Skip to main content

Northern Ireland

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Paramilitary Organisations

1. What recent assessment he has made of the threat to security from paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (14502)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the level of dissident republican activity in Northern Ireland. (14504)

With permission, I would like to make a brief comment about the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), and his deputy, the shadow Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), as this might be their last outing in their current positions. We should put on record our gratitude for the work that they did when in office and for pulling off the great final stage of ensuring that policing and justice were devolved. We all owe them—and everyone in Northern Ireland owes them—a debt.

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. The security forces continue to bear down on these terrorist groupings. So far this year, there have been 163 arrests and 56 persons charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. The numbers involved are small in terms of the overall population, but not insignificant in some areas. Everyone must play their part in demonstrating that these people have nothing to offer but suffering, damage and the diversion of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

I join the Secretary in State in condemning attacks by dissident republicans on police personnel, property and community. I also join him in thanking the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for their work in Northern Ireland over recent years.

I would like to move on in respect of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland to today’s findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which state that the Ulster Volunteer Force leadership sanctioned the murder of Bobby Moffett and that it could have stopped it if it had wanted. I am sure that the Secretary of State and all Members would agree that that should be viewed very seriously. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it undermines the assurances that we were given about UVF decommissioning? Does he have no concerns that a decision not to re-categorise the UVF ceasefire will send a signal that a planned killing is par for the course and represents an acceptable level of violence? Does he further agree that all this raises the question of when is a ceasefire a ceasefire?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. This was a disgusting murder, carried out at just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon in front of good, ordinary people going about their daily business, and it should be utterly condemned. The IMC report makes clear how extremely serious the matter is, but it does not recommend that we consider specification. We in Westminster, those in Stormont, the police, those responsible for security in Northern Ireland and, above all, the community have to bear down on this small number of people. I pay tribute to the very large number of people who turned out for the funeral, showing what the local community really thinks.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent attack by dissident republicans in my constituency, in which two young children almost lost their lives. My understanding is that six or seven people were arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but all were released. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the frustration of my constituents at the fact that no one has been charged for that and other offences, or is it the case that the PSNI no longer has the experienced detectives that it needs?

I am very sympathetic to the problems that the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency. This small number of people are wholly unrepresentative of the community. What they are doing is utterly irresponsible and risks serious damage to lives—it has to be utterly condemned. We have to respect the operational independence of the police. As I cited earlier, arrests are up and charges are up this year. We have had 56 charges as against 17 last year, but it is not for me to interfere with the processes of the police or of justice. The hon. Gentleman has good contacts with the local Minister and this is a devolved matter. If the local judicial system can be accelerated, that is now in local hands; we should not tamper with the independence of either the police or the judiciary.

I also pay tribute to the work of the shadow Secretary of State when he was in office, and I particularly thank the shadow Minister of State for the very courteous way in which he treated me while I shadowed him for a number of years.

Given the pressures of historical inquiries and the inevitable budgetary pressures that all public sector workers and departments are facing, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the PSNI has adequate resources to counter the threats we face—not only from dissident republicans, but from any terrorists in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. We will stand by Northern Ireland, and we will do what is right. As for police numbers, we know that there could always be more—there is not a chief constable in the United Kingdom who would not like more—but I am in regular contact with the local Justice Minister, the Chief Constable and those who are bearing down on dissidents, and we will ensure that we do the right thing by Northern Ireland.

I echo the words of thanks to the former Secretary of State and his former security Minister. We had several bruising encounters—some good and others not so good, but very enjoyable none the less.

Let me turn to the dissident threat. Will the Secretary of State give us a progress report on the automatic number plate recognition system that his security Minister announced in the House not long ago? Has it been introduced, and what progress is being made in countering and surveillance activities relating to dissident republicans?

At the previous Question Time, we announced that we had approved the final tranche—the £12.9 million that was required for the new technology, which I expect to have a real impact in bearing down on the small number of dangerous people. Its implementation is in the hands of the local Minister and the Chief Constable. I shall meet them in the forthcoming days and ask how they are progressing, but at the time of my last meeting with them, they were well on the way to introducing the technology.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State and, indeed, other Members who have made generous remarks this morning. I wish the Secretary of State and his deputy every success in their responsibilities.

Dealing with threats to security in Northern Ireland requires full public confidence in a police service that is representative of the community it serves. Although policing has now been devolved, the legal framework for ensuring that 30% of officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland come from the Catholic community remains the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Will he take this opportunity to confirm his commitment to achieving that target as soon as possible?

As the shadow Minister knows, the Patten commitment was to achieve a figure of 29% to 33% by this year. The current figure is 29.33%, so we have achieved the Patten threshold. The renewal of the measure was due to last one more year, and we agreed to that when we were in opposition. What we do next is up to us to discuss with the local Minister responsible and with those who now run the police service, but I hope that we have established enough momentum to ensure that people throughout the community will see joining the PSNI as a worthwhile career, and will be attracted to it.

Economic Affairs

2. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the effects of the recession on the Northern Ireland economy. (14503)

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I wish to add my thanks to the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for the assistance that they have given since we took office.

In Belfast last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and the Northern Ireland Ministers for Finance and Personnel and for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We regularly meet Northern Ireland ministerial colleagues to discuss economic matters and how we can best work in partnership to stimulate economic growth and encourage inward investment in Northern Ireland.

The economy in Northern Ireland remains delicate. Unemployment rose between March and May. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that politicians and parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland do not play politics when making economic decisions?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with those sentiments. I am pleased to say that these are matters for the Executive. However, I understand that, in his capacity as Minister for Finance and Personnel, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is present—at least, he certainly was earlier—will meet my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury later today, along with representatives of the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, to discuss financial matters, including the forthcoming spending review.

It is, perhaps, worth my adding that I echo the views of the hon. Member for East Antrim, who has said:

“In some quarters, there appears to be an unwillingness to address the serious financial questions that are being posed. Let us be clear: we cannot dodge difficult decisions in formulating a new Budget. Delaying the Budget process until next spring is not an option.”

That is the way in which to proceed.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of deep public spending cuts in the Northern Ireland Executive budget, not only for the public sector but for the private sector, which depends on many of the contracts that are let? What assessment has he made of the impact of the VAT rise on the ability of the Northern Ireland economy to escape from the recession?

The right hon. Gentleman does not, of course, draw attention to his Government’s own cuts of £44 million, and he—and the House—would do well to remember that we are in the current economic situation as a result of the legacy of the previous Administration. There are a number of positive things to say about Northern Ireland, however: there is the increase in the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, and the waiving of national insurance contributions on the first 10 jobs created by a new business in year one will benefit more than 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland, while reversing the most damaging part of the planned increase in employer national insurance contributions will add a saving of about £80 million in Northern Ireland. The situation is very serious, but it was more serious before the coalition Government put these measures in place. It is not going to be easy, but Northern Ireland must play its part, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, in confronting the deficit and getting the economy going once more, which must be the aspiration of every Member.

What meetings has the Minister or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with Treasury Ministers—and what representations have they received from them—on public expenditure in Northern Ireland generally, and specifically on the level of block grant to Northern Ireland after the spending review?

I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that there will be a meeting this afternoon attended by his party colleague, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and representatives of the other Administrations in Scotland and Wales, at which, no doubt, these matters will be discussed in the proper manner.

I asked the Minister what meetings he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had had with Treasury Ministers, not what meetings there had been between Executive Ministers and the Treasury. However, does he accept that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are unique? It is the only country or region in the United Kingdom that is suffering from the dissident terrorist threat—a subject that has already been discussed—and that shares a land frontier with another country, and it is also the only area in the United Kingdom that is coming out of 40 years of violence and terrorism, which has greatly truncated the ability of the private sector to compete. It is also the only area that has already had 3% year-on-year efficiency savings, implemented by the Executive. Will the Minister ensure that the fabric of society and vital services in Northern Ireland are protected by making sure that everything is done to protect the level of the block grant after the spending review?

