House of Commons
Wednesday 8 January 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Death of a Member
I regret to have to report to the House the death of the right hon. Paul Goggins, the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East. Paul was a most assiduous Member, serving as a Home Office and a Northern Ireland Minister in the last Government, and most recently as a distinguished member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to Paul’s wife, Wyn, his children, Matthew, Theresa and Dominic, his granddaughter, Eve, and his many friends and family.
Paul and I entered the House together, and I can honestly say that I have never heard an ill word spoken of him. Labour to his core, he was, yet, the least tribal of colleagues. Whether battling against poverty, campaigning successfully for the victims of mesothelioma, working for the rehabilitation of prisoners or striving for peace in Northern Ireland, Paul was the same: principled, eloquent and tireless, but unfailingly courteous, measured and respectful. He always played the ball, never the man or the woman.
An outstanding public servant who came into politics for all the right reasons, Paul’s passing is a loss on so many levels. The House has lost a valued colleague, his constituency a faithful representative, his party an outstanding ambassador and, above all, his family a loving husband, father and grandfather.
Prayers for Paul will also be said at the usual 12.45 service today in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
On what is a sad morning for the House, I am sure that colleagues on both sides would also wish me to mention the passing in December of the right hon. Lord Roberts of Conwy, who served the Welsh Office with such distinction for so many years. He was a doughty champion for Wales and the Welsh language, and I am sure that many Members on both sides will regret his passing.
The protections placed on health and education have insulated the Welsh Government’s resource budget from the extent of reductions faced by many UK Departments. In addition, the Welsh Government’s capital budget will increase in real terms by 8.4% next year and 2.4% the year after.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the Welsh Government’s budget has been cut by 10% since 2010—a cut of £1.6 billion? Their capital budget to date has been cut by a third, which has impacted horrendously on front-line services. In my Bridgend constituency alone, that has meant £30 million-worth of cuts in front-line services. Does the Secretary of State not recognise the damage of these cuts to the people of Wales?
All parts of the United Kingdom are having to bear their part in repairing the economic damage that was sustained as a result of the downturn in 2008. However, I am sure the hon. Lady would recognise that since 2010 the United Kingdom Government have provided an additional £737 million to the Welsh Government, and it is up to the Welsh Government to live within their means.
Given that the UK Government have given extra money in cash terms to the Welsh Assembly in the form of its block grant, does the Secretary of State find it as extraordinary as I do that the Welsh Assembly has imposed drastic cuts on local authorities across Wales that are bound to lead to increases in council taxes and reductions in public services?
That is ultimately a matter for the Welsh Government, but it is noteworthy that, whereas council taxpayers in England are benefiting from a council tax freeze, that is not happening in Wales. Perhaps that is something the Welsh Government should be attending to.
May I first associate myself fully with the words of tribute to the late, greatly respected right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and to the late Lord Roberts of Conwy?
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that reform of the Barnett formula is still an issue about which we are all very concerned. We in Plaid Cymru have campaigned about it for more than 25 years. It is interesting that the Labour party is now in favour of reforming Barnett, which it did nothing about for 13 years. In fact, when it was in government, it denied the existence of the problem. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any views on that issue?
Which does the right hon. Gentleman think is worse—the self-serving preconditions set by the Labour party to block further devolution, or the failure of his Government to propose the full tax-varying powers contained in the cross-party Silk commission recommendations?
Barnett consequentials and, indeed, funding from the European Union have been key components of spending in Wales for many years. What representations has the Secretary of State made about Barnett consequentials and European funding to address the devastation that has occurred in recent days along the Welsh coast, not least in Ceredigion, but also in the constituencies of many other hon. Members?
I have had many conversations with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Clearly, Aberystwyth has suffered extreme damage as a consequence of the storms of the past few days, and I assure my hon. Friend that, if any additional funding is provided, Barnett consequentials will follow in the usual manner.
This Government’s recent announcements on strike prices aim to make the UK, including Wales, one of the most attractive places to invest in renewable technologies. Our reforms will ensure that more than 30% of our electricity comes from renewables by 2020, attracting £110 billion of investment and supporting up to a quarter of a million jobs.
May I associate myself with the kind remarks of the Secretary of State relating to both Paul Goggins and Lord Roberts, who was a true servant of north Wales and a lovely man?
On renewables, I am very disappointed that the Minister did not refer to Sharp solar in Wrexham, which as recently as 2011 was expanding and providing more jobs. I spoke to the chief executive of Sharp solar in Wrexham before Christmas, when he told me that this Government’s catastrophic and chaotic renewables policy had contributed to its decision not to continue manufacturing in Wrexham, with the loss of 600 jobs. Will the Minister break the Wales Office’s silence and apologise to the people who have lost their jobs as a result of incompetence?
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment for his constituents. The news about the Sharp job losses was a bitter blow just before Christmas. I have been in touch with Sharp, and we at the Wales Office have spoken to them. It is just not correct to associate the decision taken by Sharp with the changes to the feed-in tariff policy. If he speaks to industry experts who are knowledgeable about these issues, they will tell him that it is much more to do with the wave of cheap Chinese imports of solar panels that have come into Europe and flooded the European market, so making domestic production very challenging indeed.
Whether power is generated from renewable or non-renewable sources, there is an increasing problem in Wales and the rest of the country in getting new power sources connected to the grid because of the shortage of power engineers. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Welsh Assembly Government to see how this issue can be tackled in Wales?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises a very pertinent issue, of which both we in the Wales Office and, more importantly, the Welsh Government, who have devolved responsibility for skills, are aware. We are in discussions with the key players and stakeholders in Wales about how we can raise up a new generation of power engineers to take forward the changes that we are trying to effect.
The loss of the Sharp solar panel factory in Wrexham, which was the biggest solar panel factory in western Europe, was a devastating blow to the Welsh economy. What can the Minister do to mitigate the closure, in which his Government are complicit? Specifically, can he help to draw down UK research funding to the solar research institute in Optic Glyndwr in St Asaph?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am very aware of the important work being done at Glyndwr university, and we are in close touch with the university about its work. On what we can do to mitigate the job impact in Wrexham, I encourage both him and his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) to give full-throated support to the £250 million that the Government are putting into Wrexham to create a new prison—something for which we have yet to hear full support from Opposition Members.
Labour has called consistently for the devolution of energy consents for projects of up to 100 MW. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for the amendment, which was not supported by the Government, that he tabled to the Energy Bill. Why are the Government opposed to the devolution of energy, which would allow the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales to make their own decisions on energy and renewable energy in particular?
The autumn statement set out further measures to ensure that there is a responsible economic recovery. That is the only way to achieve the sustained rise in living standards in Wales and across the UK that we all want to see.
May I associate myself with the tributes that have been given?
I thank the Minister for his answer, but many of us are dismayed that the autumn statement did little to address issues related to poverty. Does the Secretary of State really believe that it is right that food bank usage in Wales has gone up 1,400% since 2010? Surely that is not acceptable.
We know that the Labour party discovered food banks only in 2010. Before that, Labour Members denied that they even existed. In the autumn statement and at the end of last year, we saw average wages in Wales increasing at double the rate of inflation and personal disposable income in Wales increasing. The situation is still very challenging for many households in Wales, but the overall picture is positive, and the hon. Lady should support that.
In my constituency of Aberavon, real wages have fallen by £2,000 in recent years and some 5,000 households have witnessed a reduction in their working tax credits. That comes against the background of rising energy prices, which are higher in south Wales than anywhere else in Britain. Does the Minister agree—as a reasonable person, I am sure that he does—that the best way to address the squeeze in living standards on the people of my constituency and of Wales is to endorse Labour’s proposal of a freeze in energy prices, which would benefit 30,000 households in my constituency?
We are going further than that by delivering a reduction in energy prices of about £50 per household. One of the best ways in which we can equip households in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout Wales to face these challenging times is by returning more money to their pockets. We are taking 130,000 people in Wales out of income tax altogether and freezing fuel taxes, so that petrol prices are 20p per litre lower than they would have been under Labour’s plans. That is the way to help households meet the cost of living.
As the only Welsh Conservative MP who had the privilege of serving alongside Lord Roberts of Conwy, may I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks? May I also associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, about Paul Goggins, whose untimely death has come as such a shock to us all?
On living standards, will my hon. Friend confirm that the cumulative effect of the autumn statement will be that petrol prices will be 20p per litre lower than they otherwise would have been and that the average taxpayer will pay £700 less?
The autumn statement contained very welcome measures to reduce the burden of business rates on small businesses in England. What efforts will the Minister make to ensure that the Welsh Government follow suit, to support small businesses in Wales?
In the autumn statement, we made resources available to the Welsh Government to take exactly the same action as the Government in Westminster have taken to help small businesses with their business rates. I was pleased that the Welsh Minister announced yesterday that they would take forward the cap on business rates in Wales. We have yet to hear whether they will deliver the £1,000 discount for small businesses that we are delivering.
11. May I associate myself with your words, Mr Speaker, on Paul Goggins, who was a great friend, and with the Secretary of State’s words on Lord Roberts, who was a great Anglesey man? Wales is a net producer of energy, a major electricity generator and a major terminal for imported gas, but people in Wales are paying some of the highest prices in the United Kingdom for gas and electricity. Will the Minister look closely at the distribution companies that are passing on extra costs to the Welsh consumer to ensure that there is a level playing field on prices? (901773)
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue for his constituents and people throughout Wales. At the Wales Office, I regularly meet companies such as Western Power Distribution and National Grid to discuss why many consumers in Wales are paying those higher costs, and for all kinds of reasons. If he has specific questions that he would like me to follow up, I would be happy to meet him to do that.
May I, too, associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about Lord Roberts and in particular express my sadness at the passing of our friend and comrade Paul Goggins? I worked with Paul at the Northern Ireland Office, and I can say from personal experience that he was a wonderful Minister, a lovely man, and a hugely dedicated Member of the House. All our thoughts are with his family; everybody who knew Paul will miss him greatly.
A moment ago, the Minister said that measures in the autumn statement would cut energy bills for families in Wales by £50. That was one boast made by the Chancellor in that statement, and it came to fruition in Wales this morning with the announcement by SSE—Wales’s biggest energy supplier—that it was helping families with a price cut. Will the Minister confirm what that announcement actually means for families in Wales?
The action that we are taking across a broad range of measures—energy, fuel prices, income tax thresholds—means that we are helping people on the lowest incomes in Wales with the challenges of the cost of living at the moment. The hon. Gentleman does not refer to the fact that we are seeing improvements in wages in Wales and in personal disposable income, and he should welcome the overall positive picture that is emerging in Wales.
I had hoped that the Minister would have made a new year’s resolution to be a little more straightforward with the Welsh people. The truth is that the announcement by SSE this morning, following the announcement by the Chancellor that bills will be cut by £50, is actually that bills will rise in Wales this year by £70. It is a con trick, plain and simple, and the Minister should admit that and urge his colleagues to adopt Labour’s price freeze as the only way to curb these profiteering energy companies.
I am sorry to say this to the hon. Gentleman, but if he talks to people in industry out there who understand the economics of energy, they will all tell him that what the Labour party has proposed for energy does not make sense at all and has no credibility. The Government are taking real practical action that helps families at difficult times, and the picture that we are seeing in Wales overall is positive.
Draft Wales Bill
The Government published a summary impact assessment with the draft Wales Bill, which examines the effects of the Bill’s provisions on cross-border areas. We intend to introduce the Bill in the fourth Session, subject to agreement of the fourth Session programme, and a full impact assessment will accompany the Bill on introduction.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but the draft Bill provides for a lock-step approach to varying income tax bands, against the wishes of all political parties in the Assembly and against the advice of the Silk commission. The reason given is concern about overall progressivity in the UK tax system. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on what he means by progressivity and say why he is adopting that approach?
15. One damaging consequence of devolution has been the abandonment of investment in cross-border road improvement in mid-Wales because the Department for Transport—quite reasonably—sees no economic benefit to England in improving access to mid-Wales. In the response to the Silk commission report, will my right hon. Friend rectify that damaging consequence of devolution for mid-Wales? (901777)
My hon. Friend is quite right, and cross-border road routes are one unfortunate consequence of devolution, in that no overarching arrangement is in place. I have specifically asked the Silk commission to consider that issue, and I hope that it will address it in its report.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that certainty on taxation policy is key to boosting economic confidence in Wales. Although he has told us of his vision to use the Wales Bill for a 1p cut to all income tax bands in Wales, the leader of the Conservative party in Wales has said that he would cut only the top band of tax. Will the Secretary of State clear up that complete muddle about his Government’s position on taxation in Wales?
We have made it absolutely clear that we believe a competitive Welsh economy would depend to a large extent on a competitive rate of tax. However, I must remind the hon. Lady that devolution of income tax is a matter for the Welsh Government, in that it would be the Welsh Government who would have to put forward a referendum to the Welsh Assembly.
The roll-out of universal credit will reduce the historic dependency on benefits for the people of Wales by making the system simple and more flexible, and by increasing the incentive to work.
Is it not a fact that repeated promises to deliver the project on time and on budget have been broken yet again? Officials are warning of further delays and more wasted taxpayers’ money, and Ministers are arguing among themselves while families and children in Wales live in poverty. What way is this to run a country?
What universal credit represents for the country, including Wales—I think Opposition Members recognise this as well—is a generational opportunity to change the welfare system better to support those who need it. It is exactly right that we take the time necessary to get the systems and processes right to ensure that we get the outcomes right for people in Wales.
Department for Work and Pensions Ministers have assured me that the online application process in Welsh will be consistent with the Welsh Language Act 1993. What discussions has the Minister had with DWP colleagues to ensure that it is also consistent with the new Welsh language standards?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I regularly meet Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform, to discuss the impact of the complete welfare reform agenda in Wales. The Welsh language, specifically, is an issue that I have discussed with him. We want to see high-quality Welsh language availability for the people who need it.
This Government are investing more in transport infrastructure in Wales than any other in the last century, and Wales is set to benefit directly and indirectly from almost £2 billion of investment. I will be meeting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport next week to see how we can take this investment further.
Like me, the Secretary of State is a regular user of the Holyhead branch of the west coast main line. The Department for Transport is setting up a taskforce to look at electrification of the line between Crewe and Chester. Does he agree that the taskforce should look beyond Chester and consider electrifying the north Wales main line?
One of the most important pieces of transport infrastructure for Wales is the Severn bridge. After decades, tolls have now gone up again: £6.40 for motorists, and double and treble that for vans and lorries. Is it not time to recognise, after all these decades, that this tax on the south Wales economy is a toll too far?
14. Good transport links are essential to provide opportunities for investment into Wales. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on updating road and rail links into north Wales, especially upgrading the A55? (901776)
I have regular discussions with both the Welsh Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on this issue. A business case is already being worked up, I hope, for electrification of the north Wales coast line, and I have already referred to the issue of roads.
Hosting the NATO summit in Newport later this year allows us to showcase Wales on a global stage, and I—and the First Minister, I am sure—will do everything possible to ensure that Wales capitalises on the tourism opportunities it should bring.
The delegates will be guests in what is probably the best hotel in Britain, the Celtic Manor. Will they have the chance to visit the other major attractions of Newport—the Roman remains at Caerleon, the magnificent transporter bridge and the splendid Tredegar house—so that they can have a rich and unforgettable experience in Newport?
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to pay some brief tributes. Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers was tragically killed after being engaged by enemy fire in Afghanistan on 23 December. He was a highly respected soldier, and our deepest sympathies and condolences should be with his parents, brother and girlfriend, whom he left behind. Our thoughts should also go to the victims of the US helicopter crash in Norfolk, about which details are still emerging.
I know that the sudden death this morning of Paul Goggins, MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, will have shocked everyone across the House. He was a kind, brilliant man who believed profoundly in public service. He cared deeply about the welfare of children and the importance of social work, and he brought his own clear experience to bear as an MP and Minister. He did vital work as a Northern Ireland Minister, playing a quiet but essential role in delivering the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, particularly at the Hillsborough castle talks. He was liked and admired across the House and always treated everyone, in whatever circumstances, with respect. He will be greatly missed, and we send our condolences to his wife Wyn, his children and his family.
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 am sure the House will want to be associated with my right hon. Friend’s comments. In particular, Paul Goggins was a good and decent man, and I know that he will be sorely missed on both sides of the House.
Yesterday, the British Chambers of Commerce found that manufacturing exports and services were growing strongly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows that, even though more work needs to be done, it is crucial that the Government stick to their long-term economic plan?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, including those about Paul Goggins.
It is a welcome report from the British Chambers of Commerce, but there is still a lot more work to do: we must continue to reduce the deficit, create economic growth and get more people into work. There should not be one ounce of complacency, but the report did find that manufacturing balances were at an all-time high, that exports were up and that services were growing strongly. If we stick to this plan, we can see this country rise, and our people rise with it too.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. His death, just two days before Christmas, is a reminder of the risks being taken on our behalf every day by members of our armed forces. He showed the utmost courage and bravery, and all our sympathies are with his family and friends. I also join the right hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the families of the victims of the US helicopter crash in Norfolk.
I want to pay tribute to our friend and colleague, Paul Goggins. He was one of the kindest, most decent people in the House, and he was someone of the deepest principle. It shone throughout his career, as social worker, councillor, MP and Minister, and it is a measure of the man and his ability that he earned the respect, trust and affection of all sides in Northern Ireland. The Labour party has lost one of its own and one of its best. Our deepest condolences go to his wife, Wyn, to his children, Matthew, Theresa and Dominic, and indeed to his whole family.
The whole country will be concerned about the price being paid by those in communities affected by the floods and storms. I pay tribute to the work of the emergency services. Will the Prime Minister update the House on the number of people affected and on what action is being taken now to ensure areas that could be affected by further flooding have all the necessary support?
First, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his very moving words about Paul Goggins.
The flooding provides an extremely difficult situation for those affected. We should remember that seven people have lost their lives since this began. The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the emergency services, to the Environment Agency workers, to the flood wardens and to the many neighbours and individuals who showed great bravery, courage and spirit over the Christmas period in helping neighbours and friends.
As the situation is ongoing, let me bring the House up to date with the latest detail. There are currently 104 flood warnings in place across the whole of England and Wales. That means, sadly, that more flooding is expected and that immediate action is required. There are also 186 flood alerts, which means even further flooding is possible beyond what we expect to happen more rapidly. Although the weather has improved, river and groundwater levels remain so high that further flooding could come at relatively short notice. There are a number of particular concerns, including Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and Oxfordshire. Given these ongoing threats, which could last for several days to come, I urge members of the public to keep following the advice of the emergency services and the Environment Agency in those areas at risk. At a national level, we have co-ordinated this response via Cobra, which will continue to meet under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until the threat has passed.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. I know he and the Environment Secretary will keep us updated. He will recognise that some people felt that the response was, at times, too slow. In particular, will he explain whether it has become clear why it took so long for some of the energy distribution companies to restore power to homes over the Christmas period? What steps does he believe can be taken to ensure that that kind of thing does not happen again?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: in all these circumstances, no matter how good the preparation, there are always lessons to learn—and there are lessons to learn on this occasion. On the positive side, the Environment Agency warning service worked better than it has in the past and the flood defences protected up to a million homes over the December and Christmas period, but there are some negatives, too, and we need to learn lessons from them. In particular, some of the energy companies did not have enough people available over the holiday period for an emergency response, which I saw for myself in Kent. We need to learn those lessons, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy will lead this exercise. The Energy Secretary is already looking at the levels of compensation and at the preparedness and speed of response from energy companies. I would, however, welcome hearing from Members of all constituencies affected by the flooding what they saw on the ground about the lessons that could be learned so that we can ensure that preparedness is even better on a future occasion.
Given the scale of risk exposed by these floods and the expected impact of climate change, will the Prime Minister also commit to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs providing a report by the end of this month, providing a full assessment of the future capability of our flood defences and flood response agencies and of whether the investment plans in place are equal to the need for events of this kind?
I am very happy to make that commitment. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in this current four-year period, we are spending £2.3 billion, compared with £2.1 billion in the previous period. The money is going into flood defences. As I said, in the early December flooding, about 800,000 homes were protected by previous flood defence work and over the Christmas period a further 200,000 houses were affected. Whenever there is flooding, it makes sense to look again at the proposals in the programme for flood defence work and to see what more can be done. In addition to Government money, we are keen to lever in more private sector and local authority money, which is now possible under the arrangements. I am happy to commit, as the right hon. Gentleman asked, to the Environment Secretary coming back to report to the House on the level of expenditure in the years going ahead.
Q2. Further to the Prime Minister’s remarks on the recent flooding, will he join me in paying tribute to Bournemouth borough council and Dorset emergency services, as well as local residents, in dealing with two evacuations in my constituency, one of which, owing to the River Stour bursting its banks, is still ongoing? Given the changing weather patterns we are experiencing, what more can be done in the long term towards improving river and sea defences? (901794)
As my hon. Friend knows, 290 homes have been flooded so far in Bournemouth and the Dorset area. I agree with him that the work of the emergency services and the Environment Agency has been excellent. Many local authorities, including my own, have developed very good plans and carried them out very competently. However, not every authority is doing so well, and there will be lessons to be learnt.
As for the Bournemouth and Poole area, about £14 million will be invested over the next five years under the Bournemouth beach management scheme. That should protect about 2,500 properties by 2018-2019, but I should be interested to hear from my hon. Friend what more he thinks can be done.
