Peace and Progress
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Steven Mark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended ( Standing Order No. 109(4) ) :
Peace and Progress
The Chair: I would like to thank Mr Speaker of the Assembly and his colleagues for allowing us to meet in this building today in Stormont and for their assistance in making the arrangements for this day.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The threat level in Northern Ireland remains severe, with persistent planning and targeting by terrorists. However, action by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners continues to maintain significant pressure on these terrorist groupings.
Ms Ritchie: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Does she agree that, whatever measures are necessary with the current security situation, there will be no diminution in the accountability of policing and security services? Does she agree that the primacy of the Policing Board must be maintained—in particular, in its desire for new leadership in the Historical Enquiries Team, following the damning report into that organisation’s illegal behaviour?
Mrs Villiers: The Government strongly support all the devolved institutions and the devolution settlement for policing, security and justice. I work closely with the Justice Minister on all matters. In relation to policing in Northern Ireland, the Policing Board does, of course, have a pivotal role in the accountability structures. We are very supportive of all those accountability mechanisms. The future of the HET is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Policing Board and the devolved Executive, not for the Government.
Mrs Villiers: The cost of policing parades is met out of the budget allocated to the PSNI by the Executive. It is a grave concern that resources have been tied up with the policing of rioting relating to parades, rather than being devoted to community policing. That is a reason to move forward with local dialogue on sensitive parades, so that accommodations can be reached whereby a heavy police presence is not necessary.
Vernon Coaker: Does the Secretary of State have any concerns about the answer that she has just given? I would have thought that policing parades would not only be an issue for what one might call normal policing, but that it also has national security implications. Does she not think that it is incumbent upon her to consider whether the additional security money provided could be added to, to help the PSNI meet the additional cost? We know that £27 million is the amount of that additional security money for this calendar year, because of how the additional security money was phased. Policing parades comes into that amount. How do the PSNI afford to police parades and maintain national security?
Mrs Villiers: The Government take their duty to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure very seriously. That is one of the reasons why the block grant is higher per head in Northern Ireland than the UK average. That is also one of the reasons why the UK Government provided £200 million additional funding on top of the block grant to assist the PSNI in its national security duties over the previous spending review and that is why we have provided £31 million for the 2015-16 spending review. Of course those resources provide support to the PSNI, not just in relation to its national security duties; they also provide assistance in public order policing—for example, with the deployment of the Land Rover fleet, which was refreshed as a result of the support given through the national security top-up funding.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): In relation to the security situation and fighting terrorism and, indeed, criminal gangs in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State join me in regretting very much that Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party have joined to block the full operation of the National Crime Agency here in Northern Ireland? Can she give an undertaking that she will work very closely with those of us who want to see this matter progressed to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland benefit from the advantages of having the National Crime Agency up and running throughout the United Kingdom?
Mrs Villiers: I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will continue to work to seek to persuade the Northern Ireland Executive of the benefits of having the NCA operational in relation to devolved matters in Northern Ireland. The NCA will operate in relation to matters that are not devolved, and it will provide what assistance it can to the PSNI in relation to devolved matters as well; but of course, it will not be operational on those matters in Northern Ireland. It is a significant disappointment to me. I think that the NCA would have provided a very important boost to the operational capacity and ability of the PSNI. I will continue to work with it to ensure that it gets whatever support it can from the NCA. I will continue to work with the nationalist parties to try to persuade them that the NCA is an asset to crime fighting in Northern Ireland, which, I hope, one day they will be able to support.
What her policy is on the building of a shared future in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): We are committed to building a prosperous and united community in Northern Ireland. We support the Executive in delivering their ambitious united community strategy, as shown in our recent economic package. I think that we would all accept that significant challenges remain, and I look forward to the all-party talks this autumn. Progress is essential for the Province, and I look forward to giving as much support as I can in that process.
Pamela Nash: I thank the Minister for that answer. In my constituency in central Scotland, we have had great success in developing our shared campus schools to bring Catholic and mixed state schools together, and indeed to bring our communities together. What discussions have Government had with the Northern Ireland Executive on building a shared future through the continued support of the development of both shared campus and integrated schools?
Mike Penning: Although I fully support shared campus schools, this is a matter very much for the people of Northern Ireland and for the Executive to work on. If we do have a future together, it is important that young people in particular understand the different ways that different communities work. Not only are schools important, but so is sport, as we saw with the World Police and Fire games and the Olympics.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Of course a shared future requires economic growth and a foundation to provide opportunities for young people to get into the workplace. That depends on an effective education system. Can the Minister assure us that measures are being taken to ensure that everyone of all areas, communities and age groups are able to benefit from a good education system?
Mike Penning: I think that we would all agree that education is an important part of our community, particularly for young people to aspire and live their dreams. Although we have wonderful universities here in Northern Ireland, we should not forget that, once students finish formal education, apprentice schemes and jobs are out there. We have seen some wonderful results this morning across the United Kingdom, but particularly here, where there is a six-year high in economic growth. This morning, I had the pleasure of visiting SDC Trailers, which is about to announce a significant new contract for semi-trailers in the transport industry.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that the concept of a shared future took a back step during the summer months? What discussions is he having with political parties in advance of the Haass talks to try to ensure that incidents such as we saw at Castlederg, for example, will not be repeated, as we attempt to build a shared future?
Mike Penning: We should not underestimate the damage done to the community and the world standing of Northern Ireland by the sort of images that we saw on TV. People have the right to parade legally, and they must accept the rule of law when the Parades Commission
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea? In seeking to create a shared future in Northern Ireland, what steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to create a much more balanced Northern Irish economy? Has he identified any economic clusters that can help to deliver that?
Mike Penning: Although the economic situation in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter, the UK Government and the Treasury have been hugely supportive in recent months, as we have seen with the recent package designed to help the economic situation in Northern Ireland. It is obvious that the economic dependence on the state here in the Province, which is disproportionate compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, is plainly unsustainable and costs taxpayers huge amounts of money. We must ensure that the private sector fulfils that role and creates more private enterprise jobs.
What assessment she has made of the effect of the republican parade in Castlederg on 11 August 2013 on community relations in Northern Ireland and of whether this and other parades breached the determination of the Parades Commission.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): There is no doubt that the Castlederg parade caused great hurt and distress to many people in West Tyrone and across Northern Ireland. Investigations of breaches of Parades Commission determinations are an operational matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the commission and the prosecuting authorities. I play no role in that process.
Ian Paisley: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. I hope that she takes it kindly from me that community relations in County Tyrone are at an all-time low, as a result of that diabolical parade by the republican movement. Without engaging in the politics of hindsight, which is dangerous for us all, does she accept that she must put a marker down to make it clear that a repeat of that parade will not be allowed next year? Will she send out the message loudly and clearly that such an error will not be repeated next year?
Mrs Villiers: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I was gravely concerned about the Castlederg parade, not least following a meeting that I had with the Derg Valley Victims Voice group, which was very moving. The individuals at that meeting were clearly distressed about the impending parade, which was one reason why I appealed to the organisers to call it off. Whether one is taking a decision on play parks, flags or parades, a key way forward for Northern Ireland is for people to take into account the views of other parts of the community and to try to ensure that all such decisions are taken in
What recent assessment she has made of fuel smuggling in Northern Ireland.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): Thanks to the efforts of the authorities, published tax gap figures show that fuel fraud in Northern Ireland is in long-term decline. Tackling fuel fraud remains the joint top priority in Northern Ireland of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, alongside tobacco smuggling. Working alongside the Irish Revenue Commissioners has helped the situation to move forward.
David Simpson: The Minister will know that fuel smuggling is very much a running sore in Northern Ireland, with many millions of pounds being lost to the British Exchequer, when things are difficult at the moment. I understand that up until last week 47 people have been interviewed by the police, but no one, as yet, has served any time for this crime. Whether more patrolling or more intelligence, something needs to be done to stop the loss of revenue to the Exchequer.
Mike Penning: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am deeply concerned about where the revenue that is lost to the Exchequer goes. As we know, in many cases, it is going into terrorist hands. Two or three major issues needed to be addressed, including the marker issue, which was a big issue when I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and which remains unresolved. In the past couple of weeks, however, some of the plants that remove the existing markers have been successfully closed down, to such an extent that the smuggling of fuel is declining, while the smuggling of tobacco is increasing. We need to keep our foot squarely on the pedal.
I promised that I would meet the Treasury Minister, and I did so. He is working closely with me and with the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland to ensure that offenders are prosecuted. It is not for a politician to say whether someone should be prosecuted and sentencing is for the courts to decide, but I share the sympathies of the hon. Member for Upper Bann.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): One way to deter fuel smugglers is not simply to take their plant away from them—the profits are high enough to ensure that they can set up again—but to remove people from circulation. Is the Minister not concerned that, although we now have a record number of raids on fuel smuggling operations, we still do not have arrests? It almost seems as though the smugglers are aware that the raids are going to occur, so they leave their booty behind, but they escape. Although he has said that is up to the courts to decide on sentencing, is he happy that HMRC and the police have acted robustly to make sure that the courts are aware of how serious this is, so that they hand down proper sentences, rather than letting people off even when they do appear before the court?
Mike Penning: I think that I agree with nearly everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I was referring to individual cases. Of course, it is down to us to legislate, and it is then for the police to enforce the legislation. I have discussed this with the Treasury Minster on several occasions, and HMRC is aware that, frankly, the penalties have to fit the crime; otherwise we shall not get the amount of this off the streets that we want. However, the success stories are interesting. There have been arrests, not perhaps quite as many as we today in this Chamber would like, and there are success stories emerging. That is interesting when we look where the price of laundered fuel is going. The other thing that we have to address and get right is the marker. If we can get the marker right, we stand a chance of doing this, but we must be aware that, as we move off fuel, they will move onto something else. That is how they finance the terrible things that they want to do to our communities.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I welcome what the Minister has said about finding a new and suitable marker. I wish him and the Government well in the pursuit of that. However, does he agree that the statistics show that 50% of all fuel bought in Northern Ireland has an illicit trace to it? That is an atrocious amount of criminality in terms of local fuel smuggling and illicit trade. Has he looked at whether perhaps insiders within the services are tipping off people who are smuggling this stuff and allowing them to get away with it scot free?
Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): It is a privilege to be here under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Has any consideration been given to moving on from dyed diesel and ensuring that all diesel in Northern Ireland is white, and that there is a rebate something akin to VAT rebates to farmers, construction firms and others who use it? In my book, given the extent indicated by my colleague from North Antrim, I believe that is the only way in which fuel fraud will be eliminated.
Mike Penning: I am not aware that they have looked at the particular scheme, but officials will have been taking note, and I shall make sure that the Treasury sees the hon. Gentleman’s comments. At the same time, Treasury officials have told me plainly to my face that they feel that they will be able bring forward a marker that cannot be removed anywhere near as simply as the existing ones.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Retail Trade Association, which has many deep concerns about this issue because many of its traders are being disadvantaged as a result of illegal fuel smugglers and people who are involved in the laundering of fuel throughout Northern Ireland?
Mike Penning: This was raised with me when I was a Transport Minister all those years ago by the haulage industry in particular, and it was discussed when I met hauliers this morning. I have been in meetings with HMRC and David Ford, the Minister responsible here for justice. We have had ongoing meetings. I have had discussions with the retail association, and I should be happy to have formal meetings should it wish to do so.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): No one doubts the Minister’s sincerity, energy or determination in this matter. However, he has said on a number of occasions—at least two in my hearing—that the marker production is imminent. How much longer are we going to wait for this marker, this essential tool to deal with and combat what is quite rightly described as an atrocious situation?
Mike Penning: No one is more frustrated than I am or those from the previous Administration who also struggled to get the marker in place. This is a blight on our economy and our society. It creates a real problem with financing of terrorism. I shall put all the pressure that I can, along with the Secretary of State and any efforts that may come from the Opposition, to get the right marker. It would be absolutely wrong if a marker were introduced only for the chemists or the terrorists and the people laundering fuel to remove it within a few weeks, and we had to start from scratch again.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things we need to do is to ensure that there are successful prosecutions and strong sentencing? Although that decision might not be for him to make, will he urge the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive to take action, so that we can see some positive moves forward to ensure that people who commit these crimes, frankly, end up in prison?
What steps she is taking to address the concerns of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland regarding police shortages.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): Resourcing for the Police Service of Northern Ireland is primarily a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Policing Board. The Government are providing about £200 million of additional funding for the PSNI in this spending review and £31 million in 2015-16.
Jim Shannon: I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Unfortunately, it does not address the issue. The Patten report of 1999 said that there should be 7,500 officers, on the condition that paramilitary activity ended and weapons are decommissioned. The fact is that the number of officers is down to 6,850; 20% of front-line officers are sick with fatigue from the present disturbances; and over the next three years, another 1,200 officers will go.
I understand that it has been agreed that 480 officers will be recruited, but that does not take into account the 550 reserve officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the PSNI who will leave in 2017-18. Almost 2,000 officers will leave in the next five years, and it is not enough for the Secretary of State to say that it is a devolved matter. Northern Ireland is on the front line when addressing United Kingdom policing issues.
I understand that two people were arrested in Northern Ireland with photographs—not holiday snaps—of Merseyside police HQ, which indicates that dissident republicans are planning something on the mainland. We need to address the issue here, with more officers here.
Mrs Villiers: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I take this matter very seriously; I was discussing it with the Police Federation this morning, and with the Chief Constable and the Minister of Justice last week. I understand the Chief Constable’s concerns, and I have seen the work he has been doing on resilience. I appreciate the pressure on the PSNI that has been caused by the big events this year and by the flag-related and parades-related disorder. It did a fantastic job, often under very difficult circumstances. We have worked closely with the PSNI to develop its case for Treasury funding, which we successfully obtained for 2015-16. I will continue to work with the Department of Justice, the PSNI and the Policing Board to see what we can do to respond to the concerns that have been expressed and to provide the right climate for the Chief Constable to commence recruitment.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. This is my first visit to Belfast. I had a tour of the city this morning, and I found it to be an excellent city. I am sure everyone who lives here is proud of that fact.
