House of Commons
Wednesday 23 October 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Prince George of Cambridge
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House that he had replies from Her Majesty and His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge in response to an address and message from this House on the birth of a son to the Duke of Cambridge.
From Her Majesty:
I thank you most sincerely for your loyal and dutiful address and congratulations on the occasion of the birth of my great-grandson. The Duke of Edinburgh and I are greatly touched by the good wishes which you have expressed towards my family.
From His Royal Highness:
The Duchess of Cambridge and I thank you most sincerely for your loyal congratulations on the occasion of the birth of our son. We are greatly touched by your good wishes.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Democratic Republic of Congo
1. What recent steps she has taken to improve the humanitarian situation in Democratic Republic of Congo. (900643)
May I take this opportunity to welcome the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) and his colleagues to their Front-Bench roles in International Development? I also offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is unable to be here today. She is visiting Uganda to see what more DFID can do to improve the lives of the millions of people living with disabilities in the developing world.
I am deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For that reason, last week DFID agreed an additional £5 million of UK funding. That funding will provide life-saving interventions to more than 130,000 people and support protection for girls, women and children affected by the conflict.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the DRC. Does she agree that the UK should therefore seek to play a leading role in the humanitarian effort, including the opening of a DFID office in the east of the country?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we are the single largest contributor to the common humanitarian fund, which does precisely what I think he wants us to do—provide the humanitarian support needed by so many people affected by the conflict. Alongside that work, we have an additional fund for emergency response; that focuses particularly on providing for people’s health and sanitation needs. As I have explained, I have extended that by a further six months. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely playing a leading role in that regard.
A large amount of money is involved and a significant amount is, rightly, being spent on the crisis. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that her Department gets the full support and co-operation of the DRC Government? Does she also agree that it is equally essential to have the total engagement and commitment of the President of the DRC? In the past, that has not been fully forthcoming.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ultimately, we need a political solution to the conflict, and that has to be led by President Kabila. The solution also has to be regional if it is to be sustainable. Furthermore, Mary Robinson, the special envoy appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General, can have a key role in bringing together the various countries that must be brought together if we are finally to achieve long lasting and long overdue peace.
Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the mobile phone companies that source some of their rare minerals in Democratic Republic of Congo, thereby financing the warring parties? If she has not, may I suggest that she does?
I very much take the hon. Lady’s point on board. A lot of DFID’s work is in addressing corruption, and that includes illicit flows of money. As part of the G8 this year, for example, we led the way on challenging the leading economies of the world to up their game on tax, trade and transparency. Illicit flows of money were a core part of that. I assure the hon. Lady that I take her point on board and will follow it up.
Is it not the case that diarrhoea caused through poor sanitation is one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the developing world, and that in the Congo it results in the second highest rate of infant mortality in Africa? How many people will benefit from Britain’s investment in the water and sanitation system in that benighted country?
We have delivered life-saving support to 2.1 million people in DRC. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we look at the millennium development goal on child mortality, we see that one of the reasons it has not had more success is the continued fatal effect of diarrhoea. He is right to highlight that. It is one of the things we particularly work on in DRC, and it is why sanitation is so key.
The Secretary of State will know that 46% of people in DRC are under the age of 14, and reports say that youth unemployment is nearly 90%. Will she say a little more about the long-term plans for DRC? What conversations has she had with colleagues in the international community about getting those children to school and giving those young people a future?
I very much welcome that question. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that one of the key challenges in DRC is to blend together what we are doing from a humanitarian perspective with the country’s longer-term development needs. That is why we are keen to see a long-lasting peace settlement there. I can assure her that alongside the work on the humanitarian effort we are looking at what we can do with partners on the development effort, including in education.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. Since the start of the conflict, over 100,000 people have been killed, 2.1 million have become refugees, and nearly 7 million people within Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Let me declare an interest as a member of the International Rescue Committee’s policy and advocacy committee. Given that 60% of Syrian refugees are living outside refugee camps, what steps are the Department taking to ensure that there is adequate support for urban refugees and the communities that are supporting them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that for some countries the total is possibly in excess of 70%. In Jordan, for every refugee who is in the Zaatari camp, there are four outside it. We are therefore working very closely with Governments such as Jordan’s through the World Bank trust fund that we helped to set up—we launched it when I was at the World Bank just a couple of weekends ago—to make sure that we have the investment in infrastructure and public services that the host communities need to be able to support not only their own day-to-day lives but those of the many people who have arrived in their midst.
In order to try to reduce the terrible humanitarian crisis not just in Syria but throughout the region, with the prospect of conflict in Lebanon, does the right hon. Lady agree that the non-governmental organisations are right to seek to work with local organisations, and will she encourage them in that objective?
We are encouraging NGOs to work with grass-roots organisations, and they, too, understand that they need to do that. This is vital if we are to maintain the support of the host communities, who have been incredibly generous in accepting refugees. I should also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that one of the challenges is making sure that we can work with NGOs, which have the breadth and capacity to be able to work across the piece and across communities but are absolutely working on the ground with existing civil society organisations.
May I thank the Secretary of State for the comprehensive evidence session that she gave to the International Development Committee yesterday? I welcome the leadership role that the UK has played in committing these funds, but will she urge other countries such as those in Europe and the middle east also to step up to the plate and ensure that the UN appeal is fully funded and Britain is not left in front without followers?
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. Britain has done exactly the right thing in playing a leading role in the humanitarian response. It is absolutely right for the Syrian refugees, but right for us too, to try to do what we can to keep stability in the region. However, we cannot do that on our own, and it is now time, in the run-up to the next donor conference in January, for other countries in the international community to ask themselves what more they can do alongside the UK in making sure that the next UN donor appeal, unlike the last one, is fully funded.
Some 58,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan since the onset of the civil war. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross are aiding those displaced individuals with the basics to live. What more can Governments do to help charities such as the Red Cross?
We need to do a number of things. First, we need to make sure that the financing and resources are in place so that not just the life-saving work, but the broader work on educating the 1 million children who are now refugees can take place. As I have said, we also need to work with host Governments—such as the Jordanian Government, who have been incredibly generous—to make sure that they are well placed to be able to cope with this huge, unprecedented number of refugees.
9. Mindful of the impact on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and mindful of the fact that this is an international humanitarian crisis, what international co-operation are we receiving with regard to the refugees in those countries? (900651)
As I have said, it is deeply concerning that the United Nations donor appeal is only half funded. Having said that, as a result of the Prime Minister’s leadership, since the G20 we have managed to get an additional $1 billion of funding. The key test for us all will be whether the donor conference in January can be successful so that we can meet the needs of the UN agencies that are working so hard.
This refugee crisis is the greatest since that in Rwanda and the Secretary of State has our support in trying to get aid to those civilians, including 1 million refugee children. If the violence continues at its current ferocity, what is her Department’s assessment of the likely refugee numbers by the end of this year and of the capabilities of neighbouring nations to absorb them without destabilising their politics and economies?
Some non-governmental organisations would assess that the number of refugees could reach the 3 million mark by next spring. That is deeply concerning and it is one of the reasons why, alongside all the humanitarian work we have done on the ground, the UK has brought together top donors and UN agencies to make sure that they can work together effectively as a single team on a single strategy for not just supporting refugees outside Syria, but, critically, reaching those in need in Syria.
We look forward to the Department’s assessment of possible refugee numbers by the end of the year. Refugees are not just scampering across borders; they are also clambering on to small boats in order to seek safety by travelling across the Mediterranean. The tiny dot of an island, Lampedusa, has become a checkpoint for people seeking refuge from north Africa and Syria. Sadly, 300 people have drowned on that journey. Does the Secretary of State accept that the international community has to do more to prevent those desperate people from dying in such dreadful circumstances as they flee civil war only to drown in the Mediterranean?
What we have seen is shocking and it is one of the reasons why international development is so important. We need to make sure that we can work with developing countries so that they can provide people with opportunities, prosperity and a future so that they can pursue their lives with their families where they grow up. Surely that has to be the best thing and surely it is sensible to help Governments tackle instability and conflict on their own territory, rather than allow it to spread to ours.
Our budget of £14 million for Nepal’s elections will cover items such as £5 million to the United Nations Development Programme for the electoral roll, £8 million to the Election Commission of Nepal for the administrative costs of the election itself, and a further £1 million to cover independent observers.
I know that my hon. Friend has in his constituency a Nepali community to which he pays a great deal of attention. Nepal has faced a bit of a logjam for a number of years, in that it has needed elections to approve a constitution and a constitution to approve elections. We hope that the November elections will take place with full participation and no violence.
The UK is at the forefront of engaging with politicians of all parties in Nepal. My right hon. Friends in the Foreign Office and we in the Department for International Development visit them regularly and have urged all of them to participate. When I visited in April, I was very robust in urging some of the smaller Maoist parties to participate when at the time they were minded not to do so.
Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative
The UK will co-host a call-to-action event in November with Sweden, which will focus on protecting women and girls from all forms of violence in emergencies. That work builds directly on the G8 Foreign Ministers’ declaration on preventing sexual violence in conflict, which was led so ably by the Foreign Secretary.
I am grateful for that response. In Burma, reports of rape and sexual violence against women by the army have increased. Given the level of aid that we send to Burma, will the Secretary of State encourage the Burmese Government to sign our declaration and ask her colleagues to raise the matter in Europe and at the United Nations?
As a means to encouraging the wider implementation of the convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, the Council of Europe launched a campaign in February to encourage its member states to have their municipal and regional authorities sign a pact to stop sexual violence against children. Will the Secretary of State say whether she is aware of that campaign and what contribution her Department can make?
I am not aware of that campaign. The Department sets a lot of store by the work that it does to protect children, whether in Syria or Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only today, I announced £2 million to take care of the Syrian children who are turning up in Iraq unaccompanied. I will write to my right hon. Friend to respond more fully on the campaign that she mentioned.
Although the supply of food in Gaza is adequate, prices are rising fast. The level of fuel and medical supplies has dropped, exacerbating an already precarious humanitarian situation and threatening the basic needs of ordinary people in Gaza.
The Minister has recognised in his reply that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly fragile. The impoverished Palestinian population is reliant on the tunnels for affordable goods. The tightening of restrictions by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities is resulting in shockingly high prices for fuel and basic commodities. With access to, and the affordability of, food becoming a huge problem, will the Government acknowledge that the blockade of Gaza is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law and constitutes collective punishment?
I recognise exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. We would far rather see free movement and access for trade and economic activity in Gaza than an economy that is channelled through tunnels in a way that benefits Hamas. Israel’s plan to expand the capacity of the Allenby crossing between the west bank and Jordan is a welcome example of the sort of steps that can be taken to improve trade.
The truth is that the international community and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency will have to continue supporting thousands of people in Gaza and the west bank until a two-state solution is found or until Gaza and the west bank are incorporated into de jure Israel. Permanent occupation is a perpetual hell for thousands of people. When will the international community find a long-term solution for Gaza and the west bank?
I hope that the efforts that are under way will lead to exactly the kind of agreement that my hon. Friend is seeking. The efforts of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, in particular in working with the US Administration, will hopefully lead to a two-state solution and a long-lasting agreement that lead to peace and security between the two countries.
