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16 Dec 2009 : Column 953

Andrew Rosindell: Given the recent resignation of the prison governor and the sale of a judge's home owing to dissident threats, what can the Secretary of State tell us about the action that the Government are taking to ensure the protection of prominent public figures?

Mr. Woodward: The prison governor made it clear that his reasons for resignation, which we regret, were a matter of personal circumstances. My hon. Friend the Minister is making the appropriate arrangements in relation to that. As regards threats to individuals posed by the self-styled dissident groups, we will do everything we can to protect people in Northern Ireland. It is clear that this small minority of people, who have no support in the community, would like to undermine public confidence. We will ensure that those who promote peace and the politics and the institutions of Northern Ireland have the appropriate protection that they deserve.

Dr. McCrea: I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the media have been endeavouring to connect the devolution of policing and justice with dissident republican activity. What steps are the Government taking to defeat dissident republicans? Does the Secretary of State understand that no political stunts or intimidation of Unionists will weaken our resolve in ensuring that policing and justice are devolved when there is community confidence, which means dealing with and resolving the issues, including the parades issue?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman will know that following the attacks at Massereene in his constituency in March, measures of public confidence were extremely high, not least because the public in Northern Ireland saw politicians across the divide come together with a unity of purpose. I believe, as the Independent Monitoring Commission report recently observed, that early completion of the devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont would be a potent intervention against these people. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about community confidence, but there could be no greater sign of confidence than the completion of the devolution of policing and justice.

Angela Watkinson: The Secretary of State will know that some in the security services believe that there is an intelligence deficit with regard to dissident republican groups. Does he share that concern, and what steps is he taking to overcome that problem?

Mr. Woodward: First, many of these matters relate to the operational independence of the Chief Constable, which I am sure that all hon. Members would respect. We are ensuring that the resources are there for the security services in Northern Ireland and the PSNI. The hon. Lady will know that in order to meet this challenge, the Prime Minister has made additional reserves available to the PSNI this year and guaranteed it additional money next year. As for intelligence about these dissident groups, I congratulate the PSNI and the security services, who have consistently managed to thwart these people, whose objective is to undermine confidence and damage the peace process itself.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that any threat to the stability of our political institutions feeds into the warped thinking of the so-called
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dissident so-called republican groups? Does he further agree that the sooner we can agree on the devolution of justice and policing, avoid any threat of the collapse of our institutions, and reject any speculation that Sinn Fein may be planning to withdraw from policing arrangements such as district policing partnerships, the sooner we will defy the agenda of the dissident groups?

Mr. Woodward: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I wish to note, and the House will wish to record, that only in the past few weeks those at Stormont have completed the passage of the Department of Justice Bill, which would enable a Justice Department to be created, and invite the identification of a Justice Minister. Progress is being made. Let us not allow the dissidents any voice at all; let us have a show of confidence and complete the devolution of policing and justice. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order. I know that hon. and right hon. Members will want to listen intently to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee-I call Sir Patrick Cormack.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and a very merry Christmas.

Does the Secretary of State agree that 2009 would have been a very much blacker year had it not been for the achievements of the PSNI in defusing some terrible bombs that could have caused enormous harm? Will he give the House the categorical assurance that the PSNI will be kept up to strength and increased in strength to combat that terrible threat?

Mr. Woodward: May I first take this opportunity on behalf of the House to record our thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless work in Northern Ireland and with the Select Committee? I say that conscious of the decision that he has announced in relation to next year. We thank him for what he has done, and the people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for his work and that of his Committee.

The work of the PSNI in 2009 has been tireless and successful, despite enormous provocation. The House will wish to know that had the bomb intended for the Policing Board headquarters gone off, it would have caused certainly severe damage to the building and probably severe loss of life. Brilliant work by the PSNI and the services across the board continues to ensure that these criminals who call themselves dissidents do not succeed. I only hope that next year will be an even better year for the PSNI.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): May I strongly endorse the comments of the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the performance of the PSNI this year?

We do not underestimate the threat posed by dissidents, but we firmly believe that the response must be proportionate. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that every part of Northern Ireland is policed on a regular basis to ensure the confidence of all parts of the community in the effectiveness of the PSNI?

