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Northern Ireland

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Development

Last week, the Secretary of State and I met the Executive parties to review the implementation of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, and the economic pact. Commitments include devolving corporation tax and rate-setting powers, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This has the potential to have a truly transformational impact on the local economy.

I congratulate the ministerial team and the Department on their success in the creation of the economic pact, which has such a direct impact on Northern Ireland. What further steps can be taken to ensure that the Executive remain focused on how they can deliver those objectives?

The best thing we can do is to celebrate the fact that, under the recent spending review, the Chancellor put in place measures to see a 12% rise in real-terms funding for capital projects by 2021. That will mean over £600 million more will be available than if we had frozen funding at 2015-16 levels. That is good news for Northern Ireland infrastructure. Hopefully, it will mean the A5 and the A6 will start to progress and we can open up Northern Ireland for more foreign investment.

9. Does the Minister agree with the CBI and the trade union movement that the UK’s exit from the European Union would be damaging to economic development in Northern Ireland? Will he encourage his colleague the Secretary of State to argue for a yes vote? (903083)

There is a temptation in front of me. What I would say is that to date membership of the European Union has been good for Northern Ireland. I support the Prime Minister’s efforts to achieve reform. A reformed EU is where the United Kingdom wants to be: an EU that works for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom. If we can achieve that, we can take advantage of being neighbours of Ireland, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest economic partners, to make sure that the economy goes from strength to strength.

Later this week I will have the pleasure of visiting Royal Portrush golf course in Northern Ireland, which has been awarded the 2019 Open golf championship for the first time since 1951. Does the Minister agree that this is a tremendous achievement and opportunity for Northern Ireland? Will he work closely with the Executive and the golf club to ensure that it is a success similar to that in Scotland last year, which brought £140 million into the economy?

I am struck by how much effort Northern Ireland has made in trying to secure becoming the new home of golf. The marketing and promotion of golf courses in Northern Ireland is a real strength. [Interruption.] I know Scottish nationalists are so insecure about everything that they may take issue with that, but what is good for Northern Ireland and golf is also good for golf in Scotland. It will go from strength to strength. Major sporting events, whether horse-racing or golf, bring in real money in today’s economy.

I am sure we all look forward to visiting the Open in 2019.

Further to the Minister’s answer on infrastructure, will he undertake to speak to the National Infrastructure Commission and Treasury colleagues about transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? This is an important issue. Infrastructure spending is vital for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. This would be a very good way to ensure that more investment came to Northern Ireland.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are determined to maintain air links. For example, when British Airways purchased Aer Lingus, we both had conversations with it over the past few months to ensure there was no degrading of the service provided to people at both main airports in Northern Ireland. We will work very hard, in partnership with the Executive, to maintain it. We should also point out that today’s economic figures for Northern Ireland are tremendously successful. It is the eighth successive month of growth, according to the Ulster bank purchase managers’ index. Over the year, the claimant count is down by 11,000 in Northern Ireland, a fall of 22.1%, outstripping the rest of the United Kingdom.

I join the Minister in welcoming that news, and I certainly pay tribute to colleagues on the Northern Ireland Executive for their excellent work on the economy and the new First Minister’s commitment to making economic growth her first priority.

At the last Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State undertook to speak to the Chancellor about linking Northern Ireland to the northern powerhouse. This is a very important initiative, and I would welcome any news of progress on that front. Will the Minister update the House?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spoken to the Chancellor, who I think is considering the matter as we speak. I fully support the initiative. As a Lancashire MP, I certainly know the importance of our links with the west, including the Isle of Man and Belfast, via the ferry at Heysham, for example. I think we can both work to our mutual advantage on the northern powerhouse.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about EU membership, would the Minister care to comment on a study by an Irish think-tank last year that said:

“Estimates…suggest that a Brexit could reduce bilateral trade flows between Ireland and the UK by 20 per cent.”

and that

“the expected impact of Brexit is likely to be more significant for Northern Irish exporters to Ireland”?

The Minister will know that there is very real concern in Northern Ireland about the impact of withdrawal from the EU on trade, investment and funding for various projects, as other Members have already mentioned. An Economic and Social Research Institute report at the end of 2015 said that a Brexit would have “very serious consequences” for the Northern Ireland economy. Has he discussed this matter with the Northern Ireland Executive?

Obviously I have regular discussions with Ministers in the Executive and the south of Ireland. Of course, an economic free zone in the EU, which we are part of, is important to our trade, not only for England but in Northern Ireland. The ability of the 34,000 businesses in Northern Ireland to trade without barriers across the border to the south is very important to its economy. That is why the Prime Minister wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU. The first thing we can do is wait to see what those reforms are.

