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Northern Ireland

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Situation

1. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (123801)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. Excellent work and co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners has put those involved in terrorism under huge pressure. We continue to be vigilant in our efforts to counter the threat posed by those groupings, whose activities are condemned by the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Security sources tell us that paramilitary involvement was evident in the public disorder around the disputed parades this summer. What is her assessment of loyalist paramilitary involvement in the riots seen in Belfast in July and August?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her congratulations. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), for all the work that he did for Northern Ireland. I also take this opportunity to reflect on the contribution that Sir Stuart Bell made to Northern Ireland as a Front-Bench spokesman. He was a great Member of this House and will be much missed.

In response to the hon. Lady’s question on public disorder, it was deeply regrettable that we saw scenes on our television screens a few weeks ago that many had started to associate with Northern Ireland’s past. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is determined to ensure that those scenes are dealt with, and we are doing everything that we can to support its efforts to crack down on paramilitaries and on rioting of the disgraceful sort that we saw in September.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every measure will be taken to prevent the so-called new IRA from destabilising the political process?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants. A huge amount of effort is being put in by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners. I also commend the contribution of the Garda Siochana in the efforts to counter terrorism. We are determined to defeat the threat of people who continue to have lethal intent and will do everything that we can to prevent them from achieving their aims.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her position, and indeed the Minister of State. I wish them well in their new responsibilities.

The Secretary of State will know that the Home Secretary announced this morning that the threat level from dissident republicans on the mainland has been reduced from “substantial” to “moderate”. Does she share the concern of many people that such an announcement may be premature and somewhat counter-productive? Will she assure the House, given the recent experience of intelligence-level reports, that there will be no reduction in security and no complacency on the part of the security forces?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. We will continue to be vigilant in the face of the continuing threat of Northern Ireland-related terrorism. He will appreciate that the change announced today relates to Great Britain, as he said. The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. In both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Government are focused on defeating terrorism and we will use all the means at our disposal to do that.

I thank the Secretary of State. She referred to the situation in Northern Ireland and said that the threat level remains at “severe”. In the light of that, has she had discussions with the Chief Constable about the threat level from dissident republicans? Will she look positively on any request from the Chief Constable to extend the Treasury reserve funding of £200 million, which was announced in 2010, to help the PSNI deal with the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland?

I had the opportunity to discuss those matters with the Chief Constable in some detail yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the importance of the £200 million of additional funding, which is devoted to countering the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. We will certainly have discussions with the Chief Constable and the Treasury on what might occur after the cessation of that £200 million of funding.

I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady and her colleague to the Northern Ireland Office. I am quite sure that they will enjoy their posting to the mainland in Northern Ireland. Now on to my question—and it is a serious one.

Given that two very brave, young British soldiers were murdered by dissident republicans at Massereene barracks in March 2009 and that, since then, we have lost several of our soldiers in Afghanistan who grew up in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Lady confirm exactly when her colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, will visit Northern Ireland, not to tell the troops that they are to be made redundant, but to boost their morale, beginning with Palace barracks in my constituency of North Down?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and I will certainly pass on her request to the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that a Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence is due to visit Northern Ireland fairly soon.

May I begin by paying tribute to my colleague Sir Stuart Bell? He served as a Front-Bench Northern Ireland spokesman and retained a deep affection and concern for the place throughout his time in the House.

I wish the previous Secretary of State well in his new post and welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. I want to work with her constructively and in a bipartisan way, particularly on issues relating to security.

This morning, the Home Office reduced the threat to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism, but the threat in Northern Ireland itself remains “severe”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no downgrading of the Government’s commitment to combat terrorism anywhere in the United Kingdom?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The change to the threat level does not affect our commitment to bearing down hard on the small minority of people who still seek to use violence and terrorism as a means to achieve political ends.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she agree that we need to confront those who want to destroy peace at both the security and a community level, and that we should not take for granted the progress that has been made?

Young people in socially and economically deprived areas are vulnerable to exploitation by paramilitaries. With one in four out of work, what is the Secretary of State doing to tackle unemployment and ensure that Northern Ireland’s young people get the better future that they were promised and deserve?

