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Northern Ireland

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

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The Secretary of State was asked—

Integrated Schools


How many integrated schools in Northern Ireland (a) at present exist, (b) existed in 1992 and (c) are at the planning stage. [16231]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Tony Worthington)

At present, there are 33 grant-aided and four independent integrated schools in Northern Ireland. In addition, four schools have been granted conditional approval for transformation to integrated status from September 1998, and proposals from a further six schools are under active consideration. In September 1992, there were 16 grant-aided schools.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that, although integrated schooling is not a solution to the deep divisions in Northern Ireland society, it plays a crucial role in heightening understanding and tolerance of different cultures and religions? Will he say whether the Northern Ireland Office is taking any steps to encourage existing schools to transform themselves into integrated schools?

I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We are encouraging existing schools to transform themselves into integrated schools, and an unprecedented number—five schools— have done so this year. Creating new schools causes real capital expenditure problems. Some £28 million will be spent on integrated schools in the next three years, which is a large proportion of the expenditure on major school works. We want to encourage schools to submit genuine, active proposals for transformation. That is a major step forward.

Does the Minister agree that there is a considerable and significant level of voluntary integration in addition to existing designated integrated schools? Does he agree also that the education for mutual understanding programme is improving links between state-controlled schools and Roman Catholic maintained schools and is helping to improve respect for different traditions? Will the Minister monitor closely all applications for new integrated schools that might threaten the viability of existing secondary schools in Northern Ireland?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point about voluntary integration, school transformation proposals must involve a significant amount of integration. The general point is that most schools in Northern Ireland have become extremely segregated, and therefore find it difficult to move quickly to integration. We accept happily that it is our duty under statute to stimulate school integration, but we must achieve a balance between that duty and being fair to the other schools and other children in the system.

Northern Ireland Forum


What responses her Department has given to reports published by the Northern Ireland Forum. [16232]

The forum has produced 17 reports since its inception, of which 13 have been submitted to the Government.

One report, on electoral abuse, has not yet been formally received. Two reports, on long-term unemployment and on integrated transport policy, are under consideration. All the other reports submitted have been carefully considered, and Ministers have responded in writing or met a delegation from the forum.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. When he receives the report of Standing Committee A of the Northern Ireland Forum on electoral abuse, will he examine it closely, bearing in mind the fact that its findings and recommendations demonstrate the urgent need for electoral reform, both in the preparation of the register and lists and in the use of the register in relation to proxy voting and postal voting? Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about the integrity of electoral arrangements in Northern Ireland, and their concerns are buttressed by an important BBC "Spotlight" programme a few months ago, prepared by Stephen Walker. All that requires the Department to recognise the need for a root-and-branch look at the electoral arrangements.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We take allegations of electoral abuse extremely seriously. All parties in Northern Ireland have been asked to make submissions to the Government, and we have our own internal review of the matter in the Northern Ireland Office. In addition, my hon. Friend will know that the House's Northern Ireland Select Committee is examining that important problem. We take it extremely seriously, and we look forward to receiving both reports in the new year.

Is the Minister not concerned that, when the matter was investigated by Standing Committee A of the forum, the committee produced more than 20 recommendations or suggestions for improving the electoral system in Northern Ireland? Surely we must be concerned that, after all these years, there are so many problems with the electoral system in Northern Ireland, and nothing appears to have been done about them. The matter must be looked at closely, and something must be done as soon as possible.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must bear with us, as we have been in office only since May, but all parties share his view that there are extremely serious problems. Every party in Northern Ireland, without exception, has written to me about the difficulties that they have encountered in respect of electoral abuse. I look forward to meeting the chairman of the standing committee of the forum and other members on the matter which, as I said in my previous reply, is extremely serious.

Peace Process


What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16233]


What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16234]

I hope to meet President McAleese when she visits Northern Ireland in the future. President McAleese has taken "Building Bridges" as the theme for her presidency. I warmly welcome this, and I look forward to hearing the President's views on a variety of topics in the near future.

