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Northern Ireland

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fuel Laundering

1. What discussions his Department has had with HM Treasury on loss of revenue as a result of fuel laundering in Northern Ireland. (114370)

My Department has regular discussions with HM Treasury on a wide range of issues. Fuel fraud is primarily an excise offence and, therefore, an excepted matter that falls to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works closely with the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland and its counterparts in Ireland.

Despite the fact that over the past six years more than £2 billion has been lost in revenue as a result of criminal activities through fuel laundering, HMRC has taken only 28 cases to court, and there has been only one custodial sentence, which was suspended. Does the Secretary of State believe that that is an adequate response from HMRC or the court system in Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I appreciate his knowledge of this subject, as Minister of Finance and Personnel. He makes a very good point, which I have discussed with David Ford, the Minister of Justice. We have agreed that we should work together so that Northern Ireland sentences can be appealed against if considered too lenient.

In the Select Committee’s recent report, we identified as a major problem the fact that a marker had not been developed sufficiently quickly. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with HMRC about the development of that marker, which would make fuel fraud and laundering far more difficult?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for his question and congratulate him on a very interesting report, which showed that real progress had been made—£250 million lost in forgone revenue down to £70 million, which is a major improvement. He makes a very good point about marking. There is an HMRC strategy and there is also a memorandum of understanding that has been signed with the Irish Revenue Commissioners. We keep in close touch on this matter.

Welfare Reform

The reforms that we have introduced give us a rare opportunity to transform our welfare system into one that is fair to all, looks after the most vulnerable in society, and above all, always rewards work.

In view of recent criticisms of the Work programme and the Prime Minister’s view that housing benefit for the under-25s should be discontinued, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the Government’s policy is for youngsters? Is it to create jobs or simply to tolerate their exploitation?

I think the right hon. Gentleman underestimates the fact that the issue is devolved, and we are working closely with the devolved Minister with responsibility in this area and other Ministers in the Executive on the arrangements which will be debated shortly as the Bill is taken through the Assembly. It is very important that local circumstances are taken into account so that the Bill that emerges from the Assembly suits the circumstances in Northern Ireland.

I am in regular contact with Nelson McCausland, the relevant Minister, and he is optimistic that he will stick to the schedule, which will enable Northern Ireland to come on stream, as planned, with the Department for Work and Pensions here.

Many people in Northern Ireland view changes caused by welfare reform with increasing concern. Northern Ireland has had 30 years of a terrorist campaign. That has led to many people suffering disability, both physical and mental; 15,000 people in Northern Ireland are on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, and 180,000 people are on disability living allowance. Can the Secretary of State assure us that every step will be taken to ensure that the unique position of Northern Ireland is taken into account when it comes to the benefits system?

Nobody underestimates the terrible damage the troubles did to people physically and mentally, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that high rates of DLA are not unique to Northern Ireland; Merthyr Tydfil has a rate of 13%, which is very similar to that of Belfast. What I think is important is that for the first time each person will be treated as an individual, his circumstances will be taken into account and rehabilitation, re-education and training will be offered. That has not come about before.

Given that many benefit claimants in Northern Ireland have their payments paid directly into Ulster bank and, because of the ongoing debacle caused by the IT problems, have therefore been unable to access their only source of income and their own money, what assurance can the Secretary of State give that he has had robust discussions with RBS, his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Northern Ireland Executive, to find a long-term solution to this agonising problem for many people, which has heaped on them misery upon misery?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the very real problems that people both in and out of work are suffering due to the IT breakdown. I raised the matter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills yesterday. Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, was in Northern Ireland on Monday and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State talked with him yesterday and is keeping in close touch. Ultimately, this is a problem for RBS to resolve internally, through Ulster bank, by getting the computer technology right, but the hon. Lady is right to raise the matter. This is causing horrendous problems not just for benefit claimants, but for those in regular employment.

Banking Reform

3. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the likely implications for Northern Ireland of banking reform and financial service regulation. (114372)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been in discussion with ministerial colleagues about this matter. The action plan announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on Monday will drive up standards and bring much-needed and long overdue regulation to the sector.

