I thank the Minister and shadow Minister for their understanding, although I was somewhat concerned that they widened the debate beyond the motion. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) brought back the proper focus in his excellent

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contribution. The Minister acknowledged that Christians are the most persecuted people in the world, and I agree with the shadow Minister that if countries want to be part of the human rights club, they ought to play by the rules.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for his usual thoughtful contribution, which focused the House’s attention on the motion. The tone and content of the contribution that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made were absolutely right. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) was asked about his colleagues, but we deeply appreciate his presence and contribution.

We agree with the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) that we ought to reject the persecution of anyone because of their faith. My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) brought a tone of reality, giving chilling accounts of persecution not only by other religious groups but aided by Governments and authorities in various parts of the world. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) reminded us of a number of countries where persecution is going on, and he was courageous in speaking personally about the situation in Pakistan. We deeply appreciate his interest and his contribution.

I thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his usual eloquent exposition of the tragedies facing Christians in Iraq. He also reminded us that we need to raise the profile of persecuted Christians across the world and pray for them, and I agree wholeheartedly. I thank him for his helpful and thoughtful contribution. I also agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) that right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate believe that civil and religious liberties are not for some but for all, and the debate has focused on that. As he explained, the night of persecution grows even darker in some parts of the world, even when we intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent our soldiers to fight for liberty and freedom.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that the debate has been reflective and informative—that is certainly an appropriate description. The hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made thoughtful contributions. I appreciate that time was unfortunately too limited for them to expand their remarks, but I know they take a keen interest in this issue and have contributed to other debates.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) had just a few moments to contribute, but I believe this House owes her a great debt of gratitude because she tirelessly raises this issue again and again. Her encouragement and depth of knowledge is worthy of commendation and recognition, and I am happy to give that on the Floor of the House on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Stephen Pound: Briefly, before we move on, may I share with the hon. Gentleman a message I have just received from Stormont from my colleague the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), shadow Secretary

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of State for Northern Ireland? He said that of all the debates he has missed, this is the one he regrets the most and he wishes he had been present. Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman and the House will understand, he had to be in Stormont today.

Dr McCrea: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, and I have no doubt that the shadow Secretary of State would have attended this important debate and been happy to participate in it.

Article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights emphasises the right to have certain freedoms, and I was just thinking what an amazing thing freedom is. It was what our fathers and forefathers fought and died for. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, and the fact that my right hon. and hon. Friends tabled this motion for debate acknowledges that for many, that freedom is being denied.

We make no apology whatsoever that the motion focuses directly on a group of people worldwide who are increasingly becoming isolated and are constantly under attack for their simple faith in Jesus Christ. The sad reality is that one Christian is killed for their faith every 11 minutes somewhere on earth, and many Governments remain totally silent about that situation. It is our desire to highlight the persecution of Christians not only in far off regions of the world, but in Europe and our own land. The list from Open Doors was helpful and gives the top 50 countries where the persecution of Christians happens for religious reasons. That certainly helps our understanding and points to the number of places where such persecution is going on.

There is the influence of Islamic extremists, and we are now witnessing an increase in the persecution of Christians, which is shown in many different ways. For some it is a violent attack from Islamic groups, such as the looting and burning to the ground of a Pentecostal church in Algeria. There are kidnappings of Christians for ransom in Egypt, public lashings for those practising Christianity in Saudi Arabia, and crucifixions in Iraq—we could go on, as that is only the tip of the iceberg of what we know. Sadly, the persecution of Christians is not debated often on the Floor of the House.

In several countries where Christians are a minority, persecutions are perpetrated at both state and community level. Indeed, through the intensity of that persecution, the existence of a small Christian community is often threatened, with many feeling they have no choice but to flee to safety somewhere else. For many, however, there is nowhere they can safely go—they cannot afford to go anywhere else.

