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House of Commons

Wednesday 20 February 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Paramilitary Organisations

1. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the activities of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. [186568]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Independent Monitoring Commission reports provide assessments of paramilitary organisations. The most recent report indicated that dissident republicans continue to pose a real threat, while the Provisional IRA is not involved in terrorist activity. Loyalist organisations clearly need to underpin their encouraging statements with actions.

Mr. Mackay: It is clear that there is still a serious paramilitary problem, as the Secretary of State acknowledges. Would he care to comment on the sad case last week of Andrew Burns, a 27-year-old, who was dragged from Strabane over the border and murdered? Does the Secretary of State have any information that he can give to the House?

Mr. Woodward: I understand the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman makes his point in relation to the murder of Andrew Burns last week. He was a 27-year-old single man from Strabane who was shot twice in a church car park on 12 February. The murder was of course roundly condemned by all politicians, including the Deputy First Minister, who very clearly said that he gave his wholehearted support to the Garda and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their investigation. To date, no arrests have been made, but a police investigation is under way. As soon as I can give the right hon. Gentleman details of the investigation, I will be happy to do so.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that loyalist paramilitary activity is still a serious threat to our society and that the refusal of the people involved to call a ceasefire, to disarm and to disband requires immediate and full security and policing attention? What additional actions and pressures does he intend to employ, rather than the continuation of what appears to be the current laissez-faire attitude towards such organisations?

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Mr. Woodward: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about his concern in relation to the threat from dissident loyalists. The most recent IMC report spoke about the pace of change remaining far too slow. I believe none the less that there is a genuine desire to make progress among the communities involved. It is important that, while we are not for one moment complacent about the threat posed by some loyalist individuals, huge advances are none the less being made. It is essential to recognise that the communities that are being held in the grip of paramilitary activity need every encouragement and help that we can find to ensure that they roundly turn on those who refuse to give up the ways of the past.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of the IRA’s so-called army council is unacceptable and that it poses a threat to the devolved institutions? Will he join me and my colleagues today in calling for its immediate disbandment?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is more than familiar to and shared by many people. I would go as far as to say that all hon. Members and all people want those paramilitary vestiges of the past to be expunged as soon as possible. The critical issue here, though, is cross-community confidence. It is worth reminding him, and indeed all hon. Members, of the IMC’s firm view that PIRA is committed to the political path and of the fact that the IMC has no evidence to believe that PIRA will be diverted from that path. Therefore, the critical issue that has to be addressed is one of confidence.

I believe that there is growing confidence in Northern Ireland that we are now able to move to the second stage of devolution and to devolve policing and criminal justice. The sooner that is done, the sooner we will expunge those vestiges of the past, in every form.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): The Secretary of State’s predecessor introduced a scheme for conflict transformation in Northern Ireland to assist loyalist paramilitaries to move away from violence and into peaceful mode. Can he say, on the basis of any security analysis that is available to him, whether he believes that that initiative is working?

Mr. Woodward: I believe that the initiatives, which include the conflict transformation initiative, have been helpful in enabling communities to get themselves out of the grip of paramilitary activity. It is important to distinguish between the individuals who are involved in paramilitary-style behaviour and the communities that are in the grip of that behaviour. The money that was found for the conflict transformation initiative was money to help the latter.

As far as we are able to assess, considerable progress is being made by communities to get out of that grip, but there remains a duty on us all to help in any way we can any community that wants to leave behind the past and those vestiges of the past in relation to paramilitary activity, enabling it to do so and to move into the shared future, and a prosperous, peaceful future too.

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Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): In view of the murder last week near Strabane, the attacks on police officers last year and the threats mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his policy to approve all applications by the police to carry out intercepts?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman brings together a number of issues. There is an ongoing threat that we need to tackle, but we also need to understand that interception or any other sort of surveillance will always be done in compliance with the law and the oversight of the relevant commissioners.

