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Northern Ireland

Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (90822)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely.

Despite overwhelming community rejection of their murderous activity, terrorist groups continue to carry out indiscriminate attacks, as we saw in Londonderry last week. The Government remain committed to countering terrorism in all its forms.

What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that young people do not gravitate to joining paramilitary organisations?

My hon. Friend touches on an important point. The problem cannot be solved by containment alone, although we pay full tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those who are working in our security effort. The Prime Minister said that he wants a shared future, not a shared-out future, in Northern Ireland, and we are working closely with the devolved Administration. Only last week, Eamon Gilmore, the Tánaiste, was in Northern Ireland talking to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about the very schemes to which my hon. Friend refers. A review is taking place to see which are the most effective, and which could be endorsed for a future PEACE IV programme.

Does the Secretary of State understand the anger and fear that is felt in my constituency and, indeed, throughout Northern Ireland, in the light of the release of Colin Duffy, a person charged on three different occasions with the murder of innocent people and who always seems to find a get-out card? What assurance can the Secretary of State give my constituents that they will be safe from brutal terrorists such as Colin Duffy, and not become another statistic in a long line of innocent victims?

I entirely sympathise with the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. We believe in the separation of powers, and the decision was made by due process. I am delighted that there was one conviction for that appalling incident. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as he knows from our private discussions, the Government will bear down on all terrorists. We have brought a further £200 million to Northern Ireland at the request of the Chief Constable, and we will stand by the PSNI and all those working to eradicate that very small number of totally unhinged, dangerous people.

As the Member for the city of Derry, may I inform the Secretary of State that the overwhelming majority of its citizens deplore and resent the dissidents’ acts of civic sabotage on Ireland’s fourth city? Given the right hon. Gentleman’s locus on some security matters, what input does he have into the justice and security Green Paper, and what engagement is he having with the devolved authorities about its implications for Northern Ireland?

I wholly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on behalf of his constituents. Last week’s attacks were completely incomprehensible to any sane person: elderly people in a home and disadvantaged young people in a home were at real risk. I pay full tribute to the incredible bravery and professionalism of those PSNI officers who led the evacuation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I work closely with David Ford, the Justice Minister, and the Chief Constable. I spoke to them both this morning, and we are liaising on the justice Green Paper.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the PSNI and others in Northern Ireland who are combating the threat.

Last week saw the inspirational launch of an exciting tourist initiative for Northern Ireland, NI 2012. When so many people are doing so much work to create a better future, does the Secretary of State agree that last week’s bomb attacks in Derry/Londonderry were reckless and futile? Will he guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland that all those coping with the terrorist threat are given our full support and the resources that they need to deal with any future threat?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments and for the support he gives me on that in private. He is absolutely right to condemn the attacks, which play absolutely no part in the future of Northern Ireland.

On support for the PSNI, as I have just said, the Chief Constable requested extra funds soon after the Government came to office and we delivered £200 million over the next four years. He is quoted in April last year as saying:

“We have the resources, we have the resilience and we have the commitment.”

I again assure the Secretary of State of the Opposition’s full co-operation in dealing with those matters. He will know that responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland rests with him. What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of the security services’ performance and the implementation of the five key national security protocols agreed between the security services and the PSNI at St Andrews?

I am happy to confirm that Lord Carlile, in his third annual report earlier this year, confirmed that MI5 and the PSNI are working very closely together. More work could not be done more energetically to deal with the difficult dissident republican threat.

The devolution of policing and justice reinforced the determination of the political parties in Northern Ireland to face down the small minority who still engage in violence, but legislation stipulates that the Justice Department will disappear in May unless the Assembly resolves that it should continue. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the current thinking within the Executive and the details of any action he might need to take to maintain progress?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s hard work when he ran security under direct rule. As he rightly says, the position is that the current arrangements cease in May this year. Negotiations are going on within the Executive between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in which the Government are also involved. As I understand it, the incumbent, David Ford, has the full support of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. For the Government’s part, where we have overlapping roles, we have strong support for him and get on with him extremely well. I was in Dublin recently and I can confirm that Alan Shatter, the Irish Justice and Equality Minister, also enjoys working with David Ford. I hope that in due course this will become—

Private Sector Job Creation

2. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on job creation in the private sector. (90823)

We work closely with Executive Ministers in the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy. I regularly meet the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and her colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to create more jobs in the private sector.

