House of Commons
Tuesday 8 September 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Improving the education of prisoners is key to rehabilitation, but Ofsted inspections have revealed that one in five prisons has an inadequate standard of education provision, and that another two fifths require improvement. That is why, as we announced in this morning’s written ministerial statement, I have asked Dame Sally Coates to chair a review of the quality of education in prisons. The review will report in March 2016.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The levels of literacy and numeracy of many offenders in the system are far too low. If we can transform that and provide them with the skills to hold down a meaningful job, they can be genuine assets to our society rather than liabilities.
There are some formidable organisations that want to improve the quality of education in our prisons. In my previous role as Education Secretary, I saw how a wider diversity of education suppliers can help to raise standards for all, and particularly for the most disadvantaged. I would like to see the same reforming vigour applied to the education of offenders.
I welcome the written ministerial statement that the Secretary of State mentioned earlier. He will be aware that some prisons, in addition to educating their inmates, provide educational opportunities whereby outside people come into the prison to help and give ex-offenders jobs when they leave. That is a way of preventing prisoners from reoffending, but the practice is declining. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, please?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. One aspect of Dame Sally’s critically important review will cover engagement with employers. I am delighted that the chief executive of Timpson, one of the most inspirational organisations employing ex-offenders, is part of the team that will help Dame Sally to ensure that education, employability and rehabilitation are all operating together.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers so far. Does he agree that the current provision of education in prisons, which seems to centre on the awarding of certificates, is insufficient and that we need to move towards a system in which the curriculum is written jointly with employers and focused on employment? Will he therefore consider connecting education in Her Majesty’s prisons to Lord Baker’s career colleges initiative?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Offenders often feel that they have to complete courses in order to secure release, and that those courses are simply boxes to be ticked and do not contribute to their employability. He is right to suggest that the visionary work carried out by Lord Baker to improve the quality of vocational education more broadly can help to inform what we give to offenders to give them a second chance.
In a Prisoners Education Trust survey, 83% of prisoners said that access to the virtual campus was poor. That is hardly surprising, given that prison staffing levels have fallen almost 30% since 2010. If the Secretary of State really wants to improve education provision in prisons, what is he going to do address that?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about access to the virtual campus facilities. One of the reasons for the reduction in prison staff is that a number of prisons have been closed as part of the modernisation programme that took place under my predecessor. I had the opportunity yesterday to talk to the governor of a young offenders institution who is taking steps to ensure that all the young offenders for whom he is responsible have access to virtual learning platforms. I would like to see how we can more effectively integrate cutting-edge technology with the provision of education for offenders.
21. The Secretary of State is right to stress the importance of education in helping to stop reoffending, but he seems to be completely unaware that classes are frequently cancelled and that wings are closed and locked down because of the shortage of prison officers. Will he now accept that the Government were wrong to cut the number of prison officers in the way that they have? (901232)
A significant number of new and talented entrants to the Prison Service have been recruited. I am confident that if we give governors, in particular, a greater degree of operational flexibility, we will be able to tackle some of the problems that the hon. Lady rightly identifies.
Does the Minister agree that all Governments, all Ministers and all parties have failed to do very much of significance in prison education? When I chaired the Select Committee on Education and Skills, we looked at this issue. I hope the new inquiry, which I welcome, will look at that because our recommendations are still relevant today. Is he aware that children with special educational needs, and particularly those with autism, often end up in prison? Will he examine the work of the Shannon Trust, which tackles the issue of literacy in prisons and gets prisoners teaching prisoners?
The Shannon Trust work is excellent and I am happy to commend it to the House. The work it does—its Toe by Toe programme—ensuring that prisoners can mentor others and help them to read is exemplary. The hon. Gentleman’s broader point is right; if we look back at the past, we see that we have not placed sufficient emphasis on ensuring that when prisoners are in custody we give them the tools to transform their lives for the better. That is absolutely vital and I know that he agrees with me on treating offenders as potential assets—as people who can contribute—rather than concentrating exclusively on the mistakes they have made in the past.
I very much welcome Sally Coates’s review and look forward to its findings. The Secretary of State will know that Ofsted says that outstanding learning cannot possibly be provided in prisons that are dangerous, violent and not safe. He needs to think about the fact that serious attacks on prison officers have risen by a third in the past year, with many prison officers working day in, day out in fear. I am talking about inexperienced staff; he has recruited many, but they are unencumbered by experience. Drugs and understaffing are endemic in the system. He mind find those issues trickier to deal with, but what is he doing urgently to address them? Without addressing them, he will not achieve his aim of improving education.
Those are very fair points from the hon. Lady. She is absolutely right about the increase in the number of incidents of violence in our jails. One factor driving that is the presence of new psychoactive substances—what have sometimes been called “legal highs” but are more properly, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has pointed out, called lethal highs. One thing that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice has done is introduce legislation in the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which I know has cross-party support and will help to deal with that. She is also right in saying that we need to ensure that the appropriate training and support is in place for prison officers. They put their security on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe, and everything we can do—for example, extending the roll-out of body-worn cameras—to ensure that their security is at the heart of our prison estate is worthwhile.
That is probably the best answer I have had from a Secretary of State on the issue of prison officer safety, on what must be the 20th time of raising it, and we will hold him to the moves he has promised to make. But what happens inside prisons is only half the story. Will he ensure that the review examines continuity of learning on release? I ask that because I am concerned that, following the chaotic sell-off of probation, offenders are not being adequately supervised, risk-assessed or monitored. He knows that Sodexo has already laid off 600 staff, many of whom had good experience in providing offenders with suitable skills and learning placements.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the transforming rehabilitation programme needs to be scrutinised very closely. I have had the benefit of talking to the trade unions that represent not just Sodexo employees but employees from across probation, and they have raised a number of genuine concerns, which I hope we can meet. More broadly, the opportunity to appoint a new chief inspector of probation, and indeed a new chief inspector of prisons, arises—the closing date for applications is this Friday. The current incumbents of both posts have done an excellent job, but it is really important that we have high-quality people who will hold to account the organisations responsible for the fate of offenders and ex-offenders.
I welcome the appointment of Dame Sally and her review, and the emphasis that the Secretary of State placed upon rehabilitation in prison when he appeared before the Select Committee on Justice. Will he ensure not only that Dame Sally’s work is linked in with the work done by Lord Harris of Haringey in his excellent report on the philosophy, in effect, of rehabilitation in prisons, but that we look at the expertise of not only the Prison Service, but those outside it in dealing with the raft of multiple issues that these offenders suffer?
I absolutely agree. Lord Harris’s report was a sobering reminder of the problems we face in our prison estate in managing some very vulnerable people who engage in self-harm and, in some cases, suicide. The recommendations that he made are receiving proper consideration in our Department. More broadly, the point that the Chair of the Select Committee makes about engaging outside organisations is at the heart of the transforming rehabilitation programme. The extension of new powers to community rehabilitation companies, which my predecessor introduced, will increasingly bear fruit in the months to come.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of my principal concerns is that far too often the courses that have been offered and the qualifications that have been available to women in prison have not reflected the genuine needs—the circumstances that led them into offending in the first place or the needs that they have when they leave custody. One thing that Dame Sally will be looking at is exactly what needs to change, and there are no options off the table.
In the days of the coalition I discovered as prisons Minister that the budget for prison education was held in a Department led by our coalition ally. The result was that it became very difficult to achieve the objective of getting the commissioning of education in prisons into the hands of prison governors. Does the Secretary of State now have sufficient control to achieve that objective?
My hon. Friend was an excellent prisons Minister, and he is absolutely right that we need to give the governors greater control. The response that I have received both from the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Skills, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), has been hugely encouraging. Obviously, we have Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service contracts—the contracts that govern spending in prisons at the moment—which need to be honoured, but I hope that we might be able to move at pace to devolving responsibility to individual governors.
Bill of Rights
We will bring forward proposals on a Bill of Rights this autumn. They will be subject to full consultation. The preparation is going well. Given the hon. Gentleman’s excellent work on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I look forward to engaging seriously with him on the substance.
When the Minister’s predecessor published his plans for reform of the Human Rights Act last October, the right hon. and learned Members for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) complained that they contained “a number of howlers” and that they were “unworkable” and “bewildering”. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to listen to his esteemed colleagues and to admit that those plans were written on the back of a cigarette packet from the very start?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I have to say that the Human Rights Act was also rushed. There was no period of consultation and it was introduced into Parliament in just six months, which is why it has proved flawed in practice. We will take our time to get the plans right, and we will take on board all the views that have been expressed. We want to restore some balance to our human rights regime, and that is what a Bill of Rights will achieve.
