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Northern Ireland

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 11 October 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Water Charges

1. What plans he has to assist those on low incomes following the introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland. (92585)

As part of our investment and reform programme for water services, we are introducing measures to guarantee that more than a quarter of homes, about 200,000 households, spend no more than 3 per cent. of their income on water and sewerage charges. To ease further the burden for all customers, all new charges will be phased in over three years and for pensioners we are making available the option of choosing a water meter.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. Can the House be assured that those eligible for assistance will receive it automatically and will not have to go through any cumbersome application procedure?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We want to be proactive in ensuring that those who are entitled to the additional support actually receive it. That is why we have already put in place data-sharing arrangements with the Housing Executive and the Rate Collection Agency, to ensure that people entitled to the relevant benefits actually receive the support. That is a mark of how serious we are about ensuring that those on lower incomes receive the help and support that we are making available.

Should not the details be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly? Will the Minister give an unequivocal guarantee that no irreversible decisions will be taken before 24 November?

I remind the hon. Gentleman, who has detailed knowledge of the history of these matters, that the process was begun under the Executive and the last Assembly, and that we have followed through the work they began. Of course, delaying the process beyond the start of April 2007, when it is due to come into force, would put a big hole in the budget for next year. An incoming Assembly would be free to reverse the process, but it would have to find the money to keep the investment going into water and sewerage services that they desperately need. If we are not to do that by asking people to pay a fair share domestically, the money will have to come from other parts of the budget—from health, education and training and skills—and I do not think the people of Northern Ireland would welcome that either.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I would like to reiterate my total opposition to the introduction of water rates, which are already collected under the regional rate. However, the Minister’s colleague wrote to me on 9 September citing Government policy in respect of rates and said:

“The Government’s view is that a rate relief scheme based on ability to pay best reflects the situation in Northern Ireland.”

How does the Minister square that statement of the Government’s policy and philosophy with the fact that he is not abiding by it in respect of the water rates, the little-mentioned sewerage rates or the general rate itself? Why the contradiction?

The hon. Gentleman has to face up to a simple fact: domestic households pay in council tax and water charges about £1,300 in England and Wales, £1,250 in Scotland and £668 in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable if we want the investment in water and sewerage services that is needed to bring them up to the standards required. The process is a way of ensuring that people pay a fair share—not more than their fair share. At the same time, we have what we call an affordability tariff—help for those on lower incomes—that is far more generous than anything that applies elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We should be commended for a package of measures that gives the investment we absolutely need, is fair to everyone and gives support to those on low incomes.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister will be aware that the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland has launched legal action in an attempt to win more time for consultation, because people across the communities in Northern Ireland, especially vulnerable people, are very worried about what the Minister proposes to do. Will he give a guarantee that he will extend the consultation period, in line with what the General Consumer Council and all the parties and the people of Northern Ireland are seeking? Can he at least give that assurance?

This matter has been under consultation since 2001. The idea that the consultation period has been shortened is absolute nonsense. The matter comes before the court tomorrow, but on the general principle the consumer council supports the introduction of water charges. It has worked with us because it recognises that, if we are to have the investment we need to bring water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland up to an acceptable level, people—domestic consumers—have to pay their fair share. The consumer council supports that policy. I am absolutely convinced that we have consulted properly, thoroughly and rigorously on it, and we shall not delay it any longer.

Ring-fenced Funds

2. What assessment he has made of the merits of using ring-fenced funds to target specific policy areas in Northern Ireland. (92586)

I have established three ring-fenced priority funding packages—children and young people, skills and science and environment and energy—to redirect resources specifically to improve the prospects and life chances of future generations in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear about the progress of that approach, but are there other ways in which different Departments can work together—for instance, through cross-cutting budgets in respect of areas such as renewable energy?

There are indeed and I welcome my hon. Friend’s point. That is exactly what is happening. For example, we are seeing £60 million invested in renewable energy schemes and environmental protection schemes to make Northern Ireland the leader of the green agenda in the United Kingdom. There are also 100 per cent. grants to low-income households to install solar panels on their roofs, alternative microgeneration schemes and a change in building regulations, so that, from April 2008, no new build in Northern Ireland—whether it be a hospital, a school, a factory, an office or a home—can proceed without microgeneration designed in from the beginning. That will contribute to the fight against climate change, as well as reduce bills.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP was the only party to argue for a reduction in the number of Government Departments. Does he agree that it is imperative for the funding for the distribution of essential life-improving drugs such as Herceptin, beta interferon, Enbrel and Remicade on the one hand, and for mental health provision on the other, to be ring-fenced? Sadly, in those two areas, money is often siphoned off when there are shortfalls within the national health service.