When the Minister winds up, we must recognise that the persecution of Christians is going on in countries that receive financial aid from many Christian taxpayers in the United Kingdom. When we think of £1.325 billion to Ethiopia between 2010 and 2015, £1.392 billion to Pakistan for that period, £1 billion to Bangladesh, £1 billion to Nigeria, £710 million to Afghanistan, and £643 million to Tanzania, we must realise that that is taxpayers’ money, yet there is persecution of Christians.

We should always remember that persecution does not only happen somewhere else, because charity starts at home. Many Christians in the United Kingdom feel isolated at this time, and for many in this House, if they

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openly profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, they witness the rolling of eyes, or disbelief that somehow today we really believe the Bible is the word of God, and we are scorned and ridiculed for that. As a believer, I unashamedly say that I do believe that the Bible is God’s precious word. I am guided in my public life, as well as in my private life, by the word of God. In our country, there are many sad instances of persecution of street preachers—even carol singers are under attack because of certain legislation that is, or has been, proposed.

I thank the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for her attendance. She has been here for a large part of the debate.

In conclusion, what should we do? We have to speak up, because by so doing we also speak for many of the weak, disadvantaged and defenceless people of the world. Thank God our faith will prevail. The Lord Jesus said:

“I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

While we are being persecuted, remember that the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church.

6.50 pm

Mark Simmonds: With permission and with the leave of the House, I wish to respond to this important and significant debate. I reiterate that it is to the huge credit of the Democratic Unionist party that it has raised these important issues.

Correctly, this has been an impassioned debate outlining many of the horrors and persecutions suffered by Christians around the world. The situations in numerous countries have been raised, and the simple fact is that Christians are persecuted more than any other faith group in the world. The nature of this persecution can take many different forms and the perpetrators vary from Governments to militant groups to even a person’s own family. Faith is often used as a proxy for other divisions, as religious fault lines are exploited.

Let me be absolutely clear to the House: the Government are not silent and the Government are not quiet. When Christians are persecuted, we, as Government Ministers, speak out clearly and forcefully. I cannot stress enough how seriously the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes this issue, as part of our commitment to freedom of religion around the world. Promoting respect for human rights is at the very heart of the Government’s foreign policy. Where Christians or any religious believers are victims of persecution, we will condemn the violence and ask the relevant authorities to ensure that justice is served. There can be and should be no impunity for those who persecute individuals on the basis of religion or belief.

A particular spotlight has been shone on the situation for Christians in the Middle East. That point was made powerfully in the wonderful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). We have heard of the exodus of Christians from the region, and of communities that have co-existed for centuries now turning on minorities and treating Christians as outsiders. That is simply unacceptable.

Persecution is not limited to the middle east, and, where Christians are attacked, it is rarely just Christians who are suffering—whether they be Shi’a Muslims in

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Syria and Pakistan, and Rohingya Muslims in Burma. None of that persecution is acceptable and none of it should be tolerated.

Alistair Burt: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mark Simmonds: If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not give way as I want to answer the specific points raised in the debate.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly raised the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. I can tell him that freedom of religion and belief was discussed by the Heads of Government, who agreed to strengthen the communiqué’s language on this subject, and we warmly welcomed that. The Foreign Secretary announced last week the setting up of an advisory group of experts on freedom of religion and belief. That will help us increasingly to factor in a faith-based perspective to our foreign policy.

The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) rightly raised the challenges faced by Christians in Malaysia. I can inform him that the high commission in Kuala Lumpur raises the issue of respecting religious diversity with their Malaysian counterparts on a regular basis, and last did so on 7 November.

I want to make sure that Members across the House understand the Government’s position on the right to freedom of religion or belief. We interpret freedom of religion or belief according to the definition set out in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which includes the right to practise the religion in public or private, and to share it with others. It also includes the right to change one’s religion and to have no religion at all.

I fully agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief should be a priority for all countries. We, along with EU partners, sponsor a resolution at the UN twice every year on this subject. We have also agreed guidelines on the promotion of the right to freedom of religion or belief with EU partners. These guidelines are already helping the embassies of all EU member states to promote and protect the freedom of religion or belief in a wide range of target countries.