Earlier this year, the Attorney-General described the European convention on human rights as “an excellent document”, and I am sure that the Minister would agree. Our Human Rights Act allows British judges to interpret the convention in the British context. Will the Minister explain precisely how a new British Bill of Rights will change that situation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, there are many different ways in which we can implement the ECHR in domestic law. There are 47 states party to the European convention, and they all do it slightly differently. We want to see greater authority for the Supreme Court—the Labour Government set up the Supreme Court and we do not think that it should be subordinated—and a greater respect for the legislative role of hon. Members in this place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally wrong for criminals and those who wish to do our country harm to be able to use the Human Rights Act against us? Therefore, does he agree that it is important that the new British Bill of Rights balances the rights of citizens that were not invented in 1998—with the responsibilities of the citizens that existed then and indeed that exist today?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to protect fundamental rights, but we do not want to see them distorted by judicial legislation or abused by serious and serial criminals. Above all, we do not want to see human rights become dirty words in the minds of the public. That is what the Human Rights Act led to; our Bill of Rights will restore some balance.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The convention already reflects a huge amount of the common law tradition but, as he says, Britain was a member of the convention and had a long tradition of respect for human rights before the Human Rights Act, and we shall have after it.
22. The rights contained in the European convention on human rights have been incorporated into our domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Minister guarantee that the British Bill of Rights will contain all the same rights as our citizens currently enjoy? (901233)
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I will not be drawn on the substance and detail of our proposals—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] We will have a consultation and there will be ample time. We want to retain fundamental rights reflected in the convention, but we need to ensure their sensible application and proper respect for the Supreme Court of this country as well as for the democratic role of hon. Members in this place and their legislative function. Our Bill of Rights and proposals will be considering those areas.
At Justice questions on 23 June, the Secretary of State said that human rights are a reserved matter under the devolution settlement. At a debate in Westminster Hall on 30 June, I urged the UK Government to reconsider that position, having regard to the precise terms of the Scotland Act 1998. Will the Minister confirm that his advisers have had the opportunity to study schedule 5 to the Act over the recess? Will he now accept that human rights are not listed there as a reserved matter and that if this Government therefore want to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights they will be required first to consult the Scottish Parliament according to the Sewel convention?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. There will be full consultation and we are aware of the concerns that she and her party have raised. Revising the Human Rights Act can be done only by the UK Government, but at the same time the implementation of human rights issues are already substantially devolved to Scotland. Let me give one example. The Scottish Government have been criticised for failing to hold mandatory fatal accident inquiries when someone dies in a mental health institution. That is just one illustration, but the SNP needs to stop promoting the fiction that human rights in Scotland totally depend on or are threatened by Westminster and to focus more on living up to its own responsibilities.
Many of the Minister’s colleagues have much to say on human rights, but the Lord Chancellor has remained uncharacteristically guarded. At the time the Act came into effect, he said:
“The Human Rights culture is already spreading in our society, uprooting conventions on which our stability has rested…It supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state.”
Does the Minister agree with that, and does it now represent Government policy?
That is a very interesting set of insights into a range of problems with the Human Rights Act. There are two sorts of issues: how the Strasbourg Court operates, and how the Human Rights Act operates domestically. Wise people in the shadow Justice Secretary’s party, from the noble Lord Irvine, one of the architects of the Act, to the former shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), have pointed out the flaws in the Act and agreed that we need to look at them. We should have a sensible debate about its replacement, not silly point scoring or shrill scaremongering.
Rather than our listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) being misquoted, perhaps the Minister would like to answer some questions. This week, leading civil liberties organisations warned that parts of the Trade Union Bill breached human rights, and last week the EU warned that countries such as Russia would take the lead from a British opt-out. This is very serious. Is that what the Government plan for the Human Rights Act: an attack on fundamental freedoms at home and an encouragement to human rights abuses abroad?
A Labour Government enacted ID cards, and a Labour Government proposed 90-day detention without charge. The interim leader of the Labour party, the shadow Home Secretary and the shadow Justice Secretary voted for both those measures. We scrapped ID cards and cut detention without charge; we will take no lectures on liberty from the Labour party.
The Minister will be aware that there has been some controversy surrounding proposals for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. I wonder whether he intends incorporating a Northern Ireland section within a British Bill of Rights.
We are very mindful of the issues relating to a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. We will be consulting widely, including with Northern Ireland politicians, and will be very sensitive to ensure that we do nothing that would have a disruptive effect in the region.
Torquay Magistrates Court
No decision has been taken to close Torquay magistrates court. A full assessment of the potential impact will be made once the consultation closes and responses have been properly analysed.
I thank the Minister for that answer. In Torbay there are real concerns that the closure of the court could see an end to justice locally, with victims and witnesses having to travel long distances for cases. Is he willing to consider options that would help retain some local justice within Devon’s second largest urban area?
My hon. Friend and I have spoken about this, and I commend his diligence in campaigning for his constituents. If there are other options, such as using other civic buildings—town halls and the like—I am very keen to consider them, so I hope that he will contribute to the consultation.
Employment Tribunal Fees
On 11 June we announced the start of the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in employment tribunals. The review will consider how successful the policy has been in achieving its objectives.
It is clear that employment tribunal fees have acted as a significant barrier to justice, especially for women. Between April and June 2013 and April and June 2014 the number of sex discrimination-related employment tribunal claims fell by a staggering 91%. Does the Minister expect the figures for April and June 2015, which are due out this month, to show that women are continuing to be denied access to justice by employment tribunal fees?
Of course, we cannot pre-empt the review’s findings; we will look at the figures in due course. I gently say to the hon. Lady that although we need a scheme that does not deter people from making legitimate claims, we must take what steps we can to divert people from potentially acrimonious hearings, which is why I am very pleased that ACAS’s new early conciliation scheme has already been used by over 80,000 people in its first year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the more than 75% reduction in employment claims since fees were introduced shows how this Government are standing up for small business that have become exasperated by being repeatedly dragged through the tribunals, sometimes for no cause other than that the process was free for the claimant?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I very much agree. Fewer people are making tribunal claims. It is only fair that those who can afford to make some contribution to the cost of the service they receive should do so. It cannot be right that hard-working taxpayers should pick up the entire bill of around £71 million for employment disputes in tribunals.
16 . Justice is a cornerstone of democracy, and access to justice is therefore critical. There are serious concerns about the Ministry of Justice’s proposals to close St Helens county and magistrates court. The practical impact on travel would be very serious. The travel times within the consultation— (901227)
Order. I gently say that the hon. Lady is seeking to shoehorn into Question 4 the thrust of what she would have said in Question 16. It is something I did myself in the past, so there is no blemish on her record, but I think that we must leave it there, because it is too difficult to link it to tribunal fees.
The Secretary of State has said of tribunal fees that
“there is no evidence yet that the bar being set at a high level has meant that…claims…aren’t being heard.”
If the review produces such evidence—as I believe it will, if properly conducted—will the Minister give a cast-iron commitment to abolish the fees system?
Those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody will now receive probation supervision for the first time, as well as continuity of provision from custody into the community. Building on those reforms, we want to improve and expand learning, training and work in prisons.
Over the summer I visited Thorn Cross prison in Cheshire to see the excellent Sycamore Tree restorative justice project. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Out There project—a charity that supports families in Greater Manchester to hold themselves together when their loved ones go inside. Both projects have had measurable impacts on reducing offending. Will the Minister join me in praising those types of projects and those who work in this field up and down the country?
I most certainly will. I had the pleasure of visiting Thorn Cross myself not so long ago. I met a number of prisoners who had undertaken the Sycamore Tree course, and they told me what a benefit it had been to them. I commend the hon. Gentleman very warmly for stressing the importance of families and strong family relationships for prisoners. The chief inspector of prisons highlighted that in his recent report, and he was right to do so.
My hon. Friend will know that last year, at the request of the previous Secretary of State, I wrote a report on former service personnel in the criminal justice system containing 15 recommendations designed to ensure that that cohort does better as regards reoffending rates. Will he update the House on how those recommendations are being implemented?
I am very grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. We are taking his report extremely seriously and working through the recommendations. In particular, I commend to him the work of the charity Care after Combat, with which I am sure he is familiar. Having spent a lot of time seeing its work, I can tell him that it is expanding across the prison estate and will help us to achieve the points he rightly raised in his review.
Cutting reoffending means giving prisoners the skills they will need once they leave prison. Yet a report by the Prisoner Learning Alliance, which meets this Friday in my constituency at Leeds Beckett University, shows that 58% of prisons judged last year by Ofsted require improvement or prove inadequate for learning and skills provision. What is the Department going to do about that?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise these points. This can be done. Hollesley Bay recently had an outstanding Ofsted report, and where it leads, others can and need to follow. The combined PE, English and maths course taught in the PE department at Swaleside has been highly successful in getting hard-to-reach prisoners to engage in education. We need more initiatives like that. The Secretary of State has mentioned the Timpson academies. I would also mention the Halfords academy, the Clink restaurants, Census Data Group and many others that are doing outstanding work in the areas the hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to.
Does the excellent prisons Minister agree that to stop reoffending we need to close Victorian prisons and open more modern prisons? In Wellingborough, a prison that was modern and successful has been temporarily closed. Has he any plans to reopen it?
My hon. Friend is ingenious, as always, in the way that he poses his question. He is right that we need a fit-for-purpose prison estate. As for Wellingborough prison, I am afraid I have nothing to add to the answers I have given him repeatedly in the past.
Bill of Rights
The hon. Gentleman will not have too long to wait for the consultation, which I have already spoken about. We will release it towards the end of the autumn. He raises a very good question, but I hope he will understand if I do not jump the gun by being drawn before then on the substantive detail of our plans.
I understand the Minister’s reluctance to be drawn into the substantive detail, but could he give an indication of the intended direction of travel? For example, can he assure us that the rights of refugees seeking asylum on this island will not be deteriorated in any way as a result of the repeal of the Human Rights Act?
We are very clear about the absolute prohibition on torture, including in relation to the asylum regime. If the hon. Gentleman wants an overall steer, the major problems have been less with the text of the European convention than with its application. Some of those problems arise because of judicial legislation and others because of the operation of the Human Rights Act. Those problems are acknowledged across the political spectrum, including by senior members of the judiciary.
Can the Minister confirm whether the proposed Bill of Rights will grant all those living in the UK the same levels of protection, or will there be different levels of rights protection for different categories of person depending on whether they are a UK citizen or an EU or non-EU citizen?
As I have said, I am not going to go into the substance and the detail. We will have plenty of opportunity to discuss that. There is already some variable geometry in the Human Rights Act in relation to the procedural framework, so we will be interested to hear the views of the SNP and other parties on those aspects.
Prison Officers: Assaults
The National Offender Management Service is totally committed to running safe prisons. Violence in prisons is not tolerated, and assaults on staff are completely unacceptable. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect to have action taken against them. NOMS is undertaking violence reduction work in prisons to make sure there is strengthened handling of violence in terms of both prevention and response.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State refer to body-worn cameras. Can the Minister confirm that he will continue to push for the wearing of body-worn cameras, and does he recognise the impact they have on the safety not only of prison officers, but of prisoners?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are currently trialling some 600 body-worn cameras in 24 prisons, which is absolutely the right thing to do. I saw them being used at first hand in Glen Parva recently, and both prison officers and prisoners reported that they felt a lot safer. I think they are leading to an increase in professionalism and general reassurance across the estate, and I warmly welcome their introduction.
The Minister will be well aware that in Northern Ireland prison officers not only fear assault in prisons, but are in peril of their lives because of murder threats on a daily basis from dissident republicans. Thirty prison officers have been murdered in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister consult the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland on progress on the memorial garden that was supposed to have been set up to commend and commemorate the 30 murdered prison officers?
HM Courts and Tribunal Service
The infrastructure supporting the administration of the courts and tribunals is in desperate need of reform to deliver faster and fairer justice for all citizens. The way the service operates is inefficient, disjointed and based on technology that is simply out of date. The reform programme, which is strongly supported by the senior judiciary, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient courts and tribunals service.
Although I am aware of the proposed integration of Taunton tribunal service with the nearby magistrates court just down the road that will enable greater efficiency to the service, could the Minister kindly broaden the picture by confirming how many courts and tribunals were empty for more than half of their hearing time, which highlights other areas where efficiencies might be made?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to note the integration of the two sites in her constituency, which are within half a mile of each other. In 2013-14, 170 courts and tribunals—more than a third of the total number—were empty for more than half their available hearing time. The current court estate is clearly inefficient and underused. Our reform programme is an opportunity to create a modern, more user-focused and efficient service that better serves the taxpayer.
Workington court in my constituency is one of the courts up for closure. I want to ask the Secretary of State about the impact that that will have on my constituents getting to courts. He recently said that when looking for courts up for closure:
“What we tried to do was to make sure that the time it will take for any citizen to travel to court remains less than an hour.”
Currently, it takes less than half an hour for 83% of my constituents to get to court.
May I first assure the hon. Lady that this is a consultation and that no decisions have been taken so far? We want to be modern and to move into the 21st century, during which many people will simply not have to travel to courts, whatever the distances. We are moving to using video conferencing facilities, particularly for victims and witnesses. Courts are already doing that with prisoners, so the travel element will diminish.
It is now a considerable time since the Government closed down Keighley magistrates court in Bingley in my constituency and moved the operation to Bradford. However, the magistrates court in Bingley is still lying idle, costing the Government money in maintaining it and not doing anything for the local economy in Bingley. Despite my badgering the Minister about this on many occasions, not a great deal seems to have happened. May I urge him to pull his finger out and get on with selling this building and bringing it back into use, which is much needed for the local economy?
Does the Minister agree that the proposed closure of magistrates courts in rural areas, such as Dolgellau, where it is impossible to reach alternative courts in time by public transport, will in effect shift the cost of justice on to victims and witnesses, who participate in the justice system through no fault of their own?
I assure the hon. Lady that we have been particularly careful to take account of rural areas, such as those in Wales. I reinforce the point I made earlier that many people will not be required to attend court; that will apply only in some cases. Where people have such difficulties, they can speak to court officials to try to ensure that their cases are listed at a more acceptable time.
Magistrate Court Closures
Under the current consultation proposals, it will still be the case that over 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car, a change of just 1% for Crown and magistrates courts and 2% for county courts. The proportion able to reach a tribunal within an hour by car will remain unchanged at 83%.
If Corby magistrates court is closed, some of my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire would have to drive for more than an hour to get to the nearest magistrates court, and many of those journeys would be impossible by public transport. I am very grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet me and local magistrates to talk about this, but what consideration has been given to this particular problem in Corby?
As my hon. Friend says, we have corresponded about this problem and we have agreed to meet some of his constituents. I reassure him that this is a genuine consultation and that no decisions have been taken. If he has concerns, I very much hope that he and his constituents will make submissions to the consultation, which I assure him will be given very careful consideration. I hope he will contribute to that.
The consultation document on proposed court closures in Greater Manchester discusses the future use of non-court buildings, which I would support, particularly for pre-recording the cross-examination of evidence from vulnerable child witnesses. Will the Minister give us more detail of his thoughts, because it is important for the protection of vulnerable witnesses that the right courts are closed in the right places?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for echoing the support for what we are trying to achieve. We are not setting any limitations at the moment; we are in listening mode. Where there is an under-utilised court, I envisage facilities being used for a couple of days in a town hall, for example. Perhaps the chamber or another available room may be rented. It does not have to be a public or civic building, but such buildings come to mind instantly. Currently, people can go to nearby facilities and give evidence via video conferencing so that they do not have to go to court, which is particularly helpful for vulnerable witnesses and victims.
The Minister should listen to Members from all parts of the House on this issue. Although he says that this is a consultation, he is already assuming that an hour by car is a reasonable distance. Of course, many people, particularly in rural areas, do not have access to a car. Cases in magistrates courts are taking a week longer than they did four years ago and dozens of magistrates are resigning over the unworkable courts charge. Is not the Government destroying local justice?
The hon. Gentleman speaks about listening. Perhaps he might take his own advice and do some listening as well. The Government are proposing to undertake a once-in-a-generation reform of the courts system and estate. It would be helpful if he co-operated and supported us in achieving what will be of ultimate benefit to the consumer and the public. They will benefit by getting faster and better justice, and Britain will remain world renowned for legal services.
The current courts system is unsustainable and we want to create a more modern, user-focused and efficient service that is better for all. Ensuring that the public can access courts when they need them will be uppermost in my mind when considering the future of any court, once the consultation closes.
It is disappointing that my local court in Dartford has been earmarked for closure. Will the Minister please assure the House that when he decides which courts will be closed, he will give weight to the valid argument that local justice is at its best when meted out by local people in a local courthouse?