The hon. Lady will know that the Labour Government have doubled in real terms the health budget in Northern Ireland, but she has made strong arguments on those matters and I pay tribute to her. It is exactly the joined-up government approach that we are carrying forward and I hope that the devolved Executive will also carry it forward—and sooner rather than later.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the ring-fenced funding and I ask him to think seriously about further ring-fenced funding for education. While there are wards in North Down where 70 per cent. of young people go to university, only 4 per cent. do so in the Shankhill. Such disparities cannot go on and extra ring-fenced funding will help to overcome them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although Northern Ireland has excellence at the top of our schools system, it has a very poor achievement rate down the ability ladder. What we need is everyone having opportunities in schools so that Northern Ireland can be world class. That is why I have ring-fenced funding for children and young people. For example, I have provided extra money directly to head teachers in about 400 schools in the most disadvantaged areas—including the one that my hon. Friend mentioned—to enable them to run breakfast and after-school clubs, providing high-quality care, so that parents can work if they wish to and children can get a better start in life. We are also offering a new pre-apprenticeship programme to young people at 14, so that they stay engaged in education and are fully prepared for further vocational education. That is our agenda.

Victims (Funding)

Since 1998, the Government have provided £36.4 million of help to victims. As part of her remit, Mrs. Bertha McDougall, the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, is carrying out a review of how well current funding arrangements are addressing need. Her final report is due around the end of this year and I look forward to seeing her findings and recommendations, which will help to inform our consideration of any new funding arrangements.

The Minister will be aware that in a recently published report, Bertha McDougall stated that there was a

“lack of co-ordination, which had led to confusion, duplication of funding, gaps in funding, over-administration and an incomplete picture of provision.”

In advance of the interim commissioner’s final report, is there not a need to look further into how to end the duplication and to ensure that the money gets through to the people who need it most—the people who have suffered: the victims and the survivors—rather than be spent on administration? There should also be greater flexibility with respect to the Northern Ireland memorial fund. The funding should be geared towards meeting the specific needs of individual victims rather than provide generalised funding through grant arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman makes some very fair points. I congratulate Bertha McDougall on her work to date as interim commissioner. She is doing a sterling job in reviewing these issues. As the hon. Gentleman said, she has identified a lack of co-ordination, duplication of funding arrangements and the fact that, in some cases, bureaucracy is preventing victims, through no fault of their own, from receiving what is due to them. That is the very reason why we asked her to examine the issues and the very reason why she will make proposals in December. I greatly share the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration for a more focused and targeted approach to funding for victims and for people who need Government support, so that they receive it in a proper and effective way. I am confident that, once the review is complete, we will be in a position to take those matters forward.

I thank the Minister for the comments that he has already made on this important issue. Does he recognise that, as we look to political progress in the talks in Scotland and beyond, every stage of progress has brought mixed feelings for victims in Northern Ireland? They do not reject the language of moving on, but they fear that they are being left in some sort of forgottenhood. Does he recognise that the promises made to victims in the Good Friday agreement have not been upheld? The Government and all the parties can do more to deliver those promises. Will he encourage the formation of a forum for victims and survivors to do the business that the parties and Governments have failed to do in addressing the needs of victims on truth, remembrance and recognition?

Again, there is much in what my hon. Friend says that I genuinely share. Bertha McDougall, as the interim victims commissioner, is examining the possibility of bringing together individuals to look at some of the issues that deal with the past. What has happened in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years and the impact on victims and survivors has been devastating to their lives, cannot be moved on from and will always need to be remembered, but it needs to be put into a context where we offer support and accommodation to examine those issues in detail. We will very shortly introduce into the Commons an order to establish the victims commissioner permanently. We are committed to an expenditure of about £5 million a year on victims currently, and we have spent more than £36 million to date. I am certainly discussing the points that my hon. Friend mentions with the victims commissioner now, and I hope that we can make progress on them in the near future.

Has the Minister examined the Alliance party’s proposals for an international commission to define a strategy that deals not just with the past, but with the legacy of the past and the victims of what has happened in the past three and a half decades? Do the Government share my view and, indeed, that of the Alliance party that Northern Ireland must have a strategy to address its past if it is successfully to implement a vision for a shared future?

