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Northern Ireland

Volume 563: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy

1. What steps she is taking to promote co-operation in the development of renewable energy between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. (157233)

Both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to encouraging a clean and diverse portfolio of domestic energy supply which includes renewable energy sources to meet economic, social and environmental needs.

As the Minister knows, the seas around the west coast of Scotland and the shores of Ireland have immense potential for renewable energy. What assessment has been made of how that potential can be maximised by new and upgraded interconnectors?

A huge amount of work is going on. Indeed, I was at Belfast docks recently observing the fabrication of new types of offshore wind farm technology. I should add, however—wearing my former Shipping Minister’s hat—that while of course we need offshore technology and connectivity, we must ensure that, as we introduce it throughout the United Kingdom, we protect our shipping lanes.

One of Northern Ireland’s attributes is its beautiful countryside and rural setting. As we pursue renewable energy sources, it is important for us not to end up with the blight of windmills throughout our countryside. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind as he co-operates with our neighbours in the Republic.

Absolutely. The Northern Ireland Executive are committed to protecting the environment and countryside, although they want 40% of Northern Ireland’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020.

I am curious to know—as, I am sure, is the whole House—whether the Northern Ireland Office has had any discussions with the Irish Government about the possibility of fracking in Northern Ireland, and the use of shale gas. Please do not tell me that this is a devolved issue; I want a response from the Northern Ireland Office.

Neither the Secretary of State nor I have engaged in such discussions. I will find out whether our officials have done so, and will write to the hon. Lady if they have.

Fuel Fraud

There is no evidence that fuel fraud is rising in Northern Ireland. Published tax-gap figures show a long-term downward trend. Tackling fraud is a joint priority for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Northern Ireland Executive, along with tobacco smuggling.

I am surprised by the Minister’s response, because that is not the information that we are being given in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is a huge issue involving not just the breaking of tax laws, but the criminal activities that lie behind it, and the potential support for terrorism. Will the Minister look into the situation? Does he accept that as long as two separate types of diesel are being sold the potential for fraud will continue, and will he consider an arrangement whereby those who use straightforward white diesel are given a rebate and those who do not are subject to sanctions?

I hope that I did not mislead the House by suggesting that there was any complacency about fuel smuggling, which is a serious matter. However, the original question related specifically to whether it was increasing. We are very conscious—as are the Treasury and HMRC—of the need to establish where the profits from fuel smuggling go, but the taxation issue is clearly a matter for a different Department, and I shall ensure that the relevant Minister is made aware of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

It is well over a year since the Select Committee recommended that HMRC should, as a matter of urgency, introduce a new marker in order to prevent fuel smuggling and laundering. Will the Minister meet representatives of HMRC and demand why it is saying that the marker cannot be introduced for at least another 18 months, and will he make it very clear that such a time scale is unacceptable?

I have had meetings about the matter, and I have been pushing for the introduction of such a marker. Believe it or not, criminals have technology that enables them to remove new markers very quickly, so we must ensure that whatever new marker replaces those that we have at present does the job that it is intended to do. However, I will press my colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that we introduce it as soon as possible.

I pay tribute to members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and their colleagues for the excellent co-operation that has taken place between police forces throughout the United Kingdom in relation to security arrangements for the G8 summit. Another issue that we need to tackle together is serious and organised crime—including, of course, fuel fraud—but, alarmingly, that cannot be done on a UK-wide basis, because the National Crime Agency will not operate in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister explain how we have arrived at this point, and what the consequences will be for Northern Ireland?

I completely agree. I, too, pay tribute to the mutual aid that is coming into Northern Ireland for the first time in such quantities, with almost 3,800 British policemen volunteering to come to Northern Ireland to assist with G8 security. That sends an important message to the rest of the world about the normalisation of policing in Northern Ireland.

I completely agree not only that the National Crime Agency is an issue, but that the profits from crime must be dealt with. This is a matter for the devolved Assembly, however. The Government would like to see the same approach apply across these matters, but that has to be decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. We will continue to push them so that we can clamp down on the sorts of crime to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The point is that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that they reach an agreement on the NCA with the Northern Ireland Executive. Worryingly, the Serious Organised Crime Agency has been abolished, yet the Government have utterly failed to get agreement for the NCA to operate in Northern Ireland. What exactly are the Minister and Secretary of State doing to resolve this situation, so that we can tackle fuel fraud and serious and organised crime across the UK as a whole?