My hon. Friend is another Member who is doughty in speaking up for his constituents and I commend him for that. Again, as far as Dartford magistrates court is concerned, I assure him that no final decisions have been taken. Local justice is important and I am open to suggestions of other venues. I reiterate that we have the potential to use video conferencing. Lawyers are already using telephone conferencing. Two sets of lawyers will have a three-way conversation with a judge in chambers, rather than going to court as they did in old times. We must make use of modern technology if we are to keep pace with the 21st century.
I remain concerned about the proposed closure of Feltham magistrates court, following the closure of Brentford magistrates court. I am concerned that it will break the fundamental link between local people and the justice system, and not just because of the travel issues. Feltham magistrates court has been successful in running school competitions to increase understanding of the justice system. Is the Minister concerned about the collective impact of the proposals, alongside the closure of police stations, on people’s relationship with the justice system and on its effectiveness in our communities?
The hon. Lady and I have spoken about the proposals in her constituency. I am confident that the connection that police and the local justice system have with the local community will remain strong. The only thing that will happen is that we will move to a 21st-century legal system. I emphasise that the proposal has the total backing of the senior judiciary. They are the people who operate within the courts and they support the proposals.
Written parliamentary questions are something I take extremely seriously, not least from the time when I was sitting on the Opposition Benches and asking Ministers questions. They should be answered on time and be as accurate and as informative as possible.
It took three questions to get answers that would have been adequately given in one word: “None.” The first question was, “How many prisons in Britain are free of illegal drug use?” The answer was that 81 were free for one month. The second question was, “How many were free for a year?” The answer was that one was free for a year—Blantyre House had not reported any drug use for a full year. The third question revealed that, during that period, Blantyre House had no prisoners, so the answer to drug use in prisons is not to get rid of the drugs, but to get rid of the prisoners. What was the Minister on when he gave that answer?
I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the leadership of the criminal solicitors profession and the criminal Bar in England and Wales. Over the course of the summer, they felt it necessary to take action to show that they had legitimate concerns about the operation of reforms to legal aid. Thanks to the constructive dialogue that we have had with them and with Ministry of Justice civil servants, we are now in talks to ensure that access to justice can be enhanced and, at the same time, that the quality of advocacy improves.
According to newspaper reports, people recently subjected to the £150 basic criminal courts charge, which was introduced by the Secretary of State’s predecessor, on top of other penalties included a man who stole three bottles of baby milk and a homeless man who stole a bottle of Red Bull. Will the Secretary of State agree to an urgent review of the effect of that ludicrous charge on the recovery of compensation for victims, the pressure it puts on people to plead guilty, and its straightforward iniquity?
I have been made aware of widespread concern about the operation of the criminal courts charge, but it is important to stress that the charge is levied or taken from the offender only after other fines have been paid. It is important that the legislation is understood as having made it clear that the charge should be linked to ability to pay—the payment of that charge in due course should be linked to the offender’s means. We are going to review the criminal courts charge, but it is important not to rush to judgment, because we have to ensure that a change that was made and approved by the House in order to ensure that our justice system is fair, and that those who offended pay their way, is given time to bed in, so that we can form an appropriate judgment in due course.
T3. Skegness court is one of the most underused in the country and one of the least able to cope with vulnerable prisoners. I am not sentimental about the building, but will the Minister assure me that we can still dispense justice locally in Skegness, perhaps in another facility? (901239)
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I very much look forward to hearing of any options he has when he responds to the consultation.
T4. The National Audit Office has estimated that between 160,000 and 220,000 careworkers are illegally paid below the national minimum wage, but if they seek redress, those workers, without money, are expected to pay hundreds of pounds in employment tribunal fees. Does the Secretary of State accept that his Department’s tribunal fee policy makes a mockery of the Prime Minister talking tough on poverty pay? (901240)
I take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns very seriously. The Prime Minister last month made it clear that we will put in place new enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all employers live up to their responsibility to pay an appropriate wage for the job. That enforcement mechanism and that investigatory mechanism will ensure that those people, whom the hon. Gentleman and I both care about, are paid the right rate for the job.
T5. Will the Minister with responsibility for prisons tell the House when the inquiry that is currently being held into allegations of a prisoner from Chelmsford prison engaging in sexual activity in an NHS hospital will be concluded? If the allegations, which were published in The Sun newspaper, are proved to be true, what action will be taken against the prison officers who were meant to be keeping an eye on that prisoner? (901241)
I agree with my right hon. Friend that what took place was completely unacceptable. I can tell him that very thorough investigations are currently taking place. They have not yet been concluded, although some staff have been suspended. I can also tell him that every governor has been written to in the strongest possible terms and told to take immediate action to ensure all escorts and bed watches are properly conducted.
T7. When the criminal courts charge was introduced, Labour warned that the lack of judicial discretion would result in miscarriages of justice, with people pleading guilty to avoid additional cost. It concerns me that people may be pleading guilty to save money in the short term. That will have a longer term impact on employment opportunities. Does the Minister think that is right and fair? (901243)
I very much hope that if people are innocent, they will plead innocent. It is important to remember that the charge is levied at the end of all the other charges—costs, compensation, victims’ surcharge and so on. The charge is also based on ability to pay, so if people are having difficulty, they will not be forced to pay. If they do keep to their payments, no matter how minimal they are, then after two years the rest of the sum is actually scrapped.
T6. Does my hon. Friend agree that on a complex constitutional Bill, such as the British Bill of Rights, it is important that time is taken and there is proper consultation so that all the issues can be considered, unlike in 1997 when the Human Rights Act was introduced? (901242)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I agree with him wholeheartedly. I know that he understands from his work at the Bar, which ranges from social housing to criminal law, the importance of getting the detail right. We look forward to hearing his contribution as the consultation and proposed legislation goes forward.
T9. Lambeth county court serves my constituency. Will the Minister clarify whether the court met the Department’s definition of underused or surplus, if 50% of its available hearing time went unused? What assessment has the Department made of the impact of its potential closure on my constituents? (901245)
No firm decisions have been made at the moment. The consultation document has individual papers as far as each individual court is concerned. They are quite comprehensive. If the hon. Gentleman has issues and concerns, I am happy for him to write to me and I am happy to correspond with him while the consultation is taking place.
T8. Last week, the Youth Justice Board announced that the contractor running the Rainsbrook secure training centre in my constituency will change shortly. What discussions has the Minister had to help to ensure that the centre and its staff have a smooth and timely transition to the new contractor? (901244)
The Good Friday agreement is an international treaty that is hardwired into the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 in order to protect the civil liberties and human rights of citizens. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister ensure that there is no repeal of the Human Rights Act?
A key value of Tottenham magistrates court, which is earmarked for closure, has been the delivery of local, visible justice. Will the Department seriously consider Enfield’s civic centre, or other community buildings, so that young people in particular can see it as a place where first hearing youth courts can take place and deliver effective local justice?
There are serious concerns about the proposed closure of St Helens county and magistrates court. It is a well- used, fit-for-purpose building and it was only in 2012 that £1.7 million was spent to accommodate the county court. The consultation document states that 95% of attendees will be able to travel within an hour, but no consideration has been given to outlying areas of our borough. Although there is a direct transit bus and rail, there is no direct—
I am pleased that the hon. Lady was able to get her contribution in at the end. As I said, this is a consultation and no firm decisions have been taken. I know she has written me a comprehensive letter, to which I have responded, but that was a while ago, so I am happy to have further correspondence with her, if necessary.
The Minister already knows my views on the unacceptability of the proposed closure of Lowestoft court. Is he aware that if the proposed closures of Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds go ahead, Suffolk will be the worst English county in terms of magistrates courts per square mile, with one court covering 1,466 square miles, compared with 692 square miles in Norfolk, 355 square miles in Essex and 655 square miles in neighbouring Cambridgeshire?
It is clear that people in Suffolk are more law-abiding. My hon. Friend and I have of course met and corresponded, and I am happy to continue that engagement. No firm decisions have been taken, and I commend him for the conscientious way in which he speaks up for his constituents.
If the proposed closure of Scunthorpe magistrates and family court goes ahead, people living in Hibaldstow, Scawby and Redbourne will have to travel more than two and a half hours by public transport each way to access the courts system. Will the Minister take up the challenge from Mandy Talbot, the chair of the local bench, to come to Scunthorpe and look at the practical effects of these proposals on the delivery of local justice before he makes a decision?
As I have said a few times already this Question Time, it is intended that many people who currently travel to courts will not have to do so. Access to justice does not simply mean an actual physical presence in a court. If, however, the hon. Gentleman and his constituents want a meeting, I am more than happy to meet them.
