The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): Following representations by political parties in Northern Ireland, the Government commissioned Sir David Varney, in March 2007, to carry out a review of tax policy in Northern Ireland. The review was published in December 2007.
His report confirmed that the Northern Ireland economy was doing well under the devolution arrangements introduced a year ago. For example, Northern Ireland had the highest rate of economic growth of all UK regions outside London and the South East between 1997 and 2006, and in 2007 it had the lowest rate of unemployment of any region. There are now more people in employment than ever before.
But Sir David Varney's review noted that the Northern Ireland economy still faced some demanding challenges. It has the lowest level of productivity and employment of any region in the UK and public spending as a percentage of GDP is around 70 per cent. compared with 35 per cent. in Ireland.
So the Government asked Sir David to undertake a second review of competitiveness in Northern Ireland. The terms of reference were: Building on Sir Davids earlier analysis and agreement from all parties about the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland (in relation to the opportunities provided by the peace process, the need to strengthen the private sector, to create increased employment opportunities and to reform the public sector), this review will explore in more detail how to expand the private sector and to enhance Northern Irelands competitiveness.
The Government are today publishing Sir David Varneys report. Copies of the report have been deposited in the Library of both Houses. I am very grateful to Sir David Varney and his team, and to all those who submitted evidence to the review, for this comprehensive report. It provides a valuable assessment of how the opportunities and challenges facing the Northern Ireland Executive in developing its economic strategy might best be approached.
the Northern Ireland Executives Programme for Government and the UK Governments May 2007 economic and financial package provide an excellent base for securing long-term transformational change in Northern Ireland;
the UK Government has a vital role to play in maintaining macroeconomic stability in a difficult world economic climate and maintaining the current competitive tax system;
there is scope for deepening and intensifying public sector reform, in particular increasing the role of the private sector in the delivery of core public services and transferring non-core services to the private sector in order to help stimulate its growth;
there is scope for further asset disposals in order to release funds for extra investment in the Northern Ireland Executives priorities;
there is scope to improve productivity by more intensive use of the main levers and drivers of productivity including skills, enterprise, competition, investment and innovation; and
labour market and welfare reforms should be intensified to increase the employment rate.
The Government welcome Sir David Varneys report and I look forward to discussing with Northern Ireland Executive Ministers how we can take forward the findings in the report together, while recognising that devolved policies are a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and its Departments.
I welcome that the Northern Ireland Budget focused on those Northern Ireland Departments that have a central role in helping the economy. The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive share the view that it is flexible and open economies that ultimately succeed, and that it is important to maximise Northern Irelands export potential.
I also welcome the support which the Irish Government continue to provide in developing the all-island economy which directly benefits Northern Ireland through infrastructure and innovation investment, the assistance provided by the EU and the interest shown by the US, as can be seen in next weeks US investment conference in Belfast.
policies to maintain macroeconomic stability, with forecasts of continuing economic growth and low inflation;
policies to maintain a competitive tax system. From April 2008 the main rate of Corporation Tax is being reduced to 28 per cent., the lowest ever rate of Corporation Tax in the UK and the lowest in the G7;
policies to stimulate enterprise and improve access to finance for small and medium firms, including a temporary 20 per cent. increase in the funds available through the small firms loans guarantee, additional enterprise capital funds, a new capital fund for female entrepreneurs, and an increase in the Enterprise investment scheme. These measures are of particular benefit in Northern Ireland which has a higher than average concentration of SMEs;
measures to ensure better access to Government procurement for small firms;
confirmation of a commitment to a reduction of 25 per cent. in the administrative burden through regulation;
reform of incapacity benefits with the introduction of the employment and support allowance. Welfare reform is of particular benefit in Northern Ireland, which has the highest proportion of the population on incapacity benefit; and
£21 million additional DEL funding for the Northern Ireland Executive as a consequence of increases in spending on child poverty pilots and contributing to the costs of modernising the public sector.
I note the recommendations which Sir David Varney has made in his report. Many of these are for the Northern Ireland Executive to consider. The UK Government will respond to those that are directed to UK Ministers in due course.
The successful return of devolution to Northern Ireland, and the second stage envisaged in the St Andrews agreement, provides an opportunity for transformational change and inward investment which, if seized, has the opportunity to benefit all the people of Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): My noble Friend Lord Rooker represented the United Kingdom at this months Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg. Mike Russell, the Scottish Minister for Environment also attended.
The Council held a policy debate on a proposal for a Community system to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The debate was based on a presidency questionnaire focusing on: the scope of the proposalin particular whether EU vessels should be included or not; the proposed import certification system; and on potential criminal and administrative sanctions. The UK supported the general intention of the measure and the inclusion of EU vessels (to send the correct signal to our international counterparts), but raised concerns about the complexity of the proposed controls and the administrative resource implications.
