The Secretary of State was asked—
Northern Ireland Executive (Financial Position)
It is for the Executive to deliver a balanced budget and sustainable finances. The Stormont House agreement and last week’s fresh start agreement set out a range of measures to help them deliver that. These include implementation of welfare reform, measures to improve efficiency in the public sector and a new independent fiscal council for Northern Ireland.
Following the welcome agreement between Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish Governments last week, how confident is the Secretary of State that the Executive’s budget can be put on a sustainable footing, allowing a greater focus on value for money and public service delivery?
I am confident about those matters. Earlier this week, the House passed the welfare reform proposals needed to apply welfare reform in Northern Ireland, which will make a huge difference to financial sustainability, and which also made progress in the House of Lords yesterday.
The Conservative party is a strong supporter of devolution. Previous agreements with the Northern Ireland Executive make it clear that we are open to considering the devolution of further tax powers, but the Executive’s highest priority is the devolution of corporation tax, which we hope to press ahead with as soon as the Stormont House agreement conditions on financial sustainability are met.
The petition of concern advice in the fresh start agreement is not compulsory or binding on all parties, but does the Secretary of State agree that adherence to it will be important in enabling the Assembly to function properly and set a budget in a timely manner next year?
My hon. Friend puts his points well. I agree that it is important that petitions of concern are focused on those matters for which they were devised—where individual parts of the community need to be protected on equalities issues—and I believe that the protocol agreed under the fresh start agreement will help to focus them on matters for which they were always intended.
One of the most important things that the UK Government are doing to ensure sustainable public finances for the Northern Ireland Executive is implementing our long-term economic plan to deliver economic stability and prosperity. The Northern Ireland economy is growing, and these measures will help to support the Executive in their efforts to ensure that there are sustainable public finances.
Does the Secretary of State agree that without the fresh start agreement there would be no prospect whatsoever of a sustainable budget for the Northern Ireland Executive, which would lead inexorably to the return of direct rule, which would be bad for Northern Ireland and all its people? Does she also agree that the agreement provides for the most generous welfare system in the UK, provides help for hard-working families and sets a date for lowering corporation tax, which will help to create jobs and boost employment?
I can agree with all of that. I have made it clear that without the successful outcome of the talks and the fresh start agreement, we would have been on an inexorable path to the collapse of the institutions and a return to direct rule. I wholeheartedly agree that that would have been a major setback, and one that everyone in the House has striven to avoid.
Following the fresh start agreement, will the Secretary of State now talk to her Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Chancellor, about how, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, we can link Northern Ireland in with the northern powerhouse, to our mutual benefit?
That is a very good idea to consider, and I will certainly raise it with the Chancellor. The proposals in the economic pact agreed between the Executive and the Government a couple of years ago demonstrate that the two Administrations are working more closely together than ever before, but including a northern powerhouse element is a good idea.
Once again, I commend the Secretary of State for her work over the past few months, ensuring with all the parties that Stormont continues. As she knows, the bedroom tax and various other sanctions will not be imposed in Northern Ireland, which, for historical reasons, has a higher welfare spend than elsewhere in the UK. This will place a heavier burden on Northern Ireland than elsewhere. What plans do the Government have in place to back up the Northern Ireland Government should they struggle to fulfil these commitments?
A reasonable compromise was reached in the two agreements between the parties and the UK and the Irish Governments that welfare reform would be implemented with certain top-ups agreed. As we have heard this morning, that gives Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom. Although we will not pay for a more expensive welfare system in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, the block grant gives a public spending per head rate in Northern Ireland that is higher than anywhere else in the UK. That provides support for Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that Northern Ireland’s financial position cannot ever be sustainable or confident without a major prosperity strategy and an economic development plan that deal with the low skills, low pay and low productivity levels that we have?