A number of hon. Members raised the important issue of Syria. We are committed to speaking up on behalf of all those who are targeted, and we have made it clear that those responsible for these violations should be held to account—and the International Criminal Court may have a role to play. I confirm that there are Christians among the members of the Syrian National Coalition who will be invited to the Geneva II talks.

Hon. Members have raised the issue of Nigeria, with particular reference to Boko Haram. By far the highest numbers killed by Boko Haram are Muslims, not Christians, and this includes senior Muslim clerics and anyone who stands up against its extremist ideology. We have consistently encouraged, and will continue to do so, the Government of Nigeria to protect all their citizens and to promote a dialogue between communities at different levels, as indeed I saw and participated in myself in Kaduna, earlier this year. It is important to distinguish between the age-old competition for land and resources between farmers and nomadic herders and the terrorism occurring in the north-east. Nigeria is a traditionally tolerant country.

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The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) raised the issue of the worrying events happening in the Central African Republic. Appalling human rights abuses are going on there. The Department for International Development recently announced an increase from £5 million to £15 million for humanitarian assistance. Both French and African troops are going to be deployed, which I hope will be authorised by a United Nations resolution later this week.

A number of hon. Members raised the appalling attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt. Let me reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his statement to Parliament of 3 September when he spoke about the deplorable burning of churches and the attacks on Coptic Christians. We were outraged by the attack of 20 October, when four Coptic Christians were killed. The Foreign Secretary has publicly condemned all acts of violence. We recently encouraged the committee tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution to ensure stronger protection in that country.

A number of hon. Members raised the work of the all-party group on international religious freedom and beliefs, which is chaired by Baroness Berridge. We very much welcome its work and encourage all faiths to work together, regardless of the specific religion involved in incidents. I also pay tribute to the work of the Christian Church over the centuries to fight for religious freedom for all faiths, not just for Christians.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury asked what additional work the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will do to raise the issue of the persecution of Christians. Let me reiterate that the persecution of Christians was the precise topic of a speech by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi in Washington last month. This clearly demonstrates that the FCO recognises and prioritises this matter not just as a problem, but as an issue on which we must work to find solutions. Other ministerial colleagues and I raise the issue of the persecution of Christians wherever and whenever it occurs, as do our ambassadors and high commissioners around the world, expressing our deep and heartfelt concern.

A number of other hon. Members raised the important issue of UK taxpayers’ money going to countries where the persecution of Christians takes place. It needs to be understood that the majority of UK development assistance does not go via Governments, but where it does go through budgetary support, we make it absolutely clear that the host Government must share the UK’s commitment to respecting the full range of human rights, including combating religious intolerance and tackling persecution and discrimination.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) made a very powerful speech. I want to confirm to him that my noble Friend Baroness Warsi regularly raises the issue of the blasphemy laws with Ministers and the Government in Pakistan.

I fully agree that Christian belief is a powerful force motivating millions of people to do good, with Christian institutions occupying a valuable position in society. We recognise the positive role Christians play across the world.

Question put and agreed to.


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That this House is concerned that the persecution of Christians is increasing in the 21st Century; notes that there are reports that one Christian is killed every 11 minutes somewhere on earth for their faith; further notes that Christianity is the most persecuted religion globally; bears in mind that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a human right stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and calls on the Government to do more both in its foreign policy and through its aid work to defend and support people of Christian faith.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

International Development

That the draft Caribbean Development Bank (Eighth Replenishment of the Unified Special Development Fund) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 1 November, be approved.—(Claire Perry.)

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Syria: A Comprehensive EU Approach

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 11482/13, a Joint Commission and High Representative Communication: Towards a comprehensive EU approach to the Syrian crisis; and agrees with the Government that in responding to the Syrian crisis, the EU should focus its efforts on those areas in which it has expertise, complementing broader national and international efforts.—(Claire Perry.)

Question agreed to.


