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Northern Ireland

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Presbyterian Mutual Society

1. What progress has been made in providing assistance to savers affected by the current situation of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (4204)

Both the Prime Minister and I have publicly stated our firm commitment to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution to the PMS situation, and all options are being considered. The reconvened ministerial working group will meet soon to review progress, and I will be its chairman.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of those with savings of less than £20,000 in the PMS are in the older age bracket? As a result, they have been denied access to their savings for more than 20 months and have faced hardship and great distress. Does he appreciate that the urgent resolution of this situation is necessary? What timetable is he working on to resolve it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I totally appreciate the severity of the pressures, particularly on older people, who are having trouble paying nursing home fees and so on. I would love to set a timetable, but I cannot do so. All I can say is that this Government take this issue seriously, we will get a grip on it, we have reconvened the working group and I will chair it. I very much hope that we will arrive at a solution.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Given the extent of central Government support for failed financial institutions and the severe budgetary pressures faced by the Northern Ireland Executive, does he accept that it is imperative that the Treasury endeavours to alleviate the financial burdens faced by savers in the PMS? Will he take those views on board when he begins to chair this group shortly? If the Northern Ireland Executive find resources for this organisation, will the Treasury match those several-fold?

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I would not want to prejudge the result of our deliberations, so I merely say that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be on the working group, and its other four members are all part of the Executive and will put the point of view of the Executive clearly in our deliberations.

Dissident Paramilitary Activity

2. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. (4205)

3. What his most recent assessment is of the level of security threat from dissident republican organisations in Northern Ireland. (4206)

7. What recent assessment he has made of levels of dissident paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. (4210)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, but the security forces continue to bear down on this small number of criminals. So far this year there have been 121 arrests and 30 charges brought, which compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges brought in the whole of 2009.

I thank the Minister for his response. In the light of the Independent Monitoring Commission’s report, the increase in the activity of a small band of dissident republicans and, in particular, the worrying use of car bombs, will he consider continuing the previous Government’s practice of providing additional funds from the reserves to tackle terrorism?

We did, of course, endorse that approach and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we wrote the most open-dated cheque in supporting the previous Government’s moves in that direction before the general election. In my opening remarks, I referred to the level of activity among those who reject the peace process and who have, in effect, turned their backs on it. I do not wish to distinguish them by calling them “dissident republicans” because I believe that that gives them a status that they do not deserve. I believe that the security services, particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice in Belfast, which is headed by David Ford, and crucially, the Garda in the Republic of Ireland, are working extremely carefully and closely together to try to prevent these atrocities from happening on a more regular basis.

The Minister will be aware that in recent days a 300 lb bomb and a 160 lb bomb have been planted in Northern Ireland by these so-called “dissidents”. Further to the previous question, may I ask whether he will give assurances to this House today and to the people who live in the area where these bombs were put that we will get whatever resources are needed, be they financial or manpower?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency had the pipe bomb in the grounds of the Brownlow PSNI station on 18 June and the tragic and unacceptable murder of Constable Stephen Carroll by the Continuity IRA. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we support any bid by the PSNI for additional resources, and we will make representations to the Treasury as and when necessary, because the security of innocent individuals in Northern Ireland should be paramount in everything we seek to do.

Does the Minister agree that this is not just about the threat of bombs and dissident activity but about the fact that many dissidents in Northern Ireland—as I know from my experience as a Minister there for some time—are involved in criminal activity? Even today, we have seen reports of criminal gangs and prostitution run by dissident paramilitaries. Will he ensure that resources are available not only to tackle the emergency situation but to deal with the long-term security and crime issues that impact on the community across the Province?

Indeed. Things have changed since the right hon. Gentleman was in Northern Ireland and, of course, crime issues that are without any kind of terrorist connotation are a matter for the Department of Justice, David Ford and the PSNI. Of course, we will provide all the resources that are needed. I cannot stress enough the close co-operation we have with the Garda on cross-border issues. I am delighted to make an announcement today on one of the things for which we have been lobbied by the PSNI—an automatic number plate reading device that will cost £12.9 million. The Secretary of State has been lobbying the Treasury since he took office and I am delighted to be able to announce to the House this morning that we have that funding for the PSNI. That will be a useful device in its continuing battle against those who would commit crime.