I know the hon. Gentleman very well and he, like me, is very proud of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. We must do everything we can to help them, but at the end of the day these decisions have to be made by them. Fuel smuggling is a matter for HMRC and the police, but the NCA issue has to be agreed by all the political parties in the five-party coalition. We are pushing as hard as we can, but we cannot and will not take away the devolved Administration’s powers, because we want to move forward, not backwards.

May I follow on from earlier questions and ask whether the Secretary of State is fully aware of the seriously high level of fuel fraud? There are some estimates that up to one third of diesel is laundered diesel. Is he aware that at least £70 million of illicit profit is being made from fuel laundering across Ireland? The estimate is that that is split half and half between north and south; it used to be nearly all northern. There is also £100 million-worth of tobacco fraud. Can the Secretary of State give us any words of comfort, because the level of corruption is frightening?

The Secretary of State and I are very aware of that, and we have regular ongoing discussions about it. This is, of course, a criminality issue for the police to address, but where the profits go is also an issue, and we all know that some of the profits go into terrorist organisations. We must do everything we possibly can to clamp down on this, to stop that money getting into those organisations.

Further to the question from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Minister will know that a decision with regard to HMRC has been delayed yet again. The Committee understands that there is a marker out there that can do the job, resolve the issue and save the general taxpayer millions of pounds. Someone somewhere is dragging their heels. We need the Minister to intervene and get this resolved quickly.

I will again intervene on this matter and speak with my colleagues in HMRC. At the last meeting I had, which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland also attended, we understood that the marker was imminent. What those involved are worried about is introducing a marker that is not sufficiently robust. There are also dangers with regard not only to money getting into the wrong hands, but to the chemicals going into the environment after the markers are removed in the laundering process. That is very dangerous to both individuals and the environment in Northern Ireland.

Ministerial Meetings

I last met the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on 29 April in Belfast at an event to mark the progress made in Northern Ireland in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement. At that event we set out our views on the importance of addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and building a shared society.

Given the importance of cross-border co-operation for security, particularly in the light of the upcoming G8 summit at Lough Erne, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the people across the whole of the island, as well as for people in the United Kingdom, that we have closer relationships with Ireland?

I entirely agree. The working relationships between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana have never been closer. This highly effective co-operation has been saving lives in Northern Ireland and combating terrorism and organised crime, and it is also playing a significant part in our plans to deliver a safe and secure G8 summit.

Further to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made, is the Secretary of State able to give a date by which she can assure the Irish Foreign Minister that the National Crime Agency and the asset recovery scheme will operate in Northern Ireland, because this affects both sides of the border dramatically?

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has emphasised, a legislative consent motion on the NCA is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are disappointed that they have not taken up our offer for the NCA to operate in devolved spheres. I can reassure the House that the NCA will be able to operate in relation to matters that are not devolved, including HMRC matters and fuel fraud.

Further to the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), can the Secretary of State tell us how many Army personnel, if any, are going to be deployed for the G8 summit, in addition to the 3,800 volunteers from other police services in the United Kingdom? How are the security costs being met, in terms of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly?

The vast majority of the costs of the G8 summit will be met by the Government, although a small amount may fall to the Executive to meet. We are doing our very best to ensure that that is kept as low as possible, and we believe that the G8 summit will have a very significant positive economic benefit for Northern Ireland. The military are providing a number of specialist services to support the security effort. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am unable to give details of operational matters of that nature, but these services are routine for events on this scale and previous G8-type events.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer.

On her discussions with the Irish Foreign Minister more generally, she will be aware, as will the House, of the serious attacks mounted against Police Service of Northern Ireland officers recently in Dunmurry and in my constituency, where police officers came within inches of death at the hands of republicans. What is her assessment of the current strength of these republican groups now operating against the police? What numbers are involved? What steps will she take further to strengthen the PSNI in its battle against them?

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the seriousness of the terrorist threat from dissident republicans. There have been eight national security attacks this year, but the better news is that there have also been 68 arrests and 32 charges for terrorist-related offences and DR-related crime. We are doing everything we can to support the PSNI with the £200 million we added to its settlement in this comprehensive spending review. We continue discussions with the Treasury on adding to that funding in the next CSR period. The threat continues to be severe, but the UK Government are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to counter terrorism, both domestic and international.

