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Northern Ireland

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 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. (97673)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (97684)

As I stated last week in my first biannual statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland, the threat remains severe. Tackling terrorism in all its forms and within the rule of law remains the highest priority for this Government. We will continue to work as closely as possible with our strategic partners in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to counter this threat.

I welcome the steps being taken to reduce the number of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, but as my right hon. Friend said in his recent written ministerial statement, violent activity is still being undertaken by loyalist organisations. What measures are being taken to address this issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and would immediately like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has done a huge amount of work, talking to a number of loyalist groups. There is absolutely no place for organised crime or violence in Northern Ireland. I would appeal to everybody to work closely with the PSNI and to pursue whatever political aims they have through peaceful, democratic means.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, in what will be a high-profile year for the United Kingdom—and for Harlow, given the number of Olympic events happening in and around my constituency—the security threat in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the Olympics, which present us with a wonderful opportunity to sell this country. Northern Ireland-related terrorism in Great Britain is graded as “substantial”. I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I saw the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland on Monday. Together we are determined to ensure that there should be no threat to a peaceful and successful Olympics.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a murder in Londonderry in recent weeks and the continuing targeting by dissident republicans of a number of people, and not just in the border area, but across Northern Ireland. Is he content in his discussions with the Chief Constable and the Minister for Justice that the necessary resources are in place to deal with the escalating problem?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that disgusting and deplorable murder. I spoke to the Chief Constable this morning, and I would remind the hon. Gentleman that we agreed a special package of £200 million at the request of the Chief Constable, who said in April last year:

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

When he recently acquitted those charged with the murder of Tommy English, Mr Justice Gillen reminded us that the use of accomplice evidence is long established and, in the words of his judgment, is

“a price worth paying in the interest of protecting the public from major criminals”.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the relevant provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 will remain available to the PSNI?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to engage in dialogue with dissident organisations that show no signs at all of renouncing their violent or criminal ways?

My hon. Friend is quite right. As I said a few moments ago, there is absolutely no excuse for pursuing political aims by anything other than peaceful democratic means, through the Assembly and representation in this Parliament. There are small numbers of groups that do not accept the current settlement, and we are determined to bear down on them.

May I say again to the Secretary of State that we will stand with him in tackling any threat to security in Northern Ireland? In tackling terrorism, resources for the police and security services are obviously paramount. Does he also agree, however, that the many community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland contribute hugely to a peaceful and stable society? Can he therefore update the House on progress with the Peace IV funding bid to the European Union, which is so helpful to maintaining security?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continued support on these serious security issues, which must remain a bilateral matter. I entirely agree with him about the community projects and funds. What we are putting into security can only contain the problem; the long-term solution is to get deep into those communities. I called a meeting with Eamon Gilmore and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to look at the Peace IV funds, which we think would come from our existing budgets.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. The financial support for communities, currently almost £300 million, is crucial to combating paramilitarism, maintaining security and ensuring that we continue to build the peaceful future in Northern Ireland that we all want. Will he ensure that he gives this matter the urgent attention that it deserves?

I would genuinely like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we talk about this matter frequently, not only with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister but with the Justice Minister, whom I saw on Monday. A lot of these projects are now in devolved hands—many of them in the hands of the Department of Justice—and we entirely agree that they need to carry on.

United Kingdom

2. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits to Northern Ireland of remaining part of the UK. (97674)

This Government firmly believe in the United Kingdom. We believe that what we can achieve together will always be much more than we can ever do apart. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we will always back the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am extremely grateful for that reply. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Union ensures that all parts of the UK can be part of a larger and stronger economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having only 2.8% of the UK population, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom. I was interested to see a poll yesterday that had been conducted by Queen’s university, which showed that 82.6% wanted to remain in the UK, and only 17.4% wanted a united Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in addition to there being enormous advantages and benefits for Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom itself has been strengthened and enriched by the contribution of the people of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, of the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom—not least through the willing and voluntary service of many generations of Ulstermen and women in Her Majesty’s forces?