The Council also held an exchange of views on a proposal amending the cod recovery regulation. The UK welcomed the general thrust of the proposal, but emphasised the importance of taking account of the UKs significant progress to date in reducing effort on cod. The UK also challenged the extension of the measures to the Celtic seaon the grounds that cod formed only a small part of the activities of the vessels concerned and restricting their effort in this way would interfere with their ability to catch a range of other less vulnerable species.
The Fisheries Commissioner updated the Council on progress with the 2006-08 action plan for simplifying and improving the common fisheries policy. The UK intervened to ask for more member state consultation on the expected review of the control regulation.
The Council took note of updates provided by the Fisheries Commissioner on the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Community and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and the bluefin tuna recovery plan. The Council also took note of a report provided by the Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner on a recent outbreak of classical swine fever in Slovakia.
France requested an urgent review of the total allowable catch (TAC) for Celtic sea cod (in line with a December Council commitment). The UK supported the initiative and the Commission indicated that the matter was in hand and that they hoped to come forward with a suitable proposal before the end of June.
France expressed concerns over the Commissions intention to authorise chemical decontamination of fresh meat, and also on the continuing difficulties in the pigmeat sector. The UK joined with other member states to acknowledge the importance of consumer confidence.
Italy informed the Council about a recent case of fraud in the wine sector. Portugal raised concerns about the import of cattle and sheep from other member states infected and bluetongue virus (serotype 8).
The Agriculture Commissioner updated Council on the state of play in the WTO-DDA agriculture negotiations, following the recent agreement reached on sensitive products. Along with a number of other member states, the UK welcomed the progress being made and urged the Commission to continue working for a deal.
The presidency informed the Council on preparations for the forthcoming UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) high-level conference on world food security and the challenges of climate change and bioenergy, which will be held in Rome, on the 3 and 5 June 2008. Austria also drew Councils attention to FAOs 26th regional conference for Europe to be held, in Innsbruck, Austria on 26 and 27 June.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I wish to make the following statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. All casualties suffered by our armed forces are, of course, a source of profound regret. Our service personnel put their lives on the line to help build strong, stable and democratic nations, and to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. We cannot pay high enough tribute to the job that they are doing, or to the ultimate sacrifice which some of them have made. We remain strongly committed to minimising the effect on the bereaved families.
We made statements to the House on 5 June 2006 (Official Report, col.4WS), 12 October 2006 (Official Report, col. 26WS), 18 December 2006 (Official Report, col. 112WS), 29 March 2007 (Official Report, col. 121WS) 20 June 2007 (Official Report, col. 97WS) 30 October 2007 (Official Report, col. 36WS) and 31 January 2008 (Official Report, col. 35WS), with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the written ministerial statement on 31 January. This statement shows the position at 22 April, but does not reflect the tragic loss of Trooper Pearson in Afghanistan on 21 April, as the inquest has not yet been opened.
At the time of the last written ministerial statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 123 inquests had been held: 109 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton (although the January statement incorrectly implied that all the deaths were military).
Since January, a further 32 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations overseas whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham. This makes a total of 155 inquests held since June 2006.
Since hostilities opened there have been a total of 176 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one serviceman who died in the UK of his injuries. In two further cases no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.
There remain 27 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in 23 of these cases; four of these inquests have been transferred to coroners closer to the deceaseds next of kin.
Hearing dates have been set in 18 cases. These include the inquests into the deaths of 14 crew members who died together in the Nimrod crash on 2 September 2006 which will be heard together, commencing on 6 May 2008. In the remaining nine inquests, investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible for an inquest date to be set. The oldest individual inquest for which no date had been set at the time of the last written ministerial statement was that into the death of Lieutenant Palmer, who died on 15 April 2006. The hearing date has now been set for 6 May 2008.
In addition there are 10 inquests into fatalities which were repatriated via RAF Lyneham prior to 1 April 2007. These relate to the deaths of 10 crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XVI79 on 30 January 2005. These inquests resumed on 31 March 2008, but have since been adjourned until September.
Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction, now that fatalities are being repatriated via RAF Lyneham. These have enabled the coroner, Mr Masters, to engage an additional assistant deputy coroner, together with an additional coroners officer and administrative support, and to provide appropriate accommodation to hold military inquests. These extra resources are helping to ensure that bereaved families are responded to sensitively and speedily following conclusions of the investigations.
Mr Masters is continuing the practice of transferring military inquests to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.
There remain 49 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007. Of these, Mr Masters has retained 25 inquests, whilst 24 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in four of these cases. In the remaining 45 cases it has not yet been possible to set an inquest date.
We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
We remain committed to better supporting bereaved military families. The written ministerial statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr Ingram), the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, gave details of the support which was then being provided, and we continue to look for opportunities to improve our procedures. We have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony. This has been extended to allow two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself.