House of Commons
Tuesday 23 April 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill opposed and deferred until Tuesday 30 April (Standing Order No. 20).
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2007–08 on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010–12 on 24 January 2011, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Humber Bridge Bill
That the promoters of the Humber Bridge Bill, which was originally introduced in this House in this Session, on 22 January 2013, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Free Trade Agreements
1. What progress has been made on the negotiation of European Union free trade agreements. 
The EU has concluded free trade negotiations with Singapore and has launched negotiations with Japan, and EU-Canada negotiations are also in their final stages. An EU-United States free trade agreement would constitute a major contribution to economic growth, and is a top priority for the Government.
Given that the Government were unable to secure significant reform of the common agricultural policy negotiations on the seven-year EU budget deal, what prospect is there is that the Foreign Secretary will be able to make progress on the EU-US free trade agreement?
I think that there is a very real prospect of progress in that regard. There is commitment and real political will on both sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has published its draft negotiating mandate, and President Obama has spoken about the matter. As an agreement with the United States is potentially worth more than £100 billion a year to European Union economies, we will put an enormous amount of effort into this.
As the Foreign Secretary said, the holy grail of EU free trade agreements is the one with the United States, which would create a world-beating single market and a substantial number of jobs, and would help to increase the EU’s gross domestic product. Does he agree that we would look pretty dumb if we were leaving the EU just as it was signing the free trade agreement with the United States?
My hon. Friend has made his point well, but I do not think that anyone is contemplating leaving the EU before 14 June—if, indeed, ever—when key decisions will be made at the Trade Council in the EU. If that process is successful, it will allow negotiations to be launched during the President’s visit to Europe for the G8 summit a few days later. We are getting on with all these matters now.
I apologise on behalf of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), who regrets that he is unable to be here today. I also thank the Foreign Secretary and you, Mr. Speaker, for acknowledging notification of his absence earlier.
An EU-US free trade agreement will be worth an average of £466 a year to every family in the country. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if his Back Benchers and some of his ministerial colleagues achieve their dream of leaving the EU, there will be little chance of our securing a similar bilateral UK-US free trade agreement?
I am not going to speculate about that. We are going to make a success of negotiations between all the members of the EU, including the United Kingdom and the United States. That is our objective. As several Members have observed, this would be a transformational trade agreement, and I hope that there is a strong commitment to it in all parts of the House.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister on their vision in trying to achieve an EU-US free trade agreement, but does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the fact that, on occasion, the European Union is very slow to act and to make such agreements? There is still room for bilateral trade agreements through strategic partnerships between countries.
There is no doubt that working with 27 countries on these matters can be ponderous and slow, but when it is successful, it is of enormous importance. Those are the downside and the upside of circumstances in which competence lies with the European Union. When it works, it works well. The free trade agreement with South Korea eliminated nearly 97% of tariffs, and some British businesses are now enjoying a huge increase in exports to South Korea as a result. We want to see the same thing happen on an even greater scale in relation to the United States.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the EU has a trade agreement with Israel that allows goods to be imported under preference. He and 16 other EU Foreign Ministers have written to Baroness Ashton asking for guidelines to be drawn up to ensure goods produced in illegal settlements are not imported to the EU labelled “Made in Israel”. What steps are being taken to draw up those guidelines and to bring them into force?
The UK has been advancing the case for such guidelines. That was done under the previous Government, and this Government support it. As the hon. Gentleman says, I have taken this up, along with other Foreign Ministers, with the EU High Representative. We look to the whole of the EU to do this in a co-ordinated and effective way.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that, in view of the fact that we have been members of the Common Market for 40 years, it is certainly true to describe negotiations as “ponderous and slow.” Does he agree that this country might have made more progress towards securing a free trade agreement with the United States if we had not been members of the Common Market, or what is now the European Union?
Like other hon. Members, my hon. Friend is asking me to speculate on areas I do not want to get drawn into speculating about. We make the most of the situation we are dealing with. The fact is that this is a competence of the EU, although our strong political will and support within the EU is required to make the most of such free trade agreements. As I mentioned earlier, working with 26 other countries can mean the process is slow, but it also means that when we succeed, that has an enormous impact. My hon. Friend should bear that trade-off in mind.
2. What recent discussions he has had with the Commonwealth ministerial action group on Sri Lanka. 
The UK is not a member of the CMAG, but we have regular bilateral conversations with its members. We do not expect Sri Lanka to be on the formal CMAG agenda at its next meeting on 26 April, but we expect, and support, it being discussed at some stage in the meeting.
The CMAG is the custodian of the Commonwealth’s fundamental values and principles. Given the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka and the impeachment of the Chief Justice, will the Government be calling on CMAG members to take action on Sri Lanka at its Friday meeting?
We have been very clear in a variety of statements, and in direct contact with the Government of Sri Lanka, that they should be upholding the very best of Commonwealth values, particularly in view of their intention to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo later this year. We know from comments by members of the CMAG that they share the concerns and that they will also be expecting Sri Lanka to uphold those values.
Do the Government accept that it is becoming increasingly apparent that great damage will be done to the Commonwealth if the next CHOGM is held in Colombo later this year, given the appalling human rights record in Sri Lanka and its Government’s disregard for the rule of law? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are taking action, along with many other Commonwealth states, to have this matter ventilated not just at the CMAG, but if necessary between Heads of Government, to ensure that action can be taken over the next few months to find an alternative venue?
The decision to site the next CHOGM in Colombo was taken by consensus in the Commonwealth back in 2009, and we have no indication that the Commonwealth intends to change its view on that, but my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to point out the contrast between Commonwealth values and concerns about what is happening in Sri Lanka. We and other Governments have made that clear, and the recent passing of the Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, which the UK strongly supported, is evidence of that.
The Minister just referenced the most recent United Nations resolution on Sri Lanka, in which it noted
“the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”.
Given that Sri Lanka has been judged in those terms by the UN, to what extent does the Minister think the country complies with the principles of the Commonwealth and the recently adopted Commonwealth charter, and should we use CHOGM as a means of leverage to put pressure on Sri Lanka to put its house in order?
The hon. Lady is correct when she says that CHOGM provides the opportunity for us and others to express concerns to Sri Lanka, and to urge it to make good its own promises to fulfil the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations. We have urged it to do so and we will continue to do that.
I was able to speak to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister yesterday. I made reference to our further concerns, whether they are about the impeachment of the Chief Justice or further attacks on the press in Jaffna, and made it clear that if Colombo is to host CHOGM later this year, the spotlight will be on Sri Lanka and it will need to demonstrate to the world how it has responded to these concerns and made good its own beliefs in reconciliation for the future.
May I again urge on Ministers the idea that the Commonwealth should have a group of people independent of the relevant Government, who can go in and look at human rights issues, so that we can have not just a charter, but a method of reporting back to see whether the charter is upheld in Sri Lanka and other places?
The determination of the Commonwealth to uphold the highest principles, the Lancaster principles, and how that can be ensured in all Commonwealth countries, is a matter of active discussion in the Commonwealth. The situation in Sri Lanka has pointed out very sharply the discrepancy between the concerns and those values in principle. I have no doubt that leaders of the Commonwealth and Heads of State are acutely aware of the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises, and will be addressing them.
Indonesia (Death Penalty)
3. What recent discussions he has had with the Indonesian Government about the death penalty. 
The British Government strongly oppose the death penalty, as a matter of principle. We continue to make formal representations to the Indonesian authorities and to speak out publicly on this issue, and they are in no doubt as to the seriousness with which we take this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised our objections to the use of the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister in November 2012.
I thank the Minister for the efforts that the Foreign Office is taking on behalf of Lindsay Sandiford. Does he agree that the Indonesian Government should be left in no doubt that the failure to commute the threat of a death sentence would have serious implications for our relationship with Indonesia, and their standing in the world?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed the death penalty with the Indonesian Foreign Minister during the November state visit of the Indonesian President. I issued a statement on 15 March, firmly expressing UK concern following the recent execution carried out by Indonesia. We continue to be deeply concerned for both Lindsay Sandiford and Gareth Cashmore, who have been sentenced to death for drug-trafficking offences. We are seeking reassurances that Indonesia will not seek to carry out the death penalty in both cases.
May I also thank the Foreign Office for the support that it has given to my former constituent, Lindsay Sandiford? However, given the concerns about the adequacy of translation in the initial trial and the adequacy of legal representation going forward to the Supreme Court stage, will the Foreign Office reconsider its position and follow Indonesia’s own example, which provides support for translation costs and legal costs for its nationals facing the death penalty abroad, and support Lindsay Sandiford through that process, even though it is not legally obliged to do so?
My hon. Friend is right to voice that concern, but it is true that the Government do not pay for legal representation for British nationals overseas. We have been working extremely closely with Lindsay Sandiford’s lawyers and Reprieve in identifying a lawyer for her, and we are prepared to assist her with anything beyond actually having to meet some of these bills, which we just simply do not do.
4. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for the UK of instability in the Korean peninsula. 
5. What steps the Government are taking in response to the recent actions of North Korea. 
6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for the UK of instability in the Korean peninsula. 
Our assessment remains that there is no immediate risk to British nationals living or travelling in the Korean peninsula. But North Korea’s rhetoric and behaviour poses a serious risk to the stability of the region, which includes several of the world’s largest economies. The impact of miscalculation by the North Korean regime could extend well beyond its region. That is why the international response must remain clear, calm and united.
Inevitably and rightly, there has been tremendous focus on the absurd rhetoric of the North Korean regime and the development of its nuclear capability, but last month the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to set up a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea. Will the Foreign Secretary give us an indication of how that work might develop?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about this. The UN Human Rights Council agreed to establish a commission of inquiry. This was a unanimous vote, which is unusual on these issues, and it was proposed in a resolution presented by the European Union and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. This will investigate the most serious human rights violations identified by the UN special rapporteur, including those in political prison camps. It is quite right that we do everything we can to investigate what is known to the world as an appalling record of human rights abuse in North Korea.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a further missile test by North Korea would be illegal, provocative and dangerous in the current climate? What steps has he taken to persuade the Chinese Government to use their influence to urge the North Koreans not to go down this dangerous path and to return to the negotiation table?
As my hon. Friend rightly says, we work with China on this, and of course with the United States. I was pleased that on Secretary Kerry’s visit to China in the last 10 days, the United States and China presented a strong, united position on this. As I reported to the House last week, we were active in bringing together the G8 nations, including Russia, during our meeting with G8 Foreign Ministers in London two weeks ago, to make it clear to the North Korean Government that they have a choice to make: either continue with this provocative path and face further isolation, or engage constructively with the rest of the world.
Clearly, immense challenges remain in the Korean peninsula, including for British citizens and their representatives. What additional support has been provided through the Foreign Secretary’s office to embassy staff in both North and South Korea during this period of heightened threats and tensions?
The offices function very well. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question because it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to our embassy staff in Pyongyang. It is not an easy country for the staff of western embassies to work in, but their work is important, particularly as many of our allies, such as Japan, the United States and South Korea, do not have embassies in Pyongyang. Our embassy is important and the small staff there do a great job. We were informed on 5 April by the North Koreans that they could not guarantee the safety of embassies in the event of war, but we are responding in the calm way that I have advocated, and our embassy sees no need to be withdrawn from Pyongyang.
Despite the limited nature of the threat directly posed to Britain by North Korea, does the Secretary of State agree that the speed with which this crisis has arisen indicates how foolish we would be to downgrade our strategic nuclear deterrent in the future?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That would be a very serious national error. We have to bear in mind that North Korea has paraded, but not tested, a long-range missile with a claimed range of 12,000 km. That is clearly the sort of thing that it is trying to develop, and we must bear that in mind when making the decision that my hon. Friend talks about.
Does not the behaviour of North Korea confirm that vile dictatorships are a threat not only to their own citizens, but to their neighbours? Has the Minister conveyed the full support of the UK to the Governments of South Korea and Japan in the face of outrageous aggression from North Korea? What steps is he taking to ensure that disputes in east Asia are resolved through international law, not military action?
Yes, we are in very close consultation with those countries. I discussed this in detail with Foreign Minister Kishida of Japan when he was here two weeks ago, and last week I telephoned Foreign Minister Yun of South Korea. These countries are very conscious of our support and grateful for the support that we give at the UN Security Council. On other disputes in east Asia, we make it clear to all countries concerned that we wish to see them peacefully resolved and in accordance with international law.
Given the reckless, threatening behaviour in the north, what would the Foreign Secretary say to those in South Korea who would advocate a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent as a central plank of their future national security?
Of course, the goal of international policy is to bring about the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which is something the South Korean Government support, but I believe that it is very important for a country, such as ours, which has a nuclear deterrent that adds enormously to the credibility of the western alliance, to keep it.
Colombia (Human Rights)
7. What recent discussions he has had on human rights in Colombia. 
We recognise the progress made by the Colombian Government to address human rights problems but continue to raise issues of concern when they arise. On 4 March I met Colombia’s Vice-Minister for Defence, Jorge Enrique Bedoya, in London. We discussed various issues, including human rights and military justice reform.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he recognise that there can be no real peace in Colombia until the rights of the democratic opposition and mass social movements, such as the Patriotic March, whose leaders will visit Parliament tomorrow, are recognised? Its members are regularly brutally murdered by both the Colombian Government and right-wing paramilitary groups. Will he assure me that the UK Government will do everything possible to stress to the Colombian Government that democratic opposition is part of a civilized society?
Yes, we absolutely will. We recognise the efforts made by President Santos to date. In fact, our 2012 annual human rights report, which was launched on 15 April, gives our assessment of the key areas where the Colombian Government have made progress and the areas where human rights concerns remain. We believe that the President is making the right moves and that he needs greater encouragement. I welcome the interest shown by Members across the House in holding the Colombians to their word.
I am sure the Minister shares my hope that the latest round of peace talks with the FARC will succeed. Can he update the House on his assessment of what progress has been made in those talks and tell us what representations, if any, the UK has made to President Santos regarding his five-point plan, particularly the fifth point, which is on victims’ rights?
As I said, we are hugely supportive of what President Santos has done to date and very much welcome the talks that have been going on in Havana, which we understand are due to restart in May. We stand by to offer any help we can. I think that it is worth paying tribute to his Government for getting to where they are. It has been a long time since Colombia has been as peaceful as it is today, but there is still a long way to go.
South Africa (Sexual Violence)
8. What progress he is making on tackling sexual violence in South Africa. 
Levels of gender-based violence in South Africa are among the highest in the world. The UK Government have committed £4 million to working with the South African Government, UN agencies and civil society to tackle the root causes.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Constituents of mine have raised concerns about the levels of sexual violence in South African schools. Has his Department had any contact with the Congress of South African Students to discuss that distressing situation?
We have contact with many organisations in South Africa, including Rape Crisis and the Women’s Legal Centre, which works to improve access to justice for poorer people. Our high commissioner has given a series of radio interviews about the issue. We would be happy to add to that work and to those contacts, so I will look specifically at the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
As chair of the all-party South Africa group, may I tell my right hon. Friend how pleased we are about the money that the Foreign Office has made available? Will he use his good offices, those of our high commissioner and our role in the Commonwealth to show how unacceptable such behaviour is in South Africa, and indeed in other parts of the Commonwealth?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and absolutely agree with her. I mentioned how active the British high commissioner has been in highlighting the issue, including during South Africa’s 16 days of activism on gender-based violence in November last year. She also raised awareness of the issue at an international women’s day reception just last month, in March. We will continue that work, with the encouragement of this House.
9. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in South Sudan. 
Much of South Sudan has enjoyed improved security over the past year, but we are concerned about violence in Jonglei, including the recent attack on a UN convoy in which 12 peacekeepers and civilians died. We are supporting community reconciliation efforts and urging the Government to prioritise the protection of civilians.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Have the Government been able to form any reliable assessment of recent events in Eastern Equatoria, particularly the alleged killings by the army in Lorema hospital? Obviously those alleged events follow the recent killing of members of the governor’s bodyguard, but there are divergent accounts and allegations. Have the Government been able to give credence to any side’s version of events?
We are still trying to assess the detail of exactly what happened and to untangle the different stories emanating from that part of southern Sudan. There needs to be recognition that significant progress has been made and that a key part of finding a lasting solution to the tension between South Sudan and North Sudan is the implementation of the agreement that was announced at the United Nations General Assembly last year.
Now that South Sudan and Sudan have resolved their difficulties over oil, South Sudan has the potential to become an extremely prosperous country, but it still has very weak governance. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help the Government of South Sudan enhance their machinery of governance and their capacity properly to govern South Sudan?
My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point: the oil now flowing between and through South Sudan and Sudan creates the opportunity for economic stability, development and growth in the southern part of Sudan, so the Government of South Sudan will have to have additional capacity to deal with the income that will, I hope, flow into the South Sudanese exchequer. Support is provided by the Foreign Office and by the work of our colleagues at the Department for International Development. We are assisting the South Sudanese Government in building that relevant capacity.
10. What assessment he has made of the progress made by the Government of Colombia in tackling impunity and implementing the victims and land restitution law. 
As noted in our 2012 human rights report, the Colombian Government have made some progress on both issues: 170,000 victims have been provided with reparations under the victims and land restitution law. We continue to press the Colombian Government to speed up the processing of cases and reduce impunity, and support them in their steps to reform the judicial system.
I am sure the House will agree that, despite the law’s success, many human rights activists are still in grave danger from death threats, and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development and others have campaigned to highlight the issue. Has the Minister met CAFOD and, if not, will he do so?
The UK’s statement on the UN’s 2013 universal periodic review on Colombia, which we are launching today in Geneva, will call for improved access to justice for victims. I have not to date met representatives from CAFOD, but I would be delighted to do so, particularly if they were accompanied by the hon. Gentleman.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that lessons learned by the UK during the Northern Ireland peace process could be useful in helping us to deliver peace in Colombia?
Having had the honour of serving as Minister of State for Northern Ireland for two and a half years and of now travelling the world, I know that many countries benefit from what was learned in Northern Ireland. I welcome the interest shown in Colombia by Members from Northern Ireland, because what they know can be of huge use to Colombia as it tries to inch towards peace.
