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Northern Ireland

Volume 606: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on increasing the level of exports from Northern Ireland. (903780)

The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with Executive Ministers on a range of issues impacting the Northern Ireland economy. I welcome the recent visits to Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and the Mayor of London to see at first hand the businesses and people who make the country’s strong export record a reality.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to increase the number of companies in the UK that export by 100,000 by 2020. What steps are being taken, alongside the Executive, to ensure that Northern Ireland plays a major role in achieving that target?

As a consequence of both the Northern Ireland Executive’s efforts and this Government’s long-term economic plan, I am delighted to report that Northern Ireland’s exports have grown 4% over the year—higher than those of any other country in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland employs about 100,000 people. Will she assure us that she will work alongside Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to try to find new markets, which are essential to the agri-food sector, such as India, Mexico and Brazil?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the agri-food business. Indeed, on Monday night my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Moy foods, one of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland. New markets around the world are key to growing the agri-food business, not only in the EU but in China and elsewhere. That is why I am delighted that in May the GREAT campaign to promote Britain and United Kingdom exports will be visiting Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to help that promotion to go from strength to strength.

Will the Secretary of State commit to commissioning research into the possible effects of leaving the EU on Northern Ireland’s exports and wider economy? Will she further commit to making a statement to the House on the economic effects on Northern Ireland of a UK withdrawal from the EU thereafter?

The Government are very clear that being in the EU makes us better off, stronger and safer. I do not think that we will be diverted by commissioning external reports about what may or may not happen. The United Kingdom knows exactly what being in the EU looks like, because we are in it now. The reforms that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has got will achieve that goal.

Earlier this week, a Cabinet Office report was published that stated that leaving the EU would result in the imposition of customs checks at the Irish border. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State accept the assessment of the Cabinet Office? What impact do the Government expect customs checks to have on Northern Irish exports to the south—and this is being positive?

Of course, as a member of the Government, I accept the Cabinet Office’s views. We should not forget that Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long-standing agreement, the common travel area, which would mean that certain barriers would not be in place. However, should we leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union, and that will inevitably lead to some form of extra barriers to trade.

I do not know how the Minister keeps a straight face in some of his answers. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State is again avoiding answering these questions on the economy. Has the Minister discussed with Executive Ministers the survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, which showed that 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland support continued EU membership? Is it the case that there is little surprise in that finding, given that 60% of Northern Ireland’s exports—a higher percentage than in any other part of the UK—go to the EU?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I discussed that with the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce at a reception on Monday night in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know how I keep a straight face, let me tell him that I look across the Dispatch Box at two Labour Members who are in favour of replacing Trident, and I remember that their leader has no intention whatsoever of using it or replacing it. [Interruption.]

We are all amazed by the Minister’s response. That really was going to the bottom of the barrel to try to find something to say.

Building on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), has the Minister discussed with Ministers in the Executive the fact that more than a third of exports to the EU—well over £1 billion a year—go to the Republic? She referred to a report. The Government report was published today, and her remarks are supported by the Newry chamber of commerce. There are very real concerns about customs checks having to be put in place at the border, because that would be a border between the UK and the EU. I discussed that last night in Belfast with Nigel Farage. We had a big debate about it. Let me say to the Minister that it deserves a better answer than, “It’ll be all right on the night.”

I think I would rather have seen Adele last night, who is playing in Belfast, than Nigel Farage.

The United Kingdom Government believe that we are better off, stronger and safer if we stay in the EU. Of course we do not want barriers to further trade. We recognise the importance of trade across the border to the Republic of Ireland. I can say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are absolutely united in making sure that Northern Ireland business prospers and does the best it can, because this Government’s long-term economic plan will ensure that exports and domestic trade flourish.

Organised Crime

The UK Government are supporting the fight against organised crime through the police funding delivered through the Northern Ireland block grant, the £25 million to tackle paramilitarism due to be provided under the fresh start agreement, and the work of bodies such as the National Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The £160 million of additional security funding will support efforts on organised crime because of the involvement of terrorist groupings in that form of criminality.

In the fresh start agreement, the Executive committed to undertake a public awareness campaign to increase public understanding of the harm done to all communities by paramilitarism and organised crime. Given the impact that that has on businesses, will my right hon. Friend encourage the Executive to proceed quickly down that path?

