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Northern Ireland

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hospital Cleanliness

1. What steps are being taken to ensure the highest standards of cleanliness in hospitals in Northern Ireland. (100586)

We are committed to maintaining the highest possible standards of cleanliness in Northern Ireland’s hospitals. A regional strategy, underpinned by rigorous independent monitoring, was launched in October 2005.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. May I draw his attention to the result of the inquest yesterday into the death of Mr. Brendan McDowell, who died after acquiring an infection in hospital? What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that such a tragic event does not happen again?

As my hon. Friend has raised that issue, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sympathies to the family of Mr. McDowell, particularly his widow. We should pay particular heed to what she said yesterday after the inquest:

“They need to listen to the patient. They need to listen to their family. They need to put more hygiene practices into the wards.”

Of course, she is right. She and, indeed, all the people of Northern Ireland can be sure that we will not rest on the matter. We will pursue the Northern Ireland action plan for cleaner hospitals as well as the action plan on tackling health-care-acquired infections. We will take rigorous action to pursue the need for ever cleaner hospitals in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McDowell’s widow has been in contact with the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson). Will the Minister advise us what checks have been conducted to ensure that hospital staff comply with barrier nursing and other protocols to reduce the spread of infection? In particular, are any such checks carried out without informing staff in advance?

Each trust has a responsibility to put in place an action plan to reduce infections, and it is for it to make sure that it monitors performance. In addition, there is mandatory surveillance for MRSA and other infections. People admitted to hospital are vulnerable, and of course there are infections, but we must make sure that one does not impact on the other. Every health trust has a responsibility, and the Department will continue to monitor that impact closely.

Given the sharp increase in cases of Clostridium difficile in Northern Ireland, and given that deaths from MRSA have risen fourfold in the past four years alone, is it not time that the Government gave infection-control staff the power to override managers and insist on closing wards and isolating patients when clinically necessary, even if that means breaching Government targets?

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of raising those issues. Although he presents a long-term picture he, like me, will be encouraged by the fact that MRSA infections in our hospitals show signs of decreasing as a result of the rigorous enforcement of strategies that have been put in place. If it is clinically necessary to close a ward, we will do so. It is important, however, to prevent infections in the first place, particularly through the ward sisters charter that I launched a few weeks ago, in which we make it quite clear that the ward sister is in charge. Whether someone is a consultant or a cleaner, a patient or a visitor, they have a responsibility to make sure that the hospital is kept as clean as possible.

Pledge of Office

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill, which was debated in the House last night, incorporates four new commitments within the pledge of office.

Given that the new pledge of office does not include a specific or explicit requirement for a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, will the Secretary of State assure the House that, in the event that Stormont is restored and a Minister or his political party is in any way connected with violence or criminal activity, that behaviour in itself will constitute a breach of the pledge of office and he will take action?

There are procedures under legislation dating from the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on the Good Friday agreement for exactly that eventuality. Of course, as I have said before, I think, to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I would take action, as would any Secretary of State in those circumstances. We should not underestimate the importance of the change in the pledge of office which, for the first time, includes specific commitments to support policing and the rule of law, as detailed in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement, reference to which appears in the title of the Bill.

In the Secretary of State’s opinion, would it be a breach of the commitment in the new pledge of office to uphold the rule of law, including support for the courts, if a Minister were deemed to have misled a court, if a senior civil servant were deemed to have misled a court in an affidavit seen and approved by a Minister, or if a Minister misrepresented a court when it clearly found against him on a key matter?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but if he is talking about a situation in which devolution takes place, of course all Ministers, including that Minister and their ministerial team, must abide by such conditions. It is important, if we are to make devolution work, to prepare for government through the Programme for Government Committee. What will happen on Friday is absolutely key; if it falls over on Friday, there are no prospects of moving forward. People need to understand that; that was part of St. Andrews. That is where we should focus—on the big picture, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will do.

If there are no nominations or designations at the meeting on Friday, what is it about? What will be its business?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, because he was party to the St. Andrews agreement—he was present at it and played a constructive role—24 November, this Friday, was always part of the process of moving forward in that an intention needed to be indicated as regards who would be nominated by the two largest parties to be First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 26 March, when restoration occurs. If that does not happen—if the parties, including the Democratic Unionist party, are not even in a position to indicate an intention to nominate on 26 March—people will say, “What is the point of going on at all? Where is the confidence in the system and what is the prospect of success?”