The Minister will be aware that, while the land restitution law is good, when peasant farmers return to their land they are coerced, bullied, injured and murdered. Have the Government held any discussions with the Colombian Government to ensure that peasant farmers are given protection when they return to their land?
The hon. Gentleman is right. We are concerned about the right of indigenous people. We are providing technical assistance to the Colombian Government to work towards effective implementation of the new land and victims law, which aims to do exactly that—to return land to huge numbers of displaced people and to compensate victims.
Sexual violence has reached a dangerous level in Colombia. The numbers are ever increasing, yet very few are brought to trial. What can the Government do to highlight this absurdity?
Indeed; in 2012, President Santos launched Colombia’s national public policy for gender equality, and the British Government will provide support to the Colombian Government to promote women’s rights and address discrimination wherever possible. Equally, the British embassy in Colombia is assisting the Colombian Government in looking at these extremely serious issues.
11. What discussions he has had with his Commonwealth counterparts about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in 2013 and the progress being made on tackling human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. 
We have discussions with our counterparts in the Commonwealth on a variety of subjects on a regular basis, including on CHOGM. We make every effort to reiterate our concerns about human rights directly to Sri Lanka, whenever we get the opportunity. I was able to do that most recently in a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister just yesterday.
It is obviously not enough, because the Sri Lankans are not listening. They do not listen to the UN or the Commonwealth. It beggars belief that we think that they will listen more if CHOGM goes ahead there and we attend. I ask the UK Government to think carefully about the signal that it will send about their commitment to human rights if they go ahead with that visit.
I understand the concerns of the right hon. Lady, as do all hon. Members. This is a decision for the Commonwealth. It decided by consensus that the Heads of Government meeting should be in Colombo. The Commonwealth recognises the issues of concern in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that whoever ends up going to CHOGM, from whatever country, Sri Lanka will be in the spotlight. The progress that can be made on a number of the positive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is a key topic that many will want to address. We want Sri Lanka to get to where it professes it wants to go. However, I agree with the right hon. Lady entirely that the evidence of that at present is pretty scant.
21. On human rights abuses, the British and US assessments of the level of torture in Sri Lanka seem to be at variance. The FCO says merely that reports of torture continue, while the US State Department says that there is“widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, particularly involving police torture”.Why the difference of views? 
We judge the evidence of torture that is brought to us and make our calculations upon it. We have expressed concern about incidents of torture. Our asylum processes take account of the possibility that some people, but not all, could be subject to torture. Cases are dealt with on an individual basis. Part of the overall picture of human rights concerns in Sri Lanka is that the Government appear to be determined to address the issue, but the evidence remains difficult to see in certain cases. We will continue to press the case and we know that this is a matter of great interest to all right hon. and hon. Members.
12. What progress has been made on rebuilding democratic and accountable institutions in Mali; and if he will make a statement. 
The UK’s primary goal in Mali is to encourage the transitional authorities to pursue an inclusive political process that supports long-term stability. We welcome the commitment to a road map and the creation of a national commission for dialogue and reconciliation, but rapid progress is required if that is to stay on track.
The French Parliament has just voted to extend France’s military mission to Mali at least until the end of the year. A French colonel is reported in Le Monde as saying that the Malian military remains ill-equipped and ill-trained. How long does the Minister think the UK will contribute by deploying troops to the EU training mission?
Let us be absolutely clear that the UK is offering the French deployment, at the behest of the civilian-led sovereign Government of Mali, limited logistical support. Approximately 40 UK military personnel are deployed as part of the EU training mission, three of whom are specifically related to the Foreign Secretary’s initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. They are there to train the Malian army with respect to human rights. Other international and multilateral discussions are taking place on deploying AFISMA—the African-led international support mission to Mali—to replace the French troops and, ultimately, a UN mission.
Indeed, Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, said last week that it was vital that the political process be taken forward in Mali. Given our previous military involvement, what specific assistance are the UK Government giving to the political process? Does the Minister envisage the elections taking place by the summer of this year?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Bamako recently to support that process. The Prime Minister has appointed a special representative, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), who is very involved in the process. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the importance of the political process. We are discussing whether we can support the efforts of the African Union as well. We need to ensure that all the groups in the north are involved in the political process, and that mechanisms are put in place to air and resolve the grievances of those who live in the north.
Middle East Peace Process
13. What recent assessment he has made of the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. 
Progress towards achieving a lasting two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians remains a top foreign policy priority. I welcome the efforts that Secretary Kerry has put into the middle east peace process since taking office. The UK will make every effort to mobilise the European Union and Arab states behind decisive US-led moves for peace.
With the US Secretary of State rightly attempting to encourage both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships back to the negotiating table, does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern at the resignation of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad? Has he conveyed to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, the need for Mr Fayyad’s economic reforms to continue?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we are concerned about the resignation of Salam Fayyad, who has done a great job of building institutions for Palestinians. He is remaining in office for an interim period of several weeks as consideration is given to a successor. We are certainly always in touch with the Palestinian leadership, and they know that we strongly believe that the economic programme that Salam Fayyad has pursued must be continued.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that Prime Minister Netanyahu has emphasised his new Government’s commitment to an independent Palestinian state through direct negotiations. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports of Palestinian Authority-sanctioned incitement, which remains an obstacle to a genuine peace settlement?
President Obama’s commitment is very important, and his visit to the region last month was successful. He argued in Jerusalem that peace is necessary, just and possible, and we should strongly welcome the involvement of the United States. There will be many obstacles in the path on both sides, and many forms of behaviour and many things that are said will make the process more difficult. We have to overcome those and work with the leaderships of the Israelis and the Palestinians on the basis that they are willing to come to a negotiated peace.
20. In recent days, rockets have fallen on the Israeli town of Eilat and the Egyptian authorities have intercepted a ship containing arms destined for Gaza and Sinai. In view of that, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the implementation of United Nations resolution 1860, which deals with international arms smuggling, must be an integral part of any peace settlement? 
Yes, the hon. Lady is right. On 17 April at least two rockets hit Eilat, in southern Israel, reportedly fired from Sinai, and militants have fired a number of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel since 26 February. All of that makes pursuing a peace process and securing a two-state solution more difficult. It is very important that every country fulfils its international responsibilities under UN resolutions to intercept arms shipments.
Can the Foreign Secretary say why Palestinians should trust Britain when there is not a level playing field—literally—because the Government are supporting a European international football tournament taking place in Israel?
The fact is that both sides have a level of trust first in the United States, and then in many other countries in the world, including the UK, to take forward the process. I will visit the region in the coming weeks to reinforce that and to try to accelerate everything that we are talking about. In general in world affairs, I do not believe that sporting fixtures should be an obstacle to political progress of any form, and I do not think they will be in this case.
Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that any progress between Israel and Palestine is very unlikely to move on at all while the settlement building, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the siege of Gaza continue? Until Israel radically modifies its behaviour towards the Palestinian people, how can there be any progress?
The hon. Gentleman is well aware of our condemnation of settlement activity on occupied land, and I am happy to reiterate that today. It is one reason why carrying the process forward is such an urgent matter. Settlement activity means that within a foreseeable time, a two-state solution will no longer be practical. Secretary Kerry has put that case, and the United States Administration accept it. We have to try to make a success of the process, including by coming to a conclusion on all final status issues.
Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be helpful or unhelpful for there to be elections in the west bank and Gaza strip this year?
As believers in democracy we are always in favour of people having their voices heard, and we would be reluctant ever to regard elections as unhelpful. We hope, of course, that in any elections, people who are ready to make peace will be successful so that this long-running conflict can be resolved.
14. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Ghana; and if he will make a statement. 
We welcome Ghana’s successful conduct of elections in December 2012, which were internationally recognised as generally free, fair and credible. The Foreign Secretary visited Ghana in March, strengthening further the already excellent Ghana-UK relationship, and I had the pleasure of attending the presidential inauguration in Accra in January.
I am a little bit surprised by the Minister’s answer to be honest. Last week some women from the Ghanaian Parliament came to Westminster, and they emphasised the value of stable institutions. As the Minister knows, a dispute about the presidential election is, fortunately, being pursued in the courts rather than on the street. Will he say a little more about discussions that the Foreign Secretary has had about that episode?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the petition before the Supreme Court in Ghana. However, Ghana has now had six successful elections since military rule ceased in 1992, and is rightly seen as a beacon of democracy in western Africa. She is also right to say that it is essential that such disputes are delivered through the courts, rather than on the streets. In the legal process, the Supreme Court started looking at the petition on 16 April, and we anticipate a judgment within the next month or two.
15. What discussions he has had on ensuring the representation of women at the upcoming conference on Somalia and ensuring that there is discussion of women’s rights and gender-responsive peace-building at that conference. 
We have encouraged the Somali Government to bring a representative delegation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and I will hold an event early next week to hear from prominent Somali women about empowerment, violence against women and forced marriage. Preventing sexual violence in conflict is also a theme of the Somali conference.
Members of the Somali community in my constituency feel it is hugely important that work is done to reach out to, identify and encourage key women to participate in the conference. Will the Minister reassure them that that will be the case?
In short, I can, not only at the conference but also prior to it. I and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are reaching out to and meeting not just male, but female representatives of the diaspora throughout the United Kingdom. As I mentioned, a meeting will be focused on Somali women and the preventing sexual violence initiative is a key part of the Somali conference. I reassure the hon. Lady that the key is an end to conflict and insecurity in Somalia, and we sought to insert language into UN Security Council resolution 2093 about the importance of the role of women in all efforts for peace and security going forward.
Sexual Violence in Conflict
16. What steps his Department is taking to implement the G8 declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict; and if he will make a statement. 
Following the adoption of the historic G8 declaration, we will take the campaign to the UN and begin implementation immediately. G8 peacekeeping experts meet next week to discuss commitments on military training, and work begins next month in The Hague, London and Geneva on the development of the protocol.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the outcome of the G8 summit, and I particularly welcome the declaration on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. Will he tell the House what action he will take to move the initiative beyond the G8?
Now that we have the strong support of the G8 nations in what amounted to an historic declaration, I want to take the campaign to the United Nations and convene during our presidency of the Security Council in June a special session of the Security Council, which I will chair, in order to rally wider global support. I will then take the campaign to the United Nations General Assembly in September. I believe that in this calendar year we can make an enormous difference to global attitudes, action on the ground, and global agreement on combating sexual violence in conflict.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of ongoing concerns, which have been expressed not least in the Human Rights Watch report published yesterday, on Burma, sexual violence, and what Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. Given the lifting of sanctions, what representations has he made on the profoundly concerning human rights breaches against the people of Burma?
It is important for us to keep up the work and the pressure on those subjects, which I discussed last week with one of the President of Burma’s most senior Ministers and advisers—a Minister of the President’s Office. In particular, we discussed addressing the stateless position of the Rohingya people. The UK and other EU countries have a role to play in offering police training in dealing with ethnic violence. Keeping up the pressure on human rights issues will be part of the EU’s continuing approach.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
On Saturday, I met Friends of Syria ministers in Istanbul, where the Syrian National Coalition issued its clearest statement yet of its support for a political solution to the conflict, its commitment to a future for all Syrians, its rejection of all forms of terrorism and extremism, and its responsible approach on chemical and biological weapons. In return, the nations present undertook to strengthen their support for the Syrian opposition.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Britain’s relationship with Germany is one of the most important aspects of our influence within the EU. Will he outline how he and his Government have engaged with Germany, and how they will do so in future?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Compared with the last year of the previous Government, we have nearly quadrupled the number of ministerial and senior official bilateral visits to Germany each year. We have established joint meetings twice a year of the British-German ministerial committees on the EU. I have made many visits to Germany, and as my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister works extremely closely with Chancellor Merkel. I believe it is right to say that we now work more closely with Germany than any previous Government.
As we move towards the final military draw-down in Afghanistan, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure personnel protection for our remaining training forces, and for our brave men and women from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations, who are working for a better future for the Afghan people?
Protecting people during the draw-down is extremely important. That is one reason for maintaining a substantial military force. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, our military numbers are coming down from 9,000 to 5,000 this year. We will then decide on the profile of withdrawal from then on. A large part of their job is the protection of the personnel who remain. We also work closely with the Afghan authorities and the very substantial Afghan national security forces to ensure that our hard-working personnel, to whom I pay tribute, are properly protected.
T4. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation in Kashmir remains a key to lasting peace and security in Asia? What efforts are the Government making to help Pakistan and India to resolve their differences and unlock the great human and economic potential of the region? 
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Efforts to resolve the issue in Kashmir continue and will be of huge benefit to both countries and the region as a whole. The UK is in contact with both Governments to urge them to do as much as possible to assist that reconciliation. We were particularly engaged after the incidents in January, when, once again, there were killings and shootings. It is important to note that those incidents did not disturb the dialogue that had grown up between India and Pakistan, which is important for the resolution of the issue.
T2. Following the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), is he aware that Ahava Cosmetics, which produces cosmetics in an illegal settlement, is currently labelled as “Israeli” in the UK? Despite complaints to trading standards, it refused to take up the matter. I welcomed his approach to EU-wide guidelines, but will he talk to his colleagues to ensure that the guidelines we already have are upheld and enforced? 
It is of course essential that guidelines that have been introduced are adhered to, and that products are correctly and properly labelled. I am aware of the concerns about the product that has been mentioned—it is discussed. It is important that the voluntary guidelines are extended, and that settlement produce and Israeli produce are correctly labelled to give people a choice.
T5. A Palestinian news agency has reported that Hamas will seek to petition the EU to remove it from the terrorist list. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of those reports, and will he confirm that the British Government will remain steadfast in its position that Hamas is indeed a terrorist organisation? 
Our position on Hamas is well known. We look to it, as we look to everyone in that region, to uphold previous agreements, forswear violence and make credible movement towards all of the Quartet principles that have been long established. There has been no change in our position on Hamas, and we do not, therefore, have direct contact with it.
T3. Will the Minister update us on the ratification of the UN arms trade treaty and what work we are doing with our international partners to implement it as soon as possible? 
I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised this point. It has been rather unnoticed in the past few weeks that the ATT was passed. It is one of the most important things the UN has achieved in recent years. Ratification will begin on 3 June, and we will be playing a leading part in encouraging states to sign up and ratify as soon as possible. I appreciate the support of the whole House. This has been a joint effort; it began in 2007 under the previous Government and we have seen it through to its successful conclusion. I would like publicly to congratulate Ambassador Jo Adamson, who has led the team in the United Nations and done a wonderful job.
T6. Last year, Conservatives on Essex county council passed a motion calling for the EU budget to be cut, a reduction in our contributions to the EU and for EU red tape to be slashed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good people of Essex should back Essex Conservatives on 2 May—the only party to stand up to Europe? 
With reference to the responsibilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.
I absolutely agree, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for the robust support of Conservatives on Essex county council on aspects of foreign policy. I am sure that they do a good job outside of foreign policy, too. Their support for a reduction in the EU budget is very important. It is something that people across the country want to see, and the Prime Minister has achieved the first ever reduction in the multiannual financial framework—a major diplomatic achievement for this country.
Human rights organisations were alarmed when sanctions against Burma were lifted. Could the Foreign Secretary use this as a lever to ensure that the United Nations can establish its human rights office in Burma, and to ensure that Burma releases all political prisoners, including Aung Naing?
It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that, yes, we agree with what she says, but human rights will be at the heart of the lifting of sanctions in Burma. We did it with the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi, because we believe that engagement with the Burmese Government is the way forward. We are deeply concerned about human rights and we remain deeply concerned about ethnic conflict, but we believe that now is the appropriate time to lift sanctions.
T7. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tragic bombing in Boston is a sad reminder of the ongoing threat of global terrorism, and stresses the importance of the United Kingdom having very close links with the intelligence services of our allies, particularly the United States? 
Yes, absolutely. The tragic events in Boston are a reminder of that, as is this morning’s news about the operation in Canada to prevent a terrorist attack. We must always be vigilant about these matters and work closely with other countries. I explained, in my speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February, how we are extending our co-operation on counter-terrorism with many more countries in the world, given the more diffuse nature of the terrorist threat.
T9. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Syria at the start of Topical Questions. Will he update us on what representations he has made with the international community to put pressure on Russia in relation to Syria? 
Putting pressure on Russia is a constant effort. We discussed it at the G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, and I discussed it with Sergei Lavrov when he was in London last month. The Prime Minister speaks regularly, and will shortly speak further, with President Putin. Our diplomatic efforts with Russia are continual, but we have to say clearly that those efforts have not been successful so far and that therefore it is necessary to give greater support, in various ways, to the Syrian National Coalition on the ground in Syria in order to try and save lives and increase the incentive for the Assad regime to come to a political settlement.
T8. My hon. Friend will be aware that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam’s mustard gas attack on Halabja. Will he support the principle of a UN inquiry into those many hundreds of western companies that supplied the chemical weapons that enabled Saddam to carry out his attacks? 
I am aware that my hon. Friend was in Iraq recently for the commemoration on the 25th anniversary of this dreadful massacre, and he also spoke with great passion in a recent debate in the House. Following the incident, there were extensive UN and UK investigations into the use of chemical weapons and any involvement of UK companies. Those inquiries were fairly comprehensive and did not illustrate any UK involvement. From a UK point of view, I am not sure that any further inquiries are necessary.
Recently, the Prime Minister made the very eccentric contention that North Korean missiles could reach the shores of the UK, apparently in an attempt to bolster support for Trident’s renewal. Is it not time to scrap the Trident renewal, save £100 billion, spend it on public services and avoid hitting the vulnerable in society?
To be clear, the Prime Minister said that North Korea claimed that it had missiles that could hit the whole of the United States, and if that was the case, of course, it could also hit the UK. I mentioned earlier that it has paraded, but not yet tested, a 12,000 km-range missile. Looking decades ahead, as we do with these decisions, we have to be aware of the great variety of potential threats to the UK. It is vital, therefore, that we retain the ultimate deterrent in this country, the total cost of which is about 1.5% of the total welfare budget.
I hope my right hon. Friend will excuse me if I return to the question of Syria and the possible supply of arms to the opposition. Does he understand that it appears to many of us that the language being used by the Government is equivocal and delphic? In these circumstances, can we have an assurance that any material change in policy will be subject to the express endorsement of the House?
My right hon. and learned Friend knows that I come regularly to the House with updates on Syria—I think I have given seven or eight oral statements—and that on any major decision the House can express its view. I am sure that the business managers would want to facilitate that—let me put it that way. The next few weeks will be crucial, because we need to decide, with our European Union partners and the United States, the next steps that we can realistically take, and should take, in order to do what I was just talking about—to strengthen the opposition on the ground and increase the incentives for a political settlement in Syria. We have taken no decision about that, but if we do so, I will come to the House and describe that decision.
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to set out the UK’s opposition to boycotts, disinvestment campaigns and other attempts to de-legitimise the state of Israel, because the only way we will see peace in the middle east, with a secure Israel living peacefully alongside a viable Palestinian state, is by initiatives that bring people on both sides who believe in peace to work together, not by boycotts and all the rest of it, which just drive people further apart?
The hon. Gentleman puts it very well, and I know he cares passionately about this subject. The United Kingdom has always opposed boycotts and disinvestment. We believe absolutely that the future for peace in the middle east will come through negotiations between the two different sides. President Obama’s recent speech, in which he spoke about the urgency and possibility of peace, but also about the need for justice, provides a good base for both sides to proceed. We believe and hope that those opportunities should be taken as quickly as possible.
Sanctions against Zimbabwe were recently eased and the UK gave £90 million in aid last year, but many British pensioners are being robbed of their pensions, following Mugabe’s decision in 2002 to stop paying pensions to British citizens. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the case of my constituent Mr Scott, who worked for the Zimbabwean police for over 20 years and is being denied his pension, to end this injustice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important issue on behalf of his constituent, but he will also be aware that many others have been affected by the withdrawal of pension payments. Hopefully his concerns will be assuaged by the fact that I have met representatives of civil servants who used to work in Zimbabwe who are not getting their pensions. I have also discussed the issue with the Zimbabwean Finance Minister, as part of the challenge to try to find a satisfactory resolution, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent to discuss the matter further.
Last but not least, the Reverend William McCrea.
Did the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister have any discussions with the Prime Minister of Israel on his recent visit to London, or can he say when he last discussed the middle east peace process with the Prime Minister of Israel?
Yes, I had discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the margins of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral and the Prime Minister had a formal bilateral meeting with him that evening. As always, we are in close contact with the Israeli Prime Minister and, as always, we have urged him to make a success of the opportunity now to take forward the middle east peace process and find a lasting and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Several hon. Members
Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but I have a sense that even if we doubled the time allocation for Foreign Office questions—of which there is no immediate prospect—demand would probably still exceed supply.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, Mr Nick Bitel was confirmed as the new chair of Sport England, but Mr Bitel was not the original recommendation for the position. He is an excellent appointment and we wish him well in his post, but it has emerged that the recommendation of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson for the position was overturned following the intervention of No. 10. It would appear that she has been discriminated against because she had the courage to stand out against the Government’s hated welfare reforms. We need a statement on this shambolic and shabby affair. Did the Sports Minister recommend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson for the position; what was the role of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in changing that recommendation; and did the intervention of No. 10 result in her not being appointed to this position?
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that, important issue though he raises, it is not one for the Chair. His attempted point of order will have been heard on the Treasury Bench and, knowing his terrier-like qualities as I do, I feel sure that this is a subject to which he will return.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There have been reports that plugs will be installed in the Chamber to help with charging pocket computers and iPads. Could you use your good offices to try to improve the wi-fi in the Chamber, which barely works on most occasions, before we spend a lot of taxpayers’ money putting plugs in the Chamber?
Well, I know that the Clerk feels that wi-fi in the Chamber works extremely well, and he advises me that he has been using it this day. More widely, I think the safest thing I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that these matters are being looked into and I feel sure that he will wish to participate in any investigation or examination that takes place.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In fact, I wish to make the same point that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) made a few moments ago. There is a great deal of concern about the lack of transparency on that issue, and we look forward to finding a way of getting to the bottom of what happened.
I note the attempted point of order from the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Minister for Sport. I can only reiterate what I said to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), which is that I am sure that Members will take such opportunities as the Order Paper provides to raise these concerns, which will have been heard by, among others, the Government Chief Whip.
Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (Amendment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to require the Secretary of State to review levels of asylum support annually; to require him to lay before Parliament a draft up-rating order to increase levels of asylum support in line with changes made to mainstream benefits in years when the general level of prices has increased during the previous 12 month period; to replace support provided by the voucher system under subsections (10) and (11) of section 4 of the Act with a single, cash-based support system; and for connected purposes.
As a country, we have a long and proud history of providing support and sanctuary to those who arrive on our shores fleeing persecution and war. I believe, however, that we are now in danger of falling short of the standards that our reputation leads people to expect. Last year, I chaired a cross-party inquiry into the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system. The panel received evidence in writing and in person from about 200 individuals and organisations: from local authorities, from academics, from those working on the front line with asylum seekers, and from the young people and their families themselves. What we heard about the hardship that they endure really shocked the panel.
There is a popular myth that asylum seekers enjoy undeserved riches, gaining access to high-class housing and easy finance that their indigenous neighbours could only dream about. It is just that, however: a myth. In fact, families told us stories of unimaginable difficulty, loneliness and poverty, of going without meals to pay for their children’s clothes, of poor housing and of victimisation. Contrary to the popular cliché, benefits for those in the asylum system have caused people to fall way below the poverty line in recent years, with some surviving on as little as £5 a day.
The problem with the current system is that decisions about whether to uprate the levels of benefit known as section 95 and section 4 support are effectively a matter for the Home Secretary alone. Representations from other Government Departments about the impact on children’s welfare can be, and often are, ignored. There is no requirement for the Home Secretary to come to the House regularly to report on or explain her decisions. As a consequence, no decision was made in the last financial year on whether to uprate section 4 and section 95 levels, leaving them effectively frozen since April 2011. The House rightly expects to have a say on setting the support levels for mainstream benefits, and the same should apply in these cases.
This is a problem not just for the present Government. Successive Governments have let the levels drift, fearful of headlines relating to what is actually a tiny number of people and, in the context of budgetary pressures, a tiny amount of money. Levels for section 95 support were originally pegged by the Labour Government at 90% of income support levels, before being reduced to 70% after deductions for utility bills paid for in provided accommodation.
Some, but not all, benefits for children continue to be pegged at a favourable level in relation to income support levels. Levels for 16 and 17-year-olds, for example, are arbitrarily reduced. No account is taken of the disability of any children who might arrive with complex needs. In any case, the downward drift in the value of adult benefits means that families as a whole are often trying to manage on benefit levels of as little as 60% or 65% of income support levels, in spite of all the data showing that 70% is the bare minimum to avoid absolute poverty, and in spite of the fact that many families arrive on our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs.
If life is tough on section 95 support, life on section 4 support entails devastating hardship. Section 4 support is provided to those whose asylum claims do not meet the strict requirements for refugee status but who might not be able to go home, when the Government recognise that that is the case. The levels are significantly lower than the section 95 levels. This is well illustrated by the way in which we support families who have a new baby. Someone on income support would be eligible for a £500 maternity grant. Someone on section 95 support would be eligible to receive £300, but someone on section 4 support would receive just £250. Everyone knows, however, that the costs of having a baby are the same, regardless of which level of asylum support someone is eligible for.
Furthermore, section 4 support is paid not in cash but on a card, and it is that card that causes much of the hardship. The rules on where the card can be used are highly restrictive, meaning families may have to travel some distance to be able to shop. It cannot be spent on public transport, which exacerbates the difficulties, particularly for those who need appointments with doctors or solicitors. Our inquiry heard of one case where a woman whose maternity grant, which I mentioned a minute ago, did not arrive. Without any money to travel, she was forced to leave hospital and walk home in the snow with her newborn baby in her arms. I think everyone here would accept that that is simply an unacceptable state of affairs.
Furthermore, very little money can be transferred on this card from one week to the next, so families told us they were unable to save for larger items such as winter coats for their children, while the regular moves entailed for many families seeking asylum exacerbate the difficulty of having to pay for uniforms—a larger-priced item for which families need to save up from one week to the next. The families say, too, that this card is downright unreliable. It is often turned down at checkouts and, most painfully of all, the card immediately identifies the holder of it as an asylum seeker, frequently resulting in abuse and stigmatisation. During our inquiry, we heard about some very upsetting examples of that.
This is patently not a system designed for children’s welfare, yet we met families whose children had spent two or three years on this system of support—a large proportion of their lives, then, spent in crippling levels of poverty. It seems baffling to me that such a large and inefficient bureaucracy could possibly be value for money for the 800 or so families for whom the card is currently being used. It would surely be more cost-effective to abolish it and provide one single cash-based system of support.
This Bill is not about treating asylum seekers better than everybody else. It is about applying the same standards of decency to those whose lives have already involved unimaginable hardship. It does not entail spending lots more money; it does, however, entail spending money more wisely. It is not about special rules for one group of people. It is about making Ministers accountable to this House—as, frankly, they would expect to be in any other similar situation. Decency, common sense, accountability, and above all, humanity: that is what the Bill is about, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sarah Teather, Dr Julian Huppert, Nic Dakin, Alex Cunningham, Mr Virendra Sharma, Neil Carmichael, Mr David Ward, Caroline Lucas, Paul Blomfield and Mark Durkan present the Bill.
Sarah Teather accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May, and to be printed (Bill 161).
Growth and Infrastructure Bill
Consideration of Lords message
Before I call the Minister, I have to tell the House that the original message from the Lords was defective, so Commons Bill paper 162 did not include the amendments in lieu proposed by the Lords. This has now been rectified and a revised Bill paper 162 is in the Vote Office. The first motion therefore relates to the Lords amendments in lieu 7B and 7C, as on the revised Bill paper.
After Clause 4
Development orders: development within the curtilage of a dwelling house
I beg to move,
That this House agrees with the Lords in their amendments 7B and 7C in lieu of Lords amendment 7, to which this House has disagreed.
With this we will consider the motion that this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 25 but proposes amendments (a) to (e) to the words restored to the Bill by that disagreement.
I thank their noble Lordships and Members of the House of Commons for their thorough and thoughtful consideration of the Bill. There are two main issues before us.
Let me begin by introducing the revised approach to the Government’s proposed relaxation of permitted development rights for home owners. During our consideration of Lords amendments in this House last week, the Secretary of State gave a commitment to reflect on the representations made and to adopt a revised approach. We have reflected carefully on the points raised by Members here and by noble Lords in the other place in their detailed deliberations on the issue, and in particular on the concern that adjoining neighbours would not have an opportunity to make representations on such developments.
In expanding the permitted development rights for domestic extension, the Government propose to adjust the balance between home owners and local authorities, to make it easier and cheaper for families to make room for growing teenagers, or indeed for elderly parents who wish to come and live with them. Those changes reflect the Secretary of State’s recognition that a requirement to make a planning application is out of proportion to the wider impact of development. That is an important principle.
However, we have always said that it is important to balance the benefits against the potential impact that extensions can have on neighbours. Having listened to the concerns expressed, we tabled an amendment which was agreed by their Lordships yesterday without a Division, to ensure that adjoining neighbours will be consulted when the new rights are exercised. We drew inspiration for the amendment from the 2007 “Quality of Life” report by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith).
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he confirm that the neighbours who will be consulted will be all those who share a boundary with an affected property, and not just those who, for instance, share a party wall?
Yes, I can confirm that.
What we are proposing is a light-touch neighbour consultation scheme. It will work like this. A home owner wishing to build an extension will write to the local planning authority providing plans and a written description of the proposal. The local authority will then notify the adjoining neighbours—for example, the owners or occupiers of properties that share a boundary, including those at the rear. Those neighbours will have 21 days in which to make an objection, the same period as under existing planning rules. If no neighbours object, the home owner will be able to proceed. If any neighbour raises an objection, the local authority will then consider whether the impact of the proposed extension on the amenity of neighbours is acceptable.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend has been saying. Can he clarify the impact of the curtilage rule? Many terraced houses in London have a 10-metre rear garden and a 3-metre front garden, amounting to a 13-metre curtilage. A 50% extension at the rear would be a 65% extension in relation to the rear garden. Would that be reasonable grounds for objection by a neighbour?
That might well turn out to be a reason for one of the adjoining neighbours not to be happy with the proposal and to object to it.
If a neighbour raises an objection, the local authority will consider the impact. It will then be up to individual councils to decide how to handle the procedure, and to determine whether decisions should be delegated to officers or made by the planning committee.
This is an improvement on the previous position, but who will pay for it all? Will there be a planning fee? Will the local authority be expected to pick up the cost of the consultation in the event of an objection, along with the cost of advertising it to local residents?
No planning fee will be levied on the home owner making the notification. If the extension proceeds with no objections, the local authority will benefit from a considerable saving, because it would otherwise have had to bear the costs of a full planning application. However, we shall be happy to discuss with local authorities, in the normal way, whether in the fullness of time the scheme is likely to impose any additional cost on them.
Normally people object to an extension that is beyond the current permitted level. The position is likely to become more contentious, and there is likely to be a large increase in the number of neighbours who complain. Who will fund the local authority’s inspections and the resulting consultation?
The local authorities would have to do that if a planning application were made in the normal way. Under the new relaxed procedure, the costs will be lower. As I have said, however, if it seems likely that there will be a significantly greater burden on local authorities, we will discuss that with them to ensure that it does not happen.
I am pleased that the Government have taken account of Back Benchers’ concern about neighbour notification. Does my right hon. Friend know how many authorities currently believe, or know, that they are operating with a deficit in terms of planning fees? My local authority believes that it subsidises planning, and that the fees recovered do not cover the planning service that is currently provided.
The object of the scheme is that we end up with fewer, not more, planning applications, and that should save local authorities some expense.
Will the Minister give way?
I think that I must make some more progress first.
If approval is not given, the home owner will be able to appeal against a refusal, or may wish to submit a full planning application. As with normal planning consents, neighbours will not be able to appeal against a grant of permission. The approval process will be straightforward, and—I think that this is the answer to my hon. Friend’s question—we do not expect it to impose significant costs on local authorities. It will ensure that uncontroversial improvements are dealt with quickly, it will protect neighbours’ amenity, with the council as an independent arbiter, and it will ultimately make it cheaper for people to extend their homes and will devolve more power to local residents.
I apologise for being slightly late. I was chairing another meeting.
One of the issues that have been raised continually with me is that of developments that overlook neighbours and, for instance, the positioning of windows. What information will be available to neighbours about that?
The applicant will have to send a letter to the local authority notifying it of the proposal and enclosing plans, which will of course have to receive building control consent. There will be a full notification, but it will not go through the normal planning regime process.
I welcome the change in the present position. The Minister mentioned loss of amenity. Would building materials constitute that? Would, for example, the construction of a breeze-block building represent a loss of amenity?
If it affected the amenity of the neighbour, that might well be an issue. It is hard for me to speculate on exactly what kind of amenity would be affected by a breeze block, but if a neighbour felt that it was having an effect, that neighbour would be able to object.
We have listened to the concerns that have been expressed, and have responded directly to them. I hope that I have explained to the House how our amendment addresses, in particular, the concern about the impact of our proposals on neighbours.
Can the Minister confirm that places such as conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be exempt from this, and that the usual article 4 route will still be available where there are particular concerns—about flooding or run-off, for instance?
Yes, I can confirm that this does not apply to conservation areas, and that the ability of a local authority to use an article 4 direction is not impaired by the changes we are making.
I hope the House will now allow me to turn to the employee shareholder clause.
Will the Minister give way?
Of course; I shall do so one last time.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have some remaining concerns about situations in which objections are not made, perhaps because of loyalty to neighbours or because of absent landlords. That could result in a building being erected that has long-lasting implications on future householders in an area. Will the Minister address that point in discussions with the Local Government Association?
I am very happy to ensure that my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government will discuss that with the LGA, if that will be helpful.
Let me now turn to—
Will the Minister give way?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and he need not look so heavy-hearted, as I am going to say that I greatly welcome the changes, and that many Members on the Government Benches feel the Government have listened and come up with a sensible proposal. Will he just confirm that existing permitted development rights are not in any way affected by this new procedure, and that they are still there in perpetuity for people to use without any hassle?
Yes, I can confirm that, and I can also assure my right hon. Friend that I was not heavy-hearted; I was simply keen to move on to the employee shareholder clause, and I was wondering how long I was going to be occupied in explaining how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had fulfilled his commitment last week to listen to the concerns expressed in this House and to come forward with what I suggest is a very reasonable compromise.
Let me now, finally, turn to the employee shareholder clause. It establishes a new employment status between employee and worker. The Government have always been clear that this measure is entirely voluntary, and that it is open to both individuals and companies to use it if they choose to do so. I emphasised that again in our debate a week ago. In response to concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and peers in the other place, last week I reassured both Houses about the wholly voluntary nature of this new status. I made a commitment that no one can be forced to apply for, or to accept, an employee shareholder job. I announced that the Government had revised and clarified the position for those claiming jobseeker’s allowance. The position now is that jobseekers cannot be compelled to apply for or accept an employee shareholder job if they do not consider it right for them.
The Minister has 977 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in his constituency, and long-term unemployment is up by 10%. Can he confirm that employers in his constituency will be able to make job offers conditional on JSA recipients accepting employee shareholder status, thus giving up most of their fundamental employment rights at the same time? That is the point of departure for many people with the Minister on the issue of whether or not this is voluntary.
It is not only voluntary, but I made it clear to the House last week that jobseekers cannot be mandated to accept a job in those particular circumstances, and I cannot make it clearer than that.
In addition, I want to reassure the House that we will not allow individuals to use this employment status for tax avoidance. The Finance Bill includes several measures, such as excluding those who already own 25% of a company and connected persons from benefiting from the capital gains tax exemption.
The will of the elected House has now been expressed twice. However, the other place has again rejected this measure. After considering the concerns expressed by noble Lords, we have laid further amendments to ensure that individuals entering into this employment status fully understand the opportunities and risks involved. I will now set them out.
First, the company must give the individual a written statement of particulars, setting out the employment rights that are not associated with this status and detailing the rights attached to the shares. That will include whether the shares being provided as part of the employee shareholder status have any voting or dividend rights, whether there are rights to have the shares bought back or redeemed, and whether an individual may freely sell the shares to anyone, or if there are restrictions. This written statement is separate from that already required under the Employment Rights Act 1996, which sets out the terms and conditions of the job, and which the employee is entitled to receive within two months of starting work with the employer.
This employee shareholder statement of particulars must be provided in writing before the potential employee shareholder starts the job. It means that an individual can only become an employee shareholder if that has taken place and if the other criteria in the clause are met. The clause ensures that potential employee shareholders understand precisely what the new employment status involves.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, but I respectfully completely disagree with him. What guarantee is there that the prospective employee shareholders will even understand that statement? It will be explaining dividends, pre-emption rights and other technical and complex matters. What guarantee is there that they will understand the information in the statement, or know whether to seek further legal advice and have a proper discussion about these matters?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, and I will come on to the issue of the advice that may be available to the employee in those circumstances.
I think I understand the issues to do with mandating and JSA, but would it be legal for an employer to refuse to take on someone who did not want to be part of such a scheme, and if the employer did refuse, how on earth would we know about that?
I do not think we would know in those circumstances whether that was the exact reason why somebody had not been offered the position, but what I did last week—and I hope my hon. Friend accepted this—was make it absolutely clear that nobody who had jobseeker status could be mandated to have to accept a job.
Our second amendment prevents an employee shareholder contract from taking legal effect until seven days have elapsed from when the offer is made to the individual. The amendment affords an individual a period to consider the risks and rewards of the contract. That removes any question that individuals might be pressurised into accepting a contract.
These amendments mean that an individual who has chosen to apply for, and has been offered, an employee shareholder job has both the information and the time they need to consider whether the job is right for them. Noble Lords, including my noble Friends Lord King and Lord Forsyth, also expressed a concern about the employee shareholder receiving independent advice. I want to reassure them and all noble Lords that the Government are taking that concern seriously and are reflecting on the remarks made in the other place yesterday evening.
This new status gives in particular young and new companies a fresh option that they may use to attract high-calibre employees who can share in the growth potential of the company, and I urge the House to support these amendments.
I shall start with the issues that the Minister raised on permitted development. We welcome the Government’s change of heart. This is a victory not just for Opposition Members but for Members who are sitting behind the Secretary of State who have helped us to protect the gardens of England from inappropriate developments. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State laughs, but he was dragged kicking and screaming to table the amendments.
I still find it puzzling that the honeyed words from the Secretary of State last week were so mysterious and vague when the new arrangements unveiled look very much like the planning permission system. First, the house owner will have to provide plans and details to the planning department, including details of the materials to be used, just as happens now. Secondly, the planning department will have to notify neighbours, just as happens now. If there are objections, the planning authority will take the decision whether to grant planning permission, just as happens now. The only change is that in the absence of objections from the directly adjoining properties, the development will automatically go ahead, notwithstanding any objections from other affected neighbours, or from the council, or from the wider community—and, of course, the absence of the £172 planning fee.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer if he has time to sum up, on how neighbours might be affected by the proposals. First, by limiting the possibility of objecting to an extension to those who share the immediate boundary with the property in question, the Government are taking rights away from other neighbours whose amenity or light may be affected. Remember that we are talking about extensions 26 feet long and 13 feet high, Mr Speaker—about the size of the Speaker’s Chair. Why are the Government not even giving those affected in that way the right to express a view that may be considered material by the planning committee? Secondly, what about neighbours who are away when an application is put in, and who come back 21 days later to discover that work has already started on a structure that will seriously affect their amenity and enjoyment of their back garden? Does the Minister not think that unfair?
The Minister decided to talk for some 15 minutes on permitted developments, on which the Opposition will not be objecting this afternoon, and very little time on shares for rights. I wonder why. Let me tell the House why I think he did so, because it is clear that the Government are in a total shambles with their ill-thought-out shares for rights proposals.
Let us remember the origins of the proposal, dreamt up by the Chancellor at Conservative party conference because he had absolutely nothing to say about the economy, growth or unemployment. He proclaimed, let us remember:
“Workers of the world unite.”
The Chancellor got his wish. The workers of the world did unite, along with businesses and organisations, to tell the Chancellor that his proposals were wrong. And it is not just the workers that have united, but his own Back Benchers and, of course, the noble Lords in the other place. The narrow 27 majority for the proposals last week in this place highlighted the extent of the discontent with the proposals in this House.
The Minister’s concessions on jobseeker’s allowance claimants not being forced to take up the shares for rights proposals were welcome, but if the proposals were truly voluntary in the first instance, it cannot be seen as a concession at all. The question that the Minister just avoided, from my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary, is whether an employer can make agreement to such a deal a condition of anyone, let alone a jobseeker’s allowance claimant, taking up a job. He refused to answer that question; perhaps, in his summing-up, he may be able to take that on.
What did the concession manage to achieve in the other place last night? Let us see. An increase in the majority against the proposals in the other place last night from 54 to 69—a triumph for the Minister, and it emphasised that Lord Forsyth was correct when he said that the policy
“has all the trappings of something that was thought up by someone in the bath”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2013; Vol. 744, c. 614.]
I disagree with Lord Forsyth on that. I think it was thought up by someone in the bar, and not at the start of the evening but close to closing time. In fact, if we analyse the figures from last night, we see that Cross Benchers voted 59 to 1 against the proposals, as well as the former Liberal Democrat leaders Ashdown and Steel—and this current Lib Dem leader wants them and so does the Business Secretary. Will the public not ask why?
Yesterday, the Lords sent a powerful message to this House that the Government are wrong on shares for rights. Their message, for the second time, is loud and clear: “Dump this awful policy now.” Or will the Treasury not allow the Minister to dump the policy? The results of the vote give the Minister the out he was looking for. We know that the BIS Department is not keen on the proposals, we know that the Minister is not an enthusiastic supporter and we certainly know that the businesses of this country do not want it, following a consultation exercise.
Let us examine what some of the noble Lords said in the other place yesterday. Lord King said,
“I am not the only Member”
of this House
“who feels some embarrassment at finding ourselves in this situation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1267.]
Baroness Wheatcroft shared Lord King’s embarrassment when she said:
“My Lords, my noble friend Lord King mentioned a degree of embarrassment at finding himself in this situation, which I certainly share.”
She went on to say that the Financial Times,
“that great bastion of employee rights, ran a leader the day after the last debate in this House in which it said that this legislation contained,
‘little to like and a lot to fear’.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1269.]
That was not all in the other place last night. Lord Deben, on shares for rights, said:
“Frankly, it does not matter much what we decide on this because I do not think anyone is going to take it up and I do not think it is going to happen.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1262.]
Baroness Warnock, a Cross Bencher, said in the other place yesterday that she discussed the proposals with Charlie Mayfield, the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and said:
“He was consulted about this proposal and simply regarded it as laughable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1261.]
The chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, the bastion of employee ownership in this country with its much-lauded model, is saying that the proposals are laughable. So the noble Lords have spoken.
Let me emphasise what Lord Forsyth said in the other place. He talked about the £1 billion loss to the Treasury in tax. This is the Chancellor’s pet project that loses the Treasury £1 billion and does absolutely nothing for growth. The Bill is supposed to be a growth Bill; it is nothing like it.
I am getting confused. The hon. Gentleman first says that the proposal is so awful that no one will implement it, and then that its effect will be £1 billion of lost tax. It cannot be both. Which one does he really think?
I am delighted to receive the intervention, because it is the Treasury that says that £1 billion will be lost and Lord Deben, a Member with whom the right hon. Gentleman probably shared time in government, who said that perhaps no one will take this up. So it is not we who are saying it but Conservative peers in the other place and the Treasury’s own assessment of what will be lost. Whether someone takes it up or not, the Treasury is saying that there will be £1 billion of lost taxation. Perhaps Ministers in this House might want to go and chat to some of their colleagues in the other place and decide what they are going to do with it.
Critically, there was a hint in the Lords that some kind of deal had been done between the Business Secretary, who incidentally has said nothing on these proposals, and the Treasury. Can the Minister tell the House what that deal is? The public deserve to know what deal has been done between the two senior Government Secretaries of State to push the proposals through. I will take an intervention from the Minister now if he wishes to tell the country what that deal is, but I suspect he will not take up that opportunity.
Let me highlight another comment from the other place last night. The shadow Minister, Lord Adonis, who took the report through the other place yesterday, said:
“Where does this report come from? We all know: it is on the rebound from the Beecroft proposal to do away with certain employment rights in respect of unfair dismissal and instead to substitute a single payment that would have resulted from it. The Business Secretary was not prepared to go along with that. Then, as we have heard from various parts of the House”—
including from the Government side of the House last night in the other place—
“some kind of deal was apparently done between the Chancellor and the Business Secretary to resurrect a version of the Beecroft proposal in return for shares.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1271.]
The House needs to know, before the legislation is passed, what that deal was.
Lord Forsyth emphasised it when he said:
“the Government seem determined just to railroad this through and not deal with the arguments.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1258.]
Those arguments are not diminished by the amendments that the Government tabled this morning—amendments that were only confirmed at 11.27 this morning. They are scurrying around, trying to find solutions, when the best solution is to consign the policy to the dustbin.
Under the scheme, which creates a third type of employment status, as the Minister mentioned, employers may award employees at least £2,000 in shares in exchange for the employee’s giving up a bundle of employment rights, including ordinary unfair dismissal, the right to a statutory redundancy payment, the right to request flexible working, and the right to training. The Government are determined to pursue the scheme, but the list of concessions that they have produced today, and which they hope will get it through the Lords, is completely inadequate and does not address the fundamental issues of the giving up of employee rights for a few worthless shares.
There were many interventions in the House last week. The Opposition wholeheartedly support employee ownership, but there does not have to be a link between employee ownership and giving up one’s employment rights. Many Government Back Benchers who are in their place this afternoon made the point about how wonderful employee ownership was, but the fundamental point is that employee ownership does not have to be increased by giving up fundamental rights at work.
Let me go through some of the concessions that have been presented to the House today. First, there is a provision that the employee cannot accept the offer within seven days of it being made. How that would work in practice is completely unclear. An employer remains free to refuse to offer the job to a prospective employee who does not want to take up employee shareholder status. That is a critical point about whether it is voluntary. With the employment market as depressed as it is, why would an employee want to turn this down? People are desperate to get back into work. That is why the proposal cannot be seen as voluntary. Why would an employer not just say that this has to be accepted or the job offer will be withdrawn? Perhaps the job will be offered to a number of candidates, and the candidate who accepts the shares for rights proposal will ultimately get it.
May I challenge the hon. Gentleman to think about his premise? He said earlier that these are worthless shares. I do not think that any business or entrepreneur in the country who takes such a risk would believe that shares are worthless. That is the big difference on the Government Benches. Does he agree that the fact that the Opposition think the value of the shares is zero colours their judgment of how an employee who wants to take a risk and an opportunity would see great value in having a stake in a business?
There is a misconception among Government Members that no Opposition Member has run their own business. Well, I have run several businesses before I came into the House. At the start, of course the value of shares was high, because we were investing in the businesses, but that is not always the case. Ultimately, when businesses shed staff or employees have to leave, shares will be worth less. That is a fundamental principle of business. When I come on to the concessions that the Government have put together, it will be seen that that is absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the end of a business. When one starts a business—as I am sure he has done, given what he just said—it is to achieve success and growth. That is when the shares offer their greatest opportunity. They will be offered for no cash in return for a stake and the potential of profit later, with a tax-free advantage. It really is a win-win.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who undoubtedly has a lot of business experience, but he clearly has not read the legislation or understood what it is trying to achieve here. He is right that when the shares are being given out, they will have a high value. But at the very time that employees need to cash in those shares because, for example, they have given up the right to redundancy, their value will be lower than when they were first given, or they will be worthless. The residual value of the shares will be far lower when an employee is effectively being sacked than it was when the employee was being taken on. That is why some of the concessions have been made.
Let me come to the written statement that the Minister has suggested to set out the details of the shares being offered, including whether they are voting or non-voting shares, whether they carry a dividend, whether they carry a right to a share in a company’s assets if it is wound up, whether pre-emption rights are excluded, and details of drag-along and tag-along rights. Most employees will not understand the implications of this information, and there is nothing to prevent employers from issuing pages of gobbledygook about the shares that buries the information somewhere within.
I am struck by the provision about winding up, which is specifically mentioned in the concessions. Surely this is the crux of the matter. [Interruption.] Members are chuntering away, but if they wish to intervene, they may do so. How can it be right to give up the right to a redundancy payment at the same time as the shares may not be worth anything at winding up. The term “winding up” is used in the Government’s amendment to the proposals. Shareholders tend to get nothing in the winding up of any business after the creditors are taken into account. Why would any employee want to do this? We end up with a situation where, at a time when an employee would want to cash in the shares, the company is in real financial trouble and the shares are worth far less than the initial value or nothing at all.
The short answer is that if one takes shares, one takes a risk. The difference is that employees are not being asked to part with a cash investment up front.
That might be the case, but one does not have to give up one’s fundamental worker’s rights to take the risk in shares in businesses. Many employees take shares in businesses, but they do not give up the rights to redundancy, to request flexible working, to training and to unfair dismissal and maternity rights. Last week, the hon. Gentleman made an impassioned speech about his running of businesses and the fact that his employees are always at the forefront of his mind. The vast majority of those in this country who start a business have employees at the forefront of their minds. But relationships do break down and businesses do run into trouble. I agree with him to a certain extent, but missing from the jigsaw is the fact that fundamental rights at work still have to be given up in order to take on those shares. He fails to recognise that that is part of the overall equation.
Let us examine the issue of tax avoidance that my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary mentioned in the House last week. The Treasury says—it is a Treasury document—that this will cost £1 billion, but the true cost may be more than that, as my hon. Friend said. As the Treasury’s December 2012 policy costing document says,
“It is hard to predict how quickly the increased scope for tax planning will be exploited.”
Let me examine this:
“increased scope for tax planning will be exploited.”
That sounds to me like tax avoidance and it was picked up by Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who said:
“just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn such behaviour”—
“that same government is trumpeting a new tax policy that looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry.”
The Treasury document, by using the terminology
“increased scope for tax planning will be exploited”,
emphasises what Paul Johnson has said.
Is not the value of shares very much up to those who control the shares? The value can be controlled by the majority shareholders, who often are directors of the company and can devalue a company at a moment’s notice by transferring assets out of the business into another company that they can set up.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. He voted with the Opposition last week, on which he should be commended. The other issue around the concept of dilution of shares is that when new investment comes into a business, shares can be diluted. There is no provision for employees who are shareholders to be informed of that. Assets can be transferred out of businesses and there is nothing to stop employers, when they wish to make large scale redundancies of employee owners in the business, diluting the shares before they do so.
The hon. Gentleman will remember that, under his Government, the Companies Act 2006 had some clear safeguards for minority shareholders, which specifically protect their interests and allow resort to court if minority shareholdings are unfairly diluted.
We are back to the same point from the hon. Gentleman. He still refuses to recognise the equation here. That may all be correct, but at the same time fundamental rights still have to be given up. Indeed, those safeguards in the 2006 Act have been wrapped around by many companies in terms of the dilution of share ownership.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s attack on the idea of some tax privilege in the scheme. I imagine that he is a member of the House of Commons pension scheme, and there is tax relief on all contributions that he makes into the scheme, and full tax relief on gains and income in the fund. That seems perfectly reasonable. How does that differ from the tax advantages of this scheme?
Being a member of the House of Commons pension scheme does not mean that I give up my rights at work. The equation is not there. I am not even sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has spoken in favour of these proposals. Does he support them? I am not sure that he does.
I am asking about tax avoidance. The hon. Gentleman has just condemned the scheme as tax avoidance. I am asking whether he is against all tax avoidance, or does he practise it as well?
It is a little disingenuous to ask a Member of the House who is at the Dispatch Box whether he practises tax avoidance. That is stretching it a bit far. I am merely quoting from the Treasury’s 2012 policy document, which says that:
“It is hard to predict how quickly the increased scope for tax planning will be exploited”.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that there will be a whole new avoidance industry in terms of the capital gains tax on these shares, and in terms of PAYE and national insurance. If Government Members do not believe me, they can listen to what Lord Forsyth—as a Scottish Member of Parliament, I never thought that I would agree so much with him—said last night in the other place:
“I remain concerned as to whether the estimate made that this could result in more than £1 billion disappearing in tax-avoidance schemes is correct. It is not clear to me whether the Treasury has found ways of ring-fencing this scheme, which provides for up to £50,000 of capital gains tax to be relieved, and whether this could not be used as a great tax-avoidance scheme.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 April 2013; Vol. 744, c. 1257.]
Finally, there is the new Tory tax bombshell. We all remember that phrase because the Liberal Democrats used it at the last general election to describe the proposed increase in VAT, before voting with their Conservative colleagues to increase it to 20%. In the Budget—this is another concession—the Chancellor announced that the first £2,000 of shares will be PAYE and national insurance-free, but what about values above that? We could have a situation in which new employee shareholders give up their employment rights in return for valueless shares that incur PAYE and national insurance at the point of issue. That would mean that an employee on the basic rate of PAYE and national insurance would have to pay several hundred pounds on the issue of the shares in their first pay. It could cost the employee money.
What are the Government trying to achieve in that measure? Is it that employees will give up their right to protection against unfair dismissal so that they can be given some shares that their employer will tell them are worth a certain value, but they have no idea whether that is right? When they get the shares, will they have to pay tax and national insurance on them if their value is more than £2,000? Then, at the end, employers, if they decide to sack them, can take the shares back at a valuation that might be less. It does not seem to be a scheme that will set the nation alight with people wishing to participate in it.