Q3. The Prime Minister will be aware that the majority of new housing benefit claimants are in work. He will also be aware that private sector landlords are increasingly refusing to take tenants who are on benefit, or are evicting them. What does he say to hard-working families who face losing their homes because of his housing benefit cuts? (901795)
What we say to hard-working families is, “We are cutting your taxes.” In April this year, we will raise to £10,000 the amount of money that people can earn before they start paying income tax, and I think that that will make a big difference. For instance, someone earning the minimum wage and working a 40-hour week will see his or her tax bill fall by two thirds.
However, we must take action to deal with the housing benefit bill. Housing benefit now accounts for £23 billion of Government spending. When we came to office, some families in London were receiving housing benefit payments of £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000. [Hon. Members: “How many?”] Members shout “How many?” Frankly, one was too many, and that is why we have capped housing benefit.
Q4. If the Government decided to mitigate the scale of the cuts that they plan for the next Parliament, can my right hon. Friend tell me how I would explain to the students in Meon Valley receiving personal, social, health and economic education why they should make every effort to spend within their means to avoid taking on debt, but it is quite all right for the Government to ignore the same advice? (901796)
My hon. Friend has made an important point. We have made difficult decisions to get the deficit down and to get the country back on track: difficult decisions in terms of departmental spending, and also welfare. The Labour party is now back where it started: Labour Members are saying that they want to mitigate the level of cuts, and therefore they want to spend more, they want to borrow more and they want to tax more. We may be at the beginning of a new year, but they have gone completely back to where they were three years ago.
I absolutely share the concern about that issue, and I welcome the fact that we shall be debating it in the House today. There are problems in the betting and gaming industry, and we need to look at them. I think it is worth listening to the advice of the right hon. Gentleman’s own shadow Minister who said
“I accept the argument that empirical evidence is needed before making”
“because it might just create another problem somewhere else”.—[Official Report, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 27 November 2013; c. 8.]
However, this is a problem, and it does need to be looked at. We have a review under way. We are clearing up a situation that was put in place under the last Government, but I think that if we work together, we can probably sort it out.
The Gambling Act 2005 limited the number of machines to four per betting shop, but it did not go nearly far enough. More action should have been taken. The Prime Minister asked about evidence. Local communities from Fareham to Liverpool are saying that these machines are causing problems for families and communities. Local communities believe that they already have the evidence. Should they not be given the power to decide whether or not they want these machines?
The right hon. Gentleman has made a reasonable point, but let me first deal with the facts. The first fact is that fixed odds betting terminals were introduced in 2001 after the Labour Government had relaxed gambling regulations. The second fact is that there are fewer of these machines now than there were when Labour was in office. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s last point, councils already have powers to tackle the issue, and I believe that they should make full use of those powers. I am not arguing that that is “job done”—there may well be more to do— but we have a review under way. This is an issue for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. If the right hon. Gentleman has ideas, I ask him to put them into the review, but, as I said earlier, he may want to listen to his own shadow Minister, who, as recently as November, said
“there is no evidence to support a change to stakes and prizes for FOBTs”. —[Official Report, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 27 November 2013; c. 20.]
There seems to be something of a change here, but if the right hon. Gentleman has extra evidence, he should put it into our review, and I think that we can then sort the matter out.
Our ideas are in today’s motion, and if the Prime Minister wants to vote for it, we would be very happy for him to do so. He says there are already powers in place, but the Mayor of London and the Conservative head of the Local Government Association have said that local authorities do not have the power to limit the number of machines. One in three calls to the gambling helpline are about these machines and they are clustered in deprived areas. For example, there are 348 in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country: Newham. Can the Prime Minister at least give us a timetable for when the Government will decide whether to act?
We will be reporting in the spring as a result of the review that is under way, and I think it is important that we get to grips with this. There is something of a pattern. We had the problem of 24-hour drinking, and that needed to be changed and mitigated and we have done that. We have the problems created by the deregulation of betting and gaming, which the right hon. Gentleman is raising today and we need to sort that out. We have also had problems, of course, in the banking industry and elsewhere that we have sorted out, so, as I said, if he wants to—[Interruption.] As I said, if he wants to input ideas into that review, I think that is the right way forward.
May I pay tribute to Paul Goggins and say how much he will be missed in this House?
My right hon. Friend is on the record as saying he would very much like to see the A64 on the future roads list. Can he ensure that the present economy, which is very buoyant in north Yorkshire, is not held back by congestion and poor safety on that road? Will he join me to ensure that on his future visits he can travel much faster and in much greater safety on the A64?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The quality and capacity of the road system in Yorkshire has been, and is, a major issue. The Government have taken some important steps to help, but I know there is more work to be done. I know the Chancellor was listening carefully to what she had to say and I am sure we can look carefully at this for the future roads programme.
I looked into this loophole carefully over the Christmas period when the Opposition raised it, and I discovered two things about this loophole. The first is that it was introduced and agreed by the last Labour Government and the TUC. That is loophole fact No. 1. Loophole fact No. 2—
The hon. Gentleman shouts “CBI”, and this is what the CBI had to say about it:
“further gold plating of EU rules can only cost jobs.”
Then we have the Recruitment and Employment Federation. It said this:
“These arrangements were agreed following consultation between the last Labour Government, business and the unions…Is the Labour party really saying they want to deny British temps the option of permanent employment?”
The Institute of Directors has, of course, added to that by saying—[Interruption.] It is very clear, Mr Speaker: Opposition Members want to know what we think about this, and this is what the IOD thinks:
“It’s a bad idea all round…The initial response to this from employers would be to employ fewer people on higher wages”.
What a great start to the new year: let us come up with an idea to increase unemployment! Only Labour could come up with an idea like that.
Q6. There is considerable interest from businesses in the maritime and marine sector wishing to relocate to Portsmouth to make use of its facilities and skilled work force. What can the Government do to send a clear message to entrepreneurs that Portsmouth is open for businesses and to facilitate businesses moving to, and expanding, there? (901798)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. There are two specific things we can do to help Portsmouth at this time. The first is the Portsmouth and Southampton city deal, which we should put in place, that will bring jobs and investment. Secondly, we should emphasise the fact that the massive programme of modernising the Royal Navy, with the aircraft carriers, the Type 45s and the future frigates, will by and large be based in Portsmouth, creating jobs and making sure it remains one of the most important homes for the Royal Navy. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right: added to that there is a future in Portsmouth in other marine industries and commercial and private sector industries, and we should do everything we can to encourage business to locate there.
Q7. I would also like to pay my sympathies to Paul Goggins’s family; he was a lovely, lovely man.The Government have cut £1.8 billion from the social care budget, which means nearly half a million fewer people are eligible for social care. With home care charges up £740 a year since 2010 and the Government’s care cap nothing more than a care con, why is the Prime Minister not being honest with older people about the real care costs they will face under this Government? (901799)
Of course, difficult decisions have had to be taken right across Government spending, but if we look at health and social care, we can see that we have protected the health budget so that it is going up in real terms, and we have put some of that health budget—up to £3 billion—into social care to help local authorities. We now want to get local authorities and local health services working even more closely together to deal with the problems of blocked beds and to ensure that there are care packages for people when they leave hospital. We can really see the benefits in the areas of the country where this is working, and we want to make that happen right across the country.
Q8. Mr Speaker, our excellent local enterprise partnership estimates that Buckinghamshire has a £12 billion economy, with nearly 30,000 registered businesses and the European head offices of more than 700 foreign companies. They need the security of long-term economic policies. Given that our economic growth has clearly returned, will the Prime Minister assure me that, unlike the Labour party, he will not gamble with those companies’ future and that he will stick steadfastly to his tried and tested long-term economic policies? (901800)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what she says. There is a vibrant economy right across the Thames valley, including in Buckinghamshire, and that is going to be based on sticking to our long-term economic plan. What is particularly important for the companies that she has mentioned is to keep our rates of corporate tax low so that we attract businesses into the country and ensure that companies want to have their headquarters here. That is the right answer, rather than the answer of the Labour party, which is to put up corporation tax and to put a “Closed” sign over the British economy.
Q9. A year ago, the Prime Minister said that he would make “damn sure” that foreign companies paid higher taxes, but in the Financial Times at the weekend, it was shown that companies such as Apple and eBay were now paying even less. Why is the Prime Minister’s tough talk not adding up to very much? (901801)
The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair; I think we are making progress on this very difficult issue. At the G8, we raised the importance of having international rules on tax reporting and of more countries working together on that. Huge progress has been made, not least in the European Union, where countries such as Luxembourg and Austria, which have always held out against this exchange of information, are now taking part for the first time. The OECD work is also going ahead apace, and that is partly because Britain has put its full efforts behind this vital work.
Paul Goggins was a decent, humble man and, in my experience, one of the most effective and fair Ministers the House has seen. He will be very sadly missed.
The Prime Minister will know that the science is clear that the extreme weather conditions affecting our communities, including around the Kent estuary in Westmorland, are at least in part a destructive and inevitable consequence of climate change. Given that he has said that this should be the “greenest Government ever”, will he now agree to support the carbon reduction targets so that we can take real action to protect people and property?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we are seeing more abnormal weather events. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not; I very much suspect that it is. The point is that, whatever one’s view, it makes sense to invest in flood defences and mitigation and to get information out better, and we should do all of those things. As for carbon reduction targets, this Government are committed to them and we worked with the last Government to put the Climate Change Act 2008 into place. That would not have happened without our support. We also have the green investment bank up and running in Edinburgh, and we are going to be investing billions of pounds in important green projects.
Q10. Government cuts have closed the police cells in Bassetlaw, and I now discover that the police are having to patrol villages using public transport. If the police are waiting at a bus stop, having arrested someone, should they go upstairs, should they go downstairs, or should they not make the arrest at all? (901802)
The first thing to say to the hon. Gentleman is that he did not mention the fact that recorded crime in the Bassetlaw community safety partnership area is down by 27% under this Government. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Yes, 27%. What is noticeable is that every single Opposition Member is getting up and complaining about the need to make reductions in departmental spending. Frankly, this is like “Back to the Future”—we are back to where we were three years ago, when we said, “You’ve got to make difficult decisions. You’ve got to make some cuts. You’ve got to get the deficit down” and they lived in total denial. They are back to where they were three years ago. It may be the new year, but it is the same old Labour party.
The royal pardon granted to Alan Turing two weeks ago has finally meant justice for this national hero. May I thank the Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary and everyone over the years who has paved the way to bring this about? May I invite the Prime Minister to visit Bletchley Park in my constituency to see for himself Alan Turing’s remarkable achievements?
I absolutely back what my hon. Friend has said. It is excellent news that a royal prerogative mercy, which is very rarely granted, has been granted in this very special case. I would be delighted to visit his constituency to go to Bletchley Park. One of my wife’s family worked there during the war and speaks incredibly highly of Alan Turing and what he was like to work with. Historians can argue about the degree, but there is no doubt that the work done in my hon. Friend’s constituency was vital to winning the war.
