Mrs Main: I do share that concern. Obviously, the detail is still very light. For example, will the plans be available on websites? Since councillors do not seem to be involved in the system, someone could potentially go

23 Apr 2013 : Column 781

around and advise someone who is not as savvy as hon. Members are on the implications of a structure for them in order to form an objection. There is a very active civic society in St Albans that takes a keen interest in planning. I am disappointed that no one other than an immediate neighbour can form an objection. The people who run the Watercress Wildlife Association in St Albans, for example, take a keen interest in the water run-off from further uphill. Will we have a domino effect of several applications on large permitted development rights that eventually start creating soggy gardens further downhill?

I know that that is all detail and that this is a short debate, and I do not wish to tire the House, but my main concern, if we are to move to the new “planning-lite”, is that we seem to have given additional responsibilities to councils but no additional resources. I urge the Minister to listen to the words of councils, which already feel that they subsidise the planning system. We also do not know whether there will be non-determination periods. I have no idea whether the permitted development right period of determination would be similar. What council would prioritise a determination that has no fees associated with it over a determination that has a determination period and a fee associated with it? Will we have two categories of decision making? That all needs to be teased out, and I look forward to the Minister giving guidelines that ensure that councils are consistent in their approach to those decisions and that it is not simply a question of whether someone happens to have a vocal neighbour who is savvy enough to interpret plans and make objections in the interests of the whole community rather than just in self-interest.

Annette Brooke rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Before I call Annette Brooke, I remind the House that this business can go no later than 1.49 pm, and that the Minister would like a few minutes at the end to sum up.

Annette Brooke: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I assure you that I rise to speak very briefly to Lords amendments 7B and 7C. I acknowledge that we are in a better place than we were last week and thank the Secretary of State for his work on the issues. However, because so many questions remain, I certainly retain a preference for Lords amendment 7, which I think sets out a good solution.

I will quickly run through the objections to the proposals and the uncertainties. I would like to reinforce the point about finance for local authorities. If we are not careful, and if there is no extra money going to local planning authorities when they clearly have duties for which they are not receiving a fee, we might have a situation in which those people who cannot afford extensions end up subsidising those who can, which seems unfair. We are talking not only about planning applications, but enforcement, because there might well need to be enforcement, whether or not there have been objections, if a building does not match what was submitted in the first place.

I remain concerned that not all neighbours will object, possibly because they are absent at the time or because elderly and vulnerable people who depend on their neighbours for help will not feel able to object. It is

23 Apr 2013 : Column 782

essential that we build in a requirement for the local authority to at least conduct a desktop exercise to consider all the plans in their context.

I reinforce the points made against seeking objections from adjoining landowners only. In some circumstances it would be appropriate to go further afield. There will be knock-on effects for a row of terraced houses, possibly right along the row, and precedents will be set, even if the initial application was for just one end.

I plead with the Minister to look at the number of outstanding issues, so that we can truly get the best of both worlds by incentivising building while ensuring proper protection for neighbours.

Michael Fallon: I will first address some of the points that have been made on the change to permitted days. It has been suggested that 21 days might be too short, but that is exactly the same as the equivalent period under the planning regime.

My hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) have suggested that neighbours further afield than those who adjoin might be denied the opportunity to object to something, but it is hard to understand why they would have stronger objections than those who live much closer. I therefore suggest that the focus of objection needs to be the impact on immediate neighbours.

Mrs Main: My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and I have serious concerns that some people may feel unable to object because of their relationship with their neighbour. They may be disadvantaged, so another neighbour could object on their behalf.

Michael Fallon: I would hope that neighbours would talk to each other and discuss any proposed developments. They should not feel that they are not able to object. As I have said, it is hard to understand why those who live further away should have, or should be entitled to register, stronger objections than those who live next door to the property concerned.

My hon. Friend raised two other issues, the first of which was what would happen if the extension turned out to be larger than or different from the original proposal. Under the notification, the plans have to be deposited with and approved by the building control regime, which will exercise supervision in exactly the same way as it does for a normal planning application. It would also be able to require modifications to an extension that did not fit the original plans.

Secondly, my hon. Friend raised the issue of fees, which I addressed when I opened the debate. I repeat that if she turns out to be right about the actual cost to local authorities, we will, of course, discuss any concerns or new pressures on them with the Local Government Association in the normal way. Our position, however, is that there will be considerable savings as a result of a number of applications not going through the normal planning route.

Finally, on the employer shareholder clause, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) was a little cavalier in some of his arguments. First, he suggested that my noble friend Lord Deben opposed the clause, but he voted for it in a Division last night, so the hon.

23 Apr 2013 : Column 783

Gentleman was not accurate about that. Secondly, he suggested that people would be forced to give up their employment rights for what he called “worthless shares”, but they cannot be forced to surrender their employment rights unless those shares are worth at least £2,000. If they turn out to be worth less than £2,000, the employee shareholder would, of course, be fully entitled to be considered to have the rights that he or she previously had.

Ian Murray: On the surrender of rights, the Minister just said that if the shares are worth less than £2,000 the employee would have all their normal rights. Surely that is not accurate. Will he correct the record?

Michael Fallon: I did not say that. I said that the value of the shares must be worth at least £2,000. It was the hon. Gentleman who used the word “worthless”. These shares cannot be worthless, or the employee shareholder will not be forced to give up the rights that he or she currently enjoys.

1.45 pm

The hon. Gentleman was also wrong about the suggestion that this would somehow cost £1 billion. That estimate comes not from the Treasury, but from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which estimated that between now and beyond the 2020s—that is, the next 30 years—the total cost of the policy might amount to about £1 billion. The actual Treasury estimate is that the cost of the policy is expected to reach about £80 million by 2017-18.

Mr Umunna: I want to return to my previous question about the provision of legal advice to people before they agree to accept employee shareholder status. The Minister said that the Government are reflecting on what advice can be given to such employees, but what is he actually going to do?

Michael Fallon: The hon. Gentleman has seen how we reflected on concerns about permitted developments, and concerns about legal advice were expressed extremely cogently last night. We have sought throughout the passage of the Bill to make absolutely sure—I stressed this as long ago as Second Reading—that nobody should be harassed or bullied into accepting this status. I have made it clear that guidance will be available and our amendments improve that by making sure that there will be a statement of written particulars. There will also be a cooling-off period of some seven days, and we are further considering how we might improve the advice available to those who are considering taking up this status.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am conscious that we have only a minute left, but the one issue that my hon. Friend has not yet addressed—I hope he will—is how we prevent discrimination by a would-be employer who favours people who are willing to do the shares deal over those who are not interested.

Michael Fallon: If my right hon. Friend is suggesting discrimination at the point when the shares are offered, the amendments that we have already made will protect

23 Apr 2013 : Column 784

the employee against that kind of harassment or discrimination. Legitimate concerns have been raised in both Houses that nobody should be forced to accept this status. The essence of the status is choice—the company can choose to offer it and the individual can choose whether or not to accept it, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House agrees with the Lords in their amendments 7B and 7C in lieu of Lords amendment 7, to which this House has disagreed.

Motion made, and Question put,

That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 25 but proposes amendments (a) to (e) to the words restored to the Bill by that disagreement.—(Michael Fallon.)

The House divided:

Ayes 265, Noes 221.

Division No. 224]


1.49 pm


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, Alistair

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Glyn

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Graham

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, rh Michael

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Harper, Mr Mark

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Laws, rh Mr David

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leslie, Charlotte

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, Richard

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Prisk, Mr Mark

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Sir Richard

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Ayes:

Greg Hands


Mark Hunter


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Caton, Martin

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hermon, Lady

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Horwood, Martin

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jamieson, Cathy

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Long, Naomi

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McCrea, Dr William

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Mearns, Ian

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Mulholland, Greg

Munn, Meg

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Pound, Stephen

Powell, Lucy

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Reynolds, Emma

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Sarwar, Anas

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Shuker, Gavin

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Thornton, Mike

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Ward, Mr David

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Noes:

Tom Blenkinsop


Susan Elan Jones

Question accordingly agreed to.

23 Apr 2013 : Column 785

23 Apr 2013 : Column 786

23 Apr 2013 : Column 787

23 Apr 2013 : Column 788

Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill

Consideration of Lords message

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): A message has been received from the Lords relating to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Under the orders of the House of 16 April and yesterday, any such message may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

We will debate two motions. The first relates to Lords amendments 35 and 36, and consequential amendments (a) to (c). The second relates to Lords amendment 37 and amendments (a) to (d) in lieu. The motions will be debated together and are available from the Vote Office, as is Bill 163.

At 12.44 today, the Government tabled a revised version of amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 37. Despite the short notice, the Speaker has selected the amendment for debate. The revised version of the relevant paper is available in the Vote Office.

Lords message considered forthwith (Order, 22 April).

Clause 56

Commission for Equality and Human Rights

2.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I beg to move,

That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 36, does not insist on its disagreement to Lords amendment 35 and proposes consequential amendments (a) to (c) to the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker: With this we will consider the motion that this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 37, but proposes amendments (a) to (d) in lieu.

Jo Swinson: I would like to put on the record my thanks for your flexibility, Mr Deputy Speaker, in accepting the late tweak to the amendment that had been tabled earlier this morning in relation to Lords amendment 37 on the issue of caste. I shall come to that issue in a second or two.

We are returning to the discussion on the equality provisions of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which were debated in the other place yesterday. We have paid regard to the strong views and concerns that were expressed in that debate, and have tabled motions to respond to them.