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point. The amount of fuel that enters Gaza via the tunnels has halved from about 1 million litres a day in June to about 500,000 litres this month. The Gaza power plant is operating at half its capacity, triggering electricity blackouts of up to 12 hours a day, exacerbating the already difficult economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza.
During the past month I have attended the UN General Assembly, meetings at the World Bank and I have put in place a new £30 million “Lost Generation” initiative to provide protection, counselling and basic educational supplies to children affected by the Syrian crisis. I have announced a £1 billion commitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the Department is committed to transparency, results and value for money. I am proud that in procurement in DFID, despite competition from the public and private sectors, my departmental procurement team recently won the annual award for best international procurement from the Chartered Institute for Procurement and Supply.
I know that my hon. Friend was involved in excellent work on business mentoring in Burundi over the summer, and last week I met the Institute of Chartered Accountants—of which I am a fellow—to discuss accounting and auditing standards in the developing world. I hope the UK’s excellent professional services will play a role in driving standards and skills in the developing world over the coming months and years.
I am pleased the hon. Lady raises that issue. This country played a leading role in using the G8 to raise the issue of illicit flows, and ensure transparency alongside our efforts on tax and trade. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is now consulting on beneficial ownership, which the hon. Lady referred to, and that is a key route through which we can help developing countries ensure they get the tax takes they are due.
T5. When I visited India two weeks ago with my local gurdwara from Hounslow, I had a useful discussion in the Punjab with ActionAid and other organisations about female feticide, which I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees is a disgrace to humanity. What can she do through her Department to improve the way that women are valued, so that they are protected worldwide? (900637)
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Female feticide is shocking, and I pay tribute to organisations such as ActionAid, and others that work and campaign on that issue. In too many parts of the world, women are treated as chattels or assets and are bought and sold, often through early forced marriage or trafficking. The lack of basic human rights for women underpins much of what my Department works on.
T4. Many billions of pounds of taxpayers money have rightly been spent investing in schools and community centres in Afghanistan. What proportion does the right hon. Lady believe will remain open after the departure of our troops next year? (900636)
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that a huge amount of work through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund has gone into education and building schools, including in Helmand. Given the work that is taking place in the run-up to the troop draw-down and beyond, I hope not only that those schools will continue, but that more schools will join them and extend education to more Afghan children.
T6. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what progress has been made since the G8 on cutting illicit financial flows from developing countries, and on setting up a public register of the beneficial ownership of those companies? (900638)
I reiterate that a consultation on beneficial ownership is under way. Since taking up this role I have increased the amount of funding that my Department gives to the Met police to track down and prosecute those involved in illicit illegal flows, and they are doing an excellent job.
The Department is in regular discussions with the Israeli Government, and as mentioned earlier, we are particularly concerned about the limitation that exists on fuel in Gaza. We fully understand that those pressures exist, and we make representations whenever we can.
The Department is working hand in hand with the Foreign Office to play its role in improving governance and accountability, not only at regional and governmental level, but at community level, where, clearly, so many of the root causes of that situation lie.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died in Afghanistan. It is clear from the tributes that he was a highly talented and professional soldier. Our thoughts are with his family, his friends and his colleagues at this very difficult time. He has made the ultimate sacrifice, and we must never forget him.
On a happier note, I am sure the House will join me in celebrating the christening of baby Prince George later today.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I join my right hon. Friend in his tribute to Lance Corporal Brynin. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and comrades in 14 Signal Regiment. I also join the Prime Minister in his applause for the christening of Prince George this morning.
Does my right hon. Friend believe it is a good time for an apology from those regional branches of the Police Federation who so traduced our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and from the Leader of the Opposition?
Let me start by saying on behalf of all hon. Members that we should put on record what an incredible job the police do on our behalf every day. I see that at very close hand, and the Leader of the Opposition and I saw it at the police bravery awards last week. However, as I said last week, my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip gave a full explanation of what happened. The police in the meeting said that he gave no explanation. It is now clear, reading the Independent Police Complaints Commission report, that the police need to make an apology. The officers concerned and the chief constables are coming to the House today. I hope they will give a full account and a proper apology to the Home Affairs Committee. It is a moment for all hon. Members to consider what we said at the time. I hope the Leader of the Opposition does the same.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who died on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was a brave, professional soldier. I send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.
I also join the Prime Minister in celebrating the christening of Prince George later today and send best wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The Prime Minister has said that anyone who wanted to intervene directly in energy markets was living in “a Marxist universe”. Can he tell the House how he feels now that the red peril has claimed Sir John Major?
We are intervening—[Interruption.] I am not surprised the right hon. Gentleman wants to quote the last Conservative Prime Minister and forget the mess the people in between made of our country. Let me be absolutely clear that I believe in intervening in the energy market. That is why we are legislating to put customers on the lowest tariff. John Major is absolutely right that bills in this country have reached a completely unacceptable level. We need to take action on that. We need to help people to pay their bills, and we also need to help to get bills down. This is where we need a frank conversation about what is putting bills up. The Government are prepared to have that conversation; the Leader of the Opposition is employed in cynical ploys and gimmicks.
Of course, John Major was a Conservative Prime Minister who won a majority, unlike this Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has said something rather interesting. He obviously now agrees with Sir John Major that the energy price increases are unacceptable. If we agree that they are unacceptable, the question is: what are we going to do about it? The former Prime Minister said that,
“given the scale of those profits”,
we should “recoup that money”. He wants to do it through a windfall tax; I say we need a price freeze. What does the Prime Minister want to do to “recoup that money” for the consumer?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about John Major winning an election, and he is right. He beat a weak and incredible Labour leader. Is that not rather familiar? The first thing that John Major said is that Labour’s policy is unworkable, and he is absolutely right. What we need to do is recognise that there are four bits to an energy bill: the wholesale prices, which are beyond our control; the costs of transmission and the grid, which are difficult to change; the profits of the energy companies; and the green regulations. It is those last two that we need to get to grips with. So I can tell the House today that we will be having a proper competition test carried out over the next year to get to the bottom of whether this market can be more competitive. I want more companies, I want better regulation and I want better deals for consumers, but yes, we also need to roll back the green charges that the right hon. Gentleman put in place as Energy Secretary.
The Prime Minister really is changing his policy every day of the week. It is absolutely extraordinary. His Energy Secretary, who is in his place, says this has nothing to do with green taxes, and 60% of green taxes were introduced by him. Who is the man who said, “Vote blue to go green?” It was the Prime Minister. I will tell him what is weak: not standing up to the energy companies. That is this Prime Minister all over.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the big six energy companies. Who created the big six energy companies? When Labour came to power there were 17 companies in the market, now there are just six. I can help Opposition Members, because I have the briefing that Back-Bench Labour MPs have been given about their own energy policy. In case they have not read the briefing, they might want to hear it. Question 7:
“what would stop the energy companies just increasing their prices beforehand?”
Absolutely no answer. Question 6. [Interruption.] No, let me share their briefing with them. Question 6:
“How will you stop companies just increasing their prices once the freeze ends?”
Here we have the great Labour answer:
“the public would take a dim view”.
A dim view—how incredibly brave. Let us have question 9, because this says it all. This is what Labour’s briefing says:
“Ed Miliband was Energy Secretary in the last government - isn’t he to blame for rising bills?”
We all know the answer: yes, he is.
I will tell the Prime Minister what happened. When I was Energy Secretary, energy bills went down by £100. Since he became Prime Minister, they have gone up by £300. Let us clarify where we are. The Prime Minister says these price rises are unacceptable. He says he wants to act. He is the Prime Minister—I know he can sometimes forget that, but, heaven help us, he is the Prime Minister, so he can act. I have a suggestion: he should implement Labour’s price freeze. The Energy Bill is going through the other place. We can amend it and bring in the price freeze right now—two parties working together in the national interest. Let us do that—
The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well it is not a price freeze; it is a price con. He admitted it was a price con the very next day, because he could not control global gas prices. The truth is that prices would go up beforehand, he would not keep his promise and prices would go up afterwards. It is a cynical ploy from the Energy Secretary who wrecked the energy market in the first place.
I will tell the Prime Minister what is a con: telling people last week that the answer was to switch suppliers and that that would solve the broken energy market. What does he say to someone who took his advice last week to switch from British Gas, only to discover that npower was raising its prices by 10%?
It is worth people looking at switches—they can save up to £250 if they switch—but we want a more competitive energy market. The right hon. Gentleman left us a market with just six players, and we have already seen seven new energy companies enter the market. We need an annual audit of competition to make this market more competitive—something he never did in office—and to roll back the costs imposed on people’s energy bills, part of which he was responsible for. One of the first acts of the Government was to take away the £179 that he was going to put on to energy bills through his renewable heat initiative. He put bills up and is trying to con the public; we will deliver for hard-working people.
John Major said what we all know. We have a Prime Minister who stands up for the energy companies, not hard-pressed families. Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating. These are the ordinary people of this country whom this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.
The difference is: John Major is a good man; the right hon. Gentleman is acting like a conman. That is what we are seeing. He is promising something he knows he cannot deliver. He knows he cannot deliver it because he never delivered it when he was in office.
Q2. In the town of Colne, where I live, unemployment is down and small businesses are flourishing, but serious traffic congestion is holding back the economic growth of the area. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the start of a six-week consultation on a Colne bypass that would address this problem and boost job creation in Pendle and east Lancashire? (900619)
I very much welcome what my hon. Friend says. He is absolutely right about the need to build bypasses and roads in our country, which is why we are spending £3 billion over the Parliament on major upgrades. I welcome the consultation on the Colne bypass. As he says, it comes at the same time as very good news on unemployment and employment, with 1 million more people in work in our country.
On this day 20 years ago, the Provisional IRA brutally murdered innocent men, women and children on the Shankill road in Belfast. Will the Prime Minister join me and my right. hon. and hon. Friends in ensuring that no one in a civilised society will ever equate innocent victims with guilty murderers?
I join the hon. Gentleman in commemorating the appalling act and loss of life that day. We all remember it. Of course, no one should ever glorify, in any way, terrorism or those who take part in terrorism, but he and I know that everyone in Northern Ireland has to try to come together to talk about a shared future and to try to leave the past behind.
Q3. Rural post offices are vital, but they need more government work to survive. They must continue to pay pensions and benefits and are ideally placed to handle universal credit applications, provide banking and identity check facilities and act as a front office for government. Will the Prime Minister encourage all his Ministers to give more government work to post offices? (900620)
We all want to see the post office network survive and thrive. Unlike the last Government, who saw nearly a third of the rural post office network close, we have committed that no post office will close in this Parliament. I absolutely hear what my hon. Friend says. The current arrangements for collecting pensions and benefits at post offices will remain in place at least until 2015, and the Department for Work and Pensions and the Post Office are discussing an extension to 2017.
Q4. A total of 1.5 million people in the UK are addicted to the benzoates diazepam and “Z drugs”. I know of one individual who has been on those products for more than 45 years—a total life ruined. They are not drug misusers; they are victims of the system of repeat prescriptions. Will the Prime Minister advise the Department of Health to give some guidance to the clinical commissioning groups to introduce withdrawal programmes in line with the advice from Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle university, who is the expert in this field, to give these people back their lives? (900621)
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has campaigned strongly on this issue over many years. I join him in paying tribute to Professor Ashton, whom I know has considerable expertise in this area. He is right to say that this is a terrible affliction; these people are not drug addicts but they have become hooked on repeat prescriptions of tranquillisers. The Minister for public health is very happy to discuss this issue with him and, as he says, make sure that the relevant guidance can be issued.