Q11. Before Christmas, I was contacted by a seriously ill constituent who is waiting for a kidney transplant. He needs five-hour dialysis sessions three times a week, yet in the Prime Minister’s Britain he has been told by the jobcentre that he is fit for work. On Monday, the Chancellor promised to take £12 billion more from the welfare budget. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts to benefits for the sick and disabled? (901803)
First, on the specific issue of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, if he wants to write to me about the individual case, I would be happy to look at that. In terms of making sure that dialysis machines are available and the expertise is available, we are putting more money into the NHS, even though the advice from the Labour party was to cut. The reason we have been able to put more money into the health service is because we have taken tough and difficult decisions about welfare. It is because we have put a cap on the amount of money a family can get that we have been able to invest in our health service; because we have put a cap on housing benefit—not giving £60,000 or £70,000 to some families—we have invested in our health service. We want to see more dignity, more security and more stability in the lives of Britain’s families, and we are making choices consistent with that.
Soaring car sales—they are back to pre-crisis levels—have helped supply chain companies such as Sertec in Coleshill in my constituency to create manufacturing jobs; 200 have been created in the past year, and a further 400 are planned. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that we are successfully rebalancing the economy and that we need to stay the course with policies that are clearly working?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I went with him to the opening of the new Ocado warehouse in his constituency, which has generated hundreds of jobs and, as he says, is going to be vital for the supply chain in his constituency. What these businesses want to see is a consistent economic policy: keeping interest rates down; getting the deficit down; cutting taxes for hard-working people; helping businesses to take more people on; and investing in education, in skills and in controlling welfare. Those are the elements of our long-term plan, and that is what we will stick to.
Q12. Two months ago, I asked the Prime Minister whether Tory Councillor Abdul Aziz, who was suspended by the Labour party, should return to Pakistan, given the arrest warrant out for him in connection to a brutal killing. Councillor Aziz attended the Prime Minister’s party in October as an invited guest. So why is the Prime Minister still hiding on whether he thinks Councillor Aziz should return to face justice? (901804)
I will make two points to the hon. Gentleman, and I have written to him this morning. The first is this—[Interruption.] He will be interested to hear. The first is that the allegations he mentions are disputed and are currently subject to legal action, so I am limited in what I can say. But what he failed to mention to the House the last time he raised this is that the allegations date from the time when Mr Aziz was a Labour councillor. I am informed that during his time as a Labour councillor the Labour party did absolutely nothing about these allegations. So perhaps next time the hon. Gentleman stands up and asks a question in the House of Commons he will give us the full facts.
Q13. May I associate myself with the tributes to Paul Goggins? His work on the reform of the law on child neglect will go on. Last year, one of my constituents, 23-year-old Christopher Scott, died as a result of taking the so-called legal high AMT—alpha-methyltryptamine. Will my right hon. Friend support my calls and those of the coroner and Christopher’s family to ensure that this dangerous drug and others like it are outlawed? (901805)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. First, let me offer my condolences to his constituent’s family. As he knows with the rules that we have, hundreds of legal highs have already been banned, and our temporary drug orders allow us to outlaw substances within days of them coming on the market. However, we are not complacent and we have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to renew our definitions of controlled drugs to ensure that we capture these newly emerging substances when there is evidence of harm. There is more work to be done here, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is absolutely on it.
May I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying warm tribute to Paul Goggins? He was a fine, decent and honourable man who was a great friend to Northern Ireland and all its people. He will be sadly missed not only in this House but throughout Northern Ireland. We offer our sincere condolences to his wife and family at this difficult time.
I commend the Prime Minister and welcome the fact that he has made a commitment on the triple-lock guarantee for pensioners if he is returned as Prime Minister in the next Parliament in 2015. Will he clarify whether he will commit to retaining the winter fuel allowance under its current eligibility thresholds and as a universal benefit?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about Paul Goggins.
On the issue of pensions, it is important to recognise that we are able to make a commitment to the triple lock, which has been important in this Parliament, only because we are committed to raising the pension age to 66, then 67 and so on. That means that the pension increase is affordable. We made a very clear pledge about pensioner benefits for this Parliament, and I am proud of the fact that we are fulfilling it. We will set out our plans in the next manifesto. I caution people against believing that not paying the winter fuel allowance or the other benefits to those, for instance, paying tax at 40p, saves money—you save a very small amount of money. Yes of course we will set out our plans in the manifesto, but it is absolutely vital that we say to Britain’s pensioners, “You have worked hard and done the right thing, and we want to give you dignity and security in old age.” The triple lock makes that possible.
Q14. Is my right hon. Friend aware that at Thrunton in my constituency, there has been a large fire of waste carpet burning since 3 September last year? The local residents have been suffering from the fumes and smoke from what we now know may be hazardous waste. The fire brigade cannot put out the fire for fear of polluting the water supply. Can I have my right hon. Friend’s support in urging the Environment Agency and the local authority to get that material off the site and to give residents back their lives? (901806)
I will certainly look in even more detail at the issues my right hon. Friend raises. I understand the concern that it is causing him and his constituents. My understanding is that environmental concerns, particularly that waste might run off and pollute local water supplies, have hampered the efforts to extinguish the fire. I understand that the local recovery group is meeting later this week to see what more can be done to remove the waste, and I am happy to intervene on my right hon. Friend’s behalf to ensure that that makes progress.
The calls for this debate show a mounting frustration among those wanting Scotland’s separation from the rest of the United Kingdom, because they know they are losing the argument. They are losing the argument about jobs and investment. They have completely lost the argument about the future of the pound sterling, and they are losing the argument about Europe. Yes of course there should be a debate, but it is a debate among the people in Scotland. The leader of the “in” campaign should debate with the leader of the “out” campaign. Of course the hon. Gentleman, as the lackey of Alex Salmond, wants to change the terms of the debate, but I am not falling for that one.
Q15. In the 13 years before 2010, there was net migration of nearly 4 million people to the UK, mostly to England, and in many cases as a result of work permits issued by the then Government. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that this Government will keep in place their cap on the number of workers from outside the European Union, and encourage employers to give a chance to talented young people here? (901807)
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. We should keep the cap on economic migrants from outside the European Union. We should continue with all the action that we are taking to make sure that people who come here do so to work and not to claim, but I think what we need to do next is recognise that the best immigration policy is to have not only strong border controls but an education approach that educates our young people for jobs in our country and a welfare system that encourages them to take those jobs. There are three sides to the argument: it is about immigration, education and welfare, and the Government have a plan for all three.
Could I agree with the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] It is genuinely absurd that the leader of the no campaign in Scotland cannot get a debate with the leader of the yes campaign in Scotland, and that the leader of the yes campaign in Scotland demands a debate with somebody who does not have a vote. [Interruption.] In these circumstances, does the Prime Minister agree with me that, in politics as in shipbuilding, empty vessels make the most noise?
I am not finished! [Hon. Members: “More!] There is more. Without seeking to give offence to the Prime Minister, may I tell him that the last person Scots who support the no campaign want as their representative is a Tory toff from the home counties, even one with a fine haircut?
I accept every part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I well remember when he came to Question Time not with an empty vessel but with a model of the vessel that he wanted to be built near his constituency, and I am proud that the Government are building that vessel and, indeed, another one like it. I humbly accept that, while I am sure there are many people in Scotland who would like to hear me talk about this issue, my appeal does not stretch to every single part. The key point that he is making is absolutely right: the reason the yes campaign head and the no campaign head cannot seem to get a debate is that those who want to break up the United Kingdom know that they are losing the argument, so they want to change the question. It is the oldest trick in the book, and we can all see it coming.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the cross-party negotiations in Belfast that came to a close during the early hours of new year’s eve, but first I would like to express my sorrow at the news that Paul Goggins has died. He was a truly excellent and effective Northern Ireland Minister and I have to say one of the kindest, most sincere and most popular Members of this House. He will be much missed, and I would like to take this opportunity to express my sympathy and support to his family as they deal with this shocking loss.
Last May, the First and Deputy First Ministers announced a working group consisting of representatives from each of the five parties in the Executive to look at three of the most divisive issues for Northern Ireland: flags, parading and the legacy of the past. The initiative formed a key element of wider proposals to tackle sectarianism set out in the Executive’s strategy document, “Together: Building a United Community”. In July, former US diplomat Richard Haass agreed to chair the group. He served as the US special envoy to Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2003. Along with his deputy, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, Dr Haass began work in September with the aim of reaching agreement by the end of the year.
From the outset, the UK Government, along with the Irish Government and the US Administration, have strongly supported the Haass process. We welcomed the fact that it was the parties within Northern Ireland that had taken the initiative in seeking progress on these complex and difficult issues as part of the work that the Government had strongly pressed them to take forward on building a shared society and addressing sectarian division.
All three of the issues under consideration in the Haass group have the capacity sharply to divide opinion in Northern Ireland. Repeated attempts to deal with the past have produced little consensus up to now, while disputes over parading and flags have frequently led to serious public disorder. Some form of accommodation on those issues that commands cross-party support could therefore have significant benefits for political stability, public order and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Although the UK Government were never formally a participant in the Haass process, we have been fully engaged with it from the start. I had a significant number of meetings with Dr Haass and my officials remained in frequent contact with his team. During the latter stages of the talks, I spoke regularly with Dr Haass, as I did with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties and the Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore. The Prime Minister also maintained a close interest in the process. We worked to encourage an agreement, even where that meant the parties making difficult decisions to try to move things forward.
The Haass process reached its final, intensive phase of negotiation in the days before Christmas and between Christmas and the new year, when a number of drafts were circulated, the final one being presented to the parties shortly after midnight on the morning of 31 December. It proposed a new set of arrangements for regulating parades and protests, with responsibility vested for the first time in devolved hands. On flags and emblems there was no immediate resolution, but the document advocated the establishment of a new commission to look at wider issues of identity, culture and tradition in Northern Ireland. On the past, Dr Haass proposed two new bodies: an historical investigations unit, in place of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team, to investigate troubles-related deaths; and an independent commission on information recovery.
It was of course disappointing that it did not prove possible to reach a comprehensive agreement within the timetable Dr Haass set, and it is clear that some of the parties have genuine concerns about aspects of what is in the final document, yet the clear message from the Prime Minister, from me and from the Irish Government is that this should not be seen as the end of the road.
The Haass process has seen much valuable work done and some real progress has been made. The discussions managed to achieve a considerable amount of common ground, which this Government believe can provide the basis for continuing discussions between the parties. From my many conversations with the parties, I have no doubt that there is a willingness to make progress on the issues that continue to be a focus for tension and division.
The momentum now needs to be maintained. I believe that Northern Ireland’s political leadership should lose no time in seeking a way forward that gets the parties back around the table to try to resolve their outstanding differences. For our part, the Government are continuing our dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government to see how best we can help facilitate that. I firmly believe that there is still a chance to achieve a successful outcome from the work started by Dr Haass, and I have been speaking with party leaders to discuss the next steps.