The proposal is worse than Beecroft and goes to the heart of what this ideologically driven Government are all about. They have no economic strategy, no plan other than austerity and unemployment, and the Minister thinks that the holy grail of economic growth is to make it easier to fire rather than hire. It smacks of a Chancellor who is out of ideas and out of touch. I urge the Minister and Government Members to do the right thing: agree with the Lords and dump this policy.
I wish to speak to amendment 7B. I am delighted that the concerns about neighbour notification and the involvement of local people in decision making have been listened to. That was crucial for many Members of this House. However, I would still like to tease out answers on some of my concerns about amendment 7B.
St Albans, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own figures, handles twice the number of planning applications as a normal planning authority. We are surrounded by green belt, thankfully, but are under direct pressure from many developments, including domestic developments. The fees collected do not cover the planning applications already being made, so we run a subsidy to the planning operations of St Albans district council.
I suggest that the fees for applications are quite modest. They form a very small part of a whole development. For example, they do not include architect fees, which can be substantial, or any of the other land searches that might be needed, for instance when tree protection orders are in place on a site. I do not believe that the fees are what deter people from making applications for a housing development, perhaps for a growing family. What I am concerned about is that we will now have what I call “planning-lite.”
The original amendment in the Lords, which was defeated there, suggested not involving planning officers, neighbour notification or any other work for the council whatsoever. The new amendment, which I welcome as an improvement on the old one, would bring the planning system into the permitted development rights decision-making process and, as a result, mean direct costs for many councils, particularly those, such as mine, that have a significant number of planning applications. I cannot see the savings. I would love to see some sort of spreadsheet showing how that cannot be a burden on the council, as it means taking those applications, because they are above the original permitted development rights figures, out of the current planning system, in which a fee is paid for examination and registration for neighbour notifications and perhaps even a site visit, and moving them so that the officer still does the same work but does not get any of the fee. I urge the Minister to monitor that situation, because in a heavily utilised planning department, such as the one in St Albans, I believe that this will have a negative impact on the council.
I am also concerned that we are effectively introducing a third planning system and that there might be pressure on neighbours not to object or to trigger the process. I can envisage developers going around and reassuring neighbours that a development will not be a problem, and the neighbours might feel reassured, but is money to be put into enforcement if the neighbours, when they see the edifice going up, are unhappy because what was described to them is not what is being delivered on their doorstep?
Those are details, but having served as chair of a planning committee and, like other Members, having a postbag filled with planning issues, I know that they are important details to reassure not only hon. Members in the House, but those of us who will face neighbours who say that they were not really aware what they could object to and that a developer had assured them that they had the permitted development rights. We will not be party to those conversations.
Like my hon. Friend, I welcome this change. Does she share my concern that neighbours will need to be able not only to look at the plans, but to read and understand them?
I do share that concern. Obviously, the detail is still very light. For example, will the plans be available on websites? Since councillors do not seem to be involved in the system, someone could potentially go around and advise someone who is not as savvy as hon. Members are on the implications of a structure for them in order to form an objection. There is a very active civic society in St Albans that takes a keen interest in planning. I am disappointed that no one other than an immediate neighbour can form an objection. The people who run the Watercress Wildlife Association in St Albans, for example, take a keen interest in the water run-off from further uphill. Will we have a domino effect of several applications on large permitted development rights that eventually start creating soggy gardens further downhill?
I know that that is all detail and that this is a short debate, and I do not wish to tire the House, but my main concern, if we are to move to the new “planning-lite”, is that we seem to have given additional responsibilities to councils but no additional resources. I urge the Minister to listen to the words of councils, which already feel that they subsidise the planning system. We also do not know whether there will be non-determination periods. I have no idea whether the permitted development right period of determination would be similar. What council would prioritise a determination that has no fees associated with it over a determination that has a determination period and a fee associated with it? Will we have two categories of decision making? That all needs to be teased out, and I look forward to the Minister giving guidelines that ensure that councils are consistent in their approach to those decisions and that it is not simply a question of whether someone happens to have a vocal neighbour who is savvy enough to interpret plans and make objections in the interests of the whole community rather than just in self-interest.
Before I call Annette Brooke, I remind the House that this business can go no later than 1.49 pm, and that the Minister would like a few minutes at the end to sum up.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I assure you that I rise to speak very briefly to Lords amendments 7B and 7C. I acknowledge that we are in a better place than we were last week and thank the Secretary of State for his work on the issues. However, because so many questions remain, I certainly retain a preference for Lords amendment 7, which I think sets out a good solution.
I will quickly run through the objections to the proposals and the uncertainties. I would like to reinforce the point about finance for local authorities. If we are not careful, and if there is no extra money going to local planning authorities when they clearly have duties for which they are not receiving a fee, we might have a situation in which those people who cannot afford extensions end up subsidising those who can, which seems unfair. We are talking not only about planning applications, but enforcement, because there might well need to be enforcement, whether or not there have been objections, if a building does not match what was submitted in the first place.
I remain concerned that not all neighbours will object, possibly because they are absent at the time or because elderly and vulnerable people who depend on their neighbours for help will not feel able to object. It is essential that we build in a requirement for the local authority to at least conduct a desktop exercise to consider all the plans in their context.
I reinforce the points made against seeking objections from adjoining landowners only. In some circumstances it would be appropriate to go further afield. There will be knock-on effects for a row of terraced houses, possibly right along the row, and precedents will be set, even if the initial application was for just one end.
I plead with the Minister to look at the number of outstanding issues, so that we can truly get the best of both worlds by incentivising building while ensuring proper protection for neighbours.
I will first address some of the points that have been made on the change to permitted days. It has been suggested that 21 days might be too short, but that is exactly the same as the equivalent period under the planning regime.
My hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) have suggested that neighbours further afield than those who adjoin might be denied the opportunity to object to something, but it is hard to understand why they would have stronger objections than those who live much closer. I therefore suggest that the focus of objection needs to be the impact on immediate neighbours.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and I have serious concerns that some people may feel unable to object because of their relationship with their neighbour. They may be disadvantaged, so another neighbour could object on their behalf.
I would hope that neighbours would talk to each other and discuss any proposed developments. They should not feel that they are not able to object. As I have said, it is hard to understand why those who live further away should have, or should be entitled to register, stronger objections than those who live next door to the property concerned.
My hon. Friend raised two other issues, the first of which was what would happen if the extension turned out to be larger than or different from the original proposal. Under the notification, the plans have to be deposited with and approved by the building control regime, which will exercise supervision in exactly the same way as it does for a normal planning application. It would also be able to require modifications to an extension that did not fit the original plans.
Secondly, my hon. Friend raised the issue of fees, which I addressed when I opened the debate. I repeat that if she turns out to be right about the actual cost to local authorities, we will, of course, discuss any concerns or new pressures on them with the Local Government Association in the normal way. Our position, however, is that there will be considerable savings as a result of a number of applications not going through the normal planning route.
Finally, on the employer shareholder clause, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) was a little cavalier in some of his arguments. First, he suggested that my noble friend Lord Deben opposed the clause, but he voted for it in a Division last night, so the hon. Gentleman was not accurate about that. Secondly, he suggested that people would be forced to give up their employment rights for what he called “worthless shares”, but they cannot be forced to surrender their employment rights unless those shares are worth at least £2,000. If they turn out to be worth less than £2,000, the employee shareholder would, of course, be fully entitled to be considered to have the rights that he or she previously had.
On the surrender of rights, the Minister just said that if the shares are worth less than £2,000 the employee would have all their normal rights. Surely that is not accurate. Will he correct the record?
I did not say that. I said that the value of the shares must be worth at least £2,000. It was the hon. Gentleman who used the word “worthless”. These shares cannot be worthless, or the employee shareholder will not be forced to give up the rights that he or she currently enjoys.
The hon. Gentleman was also wrong about the suggestion that this would somehow cost £1 billion. That estimate comes not from the Treasury, but from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which estimated that between now and beyond the 2020s—that is, the next 30 years—the total cost of the policy might amount to about £1 billion. The actual Treasury estimate is that the cost of the policy is expected to reach about £80 million by 2017-18.
I want to return to my previous question about the provision of legal advice to people before they agree to accept employee shareholder status. The Minister said that the Government are reflecting on what advice can be given to such employees, but what is he actually going to do?
The hon. Gentleman has seen how we reflected on concerns about permitted developments, and concerns about legal advice were expressed extremely cogently last night. We have sought throughout the passage of the Bill to make absolutely sure—I stressed this as long ago as Second Reading—that nobody should be harassed or bullied into accepting this status. I have made it clear that guidance will be available and our amendments improve that by making sure that there will be a statement of written particulars. There will also be a cooling-off period of some seven days, and we are further considering how we might improve the advice available to those who are considering taking up this status.
I am conscious that we have only a minute left, but the one issue that my hon. Friend has not yet addressed—I hope he will—is how we prevent discrimination by a would-be employer who favours people who are willing to do the shares deal over those who are not interested.
If my right hon. Friend is suggesting discrimination at the point when the shares are offered, the amendments that we have already made will protect the employee against that kind of harassment or discrimination. Legitimate concerns have been raised in both Houses that nobody should be forced to accept this status. The essence of the status is choice—the company can choose to offer it and the individual can choose whether or not to accept it, and I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House agrees with the Lords in their amendments 7B and 7C in lieu of Lords amendment 7, to which this House has disagreed.
Motion made, and Question put,
That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 25 but proposes amendments (a) to (e) to the words restored to the Bill by that disagreement.—(Michael Fallon.)
23 April 2013
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill
Consideration of Lords message
A message has been received from the Lords relating to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Under the orders of the House of 16 April and yesterday, any such message may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
We will debate two motions. The first relates to Lords amendments 35 and 36, and consequential amendments (a) to (c). The second relates to Lords amendment 37 and amendments (a) to (d) in lieu. The motions will be debated together and are available from the Vote Office, as is Bill 163.
At 12.44 today, the Government tabled a revised version of amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 37. Despite the short notice, the Speaker has selected the amendment for debate. The revised version of the relevant paper is available in the Vote Office.
Lords message considered forthwith (Order, 22 April).
Commission for Equality and Human Rights
I beg to move,
That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 36, does not insist on its disagreement to Lords amendment 35 and proposes consequential amendments (a) to (c) to the Bill.
With this we will consider the motion that this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 37, but proposes amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.
I would like to put on the record my thanks for your flexibility, Mr Deputy Speaker, in accepting the late tweak to the amendment that had been tabled earlier this morning in relation to Lords amendment 37 on the issue of caste. I shall come to that issue in a second or two.
We are returning to the discussion on the equality provisions of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which were debated in the other place yesterday. We have paid regard to the strong views and concerns that were expressed in that debate, and have tabled motions to respond to them.
As I have made clear in the course of our debates, the Government want a strong and effective Equality and Human Rights Commission. As part of that and to focus the EHRC on its core functions, we proposed the repeal of its power under section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, which is known more commonly as the general duty. However, in light of the clear views expressed in the other place, the Government have reconsidered our position and will not insist on our disagreement to Lords amendment 35. That will allow the general duty to remain in the 2006 Act. Although it is accepted by all that the duty has a symbolic rather than a practical effect, it is clear that considerable importance is attached to this overarching statement.
We maintain that the commission’s monitoring and reporting should be carried out in respect of its core equality and human rights duties. The EHRC will continue to be required to monitor and report on changes in society, but, as has been agreed to in the Bill, that should relate to the areas that it is uniquely placed to influence and change: equality, diversity and human rights. For that reason, the motion is to disagree with Lords amendment 36. Instead, the EHRC will monitor its progress against the duties specified in sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act, and the form of that reporting will remain unchanged.
My hon. Friend’s announcement is very welcome. She knows that our party has always argued that there should be a general overarching duty—[Laughter.] No, that is completely the case, but the matter had to be worked through within the coalition. Her announcement sends a strong signal that there is a principle and that practical implementation is available to the commission.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with passion on equality issues and has done so for many decades. I know that he speaks from the heart on this matter. I also understand the strength of feeling on this issue that he and I have heard expressed by activists in our own party and from many other corners.
Ensuring that the EHRC reports on the aims set out in sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act means that it will be able to capture the situation more meaningfully over time by reporting every five years and monitoring its key equality and human rights duties.
Retaining the general duty in section 3 requires a consequential amendment to ensure that the word “groups” in the general duty is defined effectively. The amendment that we propose therefore reinserts the parts of section 10 of the 2006 Act that define the term “groups” for the purpose of the Act.
I turn now to Lords amendment 37, which relates to caste, and amendments (a) to (d) that the Government tabled today. In our previous debate on this matter, I made it clear that the Government recognise that caste prejudice occurs in the UK. Even if that happens at a low level, such prejudice is unacceptable and must not be tolerated. I also said that, although we remained unconvinced that there was sufficiently compelling evidence to require the introduction of legislation, the Government were not averse in principle to introducing legislation, should it become clear that that was the appropriate solution to the severity of the problem.
Strong views have been expressed in the other place on this matter. In the light of those views, we have reconsidered our position and agreed to introduce caste-related legislation. However, we need to ensure that any legislation that we introduce will have the desired effect. We therefore propose amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 37 that will impose a duty on the Government to exercise the power in the Equality Act 2010 that would make caste an aspect of race for the purposes of the Act. We think that that option, rather than the amendment proposed yesterday in the other place, is the best way forward.
As has been discussed in this House and in the other place, the issue of caste is very complex. Many people have voiced the opinion that our understanding of the relevant issues would benefit from some form of consultation to ensure that all the pertinent considerations are identified and, where possible, taken into account. Converting the order-making power in the 2010 Act into a duty will ensure that the Government legislate to incorporate caste protection into discrimination law. It will also give us an opportunity to undertake consideration, possibly through consultation, on whether any other factors, such as the need for specific caste-related exceptions, need to be introduced at the same time that caste is given legal protection. One example that has been raised is that we would not want monitoring forms to demand that people say which caste they are from, because we want to see such a characteristic gone from society and do not want to perpetuate it. Ensuring that there is proper guidance, and that we legislate sensitively, is therefore important. We will all welcome the opportunity of a little time to ensure that it is got right. That will help to ensure that the legislation is focused and robust and addresses all the relevant factors.
I turn to the slight tweak to the motion, which now includes a provision enabling review of the duty and the effect of the order once the Act, as I hope it will become, has been on the statute book for five years and periodically thereafter. That picks up on the concern expressed in recent debates that, because caste is inherently an undesirable concept that we want to fade away, we do not necessarily want to be stuck with references to it on the statute book, given that that will no longer be necessary once, as we all hope, the concept has disappeared from UK society. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said in a letter to me at the end of last week:
“Given that we are all united in our desire to see caste as an identifier in the UK erode over time, it would also be possible to put in place a timetable for statutory review to establish at what point the measure could be withdrawn if caste discrimination has become a thing of the past.”
That point was also picked up by Baroness Thornton in her closing remarks in last night’s debate. The new provision addresses those concerns by introducing a review and sunset clause.
I am very pleased indeed that the Government now accept the importance of retaining the general duty. I must say that I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) argued that that had always been the position of his party, given that only the other day the Minister, who is also a member of his party, argued the exact opposite. None the less, we are prepared to welcome repenting sinners to the fold.
As the Minister is well aware, there was widespread concern in civil society and across Parliament at the prospect of repealing the general duty. I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness Campbell on her championing of the retention of the duty both in the House of Lords and outside Parliament. I also pay tribute to the Minister for heeding the concerns that have been expressed.
The Minister has said in the past that section 3 of the 2006 Act is of symbolic importance. That is right, and symbolism is important, but perhaps even more importantly, it is a powerful statement of our values, aims, approach and ambitions for equality and human rights. I am pleased that that strong message and that underpinning of what equality and human rights mean to us will remain at the heart of our equalities legislation.
We are pleased by the Government’s acceptance of the vote in the House of Lords last night, and we will accept their insistence on disagreement to Lords amendment 36, on monitoring. However, I issue a word of caution to the Minister, which Baroness Campbell raised when the amendment was proposed. It is important that the Government take care to ensure that the EHRC does not simply monitor its own actions but that its role in holding up a mirror to the whole of society on progress on equality and human rights is properly cemented and protected. Ongoing monitoring and reporting enabling that is important, as is the EHRC having the resources necessary to do that properly.
We are pleased that the Government have now accepted the need for legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of caste. Everyone agrees that caste has absolutely no place in our society, and that if there is even one case of such discrimination, proper action must be taken and there must be proper access to redress. The Minister is well aware of the strength of feeling on the matter—she alluded to it in her remarks. I pay tribute to the common effort across Parliament among the parties and with Cross Benchers to reach this point. I especially want to place on record again our gratitude to the noble Lords Harries and Avebury and, of course, my noble Friend Baroness Thornton, who have done a tremendous amount to bring us to this point.
I understand the offence and hurt that the very notion of caste causes. As the Minister said, it is important that nothing we do in the House entrenches caste in our society. Rather, we must help to move forward in a direction that leads to its eradication. In recent weeks, the Opposition have been bringing people together to discuss the right way to do that in the context of what is, as the Minister said, a complex subject. I venture to suggest that we have already done more in three weeks than the Government have done in three years.
I want to place on record our gratitude to the Sikh Council UK, the Sikh Federation, the British Sikh Consultative Forum, the Anti-Caste Legislation Committee, the Alliance of Hindu Organisations, the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, CasteWatchUK, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and others, all of which have spent time talking to us over recent weeks.
For our part, we have always been clear that there needs to be legal protection, and we welcome the Minister’s commitment to legislation today. However, having decided that they will legislate, the Government have a responsibility to get the detail right. We have consistently called for both legislation and safeguards, and my noble Friend Baroness Thornton repeated the necessary safeguards in the House of Lords yesterday. I know from the Minister’s remarks this afternoon that she has taken account of them. We called for the definition of caste to be set out following consultation, which should include consideration of the possibility of substituting descent for caste, which has some support. The definition must recognise that caste is not specific to any religion but is a social and cultural practice extending across different parts of communities. It can be subscribed to by, and affect, members of any or no religion, and the definition must reflect that.
As the Minister said, it is crucial that legislation is not implemented in a way that entrenches caste identifiers in day-to-day employment and other services. We should reduce, not increase, the number of people who are identified by caste. The guidance must ensure that there is no requirement on individuals to disclose their caste in any circumstances, and employers and providers of services should never seek such data.
Concerns have been expressed to us, and were expressed in the House of Lords last night, about the possible perverse effect of education programmes, including the Government’s programme “Talk for a Change”. I urge Ministers to discuss those concerns with the community.
Like the Minister, I hope that caste as an identifier in the UK will be eroded over time, and we will support the late-tabled amendment (a) to Lords amendment 37, which will introduce a sunset clause. We suggested such a change, so that if we achieve the state that we hope to and caste is wholly eradicated, we may remove the provision from the statute book. I hope that the sunset clause will act as an impetus for action, and we welcome it in that spirit.
Yesterday in the House of Lords, the noble Baroness Stowell argued that the Government needed time to address the detail of the matter, and we agree. We have always been clear about the need for a guarantee of legislation, but it is vital that the Government take time to consult carefully and in detail on its implementation. As a result of the conversations that we have had with community organisations, we proposed that safeguards should be subject to consultation in communities, with a delay in implementation to allow that to happen. I would be grateful if the Minister assured us that commencement of the provision will leave enough time for that thorough community consultation to take place. That will be vital to achieving cross-community support.
The Opposition are pleased at the progress that has been made on both the general duty and the caste amendment. This is a good day for equality, and I thank the Minister and many others for the efforts that have been made to bring us to this point.
I would like to pick up where the hon. Lady finished and say that I share the view that this is a good day for equality. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for getting us to this point. I will not resile from what I said in my intervention, which is that I and my colleagues have always held such views. Indeed, our party worked with the Labour party when it was in government to put into legislation the general equality duty governing the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Anyone who is critical of that assertion clearly does not understand that in coalition Governments one party can hold a continuing obligation or view that is not necessarily persuasive to the Government as a whole. The two parties in the coalition clearly started from a different position, and it has taken until today and the clearly expressed view of the House of Lords for people to arrive at an understanding that it is better to retain the general equality duty. I am sure that is the right decision. It sends out the right signals and guides the commission in its work ahead.
Like others—certainly like my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)—I was at the Bar of the House of Lords yesterday evening listening to the debate on caste. There were views on both sides. The Government were arguing to retain their position and said that we should not add caste to the Equality Act 2010, and others argued against that. The Government were supported by people on both sides, but the view of the House of Lords was that we should add caste to the list of issues on the basis of which people could allege discrimination, but that we must recognise that there is a division in the communities affected as to what that measure will mean in practice and how it will be responded to.
There are clear community views. I was at a Vaisakhi event with colleagues from across the House last night, and views were expressed to me by members of the Sikh community that they did not want this change. I had just heard Lord Singh of Wimbledon arguing strongly that in Sikhism there is no such thing as caste, and I am persuaded to take his view as he is authoritative and well-regarded on that issue. However, I think that the Minister has now arrived at the right place, with the Government, and caste as a basis for discrimination will be added to the Equality Act. The problem might not be hugely prevalent, but there is enough evidence of it in certain places for it to be recognised. It is important—I am sure the Government take this view, and it was argued by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—to have a period between now, the passage of the Bill, and its implementation, to ensure that people understand the implications of the measure across communities.
In the Hindu community there is certainly a division of view and I think we are right to support those in the Dalit and other communities who say, “We should know. We are the victims.” Their voices have prevailed. It is also wise of the Government to hope that over five years this measure may become unnecessary, and there will later be the opportunity to review it.
The fact that a bicameral Parliament works is evidenced by where we are today, with two Chambers having debates and adding to the wisdom of one—I, of course, want the other one to be reformed and to become either wholly or partly elected, but that business has clearly been deferred. Until then, however, I am glad that the House of Lords has contributed so firmly to our debates, and I am grateful to the Minister and her colleagues for making it clear that the law will be changed. I look forward to working with many others across the House and the Government to ensure that communities understand the logic behind the change. At the end of the day, we must have a country in which people know that there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality or caste, and that discrimination is unacceptable wherever it occurs. I think we have got there, and we should be celebrating that.
I am grateful that common sense has prevailed with regard to the EHCR. It demonstrates that debates in this place and elsewhere do work, and that we can convince one another of the rightness of a particular position.
On caste, may I make a number of statements so that I can be clear about what we are agreeing to? If any of these statements is wrong, will someone get up and tell me? That would be helpful. I am sorry to reach this level of simplicity in the House, but it has been a long few weeks. First, if we pass this legislation over the next couple of days, caste discrimination will be outlawed in this country. Is that correct?
I am happy to make that clear for the House, and I wanted to respond to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on a similar point. The amendment changes the word “may” to “must” in the Equality Act 2010. At the moment, it states that the Secretary of State “may” make caste discrimination illegal, and that will be changed to say that they “must” lay regulations to make an order. That will require secondary legislation, which gives us time to consult and get that right. When the secondary legislation is passed, the measure will be on the statute book.
Let me try this phrase: if we enact this legislation, the Government must outlaw caste discrimination in due course.
That is point 1—stay with me on this. Point 2: in developing the detail of the legislation, we will ensure that we consult the wide range of communities that have an interest in this matter, and seek to mobilise them in eliminating caste discrimination—agreed?
Thirdly, I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on the limited period of time in which that will be done. I have heard about months and also a full year—whatever view is realistic. I think it would be possible in a year not only to deliver clear definitions and guidance on implementation, but to mobilise the whole community around this issue and to convince people about the need for this provision.
Finally, this amendment contains a review period so that if we reach nirvana and the elimination of caste discrimination in this country, we can return to the issue and remove the measure from the legislation.
If all those statements are accurate and agreed across the House, I now understand the point we are at, so perhaps others will as well. I think it has been a significant victory for democratic debate in this Chamber and the wider community. Lots of organisations have been involved in this discussion. Not everybody is happy, but we have reached an understanding that there is a problem to be addressed. No matter how small people think it may be, this issue is significant for many of us and it is being addressed appropriately with some subtlety and understanding of people’s views, so that those are taken into account. I welcome the overall approach that has been agreed.
I, too, thank the Minister for bringing forward this amendment and for the thoughtful way it has been crafted. I also thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for her speech, and for pointing out some of the practical steps that can be taken.
I know that those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches have felt a sense of thoughtful consideration and sometimes anguish about this issue, but it has always been fairly straightforward for me. I am not diminished as a person because we ban discrimination on the basis of race or gender, and I will not be diminished as a person because we ban discrimination on the basis on caste. All those are exemplary measures for the Government to take.
I was reflecting on caste, and it occurred to me that if we define caste as occupation, I too carry my caste in my name. A fuller is an occupation; we are the cleaners of wool—with a rather unsavoury material, I think. I do not know where in the hierarchy that might sit, but I do not think it would be at the top. However, I am a greater man because I am my father’s son, and—to be clear for the record—also because I am my mother’s son.
I would like to ask a couple of questions and make a point. Will the Minister provide not precision but some clarification on the timetable and say when she anticipates that the order will be enacted?
May I point out something that has not been mentioned yet? Any repeal of the regulation will require a resolution of each House and will not simply be done by the Government of the day. That is a welcome feature of the legislation.
Finally, we have spoken of the great contribution to the legislation of community groups with differing views. I pay tribute to my constituents who have brought the matter to my attention and to the attention of others. As with all legislation that is enacted, there is a responsibility to ensure that the protections provided are used appropriately. We need to ensure that it is not open season for people to use the law just because it is another option. The measure is there to be used in very serious cases—hon. Members know that they are rare but extraordinarily important. We do not want the changes to the law to be misused by people, such that the voices that have been heard in the House today are drowned out in the legal courts in future.
With the leave of the House, it would be helpful if I responded to a few of the points that have been made in this brief debate.
I welcome the constructive approach of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and her support for the Government amendments. She raised several points, one of which was the definition of caste and the possibility of using the word “descent”. We will consider carefully how to define “caste”. There could be problems with the “descent” concept—descent is wider than caste, and a number of groups have expressed concerns about using that word as an alternative. We now have time to discuss a wide range of issues, and will involve all interested parties. I hope that also goes some way to dealing with the points made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).
On EHRC monitoring, the hon. Lady referred to last night’s debate and the comments of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. I watched her speech—she spoke powerfully, as always. The amendments require the EHRC to continue to monitor and report—it must still report on changes in society in relation to equality and human rights, which can mean broad reports on progress in society.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made a helpful speech. Perhaps we should adopt the format of making statements and seeing whether the Minister will stand up and make corrections if necessary. That could be deemed not to be the best way of dealing with parliamentary proceedings—the first suggestion was slightly above my pay grade.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the period of time over which the measure might be implemented. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston suggested in her letter that one to two years for enactment might be the right period. Enactment depends slightly on how much progress is made in dealing with those groups, but that time period is the general ballpark we are looking at.
That point also goes to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). When I was summing up last week, time was of the essence, and I was unable to complete my remarks, but it is worth noting the powerful speech my hon. Friend made on behalf of his constituents last week as well as today. On his question about repeal, the amendments make it clear that the Minister “may by order” repeal or otherwise amend section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010. Repeal would therefore happen by order, through the normal parliamentary processes, using the affirmative resolution procedure, so both Houses would have their say. That would happen only after a Minister had ordered a review and published a report. That would be the process by which repeal would happen. I hope that he welcomes that along with the Government amendments.
I hope that I have answered the questions asked, and that hon. Members feel able to support the motion and amendments.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 36, does not insist on its disagreement to Lords amendment 35 and proposes consequential amendments (a) to (c) to the Bill.
Consequential amendments (a) to (c) agreed to.
Government amendments (a) to (d) made in lieu of Lords amendment 37.
[Un-allotted Half Day]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the significant and positive developments in Northern Ireland in recent years; acknowledges that challenges remain; and reaffirms its commitment to supporting peace, progress and prosperity in every community.
It gives me great pleasure to move the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to open the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Hon. Members do not often get the chance to discuss Northern Ireland on the Floor of the House and I welcome this opportunity. It is good to see many Northern Ireland Members in the Chamber. The motion enables them to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many issues that affect their constituents.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way so early in the debate. I commend him, as a Front-Bench spokesman, for leading a debate on Northern Ireland. It is important to put on the record that this is the first Front Bencher-led debate on Northern Ireland since the 2010 election.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks—I hope he feels like that at the end of my speech as well as at the beginning. In all seriousness, I am grateful for his remarks. The issues that affect Northern Ireland are taken seriously on both sides of the House. We need to debate them and to consider the challenges.
As a Labour Back Bencher, I, too, welcome my hon. Friend’s decision and the decision of the shadow Cabinet to use this Opposition day for a debate on Northern Ireland. That is a strong sign of the continuing Labour concern and commitment to a lasting peace and lasting prosperity in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, more than anything, we need more jobs and stronger growth? Does he also agree that, at the moment, Northern Ireland is held back by a failing UK economic policy from a failing and feeble Chancellor?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his intervention. I will go on to say something about the economy and the need for jobs and growth in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but he is right to make that point.
The motion should enable Northern Ireland Members to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many different issues that affect their constituents, as well as allow them and Members from other parts of the United Kingdom to put forward their views and wider considerations on the topic in hand.
Northern Ireland has been transformed in recent years. I am acutely aware of those on both sides of the House who have made such an enormous contribution to the cause of peace. The fact that many of them are in the Chamber is an indication of their commitment. I place on record my gratitude for their guidance and support in helping me to do the job of shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I know there are differing views on the agreement within Northern Ireland and within the House, but along with parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, Labour Members are proud of our role in helping to bring about that historic accord. We believe that the agreement and the agreements that followed have made Northern Ireland a better place, and we stand by them.
Good Friday 1998 was a hugely significant moment, when relations within Northern Ireland and throughout these islands were recognised as complicated and challenging, but intertwined and interdependent. The years that followed were difficult, but much good work was done despite the ups and downs of devolution. Hon. Members in the Chamber, including from the Social Democratic and Labour party, played a valued part in that, as did the Ulster Unionist party.
Six years ago, devolution was fully restored. Since 2007, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson from the Democratic Unionist party have respectively served as First Ministers, alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. The transfer of policing and justice powers was another enormous step forward in 2010, when the Alliance party joined the Executive and took the position of Justice Minister.
All this shows that we have come a long way in Northern Ireland. As I say frequently, it is a privilege to hold my position most of all because I get to be in Northern Ireland often. The progress made in past years has given rise to a changed Northern Ireland, one that is confident, optimistic and dynamic, and a great place to live, work, invest in and to visit. This year, Northern Ireland gets the chance to show the world the real Northern Ireland; to show what it is really about. The UK city of culture in Derry is a packed 12 months of art, culture, sport, music and drama. I challenge anyone, anywhere to match the unrivalled programme of events that make Londonderry the place to be every day of 2013. The world will literally come to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I commend the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for their work in bringing this prestigious event to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The world’s spotlight will be on Northern Ireland when the G8 summit takes place in County Fermanagh in June. Does he agree that the summit is an opportunity for the world to see how Northern Ireland has moved forward? There is, however, a worry that those who choose to protest on other issues could do damage. Does he agree that every effort must be made to ensure that security measures are in place so that no damage is caused to Northern Ireland as it moves forward?
I think that every right hon. and hon. Member would agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is a right to protest in a democracy, but it has to be done lawfully and peacefully. I do not think that any of us would wish to see anything take place that would detract from an important world summit, and an important example of how Northern Ireland can demonstrate to the whole world the real Northern Ireland and how it has moved forward.
May I associate myself with that last comment and thank the hon. Gentleman for the lead he gives and the work he does in Northern Ireland, together with Ministers? We were all together at the Alliance party conference. The message that people in Northern Ireland need to hear is that the rest of the United Kingdom want them to do well, want them to prosper and want them to succeed. Avoiding violence is the best way to make sure that everybody understands that, and that the message goes out not just to Northern Ireland, but around the world.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, the fact that we are having a debate on the Floor of the House of the House of Commons in London is a statement of the importance that all of us here attach to what is going on in Northern Ireland. We do take notice and we do care.
I hope that all of Northern Ireland will benefit from the G8 summit, and I am sure that the Government will involve the Northern Ireland Executive in an appropriate and beneficial way. I know, too, that the Irish Government hold the presidency of the European Union and will play a key part. The world police and fire games take place this summer and will provide a huge opportunity, with thousands of athletes coming to Northern Ireland from countries and continents the length and breadth of the globe. There is a huge belief in Northern Ireland that things that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible, have been and are being done, and that things are moving in the right direction.
Despite those huge strides, however, we cannot be complacent about the challenges that remain. For us in Westminster, devolution should not mean disengagement. We have a role to play and the Government have a responsibility to help keep Northern Ireland moving in the right direction. On security and the economy, decisions made at a UK level have enormous implications for Northern Ireland, a point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey).
The continuing activities of dissident republican groups give cause for worry. They are small but dangerous, and have shown that, despite being rejected by the vast majority of the public, they are determined to continue their campaign of violence. The awful murder of prison officer David Black a few months ago should serve as a reminder of their deadly intent. Indeed, as we have seen recently, it is thanks only to the dedication of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Army technical officers and the Security Service that further atrocities have been avoided. The foiling of attacks across Northern Ireland is a credit to these very brave and dedicated individuals who keep people safe and secure, and do their job with courage and professionalism in the face of serious threats against them and their families. They have our utmost gratitude, and the support and admiration of the entire House.
I share the concerns—perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister can address them—about how the additional security funding from the Treasury has been allocated in the four years from 2011 to 2015. There will be a drop in funding next year from £62 million in 2013-14 to £27 million in 2014-15. The police and security services, as I know we all agree, must have all the resources they need to combat terrorist threats. I know that the Secretary of State agrees, and I am sure that the Government will keep all these matters under review, taking advice from the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister.
The unrest seen in loyalist and Unionist areas following the decision of Belfast city council not to fly the Union flag all year round, also gives cause for concern. There was a sustained campaign of violence and intimidation against public representatives, the police and the wider community. Some of it was orchestrated by paramilitaries, which is unacceptable. There is real frustration and anger in some communities, and I do not downplay that or ignore those who say that their Britishness is being undermined. I hear similar sentiments, albeit from the opposite viewpoint in republican and nationalist areas, where some people feel that their Irishness is not respected or given appropriate recognition. Clearly, these are not easy issues to address.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister, he announced in July 2007 that he was lifting the ban on the national flag; he encouraged the flying of the Union flag, certainly throughout Great Britain. I wonder what the official policy of the official Opposition is on flying the flag in Northern Ireland. Would it be helpful to increase the flag-flying days in Northern Ireland, as requested by loyalists and others?
Our position is to try to help facilitate agreement between everyone about what solutions can be found, so that Britishness and Irishness is respected. It is difficult, in a particular circumstance, to say, “This is the solution that can or should be found.” Equality of respect between the different traditions in Northern Ireland is extremely important. Flags are a symbol of that, and all one can hope for is that the discussions and ongoing debate will lead to a conclusion that is acceptable to all communities.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion polls which last year showed that only 21% of nationalists wished to see a united Ireland? This year, the polls say that only 19% of nationalists wish to see a united Ireland. Is that not an indication that their Irishness is diminishing?
I think it is a snapshot of opinion at a particular time. The agreement lays out procedures and processes for opinion to be tested at any time. The reality at the moment is that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the debate in this Chamber reflects that. The priority for people at present is to resolve some of the ongoing challenges that remain, and to see what more can be done with respect to decisions made here about jobs, growth and investment in all communities in Northern Ireland. I think that people would see that as their priority, whether they consider themselves to be British or Irish.
There is a worry that, in both loyalist and republican areas, there are elements who want to take us back to the bad old days, and that they might be gaining a foothold. The message that the whole House sends out is that they will not succeed.
With the marching season already upon us, I want to make it clear that there is no justification for riots or attacks on the police. The rule of law, including the decisions of the Parades Commission, must be respected and upheld. The peace process shows that, however difficult, in the end dialogue works, so I encourage everyone who wants a peaceful summer in Northern Ireland to talk as neighbours, not enemies, in a spirit of understanding and to find a way forward on contentious issues, such as flags and parades. Like the Secretary of State and the Minister, I would like to do what I can to help facilitate those discussions.
