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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 March 2010

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-

Security Situation

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the level of paramilitary activity by republican groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [322973]

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland. [322975]

4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. [322976]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at "severe". The Government are not complacent about the threat that dissident republicans continue to pose despite their having little or no community support. The House will wish to know that the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to disrupt the activity of that small criminal group. So far this year, it has made 51 arrests, brought 12 charges and made three seizures.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Northern Ireland Executive, fully supported by the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, not least the Unionist population, have achieved huge success, with major concessions to the nationalist population. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that there is now absolutely no need whatever for any paramilitary activity, unless it is by a hard core of people who want to destroy the peace, stability and economic success of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Woodward: The House will know of the historic vote that took place in Stormont on 9 March-nearly all parties in the cross-party community vote were in support. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that there never has been a need for any paramilitary activity: not then, not now, not in future. As for concessions, we need to understand this as a matter not of concessions, but of power sharing. Both sides may have compromised, but they have done so for the good of everybody in Northern Ireland.

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Ann Winterton: The new Chief Constable is supported-for the first time-by all parties in Northern Ireland, and yet the police's reputation for effectiveness in combating crime and terrorism has never actually been lower. Why is that?

Mr. Woodward: I am afraid that I agree with only one part of the hon. Lady's question, which is to recognise that the Chief Constable was appointed to his job with unanimous support; I entirely disagree with everything else she says. Confidence in policing in Northern Ireland is at record levels and will stay at record levels, and it continues to enjoy a support of which most hon. Members in this House would be extremely envious. The PSNI has brought down crime and been extremely successful in tackling even the activities of some of the most hated criminals in the community, and I hope she recognises that.

Mr. Mackay: Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no hiding place for violent republican dissidents across the border, and that co-operation has never been better, particularly under the new Garda commissioner?

Mr. Woodward: I put on record that the levels of co-operation in both Northern Ireland and the Republic have never been greater or better. That is true of every aspect of dealing with and preventing crime, none more so than those areas of crimes associated with paramilitary activity, and especially the investigations that are taking place into the recent murders of soldiers and a police constable.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist party could not come on board in what was happening in the devolution process, and that perhaps, the Conservatives might have done a bit more to try and persuade it to come on board?

Mr. Woodward: I think I will not take the temptation to make a political point, because I actually want to thank the Conservatives for their support. Their alliance with the UUP is of course a matter for them, as is the question of whether they can ultimately influence that party. I regret the fact that the UUP did not vote for the Hillsborough castle agreement and the devolution of policing and justice.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Dissident republicans pose a serious threat to the people of Northern Ireland. On Saturday last, a pipe bomb was found in a public place, outside the police station in Magherafelt, which is just a few yards from my home. Also, members and ex-members of the PSNI in my constituency and a number of others are under threat from dissident republicans. What active measures are the Government going to take to ensure that those organisations are infiltrated, brought to justice and defeated?

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the impact of that kind of activity, not only as a very fine and outstanding constituency Member of Parliament, but as a person and as a family member, so I say this with huge respect for, and understanding of, where the question is coming from. We will do everything to support the Chief Constable and the PSNI to tackle both those who have committed crime and those who intend to commit crime. We will work as closely as
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possible with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Executive and the institutions of devolved Government to bring those people to justice.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Obviously it is very disappointing that the Ulster Unionists in the Assembly did not support the cross-community vote. Will my right hon. Friend continue to work on a cross-party basis in the hope that the Ulster Unionists will be persuaded to back this in future?

Mr. Woodward: Although the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and its Assembly Members did not vote for this on 9 March, it was perfectly clear from public opinion and the confidence that all political parties had established in Northern Ireland that that vote had the support of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those who would identify themselves as supporters of the Ulster Unionist party. Unfortunately, its leadership did not reflect that on the day.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State's assessment of the level of risk is clearly sensible and realistic. It brings with it the potential for future challenges for the PSNI in dealing with that risk if it becomes reality. Will he confirm that he will use his good offices to ensure access to the Treasury for contingency funding should the necessity arise?

Mr. Woodward: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in this. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an additional £30 million of funding available from the reserve for the current financial year for the PSNI. My right hon. Friend has already committed nearly £40 million of additional funding, which will be available to the Chief Constable to deal with the threat posed by dissidents. This Government will stand with the people of Northern Ireland and with the devolved Government.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Secretary of State knows, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs strongly supports the devolution of policing and justice. Is he also aware that we attach the highest possible importance to the operational independence of the Chief Constable in tackling dissident republicans and in dealing with all his other duties?

Mr. Woodward: The operational independence of the Chief Constable is one of the principal outcomes and a huge success of the Patten reforms. It has enabled enormous confidence to be established across all communities in Northern Ireland. That, of course, has been the case and after devolution on 12 April it will remain so.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): A few days ago, an attempt was made to murder police officers in Newry after they were lured there by what is reported to have been a hoax bomb. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there are sufficient intelligence sources to enable the police to counter what is becoming a very worrying and increasingly dangerous terrorist threat?

Mr. Woodward: Let us remember that those who wish to commit these crimes are people who, regrettably, refuse to accept the political settlement that has now been agreed. The Conservative party, along with other parties in this House, has helped to ensure that the early
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devolution of policing and justice has taken place. Let us remember that the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission said that that would be the "potent intervention" in dealing with dissident republicans.