At the same time, it is important that we do not lose sight of other important tasks for Northern Ireland, such as the need to continue to make progress on implementing the economic pact and boosting the economy, to take forward a range of measures to build a shared future and to move ahead with welfare reforms.
Finally, I would like to place on the record both the Prime Minister’s and my thanks to Dr Haass, Professor O’Sullivan and their team for the dedication they have brought to chairing the talks. I very much hope that, working together, we can now build on the valuable work that they have started.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for giving me advance sight of a copy. May I also thank her for her kind words about Paul Goggins? I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will understand that I want to begin with a few words about my colleague but, more importantly, good friend, Paul.
Paul served with distinction as a Minister in Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, he earned the respect of politicians, officials and community activists alike for his knowledge and empathy. He continued to take a close interest in all things Northern Ireland, and I know from my discussions with him that he had grown to love Northern Ireland.
But Paul was a lot more than an outstanding Minister. He was a man whose integrity, decency and values, rooted in a strong Christian faith, shone through in everything he did. He treated everyone with the same dignity and respect, whether a Prime Minister or a constituent living on one of the poorest council estates in Wythenshawe.
Paul and I had a special bond, for many years an affliction, of being avid Manchester City fans. We even set up the Westminster branch of the Manchester City supporters club together.
I will never forget Paul’s loyalty and friendship through the ups and downs of our shared political journey. He will be missed more than words can adequately express. Our thoughts and prayers are with Wyn and his children.
I pay tribute to Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan for their professionalism and commitment in striving for a positive way forward on some of the most challenging issues facing Northern Ireland. Flags, parades and dealing with the past are running sores that continue to inhibit progress towards the priority objective of building a shared and better future. They have to be tackled in a way that respects the insecurity and sensitivities of both traditions while balancing strong convictions with necessary compromises.
It would be wrong not to acknowledge that the failure of the Haass talks to reach a final agreement was both disappointing and potentially damaging to public confidence in Northern Ireland’s politicians and the political process. However, it is important that we retain a sense of perspective and that all parties in Northern Ireland refrain from name-calling or engaging in a blame game. Significant advances were made that can form the basis of future progress, as the Secretary of State said. That is particularly the case in relation to dealing with the past, where victims’ groups deserve tremendous credit for submissions that were coherent and compelling.
We want to see all parties back round the negotiating table as soon as possible with a shared commitment to working together on shared solutions. The UK and Irish Governments have a crucial role to play, not only as guarantors of the peace process but because of the legislative and financial implications that would flow from any agreement.
In that context, I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. What dialogue is taking place between her and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the potential legislation that will be required to implement any agreement? What discussions has she had with her counterparts in the Irish Government about the financial implications of a new infrastructure to deal with the past? Can she explain why, at this sensitive time, she has weakened the capacity of the newly appointed Parades Commission by reducing the number of commissioners and the number of hours that each commissioner will be expected to work? While I acknowledge her contribution during the course of the Haass talks, does she understand that at this time of uncertainty the widespread perception of disengagement by the UK Government is causing concern across a wide spectrum of opinion in Northern Ireland, and that this needs to change? Finally, does she acknowledge the negative impact that some of the welfare reforms mentioned in her speech, particularly the pernicious bedroom tax, would have on people in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland has made tremendous progress over the past 15 years. This has been possible only because of the determination of people to build a better future for themselves and their families—but it is also thanks to the vision and courage of Northern Ireland’s political leaders. There will be no turning back, but there can be no standing still. That is why we hope that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will convene an all-party working group as soon as possible and ensure that the progress that has been made can be consolidated in an agreement that attracts widespread public support but will also stand the test of time.
I echo and thank the shadow Secretary of State for his words on Paul Goggins. Paul’s example is one with which to counter the cynicism about MPs and about politicians, because he illustrated such a strong commitment to decency, integrity and public service. I also strongly echo the shadow Secretary of State’s point that Paul retained a genuine affection for Northern Ireland. He cared deeply about it, I am sure, when he was a Minister, and it was clear that he still did so in his discussions with me as Secretary of State some time after he had ceased to be a Minister. He had strong values, which I am sure were a great support to him in his work in this House and in Northern Ireland.
The shadow Secretary of State’s remarks illustrate that there is a lot of common ground between Front Benchers on a way forward. I agree that getting the parties together and back around the table in a working group to try to resolve the differences between them is the right way forward. That is what I have been urging the political parties to do. I also agree that an eventual solution needs to respect the sensitivities of the different traditions, but that it must also involve compromise on all sides.
It is important to recognise the progress made on the past, which is a particularly difficult issue for all of us, including, in some ways, the UK Government. I believe, like the shadow Secretary of State, that the voice of victims and survivors played a very positive role in taking things forward and that any eventual solution must place victims and survivors at its heart.
The shadow Secretary of State asked about the dialogue between me and the First and Deputy First Ministers. I have spoken to both of them in recent days to urge that a way forward be found and that the working group commence.
The legislation to implement what would be needed from the Haass proposals would come primarily through the Assembly and the Executive. The part this House would play would be, potentially, the devolution of parading. The mechanics of setting up the new bodies would be a matter for the Assembly and the Executive.
I have kept in close touch with Eamon Gilmore and the Irish Government—both before and after the talks broke up—on matters relating to the past and all the other issues under discussion in this process, including a discussion on finances. It is very clear that the UK Government face a significant deficit, which means that we have to take care with public spending. We expect the primary resource for the new mechanisms to be found from within the block grant to Northern Ireland, but we will, of course, always consider further applications for funding from the Northern Ireland Executive if they wish to press ahead with the measures. We will, however, be constrained in what we can offer by the need to tackle the deficit we inherited.
On reducing the number of commissioners, I strongly believe that we have a strong new Parades Commission that will do important work in the months to come. I am sure we all hope that a reformed system will take over in the devolved space if the agreements are eventually signed off by all the parties, but in the meantime I am sure the current Parades Commission will do an excellent job.
I wholly refute the perception of disengagement by the UK Government. The UK Government are strongly engaged with the Haass process and with Northern Ireland. We brought the G8 to Northern Ireland—one of the most successful events ever for Northern Ireland—and we followed it up with a strong investment conference. We signed an economic pact that sees us working more closely than ever with the devolved Government, including the commitment to meet the £18 billion of capital spending, and we are determined to press ahead with supporting the Executive in their moves on a shared future. We have responded when the Executive have asked us—for example, to devolve air passenger duty for long-haul flights. We stepped in to assist in the grave situation we inherited from Labour with the Presbyterian Mutual Society. We are continuing to work on the devolution of corporation tax. There is a whole range of ways in which this Government are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
On welfare reform, we will continue our discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, but we believe that the compromises agreed with Minister McCausland are appropriate and will help adapt the welfare reform system to the particular needs of Northern Ireland.
As Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, may I join the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and others in expressing our deepest sympathies to the family of Paul Goggins, who has so shockingly passed away? He was a thoroughly decent and honourable man. When he was a Minister, I had the pleasure of shadowing him for about three years, and I have to tell the House that he was a very competent Minister. I say without any fear of contradiction that without his contribution I do not think we would be here today at this advanced stage of the Northern Ireland peace process, so highly do I value his work.
The Secretary of State is, of course, right in saying that it was the Northern Ireland parties that initiated the Haass process. I think Dr Haass was given a rather impossible task of finding quick solutions to problems that have existed for a long time. Is it not important now that those discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland and, furthermore, with community leaders in Northern Ireland continue, because such engagement is as important as any solutions that may come from those discussions?
I agree with my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee. Four months was a very tight timetable in which to reach agreement on issues that some would argue have been a problem in Northern Ireland for very many years—some would argue that some of the issues date back hundreds of years in terms of identity. It was always going to be a tough ask to meet that timetable. I agree that the solution now is to resume those discussions between the parties. Although it is clear that some of the parties have expressed concern about the final draft of the Haass proposals, none of them is walking away. They are all saying that the process should continue and they all seem to be prepared to engage in that dialogue. I urge them to do so.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State about Paul Goggins? As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I can testify to the fact that Paul’s work was instrumental in bringing forward both the political and the peace process in Northern Ireland. Like many others in this House, I have lost a good friend.
Even though the Haass talks have temporarily ended, what is the Secretary of State’s plan to engage her civil servants and Irish civil servants in work on the specific issues that are still a matter of controversy, so that those officials will be able to give advice, wisdom and evidence to the working parties that will soon be set up?
My officials have worked with Irish Government officials throughout the process, just as I have kept up regular contacts at political levels. We also stand ready to provide advice, help and support to the Executive in taking these matters forward. The role of officials will obviously be crucial in coming up with a solution that is workable and practical and that can be implemented.
I also associate myself with the remarks of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State about Paul Goggins. I did not know him very well, because I was elected only a few years ago, but the intrinsic fairness and kindness he showed me as the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland was tremendously helpful.
On the Haass report, I appreciate the Secretary of State’s statement. We all know that it was very challenging: the Haass commission had about 100 meetings, met 500 people and received 600 submissions. It went into the process very strongly, but we have reached a point where we are stuck on the two or three things that I suspect most Members knew we would be stuck on. Are there any plans to bring Dr Haass and his team back to unlock the logjam at an appropriate time?
In my conversations with Dr Haass I certainly floated the idea that he might come back in January, but that looks unlikely. He has professional commitments that would make it very difficult for him to re-engage in the same way, but I am sure he will continue to take a close interest in matters as they go forward. It is now important for the First and Deputy First Ministers to get the parties together around the table. They got very close to getting over the line in the run-up to the final discussions. Even the leader of the Ulster Unionist party was saying that perhaps 80% of what was on the table might be acceptable. Clearly, that party has serious concerns about the proposals, but it is indicating that it will continue to take part. Continuing this dialogue is the way forward.
The breadth and depth of the outpourings of grief and tributes to Paul Goggins are a testament to the integrity and standing of the gentleman. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members on these Benches will want to add their own personal tributes.
I join the Secretary of State in thanking Dr Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan. I also thank our own talks team, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), Jonathan Bell—a junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister—and Rev. Mervyn Gibson, who put in many hours over the holiday period, along with others in other parties, to try to make progress.
I welcome what the Secretary of State said in her statement. She will know that, under the terms of reference, it was for the parties themselves to come to an agreement on a set of recommendations. At the final plenary, four of the five parties could not support the final draft from Dr Haass in full, but it remains a necessity to try to make progress and for agreement to be reached among the parties in Northern Ireland. In our view, substantial progress has been made, although we are not there yet and there remain significant problems in certain areas. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) said, these issues have been around for many decades, if not centuries.
I also welcome what the Secretary of State said about the need to continue the process through talks between the parties. Will she do everything possible to ensure that those parties that have indicated an unwillingness to continue to talk to try to resolve these problems come back to the table and join the rest of us in trying to move Northern Ireland forward?
