HL Deb 14 October 1999 vol 605 cc511-4

3.17 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many children in Northern Ireland under the age of 18 have been admitted to hospital for treatment as a result of beatings during the most recent 12-month period for which statistics are available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)

My Lords, I regret that figures are not kept centrally on the subject. However, the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, which covers the west of the city where many such attacks take place and which is an acknowledged centre of excellence in treating such injuries, reports that three young persons under the age of 18 were admitted in the period to 30th September.

To set that in context, the RUC reports that 67 young people aged under 21 were victims of paramilitary attacks.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for those figures. Does he agree that the root of the problem is that the Government have been unsuccessful so far in containing anti-social behaviour by teenage groups in Northern Ireland.? That has the result, first, of the illegal and intolerable child abuse. Secondly, it adds credibility to the role of the paramilitary. Thirdly, it risks shaming this country before the Committee of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we have to report next year.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, although it is sometimes alleged that some of these attacks are in response to anti-social behaviour and criminality, such as joyriding, the Government still do not believe that that is any justification for these attacks. Many of the victims have not behaved anti-socially. Sometimes the attacks have been the result of grudges, intimidation of opponents and even mistaken identity. We believe that these attacks are not about justice but control by paramilitaries and we condemn them absolutely.

Baroness David

My Lords, can my noble friend inform the House whether a commissioner for children, as Mr Bryce Dickson, head of the new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission recommended, has been appointed so that there is somebody to look after the interests of these children? I understand that some of them are exiled to England. What happens to them here, and who takes care of them?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my noble friend asks me two questions to which I am not sure I have the full answer. Certainly, young persons have been threatened with death if they do not leave Northern Ireland. They have left Northern Ireland under those threats, sometimes with members of their families and sometimes in other circumstances. Those threats are to be condemned absolutely. I prefer to write to my noble friend about the details of that and the Commission for Human Rights and the work that it does with children.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, how many people have been prosecuted for these offences?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I do not have the answer to that question. It is regrettable that in many instances because of intimidation the victims will not reveal information to the RUC. We urge them to do so. David Trimble urged people to report the details of such incidents to the RUC. Unfortunately, the intimidation is of a very high order and people are afraid to report—hence it is extremely difficult to catch the people who have done it.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Minister meet the smaller political parties in Northern Ireland to discuss with them community restorative justice and nonviolent alternatives to punishment beatings?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's longstanding interest in this subject. There are a number of projects in the community that are intended to deal with young people who behave in an anti-social manner. I repeat, that is no justification for the attacks upon them. However, for example we have begun a Youth-At-Risk Programme which is designed for those in society who are most at risk from offending and offers a lengthy and intensive intervention. We are also on the look-out for other schemes to help in this way. I shall certainly pass on the suggestion of the noble Lord to Adam Ingram, the Minister responsible for policing and security.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I support the thrust of the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. These "anti-social beatings"—call them what you will—have been going on for 20 years or more and have very little to do with the ceasefire not being carried out properly. We need to know far more about them, and hospital statistics may help in that regard. Does my noble friend agree that it may be a good idea for him to consult the appropriate Home Office Minister? I suspect that similar acts take place in other parts of the United Kingdom. I received a letter this morning from a former constituent which described the case of a young man who reported a drug offence in a certain area and was beaten up. Such behaviour takes place not just in Northern Ireland and needs to be watched carefully.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, as my noble friend knows better than anybody in this House, the difference in Northern Ireland is that these attacks are earned out by paramilitary organisations, sometimes in a rather organised manner. We are in touch with the Home Office and if there are any further developments and other ways to deal with the problem we shall take steps. I repeat, in the end it is the illegal and brutal action by paramilitary organisations that is the real cause of this problem. It is that which prevents the RUC from being able to catch the assailants because the victims are too scared to provide the information.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the report that the Human Rights Commissioner has asked for the appointment of a commissioner for children and for money to support action by the commission to take those cases to court on behalf of the families?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am unable to comment but I shall endeavour to provide some information to the noble Baroness by letter.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether the £1 million of additional moneys that the Government recently announced had been given to the victims' fund will be available for victims of these punishments? Is the Minister aware of the work of the Women's Caring Trust, which is the beneficiary of the proceeds of the annual House of Lords and House of Commons swimming gala, that has been actively supporting cross-border and cross-community projects in Northern Ireland, particularly those involving young people?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am aware of the Women's Caring Trust and the valuable work that it does, as described by the noble Lord. As to the money that we have made available to victims, if they qualify under the terms of the scheme that money will be available to the victims of paramilitary attacks as for other victims of paramilitary activity.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we delude ourselves if we believe that there is a proper ceasefire when such dreadful acts of terrorism—because that is what it is—take place, often committed by persons who claim to be protecting the communities in which those activities take place? Can the noble Lord confirm a report in the newspapers that the new Secretary of State cancelled his predecessor's diary and went to visit a facility to look after youngsters who had been so brutally beaten up? If so, I am sure that the House will join me in saying that that is a very welcome development and appreciation by the new Secretary of State of exactly some of the horrors that occur at street level in Northern Ireland.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, without being able to confirm it absolutely, I believe that the new Secretary of State made such a visit. I cannot comment on whether he cancelled his predecessor's diary. However, the previous Secretary of State had to make a very difficult decision about the overall status of the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. She made that decision. The new Secretary of State, like his predecessor, will receive regular advice from security advisers about the state of the ceasefire and will also have to make a judgment in the round. We believe that the ceasefire is holding, much as we condemn the paramilitary attacks.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the light of the question of my noble friend Lord Onslow, will the Minister inform the House how many convictions there have been, if any? I understand the noble Lord's point about the difficulty of obtaining convictions. What is the maximum penalty for such a beating, and what is the average penalty meted out to those who are convicted?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I do not have to hand the answer to the question put by the noble Baroness but I shall certainly provide it. If it is helpful I shall place in the Library information about both the number of convictions and the penalties for such offences.