I note that my right hon. Friend joins me in congratulating President McAleese on her election. Does she agree that the excellent work in all parts of the community carried out by Mary Robinson, the former President, has provided a positive foundation on which President McAleese can build?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The legacy that Mary Robinson left is a positive one. Now she has left to continue the work on human rights elsewhere, but I am sure that she has left a good base which President McAleese will study carefully, because it consists of listening to and encouraging people towards an accommodation, just as, in parallel, we in the north will continue to build bridges and work for progress and accommodation in the talks.

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the President the work of the Great Famine Commemoration Committee in my constituency? The work of that committee involves recognising the tragedy of the lives lost in the great famine, but the committee also thanks those who gave support to the people who arrived on the shores of Liverpool and elsewhere, and commemorates the achievements of Irish people in Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The famine and its after-effects are part of our history, as they are part of Ireland's. The famine's consequences, which my hon. Friend described for her constituency in Liverpool, continue to affect the lives of many people in Britain and Ireland. As I am sure she is aware, in a statement in May my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister expressed his regret for the famine, and paid tribute to those who have settled in this country, many in Liverpool. A memorial proposed for Liverpool will focus on the famine, commemorating the victims who passed through Merseyside and the help that many people in Liverpool gave.

As the Secretary of State knows, the talks process in respect of the Irish Republic involves important constitutional issues, and, indeed, issues of international law. Does she realise our surprise when we were told recently by officials in the Northern Ireland Office that there exist understandings with the Irish Republic of a constitutional nature beyond those disclosed in public documents? Does she realise our shock when we were told later, in response to a question from me, that the Northern Ireland Office has never bothered formally to consult the Government's experts in international law in the Foreign Office? Will it now seek advice on these important matters of constitutional and international law and will it publish that advice?

I do not know the specific reference that the hon. Gentleman is making to a Northern Ireland civil servant, and the information that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I assure him that we will certainly take advice from international lawyers and that we take advice at the moment from our own lawyers, and those in the Home Office where relevant. I guarantee that—as we have done elsewhere in Northern Ireland— where it is relevant, viable and possible, we will put the information in the public domain.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest contribution that any of us can make to building bridges is to get a political settlement that can be supported by the vast majority of people in the north of Ireland? What deliberations has she had with the Irish Government and the parties within the talks to ensure that the review plenary sessions on Monday and Tuesday next week will be so positive that, in effect, we can focus on clearly defined objectives to reach a settlement?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mat question. I agree whole-heartedly with the first part of his statement: a political settlement reached by accommodation, based on consent, is the only way in which we will have a different future from the violent history that we have had.

In terms of where we go from here, as hon. Members from the parties in Northern Ireland will know, discussions are taking place now, in bilateral and other formats, to begin to try to move the process forward, so that we have specific recommendations to make at the review plenary on 1 to 3 December. We are working very hard to progress that; I am sure that others are as well. On Monday, we will discuss what form it will take. I hope that it gives us something concrete with which to move to Christmas.

When the Secretary of State speaks with the President of the Irish Republic, will she raise the matter of the President's announcement that she would make frequent visits to Northern Ireland? Will those visits be controlled under the proper protocol arrangements, or will the President be at liberty just to come and go as she pleases?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I presume that it will be normal protocol, just because of the advice that will be needed for somebody in the President's position moving around. When we hold the EU presidency in the next six months, I hope that we can, with the minimum of protocol, invite people from across Europe to see the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland in terms of the talks, the economy, investment and economic and social stability, so that people in Northern Ireland realise that, although they want peace in the months and years ahead, many people in Europe and elsewhere wish it too.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a central requirement of the settlement that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) mentioned is a cross-border body with executive powers, and that the overwhelming majority of the pro-Union community reject that as any basis for settlement?

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. Different parties have different parts that they consider to be essential to some sort of final accommodation—these include devolution in terms of an assembly, cross-border co-operation and the nature of the powers of that body. Surely, the point of negotiation and discussion is to consider the basic tenets that each party brings with it, whether it be cross-border co-operation, a devolved assembly or a change in east-west relations. That is what discussion, debate and negotiation should be about. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman finds it within himself to join those talks in the future, because his contribution would be welcome.

How would the Minister view visits by various representatives from Northern Irish parties to Dublin in the interests of reciprocating the important and urgent need to build bridges in the negotiations?