I met the Police Federation of Northern Ireland this morning with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, and one of the concerns that it raised was the fact that widows and families of police officers killed or injured before 1972 do not receive an index-linked pension. Therefore, if they had a £100 pension in 1972, they still get a £100 pension today. Can that be right?
Mrs Villiers: I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is enjoying his first visit to Belfast. I hope that it will be the first of many visits. I am concerned to hear about the point he raises about pensions. My understanding is that it is a devolved matter, but I am happy to look into it to ascertain what the situation is and whether any further help can be given.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the fact that there have been almost 3,500 fewer arrests in Northern Ireland in the past nine months than in the same period the previous year, and the fact that there have been 467 fewer people charged than the previous year? Does she accept the Chief Constable’s explanation for those poor figures? Given the fact that he brought in extra police officers from other forces in Great Britain to help with the public order situation, does she agree with the many people I have spoken to who do not believe that that
Mrs Villiers: The PSNI’s record of delivery is exemplary and second to none. I noted those figures with concern as well. It is difficult to know exactly the precise cause of those figures, but I am convinced that the public order situation was a contributory factor. If hundreds of police officers are needed to cope with public order problems and the disgraceful scenes of violence that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents sadly had to put up with, that must inevitably have an impact on the PSNI’s ability to deliver on its other policing duties. That is another reason for that important local dialogue on sensitive parades and, I hope, for a constructive approach to the Haass dialogue about the future reform of parading rules.
What her policy is on the Haass negotiations; and what consideration she has given to the implementation of any recommendations arising from those talks.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The all-party group provides a welcome opportunity to try to resolve some highly contentious issues, and we warmly welcome it. The Government will support and engage with the process and we stand ready to help implement acceptable outcomes that command broad support.
Dr McDonnell: I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, but does she accept that we may have difficulty in finding the solutions that we so badly need here and that the British and Irish Governments need to be, if not in the room, outside the door to help us work through this? Many people in Northern Ireland look to her, along with the Irish Government, as co-guarantors—godparents—of our settlement, to try to ensure that we finally settle all the contentious outstanding issues.
Mrs Villiers: I am happy to reiterate that the Government take seriously their responsibility to help to resolve these important issues for Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the establishment of this group; it is a demonstration of Northern Ireland’s political leadership taking the initiative and taking ownership. For a solution to command broad support, it must be supported in and originate from Northern Ireland. I will work assiduously to support the process and provide whatever help I can. I know that colleagues in the Irish Government will be equally supportive; that was confirmed in the Tanaiste’s speech in Cambridge over the weekend.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): I support the comments made by the hon. Member for Belfast South, although I am not entirely comfortable with allocating the role of godfather or godmother, or godparent to any particular person here. Does the Secretary of State
Mrs Villiers: Relations between London and Dublin have never been better. We work closely together on a whole range of issues, including Northern Ireland matters, and I am sure that that atmosphere of co-operation will continue between us as the Haass process moves forward. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment that, by working together across political boundaries, we are much more likely to see success come from the Haass process. Northern Ireland’s political leadership has demonstrated that it can take courageous decisions to make the changes that transform life in Northern Ireland. I am confident that it has the ability to deliver those compromises to see real progress on the issues under consideration by Mr Haass.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): As the Secretary of State has said, the process is copper fastened by the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement: both the British and Irish Governments. Will she confirm when she is next due to meet the Tanaiste to discuss not only matters to do with Haass, but other issues relating to the economy, underpinning political institutions and the whole issue of parades?
Mrs Villiers: I understand that I am due to be in Dublin within the next couple of weeks, but I do not have the precise date in my diary in front of me. Rest assured, I keep in regular contact with the Tanaiste, both in meetings and by phone to keep him updated on Northern Ireland matters and to hear the Irish Government’s perspective. Those kinds of close working relationship will be helpful, as the Haass process moves forward.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): On the Haass talks, the parade in Castlederg indicated the magnitude of the problem. Does the Secretary of State share my concern and that of many of us from the Unionist side that Sinn Fein is trying to rewrite history and to elevate those who were involved in terrorist activities by equating them with victims? Does she feel that Sinn Fein has to look at what it is bringing to the table and make sure that that is acceptable to Unionists?
Mrs Villiers: The events of the summer demonstrated the continuing sensitivities and concerns around parading. We have already discussed Castlederg, and I have made my views plain: the decision to go ahead was deeply insensitive. I and the UK Government have always been very clear that we will not be party to any attempt to rewrite history. It is also a grave concern that parades led to disgraceful scenes of rioting on 12 July and subsequently, in relation to the internment march, where those who felt that they might be defending Britishness certainly were not defending their culture or defending Britishness by attacking police officers and creating that kind of disgraceful, disorderly scene, and I am sure the whole Committee will join me in condemning the riots that we saw take place. It is important for all of us to move forward, both with local conversations to try to resolve contentious parades and with a constructive dialogue under the Haass process.
The Chair: The debate may continue for up to two and a half hours. At this moment, I have no intention of imposing any time limit on speeches, but I would like any Member who wishes to participate to have the opportunity to do so, so I shall watch carefully to see exactly who indicates that they wish to speak.
It is a pleasure to move the motion under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and excellent that the Grand Committee has the opportunity to meet here in this historic Chamber. I thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North for the suggestion that the Grand Committee come to Belfast to meet; the effort to bring the Committee here has been very successful. Like you, Dr McCrea, I thank Willie Hay, Speaker of the Assembly, for permitting us to debate in this beautiful Chamber today.
The Committee is an important forum for MPs from across the House to discuss Northern Ireland affairs. Members will be aware that there is a specific reference in the Belfast agreement to the Grand Committee and the important role that it has. The Committee serves as a reminder that, although many matters are now rightly devolved to the Assembly, as we heard during Question Time, Parliament continues to take very seriously its responsibilities for Northern Ireland.
One criticism levelled at successive Governments during the years of the old Stormont Parliament was that they had effectively turned their backs on Northern Ireland. That is not a precedent that should ever be followed, and the sitting of the Grand Committee here at Stormont today provides an opportunity to reaffirm and restate the importance that the House of Commons places on Northern Ireland matters.
The motion deals with peace and progress in Northern Ireland and the next steps in building a prosperous and united community. It is right that we reflect here on the progress made under successive Governments since the early 1990s. As a result of the political settlement, Northern Ireland has peace and stability not seen here for probably half a century. For the overwhelming majority of people, life has changed dramatically for the better as a result of the political settlement. The ending of the main paramilitary campaigns means that we no longer live in the daily shadow of terrorism and the large-scale security apparatus that was necessary to counter it.
The Assembly itself, back from its recess and sitting here today, is approaching the middle of its second term since devolution was restored in 2007, which has not happened with devolved institutions since the 1960s. Decisions over all the key public services are now taken by locally elected and accountable politicians, rather than direct-rule Ministers. For most people in Northern Ireland the debate has now moved on, away from how we deliver devolution to how devolution itself delivers on the issues that matter to them.
As I have reiterated, the Government remain firmly and enthusiastically committed to supporting the political settlement and the institutions established under it. We are determined to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to build on the foundations provided by relative peace and stability to achieve the more prosperous and united community that everyone wants. In doing that, it is clear that we need to make progress in two key areas: the economy and the creation of a more cohesive and shared society. I shall take each in turn, if I may, Dr McCrea.
It is well known that the Government inherited the worst deficit in our peacetime history and the largest of any country in the G20; a decade of irresponsible borrowing and spending had left us on the brink of bankruptcy. There was no alternative, therefore, to the course that the Government set out in 2010. As a result of the difficult decisions we have taken, the economy is beginning to mend. The deficit is down by a third, the UK economy is growing and we have more people in work than ever before.
Here in Northern Ireland, there are at last some tentative signs that the economy is recovering. Unemployment is falling and is back below the UK average. Across a number of sectors, business activity has returned to growth for the first time since 2007. House prices are up, with an increase in property sales of 10% over the year, and we have had some more good news in the figures published by Ulster bank today.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I agree with the thrust of what the Secretary of State has said about how the economy has to be turned round. Obviously, we in Northern Ireland have to rebalance our economy to the private sector, while keeping in mind public sector employment. Does she agree that we cannot sacrifice public sector workers on the altar of hopeful and hoped-for private sector employment, and that the jobs in Coleraine of 300 Driver and Vehicle Agency workers should be retained and not moved to Swansea?
Mrs Villiers: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the DVA centre in Coleraine; this is a difficult issue. The Department for Transport is consulting carefully about the decision on those jobs. Everyone appreciates the impact of potential job losses on the individuals concerned. I have tried to be as helpful as possible in enabling the former Minister and his successor to have appropriate access to Transport Ministers to get their points across, and I have conveyed the concerns that have been relayed to me on those jobs.
I am afraid that we will have to await the outcome of the consultation. The Government have to make some difficult decisions on reducing the deficit—in some instances, that has meant a loss of public sector jobs—but across the UK as a whole, 1.3 million jobs have been created in the private sector. That is another illustration, whatever happens in Coleraine, of the importance of ensuring that we can rebalance the economy and boost the creation of private sector jobs, which I shall come on to.
I am the first to acknowledge that the Northern Ireland economy still has a long way to travel. Times are still very tough for many families, which is why the Government are delivering a £700 tax cut for more than
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): In the spirit of promoting private sector investment and growth, given that we all understand that that is the important source of jobs, does the Secretary of State agree that it is necessary to ensure that banking is active in promoting investment and able to support firms, where appropriate and it is in their interest, in getting a decent loan?
Mrs Villiers: Yes, I agree that the banking sector has an important role to play in returning the economy to prosperity. I have had many discussions with businesses and political leaders in Northern Ireland about their concerns on business access to finance. That is why it is an important part of our economic package to ensure that Northern Ireland gets more benefit from Government programmes to encourage lending to business. I am pleased to say that the first part of that—the extension of our successful start-up loans scheme—is already in operation. It is one of the first pieces of the economic package to be operating in Northern Ireland, and it is already issuing loans to young entrepreneurs who want to set up a business. We will press ahead with a ministerial working group to ensure that everything that possibly can be done is being done to try to ensure that the banks in Northern Ireland are taking full advantage of Government schemes and that they are doing their utmost to lend to businesses.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State agree that, in view of the need to sort out banks and encourage lending, it is important that Royal Bank of Scotland sort out its issues with Ulster bank to give certainty to all its customers throughout Northern Ireland?
Mrs Villiers: Well, yes. There is no doubt that Ulster bank, like many other banks, has its issues. I had a number of conversations with the hon. Member for East Antrim, in his former capacity as Finance Minister, about his concerns on that matter, and I will continue to work with ministerial colleagues at the Treasury and in the Executive to try to find a way forward. Just a few months ago, we had a helpful meeting with Treasury Ministers on the potential future for Royal Bank of Scotland, and I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman was able to convey directly to the Treasury his views on the decisions that it will be taking in due course on the future of the bank.
To return to the actions we are taking to help business in Northern Ireland to grow, we are reducing corporation tax from 28p under Labour to 20p by the end of this Parliament, and we are taking £2,000 off the employer national insurance bill of every company and charity in the country. We are also working to tackle the deficit, which keeps interest rates at record lows. At the same time, we are recognising Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances by continuing to provide high levels of
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): One of the biggest problems we have for the future is youth unemployment and surely the Government need to do more to tackle the issue. We even have many young people coming out of university who cannot get jobs. Will the Government do more to help businesses to take on more apprentices and make it easier for young apprentices to go into training colleges without needing sponsorship?
Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and such matters are at the heart of much of what we have done. We are making it cheaper for businesses to take on new people, because we are introducing a threshold below which they will not pay employer national insurance. We are cutting the jobs tax—cutting the tax bill—for people who want to take on young people, or people of any age.
Boosting job creation is at the heart of the economic package that we signed with the Executive. All measures—whether to unlock progress on infrastructure projects or to promote lending to business, or the additional funds for Peace IV and structural funds—are designed to boost the economy and broaden prosperity. I particularly appreciate the importance of providing opportunities for young people.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that this summer’s rioting was not particularly helpful in encouraging private investment in Northern Ireland? Does she agree that we need a review of community relations, so that we can try to respond to such issues and, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, do something about youth unemployment via the Executive?
Mrs Villiers: My hon. Friend makes the good point that while Northern Ireland is a great place to do business, it becomes more difficult to convince the rest of the world of that if it sees on its TV screens people hurling petrol bombs, bits of pavement and bricks at police officers. It will always be impossible for Northern Ireland to reach its full potential unless progress towards a resolution of community relations is achieved. Sectarian divisions, which can spill over into violence and confrontation on the street, have a negative impact on the economy. That is why our economic package makes plain our support for the work that First and Deputy First Ministers started with the publication of their document on social cohesion and a shared society. It is important that that work goes ahead.
Northern Ireland has some world-class businesses and great success stories, and I pay tribute to the work done by the Executive in attracting in inward investment, but the recovery is still slower in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK. The property crash has left businesses with a heavy burden of debt and the economy remains too dependent on public spending, as has been pointed out.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Life sciences and sciences seem to be important in Northern Ireland, with more than 4,000 people employed in the sector. I know from experience in the north-east of England that life sciences and science are important there, as they are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts. Can the Secretary of State do anything to encourage such businesses in Northern Ireland to communicate with companies in the north-east of England, Scotland and elsewhere, so that they can share information and learn from each other?
Mrs Villiers: That is a good suggestion. Great efforts are made by Invest Northern Ireland to bring investment in life sciences to Northern Ireland, and UK Trade & Investment is involved in such programmes across the UK. More effective communications between different parts of the UK’s life sciences sector on how to compete and succeed in the global market for investment in life sciences would be helpful.