I know that the Prime Minister is very well aware of the concerns that many of our people have about rising energy prices. Will he therefore act to reduce the effect of Mr Huhne’s unfortunate legacy by cutting the carbon reduction policy, elongating the targets and relieving the burden on both consumer and business man?
My hon. Friend makes a good point; as I say, this is why we have to have an honest discussion about this, because the fact is that on our energy bills is £112 of green taxes and green regulations. We need to work out not only what is necessary to encourage renewable energy and what is necessary to go on winning overseas investment into the UK, but how we can bear down on people’s bills. It simply is the politics of the conman to pretend that you can freeze prices when you are not in control of global energy prices. The proper approach is to look at what is driving up bills and deal with it. [Interruption.]
Q5. Yesterday, The Independent reported the Government’s failure to close the quoted Eurobond tax loophole, which could be losing the Exchequer £500 million a year. Has the Prime Minister ever been lobbied on the loophole? Will he now pledge to close it immediately? (900622)
More than 300,000 new businesses have been registered in the United Kingdom over the past three years—that is a record figure. The key priority in supporting those businesses over the difficult first few years of trading is to make sure that we bear down on regulation. Much has been done through the red tape challenge, one-in, one-out and other measures. What more can the Government do to support these risk-takers at this difficult time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The news out today is that we now have the largest number of companies we have ever had in our country, and over the past three years we have seen 400,000 extra companies established. What we have to do is help them in every way we can. The most powerful thing we are doing is cutting the national insurance that they will have to pay by £2,000, starting next year. That will be a real boost to small businesses. On the red tape they are currently throttled with, we are dealing with that at every level, including at the European Council coming up this week, where I have organised a meeting for our businesses to explain their proposals for cutting red tape to fellow European leaders from Finland, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. It is an agenda right across the board to help small businesses grow our economy.
Q6. New research shows that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are trapping low-earning aspirant parents on benefits. His benefit cap is hitting vulnerable children, stopping parents working and costing the taxpayer—is it not time for a rethink? (900624)
We know that the Labour party is against the benefit cap. It wants unlimited benefits for families. It is no longer the Labour party; it is the welfare party. That is very clear from the questions Labour Members ask. We think it is right to cap benefits so that no family can earn more out of work than they would earn in work. The early evidence is showing that this is encouraging people to look for work. For a party that believes in hard-working people, that is good news. Presumably for the welfare party it is bad news.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the business model of Welsh Water Dwr Cymru, which is a not-for-profit company that is responsible to its consumers rather than to shareholders. Does he agree that such companies would introduce real competition in the energy supply sector?
We want more competition in the energy sector, whether it comes from private businesses, from co-operative businesses or, as the hon. Gentleman says, from charitable enterprises. We want an open energy market, but the fact is that we were left with the big six by the party opposite. We were also left an Ofgem in which the Leader of the Opposition had appointed five of the nine people. The reason that the energy market is not working properly lies largely at his door.
Q7. Wigan and Leigh Housing estimates that it will take approximately seven years to rehouse the 1,400 tenants who wish to downsize because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. Would the Prime Minister advise those tenants to move to private rented accommodation, thereby increasing the housing benefit bill, or should they try to save money by turning off the heating and wearing a jumper? (900625)
What is fair about removing the spare room subsidy is that it makes the situation fair between private rented accommodation and council sector rented accommodation. It is that sort of fairness that we want to see in our country. The Labour party has opposed every single welfare reduction that we have proposed; it would have to find £85 billion to fund its opposition to every single thing that we have done to help this country get back on track.
The positive outlook for Osborne Construction in my constituency this year, with its increased turnover and a strongly increased forward order book, is mirrored in the real economy all over the country. Will the Prime Minister undertake not to be diverted from the long, hard slog of righting the public finances and reducing the burdens on business, so that plan A can continue to enable businesses in my constituency—Osborne and all the others—to put our economy right for the long term?
I am very glad to hear that Osborne Construction is working in my hon. Friend’s constituency, just as it is around the rest of the country. That is very worth while. I shall take this opportunity to pay tribute to him, as a constituency MP, for standing up for people and businesses in Reigate and for knowing that what Reigate needs is what the country needs, which is to stand up for hard-working people and to get more businesses, more jobs and more investment turning our country around.
Q8. Fixed-odds betting machines allow the user to stake £100 every 20 seconds for up to 13 hours a day. They have transformed the local bookies from places where people went for a flutter on the horses into high street digital casinos. Will the Prime Minister consider banning these addictive machines, as has recently happened in Ireland? (900626)
This is an issue on which I have been repeatedly lobbied by people across the House and more broadly—[Interruption.] I do think that it is worth having a proper look at the issue to see what we can do. Yes, we want to ensure that bookmakers are not over-regulated, but we also want a fair and decent approach that prevents problem gambling.
In Mid Bedfordshire last year, 130 parents, teachers and staff were very disappointed when their free school application failed. That application was managed by the Barnfield Federation, which is now under investigation by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Will the Prime Minister please use his good offices to ensure that the failed free school application in Mid Bedfordshire is incorporated into that inquiry?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her suggestion. Obviously, we need a proper policy of ensuring that proposals for free schools are ready to go ahead before they go ahead. It is worth making the point that two thirds of the free schools in our country have been judged to be good or outstanding, which is a higher proportion than for schools in the state sector. It is therefore worth not only continuing with this policy but putting rocket boosters on it so that we see many more free schools in our country.
Liverpool City Region (Ministerial Visit)
I visited Liverpool earlier this year to launch the city’s international festival for business 2014. While there, I discussed with mayor Joe Anderson the prospects for the city in overseas investment and the importance of the international festival. I also met Hillsborough families, and I am sure I will visit the city again soon.
I am grateful for that answer. Does the Prime Minister accept that Government support to local government should be related to need? If so, how does he explain the fact that households in my region have lost £40 over the last two years, whereas households in his constituency have gained £6?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures. We need to look at spending power per dwelling, which is the combination of grant plus council tax. In the right hon. Gentleman’s area, the spending per dwelling is £3,122 whereas it is £1,872 in West Oxfordshire. I fully accept that the need is much greater in Knowsley than it is in West Oxfordshire, but I would argue that that provides a relatively fair balance between the two.
Q10. Following decades of underinvestment and hollow promises from previous Governments, the coalition’s early decision fully to dual the A11 is driving investor confidence in Norwich and East Anglia. May I urge the Prime Minister to continue to look east, as a powerhouse for economic growth, and to back the opportunities available for investment in the great eastern main line? (900628)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stand up for Norwich and for Norwich’s economy. The £100 million we are investing in the A11 is an important part of that. It will be completed in 2014, and it will cut congestion on the route between Cambridge and Norwich. For once, I have said something that the shadow Chancellor agrees with, because I know that he wants to go and watch the Canaries. Now we will be able to get him there a little bit quicker. There is no end to my munificence in trying to help the shadow Chancellor.
Two weeks ago, the head of the Security Service warned about the extent of Islamist extremism. This week, two individuals have been charged with serious terrorist offences. What is the Prime Minister going to do in January when, as a result of his Government’s legislation, some of those whom the Home Secretary has judged to pose the greatest threat to our security are released from the provisions of their terrorism prevention and investigation measures?
We have put in place some of the toughest controls that one can possibly have within a democratic Government, and the TPIMs are obviously one part of that. We have had repeated meetings of the extremism task force—it met again yesterday—setting out a whole series of steps that we will take to counter the extremist narrative, including by blocking online sites. Now that I have the opportunity, let me praise Facebook for yesterday reversing the decision it took about the showing of beheading videos online. We will take all these steps and many more to keep our country safe.
Q11. Following the reckless handling by The Guardian of the Snowden leaks, will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the women and men of our intelligence services, who have no voice but who do so much to keep this country safe? (900629)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one of the greatest privileges of my job to work with our intelligence and security services and to meet some of the people who work for them. He is right to say that they do not get thanked enough publicly because of the job they do, but I am absolutely convinced that the work that GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 do on behalf of our country helps to keep us safe. We have seen that again this week with the arrests that have taken place. Once again, this came from brilliant policing work and brilliant intelligence work, helping to keep our country safe. We cannot praise these people too highly.
Q12. The realities of work for millions of people—low pay, short time, zero hours, agency exploitation—were exposed on Channel 4’s “Dispatches” this week. Did the Prime Minister see it? If not, will he use catch-up, so that he can watch it and then wake up to real life in Britain? (900630)
Everyone in our country wants to see living standards increase, more people in work and for people to keep more take-home pay. That is why we have cut taxes for the typical working person—by £705 if we look at what will be in place next year. Let me make a point about zero-hours contracts. The proportion of people in employment on zero hours in 2012 was the same as it was in the year 2000. The number of people on zero hours increased by 75% between 2004 and 2009—when that lot were in government.
Q13. Businesses in Crawley are creating hundreds of jobs, and as a result unemployment fell to 2.7% last month. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way to raise living standards is to increase and continue the policies of economic growth rather than the Labour party’s discredited policies of debt? (900631)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we see in our country is business confidence rising and consumer confidence rising. Our exports are increasing, construction and manufacturing are up, and we are seeing a good growth in employment: there are a million more people in work in our country than when we came to office. Of course we want to do more to help people to feel better off by reducing their taxes, which is exactly what we are doing. All that would be put at risk if we gave up on reducing the deficit and having responsible economic policies. The Labour party would give us a double whammy of higher mortgage rates and higher taxes, and that is just what Britain’s hard-working families do not need.
It is very important for people to have access to employment tribunals, and they do under this Government. One thing that we have done is ensure that people do not earn such rights until they have worked for a business for two years, and I think that that is the right approach.
Q14. Thanks to the Chancellor’s economic policies, unemployment in Burton and Uttoxeter fell by 10% last month, and is now at its lowest since September 2008. Many of the new jobs were created in small businesses which now have the confidence to invest. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to supporting those small businesses, to help us to “grow” the economy? (900632)
My hon. Friend is right. Unemployment in the west midlands fell by 14,000 during this quarter. However, my hon. Friend does not just talk about helping people back into jobs; he has also set up a job fair in his constituency, which has done a huge amount to bring businesses large and small together with those who want jobs. That is the sort of social action in which Conservatives believe: not just talking, but helping.
I wrote to the Prime Minister on 8 May about the possible involvement of Lynton Crosby in public health matters. I raised his failure to reply on 19 June at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and again during the summer Adjournment debate on 18 July. I have served under four previous Prime Ministers who replied to Members’ letters—[Interruption.]
I will certainly reply to the right hon. Gentleman’s letter, but let me give him a reply right now. Public health responsibility is a matter for the Department of Health. Lynton Crosby’s job is the destruction of the Labour party, and he is doing a pretty good one.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. Let me inform the House of the latest situation in respect of the disruption at the Grangemouth refinery and petrochemicals complex in Scotland.
I recognise the concern of many Members, and, in particular, the active involvement of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). The Government have been in regular contact with both sides throughout the dispute, and we continue to talk to both sides. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government, and I spoke to John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, again this morning.