I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is welcome that the Democratic Unionist party has signalled very strongly that although it has reservations about aspects of the Haass proposals, there is much that it can support and that it wants the process to continue. Of course, as the largest party in the Executive, it will be crucial in taking these matters forward.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I want to thank not only Dr Haass and Professor O’Sullivan, but all the participants in the working group. At one stage, Dr Haass told me rather wearily that he had not appreciated that politicians in Northern Ireland were quite so nocturnal. There were certainly many all-night sittings, so the stamina of all those taking part is much appreciated.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement and for being continuously involved throughout the Haass process. Will she continue to work with the parties, because it is vital for Northern Ireland to get inward investment, and the sight of such public disorder on the issues of parades and flags is perhaps a significant deterrent?
Yes. It is clear that parades in particular, but also flags, have frequently played a part in triggering disgraceful scenes of rioting. If we can build more consensus on those issues, it will have tremendous benefits for the police, who have to deal with public order problems, as well as for inward investment, because few things put off inward investors more than political instability and street violence.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether her law-abiding, decent constituents in Chipping Barnet would have accepted the final Haass document, given that it equates victims of terrorism with terrorists, diminishes the role of terrorism right throughout the troubles and seems to many people to have ended up as a very one-sided attempt to change the history of what really went on over the past 30 years?
I would hope that my constituents see the Haass proposals, as I do, as a workable basis for continuing discussions. It is obviously disappointing that the proposals are not yet in a state that means all five parties can sign up to them, but the reality is that getting any kind of solution to these issues will be very difficult.
The issues about the past, in particular, are very sensitive, not least because of anxieties about whether any process might end up with a disproportionate focus on state activity. We must, however, recognise the efforts made by Dr Haass and the participants in the working group to try to ensure that there are safeguards to prevent processes on the past ending up as one-sided, which is what the hon. Lady is concerned about.
The Haass discussions took place during a backdrop, in the run-up to Christmas, of increased efforts by dissidents to disrupt economic life in Northern Ireland. What recent discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Chief Constable about the ongoing and future threat from dissidents?
The attacks before Christmas by dissident republicans were disgraceful. It was particularly despicable that they were deliberately aimed at places where people were doing their Christmas shopping or were out for a festive drink, while the attack on commercial targets was deeply unpleasant. The message for these dissident republicans is that they will not succeed. These attacks are utterly pointless. They are disgraceful and they have been condemned almost universally across Northern Ireland. They have no political support and will achieve nothing. I am certain from my many conversations with the Chief Constable, the most recent of which was this morning, that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will leave no stone unturned in bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks before Christmas.
I, like others, want to express my deep regret and sympathy to Paul Goggins’s family. Paul exhibited many good qualities, if not every good quality, that one would expect to be found in a decent human being—integrity, humility and genuine friendship, as well as a deep sense of social justice, to name but a few. I first met him when he was a Northern Ireland Minister. He was outstanding because of his sheer decency and sheer human qualities, and he played a very positive role, as other hon. Members have already said. In time, after I entered the House, he became a firm friend, a trusted source of good advice and a confidant. I have been very moved because, right across the House today, we all miss Paul, and we will miss him even more in future, with his good counsel and his wise advice. To his colleagues, friends and family, I add my condolences and sympathy. It is a sad day for all of us.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s endorsement of the significant progress made in the Haass talks. I express my appreciation for her involvement and that of the Prime Minister in the later stages. The Secretary of State will recall that when the Haass process has been mentioned on previous occasions, I have urged a much greater involvement at an earlier stage by both the British and Irish Governments to ensure a positive outcome and to put in place a determined implementation and legislation programme. The process was not just about the talks themselves and whatever conclusion they came to; there needed to be a major follow-through process, and that is still required.
I believe that a lot has been achieved—the glass is not half full; it is three-quarters full—but may I now urge the Secretary of State to ensure that her Government engage even more intensively, hands on and proactively with the parties, the Irish Government and Richard Haass and his team, and take the lead to ensure the implementation of the considerable progress that has been made, the initiation of legislation where it is required and the resolution of the outstanding issues?
I certainly give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that I will continue to be very strongly involved with the parties, the Irish Government and Dr Haass, as well as with friends across the Atlantic who have taken a close interest in the process. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my involvement and that of the Prime Minister.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of implementation. Even had there been full agreement on new year’s eve, there would still be a lot of work ahead to turn Dr Haass’s proposals into legislation and into new institutions operating on the ground. The UK Government, the Northern Ireland Office, officials and I are very keen to work on the practical implementation process. Not least because of our current responsibilities in relation to parading, we are very keen and eager to input into the process of implementing any agreement if, as I hope, it can be agreed between the parties.
Speaking as someone who has lost friends, and not just soldiers, in Northern Ireland—as have so many friends who represent Northern Ireland constituencies—how can my right hon. Friend balance the competing claims of the requirement to find out what happened to so many people who were cruelly murdered and the requirement to encourage people to come forward, perhaps with limited liability, so that we can find out what happened to the many people who have simply disappeared in Northern Ireland?
Clearly, those matters were at the heart of the work of the political parties and Dr Haass. My hon. Friend will be aware that the idea that was floated of a general amnesty was almost universally rejected. The current proposals include a limited immunity, whereby to encourage people to take part in the truth recovery process, their representations and statements would not be admissible in subsequent criminal proceedings. That is not to say that subsequent criminal proceedings could not go ahead on the basis of other evidence. It was clear from what was said by pretty much all the political parties and the public reaction to the statement of the Attorney-General that the option of prosecution must be kept alive. The proposals that are on the table do not seek to take that option away.
May I take this opportunity to express my sympathy to the colleagues, friends and family of Paul Goggins? He had an interest in Northern Ireland and a concern for its people that extended far beyond his tenure as Minister of State. That has been clear to me in my work in this House and, previously, as an Assembly Member. He was also a true gentleman. He displayed integrity, generosity and grace in his public service, but also in his private dealings. The House is much poorer for his passing.
As a participant in the talks process in Northern Ireland, I pay tribute to Dr Richard Haass, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan and their team. They have shown commitment and dedication to the process over the past six months and not just in its latter weeks, when it became incredibly intense. Richard Haass was clear throughout the process that the issue with finding a resolution was not the shortness of time, but the will to make the necessary compromises. Does the Secretary of State agree that any continuation of the process must remain focused on taking the difficult decisions, rather than avoiding them while creating an illusion of activity, if it is to deliver on the hopes that the public have invested in the Haass process?
I agree with the hon. Lady. To achieve success on any of the issues, particularly on the past, compromise is needed. Compromises have sometimes been difficult in the history of Northern Ireland. They will no doubt be difficult on these issues too, including for the UK Government. We are very clear that if the parties are prepared to make compromises to make progress, the UK Government will back them.
I associate myself with the remarks that have been made about the late Paul Goggins. He was a man of profound Christian belief and that guided him in his work. That is an example to us all. I add my condolences to his family.
The Haass talks have reached a stalemate. One of the drawbacks of setting a deadline is that once it has passed, unless agreement has been reached, the impetus can be lost. The advantage of these talks appears to be that they were chaired by an independent organisation that brought true independence and experience to the process. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there are no plans to introduce a further set of people as independent arbiters of the talks and that every effort will be made to bring back Dr Haass and his team at an appropriate moment when the parties have reflected on the work that has been done?
As I said, I am not sure that Dr Haass is in a position to come back and perform the role of chairman, but I hope that he will continue to engage. Introducing another independent chairman is an option for the First and Deputy First Ministers. I am not sure that it is needed at the moment, but it is well worth their consideration. I hope that we have not reached a stalemate. That is not how I would characterise the situation. There is still an opportunity for the political parties to grasp. They can do that by getting back around the table to continue the discussions.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. It is so kind of you. With your permission, I would like to put on the record a personal tribute and a tribute on behalf of my constituents to Paul Goggins. The news of his sudden death was profoundly and deeply shocking not just to this House, his colleagues and most of all his family, but right across Northern Ireland. Paul Goggins had hefty and important responsibilities in the Northern Ireland Office. He was an exceptional Minister, particularly with regard to health and security. It will be widely regretted that he has died at the young age of 60—just 60. However, in those 60 years, he achieved an enormous amount. He has left a very positive legacy in Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned by other right hon. and hon. Members, he had a deep personal Christian faith. He lived that faith in the manner in which he treated everyone, irrespective of their political views or their faith.
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that an early opportunity has been taken to report to this House on the Haass talks. I draw attention to the fact that the Secretary of State did not suggest in her statement that if the parties cannot agree among themselves, the British and Irish Governments will impose the Haass proposals on the parties and the people of Northern Ireland. That suggestion has been made in Northern Ireland. Will she take this opportunity to reject it clearly and frankly, because that would not be acceptable?
The hon. Lady is right that it would be very difficult to impose a solution from above. I agree with the calls on both Governments to continue to engage, encourage and facilitate. Ultimately, the best way to resolve these issues is through cross-party agreement within Northern Ireland. It was important to give this House the chance to debate the situation at the earliest opportunity so that we could send a strong message of support to Northern Ireland’s political leadership in their endeavours to reach an agreement on these issues, which have caused so much tension over so many years.
I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments on the shocking nature of the news about Paul Goggins. Even now, a few hours after learning the truth, it is very hard to believe that it has happened. This place will be all the poorer for his absence.
I would like to express my sadness at the passing of Paul Goggins. As a near neighbour, I learned a lot from him and his approach to politics. He was an ardent campaigner and obviously a great Minister, but he was also an outstanding and dedicated parliamentarian. I learned a lot from his approach to tackling the problems faced by victims of mesothelioma and from the way he helped Manchester airport to have a vibrant future. He was an outstanding parliamentarian and he will be missed locally.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out clearly the progress that has been made in the Haass process. Does she agree that, although further progress is required, there must be no let up in the steps to improve economic regeneration in the region?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Rebalancing the economy in Northern Ireland by boosting the private sector is crucial. That is why we are pressing ahead with implementing our side of the economic pact. I will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive in taking forward their obligations in the economic pact. I am delighted to say that the first tranche of the new capital borrowing powers that have been granted as a result of the pact will in due course support a new shared education campus in Lisanelly, which will give many more children the chance to share part of their education with kids from different community backgrounds and traditions.
As the Secretary of State will know, 90% of the deaths in Northern Ireland during the troubles were caused by paramilitary and terrorist organisations, and yet much of the focus is on what the state did. We cannot have a process that is disproportionate, that seeks to rewrite the history of the troubles and to sanitise terrorism, and that ignores the needs of the vast majority of innocent victims who were murdered by the terrorists.
I certainly agree that the processes on the past need to be balanced and must recognise the proper attributions of responsibility for the deaths during the troubles. I acknowledge that that is one of the most important things to get right. I am impressed by the degree of progress that has been made by the political parties. They have come a great deal closer to an agreement on the past than I ever expected. I hope that in due course we will reach an agreement and a conclusion on that matter.
On the proposals perhaps to establish a common flag for all communities representing Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend say a little more about how the commission on emblems will operate, and tell us whether there is any time scale for it to report?
