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Northern Ireland

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cost of Living

The actions the Government are taking to help with the cost of living include freezing fuel duty, cutting income tax bills, delivering the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension and helping to keep interest rates low by dealing with the deficit.

The Secretary of State may be aware that last year the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action confirmed that Belfast, with an expected loss of £840 per adult of working age, will be hit harder than any other major city in Britain. Will she advise the House on what specific steps she is taking to address the cost of living, given the depth and scale of the problem in Northern Ireland?

As I have said, the Government take this issue very seriously. That is why fuel duty today is 20 pence per litre lower than it would have been if we had stuck with the previous Government’s plans; that is why we have cut income tax for about 618,000 people in Northern Ireland and taken 75,000 out of income tax altogether; and that is why people on the minimum wage will see their income tax bills halved by April.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State can tell us what her assessment is of the Advice NI social policy report, which confirms that over 11 food banks have opened in Northern Ireland since 2012. Is she happy with that? If not, what does she plan to do about it?

Of course it is a matter of regret that anyone feels the need to go to a food bank, but the Government are doing everything they can to support people on low incomes with the cost of living. I hope the Opposition will welcome the fact that inflation fell to 2% yesterday. We will continue to give people support, in particular with our triple lock on pensions that delivered the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension, and we will continue to deal with the deficit. The real threat to the cost of living would be a Labour Government, who would put up taxes and see interest rates increased.

12. Does the Secretary of State agree that the real way to deal with cost of living issues is to pursue economic growth with a long-term strategy to rebalance the economy, and that that applies to Northern Ireland, particularly in engineering and manufacturing? (901930)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The only way to achieve a sustainable increase in living standards is to run the economy efficiently and effectively, and to have a credible plan to deal with the deficit. That is the way we can keep interest rates low and deal with inflation, and that is the way we can make this country a wealthier place.

Some disreputable people try to reduce the cost of living by smuggling fuel across the border with the Republic of Ireland. What steps are being taken to combat this menace?

There is very effective cross-border working. There is also very effective working between the Northern Ireland Executive and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We take this matter very seriously. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has been looking with care at the different proposals for new marker technology. I expect progress on that to be announced very soon.

One in three people, in response to Shelter Northern Ireland questionnaires, stated that this year they will struggle to pay their rent or mortgage payments and that child care costs take up a large part of their budget. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department for Work and Pensions to raise the child care element for full-time working families?

The introduction of universal credit in Northern Ireland will make about 102,000 people better off, according to Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who also commented that that would lift 10,000 children out of poverty. Our welfare reforms are designed to incentivise work. Getting people into work is the best way to deal with poverty and we will continue to push forward with welfare reform.


2. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (901919)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists, as illustrated by the attacks that took place before Christmas. However, action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners continues to keep those groups under pressure.

Before Christmas, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs went to Belfast and met the Parades Commission. We learnt about the budgetary challenges facing the PSNI. Will my right hon. Friend review giving the Northern Ireland Executive the same powers as all other parts of the UK to levy a policing precept?

The future resourcing of the PSNI is certainly a matter of concern to many in this House. It is within the powers of the Department of Justice to introduce precepting, if it chose to do so. That does not require legislation or further devolution from this House; it is a matter for the Department to decide. Very constructive discussions are under way between the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Justice and the PSNI, with a view to resolving the resourcing question, in particular with regard to the comprehensive spending review year 2015-16.

With the public rightly concerned after the stalemate reached in the Haass talks and the severe security threats faced by Christmas shoppers in Belfast, to which the Secretary of State referred, as well as the huge costs of £55,000 a day of policing contentious parades in Northern Ireland, will she tell us whether 2014 is really the right time to be cutting the funds to the PSNI, or are the Government going to reconsider that decision?

The PSNI is actually receiving additional funds from the Government—£200 million over the current spending review period and about £30 million in 2015-16—and as I have said, discussions continue between the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive over whether further funding can be added from the Executive in 2015-16.

Patten recommended that in a peaceful situation, the PSNI should have a minimum of 7,500 officers. Given that Northern Ireland is not exactly in that peaceful situation, owing to paramilitary activity, is the Secretary of State concerned about the PSNI’s ability to recruit sufficient officers?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee for his question and his important work on this issue. The current number of officers in the PSNI is 6,795. The Chief Constable recently told the Policing Board that the minimum number he needed to perform effectively was 6,963. It is important that consideration be given to how the shortfall can be dealt with, and as I have said, I remain optimistic about the ongoing discussions between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Department of Justice about resolving that budgetary shortfall.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to Paul Goggins, not only a good friend of mine but a brilliant security Minister who served under me in Northern Ireland. His funeral is tomorrow.