Notwithstanding that, the Minister will know there are very serious concerns in Northern Ireland about a possible Brexit, particularly because it is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU country. Will he reassure the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland on this matter, in view of the mixed messages on Brexit emanating from the ministerial team? In particular, I am talking about his views, as opposed to the Secretary of State’s.

There is no mixed message. Both I and my right hon. Friend are keen for the EU to produce some reforms, as is the Prime Minister in his strategy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows—perhaps he has a special hotline—what reforms the EU will agree. When those reforms are presented to the House, we will be able to make a decision. For my part, I believe that in the past membership of the EU has been good for Northern Ireland.

Legacy Issues

The cross-party talks in 2014 and 2015 have brought us closer than ever to a consensus on the best way to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I will work with the Northern Ireland parties, representatives of victims and survivors and the Irish Government to try to build the support needed to enable legislation to be brought forward to establish the bodies envisaged in the Stormont House agreement.

Former Eastbourne MP Ian Gow, who was murdered by the Provisional IRA, was remembered last year at a public speaking competition organised in my constituency to remember and celebrate his life and legacy, his courage and his conviction. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with schools in Northern Ireland to deal with the legacy of the past and bring about change in community relations?

My hon. Friend’s predecessor was a great parliamentarian, and I am sure the whole House will join her in thinking sadly of the atrocity that led to his death. The UK Government strongly support the programmes in Northern Ireland designed to build a shared society, many of which impact on schools and colleges. As a way of addressing the remaining difficulties, it is vital that we do all we can to break down past divisions so that sectarianism becomes entirely a thing of the past in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, sadly, there was no agreement on how to move the legacy issue forward, but money has been set aside, particularly for the proposed historical investigations unit. We have 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State at least make some of that extra resource available to the PSNI’s legacy unit to enable it to re-examine some of the pressing cases? People are getting older and they deserve justice.

As the right hon. Gentleman points out, the UK Government have committed significant sums to support dealing with the legacy of the past as we have in relation to shared society projects, to which I referred earlier. Our starting point is that the £150 million for bodies to deal with the past is intended for new bodies such as the historical investigations unit or the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, but we remain open to a dialogue with the Executive on whether it would be possible to use any of those moneys in advance of those new bodies being set up. It is vital that they are set up.

Will my right hon. Friend update us on what is happening to Soldier J and other former soldiers who were involved in the events in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, and tell us whether they continue to face prosecution? Let me impress it on my right hon. Friend that this is not simply a matter for the judicial authorities; it is a matter for her, and it is a matter of public policy for it is contrary to the interests of natural justice that men who have served their country should still, 44 years on, be facing possible prosecution.

I fully appreciate my hon. Friend’s grave concerns about this case. He will appreciate, however, that matters relating to police investigations and prosecutions are taken independently of Government and independently of politicians. My understanding is that that investigation continues.

Referring to the Secretary of State’s earlier answer, I have to say that it is all very well—I do not for a minute doubt her good intentions; nor would any other Member—but when will we actually hear some dates and some details? When will the legislation she mentions be brought to the Floor of the House, particularly in respect of those aspects of fresh start where there is agreement? How long must the victims continue to wait?

We hope to bring forward legislation fairly soon on those aspects of the fresh start and Stormont House agreements that have been agreed. The timing is less certain in respect of the legacy bodies because we were not able to build the consensus necessary for legislation. We did, however, close the gap on many issues. A key issue still to resolve is how the veto relating to national security will operate. I am determined to work with all sides to find a way forward. We have to protect our national security interests, but we will do all we can to ensure that that veto is exercised fairly in all circumstances.

As well as asking the Secretary of State to recalibrate her fixation on the national security issues, may I also ask her to consider using the current delay at least to allow for qualitative pre-legislative scrutiny of what will be sensitive legislation when it comes forward?

It is important to use this period constructively to engage with victims groups in particular. I had very useful discussions with the Victims’ Commissioner and with the Victims and Survivors Forum. We will consider in due course whether publication of documentation is appropriate. It is vital that we press ahead and build consensus to get these bodies set up and running.

Corporation Tax

3. What progress has been made on implementation of the proposed reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (903077)

The fresh start agreement reaffirmed the Government’s support for devolution of corporation tax powers, so long as the Executive are able to demonstrate that their finances are on a long-term sustainable footing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when tens of thousands of additional jobs and increased productivity and economic output over the medium and long term are at stake, we must not squander that opportunity?