This morning INEOS made a statement confirming the decision of its shareholders to place the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant in liquidation, which puts 800 jobs at risk. The Government are saddened by the move, particularly because of the uncertainty that it will bring for the work force and all those who indirectly owe their livelihoods to the Grangemouth plant. The Government do not underestimate the plant’s importance to both the local community and the Scottish economy.
While respecting INEOS’s right to make this decision, it is regrettable that both parties have not managed to negotiate a fair and equitable settlement that delivers a viable business model for the plant. Even at this late stage, the Government urge them to continue dialogue, and we will offer all possible help and support with that. We want the petrochemicals plant to stay open if at all possible but, should redundancies be made, support will be available from Partnership Action for Continuing Employment, which includes the Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland, Business Gateway and Jobcentre Plus.
INEOS’s statement this morning made it clear that the situation regarding the refinery is different from that of the petrochemicals plant. The owners of the refinery, INEOS and PetroChina, have announced their intention to keep their refinery open and their wish to restart full operations as soon as possible. The Government stand ready to help with discussions between the management and the union to ensure that that can happen, and I am speaking to both parties again today.
Throughout the disruption, fuel supplies continue to be delivered as usual. Moreover, my Department has been working closely with industry and the Scottish Government to put robust contingency plans in place to ensure that supplies of road fuels, aviation fuels and heating oils will continue to be available to Scottish consumers and to fuel the Scottish economy.
The Secretary of State for Scotland and I will be giving a briefing at 4.15 pm today in Dover house for MPs with Scottish constituencies and any other interested hon. and right hon. Members who wish to discuss the situation in more detail after these exchanges.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the support, through Jobcentre Plus or anyone else, for those who have lost their jobs so that we do whatever we can to help the workers and their families at this difficult time.
The closure of the petrochemical plant at Grangemouth means that the 800 people employed there, and more who are employed as subcontractors, will lose their jobs. The INEOS chairman, Jim Ratcliffe, said at the weekend that if the petrochemical plant closed, it was likely that the refinery would go too. John Swinney, the Scottish Finance Minister, claimed yesterday that he was in discussions with potential buyers for Grangemouth. Is the Secretary of State aware of those discussions and what involvement have he or his Ministers had?
The Unite union committed not to strike, with no preconditions, while negotiations over pay and conditions were undertaken. PetroChina, the 50% shareholder in INEOS’s refinery business, made a statement calling for all parties to get back around the table and reach a consensus but today, sadly, rather than coming back to the negotiating table, INEOS has announced that it will close the—profitable—petrochemical plant. Sadly, there were reports on the BBC this morning that management delivered the news with smiles on their faces. Does the Secretary of State agree that INEOS should have got around the table to negotiate, rather than delivering ultimatums?
In its July report “UK oil refining”, the Energy and Climate Change Committee found a mismatch between refinery supply of petroleum and demand, but we are still waiting for the Government to respond. Can the Secretary of State be confident that the Grangemouth refinery will stay open? Will he tell us more about the contingency plans that are in place to secure fuel supplies for Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England? Given the current shutdown and uncertainty over the closure of Grangemouth, will he reassure us that he will commit to undertake the review of UK refining capacity that the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) promised in June 2012 in response to the closure of the Coryton refinery?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. Her first was about the recent statement by the Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government that they were looking for potential buyers. I have spoken to Mr Swinney about that, and we in the Westminster Government certainly stand ready to assist. It is a devolved responsibility, but my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will be making all efforts, through Departments and UK Trade & Investment, to assist should we need a buyer for the petrochemicals plant.
The right hon. Lady asked whether INEOS should have got around the table. Throughout the dispute, I have personally been asking both sides to get around the table. At one stage, INEOS was not prepared to go to ACAS. I personally spoke to INEOS and persuaded it to go to ACAS, which it then did, and I regret that those ACAS talks were not successful at avoiding the situation that we have arrived at today.
The right hon. Lady asked about the contingency plans that we put in place. We have been working for a significant time to ensure that there were contingency plans, should the disruption become any worse. As she knows, the refinery is currently closed down, but fuel is coming through the refinery—refined fuel is being loaded from ships into the plant and then on to racks to go into tankers. That is a part of our contingency plans, but they are much more detailed and granular than that. They go into minute detail about how we would ensure that fuel—heating oil, road fuel and aviation fuel—is supplied throughout Scotland, which is why I can say confidently that the people of Scotland may be reassured that we will keep fuel going through that economy.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked about the review of refineries, and we expect to have that—probably—by the end of the year. It is very detailed and has been under way for some time. She will understand that there has been a big switch in the way in which motorists use fuel—away from petrol to diesel—but most refineries in the UK produce petrol rather than diesel. We import a huge amount of diesel, and that is one of a number of issues being considered in that review.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The dispute has been characterised by intransigence on both sides and it is regrettable that it has resulted in this decision. I support the fact that the Governments who have jurisdiction in Scotland—the Scottish Government and the UK Government—are working together to ensure that we get a solution. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give about any guarantees that we can secure for the future of the Scottish and the UK economies, which are threatened by the present situation, and not least for the future of North sea oil production?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. The Scottish Government and the Westminster Government have been working extremely closely and I am grateful for such work. The partnership has been successful and constructive, and we will need to continue to work together in the days and weeks ahead for the people of Scotland—and, indeed, for the people of the UK, because as he suggested, this has UK-wide implications. Beyond that, I remind the House that Her Majesty’s Treasury has been working with INEOS to look at potential infrastructure guarantees, should INEOS make a decision to invest in the petrochemicals plant. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has developed innovative infrastructure guarantees and we stand ready to assist with that. I know that the Scottish Government have plans to assist as well.
I thank the Secretary of State for recognising that I have kept the Government and Opposition Front Benchers, and also the Scottish National party, informed of developments. There is common purpose in this.
On 14 October, I sat with Calum MacLean as he told me about the bright future that was available to Grangemouth Petrochemicals—the chemicals side—if it could go across the bridge to a point where it would be breaking even and then making money in large amounts, with ethane coming from America after 2022. It is unfortunate that there seems to have been an ultimatum approach, rather than a negotiation approach. There is still time for all parties—the Opposition, the Government and the Scottish Government—to ask the company to rewind the tape, get back to negotiations and think of the bright future that can be shared with the community after negotiations.
I heard the general secretary of Unite in Scotland saying this morning that the entire survival plan and all the terms and conditions of employment are on the table for negotiation, so there is still time to save the plant, which supplies 30% of the ethylene to the UK down the pipeline. It not just refines 300 barrels of oil a day for Scotland, the north of England and Ireland, but feeds the chemical industry of the whole of the UK.
I once again pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been representing his constituents with his usual skill. I agree with much of what he says but, as the Government must look at all potential scenarios, we have to look at the potential scenario of liquidation, as announced by INEOS today. We very much regret that, but we have to plan for all potential outcomes. The hon. Gentleman is right that a better outcome would be to get both sides around the table so that we can get agreement on a way forward and secure the investment that we wish to see. We want to see the petrochemicals plant staying open and developing.
The impact of Grangemouth closing is far in excess of the 800 jobs because of the issues regarding ethylene and refining capacity throughout the country. Will the Secretary of State assure us that, in the same way that European countries go to the nth degree to prevent their refineries from closing even though there is overcapacity in Europe, he will do the same in this country?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the ramifications, severe though they are for the 800 people, their families and the communities in which they live, go wider than that, which is one of the many reasons why I and my colleagues have been working so hard to secure a resolution that sees the investment and sees the plant staying open. As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), we are very much focused on looking for the right approach to maintain the refinery capacity that the UK needs. We have already seen—I think it was two years ago—a refinery at Teesside closing, and recently there was the situation at Coryton. Refineries in the UK and throughout Europe are under severe pressure; their margins are very narrow and there are serious economic issues. I have referred to one of the reasons for that—the switch from petrol to diesel—but there are others as well. We need to ensure that our response is strategic and based on evidence, and that it will have the results that we need. We do need a successful refining industry in the UK and that is the purpose of our work.
I think that everyone in the House recognises the importance of the Grangemouth plant—not just for Grangemouth, but because, if we lose it, there will be huge hole in the Scottish economy and the loss of the refining capacity would have a serious implication for the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that two things are necessary? First, the Government and the Scottish Government should do everything that they can to try to persuade the employers to start negotiating again. It would be a tragedy if we were to lose the plant as a result of it falling victim to rhetoric that looks more like the 1970s than the industrial relations we would expect today. Secondly, if that is not successful and INEOS is determined to walk away, what steps will the Government and the Scottish Government take together to try to find an alternative? Frankly, losing such a facility would be a major loss and, once lost, we would never get it back again.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is critical that we do everything possible to keep the petrochemicals plant and the refinery working. I am clear that, working with the Scottish Government, we will do everything that we can to get negotiations going again. I understand from INEOS this morning that it will be talking to Unite today, not just to tell it about the shareholders’ decision, but to discuss the issue in more detail. Let us see what comes from those talks. Should they not be successful, and should INEOS decide to walk away, of course we will be very much involved in trying to find a future. The Scottish Government have a key role for the petrochemicals plant in particular, and we will work with them on that. A lot will depend on the process that the INEOS management at the petrochemicals plant decides to follow. It says that it will talk to liquidators, but it has other options, so we will be in close contact with it as it develops those options. There may be alternatives with INEOS’s involvement. Whatever happens, we will be active in seeking an acceptable solution for the people involved and the Scottish economy.
The loss of any jobs is, of course, a real tragedy for those concerned and their families. May I welcome what the Secretary of State says about a review of refining capacity, especially with regard to diesel? My understanding is that much of the diesel used in the UK is refined in Russia, which obviously adds to costs for motorists, who have been under a lot of pressure recently.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we decided to undertake the review of refinery capacity, we did so in the light of a huge amount of evidence that we needed to ensure that our economy was not vulnerable, yet with the developments in the refining industry, there was a danger that it would become increasingly so. He is right that we are importing a lot of refined fuel at the moment, and we need to ensure, as an energy security issue, that we know where our supplies of transport fuel are coming from.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that this situation shows the importance of good, mature industrial relations? My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) suggested that it was reminiscent of the 1970s, but I suggest that lockout, threats and ultimatums are more reminiscent of the 1870s. Any new buyer must have a better industrial relations policy, and the Government must encourage that and not undermine it.
I understand the hon. Lady’s concern, and indeed anger, and am sure that in that regard she speaks for many local people. As the Government working with the Scottish Government, we have been, and must remain, balanced in our approach, because our job is to try to get both sides to negotiate. That is the most effective role we can play, so we will continue to do that in as balanced a way as we can.
The competitive challenges facing the refining market have been well established for a number of years and led to the closure of Petroplus in Coryton last year. In view of the competitive challenge, is it not regrettable that the local branch of Unite was more interested in manipulating the Labour party in Falkirk than in representing the interests of its members?
The hon. Lady asks me to comment on an issue, the details of which I am not privy to. There is a disciplinary investigation under way, which INEOS has been leading. I understand that it might publish, or at least share with Unite and the convenor involved, the results of its investigation later this week, but I do not think that it is for me to comment on that.
I thank the Secretary of State for many of the answers he has given so far, but ask him to reiterate the following three important points: it is vital that the refinery is reactivated, that both Governments continue to take steps to mitigate even the threat of job losses, and that there is continued joint working between both Governments to keep the plant open and to search for a new buyer.
