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Northern Ireland

Volume 545: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Reform

I regularly discuss the benefits of our reform agenda with Executive Ministers and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I spoke yesterday to the Minister for Social Development, who will shortly introduce a welfare reform Bill to the Assembly. Lord Freud, the Minister responsible for welfare reform, will visit Northern Ireland again tomorrow and Friday to continue the discussions.

As my right hon. Friend will know, many aspects of social welfare are already devolved to Northern Ireland. Does he agree that it is very important that parity with Great Britain is not broken on this issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would be very damaging to Northern Ireland if parity were broken, because these reforms will bring tremendous benefit to many of the most disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland. At the same time, this very much has to be a Northern Ireland Bill. I am working very closely with the local Minister, to whom I spoke yesterday, to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility so that when the measure comes to the Assembly, it conforms to the needs of local communities.

I say to the Secretary of State, SUFTUM, and I am sure he will on Saturday.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that the welfare reform flexibilities that our Northern Ireland Minister is seeking will be accommodated at a policy level, but also at a practical level within the universal credit IT system? It will be vital to have those flexibilities in place next year.

For those who are not enlightened, “SUFTUM” is “Stand up for the Ulster men”. We all heartily congratulate the team on having got to where they will be on Saturday, and we wish them all the best.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that flexibility means that the detailed welfare reform measures must be adapted to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The most obvious one is that there is no council tax in Northern Ireland. I am working closely with the local Minister, and Lord Freud, who has been a frequent visitor and will be in Northern Ireland for two days at the end of the week.

Is the Secretary of State aware that conservative estimates indicate that when welfare reform is implemented in Northern Ireland, it will remove about half a billion pounds from the pockets and purses of low-income households? Apart from the social consequences, will he give his assessment of the macro-economic effects of that significant cash withdrawal from the Northern Ireland economy?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, but I have to remind her that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, does not agree with her. He has said:

“The claim that welfare spend will fall in Northern Ireland and will lose £500 million is clearly not true. All that will happen is that welfare spending will still be increasing but at a slower rate than if no reform agenda is pursued.”

National Crime Agency

2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the implications for Northern Ireland of the replacement of the Serious Organised Crime Agency by the National Crime Agency. (106610)

I am in regular discussion with both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Minister of Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I believe that the plans for a National Crime Agency should be welcomed in Northern Ireland as a significant step forward in tackling the threat from serious, organised and complex crime in a way that respects the accountability mechanisms in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State, but does he agree that notwithstanding the views on the National Crime Agency, there are specific issues to consider in Northern Ireland about the direction and control of police officers? Will he say more about how he intends to address those issues?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the chance to clarify that I have worked very closely with the Justice Minister David Ford and the Home Secretary here to ensure that the NCA’s systems and methods of direction are totally compatible with the arrangements in Northern Ireland, which provide strong local accountability. In effect, no direction will go forward without the compliance of the Chief Constable. I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that horrendous crimes such as trafficking need an overarching authority working in close liaison and co-operation with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and, through the PSNI, with the Garda in Dublin.

In a recent report, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlighted the importance of the work of the Organised Crime Task Force in the fight against fuel and tobacco smuggling, and laundering and counterfeiting. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the National Crime Agency will play a similar role in the Organised Crime Task Force to that played by the Serious Organised Crime Agency?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and his Committee for their interesting report, which showed significant progress in bearing down on fuel smuggling. I absolutely reassure him that the intention of the National Crime Agency is to work on the success of SOCA and beef it up, and to bear down on many such crimes, which have an international nature.

Does the Secretary of State accept that role definition and delineation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the National Crime Agency is important? Does he envisage a memorandum of understanding in that regard, and if so, would it be published?

I entirely agree that the arrangements between the new agency and the devolved police in Northern Ireland must be absolutely clear. There has been an exchange of letters between me, the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland and the Home Secretary here, with an absolutely clear statement that there can be no direction from the NCA, only co-operation with the approval of the Chief Constable.

Will the National Crime Agency have more resources than its predecessor to tackle cross-border criminal activity?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the proposed changes will have no detrimental effect on the fight against terrorism and organised crime?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely the reverse: the proposal is for a stronger agency, with a clear remit to co-operate in a vigorous manner with the PSNI. As I have said, the PSNI works closely with the Garda—I saw Martin Callinan, the Garda Commissioner, in Dublin on Monday. We should never forget the extraordinarily high level of co-operation we have with the Garda. On very serious crime such as terrorism, that co-operation is saving lives as we speak.


3. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106611)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106612)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106615)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (106618)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. Those who remain intent on committing violence are defying the will of the overwhelming majority of people, who want to go about their lives without fear and intimidation. This Government remain fully committed to countering terrorism in all its forms.

Newry has unfortunately had three significant bomb threats in as many weeks. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to encourage those who have information about those involved in dissident activities to come forward to the police and stop those who are intent on driving Northern Ireland backwards?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right on how to defeat the small minority of people who are defying the overwhelming majority of people of Northern Ireland, who support the PSNI and co-operation with the Garda and who want to make Northern Ireland a peaceful, prosperous place. The former are completely unrepresentative, but we do not underestimate the fact that they are dangerous. My hon. Friend cited the Newry bomb. Had that not been disrupted by police activity, it could have caused very severe danger. We are not complacent, but the key is co-operation between the communities, the people and the police.

Given the danger that former prisoners will re-engage in paramilitary activities, will my right hon. Friend inform the House what steps are being taken to monitor prisoners released on licence, and under what circumstances those licences may be revoked?

If you do not mind, Mr Speaker, I should like to take a few moments to answer this question, which is a matter of huge consequence and debate in Northern Ireland.

The parole commissioners are an independent body appointed by the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland. The commissioners’ role is to make decisions on the release and recall of life-sentence prisoners in Northern Ireland. If information is brought to my attention, I share it with the commissioners and seek a recommendation from them regarding whether to revoke a licence. If they recommend that I do so, I will revoke, because I have a duty to protect the public. The commissioners then arrange a full hearing at which the prisoner can present his or her case and challenge the evidence against them. The commissioners make their decision on whether to release the prisoner because they are no longer a risk to the public, or whether the prisoner should stay in custody. The commissioners’ decision is binding. For those who remain in custody, cases are reviewed every one to two years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the term “alternative policing” is not only a disgrace but a worrying development that needs to be stopped?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I discussed recent events involving Republican Action Against Drugs with the Chief Constable this morning, and he described some of those activities as an obscenity in a modern democracy. There is absolutely no place in Northern Ireland for any alternative authority. The duly constituted authority, responsible to the democratically elected Assembly and Policing Board, is the PSNI, which needs to work with the full co-operation of the public. The situation is frustrating. As the Chief Superintendent said on television yesterday, the PSNI needs information from the public, so I appeal publicly to all those with any details. Some of these events are horrific and the police need the public’s help to bring the perpetrators to justice. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of private conversations taking place in the Chamber. I remind the House that we are discussing the extremely serious matter of the security situation in Northern Ireland.

Given that the bomb in Newry was twice the size of the one responsible for the atrocity in Omagh, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the police and other services have all the resources necessary to maintain safety and security in Northern Ireland?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. Shortly after we came to power, we reviewed the security position in Northern Ireland and recognised that, sadly, a small number of people were flouting the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland and trying to pursue their aims through violence. Working closely with the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, we have worked out a programme, costing £200 million over the next four years, and I am pleased to say that the Chief Constable himself says we have the resources, the resilience and the commitment to meet the threat.

In dealing with security, the Secretary of State will be aware that yesterday evening the PSNI revealed that, alongside other police forces in England, it had retained body parts and human tissue in 67 cases of suspicious and unexplained deaths without notifying the families of those possibly murdered. He will no doubt share my shock and will have sympathy with the relatives being told this terrible news today and in the coming days. What action does he now advocate taking, in co-operation with those in Northern Ireland, to deal with this serious issue?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I entirely endorse his views and sympathise with those families who have heard this news. These are matters of the greatest sensitivity, and they must be very difficult for families to handle. I think we were all unaware that this material existed. It is most unfortunate that the news came out as it did. The Human Tissue Authority issued a direction to all state agencies, and the Association of Chief Police Officers advised chief constables. I talked to the Chief Constable about the matter this morning. As I understand it, the report was due to be published in good order on Monday, and he had prepared a careful plan to address the matter with each individual family in a most sensitive manner. We await the details of the report on Monday, but in the meantime the Chief Constable has assured me that he will have to accelerate his proposals to talk to the families.[Official Report, 16 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 12MC.]

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. Given that this practice apparently occurred between 1960 and as late as 2005—it is now illegal, of course, under new legislation—will he and direct-rule Administrations of the past give full co-operation to any independent review or inquiry that might be set up?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had all better wait to see what the report says, and then I will obviously discuss its implications with the Justice Minister David Ford and the Chief Constable. I suspect that most of the detail might be devolved, but I take onboard what the right hon. Gentleman says. This is a most difficult revelation, and we have to handle it with great sensitivity.

We know how much the security situation in Northern Ireland has improved—we are all thankful for that—but, as we have seen with the recent escalation in the number of attempted bombings and hoaxes, there remains a severe threat from those who wish to take us back to the past. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Army bomb disposal teams do tremendously courageous and vital work, and will he assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that they will receive whatever resources they need to do their important job?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I also thank him, on the record, for his great support in our teamwork with the devolved Ministers in bearing down on criminals in Northern Ireland. Let me reassure him that support for the ATOs—ammunition technical officers—is very much a feature of the £200 million programme that we put together two years ago.

I thank the Secretary of State for his remarks. He will be aware that this week is community relations week and I am sure that he will join me in paying tribute to all those involved in trying to create a shared future in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that legitimate grass-roots community organisations across Northern Ireland do hugely effective work in maintaining security and combating paramilitary activity? For those who rely on financial support from the European Union, will he tell the House what support we can expect from the new Peace IV funding initiative?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we will not bear down on the number of delinquents purely by a security effort. We must give credit to the efforts of the PSNI to penetrate communities and to work on the ground in places where the police have not been seen for many years. This week, we have seen an announcement showing the lowest level of crime for 14 years and the highest level of confidence in policing for a very long time. At the same time, in parallel, there has been success against the terrorists in terms of arrests. However, he is absolutely right that we need to promote the programmes he mentioned, and I have discussed this issue with the Tanaiste, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and together we will come up with a new programme.

The dissident terror threat increases in Northern Ireland, but is the Secretary of State aware that supporters of dissident terror are using illegal fundraising activities here in mainland GB, such as fuel smuggling and so on, to fund the campaign in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are aware that such individuals fund their activities by a number of illegal means, and there has to be a question mark over them, whether they are used by criminal organisations or by paramilitary organisations. All such activities are totally and absolutely unsupportable. We have the full backing of the communities. We are talking about a tiny number of people who are not widely supported, and the way to beat them is for the people in the communities on the ground to work with the police.

Creative Industries

11. What assessment he has made of future opportunities for creative industries in Northern Ireland. (106619)

The creative industries in Northern Ireland are worth £500 million a year and employ more than the agriculture sector. The new relief announced in the Budget will assist the industry directly and help to attract further blockbuster productions such as “Game of Thrones”, which was—indeed, is—filmed in Northern Ireland, creating 800 jobs.

After the Oscar win for the excellent Northern Irish film “The Shore” and the financial boost given to the film industry by the Chancellor, does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland has a creative industry to be proud of, bringing in investment in skills and jobs?

I certainly do agree, and we should not forget that for every £1 spent on the arts, the economy benefits to the tune of £3. There is absolutely no reason why the Cathedral quarter in Belfast cannot rival Temple Bar in Dublin or Covent Garden in London in terms of new creative industries and technologies, and we are very excited by that prospect.

Following the sell-out success of Belfast fashion week, what support can the Minister give to high-quality local designers and niche manufacturers to ensure that local retailers buy quality local goods and do not buy from abroad?

My hon. Friend is right, and of course it is not just about those designers and textile manufacturers in Northern Ireland; it is about those around the world. I refer him to Patrick Grant, the Savile Row tailor of E. Tautz—judging by the look of my hon. Friend, he has been to visit him on a number of occasions—as well as Jonathan Anderson and others. There are a huge number of people, both in Northern Ireland and outside, in the industry, and we are—to repeat myself—very excited by the prospects for the industry. [Interruption.]

Order. There are some very noisy private conversations taking place. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Alok Sharma.

Does the Minister agree that the announcement in this year’s Budget to introduce corporation tax reliefs for film and television production will bring even more value to Northern Ireland’s proposition as a world-class production location?

