to be built at Harland and Wolff, will not the opportunities now presented to Belfast be missed, which would be a matter of great regret?

The concept produced by Harland and Wolff is imaginative and ambitious, but I have to put my hon. Friend right. It is not an order but a conceptual design at this stage, and no detailed costings have been produced. When they are, we shall study them carefully.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that this project will be viewed sympathetically, rather than Parliamentary Private Secretaries going around rebuking Conservative Members who have supported the early-day motion asking that Government funds should be made available, as they will help not only Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom as a whole?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Ors matter will be viewed sympathetically, and he will be the first to agree that the Government have been very supportive of Harland and Wolff over many years. In appraising this project we shall, when the time comes, have to take account of the resources that will be required to support the building of the ship and compare these with the resources that will be required and should be made available for use elsewhere in the Province.

If the question of shipbuilding arises in the Minister's talks with trade union leaders, will he assure them that the Government's aim is not to be neutral when it comes to getting the order for Harland and Wolff, but is positively to encourage that order to come to Northern Ireland, for the benefit not only of those in the Harland and Wolff shipyard but of the suppliers and sub-contractors in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman would not be fair if he accused the Government of not being supportive of Harland and Wolff. We have been extremely supportive and have fought hard to bring orders for the Harland and Wolff shipyard, including the AOR order for the Ministry of Defence. We shall be supportive, but we are bound by the EC sixth directive, and, as I said earlier, by the need to compare the resources that will be required for the building of the ship with the availability of resources which can be used elsewhere in the Province.

The Minister said that he would exercise virement within the Northern Ireland budget—in other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul if the project goes ahead. Will he give an undertaking that new resources will be found from outside the Northern Ireland budget to enable this project to go ahead and to ensure that there is fair employment for both parts of the community, and recognise that people throughout the United Kingdom will benefit if the order goes ahead?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the United Kingdom, and it is appropriate to bear in mind the needs of all shipbuilders in the United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom is one country. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland block is available for the development of resources within Northern Ireland, and it would not be appropriate to expect the United Kingdom Government to find resources over and above those of the Northern Ireland block for the support of one individual project.

Integrated Education

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Government's policy towards integrated education, in the light of the education reform document he recently published.

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the plans to implement his Department's support for integrated education.

It has been the Government's long-standing policy to support viable proposals for the creation of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. We have now sought to give further opportunity for the expression of parental wishes and new impetus to the development of integrated education through our proposals for grant-maintained integrated schools.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer, but will he confirm yet again that policies that lead to integrated education are probably the most beneficial long-term initiatives that the Government can take? Will he also assure the House that such policies will not be imposed by the Government, but will be brought about by patiently getting the co-operation and good will of all the communities in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I can confirm the Government's commitment to the expansion of integrated education in Northern Ireland and give my hon. Friend the assurance that the proposals in the consultation paper in no sense reflect a determination to impose integrated education. Rather, they provide an option for parents to choose if they so wish.

I congratulate the Minister on a brave initiative. It is a worthwhile step towards bringing about harmony and long-term development of the community in Northern Ireland. May I recall to him the report in the Belfast Telegraph of 25 February, which said that accommodation, equipment and book supplies at integrated schools are inadequate? Will the Minister say whether that can now be rectified?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for his continued support for the concept of integrated education in Northern Ireland. The allocation of funds to integrated schools that receive funds from my Department is on the same basis as that for the funds that are made available to other schools in the Province. There is no discrimination in resource allocation.

The Minister is aware of the campaign that I have waged for 20 years to end the sectarian divide in education in Northern Ireland [Interruption.] Will we have to wait another 20 years or more before we see an end to it? I know that the SDLP disagrees with my wish to see the bringing together of Protestant and Roman Catholic young children. Is it right that the taxpayer should have to pay for two separate systems of education that cruelly divide the children and waste taxpayers' money?

