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House of Commons

Wednesday 8 July 2009

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—

Inward Investment

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of greater political stability in Northern Ireland on levels of inward investment. [283753]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): While inward investment is of course a matter for the devolved Administration, both current and future levels of investment from outside the UK depend on maintaining political momentum and demonstrating the strength of political stability in Northern Ireland.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is right that the political situation in Northern Ireland is a lot better, but would it not also help if investment on Government projects was directed into areas such as Northern Ireland, so that people could concentrate more on work than on political unrest?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend is right to point to the effects of Government investment, and I am very pleased that the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland are making extremely good use of it. I congratulate the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who is here today, on the work that he is leading in that regard. It may be worth remarking that, this year alone, nearly 43 inward investment projects—in excess of around £800 million, I believe—are being conducted in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): While the Secretary of State rightly draws attention to the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive met their own targets for the last financial year, ending on 31 March, the economic downturn will make things much more difficult in the year ahead. Northern Ireland has a first-class package for inward investment, with a young and well-educated work force and a very good record in innovation, research and development. However, does he agree that the bottom line when he or anyone else has visited America or elsewhere in the world is that people want to know that violence has ended and that there is
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political stability? The twin evils in respect of getting investment back into Northern Ireland and getting our economy going are those who use the bomb and the bullet to kill and cause bloodshed there, and those wreckers who are attempting to bring down the political institutions.

Mr. Woodward: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the work that he has been doing to inspire leadership in Northern Ireland, and also on what he has done with the Deputy First Minister in the United States to attract inward investment. They have been extremely successful, especially in the current climate. The right hon. Gentleman is also right to point to the impact of the activities of those criminals who call themselves dissident republicans. Again, I congratulate the First Minister and his colleagues on their achievements, which mean that, despite those criminal activities, Northern Ireland continues to be a place that attracts that investment.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): What discussions, if any, have there been between the national Government here and the devolved Government in Stormont about the spectrum of investment in renewable energies and sustainability? Has there been any dialogue across the border with the Government in the Irish Republic on those issues?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman will know that that is a matter for the devolved Administration, but I assure him that the British Government will provide every encouragement to the talks taking place. Anything that I can do in a capacity appropriate to the Secretary of State, I of course stand ready to do.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree with New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, who said that to attract the level of inward development that he thinks is possible a lot of the physical barriers—the peace walls, the murals, the painted kerb stones and the rest of it—will have to be removed? Will the Secretary of State give his support to those politicians in Northern Ireland who are taking a very brave stand on some of those issues?

Mr. Woodward: I absolutely support all those politicians, and again I commend the leadership jointly offered by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on these issues. However, it would be remiss of the House not to record the historic progress that has been made on decommissioning by loyalism in the past few weeks. Again, that achievement is very much the result of a team effort, across the House and outside it. I should like to put on record my thanks to this House for keeping faith with the decommissioning process, which has taken many weapons off the streets for ever.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State and other right hon. and hon. Members, are right to point out that Northern Ireland does stand to benefit from the decommissioning and the peace dividend. However, one problem is that the public sector in Northern Ireland remains disproportionately large, compared with that sector in the rest of the UK. What can the right hon. Gentleman do to change that, bring about greater investment in Northern Ireland and increase the size of the wealth-creating private sector?

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Mr. Woodward: This is an interesting moment. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the concern about the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland, and in normal economic circumstances we would wish to press that issue. However, as he will know, a recession is taking place, and this Government believe that it is right to continue with the investment in Northern Ireland; to do its best for the people there; and to not pursue the Opposition policy of 10 per cent. cuts.

Saville Inquiry

2. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What his most recent estimate is of the cost of the Saville inquiry. [283755]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry to the end of May is £188 million, including legal costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Burns: Is the Secretary of State aware that legal costs are at just over £97 million, that the inquiry has lasted more than nine years, with 920 witnesses and 433 sitting days, and that the report is expected to be more than 4,000 pages long? Does he accept that for the good of the families and the armed forces, the process should be brought to an end swiftly? When will it be?