Child Poverty

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of likely tax and benefit changes on child poverty in Northern Ireland during this Parliament. (157238)

This Government are reforming the welfare system to ensure that work always pays, in order to help lift people out of poverty. About 2.8 million low-income to middle-income households will be better off through the introduction of universal credit.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the relative rate of child poverty, taking into account all of this Government’s tax and benefit changes, will be 6% higher in 2015 than the rate this Government inherited in 2010. Does that not demonstrate that the communities that suffered the most during the troubles are being the hardest hit by this Government’s indifference to poverty now?

The whole scheme of our efforts to reform welfare is about lifting people out of poverty to get them into work and end a cycle of people spending a lifetime in dependency. We are fixing welfare to ensure that work always pays. Unbelievably, the Labour party chose to vote against our benefit cap; the Opposition think that non-working households should be able to get more than £26,000 a year on welfare benefits; someone would have to earn £35,000 to get that if they went out to work.

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Social Development has managed to get some flexibility to mitigate against the worst circumstances of welfare reform as it affects child poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that what would help even more is if we could maximise inward investment as a result of the G8 summit, to ensure that children are lifted out of poverty across Northern Ireland because of private sector investment there?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that some very important flexibilities have been secured by Minister Nelson McCausland, and I know that some good discussions are continuing about further assistance that could be given to Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that a key way to lift children out of poverty is economic prosperity, which is one reason why the G8 coming to Northern Ireland is very great news indeed. We are looking forward to the event.

Peace Process (EU Contribution)

6. What assessment she has made of the contribution of the European Union to Northern Ireland’s peace process. (157240)

Many around the world, including in Europe, have played a valuable role in supporting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Successive PEACE programmes, part-funded by the European Union, have directed funding to worthwhile projects aimed at community reconciliation.

Almost €330 million in funding through the PEACE III programme helped more than 450 projects across Northern Ireland. Those projects help to build a shared future and break down barriers between communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she and the Government are giving full support to the implementation of a PEACE IV programme so that such good work can continue?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are very supportive of a PEACE IV programme and were delighted that funding for it was included in the multi-annual financial framework to the tune of €150 million. We hope that we might be able to provide a top-up for that fund from our territorial cohesion allocation and we hope that it will focus on those key shared society projects that are so important in Northern Ireland.

That was rather a strange question and I would have hoped that the Secretary of State would have said very little in reply, as surely the people who have helped the peace process are the people of Northern Ireland themselves led by courageous politicians from Northern Ireland, many of whom are sitting in this Chamber today.

My hon. Friend is right; the real credit for the huge achievements in the political settlement in Northern Ireland goes to the political leadership of Northern Ireland and the courage its members showed. They received welcome support from around the world, but it was their achievement and we should give them the credit for it.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that as well as the positive effects of EU funding programmes, including the PEACE programmes, the common experience of Britain and Ireland as members of the European Union brought British-Irish relations on to a new plain and created the context for the peace process? It has also delivered a situation in which the border is less intrusive in the economic and social life of the island, and those are positive factors that need to be weighed up in any consideration of the UK’s future in the EU.

There are many reasons why the relationship between the UK and Ireland has improved so dramatically over recent years, but certainly the background of the European Union has provided some assistance. Of course, that matter will be weighed up carefully in the ongoing debate about the future of our relationship with Europe, but it is important for everyone to recognise that if people want a say on the future of Europe and a referendum on it, they need to elect a Conservative Government.

The Secretary of State has already said that the peace process in Northern Ireland was helped immensely by our membership of the European Union, through the PEACE money and in other ways as well. Does she not agree that our continued membership of the European Union, reformed as it would be, is vital for the people of Northern Ireland and in the continuation of the peace process?

I believe that it is vital that we should seek to reform and renegotiate our relationship with Europe so that it is focused on the trade, investment and commerce that is good for the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. I believe it would then be right to put that new deal to the British people in a referendum.

Sometimes the mention of Europe in this Chamber engenders the same reaction as occurred this morning at a magnificent Ulster fry breakfast when somebody asked for the vegetarian alternative. From the perspective of a former very distinguished Member of the European Parliament, the Secretary of State must recognise that Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the UK’s membership of the EU. Will she outline briefly how she sees that relationship developing in coming years?

As I have said, I think it is crucial that our relationship with Europe changes so that it is no longer focused on ever-closer political union, which is something that the people of this country never have wanted and never will want, but focuses on the commercial and trade opportunities that people thought they were voting for last time we had a referendum on the EU.