I was delighted to see a recent CBI survey that said that 39% of firms in Northern Ireland expect to take on more staff this year, but does my right hon. Friend believe that the Northern Irish economy would do even better if it adopted the Work programme, which has been rolled out in the rest of the UK?

Yes, I do. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Work programme provides tailored support for claimants who need more help to find jobs. I hope very much that Northern Ireland Ministers will adopt it as part of their welfare reforms. It provides a greater opportunity than did the future jobs fund.

An Aviva survey released this week showed that a quarter of small business owners are thinking of jacking in running their own business and instead trying to get a job because their situation is so difficult. Are Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive as frustrated as the rest of the country at the lack of growth that this Government are delivering?

We have many things to celebrate in Northern Ireland that are occasionally eclipsed by other news stories. Today, Muldoon Transport Systems in Dungannon has secured a £1 million contract to supply 19 trailers to one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest businesses. Nearly a third of London buses are manufactured in Ballymena by Wrightbus. I look forward to joining the hon. Gentleman for an early summer holiday on one of Boris’s Ballymena buses after Boris wins the mayoral elections.

It is worth pointing out that Northern Ireland has won 7% of foreign direct investment to the UK with only 2.8% of the population, and that Belfast attracts more foreign direct investment than any UK city outside London. Those are good news stories in Northern Ireland on which we intend to build.

Does the Minister share my concern about the number of jobs that could be lost in Northern Ireland as a result of the carbon price floor—a tax that does not exist in the Republic of Ireland?

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has raised that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who in turn raised it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is discussing it with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. They will report shortly.

Will the Minister provide us with a progress report on the resolution of the problem of the capital budget for Northern Ireland for the next 10 years, which the Northern Ireland Office has promised us? If that is satisfactorily resolved, it will help to stimulate the local economy—both public and private sector—and to sustain existing jobs.

The hon. Lady is right to bring that to the attention of the House. As far as I am concerned, work on that is still under way, and if there is any update I shall be happy to write to her.

Before Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses, and I was extremely impressed with its efforts and the work it is doing. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland FSB on its work and its determination to get through the economic challenges of the next 18 months?

The Northern Ireland FSB is a key supporter of Grow NI, and is taking a keen interest in the devolution of corporation tax, which those of us on the Government Benches believe would be a shot in the arm for economic life in Northern Ireland.

I find the Minister of State’s selective comments to be quite extraordinary. The Queen of Hearts suggested that one should believe six impossible things every day before breakfast, but does the Minister seriously expect us to believe that a shrinking private sector can somehow compensate for the highest public sector job losses of any UK region? That sounds like “Alice in Wonderland” to me.

Let us look in the real glass, rather than the looking glass, and give the hon. Gentleman three quick facts. The unemployment rate for Northern Ireland was down 0.7% over the quarter and 1% over the year. The number of unemployed people in Northern Ireland was estimated at 59,000, down 7,000 over both the quarter and the year. Northern Ireland unemployment for 18 to 24-year-olds for the three months to October 2011 was estimated at 18.2%, compared with a UK average of 20.5%. No one is saying that this will continue. We hope it will, but we are trying to deal with unprecedented economic circumstances, both globally and in trying to right the appalling legacy of the Labour Government.

Diamond Jubilee

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on arrangements in Northern Ireland to mark the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. (90824)

4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on arrangements in Northern Ireland to mark the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. (90825)

11. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on arrangements in Northern Ireland to mark the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. (90835)

I am sorry, Mr Speaker. Such was the excitement following my previous remarks that I failed to hear you.

I have discussed this matter with the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who, like me, looks forward to Northern Ireland playing the fullest part in the diamond jubilee celebrations and welcoming Her Majesty to Northern Ireland later in the year.