I can say yes to all three points. It is vital that the refinery gets going again, as I said in my initial remarks. We must do everything we can to prevent job losses. I am afraid that it is not in our power to prevent the threat of job losses, which the hon. Gentleman asked me to do, but we will certainly do everything we can to prevent that threat being realised. Both Governments are absolutely duty-bound to co-operate for the people involved and for the Scottish economy.
I think that everybody here accepts the seriousness of what is at stake in this dispute, but we are in danger of downplaying the impact that closure would have not only on Grangemouth, Linlithgow and central Scotland, but on Scotland’s economy and, as other Members have said, that of the United Kingdom. The closure of the Grangemouth complex, or indeed any part of it, would be an act of industrial vandalism the scale of which we have not seen in decades. Given the seriousness of that, I welcome what my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Scotland have been doing, including working with the Scottish Government. Can he assure me that he is willing, before we give up on negotiations, to work with the Scottish Finance Secretary and anybody else and to meet the key players around a table so that we do every last possible thing before thinking of this being sold to somebody else?
I will first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who worked extremely hard on this case when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. Much of the contingency planning we have in place is down to his hard work, for which I am grateful. He knows better than anyone what the impact on the Scottish economy would be if part or all of the Grangemouth plant were to close. I can reassure him that we—I am sure that I speak for the Scottish Government on this—will do everything we can together, leaving no stone unturned, to try to reach a resolution.
As well as the concerns about supplies to Northern Ireland, it is estimated that upgrading the refinery will cost £300 million. What discussions have the Government had with the owners on helping them through the infrastructure guarantee loan?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is in charge of the discussions with INEOS on infrastructure guarantees. Of course, it is impossible to guarantee an investment proposition until it is put forward, so we await the business case. Given today’s news, it does not look like it will be immediately forthcoming, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman, the House and INEOS that, should a business case be put forward for investment in the petrochemicals plant, we will look at it extremely closely.
This is obviously very sad news for those at Grangemouth, but many others working in the chemical and petrochemicals industry, including many thousands on the south bank of the Humber, will also view it with concern. Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance of the Government’s long-term commitment to the sector and inform us whether any lessons can be learnt from this case and applied to other areas, such as the Humber?
My hon. Friend is right to focus on the chemical industry not only in his area, the Humber, but across the UK. The chemical industry is the UK’s leading manufacturing exporter, and it has significant growth potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has been working with others to try to maximise the growth potential. The chemistry growth partnership strategy has been developed, and the aim is for the Government to do everything we can to support our important chemical industries. We have been looking at the impact of a closure of the petrochemicals plant at Grangemouth on the rest of the UK’s chemical industry, and that is also being led by the Secretary of State. So far we believe that the supplies that would be needed for the rest of the UK’s chemical industry can be found, and obviously that is quite an important industrial issue, but we keep that under close review.
I thank the Secretary of State for the way he is handling the crisis and for his comments to the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie). I am sure that the Secretary of State will be as saddened as many of the workers were to hear that the negotiations that he managed to secure around the table at ACAS were slightly thwarted because the billionaire hedge fund manger who runs INEOS, Mr Jim Ratcliffe, was on his yacht in the Mediterranean, so the negotiating team had to phone him. I think that shows a lack of seriousness. One of the big concerns people have is that tax avoidance disguises the profitability of the site. Will the Secretary of State consider conducting an independent financial assessment of the site to see what options future buyers might have?
We will not have access to all the information, because the site is the property of a private company, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would recognise, but we have made it very clear to INEOS, and indeed to the joint owners of the refinery, that we stand ready to assist. I do not think that I can take up his proposal, but he should not take that as an indication of any lack of resolve on the part of Government to do everything possible.
I understand that INEOS believes the plant to be loss-making. What assessment has the Secretary of State or his counterpart in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made of the source of those losses? Given that the plant is so important in producing a third of Britain’s ethylene product, what assessment has been made of the knock-on effect on all the other companies that depend on that product throughout the United Kingdom economy?
On my hon. Friend’s latter point, we have already made that assessment, as I have said, and at the moment we are convinced that the chemical supplies required can be supplied from other sources. With regard to why the petrochemicals plant is making a loss, I can only tell him what INEOS has said publicly: that the cost of pensions and salaries make the plant unprofitable. However, as I have said throughout my answers, the Government will remain balanced and even-handed on this issue, so we are not going to say that one party is right and the other is wrong, because we want both sides around the table.
I know Grangemouth well. As a former deputy general secretary of the old Transport and General Workers’ Union, I well remember when the tanker drivers broke the fuel blockades to restore fuel to a Scotland then in crisis.
Make no mistake: today’s announcement poses a serious question mark over the whole of Grangemouth. I recognise that the Secretary of State has done everything he can thus far, but he must not give up. Will he meet INEOS representatives and express to them the strong feeling across the House that, even at this late stage, they should come back to the negotiating table so that we secure the future of the whole of Grangemouth?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I recognise his knowledge and expertise in this area. I refer him to my statement at the Dispatch Box that we have engaged with INEOS throughout. I am due to have a phone call with Mr Ratcliffe later today.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far—in particular, his recognition of the importance of the chemical industry. I ask the Government to give maximum support and have close discussions with the petrochemical industry in my constituency—in particular Sabic, with its ethylene cracker. Furthermore, when does he expect to get state aid clearance for his measures on energy-intensive industry, which the Grangemouth complex clearly represents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Many of his requests fall under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, although we work closely together on all these issues, not least those to do with energy-intensive industries.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have an application in front of the Commission with respect to state aid clearance on the costs to energy-intensive industries of the carbon price floor. We already have state aid clearance for our proposals to assist energy-intensive industries with the indirect costs of the European Union emissions trading system. As he will know, we are consulting to help energy-intensive industries with the costs of contracts for difference. Like other member states, we have a comprehensive programme to support energy-intensive industries. We continue to press that case.
I concur with others in saying that the closure of the Grangemouth plant is a disaster not only for its staff and the local community but for the Scottish economy. It also has ramifications for the wider UK economy. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for an urgent review of how we regulate the owners of critical infrastructure of this country, to make sure that it is fit for purpose and that we do not again end up having to urge a reluctant company to come back to the negotiating table?
The Government have looked at all aspects of critical national infrastructure—not just in the petrochemical sector, but across the piece—to make sure that, in the face of a whole series of potential disruptions to critical national infrastructure, whether industrial action or natural causes, critical national infrastructure is available for our country, economy and people.
We have had the most comprehensive review of policy to ensure that CNI is available. I apologise, but I am not sure what the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who is leading that, has published on it. However, he is leading that work and it is extremely thorough.
Is what has happened not a puzzling action to take about what many feel is in reality a money-making petrochemical plant? Does the Secretary of State agree with the First Minister, Alex Salmond, that the Grangemouth site has a positive future?
I certainly believe that it can have a positive future. We need the investment to go in; the Scottish Government will offer the maximum they are able to, £9 million, as part of regional assistance support if investment does go in. I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the plant has a positive future.
I also welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Any investment in our country is welcome, whether it be foreign or otherwise. However, that should not come at the cost of the livelihoods of the workers—many of whom, along with the local community, pay taxes, unlike Mr Ratcliffe. If there is to be state intervention, and I hope there will be, will the Secretary of State make sure that it does not end up on anyone else’s profit sheet? Will he make sure that we speak to the Chinese partner involved, to see what it has to say?
We have been in discussion with PetroChina, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), the Minister, is due to meet its representatives next week. We are talking to everyone involved. Given our infrastructure guarantees, we are now more engaged in state support than Governments have been in the past. That makes sure that we get good value for both the taxpayer and the economy. I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about will come to pass. As part of the way we do the infrastructure guarantees, we will make sure that we get the outcomes we need for our country.
Is the Secretary of State aware—I am sure he is—that people who work for big powerful multinationals need effective, intelligent trade union representation? Sadly, that is the last thing that people in Grangemouth have had for the past few months.
Today we have heard a lot of personalising—who owns INEOS and so forth—but at the root of all this is Unite’s placing a petty party political issue at the very top of its priorities and ignoring the looming train running along the track. Will the Secretary of State be aware of that in the coming weeks, when he will do what he can to help people at Grangemouth? Is he also aware that INEOS continues to be the main income driver for thousands of families across the Falkirk area?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), the hon. Gentleman invites me to talk about a disciplinary dispute. The investigation is due to be published and shared with those involved on Friday and it would be wrong for me to speculate about the rights and wrongs of any individual or individuals involved.
I am grateful for that question. One of the first issues I had to deal with when I became Secretary of State was the potential for a tanker drivers’ dispute. I got very involved in thinking about energy security with respect to transport fuels. The Department has set up a unit that was not there before. When we talk about energy security, we normally mean the security of the electricity supply, but actually the issue is much wider than that. I have personally given a lot more focus to that than previously, particularly in respect of what the hon. Gentleman mentions—not just for Scotland, but for the whole UK. The review of refinery capacity is part of that, but only part; we have to look at a number of issues to make sure that the people who drive the cars, lorries and vans on the roads get the fuel they need, given the critical role that that transport sector plays for our economy.
To what extent does the Secretary of State believe that the current structure of the industry—a small number of large sites, often with foreign owners—effectively stacks the deck in favour of those owners and against the needs of the wider community?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to speculate about the outcome of our review. Given that I have not received the report, that would be unwise. However, large complexes are needed to refine fuels in what is a capital-intensive business. Small players would be unlikely to have such capital. Whether the hon. Gentleman or I like it or not, there are going to be big players. The question is whether we have the right fiscal, financial and regulatory framework to make sure that we have the refinery capacity that our economy needs. That is what the review will answer.
Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Dr Julian Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, Mrs Siân C. James, Jessica Morden, Chris Evans and Mr Mark Williams, presented a Bill to provide that the Health Professionals Council be the regulatory body for counsellors and psychotherapists; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday, 22 November, and to be printed (Bill 120).
Funding for Local Authorities Bill
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 establish a commission to identify the changes in the law necessary to provide for the differing requirements for funding of local authorities taking into account the varying demand for the services they provide; and for connected purposes.
The title of the Bill mentions local authorities, but I want to focus on cities. Cities are the engines of economic growth, and one does not go for growth by switching off the engine. In the words of the Centre for Cities:
“Cities don’t follow the national economy—they are the national economy.”
Let me start by declaring not so much an interest as a bias, and a strong one. I am a Birmingham MP, and one of the landmarks of the centre of Birmingham university is a tower known as Old Joe. The Joe in question is Joe Chamberlain, founder of the first civic university with an emphasis on business, who in November 1873, almost exactly 140 years ago, accepted the nomination for mayor of Birmingham and began the two-and-a-half year term of office that has been widely acclaimed as the most outstanding mayoralty in English history. He municipalised gas, which he allowed to make profits that would be ploughed back into the city; municipalised water, which, as a public health good, was not allowed to make a profit; initiated a massive housing programme; and, together with George Dixon and others, established the principle of free education in the city. He did so in two and a half years. We would still be running pilot studies or requesting permission from Westminster to do anything.