Court users in Bury realise that the best use has to be made of the court estate, but will the Minister confirm that if they come up with an alternative set of proposals to reorganise the court structure in Greater Manchester, they will be given genuine and serious consideration?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will be treating all submissions carefully. No decisions have been made yet. We are proposing a radical new direction for the future of our courts system, and if sensible proposals are made, we will certainly consider them.
The Secretary of State will no doubt be aware that in their programme for government 2015-16 the Scottish Government said that they would abolish employment tribunal fees using powers to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. Will he now recognise that the introduction of those fees has prevented access to justice and follow the Scottish Government’s lead by abolishing those fees across the UK so that all workers in the UK can afford to have their cases heard?
I look forward to seeing what happens in Scotland as a result of devolution. One of the great things about devolution is that different parts of the UK have the opportunity to do different things and we can all learn from one another. For that reason, I was absolutely delighted when the First Minister of Scotland just last week adopted our policy on primary and secondary school testing after years when the gap between rich and poor in Scotland had grown wider and the gap between rich and poor elsewhere had narrowed. At last the SNP are learning from what this Government have achieved.
I commend my hon. Friend’s diligence in continuing to raise this matter. The answer to his second question is absolutely yes. On the specifics, 10,512 foreign national offenders were in prison at 30 June 2015. It is important to say that of those, 6,386 were sentenced prisoners; 2,231 were on remand; and 1,669 were non-criminal, mainly immigration detainees. The number has reduced since 2010. The Home Office returned more than 5,000 last year. We will ensure that all eligible Polish prisoners are considered for transfer in December 2016. We are discussing a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Jamaica, and we are close to signing a prisoner transfer agreement with Iraq.
The National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Justice have been critical of the Government’s lack of understanding of the knock-on costs of their reforms to legal aid. Is it not now time that the Government reviewed them to ensure that cost shunting does not happen and that effective justice is available to those who need it?
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her election as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I know she will do that job brilliantly. She is absolutely right: changes to legal aid touch on the very heart of the principles of equal access to justice that we all hold dear. That is why I have been in intense talks with representatives from both the Bar and the solicitors’ profession in order to ensure that we can maintain access to justice and enhance the quality of advocacy in our courts.
Northern Ireland: Political Situation
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the political situation in Northern Ireland. Over recent days, I have been involved in a series of discussions with the Prime Minister, the five largest parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. On Thursday, we announced a fresh round of intensive cross-party talks. Those talks will begin in Stormont this evening and they will be conducted in accordance with the established three-stranded approach.
The Government’s objectives are clear. We are committed to working with Northern Ireland’s political leaders to ensure that we have a fully functioning Assembly, able to deliver for the whole community; a Northern Ireland where a stronger economy brings greater prosperity for all; and a Northern Ireland that is no longer defined by its divided past, but by its shared future. But to achieve this we need urgently to tackle the two main sources of current political instability. These are, first, the issues arising from continued paramilitary activity and, secondly, the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.
Turning to the first of these, on 12 August a prominent republican, Kevin McGuigan, was brutally murdered in the Short Strand area of east Belfast. This followed the gunning down of another senior republican, Gerard Davison, in the Markets area of Belfast in May. While it is not yet possible to know with certainty who was responsible for these murders, on 22 August the Chief Constable set out the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s assessment of the McGuigan case. This was the Chief Constable’s estimate at that date, but we should recognise that we do not yet know where the investigation will ultimately lead.
The Chief Constable confirmed that the police were following a line of inquiry that indicated that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the crime. He said that the PSNI did not at that stage have information to indicate that this involvement was sanctioned or directed at a senior or organisational level in the Provisional IRA. On the status of the Provisional IRA, the Chief Constable’s assessment was that some PIRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose from before. His view was that the organisation was committed to a political path and was no longer engaged in terrorism, although some current and former PIRA members continued to engage in criminal activities for personal gain and for personal agendas.
I do not intend to comment further on what is a live police investigation. The PSNI must be allowed to pursue its lines of inquiry wherever the evidence leads. The police assessment I have outlined may change over time, but I want to make this clear: there was never a justification for politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland, from whichever side of the community it came. During the troubles, paramilitary organisations inflicted huge suffering on thousands of ordinary people. These organisations should never have existed in the first place; they should not exist today, and they should disband.
For our part, the Government believe fundamentally in the rule of law. We will not compromise it. We stand fully behind the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. Only parties committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means can or should be eligible to participate in Northern Ireland’s political institutions.
I believe that all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to those principles, but I am fully aware that the fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan and continued existence of PIRA structures is a cause of grave concern, as is the continued existence of other paramilitary groups. So we have moved swiftly to convene talks to address these matters and to consider how best we can make progress towards the day when paramilitary groupings are consigned once and for all to Northern Ireland’s history.
The second matter for consideration in the talks is the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. The Government believe that the agreement is the best hope of building a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland, but for that to happen, it is essential that the agreement is implemented in full by all those who participated in the negotiations last autumn. We are delivering on our side of the deal.
In March, we passed legislation to open the way for the devolution of corporation tax powers. In line with the Queen’s Speech, we are on course to introduce a Bill in October to set up important new institutions to help deal with the painful legacy of the past, and we are now releasing funding to enable the planned voluntary exit scheme to proceed in order to take forward much-needed public sector reform.
The manifesto on which we were elected commits us to working with each of the other participants to ensure that all aspects of the agreement are implemented. That has to include the financial provisions of the agreement—including welfare reform. Without welfare reform and measures to deal with in-year pressures, the budget passed by the Executive in June simply does not add up. This raises the real prospect that the Executive will start running out of money, with resulting damage to front-line public services such as hospitals, schools and policing.
In those circumstances, the Government cannot stand by and let this situation drag on indefinitely, with Stormont less and less able to deliver key public services. As a last resort, we would be prepared to legislate here at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, but I must emphasise that we would do so reluctantly and only after we had exhausted all the realistic alternatives. By far the better outcome would be for the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement to resolve this blockage themselves without the need for Westminster intervention. I still believe that is possible, and that is why we will press ahead with talks this evening, determined to see the implementation of all aspects of the agreement.
We are a one nation Government and we want to build a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows, and society is stronger and more united. We strongly support the power-sharing devolved institutions established under the Belfast agreement. The future of these institutions is in jeopardy if the two very serious matters I have outlined here today are not resolved.
I do not underestimate the challenges we face, but I believe that a way through can be found. That is what we will be striving to achieve as we embark on this new talks process with urgency, focus and determination. Northern Ireland political leaders have shown remarkable courage over the last 20 years and have achieved truly great things by working together. We need to show that same spirit over the next few short weeks. I commend this statement to the House.
I sincerely thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, and I would like to apologise to the Secretary of State and the House for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis),the shadow Secretary of State, who has asked me to relay his apologies for not being in attendance today. He has to be in Belfast for the launch of the Heenan-Anderson commission report.
The official Opposition strongly support the UK and Irish Governments’ decision to convene all-party talks this week in an attempt to secure a positive way forward on the challenging issues raised by the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr and its aftermath, together with implementation of the Stormont House agreement. There is no doubt that a combination of real concerns following the Chief Constable’s assessment in relation to the status of the Provisional IRA and the failure to agree a sustainable budget pose the biggest threat to political stability in Northern Ireland for many years.
We urge all parties to seek the necessary compromises and confidence-building measures that can avert the collapse of the institutions. The people of Northern Ireland have had their faith in politicians and political institutions badly damaged by the perpetual crises of the past few years. There should be no doubt that the vast majority want to see progress, and a return to a focus on issues such as jobs, education, health and opportunities for young people. It is also the case that business confidence, and therefore investment, are now being put at risk by political uncertainty. All parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for stepping back from the brink, and for finding a way forward.
I have some questions for the Secretary of State. In the aftermath of Kevin McGuigan’s murder, she said that the Government had always been aware of the continued existence of the Provisional IRA. Will she make clear exactly what she meant by that statement? Some have proposed the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the feasibility, or the desirability, of such a measure? At what precise stage of the current financial year will the Northern Ireland budget cease to be sustainable? Are the Government now actively considering introducing emergency legislation to suspend the political institutions and return to direct rule if the current round of talks should fail? Finally, what further detail can the Secretary of State provide following her statement yesterday that the Government would now consider legislating for welfare reform and releasing funds for the civil service voluntary redundancy scheme, and what will the timeline be?
Having asked those questions, I want to place on the record the support of Opposition Members for the talks that will take place this evening, and stress our continuing and undiluted endorsement of the bipartisan approach in which we both believe.