The Minister will recognise that Ulster bank customers are currently experiencing a third-class, poor standard of care. Does he feel that there is some risk of a similar syndrome whereby Northern Ireland is only an afterthought in the hierarchy of consideration when it comes to wider banking regulation and reform? We all rightly ask about the banking of business, but should more active consideration be given to the future of the business of banking in the region, particularly given the compound implications of reform and regulation from London and the changing Irish banking landscape, including moves on banking union?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, as was recognised in his exchange with the Chancellor on 28 June, when the Chancellor acknowledged that

“Northern Ireland has suffered enormously from the failure of banks in the UK and in the Republic, and it has paid perhaps a heavier price than anyone else”—[Official Report, 28 June 2012; Vol. 547, c. 476.]

On the specific point about banking reform, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a Banking Reform White Paper, the consultation period for which closes in September, so I urge him to contribute. On Ulster bank, I think we should be clear that this is not a failure of banking, but a failure of IT, and we should not confuse the two.

On that point about Ulster bank and the failure of IT, I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said, but is it not frankly outrageous and unacceptable that 15 days after the problem first appeared, individuals, households and businesses still cannot access their money in the normal way? Can he outline in more detail what he and his colleagues in the Treasury are doing to provide a little more flexibility for those facing cash-flow problems?

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman and some of this colleagues are meeting Ulster bank and RBS this afternoon to represent the views of their constituents, and rightly so. Let us not underestimate this. There are people in the Northern Ireland Office who cannot get money either, so this is something very close to many of us. He will be aware of the press release that RBS issued this morning. It is fair to point out in my conversation yesterday with Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, he told me that they would

“treat our customers properly and fairly”

and that the bank will

“compensate fully for financial loss”.

We shall hold the bank to that undertaking.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for raising the issue of compensation, but does he agree that, as well as reimbursing customers for direct costs, Ulster bank and RBS must ensure that where financial damage and loss has occurred, whether to a customer, either an individual or business, or a non-customer who has suffered loss as a result of the crisis, compensation in full must be paid in all those circumstances? I would welcome his support in lobbying RBS on that point.

The right hon. Gentleman will certainly have the support of the Secretary of State and myself in ensuring that no one loses out as a result of this IT failure. I was specific on that point to Sir Philip Hampton and I cannot do more than repeat the words he said to me, as I have just done. I will also check with him on Monday to ensure that the bank is making progress in clearing up this sorry mess, which it says it will do over the weekend.

Does the Minister agree that the ongoing problems at Ulster bank underline the need to look at how banks operate? Frankly, this is a crisis. Many families cannot pay their mortgages or rent, get their groceries, buy food or put petrol in the car, and older people cannot get access to their pensions. The Minister has told us what he has done, but what is he doing to try to sort this mess out?

I have a transcript of the shadow Secretary of State’s two interviews on the “Nolan” show, and I have read them carefully, but I am none the wiser as to what he is suggesting. When he was asked about the solvency of some businesses and about liquidity, he said that

“I would expect that government here in Westminster but also government at Stormont needs to consider what to do in those particular circumstances.”

Mr Nolan then asked:

“What could they do?”

The hon. Gentleman replied:

“I don’t know the answer to that”.

If he does not know the answer, we do: it is to make sure that this sorry debacle, involving an IT problem with the Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster bank, which, let us face it, affected the whole UK, is cleared up quickly so that people can go about their normal business in Northern Ireland.

What we have heard there is a complacent answer that does nothing to say to the people of Northern Ireland what should be done. What the Secretary of State and the Minister should have done, and what they should be doing now, is call an emergency summit—get a summit together—of all the people who are responsible for the situation, including the Treasury, Treasury officials and RBS senior management, and to get them to recognise the seriousness of the problem, get it sorted and get a grip. That is what the Minister should do.

I am not an IT expert, but I think that appearing on the “Nolan” show twice and saying absolutely nothing does not show tremendous activity. On the shadow Secretary of State’s further point about banking reform, he will be pleased that this Government have set up an independent commission on banking reform to look at the future of banking and to clear up something that his Government failed to do over 13 years—

It is not complacent.

This is another example of this Government walking around with a giant pooper-scooper to clear up the mess left by the hon. Gentleman’s Government.