Mr. Paterson: In the light of that helpful reply, will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that intercept evidence will be admissible in Northern Ireland courts, in accordance with the recommendations of the Chilcot review?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to Chilcot’s work on intercept evidence. In my view, we should try, as far as we can, to include Northern Ireland in the implementation of the Chilcot recommendations for England and Wales. I am ensuring that those involved in the Chilcot follow-up that now takes place will look at Northern Ireland and, wherever possible, include it in the proposals that are made.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State says that he now wants to move on to the next stage of devolution—the devolution of policing and criminal justice—and my party shares that aspiration, but does he not accept that the continuing failure of some who hold elected office in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and accept the paramilitary involvement in the murder of Paul Quinn and Robert McCartney, and the subsequent disgraceful treatment of their families, makes the realisation of that aspiration very difficult?

Mr. Woodward: Making progress on the next stage of devolution will be difficult. The St. Andrews agreement lays out a way forward and includes a timetable, but, critically, it is a matter for local politicians in Northern Ireland to agree on moving forward to the next stage. There are those in Northern Ireland, however—I do not include any elected politicians—who do not want progress to be made. They are small in number; they have no support in the community; and they are, by and large, characterised by dissident republican activists and those who would be involved in criminal activity—the sort of activity that led to the brutal murder, condemned by everybody, of Paul Quinn. The choice for politicians in Northern Ireland is this: do we allow those who would be involved in crime or the sort of activity that led to the murder of Paul Quinn to determine the future of everyone in Northern Ireland? I do not think that we should. I think that we should move to the next stage and leave those who commit crime and murder to be dealt with by law and put away in prison, where they belong.

Economic Prospects

2. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the prospects for the economy of Northern Ireland. [186569]

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The prospects for the economy in Northern Ireland are extremely good as a result of the peace process and stage 1 of the St Andrews agreement. I am sure that the completion of stage 2 will send a strong signal to attract further additional investment to Northern Ireland.

Ann Winterton: Sir David Varney’s recently published review of tax policy in Northern Ireland highlighted the challenges facing local businesses. What discussions have the Government had with the relevant Northern Ireland Minister on assisting small business to grow and on sustaining that growth, thereby reducing dependency on the public sector for employment?

Mr. Woodward: By and large, those are now matters for the devolved Assembly, the Executive and the Finance Minister and his colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, I say to the hon. Lady that if we look at the economy in Northern Ireland today, we see that unemployment has halved, the growth rate is the second highest in the UK, exports have increased and Belfast today attracts more inward investment than any city in the UK other than London. The Assembly and the Executive are taking enormous strides to attract inward investment, and the Government’s policy is to do all that we can to assist them in future.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has outlined the record of the booming economy in Northern Ireland. What specific measures are being taken to ensure that the new-found prosperity in the north is reaching the poorest communities by removing barriers relating to transport and affordable child care, for example, and by upgrading skills?

Mr. Woodward: Many of those issues are now matters for the Assembly and the devolved Departments, and they must make their own decisions about the allocation of money. I commend the budget and the work being done by the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland to ensure that the settlements that are being produced are fair for every Department and that they recognise the need for the prosperity in Northern Ireland to be shared by everyone in all communities and not just by the few.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I and my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive have put growing the economy at the centre of the programme for government, and we are putting investment into that objective. We acknowledge the role that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have played in regard to the forthcoming investment conference in May. In relation to fiscal and other tax changes and reforms, does he agree that the Treasury and others could do more to help Northern Ireland, given its unique position in sharing a land border with the Irish Republic, our strongest competitor for foreign direct investment? Does he accept that more could be done to put Northern Ireland on a level playing field in that regard?

Mr. Woodward: I am sure that there is always more that could be done by any of us, in any field of public life. In relation to investment in Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman has spearheaded the preparations for
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the investment conference that is to be held in May, in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the Government in America, continue to take a close interest. I believe that it will be a very successful conference, and that will be in no small part due to the work of the hon. Gentleman.

