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Northern Ireland

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Business

1.

When he next expects to meet representatives of small firms to discuss administrative burdens on business. [107067]

I have met representatives of small business on several occasions recently to discuss various issues of mutual interest. I shall be happy to meet them again in the future, but I am sure that we all hope that it will be a local Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment who does that shortly.

I am grateful for that reply. Small business is obviously vital to job and wealth creation in Northern Ireland, and what it needs at the moment is fewer burdens and less red tape. Does the Minister agree with CBI Northern Ireland and the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, which are very concerned about the job-destroying agency workers directive? What will he do to try to stop the implementation of that directive?

On red tape, I will not apologise for the Government introducing the minimum wage, improving maternity leave and paternity leave, giving millions of employees the right, for the first time, to paid holidays, and tackling discrimination against the disabled. On the agency workers draft directive, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have concerns about it, which are shared by CBI Northern Ireland and throughout Great Britain. We want to make sure that it does not propose disproportionate costs on business, and our negotiating strategy certainly reflects that.

Has my hon. Friend considered the use of the existing regulatory reform procedure for the removal of any genuinely unnecessary and unhelpful burdens?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Northern Ireland better regulation strategy seeks to reduce burdens on business and, as part of that strategy, the regulatory impact assessment has been revised completely. A number of other measures have also been introduced that seek genuinely to reduce administrative burdens on business.

Only yesterday, CBI Northern Ireland informed me that the Northern Ireland Office was considering a new administrative burden on business, under the single equality legislation, to increase compulsory work force monitoring. Will the Minister go further than merely talking to local business people in Northern Ireland, and set up a taskforce to report to him within six months, representing the CBI, the Institute of Directors, chambers of commerce and the small business sector, under the subject heading, "Reducing the burden on business of all sizes"? Let us reduce the burden rather than increase it.

My Department is in regular discussions with the Economic Development Forum on a range of issues that affect business. I would like to pay tribute to the former Administration for setting up effective partnership structures in Northern Ireland, which have ensured that there is already close dialogue between the CBI and Government. I am sure that that will continue in the future.

Devolution

2.

What recent discussions he has held with the Northern Ireland party leaders about the future of the devolved institutions. [107068]

4.

If he will make a statement on the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. [107070]

6.

What recent discussions he has had on the prospects for re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [107072]

Before I answer, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the vital contribution made by soldiers from Northern Ireland and from the island of Ireland—notably in the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment—in Basra and southern Iraq. Our thoughts are with their families, and our sympathies and prayers are with the family of Lance Corporal Malone and those who have sacrificed their lives in Iraq.

We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to the Secretary of State that so many conversations are going on in the House. I know that hon. Members have other things on their minds, but those who wish to take part in Northern Ireland questions want to be heard, and they want to hear the Secretary of State.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I should repeat my last sentence. We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties on the way forward in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I agree that building trust between the parties is an essential ingredient in any way forward. Can he say what contribution the visit of President Bush has made to accelerate that process?

Yesterday's meeting at Hillsborough was extremely important, and reflects the United States Administration's commitment—previous Administrations were similarly committed—to ensuring that they encourage all the pro-agreement parties to come to an agreement. The President spent quite a lot of time talking to individual parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, and takes a personal interest in these matters. The most important thing is that the President, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach—the Heads of the Governments most involved in making peace in Northern Ireland were in Belfast during what is the most important week, I believe, since the Good Friday agreement was signed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolution has been a success in Northern Ireland, as a recent poll has shown, and that the majority of people are for devolution? Does he also agree that we need to restore trust and confidence between the political parties in Northern Ireland? What is he doing to ensure that the political parties are part of the process to restore the required institutions and to achieve lasting devolution in Northern Ireland?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of devolution in Northern Ireland. Part of the Good Friday agreement was that people in Northern Ireland would be governed by people from Northern Ireland who, because they lived and worked there, had a huge interest in the decisions that they made. I believe that devolution will be restored in time, but what my hon. Friend said about trust and confidence are vital. None of this will work unless trust and confidence are built up between the political parties themselves. The only way in which we can achieve success in the process before us is for the parties themselves to engage with each other and restore that trust. That is what this week is about, and I obviously hope that success is in front of us.

I warmly welcome the engagement of the United States Government in the problems of Northern Ireland, but does my right hon. Friend agree that without demilitarisation we can never have proper rule of law and a proper democracy in Northern Ireland? What progress has been made on the demilitarisation and the decommissioning that was promised by the IRA?