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State on their appointments and wish them well in Northern Ireland? Further to previous questions, may I ask what discussions have taken place between the Government, the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland on access to the security fund?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Privy Council. We have regular meetings, both on a statutory basis and on an informal basis, with David Ford, the Chief Constable and others in Northern Ireland. We listen to the requests that they make for access to the funds, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I think that they will be heartened by the news that when they asked us for something during the first few weeks of our being in power, we delivered.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and congratulate him on his announcement today. Given that he is now off to a good start, I hope that he can continue with that. On the wider issue of resources, will he give us an assurance? Given the amount of powers that are devolved to Northern Ireland, one of his main tasks will be, along with his colleague the Secretary of State, to fight the Treasury for funds for Northern Ireland. He will be judged on that, so will he give a commitment that he is fighting on that front, too?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we do not have to fight with the Treasury, because in the Treasury are our dear and trusted colleagues. Whenever we have asked them for anything, they have delivered— although I would concede that that has happened only once to date. Without being particularly partisan against Labour Members, I refer the right hon. Gentleman back to the outgoing Chief Secretary’s remark that “There is no money.” This is a very tight fiscal round and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State and I will make representations to the Treasury when asked to do so on behalf of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on their appointments. Does the Minister agree that one way in which paramilitary activity can start to be countered is if there is co-operation between people in all sections of the communities in each of these areas? Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient progress is being made in that respect?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being appointed Chair of the Select Committee. I hope that that is one issue that the newly formed Select Committee will consider. Of course, he is right, particularly in the light of the Saville report on Bloody Sunday when, for many people, we finally got the truth of what happened on that dreadful day. It is incumbent on everyone in Northern Ireland to come forward and tell the truth. It is only through the truth being told that we can get reconciliation and allow Northern Ireland to move on in the way that everybody in this House would wish it to.

I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him genuinely warm good wishes in his responsibilities. I also welcome the very good news that he and the Secretary of State have secured this additional £12 million from the reserve. That is vital funding and I congratulate them on obtaining it. I am sure that he will agree that the Independent Monitoring Commission has played a vital role in the political process and in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Now that devolution is complete, what role does he envisage for the IMC in the future?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and I have heard nothing but good about his time in Northern Ireland as a Minister. He is a hard act to follow. To keep my answer short, in line with what you have just suggested, Mr Speaker, the IMC has, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, performed a sterling service. We and the Irish Government keep the continuing need for it under review.

Public Inquiries

4. What his policy is on holding further public inquiries into events involving deaths which took place during the troubles in Northern Ireland. (4207)

I reaffirm the statement made to this House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 15 June, where he reassured the House that there would be

“no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 741.]

May I, too, congratulate my next-door neighbour from just over the border in Shropshire on his appointment as the Secretary of State? Does he agree that the Saville inquiry, no matter how long it took, marked a watershed in the troubled history of Northern Ireland? While respecting the families’ legitimate rights still to grieve, it is important to look to the future. All the Governments of the past 30 years should be congratulated on their efforts toward reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but will he outline what specific initiatives the new Government will take to secure peace in Northern Ireland?

I am most grateful for my neighbour’s kind comments. He is absolutely right that Northern Ireland needs to look ahead, but the people of Northern Ireland need to work together, and solutions for dealing with the past and looking ahead must be agreed among those who lead the country at local level. We cannot have solutions being imposed from above.

I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State on assuming their posts. In the Prime Minister’s statement on Saville, he said that he wanted to

“reassure the House that there will be no more open-ended and costly inquiries into the past.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 741.]

We know that that was also the Secretary of State’s position in opposition, so we were a little intrigued to hear from the Prime Minister in the same statement that we

“should look at each case on its merits.” —[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 744]

So—a straight answer here will do—does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he may have been a little rash, in opposition, definitively to rule out future inquiries, whatever the case? A yes or no will do.

