Skip to main content

Northern Ireland

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Recent Disturbances

1. What discussions she has had with political leaders about recent disturbances in Northern Ireland. (145437)

I have had regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and other political leaders in Northern Ireland about the disturbances of recent months. The protests should now end. A way forward that commands broadly based support can be found only through dialogue and working together.

In the light of the recent successful interception of four mortar bombs by the police in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps she is taking to counter the work of terrorists whose aim is to kill and maim innocent people?

The attempted terrorist attack this week demonstrates how severe the terrorist threat continues to be in Northern Ireland. It was only through the highly effective action of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners that mass casualties were averted. The Government remain vigilant in the face of the threat and have included it as a tier 1 priority in their national security strategy.

The interception of the mortar bomb attack prevented a devastating attack on Londonderry and saved lives. In the light of the string of attacks and attempted attacks from that particular quarter, will the Secretary of State tell us what extra resources she is going to give to the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland in the coming year to counter the dissident terrorist threat?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that shortly after taking office the coalition devoted an extra £200 million to national security priorities in Northern Ireland, which has been tremendously helpful to the PSNI, not least in enabling it to replace its Land Rover fleet. We will continue our discussions on the successor funding when that £200 million runs out, and we continue to do everything we can to support the PSNI and its partners, and the Northern Ireland Executive, in countering this threat.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some of those involved in the dissident terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland who have been charged with the most serious offences, including murder, have been released on bail in recent days, while others who have been involved in the protests and who are likely to receive a non-custodial sentence have been remanded on bail. Does she understand the bewilderment of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that situation, and the anger that is perpetuated in the community by what is perceived to be this double standard?

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that those are matters for the courts, not for me as Secretary of State and not for the police. I am afraid that the courts make their own decisions on those matters, taking into account the risk of reoffending.

The Secretary of State says that those are matters for the courts, and indeed they are, but the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has referred to the huge challenges now facing Northern Ireland from the so-called new IRA and from the loyalist demonstrations. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now have more than just regular discussions with political parties, and that she really needs a structure for those discussions with the Irish Government and with all the political leaders in Northern Ireland if we are to deal with those serious issues?

Of course it is important that those discussions continue. I had a very helpful meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Tánaiste a few weeks ago, and we hope to put another so-called quad meeting in the diary very shortly. Both Governments believe that it is important for a dialogue to occur on flags and symbols, and for progress to be made towards the shared future in Northern Ireland that everyone in the political leadership wants. It is essential that that should now be delivered.

In view of the current political difficulties and the impasse on some issues, would the Secretary of State consider it useful to convene round-table discussions involving herself, the Irish Government and all the political parties in Northern Ireland?

It is important for Northern Ireland’s political leadership to develop a process so that the leaders of all the political parties can work together on matters such as flags and identity. That is an important way of ensuring that the protests come off the streets and that we find a genuinely inclusive way to decide on these issues. The Belfast agreement gives guarantees on protecting identities of Irishness and Britishness, and it is now time for the political parties to work together to see how we can translate those guarantees into a sensible way of approaching issues around flags and symbols in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments to date. At a time when the PSNI is under extreme pressure and when the rule of law is under threat from loyalists and republicans, does she agree that it is hugely important that all political leaders in Northern Ireland give their unambiguous support to the rule of law and to the PSNI, and that they articulate within their communities the need to support those organisations and principles, rather than simply becoming a voice for dissent?

I agree. I am firmly supportive of the PSNI, which does an outstanding job. It has dealt with these protests in a very sensible way, and it has faced difficult situations. Indeed, almost 150 of its officers have been injured, so it has my firm and unqualified support. I hope that it will enjoy that support from Northern Ireland’s political leadership as well.

In her recent discussions, has the Secretary of State been able to confirm that the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill tabled by the Home Secretary, which would allow her to transfer lead responsibility for counter-terrorism to the National Crime Agency, will not apply in Northern Ireland and that the Chief Constable will remain in overall control of all counter-terrorism investigations and operations?

The Home Secretary certainly agrees that if there were any suggestion of extending the NCA’s remit to national security matters in Northern Ireland, that could happen only with the consent of the Chief Constable of the PSNI. The primacy of the Chief Constable is retained to ensure consistency with the devolution of policing and justice.

Welfare Reforms

2. What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the Government’s proposed welfare reforms. (145438)

4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. (145440)

Earlier this morning, I discussed these matters with the First and Deputy First Ministers at the Joint Ministerial Committee. I am sure that the whole House would say that a simpler benefit system will reward those in work and the vulnerable in our society.