Neil Carmichael: The Secretary of State is making a good case for the economic policies that we are pursuing, but does she agree that it is important to recognise the value of manufacturing and engineering in rebalancing the economy? That definitely applies to Northern Ireland, as it does to England, Scotland and Wales. Does she also agree that that rebalancing will require the appropriate skills and that we should focus on delivering packages that ensure that employers can recruit safely?
Mrs Villiers: I agree that manufacturing recovery is crucial and that we have seen some real success stories in Northern Ireland. Providing the best skills base is crucial if Northern Ireland is to compete internationally in the global race for investment. A huge amount of brilliant work is done in the universities and in Northern Ireland’s education system as a whole. In England and Wales, we are focused on apprenticeships and have a huge apprenticeship programme, but some excellent work is also being done by the Northern Ireland Executive in promoting and delivering apprenticeships as a key way to build that skills base and to provide for young people much-needed opportunities of the sort we have discussed.
David Simpson: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way again, On the point I made earlier, when I speak to youth forums, take questions and engage with young people, they always come up with the same point. They want to learn and they want apprenticeships and skills, but they cannot get into training colleges because they need sponsorship from companies. If we are to widen the skills base, something more needs to be put in place so that young people do not require sponsorship from companies. We do not have the construction industry that we used to have, but if we could make that change a lot more people would get into the training colleges to learn the skills.
Mrs Villiers: I will certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s comments and pass them on to my colleagues who cover skills matters in England. I am sure the Minister of Education here will want to reflect on them as well, as Minister with responsibility for such matters in Northern Ireland.
The Government have been working with the Executive on ways to boost the private sector and rebalance the economy, and we have already heard about the economic package signed just before the G8 summit. We did not have as many resources at our disposal as might have been available in the past because of the deficit that we inherited, so we have had to consider other, imaginative ways of helping, in addition to public money. Despite the budgetary constraints, we have managed to secure an additional £42 million in UK top-up funding for Peace IV and £154 million to top up the EU structural funds going to Northern Ireland.
Crucially, we have retained Northern Ireland’s assisted area status—a key ask of the Executive—which is such an important weapon in the Executive’s armoury for attracting jobs, and we were able to secure from the Treasury an additional £100 million in further borrowing powers for the Executive, as well as measures to boost lending to businesses. Fresh work is under way on enterprise zones, as well as a joint £20 million investment plan for research and development projects, with particular focus on aerospace, which is another Northern Ireland success story.
Our start-up loans scheme is open for business in Northern Ireland; it is one of the first parts of the package to be up and running. We are also working on a visa waiver pilot to encourage visitors to the Republic of Ireland to extend their holidays north of the border. That is another helpful suggestion that came from the Executive as we were discussing the economic package.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State. She has outlined many excellent issues and has worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly on the financial package, but I presume she will at some point come to the big issue, upon which all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive were united: the devolution of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. That is seen by many as a game changer in rebalancing the economy. Does she understand the disappointment here in Northern Ireland that it has not happened—it has been put on the long finger—especially when clear commitments were given by her predecessor before he came to office that it would be a major priority of a new Government?
Mrs Villiers: The right hon. Gentleman has read my mind, because I was about to address that issue. Part of the economic package was an agreement on the mechanism for taking forward the devolution of corporation tax. If the Government decide to devolve such powers, we have a mechanism to take that forward and deliver that devolution within this Parliament. I know that that is not as much as he would like and I am conscious of the strong support for devolution of corporation tax in Northern Ireland, but it represents real progress. It is important for the Prime Minister to take into account the wider devolution picture in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the significant technical challenges around devolving corporation tax rates, so further work would in any event be needed before we could finally give the go-ahead to corporation tax devolution. We have the mechanisms in place; it will be for the Prime Minister to take a decision on whether, in principle, corporation tax should be devolved.
As acknowledged in the Assembly debate, the economic package is substantial and has been widely welcomed across much of the political spectrum and by the main business organisations. The Government and the Executive will work more closely than ever on our shared goal of equipping Northern Ireland to compete in the global race for investment and jobs. We hope to be in a position to make further announcements on implementation of the package at the G8’s themed investment conference in October, which the Prime Minister will attend.
Ms Ritchie: The Secretary of State and I corresponded recently about the project to pump prime economic development and investment in Kilkeel and establishing a sustainable vision for the future. She suggested that I contact Invest Northern Ireland. I have made written representations to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Executive, but I am being batted back. May I again ask the Secretary of State to ensure that all parts of Northern Ireland—particularly rural areas that are difficult to access, but which have much tourism and investment potential—are recognised at the investment conference?
The other area where we need to make progress is delivering greater social cohesion in Northern Ireland. Sadly, we saw this summer evidence of the deep divisions that remain in parts of society here. There can be no justification for the violence we saw during the flags protests or on the streets of Belfast in July. Rioting is serious criminal behaviour and we give our full support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in its efforts to bring the perpetrators before the courts. Where people are convicted, some will certainly expect to serve time behind bars.
We also deplore attempts to commemorate or legitimise acts of terrorism. Everyone in Northern Ireland has a clear responsibility to examine the impact that their actions could have on all parts of the community.
Oliver Colvile: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have some restorative justice? The people who caused all the damage within Northern Irish communities should expect to clear it up and physically make recompense.
Mrs Villiers: Restorative justice can certainly have a useful part to play. I have always considered it an addition to the punishment that comes with prison. I am sure that the courts will take such issues into account in deciding the appropriate penalties.
I would like to make progress. It is right for the Government and the Executive to address the issues that help to feed and sustain divisions in society. Most of the relevant policy responsibilities are devolved, but I and the Prime Minister, as well as my predecessor, have consistently returned to this theme. Put simply, unless these divisions are addressed, Northern Ireland will never reach its full economic potential. Therefore, in May we very much welcomed the publication of the Executive’s strategy, “Together: Building a United
The Government will continue to support the Executive in taking the difficult decisions needed to move things forward towards a genuinely shared future. We welcome the establishment of the all-party working group under the chairmanship of Richard Haass. The Government are not formally part of that process, but we are fully engaged with it and support its important work. We obviously have a clear and direct interest in the outcome because a successful outcome of the Haass work would improve life for people in Northern Ireland, assist our efforts to strengthen the economy and address national security issues. However, parading and elements of the rules on flags are currently matters for which Westminster has responsibility, which is another reason for our interest in the outcome. Any changes proposed by the Haass group would need the support of Parliament if they were to be implemented.
Nobody should underestimate the difficulty of the task faced by Dr Haass and his group. The ability of Northern Ireland’s political leaders to work together across political boundaries will be crucial here, as it has been in delivering the major breakthroughs of the past 20 years. I hope we will see the same determination and willingness to compromise that delivered the series of historic agreements that have done so much to change life in Northern Ireland for the better over the past two decades.
Important as the Haass process is, other important work needs to be done to ensure that Northern Ireland continues to make progress. That must not be held up while we await the outcome of the Haass group’s deliberations. In particular, there should not be a let-up in delivering the proposals in the economic package and the shared future programme published by the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Before concluding, I want to say a few words about security. As we all know, despite the great progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, a small number of people remain who seek to pursue their ambitions through violence. I condemn in particular the shocking threats that were apparently issued to Catholic primary schools in north Belfast. So far this year, there have been 12 national security attacks by so-called dissident republicans, and the overall threat level remains at “severe”. These terrorist groups continue to carry out attack planning and targeting, and continue to have lethal intent. Many of the devices they deploy are relatively crude and simplistic, but even a simple pipe bomb can have horrific and potentially fatal consequences.
Once again, I pay tribute to the men and women of the PSNI, who do so much to protect the whole community from those terrorists. I put on record my sincere thanks to them and to An Garda Siochana for the vital role that it plays in combating dissidents. Relations between the British and Irish Governments have probably never been better. The same can be said of the relationship between the PSNI, the Garda and the Department of Justice. Cross-border police co-operation is undoubtedly saving lives. In recognition of the severity of the continuing threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland, the June spending review confirmed £31 million of funding to
We will consider carefully the resilience assessment recently carried out by the PSNI and the matters raised by hon. Members during Question Time. I am happy to co-operate with the Department of Justice, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Policing Board on how we respond to the issues raised by the Police Federation and the Chief Constable.
Today’s debate is taking place against the backdrop of some difficult weeks when Northern Ireland was, at times, back in the headlines for the wrong reasons, but this year has also seen the outstandingly successful G8 summit in County Fermanagh, which would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. The world police and fire games enabled competitors and spectators from all over the world to enjoy Northern Ireland’s legendary hospitality. We have seen some dazzlingly successful events during Derry-Londonderry’s year as the UK city of culture. All those events have shown the best of Northern Ireland.
Great progress has been made, yet we all acknowledge that there is still much to do if we are to build on the peace and stability we have to achieve a more prosperous and united community. That is why the Government have rolled up their sleeves to get on with the job of working with the Executive on those crucial matters. I commend the motion to the Committee.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for those remarks. I associate myself and my colleagues particularly with her comments on the security situation in Northern Ireland. We give thanks and gratitude to those who work in the security services, and for the work and bravery of the PSNI.
I am pleased to be joined by the shadow Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North; my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, the shadow Parliamentary Private Secretary; and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Sedgefield, who is a valued member of our Front-Bench team, whom I mention in particular because he is from the Whips Office. It is worth noting that the respective predecessors of the latter two of my hon. Friends were themselves heavily involved in Northern Ireland matters. We all remember John Reid, former Member for Airdrie and Shotts, and Tony Blair, former Member for Sedgefield. They, along with many others from the Governments and political parties in London, Dublin and, most importantly, here in Northern Ireland, are owed a debt of gratitude for the work they have done over many years.
This will be a theme of my remarks, but I place on the record the fact that we in London—all of us, across the parties—recognise the work done by Northern Ireland Members of Parliament and their efforts to ensure that difficult matters that arise are dealt with as fairly and swiftly as possible. It would be wrong for me, as an
There will be people who say, and they say it to me in my constituency, so Northern Ireland MPs do not have a monopoly on this: “You don’t do anything, you don’t understand and you’re out of touch.” Let me say to each and every Northern Ireland MP that I know how hard every MP works: I know the particular stress and strains that some of them have in their constituencies, which it would be wrong not to mark.
It is always good to be in Northern Ireland. As I often say, one of the things I most enjoy about my role as the shadow Secretary of State is the chance to visit and spend time here, to meet people and to go to different communities in various villages, towns and cities in Northern Ireland. I have seen and heard but, most importantly, learnt from the two years during which I have had the privilege of holding the role. The motion correctly reflects the fact that we have made remarkable progress in Northern Ireland. It is important to use this opportunity, as the Secretary of State did, to mark that, as well as to reflect on some of the challenges that of course remain.
This morning, my colleagues and I spent time in west and, indeed, east Belfast. On the Falls road, we visited the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, the Irish language and cultural centre. We heard from the organisers of the Féile an Phobail—I hope that my Irish language pronunciation is—[ Interruption. ]
Vernon Coaker: I will not repeat it, but that was very well done. That particular community festival is celebrating its 25th year. We also visited the Ballymacarrett Orange hall, a beautiful building that is steeped in history, and met local representatives from the loyal orders to hear about their work to encourage the promotion of positive expressions of their culture and heritage.
As the UK city of culture, Derry-Londonderry has shown what can be achieved when we share, and learn from, each others’ cultures. An example was the walled city tattoo last month. It has been a fantastic year so far for Derry/Londonderry, as the hon. Member for East Londonderry will know, and I know that there is much more to come. What a fantastic example to us all of what can be done and achieved.
The communities that we visited today are among those most affected by the troubles. Violence was a daily occurrence. Hundreds of people from both communities were killed, and thousands were injured. The journey we made today between two parts of this great city
The communities that I visited this morning share a determination to meet difficult, sometimes seemingly intractable, problems head on. Nowhere is that more evident than in the work that is being done to overcome the social and economic deprivation in many areas of the city and of Northern Ireland. The Government need to do more from a Treasury and a London perspective for the people whom I met this morning, and for all of the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State says that the economy is on the way to being fixed, but the truth is that for many ordinary people, things are still very difficult, with prices rising faster than wages and with living standards down. I commend the Government, and indeed the Prime Minister and others here today for the debate, on holding the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. I hope that we will see an equally successful outcome at the economic conference that was announced at Lough Erne and that will be taking place in Northern Ireland next month.
The Government must play their part in ensuring that investment and prosperity benefit every community in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Upper Bann made an extremely important point about youth unemployment and young apprentices and about trying to ensure that we give opportunities to young people in Northern Ireland’s communities. We say far too often that apprenticeships and tackling youth unemployment are important when we all know how difficult it is to find those apprenticeships, to get those businesses signed up and to give those opportunities to young people. The hon. Gentleman will know from his own business experience as well as from representing his own community how important his words were.
A shared future must include the sharing of wealth and resources, too. No community can be left behind. Every community must have hope and opportunity. None should feel that it has been left behind; some do, and we must tackle that as a priority. The Northern Ireland Executive, businesses and others, must see that matter as a priority for the discussions at the economic conference next week.
With the frustration that exists over what sometimes seems to be slow progress here in Northern Ireland on the remaining issues around parades, sectarianism, flags and dealing with the past, we can forget how much has been resolved. We all want to fast-forward change. We all want change to come about more quickly, but it has to be built and nurtured. There will difficulties along the way. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies will know that far better than I, as they wrestle with the responsibilities of office in trying to bring that about. The Good Friday agreement was signed 15 years ago, but it took nearly another 10 years to build stable and functioning institutions, unequivocal
Understandably, we can sometimes be too quick and too eager to see more progress and to be critical of the Executive. Our role in Westminster and the role of Government working in partnership with the Irish Government should be, and must be, to encourage and support. We must be constructive and—yes—occasionally cajoling, when that is needed.