How can the Secretary of State justify her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), given that the additional security budget, which the PSNI is entitled to apply for, has been halved this year compared with the past three years—and this at a time of rising dissident threats, as we saw in Belfast city centre before Christmas?

It is just not true that it has been halved. The Government take very seriously their security responsibilities in Northern Ireland, which is why we have provided additional funds for the PSNI to deal with the deteriorating security situation we inherited from the previous Government. We will continue to be vigilant. In particular, we will continue to work closely with Irish counterparts on deepening and strengthening the cross-border co-operation that is crucial to keeping Northern Ireland safe and secure.

On policing and security and in the context of the recent Haass talks on the past, especially past terrorist crimes, will the Secretary of State take it from me that Martin McGuinness’s comments last night about extremism are seen by many on both sides of the community as not only untrue but a transparent attempt to distract from Sinn Fein’s abject lack of leadership in addressing its continued glorification of past terrorist crimes, as witnessed in Castlederg this summer, which is causing huge damage to community relations? Will she urge Sinn Fein to stop wallowing in the filth of murder?

I encourage all party leaders to continue working on the Haass issues. Perhaps the more important thing to draw from last night’s meeting of party leaders was the welcome news that they would reassemble next week and that these discussions would continue. There is an important opportunity here still to be seized by the political parties to make real progress on these divisive issues by resolving their differences and reaching agreement.

I, too, want to see those talks take place, and we hope that all parties, including Sinn Fein, will come to the table and negotiate in good faith, but will the Secretary of State recognise that severe damage has been done to policing, and to the capacity of the policing and justice system to tackle the security situation, by decisions such as the one recently to issue one of those most involved in glorifying past terrorist crimes—Gerry Kelly—with an informed warning, rather than to prosecute him, even though the threshold for prosecution was reached, for obstructing the police during a very tense parades situation? Does she not see the damage that this sort of situation is creating?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I would urge all elected representatives to do all they can to support police officers in the execution of their duties which, in Northern Ireland, can sometimes be extremely difficult and highly sensitive.

As other hon. Members have said, Northern Ireland faces a number of security challenges at the start of this new year: the terrorist threat from dissident republicans and the potential threat to law and order posed by the downgrading of the Parades Commission. In the light of those risks, will the Secretary of State assure us—and give a specific answer—that the PSNI has an adequate number of front-line police officers to cope with these challenges, and, specifically in respect of the terrorist threat, that she is liaising with Home Office colleagues to ensure proper police co-ordination across the United Kingdom?

On the last point, I had the opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland matters with the Home Secretary yesterday, and my officials stay in regular touch with Home Office colleagues. The hon. Gentleman probably did not hear my earlier answer. There are currently 6,795 officers in the PSNI, while the Chief Constable believes that he needs 6,963, so there is a shortfall and the Chief Constable wishes to start recruiting once again. The UK Government are anxious to ensure that that is possible. That is one of the reasons why we have allocated additional national security funding. We are also working with the DOJ to ensure that discussions with the DFP reach a satisfactory conclusion on the Northern Ireland Executive’s contribution.

That shortfall is a serious concern, and it is important that the Secretary of State does something about it.

Turning to another issue, I had the privilege yesterday of meeting representatives of the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland. I heard first hand the moving and disturbing testimonies of retired police officers who suffered lasting physical and mental scars through their work on the front line during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State accept that we owe a great debt of gratitude to these retired officers, and will she make representations to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive about the erosion of their injury pension rights?

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) met the Disabled Police Officers Association of Northern Ireland, and I would like to associate myself with the shadow Secretary of State’s comments to the effect that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The representations made at that meeting will, of course, be taken up with the Northern Ireland Executive. My understanding is that decisions on these matters lie primarily within the devolved field.