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Mr. Woodward: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and join in his observations. The objective of these criminals is not damage to a building or even the loss of life but to undermine confidence in the politics and damage the peace process. We must all bear in mind that they seek to wreck the political process and in turn the peace process, and I can confidently say that this House will not allow them to succeed in that.

Mr. Paterson: A few weeks ago, the Conservatives agreed to endorse the substantial financial package that would follow the devolution of policing and justice. Given the current threat, has the Secretary of State considered drawing on parts of that package in advance to enable the Chief Constable to deliver more effective policing?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend the Security Minister and I are in regular discussions with the Chief Constable, who of course has operational independence on these matters. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made available nearly £30 million of extra money this year for the PSNI and has offered more than that for next year. That money has not been exhausted, but my right hon. Friend has made it very clear to the Chief Constable that he is always open to representations from him because regardless of circumstances, this Government stand with the people of Northern Ireland.

Peace Process (Ministerial Discussions)

6. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State on the peace process in Northern Ireland. [306255]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I regularly have discussions with Secretary of State Clinton and also with the US special envoy, Declan Kelly.

Mr. Burns: Does the Secretary of State fully appreciate the support of the Conservative party for the tremendous efforts of the Americans, and particularly the Clinton Administration, in keeping the peace process on track? Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Northern Ireland, does he anticipate further economic investment there?

Mr. Woodward: The people of Northern Ireland are extremely grateful for the investment that has been made by the United States, which has allowed several hundred new jobs to be created this year in Northern Ireland despite the international recession. The decision by Secretary of State Clinton to create a special economic envoy, Declan Kelly, meant that only last week, 14 top American companies made presentations to the Administration in Northern Ireland looking at investment for next year. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have made it clear that their support will be as unstinting and relentless as that of Presidents Bush and Clinton before them.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): What work is being undertaken by the Northern Ireland Office further to integrate the areas across the divide in
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Northern Ireland, particularly in social housing? What is the NIO doing to remove the dreadful physical barriers that divide the two communities?

Mr. Woodward: My hon. Friend will know that many of those matters have now of course been devolved. However, I simply say this to him: established in the Good Friday agreement and endorsed in the St. Andrews agreement were the principles of equality and justice for everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of faith and geography, to ensure that they enjoy shared power and a shared future that is fair.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked-


Q1. [307388] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 December.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I have been asked to reply.

I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the two soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles who died in Afghanistan yesterday. We send our deepest sympathies to their families. This Christmas, we will all be thinking of the bravery and dedication of our armed forces overseas, and especially at this time of year, of the families who support them.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Copenhagen. This morning he met the UN Secretary-General; this afternoon he will address the assembly.

Mr. Mackay: The whole House will endorse what the right hon. and learned Lady said about those fallen soldiers, and our thoughts will very much be with their families.

However, may I turn to the home front and other families who will be desperately worried that their own loved ones might not return home for Christmas because of the British Airways cabin crew strike? Although there has been good news this morning that Unite and British Airways might now be talking, may I have an assurance from the deputy Prime Minister that she will use her considerable influence with the trade unions to ensure that this damaging strike is called off as soon as possible?

Ms Harman: Both the Prime Minister and the Transport Secretary have said that they, like I am sure everyone in the whole House, want to see that a strike does not take place. That is important not only for those who have travel plans this Christmas either to go abroad to see their families or to have their families join them, but for the long-term future of BA. I hope that when the talks take place this afternoon, they will reach a settlement.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): We wish the Prime Minister well in the current talks in Copenhagen. We need a united position with our European partners
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to reach agreement in those vital talks. How much harder does my right hon. and learned Friend think it would be to reach such an agreement if we were isolated in Europe? Does she share my concern at the divisions in the group of allies of the Conservatives in Europe-more than half of their group opposes the European targets?