My hon. Friend is right that a vital part of the Good Friday agreement is that there will be what is termed "normalisation", so that Northern Ireland becomes just like Scotland, Wales or parts of England in terms of military presence, and that that is predicated on a stable, peaceful society. That is why decommissioning too is a vital part of the Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State knows that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are planning to go to Northern Ireland tomorrow. Reference has been made to a joint declaration that, I understand, indicates the sort of things that the Government might do in the event of acts of completion from the Irish republican movement. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in that case, it would be extremely ill-advised of the Government to publish a joint declaration unless they were absolutely sure that the republican movement would deliver genuine acts of completion both on demilitarisation and disbandment that would be convincing for the public of Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that none of this will work unless there is a commitment from the IRA and paramilitaries in general to ensure that we live in a peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland. He knows too that there must be a cessation of paramilitary activity—real, total and permanent—and that the picture would not be complete unless the Government's declarations and statements from the IRA indicated that there was no longer paramilitary activity. In both cases, we would have to go forward, because acts of completion apply right across the board.

First, within that anticipated joint declaration, will the Government address the sectarian voting system that operates in the Assembly and serves to reinforce divisions rather than to resolve them? Secondly, can the Secretary of State confirm what the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), promised yesterday: while the Assembly is suspended, from now on we will get the chance to table amendments to statutory instruments rather than having to vote on each one on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?

On the last point, I shall obviously have to look into that. The question of secondary legislation clearly depends on the success of the discussions and negotiations, and the sooner devolution is restored in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly takes its own decisions, the better. As for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the way in which Members of the Assembly vote in the Assembly is a matter for a paragraph 8 review, which is due in the autumn.

May I echo, on behalf of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman's words of tribute to the gallantry and brilliant professionalism of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment? We are all extremely proud of them. May I also echo his words of condolence to the families of the fallen?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we warmly welcome yesterday's joint British-Irish-US statement on the peace process? On the understanding that the words really do mean that the Government will settle for nothing less than 100 per cent. completion of decommissioning and disbandment, we strongly endorse that declaration. Does he agree that, if decommissioning is to meet the criteria in the IRA's own undertaking of 6 May 2000 that IRA weapons should be put beyond use
"in such a way as to … ensure maximum public confidence",
a greater degree of transparency will be required in that process in future?

The hon. Gentleman is right to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that no agreement is possible and no deal can be reached unless there are acts of completion right across the board, including the activities of the IRA. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. May I also thank him for his tribute to the soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq?

If, as the whole House hopes, an important statement is made on Thursday by the two Governments and by other parties to the process, will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity—and I mean the earliest opportunity—to come before the House to make a statement? Parliament, as well as the media, has a right to hear an authoritative account of what has gone on, to ask questions and to consider the matter. If that statement were delayed beyond 24 hours at the very latest, it would be a real abuse of Parliament, which we are all hoping to avoid, because we sincerely want to do everything possible to support the Government in these important negotiations.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is hugely important that the House is kept informed of developments in Northern Ireland, and that as soon as possible a statement would be made to the House with regard to the declaration and to other matters that we are discussing in that respect.

Assets Recovery Agency

3.

What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. [107069]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Assets Recovery Agency came into operation on 24 February, in both Belfast and London. The formidable powers of the agency to recover criminal assets will help to reduce crime and disrupt criminal enterprises. That will help to alleviate the impact of crime on communities in Northern Ireland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, but will the agency be able finally to expose many of those in Northern Ireland who use the term "paramilitary" as a cover for what they really are—vicious criminal activists?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The selection of cases to be pursued by the agency is entirely a matter for its director, supported by the assistant director for Northern Ireland, who must act in accordance with their statutory duty to use their powers in a way that they consider will best reduce crime in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The reality is that, in Northern Ireland, a significant proportion of organised crime is related to paramilitary organisations. In fact, it is estimated that about half the organised crime networks are linked to paramilitarism. I would, of course, expect the agency's annual plan to take that into account.

Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Assets Recovery Agency on bringing its important activities within the remit of the new chief inspector of criminal justice, with which he is very familiar?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her specific question. I have not as yet had the opportunity to have discussions with the assistant director for Northern Ireland, or the director, in relation to that matter, but I will be in touch with the hon. Lady when I do.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern expressed by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as regards the manning of the Assets Recovery Agency, so I am delighted to hear that we are making progress on its activities. Will he continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the organisation is effective and look at the success of southern Ireland's assets recovery agency?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the success of the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin greatly assisted the development of the policy relating to the Assets Recovery Agency. I can reassure him, and the other members of the Select Committee, that they need have no concerns on resources. The agency is adequately funded, and the initial budget for the United Kingdom for this financial year is £13 million. Of course, that and other matters will be kept under review. There are about 90 staff, including the Belfast branch, and the number is likely to grow in respect of case load and success. The Assets Recovery Agency will play a full part in Northern Ireland in the work of the organised crime taskforce, which has had significant success and is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Does the Minister agree that, even if the peace process makes great strides forward this week, which we all hope, there will still be an enduring threat from organised crime? We want an end not only to terrorism, but to the racketeering that has been so hideously linked with it.

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assertion. If his question is about whether we will ensure that the Assets Recovery Agency and the organised crime taskforce target those very circumstances, he has my assurance.

Public Services

5.