Rural Fair Share Campaign

7 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I have two petitions. The first is a petition of 386 residents of my constituency on the Rural Fair Share campaign.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the UK,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Local Government Finance Settlement is unfair to rural communities; notes that the Rural Penalty sees urban areas receive 50% more support per head than rural areas despite higher costs in rural service delivery; and opposes the planned freezing of this inequity in the 2013–14 settlement for six years until 2020.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to reduce the Rural Penalty in staged steps by at least 10% by 2020.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Cardiac Rehabilitation Services at Danetre Hospital (Daventry)

7.1 pm

Chris Heaton-Harris: My second petition is a very important one—not that the last one was not. This petition is about cardiac rehabilitation services at Danetre hospital in my constituency. They were removed a while ago, and a fantastic campaigner, Viv Crouch, has been campaigning ever since to get them back. She and a number of other people have raised a petition signed by over 1,200 people from across Daventry.

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The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the UK,

Declares that the Petitioners believe cardiac rehabilitation should be introduced in Danetre Hospital to help local people recovering from heart problems.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to reintroduce this service as soon as possible.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Proposed Bund Construction on Oregon Close, Kingswinford, Dudley

7.3 pm

Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): It is my pleasure to present this petition on behalf of the residents of Oregon close in Kingswinford in my constituency. It relates to matters regarding the quarry that is operated by WCL Quarries and is ultimately owned by Hinton Perry & Davenhill, a major company in my constituency.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Dudley South,

Declares that a planning application on Oregon Close (P13/1596) has been presented to Dudley Metropolitan Council; further that the Petitioners believe that the construction of bunds to a height of six metres on top of an existing four metre wall has the potential to structurally damage the surrounding houses; further that the Petitioners believe that bringing forward the construction to 2014 provides insufficient time to arrange a professional structural survey of the retaining wall and affected houses and to put movement monitoring equipment in place; further that the Petitioners object to the noise and toxic fumes which will be endured for twelve months; and further that the Petitioners believe that their quality of life and health will be detrimentally affected if the proposal in this planning application is accepted.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Dudley Metropolitan Council to reject the planning application on Oregon Close.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Newry HMRC Centre

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Claire Perry.)

7.5 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I would like to thank the Minister for coming here to respond to the debate this evening. HMRC centres throughout the UK, including in Newry, have been subject to turbulent change since 2006, and staff have grown accustomed to their jobs being under threat. However, I was alarmed to hear that the Treasury is now offering voluntary exits and effectively seems to have decided to close down HMRC centres across Northern Ireland—in Newry, Enniskillen and Derry.

The Newry centre currently employs 134 staff, many of whom live in my constituency, and I know that this news came as a shock to them and their families. It represents a real blow to working people and families across Northern Ireland, and the removal of these jobs will be a severe drain on the local economy. These people are also vastly experienced, and as it appears they are not being offered re-deployment, this will be a great loss of expertise.

Despite being hit hard by the financial crisis since 2008, Newry and the surrounding area has great economic potential to harness north-south business development. Significant steps taken under the “Newry Vision” programme have bolstered the private sector, and consideration has been given to where public-private partnerships can be effective. The Newry area, given its strategic location on the Belfast-Dublin corridor, has been identified as a vital economic hub within the Northern Ireland regional development strategy. As has been highlighted by economists and spatial geographers such as Professor John Driscoll, the area could be the fulcrum for key north-south economic development.

However, it is critical for the balance and sustainability of the local economy that these public sector jobs be maintained. Indeed, with 12 public sector jobs per 100 of the working-age population, Newry is under-represented in public sector jobs in Northern Ireland, and removing them would put severe pressure on the whole local economy, including the private sector. Only last week, I was told that staff numbers in the administration sector of the Public Prosecution Service in Newry will be reduced, and that Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency offices could be closed. That is still open for discussion, and hopefully the Minister with responsibility for transport here could reverse that decision.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. She will know that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recently looked into the appalling crime of fuel laundering in Northern Ireland. I and the other members of the Committee were indebted to the HMRC for its work throughout Northern Ireland, but particularly in the Newry area. One thing we were very concerned about was the evidence given to us about the cost to Newry and Mourne district council of cleaning up the rubbish left behind by these criminal gangs. We need more HMRC staff in Newry, not fewer.