Tomorrow I will make a direction to the Stormont Speaker for the parties to convene under her in Stormont at 10.30 am on Friday for that process to go forward. If people do not turn up and give that indication, we will all draw our conclusions, which will be very bleak indeed, as there would not seem to be a lot of point in proceeding with the rest of the process. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said yesterday, the legislation that went through yesterday, which is going through the House of Lords today, probably contains 90 per cent. of what his party—the DUP—wants.

Just to clarify this, is the Secretary of State saying that what he is looking for on Friday is an indication rather than a nomination?

I am happy to clarify that for the hon. Gentleman, particularly given his key position as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was always the case that nobody will be taking ministerial office on Friday. Ministerial office is taken on 26 March when the pledge is taken. On Friday, it is an absolutely key and indispensable part of the St. Andrews process—let the House be in no doubt about that—that the parties make an indication to nominate for 26 March, when the pledge will be taken. Everybody knows that when they give that indication on Friday, they accept the process whereby they will be taking the pledge when they assume full ministerial office, because it will be the law of the land, assuming that the legislation receives Royal Assent. That is what should proceed on Friday; if it does not, I do not think that people will have any confidence at all in the rest of the process.

(Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that a verbal pledge to support policing has to be matched by practical action to support policing, particularly by a readiness on the part of republicans to give information and evidence to the police, the courts and the Assets Recovery Agency to ensure that criminals can be brought to justice?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who puts it extremely fairly and accurately. However, let me reiterate a point that I made in passing last night. If inflammatory statements are made by DUP Members about never devolving policing and justice “in my political lifetime”, that is hardly an encouragement to Sinn Fein to move as quickly as we all want it to move on policing. It is already co-operating on policing, as it needs to do and as any democratic party holding ministerial office needs to do. If it is a question of moving the process forward, making statements such as “never in my lifetime” when Parliament has expressly legislated for the devolution of policing and justice is hardly an encouragement to those who need to fulfil their obligations on policing and the rule of law to do so very quickly.

Sewel Convention

3. If the Government will adhere to the Sewel convention in relation to Northern Ireland legislation if powers are devolved to a Northern Ireland Assembly. (100588)

The UK Parliament retains authority to legislate on any issue, whether devolved or not. However, the Government would not normally bring forward legislation with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for pointing out British sovereignty in Northern Ireland and the convention that would be followed. Will he confirm that the Irish language is a devolved matter and that there is no prospect of the Government introducing legislation before the date that he set for devolution? Will he also indicate that the Government have no intention of breaching the convention if there were a devolved Parliament, which would therefore decide the matter, and that, if the Government were to legislate, they could do that only with the Assembly’s agreement?

I am happy to confirm that it is a devolved matter, provided that there is something to which to devolve it and that there is an Assembly up and running from 26 March. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will shortly announce a consultation paper, which will explore several options on a way forward. That consultation will last three months and we will have to see where we go from there. There is no slot in the Queen’s Speech for rushing through emergency legislation before 26 March. Assuming that restoration happens—as I hope that it will—on 26 March, of course it remains the case that, although Parliament is sovereign, we would not legislate on a devolved matter, except with the Assembly’s acceptance and agreement.

It is clear that the Government are deadline-led while the DUP is condition-led on devolution. Although I believe that setting conditions is reasonable, does not the Secretary of State agree that, for the DUP’s position to remain credible, it must be specific about the exact conditions and how they can be fulfilled? Is not it the case that, unless it does that, it fails the same test as it set Sinn Fein and the Government?

I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I sympathise with it. We are at a difficult moment in the process. The Unionist community is not sure what Sinn Fein will do about policing—that is a serious problem for all of us—although the House made it clear yesterday where it wants to go through the pledge of office, which is explicit in the Bill that we considered and a change from the Good Friday agreement.

On the other hand, nationalists and republicans are not sure whether their goal of devolution of policing and justice, for which the House legislated earlier this year, will be realised in their political lifetimes. When people make such statements, it leads to a lack of confidence rather than encouraging confidence. If we go back to the same old position of, “I’m not going to move until you move; I won’t jump until you jump”, people may fall off the edge of the cliff.

