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Northern Ireland

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Intergovernmental Co-operation

4. What recent assessment she has made of co-operation between the UK and Irish Governments. (163463)

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said in their joint statement, the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland has never been stronger or more settled. We particularly value the co-operation that we have received from the Irish Government and the Garda on security matters.

The Secretary of State will know that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister recently announced that all-party talks would take place, under an independent chair, on a range of outstanding issues, including parading, flags, and dealing with the past. These are due to commence soon and to finish by the end of the year. Does she agree that both Governments have a vital role to play in these talks and in helping all the parties to find agreement on these vital issues?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that both Governments have warmly welcomed the announcement of that group; it is very timely that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have proposed it. I am delighted to tell the House that an independent chair has been confirmed—the eminent Richard Haass from the United States will take on that role. As we will see in forthcoming days, this demonstrates once again the importance of looking at long-term devolved solutions on matters such as flags and parading.

The inability of the National Crime Agency to operate in Northern Ireland is a serious impediment to the fight against organised crime, trafficking, paedophile rings and terrorism on both sides of the border. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Irish Justice Minister and the Northern Ireland parties to sort this out?

I have had a number of discussions of that sort, and I can provide some reassurance. The NCA will be able to operate in Northern Ireland in relation to matters that are not devolved, including border controls, human trafficking issues, and matters to do with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so it will have a role there. It can also provide advice and support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in relation to devolved matters. Although it will not be operational on the ground, it can still provide a resource to assist the PSNI. I will continue to work with the Northern Ireland parties to see whether we can make the NCA’s role in Northern Ireland the same as it is elsewhere in the UK.

Given that we recently lent the Republic of Ireland billions of pounds to help it through its financial difficulties, to what extent are the Irish Government helping us to renegotiate our terms of membership with the European Union?

The UK and the Republic of Ireland do have many useful occasions to co-operate on European matters. The Republic of Ireland certainly has a different view from the UK Government on further integration, but on commercial matters—single market matters—we work well together.

May I gently say to the Secretary of State that cheeky ingenuity should be met by exemplary brevity? That is what she has provided, and we are grateful to her.

Given all her discussions with the various parties that she has to speak to, the Secretary of State will be aware of the perverse decision made last night by the Parades Commission, which has rewarded bad behaviour and punished good behaviour in relation to parading. What is she going to do about it?

I am working closely with the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister in their preparations to do everything they can to secure a peaceful 12 July. I believe it is important for everyone in this House and the Northern Ireland political parties to call on all concerned to work for a peaceful 12 July. It would be hugely damaging to Northern Ireland if the good news from the G8 were blighted by scenes of rioting on the streets of north Belfast.

We want to see that peaceful situation continue. We do not want to see any trouble on our streets. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Parades Commission has made the situation immensely worse and created severe tensions? Last year republicans brought out machine guns and attacked and shot at police, while Unionists and loyalists behaved impeccably. Republicans have been rewarded; Unionists have been punished. How on earth does the Secretary of State expect people to react in such a situation? Is it not time for the Parades Commission to be replaced by something more sensible?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has strong views on these matters, and the fact that these events relate directly to his constituency give him an important say on them. I recognise the anger in parts of the loyalist community about this decision, but it is vital that people recognise that the Parades Commission is the lawfully constituted authority. Respect for the rule of law is crucial. It would be immensely damaging to Northern Ireland if we had a violent 12 July. Whatever people think of the Parades Commission’s determination, I hope they will listen to the statement made yesterday by all five party leaders on the importance of the rule of law and a peaceful 12 July and comply with the commission’s determination.

15. Now that the Home Secretary has decided that she is in favour of the European arrest warrant, will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland arrange an early discussion with the Home Secretary’s Irish counterpart on how to make the warrant process less bureaucratic and a more effective weapon in the fight against organised crime north and south of the border? (163474)

I have had a number of useful discussions with Alan Shatter about this matter and how the Republic of Ireland views it. Discussions are taking place between Home Office Ministers and the Irish Justice Minister. I am sure they will continue as part of the Home Secretary’s efforts to ensure we reform and improve the way in which the arrest warrant works.