I agree that a strategy on prosperity is crucial in Northern Ireland just as it is everywhere else. That is why we are pursuing our long-term economic plan and why the Executive are working hard to make Northern Ireland a fantastic place in which to do business. Recent examples of new jobs announcements are 800 jobs in Enniskillen from Teleperformance; 250 in Belfast from Intelling; and 87 in Ballymoney from McAuley Precision and McAuley Fabrication. The Northern Ireland economy is a great success story, and I think the Executive should take pride in the role they have played in that.
The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development issues. Indeed, I met Jonathan Bell, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment last Thursday on such issues. The fresh start agreement, signed only last week, reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to devolving corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This measure has the potential to have a truly transformative impact on the Northern Irish economy.
The one thing that Hampshire and Belfast have in common is the cruise ships in Southampton. I am delighted to say that there has been an increase in cruise ships using Belfast as a gateway to Ireland, where people can visit the fantastic Giant’s Causeway, the golf clubs and enjoy the Titanic Experience.
During the original Stormont House agreement, the Government committed themselves to supporting an enterprise zone and indeed a city deal, should one come forward. It is for the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward that city deal. My right hon. Friend and I are here to support that and make sure it happens.
Will the Secretary of State and the Minister have immediate discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to reinstate the renewables obligation so that the contacts that people already have can be facilitated and so that we can underpin the local rural economy in Northern Ireland?
Wherever I go in Northern Ireland, one of the major concerns that business raises with me is the need for improved access to broadband. According to a House of Commons Library research paper, as part of the Government’s £530 million investment over the past five years in the UK’s broadband network, English counties have received £294.8 million, Scotland has received £100.8 million, and Wales has received £56.9 million, whereas Northern Ireland received just £4.4 million. Will the Minister explain why that figure is so low?
I cannot answer exactly why the figure is so low other than to say that some of the responsibility lies with the Northern Ireland Executive and some obviously with the Government. I am happy to take up the low amount for broadband with the relevant Minister. It is important for Northern Ireland that that is improved.
My constituency has taken a real kicking from the loss of manufacturing jobs in recent days, and, indeed, in the past 12 months. In a recent statement, the business Minister promised that the Government would go the extra mile. Can the Minister give me any hope or encouragement this morning at Question Time for manufacturing jobs in North Antrim?
As I have always said to the hon. Gentleman, who is a doughty champion of his constituents and always campaigns to increase manufacturing in his constituency, I will try to help him. This morning and last week, I spoke to the Mayor of London, and I hope that there will be some good news very soon about Wrightbus and more orders to come.
National Procurement Contracts
Northern Ireland firms, like those in the rest of the UK, can apply for large public sector contracts through the Official Journal of the European Union. The Government have also set a target that one third of central public procurement spend is delivered by small and medium-sized enterprises. Government Departments and their Northern Ireland Executive counterparts are here to help companies benefit from improved access to public sector contracts, and that includes companies in Northern Ireland.
I know that the Minister, like me, is proud of the contribution that Thales, Bombardier and Harland and Wolff, which are in my constituency, make. However, following Monday’s strategic defence and security review, will the Minister, alongside the aerospace, defence and security group, undertake to organise a round table, where companies in east Belfast and across Northern Ireland can ensure that they avail themselves of the opportunities in forthcoming procurement contracts?
The hon. Gentleman is right that Northern Ireland’s skill base is perfect for increasing and exploiting its aerospace companies. I was delighted to visit Thales not long ago—it recently won another order in Malaysia. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise agrees that the hon. Gentleman has put forward a good idea, and I will be delighted to arrange that round table with him and my right hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is correct that SMEs suffer when bureaucracy is too great, and that is why the Cabinet Office has been leading the red tape challenge, which is designed to reduce red tape for small business. If we continue to progress on those lines, small business will have an opportunity to thrive and take advantage of the low corporation tax that will hopefully be delivered in 2018. [Interruption.]
Order. I can scarcely hear the Minister’s mellifluous tones, partly because there is too much noise and partly because the Minister understandably looked back at the person whom he was answering. His full visage should face the House—I feel sure that the House will benefit.