We have devolved power, but in today’s Birmingham it is clear that we have not devolved enough. Devolution has gone to Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London, but not to our cities. In Birmingham we have Europe’s largest local authority, with a population of over 1 million. We are the fastest growing young city in Europe, with 40% of the population aged under 25, yet Ladywood and Hodge Hill constituencies consistently feature in the top three national unemployment figures. England is clearly unfinished business in terms of devolution. I regret that we do not have more directly elected mayors and that we have not completely moved towards unitary authorities. One fact remains: we are still the most centrally controlled developed country in western Europe and, probably, in the G20. In the UK some 30% of public expenditure is controlled by local government, but Whitehall needs to let go of much more. In the US and Sweden, 50% is devolved; in Canada and Denmark almost 70% is spent at Länder, or city, level.
Last year’s report by Lord Heseltine, “No stone unturned in pursuit of growth”, made a powerful case for decentralising economic powers. He looked at the various regional contributions to UK gross value added over the last 30 years; it makes depressing reading. In England, in London and the south-east, contributions have steadily increased; in the east of England and the south-west they have remained roughly level; and in all the other regions to the north of that line they have continued to decline. Allowing the south to overheat and the midlands and the north to be drained of energy is bad for the whole country. Central Government talk about letting go, but when it comes to the crunch they lose their nerve. There are regional growth funds, city deals, enterprise zones, and all kinds of pilots, and all that is great and commendable, but it is simply not enough.
Things are not only not moving in the right direction; they are getting worse. The undeniably necessary cuts in spending are made in a distorted framework that hits hardest those who most need support. It is wrong to devolve responsibilities but not match the funding or the freedom to rearrange the money available. It is wrong to have the largest cuts in areas where the jobs are fewest. It is wrong to have a situation where the National Audit Office warns that 12% of councils are at risk of being unable to balance their books in the future, with potentially disastrous consequences. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is on the Front Bench, did not challenge that figure when I raised it earlier this week. The Local Government Association calculates that in the current Parliament local government’s core funding will fall by 43%, and by 2020 there will be a £15.6 billion funding gap. The future looks worse for our core cities. For 2013-14, the difference is negligible, but for 2014-15 there is a forecast fall of 5% compared with a 3.4% fall nationwide.
Yesterday Birmingham came to the Jubilee Room to show what the city has to offer: food, music, ideas, energy and diversity. By the way, we still make things in Birmingham. However, the future could look pretty bleak. In a phone-in from local residents conducted that morning, the three areas they said they wanted local government to address were better transport, the creation of jobs, and better regional co-operation. None of those things can be done in a framework of short-term, unco-ordinated funding cuts. Over the past three years, our spending power in Birmingham has declined by 13% compared with a national average of 9.3%. There is something not right when every man, woman and child in Birmingham has had £149 taken from the money given by the Government, while people in prosperous Wokingham in Berkshire lost just £19 a head. That cannot be fair. Birmingham has calculated that from 2011 to 2017 it would need to find savings of £825 million—£210 million more than expected. Cuts of that magnitude threaten the future viability of local government. At present, only a third of Birmingham’s £1.3 billion budget is controllable. The predicted shortfalls suggest that we will have a cut of two thirds in that one controllable third of the budget.
So why are things so bad in Birmingham? First, cuts nationwide to local authorities average £74 per person, while in Birmingham the figure is £149. Secondly, there is a colossal revenue shortfall created by keeping council tax rises artificially low for five successive years—1.9% during the Tory years and frozen for past two years. Thirdly, two thirds of the city’s funding comes directly from central Government rather than taxation and other sources—a much higher proportion than in most local authorities.
But this Bill is not asking for money or putting a case of rural versus urban; it is asking for a commission to be set up that addresses the currently broken model for financing and running local government in general, and our big cities in particular. The commission should be guided by three principles. First, it must recognise the need for financial stability and sustainability; money needs to be distributed in a way that recognises the real needs and responsibilities of our cities. Secondly, money raised in our cities should stay in cities, releasing them to drive the growth and prosperity we will all share. Thirdly, checks and balances should be provided to prevent any one Government from unsettling the funding structure on a political whim.
The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy has said:
“we are clear that the current system of local government funding allocation needs to change. The susceptibility of the local government settlement to the see-saw of political influence means that it is well overdue for fundamental reform.”
I believe that we can build on the work of the Heseltine review of 2012 and the Michael Lyons inquiry into local government of 2007. I want a third commission that looks specifically at funding structures and revenue flows and has at the core of its thinking the future sustainable prosperity of our cities and the recognition that, whether we talk about city regions or not, cities are the driving force of their regions, and if we go on cutting them, we will destroy the surroundings areas as well.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ms Gisela Stuart, Richard Burden, Mr Liam Byrne, Jack Dromey, Mr Roger Godsiff, Mr Khalid Mahmood, Shabana Mahmood, Steve McCabe, Mr Clive Betts, Mr Nicholas Brown, Paul Goggins and Fabian Hamilton present the Bill.
Ms Gisela Stuart accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 November and to be printed (Bill 117).
[8th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the ongoing discussions in Northern Ireland chaired by Dr Richard Haass on a number of important issues including the legacy of the Troubles; recognises the deep sense of loss still felt by the innocent victims of violence and their continuing quest for truth and justice; acknowledges the valour and sacrifice of the men and women who served and continue to serve in the armed forces, the police and the prison service in Northern Ireland; and is resolved to ensure that those who engaged in or supported acts of terrorism will not succeed in rewriting the narrative of this troubled period in Northern Ireland’s history.
It is a privilege to move the motion standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and other colleagues on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. First, I wish to record an apology on behalf of my right hon. Friend. As Members will be aware, he is attending a memorial service in his constituency to mark the 20th anniversary of the Shankill bomb on 23 October 1993, in which nine innocent people tragically lost their lives.
Today we remember the families of John Desmond Frizzel, aged 63, in whose fish shop the bomb was exploded; his daughter Sharon McBride, aged 29, married to Alan with one child; George Williamson, 63 years old, married with two children, and his wife Gillian Williamson, 49 years old; Evelyn Baird, 27 years old, married with two children; her daughter Michelle Baird, seven years old, a schoolchild; Leanne Murray, 13 years old, a schoolchild; Michael Morrison, 27 years old, married with three children; and Wilma McKee, 38 years old, married with two children.
Today I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will join me in saying that the tragic loss and pain suffered by those families and the thousands of innocent victims—whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or of other faiths—killed or maimed in Northern Ireland, here in Great Britain or elsewhere during our troubled past will never be forgotten by those of us who cherish the value of human life, reject violence and pursue peace as the only way forward for Northern Ireland. Today we especially remember the families of the victims of the Shankill bomb.
I also wish to acknowledge the presence of the Secretary of State. I am aware that she had other obligations and commitments this week outside of the United Kingdom, and we appreciate her presence today.
Discussions between the political parties at Stormont have failed to achieve sufficient consensus on dealing with the legacy of the troubled past to which I have referred. Therefore, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have invited Dr Richard Haass to chair discussions about this and related matters such as parades and protests, flags, emblems and symbols. Dr Haass is assisted in this work by a small team, including Meghan O’Sullivan, who is his vice-chair of the talks presently under way.
I also acknowledge the work of the previous Consultative Group on the Past, led by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, and the recommendations set out in its report. However, I must place on record the fact that many of those recommendations were rejected at the time, not least because of the schism that exists at the very heart of the debate on the past and the definition of a victim.
The Democratic Unionist party remains firmly of the view that we cannot equate the perpetrators of terrorist violence with their innocent victims, yet that is precisely what the current law does in Northern Ireland under the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. This is a law that the DUP seeks to change, and for that reason I have proposed a private Member’s Bill that is due to be given its Second Reading in December. My Bill would ensure that an individual killed or injured as a result of their own act of terrorism or convicted of a terrorism-related offence as defined in law would not be classified as a victim for the purposes of deriving any benefit from schemes designed to assist victims and survivors.
I referred at the outset to the Shankill bomb and the innocent people murdered by the IRA in that incident. One of the IRA terrorists on that day, the bomber Thomas Begley, was killed when the bomb exploded, and his accomplice Sean Kelly was seriously injured. When convicted of this heinous crime, Sean Kelly was given nine life sentences—one life sentence for each life he had destroyed—yet under the early release scheme that formed part of the Belfast agreement, Kelly was released after serving just seven years in prison. That is less than one year for each life that he destroyed that day on the Shankill road.
That is an enormous burden for the families of those victims to bear. Michelle Williamson, whose father and mother were murdered by Sean Kelly, campaigned vigorously to prevent his release. Regrettably, Kelly walked free. To have this injustice compounded by the fact that the law currently defines the IRA bombers Sean Kelly and Thomas Begley as victims in just the same way as the nine innocent people who died that day on the Shankill road are defined as victims is an outrage. It is an affront to decency and the rule of law, and it is something that this Parliament should act to change. For the sake of the nine innocent people who died on that terrible day 20 years ago to this day, I trust and pray that parties throughout the House will support the necessary change to the legislation.
That is fundamental to finding an agreed way forward on dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. On the definition, let me be clear: whether the innocent victims were murdered by those IRA bombers or by the Ulster Volunteer Force gang known as the Shankill Butchers that operated on the Shankill road, or whether the victims were Protestant or Roman Catholic or of other faiths or none, it does not matter. There cannot be equivocation between the innocent victims of terrorism and those who perpetrated those acts of terrorism. The principle applies in all cases. Those who commission or commit murder cannot be equated in a definition with their innocent victims.
Of course, this is not the only challenge we face in dealing with the legacy of the past. This summer has been a stark reminder of the difficulties surrounding very sensitive issues that we desperately need to address and resolve. I am bound to say, in the absence of the Sinn Fein Members elected to this House, that their attitude in the summer and recently has not helped to create an atmosphere in which we can make progress.
I refer specifically to an event that occurred in Castlederg in August when we witnessed a blatant glorification of terrorism by senior members of Sinn Fein. Castlederg is a small town in County Tyrone near the border with the Irish Republic. Many terrorist atrocities were committed there during what we call the troubles. The IRA waged a vicious sectarian campaign against the local Protestant community and especially targeted the security forces.
This August, republicans held a commemoration event in Castlederg to unveil a memorial to two IRA terrorists, Seamus Harvey and Gerard McGlynn, who 40 years ago, like Thomas Begley, were killed by their own bomb. I cannot understate the insensitivity of this event. Initially, republicans even sought, as part of the commemoration, to have a parade past some of the locations where the IRA had murdered people in Castlederg.
The speeches that were made on that day, most notably by the Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly, Gerry Kelly, were undoubtedly interpreted as a glorification of terrorism, and rightly so. Mr Kelly was convicted of trying to blow up the Old Bailey in London in March 1973. In his speech, he asserted that his actions were not acts of terrorism. I ask every Member of this House the following question: if a gang that includes Mr Kelly plants a bomb outside a courthouse in a public place and that bomb explodes, killing one person and injuring more than 200 people, is that an act of terrorism or something else? My understanding is that that is an act of terrorism as defined by the law of the United Kingdom and international law. We have the ridiculous situation whereby republicans are trying to redefine what terrorism is and to recast the actions that they perpetrated during the troubles. They are trying to explain away the heinous nature of those actions by some form of twisted justification. That will not do and we will not stand for it. There can be no redefinition of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on raising this important issue. It is important that we do not paper over the fact that terrorists committed horrendous crimes during the troubles. We should all congratulate the civilians and soldiers on their courage and steadfastness at that time. Will he admit that it is important to remember those terrorist acts if only because, in remembering the horrendous nature of those crimes, the Province stands a better chance of having a brighter future?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his party on calling this debate. He mentioned the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats. Does he think that it is time for this House to get to grips with that issue? There is an idea that we cannot have that debate in this House. However, those MPs still receive allowances and support. Is it not time that we all stood up to the blackmail, almost, that we have from the Sinn Fein MPs, who think that they are entitled to decide whether they come here or not, and yet—
I concur entirely with the hon. Lady’s remarks. She can be assured that that issue will be raised on another day in the House of Commons.