Territorial Army (Recruitment)

7. What steps she is taking to ensure that recruitment for the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland meets recruitment targets. (157241)

Naturally, this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I take a keen interest in the military across the board in Northern Ireland. We meet regularly our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and with 38 Brigade, as well as talking to the reserve forces and the cadets.

They never had to conscript the people in Northern Ireland to join the Army; they were volunteers, in both the British Army and the Territorial Army. Numbers of recruits to the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland are at their highest ever. It is important that the numbers are maintained so that others continue to have the opportunity. What steps is the Minister taking to work with employers and employees to ensure that that happens?

Encouraging employers and employees to join the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland has never been really difficult, to be fair, and individuals from Northern Ireland disproportionately represent themselves, proudly, across the United Kingdom armed forces. Nearly 20% of deployments come from Northern Ireland, and on Sunday I will be at the medals parade for 204 Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Army, when they return from Northern Ireland.

I have done my bit in the past couple of weeks by becoming honorary colonel of 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Cadets—something I was very proud to take on.

Security Situation

10. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (157244)

While the threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, progress has been made. Excellent co-operation between the PSNI and other agencies has resulted in a number of arrests and charges over recent months.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She has spoken about the security issues in her interview in The Independent this morning, and she knows that when the G8 comes to County Fermanagh later this month, there will be significant security implications. In response to the question from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), she said that the vast majority of those costs would be picked up by the UK Government. Will she reassure and confirm to the House that if there are any unforeseen additional costs at the end of the process, those will be picked up by the UK Government and not left for the PSNI? [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy conversations. Ministers on the Treasury Bench can scarcely hear the questions. I remind the House that we are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland. Some basic manners and displays of respect would, I think, be appreciated, not least in Northern Ireland.

I can confirm and reiterate that we will ensure that the PSNI is not disadvantaged in resource terms as a result of the G8 summit. We are committed to ensuring that it has the resources it needs, and that we minimise any potential burden on the Northern Ireland Executive.

The preparation for the G8 summit is going well. Around 3,600 police officers from England, Scotland and Wales are now in the course of arriving to assist with venue security and public order. G8 events inevitably come with certain security risks. We will be vigilant on the terrorist threat and we will, of course, make appropriate preparations to handle public order issues as they arise.

As well as the G8 summit, Northern Ireland will be hosting the world police and fire games in August. Can my right hon. Friend say something about the extra policing for that event and the extra training that will have to take place? Will her office be involving the Garda Siochana in the policing of those two events?

The relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Siochana is an important part of keeping both those events safe. Planning is at an advanced stage on the world police and fire games. It will not require a similar effort to the G8 in terms of mutual aid officers, but I can assure my hon. Friend that all mutual aid officers operating in Northern Ireland will have appropriate training in the special procedures and approaches used by the PSNI.

The Secretary of State recently forecast that the dissident republican threat

“is severe and…likely to continue”

for some

“years to come.”

Such a bleak assessment is totally unacceptable to my constituents. Therefore, what urgent additional security measures can be taken to defeat this republican conspiracy and rid our Province of the curse of terrorism?

We will continue to bear down on the terrorist threat. We are determined to defeat terrorism, whether domestic or international. We will be doing all we can to support the PSNI and its partner agencies in defeating these evil terrorists.

Organised Crime

9. What assessment she has made of the co-operation between the UK and Irish Governments on tackling organised crime. (157243)

Organised crime in Northern Ireland is naturally devolved, but we work very closely with the Irish Government, and so do the devolved Assembly and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Organised criminals account for 10% of the cigarettes imported into the UK from the island of Ireland. What discussions has the Minister had with Departments here in the UK and with his counterparts in the island of Ireland, and what impact, if any, would plain packaging have on the illicit trade?

Like fuel smuggling, cigarette smuggling is a serious problem, not least because of where the profits go—we know that some go into terrorist activities. I work closely and meet regularly with HMRC and we will meet again soon, but at the end of the day we must make sure that when we get the smugglers, they are prosecuted correctly and get the right sort of sentence.

Is the Secretary of State telling the House today that she is content with the delay in the implementation of the invitations to make submissions procedure between Customs and Excise in the Republic and HMRC in Northern Ireland? The delay is frustrating the security services, putting billions of pounds into the hands of criminals and, importantly, assisting organised crime. What is she going to do about it?

Speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State in answering this question, let me say that we are doing everything we possibly can. Are we frustrated? Yes, we are. Are the police frustrated? Yes, they are. But we have to make sure that the system is robust and legal, and we will get there.