I welcome the bipartisan approach that the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue. It is of course vital that we bear down on terrorism using a range of strategies. We have already discussed the £200 million of additional funding that the Government have devoted to countering the security threat and keeping people in Northern Ireland safe and secure. We are doing all we can to boost the economy with our programme to repair the public finances and reduce the deficit. We are reducing corporation tax across the United Kingdom to enhance the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for inward investment, and we are providing tax reliefs for the creative industries, including high-end television. We are determined that Northern Ireland will remain a great place in which to do business.

Economic Development

2. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development. (123802)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a number of their colleagues, and we have renewed the Government’s commitment to supporting their efforts to promote economic development and help rebuild and rebalance the economy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Financial Times recently described Belfast as the top destination globally for investing in financial services technology. Does she agree that when it comes to attracting and encouraging foreign direct investment, Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer potential investors?

It has indeed, and I had the honour of discussing these matters in a meeting in the city only recently. Northern Ireland has seen some striking success stories, such as the investment by Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange. I praise the role of the universities in Northern Ireland, which have engaged with business, particularly in the financial services technology sector. That is an incredibly important industry for the UK as a whole, and it is a matter of real credit to Northern Ireland that it has successfully obtained so many inward investment jobs in the financial sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their positions.

I understand that in the negotiations on corporation tax, the point at issue is not one of principle but one of cost, with one side estimating the cost to the Northern Ireland block at £300 million and the other estimating it as being in the region of £420 million. What is the Secretary of State’s understanding of that? If the latter is the case, how does she intend to suggest that the gap be met in discussions with the Treasury, and what will her advice to the Prime Minister be?

Real progress has been made on the issue. The working group on corporation tax concluded on Thursday, and we are now proceeding to write up our findings and will report them to the Prime Minister in due course. We have an idea of how devolved corporation tax might work in a way that would not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on business. The hon. Lady is right that there are still important practical issues to resolve and alternatives to consider, and we will continue to work on those matters.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new positions.

When it comes to economic development, the Secretary of State will know that about 70% of employment in Northern Ireland is in the public sector. What will she do to grow the private sector? I hope she will work closely with bodies such as the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses.

I am very happy to work with all business bodies in Northern Ireland, and they do a great job in representing Northern Ireland. Much has already been done to enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland—in particular with the boost for superfast broadband—and Belfast is due to become one of the UK’s first 10 super-connected cities. The United Kingdom Government took the decision to devolve long-haul air passenger duty to conserve vital transatlantic flights, and we are working hard to attract inward investment. It is important to use the UK’s network of embassies around the world to promote the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, as a great place in which to do business.

What support will the Secretary of State give to Northern Ireland when it comes to negotiations with the EU on regional aid?

I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Foster to discuss that matter last week. We decided that we would work together to make representations to Brussels on assisted-area status in Northern Ireland, and together we will make the case for Northern Ireland.

Fuel Laundering and Smuggling

3. What progress she has made on implementing the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s third report of session 2010-12 on Fuel Laundering and Smuggling in Northern Ireland, HC 1504. (123803)

May I, too, pay tribute to Sir Stuart Bell? He served as shadow Northern Ireland Minister and served his country in many different roles. He will be a sad loss to us all.

Fuel fraud is primarily an excise offence and a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and its counterparts, including the Northern Ireland Office. I welcome the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was very useful, and many of the issues and recommendations it contains will be taken forward. Fuel fraud is taken very seriously and remains a high priority.

Following the memorandum of understanding signed by HMRC and Irish revenue commissioners, will the Minister say what progress has been made on putting in place a single tender procedure for the marker for rebated diesel, and will he assure the House that there will be no slippage on the agreed timetable?

Work continues on that agreement, and there is no doubt that dealing with fuel fraud, as well as with tobacco smuggling, is a top priority for the Government in the Province. We know that money from things such as fuel smuggling gets into the wrong hands and jeopardises the peace that we are all looking for.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions.

One recommendation in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was that sentences for such crimes in Northern Ireland should be strengthened because they are far weaker than those in Great Britain. Will the Minister do all he can to help bring about those stronger sentences recommended by the Committee?

I met the Minister for Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and we will work together to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. As I said earlier, money made from such crimes often goes to the wrong areas, and we are looking forward to ensuring that it does not.

I add my voice of congratulation to the Secretary of State; I know that the people of Northern Ireland wish her and her colleague well in their new roles.