Mr. Woodward: It is always interesting to hear Opposition Members talk about inquiries, and expressing concern about the cost and the length of this inquiry. That is why the Government wanted the Inquiries Act 2005 to control costs and the number of years an inquiry takes, and why the Government have been very sensitive to the issues of the Saville inquiry in relation to the families. We must never lose sight of the fact that although the cost of the inquiry is rightly a matter for the House, the value of the Saville inquiry has been inestimable in ensuring that the peace process is successful.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Is the Secretary of State aware of the consternation caused to the Bloody Sunday families by some recent words in the House, and can he offer any reassurance in that regard? Can he update us on what further consideration he is giving to the particular needs and rights of families in the context of the publication of the Saville report?

Mr. Woodward: The inquiry is independent, of course, and as such, when it reports is a matter for Lord Saville. He has indicated to me that he still expects that to happen in autumn this year. We should record the fact that everyone in the House shares the hon. Gentleman’s frustration at the amount of time the inquiry has taken, and everyone in the House is very sensitive to the families and to the soldiers who were involved in the inquiry. I am making sure—and I will, of course, conduct these discussions with you as well, Mr. Speaker—that when the time for publication comes, we will be very sensitive to the needs of those families and the soldiers.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that the Select Committee is unanimously concerned about both the length and
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the cost. Can he give the House an assurance that if there ever has to be another major public inquiry, there will be tighter control over the legal costs?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman’s work on inquiries, and that of his Committee, have been a very important contribution. It is a matter for the House to determine other inquiries and when they take place, but if we want independent inquiries, they must be just that. An independent inquiry will, I am afraid, have to be a process whose length we cannot control. In the end we can try and hold the inquiry accountable for costs, but independence must mean independence. If the hon. Gentleman’s wish were to be granted, he would also have to accept some loss of independence, and that may not be what he would want.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): On a day when there is renewed concern in Northern Ireland about the amount of money spent by Government on legal costs, does the Secretary of State agree that more needs to be done to cap the costs of legal representation in such cases, because astronomical sums of public money are going into lawyers’ pockets? The public in Northern Ireland and across the country are rightly appalled at this level of expenditure. Can he give an assurance that it will be brought to an end?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman knows that that was one of the major purposes of the Inquiries Act 2005 and why we wanted other inquiries that are taking place to do so under the Act or to convert to the terms of the Act. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred earlier to the almost £100 million that has been spent on the legal costs of the Saville inquiry. That is a genuine issue of real concern to the House, but we must recognise that those who advocate open and public inquiries also have to come to terms with the fact that many people who come before such inquiries will want legal representation. Although we will try to bear down on the costs of legal representation, as we have done through the Inquiries Act, we cannot deny people fair representation and justice.

Equality Issues

3. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What plans he has for the transfer of responsibility for the equality issues within his portfolio to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [283756]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The vast majority of equality and anti-discrimination matters are already within the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have no current plans to devolve any of the remaining reserved equality issues, but would be happy to consider doing so if requested by the Assembly.

Mr. Allen: Would the Minister consider it to be in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and the spirit of equality, for both Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Assembly to continue to ensure that children receive a similar education and are not separated, if not at birth, then at the age of four or five, into religious groups, and learn tribal loyalties, rather than a loyalty to humanity?

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Paul Goggins: I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in, and commitment to, integrated education in Northern Ireland; he has raised the issue on many occasions. He rightly points out that equality, and a commitment to equality, was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. It paved the way for the great progress made in Northern Ireland in recent years. One of the products of that progress is that many matters are now devolved in Northern Ireland, including responsibility for education, so I hope that he will forgive me if, on this occasion, I pass and leave it to others to comment on those issues.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I suppose that it should be said—I hope that the Minister agrees—that state schools in Northern Ireland do not encourage tribalism.

Leaving aside the as yet undetermined date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, what more rapid progress can the Minister secure to bring about an equitable situation regarding recruitment to the police in Northern Ireland, so that everyone, irrespective of their religious background, has an equal opportunity, and so that merit is the only consideration in such recruitment?

Paul Goggins: I know that the special provisions in place for recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland are a matter of some controversy, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has very strong views on them. However, he will recognise that when Patten reported, only 8 per cent. of serving police officers in Northern Ireland were from the Catholic community. I can tell him that the figure is now more than 26 per cent. That is a huge change, and it means that the Police Service of Northern Ireland more fairly reflects the community that it serves. We are absolutely committed to disapplying the special provisions that are now necessary when we reach the target of 30 per cent., and recruitment will then proceed in the normal way.