These are difficult economic times. On the economy and welfare, the Government’s policies, decided here, have an impact in every community in Northern Ireland. Last week’s figures showed unemployment in Northern Ireland at a record high of 8.4%, with almost one in four young people out of work, while 20,000 families with children have lost out because of changes to tax credits. Earlier this year, the Chartered Institute of Housing estimated that the bedroom tax would affect 32,000 people in Northern Ireland and have a disproportionate impact because the vast majority of social housing stock in Northern Ireland comprised large family homes. There simply are not the smaller properties for tenants to downsize to.
On corporation tax, we had two years of dither and delay, with the promise of a decision last month, but all the Prime Minister said was that we would have to wait until after the Scottish referendum. Northern Ireland’s economy, like the economy of the rest of the UK, cannot wait until 2014; we need to get moving now. We need a plan for jobs and growth and a plan B for Northern Ireland’s economy to get people, particularly young people and those who have been out of work for a long time, back to work, and to bring investment into Northern Ireland and help small businesses to grow. With proposals for a tax on bank bonuses to tackle unemployment, a temporary cut to VAT to boost demand and the bringing forward of infrastructure projects, we want to support the Executive to get the economy on the right track.
Big challenges remain, and not just on security and the economy, and the Governments in London and Dublin need to continue to help Northern Ireland to meet them. That includes taking responsibility for dealing with the past. For Northern Ireland to move forward, it must agree a way to deal with the legacy of the troubles, the death of 3,000 people and the injury and trauma of tens of thousands more. We are clear about the need for a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past, at the heart of which should be the victims and survivors.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parades Commission earlier. He will be aware that some of us believe that the commission is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Surely it is time we had a clean sheet of paper to consider some other process for dealing with the parades issue. It is a vital part of Unionist culture, and we need to address it, otherwise we could be in for a difficult summer.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Of course, if the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland have an alternative to the Parades Commission that they feel would better facilitate parading and deal with some of the issues, that would be a matter for discussion and change, but until such a time, the commission’s decisions are the law of the land, and as such they need to be adhered to. I understand his point—people often make it to me—but at the moment its decisions are the law of the land. It determines the routes and some of the conditions for parading, and we need to adhere to them. If we need an alternative, people must come forward with proposals, but until then, the commission makes the decisions. I know he agrees that it is crucial that the police do not make those decisions. If the current situation is unacceptable and people feel the need for change, it is incumbent on everyone to consider what that change would be.
My hon. Friend rightly talks about healing the past. Might that be helped by people such as the Deputy First Minister and other Northern Ireland Ministers with a history of involvement in the IRA being honest and admitting what they did, rather than always trying to imply that they were totally innocent of the terrible tragedies and lost lives over a long period?
We need a process for addressing all the matters that arise, but at the moment those points are made in a vacuum. We need an overarching process for debating these issues. My hon. Friend obviously knows Northern Ireland well. When I meet victims from all parts of Northern Ireland and from all sides of the community, I am struck by the need to find a better way of dealing with people’s sense of grief and loss, whether in respect of the Ballymurphy families, the Kingsmill families or whoever. There is no quick solution, but a process for discussing how that might be done would be an important step forward.
There is no consensus about what that process should look like, but we have to get people talking and to keep them talking until we find a way forward. I believe that change comes from the bottom up. Hon. Members know of the huge amount of work being done at a grass-roots level, on the ground in communities, to bring people together and help build the shared future we all want. Much of that work is unsung, but it is making a huge difference. I have met individuals and organisations doing important work in difficult circumstances. These people have shown vision and commitment to the community. I have seen the work they do, whether on shared education, sport for all, providing skills and training for young people or giving a voice to pensioners. We should all redouble our efforts to promote and support this crucial work.
Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland, but we cannot, and must not, be complacent. Northern Ireland is unrecognisable from the place it was, but challenges remain, and we must overcome them by pulling together. That means the Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, business, communities and all those who want to build a better Northern Ireland. We cannot just wish for a better future; we have to work for it.
I would like to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s words about dealing with the past. I think he referred to a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past. Will he spell out what that might involve, other than talking to one another, cross-community football matches or whatever? Does he wish to see another commission like the recent Eames-Bradley commission? What exactly is “comprehensive” and “inclusive”?
It might be something along the lines that Eames-Bradley suggested; what I am saying is that we have to bring people together to talk about this in the first place, but at the moment I think there is reluctance on the part of the Government to do that. I remember a debate in which the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that the Northern Ireland Assembly had asked the then Secretary of State to facilitate talks and bring everyone together to see how a comprehensive and inclusive process might work. People get cynical about having more talks, but given the absence of agreement and consensus, and the fact that there are differing views about what should be done, the very least we can do is to bring people together, even if—I will be honest with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—there is no guarantee that that will succeed. To start to talk about that—to ask how we deal with it, whether elements of Eames-Bradley could have worked, whether other elements could work and what a comprehensive process means, and to include all representatives in Northern Ireland in that process—is to start saying what we can do to address the issue. That is the role that the UK Government could play in trying to facilitate the process that the hon. Lady describes.
The values that were held throughout the peace process are as relevant today as they ever were—the commitment to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships in Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between these islands; the acknowledgement that the tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering, and that those who have died or been injured and their families must never be forgotten; the acceptance that only democratic and peaceful methods can be used to resolve political differences; and, most fundamentally, an understanding that differences still exist between competing, equally legitimate political aspirations, but that we must strive in every practical way towards peace and reconciliation. The Government at Westminster must rededicate themselves to those values, working with the Executive and the Irish Government to fulfil their obligations to help to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. There is still work to be done. Let us do it together, mark the progress, meet the challenges and strive to build peace, progress and prosperity in every community in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on choosing Northern Ireland for today’s debate. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have provided us with a welcome opportunity to consider some hugely important matters in Northern Ireland.
Let me start by paying tribute to the courage and dedication of those on all sides who are responsible for delivering the huge progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. That includes successive UK Governments, our partners in the Irish and US Administrations and, of course, the political leadership in Northern Ireland. They all deserve our sincere thanks. Delivering the peace settlement was greatly assisted by the bipartisan attitude that is generally taken in this House towards matters such as security and constitutional and institutional affairs in Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the continuation of that approach from the shadow Secretary of State.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the bedrock of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is provided by the agreement signed on 10 April, 15 years ago. Whether we call it the Belfast agreement or the Good Friday agreement, there can be no doubt that it has transformed life in Northern Ireland, alongside its successor agreements, made at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010. None of those agreements would have happened without the Downing Street declaration, made 20 years ago by John Major and Albert Reynolds, which started the peace process in earnest.
I agree that we in this House must never, ever take the peace settlement for granted. It will always be important to keep reminding ourselves of the many ways in which the agreements have improved life for people in Northern Ireland and transformed it as a place to live. For example, the agreements secured the constitutional position of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, meaning that it will never cease to be a part of the United Kingdom unless a majority decides otherwise. That is something that we warmly welcome as a Government who support the Union and believe that all parts of our United Kingdom are stronger together, weaker apart. The agreements also mean that the territorial claim to sovereignty in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution has now gone.
After years of direct rule from Westminster, we now have an inclusive, devolved Administration working hard for the people of Northern Ireland. Delivery of key public services is firmly in devolved hands, and since the St Andrews agreement, all the main parties are signed up to support for the police and the rule of law. The rights and identities of all parts of the community are fully protected, whether they choose to define themselves as British, Irish or both. There are accountable institutions to deliver practical co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland have never been better. Of course, the greatest achievement of all was the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the end of the terrorist campaigns that tragically saw 3,500 lives lost. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that there can be no doubt about the significant challenges that still need to be overcome in security, the economy, and addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.
Before the right hon. Lady moves on, will she take a brief opportunity to put it on record in this House that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have responsibility under the legislation to trigger a border poll, if there were a need for that, but that, no matter how provoked by the leader of Sinn Fein, she has absolutely no intention of triggering a border poll in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable and long future?
I can confirm, as I have said a number of times over recent months, that I have no plans to call a border poll. The conditions that require a border poll to take place, as set down in the Belfast agreement, are certainly not present; therefore, I simply do not think it would be a constructive thing to do. Indeed, I feel it would distract from the other big challenges for Northern Ireland, which we are discussing today.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I co-chair, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, also said those very things?
There is a huge amount of common ground between the UK Government and the Irish Government in our strong support for the devolved settlement and the great progress that it has brought to Northern Ireland, so I am delighted to hear that the Taoiseach expressed similar views to those that I have just expressed on a border poll.
This Government strongly believe that we cannot stand still if all the promises and hopes of the agreements are to be properly fulfilled, so we need to address the three challenges that I have set out. Let me turn first to security. As the House will be aware, the threat level from terrorism in Northern Ireland is assessed as severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely. There are still terrorist groups that continue to defy the will of the overwhelming majority of people, north and south, who voted for Northern Ireland’s future to be determined by democracy and consent. As the hon. Member for Gedling said, the terrorists are small in number and have very little popular support, but they have capability and lethal intent, as we saw with the cowardly and horrific murder of prison officer David Black last year.
I, too, would like to thank the brave men and women of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland for all the work they do to keep the whole community safe from harm. The PSNI is relentless in its efforts to stop terrorist attacks and put those responsible for them behind bars where they belong. Just one of a number of recent PSNI successes was the interception of a van carrying four mortar bombs bound for Londonderry. If it had got through, it could have led to an horrific attack. The levels of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana are unprecedented. That co-operation is saving lives. I thank the Irish Government for making it possible.
For our part, on coming to power we endorsed an additional £45 million for the PSNI, to help to address the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. Our 2010 national security strategy made tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland a tier 1 priority, progress on which is regularly discussed at the very highest levels of Government. In 2011, in response to a request from the Chief Constable, we provided an additional £200 million to tackle the terrorist threat. The shadow Secretary of State asked how the funding would be phased over the years. I think I can provide him with some reassurance on that. As a significant proportion of the funding was capital spend designed to provide much-needed equipment—not least the refresh of the PSNI Land Rover fleet—more will inevitably get spent towards the beginning of the period than at the end. From my regular discussions with the Chief Constable, I have no doubt that the extra resource has helped significantly, and I will continue to give the PSNI my fullest possible backing.
The hon. Member for Gedling rightly emphasised the crucial importance of the rule of law, now that we are back into another marching season. So far, the events have gone off well and largely peacefully, which is welcome, but it is always important to reiterate from the Dispatch Box—and indeed from both sides of the House—that Parades Commission decisions must be complied with. There are real dangers for Northern Ireland in any recurrence of the disorder that has too often marred the marching seasons in years past. Such disorder damages Northern Ireland’s image abroad, which makes it harder to build much-needed prosperity.
I endorse entirely the Secretary of State’s comments about the parades that will take place over the next weeks and months. Will she take this opportunity to set out for the House her approach to parading? The Hillsborough Castle agreement incorporates a time scale and a process for the transfer of responsibility for parading from the UK Government to Northern Ireland. We know, however, that that process has stalled, and there are no signs of it being restarted, so far as I can see. This is a continuing area of concern, and I would be grateful if she could tell the House what she intends to do to ensure that the issue is resolved once and for all.
I have had a series of meetings with those involved in parading, including the Parades Commission, the PSNI, and the Loyal Orders, to hear their views on the prospects for and the risks associated with this season’s parades and marches. It is important for the local parties to engage with one another on this issue, and my understanding is that there is an appetite for that to happen. Should the local parties reach consensus on a way to devolve decisions on parading to a new institution or body, the UK Government would of course consider the matter carefully. As the right hon. Gentleman points out, it has always been envisaged, by the previous Government and by this one, that we could move to a devolved solution. We are open-minded and willing to listen to proposals for such a solution from the Northern Ireland political parties, but until such time as the matter is settled, it is vital that the Parades Commission should be supported and that its decisions should be obeyed.
What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure the passing of a legislative consent motion on the Crime and Courts Bill, which will affect the ability of the National Crime Agency to work in Northern Ireland, and the ability of the new proceeds of crime provisions to operate there? What progress is she making on that? We discussed in some detail during our deliberations on the Crime and Courts Bill the fact that, at the moment, there is a big hole in that area, and I would welcome a time scale for the action that she is taking to ensure that the loophole is closed.
It is certainly a great disappointment that the legislative consent motion has not been adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive. I understand that policing matters are hugely sensitive in Northern Ireland, for all sorts of historical reasons, but I am concerned that the abilities and the international reach of the National Crime Agency will not be available to the PSNI. Discussions are continuing on whether it will be possible to persuade the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a legislative consent motion in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the question of the proceeds of crime, a matter currently dealt with by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It would be unfortunate if such work in Northern Ireland were not taken over by another body. If it is not taken over by the NCA, it would be a matter for the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive to consider developing an alternative capability. Discussions are continuing, and I have discussed the matter with David Ford on a number of occasions. He has done an excellent job on trying to build consensus for this change, and we will continue to support him on that. The Home Secretary also takes a close interest in this matter, and she is considering how the NCA will operate in relation to matters that are still the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government, including UK border matters and matters relating to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
The Government’s first duty in Northern Ireland is to keep people safe, and it is one that we will not shirk. I fully recognise, however, that terrorism will not be brought to an end by security means alone. As well as exercising continuing vigilance on security measures, we need to make progress on our other objectives—on the economy and on addressing sectarian division—if we are to address the problems on which paramilitaries will always try to feed.
I should like to provide some reassurance to hon. Members on the economic points that have been raised today. On taking office, this Government faced the largest deficit in the G20 and the largest in the UK’s peacetime history. In three years, we have cut that deficit by a third, and more than 1.25 million new jobs have been created in the private sector. In Northern Ireland, Labour left us with an economy that was heavily dependent on public spending—even more so than at the time of the Belfast agreement in 1998. Some studies have suggested that public spending accounts for as much as three quarters of gross domestic product in Northern Ireland. Of course I understand the historical reasons that have contributed to that, but it is unsustainable in the longer term. We simply cannot go on as we are.
Under the devolution settlement, many policy areas on the economy and unemployment fall within the Executive’s remit, and I warmly welcome the work that they have done on crucial economic matters, including their great success in attracting inward investment.
There are many things that the Government can take credit for, but the biggest disappointment for anyone in the business community is their failure to take a decision on corporation tax. That failure has been a knockout blow; it is sad, and it reflects a lack of urgency to move forward for the business community.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government are planning to reduce corporation tax across the UK economy. The Prime Minister has also set a clear pathway to a decision on whether corporation tax decisions could be devolved to Northern Ireland. The reality is that significant technical issues need to be resolved before a decision can be taken on the principle of whether to devolve the power. There are also wider constitutional issues to be considered in the context of the referendum on Scottish separation.
Significant economic responsibilities are retained by Westminster, and I am working with the Northern Ireland Executive on our shared objective of rebalancing the economy by boosting the private sector and pursuing a strongly pro-enterprise agenda. That is why we are cutting corporation tax from 28% under Labour to just 20% by 2015—the lowest rate in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The Prime Minister has made it clear that a decision on whether to devolve the setting of corporation tax rates to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be made in the autumn of next year.
Our deficit reduction programme has helped to keep interest rates at record lows, helping businesses and households across Northern Ireland, and our new employment allowance will see national insurance cut for 25,000 Northern Ireland businesses, with 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises paying no tax on jobs at all. This will provide better help for business than Labour’s one-off national insurance tax break.
We have exempted Northern Ireland electricity generators from the carbon price floor, to provide a level playing field with the Republic. That was a key ask from the Northern Ireland business community, as well as from the Executive. We have also devolved long-haul air passenger duty to help to save our direct air link with the United States, again at the direct request of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Secretary of State will know that her predecessor made a big play for enterprise zones in Northern Ireland. Is that still part of the coalition’s plan?
We certainly believe that enterprise zones such as those being established in England, Wales and Scotland can play a positive part in boosting the private sector and in job creation. Our conversation with the Executive on a fresh economic package to provide additional help for Northern Ireland includes looking again at enterprise zones, to see whether we can make them attractive to the Executive.
Access to the £2.1 billion Aerospace Technology Institute will strengthen Northern Ireland’s reputation as a centre of excellence in aerospace. Also, when I met representatives of HBO in New York recently, I heard at first hand that the Chancellor’s tax relief for high-end TV production was crucial to delivering HBO’s plans to film a fourth series of “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, with all the job opportunities that that will provide.
The Budget gave the Executive an extra £94 million of capital spending, bringing to £900 million the total additional funding provided to Stormont since the last spending review. The Prime Minister announced in March that Northern Ireland would receive an extra €181 million of EU structural funds above what would have been the case if the Government had stuck to the European Commission’s recommended formula. The size of the block grant for Northern Ireland means that public spending per head continues to be 20% higher than the UK average.
We are delivering a £700 tax cut for over 600,000 working people in Northern Ireland, and taking 75,000 of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. We have dealt with the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society and ensured that smaller, more vulnerable savers got most or all of their money back. Our welfare reforms, bitterly opposed by the Labour party, will ensure that work always pays and that people cannot take home more in benefits than the typical family earns by going out to work. These are the measures of a Government who are on the side of those who want to work hard and get on in life.
As for the comments of the hon. Member for Gedling on the spare room subsidy, I recognise how sensitive this issue is, particularly for Northern Ireland where so much social housing is still segregated. The reform we are making brings the social rented sector into line with the rules that the previous Government introduced for the private rented sector. We owe it to all people on housing waiting lists or living in overcrowded accommodation to use our social housing stock as efficiently as possible. A £3.4 million fund has been set up to help in hard cases, which has been doubled by Nelson McCausland over the spending review period. Discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive are continuing on whether they might fund a different approach on the spare room subsidy—at least until the Northern Ireland housing stock has more one and two-bedroom homes.
I thank the Secretary of State for her remarks, but as she is aware, the housing stock does need to transform dramatically. The cost differential between building one and two-bedroom properties and three-bedroom properties is negligible, but we end up with a less flexible housing stock as a result. Has the impact of this measure been properly thought through, particularly in respect of elevating the cost of one and two-bedroom properties through increasing demand, while not reducing the cost of purchasing those properties in comparison with three-bedroom houses?