I am sorry that some hon. Members on the Opposition Benches laughed when the hon. Gentleman mentioned his very creditable campaign over many years to promote the concept of integrated education. The people of the Province owe him a great debt for doing that. I make it clear that the number of integrated schools that will emerge from the proposals is not a matter for me. In the first instance it is a matter for the House and the other place to determine by legislation. When that legislation is in place, it will be a matter for the parents. The Government are seeking to facilitate those parents who would like to have their children educated in the same classroom as children from the other side of the community. That is an important commitment by the Government. We are rightly pleased to offer it to the people of the Province, and we do it with conviction.

The Minister talks about greater parental choice and about integrating schools. Will he bear in mind that the geographical distribution of schools in Northern Ireland reflects the geographical distribution of the pupils who attend those schools? As soon as he starts interfering with the pool of pupils, that could have very severe and unforeseen effects on the viability of many schools, especially in the more sparsely populated rural areas. Will the Minister carefully bear that in mind?

Of course I shall bear that in mind, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not interfering. I am facilitating those parents who may choose to have their children educated in this way. That is a very important distinction. It is absolutely right that integrated education, certainly in the foreseeable future, is not the answer to the problems of the Province. Because of the housing arrangements that the hon. Gentleman mentions, it would be difficult to see integrated schools developing in many areas of the Province in the immediate future. I recognise that fact, and I also recognise that some rural schools in isolated areas will need some protection. He will know that, as a matter of policy, the Department has already made it clear that it will offer protection to schools in rural and isolated areas. Having said all that, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he still does not advance any reason why parents should not be given the option of integrated education if they wish to follow it.

In view of the overwhelming number of complaints that were received about lack of time for consultation prior to the introduction of the Education Reform Bill in England and Wales, will the Minister please explain how he can contemplate 41 school days as sufficient time for consultation on a document which, in his own words, will change the nature of education in Northern Irish schools well into the next century?

First, it gives me pleasure to welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. We look forward to working with her in future.

The hon. Lady will know that a two-month consultation period was made available in England and Wales. She will also know that I not only made available a two-month consultation period, but, because the paper was launched at the beginning of the Easter school holidays, added a further three weeks for consultation. The hon. Lady will also bear in mind that the proposals—or at least many of them—have not come as a great surprise to the people of Northern Ireland. They have been widely debated over months as progress has been made on the Bill in the House. For all those reasons, I believe that the consultation time was perfectly adequate.

Security

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement concerning the security situation in Northern Ireland.

9.

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

Since I last answered questions in the House on 24 March, two part-time members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and a regular soldier have been murdered by the Provisional IRA.

The security threat remains high, but the courageous and determined efforts of the security forces are continuing to yield results.

Since the beginning of the year a total of 103 people have been charged with serious offences, including five with murder and six with attempted murder. A total of 272 weapons, just over 65,000 rounds of ammunition, and approximately 2,700 lb of explosives have been recovered in Northern Ireland. I understand also that the Garda Siochana has recovered some 174 weapons, almost 126,000 rounds of ammunition, and 600 lb of commercial explosives.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the people of Northern Ireland are deeply concerned at the two recent murders? On behalf of the people for whom I speak, I express my sympathy to the family in Mid-Ulster and to the family in England who have been so tragically bereaved.

Has the Secretary of State information that the murder of Mr. Gibson, a member of the UDR, was an inside job? Can he confirm that another member of the UDR was to do the job that Mr. Gibson was killed doing? Is he aware that that member of the UDR was told by the security forces not to report for duty? Is he aware that another man, not in sympathy with the UDR, was to take his place, and that that man did not turn up? Therefore, Mr. Gibson was put into the position of having to do the job, and he was then murdered. Is he aware that the car that was used by the murderers was supposed to be in the possession of people who were away for the day, but had left their keys in it? Does that not indicate a well-organised and orchestrated inside job in Cookstown to kill members of the UDR?