Crime Detection

4. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): What the rate of detection of crime by the Police Service of Northern Ireland was in the latest period for which figures are available. [283757]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The clearance rate in Northern Ireland for 2008-09 was 23 per cent.—an increase of 2.5 percentage points on the previous year. Importantly, there has been an increase in clearance rates for some of the most serious crimes committed, including murder and attempted murder, as well as serious sexual offences.

Bob Spink: I welcome that answer. I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland on its detection rate for serious crime, but the Minister is aware that low-level crime and antisocial behaviour continue to increase. Will he resist any move to disband the full-time reserve, and will he ensure that we get more front-line policing, and a greater high-visibility police presence on the street?

Paul Goggins: There is absolute commitment from the Policing Board and the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland to making sure that we get as many police
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officers on to the streets as possible. There is a huge commitment to neighbourhood policing. The hon. Gentleman mentions the full-time reserve; I pay warm tribute to all those who have served in the full-time reserve in Northern Ireland. They have done a heroic job over many years. However, the Chief Constable recently reaffirmed his decision to continue to disband the full-time reserve. There are currently 180 full-time reserve officers on the front line. The Chief Constable has given a clear commitment that all their responsibilities, and all the cover that they provide, will be filled. He has given a categorical assurance on that, and he certainly would not compromise the safety of his officers.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): In spite of the Minister’s welcome statistics regarding the detection and resolution of crime, is he aware that the community in Northern Ireland, generally speaking, is frustrated by the failure to prevent and detect antisocial behaviour and low-level crime? Is he also aware that there was a scheme afoot to provide police community support officers? Such a scheme is essential to the resolution of crime, as well as a vital outstanding matter from the Patten review of policing. That scheme was frustrated by the failure in 2007 to provide the funding. Will he now provide that funding?

Paul Goggins: The Police Service of Northern Ireland received a very good budget for the comprehensive spending review ’07 period—a budget that enables it to retain a police force of 7,500 regular officers. The hon. Gentleman made a point about police community support officers. I can tell him that I see the benefits of PCSOs every day in my constituency, and I look forward to the day when the Policing Board and the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland decide to commit to PCSOs. The hon. Gentleman is right about the need to deal with antisocial behaviour, and yesterday I had the great pleasure of launching the “summer splash” scheme in Northern Ireland, in which young people up and down Northern Ireland will be given positive activities to do during the summer months, so that they do not engage in antisocial activity.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): The recent incident at Lisnaskea shows that, to improve crime detection rates, it is essential that republican and loyalist paramilitaries be put out of action for good. The recent loyalist decommissioning is highly significant and vindicates the position that we took on decommissioning legislation. However, a number of loyalist groups are still engaged in serious criminality. How does the Minister intend to reduce their activities?

Paul Goggins: Again, I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in welcoming support from other parties in this place for the provisions that this Government introduced to extend the decommissioning amnesty period. That has paid off, we have now seen further decommissioning and we should all take heart from that. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: people associated with paramilitary organisations are still engaging in criminal activities. They will be dealt with by the police and by the agencies that form the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, and that work goes on apace.

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Mr. Paterson: The misery inflicted on the whole community by loyalist groups is wholly unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that, in order to cut crime and increase detection rates, he needs to maintain unrelenting pressure to force them to end all their illegal activities, disband their command and control structures and give their unconditional support to the PSNI?

Paul Goggins: I again make the point that the police are at the forefront of the drive against crime, and they can do their job only if they are properly resourced. This Government have provided those resources, and we certainly would not implement 10 per cent. cuts in the funding of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Despite the alleged increase in crime on which the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) is trying to campaign, and despite 40 years of war and conflict, Northern Ireland has the highest points on happiness as against income in the whole British Isles. Will the Minister find out the essence of that happiness in Northern Ireland, bottle it and send it across to the rest of the British Isles?

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): It is the leadership from the Northern Ireland Office.

Paul Goggins: My right hon. Friend comments from a sedentary position that leadership from the Northern Ireland Office is probably largely responsible.

That is an interesting question, however, and from my own observations over the last three years while serving in Northern Ireland, I should say that what is so important is the sense of community and identity. In the past, those things have played into the hands of conflict, but as we make progress I see them as great strengths that reassert the importance and solidarity of community life in Northern Ireland.

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