Presbyterian Mutual Society

2. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect on savers in Northern Ireland of the collapse of the Presbyterian mutual society. [322974]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are both members of the ministerial working group established by the Prime Minister. They, along with Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive, are in regular contact in an effort to assist members of the PMS whose investments were affected by the society's entry into administration.

Mr. Dunne: The Financial Services Authority warned of a problem with the PMS almost a year ago, the Prime Minister set up his working group last summer, the Treasury Committee issued a scathing report this February saying that nothing would be resolved unless a political lead was given and this morning the relevant Minister in another place gave no lead whatsoever and no clue as to what might happen. Is this not a classic example of a Government who are incapable of taking a decision and who are letting down 100,000 savers in Northern Ireland?

Paul Goggins: No, it is not, because the Prime Minister established the working group and I hope that it will very shortly be able to consider a proposition-a paper-from the Executive in Northern Ireland, which will put forward a range of options. The commercial option is, of course, one that we would all wish to see taken, if it is possible to do so. The Executive have also been working on specific ideas. We need to hear those ideas, consider them and look for solutions.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): Does the Minister agree that regardless of the legal and commercial niceties, there is a moral obligation on us all to help relieve the serious distress, both financial and emotional, that genuine savers in the PMS are suffering? These people invested in good faith and we have a moral responsibility to return that good faith or give them some return on it.

Paul Goggins: I agree that there is a sense of moral obligation here-the Prime Minister has said that-but none the less we have to find a solution that is hard-headed. We need a solution that will actually work in the interests of those who genuinely and in good faith invested their money in the PMS.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Minister will be aware of the hardships faced by many PMS savers, who become more concerned as time goes on. Will he and the Secretary of State use their good offices to ensure that the Treasury co-operates fully with the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward a solution and a package that will bring real assistance to PMS savers as soon as possible, so that their plight can be resolved?

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Paul Goggins: I agree strongly with the right hon. Gentleman, who knows, as I do, that many, particularly older, investors, have lost money and are suffering financial hardship as a result. We all have enormous sympathy with them, but what we need more than sympathy is a solution. Yes, we might need to consider a hardship fund in the end, but it would be better to find a sustainable solution that would work in the long term. A commercial solution would be best, but ideas will be coming from the Executive shortly that are worthy of consideration. We should work together to see whether a sustainable solution can be found.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Minister of State and the Secretary of State have been excellent Ministers for Northern Ireland, and I appreciate their efforts on many fronts. Will the Minister of State give a clear assurance to PMS savers, not just in my constituency but across Northern Ireland, that the Government will find a solution, before the election, to the situation in which those people find themselves through no fault of their own? Will he give a clear assurance that there will be a solution before the general election?

Paul Goggins: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments about me and my right hon. Friend. I give her an absolute assurance that for every day of this Parliament that remains, we will continue to search for a solution that will work for those investors and that will restore confidence and, I hope, some money to them. In the end, it is their hard-earned money that has been lost, and we need a hard-headed solution that will work in practice.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Last June, the Prime Minister announced a review group to look at the plight of those involved in the PMS, and promised that it would report by September. The Prime Minister intervened to rescue the Dunfermline building society, and boasted to the Labour party conference that

but it was his guarantee to banks that triggered the run on the PMS. What is the reason for yet another broken promise from this bankrupt Prime Minister?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman may be more interested in process than in solutions, but my right hon. Friend and I are interested in finding solutions. It is a completely false comparison, as anyone who has studied this knows, to compare the situation of the PMS with that of the Dunfermline building society. That financial institution was regulated by the FSA, whereas with the PMS we are talking about an industrial and provident society. I hope that, even at this stage, he will join us in the search for a solution rather than dwelling on process.

Mr. Paterson: The Treasury Committee, with a Labour majority, said it was

In Northern Ireland questions last June, the Secretary of State promised me further talks,

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But here we are, nine months later, and nothing has happened. We cannot go on like this. Is it not time for change and for him to make way for a Secretary of State who will stick up for the people of Northern Ireland? [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want to hear the answer. There is far too much noise and there are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber.

Paul Goggins: I was trying, before, to give the hon. Gentleman a fairly basic lesson in the economics of this issue, but we will shortly be getting an economic master-class from others at this Dispatch Box. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to listen very carefully, because he might just learn something for a change. The position is absolutely clear: a considerable amount of work has been done, even in the recent past, by Members of the Executive in Northern Ireland. They are represented on the working group that has been convened by the Prime Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary also belongs to that group. We want to find solutions-

Mr. Paterson: When?

Paul Goggins: In considering the paper coming from the Executive, that will be very shortly indeed.

National Security Protocols

5. Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the national security protocols to be used after the devolution of policing and justice matters. [322977]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I have discussed the national security protocol with a range of individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland. The current text addresses a number of concerns raised in those discussions.

Mr. McGrady: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. The intelligence services withheld information from the investigation into the tragedy of the Omagh bombing, and allegations have recently been made about the intelligence services' role in the death of Kieran Doherty in Derry. What further discussions will he have with the Northern Ireland Executive to prevent such things from happening and to facilitate future investigations? He told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that it would become more likely that the intelligence services would co-operate, but more likely is not good enough.

Mr. Woodward: I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been an assiduous Member of Parliament for 23 years and was a founding member of his party. We wish him well in the future.

I am of course considering the Select Committee's report, but I remind the House that Sir Peter Gibson published his report last year and that after he examined the information available on the day, he concluded that

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