I certainly entirely share the feelings that were expressed by the hon. Member about the killings and about the earlier killing, at a farm sale, of another part-time member of the UDR. Although there certainly were some rather surprising features about the killing of Mr. Gibson, in that he had only just gone on that round that day, I certainly do not have any of the information that the hon. Member has conveyed to the House on this occasion.

In the House on Tuesday, The Prime Minister said that the Government would continue to press for effective security co-operation across the border. Why should it now be necessary to press for delivery of the one and only promise that was made by the Dublin Government when the Agreement was signed two and a half years ago?

In her answer The Prime Minister made clear the importance that we attach to continual work to improve cross-border security co-operation. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the answer that I gave. He will have heard also of the substantial arms seizures and recoveries of ammunition and explosives that have been achieved by the Garda Siochana. Obviously, we and everybody in Northern Ireland must take great comfort from the fact that those weapons of death have now been recovered from terrorist clutches. It is a continual process, and in the answer that I gave earlier I emphasised the importance that we attach to the continual improvement in every possible way of cross-border security co-operation.

As it was said that the security situation would be much improved by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, will my right hon. Friend comment on the recent important and clearly well-considered speech by Mr Haughey to Fianna Fail supporters in New York? Does he agree that that clearly repudiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and will he please dissociate himself from the Foreign Secretary's offensive and patronising attempt to depict Mr. Haughey as some minor figure who did not understand what he was saying?

I am afraid that I did not notice whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber, but I answered that question a little earlier and made absolutely clear the position of the Government on these matters.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that idle purpose of an inquest is to establish the cause of death, not to conduct a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the cause of death? Secondly, regarding the amazing series of events that began with the appalling statement in the House by the Attorney-General that certain people are above the rule of law, I am glad to see that he now at least comes in during Northern Ireland questions to hear people talk about the consequences of what he said on that day. In the light of that statement, the decision of the Department of Defence that when a soldier is given a life sentence for murder that sentence is two and a half years, and the Gibraltar affair, which is now surrounded by more controversy and which led to the Greek tragedy of the funerals in Belfast, will the Secretary of State confirm that, given the tensions and anger that those events created, the Irish Prime Minister showed commendable restraint'? Will he advise his colleague The Prime Minister to read Mr. Haughey's speeches in the United States and to take not the advice of the rent-a-headline hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) but to take instead his advice and that of his right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, who were appointed to conduct relations with the Irish Government, among other things?

The hon. Member has rehearsed what we all know of the catalogue of events in recent months. I take great exception to a number of the descriptions that he has given; for example, the suggestion that anybody is above the rule of law. That is simply not true, since people have already been prosecuted for murder for the events that he described, and my right hon. and learned Friend came to the House to report very fully to this sovereign Parliament the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. In no sense are these people, or any people in Northern Ireland, above the law. The hon. Member surely realises that there is no benefit, if we are trying to establish better co-operation and to work together to defeat the terrorists, in rehearsing old grievances. Rather, we should try to work together in a positive and constructive way.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the security situation in Northern Ireland would be more satisfactory if convicted terrorists served the full term of their sentences rather than enjoying a substantial remission?

I certainly look to a situation in which those convicted of serious terrorist crimes face proper retribution in terms of the sentences that they are given. I have no comment to make today on remission system.

We on the Opposition Benches rejoice in the finding of arms and the conviction of prisoners under the rule of law for terrorists in Northern Ireland. Following The Prime Minister's statement to the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) on Tuesday, can the Secretary of State say whether the Government of the Irish Republic have been more, or less, stinting in their efforts to defeat the men of violence in the past few months; whether there has been any effective break in co-operation across the border; and why, in view of the Taoiseach's statement in Dublin on his arrival from New York—before The Prime Minister's made her observations—which was published widely in the press, to the effect that the Irish Government would work the mechanism of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to the full, The Prime Minister felt it necessary to say that she would seek reassurances from the Irish Government and that they were backing away from their responsibilities under the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Does the Secretary of State really think that that helps? Is not the spirit of what the Foreign Secretary said at Derby a much better way of trying to conduct affairs between both our countries?