The Secretary of State has rightly listed the challenges that face the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland, but we must never ignore the progress that has been made. These may be dark and dangerous times, but I profoundly hope, and I believe, that the good sense of all in Northern Ireland will prevail. It may be too late to hope that Kyle Lafferty’s last-minute goal in the match against Hungary last night has imbued Northern Ireland with a feelgood factor that will permeate every aspect, but surely this must be the time to reroute the march to the cliff edge and head back to sanity—and forward to the peaceful and prosperous future that we all know Northern Ireland deserves.
I thank the shadow Minister for his support. Let me deal with his questions.
In relation to the existence of the provisional IRA, my assessment is the same as that of the Chief Constable, and the assessment that I have been given by security advisers during my time as Secretary of State is broadly in line with the summary given by the Chief Constable that I outlined earlier: the continued existence of some organisational structures, with no involvement in paramilitarism or terrorism, but with individual members pursuing criminality for personal gain to pursue personal agendas.
As for the IMC, it is an important issue to consider, and I think that we would want to consider it as part of the talks. It may well be the case that if an IMC-type body were set up, we would want to ask it different questions from those that were asked by the IMC; but it is, of course, a model that we should consider when proceeding with the important process of dealing with the issues related to continuing and wholly unacceptable paramilitary activities.
The hon. Gentleman asked at what point the Northern Ireland Executive would become unsustainable. I am afraid that it is already unsustainable. There are already Ministers who feel that they cannot sign off projects because of the uncertainty surrounding the future availability of funds. I think that those matters are very urgent.
I am conscious that the issue of suspension is very sensitive. I have received representations on it from the Democratic Unionist party. I understand the DUP’s concerns, but the Government do not feel that it would be right to suspend the institutions at this stage and in these circumstances. If the circumstances were to change in the future, we would of course need to look at all our options.
As for the welfare reform matters, I said that we would be prepared to legislate as a last resort, but we are not at that stage yet. My priority will be working with the parties to find a way to ensure that the welfare package in the Stormont House resolution is implemented, because it is a good deal for Northern Ireland. The voluntary redundancy scheme is expected to start its operation with the first participants leaving their roles at the end of this month.
One of the worrying aspects of this whole situation is the lack of respect and lack of confidence that people in Northern Ireland now have for the institutions, and that makes it very important that we move those institutions towards becoming efficient decision-making bodies so they can enjoy some successes. Does the Secretary of State agree that that evolution is best carried out with the institutions up and running, rather than attempting to do it from a standing start?
I agree that it is hugely important that we keep the devolved institutions up and running. I know the situation is difficult and that there are tensions between the participants in the institutions. There is no doubt that sharing power comes with real tensions and real challenges, but it would be a huge setback if the institutions were to collapse. There can be no guarantees about when it would be possible to set them up again, so it remains the Government’s top priority to ensure we do all we can to support these institutions and the parties in finding a way through these current very serious difficulties.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement.
No one in this Chamber will wish to see the end of the progress made in Northern Ireland and no one will wish to see the Stormont House agreement fall. SNP Members stand ready to offer whatever assistance we can to all sides in finding a way forward. We believe that power should be exercised as close to the people affected as possible, and Stormont’s continued success will enhance that.
The withdrawal of parties from the Executive was a worrying development, and their re-engagement would be welcome. It would be a great blunder if the austerity cuts Northern Ireland is facing became the catalyst for the breakdown of the democratic institutions that have helped to hold the peace, notwithstanding the recent violence, and I urge the UK Government to redouble their efforts to find a resolution to this problem.
The parties in Northern Ireland have faced down greater problems than this and found ways forward. I think their perseverance and desire to serve their constituents well can be relied upon to provide a basis for a resolution, provided they have adequate support from Whitehall and this place.
The Government will want to see progress made, and I can assure them they will have the support of the SNP at all levels in helping Stormont build for the future. A fully functioning cross-party institution there seems, at the moment, to be the best option for all of us in these islands. I reiterate that if there is anything the Secretary of State feels we can assist with, we stand ready and willing to help in any way we can.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support. It is of course a worrying development that the UUP felt the need to withdraw from the Executive, but the priority now is for all parties to work together to try to find a way through this impasse.
The hon. Lady refers to austerity. We feel it is very important for the Northern Ireland Executive to have sustainable public finances. To do that, they need to deal with in-year pressures in their budget and to implement the Stormont House agreement provisions on welfare reform. These would give Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom, and overall public spending per head in Northern Ireland remains well ahead of the rest of the UK, rightly reflecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, but I am afraid that none of us in the developed world is immune to the difficult decisions that have had to be taken to deal with the deficit we inherited.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and the measured manner in which she has conducted herself in recent weeks. I was in Northern Ireland recently, and there is complete exasperation that local politicians, having come to an agreement with the Stormont agreement, have not delivered it. Every day that passes we see the ability to reduce corporation tax in Northern Ireland missed. We see projects missed and going instead to the Republic of Ireland, bringing jobs and investment there. There is real exasperation on the ground. What the Secretary of State has said has huge local support, and I encourage her to take an extremely robust line in talks. She will have the support of the people of Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that to impose welfare reform from here would be a cop-out, and now is the time for local politicians to deliver on their responsibilities to the local people who voted for them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I agree that the devolution of corporation tax could have a transformational effect in Northern Ireland. It is understandable that it has been the key ask of Northern Ireland’s leaders over many years. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his role in taking forward the campaign for corporation tax devolution. The opportunities provided by that are one more reason why it is so essential to find a way through here, because it is frustrating to see this great change—this potential economic game-changer—receding into the distance. It will never be possible to implement corporation tax devolution without a resolution on sustainable public finances, and that is one of the reasons why I will be working hard in the talks to resolve those questions.
As a result of the Chief Constable’s assessment arising out of the recent events in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be business as usual as far as the Northern Ireland political institutions are concerned? The Democratic Unionist party, speaking on behalf of many thousands of people who actually elect us in Northern Ireland, is very clear that this matter cannot be swept under the carpet, fudged or ignored. We are not prepared to continue as though nothing has happened. Murder has happened, carried out by those who are linked to a party of Government. Just imagine if that were to happen here—that a party in Government was linked to a paramilitary organisation still in existence whose members carried out murder on the streets of the United Kingdom. It is an intolerable situation and it must be sorted out at the talks. Serious consequences will flow from failure, striking at the very existence of devolution.
Does the Secretary of State accept the need to deal also with the criminality of the provisional republican movement and the paramilitaries? Does she also accept that one of the options—she has hinted at this already—that she may be forced to consider is to suspend the Assembly and the political institutions in order in the long run to restore and maintain any hope of the long-term viability of devolution and the Assembly?
The talks must also be about the implementation of the Stormont House agreement, not a renegotiation. I am referring to the remarks of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Instead of issuing a blanket condemnation of all Northern Ireland politicians, he and other Members of this House should realise there are parties in Northern Ireland who are prepared to move forward, make the difficult decisions and implement welfare reform, and that it is Sinn Féin and, sad to say, the SDLP that have blocked those decisions.
Let us be very clear about where the blame lies. It does not lie with all the politicians and political parties of Northern Ireland. This is now about getting on with implementing the Stormont House agreement, which all the parties, including Sinn Féin, signed up to. That is what must happen in these talks, or else we are going to have a very serious situation indeed.
I do recognise that it cannot be business as usual. That is why the Prime Minister has moved swiftly to establish this fresh talks process, to address with urgency precisely the questions the right hon. Gentleman has outlined. Of course, overshadowing all this is the fact that two individuals have been brutally gunned down on the streets of Belfast.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the matter of criminality among members of the Provisional IRA. Any criminality is to be condemned, whether or not it is committed by a member of a paramilitary organisation. Whatever label these people choose to give themselves they are criminals, and the PSNI has the Government’s full support in pursuing them and bringing them to justice and putting them in prison where they deserve to be.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned suspension. As I said in response to the shadow Minister, we do not feel it would be right to do that in the current circumstances. If those circumstances change dramatically in the future, we will of course keep all options open and consider them all.
I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s statement about the subject matter of the talks and the Stormont House agreement. We are not renegotiating; we are simply finding a way to relieve the blockage of implementation and make sure that the agreement is implemented in full.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on the calm and measured way in which she has dealt with this difficult situation. Having served in Northern Ireland three times, I am fully aware of the difficulties that she and many others face. I should also like to congratulate the police on the good work that they do. We all know that the Provisional IRA exists and that it is involved in criminal activities. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the fear of reigniting a conflict will not in any way prevent the police from chasing thugs on both sides of the political divide?