The timing envisaged for the commission on identity and flags is around 18 months. I have always thought that there might be scope for the development of new shared emblems, and I hope that that will be considered seriously by the new commission, if it is set up. I genuinely think that there are merits in trying to have a broader conversation with civic society about moving forward on the issues of culture, identity and tradition that have proved so intractable up to now.
May I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, and associate myself with the remarks about the late Paul Goggins? He represented the epitome of compassion, humility, decency and integrity in this House, and during his time as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and the Home Office.
On the Haass talks, I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and to Alex Attwood and Joe Byrne, who formed a sterling team at the talks on behalf of the SDLP. In view of the compelling need of victims and survivors, it is important that an implementation plan is put in process. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister of State take an active interest in ensuring that immediate discussions take place with the five parties to ensure that legislation, implementation and a resolution are found for those whether two people I talked to last week: one whose father was killed as a result of the activities of the military reaction force; and a widow whose husband was a policeman in Northern Ireland? Those people came from different perspectives, but they were suffering none the less owing to their tragic and sudden loss.
I reiterate the tributes paid to all participants in the working group, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). Despite the fact that an agreement has not yet been reached, a remarkable amount of consensus has developed between the parties. We must build on that, and ensure that this is not a wasted opportunity and that the parties can get together again to resolve the remaining issues that divide them. On an implementation plan, as I have said already at the Dispatch Box, if agreement is forthcoming, of course the UK Government would be keen to provide support and advice on the practicalities of implementing the proposals across the three areas.
Given what has been said, it appears that no one is particularly surprised that the talks have not worked out, and that no one in particular is being blamed, as these issues are difficult and go back over a long period. Indeed, there is a good deal of satisfaction that this much progress has been made. It also appears that independent chairmanship worked. Although Dr Richard Haass is no longer available, it would be a shame to lose the momentum and the progress that has been made, so should not the Secretary of State encourage the Executive to appoint a new independent chairman and keep the process going while it is still warm so that we can cross that final finishing line?
As I have said, that issue is well worth considering, and this shows one of the values of this early opportunity to debate in the House where things stand with the Haass process. No doubt the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be given a read out of our proceedings, and I will certainly discuss with them the possibilities of appointing an independent chair, if they think that appropriate.
I join my right hon. Friends the Members for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), as well as other hon. Members, in their tributes to Paul Goggins. I knew him personally and found him to be someone who was set apart from many others. He was a person of great grace and tremendous integrity, and he was approachable by everyone, irrespective of which side of the House they were from.
I also thank the Secretary of State for bringing to the House her report on the Haass talks. She will be acutely aware of attempts by republicans to place the flag of the Irish Republic on an equal footing with our sovereign flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is one sovereign flag in Northern Ireland—the Union flag. As a professed Unionist, will the right hon. Lady assure me that the Government will never support any attempt to equate the sovereign flag with the flag of the Irish Republic, a neighbouring country?
As the sovereign flag of the United Kingdom, of course the Union flag must have special status in Northern Ireland. One of the challenges that Dr Haass encountered was that it seemed difficult to distinguish symbols of identity from symbols of sovereignty when it came to an expression of Irishness. It is important that consideration continues on those matters, and I wholeheartedly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that, of course, the Union flag will always have a special status as the national flag as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. The Belfast agreement makes it clear that Northern Ireland will stay part of the United Kingdom unless and until its people vote otherwise.
In the absence of a long-term solution on parading, does the Secretary of State believe that the new Parades Commission has sufficient confidence from all sides in Northern Ireland to ensure that this year’s parading season does not end in the awful scenes that we saw last year? Does she think that any action is required on her part to ensure that such scenes do not happen again?
It is timely to remind the House of the vital importance of obeying Parades Commission determinations. We have had an extensive debate about reforming the adjudication system for parades, but unless and until an agreement on that is reached and implemented, the Parades Commission is the lawfully designated authority and its determinations must be obeyed.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for what I thought was an extraordinary, moving and wholly appropriate tribute to our colleague, Paul Goggins, at the beginning of this sitting. Paul was inspired by his Christian faith, and all hon. Members will hope that that same faith will be of comfort to his family at this time.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the difficulties she has charted ahead can be overcome by the downgrading of the Parades Commission’s work to just one day a week? Is she confident that that is an appropriate work load?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Parades Commission is not being downgraded and that it will be able to complete its work. We have a strong new team of parades commissioners, and I reiterate the importance of ensuring that their determinations are obeyed and that the rule of law is respected.
May I join in the tributes to Paul Goggins? He was an outstanding example of a humanitarian, as well as an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament. Paul and I worked closely a few years ago when he was a Northern Ireland Minister on the re-establishment of Magilligan prison in my constituency when there was a serious threat of its closure. He assured me at that stage that if a case was made, he would overrule some of the decisions that were going to be made in the higher echelons of the civil service. He was, as we all know, a man of his word, and he did that, and I pass on my sympathies to his family and his wife.
We all welcome the Secretary of State’s update to the House on progress regarding the Haass talks. Given the outstanding differences between the political parties to which she refers, does she agree it is essential that all parties get together as quickly as possible to try to hammer out those outstanding differences so that we get a widespread and comprehensive consensus, and can implement—voluntarily—a consensus across the divide that everyone in Northern Ireland will endorse?
Mr Speaker, may I thank you for speaking for each of us in your very articulate tribute to Paul Goggins’s ethic and the esteem that he earned in this House and beyond? Paul was not a “selfie” politician. His question was not who would get the credit for a measure or change, but who would get the benefit from it. Those of us in Northern Ireland who benefited from his work are right, on this special day, to give him credit for so much of the progress that he helped to build.
Will the Secretary of State affirm clearly that, in respect of the past, the Haass paper has more balance and much more value than the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) sadly tried to suggest? Will the Secretary of State also affirm that the whole Haass process, and the papers we now have, do have the makings of a worthy, worthwhile and workable advance if the parties agree to work on that, and that what we need to do at this stage is not just maintain working contact between the parties, but have a clear and cogent working compact so that we deal with not only those areas of difference but, more importantly, those areas on which we have reached an understanding that is better than we have ever had before?
I think that I can broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman on much of that. While I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), I think that what is now on the table is not as unbalanced as she fears—yes, I do think that it has the makings of a workable solution. These proposals can be the basis for further discussions. Clearly, they are not there yet, because five parties have not agreed, but they certainly form a workable basis for moving forward.
May I also add my comments about Paul Goggins? I met him in my previous life as a councillor on Ards borough council, when I found him to be compassionate and interested in the issues that we were bringing to his attention. When I had the privilege of being elected to this House, he was one of the first to shake my hand and welcome me. There was not a time when he would not come over and say a word of encouragement over your shoulder. I very much appreciate not just his contribution to me as an individual in this House, but the fact that he has left a legacy that we can all be proud to have been part of.
In light of the fact that terrorist organisations have no track record of telling the truth about their past activity, does the Secretary of State accept the genuine fears that any process that is designated to discover truth has the potential to be one-sided if the forces of law and order are subjected to full investigation and the terrorists remain unlikely to the tell the truth?
It will certainly be important to ensure that, when agreement is ultimately reached, the procedures on the past are as balanced as they can be. I well understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Vauxhall and others about the importance of ensuring that the process does not lead to attempts to rewrite history or focus exclusively on deaths when the state was involved, and I know that that is something on which the parties have been focused during the discussions. It is important for them to continue to work on that as they try to move forward from what is currently on the table to what I hope, in due course, will be a concluded agreement.
Given the extremely deeply rooted nature of the issues involved in talks about culture, tradition and identity, what role does the Secretary of State anticipate that there will be for schooling and education in helping to resolve some of those issues in the much longer term?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Involving young people in a debate about emblems and cultural identity could be very positive. I would have thought that it would be excellent if the commission engaged with children and young people to get their ideas on how to express identity in Northern Ireland in a way that is respectful to other views and communities.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join all hon. Members in their tributes to Paul Goggins. In the journey of life, we all meet people who leave a lasting impression, and Paul Goggins certainly was one of those people. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.
Further to a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), does the Secretary of State accept that there can be no fudging of the distinction between those who were the terrorist perpetrators of violence in Northern Ireland over the past 40 years and those victims who were on the receiving end of their violent deeds, and that, to that end, elements of the Haass text were deeply unsatisfactory?
The UK Government have always made it clear that we would never find it acceptable for someone to draw equivalence between those who sought to undermine and destroy the rule of law through terrorism and those who sought to uphold it as members of the security forces. However, a lot of progress has been made on the proposals about the past—far more than most people expected. To make that progress and build up such a degree of consensus in just four months is encouraging. Some elements of what is in the Haass proposals are difficult, so I understand concerns about them, but this is an important opportunity to grasp and there is scope for compromise. The UK Government are prepared to be part of that compromise and we encourage the parties to continue to work on these matters.
May I also join in the tributes to Paul Goggins? Unlike many Ministers who, when they leave Northern Ireland, forget all about the place, Paul was always interested and wanted to hear what was going on, which I think was an indication of the genuine interest he had in the job he performed in Northern Ireland.
Given the wide range of opinions and the deeply held views that were discussed in the Haass talks, does not the Secretary of State agree that no deal was better than a deal that would have exacerbated the divisions in Northern Ireland? While, as politicians and as a society, we have to continue to work at the issues, does she not agree that the best way of undermining those who want to wreck Northern Ireland is to change our education system, get young people into jobs and have a robust economy, rather than implement quick-fix solutions that simply involve more quangos and legislation?
If any deal is to work, it is important that it commands a broad consensus. If we are to reach an agreement, some difficult decisions may be needed to get the compromises that are necessary. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that as well as working on the Haass issues, important though they are, it is crucial that efforts continue to be made to improve education in Northern Ireland, to boost the economy and to deal with all the other challenges with which the Northern Ireland Executive continue to grapple.
I, too, would like to be associated with the tributes that have echoed from both sides of the House to our dear friend Paul Goggins. When I was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, he was a particular and specialist help and a source of encouragement. When I had the honour of becoming a Member of this place in 2010, he continued to be not only a friend but, as I saw in the many Committees on which I served with him, an expert on matters of security. His expertise was a particular help. This House will be the poorer for his passing, but his Father’s house of many mansions will be the richer for his presence.
May I also say, Mr Speaker, that I think your tribute to him was touching? You described him as a man who was Labour to the core, but the least tribal of Members. I think that that captured the man and the moment, and we are richer for that.
Turning to the Haass talks, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). You will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that I am known for speaking my mind and for calling a spade a shovel. I believe that my party was right to say no to the final text, and it will remain right to say no until it gets to a point when it is able to say yes to something that we can recommend to our community. I believe that we did the right thing, and we will continue to do the right thing when it comes to saying no at the right time and saying yes when it is appropriate to do so.