I have already said to hon. Members, and I shall make it clear again, that the reply of my right hon. Friend The Prime Minister and the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary made absolutely clear our commitment to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It is not a case of something in which some matters are more important than others. Both countries have their responsibilities, obligations and commitments. We seek to make the agreement work to the full, and we make no secret of the fact that we attach particular importance, for very good reason, to the closest possible co-operation in the fight against terrorism. Unless it is defeated, there is no sensible and safe future for people on the island of Ireland, whether north or south of the border.

Political Parties (Talks)

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about his latest talks with Northern Ireland political leaders.

Following my earlier meetings with the leaders of the two main Unionist parties I have now had two meetings with the leadership of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I hope to hold a further meeting with the Unionist leaders shortly. My purpose in these talks is to establish whether a basis exists for a wider dialogue about the future government of Northern Ireland.

Is not the Ulster Unionist difficulty over all this and over the possibility of talking to Mr. Haughey the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which also presents problems to a patriotic Taoiseach? Will the Government make use of the November review of the Intergovernmental Conference to transform this unequal agreement into an equal treaty of full partnership? Let the flawed agreement wither, and get down to business.

I do not see it as my role to dwell on the difficulties that may be faced by Unionists and Nationalists. It is easy to find difficulties in Northern Ireland in every direction. I am trying to see whether we can find a constructive way forward in which people in the Province can take more responsibility for the government of the Province. It is important not to dwell on difficulties but to find ways in which men of good will can work together.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there will be no prospects of any improvement in the political or security position if people throughout the United Kingdom and the Republic believe that the British Government are seeking to gag and silence the media and are colluding in the propagation of misinformation? Does he understand that it is entirely disingenuous to compare an inquest with a full public inquiry? As the chairman of the IBA is believed to have told the Foreign Secretary to get stuffed, will the Secretary of State now give an assurance that the Government will not seek an injunction and will allow people throughout the whole United Kingdom to know the truth about what happened recently in Gibraltar?

I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman believes that the correct way to arrive at the truth is by a television broadcast in advance of the proper procedure of the inquest, at which all witnesses involved have an opportunity to give their evidence before a jury under the rules of procedure that pertain in Gibraltar. I should have thought that to seek to pre-empt that and to present one side of an argument through trial by television would worry every hon. Member who is anxious to see that people's rights are protected and that justice is done.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the words,

"In the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils with a wide range of powers over local services."?
Have not nine years elapsed since those words appeared in our manifesto? If the policy was right when it was fashioned by Airey Neave, why is it wrong today? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any constitutional changes in Northern Ireland with regard to local government there can he introduced, even though opposed by the Irish Republic?

My hon. Friend knows well that I am at the moment seeking to initiate discussions with the principal constitutional parties within the Province and have made it absolutely clear that I am prepared to listen to any propositions that any may seek to put forward and consider what alternative approaches might be adopted. I am not able to comment further to my hon. Friend on the reasons why those earlier comments were not pursued.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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.

If The Prime Minister agrees with the words of the Minister replying to yesterday's debate to the effect that the Government were making only "modest adjustments", and not major concessions, will she recognise the case of a constituent of mine? She is 79-years-old, living in a private old people's home, with a pension of £41·71 a week. She has been trying to sell her house, valued at £7,500, for 17 months but is unable to do so. She is not helped by yesterday's decision. Will The Prime Minister accept that more problems were created than were solved yesterday? What is that old lady going to do, and what are the Government going to do about it?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, it has been my experience that when hon. Members raise personal cases in the House, which used virtually never to be done at Question Time, there is very rarely or never a full statement of the facts. The cases must be taken up with the Minister concerned.

With regard to the announcement yesterday, bearing in mind that the amount spent on housing benefit was £5,200 million, and the amount at the end of yesterday was £5,300 million, I think that, a "modest adjustment", but effective to deal with the problems, is indeed a proper description of what took place.