I entirely endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. Right across every sphere of national life, there are glorious examples—spectacularly so in golf this week—of individuals from Northern Ireland who have shone.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s endorsement of the Union of Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. He rightly refers to the great sporting success of our golfers, and let us not forget our snooker player who won the world championship. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the opinion poll conducted in the highly respected Queen’s university survey, which showed that more than 80% of people wanted to stay within the United Kingdom. Will he now confirm to the House that he has no intention whatever of organising any kind of border poll in Northern Ireland, given the settled position of the people there and the levels of satisfaction with the present constitutional settlement?

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that. As Secretary of State, I have the right to call a poll when I feel like it; I have an obligation to call a poll when there is a clear indication that there would be a vote for a united Ireland. Given that only 17.4% were in favour of that option, and the fact that I have received hardly any phone calls, e-mails or letters on the issue, I have no intention of calling a poll at the moment. We should concentrate on the economy and on building a shared future; that is the real priority for the people in Northern Ireland.

In addition to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said about the economy and the many great advantages to all parts of the United Kingdom of being part of the Union, will he confirm that the present level of public expenditure in Northern Ireland could not be sustained under any other constitutional arrangements, regardless of the destination of the Province?

The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a telling point. Public spending per head in Northern Ireland is currently £10,706, which is about 25% higher than it is in England. That is a huge advantage for Northern Ireland. It gives us time to rebalance the economy as well as showing the key role that membership of the UK plays for the people in Northern Ireland.

Further to the words of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), one of the advantages and benefits of the United Kingdom is a common defence policy, to which men and women of Northern Ireland have contributed greatly. How does the Secretary of State feel, on today of all days, about men and women who are military personnel being made compulsorily redundant?

I am a strong supporter of the military in Northern Ireland. I wear the Royal Irish wristband, because that regiment is stationed at Tern Hill in my constituency. [Interruption.] What I feel is that we inherited a complete mess from the last Labour Government. We are currently borrowing £232,000 a minute, so, sadly, the Government have had to take very difficult decisions.

Bill of Rights

3. What meetings he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. (97675)

In September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to party leaders suggesting the possibility of the Assembly taking forward work in this area; we have yet to receive a response. Ministers and officials have continued to discuss this issue with human rights organisations since.

The Minister will know, of course, that the establishment of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was part of the Good Friday agreement, and that it is a matter for all people in Northern Ireland. Will he not accept, however, that both he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have a duty to bring about consensus rather than simply to listen to what people are saying without doing what is right and proper to ensure that we get consensus among all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

The House will want to acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s part in the Good Friday agreement in trying to pursue the Bill of Rights. Frankly, however, that was when he should have pursued it, instead of squandering the good will that he and his Government had generated at that time. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman a couple of quick examples of our problem. First, the Secretary of State wrote to the First and Deputy First Ministers and all the party leaders back in September, but he has had no reply to his letters. Secondly, the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to the Office of the First Minister, asking it to nominate someone for the commission. It is now March, but no reply has been received. We thus face a problem, as we see no way forward without consensus.

Does the Minister agree that this important work towards a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, human rights more generally there—might have a useful role to play in the Government’s determination to do something about significant reform of the European Court of Human Rights?

As my hon. Friend knows, a UK commission is being set up to look into the matter. We want Northern Ireland to be represented on it. Equally, we believe that this commission could provide the necessary vehicle for the inclusion of rights particular to Northern Ireland.

Has the Secretary of State had any meetings or correspondence with other stakeholder groups that might be interested in or concerned about a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland—Churches, advice bureaux or Women’s Aid, for example?

We meet Church leaders frequently, and this is one of the matters we discuss with them. It is fair to say that the Secretary of State and I recently met the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights—and we discussed this matter with her. We cannot get much higher than that.

As well as corresponding with the leaders of political parties in Northern Ireland, will the Minister kindly tell us whether his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General actually believes that Northern Ireland needs a separate Bill of Rights?