I would welcome participation, debate and discussion among all the different players and parties. I should like them to be fully engaged in the process. I hope to see others who are currently outside the talks or are not fully part of them come into the talks and play a fuller role, because that would help the process considerably.

Are we not at a decidedly premature stage of the political talks for the Prime Minister to be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street? Does the Secretary of State not appreciate the public outrage when, only last week, a Sinn Fein council said that, if it did not get its own way, it would go back to what it knows it does best? Let me assure the right hon. Lady that, if we were still in office, we would not be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, if he were still in office, he would not be inviting Mr. Adams in the same way as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—openly, above board and straightforwardly. When the Conservative Government did it in the past, they did it behind closed doors and without acknowledging it. At least we are doing it in a straightforward and open way. The Prime Minister has made it patently clear that, if groups and parties sign up to the ceasefire and accept the Mitchell principles of a democratic and constitutional way forward, we will treat them as normal. The Prime Minister is in a cycle of talks with all the parties and he will treat them all the same. Let us do it openly, not in a hidden way.

European Funding


If she will make a statement on the amount of European funding that has been secured for Northern Ireland over the last five years. [16235]

European structural funds support secured during the past five years comes to 1,632 million ecu, which is about £1,200 million. All the programmes negotiated with the European Commission have been funded for the period 1994 to 1999, with the exception of the special support programme for peace and reconciliation, which, so far, has had funding approved for 1995 to 1997. That reflects Northern Ireland's objective 1 status. The structural funds allocation has made a significant contribution to addressing the region's needs and circumstances.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the district partnerships set up to distribute European peace and reconciliation money? Does my hon. Friend agree that that important work has been further enhanced by the bold decision of the House's Standing Committee A in the early hours of the morning to end, once and for all, the appalling practice of internment without trial?

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks, in all directions. Recently, I visited two partnerships, in Ards and in Newry. I have been impressed by the work done by those bodies. All parties and those outside political parties such as trade unions, business and commerce, engage with each other in the interests of everybody in the community. They are very encouraging in terms of what they want to do to improve the situation in Northern Ireland with funding and in helping the peace process. It is a complete innovation in the way that funds are distributed and I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue.

The European Union's financial support is very much welcomed by the people in Northern Ireland and we thank the Government for the effort that they are making to attract more European Union funding to the Province. However, I want to get the figures into context and avoid any misunderstanding. The Minister referred to £260 million a year that comes from the European Union. What is the comparable figure coming from Her Majesty's Government to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman has experience of European matters as a former Member of the European Parliament. Structural funds and other money that we receive from the European Union are important for peace and reconciliation. He is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the £8 billion that comes from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who know how important it is for Northern Ireland to be properly funded. The right hon. Gentleman's point is important, because health, education, transport and security are funded by the British taxpayer.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. I share his admiration for the grants that are channelled into Northern Ireland: I fully support that. However, will he have regard to the fact that some of those grants could have a devastating effect on other parts of the United Kingdom? The recent announcement of a grant to develop glass manufacture in Northern Ireland could affect the industries in my area, particularly in Knottingley where my constituents work.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I assure him that full account was taken of the points that he made about the glass industry in his area. I also thank him for referring to the fact that Northern Ireland is a special case. Peace and reconciliation money does not have an impact on the way in which funds are allocated in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Hospital Waiting Lists


If she will make a statement on the pattern of hospital waiting in Northern Ireland, indicating the three trusts and specialties where the lists are greatest. [16236]

The largest in-patient waiting lists at 30 September 1997 were at the Royal Group of Hospitals and Dental Hospitals health and social services trust, the Belfast City Hospital health and social services trust and the Ulster, North Down and Ards Hospitals health and social services trust. By specialty, the largest waiting lists were in general surgery, ear, nose and throat and trauma and orthopaedics.

I appreciate that answer. Does the Minister accept that the Ards and Ulster hospitals have not been properly funded over the years? Can he give an assurance that the boards will complete contracts much earlier, so that those dealing with specialties can plan their operational procedures better?