Has my right hon. Friend had time today to read the pamphlet, "The Crisis in Religious Education", expressing grave concern at the trend towards multi-faith education in our schools? Will she reaffirm her Government's commitment to the teaching of Christianity to all the children in our schools?

As my hon. Friend is aware, in the Education Act 1944 religious education was made compulsory and the syllabus was to be determined by a committee drawn up locally. Most of us believe, and I think it is borne out by the debates of that time, that the reference there to religious education was predominantly but not exclusively, to the scriptures of the Bible, and are somewhat concerned that that has not altogether been carried out. I understand that there will be a debate in another place and that those views may be very well ventilated.

In answer to a parliamentary question yesterday The Prime Minister told the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was what she called the lead Minister on exchange rates. Can she please tell us who is the lead Minister on benefit rates at the moment?

As I said in the reply to that question, our policies are policies of the Government as a whole, and very successful they are.

I am sorry that The Prime Minister cannot tell us who is the lead Minister on benefit rates, because I read in the Daily Mail this morning that The Prime Minister alone was responsible for the U-turn yesterday, and I wanted to give full credit where it was due. As The Prime Minister appears to have some responsibility in these matters, and as the savings on housing benefit were to have been £640 million, before the £100 million announcement yesterday, could she tell us who will now lose that £540 million? Will they not be people who until this month were considered too poor to pay any rates and who now, regardless of their ability to pay, are having to pay 20 per cent. of their rates?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for congratulating the entire Government on successful economic policies—so successful that we have the best social security policies that any Government have ever had. Everyone benefits—even Opposition Members have benefited during the lifetime of this Government.

Does The Prime Minister not yet understand, when she goes on about the matters to which she has just referred and the £46 billion, that the people who are losing are not concerned about the £46 billion that the right hon. Lady is spending on others, but are concerned about the £4, £6 and £10 a week that she is taking away from them? If things are so good, why are they so bad?

What the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand is that things are good and he knows full well that they are good, because the economy is run extremely well and the total amount spent on social security and on health, as well as on things such as provision for Members of Parliament, far exceeds anything previously achieved.

Has my right hon. Friend received the thanks of Mr. Fletcher, an unemployed labourer from Middlesbrough, who has obtained a job as a printer following the advice that my right hon. Friend gave him when he threw his applications that had been rejected at her, to go to the Manpower Services Commission? Despite the attitude of the trade unions, will my right hon. Friend give similar advice to the thousands of unemployed workers in the north of England, to join the adult training scheme?

The House will remember that Mr. Fletcher tackled me personally before television cameras on a visit that I made to Teesside, saying that he had put in about 1,000 applications for jobs and had not got one. I advised him to go and get training with the Manpower Services Commission. He was very sceptical, but he was a very wise man—he took my advice and he found that it got him a job.

Is The Prime Minister aware that a few moments ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tried to tell me that what I had heard her say on Tuesday at Prime Minister's Question Time, when she expressed concern about The Prime Minister and Government of the Irish Republic, was identical to what the Foreign Secretary said at the weekend? Is that what she expected me to interpret her as having said?

Both of my right hon. Friends and I are concerned that the Anglo-Irish Agreement not only continues but is seen to work. A vital part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is the recognition by the Republic that the rights of the people in Northern Ireland would not be changed without the consent of the majority. It is an important part of the agreement, and the Republic accepted it. No doubt whatsoever should be cast upon it. That is the purpose of the various emphases placed upon that agreement and of the several comments that have been made by my right hon. Friends and me on the speeches of the Taoiseach.

Q2.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the confirmation by NATO Defence Ministers at their meeting in Brussels of the essential, continuing role of nuclear weapons in our defence and the need to keep them up to date? Against the background of the scale of Soviet forces and their activity, does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain must play her full part in that?