Inward Investment

4. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on attracting inward investment. (114373)

I have regular meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to discuss how best we can support the Northern Ireland Executive in attracting inward investment and promoting growth. We have jointly agreed to invite ambassadors from the Gulf states, for example, to visit in the autumn in order to explore how we can promote investment and increase export opportunities.

As with other parts of the UK, including my home city of York, Northern Ireland’s lower operational costs make it an attractive location for investment, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do more to promote such areas if we are truly going to rebalance our economies?

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an ingenious connection between York and Northern Ireland—the only connection that attracted investment before was probably with the Vikings, who took an early interest in both areas.

There are clearly tremendous advantages in Northern Ireland: it is not in the euro; it is extremely good in terms of education; it is a great place to live; and it has low costs, good IT, good connections and good transport connections. Yes, we can do more, but let us just look very carefully at how well Northern Ireland has done to date in attracting inward investment.

If we can move on from the battle of Clontarf, I must say that the Secretary of State is getting the reputation of being something of a one-club golfer when it comes to the Northern Ireland economy. When even yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph referred to a putative corporation tax as “an economic disaster”, one has to ask: does the Secretary of State have another driver in his bag, and will he or his caddy whip it out and show it to us?

We have many clubs, and we shall use them in the same way as they were used at the Open last week—with tremendous professionalism. The whole issue of corporation tax is a key thing that the joint group has been—

It is not a disaster; it is what we have been looking at very carefully.

There are other things that we need to do to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, which both Governments over a successive number of years allowed to become far too dependent, for obvious reasons, and we will use any club available in our or anyone else’s bag to bring that about.

On a recent visit to my constituency, the Minister will have seen some of the inward investment there, but does he agree that it is imperative that Northern Ireland retains its 100% status for regional aid?

What is key, as I saw when I was with the hon. Gentleman, is planning, among other issues, which needs to be speeded up to facilitate inward investment and private sector investment, such as in the new supermarket in his constituency. Northern Ireland had automatic assisted area status, but that is not going to continue, and people in Northern Ireland mainly agree that other areas in the UK are now worse off than Northern Ireland.

I inform the Minister that that is not agreed in Northern Ireland; all political parties there unanimously want Northern Ireland to retain 100% regional aid status because of the special circumstances and the poverty, under-employment, under-achievement and poor prosperity. Can the Minister assure us that he will persuade his colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to support that programme?

I do not think that I said that regional aid was not important; I merely said that, as part of rebalancing the economy and encouraging inward investment, we need to make sure that the 2014 map covers the areas of Northern Ireland that do need assistance. We no longer believe that it is justifiable, however, for Northern Ireland as a whole to have 100% automatic coverage.

In evidence to the Northern Ireland Committee, we were told by one witness—I should point out that it was only one witness—that we had one airport too many and that, instead of having both Belfast International airport and Belfast City airport, we should have only one. If such a daft idea were implemented, what impact does the Minister think it would have on economic investment coming to Northern Ireland?

A very negative one. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Northern Ireland justifies two airports. They are both thriving concerns and we have had some good news on air passenger duty. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is saying that I should not forget Eglinton airport either, and possibly others. We should certainly have Aldergrove and George Best Belfast City airports, which should thrive. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and I are very positive and optimistic; we are trying to attract more airlines to fly in and out of Northern Ireland to grow the economy. The hon. Lady is spot on.

Economic Development

5. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (114374)

11. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (114380)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I meet regularly with Northern Ireland Ministers in support of their efforts to promote economic development and to help rebuild and rebalance the economy.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Northern Ireland Executive to encourage them to set up enterprise zones?

I have regular discussions with the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Minister of Finance. Last year’s Budget, which became the Finance Act 2011, made that facility available. There are 24 enterprise zones in England, four in Scotland and seven in Wales. They have the capacity also to have enhanced capital allowances. I am in favour of them as a benefit for Northern Ireland, but this is a devolved issue and a devolved decision.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that economic development in Northern Ireland would be much assisted by greater competition on the ferry routes in the Irish sea? A good start would be the restoration of the ferry link between Fleetwood and Larne.

I wholeheartedly endorse what my hon. Friend is doing in trying to improve ferry links across the Irish sea. I cannot think of a better place to expand to than Fleetwood.