My right hon. and learned Friend came to Northern Ireland several times when we were in opposition. He was always of the belief, as we are, that any rights particular to Northern Ireland should be tagged on to any UK Bill of Rights. I alluded earlier to a lack of consensus. The hon. Lady will be aware that in a debate in the Assembly last year, Members voted by 46 to 42 against a motion calling for a robust, enforceable Bill of Rights. As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) earlier, that is a perfect example of the problem we face. We cannot impose; this has to come from within Northern Ireland. When it does, we will respond accordingly.

Pat Finucane Review

4. What representations he has received from the Finucane family since his announcement of the Pat Finucane review. (97676)

I have not received any representations from the Finucane family since the establishment of the Pat Finucane review last October.

The Secretary of State will know that the Finucane family, Madden and Finucane Solicitors, Judge Cory, the Irish Government, the United Nations special rapporteur and the Weston Park agreement have all called for a public inquiry. May I urge him to meet the Finucane family and Madden and Finucane Solicitors, so that the truth of the murder of Pat Finucane can be established and the reconciliation can be completed?

We have gone into the issue in some detail in written statements and in an oral statement made a couple of months ago. I wrote to Mrs Finucane soon after we came to power, and when I met her in November 2010—I was the first Secretary of State to do so for some years—I established with her that we wanted to get to the truth. I think that the method we have chosen, a review of a huge archive that is more extensive than that available to Saville, is a quicker way of getting to the truth, and will deliver satisfaction to the family. I am more than happy to meet them, and I hope that they will work closely with the de Silva review.

When was the Secretary of State made aware that the legal representatives of the Finucane family were indicating that they would accept a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, based on the Baha Mousa standards and principles? Did he inform the Prime Minister, and who decided to head off that credible option at the pass at the Downing street meeting?

We discussed all sorts of options for arriving at the truth as fast as possible. My public statement is on the record, and a judicial review is in progress. I think that the full details will be revealed in that.

In the context of victim issues such as the Finucane murder, is the Secretary of State alarmed by what has happened in relation to other cases, such as the murder of Tommy English? In that case, the police appointed an independent oversight team consisting of a political appointee and an English barrister. It was the first time that such a team had ever been appointed in connection with a British case involving a police investigation. Does the Secretary of State agree that that was a reckless act which must never be repeated in an independent police investigation?

I think that in all these areas we must be very careful to respect the independence of the police in operational matters, the independence of the prosecuting authorities and the independence of the judiciary, and I would apply those principles to the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

The case of Pat Finucane is one of many cases in Northern Ireland that reflect the tragic legacy of our past, and we believe that a comprehensive process is needed to address that. Can the Secretary of State update us on his recent discussions with local parties about how to proceed with that approach?

As the hon. Lady knows, I established that there was no consensus at my meeting with her and other members of her party on Monday. Some parties want to draw a line in the sand and cease all activity, while others favour the establishment of an extensive international legacy commission. We will continue to work, and talk to individuals and local parties, but at the moment I see no consensus.

Inward Investment

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First and Deputy First Ministers and their colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to attract foreign direct investment, and I have just returned from accompanying the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on a trade mission to the Gulf states in support of two Northern Ireland businesses.

On the eve of the Budget, and in the light of the clear need to improve our economy and opportunities for inward investment, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the co-operation between Invest NI and UK Trade and Investment?

I have made a very good assessment. I am a member of the Economic Affairs (Trade and Investment) Cabinet Sub-Committee, and I am glad to say that it is to discuss ways in which UKTI and the devolved Administrations can co-operate better. There will be a meeting later in the year, which I think will benefit both organisations.

Despite the best efforts of the Northern Ireland Executive, rates of business formation in Northern Ireland are lower than in the rest of the UK. What plans do the Government have to make good their fault as identified by the Business Secretary that they lack a compelling vision on the economy?

As this is Northern Ireland questions, I think I should limit myself to Northern Ireland. We have a very clear idea of the economy in Northern Ireland. We want to support it, and we believe it needs to be rebalanced. [Interruption.] This afternoon the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy will meet to examine the possible devolvement of corporation tax to Northern Ireland, which we believe would be a significant move. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. As a matter of courtesy to the people of Northern Ireland, it would be good to have a bit of hush.