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Ms Ritchie: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I sit on a cross-border committee organised by Newry and Mourne district council. A representative from HMRC in Newry attends its meetings and deals with illegal fuel laundering. The last meeting was some six weeks ago, and good progress has been made on that, on foot of the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and the good work being carried out by HMRC in dealing with illegal fuel laundering.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): As my hon. Friend knows, Foyle House in Derry, in my constituency, is also affected by the proposals. She is rightly emphasising the fact that jobs are at stake, but does she agree that the quality of services is also at stake? When other taxation services have moved out of Northern Ireland, not least those involving the administration of tax credits, many people—particularly cross-border workers—have been left with very poor services and chronic problems.

Ms Ritchie: I thank my hon. Friend for his useful intervention. I agree wholeheartedly that there is a need for this service, particularly in regard to cross-border working, as there is a considerable interchange of population between the north and the south. In his case, it is between Derry and Donegal; in my case, it is between Newry and Dundalk. In my area, there is a memorandum of understanding between both councils, north and south, to deal with economic issues in order to pump-prime the local economy.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady feel that the closure of the office with the loss of 134 jobs will affect the ability of the Treasury to bring in the revenue that this country needs?

Ms Ritchie: The face-to-face services provided by HMRC in Newry are vital to my constituency, because of the lack of access to broadband and the need to deal on a cross-border basis with matters such as tax avoidance. Newry’s strategic location means that it is vital to have those services there.

The programme of voluntary exits for staff cannot be euphemistically explained away by the normal rhetoric of “modernisation and streamlining”. It represents the wholesale removal of vital face-to-face and personal tax services, and a distinct refashioning of the link between people and revenue collection. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just made that point as well. Time and again it has been reported that consumers and businesses prefer face-to-face transactions when dealing with tax and revenue issues. The new strategy will have severe limitations, particularly when complex matters are being discussed.

The decision will drastically alter the link between the community and a vital public service. That point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, as well as by the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That is already a problem, and I know that many local people and businesses already struggle to access services from HMRC. People can feel disconnected from the system, especially in Northern Ireland, and that will be further exacerbated by the changes.

It might seem more efficient for the Treasury to implement these changes, but it will almost certainly not be more efficient for those people forced to rely on telephone lines, with all the long delays involved, or for

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those who lack access to the internet or find it difficult to use modern technology. This could leave many people isolated from access to vital services, particularly at a time of widespread changes to the tax and benefits system.

South Down and the region supported by the Newry HMRC centre are predominantly rural areas and as such they face all the problems associated with that, including limited broadband access and people living in remote and isolated locations. Those people cannot simply be expected to adopt online and phone services, especially when complex personal tax issues are under discussion. Recent immigrants, the poor, the elderly and the disabled will all be made more vulnerable by the removal of these services. Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of taxation at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, has warned that this action is being carried out too rapidly and without due consideration.

The Treasury has claimed, through statements to the media and in written answers here, that it is not closing down these centres, but the voluntary exits that are being offered surely amount to a de facto closure. These exit offers are a clear statement of intent, and the closure of the sites, which the Treasury has seemingly made inevitable, will almost certainly increase the pressure on staff to accept the terms on offer. I am deeply concerned about this tactic of offering exit packages before proper, full consultations and impact assessments have been carried out on the closures. It is deeply cynical to hang this uncertainty over the heads of the staff at the same time as offering a redundancy package.

I would therefore like the Minister to clarify the terms on which these exits are being carried out. I would also like clarification on the future of the Newry centre, which dealt with 500,000 queries and cases over the past year. Such clarification will include a time scale for the future strategy for staffing and operations in Northern Ireland. The Minister needs to address why there has been no equality impact assessment, as required under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and as produced for the initial proposal in 1998. Why has there been no consultation with staff, unions or, apparently, the Northern Ireland Executive? Did the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland make any representations as far back as March or April, when there were some intimations that this might happen? Have they received a response to such representations?