I am grateful to the Minister, and 2012 represents a very big year in Northern Ireland, not just because of the diamond jubilee but because of the Olympics. In Yorkshire, we have managed to secure more than 30 overseas squads to use our excellent training facilities. What steps are being taken to ensure that overseas squads use the great sporting facilities in the Province?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on attracting so many teams to his area. In Northern Ireland we have the Australian boxing team, the Chinese gymnastics team—which is probably capable of even greater contortions than Opposition Treasury spokesmen—and the Irish Paralympics teams, which will hold pre-games training events in Northern Ireland. For the golfers among us, we also hope that the Irish open championship will be followed in due course by the British open.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the events of 2012 present a wonderful opportunity for Northern Ireland to showcase itself as an excellent place for tourists to visit, both from other constituent parts of the United Kingdom and from around the world?

Yes, I most certainly do—2012 is the year to visit Northern Ireland, with the launch of “Your Time, Our Place” last week, before returning in 2013 for the UK city of culture. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling work in encouraging Members to donate to his window to commemorate Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. I did a quick ring-round of the Northern Ireland Office, and I am glad to say that I have donated—although I have not told my wife—the Secretary of State has donated and our Minister in the Lords has donated.

A visit by Her Majesty the Queen to the devolved nations can be a huge boost to their economies and, indeed, their morale. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is not only one visit, but perhaps more than one visit to Northern Ireland in 2012?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The royal family are regular visitors to Northern Ireland, not least to the annual garden party. We are informed by the Palace that Her Majesty will quite rightly be visiting Northern Ireland, as she will all other parts of the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister agree that, commensurate with security considerations, it would be of great benefit in encouraging the participation and engagement of the public with the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations if they were given as much notice as possible of her visit to Northern Ireland? On previous occasions, such as her visit to Dublin and her engagements in London, people have been given only short notice.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions Her Majesty’s historic visit to Dublin last year, and I have absolutely no reason to suppose that in her diamond jubilee year she will not be greeted in Northern Ireland with equally fulsome adulation and applause. He also mentions security. All visits by members of the royal family and other VIPs have to be handled tactfully by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and we would certainly not try to second guess it. There is a balance to be struck, and security must be paramount.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It has rightly been said that this is a tremendous year for Northern Ireland, and not only because of the jubilee celebrations. We shall mark the centenary of the Titanic, with the opening of a £100 million visitor centre, and host the Irish open, as well as playing a part in the round-the-world yacht race. Northern Ireland will be a great place to visit. What is the Minister doing to encourage tourists coming to London for the Olympics to travel further across the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Olympics are, by definition, the London Olympics, but that does not mean that other parts of the United Kingdom should not benefit from them. He has just advertised what will be happening in Northern Ireland this year, and I would say to hon. Members and others outside the House: if you are not in Northern Ireland this year, frankly, you are no one.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the Titanic centenary. The Titanic was built in my constituency, and we hope that “Titanoraks” from all over the globe will make their way to Belfast in 2012. What discussions has he had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that people are aware of the unique opportunity to experience some of the authentic history of the Titanic story? [Interruption.]

Order. The House must come to order. This is very unfair on the hon. Lady. Fortunately, she has a clear and forthright voice, but I also want to be able to hear the answer.

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker. It is equally unfair on me, as I try to hear the hon. Lady’s question. She mentions the Titanic. As they say in Belfast, “She was fine when she left here”—the Titanic, that is, not the hon. Lady, who is of course fine wherever she goes. I do not feel that I need to discuss the Titanic with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, because I think that everyone knows that it was built in Belfast and that we are going to celebrate that fact. When people come to Northern Ireland, they should certainly go to the Titanic quarter.

Welfare Reform Bill

5. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the Welfare Reform Bill. (90826)

I discuss welfare reform regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the welfare system and to tackle the problems of poverty and welfare dependency by ensuring that work pays, and is seen to pay.