I fully agree that the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland provides huge opportunities to attract new business and inward investment and to boost the economy. My hon. Friend is right, however, that it needs to be accompanied by broader economic reform, such as a focus on skills, universities and infrastructure.

While the devolution of corporation tax will be important in growing the Northern Ireland economy, does the Secretary of State agree that a vote to leave the EU would help the Northern Ireland economy insofar as it would release £18 billion every year for expenditure on public services, enable us to enter a trade agreement with growing parts of the world and release us from the stifling bureaucracies of Europe?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is tempting me to engage in arguments which will rightly be a matter for everyone in the country when they have an opportunity to vote in the referendum. We promised a referendum in our manifesto, and that is what we are going to deliver.

Does the Secretary of State agree that existing cuts in university funding, followed by further cuts, and a consequent significant reduction in the number of graduates who are suitably qualified to become employees of the inward investment companies that we are trying to attract, will frustrate much of the benefit that is expected from the reduction in corporation tax?

There is no doubt that the Northern Ireland Executive face difficult decisions, as do all Governments at a time when budgets are constrained. I believe it is important to focus on crucial economic areas such as skills, university and infrastructure. Perhaps there is a debate to be had about the way in which higher education is funded in Northern Ireland, but that, of course, is a devolved matter for devolved representatives.

Cross-border Crime

Along with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, the United Kingdom Government recently announced the creation of a joint agency taskforce to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime. It will enhance law enforcement co-operation in relation to, for instance, crime linked to paramilitaries.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement about the taskforce, but will she confirm that the fresh start agreement provides for additional funds from the United Kingdom Government to help to tackle continuing paramilitary activity?

It does. The fresh start agreement allocates £25 million for tackling paramilitary-related crime and £3 million for a new monitoring body, but it provides substantial additional funds for more widely based shared society initiatives, which are also crucial to ending the influence of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland once and for all.

We all know that, unfortunately, many organised crime groups on the island take advantage of the land border and commit the classic cross-border crimes of smuggling and excise evasion. The proceeds of those activities often go towards funding dissident groups. What efforts are my right hon. Friend and her ministerial team making to introduce preventive measures to eradicate such activities?

In Northern Ireland, huge efforts are being made by the PSNI to prevent the border from being exploited by criminals, and those efforts will be enhanced by the new joint agency taskforce, building on the excellent work already done by the police services both north and south of the border in recent years.

How concerned is the Secretary of State about the lack of convictions for fuel smuggling and, in particular, fuel laundering in Northern Ireland and the border regions?

Obviously, everyone would like to see more convictions. A crucial aspect of the fresh start agreement is the Executive’s commitment to measures that will reduce the time that it takes to bring people to trial, because convictions are more likely to be secured if trials take place in a timely manner. I am sure the Executive will take the implementation of that crucial part of the agreement very seriously.

Order. This is a very serious discussion of cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. We must hear Lady Hermon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will know that the Treasury has already announced the closure of a number of HMRC offices throughout Northern Ireland. Given that HMRC does a very valiant job in tackling cross-border crime, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give the people of Northern Ireland that those efforts will not be reduced if the offices are closed?

I am entirely confident that the changes relating to HMRC offices will not affect HMRC’s ability to tackle cross-border crime. Indeed, we will see an enhanced effort, not least because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the proceeds of that kind of crime can end up in the hands of terrorists.

VAT: Tourism and Hospitality

6. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the potential effect of a reduction in rate of VAT on the tourism and hospitality sector in Northern Ireland. (903080)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor. The Government have concluded that a VAT cut for the tourism and hospitality sectors could not produce sufficient economic growth to outweigh the revenue shortfall. It would need to be funded either by additional borrowing or by the raising of other taxes, both of which are likely to have a negative effect on the economy.

The case was successfully made for corporation tax, and rightly so, to attract investment into Northern Ireland. Surely a case could be made, for tourism and hospitality in Northern Ireland, to reduce VAT, especially in respect of the golf clubs, where there is an anomaly across the board?

I do not think there are many Members who would not like to see a reduction of the tax burden. Because of our long-term economic plan and the lifting of burdens on businesses elsewhere—the small business rate relief that is also available in Northern Ireland, the corporation tax cut, the freezing of national insurance contributions and employer contributions—we hope that, at least for tourism businesses and the hospitality sector, the cost of employing people and the other burdens can be lifted. That would help businesses to make their prices more competitive to encourage more people to take up the great offering of tourism in Northern Ireland.