Welfare Reform

3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect in Northern Ireland of the Government’s proposed further reductions in welfare expenditure. (901920)

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government's welfare reform policies on Northern Ireland. (901924)

We have worked hard with the Executive to adapt our reforms flexibly to the circumstances of Northern Ireland. These reforms will ensure that work always pays and will help to lift people out of poverty by moving them into work. When fully implemented, universal credit will make around 3 million low-to-middle-income households across the UK better off.

The number of people living in poverty in Northern Ireland has increased from 18% in 2002 to 22% in 2013. In reality, that means that one in four people in Ulster earns and lives on a salary that falls below the basic standard of living. Will the Minister take the opportunity to give us an assurance that the cuts—the deeper and further cuts—talked about by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not force more people into poverty in Northern Ireland?

I am not in a position to know what further cuts to the welfare budget the Chancellor may be planning. Northern Ireland receives more than a quarter more in Government spending per head in comparison with constituencies such as mine in England and, indeed, all English constituencies. It is a fact that Nelson McCausland specifically said that more people will be lifted out of poverty by universal credit, including some 10,000 children. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. We are not immune to understanding people’s concerns, but we believe that it is work, not welfare, that will bring prosperity to Northern Ireland.

But does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that Northern Ireland is “getting the best deal” on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million per annum out of vulnerable people’s pockets?

I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady has quoted. What we wish to see is people in work. Unfortunately, the last Government left this country with the most appalling financial and economic catastrophe. All that the hon. Lady, her Front-Bench team and the Leader of the Opposition can suggest is more spending, more borrowing, more taxes and more debt, which will plunge us back into the disaster they left behind.

The Chancellor has indicated that he is considering a new regime for annually managed expenditure, with an overall cap on welfare spending. Does the Minister believe that that will entail a cap within a cap for Northern Ireland’s welfare spending, and what discussions is the Northern Ireland Office having with the Treasury and the devolved Administration about the serious implications of such a development?

Officials are always discussing things with the Treasury, Indeed, an excellent young man who works for us has just come from the Treasury to increase liaison.

Northern Ireland cannot be exempt from that which is affecting the rest of the United Kingdom. The Belfast Telegraph has said that the Northern Irish cannot pretend that they can

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

I think that the hon. Gentleman, who is a serious and grown-up politician, will realise that as well.

I am relieved, as the whole House will be, that a “young man” is currently striving to bring light to this area. We wish him well.

In May 2010 the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, then sailing under the flag of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists—New Force, or UCUNF, was comprehensively rejected by the voters. In the light of that, how can the Minister justify the continuing distress caused by the rolling threat of the imposition of a £5 million fine on the Northern Ireland Executive, and will he tell us when, this month, the sanction will commence?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to go back to May 2010, I think he might note that the good people of England comprehensively rejected the Labour party and all its works at that time, which I think was pretty sensible of them.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking after the interests of everyone in the United Kingdom. For instance, 1.6 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010, including jobs in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] As has been explained to the Northern Ireland Executive, the sanction on welfare has not yet been imposed because the Treasury cannot impose it unilaterally. But might I say that the First Minister—

Public Order

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland on public order in Northern Ireland. (901922)

Public order issues are primarily a matter for the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable, in line with the devolution settlement. However, I meet them both regularly to discuss a range of issues, which often include public order matters.

Does the Secretary of State share the concern felt by many people in Northern Ireland about the apparently partisan way in which the PSNI has dealt with public order offences? On the one hand, members of the loyalist community who have been involved in street protests have been arrested, had their homes raided, been refused bail, and gone to jail; on the other hand, a prominent Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly who obstructed the police and encouraged others to attack them was merely given a warning. Does the Secretary of State not agree that public order offences must be dealt with firmly but also evenly, because otherwise confidence in the police will be lost?

I agree that it is always important for the police to be fair and even-handed, and I believe that they have shown those qualities in dealing with all the public order incidents that have occurred in recent years. I know that they take their duties of fairness, even-handedness and respect for human rights very seriously. I urge those who might become involved in violent protests not to do so, because such action is disastrous for them and negative for the community, and, of course, I urge all elected representatives to support the police in every possible way, given the difficult duties that they must fulfil.

Obviously, the need to deal with public order issues and to try to contain the threat from dissident republicans requires an increasing number of police officers. It is therefore extremely worrying that a steady flow of experienced police officers is haemorrhaging away from the Police Service of Northern Ireland every single month. What assurances has the Secretary of State managed to extract from the Treasury that there will be funds to guarantee recruitment to the PSNI?