I am most grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his comments. I do not want to turn this into a love-in, but I compliment him on delivering the final stage of devolution. That was his great achievement as the Secretary of State. It is important, in considering that past, that we do not shut out any possible solutions. The Prime Minister said last week in his statement that the Historical Enquiries Team is doing good work, has support across the community and achieves very high satisfaction levels: 86% of those who have had HET reports were satisfied with its performance. For the time being, that is the route ahead, but we cannot impose a solution from above.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentions the HET, which he will know was established as part of a process and is not, of course, the process. It is looking at 3,268 unsolved killings, but after five years it is still working on the 1970s. It is not an inquiry, it is not an inquest and it is not a police investigation. We know that all families want the truth, so will he be straight with those families, including the family of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), and admit that now Saville has been published, there is a responsibility on the Government to come forward with a fully funded, comprehensive process to establish and discover the truth and bring reconciliation for all families?

We have a process through the HET that is achieving very high levels of satisfaction—of the families who have had a report, 95% credited it for professionalism and 86% for performance. That is working. Before we go further, we need to work with local politicians. As I keep repeating, there is no role for us, as the national Government, to impose. I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to comments made by David Ford this week.

“We cannot have a Saville-type inquiry for all the tragedies of the past, but the fundamental matter of dealing with the past is something which has to be dealt with collectively by the Executive.”

Consultative Group on the Past

5. What plans he has to take into account the recommendations of the report of the Consultative Group on the Past in formulating policy on reconciliation measures in Northern Ireland. (4208)

In determining what role I can play, I will of course consider the recommendations made by the Consultative Group on the Past. I will shortly publish a summary of responses to the previous Government’s consultation on the group’s proposals.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and I thank him and his predecessor for the quality of contact and consideration that they extended to the families regarding the publication of the Saville report. On the wider issues of the past, there are thousands of victims, all of whom have different needs in terms of truth, recognition and remembrance. Does the Secretary of State agree that the community also has a collective responsibility to discharge its regard for the past so that future generations will know that it was a dirty war and that we will never settle for a dirty peace?

I am grateful for that question and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken me to his constituency. I met the families in the Bogside two or three years ago, and on that trip I also met Dr Hazlett Lynch a few hours later. That drummed into me the fact that there is no consensus on the past. We have to work at local level, and I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to work with his colleagues in the Executive, in collaboration with us, to find a way forward. However, there is no black-and-white solution that will work if we impose it from above.

May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on his appointment? Is he aware of the report produced this morning by the Commission for Victims and Survivors giving the Government advice on dealing with the past? How will he take forward the report’s recommendations so that we have a more comprehensive process for dealing with all aspects of the past and the needs of victims?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. The document will form part of our listening exercise. We will publish the summary of the conclusions of those who responded to the previous Government on the Eames-Bradley report. As I have said, we will be going round talking and listening to various groups, but I repeat—for the nth time in this question session—that we cannot impose. It is up to people in Northern Ireland to work together to decide a strategy going forward.

Pat Finucane

I am aware of the previous Government’s commitments and that there has been a long-running exchange between the previous Government and the Finucane family on the question of an inquiry.

Before I explain how I propose to approach this question, I want to hear the views of the Finucane family for myself. I have written to the family to invite them to meet me.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his position and thank him for that answer. Earlier, he indicated once again that there would be no more open-ended inquiries, but when the Prime Minister responded to the Saville report, he said both that and

“but of course we should look at each case on its merits.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 744.]

Although I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, I am not sure—and I wonder whether the family of Pat Finucane are sure—which of those positions holds true for that case.

As the hon. Lady knows, the issue was the subject of considerable discussion between the Finucane family and the previous Secretary of State. I think that today it is appropriate for me to talk to the family first rather than to give a black-and-white answer on how we are going to take this forward.

As the Secretary of State will know, there is no bar to an inquiry on this issue, except that the family are looking for some kind of special provision. If he grants that, the danger is that he will create a hierarchy of victims, and that thousands of people who have not had justice will look on and wonder why they are not getting the same justice.

I am grateful for that, and the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I repeat my earlier reply—that, at this stage, the first thing that I should do is to go and talk to the family—but I also repeat that it is our policy not to have any more costly and open-ended inquiries.

Dual Mandates

8. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the system of dual mandates in the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly. (4211)

I should be demanding time and a half.