As I have made clear in the course of our debates, the Government want a strong and effective Equality and Human Rights Commission. As part of that and to focus the EHRC on its core functions, we proposed the repeal of its power under section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, which is known more commonly as the general duty. However, in light of the clear views expressed in the other place, the Government have reconsidered our position and will not insist on our disagreement to Lords amendment 35. That will allow the general duty to remain in the 2006 Act. Although it is accepted by all that the duty has a symbolic rather than a practical effect, it is clear that considerable importance is attached to this overarching statement.

23 Apr 2013 : Column 789

We maintain that the commission’s monitoring and reporting should be carried out in respect of its core equality and human rights duties. The EHRC will continue to be required to monitor and report on changes in society, but, as has been agreed to in the Bill, that should relate to the areas that it is uniquely placed to influence and change: equality, diversity and human rights. For that reason, the motion is to disagree with Lords amendment 36. Instead, the EHRC will monitor its progress against the duties specified in sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act, and the form of that reporting will remain unchanged.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): My hon. Friend’s announcement is very welcome. She knows that our party has always argued that there should be a general overarching duty—[Laughter.] No, that is completely the case, but the matter had to be worked through within the coalition. Her announcement sends a strong signal that there is a principle and that practical implementation is available to the commission.

Jo Swinson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with passion on equality issues and has done so for many decades. I know that he speaks from the heart on this matter. I also understand the strength of feeling on this issue that he and I have heard expressed by activists in our own party and from many other corners.

Ensuring that the EHRC reports on the aims set out in sections 8 and 9 of the 2006 Act means that it will be able to capture the situation more meaningfully over time by reporting every five years and monitoring its key equality and human rights duties.

Retaining the general duty in section 3 requires a consequential amendment to ensure that the word “groups” in the general duty is defined effectively. The amendment that we propose therefore reinserts the parts of section 10 of the 2006 Act that define the term “groups” for the purpose of the Act.

I turn now to Lords amendment 37, which relates to caste, and amendments (a) to (d) that the Government tabled today. In our previous debate on this matter, I made it clear that the Government recognise that caste prejudice occurs in the UK. Even if that happens at a low level, such prejudice is unacceptable and must not be tolerated. I also said that, although we remained unconvinced that there was sufficiently compelling evidence to require the introduction of legislation, the Government were not averse in principle to introducing legislation, should it become clear that that was the appropriate solution to the severity of the problem.

Strong views have been expressed in the other place on this matter. In the light of those views, we have reconsidered our position and agreed to introduce caste-related legislation. However, we need to ensure that any legislation that we introduce will have the desired effect. We therefore propose amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 37 that will impose a duty on the Government to exercise the power in the Equality Act 2010 that would make caste an aspect of race for the purposes of the Act. We think that that option, rather than the amendment proposed yesterday in the other place, is the best way forward.

As has been discussed in this House and in the other place, the issue of caste is very complex. Many people have voiced the opinion that our understanding of the

23 Apr 2013 : Column 790

relevant issues would benefit from some form of consultation to ensure that all the pertinent considerations are identified and, where possible, taken into account. Converting the order-making power in the 2010 Act into a duty will ensure that the Government legislate to incorporate caste protection into discrimination law. It will also give us an opportunity to undertake consideration, possibly through consultation, on whether any other factors, such as the need for specific caste-related exceptions, need to be introduced at the same time that caste is given legal protection. One example that has been raised is that we would not want monitoring forms to demand that people say which caste they are from, because we want to see such a characteristic gone from society and do not want to perpetuate it. Ensuring that there is proper guidance, and that we legislate sensitively, is therefore important. We will all welcome the opportunity of a little time to ensure that it is got right. That will help to ensure that the legislation is focused and robust and addresses all the relevant factors.

I turn to the slight tweak to the motion, which now includes a provision enabling review of the duty and the effect of the order once the Act, as I hope it will become, has been on the statute book for five years and periodically thereafter. That picks up on the concern expressed in recent debates that, because caste is inherently an undesirable concept that we want to fade away, we do not necessarily want to be stuck with references to it on the statute book, given that that will no longer be necessary once, as we all hope, the concept has disappeared from UK society. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said in a letter to me at the end of last week:

“Given that we are all united in our desire to see caste as an identifier in the UK erode over time, it would also be possible to put in place a timetable for statutory review to establish at what point the measure could be withdrawn if caste discrimination has become a thing of the past.”

That point was also picked up by Baroness Thornton in her closing remarks in last night’s debate. The new provision addresses those concerns by introducing a review and sunset clause.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am very pleased indeed that the Government now accept the importance of retaining the general duty. I must say that I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) argued that that had always been the position of his party, given that only the other day the Minister, who is also a member of his party, argued the exact opposite. None the less, we are prepared to welcome repenting sinners to the fold.

As the Minister is well aware, there was widespread concern in civil society and across Parliament at the prospect of repealing the general duty. I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness Campbell on her championing of the retention of the duty both in the House of Lords and outside Parliament. I also pay tribute to the Minister for heeding the concerns that have been expressed.

The Minister has said in the past that section 3 of the 2006 Act is of symbolic importance. That is right, and symbolism is important, but perhaps even more importantly, it is a powerful statement of our values, aims, approach and ambitions for equality and human rights. I am pleased that that strong message and that underpinning of what equality and human rights mean to us will remain at the heart of our equalities legislation.

23 Apr 2013 : Column 791

We are pleased by the Government’s acceptance of the vote in the House of Lords last night, and we will accept their insistence on disagreement to Lords amendment 36, on monitoring. However, I issue a word of caution to the Minister, which Baroness Campbell raised when the amendment was proposed. It is important that the Government take care to ensure that the EHRC does not simply monitor its own actions but that its role in holding up a mirror to the whole of society on progress on equality and human rights is properly cemented and protected. Ongoing monitoring and reporting enabling that is important, as is the EHRC having the resources necessary to do that properly.

We are pleased that the Government have now accepted the need for legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of caste. Everyone agrees that caste has absolutely no place in our society, and that if there is even one case of such discrimination, proper action must be taken and there must be proper access to redress. The Minister is well aware of the strength of feeling on the matter—she alluded to it in her remarks. I pay tribute to the common effort across Parliament among the parties and with Cross Benchers to reach this point. I especially want to place on record again our gratitude to the noble Lords Harries and Avebury and, of course, my noble Friend Baroness Thornton, who have done a tremendous amount to bring us to this point.

I understand the offence and hurt that the very notion of caste causes. As the Minister said, it is important that nothing we do in the House entrenches caste in our society. Rather, we must help to move forward in a direction that leads to its eradication. In recent weeks, the Opposition have been bringing people together to discuss the right way to do that in the context of what is, as the Minister said, a complex subject. I venture to suggest that we have already done more in three weeks than the Government have done in three years.

2.15 pm

I want to place on record our gratitude to the Sikh Council UK, the Sikh Federation, the British Sikh Consultative Forum, the Anti-Caste Legislation Committee, the Alliance of Hindu Organisations, the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, CasteWatchUK, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and others, all of which have spent time talking to us over recent weeks.

For our part, we have always been clear that there needs to be legal protection, and we welcome the Minister’s commitment to legislation today. However, having decided that they will legislate, the Government have a responsibility to get the detail right. We have consistently called for both legislation and safeguards, and my noble Friend Baroness Thornton repeated the necessary safeguards in the House of Lords yesterday. I know from the Minister’s remarks this afternoon that she has taken account of them. We called for the definition of caste to be set out following consultation, which should include consideration of the possibility of substituting descent for caste, which has some support. The definition must recognise that caste is not specific to any religion but is a social and cultural practice extending across different parts of communities. It can be subscribed to by, and affect, members of any or no religion, and the definition must reflect that.

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As the Minister said, it is crucial that legislation is not implemented in a way that entrenches caste identifiers in day-to-day employment and other services. We should reduce, not increase, the number of people who are identified by caste. The guidance must ensure that there is no requirement on individuals to disclose their caste in any circumstances, and employers and providers of services should never seek such data.

Concerns have been expressed to us, and were expressed in the House of Lords last night, about the possible perverse effect of education programmes, including the Government’s programme “Talk for a Change”. I urge Ministers to discuss those concerns with the community.

Like the Minister, I hope that caste as an identifier in the UK will be eroded over time, and we will support the late-tabled amendment (a) to Lords amendment 37, which will introduce a sunset clause. We suggested such a change, so that if we achieve the state that we hope to and caste is wholly eradicated, we may remove the provision from the statute book. I hope that the sunset clause will act as an impetus for action, and we welcome it in that spirit.

Yesterday in the House of Lords, the noble Baroness Stowell argued that the Government needed time to address the detail of the matter, and we agree. We have always been clear about the need for a guarantee of legislation, but it is vital that the Government take time to consult carefully and in detail on its implementation. As a result of the conversations that we have had with community organisations, we proposed that safeguards should be subject to consultation in communities, with a delay in implementation to allow that to happen. I would be grateful if the Minister assured us that commencement of the provision will leave enough time for that thorough community consultation to take place. That will be vital to achieving cross-community support.

The Opposition are pleased at the progress that has been made on both the general duty and the caste amendment. This is a good day for equality, and I thank the Minister and many others for the efforts that have been made to bring us to this point.