In regard to what more we can do, we stand ready to help in every way that we can, but we must recognise that the public sector in Northern Ireland represents more than 70 per cent. of the economy, and bringing those areas into the private sector—as well as the relevant areas remaining in the public sector—will present enormous potential for economic growth.


4. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): What provision is being made for long-term and life prisoners in Northern Ireland. [186571]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The regimes available to long-term and life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland include education, skills training and offender behaviour programmes. These prisoners are subject to detailed risk assessments, which inform their resettlement or life sentence plan.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Minister agree that a good quality resettlement programme will not only improve the mental ability of prisoners while they are in prison but cut reoffending? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s first report makes it clear, however, that there are shortages of such provision in prisons such as Maghaberry. Would it not make sense to address such shortages, in order to cut recidivism and to reduce the crime rate overall?

Paul Goggins: I warmly welcome the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was produced after extensive research and many visits to the prisons in Northern Ireland. We are putting the investment in. I announced before Christmas that an additional 400 prison places would be built over the next two years, and we are also putting more investment into the kind of offender behaviour programmes to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He is right: when a prisoner has his or her liberty taken away, that is the punishment, but our responsibility—and that of the Prison Service—is to ensure that they are rehabilitated and that they have the skills and education necessary to enable them to come out of prison and lead normal, law-abiding lives.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend say a little more about how the reintegration of released long-term prisoners can play a part in building a new, more inclusive society, and in finally drawing a line under ancient hostilities?

Paul Goggins: Indeed. It is important that everyone plays their part in building a more cohesive Northern Ireland, not least those who have been subjected to prison sentences. Every prisoner who has been subjected to a long-term or a life sentence is thoroughly assessed some three years before they are released to determine the appropriate plan for them. For some, release by the tariff date set by the judge will not be possible; for others, it will. In every case, however, we
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must ensure that people have skills, a job and a home to live in, so that they can build and maintain family relationships. All those things are vital for the individual offender, but also for the wider community.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): There is great concern in Northern Ireland not only about long-term prisoners but about the number of people who are held for a short term in jail as a result of the non-payment of fines. Given that only 1 per cent. of those who have been brought to court for fuel smuggling ever finish up in jail, and that fine defaulters are regularly put in jail, will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that organised criminals get hefty jail sentences, and to deal with the issue of the fine defaulters who are taking up space in our prisons?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, reflecting some of the recommendations and findings of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which he is a member. Urgent and radical action is being taken to ensure that we rebalance the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to make sure that the dangerous offender spends longer in prison while those who commit less serious offences are dealt with in the community.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of fine defaults. It is outrageous that 30 per cent. of all admissions to prison last year in Northern Ireland were for defaults on fines, the majority of which were small fines of just a few hundred pounds. We have to find alternatives in the community to ensure that those people pay back. As to oil fraud and fuel smuggling, I had a meeting yesterday with the Organised Crime Task Force, and I gave officials one month to come back with an action plan to deal with the problem and make sure that the law is properly enforced.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Minister mentioned that 30 per cent. of prison receptions are for fine defaulters, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report suggests that the figure is 59 per cent. in comparison with just 2.2 per cent. in England and Wales. Some of these people spend as little as 24 hours in prison, causing a complete disruption of the Prison Service of Northern Ireland. Is it not a complete waste of resources to put people in prison on that basis?

Paul Goggins: I agree, and I am pleased that we are now giving some real focus to this particular issue. The figure is 30 per cent. of prison admissions last year, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that that this is a terrible waste of resources. It costs £1 million or more each year just to administer the system of sending fine defaulters to prison. We will bring forward further proposals to deal with the problem—for example, attachment of benefit orders and attachment of earning orders—to make sure that people pay the fines without the expensive waste of putting them in prison for just a few days.

Saville Inquiry

5. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): How much the Saville inquiry has cost to date; and what proportion of that expenditure has been on legal services. [186573]

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