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Northern Ireland

Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the contribution of Northern Ireland to the Government’s programmes to increase the level of exports for the purposes of international trade. (22147)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues in Northern Ireland on economic development issues. We will continue to work with the Executive to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and grow the private sector.

Does the Minister agree that the inspirational visit to China by the Prime Minister shows that we should redouble our efforts on exporting?

Yes, I certainly do. Invest Northern Ireland has recently led trade missions to Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and 35 Northern Ireland companies from across the sector went with it. What is going on in China should work as an incentive to others to export. Let me pay tribute to a company that I visited the other day in Ballymena—and I see that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is present. Wrightbus has just supplied 450 double-decker buses to Singapore and has won the design project for the replacement of the iconic Routemaster bus here in London. The answer to rebalancing part of the Northern Irish economy is to get—

Order. That answer is too long. The Minister will resume his seat, and he must not repeat that.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the need to provide growth in the Northern Ireland economy and ensure jobs and investment, can he provide assurances to the House that the Prime Minister, on his current trade mission to China, is aware not only of the need to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland but of the products that could be exported as part of international trade—and also of the fact that the Government are about to publish a paper on the Northern Ireland economy and corporation tax?

Of course the Prime Minister continues to take an interest in Northern Ireland. The food, drink and tobacco sectors account for 45% of total sales and 46% of external sales. These figures could and should increase, and the Secretary of State and I will work with the devolved Administration, in whatever way we are asked, to support any incentive of that kind.

Will the Secretary of State commit to making representations to the Treasury regarding alterations to how tobacco tax is lifted, so that the Treasury can receive a bigger taxation take while allowing the industry to invest in securing jobs in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman has in his constituency the Gallaher Group, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited recently. The loss to the United Kingdom economy from contraband cigarettes and forfeited duty is in the region of £2 billion to £3 billion a year. We should consider that closely, and continue to make representations in that regard.

Is the Minister as concerned as those of us who come from Northern Ireland that recent reports show a third quarter fall in growth in the private sector in Northern Ireland, and will he therefore redouble his efforts to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy more effectively?

Clearly, Northern Ireland is not immune to what is going on in the rest of the world—one has only to look over the border at what is going on in Ireland to see that. We work very closely with Northern Ireland on rebalancing the economy and we have the support of the Finance Minister, who, along with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, is meeting the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs this afternoon to discuss corporation tax. We must leave no stone unturned in our attempts to rebalance Northern Ireland’s economy and, critically, to provide well-paid and sustainable jobs.

Unless I am mistaken, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) did not put a supplementary question to the substantive question. If he did he can nod his head, but if he did not, he should do so.

The Disappeared

In July, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains successfully recovered the remains of Charlie Armstrong, and it awaits DNA confirmation regarding remains it believes to be those of Gerard Evans and Peter Wilson. This would take the total number of disappeared who have been located to nine.

May I pay tribute to the excellent work of the ICLVR, particularly Geoff Knupfer and Jon Hill, who do such good work, as I have seen for myself? I met the Wilson family just before the find was announced, and I can testify to the very serious effect that it has on families who have waited for many, many years to find their loved ones so that they can be placed in a grave and they can go to see them regularly. That achieves closure for many people. The commission is a joint initiative between the Irish and the British Governments. It is led entirely by intelligence, and we will continue to be led by intelligence—

Order. The Minister will have to practise. He is far too long-winded, and that has got to change.

The Minister refers to the recovery of remains, which is a painful reminder of the need to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. If the Secretary of State decides to place any new obligations on the Historical Enquiries Team, will he ensure that it is fully and properly funded to undertake them?

The two bodies are entirely different. We believe that the HET is a good organisation and should be properly resourced, as we believe that it represents the way forward.

The whole House will think fondly of that gallant soldier Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards, who was so brutally killed by the IRA. Does the Minister have any up-to-date information about whether his remains may yet be discovered?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. Alas, Captain Nairac is not alone. A considerable number of bodies have yet to be located, and that we hope that will happen in due course.

The Minister has already referred to the winding up of the commission dealing with the disappeared. Does he think that is wise, and does he think it is wise also to wind up the Independent Monitoring Commission, given the ongoing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman may have misheard me. I have not said that we will wind up the former. With reference to the latter, we announced that there would be one more valedictory report. It was established in the first place to monitor the connections between elected representatives and paramilitaries. We believe that that is no longer appropriate or necessary.

Would the Minister kindly give me a commitment that fresh efforts will be made to retrieve my young constituent, Lisa Dorrian, who was murdered and disappeared by those with loyalist paramilitary connections five years ago? That is five long Christmases for the family, who deserve closure. What fresh efforts are being made to retrieve her body?

The hon. Lady is entirely correct, but she must understand that the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office in these matters is limited, and quite properly so. The ICLVR is an independent organisation and responds to intelligence provided to it—very often anonymous intelligence. I hope that it will listen to what the hon. Lady has said, but it will respond only when the intelligence comes. I hope that those who have any understanding or any knowledge will bring that forward.

Barnett Formula Funding

3. What recent discussions he has had with private sector companies in Northern Ireland on the effects on them of changes in Barnett formula funding for Northern Ireland consequent upon the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review. (22149)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with people from the private sector in Northern Ireland. I have found a widespread recognition that the public sector can and should respond by delivering better value, and support for the objective that we and the Executive share of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.

The Minister will be aware of the recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers stating that 36,000 jobs will be lost in Northern Ireland as a result of the Government’s policies—20,000 in the public sector and a further 16,000 in the private sector. What estimate has he made of the cost to the taxpayer of those 36,000 people currently in work being made unemployed by the Government’s policies?

The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time, but these are not the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties’ cuts. These are Labour’s cuts—[Interruption.] Northern Ireland has done better out of the spending review than it was led to believe would have been the case under the previous Government. It is in the interests of everybody in the House to talk up Northern Ireland, to attract inward investment and to rebalance the economy so that it is not so dependent on the public sector. That is the way forward for Northern Ireland, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support us on that.

Does the Minister agree that to reform the Barnett formula, all the devolved nations would need to agree to a process, and that if one nation, such as the Scottish Government, refused to participate in that process, that would be showing disrespect to all the others?

Of course I am aware of the House of Lords Select Committee report on the Barnett formula, the Holtham Commission on Welsh funding and other commentators on the system of devolution funding. At present we are trying to get the public finances under control to get the economy moving again. Any change in the system of funding the devolved Administrations must wait for the stabilisation of the public finances.

One of the impacts on the private sector will be the huge reduction of 40% in capital spending over the next four years, and there is disagreement about whether the settlement honours the St Andrews agreement settlement on capital spending. In the one area where there is dispute, does the capital settlement for Northern Ireland include capital spending on the police? Is that part of the Minister’s assessment of the total capital budget for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman knows that under the previous Government the reduction was likely to be 50% of capital expenditure. Under us it is 37% over four years. In response to his comments on policing and justice, I can tell him that we stand by the commitments. As he knows, the Northern Ireland Executive’s capital allocation of £3.3 billion over the spending review period will permit those costs to be met, but there will be difficult decisions, and unfortunately it is up to the hon. Gentleman, as the Finance Minister at Stormont, to make those difficult decisions. It is up to him and the Executive, and I support his attempts to get them to form a budget.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of Northern Ireland will welcome the cut in business taxes, which will create real private sector jobs, and the coalition Government’s action to deal with the £120 million a day in interest and debt that we are paying?

Yes, of course. Northern Ireland, like other parts of the United Kingdom, will benefit from those actions, which the incoming Government took very quickly. Beyond that, however, we are thinking about how, in the long term, we can stop the dependency on the public sector, which is disproportionate in Northern Ireland. In that context, one way forward will be to look at the whole issue of corporation tax.

Comprehensive Spending Review

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on security in Northern Ireland of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review; and if he will make a statement. (22150)

Following the outcome of the 2010 spending review, it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to decide how funds are allocated to the Northern Ireland Departments. It will be for the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in the first instance, to negotiate the PSNI budget with the Executive. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we will protect the people of our country from the terrorist threat with every means at our disposal.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. He will appreciate that people in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK will be concerned about the impact of spending cuts on peace and security in Northern Ireland. Can he assure the House that the comprehensive spending review will not impact on front-line community policing in Northern Ireland? That is something that the Minister stopped short of saying in response to an earlier question.

We have been absolutely clear that we will stand by Northern Ireland. We will do what is necessary to bear down on that threat, but the first port of call is for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable to negotiate with the Executive on the very substantial allocation of public money that has been granted to them in the spending round.

The Select Committee on Northern Ireland met the assistant commissioner of the Garda two days ago, and he assured us that in spite of the financial difficulties in Ireland they would continue to police the border, in particular, in the same way. He said that there would be absolutely no reduction in their efforts. Can the Secretary of State give us the same assurance today?

Emphatically yes. We have exceptional co-operation with the Garda, and I should like to congratulate them on their seizure of a significant amount of armaments at Dunleer woods in County Louth. Emphatically yes: we will work extremely closely with them and match their effort.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the deteriorating security situation in parts of Northern Ireland due to the dissident threat. Will he be open to an approach, should it be required, for additional resources to deal with that threat as it materialises over the winter months?

We have been clear, from the early negotiations that I had with the shadow Secretary of State, when he was Secretary of State, that we would endorse the very substantial policing settlement that the previous Government negotiated with the Northern Ireland Executive. That was quite clear. Should there be security pressure, and should the security position deteriorate, it would be right for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable to come to us and ask for contributions from the national reserve.

Security Situation

5. What his most recent assessment is of the level of threat posed by terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. (22151)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. We are not complacent, but I am pleased to tell the House that this year, following eight further arrests this morning, there have been 195 arrests and 71 persons have been charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. I commend the security forces for their continued successes in frustrating the efforts of residual terrorist groups. The coalition Government are committed to continuing to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, and standing firmly behind the agreements negotiated and the institutions that they established.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The national security strategy has highlighted the fact that there have been 37 separate attacks this year, so the threat from residual terrorist groups remains high. What steps is he taking to combat that threat?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have taken this to the highest level of Government. We presented a paper to the National Security Council, and as a result of that, the threat from Northern Ireland has been put in tier 1 in the national security strategy.

The latest Independent Monitoring Commission report highlights the continuing involvement of dissident republicans in very serious levels of criminal activity. Will the Minister assure the House that all resources will be made available to ensure that that threat does not continue?

I repeat that we are working extremely closely with the devolved Administration and the Dublin Government on bearing down on this threat, and we will do what is necessary.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the deep anger among all sections of the community in Northern Ireland at the growing level of attacks by paramilitaries—with, indeed, activity on both sides, but particularly among dissident republicans? People are looking for action to be taken, and for co-operation between the agencies for which he is responsible and the Northern Ireland Executive to deal with this problem urgently.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to make that comment. That is why we produced a substantial paper for the National Security Council, which was discussed at the highest level; and that is why we are working so closely with the devolved Administration and the Justice Minister, to whom I spoke this morning, and the Government in Dublin. We are determined to work at all levels to end this security problem.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and acknowledge the work that he is doing in terms of the tier 1 level of threat assessment in Northern Ireland. However, the fact that the recent bomb find at East Midlands airport happened on the same day as a bomb find at Belfast City airport shows the level of threat against citizens right across the United Kingdom. Can we be assured that while the threat of al-Qaeda is a priority, the threat in Northern Ireland is also treated as a top priority?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that these threats affect us all in the United Kingdom. That is why the threat from Northern Ireland has been placed in the No. 1 category—in tier 1.

The Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave an unambiguous undertaking before the Hillsborough Castle agreement that the previous Government’s financial arrangements for the devolution of policing and justice would be upheld. In relation to the security situation, this unequivocally included a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive would have access to the reserve. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he continues to stand by that commitment, without any new conditions being imposed by the Treasury?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I have said this already, but I am happy to look him in the eye and repeat it. Should the security situation deteriorate, then—according to the agreement that the previous Government, in which he was Secretary of State, made with the then Executive—the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable have the right to approach the Government with a clear strategy on security grounds in order to call on the national reserve.

I am grateful for that reply. We all note the decision to raise the threat level here in Great Britain, and the Secretary of State can be assured that the Opposition fully support the decision to address the problems created by that threat. Given the level of recent attacks in Northern Ireland, including the recent use of a hand grenade, and given the need for the response to be measured, proportionate and joined up, would a request by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet the Prime Minister as soon as possible be fully supported by the Secretary of State?