12. On economic co-operation, the British-Irish Council helps increase trade and boost growth between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. What more can the Secretary of State do to boost the maximum level of economic co-operation between nations right across these islands? (163471)

The recent meeting of the British-Irish Council produced some very useful conclusions on matters such as energy and the creative industries, and the Prime Minister used the G8 to strengthen relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. He very much welcomed the Taoiseach’s input to the G8 discussions. We are determined to continue to maximise the benefits that come from the G8 in terms of economic activity in Northern Ireland and future friendly relations with the Republic of Ireland.

The Economy

The Government wish to rebalance the economy to help Northern Ireland compete in the global race for jobs and investment. This is the aim of the economic package agreed between the Government and the Executive. The successful G8 has also demonstrated to the world that Northern Ireland is very much open for business.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. She will be aware that at the beginning of this month the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association warmly welcomed the initiative being spearheaded by the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), to make 7 December “small business Saturday”. Will she put on record her support for that proposal and outline the concrete steps she will take to ensure that it is a success?

Small business Saturday was raised with me by Glyn Roberts of NIIRTA when I met small businesses just a few days ago. The Government are determined to rebalance the economy to create the right conditions for growth in Northern Ireland. That was the aim of the extensive economic package that we agreed with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which was broadly welcomed by people such as the Taoiseach, the US President and even the shadow Secretary of State. That provides a good platform to help small businesses.

One of the obstacles to the growth of the economy in Northern Ireland has been the lack of funding from banks to help small and medium-sized enterprises. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the banks so that funding can be made available to these companies?

I have had extensive discussions with the banks, Treasury Ministers and the Finance Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. That informs an important part of the work stream that we will take forward as part of the economic package.

The Secretary of State will agree that, because of the shape of the Northern Ireland economy, public contracts represent a significant part of the market opportunity for our private sector. Does she therefore agree that any implications of sleaze or partisan hands being greased in relation to public contracts or any other governmental decisions that could favour the private sector should be investigated to the full?

These are devolved matters. It is, of course, for the Assembly to investigate any allegations made along those lines. It is not for me as Secretary of State to intervene in those allegations. I am sure the Assembly and Executive will deal with them in an appropriate manner.

Inward Investment

3. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on inward investment. (163462)

The Secretary of State and I have frequent meetings with Executive Ministers about further inward investment in Northern Ireland. That was a key focus of the economic pact that was concluded and agreed on 14 June. Our efforts are now focused on the G8 investment conference in October, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will attend.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. Will he join me in welcoming the announcement of a business-led taskforce to look at how EU rules are holding back businesses? Does he agree that that initiative will be vital for Northern Ireland’s economic development as much as for the rest of the UK?

I welcome the taskforce and the Northern Ireland Executive’s promotion of the 5,900 jobs that they would like to see with an investment of £375 million through foreign direct investment. That is something we support.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), inward investors will look at governance as part of due diligence before investing in any region. Given the serious allegations about political interference in public housing contracts, does the Secretary of State agree that it is within her remit to call for a full independent inquiry under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005, in consultation with the Executive?

Northern Ireland has an excellent police force and their investigations will look into any accusations that are made. We look forward to hearing from the police.

On a recent visit to the United States, members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee were told that bad publicity from certain paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland would be a deterrent to inward investment. There is, however, a lot of good news in the Province, so what will the Minister do to promote that over and above the very rare occurrences of bad news?

The good news, and particularly the G8, showed the whole world the good things that are going on in Northern Ireland, and how its normalisation process has moved forward enormously. All that good news and good publicity will go if there is anything like what we saw on the streets in terms of rioting and paramilitary activity, which we should all condemn.

I hope that Members on these Benches will welcome the cross-community efforts made by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—an orange suit on Monday and a green suit today.

May I ask the Secretary of State how the Government intend to capitalise on opportunities for inward investment that originate from the G8 conference in Northern Ireland, and the good news that has flowed from that?

The October investment conference that the Prime Minister will attend is the next step forward in showing normalisation and that Northern Ireland is a good place to invest. Before that, the world police and fire games—the second largest sporting event in the world—will be held in Northern Ireland, and 7,000 competitors and thousands of supporters will be in Northern Ireland to see how well it is doing.