A recent HMRC report on measuring tax gaps revealed that fuel smuggling over the past year has increased from involving 12% of all diesel sold in Northern Ireland to 25%—a staggering increase. Does the Minister agree that HMRC must be encouraged to find a measure that will allow it to mark properly fuel in Northern Ireland, so that it cannot be stripped of its mark and sold as counterfeit?

This sort of technical work is being looked at carefully, and one element that will help enormously is the lorry road user charging legislation that the Government started to bring forward yesterday. That will create a more level playing field for all hauliers—those who are hit hardest by this problem—across the entire United Kingdom including, quite rightly, in Northern Ireland.

Economic Policies

4. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies in Northern Ireland. (123804)

6. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s economic policies in Northern Ireland. (123806)

The Government’s priority is to return the UK economy to sustainable, balanced growth. To achieve that we are tackling the deficit and creating the conditions for private sector investment and growth. Such investment and growth is critically needed to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, and we shall work in close partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Will she reassure the people of Northern Ireland that none of the £40 million that the Government have admitted they wasted on the west coast main line franchise fiasco will come out of the budget of her new Department?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are determined to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland. I noticed that, under Labour, the Northern Ireland economy became more dependent on public spending. The west coast incident has no impact on Northern Ireland—I am happy to assure him of that.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thank her for her contribution to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which she visited on Monday.

Less consensually, the chief economist of the Northern Bank last week said:

“Ed Balls and Vernon Coaker were correct this week in asserting that Northern Ireland requires strong growth initiatives now, not later. As well as government investment on infrastructure, Northern Ireland needs demand stimulating policies such a VAT reduction and tax breaks for local companies taking on more workers. These are the initiatives that are needed to create jobs”.

Does the Secretary of State agree?

When the shadow Chancellor finally got round to visiting Northern Ireland, all he came up with was more tax, more borrowing and more spending. The reality is that that is all Labour has to offer in its economic policy. All hon. Members know that we cannot borrow our way out of a debt crisis. The problems in Northern Ireland and across the UK are to a large extent caused by the significant deficit left to this country by the Labour party.

Last year, Facebook paid £280,000 on tax on UK earnings of £20.4 million, because most of the moneys were transferred and paid through its base in Dublin. Does the Secretary of State agree that Facebook would have paid a substantial amount to the Treasury if it had paid corporation tax in Northern Ireland, and, more importantly, that that would have boosted the Northern Ireland economy?

It is important that all companies pay their fair share of tax. HMRC has devoted very significant resources to cracking down on tax evasion and artificial tax avoidance. The Government are devoting more effort and energy to that task than any previous Government, and we will continue to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the great drawbacks in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, on job-producing economic initiatives is the dead hand of the planning system? What steps will she take to seek to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to hasten the planning system, particularly with regard to large-scale projects?

I agree with my hon. Friend that reforming the planning system is vital to ensuring that a country is a good place in which to do business. He will appreciate that planning is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I very much welcome the Executive’s work on seeing whether the planning system can be reformed to make it more effective and efficient.

May I join the compliments of the occasion to the ministerial team and add to the tributes to Sir Stuart Bell?

The Secretary of State seized on concerns about current banking and business in Northern Ireland, but is she focusing on the future business of banking in Northern Ireland and the implications that arise from UK legislation, such as financial services and banking reform measures, and the shake-up in the Irish banks and moves towards banking union, which has severe implications for our economy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Clearly, Northern Ireland was perhaps more impacted by the property crash and banking crash than many other parts of the UK because of its links with the Republic of Ireland economy. The hangover of negative equity is a serious problem, which is why it is essential that we work to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the most it can out of the recently announced funding for lending scheme to get much-needed business credit flowing back to business.

I feel sure we will have a textbook example of brevity from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain).

I congratulate the Secretary of State on assuming her post. May I probe her on the link between security and her economic policies? It was no coincidence that Labour achieved the 2007 settlement with record jobs and record levels of growth. Now we have the very reverse, with young loyalists and republicans involved in all sorts of civil disturbances. There is a link.

One reason we need to boost the Northern Ireland economy is that we must do all we can to choke off potential support for terrorism. It is also important that the UK Government, the community across Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive work on generating a genuinely shared future and on bringing down sectarian barriers. That, too, is an important part of our strategy to choke off support for terrorism.