In getting to a devolved Assembly, does the Secretary of State accept that asking parties to designate, nominate or indicate on Friday who will take up specific offices in future is effectively asking people to jump first before Sinn Fein has made the slightest move to support policing? Indeed, it has retreated to its pre-St. Andrews position of demanding that it gets its hands on the levers of power over policing before it supports policing. The SDLP and other nationalists never demanded that. Will the Secretary of State clarify that there can be no jumping first and that this party will not repeat the mistakes of David Trimble and his party?

I am not asking the DUP to repeat anything that it might describe as a mistake. It is not a question of jumping first. I am in danger of repeating myself, but if there is no willingness to express even an intention to nominate on Friday for 26 March, what is the point of proceeding, given the Bill that went through the Commons last night? It is not a question of jumping first. It is my firm view that, unless we breathe a bit of confidence into the process—an indispensable step of it happens on Friday, and consequences will ensue if things do not happen then—we will not achieve the common goal that the hon. Gentleman and I share, for which I legislated in the Bill, at the request of his party, the SDLP and the House by providing for an explicit commitment to support for policing and the rule of law.

Domestic Rates (Revaluation)

4. What representations he has received on the revaluation of domestic rates in Northern Ireland in the last 12 months. (100589)

Representations to the Government on the domestic rating reforms in the past 12 months have included responses to a consultation on the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as well as other more targeted consultations on individual aspects of the reforms. In addition, the Government have met political parties, Government agencies, local government, representatives of the community and voluntary sector, and other stakeholders to discuss the reforms.

Is it not becoming clear that the imposition of this unjust and unpopular house price tax in Northern Ireland is simply a harbinger of things to come in the rest of the country, including in England?

If I may say so, I will not take lessons on unfair taxes from a member of the party that introduced the poll tax. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that the British Government are looking to the Lyons report in respect of England and Wales and alternative forms to the current council tax. Sir Michael Lyons will publish a report in due course and my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider it. One thing that we will not do is reintroduce the poll tax.

With reference to the water and sewerage services order, does the Minister agree that the judgment of Justice Weatherop yesterday in Belfast did not warrant the Government’s jubilant press release, as the Regional Development Department was found wanting in the consultative process—so much so that the court attached a judicial declaration to the legislation for Parliament to consider? Is that not a unique situation? Will the Minister now properly and adequately consult major stakeholders? As the political imperative of Friday 24 November was cited in the case and is now effectively departed, will he postpone consideration of the legislation next Tuesday?

The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), is dealing with the matter of water charges. Yesterday in court, there were 16 counts for the Government to consider and the judge rejected 15 of them. The Government are looking at the 16th count, but will continue to lay the order next week. We will proceed to introduce water charges because a significant revenue element needs to be brought forward. As finance Minister, I need to secure it in order to improve services in Northern Ireland. We will continue with the process and examine the legislation in the light of yesterday’s judgment.

That is gracious of you; thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Will the Minister kindly confirm and clarify the doubt that has arisen because of the slippage of the 24 November deadline that there will be a cap on rates and additional relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?

We have considered strongly in the light of representations made at the same time as the agreement the points made by hon. Members throughout the House. We have set a cap at £500,000 and we have said that we will consult on additional measures to help pensioners, but I must emphasise that they are part of the St. Andrews agreement. If we do not secure agreement on those matters on Friday, I will have to reflect seriously on what I do about the rates order and other proposed changes, which were conditional on that agreement.

The Minister said that he was

“anxious to ensure that no-one in Northern Ireland suffers undue hardship as they adjust to this new rating system”.

Will he now confirm and make it abundantly clear that, if we do not have devolution on 26 March, the Government will still keep the rate cap as in England and that, indeed, he will provide extra relief for pensioners in Northern Ireland?

I have said that issues about rate cap and pensioners arose as a result of representations from parties during the St. Andrews agreement. In the event of no agreement taking place, I will have to reconsider whether we wish to progress down those lines with regard to the cap and help for pensioners. We introduced those proposals because of the St. Andrews agreement; if there is no agreement, I will have to reconsider what I do in the light of that action.