A theme that came out strongly from the fresh start talks was the need for a whole community approach to tackling the problems of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland in order not only to continue the excellent work of the police and their security partners, but to ensure that the public are well aware of the harm done by organised crime and are supported in their efforts to give the evidence necessary to bring individuals to justice and put them in prison, where they deserve to be.

Since the National Crime Agency has, at long last, become operational in Northern Ireland, what efforts have been made to seize the assets of those involved in organised crime and reinvest them in community projects in Northern Ireland?

The NCA takes its duty to seize criminal assets very seriously. In that work, it will be assisted by the new joint agency taskforce on cross-jurisdictional crime, which will be established from April. It will consist not only of the NCA, Border Force, the immigration service and HMRC, but of the Irish Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau. That will significantly enhance the excellent efforts already being made in Northern Ireland on these matters under the Organised Crime Task Force.

Fuel laundering and smuggling is part of organised crime. What recent assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the fuel marker that has recently been introduced, and is she convinced that it will be effective enough?

The fuel marker Accutrace was introduced in April 2015. A six-month report on its use was deposited in the Library of the House in November. The review suggests that the new marker is having a very positive effect. It is too early to say whether the reductions are sustained and to establish causality, but the results are positive so far.

With the number of police officers halving over the years, the number of groups involved in organised crime has more than doubled to 150, or possibly more. Does the Secretary of State see any significance in that?

I would emphasise that Belfast, and Northern Ireland, is one of the safest places in the world. There is a significant problem with criminality related to paramilitarism and of course a lethal threat from terrorists, but the UK Government are absolutely determined to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the brilliant work it is doing. The PSNI is assisted by the very strong co-operation with An Garda Siochana in bringing to justice those who seek to exploit the border for criminal purposes.

Organised Crime

3. What discussions she has had with Ministers of the Irish Government on cross-border efforts to tackle organised crime. (903782)

In December, I attended a trilateral cross-border ministerial meeting with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. We agreed new measures to enhance law enforcement co-operation. A joint agency task force to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime has been created in line with the fresh start agreement.

While accepting that there are political uncertainties in the south as a result of the elections, does my right hon. Friend agree that the north and south face similar difficulties in combating crime, managing offenders and supporting victims, and that it is in everyone’s best interests that the Administrations of the north and south work closely together?

I agree entirely. Security co-operation between the UK and Ireland is better than it ever has been. I believe that it is saving lives every day in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

It is a stain on our efforts to frustrate cross-border crime that, after decades of fundraising for and running the Provisional IRA, it took the Irish Republic to secure an Al Capone-style conviction on Thomas “Slab” Murphy. Does that not highlight the fact that much more needs to be done to frustrate not only those who proliferate across the border, but those who support and fundraise for ongoing terror in Northern Ireland?

The work that has been done by the Organised Crime Task Force and the PSNI over recent years in Northern Ireland is exceptional and very effective. I am convinced that the new strategy for paramilitaries in the fresh start agreement, in which the political parties went further than ever before in condemning paramilitary activity in the most forthright terms, and the cross-jurisdictional arrangements that were set up in the agreement will make Northern Ireland an even safer place than it is today.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products could lead to an increase in cross-border organised crime?

It is hugely important that the police do all they can to tackle tobacco smuggling and I know that it is taken very seriously. It may be something that can be considered by the new joint agency task force on cross-border crime. It is a serious crime and those who buy illegal cigarettes are supporting and funding evil criminals who are involved in significant violence. It is not a victimless crime and I urge everyone to avoid purchasing such products.

There was clearly a cross-border dimension to the horrific events of August 1998 in Omagh. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I, and I am sure the whole House, extend our profound sympathies to the friends and families of those who lost their lives on that terrible day. The Secretary of State has referred to cross-border co-operation and said that the relationship between An Garda Siochana and the PSNI is at an historic high. Will she commit, here and now, to bend every sinew to extend and solidify that relationship, because we must never, ever allow an intelligence breakdown to occur again?