I would also—[Interruption.]. I would also like to ask about VAT. Will he perhaps look at the thresholds—[Interruption.]

Order. I wanted to hear Mr Foster’s thoughts on VAT on tourism and hospitality, and it is very difficult to hear them. I hope the Minister heard; if not, blurt it out again man.

We will try again, Mr Speaker; thank you. I have heard what the Minister said about the rate of VAT. Does he agree that it might be worth having discussions about the thresholds, which may help smaller businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will write to the Chancellor and make his points clear to him.

Sexual Health and Family Planning

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the adequacy of women’s access to sexual health and family planning services. (903081)

Northern Ireland Office Ministers have had no discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on the adequacy of women’s access to sexual health and family planning services. However, Department of Health officials discuss sexual health matters with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Departments as appropriate. Sexual health advice and services in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter.

The Minister will be aware that women in Northern Ireland can, and do, travel to England for abortions on the NHS. However, they cannot access NHS abortions; they have to pay to go privately. Does he agree that this is an inequality issue between women in Northern Ireland and women who live in, say, England?

The hon. Lady points out an interesting anomaly, and in advance of today I have asked my officials to provide clarity. I do know that there is a court case pending—or before the courts—in Northern Ireland on that very issue. It is important that we get to the bottom of the differences between living in one part of the UK and another and what NHS services are available.

In the 11 years since 2004 Northern Ireland has seen a 47% increase in new cases of HIV while on the mainland it has fallen by 20%. The same situation applies to other sexually transmitted diseases. What discussions has the Minister had—or what discussions will he have—with Health Ministers here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is an overall regional strategy to address this?

I am very happy to have discussions with UK Ministers on that subject and certainly will write to my counterpart in the Executive to make sure that both we and the Executive are doing our fair share to make sure that we prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Exports

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on increasing exports. (903082)

The Government continue to work with the Executive towards rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, including through collaboration on increasing exports and trade co-operation. Northern Ireland exports were valued at £1.62 billion in the third quarter of 2015, the highest quarterly value since 2008.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Can she confirm that the Government will continue supporting stronger trade links between Hampshire and Northern Ireland, particularly given both regions’ strong manufacturing and maritime traditions?

We will certainly do that. Our long-term economic plan is working to boost trade within and outside the UK, as illustrated by the fact that the claimant count is down again in Northern Ireland in figures announced today. In total, since February 2013 there has been a fall of 40.2% in the claimant count in Northern Ireland.

This morning the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister in Northern Ireland announced over 50 jobs in my constituency, which is a start in an area of high unemployment. Will the Secretary of State use her influence in the Cabinet to ensure that, when there are overseas development and trade visits, Northern Ireland companies are included, to bring inward investment to Northern Ireland?

I can certainly do that. It is vital that UK Trade & Investment, in its work overseas to bring investment to the UK, champions the benefits of investing in Northern Ireland. It is a great place in which to invest, it has a tremendous record on inward investment and the UK Government are determined to see that continue.

Battle of the Somme: Commemoration

The Government’s events to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme will be held in Thiepval, France and in Manchester on 1 July 2016. Other regional events, including in Northern Ireland, are a matter for the local authorities and local communities. [Interruption.]

Order. We are discussing an important centenary of the battle of the Somme. The question from the hon. Lady must be heard and so must the answer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. In 1916, men from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division displayed great courage at the Somme, despite suffering huge casualties, with almost 2,000 men killed in the first hours of 1 July. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to liaise with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to commemorate the sacrifice made by those from both sides of the border?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is committed, along with the Taoiseach, to commemorating our past with mutual respect and understanding. The Secretary of State and I are working with Ministers in the Irish Government to mark the events of this decade. I have discussed these issues with a number of officials, and I regularly meet the culture Minister, Heather Humphreys; we often attend events together, as representatives of both Governments, in remembrance of those people who died. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has visited the Somme to remember what happened there, and it is important to note that both the south and the north had a shared experience and a shared history in the first world war, with both suffering while fighting for the cause of defeating the Kaiser.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. As we reflect on the Somme and move towards the centenary of the conclusion of the first world war, will the Secretary of State or the Minister engage across government with the Prime Minister to think of a suitable national memorial restoration fund to allow us fittingly to bring our cenotaphs and memorials across this country up to standard for the centenary?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and collectively the whole of the Government have heard his suggestion. It is important to remember the end as well as the beginning of the tragedy that was the first world war.