Simon Hughes: I would like to pick up where the hon. Lady finished and say that I share the view that this is a good day for equality. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for getting us to this point. I will not resile from what I said in my intervention, which is that I and my colleagues have always held such views. Indeed, our party worked with the Labour party when it was in government to put into legislation the general equality duty governing the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Anyone who is critical of that assertion clearly does not understand that in coalition Governments one party can hold a continuing obligation or view that is not necessarily persuasive to the Government as a whole. The two parties in the coalition clearly started from a different position, and it has taken until today and the clearly expressed view of the House of Lords for people to arrive at an understanding that it is better to retain the general equality duty. I am sure that is the right decision. It sends out the right signals and guides the commission in its work ahead.

Like others—certainly like my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)—I was at the Bar of the House of Lords yesterday evening listening to the debate on caste. There were views on both sides. The Government

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were arguing to retain their position and said that we should not add caste to the Equality Act 2010, and others argued against that. The Government were supported by people on both sides, but the view of the House of Lords was that we should add caste to the list of issues on the basis of which people could allege discrimination, but that we must recognise that there is a division in the communities affected as to what that measure will mean in practice and how it will be responded to.

There are clear community views. I was at a Vaisakhi event with colleagues from across the House last night, and views were expressed to me by members of the Sikh community that they did not want this change. I had just heard Lord Singh of Wimbledon arguing strongly that in Sikhism there is no such thing as caste, and I am persuaded to take his view as he is authoritative and well-regarded on that issue. However, I think that the Minister has now arrived at the right place, with the Government, and caste as a basis for discrimination will be added to the Equality Act. The problem might not be hugely prevalent, but there is enough evidence of it in certain places for it to be recognised. It is important—I am sure the Government take this view, and it was argued by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—to have a period between now, the passage of the Bill, and its implementation, to ensure that people understand the implications of the measure across communities.

In the Hindu community there is certainly a division of view and I think we are right to support those in the Dalit and other communities who say, “We should know. We are the victims.” Their voices have prevailed. It is also wise of the Government to hope that over five years this measure may become unnecessary, and there will later be the opportunity to review it.

The fact that a bicameral Parliament works is evidenced by where we are today, with two Chambers having debates and adding to the wisdom of one—I, of course, want the other one to be reformed and to become either wholly or partly elected, but that business has clearly been deferred. Until then, however, I am glad that the House of Lords has contributed so firmly to our debates, and I am grateful to the Minister and her colleagues for making it clear that the law will be changed. I look forward to working with many others across the House and the Government to ensure that communities understand the logic behind the change. At the end of the day, we must have a country in which people know that there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality or caste, and that discrimination is unacceptable wherever it occurs. I think we have got there, and we should be celebrating that.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I am grateful that common sense has prevailed with regard to the EHCR. It demonstrates that debates in this place and elsewhere do work, and that we can convince one another of the rightness of a particular position.

On caste, may I make a number of statements so that I can be clear about what we are agreeing to? If any of these statements is wrong, will someone get up and tell me? That would be helpful. I am sorry to reach this level of simplicity in the House, but it has been a long few weeks. First, if we pass this legislation over the next couple of days, caste discrimination will be outlawed in this country. Is that correct?

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Jo Swinson: I am happy to make that clear for the House, and I wanted to respond to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on a similar point. The amendment changes the word “may” to “must” in the Equality Act 2010. At the moment, it states that the Secretary of State “may” make caste discrimination illegal, and that will be changed to say that they “must” lay regulations to make an order. That will require secondary legislation, which gives us time to consult and get that right. When the secondary legislation is passed, the measure will be on the statute book.

John McDonnell: Let me try this phrase: if we enact this legislation, the Government must outlaw caste discrimination in due course.

Jo Swinson indicated assent.

John McDonnell: That is point 1—stay with me on this. Point 2: in developing the detail of the legislation, we will ensure that we consult the wide range of communities that have an interest in this matter, and seek to mobilise them in eliminating caste discrimination—agreed?

Jo Swinson indicated assent.

John McDonnell: Thirdly, I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on the limited period of time in which that will be done. I have heard about months and also a full year—whatever view is realistic. I think it would be possible in a year not only to deliver clear definitions and guidance on implementation, but to mobilise the whole community around this issue and to convince people about the need for this provision.

Finally, this amendment contains a review period so that if we reach nirvana and the elimination of caste discrimination in this country, we can return to the issue and remove the measure from the legislation.

If all those statements are accurate and agreed across the House, I now understand the point we are at, so perhaps others will as well. I think it has been a significant victory for democratic debate in this Chamber and the wider community. Lots of organisations have been involved in this discussion. Not everybody is happy, but we have reached an understanding that there is a problem to be addressed. No matter how small people think it may be, this issue is significant for many of us and it is being addressed appropriately with some subtlety and understanding of people’s views, so that those are taken into account. I welcome the overall approach that has been agreed.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I, too, thank the Minister for bringing forward this amendment and for the thoughtful way it has been crafted. I also thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for her speech, and for pointing out some of the practical steps that can be taken.

I know that those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches have felt a sense of thoughtful consideration and sometimes anguish about this issue, but it has always been fairly straightforward for me. I am not diminished as a person because we ban discrimination on the basis of race or gender, and I will not be diminished as a person because we ban discrimination on the basis on caste. All those are exemplary measures for the Government to take.

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I was reflecting on caste, and it occurred to me that if we define caste as occupation, I too carry my caste in my name. A fuller is an occupation; we are the cleaners of wool—with a rather unsavoury material, I think. I do not know where in the hierarchy that might sit, but I do not think it would be at the top. However, I am a greater man because I am my father’s son, and—to be clear for the record—also because I am my mother’s son.

I would like to ask a couple of questions and make a point. Will the Minister provide not precision but some clarification on the timetable and say when she anticipates that the order will be enacted?

May I point out something that has not been mentioned yet? Any repeal of the regulation will require a resolution of each House and will not simply be done by the Government of the day. That is a welcome feature of the legislation.

Finally, we have spoken of the great contribution to the legislation of community groups with differing views. I pay tribute to my constituents who have brought the matter to my attention and to the attention of others. As with all legislation that is enacted, there is a responsibility to ensure that the protections provided are used appropriately. We need to ensure that it is not open season for people to use the law just because it is another option. The measure is there to be used in very serious cases—hon. Members know that they are rare but extraordinarily important. We do not want the changes to the law to be misused by people, such that the voices that have been heard in the House today are drowned out in the legal courts in future.

2.30 pm

Jo Swinson: With the leave of the House, it would be helpful if I responded to a few of the points that have been made in this brief debate.

I welcome the constructive approach of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and her support for the Government amendments. She raised several points, one of which was the definition of caste and the possibility of using the word “descent”. We will consider carefully how to define “caste”. There could be problems with the “descent” concept—descent is wider than caste, and a number of groups have expressed concerns about using that word as an alternative. We now have time to discuss a wide range of issues, and will involve all interested parties. I hope that also goes some way to dealing with the points made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

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On EHRC monitoring, the hon. Lady referred to last night’s debate and the comments of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. I watched her speech—she spoke powerfully, as always. The amendments require the EHRC to continue to monitor and report—it must still report on changes in society in relation to equality and human rights, which can mean broad reports on progress in society.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made a helpful speech. Perhaps we should adopt the format of making statements and seeing whether the Minister will stand up and make corrections if necessary. That could be deemed not to be the best way of dealing with parliamentary proceedings—the first suggestion was slightly above my pay grade.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the period of time over which the measure might be implemented. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston suggested in her letter that one to two years for enactment might be the right period. Enactment depends slightly on how much progress is made in dealing with those groups, but that time period is the general ballpark we are looking at.

That point also goes to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). When I was summing up last week, time was of the essence, and I was unable to complete my remarks, but it is worth noting the powerful speech my hon. Friend made on behalf of his constituents last week as well as today. On his question about repeal, the amendments make it clear that the Minister “may by order” repeal or otherwise amend section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010. Repeal would therefore happen by order, through the normal parliamentary processes, using the affirmative resolution procedure, so both Houses would have their say. That would happen only after a Minister had ordered a review and published a report. That would be the process by which repeal would happen. I hope that he welcomes that along with the Government amendments.

I hope that I have answered the questions asked, and that hon. Members feel able to support the motion and amendments.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House insists on its disagreement to Lords amendment 36, does not insist on its disagreement to Lords amendment 35 and proposes consequential amendments (a) to (c) to the Bill.

Consequential amendments (a) to (c) agreed to.

Government amendments (a) to (d) made in lieu of Lords amendment 37.

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Opposition Day

[Un-allotted Half Day]

Northern Ireland

2.35 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House notes the significant and positive developments in Northern Ireland in recent years; acknowledges that challenges remain; and reaffirms its commitment to supporting peace, progress and prosperity in every community.

It gives me great pleasure to move the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to open the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Hon. Members do not often get the chance to discuss Northern Ireland on the Floor of the House and I welcome this opportunity. It is good to see many Northern Ireland Members in the Chamber. The motion enables them to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many issues that affect their constituents.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way so early in the debate. I commend him, as a Front-Bench spokesman, for leading a debate on Northern Ireland. It is important to put on the record that this is the first Front Bencher-led debate on Northern Ireland since the 2010 election.

Vernon Coaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks—I hope he feels like that at the end of my speech as well as at the beginning. In all seriousness, I am grateful for his remarks. The issues that affect Northern Ireland are taken seriously on both sides of the House. We need to debate them and to consider the challenges.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): As a Labour Back Bencher, I, too, welcome my hon. Friend’s decision and the decision of the shadow Cabinet to use this Opposition day for a debate on Northern Ireland. That is a strong sign of the continuing Labour concern and commitment to a lasting peace and lasting prosperity in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, more than anything, we need more jobs and stronger growth? Does he also agree that, at the moment, Northern Ireland is held back by a failing UK economic policy from a failing and feeble Chancellor?

