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Northern Ireland

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Amnesty International Report

1. What assessment she has made of the Amnesty International report entitled “Northern Ireland: Time to deal with the past”, published in September 2013; and if she will make a statement. (901223)

Let me first express my sadness at the passing of Alec Reid and Eddie McGrady, who will be sadly missed as strong supporters of peace in Northern Ireland.

I have considered the proposals in the recent report by Amnesty, which covers devolved responsibilities in the main, but also covers some reserved matters relating to Northern Ireland’s past. I expect the all-party group chaired by Richard Haass also to take account of Amnesty’s contribution to the debate on these important matters.

This morning I hosted the parliamentary launch of the report, which reinforces the need for a comprehensive mechanism to deal with the past, addressing justice, truth, recognition and support for the bereaved and the injured, and also reconciliation. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Government will support, co-operate with and properly resource any such comprehensive process emerging from the Haass talks, allowing the Police Service of Northern Ireland to focus its finite resources on policing the present, and, in particular, protecting our community from those—from both loyalist and republican sources—who wish to drag us back to the past?

Let me take this opportunity to reiterate the calls made in Northern Ireland in the wake of recent attacks. There is determination that Northern Ireland will not be dragged back to its past, and there is universal condemnation of the disgraceful attacks that we have seen in recent days.

The Government strongly support the Haass process. We welcomed its establishment, and we urged the Executive to examine the very divisive issues involved. We will, of course, consider the outcome of the process very seriously, and will give thought to what resources we can deploy to support it within the constraints of the budgets available to us.

The report states that

“there are longstanding allegations that Irish authorities turned a blind eye to arms smuggling across the border and to members of republican groups fleeing—after attacks had been carried out—back to the Republic of Ireland”.

Will my right hon. Friend raise that aspect of the report with the Irish authorities to ensure their full co-operation?

I shall be happy to do so. Let me add, however, that the security co-operation between the police services north and south of the border has never been stronger. It is hugely important in combating the threat not just from dissident republicans, but from other criminals who seek to use the border to enhance their criminal activities. We continue to work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland to establish how we can enhance our security co-operation with them.

The Amnesty report contains a section on inquests. Has the Secretary of State been offered any explanation of why the Attorney-General in Northern Ireland, who has ordered the reopening of more than 40 historic inquests, now seems to believe that they should be abandoned?

The Attorney-General’s remarks were patently made on his own behalf rather than that of the Northern Ireland Executive or the Government, and they received almost universal criticism. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we have no plans to introduce an amnesty along the lines suggested by the Attorney-General—and yes, I acknowledge that there is a degree of contradiction between his actions and his comments in relation to inquests.

Will the Secretary of State go a bit further and tell the House what action she is prepared to take to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, rather than justice and the process of law being abandoned, which is what a senior law officer in Northern Ireland wants to happen?

The Government are entirely committed to the integrity of the rule of law, and we will maintain our position. I think it important for the outcome of the Haass discussions also to abide by that principle, and to be consistent with maintaining the integrity of the rule of law.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all the victims out there still need truth and justice, and, indeed, are entitled to truth and justice? What assessment has she made of last week’s “Panorama” programme about the military reaction force and the murders committed by its members?

Let me take this opportunity to emphasise how important it is for victims to be at the centre of any proposals on dealing with the past. That was also emphasised during the Democratic Unionist party’s Opposition day debate. The allegations made in the “Panorama” programme have been referred to the police, and it is for the police to investigate them. I should stress that when the troops were operational in Northern Ireland they operated according to strict rules, and that the vast majority of the police and the Army officers who served there during the troubles were entirely courageous, supportive, and compliant with the rule of law.

May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Father Alec Reid?

On the Amnesty report, will the right hon. Lady go further in agreeing with me that the problem with last week’s proposals from Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General is that they would deliver neither truth nor justice, and that instead of healing the wounds of the past, they would cause them to fester even further?