I can, of course, give the commitment that the UK Government and, I am sure, the Northern Ireland Executive will do everything in our power to enhance the co-operation between north and south, which is crucial. I associate myself with the comments of sympathy, support and condolence to the victims of one of the vilest atrocities that has ever taken place.

Economic Development

4. What recent discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development in Northern Ireland. (903783)

I hold regular discussions with Executive and Government Ministers on a range of economic issues. Our long-term economic plan continues to deliver for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing, there are 46,000 more people in employment today than in 2010 and wages are up by more than 5% over the year.

I welcome the recent news that 10,300 fewer people in Northern Ireland were claiming jobseeker’s allowance last month than in January 2015. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a clear indication that the economic pact is working?

The economic pact that was signed between the Executive and the Government means that we are working more closely than ever before to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost jobs. Unemployment is down by more than 40% from its peak in February 2013 and progress is being made towards implementing the devolution of corporation tax, which shows that working together between our two Administrations is effective in delivering for Northern Ireland.

I welcome the very good news on the economy in Northern Ireland, but in the light of the recent job losses in the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland, with companies identifying high energy costs as one of the impediments to manufacturing growth, will the Secretary of State say what she is doing, along with the Executive, to tackle that issue?

I have discussed that matter with the Executive and companies such as Michelin on many occasions, and I appreciate their concerns. It is also right to acknowledge the grave concern that people affected by redundancies at Bombardier will have. It is important to acknowledge that Bombardier is clear that that was part of a global restructuring, and that there was nothing that the Government or the Executive could have done to change its decision. However, it is also worth noting that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is strong and growing.

For our part, as leaders in the Northern Ireland Executive, we will continue to drive forward economic growth in conjunction with the Government here. Tourism is a major and important factor in driving that growth, and the Executive have invested heavily in, for example, Titantic Belfast and bringing major events to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State help us by reducing VAT on tourism and air passenger duty? That would really drive forward our region economically.

The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that EU law constrains us from reducing VAT on those matters. However, I am committed to doing all I can to bring more tourists to Northern Ireland, which is a fabulous place to visit. In particular, the Executive’s investment in Titanic Belfast has been an outstanding success.

13. I thank the Secretary of State for her answers so far. However, although she can speak eloquently, and we are all very pleased about the economic development that has taken place, does she agree about the need to work more closely with Northern Ireland MPs and the Executive to establish a much more robust economic strategy to regenerate the economy and stimulate job creation, rather than a series of disconnected policies?


Closer working between Ministers and MPs is always desirable. The economic pact gives us a strong platform for doing that. We have brought the economic pact implementation into line with the process for implementing the fresh start and Stormont House agreements, and that gives even more scope for working closely with the hon. Gentleman’s party and others to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy thrives into the future.

Executive: Sustainable Finances

5. What steps she is taking to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive's financial position is sustainable. (903784)

The Stormont House and fresh start agreements set out a number of measures to assist with the sustainability of the Executive’s finances. These include packages of financial support of around £2.5 billion, implementation of welfare reform, and measures to improve the efficiency of the public sector.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a major threat to the sustainability of the Executive’s finances if her view prevails and the UK leaves the European Union?

My colleague the Minister has stated the Government’s position on those matters. The Northern Ireland Executive’s finances are on a more stable footing than they have been for many years. As a result of the fresh start talks, we have settled a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions. The Labour party should support us in maintaining that financial sustainability.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on Northern Ireland’s financial position of leaving the European Union? What assessment have her civil servants made of it, and is she allowed to see it?

The Government are publishing several documents setting out their position on the European Union. As I have said, we should welcome the dedicated work of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland political parties to settle a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions and a return to direct rule, which would have been a major setback.

The question was supposed to be about the financial position of the Northern Ireland Executive. The hon. Gentleman is, as he knows, a very cheeky chappie.

The Federation of Small Businesses indicates that some 32,000 jobs will be created by the corporation tax provisions, which the fresh start agreement secured. Sixty per cent. of those jobs in Northern Ireland are in the small and medium-sized business sector. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses benefit from the corporation tax reduction?

I have had many discussions over the years with the Executive and Invest NI on those matters. We believe that the devolution of corporation tax could have a hugely positive impact on the Northern Ireland economy, including for small businesses.