On the same day that the IRA commemoration took place in Castlederg, 11 August, there was a memorial service in Omagh to commemorate the Omagh bombing of August 1998, in which 29 innocent people lost their lives. Sinn Fein members were present at that event in Omagh. I pose a simple question: how can the same party, on the same day, in the same county engage in an act of glorification of terrorism in one town and stand alongside the victims of a similar atrocity in another town, and claim that there is no double standard?
For 14 years, I represented Omagh and Castlederg in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein have a twisted mentality that means that they can easily do that, because they were not associated with the Omagh bomb and they close their minds to all the other bombings, including Teebane and the many other atrocities across the Province.
I thank my hon. Friend for those words. I pay tribute to the way in which he has represented people in Northern Ireland over many years. The personal cost that he and his family have borne for that representation is often overlooked. He is absolutely correct.
We cannot equivocate on this matter. The finger would be pointed in our direction if we sought to justify an act of terrorism by one paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland while condemning the same kind of action by another paramilitary organisation. The two bombers whom Sinn Fein commemorated in Castlederg were transporting a bomb that was designed to murder innocent people in a country town. The people whom they condemned in Omagh on the same day were doing the same thing: they transported a bomb into the heart of a town in the same county of Tyrone and it was designed to murder innocent people. What happened in Castlederg and what happened in Omagh must be condemned equally. It is time that Sinn Fein grew up and recognised that wrong is wrong, no matter who the perpetrator. There can be no rewriting of the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, particularly given that I was a few minutes late for the debate, for which I apologise to all Members. I invite him to confirm to the House, as I am sure he will do gladly, that his party leader, who serves the entire community in Northern Ireland as First Minister, has brought those criticisms of Sinn Fein’s behaviour to the attention of his Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. I would like that assurance.
I know that the hon. Lady takes a keen interest in all these matters. I confirm to the House that our party leader, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, has on numerous occasions brought to the attention of the Deputy First Minister the inconsistency and double standards adopted by Sinn Fein in these matters, and the damage that that does to the building of community relations and the development of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein needs to address this issue.
We will not stand for a process that seeks to paint the forces of the state as the bad guys and the terrorists as the good guys. I remind the House that the Sutton index, which tabulates and records all the deaths associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, is very clear that of the 3,531 deaths recorded to date, the Army was responsible for 297. Many of those were entirely lawful and legitimate, and were carried out by soldiers acting in the course of their duty to protect human life. The Ulster Defence Regiment, in which I was proud to serve, was responsible for eight deaths. When one hears the attacks that are made against the integrity, valour and sacrifice of the Ulster Defence Regiment, one would think that it was responsible for many more. I reiterate that those deaths were the result of soldiers acting in the course of duty. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, which is also demonised at times by Irish republicans, was responsible for 55 deaths. Interestingly, the Garda, the Irish police, were responsible for four deaths and the Irish army for one.
Let us look at the record of the paramilitary organisations. On the republican side, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation, which were part of the same grouping, were responsible for 135 deaths and the Provisional IRA was responsible for 1,707 deaths. The Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters were responsible for 260 deaths, and the Ulster Volunteer Force was responsible for 430 deaths.
Let me say that every death associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland is regrettable. I do not seek, in any sense, to diminish the sense of loss that people feel when they lose someone.
My right hon. Friend is outlining the distinction between the various paramilitary groups of all kinds and the security forces. Does he agree that there is one massive and very simple distinction: the forces of law and order were committed to maintaining law and order, whatever may be said about a tiny percentage of their number who exceeded lawful authority, while the paramilitary groups were set up precisely to kill, murder and create mayhem, which they did for many years until they were prevented from continuing to do so?
I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely correct and I need not add anything to what he said.
The reality is that republican terrorists were responsible for 60% of the totality of deaths during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for 30%, and forces associated with the state—whether in the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom—were responsible for 10% of those deaths. As my hon. Friend stated clearly, the vast majority of those killings were within the law and carried out in the course of duty by soldiers and police officers protecting the community.
However, when we look at the current process for dealing with the past, whether the Historical Enquiries Team, the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, or an inquest or inquiries funded by the state, the vast majority of resources to examine the past in Northern Ireland are devoted to the 10% of killings, with a scant amount devoted to the 90% of killings carried out by paramilitary organisations on both sides. That cannot continue as it only adds to the sense of disillusionment felt by many people about the current process in Northern Ireland. It is one-sided, biased, and is assisting Irish republicans to rewrite what is called the narrative of the troubles. That has to stop. We must find a process to ensure that attention goes to the more than 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of which were committed by illegal paramilitary organisations on both sides. The victims of those atrocities deserve better than they are getting at the moment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is reinforced by successive Governments who have permitted, endorsed and financed inquiry after inquiry into the role of the security forces during the troubles in Northern Ireland, while at the same time there is no such inquiry into the role of republican paramilitaries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hear republicans talk about a truth process and the need for truth, yet when the challenge has been brought to their door, I think, for example, of the Saville inquiry into the events in Londonderry in 1972. When Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, gave evidence to that inquiry, he refused to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, citing some IRA code that he had signed up to when he joined the Provisional IRA.
Sinn Fein agreed to co-operate with the Smithwick inquiry, which is investigating circumstances surrounding the murders of the two most senior officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan—killed by the IRA in south Armagh. Sinn Fein agreed to assist the inquiry with its investigation, and designated two IRA members from south Armagh to meet lawyers representing the Smithwick inquiry. It was a farce. The two IRA members arrived at the meeting; lawyers were present, there was a discussion, and questions were asked. Each time a question was asked that might in some remote way have caused the IRA members to implicate any member of the IRA in any way whatsoever, they left the room, made a phone call, came back in and said, “We cannot answer that question.”
That was a private meeting with lawyers. It was not on the public record or in the public domain, yet even in those circumstances the IRA could not tell the truth about what happened and the circumstances surrounding the murder of the two most senior RUC officers to be killed in the troubles. What hope do we have of getting the truth from Irish republicans when their leadership, when called on to tell the truth, cannot do it, and when those members who have been designated by the leadership to tell the truth also refuse to do so? The problem for me is that when the state is called on to tell the truth, records are brought out, filing cabinets opened, and it is all laid bare.
I thank the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) for initiating this important debate on dealing with the past. Is he aware of the several hundreds of files lodged in a place in Derbyshire that have not yet been released to the Historical Enquiries Team? Those would bring great benefit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in investigating many unsolved crimes.
I thank the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie)—that beautiful part of Northern Ireland—for her intervention, but I think she would be better directing that question to the Secretary of State. Of course the state has a duty to co-operate, but the difficulty I have is that paramilitary organisations are not under any such duty to co-operate, and show no indication whatsoever of a willingness to co-operate in providing the truth. Through the Historical Enquiries Team, a number of cases have been reviewed. Have republicans come forward at any stage in that process to assist the families of those victims with information that might help them get to the truth? No, they have not in any case.
For the record, there have been occasions when the authorities have inadvertently given evidence or information that they should not have given, thereby disclosing people who were involved in helping the security forces. On occasion evidence has been given that should not have been given, and compromised people who were helping the security forces.
Indeed, and I am sure my hon. Friend will wish to elaborate on that important point in his remarks. The extent to which the state is co-operating, whether with an inquest, the police ombudsman, or through the Historical Enquiries Team, could potentially compromise the modus operandi of the security services, and others who are tasked with protecting the community, not only now but in the future.
Before drawing my remarks to a close I want to place on record some principles that I feel are important as we seek to address the legacy of the past in these talks with Richard Haass. The first principle is that victims have the right to justice and must continue to have that right. Last Monday, as part of the Haass process, I met a number of victims at Stormont. I want to quote the words of one young woman, whose brother I had the honour to serve with in the Ulster Defence Regiment. He was a young man called Alan Johnston from Kilkeel, my home town, and I served with him in the 3rd (County Down) Battalion, Ulster Defence Regiment. He was murdered one morning on his way to work with his lunchbox under his arm. He was a joiner and a part-time soldier, cut down by the IRA. His sister said this:
“A denial of justice would only serve to re-victimise the innocent victims.”
I agree with her. It would be wrong to deny victims the right to justice.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his party on raising this important issue. He referred to his meeting with victims as part of the Haass process. Does he agree it is important that Dr Haass takes an inclusive approach to the process, and engages not just with the parties but also with victims and survivors?
I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the excellent work he did in Northern Ireland when he was a Minister. He is right, and I assure him that Dr Haass is meeting a wide range of people—as is Meghan O’Sullivan—including the victims. Indeed, some of the victims we saw on Monday had already met Dr Haass. It is important that their voice is heard in this debate.
The second principle I want to be clear about is that there must be no amnesty for the perpetrators of terrorist violence. Thirdly, as I have already stated at length, the definition of a victim of the troubles in Northern Ireland should exclude those who were killed or injured as a result of engaging in an act of terrorism, or convicted of a terrorist-related offence. We hope that that will be taken forward either in this House, or through the Haass process. Fourthly, the glorification of terrorism should not be facilitated or allowed, and if the law needs to be strengthened in that regard, it should be strengthened. This is a free country and a democracy, and we are proud of freedom of speech, but there are times when we have to step in and say that what people say and how they behave is irresponsible, provocative and should stop.
The Democratic Unionist party is strongly opposed to the establishment of any kind of one-sided and unbalanced inquiry process. Any evidentiary process such as a truth commission will inevitably focus on the state, because the paramilitary organisations did not keep records or documents and, as I have stated, are unlikely to tell the truth. Such a process would create an unfair narrative of the past, in which the true perpetrators of the vast majority of the deaths and injuries—more than 90%—will seek to legitimise their actions. They would not be held to account or held responsible for what they have done.
The needs of the victims and survivors must be met as far as possible. Their loss and circumstances should be treated with respect and sensitivity. They deserve and need proper recognition. Victims should have the opportunity to tell their story without it having to be intertwined with the voices of the perpetrators. Innocent victims should be remembered through a significant act of remembrance and commemoration, and, potentially, through a significant regional memorial in Northern Ireland. That could take the form of a memorial garden to the innocent victims of terrorism.
In conclusion, the narrative of the past should reflect core values, including that terrorism was and is wrong, and that it is not a legitimate method of obtaining a political or other objective. The narrative must clearly reflect the fact that approximately 90% of the deaths were the result of terrorist actions, and that the majority of those were by republican groups, so we are very clear that we condemn murder on all sides.