In similar circumstances in the past, the Treasury has sought ministerial approval from the Northern Ireland Executive, as well as a full equality impact assessment and stakeholder consultation. This new approach of offering voluntary exits before this process has begun is deeply worrying, particularly given the devastating impact this closure could have on the local community and economy. There are very real equality issues relating to the closure of this centre, as it is mostly the lower paid, disabled and part-time staff and women who will be most vulnerable and will find it the hardest to get new work; a higher proportion of women will be affected. I also have to point out that the three centres being closed are all in predominantly nationalist constituencies, which could bring its own equality implications.

Before following through with these measures in Northern Ireland, I would also be grateful if the Minister could include more information on the pilot study carried out in the north of England on the introduction

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of the reformed service. Critical questions are outstanding on the capacity of non-face-to-face and reduced personal tax services to deal with the range of queries that these centres deal with daily. How long will people have to wait on hold to have their inquiry heard? How many cases took more than one call to resolve? How many required a subsequent face-to-face meeting? What was the experience of people and businesses using the new system, and how much will it cost them? There is a clear onus on the Treasury to provide this information before coming to any decision on removing the existing centres. Instead we get the impression of a Department that has made its decision and will find the appropriate reasons from there.

More broadly, we know that tax evasion and avoidance cost the public purse an astronomical amount every year, and that is surely only likely to rise with the closure of local compliance centres. With tax evasion and avoidance costing our economy more than £100 billion a year, HMRC should be expanding rather than cutting offices and staff. Surely the Treasury should be looking at how local tax centres can be adequately resourced and given the scope to take on some of these functions. Indeed, initially we were led to believe the Newry centre would be retained and would assume further responsibility for some cross-border issues, including compliance and tax co-operation with Irish authorities—where better to locate a cross-border taxation co-operation centre than Newry in the context of the development of north-south business links? I am disappointed that that no longer seems to be the case. I would like the Minster to explain what consideration he has given to this. Will he take a more constructive approach?

This Government never tire of telling us of their desire to rebuild and rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland. The message sent out by the decision to remove jobs from the Newry HMRC centre sharply contradicts that, as there are simply not jobs available for these people to move into. Instead, this decision will remove money from the local economy, hitting not just those families directly involved, but businesses across the whole area. I ask the Minister, who has been generous with his time on previous occasions, to hold further meetings with local politicians, the Public and Commercial Services Union and representatives in Newry to look at a constructive solution. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle would join us at such a meeting to discuss Derry. There is an urgent need for the Treasury to review this decision and make a full assessment of the impact of it on the local economy and community.

I am absolutely certain that a viable, economically sound centre can be retained that protects local jobs, perhaps through a centre that also considers aspects related to cross-border tax issues and wider anti tax avoidance and evasion measures. What is absolutely not acceptable is the degree of uncertainty that has been created while staff are being offered exit deals.

7.20 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing this debate this evening. I welcome this opportunity to clarify what Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is doing in respect of the office in Newry and to give the House as much information as possible.

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The answer to the written parliamentary question that the hon. Lady tabled last week highlighted the fact that HMRC has not announced the closure of the office in Newry. However, on 20 November, HMRC invited around 1,500 people in 21 locations to apply for a voluntary exit. That included more than 130 people in Custom House in Newry. The invitation gives people the option to leave HMRC if that fits with their life choices, but HMRC is not making redundancies at this stage.

Before I go into detail on the voluntary exits and what it means for staff in Newry and other offices, it is important to explain the context. HMRC is reshaping itself to become a more modern, flexible and cost-effective organisation that can deliver better, more personalised services for customers at the same time as increasing tax revenues from compliance. Like other Departments, it has to deliver that within ever-tighter fiscal constraints.