Disadvantaged Children

6. What discussions she has had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on programmes to support the most disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland. [R] (903785)

This Government are committed to improving the life chances of disadvantaged children by addressing worklessness and improving educational attainment. These are largely devolved issues in Northern Ireland, where the Executive have the powers to address child poverty in areas such as health, education, housing and childcare.

The hon. Gentleman does not need to declare his interest in the context of a question. In any case he has already done so, so he can bang on with his question.

Is the Minister aware of the Shankill children and young people’s zone in Belfast, a programme embedded in the community that aims to address generational disadvantage in the area? Is the Minister willing to meet the zone organisers and share the lessons being learned more widely?

Yes, I am aware of that organisation. I was on the Shankill yesterday visiting two business parks, the Argyle business centre and Duncairn Gardens, in that very sensitive part of north Belfast. I would be delighted to meet them, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to come along too, he would be welcome.

Does the Minister accept that the changes to the welfare system will mean even more disadvantaged children in Northern Ireland?

No, I do not accept that. The changes to the welfare system have proved that what we should do is make work pay. It is having a positive effect, as we see an increase in employment in Northern Ireland. More people and families are going out and securing a wage. That is the best way to lift people out of poverty.


7. What steps the Government are taking to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services in tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland. (903787)

10. What steps the Government are taking to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services in tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland. (903791)

Keeping people safe from terrorism is one of the Government’s highest priorities. The PSNI and its security partners have our fullest support. Funding for the intelligence services will increase significantly over the course of this spending review. The PSNI will also receive an additional £160 million to combat the security threat. [Interruption.]

Order. I remind the House we are discussing terrorism in Northern Ireland. These are extremely serious matters and I hope Dr Offord will be heard.

I welcome the new commitment to a pledge of office, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the passive acceptance of values is not sufficient, and that there must be an active fulfilment of them?

I agree that both the pledge of office and the fresh start agreement itself will be judged on implementation. Experience in Northern Ireland says that making a declaration or getting an agreement is only part of the journey. We are determined to see the fresh start agreement implemented in full. Implementation is going well, not least with the establishment of the panel to set out the strategy against paramilitarism.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to recognise the tireless work of the PSNI and MI5, whose efforts continue to ensure that the vast majority of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland remain unaffected by dissident threats?

I can certainly do that. They have our fullest support, as set out in the Conservative manifesto for Northern Ireland. Their courage and dedication is saving lives in Northern Ireland on a daily basis. They remain one of the main targets for attacks by dissident republican groupings, but they put their own safety on the line to defend the whole of the community.

12. If, as the Secretary of State wants, we withdraw from the European Union, what assessment does she think the PSNI will make of the loss of the use of the European arrest warrant? (903793)

The Government’s position on these matters is clear and has been set out in a number of documents published in recent days. What we are all agreed on is the essential nature of the co-operation on security matters between the UK and Ireland, and the crucial importance of that continuing, whatever the result of the referendum.

Will the Secretary of State do what she can to unite the community in support of the police against terror? Does she agree that that job would be made much easier if senior police officers, who this week took a decision to relocate memorials to murdered colleagues away from public-facing positions in police stations into back offices, reconsider that decision and relocate them, and ensure that the campaign against terror gets support right across the community?

I will certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s point about the location of police memorials, but it is crucial to build support for the PSNI across the community. Support is at one of its highest ever levels and I welcome that fact.


The Government remain committed to working with the Executive and rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working and delivering for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing; there are 46,000 more people in employment than in 2010; and wages are up more than 5%.

The Government recently set up an independent National Infrastructure Commission to ensure a long-term view on key infrastructure projects. What work is the Minister doing to ensure that the infrastructure commission is of benefit to the Northern Ireland economy, and can he name some specific infrastructure projects that it will undertake?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been in touch with Andrew Adonis to ensure that the commission is UK-wide. I am also delighted that, because of the efforts of the Government and the Northern Ireland parties through the fresh start agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive are well on their way to investing in new infrastructure for Northern Ireland, including hopefully work on the A5, the M2, and the A6 up to Derry, and Northern Ireland will get a 21st century road network that will improve economic development.