I am sure the Minister will agree that inward investment into Northern Ireland is always welcome, but we must not forget small indigenous businesses that have been there for many years. [Interruption.] Will he join me in welcoming the £30-million investment by the Asda group in one site in my constituency, which is in an area that has not had investment for 35 years? [Interruption.]

Of course I welcome that investment. The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of business in his constituency, and I look forward to spending a day with him shortly. He will be aware of the growth fund, which will help small and medium-sized enterprises with strong potential for growth, particularly in the international markets. We believe these moves by the devolved Administration are the right ones.

Has any progress been made on the devolution of corporation tax responsibility? When can we expect something to happen on that front?

As I have said, following the Loyal Address to Her Majesty, there will this afternoon be a joint ministerial working group meeting, at which corporation tax will be discussed.

Economic Development

7. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (97680)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First and Deputy First Ministers and their colleagues in support of the Executive’s efforts to develop the economy. We also work closely together on the joint ministerial working group on rebalancing the economy, which—I now say for the third time—will meet this afternoon.

Manufacturing exports from Northern Ireland rose in the last quarter, which is great news in respect of the effort to rebalance the economy. What further steps is the Minister taking to ensure our exports increase?

It is good news that Northern Ireland sells £12.4 billion-worth of manufactured goods abroad, and has almost recovered to the pre-recession level in sales to Great Britain—indeed, sales to GB achieved a new record. Those are very positive trends, on which we seek to build.

Investment in research and development is crucial for economic development in Northern Ireland, just as it is in Macclesfield. Will my hon. Friend therefore join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland Executive on the 6% increase in research and development investment over the past year?

Yes, I will. Research and development is crucial to the development of the economy, and investment in it increased by 6% in Northern Ireland last year, to £334 million. The Northern Ireland Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is keen to continue with research and development, not least for small and medium-sized enterprises, which both she and I believe are vital.

Given the need to pump-prime the economy in Northern Ireland and given the fact that the Finance Ministers met on Monday, are the disputes about the £18 billion allocation to Northern Ireland as part of the devolution dividend near resolution, and if not, what are the areas of disagreement?

That was not raised officially at the meeting, but later on I had my own bilateral over a cup of coffee with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is in his place. We discussed progress on this matter, and he informed me that it continues, but it is slow. The Chancellor is now in his place, too, and he may be interested to learn of what the hon. Lady has just said. This is still being discussed, and it will take some time.

Economic development in Northern Ireland is being held up by the reluctance of banks to lend to viable businesses and their withdrawing of capital from existing businesses. What discussions has the Minister had about whether banks in Northern Ireland are meeting their Merlin targets? Also, why is it that the Merlin target figures can be published for Scotland, but not for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which he also made in the Finance Ministers quadrilateral last week. We need to get more lending to companies in Northern Ireland, where we are fishing in a smaller pool because we do not have so many banks to lend. We want to see those figures and to work together to see how we can get more lending to smaller companies.

Defence Capability

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the contribution of soldiers from Northern Ireland to UK defence capability; and if he will make a statement. (97681)

I would like to pay tribute to all those from Northern Ireland and, indeed, from all regions of the United Kingdom who serve in our armed forces. I speak regularly with ministerial colleagues across Whitehall on matters relating to Northern Ireland, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that much can be learned from the Royal Irish Regiment, which recruits from all sections of the community?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I am very proud to have the Royal Irish stationed in my constituency. I went to the Barossa dinner on Monday, celebrating the capture of the first French eagle with the cry:

“By Jaysus, boys, I have the cuckoo.”

The regiment is a glorious example of an organisation that brings people together from all parts of the community, including from south of the border.

In recognising the tremendous sacrifice of our brave soldiers from Northern Ireland in contributing to the defence of the United Kingdom, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a time bomb of mental health problems facing those who return from the field of conflict? What steps are being taken to assist those people?

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments and I pay tribute to the three rangers of the Royal Irish who sadly lost their lives in the Helmand campaign last year. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the mental health problems that can occur and I discuss this with my right hon. Friends in Cabinet. He should also discuss it with the local Ministers who are responsible for delivering those services in Northern Ireland.