The Minister—I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon; I mean, the minister of religion has given an example of the collapse of the internal market. When we came to office, it seemed impossible for the trusts and boards to come to an agreement. We insisted that they did so as soon as possible. The major cause of the problem this year has been the budget cuts imposed by the previous Government, which have caused waiting lists to soar after a period of decline. We take this matter extremely seriously. We have identified an extra £12 million for this year's budget. I hope to be able to identify more money shortly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that an extra £31 million would go into the health service budget from April next year.

I thank the Minister for his recent. well-received visit to the Downe hospital in Downpatrick. When he was there, he no doubt saw that an attack is being made on the waiting list by a high-quality, cost-effective team in conditions that are 200 years old. That trust has gone through the private finance initiative. Will he put completion of the third phase of a modest hospital on the public capital programme list?

I very much appreciated my visit to Downe hospital as part of the consultations that I have had in that area recently. We were disturbed and disappointed by the collapse of the private finance initiative. I am awaiting the economic analysis and appraisal, so that I can decide on the priority to be given to the Downe hospital.

Following the Minister's recent decision to amalgamate the Royal maternity and the Jubilee maternity at the Royal site, will he confirm that sick babies will continue to be transported by ambulance to the Royal hospital for sick children? Will he confirm that the construction of the proposed Royal maternity unit will be put off for many years? Does he agree that the closure of the Jubilee unit at the City hospital, without consultation, is without precedent?

To deal with the last point first, this morning I received a letter from the affected parties in the case, giving me their undertaking that they would work together to make a success of the new proposals. We inherited a problem from the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Northern Ireland Minister. The most important issue was the clinically best way to deal with small, vulnerable babies and their mothers. We looked at the matter and we brought in independent outside analysts. The clear decision we received was that we should go ahead with our proposals, which we have done. That has been generally welcomed in Northern Ireland.

In addition to the Minister's existing proposals, when will he introduce a comprehensive health promotion strategy?

On 10 December, we shall make an announcement on priorities in the health service in Northern Ireland so that we can remedy defects in the illness patterns not only through the health service, but by involving every Department and agency in Northern Ireland. We shall announce our proposals then.

Health Budget


If she will make a statement on the projected growth in real terms in the health budget for Northern Ireland between 1997–98 and 1998–99. [16237]

It is not possible to anticipate the 1998–99 final allocations announcement which will be made to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in early December, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the extra £31 million, announced in the July Budget, will be added to the health spending totals for 1998–99 set by the previous Government.

Given that, during the whole of the last Parliament, the House was told by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the money needed for the health service in Northern Ireland—for capital building and general services and to reduce waiting lists—and given that health inflation is about 2 per cent. above real inflation, will the Minister either give an undertaking today or use his best endeavours to ensure that the money going to the health service in Northern Ireland is at least 2 per cent. in real terms above inflation and that additional money is put in to cut waiting lists, rather than allowing them to go on rising?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are committed to a comprehensive spending review so that we can impose the Labour Government's priorities. We have already started that in terms of the reallocation of money in the current year, and we hope to make a further announcement shortly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient until the Northern Ireland Grand Committee sitting, when all will be revealed to him.

Will the Minister confirm that the sums available to him will be sufficient to complete, equip and open the new Causeway hospital at Coleraine, and will it be equipped to provide cancer services and paediatrics?

I regret that I could not hear all that the hon. Gentleman said. He will know that one of the first actions we took was to end the indecision about the Causeway hospital. I was delighted to meet the chair of the trust this morning and to hear that the project is going ahead well. I look forward to discussing health matters with him in the not-too-distant future.

Equal Opportunities


If she will make a statement on her Department's policies for creating equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. [16238]

The Government are whole-heartedly committed to equality of opportunity in all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. We are actively considering a number of measures on fair employment, sex discrimination, race relations and disability discrimination that will benefit all who live there. In addition, the Government are giving full consideration to the comprehensive report, produced by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, on employment equality and related matters. We intend to publish a response early in the new year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Given the importance of ensuring equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland, particularly in employment, in which the Catholic population is at a severe disadvantage, will he tell the House what further steps he intends to take to increase employment opportunities for all in the Province?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Good progress is being made in considering the SACHR recommendations. Many of the new Government's proposals on tackling unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment under the new deal initiative, echo the SACHR proposals. The new deal will help members of both communities. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that Catholics are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed, so they should benefit in particular.