The Secretary of State and his ministerial team have often, and quite rightly, said that decisions about the future of Northern Ireland should be taken by local politicians from the Province. Indeed, they asserted just as much yesterday. Given that the DUP, the UUP and the SDLP voted against the draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in Committee on 25 October, how can its introduction be justified against such local opposition?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been consulting on the matter, as the direct rule team, from the start of 2002, when the Assembly brought forward proposals to introduce changes. All parties in Northern Ireland are committed to changing the current system. They have differences about how we do that but, in the absence of devolution, we have a duty to look after the good government of Northern Ireland. We shall progress the order on that basis.

Equal Opportunity

5. What steps are being taken to ensure recruitment in the public sector in Northern Ireland demonstrates equality of opportunity to people irrespective of religious affiliation. (100590)

Under fair employment legislation, public sector employers must ensure that their recruitment processes demonstrate equality of opportunity. Specified public authorities are deemed to be registered with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and must monitor and review their employment practices and, as appropriate, take affirmative action. The commission will advise employers on their duties.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but despite the nice words, we now have the most stringent equality legislation in the entire United Kingdom—[Interruption.]

Order. Sometimes the hon. Members who cheer me when I ask the House to be silent are the ones who immediately start talking.

We have the most stringent equality legislation in the United Kingdom. Yet despite that, the most recent figures in Northern Ireland show that Protestants make up only 34 per cent. of recruits to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, only 46 per cent. of the general service grades in the civil service in Northern Ireland, and less than 50 per cent. of employees in the Child Support Agency. What will the Minister and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland do to offer genuine equality of opportunity to our community in the public sector in Northern Ireland?

I accept that there are disparities in employment in certain areas. Too few members of the Catholic community are represented at senior level and there are difficulties in recruiting members of the Protestant community to posts at junior levels. We need to remedy both problems. Catholic representation at senior levels has improved steadily, but we are commissioning research to identify the underlying reasons for low levels of applications from members of the Protestant community for junior grades. I understand that the point is serious, and the figures that I have given the hon. Gentleman in parliamentary answers indicate that. We need to examine the underlying causes and improve the situation, to ensure that we have fair treatment of people from all sides of the community.

May I ask the Minister, in the light of his comments, what steps he has taken to ensure equality, fairness and openness in opportunities for promotion in the senior civil service, and to ensure the recruitment of Irish nationals to the civil service on a fair and equitable basis?

We are trying to ensure equality of opportunity for people and equality of outcome if we can. We need to ensure that we improve Catholic representation at the senior levels and that more people from the Protestant community apply for positions at junior levels. On Irish nationals, my hon. Friend will know that we are considering regulations to ensure that all citizens from the European Union have an opportunity to apply for posts in the civil service in Northern Ireland.

Rating System

6. What progress has been made since 7 November 2006 on implementing changes to the Northern Ireland rating system. (100591)

The draft Rates (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made by the Privy Council on 14 November. It will come into operation on 1 April next year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will he explain why a retired teacher living in a house in Northern Ireland that is worth £300,000 will pay £700 more in rates than the Prime Minister will pay on his £3 million house in Connaught square?

If the hon. Gentleman does his homework, he will find that the situation has changed, because of the cap that we have introduced as a result of the St. Andrews agreement, which I hope he will support. Before he starts telling me, my Government and my party about fairness in local government, he should remember that it was his party that introduced the poll tax. That is what we remember about local government finance. The system that we propose is fairer than the current system and fairer than the poll tax, which his party supported.

NHS Psychologists

7. What plans he has for the number of psychologists to be employed in the NHS in the Province over the next three years. (100592)

Since 2001, the number of clinical psychologists working in health and social service trusts has increased from 98 to 150. My Department currently funds 11 training places each year.

I thank the Minister for his response, and for a number of positive decisions that he has taken to improve the lot of the NHS in Northern Ireland. Is he aware that the professional body for psychologists has recommended that a senior clinical psychologist should be responsible for a population of approximately 30,000 people, and yet in Northern Ireland a psychologist will cover an area containing 100,000? Does he agree that the provision of talking therapies often proves much more effective than medication? What progress is being made in ensuring that such talking therapies are more widely available in our Province?

The hon. Lady is correct that various improvements are being made to the health service in Northern Ireland, not least in this area. She is right, too, to point to the role of counselling services in providing support to people. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), recently announced a new £1.7 million scheme to provide more counselling support to young people in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.