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Northern Ireland

Volume 584: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Saville Inquiry

When the previous Government set up the tribunal in 1998 to investigate the tragic events of 30 January 1972, no one could have anticipated that it would take 12 years to complete and cost more than £191 million. The inquiry produced the definitive account of the tragic events of that day, the value of which is very clear.

I thank the Minister for that answer. One hundred and ninety-one million pounds would have paid for 10,000 nurses for a year or, indeed, transformed a large part of the economy of Northern Ireland. It is clear that the Government completely failed to control the costs. Can the Minister confirm that never again will an inquiry be set up with no attempt whatever to control costs and that the relevant civil servants understand that as well?

Notwithstanding my remarks about the value of the inquiry, the Government have been clear that although each case will be considered on its merits, we should indeed resist further costly, open-ended inquiries. I note that the Inquiries Act 2005 will help in that regard.

May I welcome the Minister to his new position? Does he agree that the taxpayer is still paying for the ongoing costs of the Saville inquiry—as a reply I received from the Secretary of State in the past few weeks made clear—10 years after the last witness left the stand and after the £191 million was expended?

Yes, I can only say that the Saville inquiry was set up under the previous Administration, under rules that existed at that time, and that Lord Saville was given free rein—rightly—in his independent inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, so many years after this began, the costs are still coming in. Nevertheless, the value of the Saville inquiry is clear, and we need to understand that.

May I welcome the Minister to his new role? In order to deal with the issues of the past in a more comprehensive way, we obviously require some momentum to take the discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland forward. What role will the Northern Ireland Office play in trying to bring parties back together, when some have walked away from the challenge of dealing with the past in a comprehensive manner?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that a long-term peaceful settlement relies entirely on co-operation between the parties. The Northern Ireland Office has done, and will continue to do, everything in its power to bring the parties together so that we can ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of Northern Ireland.


Figures released this morning show that the claimant count fell by 900 in June, the 18th consecutive month it has fallen in Northern Ireland. Economic commentators have forecast growth of 2.8% this year—more than many major economies around the world. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working in Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in order to attract further inward investment to Northern Ireland, we need to project an image to the world of peace and stability? In that vein, does she further agree that the recent peaceful passing of the twelfth of July celebrations gives us hope for the future and is something we can build on?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The fact that there was a peaceful twelfth of July is an important step forward for Northern Ireland. It has been rare over recent decades that one can say that the twelfth of July weekend has been entirely peaceful. I commend the efforts made by Unionist leaders from a range of parties and the Orange Order—and, indeed, by nationalists as well—to keep the situation calm, despite the distress and upset caused by the Parades Commission determination.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating companies in Northern Ireland that have recently announced major investment? The Moy Park organisation, the Almac corporation and Thompson Aero Seating have invested tens of millions of pounds in the economy, creating hundreds of new jobs?

I will join the hon. Gentleman in that. We have had a hugely successful month for inward investment over June and July. I am sure that everyone who watched the World cup saw the Moy Park adverts, demonstrating that Moy Park is a world beater. That company alone announced 628 jobs in Dungannon, Craigavon and Ballymena. We have had further good news, with jobs announcements from Alexander Mann Solutions, HeartSine Technologies, Wrightbus, Thales, First Derivatives and, of course, Thompson Aero Seating.

In balancing the Northern Ireland economy away from its over-reliance on the public sector, what are the prospects for rapid growth in the digital information services sector in the Province?

I think there is great scope for growth in this area. The Digital Derry initiative is one that immediately springs to mind, but I believe that the strength of Northern Ireland’s creative industries also opens up great opportunities for success in the digital media world. A number of software companies have had great success in Northern Ireland, which is now ranked by the Financial Times as one of the best places in the world for financial services technology investment.

11. Some four years into this Government, we had the announcement this year of the first pilot enterprise zone in Northern Ireland. When does the Secretary of State believe that we might be able to have further enterprise zones, and is she open to the idea of working with the Irish Government and the Executive to have a cross-border enterprise zone in the north-west? (904835)

We are certainly open to discussions with the Irish Government about cross-border initiatives to boost the economy, which could well include enterprise zones. Our report back on the Government’s economic pact with the Northern Ireland Executive made it clear that the Treasury is prepared to discuss the possibility, subject to affordability, of additional enterprise zones in Northern Ireland, and I think it would be great if those discussions went forward.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to his new role and thank the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) for his contribution during his period as a Northern Ireland Minister.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the economic impact that parade-related disorder has had in the past on local shops and businesses in Northern Ireland. Does she therefore agree with me that the leadership shown over the weekend, both by political leaders in all communities and the Orange Order, demonstrates what can be achieved if local leadership is shown at its best in Northern Ireland?