Vernon Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his intervention. I will go on to say something about the economy and the need for jobs and growth in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but he is right to make that point.

The motion should enable Northern Ireland Members to speak with a great deal of flexibility on the many different issues that affect their constituents, as well as allow them and Members from other parts of the United Kingdom to put forward their views and wider considerations on the topic in hand.

Northern Ireland has been transformed in recent years. I am acutely aware of those on both sides of the House who have made such an enormous contribution to the cause of peace. The fact that many of them are in the Chamber is an indication of their commitment. I

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place on record my gratitude for their guidance and support in helping me to do the job of shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I know there are differing views on the agreement within Northern Ireland and within the House, but along with parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, Labour Members are proud of our role in helping to bring about that historic accord. We believe that the agreement and the agreements that followed have made Northern Ireland a better place, and we stand by them.

Good Friday 1998 was a hugely significant moment, when relations within Northern Ireland and throughout these islands were recognised as complicated and challenging, but intertwined and interdependent. The years that followed were difficult, but much good work was done despite the ups and downs of devolution. Hon. Members in the Chamber, including from the Social Democratic and Labour party, played a valued part in that, as did the Ulster Unionist party.

Six years ago, devolution was fully restored. Since 2007, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson from the Democratic Unionist party have respectively served as First Ministers, alongside Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. The transfer of policing and justice powers was another enormous step forward in 2010, when the Alliance party joined the Executive and took the position of Justice Minister.

All this shows that we have come a long way in Northern Ireland. As I say frequently, it is a privilege to hold my position most of all because I get to be in Northern Ireland often. The progress made in past years has given rise to a changed Northern Ireland, one that is confident, optimistic and dynamic, and a great place to live, work, invest in and to visit. This year, Northern Ireland gets the chance to show the world the real Northern Ireland; to show what it is really about. The UK city of culture in Derry is a packed 12 months of art, culture, sport, music and drama. I challenge anyone, anywhere to match the unrivalled programme of events that make Londonderry the place to be every day of 2013. The world will literally come to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I commend the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for their work in bringing this prestigious event to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The world’s spotlight will be on Northern Ireland when the G8 summit takes place in County Fermanagh in June. Does he agree that the summit is an opportunity for the world to see how Northern Ireland has moved forward? There is, however, a worry that those who choose to protest on other issues could do damage. Does he agree that every effort must be made to ensure that security measures are in place so that no damage is caused to Northern Ireland as it moves forward?

Vernon Coaker: I think that every right hon. and hon. Member would agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. There is a right to protest in a democracy, but it has to be done lawfully and peacefully. I do not think that any of us would wish to see anything take place that would detract from an important world summit, and an important

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example of how Northern Ireland can demonstrate to the whole world the real Northern Ireland and how it has moved forward.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): May I associate myself with that last comment and thank the hon. Gentleman for the lead he gives and the work he does in Northern Ireland, together with Ministers? We were all together at the Alliance party conference. The message that people in Northern Ireland need to hear is that the rest of the United Kingdom want them to do well, want them to prosper and want them to succeed. Avoiding violence is the best way to make sure that everybody understands that, and that the message goes out not just to Northern Ireland, but around the world.

Vernon Coaker: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, the fact that we are having a debate on the Floor of the House of the House of Commons in London is a statement of the importance that all of us here attach to what is going on in Northern Ireland. We do take notice and we do care.

I hope that all of Northern Ireland will benefit from the G8 summit, and I am sure that the Government will involve the Northern Ireland Executive in an appropriate and beneficial way. I know, too, that the Irish Government hold the presidency of the European Union and will play a key part. The world police and fire games take place this summer and will provide a huge opportunity, with thousands of athletes coming to Northern Ireland from countries and continents the length and breadth of the globe. There is a huge belief in Northern Ireland that things that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible, have been and are being done, and that things are moving in the right direction.

Despite those huge strides, however, we cannot be complacent about the challenges that remain. For us in Westminster, devolution should not mean disengagement. We have a role to play and the Government have a responsibility to help keep Northern Ireland moving in the right direction. On security and the economy, decisions made at a UK level have enormous implications for Northern Ireland, a point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey).

The continuing activities of dissident republican groups give cause for worry. They are small but dangerous, and have shown that, despite being rejected by the vast majority of the public, they are determined to continue their campaign of violence. The awful murder of prison officer David Black a few months ago should serve as a reminder of their deadly intent. Indeed, as we have seen recently, it is thanks only to the dedication of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Army technical officers and the Security Service that further atrocities have been avoided. The foiling of attacks across Northern Ireland is a credit to these very brave and dedicated individuals who keep people safe and secure, and do their job with courage and professionalism in the face of serious threats against them and their families. They have our utmost gratitude, and the support and admiration of the entire House.

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I share the concerns—perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister can address them—about how the additional security funding from the Treasury has been allocated in the four years from 2011 to 2015. There will be a drop in funding next year from £62 million in 2013-14 to £27 million in 2014-15. The police and security services, as I know we all agree, must have all the resources they need to combat terrorist threats. I know that the Secretary of State agrees, and I am sure that the Government will keep all these matters under review, taking advice from the Chief Constable and the Justice Minister.

The unrest seen in loyalist and Unionist areas following the decision of Belfast city council not to fly the Union flag all year round, also gives cause for concern. There was a sustained campaign of violence and intimidation against public representatives, the police and the wider community. Some of it was orchestrated by paramilitaries, which is unacceptable. There is real frustration and anger in some communities, and I do not downplay that or ignore those who say that their Britishness is being undermined. I hear similar sentiments, albeit from the opposite viewpoint in republican and nationalist areas, where some people feel that their Irishness is not respected or given appropriate recognition. Clearly, these are not easy issues to address.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister, he announced in July 2007 that he was lifting the ban on the national flag; he encouraged the flying of the Union flag, certainly throughout Great Britain. I wonder what the official policy of the official Opposition is on flying the flag in Northern Ireland. Would it be helpful to increase the flag-flying days in Northern Ireland, as requested by loyalists and others?

Vernon Coaker: Our position is to try to help facilitate agreement between everyone about what solutions can be found, so that Britishness and Irishness is respected. It is difficult, in a particular circumstance, to say, “This is the solution that can or should be found.” Equality of respect between the different traditions in Northern Ireland is extremely important. Flags are a symbol of that, and all one can hope for is that the discussions and ongoing debate will lead to a conclusion that is acceptable to all communities.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion polls which last year showed that only 21% of nationalists wished to see a united Ireland? This year, the polls say that only 19% of nationalists wish to see a united Ireland. Is that not an indication that their Irishness is diminishing?

Vernon Coaker: I think it is a snapshot of opinion at a particular time. The agreement lays out procedures and processes for opinion to be tested at any time. The reality at the moment is that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the debate in this Chamber reflects that. The priority for people at present is to resolve some of the ongoing challenges that remain, and to see what more can be done with respect to decisions made here about jobs, growth and investment in all communities in Northern Ireland. I think that people would see that as their priority, whether they consider themselves to be British or Irish.

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There is a worry that, in both loyalist and republican areas, there are elements who want to take us back to the bad old days, and that they might be gaining a foothold. The message that the whole House sends out is that they will not succeed.

With the marching season already upon us, I want to make it clear that there is no justification for riots or attacks on the police. The rule of law, including the decisions of the Parades Commission, must be respected and upheld. The peace process shows that, however difficult, in the end dialogue works, so I encourage everyone who wants a peaceful summer in Northern Ireland to talk as neighbours, not enemies, in a spirit of understanding and to find a way forward on contentious issues, such as flags and parades. Like the Secretary of State and the Minister, I would like to do what I can to help facilitate those discussions.

These are difficult economic times. On the economy and welfare, the Government’s policies, decided here, have an impact in every community in Northern Ireland. Last week’s figures showed unemployment in Northern Ireland at a record high of 8.4%, with almost one in four young people out of work, while 20,000 families with children have lost out because of changes to tax credits. Earlier this year, the Chartered Institute of Housing estimated that the bedroom tax would affect 32,000 people in Northern Ireland and have a disproportionate impact because the vast majority of social housing stock in Northern Ireland comprised large family homes. There simply are not the smaller properties for tenants to downsize to.

On corporation tax, we had two years of dither and delay, with the promise of a decision last month, but all the Prime Minister said was that we would have to wait until after the Scottish referendum. Northern Ireland’s economy, like the economy of the rest of the UK, cannot wait until 2014; we need to get moving now. We need a plan for jobs and growth and a plan B for Northern Ireland’s economy to get people, particularly young people and those who have been out of work for a long time, back to work, and to bring investment into Northern Ireland and help small businesses to grow. With proposals for a tax on bank bonuses to tackle unemployment, a temporary cut to VAT to boost demand and the bringing forward of infrastructure projects, we want to support the Executive to get the economy on the right track.

Big challenges remain, and not just on security and the economy, and the Governments in London and Dublin need to continue to help Northern Ireland to meet them. That includes taking responsibility for dealing with the past. For Northern Ireland to move forward, it must agree a way to deal with the legacy of the troubles, the death of 3,000 people and the injury and trauma of tens of thousands more. We are clear about the need for a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past, at the heart of which should be the victims and survivors.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parades Commission earlier. He will be aware that some of us believe that the commission is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Surely it is time we had a clean sheet of paper to consider some other process for dealing with the

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parades issue. It is a vital part of Unionist culture, and we need to address it, otherwise we could be in for a difficult summer.