What plans he has to allow local authorities in Northern Ireland more powers to provide services demanded by local communities; and if he will make a statement. [107071]

Last year, the Northern Ireland Executive initiated a review of public administration. That review is undertaking a comprehensive examination of the roles and responsibilities of all parts of the public sector in Northern Ireland, including local government. Decisions arising from the review will be a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of the community and the people of Northern Ireland, good, efficient and democratic local government is essential to allow decision making, which impacts on the destiny of local people, to be nearer to the people? Will he ensure that any decision that is taken is in the best interests of those people so that we can have peace and loyalty in Northern Ireland?

I agree with my hon. Friend that good, efficient local administration is what we all want, whether it be in Northern Ireland or Great Britain. A lot of good work is already being done in local government in Northern Ireland and by the local strategy partnerships. Decisions on the review of public administration will inevitably be long term, and we hope that a restored Executive will be taking them in due course.

I declare a registered interest. When is the review of public administration likely to be completed and will transfer of greater responsibility be delayed until that happens? When did the Minister or the Secretary of State last meet representatives of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to discuss those issues?

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), regularly meets local government representatives. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the original timetable for the report on the review of public administration was for December this year. Given suspension, it is unlikely to be achieved, but I hope that, with an early restoration of devolution, it will be possible to carry out the necessary public consultation that everybody wants so that decisions can be taken, probably in 2004.

Paramilitary Activity

7.

How many (a) punishment beatings and (b) forced exclusions there have been in Northern Ireland in the year to 31 March 2003; and if he will make a statement. [107073]

Between 1 April 2002 and 31 March this year—[Interruption.]

Order. The House is still far too noisy. Allow the Minister to be heard.

There have been 300 paramilitary-style attacks: 137 assaults and 163 shootings. There are no figures available that indicate the number of persons who may have been forced to leave Northern Ireland through paramilitary intimidation. We call on those with influence over paramilitary groups to call a complete end to those barbaric attacks and acts of intimidation.

Does the Minister agree that true peace in Northern Ireland will be established not just by the absence of bombs and bullets on the streets of Northern Ireland but by the complete ending of exclusions and punishment beatings by the paramilitaries, which so scar the communities affected?

Yes, I do. I utterly deplore and condemn those vicious attacks, in many cases upon teenagers who, as a result, are often maimed for life. There is no place for such activity in a modern democratic society.

Does the Minister agree that our thanks should be given to those in England, Scotland and Wales who have helped bona fide exiles? At the same time, is it beyond the capacity of the Government to perceive the difference between those who have an influence but do not use it and those who have encouraged people to come back to Northern Ireland and then ordered their murder? Surely we can no longer trust such people, even in negotiations.

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman says. There is clearly no place for such paramilitary activity, the brutality and cruelty of it, and it should cease completely. We look to those with influence to ensure that that happens.

Will my hon. Friend challenge the myth that is perpetuated by paramilitary groups that exiles have invariably been involved in antisocial activity such as drug-running, whereas, in fact, many have been those paramilitaries' opponents, a number have been informers who have saved people's lives and others have just run into trouble on a personal basis with paramilitary groups?

I absolutely agree and endorse what my hon. Friend has said and pay tribute to him for the many occasions on which he has campaigned for the return of exiles and for an end to such activity.

Republican Exiles

8.

What discussions he has had with Sinn Fein/IRA about the early return of exiles to Northern Ireland. [107074]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Government have consistently made their position clear. The exiling of individuals is a despicable practice that we wholly condemn. It must end and those exiles must feel free to return in safety.

Will the Minister say whether the issue of exiles from Northern Ireland was on the agenda of discussions between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister at Hillsborough over the past few days? If it was, can the Minister say what advice he is giving to those families who wish to return to Northern Ireland? What practical assistance can be offered to them about their security should they return? Can he confirm that the return of exiles to Northern Ireland must take place before any concessions are made to so-called on-the-run prisoners?

I am unable to answer the detail of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question at this stage. What I can say is that through the forces of law and order in Northern Ireland, the Government offer security to those who wish to return. As for the third part of his question, of course, it is clear that all aspects of the current discussions are interlinked and they can be considered only in the context of acts of completion. The practice of exiling must end and those who have been exiled must feel able to return to Northern Ireland.

Echoing the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), many people in Northern Ireland are appalled at the prospect of a deal for on-the-run terrorists, many of whom have committed serious atrocities. People see that as a serious injustice. Will the Minister assure us that priority will be given to the exiles, many of whom are innocent and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing?

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about those in the unfortunate position of having been exiled. I have been working with, among others, the Maranatha community in trying to establish support for such people and to develop a suitable policy.

As for the hon. Gentleman's main point, he knows that the British and Irish Governments recognised at the Weston Park talks that the issue of terrorists on the run needed to be dealt with, and that steps should be taken for the purpose. As the Prime Minister made clear in his speech in Belfast, the Government will only contemplate such steps, and difficult issues such as on-the-runs, in the context of acts of completion.