That sort of effort from both Governments is as necessary today as it was at the outset of the peace process—from the Anglo-Irish agreement through to the Downing street declaration, and the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements that followed it. The Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, made this point in his brilliant speech at the British-Irish Association in Cambridge this weekend. I urge the Government to work ever more closely with the Irish Government, and not to allow the perception—whether right or wrong—of complacency or what might come across as reducing the relationship to platitudes and superficiality.
The Secretary of State mentioned the Garda and the PSNI working closely together on security, and that work is welcome and vital. However, political co-operation—the language and actions of jointery—is also important. Indeed, it has been the bedrock of the progress that we have made.
Of course, we know that much work remains to be done; the scenes that we have witnessed during the summer, and the underlying causes of those scenes, have shown that very vividly. Violence can never be condoned. We have to build a shared future on mutual respect and mutual trust, and young people must be offered hope. Let us support those grass-roots organisations that many Members here from Northern Ireland have given me the opportunity to visit, and that sometimes get to the parts of communities that the rest of us find it difficult to get to. We need to support them, because many of those sporting, cultural, musical and educational organisations are the ways in which hope for the future and a better understanding between different communities are built.
The attacks on the police, the flouting of the law and the disgraceful rioting and public disorder that we saw on the streets in Belfast are simply not on, and neither is the glorification of terrorism—past or present—acceptable or in any way helpful in building the type of shared united community that people right across Northern Ireland are working to achieve. It has been a bad few months, and confidence in the ability of politicians to work together to solve difficult issues has been shaken. As I have said, however, we must remain confident and strong, and these problems can be worked out through many organisations at the grass roots. Indeed, people here are seeking to work those problems through.
The Haass talks offer an opportunity to make progress on flags, parades and dealing with the past. That is why I have been somewhat surprised to hear what the Secretary of State has said, both today and in a speech to the British-Irish Association on Friday. Effectively she has placed preconditions on the Haass talks, because she has not only said that the Government must agree to the outcomes but what she thinks some of the outcomes should be. She cannot have it both ways. She needed to be more involved in the talks about flags, parades, tackling sectarianism and dealing with the past, and she needs to respond to the call from many people to become more involved in the Haass talks. She cannot just have the final say on what is decided; I am afraid that it does not work like that. She needs to be careful about how she approaches this issue.
There should be no constraints or parameters placed on the frank dialogue that is needed at the Haass talks beyond the terms of reference that have already been agreed. If anything, the scope could be extended. I believe that there needs to be engagement with communities and in communities right across Northern Ireland, so that the voices of those communities are heard as part of this process. We achieve most when we involve many; that has been the way in which we have been able to change Northern Ireland so much for the better.
I know that we will have an interesting and informative debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out some of the official Opposition’s views. However, I will finish now in some respects where I started, by saying that Northern Ireland is a great place to live, to work and to visit. It has had a dark past, but it has a much brighter future. We owe it to all the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that everyone, from whatever community and wherever they are, can share in that bright future together. I believe that they can, and that they will.
Mr Dodds: May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, especially in this historic Senate Chamber at the Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast? I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is meeting here. I am pleased that the suggestion that I made in January during Northern Ireland Question Time and at business questions has been responded to so positively, and I thank the Secretary of State and the other parties for their support. It is important that this body in the Westminster democratic process is able to meet in Northern Ireland—it is, after all, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. It is important that the Committee meets regularly—this is the third sitting in this Parliament—and in Northern Ireland.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, I have also suggested that the Prime Minister might consider holding one of his occasional regional Cabinet meetings in Northern Ireland, which I hope will be taken on board. I know that she has passed that on to the Prime Minister. Of course, we are mindful that the Prime Minister brought the G8 to Northern Ireland, which was a tremendous success. Perhaps I might be permitted, as a Unionist, to say that that move was the greatest international affirmation of Northern Ireland’s place as part of the United Kingdom for many years. I also welcome the tremendous boost that world leaders coming to Fermanagh will have brought to the entire community in Northern Ireland in economic terms, as well as through publicity
This is the first sitting of the Grand Committee in Belfast since 2006, when we met in Belfast city hall in a very different context. As the Secretary of State and her shadow have said, we have made momentous progress since then, so it is right that we put that on record. The Government in Northern Ireland under the devolved set-up following the St Andrews agreement have existed since 2007 and are now into the seventh year. We are into the third year of their second full term. Those tremendous achievements in their own right need to be repeatedly stated, because it is now taken for granted that they were inevitable, although that is far from being the case, as many of us in the Chamber know only too well.
In the midst of understandable concerns and some negativity in parts of the media and elsewhere, it is important to put on record the tremendous achievements made in this place and through the political process in Northern Ireland. Both the Secretary of State and her shadow have outlined a number of the great achievements that have been made and some of the great events in Northern Ireland that have seen people coming here. The fact is that we are open for business and beginning to see economic progress. Work is ongoing between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government at Westminster to bolster the economy and bring about more jobs. We need to support those important processes in whatever way we can. I do not intend to rehearse all the achievements, because we have already done so in debates at Westminster and here today and I know that other hon. Members will want to make their own contributions.
As has been said in questions and during this debate, despite all the progress, there will inevitably be set-backs and challenges. We will not overcome the problems that we have faced in Northern Ireland in previous decades in a few short months or years. There are big issues, some of which we are dealing with in the Haass talks over the coming months, that still need to be talked through and resolved. In an excellent article in the Belfast Telegraph today, the First Minister put forward a positive case for the political process, the devolved institutions, the Executive and the Assembly. He demonstrates a clear commitment on the part of the Democratic Unionist party and all of us in politics in Northern Ireland to moving Northern Ireland forward. Yes, there are challenges, but let us face up to them and discuss the difficulties. Let us try to keep moving the Province forward, not only becoming fixated on the negative aspects, but remembering the positives. It is inevitable in politics and the day-to-day cut and thrust of debate, however, that the negative elements will come to the fore, so it is entirely right that we should consider the difficult issues at this sitting and through the coming weeks.
That work will be done in the context of a difficult summer, during which the police and security forces have come under severe pressure and have suffered severe attacks. I join those who have said—I have already
I pay tribute to the police and the security services for the work that they continue to carry out not only on public order, but to tackle the threat of terrorists who want to exploit divisions and problems to create violence on our streets and to bring about death and destruction. The police have had notable successes in that regard and we hope and pray that they will continue their good work and receive all the resources they need to carry their work forward and produce the results that we want in halting terrorism and bringing good order to our streets.
We dealt with police numbers and finance in our earlier exchanges about resources. The Secretary of State indicated last week that she could not make any commitment on the funding that will be available following the future spending review, but she will have heard what the shadow Secretary of State said about extra help for the police and what we are saying from these Benches: no matter what the difficulties, the police must be given the resources that they need, because security and good order on the streets must be the first priority. The ordinary decent people of the Province need reassuring that the security forces have all the resources necessary. Alongside that, of course, it is incumbent on all of us in the political process to work as hard as we can to try to deal with the issues that underlie the problems that have been played out on the streets.
It is undoubtedly the case that the situation regarding parades and protests remains extremely difficult. In my constituency of Belfast North—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann has wrestled with such issues in Portadown over many years, while other hon. Members have dealt with similar problems—how we move forward on parades and how we reach a position of tolerance and respect on both sides are absolutely critical. The Haass talks will be extremely important in that regard. However, if we are sincere about a shared future and about shared space, that must be for everyone. There cannot be a situation in Northern Ireland whereby people who use main thoroughfares and arterial routes for 364 days a year are told on one specific day that, because they have a particular collarette on, they cannot do so. That is not sharing.
There has to be mutual respect. We have to arrive at a position where people are prepared to tolerate other people’s expressions of their identity, and that has to happen on both sides. We have to get to a situation—I hope that this will be the outcome of the Haass discussions—in which, when there are problems, difficulties and disputes, people see that the decisions about parades are made on the basis of fairness, equity and some
We need to call a spade a spade in relation to the Parades Commission which, to put it mildly, has shown itself to be totally and absolutely inept. At worst, the commission has been a major contributory factor to instability and violence in Northern Ireland this year. I have yet to meet anyone of any standing in civil society in Northern Ireland—apart, perhaps, from some personal friends of members of the commission—who honestly believes that the current membership of the commission has made a single positive contribution. It has been a negative contribution, so I urge the Secretary of State to look very carefully over the coming months at the make-up of the Parades Commission. I hope that, at the end of the Haass talks, we will be in a position to present to the Secretary of State, as part of the political process in Northern Ireland, a set of proposals to supersede the current Parades Commission altogether and move the situation forward. That is critical, and it is also critical that everyone has respect for the political process and looks to that process to get the progress that we need in Northern Ireland.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): Is the right hon. Gentleman’s objection to the personnel who comprise this Parades Commission, or to the Parades Commission generally and any arbitration on parades? If his opposition is to arbitration on parades, who does he feel should arbitrate otherwise and how, should the Parades Commission in its current form be removed?
Mr Dodds: I think that both questions have already been answered. I made it clear not only that the current make-up of the commission needs to be changed, but that there needs to be root and branch reform. Indeed, considerable progress was made on a replacement for the Parades Commission a couple of years ago, following the devolution of policing and justice, and I am hopeful that further progress can be made.
Of course, even the proposals that were agreed at that time by the DUP, Sinn Fein and many others recognised that if there was a dispute, there had to be some kind of arbitration process. The question I am posing is: does anyone seriously believe that the current process is working? Does anyone believe that it is sensible, rational or accountable?
Mr Dodds: Those who say yes are clearly out of touch. They clearly believe that the current system is fine and that we should just continue with it, and thus continue with all the problems and difficulties. I believe in trying to solve problems and to move things forward. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that we should continue to play the same old record over and over again, but I think that we need to move forward. There is consensus that we need a better way forward, and I hope the Haass talks will produce that.
Mr Dodds: My hon. Friend is right and what he says is reflected broadly in the community. People say that all the time, and even those who are not of a Unionist persuasion find it incomprehensible that the Parades Commission, through the decisions it took, actually rewarded the violence of dissident republicans and empowered them. Unfortunately, as happens in such cases, the police were caught in the middle.
I want to put on record, joining with my party colleagues who have spoken on north Belfast, that the threats against school children mentioned by the Secretary of State, and also those issued against individuals associated with the civil rights camp at Twaddell avenue, are to be deplored. As Councillor Lee Reynolds, who represents that area, made clear, we need to recognise that lots of mischievous information and misinformation is being spread in the media, so we all need to be careful about how much store we put by some of those reports. Nevertheless, any threat at all coming from whatever quarter, against anyone, is to be utterly deplored and condemned.
When talking about shared space, a shared future, progress and the challenge that we face, it is important that we drill down into these issues, so it is especially important to raise the issue of parading, given the severe disruption in community relations, particularly in north Belfast, but also in other parts of the city and across Northern Ireland, as a result of what has happened. We need to do an immense amount of work in the coming months.
Mrs Villiers: There has been a lot of talk about the reform of decision making on parading and the Haass process, and we all hope that that will lead to a successful outcome. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that whatever the outcome of that process, it is still important for groups to engage in local conversations? However decisions are made on parading, the key will still be to find a way to enable both traditions to express their culture in a way that does not cause antagonism and anxiety, and the way forward on that is through local conversations, which need to continue in north Belfast, as they do everywhere else.
Mr Dodds: I entirely agree with the Secretary of State and I do not think that anyone would disagree with the generality of what she put forward. Again, to drill down a little into the facts and the reality in northern Belfast, there have been discussions over many years in the community between the loyalist side and resident groups at Ardoyne and elsewhere. There has been engagement, some of which happened last year under the chairmanship of Lord Alderdice. This is not something that has not happened, or something that we need to urge people to do—it has happened and happened. An immense number of hours have been spent on direct engagement. People find it difficult to accept that, despite all that engagement and good will, decisions are imposed upon them that actually reward bad behaviour and do not recognise
We can agree in generalities, and we do agree on the general approach to dialogue: good will, with outcomes respected and tolerated on both sides. However, when we drill down into some of the things that are causing concern, those of us gathered in this Chamber need to understand why there is sometimes frustration and anger out there at the decisions made by the Parades Commission and others.
It is right that we consider those issues, because they are very prevalent, but it is wrong to think that everything is black for the future of Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we have made enormous progress. The economic situation, thankfully, is beginning to show signs of improvement in Northern Ireland, and I know that the Northern Ireland Executive will be working very hard in the new term to try to make progress on that.
The points that have already been made about jobs and young people, especially, are very relevant. I look forward to the important investment conference in October and the Prime Minister’s participation, because that shows that Northern Ireland is open for business. The biggest single contribution to moving Northern Ireland forward that the Northern Ireland Executive and Westminster can make, working together, is to boost our economy to get our young people into work and to get more people contributing to the economy. Our party and I will certainly do what we can to help the Government at Westminster and the Northern Ireland Executive to accomplish those goals.
Neil Carmichael: It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea; I have done so frequently—obviously—in Westminster Hall, but it is a particular pleasure to do so out here, because, as I understand it, this is the first time that the Grand Committee has met in Stormont. That is an absolutely fantastic fact that we should all be celebrating and of which I am sure we are all mindful. It is symbolic of the progress made in Northern Ireland over the last few decades, which we should salute.
It is great for me, too, to be able to put on record my appreciation that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were so helpful—given that approval was required from the Executive and the Assembly—when I was taking the Antarctic Act through Parliament. I know that you were involved in that, Dr McCrea. The Act put right a technical issue, but it was a necessary thing to do so that Britain can play a part in the international world in protecting the Antarctic. Northern Ireland played its part in that process and I am immensely grateful.
It seems to me that the economy is very important to this debate. As our previous speakers made clear, to get the economy going—and going faster than it already
We can capture that in several different ways. We can talk about the importance of entrepreneurs and the need for a culture to encourage entrepreneurial activity. We need to talk about small businesses and the way in which they can develop and grow, because we need small businesses with the appetite to get bigger and create a critical mass so that they can play a bigger part in the economy and start exporting and making links with other parts of Europe and the globe. That is all about opportunity.