Yes, I have seen the Alliance proposal and I congratulate David Ford MLA on bringing those ideas to the table. I am also very encouraged that the Committee on the Preparation for Government in the Assembly has looked seriously at issues that relate to the past, and we certainly need to give careful thought to how we deal with such issues. I welcome the paper from the Alliance as a contribution to that debate. There is certainly the potential for some form of consultation on dealing with the past, and we continue to keep that under review. No doubt, that will be discussed as we head for Scotland today and over the next few days as well.

Since victims groups were probably the most strongly opposed to the Government’s abortive Bill to give an effective amnesty to on-the-run terrorists, will the Minister give us an assurance today that the Government will not agree to this week’s demand from Sinn Fein that that legislation now be reintroduced?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. He will know that the Government attempted to take action on this issue. That attempt was not successful. The Government withdrew the Bill, and I can assure him today that there is no prospect whatsoever of the Government reintroducing the legislation that was before the House last year.

Unemployment

4. What steps he is taking to assist back into work those in Northern Ireland who are economically inactive. (92588)

Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland economy is supporting its highest ever number of jobs and has below-average unemployment, it is still one of the worst economic inactivity hotspots in the UK. In Northern Ireland, a person of working age is 74 per cent. more likely to be receiving incapacity benefit than a working-age person in England. Therefore, we are implementing the pathways to work programme for people who receive incapacity benefit and have increased funding over the baseline by an additional £3.7 million over the next two years from the new skills and science fund to achieve that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but given that the economic success of any community depends on the economic activity of individuals, is it not important to monitor closely how pathways to work can work best for individuals? In doing so, can we ensure that that programme is available to all the people of Northern Ireland, so that everyone can share in the success?

My hon. Friend may be aware that the pilots operating in six areas are showing extremely encouraging results, with up to five times more people finding work in those areas following the interventions than in other areas. By the time we roll out pathways to a further four areas this month, we will be covering about a third of the on-flow on to the benefit. I hope that we will be able to roll out the programme further across the whole of Northern Ireland over the next year or so, meaning that everybody in Northern Ireland coming on to incapacity benefit will have the benefit of pathways to assist them back into work and economic activity.

In March this year, we were told that one of the key issues that the Government have to address in supporting the economically inactive back into the workplace is skills. What progress has been made in that area?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the economically inactive are twice as likely to have no qualifications as those who are in work, so developing key skills and giving people access to skills training is an essential part of our approach. In respect of those who have been inactive for some time, confidence-building measures and helping them to deal with the health conditions that often keep them on incapacity benefit are vital first steps. Both interventions need to go forward together, and they will as we roll out pathways to work.

Equality Bill

5. What he expects the effect of the proposed Equality Bill for Northern Ireland to be; and if he will make a statement. (92589)

The single equality Bill will bring together all existing Northern Ireland equality and anti-discrimination law in one legal instrument and, as far as is practicable, harmonise protection and extend protection to new grounds where appropriate. The resulting legislation will be more consistent and coherent, will clarify rights and responsibilities and will simplify the law to make it more effective.

The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the late right hon. Member for Redcar, was instrumental in setting up the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which is responsible for dealing with sexual discrimination, disability discrimination, fair employment and race relations. The single equality Bill has been consulted upon for several years, but when will this legislation finally become law?

I pay tribute to my former right hon. colleague, Mo Mowlam, who put a lot of work into ensuring that the single equality Bill came before the House. As Ministers, we are determined that Northern Ireland will not fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of the introduction of legislation. There is potentially about one year for work to be undertaken and we are committed to undertaking the legislation either by a Bill in the House or via the devolved Assembly if that is the appropriate way forward. As the direct rule ministerial team, we certainly wish to see the legislation before the House.

Will the Minister accept that any proposed equality Bill needs to ensure that, for example, the public sector recruitment ratios that have shown in recent years a significant under-representation of the Protestant community are addressed and reviewed so that genuine equality of opportunity is offered to each section of our community?

I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I wish to see more people from the Protestant community employed in the sectors that he mentioned. I ultimately want to see people treated as equals and not on the basis—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber and that is unfair. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] I am glad so many hon. Members agree with me.

I wish to see a situation in Northern Ireland in which all individuals are treated as equals and on their merits. That is what the legislation is about and that is why I hope that we will bring it before the House in due course.