As a former aerospace worker, I know the extent to which delay can damage the supply chain. Under the leadership of our Defence Procurement Minister, we have improved defence procurement since I was working in aerospace and the previous Government were awarding contracts. I would be delighted to meet the heads of the hon. Lady’s businesses, and to ensure that they are getting an efficient service from the contracting Departments and that more business is done in Northern Ireland.
Stormont House Agreement
The fresh start agreement reached last Tuesday opens the way for implementation of a range of provisions in the Stormont House agreement on welfare and sustainable public finances, flags, parades and reform of the devolved institutions, including establishing an official Opposition, reducing the size of the Assembly and cutting the number of Executive Ministers.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the progress that she has made on implementing the agreement. However, there are many other aspects still to be implemented. Will she update the House on what action she is taking to ensure that the entire agreement is implemented forthwith?
I think that the fresh start agreement is a good deal for Northern Ireland. It is vital that we put the implementation of the Stormont House agreement back on track. It is, of course, a matter of regret that we were unable to agree on enough points on the legacy of the past to introduce legislation, as we had hoped to do, but we will be working hard on this matter, and I shall be meeting the victims commissioner and the Justice Minister next week to consider a way forward.
Will the Secretary of State work with members of my party to ensure that we continue to address the issues relating to the legacy of our troubled past? It is crucial that we do our best to provide support and care for the innocent victims, and that we find a way of enabling them to have access to truth and justice.
I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on these important matters. I believe it is very important for the institutions envisaged under the Stormont House agreement to be set up, because the current institutions are not providing good enough outcomes for victims and survivors. We need to do something about the current situation, and that is why we need to make progress.
That is a very good question, but I think we have already learnt from the problems relating to the Stormont House agreement, whose implementation was stalled a few months after it was established. Both the Northern Ireland Executive and United Kingdom Government have moved swiftly on the fresh start agreement. The Assembly has passed a legislative consent motion agreeing to a balanced budget in the Executive, and we in the House of Commons have pressed ahead with legislation on welfare reform.
Despite the best efforts of the parties and the Irish Government, and despite the welcome deal that was done last week, the victims, survivors and their families will be both frustrated and disheartened by the fact that measures dealing with the past could not be agreed. However, I am told that progress was made on the issue. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what the problem was, who disagreed, and whether any of the documents that were discussed can be published?
We will certainly reflect on whether it might be appropriate, in the coming months, to publish a draft Bill for consideration, but we would take no such steps without engaging in extensive discussions with the First and Deputy First Minister and with victims.
We made considerable progress on the issues of how the Historical Investigations Unit would work in practice and what sort of reflection in statute would be needed for the Implementation and Reconciliation Group. A number of issues were more or less resolved, although a key problem was establishing a mutually agreeable arrangement when it came to matters relating to national security. The Government made it very clear that we would provide the fullest possible disclosure for the HIU, but we have to ensure that documents that go from the HIU into the public domain do not jeopardise national security.
I thank the Secretary of State for what I thought was a helpful answer. As I have said, the planned Stormont House agreement Bill was supposed to include new mechanisms to deal with the past so that victims and their families could find out more about what happened during the conflict, to ensure that justice was done, and to provide better help and support for those who were affected. Is it not critical that that work is not lost or forgotten, and that we take it forward? How do the Government propose to do that, and will the families be included in the process?
As I have said, I think it important for discussions to take place with victims’ groups on charting a way forward. I also think it important for the issue not to be parked by the Northern Ireland parties pending the Assembly elections. We cannot let it rest for another year without taking action. We need to find a way to make progress, and we should try to retain the progress made in the Stormont House talks, which, as I have said, involved broad agreement on a number of important issues.