I agree, and I think the hon. Gentleman puts the point very well. Sadly over recent years, we have seen a number of instances of public disorder in Northern Ireland, but the weekend shows that that is not inevitable and that if leadership is demonstrated, people on the streets will hear it. As hon. Members have said, it is crucial for Parades Commission determinations to be respected and that we do not have public disorder because those kinds of incidents cause great damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation abroad and make it harder to attract the inward investment we are discussing.

The Secretary of State is also aware that unresolved issues around parades will continue to have an economic as well as social cost. Will she therefore indicate how she intends to respond to the First Minister’s request for a commission on Ardoyne and wider associated issues, and what she is going to do to strengthen confidence in the downgraded Parades Commission, which she established with undue haste and with fewer resources than its predecessor?

I can assure the shadow Secretary of State that the Parades Commission has not been downgraded. In response to his question about Unionist leaders’ proposal for a commission on the situation relating to the Crumlin road in north Belfast, I will meet those leaders in a few days’ time to discuss those proposals. I will listen carefully to what they have in mind. It is, of course, important for any way forward to take account of the position of the Parades Commission and to do nothing to undermine its responsibilities.

Security Situation

3. What recent discussions she has had about the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (904826)

4. What recent discussions she has had about the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (904827)

The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorist groupings. However, action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners continues to keep the pressure on these terrorist groups, with significant arrests and charges over recent months.

Instability in the Northern Ireland security system continues to be fuelled by organised crime and criminal activity. I therefore ask the Secretary of State this question again. Royal Assent for the National Crime Agency was achieved on 13 April 2013, so what steps has she taken since the last Northern Ireland questions to ensure that the NCA operates in Northern Ireland?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have raised this repeatedly with political parties in Northern Ireland. If we are to give the people of Northern Ireland the same protection against organised crime as is currently the case in Great Britain, I believe it essential that the National Crime Agency is given its full powers of operation in Northern Ireland. I am working with Keith Bristow, the Home Secretary and Justice Ministers to do all we can to build a consensus for the introduction of full powers for the National Crime Agency.

I apologise, Mr Speaker.

While this year’s parade season has been relatively peaceful, the PSNI is experiencing a budgetary shortfall and does not have the requisite number of officers. What can the Secretary of State do to enable it to fund sufficient police numbers to ensure that there is continued peace and security?

The Government have stepped in, providing an additional £231 million to support the PSNI’s efforts in regard to national security matters. That will help across the board, assisting community policing as well. It is, however, of grave concern that the failure of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to agree on welfare reform is having an impact on the budgets of other Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive, and, sadly, that includes the PSNI.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, let me first commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent work to secure peace and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend may recall that about three weeks ago I visited south Armagh, where is little security and where criminality runs rife despite the PSNI’s best efforts. We need the National Crime Agency in south Armagh, and in Northern Ireland as a whole. Will my right hon. Friend please put pressure on the good people of the SDLP, who are opposing that, and on Sinn Féin, which has been subsidised in the past by the very terrorists who are still running the criminality in Northern Ireland?

I warmly commend my hon. Friend for all the brilliant work that he did in Northern Ireland. I also warmly welcome his successor as Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).

I agree that NCA capability in Northern Ireland is crucial. Only recently I had a conversation with Keith Bristow, the head of the NCA, who commented that a major child protection operation had been inhibited in Northern Ireland. The NCA had had to ask the PSNI to carry out work that was being carried out by the NCA everywhere else in the United Kingdom. That put further pressure on PSNI resources, which need not happen.

12. Does the Secretary of State agree that close co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána is essential? Does she share my optimism that the leadership of the guards is now more proactive and imaginative when it comes to closer working with its opposite number in the north? (904836)

My hon. Friend is right. The working relationship between the Garda and the PSNI is crucial to the combating of both terrorism and cross-border organised crime. As recently as May, the Garda made major arrests in relation to terrorism offences, and in a number of instances plots have been frustrated and arrests have been made as a result of a working relationship between the Garda and the PSNI that is better than it has ever been before.