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I wish the Secretary of State well in her endeavours in convening the talks. We very much share her aspiration to see a fully functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland, although I have to say to her in all candour that I think the answer lies not in her hands but in those of the Northern Ireland parties themselves. She speaks of the possibility of suspension, but my understanding is that that would be next to impossible politically and that there would be significant legal impediments to its happening as well. What assessment has been made of those legal impediments?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I agree that resolving these questions lies primarily in the hands of the Northern Ireland parties and their elected leaders. There is no power on the statute book relating to suspension. If any future Government were to consider suspension, it would require primary legislation. That is not part of our current plans.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that she is doing, but may I press her further on the timetable? The Executive appear to be suspended in regard to meetings, but the budget and the Stormont House agreement need to be implemented. If the talks are unsuccessful, at what stage would my right hon. Friend come back with further legislation in this place to implement that budget and the legislation that is required?
The next four to five weeks are going to be absolutely crucial. These matters are very urgent, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members around the House. The Stormont House talks took 150 hours over 11 weeks, and it was Christmas eve before we nailed down that deal, but we do not have the luxury of that timetable this time round. We need a much shorter, sharper, more focused and more intensive process, and that is what I shall be seeking.
Will the Secretary of State tell us how this new round of intensive cross-party talks will be different from previous rounds of intensive cross-party talks, the last of which led to the Stormont House agreement? What has changed that makes her feel that these talks will be successful? Does she not feel that it is time to be planning for a properly working Assembly with an Opposition and a Government?
On that last question, the Conservatives have a commitment to supporting an official Opposition, and moves were made in that direction in the Stormont House agreement, which is one of the reasons that we want to see it go ahead. The hon. Lady asks whether these talks will be different from previous talks. In many ways, they will be very similar to previous ones, some of which succeeded while others did not. Another thing that they will have in common with previous cross-party talks is that even if we have a successful outcome culminating in an agreement, that will be just one step along the much longer road of getting implementation properly effected.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the Government’s continuing commitment to the peace process. Does she agree that peace will be dependent on having a stable devolved Government with a stable Executive and based on stable finances? Does she also agree that all the parties involved should be prepared to take the decisions necessary to deliver this, and not just some of them?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that success in Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to a stable, devolved, power-sharing Government. It is also hugely important for those who are part of that Government to take responsible decisions on the public finances. As we all know, they are often painful decisions, but the alternatives are far worse, as we have seen from the melancholy experiences of Governments around Europe who have lost control of their spending.
May I reassure the Secretary of State that the Social Democratic and Labour party has always taken responsibility, unlike others who have upset themselves and boycotted—[Interruption.] In spite of the hecklers behind me here, who have little constructive to offer, I should like to say that the SDLP still supports the Stormont House agreement, but that we reserve the right to amend the gaps and repair the flaws in it. The difficulty was that when my heckling friends produced a Bill, it was a flawed Bill. We tried to help them repair those flaws, but they would not tolerate those repairs. They refused even to consider constructive amendments to their flawed and inadequate Bill.
It is important to set the record straight. The SDLP will always uphold its responsibilities on every occasion, not just on the few occasions that suit party political purpose. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not the existence of the Provisional IRA—God knows, we in the SDLP have reminded her and her predecessor time and again that it continues to exist—but the activities and functions of that organisation that cause the problems? One person’s radically different purpose is another person’s mafia programme extending to a financial empire that undermines attempts to rebuild our economy. Does she also accept that withdrawal, abstentionism, suspension, adjournment and all these other gimmicks that are used, with threats and preconditions, make it difficult to arrive at a constructive and honest solution? We all want positivity, but we must all put our shoulder to the wheel and be positive all the time.
I must emphasise that these talks are not about a renegotiation of the agreement. We need to get the agreement implemented, and that is the priority. The hon. Gentleman mentions the forthcoming Bill, which will be on its way in October. We have been working hard on that and we have had helpful input from the Northern Ireland Executive. He is right to raise concern about the activities of members of the Provisional IRA. His party, along with others, has been forthright in criticising members of all paramilitary organisations. Recent events have brought into sharp focus the pressing need to see all paramilitary organisations disbanded. There is no place for them in Northern Ireland, and that subject will be an important part of the talks. On the question of funding for the Executive, I urge him and his party to be flexible and pragmatic. The deal in the Stormont House agreement was a generous one, and the welfare package would give Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the country and put the finances of the Executive on a sustainable basis. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.
The allocation of resources between different operations will be a matter for the PSNI; it is not a matter for me to interfere with. I emphasise, however, that the Government provide additional resources to the PSNI to counter the terrorist threat, and the fact of those resources’ presence means that the PSNI can release resources to pursue other activities, including this case.
Will the Secretary of State address the issue of criminality? Murder is wrong, and we abhor it. The reality is that the Chief Constable has clearly indicated that the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups are now effectively organised criminal gangs. This is not just a question of resourcing the PSNI. There have been no arrests in south Armagh in the past few years, despite the fact that a multimillion-pound criminal empire is being operated there by the Provisional IRA. Is it not time for HMRC to be given not only the necessary resources but the power to start arresting people?
On criminality, I have set out the Chief Constable’s position, which I share: individual members of the Provisional IRA are involved in criminality for personal gain and to pursue personal agendas. I have discussed this matter with the Chief Constable on a number of occasions, and his view is not that there is organisational involvement in criminality, save of course for the fact that existence involves criminal conduct, because it is a proscribed organisation.
On arrests, the Chief Constable has indicated that he wants a better clear-up rate on paramilitary beatings. They cause huge concern and often have fatal consequences, and it is utterly unacceptable for organisations to seek to take the law into their own hands. On arrests in South Armagh, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the PSNI, HMRC and their various security partners are working very hard to bring to justice anyone responsible for criminality, be it in South Armagh or in the rest of Northern Ireland. Indeed they are working with their partners to tackle those who seek to exploit the border and engage in criminal conduct south of the border, too.
The politicians from Northern Ireland are some of the most courageous politicians we have, and they have worked hard for years. It is good to see the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box, but it is even better when she is not at the Dispatch Box, because that means things are going well. Having a boring Secretary of State is rather useful, so it is sad that she has had to come to make this statement today. I wish to ask about the specific issue of welfare reform. Judging by the timetable she mentioned earlier, we could expect, if it is necessary, that this legislation will come back almost in the first week after the next recess. May I ask that we have enough time to scrutinise it, if it does come back, because there has been a tendency in the past to rush Northern Ireland legislation through quickly?
I agree that Northern Ireland’s elected leaders have achieved great things over the past 20 years and that in many ways it is better for Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland not to be at the Dispatch Box, because sometimes their being here means bad news, but there is much to celebrate in Northern Ireland. I have been at this Dispatch Box talking about economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, the great events that have been run there in recent years and the high quality of its education. We should not forget, even at this difficult time, that Northern Ireland is a great place to live—it has so much going for it. We just need to sort out these political impasses in order to let the place flourish as it should. On welfare reform, I assure my hon. Friend that this legislation will not be coming to the House in October. It is a last resort and we will be working with the parties to try to find a way through before we consider whether, in the end, we have no choice but to legislate at Westminster.
The Secretary of State has taken a two-strand approach. She clearly has a view on the welfare reform: if all else fails, she will have the nuclear option of legislating in this House. Has she a similar view on the issue of paramilitaries? How exactly does she see things moving forward in dealing with that? Does she have the resources in the Northern Ireland Office to help her to do the job that we all want her to do? By that I mean not just numbers, but the people with the capability, capacity and understanding to make it work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, which raise what will be one of the most urgent issues to address when the talks are held over the coming days: how we deal with this situation in relation to paramilitaries. We have heard one suggestion about whether we need a revival of the Independent Monitoring Commission—some form of re-verification and assessment so that people can have a clearer understanding of the facts around the continued existence and activities of the paramilitary organisations which persist in Northern Ireland. We also need to consider how we can work together as a society to do more to reach a place where these organisations disband once and for all.
I have the NIO resources I need. I have good people working with me in the NIO, but of course of crucial importance will be the determination, the resources put in and the efforts made by Northern Ireland’s political leaders. On matters where they are responsible, we will be working with the Irish Government, too.
The Secretary of State will have heard the comments from Members from all parts of the House about the frustration, the lack of confidence and so on. She has said that whatever resources are required to resolve a number of the issues to do with the murders or the criminality will be given, but the general public’s attitude is that these are words and we are not getting results. The criminality is costing the economy of Northern Ireland and the British Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds a year—the price of a new hospital. The frustration is there, so what more can she do to help the PSNI to resolve cases of fuel smuggling in South Armagh?