The Secretary of State said that it was disappointing that it had not proved possible to reach an agreement on an historical investigations unit to take the place of the HET. Why would she try to fund such a unit, with its panoply of lawyers and additional experts, when there is a shortfall of £60 million, starting in 2015, for the current arrangement, which is the cheaper option, and when there is an additional shortfall of £36 million for security? Will she commit now to finding the money to allow the police to function for the next five years, rather than pursuing this fanciful idea of an historical investigations unit?
It is important that the parties continue to work to find an agreed position on all these issues. I welcome the statement from the First Minister that he feels able to support substantial parts of the Haass proposals. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of costs, which would need to be resolved in the event of an agreement. As I have said, the UK Government would expect the Northern Ireland Executive to fund that primarily from within the considerable resources provided by the block grant. We will obviously consider any application for top-up funding, but given that we have to deal with a deficit of such gravity, it is difficult to commit to additional funds at this stage.
I cannot help but feel that, by now, Paul Goggins would have made a contribution on this statement with his usual good sense, grace and compassion that would have added wisdom to our proceedings. That is why his passing is a loss not just to his family, friends and comrades, but to the House.
It might never be possible to agree entirely about the past, but it should be possible to agree that the future of Northern Ireland will be served only by continued dialogue in the present. To that end, will the Secretary of State do all that she can with Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and the shadow Northern Ireland team to maintain the momentum achieved through the Haass process?
I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do everything that I can to maintain the momentum, working with all the people he outlined.
I would like to close by once again thanking the two Members of the House who were direct participants in the Haass process: the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long).
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. No doubt, you will have seen today’s Guardian front page, which reports a major rift between the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions over universal credit. Leaked documents in The Guardian report that the Cabinet Office has accelerated Government Digital Service withdrawal from universal credit. At the last Cabinet Office oral questions, I asked the Paymaster General for a full explanation of his role in universal credit, but he declined to answer. Has he given you any notice that he plans to come to the House to give us a full explanation of his role in the universal credit shambles?
I certainly confess to being a regular reader of The Guardian, among other newspapers. I have received no such indication, but the hon. Gentleman has put his concerns on the record, and they will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. I think that we will have to leave it there for today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In late October, I raised a point of order with you about the Prime Minister’s refusal to answer questions from Back Benchers. Twice he refused not only to answer my questions, but to make any reference to them. Instead, he ranted about Unite the union. You gave me some sound advice, Mr Speaker. You told me to write to the Prime Minister, which I did, on 31 October, but I am still awaiting a response. You also suggested that I speak to the Table Office. I have spoken extensively to the Table Office, which, after long discussions, agrees with me, as I understand it, that there is no mechanism in this place, when a Minister either refuses to answer a question from a Back Bencher or makes no reference to the question, to ensure that the question gets answered. If that is the case, is that a concern for the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving notice of it. All I can say today is that the Prime Minister is answerable to the House for his conduct in government, not for his private life. The hon. Gentleman can pursue the Government through all the procedural channels available to him. He has asked his questions and has received answers that he finds unsatisfactory. I am afraid that he is not the first and is unlikely to be the last hon. Member to have that experience. I can only encourage him to persevere. For today at least, we will have to leave it there, partly because I have nothing to add and partly because there are other points of order with which I need to deal.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 13 December, the House had its annual debate on fisheries, which was quickly followed by negotiations in Brussels on 17 and 18 December, at which the allocations for fish species were agreed. Following such negotiations, it is customary to have an oral statement in the House from the appropriate Minister. Have you received any indication of such a statement being forthcoming?
I have received no such indication, but the hon. Lady is an indefatigable Member. Her concerns will have been heard by the Deputy Leader of the House, and she will have to look for opportunities, either at Question Time or through the resources of the Table Office, to highlight her inquiries.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. First, with your permission, with pride and humility, I would like to associate myself with the tributes paid to Paul Goggins, our dear friend—and particularly your tribute, Mr Speaker. He was involved in many activities. I remember most his commitment to international development, which was shared by his family and his son Dominic. I know that our thoughts, as expressed by you, are very much with them today.
During our eventful break, to their credit the television media covered the significant events in South Sudan. That is understandable, given that 200,000 people have been displaced, 500,000 are waiting for humanitarian aid and awful violence continues. Mr Speaker, have you been given any indication, either by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, that a Minister intends to make a statement to the House? If not, may I seek your invaluable advice about how the matter might be pursued?
I have received no such indication from either Department. My advice to the right hon. Gentleman is to think forward to Tuesday 21 January, when there will be oral questions to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his team. The right hon. Gentleman might think that a suitable opportunity to raise the matters of concern to him. Who knows? He might be successful either on the Order Paper or in seeking to raise a supplementary question.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Cabinet Office released confidential documents to the National Archives relating to the then Government’s covert intervention in the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The documents confirmed what the National Union of Mineworkers and the Labour movement fully suspected at the time, but many people in the mining communities and the UK as a whole were alarmed to learn that senior Ministers and, indeed, the Prime Minister deliberately misled the people of this country. Have you been approached, Mr Speaker, by the present Government wishing to apologise and to put the record straight regarding the then Government’s real intentions back in 1984-85, which were to close 75 pits, not 20 pits, as they insisted? If not, will you advise the House how this injustice can be rectified by the House?
The short answer is no; I have received no such approach. It is, of course, open to the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate, in which he could set out his thoughts more fully and elicit a response. I have a sense that that is a course that the hon. Gentleman will in all likelihood follow.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. About 90 minutes ago, I raised a question with the Prime Minister about the situation of police officers patrolling by public transport in Bassetlaw, and the Prime Minister responded by saying that crime had gone down 27%—a fact that he miraculously repeated within seconds on Twitter, putting it out to the outside world. I have the statistics with me, and crime in Bassetlaw has not gone down by 27%; it has gone up by 2%, including in respect of all the serious categories. What advice do you have, Mr Speaker, about getting the Prime Minister to correct the record in relation to the objectively available facts about the change in crime in Bassetlaw?
My advice is twofold. First, all Members are responsible for the accuracy or otherwise of what they say. If a mistake has been made, it should be corrected. The procedure for making a correction will be well known to any and all hon. Members. Secondly, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, with due affection, that I first met him when we served on the Lambeth borough council together in 1986, so we have known each other for 27 years. He always struck me as an extraordinarily persistent blighter then, and nothing in the intervening period has caused me to revise that judgment.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In view of what you had to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) regarding the release of papers on the year-long miners’ strike, we are not talking about a day or two; we are talking about the sentiments and points of view expressed over a long period in the House by Ministers. It was pretty clear, according to the papers that have been released, that many things said by Ministers were based on something that was not correct. It therefore gets to the heart of Parliament when we realise that those statements made over a year-long period were shaping the views of all people, including the judiciary, which learned what it wanted to know about the nature of the strike based on ministerial statements on a continuing basis. That is why this issue is so important retrospectively.
You, Mr Speaker, have several times heard the Prime Minister apologise for some incidents involving Governments from way back. That applies to previous Prime Ministers as well as this one. I therefore think that it is your duty, Mr Speaker—an adventurous Speaker—to use your good offices on this matter. Since you assumed your office, you have already moved into some such territories, so it is important to check all the statements made in this House in violation of what we now know as a result of the release of these papers. If you do that, Mr Speaker, we will then be able to see how the course of events in that year-long strike were shaped, resulting in the judiciary taking action—on sequestration, on the imprisonment of people, on blacklisting and on other events. What flowed from the mouths of those who occupied the Treasury Bench at the time was the utterance of statements that we now know to be untrue. That makes this a parliamentary issue rather than one that is just broadly political.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I hope that he will recognise, as the House will have noted, that I have treated it with great respect. I have listened to him while he fully made his point. I would say two things in response. First, rather than give an instant response, I would like to reflect on what he said. Secondly, while noting his observations about my spirit of adventure, it may be that what he seeks on this occasion could conceivably be beyond my spirit of adventure—I do not know. I will consider the matter and if I think it necessary to revert to the House, I shall do so. We will have to leave it there for today.
Driving Offences (Review of Sentencing Guidelines)
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 require the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the maximum penalties for driving offences causing death and serious injury; and for connected purposes.
I stand today to present this ten-minute rule Bill because of something that happened in the village of Overton in my constituency of Clwyd South in October 2009. That was when Robert James Gaunt, a nine-year-old boy, tragically lost his life. Robert was a schoolboy from the village. He was mown down by a driver while crossing the road. Young Robert was killed. The driver who so carelessly took Robert Gaunt’s life was unlicensed and uninsured. He hit Robert, killed him, and drove away. He not only failed to stop, but did not even report the accident. Even worse, he attempted to cover up his crime by re-spraying his car.
Robert’s life came abruptly and needlessly to an end—and for this, the driver incurred a pitiful sentence of 22 months. That was the very limit of what was possible under the law for that offence. This man hit a child, took a young boy’s life and, after driving away to leave that child to die, was sentenced to a grand total of 22 months and a four-year driving ban. The man served only 10 months in jail, which cannot be right.
After the injustice of this case and many others like it, people from my constituency launched a petition calling for sentences for this sort of crime to be raised. More than 1,300 names were added online and a further 2,000 collected on paper. The campaign continued, even though a change of Government meant an early closure to the online petition. Many of the people who signed the petition had probably never signed a petition before and perhaps never signed one since, but they did so on this occasion out of a passion for justice for Robert and for other victims of road accidents around our country.
As the local Member of Parliament, I stand here to give my support by calling for the law to be changed. This motion calls for the Government to bring in a new Bill to do exactly what the family of Robert James Gaunt was calling for back in 2009. We are asking the Government to look at the maximum penalties for driving offences that lead to death and serious injury.
Currently, those who cause death by driving face a number of charges and a large scale of sentences, ranging from mere months to 14 years. However, no driver has been handed a 14-year term since Parliament first lengthened the maximum sentence from 10 years in 2004. The reality is that sentencing guidelines mean that there must be a large and frankly improbable series of aggravating factors for a judge to issue anywhere near that sentence. Tougher penalties are not being used because judges are being held back by guidelines that prevent them from handing out longer sentences.
My own party in government was right to fight for higher maximum penalties in 2004, and the current Government, encouraged by the tireless campaigning of many hon. Members of all parties, are equally right to have incorporated into the Crime and Courts Act 2013 new rules on drug taking while driving and to have amended the Road Traffic Act 1988. Both Governments can rightly be proud of having brought in changes that go in the right direction—but, as we know, there is much further for us to go.
If a driver is caught driving with
“deliberate decision or flagrant disregard for the rules of the road”,
the starting-point for judges when choosing a sentence is eight years. This can be longer for a number of reasons, such as when a person is killed or when the driver is driving a stolen vehicle. Let us reflect for a moment on how subjective
“deliberate decision or flagrant disregard for the rules of the road”
is. If a driver is seen to be creating significant danger—the lowest level of seriousness—the starting point for sentencing judges is three years, and the maximum term is five years. If the driver is injured, the sentence is shortened; if the victim was a friend, the sentence is shortened; and on and on we go.
In general, I think i