A guaranteed total of £200 million in the current spending review and £30 million in the next will be provided to assist the PSNI in its national security work, which will of course enable it to be more effective across the board. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Executive and the PSNI are currently discussing the additional funding that will be needed in 2015-16 to enable the PSNI to commence the recruitment that the Chief Constable believes is necessary.

Given the impact that public order has on policing and budgets in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that the recommendations in the Haass report, which stated that there should be a legally enforceable code of conduct for all parades and protests, would go a long way to changing behaviour on the ground?

There is much to be said for the proposals on parading in draft seven of Richard Haass’s work. It is disappointing that the parties have not felt able to agree with those proposals as yet. Further work is clearly needed before we can get an agreement among the five parties. I urge them to see whether they can find a way to resolve their differences, including on the issue of a code of conduct and what sanctions should accompany it.

Accident and Emergency Doctors

8. If she will hold discussions with the responsible Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive on the number of middle-grade accident and emergency doctors in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (901925)

First, may I say how much I appreciated the hon. Lady’s contribution to the meeting we had yesterday with the disabled police officers in Northern Ireland, to whom we owe a great deal?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns about the issues she raises but these are entirely devolved. [Interruption.] The commissioning and provision of medical services in Northern Ireland are matters for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland and the Health and Social Care Board. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much discordant noise in the Chamber. The question must be heard and the Minister’s answers must be heard.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but he and the Secretary of State need to be more proactive on this matter because the policy that dictated the lack of A and E doctors emerges from Whitehall and London. Will he and the Secretary of State co-host with the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland a summit to address the shortage in A and E doctors?

Well, we will certainly ensure that we have discussions with the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland. We have had to take some very difficult decisions since 2010, but there are now more than 20% more A and E consultants in England than there were in 2010. We need to go further, but it does take six years to train a doctor and I think all Members, even those on the other side, will have spotted that we were not in power six years ago.

The Minister will be aware that Northern Ireland hospitals have been well served over the years by doctors and nurses from India, Pakistan and Malaysia, but visa restrictions have made it very difficult to get doctors in. Will he speak to his Government colleagues to see whether these restrictions can be removed?

I am very happy to take that up on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. I was not aware of that particular problem because it has not been raised with me, but I congratulate the staff in Northern Ireland hospitals, who have had such a great reputation, particularly those at the Royal Victoria hospital which I remember well from when I used to visit it.

Flags/Parades/Protests/Dealing with the Past (Public Funding)

9. What public funding will be made available to help implement an agreement on flags, parades and protests, and dealing with the past. (901926)

I would urge the parties to continue their efforts to reach agreement on these matters. Since these areas fall mainly within the devolved field, funding for them is also devolved to Northern Ireland as part of the block grant.

There will be a waiting public wanting to see whether agreement can be reached on these very comprehensive matters. Will the Secretary of State ensure that whatever funding is needed in addition to the block grant to deliver this can be delivered to ensure a much more peaceful and prosperous future in Northern Ireland?

I agree that these issues are very important. They are difficult to resolve, and finding an agreed way forward would be very positive for Northern Ireland. However, it is primarily for the Northern Ireland Executive to find the money for these proposals within the block grant they are already allocated, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has pointed out, is considerably higher per head than elsewhere in the UK. We will of course consider proposals for additional funding, but the deficit means I can make no promises as to whether it will be granted.

Haass Talks

All parties have acknowledged that there are elements of the Haass proposals that they can support. It is important that they continue their negotiations to try to resolve their differences, and the UK Government will continue to support their efforts to do that.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply; I am sure that she was expecting that question. Will she tell us what discussions on these issues she has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, ahead of any possible recommencement of the talks?

I have had regular discussions with Eamon Gilmore on this matter, including a number of meetings in Northern Ireland and in Dublin. We are keen to work together to encourage the finding of a way forward, and to encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to reconcile their differences and get an agreement over the line.

11. I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive comments on the Haass process. Does she agree that much has been achieved and that we should now implement as much of that as possible by creating the necessary legislation and resolving the remaining differences? (901929)

I agree that considerable progress has been achieved. These issues are incredibly divisive, and the fact that all five political parties have found a degree of common ground is very welcome. I also agree that we should keep up the momentum and seize this opportunity to get an agreement over the line and to reconcile the differences that still exist among the five parties.