The recent political talks established significant common ground between the parties on dealing with the past, but, sadly, not enough to allow us to legislate at this point. We will keep working to achieve the necessary consensus to allow new structures for dealing with the past to be established.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the key ways of moving away from the past, and from the lure of paramilitary activity, is to improve the economy of Northern Ireland, which currently has a higher level of working-age inactivity than any other region in the United Kingdom? What measures are the UK Government taking to help the Assembly to improve employment opportunities for young people in particular?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a strong economy is key to more or less every other goal in government. Unless we have a strong economy, we cannot deliver the effective mechanisms for dealing with the past. The Government will continue to pursue their long-term economic plan to deliver opportunities for people young and old in Northern Ireland by creating new jobs: 33,000 more people are in work in Northern Ireland than in 2010. [Interruption.]
Order. I understand the sense of anticipation in the Chamber at this time on a Wednesday, but I point out that we are talking about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. Out of respect for the people of Northern Ireland, if for no other reason, a seemly atmosphere would be appreciated. Let us hear Mr David Simpson and the Minister’s reply.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that, whatever settlement is agreed on the legacy of Northern Ireland, the victims are paramount in this, as has already been mentioned. Does she agree that no one, but no one, should be allowed to rewrite the history of Northern Ireland when we make that settlement?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It would be unacceptable to set up institutions that facilitated attempts to rewrite history. That is why the Stormont House agreement has written very clearly into it that new bodies must be objective, fair and impartial in all the work they do.
My right hon. Friend was not here in the House last week when I pressed my urgent question about the arrest of Soldier J, formerly of the Parachute Regiment. In answer, her excellent and gallant Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the Secretary of State and the Irish Government had decided, on legacy issues, that the best future is to move forward and not back. Does she agree that to prosecute, nearly 50 years later, former British soldiers now in their late 60s and 70s who have done their best to serve their country would be an injustice?
I am of course very much aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing concern about that case. He will appreciate that decisions on policing and prosecution are rightly matters for the police and prosecuting authorities entirely independent of Ministers, but I reassure him that I am absolutely confident that the Police Service of Northern Ireland will approach that sensitive case with all the principles of objectivity, fairness, impartiality and respect for human rights that it displays in all its work.
Does the Secretary of State recognise not just that dealing with the past is what we owe to victims, but that people want to know that we have not simply replaced the years of dirty war with a dirty peace? Does she recognise that, in the light of the serious questions raised by the “Spotlight” programme last night, the strictures she is placing on national security could suppress the truth not just about what state forces and state actors did, but about what paramilitary forces and paramilitary actors did during the troubles?
The UK Government are committed to the Stormont House agreement provisions on the past. We do think that they need to be set up, that it is important to give clearer answers to victims who suffered as a result of the troubles and to do all we can to pursue evidence of wrong-doing. However, I emphasise that I believe the vast majority of the police and armed forces in Northern Ireland during the troubles carried out their duties with exceptional courage, bravery, integrity and professionalism, so I wholly dissociate myself from the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of this as a “dirty war”.
The terrorist threat in Northern Ireland continues to be severe. It is being suppressed through effective and dedicated work by the PSNI and MI5, but the need for a high state of vigilance remains.
So that paramilitary organisations no longer have a place in Northern Ireland, it is important to deter people from joining them in the first place. What measures are being taken to prevent vulnerable young people from joining paramilitary organisations?
There are already a number of excellent programmes run by charities such as Co-operation Ireland to deter young people in Northern Ireland from a life of crime or association with paramilitary organisations. The fresh start agreement makes a stronger commitment to increase these programmes, so that young people are shown an alternative path and not drawn into association with terrorism, paramilitary organisations or crime.
Those groups have lethal intent and lethal capability. They have been responsible for 150 national security attacks over the past five years. The threat from those groups is being suppressed by highly effective activity in the PSNI, aided in many instances by the Garda Síochána in cross-border activities.
It is entirely unacceptable that any paramilitary organisations continue to exist in Northern Ireland. I believe that the fresh start agreement will mark a turning point and put us on the path to a day when those organisations are consigned once and for all to Northern Ireland’s past and have nothing to do with its present or its future.