Does the Secretary of State accept that economic development is being hampered in Northern Ireland by the lack of willingness among the banks to assist businesses through these difficult economic times? Surely the Government can do more to force the banks to assist our economy, bearing in mind that taxpayers are the ones who helped them in their hour of crisis.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. No one could have worked harder than my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the First Secretary, who have been working with the banks ensuring that credit is freed up. Above all, let us not forget the complete mess that we inherited—the biggest deficit in western Europe. Through the robust measures that we have taken, we have kept the confidence of the international markets and have the lowest interest rates since the middle ages.

Londonderry (City of Culture)

7. What assessment he has made of the likely effect on Londonderry of becoming the UK’s first city of culture; and if he will make a statement. (114376)

Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) aspires to be a statesman; he should not be yelling across the Chamber—yes, you!

They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Speaker.

My officials have been working closely with Derry-Londonderry Culture Company to ensure that the year-long programme will have social, economic, cultural and political benefits in the short term and as a legacy beyond 2013.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. May I also ask him what lessons the city of Plymouth can learn from the city of Londonderry-Derry in its bid to be the city of culture in 2014?

Of course, as a west country Member of Parliament I am hugely supportive of Plymouth. The whole issue of whether the city should be called Londonderry or Derry seems to be resolved, as we are now going to call it Legenderry. Plymouth is already legendary, not least on account of its excellent Member of Parliament. My hon. Friend should get his councillors to come over to Londonderry during its year as the city of culture, and I will introduce him to all the key players who are going to make it the most happening place in Europe.

In promoting Londonderry as the first UK city of culture, does the Minister agree that job retention and job maintenance is a crucial factor? In that context, will he speak to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who I assume will make an announcement on this in a written statement today, to ensure that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency offices are preserved in Northern Ireland so that 260 jobs are not lost in my constituency?

On the latter point, I understand that the Minister is putting out a written statement today, and I do not want to prejudge what he might say in that.

On the longer-term economic benefits to Londonderry, yes, that is a vital issue. Of course, there will be a lot of prosperity around in the year that it is the city of culture, but that should be the building block to cement the renaissance that has gone on in the city, not least with the regeneration of the Ebrington barracks site and the peace bridge.

Security Situation

8. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. (114377)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. The Government remain fully committed to countering violence in all its forms and supporting the overwhelming majority of people who want to live without fear and intimidation.

The Secretary of State is aware of the so-called punishment attacks by paramilitaries on young people in Northern Ireland. These attacks are increasing, particularly in Derry, by a group styling itself Republican Action Against Drugs. What every community needs is strong policing, not vigilantes. Will he proscribe this group? [Interruption.]

Order. May I remind the House that we are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland? This is a matter of the utmost seriousness, and I think that some display of attention would be appreciated by the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. These attacks are barbaric and inhumane and have absolutely no place in a modern Northern Ireland. The only legitimate police force enforcing law and order is the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and it is for it to work with the community. On proscription, I keep all these issues under review.

13. The Chief Constable of the PSNI, Matt Baggott, recently said that the Northern Ireland Executive must do more to tackle disadvantage in the areas where dissident republicans hold sway. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Executive to address this issue? (114383)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The second layer of our strategy in bearing down on these groups is to get into those communities, but nearly all the projects are in the hands of local Ministers. We strongly support the CSI—cohesion, sharing and integration—strategy, which we want to be published as soon as possible, because we believe that the future is a shared future, not a shared-out future.

12. Last night we had a briefing from senior retired police officers about the threat to national security from evidence that is being given in inquests in Northern Ireland that opens up the whole modus operandi of our security forces and security services. What do the Government intend to do to protect national security from this threat? (114381)

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issue. A whole number of legacy inquests—up to 32—are coming down the track. I would like to assure him formally that measures are in place under the existing arrangements that allow an inquest to go ahead fairly, but information that might be dangerous if released to individuals can be held back. There are measures that can be worked out, but the final decision rests with the coroner. Until now, these arrangements have worked well, and they will continue in their current guise.

Given that many of those historic inquests will doubtless require the disclosure of highly sensitive national security intelligence, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Justice Secretary about his decision not to provide for a closed material procedure in relation to inquests?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. I have regular meetings with the Justice Secretary. I talked to him on the telephone this morning. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman would wait, I treat each case individually and remain in close touch with the local Justice Minister on such issues.