Ms Harman: As the Prime Minister said, it is an uphill task at Copenhagen, but there could not be a more important task than to get all the countries of the world to agree on tackling climate change. As my hon. Friend says, there is indeed a contrast between the Prime Minister at the centre of events- [ Interruption. ] He was the first world leader to decide personally to go to Copenhagen. What a contrast, as he works with other world leaders, that the shadow Foreign Secretary has not even been able to persuade his own side that climate change is important.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I join the Leader of the House in recording our sadness at the news last night of the death of two British soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles serving in Afghanistan? Over Christmas and the new year, the untiring efforts of our servicemen and women serving their country in a theatre of war must never be far from our minds.

The House of Commons is today rising unusually early for Christmas-the earliest we have risen for Christmas for 31 years-and I want to ask the Leader of the House about three particular pressing issues on which the Government will not be able to report to Parliament over the next three weeks. One indeed is the vital negotiations at Copenhagen, in which we wish the Prime Minister and other British representatives every success, although we should have been able to hear about the outcome next week, not just the prospects this week. Does she share our concern about the comments by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reported this morning, that a firm commitment on the proposed fund for developing countries to tackle climate change may be set aside and not addressed until next year? After the Prime Minister spoke to the Secretary-General this morning, what were the chances of that major setback being averted?

Ms Harman: The point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the House is somewhat spurious. We are rising early, but we are coming back early.

It is indeed important that we have not only a political agreement at Copenhagen, but legally binding targets that are independently verifiable and this $10 billion fund to ensure that the developing countries-the emerging economies-can play their part in the effort to tackle climate change. That is a difficult challenge. The Prime Minister, the Secretary-General of the UN and world leaders are working on it today, and I hope that the whole House will wish them well.

Mr. Hague: Well, we do wish them well, and I know that the Leader of the House will agree with me that in particular we must address the serious issue of the destruction of the world's rainforests. As she thinks that we are not addressing this issue seriously, it is good to know that what we proposed last month the Government have since agreed to propose -that additional significant
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EU financial support should be given to developing countries to halt deforestation. Will the Government now also agree with one of the proposals I made three weeks ago-to set an example to other nations and show that we will take determined action under domestic law by making the import, possession and distribution of illegally harvested timber an offence under UK law?

Ms Harman: I am sure that we will take every action possible, and we have already taken action to ensure that only sustainable timber is used. I did make a comment about the right hon. Gentleman's party, and this week 11 Conservative Members have been party to the production of a report entitled "Climate change is natural: 100 reasons why", claiming that it is nothing to worry about. We will deal with domestic law to protect timber and we will ensure that we take the action internationally to tackle deforestation: he should deal with Conservative Members who are climate change deniers.

Mr. Hague: I hope that the Leader of the House will indeed take seriously what we have proposed and look at what I have just put to her, because it may help the Government to take the issue seriously, as well as the Opposition. We look forward to that.

On another issue that requires urgent attention in this House, does the Leader of the House agree with the Foreign Secretary that, following the issuing of an arrest warrant for the Israeli Opposition leader Mrs. Livni, Parliament needs to look urgently at ways in which the system might be changed? While we all agree that allegations of human rights violations by all sides in the Gaza conflict need to be addressed, how is Britain meant to play a leading role in the middle east peace process if Israeli politicians cannot visit Britain without fear of arrest?

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the Foreign Secretary's words. We should be in no doubt that it is important for Israel's leaders to be able to talk to Ministers in this country. Israel is an important strategic partner and we need to ensure that the situation is as the Foreign Secretary said it should be.

Mr. Hague: Can the Leader of the House shed a little more light on this? When the International Criminal Court Act 2001 was introduced, it was never meant by any one in this House to obstruct normal diplomatic business such as the vital work of the middle east peace process. Senior serving politicians, to whom we all need to talk every day, were not meant to be affected in this way, as we understand it. Can she say whether magistrates are applying the law correctly? If they are not interpreting the law correctly, will the Government give fresh advice on that point. If they are interpreting the law correctly, what will the Government do about it and when will a Minister come to the House to report on this and say what they propose to do?

Ms Harman: I think that I am in a position to tell the House that we agree. Our objectives are the same as those set out by the right hon. Gentleman, and Ministers will be looking at the matter and ensuring that the situation is resolved.

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