These matters are being thoroughly discussed between Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and those in the Department for Work and Pensions, which remains anxious about and open to finding a solution that will work for the Executive.
Will the Secretary of State inform us about ongoing discussions between the Minister for Social Development in the Northern Ireland Executive and appropriate Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions on the issue of getting further flexibility to enable the people of Northern Ireland to deal with these cuts, which are the consequence of welfare reform?
Those discussions are ongoing, and I am confident of a positive outcome from them. The hon. Lady will appreciate that a number of flexibilities have already been obtained from the DWP by Nelson McCausland.
The Secretary of State is explaining the depth of the discussions that are happening, and I am sure that she has been greatly involved in them as they affect Northern Ireland. Will she explain exactly how many one-bed properties are available in Northern Ireland’s social housing stock?
I do not have the figure to hand, but this very important issue is being carefully considered in the discussions between the Northern Ireland Executive and the DWP.
I will take one more intervention, but then I want to make some progress.
The right hon. Lady will be relieved to know that I am not going to ask her about the bedroom tax, but I do want to take her back to the reference she made to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. It is absolutely right to put on the record the gratitude felt by PMS savers, particularly those saving up to £20,000. The Secretary of State’s immediate predecessor, and indeed the Prime Minister, did a wonderful job on the repayments, but that being the case, I am bewildered, as are many of my constituents, about why she did not make more effort to ensure that the Northern Ireland ombudsman’s report into the PMS fiasco was published in full—only a summary was published. Will she give an undertaking to go back and try to ensure that the ombudsman’s report is published in full?
Obviously, I do not have standing to dictate to the ombudsman what they choose to do with their report, but I am certainly happy to look further into that matter and come back to the hon. Lady about it. I am grateful for her praise of the work done by my predecessor and the Prime Minister.
We are all, of course, concerned about unemployment in Northern Ireland, as it remains far too high, particularly among young people. It is the case that some parts of the community feel that the peace process has not delivered all they hoped it would, so we want to do more to strengthen the economy and help Northern Ireland in the global race for investment and jobs. That is why the Prime Minister decided to bring the G8 summit to County Fermanagh in June. I am grateful for the support for that decision expressed by the hon. Member for Gedling, both in the past and today. This provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to market Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and to do business with. I am working with the Executive to make the most of all the opportunities that that brings us.
I agree that, despite the progress that has been made over the years, it cannot be right that there are still some deep-seated divisions in parts of Northern Ireland society. As I go round Northern Ireland, I see many excellent examples of initiatives designed to bring people together, such as the Jethro centre in Lurgan, Forthspring in West Belfast, and Intercomm in North Belfast. As the flags-related disorder demonstrated, however, more needs to be done to build mutual understanding and mutual trust across sectarian divides.
Policy responsibilities for community relations are devolved, but this Government have always been keen to work with the Executive and to support them in moving things forward. During his visits to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance he places on this issue.
Following the meeting with the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers in March, we are working with the Executive on a substantial new economic package, alongside measures that we hope will build a more cohesive and stable society.
The package is in addition to the support Northern Ireland already receives from the UK Government. The Government are examining ideas on making enterprise zones more attractive, helping the Executive to take forward infrastructure projects, improving access to bank finance, and various other measures. Meanwhile, the Executive have the opportunity to use their devolved responsibilities to develop economic and social measures, including work on a shared future which we are all committed to delivering.
Put simply, this is a two-way street: the greater the Executive’s ambition, the more the Government will be able to do to support and help them. This is about partnership and working together on our shared goals, and I am optimistic about the chances of achieving a good outcome for Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Gedling spoke about dealing with the past.
Before the right hon. Lady leaves the point about the provision of extra help for Northern Ireland, she will be aware that a different interpretation was put on her remarks, not least by people in the Belfast Telegraph who described what she said as tantamount to blackmail. They feared that money might be withheld unless politicians in Stormont made a certain amount of progress, as viewed by the Government. Will she clarify exactly what she means in her approach to this matter? Clearly, what she has enunciated today is certainly a more constructive way of putting it, but can she rule out the suggestion or fear among many that this money will be held as a form of blackmail to get the Executive to do certain things?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that this package is about working together. The shared objective of the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government is to rebalance the economy and to address sectarian divisions, and we feel that we have a good opportunity to work together on those crucial issues. As I have said, the package is about new measures and new ways of supporting the Northern Ireland economy, rather than any subtraction from the existing support for Northern Ireland.
As the hon. Member for Gedling will appreciate, this is no easy issue. His party’s Government tried to resolve it, but were unable to do so, because they could not build enough support for the legislation that they were considering. It is important to accept that the UK Government do not own the past, and that progress cannot be made solely at their behest. Progress requires the building of consensus between different sides and different parties in Northern Ireland. We are certainly willing to play our part in efforts to deal with these matters, as was demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s response to the Bloody Sunday report and the de Silva review, but we do not believe that singling out a few more cases for costly open-ended inquiries is the right way forward.
I pay tribute to the work that is being done by many groups and organisations in Northern Ireland to help people understand the past and give them a chance to tell their stories. Yesterday I visited the University of Ulster to learn more about its CAIN-ARK network, a resource shared with Queen’s University Belfast which has had 64 million page views and which contains a huge amount of material on the troubles. I encourage anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland’s past to visit the website.
Fifteen years ago, the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made an historic choice: they decided that their future would be determined by democracy and not by violence. The Belfast agreement and its successors have given us a platform on which to build a new, confident, inclusive and modern Northern Ireland whose best days lie ahead. There is no doubt that we have come a long way—in many respects, Ireland is unrecognisable in comparison with the place that it was two decades ago when John Major made the Downing Street declaration—but much remains to be done to heal long-standing divisions in Northern Ireland society. In a number of ways, the peace process is still “work in progress”.
No one should doubt the determination of the UK Government to move forward, working in partnership with both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, in our efforts to create a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland of which all its citizens can be proud.
Several hon. Members
Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 5.15 pm, and 11 Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to take part in the debate. Lengthy contributions will not be met with universal joy by others who wish to contribute, so I ask Members please to be mindful of others when making their own speeches.
It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. I apologise to both the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and the Secretary of State for having been absent for part of their speeches; I had to give evidence to a Committee upstairs.
I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Gedling for choosing the subject and for the way in which the motion is worded. I think it right to acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years, and I trust that the motion will gain the full support and endorsement of Members in all parts of the House.
Both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State spoke of the enormous progress that has been made, and rightly described the present situation in Northern Ireland as being virtually unrecognisable in comparison with the situation 30 or even 20 years ago. We do not underestimate the violence and the threat that are out there, or the concern that exists among members of society as a whole and among the security forces about the harm that could be inflicted by some of the terrorists who are intent on disrupting society. We bear in mind the terrible murder of David Black, and other incidents in which members of the security forces have narrowly escaped injury and death. We know of the fantastic work done by our security forces in daily protecting life and limb, and the interventions and interceptions which, in various instances—almost too numerous to recall here—have thwarted violent attacks by terrorists. We acknowledge the great progress that has been made, and, while we also recognise the challenges that are out there, everyone in society should bear in mind the enormous strides that have been made in terms of political stability.
It is now taken for granted that the Northern Ireland Assembly will see out its full term, and will see out its next term in full as well. However, not long ago—not 20 years ago but less than five or six years ago—people were predicting that the Assembly would not last four months, let alone four years.
We opposed the Belfast agreement because of its inherent flaws and the fact that people who were in government were still not supporting the police and the rule of law; they were still with the armed gunmen and we still had no decommissioning. We opposed all that, and I remember the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, telling us it was impossible to get an alternative. But we did get an alternative, and we did so because we insisted that the rule of law had to be paramount, that there had to be support for the police and that both sides of the community had to give their support and consent to the institutions in Northern Ireland. That was the fatal flaw with the Anglo-Irish agreement we debated not long ago in this House and also with the Belfast agreement.
Thankfully, however, as the opinion polls bear out, in the period since 2006-07, there has been overwhelming support for the Assembly and the institutions, on the basis that everybody is now involved—everybody has given their consent and everybody has been consulted. While it is far from perfect, it has at least gone through that important democratic test. Under the Belfast agreement, the Assembly crashed three or four times, but we have had a period of stability since 2007.
There is also increased support for the Union, as has been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). One of the most important and significant developments in recent years has been the increased support for the Union in all sections of the community. Those who describe themselves as British have, of course, always supported the link with the rest of the United Kingdom, but the numbers of those who describe themselves as nationalists and those who now describe themselves as Northern Irish who say they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom or that they would not vote for a united Ireland have also increased very considerably. That, too, is a mark of the progress that has been made.
Of course people have the absolute right to wish to leave the United Kingdom and join in a different set of arrangements, as long as they pursue those objectives politically and democratically, but what is happening in Northern Ireland is clear evidence that people are increasingly content to work within the parameters of the United Kingdom. Indeed, a recent opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph showed there was a majority for that in every county in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, a majority among nationalist voters overall. That is extremely significant, and it was unimaginable 20 years ago.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those opinion poll findings are the reason why, despite Sinn Fein having launched its campaign for a border poll with great fanfare, we have not heard much about it since?
That is absolutely right and, interestingly, when Sinn Fein voters were polled, a quarter of them also said they would stay in the United Kingdom. So, certainly from our perspective, things are changing in Northern Ireland in a positive and good way.
We face a number of challenges, however, including some major economic issues. We have heard a lot about them already today. In trying to build the economy, tourism is a key sector, and today is Titanic Belfast’s first anniversary. That is an iconic building, and I take some pride in it because I brought the project to the very first meeting of the Executive when I was Economy Minister in 2007, and we managed to get some substantial financial support for it. People at that stage queried whether it would be a success, but today it can be proved that it has been a success, because in the first year there have been 807,340 visitors, almost half a million of them from outside Northern Ireland and from 128 different countries. That contributed almost £30 million to the economy. It is a fantastic benefit to Belfast and to Northern Ireland as a whole. It is a world-class tourism project and product.
I recently visited the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, built under the Northern Ireland Executive, which is attracting lots of visitors, again from outside Northern Ireland, which is the key point because it has added value to the economy. In 2012, the Olympic year, hotel occupancy in Northern Ireland in June was at the same level as that in central London, which is incredible when one thinks about it.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to put his finger on where visitors are coming from. It is not a marginal outside increase. Apparently, of the million people who have visited the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic centre this year, 60% are from outside the United Kingdom.
Yes, and these are very important figures, because in the past a lot of tourist attractions were dependent on repeat visitors from within Northern Ireland or from over the border, which is increasingly unsustainable in the long run. But sights of the magnitude of the Giant’s Causeway, the Titanic, St Patrick’s trail and Londonderry and the walls are all great visitor attractions. Londonderry is the UK city of culture this year. We have the G8 coming to Fermanagh as well, so there are lots of fantastic things happening in Northern Ireland. When we consider what it was like just a generation ago, we can see what can be done when politics works, and we all have a part to play in building on the peace and stability that has underpinned that progress.
Recently, of course, times have been tough. Despite the economic downturn and recession, we have still been able in Northern Ireland to attract high degrees of foreign direct investment. We are still the second best area in the United Kingdom outside London for attracting such investment, which is a very significant statistic. In the past five years, the Northern Ireland Executive have spent more on infrastructure—roads, schools, hospitals and housing—than at any time in Northern Ireland’s history. More jobs than at any time in history have been delivered by the Executive, at a time when we are delivering the lowest local taxes in the whole of the United Kingdom. Peace, stability and opportunity make a real difference to the lives of those who live in Northern Ireland.
That said, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am conscious of your earlier injunction—I want to say that it is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that the Government act on corporation tax. While we welcome the moves that were made in terms of the help that the Secretary of State enunciated and the financial backing given to the Executive, and although the Executive have done a considerable amount on business rates and domestic rates and in helping lending to small businesses, and in backing the work of Invest Northern Ireland, there is no doubt, and it is the consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland, and among business and industry, that what is needed is a game changer. If we are to alleviate high unemployment and reduce dependency on the public sector, something like the devolution of corporation tax is needed to make that happen. Of course, it is important that we retain our 100% regional aid status as far as Europe is concerned.
As for the political challenges that we faced, very briefly we have come a long way to achieve the stability and durability of the Executive and the Assembly. That must not be underestimated and should never be taken for granted. We all must continue to work hard to make sure that it is not undermined. But there is a case to be made—the people of Northern Ireland on all sides have expressed this many, many times—for reducing the bureaucracy surrounding the Assembly and the Government Departments. We have too many Government Departments with too big an Assembly. Too much is being spent on governing the place.
I welcome the fact that the review of public administration will reduce the number of councils, streamlining local government. We on the DUP Benches support the reduction in the size of the Assembly, support the reduction in the size of Government and support the idea of introducing an Opposition to the Assembly set-up, but there are other parties in the Assembly that, to varying degrees, do not lend support to that. I hope that, in the coming years, we can look back on this debate and say, “From then on, there was the desire to make devolution, and the Assembly and the Executive, work even better.”
The issues to do with the shared future, the past and how we can ensure that all sections of our community benefit from peace and stability, are absolutely key. I do not have time to go into all those, but it is incumbent on us all to work together—all the political parties in Northern Ireland, with the Government here—to move these issues forward. They cannot be left in abeyance. It is absolutely critical. I know that in the constituency that I represent, North Belfast, there are many people who, when they consider the impact of welfare reforms, or the economy, or the reductions in the public sector, and the wider political process, do have a sense of grievance. While we acknowledge and address those issues, it is the job of all of us to ensure that the positive is put forward, that we continue the progress of the last 15 years over the next 15 years, and that we continue to build on the peace and stability that has been created in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for introducing this welcome debate. I strongly approve of the balanced wording of the motion, which recognises how much progress Northern Ireland has made during the last 15 years, while recognising that more work needs to be done. As well as the politicians in this place, it is the local politicians but especially the people of Northern Ireland who have made that progress. Over many years, they have shown enormous resolve in the face of a desperately difficult time. I pay tribute to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland for everything that they have done, and for being so resolute in their determination to come through very difficult times.
Probably everyone in the House today will remember the deeply difficult times of the 1970s. Last November, I had the rather sad occasion, with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), to visit Enniskillen to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bomb there. I was in the Republic on 15 August 1998 when the Omagh bomb went off, and I was in the Republic when David Black was murdered, and I remember the revulsion that was felt in the Republic of Ireland at those events. That demonstrates that we stand together with the Taoiseach and the Government of southern Ireland in condemning these acts and in being determined to find a way forward towards greater peace and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
I also remember many great things from my regular visits to Northern Ireland over many years now. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned the wonderful attractions there, including the Giant’s Causeway and the visitors centre there. I am sure the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) welcomes the new golf course that is to be built in that area. At long last, he probably says, but at least it is on its way. For Londonderry to be the city of culture this year is a tremendous accolade. As has been mentioned, the Titanic quarter has been open for a year, and I have had the pleasure of visiting it twice. What a wonderful visit it makes for. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland. To accommodate all the visitors who have been mentioned, Northern Ireland has some of the best hotels in the world, which perhaps is not recognised or remembered. As well as meeting the people of Northern Ireland, one of the great pleasures of visiting the Province is to stay in its wonderful hotels. There is an awful lot to be proud of and to look forward to in Northern Ireland.
I have the honour of chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and one of the ways that we think will cement the relative peace that has been attained in Northern Ireland is to try to help the economy and move it to better times. As has been mentioned, the economy throughout the United Kingdom is difficult. It is difficult throughout Europe. It is difficult in various parts of the world. For the record, I for one believe that the Government are on the right track in trying to put the economy right. We are not in a mess because we did not spend enough money, but because the previous Government spent too much money. We cannot get away from that. The Government are right to try to rebalance the economy in the way that they are.
But with specific reference to Northern Ireland, there are one or two issues that we should discuss here today that have been touched upon. I have just complimented the Government, but I will make a mild criticism now. I do not think that it is right to delay the decision on devolving responsibility for setting corporation tax until after the Scottish referendum. I see no relevance at all. In fact, I think that people in Scotland would be somewhat encouraged to vote to remain in the Union if we could demonstrate that there is flexibility to do different things in different parts of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another country, and the circumstances there are different. I certainly congratulate the Government on their reduction in the rate of corporation tax and look forward to the downward trend continuing to 20%, but we must remember that the level of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland is still only 12.5%. If we want to know the importance of that rate to the Republic of Ireland, we need only look back to the financial difficulties it had a couple of years ago, when this Parliament tried to help. Even with all its difficulties, and despite pressure from the European Union, it stuck to that rate and would not budge, because it knew that it was the best thing it had for attracting inward investment. The Government need to speed up their decision on whether to devolve the rate of corporation tax to the Assembly.
Great progress has been made on air passenger duty. I hope that the Select Committee was influential—I think that it was—in enabling the rate for long-haul flights from Northern Ireland to be reduced and giving the Assembly responsibility for it. However, a large number of flights to and from Northern Ireland are short-haul, and we feel that more work needs to be done in that regard, because the relatively high percentage of tax for short-haul fares is a disincentive. I know that that applies across the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland is different, as the only realistic way to travel to and from Great Britain is by air, so much more thought needs to be put into that.
The third matter I want to mention in relation to the Northern Ireland economy is laundering and smuggling. Historically, a lot of money has been lost in taxation through laundering and smuggling, particularly of fuel and tobacco. The Select Committee looked at that in great detail and was horrified by a number of things: first, how much money is lost; and secondly, how few custodial sentences are given to criminals who abuse the system to such an extent. It is not a victimless crime, because it is taking money away from hospitals, schools and police forces and from the taxpayers who contribute the money in the first place. The Committee was also concerned about the small progress made on developing technology that would greatly reduce, although not entirely prevent, the amount of fuel that can be smuggled and counterfeited in Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to continue their work and increase the intensity of their talks with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to move towards a better system for eradicating what is a very serious and costly crime.
I will detain the House no longer, as I am well aware of the number of Members who wish to speak. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. I finish by echoing what has been said. I think that all of us in this House are looking to create a Northern Ireland that is far better for the next generation than the era suffered by the past generation.