All hon. Members have a responsibility to address the issues relating to our troubled past. The Government have a responsibility—I hope the Secretary of State tells us what role the Government will play—and the process cannot be down to the political parties in Northern Ireland. Equally, the Irish Government have a responsibility. Some of the atrocities were committed in the Irish Republic; some were committed by those acting from the territory of the Irish Republic. The Irish Government have questions to answer about the arming of the IRA in the early days of the troubles, their extradition policy, and their failure at times to co-operate fully with the RUC in a way that would have brought to justice those responsible for terrorist actions in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government therefore have a role and a responsibility in the process.
Finally, I pay tribute to those who have served this country and protected the community, whether they were in the Royal Ulster Constabulary or, as it is today, the Police Service of Northern Ireland; in the armed forces and the regiments that came faithfully to Northern Ireland to serve and protect the community, some of whom are current Members of the House; or in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the locally recruited regiment of the Army, and its successor, the Royal Irish Regiment.
It is worth reminding the House that the RUC was awarded the George cross by Her Majesty the Queen, as a recognition of the collective courage and dedication to duty of all who served in the RUC and accepted the danger and stress it brought to them and their families. The Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment were awarded the conspicuous gallantry cross by Her Majesty the Queen in recognition of their valour and sacrifice over the years in Northern Ireland. It pains me when I hear nationalist parties attacking the RUC, the UDR and the Royal Irish Regiment in the way they do—without any balance in their approach to the service that those men and women provided in protecting the community.
I trust that the House will support the motion.
I thank the Democratic Unionist party for giving the House the opportunity to discuss matters of such great significance not only for Northern Ireland but for the whole United Kingdom. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) on a passionate and moving speech on Northern Ireland’s troubled past.
As the right hon. Gentleman reminded the House, and as we heard in Prime Minister’s questions, the debate coincides with the anniversary of one of the most appalling atrocities of Northern Ireland’s past: the Shankill bomb, which had the tragic consequences set out by the right hon. Gentleman. In the days following the attack, my predecessor as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my noble Friend Lord Mayhew, spoke in the House of the revulsion that people felt at such a hideous and atrocious attack on people going about their business on that Saturday morning 20 years ago.
I echo those sentiments today, and repeat the long-standing position of this and previous Governments that politically motivated violence, from wherever it came, was never justified. The Government will not condone attempts to glorify or legitimise acts of terrorism. We will never treat the men and women of the police and the Army who acted with such courage and self-sacrifice in upholding the rule of law as equivalent to those who used terrorism to try to further their political ends.
My noble Friend Lord Mayhew, in concluding his statement to the House on the Shankill bomb, reaffirmed:
“In this democracy, it is only through dialogue—dialogue between those who unequivocally reject the use or threat of violence—that the foundation will in the end be found for a fair and hence a lasting peace.”—[Official Report, 25 October 1993; Vol. 230, c. 578.]
Thankfully, over the ensuing years, that dialogue did go forward, beginning with the 1993 Downing street declaration and continuing with the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and the basis was found for the relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland enjoys today.
Twenty years on from the Shankill bomb, Northern Ireland has its own inclusive, devolved Administration. Whatever the imperfections of the devolved institutions, they are a vast improvement on what went before. Relations within these islands—both between north and south, and between London and Dublin—have never been stronger, with both Governments determined to work closely together on the economic and other challenges our two countries face. The main paramilitary campaigns that led to more than 3,500 lost lives and such widespread and tragic suffering, which we have heard about this afternoon, have come to an end. Lethal though they are, the people who continue to seek to pursue their aims through violence are small in number and enjoy almost no public support whatever.
The transformation that has taken place over the past 15 years is a great testimony to the leadership and courage shown by so many of Northern Ireland’s political leaders, a number of whom are in the Chamber. It also vividly demonstrates the power of dialogue as a means of dealing with problems that were previously viewed as intractable. Yet, for all the progress, there is no doubt that the legacy of the past continues to cast a shadow and have an impact on today’s Northern Ireland. I see that whenever I meet victims of terrorism, as I did, for example, in Castlederg just a few weeks ago. I also see it when I meet those who believe that the unjustified actions of the state robbed them of their loved ones. All of them have highly personal tales of tragedy, and it is impossible not to be moved by their stories.
It is therefore not surprising that there are calls from a number of quarters in Northern Ireland for a mechanism or process to be initiated to deal with the past and grapple with the questions outlined today by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. I agree with him that, in taking forward that process, we must put the needs of victims at its heart. He is right to look at the options that involve enabling victims to tell their stories, so that the facts of what happened to them are on record and never forgotten.
Numerous attempts have been made in the 15 years since the 1998 agreement to come up with a so-called overarching process on the past. In 2008, the previous Government established the consultative group on the past under the chairmanship of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley. On coming to office, my predecessor as Secretary of State published a summary of the responses to Eames-Bradley and embarked on an extensive round of meetings with Northern Ireland’s political parties, victims groups and other interested bodies. Since becoming Secretary of State just over a year ago, I have had wide-ranging discussions on the subject both within Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government.
However, so far, none of the initiatives by either the previous Government or the current one has succeeded in establishing a consensus on how best to take things forward. That is certainly not to say that nothing is happening on the past—far from it. As well as a host of local and oral history projects and the tireless work by the voluntary sector in supporting victims, there are initiatives such as the CAIN archive at the university of Ulster, the renowned collection at the Linen Hall library, and thousands of hours of historical footage held by the BBC and Ulster Television. In fact, given the wealth of archive material available, Northern Ireland’s troubles are probably one of the most comprehensively recorded and documented periods in history.
For our part, the Government are committed to accelerating the release of state papers, so we are moving from the 30-year rule to a 20-year rule, although this will always have to be done in a way that is sensitive to the article 2 rights of all parties and to national security considerations. We are working with the Irish Government on the decade of centenaries that is now under way. Both Governments want to use the forthcoming anniversaries to promote mutual respect and understanding between different traditions, and to prevent them from being exploited by those intent on causing division and conflict. We continue to support the work being done in the devolved sphere, for example by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the Historical Enquiries Team and the Victims’ Commissioner. The Government have been fully prepared to apologise where the state has failed to uphold the highest standards of conduct. That has been done in the cases of Claudy, Patrick Finucane and, of course, Bloody Sunday, where the Prime Minister acknowledged to the House in the frankest of terms that what happened that day in Londonderry in 1972 was “unjustified and unjustifiable.”
There is no doubt that some want a broader initiative, a so-called “overarching” process, and they have asked the Government to deliver it. I understand that, and of course the UK Government are prepared to play their part in dealing with legacy issues, but I am also very clear that we do not own the past. The reality is that for any process to succeed it must command a substantial consensus among the Northern Ireland political parties and across the wider community.
The Government strongly welcome the initiative by the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive to begin to take local ownership of this issue through the establishment of the Richard Haass working group on flags, emblems, parades and the past. While not formally part of this group, the Government are fully engaged with it. I and my officials have had a number of meetings and discussions with Dr Haass and his team, and I am seeing him again next week. Last Thursday, Dr Haass had talks in Downing street where he met the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, who gave their full backing to the crucial task that Dr Haass has undertaken. It is clear that the Haass talks are dealing with some of Northern Ireland’s most difficult and long-standing fault lines and there is no guarantee of success, but I believe that there is a genuine willingness on the part of Northern Ireland’s political leadership to make progress. From my discussions with Dr Haass, I believe that there is no better person to help achieve that. With 12 months of protests and tensions around flags and parades, it is essential that progress is made.
While the focus of today’s short debate is about dealing with the past, it is also important that we do not lose sight of the overriding need to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. That is particularly true on the economy and on building a shared society that is no longer blighted by the sectarian divisions that have caused so much damage over the years, both areas on which the Government are working very closely with the Executive. As I have made clear, progress cannot await the outcome of the Haass talks; it is vital that momentum is maintained. On the economy, there are now clear signs that, like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland is turning a corner, with business activity growing, unemployment falling, the property market stabilising and construction finally starting to pick up after the disastrous crash experienced under the previous Government.
There is much more that needs to be done, which is why the Government and the Executive are pressing ahead with implementing the economic package we signed in Downing street in June, and on which we jointly published an update a fortnight ago. As part of that package, the Prime Minister and I attended a highly successful international investment conference at Titanic Belfast, where senior business figures from across the world were shown just what a great place Northern Ireland is in which to invest and to grow a business.
On addressing community divisions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have repeatedly pressed for progress. We therefore warmly welcomed the community relations initiative by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, with the publication of “Together: Building a United Community” in May. It was a significant moment last week when the First Minister of Northern Ireland broke new ground for a Unionist leader in addressing a Gaelic Athletic Association event. As the First Minister himself pointed out, this would have been unthinkable a few years ago and is another sign that Northern Ireland is moving forward.
In conclusion, I would like to echo the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley in paying a warm tribute to the members of the police, the prison service and the armed forces who served with such distinction, valour and courage in defending and upholding the rule of law, defending democracy and protecting the community in Northern Ireland. This is a welcome opportunity to reiterate the thanks of this House for all they did during the troubles and to reiterate the thanks to all those who currently defend the community in the security forces in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. I have waited patiently for the Secretary of State to put on record the Government’s deep and sincere appreciation of the members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross—not just within the general title of the police, but the RUC George Cross, which made an enormous sacrifice: 302 murdered police officers, men and women. Too often, this House lets the opportunity go past without putting on the record the debt of gratitude we owe the RUC, particularly the families of those who stood by them and those who did not come home.
I am only too happy to put on record once again the support and tribute to the members of the RUC and their families, who suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists during the troubles, and to their successors in the PSNI, who even today are subject to repeated targeting by the terrorists who still operate in Northern Ireland.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what her view is on the recent announcement that the PSNI will try to persecute and prosecute some of the soldiers involved in the terrible incidents of Bloody Sunday so many years ago? Does she think that this is a way of moving forward? Does she not realise that this is making one side of the community feel, when they cannot even get an inquiry into Omagh, that there is not even-handedness?
In the Prime Minister’s statement on Bloody Sunday, he reiterated very clearly that the vast majority of those who served in Northern Ireland, whether in the Army or the RUC, served with distinction, integrity, courage and valour. He also said, however, that one does not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. What happened in Londonderry in 1972 was indefensible. Whether that will lead to criminal prosecutions is a matter for the police and the prosecution authorities in Northern Ireland. It is not a matter for politicians to intervene in. I am sure that great care will be taken in deciding whether it is appropriate for a prosecution to go forward in relation to what happened on that day.
I emphasise that murder was and is always wrong, and that terrorism was and is always wrong. In so doing, and to bring some relief to the victims, may I ask the Secretary of State if she would consider immediate discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that the files held in Derbyshire are released to the Historical Enquiries Team for its investigation? That would bring relief right across Northern Ireland in terms of all the unsolved cases.
I am certainly happy to have a conversation with the Secretary of State for Defence on that matter, which the hon. Lady has raised on a number of occasions. I reiterate, however, that the need for transparency always has to be tempered against the need to protect people who might come under threat if their names were disclosed, and to take account of national security interests.
In her historic speech during her visit to Ireland and Dublin castle in 2011, Her Majesty the Queen spoke of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it. It is impossible to be involved in Northern Ireland and not be aware of the power of the past to affect current events, but we know that with the same kind of leadership and courage shown over recent years, the people of Northern Ireland can build a prosperous and united future together. Working with them, that is what the Government are resolutely determined to achieve.