HMRC has been steadily reducing in size since it was formed in 2005. Over the past eight years, it has cut its staff from around 97,000 full-time equivalent people to just under 63,000 FTEs at the end of October 2013. It has reduced its estate by more than 200 offices, and is now more concentrated in urban centres. It has done that while improving service and increasing yield. Since HMRC was created, it has more than doubled its compliance yield and delivered major projects, including Real Time Information. During 2012-13, it brought pay-as-you-earn up to date for the first time, answered 75.2% of the calls made to its contact centres—hitting 90% during the last six months of the year—and, for the first time since HMRC was formed, cleared more than 80% of customer post within 15 days.

HMRC has committed to reducing its work force from 63,000 FTEs today to 54,000 by the end of 2014-15 and then to 52,000 by the end of 2015-16. Although retirements, resignations and people reducing their working hours will deliver some of those work force reductions, they will not be sufficient if HMRC is to achieve its work force target. HMRC has always made it clear to its staff that it was likely that voluntary exits would be needed and that is what it announced last month. Targeted groups of staff will be asked to consider whether a voluntary exit is right for them. People in those groups might be in roles that are needed less and less because of new ways of working, including increased automation and the fact that some administrative work has dried up. Others are in locations where, according to all the indications, one, some or all lines of business in HMRC are unlikely to be based in the medium to long term.

Although the specifics of the announcement will, I appreciate, come as a shock or surprise to many people, the reality is that HMRC will continue to contract its work force. That has long been known by staff and many have been waiting to find out where that contraction will take place. Indeed, the hon. Member for South Down acknowledged that there has been uncertainty in Newry for some time.

The background to the news is that in June 2011 HMRC announced that it would be located in 16 key centres until at least 2020. Those centres include Belfast. Newry was one of most of the other offices in which HMRC said that it would be located until at least 2015. As HMRC reduces in size, it will need to continue to bring together its people in larger sites where they can

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work more flexibly and to reduce its footprint to be more cost-effective. Smaller offices will not be viable as overall numbers reduce and the skills pool in smaller local communities will not necessarily provide all the skills that HMRC needs when it needs them. HMRC has therefore started to identify locations that do not fit business needs in the medium to long term. In seven of the 21 locations where people have been invited to apply for voluntary exit, one or more lines of business intend to withdraw from the office in time. In the other 14 offices, all of the lines of business wish to withdraw. Newry is one of those offices.

There is not at present a proposal to close those offices, since HMRC is honouring the commitment it made to staff in 2011 that they would stay open until at least 2015. However, HMRC’s executive committee took the view that staff should know that there might not be a long-term future for those offices well in advance of any decision on office closures, so that they can think about their options and start planning their futures.

The voluntary exit scheme—I stress that it is entirely voluntary—gives those staff who want to leave HMRC the opportunity to do so on favourable financial terms. Some people will welcome the opportunity to leave the Department given that change and uncertainty in the air. The compensation provided by accepting a voluntary exit will enable people to pursue other life choices if that is what they want to do.

Ms Ritchie: If the staff choose to stay and do not take voluntary exit, what is the long-term future for them, for Newry and for the other 13 centres?

Mr Gauke: Let me say a bit more and I shall answer the hon. Lady’s question directly. Those who wish to take up the exit package will need to apply by 18 December and decide on a formal offer by 31 January. Their last day of service will be 30 April. As she says, other people will not want to leave and there is no compulsion on them to apply for a voluntary exit if they wish to stay, but they have been given notice of the likely longer-term picture for their offices and will ultimately need to consider their future after 2015. HMRC will not be closing Newry or any of the offices where it invited people to consider applying for a voluntary exit before April 2015, in line with the picture it gave in 2012 about how long it would be based in current locations.

I do not underestimate the fact that for many people this news was a shock and was unwelcome, but I believe that HMRC was right to provide its staff with an honest assessment about the future of their offices or, in some cases, their roles, and to offer them the opportunity to consider applying for a voluntary exit.