I have had several discussions with ministerial colleagues on the system of dual mandates. I believe that dual mandates should be brought to an end but that the best way to do so is by consensus among the Northern Ireland parties.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that so-called “double jobbing” has scarred Northern Irish politics for far too long? If local parties will not agree to end that voluntarily, will he consider introducing legislation to restrict the practice and ensure that double-jobbers take only one salary?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and he is quite right. The time to end double-jobbing is upon us: quite simply, a Member cannot sit in two legislatures at once. We know from local polls that double-jobbing is very unpopular—in one poll, 71% of respondents were against it. We would like to negotiate with local parties and, if absolutely necessary, we would legislate. However, I draw attention to the example set by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). On the day that he was elected to this House, he announced his intention to stand down from the Welsh Assembly, and he has forgone his salary for the rest of this year.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very unfair on the hon. Member asking the question, and indeed on the Minister answering. The House must come to order.

Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland

9. When the Government plan to publish their response to the consultation on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. (4212)

I thank the Minister for that illuminating reply. Before the election, the Secretary of State expressed scepticism about legislating for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, but does the Minister accept, now that he is in office, that as there was a solemn commitment to doing so, and as that was part of the Belfast agreement, it would present difficulties in the peace process if he were to renege on that commitment now?

I do not think that there is any question of reneging. The fact is that the world has moved on; we now have a coalition Government who are committed to looking into a UK-wide Bill of Rights. Of course we remain committed to fulfilling the commitments in the Good Friday agreement, and we are considering the best way of doing that within the architecture of a UK-wide commission. We genuinely believe that if we are to have a UK-wide Bill of Rights, the people of Northern Ireland are best represented within that, rather than by any stand-alone sideshow.

Security Threat

10. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the level of security threat in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (4214)

The Minister will be aware that in north-west Northern Ireland, more pipe bombs were exploded or defused in the first five months of this year than in the entire 12 months of 2009. On the Fountain estate in Londonderry, hundreds of attacks have taken place in the past year. What resources are being put into Northern Ireland to ensure that the police—and the Army, if called on—are there to respond to such a threat?

The hon. Gentleman will be glad about our announcement this morning on automatic number plate recognition. That will be a useful tool for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He mentioned pipe bombs; we condemn all those attacks. They are indiscriminate, and they target innocent people. When we talk about policing in Northern Ireland, it is worth remembering that operational decisions are matters for the Chief Constable, in whom we have great faith and with whom we have regular meetings, and of course the Department of Justice and David Ford. It is perhaps worth remembering that in Northern Ireland, there is still an average of 4.36 police officers per 1,000 of the population. That compares with 2.87 per 1,000 of the population in England and Wales. I am not saying that that is necessarily enough—it can never be enough—but there are police and resources, and we respond to demands from the PSNI.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the wider security threat in the context of Ulster Volunteer Force activity and the murder of Bobby Moffett?

I join most people in this House, I suspect, in condemning the gunning down of Bobby Moffett in the cold light of day in a completely unacceptable way, and I pay tribute to all those people who live in that part of the city and who attended his funeral. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to make any judgment on the case, as it is obviously the subject of ongoing investigation by the PSNI, but it is not impossible that there will need to be a hard line taken later, in the autumn, when the IMC next reports.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

11. What recent discussions he has had on his Department’s policy in response to the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (4215)

I have held a number of discussions with both Treasury Ministers and Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive in recent weeks as we seek to identify options to assist members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. The reconvened PMS ministerial working group will meet soon to review progress.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reply, which will give some reassurance to the thousands of people in Northern Ireland affected by the collapse. Does he recognise that there have been 18 months between the collapse of the society and the general election, and that this is another example of the Labour party leaving a mess for us to sort out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it was a boast of the previous Prime Minister that

“No UK depositor has lost money.”

That is why we have decided to grip the issue, and why I will chair the working group. I very much hope that we will come to a resolution soon.

Rather than those on both sides of the House playing party politics with the needs of savers in Northern Ireland, can the Secretary of State tell the House when he will come to a conclusion, so that savers, especially pensioners who are hard pressed at this time, can access and use their money?

We have been in power only seven weeks. We have set up the working group. We will set about our work with determination, and I hope we will provide a solution soon.

Speaking as someone who was very kindly treated by the Garda when I made a map-reading error in hot pursuit, may I ask my right hon. Friend what the relationship currently is between the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but unfortunately his question does not relate to the response to the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. I hope he will take that gentle admonition in the spirit in which it was intended.