On 27 February, the Minister responsible for social development in Northern Ireland, Mr Nelson McCausland MLA, said:

“I have said many times already that I have concerns about the potential impact of Welfare Reform on local people. I will continue to work with Ministers in Westminster to mitigate against the most negative impacts of these reforms.”

Will the Minister tell us what he thinks the “negative impacts” of welfare reform in Northern Ireland are and what progress he has made in helping the Minister in Northern Ireland to address them?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has been to Northern Ireland on many occasions and is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the particular Minister with whom I have also worked. The measures are going to be difficult, but we face the situation that work needs to pay and that under the present system it does not. In Northern Ireland, of all the areas of the United Kingdom, welfare desperately needs reform.

One effect of the welfare reform changes in Northern Ireland is that, on the most recent figures, 98,000 children in Northern Ireland are now living in poverty. Indeed, the Belfast West constituency is the second highest in the whole of the UK in that respect. Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), will the Minister explain exactly what he is doing about that particular aspect, which does not necessarily have anything to do with people being in or out of work, but is having a distinctly negative impact on many Northern Ireland households?

Child poverty was discussed this morning at the Joint Ministerial Committee, and it has been an aspiration for all of us, over many years, to get rid of it. The situation in Northern Ireland, however, is that too many people and families are completely reliant on welfare, and that unless we reform the system it will not be possible for them to get off benefits and into work, which must be the aspiration for all of us.

I join the Secretary of State and the Minister in praising the bravery and success of the police in preventing a terrorist attack in Londonderry on Sunday night. As the right hon. Lady said, those who seek to destroy peace and progress will not succeed, but we have to remain vigilant to the threat they pose. On welfare reform, will the Minister tell me how many people in Northern Ireland will be adversely affected by the bedroom tax?

That is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we all want to make sure that the people who come to see us at our surgeries on a regular basis who are inappropriately housed or cannot be housed can be put in social housing if they need it. In Northern Ireland, between 2010 and 2012, the budget went up by 10.7%, with more than £500 million spent on housing benefit. We have to do something about that, while mitigating the effects on those in need.

The “not me, guv” attitude will not work. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, 66% of working age social tenants in Northern Ireland will be affected, and 32,000 people will lose out as a result of the bedroom tax. The Government have given no consideration to the specific issues to do with housing in Northern Ireland—from the type and scale of stock to the segregation in and between communities—so will the Minister urgently meet the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the disastrous consequences of this policy?

Well, that is the Labour party’s position. What we want to do is get people into housing that will be beneficial for them. Every week families come to the surgeries of Members throughout the House, and throughout the United Kingdom, and say to us, “I do not want to sleep on the floor any more, and I do not want my kids to sleep on settees.” How can we help them when others are living in one and two-bedroom properties although they do not need that excess capacity? What is the Labour party going to do about that? I expected the shadow Minister to ask about the very difficult security situation in Northern Ireland, but he has not done so today.

Is the Minister aware that there will be a £10 million a year deficit in housing benefit following the implementation of the bedroom tax, which will leave families in the Province in dire straits? Will he review the changes in the Northern Ireland block grant so that smaller homes and apartments can be built?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, has adopted the Labour party “tax” mantra. This is not a tax. What we are trying to do is make the position fairer for all our constituents. It is true that capacity is an issue in Northern Ireland; the problem is that there are too many people in the wrong sort of housing, and we need to help them to get into the right sort.

Is the Minister aware that Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of dependence on benefits in the United Kingdom, that a high proportion of its population have mental and physical disabilities, and that its provision for affordable child care is the lowest in the UK? Will he assist the efforts of the Minister in the devolved Department for Social Development—along with the Department for Work and Pensions—to secure mitigation measures other than those that have already been announced in relation to welfare reform in Northern Ireland?

Of course I will continue to work closely with the Minister in the devolved Administration. However, the best way in which to help those who are receiving welfare benefits is to get them off benefits and into work as soon as possible.

Youth Unemployment

The Government’s efforts to reduce the largest deficit in UK peacetime history and deliver sustainable economic recovery are an important way of dealing with youth unemployment. Further specific measures to help young people in Northern Ireland to find jobs are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, with whom we are happy to work closely.

Given that youth unemployment now stands at over 20%, does the Secretary of State not share Opposition Members’ sense of urgency about the need to get Northern Ireland’s young people back to work? We have proposed a bank bonus tax that would help to create 2,000 jobs for those young people. What specific things are the Government going to do?