Will the Secretary of State reiterate her commendation of leaders of the north Belfast community, political leaders at all levels, and the Orange institution for having devoted many hours of work to ensuring that the twelfth of July passed peacefully, despite provocation and republican threats of violence? Will she now recognise that this issue is not going to go away, and that she and the Minister need to make every effort to ensure that a solution is found?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I repeat my commendation of the efforts that have been made. I know that those efforts were assiduous, and that they involved many conversations with people on the ground. I think that had it not been for the efforts made by the leaders of Unionist political parties, by Members of Parliament such as the right hon. Gentleman, and by the Orange Order itself, the situation on the twelfth of July would have been very different. The determinations of the Parades Commission must always be obeyed, and those who disagree with them must find a peaceful and lawful way in which to express their concern.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s undertaking to look carefully at the Unionist leaders’ proposal for a commission of inquiry, and to consider all practical options to resolve the situation in north Belfast. Does she accept that respect for, and tolerance of, both traditions is at the heart of that? If a shared future is to be meaningful in Northern Ireland, it must mean sharing space as well.

I agree. I believe that what is happening in Northern Ireland illustrates that it is possible to enable loyal order parades to take place peacefully and without problems, often in areas with a predominantly nationalist population. There are many examples of that, but Derry/Londonderry is frequently cited. It is possible to enable people to express their culture in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, and I recognise that that is an important goal in north Belfast.

13. In the light of the recent incident involving two petrol bombs being thrown at Willowfield police station in east Belfast, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure local police officers are given sufficient safeguards against extremist acts? (904837)

Of course that was a disgraceful attack, as was the shooting attack on a G4S vehicle involved in tagging offenders. PSNI officers subject themselves to risk every day. The terrorist threat continues to be lethal and is predominantly focused on police and prison officers. That is one of the reasons why this Government acted to provide an additional £231 million of funding to help the PSNI fight terrorists and maintain the safety of its officers.

10. Can the Secretary of State confirm that an independent arbitration body is absolutely necessary to arbitrate the contentious parades, and will she confirm that the Parades Commission is the law and that those who want to support law and order must support the Parades Commission rulings, even if they disagree with the detail of a decision? (904834)

Yes I can. The Parades Commission is the lawfully constituted authority. Its determinations have the force of law. They must be obeyed and I welcome the huge efforts made over the weekend to ensure the determination in north Belfast was obeyed. I am afraid that I think we always will need some form of body to adjudicate parades where there is no local agreement, but I hope in all cases as much effort as possible is made to try to reach local agreement so there is not a further need for a determination.

I, too, welcome the Minister—my fourth—the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to his position, but I confess myself saddened by the Government’s decision to downgrade the post from Minister of State. I hope this is not indicative of any diminution in the Government’s commitment to the proud people of Northern Ireland. I would also say that those on my Front Bench need be under no duty to emulate that.

While the whole House will pay tribute to outgoing Chief Constable Matt Baggott—and I hope I speak for everyone—the Secretary of State will shortly be meeting the new Chief Constable. What are the strategic priorities she will wish to establish with the new Chief Constable?

I have met the new Chief Constable on a number of occasions. I commend him and his officers on the work they did over the twelfth of July. I am sure his strategic priorities will continue to be countering the lethal terrorist threat from dissident republicans, keeping Northern Ireland safe and secure from that threat, and also being absolutely serious and determined in providing community policing as close to the community as possible and cracking down on organised criminals in cities in Northern Ireland.

Inward Investment

6. What recent representations she has received on levels of inward investment into Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (904830)

I regularly discuss inward investment with Northern Ireland Executive Ministers, including at the recent meeting between the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers.

Some 16,000 new employee jobs were created in Northern Ireland over the last year, the vast majority of them in the private sector. As we see in Wales, so we can see in Northern Ireland that the Government’s economic strategies are working well. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for building on this success, particularly through Invest Northern Ireland, to ensure that it continues into the future?

The Government are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic matters. Following the economic pact we signed last year, we have recently published an update demonstrating achievements on improved lending to small businesses—that is up 46% on last year—and we have got the enterprise zone set up, and access to finance initiatives from the business bank are also helping to restart the economy in Northern Ireland. Securing 100% assisted area status for Northern Ireland is also hugely helpful to Invest NI in attracting inward investment.

The economic package agreed between the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive is now a year old. It was designed to rebalance the economy. What specific measures in that package have now been implemented that will assist in attracting inward investment, dealing with youth unemployment and rebalancing the economy?