I am sure that the Secretary of State understands the concerns and fears being expressed by many in Northern Ireland, given that the report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, after London, Northern Ireland will be hardest hit by the proposals in the Bill. There is a suggestion that some £600 million will be lost. Does he find it surprising that civil society and Church organisations across Northern Ireland—and, indeed, the UK generally—oppose the Bill? Will he also give me an undertaking that no one will be left homeless as a result of the reforms?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The four Church leaders came to London to meet the Minister responsible for welfare reform, my noble Friend Lord Freud, who is taking the Bill through the Lords. He explained many of the details of the Bill, which, sadly, is not well understood in Northern Ireland. I see great benefits in making work pay, and we will ensure that every person, regardless of their opportunities, will be better off if they work one hour longer.

Legacy of the Past

6. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on dealing with the legacy of the past. (90828)

10. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on dealing with the legacy of the past. (90834)

Since taking office, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the political parties and other interest groups to discuss the issue of dealing with the past, but there is no consensus. I shall meet the parties again in the coming weeks.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome the progress made by the Historical Enquiries Team. Is my right hon. Friend confident that all cases will be dealt with by 2014?

My hon. Friend is quite right to comment on the HET, whose satisfaction levels have been extraordinarily high, with some 90% of families being either satisfied or very satisfied. I last spoke to the Chief Constable about this a few weeks ago and he was confident that on his current track the HET would complete on time.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with victim and survivor groups, how often has he met the Commission for Victims and Survivors and what have been the positive outcomes?

As I said in my opening answer, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the local parties and numerous groups around Northern Ireland since we came to power, seeking a way forward on the issue of the past. We do not own the past, however. We can help facilitate, but ultimately the solution is very much in local hands and depends on local groups and local parties reaching consensus. Sadly, we have so far not found consensus.

Further to that helpful answer, back in November the Secretary of State said that he would meet parties to move the issue forward. Does he agree that bilateral discussions are no substitute for multilateral discussions, and will he tell us when he will make progress on bringing all the parties together to discuss this matter?

That is a very helpful question. There was a debate in the Assembly that asked me to call for talks, so I consulted the Speaker of the Assembly and decided to write to each party individually. I am not convinced that a great summit with satellite camera vans outside Hillsborough is the answer. The issue needs to be discussed soberly, quietly and privately to see whether I can find a way forward. I do not own the past—the solution must come from local politicians themselves. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many very noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I want to hear Mr Gregory Campbell.

Does the Secretary of State accept that part of the problem in dealing with the past and trying to get the parties around the table is that one party was party to the major problem of the past—the Provisional IRA. It will not own up to the part it played in creating the past—rather, it tries to deem everyone equal, innocent and guilty alike.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and he touches on the problem of arriving at uniform consensus. We were elected on a platform of no more costly and open-ended inquiries, because we do not like the asymmetry of applying an extraordinary intensity of effort and expense to a very small number of cases. That is why I am trying to find a broader approach, working with all local parties.

Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains

7. What assessment he has made of the work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains; and if he will make a statement. (90830)

I commend the work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, which has to date located nine of the 16 disappeared. The commission is information-driven and is committed to investigating any further information it receives regarding the remaining seven disappeared.

Given the success of the commission and the closure it has helped to bring to many families, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that his Department will continue to ensure that the commission has all the resources necessary to complete its vital work?

If my hon. Friend looks at the early-day motion, he will see that we and the Irish Government remain committed to the work of the ICLVR. We pay tribute to the two commissioners, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield from the British side and Frank Murray from the Irish side. They have done sterling work and they are in stand-by mode. We are determined to continue this work, if the information is available, to, we hope, bring some resolution to the families who have lost their loved ones.

Can the Minister of State confirm that the commission continues to search for my young constituent, Lisa Dorrian, who was murdered and disappeared by those with loyalist paramilitary connections several years ago and who remains unfound? Can he give closure to her family?

I suspect that the only thing that can give partial closure to the hon. Lady’s constituents is the location of this individual. I am not certain whether the hon. Lady has signed the early-day motion, but if she has not I urge her to do so. Clearly, if the information is there the ICLVR will act on it, and it will be properly resourced so to do both by ourselves and by the Irish Government. We are absolutely determined that we will work our way through as many of the missing as we can, but I stress that this is an information-led process and we urge anyone and everyone with any information to bring it before the two commissioners.