Vernon Coaker: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Of course, if the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland have an alternative to the Parades Commission that they feel would better facilitate parading and deal with some of the issues, that would be a matter for discussion and change, but until such a time, the commission’s decisions are the law of the land, and as such they need to be adhered to. I understand his point—people often make it to me—but at the moment its decisions are the law of the land. It determines the routes and some of the conditions for parading, and we need to adhere to them. If we need an alternative, people must come forward with proposals, but until then, the commission makes the decisions. I know he agrees that it is crucial that the police do not make those decisions. If the current situation is unacceptable and people feel the need for change, it is incumbent on everyone to consider what that change would be.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly talks about healing the past. Might that be helped by people such as the Deputy First Minister and other Northern Ireland Ministers with a history of involvement in the IRA being honest and admitting what they did, rather than always trying to imply that they were totally innocent of the terrible tragedies and lost lives over a long period?

Vernon Coaker: We need a process for addressing all the matters that arise, but at the moment those points are made in a vacuum. We need an overarching process for debating these issues. My hon. Friend obviously knows Northern Ireland well. When I meet victims from all parts of Northern Ireland and from all sides of the community, I am struck by the need to find a better way of dealing with people’s sense of grief and loss, whether in respect of the Ballymurphy families, the Kingsmill families or whoever. There is no quick solution, but a process for discussing how that might be done would be an important step forward.

There is no consensus about what that process should look like, but we have to get people talking and to keep them talking until we find a way forward. I believe that change comes from the bottom up. Hon. Members know of the huge amount of work being done at a grass-roots level, on the ground in communities, to bring people together and help build the shared future we all want. Much of that work is unsung, but it is making a huge difference. I have met individuals and organisations doing important work in difficult circumstances. These people have shown vision and commitment to the community. I have seen the work they do, whether on shared education, sport for all, providing skills and training for young people or giving a voice to pensioners. We should all redouble our efforts to promote and support this crucial work.

Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland, but we cannot, and must not, be complacent. Northern Ireland is unrecognisable from the place it was, but challenges remain, and we must overcome them by pulling together. That means the Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, business, communities and all those who want to build a better Northern Ireland. We cannot just wish for a better future; we have to work for it.

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Lady Hermon: I would like to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s words about dealing with the past. I think he referred to a comprehensive and inclusive process to deal with the past. Will he spell out what that might involve, other than talking to one another, cross-community football matches or whatever? Does he wish to see another commission like the recent Eames-Bradley commission? What exactly is “comprehensive” and “inclusive”?

Vernon Coaker: It might be something along the lines that Eames-Bradley suggested; what I am saying is that we have to bring people together to talk about this in the first place, but at the moment I think there is reluctance on the part of the Government to do that. I remember a debate in which the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that the Northern Ireland Assembly had asked the then Secretary of State to facilitate talks and bring everyone together to see how a comprehensive and inclusive process might work. People get cynical about having more talks, but given the absence of agreement and consensus, and the fact that there are differing views about what should be done, the very least we can do is to bring people together, even if—I will be honest with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—there is no guarantee that that will succeed. To start to talk about that—to ask how we deal with it, whether elements of Eames-Bradley could have worked, whether other elements could work and what a comprehensive process means, and to include all representatives in Northern Ireland in that process—is to start saying what we can do to address the issue. That is the role that the UK Government could play in trying to facilitate the process that the hon. Lady describes.

The values that were held throughout the peace process are as relevant today as they ever were—the commitment to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships in Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between these islands; the acknowledgement that the tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering, and that those who have died or been injured and their families must never be forgotten; the acceptance that only democratic and peaceful methods can be used to resolve political differences; and, most fundamentally, an understanding that differences still exist between competing, equally legitimate political aspirations, but that we must strive in every practical way towards peace and reconciliation. The Government at Westminster must rededicate themselves to those values, working with the Executive and the Irish Government to fulfil their obligations to help to keep Northern Ireland moving forward. There is still work to be done. Let us do it together, mark the progress, meet the challenges and strive to build peace, progress and prosperity in every community in Northern Ireland.

3.1 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on choosing Northern Ireland for today’s debate. Those on the Opposition Front Bench have provided us with a welcome opportunity to consider some hugely important matters in Northern Ireland.

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Let me start by paying tribute to the courage and dedication of those on all sides who are responsible for delivering the huge progress we have seen in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. That includes successive UK Governments, our partners in the Irish and US Administrations and, of course, the political leadership in Northern Ireland. They all deserve our sincere thanks. Delivering the peace settlement was greatly assisted by the bipartisan attitude that is generally taken in this House towards matters such as security and constitutional and institutional affairs in Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the continuation of that approach from the shadow Secretary of State.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the bedrock of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is provided by the agreement signed on 10 April, 15 years ago. Whether we call it the Belfast agreement or the Good Friday agreement, there can be no doubt that it has transformed life in Northern Ireland, alongside its successor agreements, made at St Andrews in 2006 and Hillsborough in 2010. None of those agreements would have happened without the Downing Street declaration, made 20 years ago by John Major and Albert Reynolds, which started the peace process in earnest.

I agree that we in this House must never, ever take the peace settlement for granted. It will always be important to keep reminding ourselves of the many ways in which the agreements have improved life for people in Northern Ireland and transformed it as a place to live. For example, the agreements secured the constitutional position of Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, meaning that it will never cease to be a part of the United Kingdom unless a majority decides otherwise. That is something that we warmly welcome as a Government who support the Union and believe that all parts of our United Kingdom are stronger together, weaker apart. The agreements also mean that the territorial claim to sovereignty in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution has now gone.

After years of direct rule from Westminster, we now have an inclusive, devolved Administration working hard for the people of Northern Ireland. Delivery of key public services is firmly in devolved hands, and since the St Andrews agreement, all the main parties are signed up to support for the police and the rule of law. The rights and identities of all parts of the community are fully protected, whether they choose to define themselves as British, Irish or both. There are accountable institutions to deliver practical co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland have never been better. Of course, the greatest achievement of all was the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the end of the terrorist campaigns that tragically saw 3,500 lives lost. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that there can be no doubt about the significant challenges that still need to be overcome in security, the economy, and addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon: Before the right hon. Lady moves on, will she take a brief opportunity to put it on record in this House that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have responsibility under the legislation to trigger a border poll, if there were a need for that, but that, no matter how provoked by the leader of Sinn

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Fein, she has absolutely no intention of triggering a border poll in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable and long future?

Mrs Villiers: I can confirm, as I have said a number of times over recent months, that I have no plans to call a border poll. The conditions that require a border poll to take place, as set down in the Belfast agreement, are certainly not present; therefore, I simply do not think it would be a constructive thing to do. Indeed, I feel it would distract from the other big challenges for Northern Ireland, which we are discussing today.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I co-chair, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, also said those very things?

Mrs Villiers: There is a huge amount of common ground between the UK Government and the Irish Government in our strong support for the devolved settlement and the great progress that it has brought to Northern Ireland, so I am delighted to hear that the Taoiseach expressed similar views to those that I have just expressed on a border poll.

This Government strongly believe that we cannot stand still if all the promises and hopes of the agreements are to be properly fulfilled, so we need to address the three challenges that I have set out. Let me turn first to security. As the House will be aware, the threat level from terrorism in Northern Ireland is assessed as severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely. There are still terrorist groups that continue to defy the will of the overwhelming majority of people, north and south, who voted for Northern Ireland’s future to be determined by democracy and consent. As the hon. Member for Gedling said, the terrorists are small in number and have very little popular support, but they have capability and lethal intent, as we saw with the cowardly and horrific murder of prison officer David Black last year.

I, too, would like to thank the brave men and women of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland for all the work they do to keep the whole community safe from harm. The PSNI is relentless in its efforts to stop terrorist attacks and put those responsible for them behind bars where they belong. Just one of a number of recent PSNI successes was the interception of a van carrying four mortar bombs bound for Londonderry. If it had got through, it could have led to an horrific attack. The levels of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana are unprecedented. That co-operation is saving lives. I thank the Irish Government for making it possible.

For our part, on coming to power we endorsed an additional £45 million for the PSNI, to help to address the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. Our 2010 national security strategy made tackling terrorism in Northern Ireland a tier 1 priority, progress on which is regularly discussed at the very highest levels of Government. In 2011, in response to a request from the Chief Constable, we provided an additional £200 million to tackle the terrorist threat. The shadow Secretary of State asked how the funding would be phased over the years. I think I can provide him with some reassurance on that. As a significant proportion of the funding was capital spend designed to provide much-needed equipment—not least the refresh of the PSNI Land Rover fleet—more will

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inevitably get spent towards the beginning of the period than at the end. From my regular discussions with the Chief Constable, I have no doubt that the extra resource has helped significantly, and I will continue to give the PSNI my fullest possible backing.

The hon. Member for Gedling rightly emphasised the crucial importance of the rule of law, now that we are back into another marching season. So far, the events have gone off well and largely peacefully, which is welcome, but it is always important to reiterate from the Dispatch Box—and indeed from both sides of the House—that Parades Commission decisions must be complied with. There are real dangers for Northern Ireland in any recurrence of the disorder that has too often marred the marching seasons in years past. Such disorder damages Northern Ireland’s image abroad, which makes it harder to build much-needed prosperity.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I endorse entirely the Secretary of State’s comments about the parades that will take place over the next weeks and months. Will she take this opportunity to set out for the House her approach to parading? The Hillsborough Castle agreement incorporates a time scale and a process for the transfer of responsibility for parading from the UK Government to Northern Ireland. We know, however, that that process has stalled, and there are no signs of it being restarted, so far as I can see. This is a continuing area of concern, and I would be grateful if she could tell the House what she intends to do to ensure that the issue is resolved once and for all.

Mrs Villiers: I have had a series of meetings with those involved in parading, including the Parades Commission, the PSNI, and the Loyal Orders, to hear their views on the prospects for and the risks associated with this season’s parades and marches. It is important for the local parties to engage with one another on this issue, and my understanding is that there is an appetite for that to happen. Should the local parties reach consensus on a way to devolve decisions on parading to a new institution or body, the UK Government would of course consider the matter carefully. As the right hon. Gentleman points out, it has always been envisaged, by the previous Government and by this one, that we could move to a devolved solution. We are open-minded and willing to listen to proposals for such a solution from the Northern Ireland political parties, but until such time as the matter is settled, it is vital that the Parades Commission should be supported and that its decisions should be obeyed.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure the passing of a legislative consent motion on the Crime and Courts Bill, which will affect the ability of the National Crime Agency to work in Northern Ireland, and the ability of the new proceeds of crime provisions to operate there? What progress is she making on that? We discussed in some detail during our deliberations on the Crime and Courts Bill the fact that, at the moment, there is a big hole in that area, and I would welcome a time scale for the action that she is taking to ensure that the loophole is closed.

Mrs Villiers: It is certainly a great disappointment that the legislative consent motion has not been adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive. I understand that

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policing matters are hugely sensitive in Northern Ireland, for all sorts of historical reasons, but I am concerned that the abilities and the international reach of the National Crime Agency will not be available to the PSNI. Discussions are continuing on whether it will be possible to persuade the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a legislative consent motion in the future.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the question of the proceeds of crime, a matter currently dealt with by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It would be unfortunate if such work in Northern Ireland were not taken over by another body. If it is not taken over by the NCA, it would be a matter for the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive to consider developing an alternative capability. Discussions are continuing, and I have discussed the matter with David Ford on a number of occasions. He has done an excellent job on trying to build consensus for this change, and we will continue to support him on that. The Home Secretary also takes a close interest in this matter, and she is considering how the NCA will operate in relation to matters that are still the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government, including UK border matters and matters relating to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The Government’s first duty in Northern Ireland is to keep people safe, and it is one that we will not shirk. I fully recognise, however, that terrorism will not be brought to an end by security means alone. As well as exercising continuing vigilance on security measures, we need to make progress on our other objectives—on the economy and on addressing sectarian division—if we are to address the problems on which paramilitaries will always try to feed.

I should like to provide some reassurance to hon. Members on the economic points that have been raised today. On taking office, this Government faced the largest deficit in the G20 and the largest in the UK’s peacetime history. In three years, we have cut that deficit by a third, and more than 1.25 million new jobs have been created in the private sector. In Northern Ireland, Labour left us with an economy that was heavily dependent on public spending—even more so than at the time of the Belfast agreement in 1998. Some studies have suggested that public spending accounts for as much as three quarters of gross domestic product in Northern Ireland. Of course I understand the historical reasons that have contributed to that, but it is unsustainable in the longer term. We simply cannot go on as we are.

Under the devolution settlement, many policy areas on the economy and unemployment fall within the Executive’s remit, and I warmly welcome the work that they have done on crucial economic matters, including their great success in attracting inward investment.

Ian Paisley: There are many things that the Government can take credit for, but the biggest disappointment for anyone in the business community is their failure to take a decision on corporation tax. That failure has been a knockout blow; it is sad, and it reflects a lack of urgency to move forward for the business community.

Mrs Villiers: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Government are planning to reduce corporation tax across the UK economy. The Prime Minister has also set a clear pathway to a decision

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on whether corporation tax decisions could be devolved to Northern Ireland. The reality is that significant technical issues need to be resolved before a decision can be taken on the principle of whether to devolve the power. There are also wider constitutional issues to be considered in the context of the referendum on Scottish separation.

Significant economic responsibilities are retained by Westminster, and I am working with the Northern Ireland Executive on our shared objective of rebalancing the economy by boosting the private sector and pursuing a strongly pro-enterprise agenda. That is why we are cutting corporation tax from 28% under Labour to just 20% by 2015—the lowest rate in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The Prime Minister has made it clear that a decision on whether to devolve the setting of corporation tax rates to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be made in the autumn of next year.

Our deficit reduction programme has helped to keep interest rates at record lows, helping businesses and households across Northern Ireland, and our new employment allowance will see national insurance cut for 25,000 Northern Ireland businesses, with 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises paying no tax on jobs at all. This will provide better help for business than Labour’s one-off national insurance tax break.

We have exempted Northern Ireland electricity generators from the carbon price floor, to provide a level playing field with the Republic. That was a key ask from the Northern Ireland business community, as well as from the Executive. We have also devolved long-haul air passenger duty to help to save our direct air link with the United States, again at the direct request of the Northern Ireland Executive.

David Simpson: The Secretary of State will know that her predecessor made a big play for enterprise zones in Northern Ireland. Is that still part of the coalition’s plan?

Mrs Villiers: We certainly believe that enterprise zones such as those being established in England, Wales and Scotland can play a positive part in boosting the private sector and in job creation. Our conversation with the Executive on a fresh economic package to provide additional help for Northern Ireland includes looking again at enterprise zones, to see whether we can make them attractive to the Executive.

Access to the £2.1 billion Aerospace Technology Institute will strengthen Northern Ireland’s reputation as a centre of excellence in aerospace. Also, when I met representatives of HBO in New York recently, I heard at first hand that the Chancellor’s tax relief for high-end TV production was crucial to delivering HBO’s plans to film a fourth series of “Game of Thrones” in Belfast, with all the job opportunities that that will provide.

The Budget gave the Executive an extra £94 million of capital spending, bringing to £900 million the total additional funding provided to Stormont since the last spending review. The Prime Minister announced in March that Northern Ireland would receive an extra €181 million of EU structural funds above what would have been the case if the Government had stuck to the European Commission’s recommended formula. The size of the block grant for Northern Ireland means that public spending per head continues to be 20% higher than the UK average.

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We are delivering a £700 tax cut for over 600,000 working people in Northern Ireland, and taking 75,000 of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. We have dealt with the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society and ensured that smaller, more vulnerable savers got most or all of their money back. Our welfare reforms, bitterly opposed by the Labour party, will ensure that work always pays and that people cannot take home more in benefits than the typical family earns by going out to work. These are the measures of a Government who are on the side of those who want to work hard and get on in life.

As for the comments of the hon. Member for Gedling on the spare room subsidy, I recognise how sensitive this issue is, particularly for Northern Ireland where so much social housing is still segregated. The reform we are making brings the social rented sector into line with the rules that the previous Government introduced for the private rented sector. We owe it to all people on housing waiting lists or living in overcrowded accommodation to use our social housing stock as efficiently as possible. A £3.4 million fund has been set up to help in hard cases, which has been doubled by Nelson McCausland over the spending review period. Discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive are continuing on whether they might fund a different approach on the spare room subsidy—at least until the Northern Ireland housing stock has more one and two-bedroom homes.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I thank the Secretary of State for her remarks, but as she is aware, the housing stock does need to transform dramatically. The cost differential between building one and two-bedroom properties and three-bedroom properties is negligible, but we end up with a less flexible housing stock as a result. Has the impact of this measure been properly thought through, particularly in respect of elevating the cost of one and two-bedroom properties through increasing demand, while not reducing the cost of purchasing those properties in comparison with three-bedroom houses?

Mrs Villiers: These matters are being thoroughly discussed between Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and those in the Department for Work and Pensions, which remains anxious about and open to finding a solution that will work for the Executive.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State inform us about ongoing discussions between the Minister for Social Development in the Northern Ireland Executive and appropriate Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions on the issue of getting further flexibility to enable the people of Northern Ireland to deal with these cuts, which are the consequence of welfare reform?

Mrs Villiers: Those discussions are ongoing, and I am confident of a positive outcome from them. The hon. Lady will appreciate that a number of flexibilities have already been obtained from the DWP by Nelson McCausland.

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State is explaining the depth of the discussions that are happening, and I am sure

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that she has been greatly involved in them as they affect Northern Ireland. Will she explain exactly how many one-bed properties are available in Northern Ireland’s social housing stock?

Mrs Villiers: I do not have the figure to hand, but this very important issue is being carefully considered in the discussions between the Northern Ireland Executive and the DWP.

Lady Hermon rose

Mrs Villiers: I will take one more intervention, but then I want to make some progress.

Lady Hermon: The right hon. Lady will be relieved to know that I am not going to ask her about the bedroom tax, but I do want to take her back to the reference she made to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. It is absolutely right to put on the record the gratitude felt by PMS savers, particularly those saving up to £20,000. The Secretary of State’s immediate predecessor, and indeed the Prime Minister, did a wonderful job on the repayments, but that being the case, I am bewildered, as are many of my constituents, about why she did not make more effort to ensure that the Northern Ireland ombudsman’s report into the PMS fiasco was published in full—only a summary was published. Will she give an undertaking to go back and try to ensure that the ombudsman’s report is published in full?

Mrs Villiers: Obviously, I do not have standing to dictate to the ombudsman what they choose to do with their report, but I am certainly happy to look further into that matter and come back to the hon. Lady about it. I am grateful for her praise of the work done by my predecessor and the Prime Minister.

We are all, of course, concerned about unemployment in Northern Ireland, as it remains far too high, particularly among young people. It is the case that some parts of the community feel that the peace process has not delivered all they hoped it would, so we want to do more to strengthen the economy and help Northern Ireland in the global race for investment and jobs. That is why the Prime Minister decided to bring the G8 summit to County Fermanagh in June. I am grateful for the support for that decision expressed by the hon. Member for Gedling, both in the past and today. This provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to market Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and to do business with. I am working with the Executive to make the most of all the opportunities that that brings us.

I agree that, despite the progress that has been made over the years, it cannot be right that there are still some deep-seated divisions in parts of Northern Ireland society. As I go round Northern Ireland, I see many excellent examples of initiatives designed to bring people together, such as the Jethro centre in Lurgan, Forthspring in West Belfast, and Intercomm in North Belfast. As the flags-related disorder demonstrated, however, more needs to be done to build mutual understanding and mutual trust across sectarian divides.

Policy responsibilities for community relations are devolved, but this Government have always been keen to work with the Executive and to support them in moving things forward. During his visits to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance he places on this issue.

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Following the meeting with the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers in March, we are working with the Executive on a substantial new economic package, alongside measures that we hope will build a more cohesive and stable society.

The package is in addition to the support Northern Ireland already receives from the UK Government. The Government are examining ideas on making enterprise zones more attractive, helping the Executive to take forward infrastructure projects, improving access to bank finance, and various other measures. Meanwhile, the Executive have the opportunity to use their devolved responsibilities to develop economic and social measures, including work on a shared future which we are all committed to delivering.

Put simply, this is a two-way street: the greater the Executive’s ambition, the more the Government will be able to do to support and help them. This is about partnership and working together on our shared goals, and I am optimistic about the chances of achieving a good outcome for Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Gedling spoke about dealing with the past.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Before the right hon. Lady leaves the point about the provision of extra help for Northern Ireland, she will be aware that a different interpretation was put on her remarks, not least by people in the Belfast Telegraph who described what she said as tantamount to blackmail. They feared that money might be withheld unless politicians in Stormont made a certain amount of progress, as viewed by the Government. Will she clarify exactly what she means in her approach to this matter? Clearly, what she has enunciated today is certainly a more constructive way of putting it, but can she rule out the suggestion or fear among many that this money will be held as a form of blackmail to get the Executive to do certain things?

Mrs Villiers: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that this package is about working together. The shared objective of the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government is to rebalance the economy and to address sectarian divisions, and we feel that we have a good opportunity to work together on those crucial issues. As I have said, the package is about new measures and new ways of supporting the Northern Ireland economy, rather than any subtraction from the existing support for Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Member for Gedling will appreciate, this is no easy issue. His party’s Government tried to resolve it, but were unable to do so, because they could not build enough support for the legislation that they were considering. It is important to accept that the UK Government do not own the past, and that progress cannot be made solely at their behest. Progress requires the building of consensus between different sides and different parties in Northern Ireland. We are certainly willing to play our part in efforts to deal with these matters, as was demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s response to the Bloody Sunday report and the de Silva review, but we do not believe that singling out a few more cases for costly open-ended inquiries is the right way forward.

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I pay tribute to the work that is being done by many groups and organisations in Northern Ireland to help people understand the past and give them a chance to tell their stories. Yesterday I visited the University of Ulster to learn more about its CAIN-ARK network, a resource shared with Queen’s University Belfast which has had 64 million page views and which contains a huge amount of material on the troubles. I encourage anyone who wants to understand Northern Ireland’s past to visit the website.

Fifteen years ago, the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made an historic choice: they decided that their future would be determined by democracy and not by violence. The Belfast agreement and its successors have given us a platform on which to build a new, confident, inclusive and modern Northern Ireland whose best days lie ahead. There is no doubt that we have come a long way—in many respects, Ireland is unrecognisable in comparison with the place that it was two decades ago when John Major made the Downing Street declaration—but much remains to be done to heal long-standing divisions in Northern Ireland society. In a number of ways, the peace process is still “work in progress”.

No one should doubt the determination of the UK Government to move forward, working in partnership with both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, in our efforts to create a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland of which all its citizens can be proud.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The winding-up speeches will begin at 5.15 pm, and 11 Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to take part in the debate. Lengthy contributions will not be met with universal joy by others who wish to contribute, so I ask Members please to be mindful of others when making their own speeches.

3.31 pm

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State. I apologise to both the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and the Secretary of State for having been absent for part of their speeches; I had to give evidence to a Committee upstairs.

I welcome the debate and thank the hon. Member for Gedling for choosing the subject and for the way in which the motion is worded. I think it right to acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years, and I trust that the motion will gain the full support and endorsement of Members in all parts of the House.

Both the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State spoke of the enormous progress that has been made, and rightly described the present situation in Northern Ireland as being virtually unrecognisable in comparison with the situation 30 or even 20 years ago. We do not underestimate the violence and the threat that are out there, or the concern that exists among members of society as a whole and among the security forces about the harm that could be inflicted by some of the terrorists who are intent on disrupting society. We bear in mind the terrible murder of David Black, and

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other incidents in which members of the security forces have narrowly escaped injury and death. We know of the fantastic work done by our security forces in daily protecting life and limb, and the interventions and interceptions which, in various instances—almost too numerous to recall here—have thwarted violent attacks by terrorists. We acknowledge the great progress that has been made, and, while we also recognise the challenges that are out there, everyone in society should bear in mind the enormous strides that have been made in terms of political stability.

It is now taken for granted that the Northern Ireland Assembly will see out its full term, and will see out its next term in full as well. However, not long ago—not 20 years ago but less than five or six years ago—people were predicting that the Assembly would not last four months, let alone four years.

We opposed the Belfast agreement because of its inherent flaws and the fact that people who were in government were still not supporting the police and the rule of law; they were still with the armed gunmen and we still had no decommissioning. We opposed all that, and I remember the Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, telling us it was impossible to get an alternative. But we did get an alternative, and we did so because we insisted that the rule of law had to be paramount, that there had to be support for the police and that both sides of the community had to give their support and consent to the institutions in Northern Ireland. That was the fatal flaw with the Anglo-Irish agreement we debated not long ago in this House and also with the Belfast agreement.

Thankfully, however, as the opinion polls bear out, in the period since 2006-07, there has been overwhelming support for the Assembly and the institutions, on the basis that everybody is now involved—everybody has given their consent and everybody has been consulted. While it is far from perfect, it has at least gone through that important democratic test. Under the Belfast agreement, the Assembly crashed three or four times, but we have had a period of stability since 2007.

There is also increased support for the Union, as has been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). One of the most important and significant developments in recent years has been the increased support for the Union in all sections of the community. Those who describe themselves as British have, of course, always supported the link with the rest of the United Kingdom, but the numbers of those who describe themselves as nationalists and those who now describe themselves as Northern Irish who say they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom or that they would not vote for a united Ireland have also increased very considerably. That, too, is a mark of the progress that has been made.

Of course people have the absolute right to wish to leave the United Kingdom and join in a different set of arrangements, as long as they pursue those objectives politically and democratically, but what is happening in Northern Ireland is clear evidence that people are increasingly content to work within the parameters of the United Kingdom. Indeed, a recent opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph showed there was a majority for that in every county in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, a majority among nationalist voters overall. That is extremely significant, and it was unimaginable 20 years ago.

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Naomi Long: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those opinion poll findings are the reason why, despite Sinn Fein having launched its campaign for a border poll with great fanfare, we have not heard much about it since?

Mr Dodds: That is absolutely right and, interestingly, when Sinn Fein voters were polled, a quarter of them also said they would stay in the United Kingdom. So, certainly from our perspective, things are changing in Northern Ireland in a positive and good way.

We face a number of challenges, however, including some major economic issues. We have heard a lot about them already today. In trying to build the economy, tourism is a key sector, and today is Titanic Belfast’s first anniversary. That is an iconic building, and I take some pride in it because I brought the project to the very first meeting of the Executive when I was Economy Minister in 2007, and we managed to get some substantial financial support for it. People at that stage queried whether it would be a success, but today it can be proved that it has been a success, because in the first year there have been 807,340 visitors, almost half a million of them from outside Northern Ireland and from 128 different countries. That contributed almost £30 million to the economy. It is a fantastic benefit to Belfast and to Northern Ireland as a whole. It is a world-class tourism project and product.

I recently visited the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre, built under the Northern Ireland Executive, which is attracting lots of visitors, again from outside Northern Ireland, which is the key point because it has added value to the economy. In 2012, the Olympic year, hotel occupancy in Northern Ireland in June was at the same level as that in central London, which is incredible when one thinks about it.

Ian Paisley: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to put his finger on where visitors are coming from. It is not a marginal outside increase. Apparently, of the million people who have visited the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic centre this year, 60% are from outside the United Kingdom.

Mr Dodds: Yes, and these are very important figures, because in the past a lot of tourist attractions were dependent on repeat visitors from within Northern Ireland or from over the border, which is increasingly unsustainable in the long run. But sights of the magnitude of the Giant’s Causeway, the Titanic, St Patrick’s trail and Londonderry and the walls are all great visitor attractions. Londonderry is the UK city of culture this year. We have the G8 coming to Fermanagh as well, so there are lots of fantastic things happening in Northern Ireland. When we consider what it was like just a generation ago, we can see what can be done when politics works, and we all have a part to play in building on the peace and stability that has underpinned that progress.