I will take no lectures from Labour on youth unemployment. Youth unemployment rose by a third—by 35%—under Labour in Northern Ireland, youth employment fell by nearly 10%, and economic activity among young people fell by 3%. We are determined to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Our deficit reduction plan is keeping interest rates low, which is vital for job creation and investment, and corporation tax is being reduced. We have also recognised the special circumstances of Northern Ireland by providing, on average, a higher block grant per head than is provided anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Since it was established by the British and Irish Governments, the International Fund for Ireland has played an important role in facilitating and encouraging investment in projects that support communities, businesses and young people. What future role does the Secretary of State envisage for the IFI, and how can it help the Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the IFI. It has done tremendous work in the past, and continues to do that work. I shall be happy to meet IFI representatives to discuss how we can work together more closely to address youth unemployment issues. I am sure that they will engage with Northern Ireland politicians who will travel to the United States for the St Patrick’s day commemorations in a week or so.

The Secretary of State referred to corporation tax. Will she update the House on her discussions with the Treasury about the possibility of devolving to the Northern Ireland Assembly the power to set its own rate of corporation tax?

I have had a number of very useful discussions with the Prime Minister and Chancellor on this important matter. The Prime Minister will meet the First and Deputy First Ministers shortly to discuss it further, before deciding on possible next steps.

Youth unemployment in my constituency has increased significantly in the last year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that that figure is not added to by the closure of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office in Coleraine, and will she speak with the relevant Transport Minister to make sure that those 200 jobs and their cost-effectiveness are preserved by bringing employment across to Northern Ireland?

I am very much aware of the importance of this issue. I was in the Coleraine area only last week, and I have discussed this matter with the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). He is aware of the concern felt in Northern Ireland, and he either met Alex Attwood for further discussions yesterday or will meet him today. It is important that he takes into account the views of Northern Ireland before he makes his decision.

Instead of saying, “It’s not me, guv,” and shuffling responsibility for the terrible level of disaffection among unemployed young people in Northern Ireland, why does the Secretary of State not accept that it is her Government’s macro-economic policies that are causing this disaffection? With the marching season coming up and the loyalist disorder just past, this is a very toxic situation and she is just walking away from it and shuffling responsibility on to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Not at all. The Government’s macro-economic policy is focused on dealing with the deficit and creating the right conditions for growth so we can start to resolve problems in relation to youth unemployment. That is why we are focusing on such matters as keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit and reducing corporation tax; why we are investing in broadband capacity—that is why Belfast and Londonderry are going to become part of our super-connected cities programme; why we are offering tax breaks for high-end TV, another growth area of industry in Northern Ireland; and why the Prime Minister is bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland, to showcase it to the world as a great place to do business.

Political Parties (Funding)

In general, UK-wide party funding rules apply to Northern Ireland parties. However, the Electoral Commission cannot disclose information that relates to donations or loans to Northern Ireland parties. The Government are committed to making party funding more transparent, while ensuring donor identities are not released retrospectively.

I am most grateful to the Minister of State for that answer. He will know there is cross-party consensus that political funding in Northern Ireland needs to be more transparent and accountable to the public. Will he therefore engage with all the political parties who choose to take their seats here, to ensure we make progress on this very important issue?

Not only will I engage with all political parties that take their seats here, I will also engage with those that do not, because I think this is a very important issue. In the last couple of weeks, with the shadow Minister for the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), we took through a statutory instrument that puts in place an extension until September next year. We hope to be in a better position next year, but we must protect those who may be vulnerable should they wish to donate to a political party.

For years this House has allowed the disgraceful situation to continue whereby Sinn Fein has been able to draw down tens of thousands of pounds of representative money without providing representation in this House. Discrimination against true democrats must be stopped. When will the Government grasp the nettle and stop this intolerable abuse and inequality of funding?

I recently discussed this matter with the Leader of the House. This is a matter for the House, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will like to raise it with the Leader of the House. He might, perhaps, even get a debate on it.

Notification Requirements (Public Processions)

6. What consideration she is giving to bringing forward an amendment to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 in relation to notification requirements as part of the proposed Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. (145442)

Under the relevant legislation, anyone who is organising a parade must notify the Parades Commission. If they fail to do so, the parade is illegal and those who organise or participate in it are liable to criminal prosecution.

First, as the MP for the city in question, may I join in the Secretary of State’s earlier condemnation of the attempted murder attack and her commendation of the PSNI interception of it, averting devastation and death?

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there was a gap in the understanding of the Parades Commission and the PSNI in relation to unnotified parades, and that that created a situation whereby we were getting dangerous notions, instead of responsible heads? Does she recognise that we, as legislators, may need to clarify the law on parades so that things are not destabilised during the forthcoming parades season?

I am always open to considering ideas for making these decision-making processes work better, but the reality is that the problem over recent weeks has not been how the legislation is structured—the problem has been that people have not been obeying it. So it is vital, as we go into the parading season, that people respect the decisions of the Parades Commission, notifying it when a parade is contemplated.