Yes, the NATO Defence Ministers have had a very successful meeting. A communiqué will be placed in the House shortly. The Ministers have agreed on guidance about the modernisation of those nuclear weapons. That full guidance, of course, is not published. The important thing is that the Ministers have agreed on the way ahead. It is important because the Soviet Union continues to modernise all her nuclear weapons other than those affected by the INF agreement, and we do the same. It is vital that the nuclear deterrent is kept modern and up to date and that our entire defence, including other nuclear weapons, is modernised and kept effective.

Q3.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

Would The Prime Minister like to confirm the press notice from the Department of Health and Social Security this morning, which indicated that the unit that will administer the scheme announced by the Secretary of State for Social Services yesterday will not be in place until 1 July? Will she advise the various claimants what they will do until then? Will she also confirm that the changes announced yesterday will not alleviate the problems of two invalidity benefit recipients, Dorothy and Kenneth Ellis, who have also written to The Prime Minister, and who as a direct result of her decision to discontinue housing benefit supplement from 1 April will now be required to pay £6 a week extra for prescriptions?

In winding up the debate last night my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled made it quite clear that the unit will be in the DHSS and outlined the provisions that will he made in the meantime for our constituents.

May I thank The Prime Minister most warmly on behalf of state pensioners in my constituency who have saved all their working lives on modest wages and are delighted with the statement made by the Secretary of State yesterday?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe that those modest changes were right and have caused a great deal of pleasure.

Q4.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

What does The Prime Minister have to say to a young man in my constituency who is unemployed, married and has three small children? He was on an income of £68·50 a week plus child benefit. He is now on an income of £69·45—an increase less than the rate of inflation. He is especially concerned about the change to the social fund, as he benefited from several single payments during the last year. Is it right to describe him and his family as gainers, when in fact they have lost in the annual uprating, they have lost in the uprating of child benefit and they will lose heavily over the setting up of the social fund?

The hon. Gentleman must take up a detailed case with the special unit in the DHSS. It is a highly detailed case—[Interruption.] The other case was nothing to do with social security. The hon. Gentleman must take up this highly detailed case with the special unit that is to be set up, as I am sure he will. It is not possible to deal with it in this way. Sometimes there have been changes in housing benefit, many of them covered by the transitional protection announced yesterday. Frequently other changes in income support or family credit or changes with regard to the increased disability benefits are not mentioned by hon. Members, but are very relevant. Other matters have also to be taken into account, such as the previous local authority discretionary scheme. I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that it is not possible to deal with the case in this way.

Q5.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Liberal-controlled Chelmsford borough council has increased its share of the rates this year by a staggering 36 per cent., while last year, when a general election was in the offing, it cut them by 13 per cent. Is she aware that Marconi in Chelmsford is faced with a rates bill of almost £6,000 more a week as a result? Does she agree that the sooner the business rate and the community charge are introduced, the sooner such highway robbery will be stopped and genuine help given to hard-pressed businesses and individuals alike?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that the people of Chelmsford will draw the appropriate conclusions from those vivid figures. Certainly, once we have the new community charge and unified business rate in place it will be very much easier for people to judge the actions of their local authority against the actions of others. The whole of the new finance system is geared to ensuring that the same level of service, delivered at the same standard of efficiency, should result in the same community charge all over England—and separately all over Scotland—so that people can judge the efficiency and effectiveness of their local authority.

Q6.

To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

Will The Prime Minister take time today to look afresh at the problems facing Members of Parliament arising from the lack of secretarial provision, particularly if many hon. Members, like myself, have to answer literally thousands of letters of protest about the Government's proposals? I have received hundreds of letters on social security, 2,000 on the poll tax, and many on health and transport cuts. In the interests of democracy and speedy replies to our constituents, will The Prime Minister give us more assistance for secretarial work or, better still, more palatable legislation?

No. Members of Parliament have never been better off, either for salary or secretarial assistance, than they are now. The hon. Gentleman has plenty of assistance to enable him to deal efficiently with his correspondence.