The death of Father Alec Reid is a very sad loss. He played a key part in establishing the peace process, particularly in its early stages. As I have said, the Government have no plans to follow the advice of the Northern Ireland Attorney-General. I do not believe that it represents a viable solution to the past, and it received almost universal condemnation. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, it would result in significant problems, and many victims would feel real concern if people advocated that we follow that route.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that she is working with the Irish Government to engage with all parties involved in the Haass talks to seek a comprehensive framework to address the past? Such a framework needs to deal with truth, justice and reconciliation in a meaningful and substantive way. Tinkering at the edges will be seen as a missed opportunity with potentially lasting consequences, and it is essential that the Secretary of State shows leadership at this crucial time.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am very supportive of the Haass process and very engaged with the Irish Government. I have had discussions with all the political parties on these crucial matters. I have also had a number of helpful discussions in the United States about how our American friends can continue their role of supporting Northern Ireland’s political leadership in the difficult decisions that it needs to make on the issues that are the subject of the Haass process.

Building a Shared Future

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on building a shared future in Northern Ireland. (901224)

I have discussed the importance of tackling sectarian divisions and building a shared society with the Northern Ireland Executive on many occasions, most recently with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 11 November. They both agree on the importance of delivering the commitments set out in their strategy document “Together: Building a United Community”.

The disturbances over the summer confirmed that there is much work to be done on building a just and fair society in Ulster. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the community relations strategy announced by the Northern Ireland Executive is brought to fruition?

We very much welcome the publication of the strategy. It was something that the UK Government had encouraged, and we worked with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on it. When it is delivered, it will make a real difference to starting to heal the sectarian divisions that have been so divisive and corrosive and that can feed the scenes of disgraceful violence in Northern Ireland. The important challenge now is to ensure that the commitments in that strategy are delivered, and the Government will continue to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to do that.

If we are to achieve a shared future for Northern Ireland, it is important that the threat of terrorism should be addressed. Is the Secretary of State aware that the dissident republicans’ failed mortar attack at Cullyhanna in south Armagh showed a level of sophistication and technological detail that had never been seen before in Northern Ireland but that has been recorded in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Perhaps that shows international terrorism links. Will she tell us what steps she is taking to eradicate the dissident republican threat in Northern Ireland?

I have been briefed on that attack. It and all the others we have seen in recent weeks are a matter of grave concern. The sad fact is that the threat of terrorism from dissident republicans continues to be severe; it has been set at that level since 2009. That is why the Government remain absolutely vigilant and completely supportive of the PSNI and the extra visibility mechanisms that it is deploying in Belfast. We have deployed an extra £200 million in funding to assist the PSNI and its partners in tackling this threat, and we will continue to give them every support.

On the economic shared future, will the Secretary of State tell me what work is being done on the legacy of this year’s Derry-Londonderry UK city of culture to ensure that the benefits continue to come to the city and to the whole of Northern Ireland?

I am confident that there will be a very positive legacy. Interestingly, I am sure that the legacy will be felt on both sides of the border, because this is having a significant impact on areas in the south, too. We are determined that there will be a legacy from successful events such as the city of culture and the G8 meeting. That is one reason why the Prime Minister attended an investment conference a couple of months ago to promote Northern Ireland as a great place to do business, following on from the success of the G8 meeting.

Will the Secretary of State be so kind as to agree to come to my constituency to meet various loyalist communities to discuss their positive contribution to a shared future that we all want to enjoy?

I am happy to do that, and I believe that our respective offices are in discussions about a date. It is very important to distinguish between the small minority of extremists within the loyalist community, who might have been responsible for the disgraceful scenes of rioting, and the vast majority, who are committed to peace and want to help to build a shared future for Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady makes the point well.

Policing and Security

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on policing and security issues. (901225)

I hold regular meetings with the Chief Constable of the PSNI, and we speak frequently by phone. We discuss a range of subjects, including police resourcing and the security situation in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that so-called punishment attacks continue to be carried out in Northern Ireland by both loyalist and republican groups. Will she condemn these acts of barbarism and give the House an indication of what the PSNI is doing to counter those criminals who prey on communities across parts of Northern Ireland?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s condemnation of these brutal attacks. We have seen a number of horrific attacks along these lines: the murder of Kevin Kearney, the attack on Jemma McGrath and, distressingly, an attack on a 15-year-old boy in recent weeks. These vigilante attacks are cowardly, ruthless and callous, and they are utterly unacceptable. I know that the PSNI is doing all it can to bring those responsible to justice.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the despicable terrorist attack on Belfast city centre at the weekend and other recent attacks represent a grave escalation in dissident terrorist activity, in an attempt to undermine investment, jobs and tourists coming to Northern Ireland? Can she give an assurance that she will stand with the people of Northern Ireland and the Executive in their determination to move ahead and not let these people drag us backwards?