Rating Reform

6. What steps he is taking to help those on low incomes during the introduction of rating reform in Northern Ireland. (92590)

The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system for Northern Ireland based on the current value of people’s homes. Through housing benefit and the new rate relief scheme, more than 185,000 households in Northern Ireland will receive assistance in paying their rates. In addition, those in full-time education and training, as well as all 16 and 17-year-olds and young people leaving care up to the age of 21, will be exempt from rates.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that comprehensive and welcome response, which is an example of reform tinged with sensitivity. As he now wears proudly the mantle of champion of the elderly, is he not aware of the 250,000 pensioners in Northern Ireland and will he not look at special support for a group that may be property rich but are often cash poor?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that I have taken on the role of older people’s champion. Older people, for this purpose, are determined as those over 50, and I am 49 and a half, so I am just about there. The Government are committed to introducing a fair rating system, and the number of people who will receive benefits for their rates will increase as a result of the changes that we are bringing forward. Under the old rating system, some 175,000 people had help with their rates. Under the new proposals, 185,000 will have help and more of those will have greater benefits than before. I am committed to ensuring that people on low incomes have the best deal possible from this Government in paying their rates.

What help will be given to pensioners paying their rates who live in their own homes but support a family member in care? If there is a 5 per cent. cap in England, why is there not one in Northern Ireland?

We have tried to put in place a new benefits system that will help those in need to pay. There are many well-off pensioners who might not benefit from any schemes, but there are many low-income pensioners who will benefit from rate relief. The circumstances differ, but overall more people will benefit under the proposed new scheme.

I have taken a decision not to cap the rates in due course. That will affect approximately 3,000 properties. There are 700,000 properties in Northern Ireland. I am concerned about ensuring that the system is fair for the vast majority of properties—those who live in the largest properties can afford to pay a significantly increased contribution to their rates. That is my objective, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and in due course the Assembly, will share it.

I welcome the Minister’s answers relating to those on low incomes, but unfortunately, unlike the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), I do not believe that they will work out in practice. Does the Minister accept that the parameters of low income are far too tight and that many people with pensions and very small savings will not qualify for any relief? Does he accept that people with disabilities will require their homes to be specially adapted before they qualify? There is a plethora of single-person households, carers and all the rest who will not qualify for relief.

No, I am afraid I do not accept that. To give an example, a pensioner couple living in a house worth £500,000 with a combined pension and income of £21,000 and £15,000 in savings will still benefit under the rate relief scheme. I believe that the scheme is fair and appropriate, and I commend it to the House.

By the very nature of the scheme, more people will be paying higher rates, and that will lead to a lower disposable income across Northern Ireland. That will lead to lower demand for goods and services, and that will lead to fewer jobs. How does the Minister square that with his intention to make more people in Northern Ireland economically active?

Our figures show that 55 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland will pay the same or less in their rates than currently. We are not raising one single extra penny from the rating system in Northern Ireland. We are rebalancing that system and ensuring that it is fair for all.

Northern Ireland Assembly

Substantial progress has been made in recent months, including a report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which opens the way to a settlement at the summit at St. Andrews that will start later today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The whole House should welcome the progress that has been made and hope that more progress will be made this week. Have any specific discussions taken place that will allow the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been forced into exile over the past 30 years to return to their homes in safety?

As my hon. Friend knows, the security situation has been transformed these last years under this Government, with not one soldier on the streets on 12 July for the parading season for the first time in nearly 40 years, and with last week’s IMC report confirming that the Provisional IRA no longer has a war machine and no longer poses a terrorist threat. That opens the way for delivering a political settlement, starting in St. Andrews today.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Secretary of State aware of how damaging it would be to the prospects for restoration if the Government were to return to the issue of on-the-run terrorists being given what amounts to an amnesty? Although we welcome the earlier answer from the Minister of State that no legislation is to be brought before the House, will the Secretary of State reassure the House and settle the nerves of my colleagues and me by assuring us that no other procedure will be used to allow on-the-run terrorists to return?

There is no other procedure. There is no prospect of an amnesty. The legislation was tried; it was withdrawn when support for it collapsed, not least in this House, and we have absolutely no intention of bringing legislation back. That, I think, should reassure the hon. Gentleman. What we shall look for in the next few days is delivery—not promises—from Sinn Fein on policing and respect for the rule of law, and then a commitment from all the parties to a power-sharing Executive.

First, may I wish the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland parties well in their negotiations at St. Andrews?

Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that he believes that if power sharing and devolution are to be durable in Northern Ireland, as we both want, they must be based on every political party and every potential Minister recognising the authority of the police and the courts as legitimate, and giving those institutions full practical support?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. The discussions will be critical. The politicians have a window of opportunity, which may not be available again for many years to come.

I am happy to agree unequivocally that Sinn Fein and everybody else must sign up to the rule of law. Anyone who seeks to hold ministerial office in Northern Ireland must support, co-operate with and report crime to the police, and ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is able to do its job of enforcing law and order.