For my hon. Friend I repeat above the hullabaloo that Northern Ireland is a world-class destination for film and TV production. I welcome the moves taken in the Budget to encourage further investment there. The Paint Hall studio in the Titanic Quarter has recently been used for “City of Ember”, the mediaeval comedy “Your Highness”, and, of course, the first two series of the European “Game of Thrones”, which has so far brought about £43 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Yes, we are open for business, and if anyone out there is watching—I am sure there are many—come to see us in Northern Ireland and we will assure you of an excellent service.

Will the Minister encourage the British film industry to make more use of the facilities available to it in Northern Ireland?

I rather hoped that was what I had just done, but I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s question so that I can repeat again that Northern Ireland is a great location, providing a great landscape, very willing people, a hard-working work force, financial incentives and great studio production facilities. More than that I cannot say.

Although it is well and good to encourage the creative industries in Northern Ireland to create short-term employment on some occasions, what can the Minister do to encourage the small to medium-sized companies in Northern Ireland that are currently on their knees? [Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm down. It is difficult even for the Minister to hear the question. Let us hear the reply.

The Budget provided a number of measures and most of them apply, of course, to Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to visiting a number of these companies with the hon. Gentleman in the forthcoming days or weeks. The Budget was designed for the United Kingdom as a whole to retain the fiscal responsibility that is the signature of this Government. Everyone benefits from low interest rates and from taking lower-paid people out of taxation altogether. This is not just for small companies in Northern Ireland; it is for small companies the length and breadth of the kingdom. It was a good Budget to help this country on the road to economic recovery, which it deserves.

Air Passenger Duty

The Government have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on this matter and have reduced air passenger duty on all direct long-haul flights from Northern Ireland from 1 November 2011. Provisions to devolve APD are set out in part 3 of schedule 23 to the Finance Bill, which is awaiting its Committee stage.

I thank the Minister for his response. The Secretary of State recently had a meeting with Willie Walsh of BAA and was assured that the Belfast city airport flight routes were safe. The staff at bmibaby are on a 90-day protective notice, as flight routes are due to finish. At that meeting, air passenger duty was also discussed. If there is one initiative that can retain flights, it is the reduction of APD for Northern Ireland. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce APD and to secure jobs?

It is very important to make this situation clear. Northern Ireland Ministers asked for APD to be devolved only for bands B, C and D, and we were able to meet that request, thanks to our all-listening Chancellor. We have not been asked to devolve band A flights, which would reduce the block grant by a substantial amount. The hon. Gentleman’s question allows me the opportunity to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been very proactive on this matter, working with the local Minister of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment, Arlene Foster. As the hon. Gentleman says, my right hon. Friend has spoken to Willie Walsh a number of times. Keeping those routes open from Belfast to Heathrow is very good news.

Order. I ask the Minister to shorten his answers, as other Members wish to participate in the debate.

13. Further to the question on air passenger duty, should the Government not be doing much more to expand Belfast airport, particularly the air links, especially if we are to promote more public sector jobs in Northern Ireland? (106621)

I hope my hon. Friend meant more private sector jobs in Northern Ireland, but more jobs there is great news. The employment figures for Northern Ireland are better today—better than in other parts of the United Kingdom. We are not on the back foot on this one: we want more traffic and more flights to and from Northern Ireland; that is what we are working towards.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with many members of the business community in Northern Ireland, that air passenger duty charges are inhibiting business access and activity, and making it even more difficult to achieve growth and business development?

I think that this is an opportunity for the Chancellor to be given some credit for responding to what the Executive wanted and having air passenger duty devolved, which is good news for Northern Ireland. We want more flights into and out of Belfast, and we are on the right road towards achieving that. We have also saved the flights to Heathrow, which is good news for the businesses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Corporation Tax

8. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential effect on the Northern Ireland economy of changing the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland to that obtaining in the Republic of Ireland. (106616)

The low corporation tax rate in Ireland has been a key factor in attracting investment. The ministerial working group chaired by my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary is considering the potential impact of devolving the power to vary the corporation tax rate to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

I know that the Secretary of State is, like me, a great believer in low taxes to stimulate the economy. What discussions has he had with the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and with the Treasury, to try to lower the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear—and the Leader of the Opposition will be delighted to hear—that, thanks to the reductions in corporation tax introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, 57,000 more people are in jobs in Northern Ireland than were in jobs before the election. The ministerial group is working closely with Ministers in the devolved Administration, the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury to establish whether further steps could be taken to reduce corporation tax and devolve it to Northern Ireland, and we will report later in the summer.[Official Report, 21 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 13MC.]