Another element of opportunity is, of course, education; not just at school, college and university but beyond. We must remember that today’s economy is creating a situation where people might have a succession of different jobs; their career might unfold in different ways because the economy is modern, innovative and requires creative thinking. To encourage people in that, therefore, we have to equip them in the world of education and make sure they always know that the learning environment is an important one to be in. That is how opportunity can be further boosted.
An economy like the Northern Irish economy is all about creating a place where people can feel that tomorrow is going to be better than today, because there are some things to get hold of which will make a difference to them personally, make a difference to their families and make a difference therefore to their communities. That is the direction of travel and that is the pattern we need to set.
I am particularly impressed with the Government’s document “Building a Prosperous and United Community” which was agreed with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. It paves the way for many of these things to happen. It talks quite rightly about £18 billion of capital funding to continue until 2017. That matters. It is important because opportunities are built on a firm foundation, which is created in part by capital funding. It is also good to see that £300 million of investment through enhanced capital borrowing powers will be provided for, or encouraged at least, through this document. That is important, as is making sure that enterprise zones can play their part in providing the framework for all the opportunities I have already talked about to flourish.
So the Government are playing their part, the Executive are playing their part and we should salute that here today. In essence it is about recognising that economies are much more interlinked than ever before. Increased links with other economies, the lengthening of those links—the supply chain argument—and the export-import channels are all elements that we need to consider as we think about the future of Northern Ireland.
It is a great pleasure to be here today. It is the first time I have visited Northern Ireland, let alone Belfast and Stormont, but hon. Members can rest assured it will not be the last. I have been very impressed since I landed at the airport this morning—after getting up at 4.30 am—because everybody I have spoken to has been incredibly friendly and helpful. That is a real tribute to Northern Ireland. We should all take note of that and be grateful for it.
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Despite being part of the Northern Ireland team for the Labour party for the last three years, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak. As Parliamentary Private Secretary, I am usually consigned to the Back Benches in the House of Commons Chamber.
Pamela Nash: I thank my hon. Friend. In my role in the Northern Ireland team I get the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life here, and I have been a regular visitor to Belfast and Northern Ireland. It will not be a surprise to hon. Members that I feel right at home. It is not that different from being back in Airdrie—but unfortunately not all the similarities that I find here are desirable.
At the moment my own constituents are suffering a crisis in living standards that is happening across the country. In Lanarkshire it has not been felt to this extent since the Thatcher years, and I see people here in Belfast and across Northern Ireland who are struggling alongside them. The Chancellor said this morning to great fanfare that we have turned a corner in our economy’s growth, but the majority are not seeing their living standards benefit to match that.
This year’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard report showed that a single person in the UK needs to earn at least £16,850, and a couple with two children need to earn £38,800 just to have a minimum acceptable standard of living. For many of my constituents and other people in Northern Ireland, such figures seem like an unreachable dream.
It is worth pointing out that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation used to publish separate figures for Northern Ireland because living costs were lower, but it now says that overall living costs are on a par with Britain, so the figures now cover the whole United Kingdom. However, wages here are lower and throughout the UK they are down. Figures that came out this morning show that in the ranks of how much salaries had risen in the G20 countries, we came 19th. Salaries have fallen 2.6% since the Government took over.
Pamela Nash: The mess we were left—[ Interruption. ] The Minister intervened, so it would be good if he listened to my response. The rest of the G20 countries seem to have recovered since 2010, and in fact most of the major economies in the world have maintained their salary levels at the inflation rate, but ours are much lower. The only country in the G20 that is doing worse in maintaining salary levels is Italy, that gleaming example of economic success.
In the long term here in Northern Ireland, the loss without replacement of heavy industry has taken a particularly severe toll on salaries. I understand that the average annual wage is £3,000 less than in the rest of the country, but with similar living costs. That means that the Government’s policies are having even more of an effect here. Policies such as raising VAT hit the incomes of households here in Northern Ireland even harder than in the rest of the country. Many households do not even have the luck of a wage coming in. The total number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Northern Ireland stands at 62,666. The dole queue of people could reach across the Irish sea to Scotland and a good way back again. I spent some time making that calculation to ensure that it is the case.
The claimant count stands at 7.4%, which is higher than when Labour left office and higher than that for the rest of the country. More than half of those who are unemployed have been so for more than a year, and more than 17,000 young people are claiming jobseeker’s allowance. That figure is higher than the population of the town of Armagh.
I appreciate that these statistics do little more than illustrate the extent of the issues, but all of us around this Table and in this Room can put an individual face to the statistics. Those faces are the current and future prospects for Northern Ireland, and those statistics represent the hopes and aspirations of people who want to get on and get by. How can it be acceptable that we have such a large number of young people unable to pursue their dreams and ambitions after three years of this Government? People here, as in Scotland and the rest of the country, need the Government to protect them in the short term and to know that there is a plan for growth in the economy in the long term. However, I suspect that even after the Chancellor’s statement this morning, most people will not be confident of either.
The direct implementation of social policies here is devolved, but hon. Members around this Table have ensured that the Secretary of State knows how deeply the consequences of the Government’s economic and social policies are felt in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State’s job is to be the voice for Northern Ireland in the Cabinet. When the Minister responds, will he reflect on how his team ensured that the impact on Northern Ireland was fully considered when the Government’s economic and social policies were formed over the last three years and how it has considered their impact in the future? The economic strains and stresses on living standards are tough for many communities. Here, they are not only a burden, but can have distinct and deeply disturbing consequences if left unchecked.
The UK Government have a responsibility to do everything they can to nurture the peace process and to protect its progress so far. It is difficult to see how that has been taken into consideration when policies are leaving our poorest and most vulnerable people out of
A couple of years ago I was honoured to attend the Pride of Northern Ireland awards here at Stormont. I met young people who had achieved great things despite not having been dealt the best hand in life. They were upbeat and positive about the future, and that continues here. We must all foster and encourage that. There is a great weight of responsibility on us all, particularly the Government in their policy making, to ensure that it is nurtured and not extinguished.
Northern Ireland has no greater asset than its young people, who are now growing up with the benefits of peace. They must be supported to achieve their full potential if Northern Ireland is to continue developing into a prosperous and united community.
Ms Ritchie: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and to be meeting here in Northern Ireland in a building 50 yards across the way from the chamber where many of us have been Members.
Building a prosperous and united community is not only a desirable objective; we in the Social Democratic and Labour party believe that there is a compelling imperative to do so. That is what the Good Friday agreement and the political institutions that emerged from it were about. They were based on peace, partnership, working together and, above all, respect for political and religious difference.
We in Northern Ireland are one community with two distinct political traditions and two different political identities: one looking towards Britain, one looking towards the south of Ireland. However, I believe that both communities and both traditions can coexist peacefully, deploring violence and terrorism and with one simple objective above all: supporting and underpinning the economy and delivering for the people.
The Secretary of State said that devolution is about delivering for local people. There are certain questions about whether the Northern Ireland Executive is delivering for everybody against the vicissitudes of the current political and economic situation, but that is the objective to which it must adhere. Both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State had a useful opportunity to visit my constituency, where the main economic driver is tourism. That is encapsulated by St Patrick’s country. In many ways, Patrick represents building a united community and a shared future, because he is the unifying symbol for all of us on this island. He belongs to all traditions. All the principal assets associated with Patrick— notwithstanding Slemish, which is in the area where the leader of my party grew up in County Antrim, so I cannot forget it—are in South Down, from where he landed to where he built his first church, took healing waters and died and was buried. We hold all that, and it is important that all those assets are developed as a tourism product so that people can come and invest their resources there.
The other important element is the Mourne mountains, which were created by igneous intrusive volcanic activity, producing a distinctive landscape feature from which we all derive enjoyment. I am pleased to say that some movement has been made in respect of the Narrow Water bridge proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gosling visited some time ago—[ Interruption. ]
Ms Ritchie: Maybe a fraudulent one. I apologise; my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). None the less, I hope that over the next few weeks it will be possible to get together a cocktail of funding to deliver that important north-south project. We are talking about building economic activity.
Oliver Colvile: Does the hon. Lady recognise that Northern Ireland also has HMS Caroline, the final survivor of the battle of Jutland? That ship is about to be restored, which is very apt because next year we will be commemorating 100 years since the start of the first world war.
Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that Northern Ireland has a rich maritime history. In fact, when I was Minister for Social Development in the Chamber across the corridor, I had the great delight of dealing with the SS Nomadic, which took visitors out to the Titanic before it set out on its voyage. The Northern Ireland Executive has now refurbished that ship and, like HMS Caroline, it is available for people to visit. We have a rich maritime history because of our coastal advantages and our pivotal geographical position. I do not think that any of us would deny that.
Many issues relating to building an economy in Northern Ireland must be addressed not only by the Northern Ireland Executive, but by the British Government working both alone and in conjunction with the Irish Government. As co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, we face challenges. Air passenger duty has been dealt with only for flights between Belfast international airport and New York and New Jersey. That is important to our local economy, but the issue of air passenger duty on domestic flights between Belfast and Britain and Belfast and Europe must also be addressed.
Mrs Villiers: Sadly, I cannot give the hon. Lady the assurances she wants on air passenger duty, but I can provide assurance that there is a very close working relationship between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach on economic matters. We are determined to step up our economic co-operation. The economic relationship is already intensely close, and we are determined on both
Ms Ritchie: I thank the Secretary of State for her intervention, which I do not disagree with. I am well aware of the close working relationships between the two Governments, particularly since the Republic of Ireland is one of the UK’s principal trading partners in a more global phase. I know that the Irish Government were particularly grateful for the help and financial assistance when they were dealing with the eurozone problems.
There are other issues that we need to address in a united approach to building not only the economy but a shared future in Northern Ireland. There is the need for a financial package, whether we remain in the UK or move towards the new Ireland to which we in the SDLP subscribe—that is, towards building a united Ireland. There must be discussion with the Irish Government about the potential funding package to underpin that. This place cannot be left stranded. As the Secretary of State said, there are so many economic ties between north and south and between Britain and Ireland.
There is also the potential impact of welfare reform. I hope that there will be positive progress on the flexibilities that can be ushered in as a result of the discussions between the Minister for Social Development here and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions. Also, I hope that the discussions on corporation tax will be concluded ahead of the independence vote in Scotland.
The hon. Member for North Antrim raised the issue of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland jobs in Coleraine. However, there are also the jobs in the local offices. Thinking of my own constituency, people can tax their car in either Downpatrick or Newry. If those staff are not embraced by the wider department, they might have to move a considerable distance. Travelling 20 or 30 miles in Northern Ireland can present a difficulty for people who do not have access to public transport or a car. Then there is the other issue that I will raise through the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which the Government and the Northern Ireland Office need to be aware of. At the moment it is not possible for Northern Ireland companies to export pork to Russia and China. In Dungannon we have Moy Park and Granville Meat and we need to look at their position and make the path easier for them.
Only last week in my constituency jobs were lost at Crossgar Poultry. Today about 25 jobs were lost in Thales, an international defence company with a base in Castlereagh and one in my constituency adjacent to Crossgar. While I do not subscribe to the principle of war and while we do not subscribe to the principle of all things to do with defence, people are going to lose their jobs and so some help must be provided for them. Tourism is our principal economic driver in South Down. I am horrified that the tourist development scheme no longer exists in Northern Ireland so initiatives such as the provision of additional bed spaces and activities to promote our existing assets cannot be funded because that scheme has been put on hold through a lack of resources. I want the British Government to intervene here. They should either look at the block grant or have further discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive about this.
We are talking in a very positive way. Today we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield and the hon. Member for Stroud that this is their first visit to Northern Ireland. As fellow Members of the House of Commons we can visit each other’s areas, but I would like to think that they can come to Northern Ireland not only on potential parliamentary business but on holiday. Notwithstanding the political and security difficulties of this year and this summer, I noticed that many people came from the south of Ireland to visit us. One only had to look at the car registration numbers. That was not necessarily just people from the south, but people who came in on the ferry from Holyhead and hired cars in Dun Laoghaire. They were bringing their business, their spending and their purchasing power, and we want to see them.
But for all that to succeed and for all that to be underpinned we need a successful political process. We deplore the acts of violence over the last few months against the police, the security forces and members of the public. Looking at what happened in Castlederg, in north Belfast and various other parts of Northern Ireland, I feel glad that my constituents in South Down are isolated from that. We are a very cohesive community. Those scenes on TV are not pleasant to watch: they are not an incentive to business and they are definitely not an incentive to political progress.
Speaking not just as an observer but as a participant in the political process here, we in the community in Northern Ireland have witnessed the dilution and diminution of some of the objectives for driving forward the development of that shared and common ground that we have worked for in my party and have sacrificed much for. We have seen levels of sectarianism in Belfast and other parts of the north of Ireland that we have not seen for some time. I say this very sadly: this was due to the self-serving attitude of the two main parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, who proclaim to espouse the principle of cohesion, sharing and integration, but through their actions and their words they portray a different characterisation.
We need to drive forward collectively an agenda of reconciliation and sharing, based on mutual respect for political difference. That is the challenge for us as parties, whether we are Members in Westminster, the Northern Ireland Executive or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society, in which people—largely in urban areas—live apart. That is one of the challenges of the Haass talks. The political stuff that took place—the security disruptions, the violence and terrorism that was associated with parading and the past—will imbue the political process and the Haass talks, which I hope will lead to positive outcomes.
We want to see the outstanding elements of the Good Friday agreement resolved. We must address the issues of the past. Many people on both sides—in both traditions—sadly died. Many of us had relatives who died in difficult circumstances, and people are looking for justice and answers. Haass must agree to an agenda to address that, and also to address the issues of parading and victims. I believe that Eames-Bradley went 90% to 95% of the way. However, it must be done in a spirit of reconciliation and mutual understanding.
However, acting in a self-serving manner simply to copper fasten and underpin future electoral outcomes is not in the best interests of the people of Belfast, of
When I was a Minister in the Department for Social Development four years ago I held 14 public meeting in Northern Ireland about how to build and develop a shared future. I held them in many towns, including Belfast. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South was at the meeting in the Radisson hotel on the Ormeau road, which was packed to capacity. I held one in my own town of Downpatrick, one in Derry, one in Dungannon, and in various other parts, including Ballymena. Everybody—to a man and a woman—told me they want to move forward and build a shared future. I took heart from that, as did other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, because it proves that there is a will to meet that objective. We now have to move forward; we are all charged with dealing with the challenges of the past, which is a difficult issue for everybody, of parading, and of the politics of this island.
On the past and the truth and reconciliation process, I ask the Secretary of State whether the British Government intend to lead the argument for a comprehensive truth process with the Irish Government. Will the British Government commit to working comprehensively with the Irish Government on a real, comprehensive truth process, or will they support certain elements of a process to address the past, but resist a comprehensive process and a robust approach to the truth? My hon. Friends the Members for Belfast South and for Foyle and I are of the view that state vested interests can sometimes be central to the resistance. As we enter the Haass talks and work towards building the united community to which we all aspire, in which there is respect for political, religious and ethnic difference, we believe that those are the big issues for the British Government and that they may be a stumbling block to the truth process. I urge the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to ensure that the Haass talks result not in a sticking-plaster solution but in a meaningful and worthwhile outcome, which leads to the final political solution for all our peoples in these islands.
I well remember the establishment in 1968 of the civil rights movement, which was based on the principles of a house allocated on need and not on creed, a job given on the basis of merit and not on who you knew, and one man, one vote. I recall Martin Luther King and his friends marching on Washington some 50 years ago with similar objectives of fairness, equity, and opposition to racial inequality. We all want to go down that road, and I note that the hon. Member for Strangford—my neighbour in constituency terms—last week tabled an early-day motion proclaiming the greatness of Martin Luther King and the principles that he espoused. I hope we can all march forward according to those principles, and that there are no deviations from that path. The people we represent throughout the north of Ireland and the people of this island are looking for a brand new future based on political respect, confidence and trust. We want to build a reconciled, shared people in the north of Ireland and in the new island of Ireland.
Ian Paisley: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate all those who have played a part in bringing the Grand Committee here to Ulster; it is appropriate for it to meet in the historic Senate rooms of the Parliament buildings.
The last words of Seamus Heaney were reportedly uttered in Latin: “Noli timere”, or “Be not afraid.” Those words are fitting as we start a new political term. We should not be afraid about what we have to address as politicians, and leadership demands that we should not be afraid. We must address the issues that we face from a position of honesty, and we must identify exactly what the problems are so that we can address them from a position of truth.
Although I agree with much of what the hon. Member for South Down has said, it is absolutely right and proper for me to point out some of the issues on which there is disagreement. I believe that some progress has been made today; so far, Unionists in this Committee have not been called a bunch of bigots. During the last debate on Northern Ireland, such a salute was given to our comrades on this side of the Committee. Although it is easy to preach, it is much more difficult to live the words that we preach, so I am glad that some progress has been made today in that regard. We need to have mutual respect, and we must approach such terms from a position of honesty.
It is also important to say something about where we have come from as a community. If we reflect on the past 30 or 40 years of Northern Ireland, it is clear that the politics of Ulster were both bloody and difficult. Indeed, outside this Senate chamber, a memorial on the wall commemorates how bloody the politics of this place have been, with the deaths of politicians, let alone the deaths of citizens of Ulster, whose gravestones mark a sorry and sad tale of the history of this place. Of course, that led to difficult politics: the politics of constant instability and constant political crash whenever processes were put in place to try to get normal politics back in place.
We should not be alarmed when what we have today is largely difficult politics, no longer marked by the bloody and difficult; just the difficult. That is a mark of progress and we should stop and reflect on that. No one said that the process of building peace and stability and pulling ourselves up out of the mire of terrorism would be easy. If anyone thought it would simply be the turning of a page and a new start with everything rosy, they were deluding themselves. We will continue to have difficult politics for the reason that Members from both sides have already stated: this is a divided community. It has been divided by the blood spilt by terrorists in Northern Ireland. The innocent victims of our country cry out that it will continue to be difficult until the issues that led to slaughter are properly and fully addressed. However, we are starting to see the roots of normality and the start of just difficult politics, which is where it should be.
The Question Time earlier in the sitting highlighted some of the issues and problems that we face. They include the shared future issues, the Haass process, the disturbances in Castlederg, and the policing issue. The Secretary of State rightly pointed out much of the progress that has been made. I think she was correct to
We have also seen significant progress in terms of our own local economic reporting. The Ulster bank report today commented that progress is now being seen in our economy. We must, however, reflect that we are in the position of economic ground zero and we are having to build from a very difficult baseline.
I said earlier in my intervention on the Secretary of State that we must not sacrifice real jobs in the public sector in the hope and desire for new jobs in the private sector. I hope that the DVLA jobs in Coleraine will be maintained. They are in a remote, rural part of Ulster. They sustain employment from as far away as Limavady to Ballycastle to Ballymoney, in that triangle. Those jobs are very important to that community. To move those jobs to Swansea would be an utter and total disgrace.
The remarks made by the Minister—not the Minister in this room, but the Minister responsible for transport—about sectarian issues that pertain to the Coleraine office are totally unfounded. That must be put on the record. I hope that he will recoil from those comments when he has the chance at Question Time in the House on Thursday.
I support a greater move on corporation tax. That will be no surprise to the Secretary of State. Our party wants corporation tax reduced in line with or indeed below that of the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee unanimously agreed that that should happen. It would be a game changer for many people and for many businesses. Although I welcome the fact that corporation tax for the whole of the UK is being significantly reduced, more could be done for a region such as Northern Ireland, which shares a land border with another country in Europe, whose corporation tax is significantly below ours. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for South Down about APD, which the whole of the United Kingdom could benefit from considerably.
I turn briefly to welfare reform and its impact on our community. Welfare reform will affect Northern Ireland considerably because of the number of people on benefits. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies states that the radical reform of the benefits system will mean that the poor suffer most from the economic downturn. It notes that it is the poor, especially those with children, who will be feeling the squeeze now and who will continue to suffer the most as the benefits overhaul is rolled out during 2015 and 2016. That is a bleak picture for the many people in Northern Ireland who fall into the poor bracket, and the Government must take notice of it. The Government must recognise that, although there has to be welfare reform and certain changes, if the changes are to come about, they must be adjusted in Northern Ireland to take account of the needs of the poor and needy in this society. That is not a big ask, but it is an essential one.
I thank the Secretary of State for her visit to my constituency at the beginning of the recess. She spent a significant amount of time there, considering some of the job issues and constituency needs, and visiting a cross-community boxing group that has been started up in Ballymoney. She heard at first hand there the needs of a local community who are largely left out and
The Secretary of State also visited Michelin, the large tyre manufacturer just outside Ballymena in Broughshane. There, she will have heard the needs of a large employer. At Broughshane, Michelin employs about 1,000 people and produces 1 million tyres a year, mainly for the north American market, and it faces an enormous squeeze because of energy charges which, if not addressed over the next six years, will put it out of business because the other Michelin companies in Italy, Poland, France, Romania, Canada and America can produce the same number of tyres at a considerably lower price; their energy costs are significantly lower. We must do something serious about energy costs in Northern Ireland, and the sooner the better. On the day of her visit, I appealed to the Secretary of State, and she listened carefully, that we bring the issue to the Cabinet because it affects not only Northern Ireland but Michelin’s Dundee plant and the one in England. I hope that she is able to address that issue when the debate is brought to a conclusion.
I want to say something about policing. The police need an extra 1,000 recruits—that is the bottom line. In private, the Chief Constable, the senior team and the Police Federation will all tell us that that is the position, because at the moment whenever there is a riot, or the potential for one in the summer season, they have to bring in 400 additional officers from England, Scotland and Wales. We cannot police Northern Ireland in an ad hoc manner, bringing in officers on temporary transfers once or twice a year—we need to address the issue head on. It is a money issue; the money is there and the issue has to be addressed. We must remember that they will be well-paid public sector jobs. There is a double whammy here for the Government in that they can increase the employed sector and address the needs of the community. More policing is essential.
There are positive things to say about the police; unfortunately my next comments will be more negative. I appeal to the police to address the double standards. Let us call a spade a spade. Over the summer, we had a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and of the police board jumping in front of a Land Rover, berating and abusing police officers in public, and not a tomtit was done about it by the police. The individual was not arrested or charged. A member of my party made a comment on social media for which she apologised less than six hours later because it was a silly thing to say, but she was arrested, banged up and questioned for hours. She was dragged to the courts and she will probably face a hefty fine and significant punishment. The police have a duty to say, in the balance of probabilities, what response is best. Should they let both cases go, punish one side and let the other off, or punish both sides equally and fairly under the law? Everyone should be equally subject to the law—what is sauce for one is sauce for the other.
The police have failed to deal with Gerry Kelly and his approach in the Ardoyne situation in Belfast; it is utterly disgraceful that he has been allowed to get away with it. I believe that the police have a significant duty to address the issue, and to address it double-quick. Our history, and the history of this island, is littered with failure because of double standards. We only have to look at what happened before Home Rule in the last century when incidents affected one side of the community, for example, the riot against Sunday school kids in Castledawson or the Ne Temere decree in the Republic of Ireland, and the automatic impact on the other side of the community. People were driven to confusion and despair, which was called up on our streets in the shape of riots.
The police need to recognise that, although they have our support, they must not lose the message that they need to maintain the confidence of the majority community in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that that confidence is shaken, but the majority community should not be taken for granted when it comes to policing, and the sooner that message is reiterated in the ears of senior police officers, the better.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I will make my comments quickly. These are very interesting days for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To ask how we can progress is a complex question, but the thrust must be that we are moving forward while never forgetting our past, which to some extent has been achieved.
Ulster is in a different place now, moving away from the idea that if someone is a Protestant, they are automatically Unionist and British, and if someone is a Roman Catholic, they are automatically nationalist and Irish. We are seeing a challenge to those traditional ideas, which I have always said were never accurate. My cousin was murdered in 1970 by the IRA, along with his best friend, Daniel McCormick—Daniel was a Roman Catholic, and both of them served in the Ulster Defence Regiment—and my rage as a Protestant was equal to the rage of Daniel McCormick’s family as Roman Catholics. There is a perception that has to be addressed.
Members have yammered on at some length about the issues, but one clearly needs to be addressed: the fact that only 21% of people in Northern Ireland wanted a united Ireland last year, and that it is down to 19% this year. The figure is continuing to fall, so the green dream is over. A united Ireland is not going to happen, and the quicker that is recognised, the better.
We must address the issue of economic growth, to which Members have referred. Our team in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment works hard to promote new businesses and supports our home-grown ones. In my constituency, the aerospace, pharmaceutical and food processing industries are continuing to expand, as is tourism, and I challenge anyone to show me the equal of Strangford lough in the sunshine. When he came, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North, said that it was the most beautiful constituency, after his own, that he had ever seen. Last Thursday, we had the Minister of State down, and we addressed some important issues and met the communities, as we must do. We need to give good political leadership, as well as work hard on the ground, and I believe that is happening.
We also need to address the issues of our communities. During the recent flag protests, I met each community group in my area, so that they knew that their fears were not going unheard and that they were not being ignored. What we must do—I ask the Secretary of State to do this—is to be under no illusions: there are tensions within our communities that need to be addressed by meaningful discussion, not by empty statements or promises. Although the communities are anticipating the Haass talks, those talks should not be left as the only basis; the foundation must be laid at Westminster and carried through the Assembly, and the Secretary of State has a positive role to play in that.
There are many concerns about the figures for young Protestant males who leave school without qualifications. Local colleges in the community are actively involved in reducing those numbers. For example, South Eastern Regional college in Bangor in North Down and Ards in my constituency has some 6,000 people on further education courses and some 2,300 in higher education, which is above past targets. As other Members have said, the Prince’s Trust does tremendous work on apprenticeships, and that brings stability, with young people being in jobs and contributing to the local economy. All those things make the difference, and local community groups are important in bringing about the changes that I believe are so vital.
Time has eluded me, so I will conclude by telling the Secretary of State that she asked how we can have peace and progress in Northern Ireland, and my answer is simple: support. We need good leadership and support at Westminster, as opposed to her writing us a cheque once a year and saying that anything else is out of her hands; adequate financial support by ensuring that there is adequate block grant funding to allow us to build better infrastructure and take care of the education and health issues that we face daily; and, most importantly, support and backing to enable work to be done on the ground in communities, while respecting and supporting those who have laid all on the line for their country, but are all too often passed by. Secretary of State, give us the support that is needed and watch us thrive.
David Simpson: I shall be brief. We have listened to many references and comments, and I certainly agree with the vast majority of them, but I look forward to the day when we come to a Grand Committee sitting, or take part in a debate in the House of Commons or in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, when the troubles, parading and all such issues are resolved and we can move on to what has been termed “a shared future”. Unfortunately, that is not yet the case.
I have had discussions all summer with many of the resident groups in my area from Unionist and other communities, and I must say that the comment from the Unionist community is: “They spent 35 years shooting us and bombing us, but we did not cave in, and they lost that part of the argument. Today, however, it is slightly different, because they are now using a different tactic, and that is a cultural issue. The armed struggle was lost because of the resilience of the people, but they are now attacking us through the cultural identity process.” I want very clearly to state the message from my constituents: “That will not be allowed to happen. We have a rich culture in Ulster, and we will not allow anyone to remove that culture and identity from the Unionist population. We understand that the nationalists have their culture, and they are entitled to that culture, but elements in society are bent on trying to move us back to what we had some 30 or 35 years ago.” That point needs to be made.
Several points have been made today about the economy, on which we have come a long way, and corporation tax was mentioned. The Secretary of State indicated that she would take the suggestions about youth unemployment back to the House of Commons to examine some form of scheme that would allow young people to enter training college without sponsorship to help them to train and skill up, which is vital. Northern Ireland has moved a lot over the past number of years, and I believe that it has a great future, but there are outstanding issues with which we must deal.
Stephen Pound: A couple of themes were constant in virtually all the contributions we heard this afternoon—a third theme would be the general approval and approbation of your chairmanship of the Committee, Dr McCrea. One theme should be repeated at this stage: everybody, from all sides of the Senate Chamber, has shown gratitude for the ability to meet here in Belfast, at Stormont. We obviously thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North, who first raised in business questions the possibility of us doing so—not that he would seek credit for it. I have noticed that he also seeks a regional Cabinet meeting here; there is no limit to his ambitions. I hope that you, Dr McCrea, will allow me to put on record our appreciation for the Doorkeepers, Clerks, Hansard Reporters, security officers and police officers—not only those from Westminster, but those from Stormont—because the sitting has not been easy to arrange, but it has been a very successful Grand Committee.
The other theme that emerged is that we are loading a great deal on to the infant shoulders of the committee of Ambassador Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan. We should be reminded that submissions to the committee must be in by 27 September, and the intention is for
The Secretary of State opened the debate in her typically gracious style, but occasionally, in particular when she referred to the employment figures, she meandered slightly from the primrose path of consensus and bipartisanship. The fact that huge numbers of people employed in Great Britain in tertiary and higher education have been reclassified as private sector workers may have influenced the figures in some way. She spoke for the whole Committee when she said that there was no justification for the rioting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, the shadow Secretary of State, made a typically important and incisive speech, which almost framed the later debate. If I had anything to disagree with him on, or any point to raise, it would be that when he referred to his tripartite team here—he referred to John Reid and Tony Blair, the predecessors of my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, and the Member for Sedgefield—he missed me out. The reason is simple: none of my predecessors achieved a great deal. In fact, only one achieved ministerial rank, and that was Sir Oswald Mosley in 1921. There are certain parts of my constituency that still revere the name of Sir Oswald, but I must say that I do not. [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling says, sotto voce, that that is why he missed it out; I can only thank him for that.
The hon. Member for Stroud spoke warmly of his first visit here; it will not be his last. The welcome that so many people experienced was a common theme that emerged today. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, and the hon. Member for Upper Bann, referred to the importance of young people and youth training. We heard the hon. Member for North Antrim make history today. Never would I have imagined that he would make a speech not only partly in Latin, but also including at least two references to famous Seamus. It shows how all-encompassing he is on these matters.
When we sit in this Chamber and cast our eyes upwards, not necessarily to the Lord but to the ceiling, we see in this Chamber the three symbols of the industrial strength of Northern Ireland: the spinning of flax, shipbuilding and agriculture. Shipbuilding scarcely exists any more, flax-spinning hardly at all and agriculture is a small and shrinking sector confined, in many cases, to extremely elderly farmers. [Interruption.] The age profile of those employed in agriculture in Northern Ireland is higher than in any other part of the United Kingdom. That is not to denigrate the vital and crucial contribution that agriculture makes.
Stephen Pound: I hope that the hon. Gentleman lives longest of us all, because he has so much to give. My point was that Northern Ireland has had to change massively. This building was built in the 1920s, when
This debate will not, I hope, require any particular divisions or disagreements. Overall, we have agreed that we all know what we want, and most of us know how we are going to get it. I hope that Haass and O’Sullivan will provide that road map. Dr McCrea, it has been an excellently chaired debate, and in my opinion the contributions have been first class. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee met here on a number of occasions. We used to take evidence here. I sincerely hope this will not be the last time we meet here, and I profoundly hope that the next time we meet, it will be in even more peaceful surroundings.
Oliver Colvile: The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee met in this place fairly recently and took evidence once again, so it is not something that happened only in the hon. Gentleman’s time; it continues to happen today.
Stephen Pound: Not for one moment was I implying that all good things on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee came to an end when my 11-year tenure on it ceased; far from it. I was simply saying that we are today the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and we are quite rightly and appropriately meeting in Stormont in Northern Ireland, and it has been worth meeting here. This has been a memorable and positive session. I commend every single participant for that achievement.
Mike Penning: It is a pleasure to wind up this debate on behalf of the Committee. There is one hon. Lady about whom I was going to talk quite a lot today: the hon. Member for Belfast East. Sadly, she is not here, and we should acknowledge that. It is because of a terrible situation—fatalities in her family. Our thoughts and prayers should be with her today. I know how feisty she would have been in this debate and I know she wanted to be here. I know how feisty people from her constituency are, because I was in the boxing club in east Belfast only the other evening. It is fascinating to note that the academy in east Belfast sits literally right on one of the peace walls. There is a door that we should all like to be open, so that the community from one side can come through and participate. As the hon. Member for North Antrim said earlier, they do knock seven barrels out of each other, but you would never know who was who. They do not wear a label on their foreheads saying “Catholic” or “Protestant.” They go in there, check that they are basically the same weight,
We have rightly heard many contributions—I think mine will be the 10th in this short debate—and the tone has been excellent. I apologise to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts; I get a bit non-partisan when I walk into anything to do with Northern Ireland—hon. Members can see the rapport that I have with my shadow colleagues—so when we do get a bit partisan, I get a bit chirpy. I apologise if I upset the her in any way. We will take that on in another place at another time, perhaps. I would love to do so.
As the shadow Secretary of State suggested, the tone of the debate has been fantastic. Not only have we talked about how we got here—the work, the sweat and the pain—the great losses for all communities, and the risks taken to enable this Committee to sit here today, we have also talked about the problems and how we can go forward. The shadow Secretary of State got it spot on when he said that the process does not always go as fast as some people would like. That is right. If we go too fast, we get it wrong. However, we must not stand still. That is what everybody will feel who works in this environment and wants the best for Northern Ireland.
We have had lots of contributions and comments; I will not be able to respond to all of them in eight minutes. As usual, I promise to write to colleagues and address their concerns. With regard to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in her opening remarks, if someone is here for any length of time, they start to get it. They know what the issues are, and where to go forward, and what to do. I reiterate the admiration that has been rightly expressed several times during this debate for the police force and security services in Northern Ireland, as well as for those who volunteer to come to give mutual aid. I will return to that topic in a second. They are not told or forced to come; they volunteer to come as part of the police force in the United Kingdom to help when there is need.
The reason why that mutual aid is there is the G8, and the bravery of the Prime Minister and politicians in Northern Ireland, who said “Yes, it can happen, and we can do it.” Did it cost a lot of money? Yes, and the figures will be out relatively soon. That was money well spent; it was an investment in the process in Northern Ireland to ensure that not only could the G8 world leaders come here in confidence, but we could go forward and show that we could run other events.
There has been a lot of discussion about the economic summit taking place here next month, but there have also been other events, such as the fantastic world police and fire games. Those were the brainchild of Dame Mary Peters, and I pay tribute to her. I was there for many of the events, which were amazing. Vikings going up the Shankill road and popping into a pub for a few beers have not been seen here for centuries, if ever. They had absolutely no idea where they were, but they were spending money and enjoying themselves. It may have been a bit of a culture shock for some of the people already drinking in those pubs.
Mike Penning: From the amount of alcohol they consumed, it seems that they might not exist again. They had a wonderful time. I went to the boxing, which was open to everybody, free of charge. None of the events charged. All I could see were people passionate about sport. Some had not even been to see boxing before. A gentleman sitting next to me was from Iceland—an enormous chap who was a member of the basketball team. He had never been to a boxing arena in his life, but he had been in a bar the night before with a boxer from the New Zealand fire service who had never fought before. He had promised that he would come and support him. The young fellow got knocked out in the second round, but that will be an experience he will live with for some time.
We are here to discuss a very serious matter, but as we have just noticed, it is something that we can be positive about. Although nothing will ever be perfect, if we are negative and continue to be so, things will always be difficult. The world stage looks at us and wonders whether to invest here. When I brought the Japanese ambassador and eight leading investors here just before the G8 summit, because they wanted to know whether they would feel comfortable here, they were worried about the security situation. They had seen the parades protest riots and so on, which had started as peaceful protest, and they did not and could not understand what was happening because they thought that peace was peace. I managed to convince them—they also met a lot of other senior people, including Arlene Foster—that those were isolated events. That is true; they were isolated events.
This is one of the points that I want to make all the time: although we have had very difficult situations in Belfast, hundreds of parades have taken place across the Province completely peacefully, including in Derry-Londonderry. When I was a young soldier here, I could not have believed that that would be the case, but the community did come together and has come together. Far be it from me to tell the community what to do, but there are lessons to be learned for other parts of the Province from how things have been dealt with in Londonderry.
We must be careful as these are tentative days, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer has rightly been out today, indicating that the economy is moving on, and here, as the Belfast Telegraph has reported, we have had the best economic figures for seven years. Okay, things are difficult and we started from a very difficult base, but we must not underestimate the effect when others see such comments.
The remarks about training are ever so important, and I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Upper Bann, so my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will look at the issue. In my constituency,
Jim Shannon: On that subject, last Thursday the Minister had the opportunity to come to Newtownards to meet some community groups and see what they were doing in Ards and north Down. I understand that he was very impressed by the work done by the Ards development bureau and that he wishes he had in his constituency something similar to what it has done in Newtownards. Has he been impressed by the work of the community groups across Ards and north Down?
Mike Penning: I was ever so impressed last week, because I saw a willingness to work together. The one-stop-shop facility means that people do not have to go from area to area or to this community leader and to that Department—it was all there. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I did say that I wished I had such a facility in my constituency, which is very rural in parts but has some areas of serious social and economic deprivation. Where such a facility works, that is to be praised.
When it comes to training, I was slightly concerned this morning when I visited a wonderful trailer manufacturers, because it has wonderful orders—its order books are booming—but is struggling to find welders. When I was a young man, there were welding apprenticeships. Now, despite all the history of shipbuilding and manufacturing here, people are struggling to get welders and are importing them from Poland. They do not want to, but they are doing that. I will throw in my four penn’orth on what we need to do and pass some comments on to the Minister here with a view to making sure that she—I think that it is Arlene Foster—looks at the demand. The industry was saying to me this morning that training is going on, but it is not necessarily what is required out there in the manufacturing base.
The motion rightly refers to peace. This Chamber contributed to our being allowed to live in a peaceful environment in the United Kingdom, because it was once an RAF command room. The Chamber has been lent to us today for this wonderful event, but, as the inscriptions indicate, it was lent during the second world war to the RAF, which had a significant role here in Northern Ireland then and does to this day.
As we look at peace, however, we must be careful that we are not concentrating on buildings—on bricks and mortar. I was listening to a sermon in my own church not long ago in which the vicar told us in no uncertain terms that a church is about people and a community, not bricks and mortar. Northern Ireland is about its people and its young people. That is where the peace process needs to work—for them, so that they can build a better future.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): The suspension of the aggregates levy credit scheme has placed our aggregates industry in Northern Ireland at a severe disadvantage. On 9 September 2010, the European Commission decided to open a formal investigation into the aggregates levy credit scheme that ran from 1 April 2004 in Northern Ireland. The Treasury suspended the ALCS on 30 November 2010. That decision severely affected the industry in Northern Ireland and, unfortunately, with the economic downturn, some companies ceased trading. Jobs were lost in many areas with social need.
Three years later investigations continue, the industry is still struggling to survive, and there has not been a resolution. It has been almost three years since the ALCS was suspended and, despite a lot of assurances from the Commission and the Treasury, little progress has been made to reintroduce the scheme or to alleviate the significant hardship in which the quarry industry in Northern Ireland finds itself.
Since 2007, employment in the quarry products industry in Northern Ireland has dropped from approximately 5,000 to 3,700, a 26% falls. Aggregate production has dropped from almost 30 million tonnes to just over 15 million tonnes, an almost 50% drop. The aggregates industry in Northern Ireland entered into the ALCS in good faith. Aggregate producers relied on the fact that the UK sought approval for the scheme from the Commission, and that the Commission issued a positive decision. Aggregate producers co-operated on the understanding that a full and proper state aid approval process had taken place. They registered with the scheme, invested considerable resources to comply with it and, as a result, delivered significant environmental improvements. The industry has invested significant finances and other resources into compliance with the ALCS since its introduction in 2004.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): On the subject of how the aggregates and quarrying industry has tried to change and adjust, one thing it has done is to export stone to London. For some roads around London—indeed, most of the roads that have been done over the last while—the stone comes from Ballystockart and Comber in my constituency. Believe it or not, stone has also been exported to Hong Kong to improve the roads there. That stone came from Carryduff in my constituency. The best stone that there is comes from my area.
Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He emphasises the importance of the aggregates industry to Northern Ireland. That industry had a legitimate expectation that the aid was lawful, and it acted accordingly in good faith, relying on a legitimate expectation created by the actions of the European Commission.
There has been talk of recovering the levy money. The UK Government must ensure that that does not happen. The enforcement of a recovery decision would
Since the suspension of the scheme, the aggregates levy in Northern Ireland now stands at £2 a tonne. That is set against a gate price of around £5 a tonne, so it is a tax of 40%. The Northern Ireland aggregate and associated industries operate in a highly competitive market, which is confirmed by market prices being well below those in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. That unique situation arises because the industry here is highly fragmented, with more than 85% of the industry’s production being operated by small family businesses. We can compare that with the situation in Britain, where 85% of the industry’s production is in the hands of five major players.