Corporation Tax

We recognise the potential benefits of devolving corporation tax in Northern Ireland. We are continuing to consider the technical and financial implications of such a change, and will make a decision no later than the 2014 autumn statement on whether to devolve rate-setting powers.

There remains significant concern in Northern Ireland about the reduction in the block grant should the rate of corporation tax be equalised with the south. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor and the Northern Ireland Finance Minister about the consequences for the block grant, and by how much would it reduce if corporation tax were equalised with the south?

I have had extensive discussions on that matter on a number of occasions with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister and Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor, and that issue is one reason why we must consider carefully before deciding whether to go ahead with the change. We must ensure that the numbers are correct and that we have thought through all the consequences before a decision is made on whether the devolution should take place.

In answer to an earlier question the Secretary of State mentioned her determination to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Given that any decision on corporation tax is at least 17 months away, what other weapons will she help to provide in the armoury of the Northern Ireland Executive to help inward investment in our private sector?

We have already started on that work by bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland to demonstrate what a fabulous place it is to do business. We have also agreed an extensive economic package with the First and Deputy First Ministers, with extra funding for PEACE IV, extra structural funds and the retention of 100% assisted area status, which has enabled the Northern Ireland Executive to create 3,000 new jobs in the past three months alone.

Bill of Rights

The Government would like to see the issue resolved on the basis of consensus among the parties in Northern Ireland, and we remain open to taking whatever action might be required should there be such a consensus.

The Minister is aware, as is everybody in the House, that a Bill of Rights was an integral part of the 1998 Belfast agreement. We have waited 15 years for it. How much longer must we wait while people cannot make their minds up? Surely the Government have a responsibility to ensure that this moves forward and should not just pass the buck on to people in Northern Ireland.

I do not think anybody in Northern Ireland or in the House would say that the matter has not had an awful lot of attention in the past 15 years. The previous Government were unable to find a solution. I understand the problems that they had, and people have to understand the problems that we have. We need a consensus, and then we can move on. Until we get consensus, we cannot do that.

At a time when newts and bats can stop a multi-million-pound planning application, will the Minister explain to me and the House how pursuing a Bill of Rights that does not address the basic right of an unborn child can possibly be value for money, and why it should be high on anybody’s priority list?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views, but he has just explained exactly why the Bill of Rights has taken 15 years and there is a lot of work still to come on it.

14. Given that an Ipsos MORI poll showed that 80% of the supporters of the main political parties in Northern Ireland were in favour of the introduction of the Bill of Rights, will the Minister outline how the Government will use that level of consensus to bring forward a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland to reflect all the protections that are needed and the need for the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement? (163473)

Eighty per cent. is not a consensus, and it leaves 20% of the population of Northern Ireland that are not yet in agreement. If they can get together and form an agreement, we can move on.

The Minister will be well aware that under the terms of the Belfast agreement, any future Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is supposed to deal with issues particular to Northern Ireland. Since parading is particular to Northern Ireland, what steps are the Northern Ireland Office, the Secretary of State and the Minister taking to ensure that the right to parade is guaranteed in any future Bill of Rights?

The Secretary of State and I have had a lot of discussions on the matter, but the Parades Commission is an independent body and we have to accept its legal decisions. We may not all agree with a decision, but it must be adhered to.


It is vital that the determinations of the Parades Commission are obeyed and that the rule of law is respected. We encourage all concerned to work to ensure that parades pass off peacefully and that different traditions can be celebrated in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

The Parades Commission has an unenviable task, and although I commend the work of the commissioners and acknowledge the difficulty of the job that they have to do, it is clear that there are issues to consider about confidence in their deliberations and decisions. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, and does she agree that we need to address the matter in the weeks and months to come?

I certainly agree that the Parades Commission’s decisions can spark controversy but, in a sense, that is inevitable given the nature of its role. I welcome the initiative to consider a reform of parading matters, which we spoke about earlier, which provides an opportunity for all of us in the House to call on all concerned to work constructively and peacefully together so that parades can pass off peacefully in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

For many, like myself, the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland has a reputation of driving the communities further apart and being deliberately provocative in its determination to humiliate the Orange tradition in Northern Ireland while rewarding violent republicanism. What is the cost of that unelected, unaccountable quango that the Secretary of State keeps in place, and is it not long overdue that it is abolished?