Various organised crime taskforces operate in the Northern Ireland context, and in a UK-Ireland context too, and they are determined to tackle those who seek to exploit the border for criminal gain in places such as South Armagh. We will continue to support those organisations. Obviously, much of that responsibility is devolved. I am afraid that is another reason why we need to settle the welfare reform question, because the longer it goes on, the greater the payments the Northern Ireland Executive are paying out in running the old system which is more expensive. That means less and less money is available for policing, hospitals and schools. That makes it very urgent that we get these questions resolved, because without a sustainable budget, no Government are able to deliver on their priorities, and those of course include law enforcement.
The Secretary of State has said that the Government recognise that it cannot be business as usual. Did she and the Prime Minister agree to the DUP’s plan for there to be no meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive over the next number of weeks as part of that “no business as usual”? Does she recognise that that could be perceived as, or could be a breach of, the ministerial code for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive?
I am anxious to see the devolved institutions continue and operate parallel to the talks. I encourage all parties to continue to work constructively. There is an important job to be done in the talks, both within the Executive and beyond, and I will be encouraging all parties to work together to keep the institutions going and to reach a successful conclusion to the talks.
Rather than share the shadow Secretary of State’s belief that some political Kyle Lafferty will pull a match-saver out of the bag, I believe it is more likely, given the attitude of some of the parties in Northern Ireland, that more own goals will be scored during the talks. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance today that if the rumours circulating at the moment in Belfast are true—that senior people associated with Sinn Féin are likely to be arrested for serious crimes—she will not hesitate to show the red card to those Sinn Féin associates and put them back behind bars, where they should be and from where they have been released under licence?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on specific matters relating to what future arrests might take place, but I reiterate that this Government believe firmly in the rule of law. Therefore, if the police have reason to believe that criminal offences have been committed by individuals, they must be allowed to pursue those individuals and bring them to justice, regardless of their political background or political status.
The Secretary of State knows that I have raised the issue of PSNI resources a number of times and, in particular, the Chief Constable’s view that he does not have the resources to do the whole of the job we are asking him to do. Does she believe there is any link between the increase in confidence and activity of the paramilitaries, and the cuts in funding and strength of the PSNI?
I believe the PSNI is still appropriately resourced to deal with the dissident republican threat. Like all other aspects of the public sector, the PSNI is needing to undertake a process of reform to ensure that it can continue to deliver its functions within reduced resources. As I said, one reason we need this question resolved is that the Northern Ireland Executive have a choice: do they spend ever more money on a more expensive and discredited welfare system, or can they release some of that money to support policing and justice? I believe that diverting that money to front-line public services is by far the better outcome, and that the welfare reforms we have introduced in Great Britain improve the system and reward work. As I have said, with the top-ups agreed at Stormont Castle, Northern Ireland would have the most generous welfare system in the country and would have resources to spare for the important priorities such as policing, which the hon. Lady is right to raise.
As I have emphasised, we do not yet know with any certainty who was responsible for the two recent murders. What we do know is that the continued existence of paramilitary organisations is a concern. I say “organisations” because there are still a number in operation. Their existence was never justified. They did huge damage, and took the lives of thousands of people, including Members of this House and many brave members of the armed services and the police. Their time is up and they should all disband. It is an appropriate time for Northern Ireland’s leaders to work together to bring about a complete end to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
When my constituent Kevin McGuigan was murdered over the summer, it not only precipitated the political posturing and cynical positioning of one party, the abject denial of responsibilities by another and the downright delusion of a third, but raised the spectre of paramilitaries on our streets once again. Last Thursday at the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Chief Constable said that it was not his job to provide an assessment of the paramilitaries or their criminal activity, yet when asked in a written question last year by our colleague, the Reverend William McCrea, the Secretary of State indicated that it was a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is right?
The Chief Constable has been clear that he does not propose to give a running commentary on the criminal investigation of his officers. That is not generally helpful to a successful criminal justice outcome. Whatever the political background, we should be understanding of the police for not wanting to share day-to-day details of their investigation. As for looking at the continuing status of paramilitary organisations, there is of course a split in the responsibilities. It is vital that the police pursue anyone who is responsible for criminal acts. Now is an important time to consider whether we need some form of separate process to look again at the question of what these organisations are up to, their status, what they are engaged in and what we can do to see them disband and stop altogether. That is an important part of what we will be addressing over the coming weeks.
I must say that I am very pleased indeed that the Secretary of State has taken this opportunity to confirm that her Government are committed to a fully functioning Assembly. For all its shortcomings, and the Assembly has many, it is infinitely better than direct rule. This House will be well aware that, over the worst of times, our Church leaders in Northern Ireland have provided a very valuable contribution to moving discussions along, and to chivvying people who might not otherwise have been open or easy to chivvy. In light of that, I wonder whether the Secretary of State has made any approaches to our Church leaders. If not, may I encourage her to do so? I should say that I have not forewarned them about volunteering them for this role.
The hon. Lady makes the most important point of the statement. It is hugely important that we support the devolved institutions. Yes, they are difficult. Yes, like any other Government, they have their bad days and their good days. It would be such a big setback to return to direct rule. It is vital that we do all we can to sustain that huge success that is the establishment of the political settlement and the institutions of Northern Ireland. That is why these talks will be so important. I have regular contacts with the Church leaders, but I am happy to get in touch with them now and take their views on these important matters.
The cornerstone of the political settlement reached in Northern Ireland was the three-stranded nature of the Good Friday agreement—relations within Northern Ireland, relations between the north and the south, and indeed east-west relations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are still committed to that approach and rule out taking any action to suspend the Assembly without the agreement and support of her partners in the Irish Government?
We are committed to the three-stranded approach, and I have set out the position on suspension. We do not think that it would be right to suspend in these circumstances. If the circumstances were to change significantly in the future, we would keep all our options open.
Along with colleagues on both sides of the House, I attended the Global Irish Parliamentarians’ Forum in Dublin last week. Will the Secretary of State expand on the role that she thinks the Irish Government could play in trying to unblock the current impasse?
The Irish Government are very enthusiastic about trying to move things forward, not least because they are a party to the Stormont House agreement. Paramilitary involvement has been the source of important discussions in an east-west context over many years, and successive Irish Governments have played a part in trying to find the right solutions in relation to paramilitary activity. I will be working with them and the Northern Ireland parties over the next few days to work out a way forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. The IRA army council continues to exist; the murder of Kevin McGuigan confirms that. Today, it has been confirmed that Kevin McKee and Seamus Wright, two of the disappeared, have been found in the Republic of Ireland, murdered by the IRA. The past and the present have caught up with the IRA, and therefore Sinn Féin. Confidence has been undermined to the greatest extent for many years and it needs to be restored. What assurance can the Secretary of State give to the people of Northern Ireland—those who are involved in the democratic political process—that the IRA army council will be brought to account for its control of republican terrorism?
As I have said, it is very important that the police are allowed to get on with their investigation and to pursue whoever they find evidence against regardless of their background or status. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the finding of two of the disappeared, which has been confirmed today. It will be a difficult day for those families. I hope that they will derive a degree of comfort in knowing that at last the remains of their loved ones have been found. As for confidence in the institutions, there is no doubt that that has been shaken. Both of the issues in the talks have contributed to that. The concerns felt over the events of recent days and the fall-out from the Kevin McGuigan murder have been intensified by the fact that relations within the Executive were so very severely strained anyway because of the decision to block the welfare reform within the Executive and the inability to deliver financial sustainability. These are difficult times, and it is important that we work together to find a way forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I had the pleasure recently of visiting and speaking with members of the International Fund for Ireland, which is an independent organisation that was established with the British and Irish Governments back in 1986. The fund promotes economic and social advance and encourages contact, dialogue and reconciliation between north and south. Reconciliation is the key word for all parties in moving forward. Perhaps it is time to bring organisations such as that around the table. To suspend the Assembly and impose direct rule is not the answer and should be used only as a last resort. I urge all parties to set aside their differences and to get around the table tonight and over the next few weeks to sort this out and move forward for the benefit of all the citizens of that island.
The International Fund for Ireland that the hon. Lady mentions and other such organisations engaged in community-based work in Northern Ireland already play a significant role in trying to bring different parts of the community together to build a shared society. That is part of the challenge of tackling paramilitarism; one of the ways that we tackle it is to persuade people that it is a hugely damaging choice to get involved with the paramilitary organisations. Organisations such as Co-Operation Ireland that are engaged in improving community relations can play a real part in showing people a different path and demonstrating the real risks and damage they can do to their prospects if they find themselves involved in paramilitary organisations.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement today and assure her that the Ulster Unionist party wants a proper working Government in Northern Ireland, not the dysfunctional Government we have at the moment. The public are fed u