I can. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with Northern Ireland’s political leadership and the whole community in condemning these attacks and in supporting the determination to continue to make progress in Northern Ireland. These attacks are disgraceful; they could have put many lives at risk, and they are deliberately aimed at disrupting the economy in Northern Ireland and sowing the seeds of community division. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will not let the dissidents succeed in their objective of dividing our community.

I thank the Secretary of State for that assurance. Will she go further and say that she will commit herself to working closely with the Executive, the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland to look at what extra measures can be put in place to increase the operational capacity of the police, and to examine legislative changes that will enhance intelligence gathering for the security forces?

I am happy to give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance on both those points. We always look at ways in which the effectiveness of the police can be enhanced. Of course, there is a debate to be had on the Executive’s resourcing of the police in the next spending review. We are working with the police on that, and it is very important.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of whether all paramilitary organisations are observing ceasefires? Does she agree that if any are not doing so, they are betraying rather than serving the people they purport to represent?

I completely agree, and I think that my hon. Friend puts it very well when he says that paramilitary groups that come off their ceasefire are betraying the communities they purport to represent. My understanding is that, at the moment, no paramilitary organisations have come off their ceasefire, although I am, of course, well aware of the concerns felt about individual members of the Ulster Volunteer Force who are involved in criminality in east Belfast. The police are taking action to counter that.

Small business Saturday is important throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, but it is especially important in Northern Ireland. Last Friday, business people in Belfast and in Comber told me of their concerns and fears that the planned protests this Saturday will overshadow all the good work of small business Saturday. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the PSNI will receive the resources and assistance it needs to ensure that positive images are not drowned out by chaotic cacophony from the streets?

The hon. Gentleman puts his point well. We are entirely supportive of the efforts that the police will make to police the protest. I urge everyone involved to ensure that their protest is not only peaceful but entirely lawful and complies with the decision of the Parades Commission. I also call on them to think again about whether this is a wise thing to do. Although it will be disruptive, Belfast will be open for business. Many people will be out in the city centre doing their Christmas shopping despite the protest disruption.


Northern Ireland has a higher population of young people than any other region in the UK. Nearly one in four of them is without a job. Does the Secretary of State have a plan to get them back to work?

Specific measures on this issue are for the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the economic pact we concluded with them in June will help to rebalance the economy and improve employment prospects. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the number of those who are unemployed in Northern Ireland has fallen dramatically over the past year, and the number of employee jobs has increased by more than 5,000.

Worklessness contributes to one in four children in Northern Ireland being in severe poverty, which is double the UK average. What are the Government doing about that?

Worklessness, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, but we support them in their stand to increase employment and reduce the number of people on unemployment benefit. The best route out of poverty is through work. As he will know, we are turning the corner on the economy, which is increasing employment both in the United Kingdom as a whole and in Northern Ireland specifically.

Does the Minister of State agree that it is difficult to tackle unemployment when the major bank in Northern Ireland is implicated in a report that shows that the Royal Bank of Scotland was responsible for making viable businesses go to the wall in order to plunder their assets? Will he ensure that any investigation arising from the Tomlinson report includes the activities of Ulster bank and how it dealt with businesses in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue, and I agree with him, of course. That is not the specific responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office; it is more for the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, I absolutely support what he says. Everyone in the Chamber should deprecate the actions of any bank that has been pushing small businesses out of business.

9. As part of the need to address worklessness in Northern Ireland, will the Minister have immediate discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Treasury to address the issue of the closure, in March 2015, of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs centre in Newry, which makes a major contribution to the local economy in the southern part of my constituency? Will the Minister meet my colleagues and me to discuss that important issue? (901232)

I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues. We should be clear that any redundancies in HMRC in Newry are voluntary. Nobody likes to see people lose their jobs be it voluntarily or otherwise. However, I say gently to her that the way in which people do business with HMRC and other Government agencies is changing, with much more being done online. I think she would agree that the most important thing is that customers of HMRC—the taxpayers—get a decent service. It might be the case that by doing business online there is less need for the current number of employees.