I also wish to echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments condemning unreservedly the horrific terrorist attack that his constituency was threatened with and that was narrowly averted by the swift action of the PSNI.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to bringing forward an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill to remove the Parades Commission, which is seen by many as part of the problem and not the solution?

It is vital that everyone recognises that the Parades Commission carries out an important function. It is the only lawfully constituted body in relation to parading and its decisions must be obeyed. We have always said that we are open to a reform of the system that would see a devolved solution. If the Northern Ireland political parties wish to put forward such a solution, we will consider it seriously.

Economic Growth

7. What recent assessment she has made of the prospects for economic growth in Northern Ireland. (145443)

The Government are committed to dealing with the deficit to create the right conditions for growth and economic recovery. We are working with the Executive to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost the private sector.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the important thing is to increase our exports for the UK as a whole? What role does she think Northern Ireland can play? What support can she give businesses in Northern Ireland to increase exports?

I am working closely with Northern Ireland Ministers on this matter. There are huge opportunities this year to highlight Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest, not least when the eyes of the world focus on County Fermanagh as the G8 summit comes to Northern Ireland, thanks to the personal decision of the Prime Minister. [Interruption.]

Order. In my experience the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) rarely has difficulty in making himself heard, but there is a lot of noise at the moment and so, just in case, let us have a bit of quiet for Mr Stephen Pound.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am mortally obliged, sir.

Some 111,000 working families receiving tax credits in Northern Ireland will lose out because of the Government’s tax on strivers. At the same time, the Government will give a tax cut for those earning £1 million and above. Does the Secretary of State think that economic growth will be helped or hindered by having Christmas in April for millionaires?

The Government are fully committed to their welfare reform programme. We believe that welfare reform is essential to ensure that work always pays. We believe that it is deeply irresponsible for Her Majesty’s Opposition to continue to oppose all the reforms of welfare, which are designed to get the welfare bill down. That spiralled under their tenure of the economy.

Like many other peripheral regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has suffered most during this recession. We understand that reckless expenditure will damage the economy, but would the Secretary of State support the calls by all the regional administrations in the United Kingdom for a fiscal stimulus for capital expenditure, which will create short-term jobs and increase the economy’s capacity in the long run?

As Finance Minister for the Northern Ireland Executive, the hon. Gentleman has options available to him within the block grant, which he receives under the Barnett arrangements; his grant remains considerably higher than the UK average. We are happy to continue to work with him and his colleagues in the Executive to generate inward investment for Northern Ireland and to ensure that our macro-economic policy, for example, on reducing corporation tax, is delivering the maximum benefits possible to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.

Does the Secretary of State understand the strength of feeling from the political parties and the business community about the case for the reduction of corporation tax in Northern Ireland so that it can better compete with the Republic?

I certainly understand that and I gather that the right hon. Gentleman had some lively discussions on that matter at the Alliance party conference. The Prime Minister is well aware of that perspective on corporation tax and I have discussed it with him and with the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister on a number of occasions.

McGurk’s Bar Bombing

I understand that the most recent public report on that tragic event was published by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in February 2011. I tried to place a copy in the House today but have been told that that is not possible, but it will be on the police ombudsman’s website and it is available now.

I am disappointed that the Minister of State is replying, as I would have thought that the Secretary of State would take the chance to repeat her apology to me to the people affected by the McGurk’s bar bombing, which was the biggest bombing before Omagh. Do the Government accept that they cannot devolve the past and that their response should ensure that the suppression of witnesses that happened and the expert evidence that was given but then supplanted by lies and fabrication from the Northern Ireland police are not allowed to continue, so that we get to the truth about the collusion that took place before and after the bomb?

At the outset, let me pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done over the years. I know I upset him the other week when I was slightly robust, but Mr Speaker has also rebuked me for being too soft and quietly spoken in the past couple of weeks. Let us put it this way: I served in the Province and am very proud to have done so. No bomb is acceptable and we must get to the truth.

Will the Minister of State acknowledge that I am a member of the second largest party of opposition in this House—that is, not the Labour party—and indicate what other reports by the Historical Enquiries Team are pending on other atrocities in Northern Ireland? Will he demonstrate that the HET must do more to reassure the majority community, as republicans murdered Protestants in Northern Ireland in cold blood and the HET should demonstrate that in its publications and findings?

The issue has been raised with me on more than one occasion. I have continually looked into the evidence base and if the hon. Gentleman has evidence that such work is not taking place across the political divide in Northern Ireland, he should come and see me about it. He knows that he will get a welcome response.