Belfast’s glorious maritime history is an essential component of economic growth. In welcoming the Minister of State to his position, may I thank him for the work he has undertaken to ensure that HMS Caroline will for ever nestle within the slightly chilly bosom of Belfast lough? When he draws up the guest list for the re-launch, will he not forget Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, the last instructor on HMS Caroline and now a Doorkeeper in this very House?

I happily praise the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, the shadow Minister, who I know has had a long-standing interest in HMS Caroline. I also thank the National Heritage Memorial Fund for providing £1 million to secure the future of HMS Caroline in Belfast. [Interruption.] I hope that that will be welcomed by Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, who is part of our House of Commons.

I am immensely grateful to the Secretary of State, but we need a bit of order in the House so that we can hear both question and answer alike.

Air Passenger Duty

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of the level of air passenger duty for short-haul flights on the regional economy in Northern Ireland. (123805)

The impact of air passenger duty on Northern Ireland was carefully considered last year, and, in recognition of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agreed to the Northern Ireland Executive’s request for the devolution of APD for all direct long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland airports.

I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their first Northern Ireland questions, and associate myself with the kind comments about Sir Stuart Bell.

Is the Minister aware that the business community in Northern Ireland is unanimous in its view that the high level of passenger duty is helping to strangle potential economic recovery? Will he tell us more about the unique circumstances that he mentioned?

I just about heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I think he asked about future APD. Interestingly, when I looked into the matter, the Executive did not ask for short-haul powers. If they had, we would have considered it. If they want short-haul powers, therefore, we will consider the matter, although there would, of course, be a cost to their own Exchequer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cut in APD in Northern Ireland will allow airlines to develop further long-haul services and significantly stimulate the Northern Ireland economy, and would that not be true across the whole of the UK?

My hon. Friend draws me into territory that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is sitting to my left, will probably ensure I do not dwell on. There was a sustainable argument for the exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Executive requested long-haul APD, and the Chancellor gave it to them. Should they request something more, we would consider it.

Does the Minister agree that the reduction in APD is a key driver in attracting inward investment? Will he agree to negotiate with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, should it propose that short-haul APD—in other words, at Belfast City and Londonderry airports, as well as for international flights—also be reduced?

I will continue to work as closely as I can with all parts of Northern Ireland, particularly the Department of Finance and Personnel and businesses, but there would be a cost to the Minister for Finance and Personnel, which I know he is aware of, but as yet we have not had a request for short haul. If we do, we will look at it.

Smithwick Tribunal

7. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on extending the deadline for the completion of the Smithwick tribunal. (123807)

As yet, I have not had the opportunity to have introductory discussions with the Irish Government, although I have had discussions with the Irish ambassador in London. Although the sponsorship of the Smithwick tribunal is a matter for the Irish Government, I am aware of the recent intention to extend the deadline for the tribunal to complete its work.

It is absolutely crucial that the tribunal is extended because of the revelations in recent times. We need to get to the truth of the matter. These were the two most senior RUC officers to be murdered by the IRA and there is strong evidence of collusion on the part of Irish state forces, so we need to know precisely what happened.

I think we would all agree that what we require is the truth. The Republic of Ireland Government have been asked for an extension, that is true, and we will give all the assistance we can. In recent weeks we have given more help in the form of the evidence we have discovered in the north and we will continue to do so.

Legacy Issues

8. What further steps she plans to take following the initial round of talks with Northern Ireland party leaders aimed at finding consensus on dealing with the past and its legacy. (123809)

It is important to find a way to deal with the legacy of the past in an inclusive way that recognises the pain caused to victims and survivors while helping everyone in Northern Ireland move forward towards a genuinely shared future. A way forward can be delivered only if a wide range of people and political parties in Northern Ireland work together to build consensus.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new roles. Does she agree that finding an agreed and comprehensive way of addressing the legacy of the past is critical and should be a priority not only because of the current generation, who were impacted on directly by the troubles, but as a means of tackling the deep-seated sectarianism that still exists in Northern Ireland and prevents us from achieving our objectives financially, economically and socially?

I agree that that is an important priority and pay tribute to the work of the hon. Lady and her party on this matter. It is important for us all to work together to see whether we can build consensus and foster mutual understanding of the past, reconciling the different perspectives of the past in the different traditions in Northern Ireland. As she says, our goals should be to bring people together and try to eliminate the sectarian divides that still exist.