Welfare Reforms

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s welfare reforms on Northern Ireland. (901227)

When fully implemented, the introduction of universal credit will make over 3 million low to middle-income households in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK better off. These reforms will ensure work always pays and help lift people out of poverty by helping them into work.

Given that families in Northern Ireland are on average £800 a year worse off under this Government, will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to ease the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland?

First, I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Lady has used, although I am sure that it has been put out by Labour party headquarters. As I have said in answer to previous questions, the way in which we can help people to prosper in Northern Ireland, as we all want, is to improve the economy and to get people into well-paid work. That is what we are doing. We are rebalancing the economy away from the disproportionate number of public sector employees in Northern Ireland. Currently, 30% of people in Northern Ireland are employed in the public sector whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom the figure is only 20%.

Some 32,000 households in Northern Ireland are affected by the bedroom tax. Although existing tenants are exempt, new tenants will be hit by the fact that the vast majority of social housing in Northern Ireland has three bedrooms or more. Is that not just another example of how the bedroom tax is unworkable? It is costing more money than it saves and should be abolished in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK.

The purpose of social housing is to help those who cannot afford their own housing, which I welcome. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to discuss with his constituents and, indeed, the people of Northern Ireland whether the general taxpayer should pay for unnecessary housing for people who do not use it. That is why we are ending the spare room subsidy and that, I think, is supported by the people of Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might find that he is on the wrong side of the argument with his constituents.

Order. These are extremely important matters affecting people in Northern Ireland and there is far too much noise. Let us hear the Rev. William McCrea.

But does the Minister of State not accept that if what was termed the “bedroom tax” here on the mainland was introduced in Northern Ireland, it would cause rent arrears to rocket, cause havoc across settled communities and increase already high levels of poverty?

I am afraid that I do not entirely accept that. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right. I know that the Northern Ireland Executive are considering, through the discretionary housing payments, having a transitional period, which is sensible. If he asks his constituents in Northern Ireland whether they believe that the general taxpayer should support extra accommodation for people in social housing, he will find that most of them do not.

13. Does the Minister agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that Northern Ireland is getting the best deal on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million a year out of vulnerable people’s—[Interruption.] (901237)

Does the Minister agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, that Northern Ireland is getting the best deal on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million a year out of vulnerable people’s pockets?

I agree with commentators in Northern Ireland, including the Belfast Telegraph, which stated:

“Quite simply, we cannot pretend that we can have it both ways; that we can continue to benefit from the Treasury—we get back more than we raise in taxes—while people in other parts of the UK suffer from the reforms.”

These are necessary welfare reforms across the United Kingdom. We support them and I think the hon. Gentleman will find that his constituents support them, too—[Interruption.]

Order. There is still rather a lot of noise. Let us have a courteous hearing for Mr Andrew Bridgen.

Investment Conference

The investment conference was attended by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and successfully highlighted the many benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland. Although it is too early to assess the full impact, Invest Northern Ireland has said that it is actively engaging with a number of companies as a direct result of the conference.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland is a fantastic location to do business, as demonstrated by the firms that have already invested there, such as Allstate, HBO and Bombardier? Does she also agree that what would be disastrous for the Northern Irish economy as a location for investment and jobs would be any repeat of the scenes we saw because of the flag protest in the run-up to last Christmas and earlier this year?

I agree that there have been tremendous success stories in Northern Ireland in terms of inward investment, including the ones that my hon. Friend has mentioned and others like the New York Stock Exchange. It is true that riots on the streets are a huge deterrent to inward investment and I strongly urge anyone involved in protesting to make sure that their protests are both peaceful and entirely lawful.

Will the Secretary of State agree with me that we need to see more conferences of this type? It was successful; investment will come from it. But will she also agree that the companies that attended it were impressed by the skills base in Northern Ireland and the innovation shown by companies?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The education system in Northern Ireland produces some tremendous results. Its two universities are producing thousands of excellent graduates every year. That is one of the reasons why companies investing in Northern Ireland are so successful. They may come for the low cost base but they stay for the people.