The cost of the Parades Commission is set out in the Northern Ireland Office annual accounts. I know there are concerns about the Parades Commission’s decisions and I know that they are controversial, but it is absolutely crucial that the rule of law is respected. All of Northern Ireland will suffer if the pictures that go around the world this weekend are of violent scenes. There is a way to ensure that these events pass off peacefully. I urge everyone to seek that.

Has the Secretary of State consulted Lord Ashdown, whose commission included both a senior republican and a senior member of the Orange Order, and was able to come to a consensus? Will she also talk to Roger Poole, whose chairmanship of the Parades Commission was very successful? There might be lessons there.

May I endorse the view expressed by the Secretary of State that the decisions of the Parades Commission have to be supported? Does she and the Northern Ireland Office have any plans to work at or develop better dialogue, so that contentious parading can be avoided in the future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. It is vital that Parades Commission determinations are obeyed. He is also correct to say that local dialogue is the way forward. I welcome the fact that that took place for a few days last week. I hope that both sides will continue that dialogue, with a view to a local and sustainable resolution to parading next year.

More than 550 parades are taking place in Northern Ireland over the 12th, the vast majority of which will pass without incident. I wish those taking part an enjoyable and peaceful day. There are, however, a number of very contentious parades. Will the Secretary of State update the House on arrangements to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is able to deal with any public order issues that arise? Of course we hope that none does, but we must always be prepared.

I spoke this morning to the Chief Constable for exactly such an update. The shadow Secretary of State will be aware that that includes approximately 600 mutual aid officers from Great Britain, drawing on the experience of the G8. Those officers have started to arrive. The PSNI is doing all it can to ensure that we have a peaceful 12 July. I hope it will receive the support of the whole community in seeking to achieve that.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She will know, as I do, that there is particular concern regarding the Ardoyne. I have spoken with representatives of the Orange Order and the residents’ association, and continue to encourage them to re-enter talks to try to find a way forward. The Parades Commission has given its determination and the law must be respected. Does the Secretary of State agree that even at this late stage we must not give up on dialogue, we must not give up on talks and we must not give up on trying to find a peaceful way forward?

I am in complete agreement with the shadow Secretary of State. Dialogue is always helpful, no matter how late in the day. It is particularly important in finding a sustainable way forward for next year’s parade.

The Economy

8. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. (163467)

I had extensive discussions with Executive Ministers prior to the publication of our economic package, “Building a Prosperous and United Community”. I look forward to working with the Executive on implementing this important programme of work.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that the highly successful G8 summit in Lough Erne leaves a lasting economic legacy for Northern Ireland?

The G8 was tremendously successful. We have had some rather grim matters to discuss this morning in the House, but we should not forget that the world saw a positive picture of a scenically beautiful Northern Ireland that is open for business. The next opportunity to capitalise on it is an investment conference in October, which the Prime Minister will attend.

I recently met the head of Tourism Ireland, who told me about the great success of the new Titanic museum in Belfast. Does the Secretary of State agree that this shows that marketing Ireland as a whole can help to rebalance and benefit the Northern Ireland economy?

There are some advantages to that. We are looking at ways to encourage visitors to the Republic of Ireland to extend their stay to visit Northern Ireland. That is why our economic package contains proposals for a visa waiver pilot to enable those from certain countries with an Irish visa to travel to the UK.

Further to that last, excellent question, I am sure the House would agree that it would be mean spirited and churlish to do anything other than welcome the announcement of the economic package, notwithstanding that it was a re-stating of much that was announced by the previous Government, but may we have a little more detail about what has been agreed with the Northern Ireland Executive, and, above all, may we have some knowledge of the time frame for implementation?

We are pressing ahead as soon as possible with our start-up loan system, which we hope will be in operation within weeks; we have already agreed—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question, and the Secretary of State is trying to answer, but there is far too much noise in the Chamber. Let us hear the right hon. Lady.

The package includes top-ups for the Peace IV programme and structural funds; the retention of 100% assisted area status; a major G8 conference in October; measures to boost lending to business; a £20 million investment plan for research and development; agreement on the potential mechanism for taking forward further work on corporation tax devolution; a commitment to a new way forward on enterprise zones; a potential visa waiver pilot; and a number of other measures.