HMRC needs to do further work to be able to say if and when it sees itself moving away from Newry and the 13 other locations where all lines of business will be reducing. A future decision to close the office will need to be accompanied by a proper consultation process and equality impacts, involving the employees themselves, their trade unions, right hon. and hon. Members and other local interests.

Let me pick up on a couple of the questions asked by the hon. Lady. She asked why there has not been consultation at this point and I stress that HMRC has

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not yet taken a decision to close Newry or any other office. Newry does not feature in HMRC’s long-term plans, but as long as there are people in the office, HMRC will not break its previous commitment that no occupied office will close before April 2015. HMRC follows a tried and tested process in these circumstances. If and when there is a proposal to close the office, consultation will be undertaken with interested parties, both within and outside the Department, and feedback will be invited from staff, unions, hon. Members, other elected local representatives, and the local community. Any representations will be considered fully before a final decision is made.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Is the Minister not playing with words? I am listening to what he is saying but, in reality, has a decision not already been made?

Mr Gauke: I reiterate that HMRC will honour the commitment made earlier in this Parliament that Newry will be open at least until 2015. A final decision will be made only after consultation, as I have outlined. I do not wish in any way to hide from the point—indeed, HMRC has been very clear about this—that HMRC does not see Newry having a future in the long term. The final decision as to when any closure would take place will be made, as I have said, after consultation. The choice for HMRC in the circumstances is to try to conceal that and leave things to the last minute or to try to be as open as possible, engage with staff and provide opportunities at an early stage for those who might want to leave voluntarily with a severance package.

Mark Durkan: In the decisions that HMRC is making about its future pattern of business, has any account been taken of the possible changes in the distribution of taxation? The Government have recently indicated that there are shifts in relation to Wales, and who knows what is going to happen in Scotland? If other choices are being made on some taxation moving to a more devolution-weighted basis, surely having a revenue-collecting infrastructure available in a devolved area is hugely important?

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. HMRC is going in the direction of concentration on larger urban offices that have the flexibility to operate. Included in those larger urban offices is Belfast. He tempts me to speculate on future policy matters in the devolution of tax, but I want to make it clear that this is not a proposal to withdraw from Northern Ireland. This is a proposal that applies across the United Kingdom, with a move to larger urban centres. That applies in Northern Ireland, as well as elsewhere.

May I deal quickly with the issue of the equality impact assessment, which is an important matter raised by the hon. Member for South Down? The equality position has been considered, and it has been concluded that there is unlikely to be a disproportionate impact on any of the protected equality groups as a result of the voluntary exit schemes. Consequently, completion of an equality impact assessment is unnecessary. A people impact assessment has been completed, however, and audiences likely to be affected have been identified and appropriate mitigating action will be taken to eliminate those impacts.

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If HMRC does decide to close any offices in future it will identify all redeployment options for affected staff. However, because its estate and work force will become smaller, there will clearly be less chance of redeployment in HMRC, particularly in areas that are outside a reasonable daily commute.

Ms Ritchie rose—

Mr Gauke: I am conscious that I have two minutes left, but I shall give way one last time.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Minister for his generosity; I hope that that will be extended to HMRC in Newry. May I also ask him to provide us with some information about the pilot study in the north-east of England and its outcomes?

Mr Gauke: I will answer the hon. Lady’s question, although I suspect that I will be unable to conclude my

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remarks as I had wanted to. This issue is very much focused on the inquiry centre, which is only a small part of what is currently undertaken in Newry. With regard to the inquiry centre pilot in the north-east of England, HMRC will decide in January 2014 whether to roll out that service and move away from inquiry centres and face-to-face services and towards a telephone service with additional enhanced support for vulnerable people. HMRC remains committed to providing face-to-face support for those who need it in future, including in Newry and across Northern Ireland. If we decide to roll out the new service next year, HMRC believes that it will provide that face-to-face support in a way that is more flexible and accessible to customers.

Time is constrained, so I will conclude by saying—

7.35 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).