Let me put the right hon. Gentleman straight: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet Treasury Ministers regularly and have done of late, not least to discuss the issue that confronts us all to do with the Presbyterian Mutual Society, and we will continue to do so. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, however, in that this issue brings to the fore once more the fact that it is completely unacceptable and unsustainable in the longer term for Northern Ireland’s economy to be so dependent on the state sector—the relevant figures are about 70% as opposed to 30% for the private sector. We have to address that, such as by looking at other ways to kick-start the private sector, not least through corporation tax measures. We have to look at enterprise zones, too. All those things we are doing—

Corporation Tax

4. What progress he has made in discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on changes to corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (14505)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, the Exchequer Secretary and I met Executive Ministers last month to discuss corporation tax and how the Northern Ireland economy could be rebalanced. We are working closely with them in the preparation of a Treasury paper and shall consult on this later in the year.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that the problem with the Northern Irish economy is that the private sector is too small, and that reducing corporation tax rates will help boost the private sector and rebalance the economy?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me give one figure: 77.6% of Northern Ireland’s GDP is dependent on public spending. That is clearly wholly unsustainable, and our proposal is to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy—which I estimate will take at least 25 years—by a number of measures that could include the devolution of corporation tax rates, thereby allowing the local Executive to reduce them.

In the Secretary of State’s consideration and representations on these matters, will he take particular account of the circumstances of border areas? Is he prepared to receive proposals on cross-border economic zones and their tax treatment, not least in the north-west, so that we can win investment and employment on the back of the cross-border Project Kelvin?

I am open to any ideas that will help to revive the private sector in Northern Ireland, which we all agree is too small. If the hon. Gentleman would like to make suggestions, my door will always be open. However, he should remember that a lot of this is devolved, with the decisions in the hands of his colleagues in the Assembly, and that this is a team game.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for their kind words. It has been a huge privilege for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and I to serve the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever my future, which is in the hands of my hon. Friends, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will continue our bipartisan support for his policy.

During the general election, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) talked about targeting Northern Ireland and the north-east of England for special cuts in Government spending. The Secretary of State tried to blunt that with the prospect of cutting corporation tax, but he will know from the Azores ruling that it is legal only if Northern Ireland bears fiscal consequences. What is his estimate of the annual additional cut the Treasury would have to take from the annual block grant to fund a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I would just like to correct an inadvertent comment on my colleague the Prime Minister, who did not target Northern Ireland; he just said, correctly, that it is one of those parts of the United Kingdom that is over-dependent on the public sector. On the question of the corporation tax sums, I say, bluntly, that nobody knows. That is why I am working closely with my Treasury colleagues—in particular, the Exchequer Secretary—to work out exactly the cost. Some international accountancy firms have estimated that, according to the Azores ruling, about £100 million to £150 million would have to be taken off the block grant.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland is over-dependent for a very good reason: because of the troubles. The answer to the question is contained in the report produced by Sir David Varney for the Treasury, and it is that £300 million would be taken out of the block grant. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that the net cost to the Exchequer for 10 years would be estimated at £2.2 billion. He is a very good sort of fellow, so why does he not level with the people of Northern Ireland? Just as his party’s electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists left them with nothing, just as his party’s talks on the Presbyterian Mutual Society look like leaving small investors with nothing, the promises on corporation tax will result in at best nothing and at worst an invitation to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to wield the axe.

I am sorry that the tone has descended. All my colleagues in Front-Bench positions inherited the odd prawn behind the radiator. We inherited Northern Ireland and a whole bag full of old langoustines stuck under a radiator going at top speed. We face a long-term problem with the economy. The Varney report is, sadly, now out of date. It cited a figure of more than £300 million, whereas the independent Northern Ireland Economic Reform Group, which carried out a detailed study of the benefits that a reduction of corporation tax would bring, gave a lower figure. The fact is that we do not know yet, and we will be studying this in detail and introducing our proposals later in the autumn.

Saville Inquiry

The reaction to the report of the Saville inquiry and to the Prime Minister’s statement to this House on 15 June has been overwhelmingly positive. Since publication, I have also met the families of those killed. I have received no formal representations in relation to the inquiry’s report, other than routine correspondence.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State once again informed the House that he will be meeting the families who lost their loved ones in Ballymurphy in August 1971. Will he assure the House that the issues that cannot be explored by the Historical Enquiries Team will be resolved by a process that is satisfactory to the families?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think that she should understand the sensitivities of these historical cases. Where I have given a commitment—I have a meeting planned with the families—it is appropriate that I talk to the families before I comment further.

Whatever mechanism we adopt to deal with the past, if we adopt any at all, surely it must be consistent. Does the Secretary of State agree that, whereas the Saville report dealt purely with the activities of the troops, soldiers and other activists on the day, the Billy Wright inquiry, which the media attended, seemed to deal with issues before and after the events of the day? We need a consistent approach to try to bring some closure.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why we have launched a process of talking to local politicians and local groups to work out a way forward on how we handle the past. It was clear from the submissions to Eames-Bradley that there is absolutely no consensus, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we must have a process that is consistent. We will be working on that over the coming months.

Pat Finucane

7. Whether he has met the family of Pat Finucane to offer an inquiry into his death; and if he will make a statement. (14508)

I met the family of Pat Finucane while in opposition. On becoming Secretary of State, I wrote to the family and invited them to meet me.

Will the Secretary of State elucidate the questions that were put to him by the family at that meeting?

The meeting that I had with them in opposition was some time ago. I have a meeting planned shortly and I think that it is appropriate, as I have said on several occasions, that I talk to the families before pronouncing further. The hon. Gentleman knows from his time as a Minister in Northern Ireland how sensitive and difficult this issue is, which is why it was not resolved by his Government.

Surely the Secretary of State will realise that, rather than individual inquiries, it would be better to put the resources into the Historical Enquiries Team so as to allow a swathe of the people who have been injured and who suffered through the tragedies of Northern Ireland’s years of terrorism to find answers to their questions.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Historical Enquiries team is looking at 3,268 deaths on a budget that was originally set at £34 million over six years. We must contrast that with the Billy Wright inquiry on which I reported yesterday, which cost £30 million and looked into one death.

Cross-border Economic Co-operation

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Government on cross-border economic co-operation. (14509)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held discussions on economic matters, which are largely devolved to Northern Ireland, with Irish Government Ministers when he was recently in Dublin. The trade and business development body, which aims to enhance the economy on both sides of the border, is a forum operating under the North/South Ministerial Council that also allows Northern Ireland and Irish Ministers to discuss those matters.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Have he and his team considered what lessons can be learned from the economic successes of the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s that could now be applied to the economy of Northern Ireland?

Yes, we certainly continue to study that. It is worth pointing out that despite the economic slowdown experienced in recent years the Republic of Ireland continues to attract major foreign direct investment. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland’s stock of direct inward investment is five times greater than the OECD average. According to one leading accountancy firm, there have been well over 50 investment projects this year alone. It is significant, we believe, when spending is being cut and many taxes are going up, that the one set of taxes that are not being touched in the Republic is the low rates of corporation taxes.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept and agree with me that cross-border co-operation is vital for economic recovery in border areas of Northern Ireland? Does he agree that because of the banking crisis there are major cross-border interests that we need to deal with at a British-Irish level?

I most certainly do, bearing in mind that a lot of these decisions are up to the Assembly and the Executive. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt welcome, along with us, the forthcoming investment conference in Washington under the patronage of Secretary of State Clinton, as well as the advance trip to Northern Ireland by her husband, former President Clinton, at which representatives from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be present hoping to attract inward investment, which will benefit the very cross-border communities to whom the hon. Gentleman has alluded.