There are some which I just mentioned; the specific inward investment conference attended by the Prime Minister, which prompted 800 new jobs at Convergys and EY; the banking transparency measures, which were a specific ask of the business community—we now have details of lending to small and medium-sized enterprises published for the first time in Northern Ireland; the enterprise zone has been set up; we are pressing ahead with projects from the green investment bank on anaerobic digestion in parts of Northern Ireland; and we are pressing ahead with a UK-Ireland visa system, which means that business people from China and India can visit our two countries with just a single visa, thus encouraging tourism, business links and inward investment.

Shared Education

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Minister for Education in the Northern Ireland Executive on shared education. (904831)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a number of discussions with the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Minister for Education on this issue. Shared education featured prominently at the recent meeting of the Prime Minister, Secretary of State, First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Through the capital borrowing provisions in the economic pact, the Government have supported a number of initiatives to promote shared education, including the Lisanelly project in Omagh. I look forward to visiting Lisanelly shortly. [Interruption.]

Order. There are very serious matters affecting the people of Northern Ireland, and it would be a mark of respect for the people of Northern Ireland if the questions and the answers could be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I recently met the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland and the Chair of the Education Committee there, and we discussed shared education, among other things. I was listening carefully to what the Minister just said and although I would not expect him to have met the Minister for Education, can he confirm whether the Secretary of State has ever done so?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Clearly, one key issue in Northern Ireland is the future of education, so can he set out his plan for how he is going to encourage the breaking down of the divide in terms of the sectarian side of schooling in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is important that we move towards shared and integrated education where the parents wish that that should happen. He will know from the pact, and from the update that is to be published shortly, that £100 million of additional borrowing has been made available as part of that pact for shared education and shared housing, both of which will be of help.

When the Secretary of State meets and has further discussions with the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, will she ask him to expedite the digging of the first sod of the Parkhall integrated college in Antrim as soon as possible, because that new build has been announced for some time, and the staff, pupils and community are anxious for the work to commence right away?

Through the noise I think I just about made that out, Mr Speaker. I am sure that Hansard will record it accurately and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take note of it for her next meeting with the Minister for Education.

Youth Unemployment

8. What recent progress the Government have made on reducing youth unemployment levels in Northern Ireland. (904832)

Tackling youth unemployment remains a critical issue, but specific measures to address it in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Executive. The Government are reducing the largest structural deficit in UK peacetime history, and that, more than anything, will help deliver a sustainable economic recovery and so directly assist young people to get into employment.

I welcome the new Minister to his position. Almost one in four young people in Northern Ireland are out of work. Many are forced to seek agency jobs on zero-hours contracts, while others are taking the path to emigration because of the downturn in the construction industry. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister have discussions with the Chancellor about the need to reduce VAT on tourism, as such a reduction would provide an opportunity for these young people to remain in Northern Ireland, working in tourism attractions and so on?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. She will of course have seen today’s figures, which show that although youth unemployment in Northern Ireland is 20.4%—that is too high—it has dropped by 2.1% over the quarter. I am sure she will warmly welcome both that and the drop by 1% to 6.7% in the overall level of unemployment in Northern Ireland—the 18th successive drop in the claimant count. I hope she warmly welcomes that, as right hon. and hon. Members from across the House certainly will.

Young Protestants in Northern Ireland are experiencing great difficulty in seeking employment. Will the Minister confirm the steps that the Government are taking to help those Protestant youths gain worthwhile skills, training and employment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to work at school level and to build the number of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland to ensure that the figure to which I have referred, which remains too high—albeit fairly good in comparison with many other countries in Europe—comes down dramatically.

The last question relates to the commemoration of the first world war, so I hope that there will be respectful attention.

First World War (Commemorations)

9. What role her Department is taking in commemorations to mark the centenary of the first world war. (904833)

The Northern Ireland Office is committed to assisting in the delivery of the Government’s programme for the first world war centenary. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) for his work on the Prime Minister’s advisory group. The Department is also co-ordinating closely with the Irish Government on the centenary and the wider decade of commemorations in the island of Ireland.

Earby town council in my constituency has given the freedom of the town to all world war veterans. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative, and will he encourage local councils across Northern Ireland to consider doing the same?

I very much welcome the move of my hon. Friend’s local authority in that respect. It is absolutely right. There is great potential over this centenary period for local authorities to mark appropriately the contribution made by local people. That goes for Northern Ireland as it does for the rest of the country.