Although that fragmented structure has benefits for Northern Ireland society, it also means not only that the local quarrying industry operates with much lower market prices, but that the mainly family-run units have higher operating costs than the significantly higher-output units in Britain, as the same scale of economies cannot be achieved. Furthermore, as Northern Ireland is at the western fringe of the European Union, the industry here incurs higher material costs than in Britain; the costs of explosives, energy and insurance are prime examples of that. That means that acceptable, profitable returns are difficult to achieve even in good times, and the companies in the industry can confirm the struggle that they face to keep themselves afloat. Hon. Members, particularly from Northern Ireland, would recognise and agree with that, because the levy credit scheme has received wide recognition in Northern Ireland and further afield for its take-up by industry and the significant environmental gains that it has created.
Let us look at those gains; for example, let us look at the waterways. There has been a significant reduction in water discharge failures, which has contributed to a big improvement in our streams, rivers and lakes, and thereby enhanced the freshwater fishing sector, including tourist fishing. The ALCS programme has become more challenging since its inception, and rightly so. It initially focused on environmental issues, but both sustainability and biodiversity have become embedded in the programme. That is something that the Government require in Whitehall, and this scheme achieved it.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Has the hon. Lady had an opportunity to read the second report on the subject by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 10 years ago, on which I and her predecessor Eddie McGrady sat? It concluded that only 9% of the revenue received from the aggregates levy went into the sustainability fund. The Committee, without dividing, came up with an extraordinary conclusion that I had never seen in a Committee report before, which was:
Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his very useful intervention. I can well recall that report, because I think I might have had some involvement with it through undertaking research for my predecessor as the Member for South Down. However, there is no doubt that severe negotiations took place in 2002 and prior to that, in order to achieve the ALCS and to provide some benefit and relief to those involved in the quarrying industry.
We must remember that the quarrying industry is, by its very nature, a high energy consumer. Therefore, any reduction that it can make in energy consumption has an above-average positive impact on the drive to make Northern Ireland self-reliant and less dependent on imports.
As with sustainability, the ALCS programme matured to include biodiversity management. At a time when our Ministers—originally direct-rule Ministers, and then devolved Ministers—were endeavouring to sell Northern Ireland as a tourist attraction, the biodiversity work undertaken by the industry made an important contribution to our landscape. I know that as I represent South Down, where the Mournes is an important landscape asset. In fact, in the Newry and Mourne area there are more than 200 disused quarries. Sadly, earlier this year we had an incident where two young men were drowned in a quarry, which highlights the dangers presented by quarries and why they need proper management and total decommissioning. However, there is no doubt that the ALCS has helped biodiversity; that it has contributed to that biodiversity; and that, in turn, it has contributed to enhancing our tourist industry.
Regarding employment, apart from Belfast, most of the targeting social need areas in Northern Ireland are in rural areas—you will know that, Dr McCrea, as you represent a rural constituency—where the majority of quarries and ancillary operations are located, due to the nature of their activities and of aggregates sources. Historically, the industry has attracted most of its employees from rural areas, mainly from farming families and those with a connection to the construction industry. Although agriculture is holding its own in the current economic situation, construction here is virtually at a standstill. Consequently, many families in rural areas are dependent on the quarrying industry and its ancillary activities, including transport, to provide breadwinners. The most commonly used word in TSN is “unemployment”. Any steps that make the quarry industry and its member companies more economically unstable should be avoided at all costs. We should not forget the potential impact of any significant closures or reductions in quarrying output on Northern Ireland’s successful quarry engineering sector.
The hardship faced by the quarry industry cannot be overstated. The increase in the levy to £2 a tonne has been a massive incentive to avoid the tax by using illegal sources of aggregate, using exempted materials such as shale and even describing material as shale when it is not. The geological nature of Northern Ireland means that many quarries in close proximity to shale quarries and serving the same customers find themselves paying aggregates levy while their neighbours do not. Local revenue and customs officers report to the industry that they cannot adequately police and regulate due to a lack of resources and the fact that priorities lie elsewhere. A change of £2 a tonne may be small for the Revenue,
It is widely accepted within the aggregates industry that the aggregates levy, not just in Northern Ireland but across the whole UK, has sometimes failed to deliver its environmental objectives, but there is no doubt that the ALCS programme to ensure the Northern Ireland quarry industry’s environmental performance has achieved more since its inception than the previous 30 years of regulation. In fact, as a consequence of the ALCS programme, the need for regulatory intervention and its associated costs has clearly decreased by no small amount at a time when public sector spending is under intense pressure.
In the final analysis, the ALCS programme must be seen as a vital tool for cost management for both the quarry companies and the regulators. Yes, the programme was managed by Government, but at minimal cost, or arguably a not insignificant saving, to the taxpayer. It has been very successful, but only due to the direct links that it created between good environmental practice and management and economic well-being. The Commission’s suspension has undone all that good work by destroying a successful programme. I am sure that hon. Members here, including the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North and you, Dr McCrea, have met many Northern Ireland quarry producers who have suffered immeasurably as a result of the withdrawal or suspension of the levy scheme.
On the UK aggregates levy more widely, the Government must recognise that despite the ongoing legal challenge by the British Aggregates Association, the levy has failed to meet its objectives and is holding back economic growth and investment. The Government should suspend the levy forthwith and sit down with industry representatives from across the UK to devise and implement a new levy that will incentivise good environmental performance and apply to all material extracted from the ground, at a level that will not affect companies’ commercial survival. Most importantly, it must benefit the communities in which mineral extraction operations take place.
I am only too well aware that the quarrying industry in the north of Ireland must compete with that in the south. There are many private companies producing aggregates in the south. I have some family members in the south of Ireland who work in the quarrying industry, and they supply the aggregates for road construction and other similar enterprises, because they are able to compete in a much better fashion. I want to see the aggregates industry in the north of Ireland pump-primed, so I want the levy credit scheme to be restored.
We all need action now. For three years, we have been told that investigations are ongoing. I believe, contend and submit to the Minister and shadow Minister that that is not good enough. If action is not taken soon, it will be too late for many within the industry and will result in further unemployment and financial hardship. I ask the Minister to intervene on behalf of the quarrying industry in the UK and ensure that there are round-table talks including all those involved in the industry, Treasury colleagues and the European Commission, to ensure the reinstatement of the aggregates levy credit scheme.
The scheme was a major incentive to quarrying, construction and the rural economy, right across Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister has good news for us and will ensure that negotiations begin again. I hope
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): I thank the hon. Member for South Down for securing the debate. I also thank the shadow Minister, the Member for Ealing North, for staying for the general debate, which is unusual. With that in mind, should he wish to intervene—I know he was involved in the debate when he was a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs—I would be more than happy to give way at any stage.
While I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down on securing the debate, I wish a Treasury Minister was standing here, because this is a Treasury matter, as she knows. The Secretary of State and I have absolutely no powers on it. With their best endeavours, my private office team wrote a speech. It went back and forth to the Treasury several times, so I will not read it in full, because it will almost certainly send everyone to sleep.
We agree with the previous Administration that there is a need in Northern Ireland for an aggregates levy credit scheme. That is why it was originally introduced. The hon. Member for Strangford, who has gone to a public meeting—I do not in any way say that he should still be here—said in an intervention that the stone and quarrying materials from his constituency are the best. He may have even said that they are the best in the world, although I stand to be corrected if he did not. He certainly said that they are the best in Ireland, and one problem that the levy scheme was brought in to deal with was the poor quality of aggregates coming from the south, which those in the north could not compete with. I am sorry if that upsets the relations of the hon. Member for South Down in the south.
The scheme was introduced after extensive consultation over many years with the European Commission. After its introduction, there was a challenge on state aid. The Treasury applied to the European Commission for state aid approval and it was granted. The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland signed a formal agreement with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, as it was then, to manage the environmental improvement impacts and aspects of the aggregates levy credit scheme on its behalf. The vast majority of the aggregates industry in Northern Ireland subsequently joined the scheme, and was eligible for 80% relief, as the hon. Lady has said. Most people were happy with that scheme at that time.
Stephen Pound: The Minister rightly talks about the problems that were faced by the Committee and by the aggregates industry at the time. Certainly, one issue was the difficulty in establishing what was virgin aggregate and what was aggregate that had been mixed. I cannot remember the proper word. It is not “paleontology”. What is the word for the science of stones? For all I know it could be “psephology”. None the less, that matter was extremely difficult to establish, and the proximity of the land border was also important. One of the key points—I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of this—was that at the time the Northern Ireland
Mike Penning: I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman’s knowledge about what was happening back then, and presumably what is still happening, has really helped the debate this evening. The only thing on which I disagree is the fact that he is using the word “we”, because it is not “we” who have done this. It is the European Commission that has ruled against the UK Government. As we are all aware, the Economic Secretary had to suspend the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland on 1 December 2010 following the European General Court’s decision in September to annul the Commission’s decision of 2004 to approve a credit scheme and allow state aid.
Although I would love to blame the previous Administration for bringing in a faulty piece of legislation to give an 80% subsidy, which is exactly what I would have done had I been in a similar situation, we support it completely. As we all know, the European Commission drives a very slow bus, and the problem has not stopped. I know that there is a perception out there that it has stopped, but the Treasury tells me that there are still ongoing negotiations and discussions on the matter. One of the things that it is asking for from the Executive in Northern Ireland and from the aggregates companies in the Province is evidence.
Mike Penning: I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment, because I think she might want to respond to what I am about to say as well. I have not yet had the opportunity to visit or talk to the aggregates industry in Northern Ireland. I have not been invited to do so, but I hope that that will change when I sit down.
Ms Ritchie: There are two separate issues. The aggregates industry would very much welcome a meeting with a ministerial representative, and the Democratic Unionist party would welcome a meeting on a cross-party basis with the Minister, because we all have constituents involved in this industry. Representatives from the Quarry Products Association, and the men and women involved in the aggregates industry are totally frustrated by the length of time that the European Commission has taken to investigate that matter. I was told by the previous Finance Minister of Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for East Antrim, that all the evidence had been supplied by the Department of Finance and Personnel to the Treasury over the past number of years. If information is still outstanding, as a matter of urgency we can approach his successor, Mr Hamilton, who is Member for Strangford in the Assembly. On a collective, cross-party basis, as Members of Parliament in Westminster, we want to see the issue resolved in the best economic and financial sense for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mike Penning: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for answering my question. I am sure that officials have listened. Not only will I meet the representative bodies, in a cross-party way, but I will go out to the quarries and see things for myself, which is another way to do this.
The hon. Lady made one point that concerned me slightly. One of my sins is that I am a coarse fisherman. As a working-class lad, all I could afford to do was go down to the canal, for example, with some worms to fish; one area that we always used to go to was quarries. Most quarries have now been adapted so that they are safe to fish, certainly in my own constituency and elsewhere in England. For instance, the quarrying for the Grand Union canal and the west coast mainline has meant that there are about 20 former quarries in my constituency that are now lakes that are fished; in fact, one is being converted into a canal school by the Scouts at the moment. That can be done, and that is what was supposed to have been done with some of the money in the fund when the levy was brought in. Perhaps we should look at some of the quarries that have been successfully adapted. Of course, if quarries are dangerous we need to address that.
Stephen Pound: The Minister is almost becoming an expert in petrology, and I am greatly impressed by his knowledge. As someone who used to fish in the Nazeing gravel pits, particularly for pike, I have much sympathy with the Minister on this matter. Would it not be far better if we could review the whole issue from the point of view of the competing needs of producers, consumers and the leisure industry?
Ms Ritchie: The Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, who is my party colleague, and his predecessor have looked at the issue of quarry safety—albeit that that is not their ministerial responsibility—because of the incident earlier this year. In my own constituency there are about 200 disused quarries that pose a safety risk.
Mike Penning: The hon. Lady makes two very important points, including the issue of safety, and our thoughts and prayers must be with the families who lost their loved ones in that tragic accident. As I get older, I hear about such matters more and more: the hotter the weather, the more people want to go and bathe in inappropriate places.
Many of the quarries may not have been viable but they may become viable again, especially as the economic situation changes and the construction industry starts to grow. That is something that interested me in the briefing and in the economic statistics from Ulster bank that came out this morning: although the construction industry in Northern Ireland is lagging behind some other industries, it is still growing. From the point of view of environmental concerns, and also transportation costs, what is important is that when the construction industry starts to move, it uses aggregates. I come from a family of builders, and, with fuel costs the way they are, it is obvious that the shorter the distance people
I thank all members of the Committee for helping me to get through a debate on an area that is clearly not my own and that I have had to read up on in the past 24 hours. For me, this matter is a no-brainer. I have to be slightly careful, because my views on the European Commission are fairly well known, inside this Chamber and outside, but this is, yet again, an example of the Commission’s slowness. It comes to a decision very quickly, but the issue is listening to the evidence. My briefing says:
“The best chance of getting a new scheme approved is to cooperate fully with the ongoing European Commission investigation and to continue to provide any evidence requested. There is no indication at this stage as to when this matter will be resolved.”
That is the latest from the Treasury, and I received it last night. There is clearly still a logjam somewhere in the system. All I can say to the Committee is that I will do everything I can, under the very limited powers I have, about this matter. I will go back to the Treasury. I will go to see the industry, but as a constructive friend—“constructive” probably has two meanings there—rather than as someone who can change what is happening completely. Let us hope and pray.
The Chair: May I place on the record my appreciation for all the staff who have serviced the Committee, both those from the House of Commons and those here in the Assembly? I would also like to express my appreciation for the courtesy that all Members have shown today to the Chair. I wish those who are travelling home a safe journey.
Question Not Answered Orally
What recent discussions she has had with (a) her ministerial colleagues and (b) Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the
Mike Penning: We have regular meetings with Department for Work and Pensions Ministers to discuss welfare reform and met Nelson McCausland on 27 June before the Assembly rose for the summer recess. The reforms to our welfare system will ensure that it is fair to the taxpayer, simple to use and always rewards work.