The Prime Minister made regular visits to Northern Ireland when he was Leader of the Opposition. He met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister then, to discuss a broad range of issues. He intends to go back to Northern Ireland, and at that time he will have the opportunity to discuss matters with them. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring specifically to the budget settlement, it is appropriate that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister first discuss that with me, having done their utmost to come to an agreement and consensus in the Executive on a budget for the substantial funds that have been allocated to them in this spending round.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

6. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the implications for Northern Ireland of the provisions of part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. (22152)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and with elected representatives in Northern Ireland on the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and will continue to do so as the Bill continues its progress through both Houses.

Does the Minister recognise that as it stands, part 2 of the Bill has serious implications for the Northern Ireland Assembly, whose constituencies are meant to be coterminous with parliamentary constituencies? Reviews every five years that could put those constituencies out of cycle, or change the total number of constituencies in Northern Ireland, will be hugely unsettling. Will he take steps to ensure that full consideration is undertaken with the authorities in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as with his ministerial colleagues?

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman raised this matter during the passage of the Bill. It is true that coterminosity between the parliamentary and Assembly seats has worked well, and the amended rules can continue to provide for the Electoral Commission to take that into account. I should say to him that as he knows, the size of the Assembly is up to the Assembly, not to Parliament or to this House through the Bill.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

8. When the Government plan to disburse their proposed financial assistance to savers with the Presbyterian Mutual Society. (22154)

In the spending review announcement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government would meet in full a £175 million loan and £25 million in cash to fund the Northern Ireland Executive’s proposal to resolve the PMS crisis.

I thank the Minister for that response, but given that the Government’s proposals are a carbon copy of what my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister announced, why did the Secretary of State delay the announcement by six months, causing unnecessary suffering and misunderstanding for the people who had lost money in the PMS?

There is a fundamental difference between what the previous Government did and what the current Government have done about the problems connected with the PMS: we have actually done something. We have responded to the request from the Executive in full. We stand by the Prime Minister’s commitment, and we are very pleased that we were able to act so swiftly—unlike some others.

Dissident Violence

9. What assessment he has made of the reasons for the recent increase in the level of dissident violence in Northern Ireland. (22156)

This violence is a direct response to the continued political progress in Northern Ireland. Those people are outdated and backward-looking. All that they have to offer is to destabilise the peace process and disadvantage the people of Northern Ireland, but they will not succeed. The Government take the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland extremely seriously. There have been 39 attacks so far this year, compared with 22 throughout 2009.

I heard what the Secretary of State had to say earlier about the operations of the police in the Republic. Can he also give me some assurance that there is intelligence sharing between the Northern Irish Government and that in Dublin?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and for his interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I do not think I can give a better example than the fact that the current Chief Constable always had good relations with his neighbour when he was chief constable of Leicestershire, but has said that his relations with Fachtna Murphy, the Garda commissioner, are even better. I should like publicly to pay tribute to Fachtna Murphy, who is, sadly, retiring at the end of the year. He has been a great friend of Northern Ireland. The collaboration between the Garda and the PSNI is at an exceptional level, and I look forward to helping it continue.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent series of dissident republican operations in my constituency, including the bomb at a railway bridge and a previous bomb that almost killed three local children. Does he share the Chief Constable’s current assessment of the levels of resources and manpower available to the PSNI?

I am grateful for that question. I am also pleased to send on my sympathies to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have been subject to such intolerable attacks, which, thankfully, have not caused death or injury. Last week the Chief Constable said:

“We are absolutely putting huge resources back in, we are going to sustain that next year and the year after until those responsible are brought to justice or they can be persuaded to give up.”

Fisheries (EU Legislation)

10. What assessment he has made of the effects on the Northern Ireland fishing fleet of the operation of EU legislation on working time; and if he will make a statement. (22157)

Responsibilities here are divided: fisheries generally are a devolved matter, but the UK Government have led on aspects of the EU working time directive as it applies to fishing vessels.

EU legislation includes a fundamental right to work. What steps has the Minister taken with his European counterparts to ensure that the fishermen of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeen, who have had their days at sea restricted, have a right to work?

I understand that Diane Dodds and other Northern Ireland MEPs are working hard to address some of the difficulties experienced by the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises. I must stress though that fishing matters are partly devolved. None the less, I undertake to look into the matter, write to the hon. Gentleman in due course and put a copy of the letter in the Library.