Recently, of course, times have been tough. Despite the economic downturn and recession, we have still been able in Northern Ireland to attract high degrees of foreign direct investment. We are still the second best area in the United Kingdom outside London for attracting such investment, which is a very significant statistic. In the past five years, the Northern Ireland Executive have spent more on infrastructure—roads, schools, hospitals

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and housing—than at any time in Northern Ireland’s history. More jobs than at any time in history have been delivered by the Executive, at a time when we are delivering the lowest local taxes in the whole of the United Kingdom. Peace, stability and opportunity make a real difference to the lives of those who live in Northern Ireland.

That said, Mr Deputy Speaker—I am conscious of your earlier injunction—I want to say that it is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that the Government act on corporation tax. While we welcome the moves that were made in terms of the help that the Secretary of State enunciated and the financial backing given to the Executive, and although the Executive have done a considerable amount on business rates and domestic rates and in helping lending to small businesses, and in backing the work of Invest Northern Ireland, there is no doubt, and it is the consensus among the political parties in Northern Ireland, and among business and industry, that what is needed is a game changer. If we are to alleviate high unemployment and reduce dependency on the public sector, something like the devolution of corporation tax is needed to make that happen. Of course, it is important that we retain our 100% regional aid status as far as Europe is concerned.

As for the political challenges that we faced, very briefly we have come a long way to achieve the stability and durability of the Executive and the Assembly. That must not be underestimated and should never be taken for granted. We all must continue to work hard to make sure that it is not undermined. But there is a case to be made—the people of Northern Ireland on all sides have expressed this many, many times—for reducing the bureaucracy surrounding the Assembly and the Government Departments. We have too many Government Departments with too big an Assembly. Too much is being spent on governing the place.

I welcome the fact that the review of public administration will reduce the number of councils, streamlining local government. We on the DUP Benches support the reduction in the size of the Assembly, support the reduction in the size of Government and support the idea of introducing an Opposition to the Assembly set-up, but there are other parties in the Assembly that, to varying degrees, do not lend support to that. I hope that, in the coming years, we can look back on this debate and say, “From then on, there was the desire to make devolution, and the Assembly and the Executive, work even better.”

The issues to do with the shared future, the past and how we can ensure that all sections of our community benefit from peace and stability, are absolutely key. I do not have time to go into all those, but it is incumbent on us all to work together—all the political parties in Northern Ireland, with the Government here—to move these issues forward. They cannot be left in abeyance. It is absolutely critical. I know that in the constituency that I represent, North Belfast, there are many people who, when they consider the impact of welfare reforms, or the economy, or the reductions in the public sector, and the wider political process, do have a sense of grievance. While we acknowledge and address those issues, it is the job of all of us to ensure that the positive is put forward, that we continue the progress of the last

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15 years over the next 15 years, and that we continue to build on the peace and stability that has been created in Northern Ireland.

3.45 pm

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for introducing this welcome debate. I strongly approve of the balanced wording of the motion, which recognises how much progress Northern Ireland has made during the last 15 years, while recognising that more work needs to be done. As well as the politicians in this place, it is the local politicians but especially the people of Northern Ireland who have made that progress. Over many years, they have shown enormous resolve in the face of a desperately difficult time. I pay tribute to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland for everything that they have done, and for being so resolute in their determination to come through very difficult times.

Probably everyone in the House today will remember the deeply difficult times of the 1970s. Last November, I had the rather sad occasion, with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), to visit Enniskillen to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bomb there. I was in the Republic on 15 August 1998 when the Omagh bomb went off, and I was in the Republic when David Black was murdered, and I remember the revulsion that was felt in the Republic of Ireland at those events. That demonstrates that we stand together with the Taoiseach and the Government of southern Ireland in condemning these acts and in being determined to find a way forward towards greater peace and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

I also remember many great things from my regular visits to Northern Ireland over many years now. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned the wonderful attractions there, including the Giant’s Causeway and the visitors centre there. I am sure the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) welcomes the new golf course that is to be built in that area. At long last, he probably says, but at least it is on its way. For Londonderry to be the city of culture this year is a tremendous accolade. As has been mentioned, the Titanic quarter has been open for a year, and I have had the pleasure of visiting it twice. What a wonderful visit it makes for. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland. To accommodate all the visitors who have been mentioned, Northern Ireland has some of the best hotels in the world, which perhaps is not recognised or remembered. As well as meeting the people of Northern Ireland, one of the great pleasures of visiting the Province is to stay in its wonderful hotels. There is an awful lot to be proud of and to look forward to in Northern Ireland.

I have the honour of chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and one of the ways that we think will cement the relative peace that has been attained in Northern Ireland is to try to help the economy and move it to better times. As has been mentioned, the economy throughout the United Kingdom is difficult. It is difficult throughout Europe. It is difficult in various parts of the world. For the record, I for one believe that the Government are on the right track in trying to put the economy right. We are not in a mess because we did not spend enough money, but because the previous Government spent too much money. We cannot get

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away from that. The Government are right to try to rebalance the economy in the way that they are.

But with specific reference to Northern Ireland, there are one or two issues that we should discuss here today that have been touched upon. I have just complimented the Government, but I will make a mild criticism now. I do not think that it is right to delay the decision on devolving responsibility for setting corporation tax until after the Scottish referendum. I see no relevance at all. In fact, I think that people in Scotland would be somewhat encouraged to vote to remain in the Union if we could demonstrate that there is flexibility to do different things in different parts of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another country, and the circumstances there are different. I certainly congratulate the Government on their reduction in the rate of corporation tax and look forward to the downward trend continuing to 20%, but we must remember that the level of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland is still only 12.5%. If we want to know the importance of that rate to the Republic of Ireland, we need only look back to the financial difficulties it had a couple of years ago, when this Parliament tried to help. Even with all its difficulties, and despite pressure from the European Union, it stuck to that rate and would not budge, because it knew that it was the best thing it had for attracting inward investment. The Government need to speed up their decision on whether to devolve the rate of corporation tax to the Assembly.

Great progress has been made on air passenger duty. I hope that the Select Committee was influential—I think that it was—in enabling the rate for long-haul flights from Northern Ireland to be reduced and giving the Assembly responsibility for it. However, a large number of flights to and from Northern Ireland are short-haul, and we feel that more work needs to be done in that regard, because the relatively high percentage of tax for short-haul fares is a disincentive. I know that that applies across the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland is different, as the only realistic way to travel to and from Great Britain is by air, so much more thought needs to be put into that.

The third matter I want to mention in relation to the Northern Ireland economy is laundering and smuggling. Historically, a lot of money has been lost in taxation through laundering and smuggling, particularly of fuel and tobacco. The Select Committee looked at that in great detail and was horrified by a number of things: first, how much money is lost; and secondly, how few custodial sentences are given to criminals who abuse the system to such an extent. It is not a victimless crime, because it is taking money away from hospitals, schools and police forces and from the taxpayers who contribute the money in the first place. The Committee was also concerned about the small progress made on developing technology that would greatly reduce, although not entirely prevent, the amount of fuel that can be smuggled and counterfeited in Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to continue their work and increase the intensity of their talks with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to move towards a better system for eradicating what is a very serious and costly crime.

I will detain the House no longer, as I am well aware of the number of Members who wish to speak. I look forward to hearing what they have to say. I finish by

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echoing what has been said. I think that all of us in this House are looking to create a Northern Ireland that is far better for the next generation than the era suffered by the past generation.

3.53 pm

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): I am pleased and privileged to rise to support the motion, and I do so in the strongest possible terms. I want to thank the Labour party and the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), for bringing the motion to the House and, with it, the opportunity not only for myself, but for others, to make comment.

I am always pleased to note the widespread support across the House for peace, progress and prosperity in Northern Ireland. The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, or the Belfast agreement—whatever we choose to call it—which we celebrated two weeks ago, is a significant milestone in our steady progress away from conflict. I recently had the opportunity to pay tribute in the House to the work done by previous Governments, both Irish and British, in negotiating and signing the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. For me, that agreement laid the foundation for a sea change in relationships between our two countries. It not only began to fundamentally change relationships between Ireland and Britain, but laid the foundations for the peace process and the Good Friday or Belfast agreement that followed in 1998, which in turn raised opportunities for further positive transformation of the intergovernmental relationships to a whole new level. For so many in both countries, nothing gave better expression to the change and transformation in those relationships than the historic visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland two years ago.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Prime Ministers of both Ireland and Britain for their commitment to securing peace over the past 30 years, and that gratitude continues to be owed to the current incumbents, Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

As I look around this Chamber, I see many Members on both sides who have made significant contributions to bring about peace in Northern Ireland and the transformation of the relationship with the Irish Republic.

Jim Shannon: Although many Prime Ministers—from Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—have made a contribution, will the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge the significant contribution made by the United States Government, who have also played a great part?

Dr McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes over my shoulder—the rules of the House should be amended to prevent Members from copying others—because my next line is that we should also note that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the United States and the various Administrations in Washington throughout that period.

Yes, much of the violence has been taken out of the equation in Northern Ireland. Relative peace and increased stability have been welcomed for some years, but we have not yet reached the promised land. Before the current financial crisis there were some green shoots of

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economic recovery, but they have been difficult to sustain. We have not come so far that we can afford any complacency. It is not just a matter of being eternally vigilant against the residual threat presented by those who are, though small in numbers, still dangerous and still wedded to the ways of violence, terrorism and intimidation.

Although the Good Friday agreement won overwhelming support across the island of Ireland, it was, for many, perhaps, a conditional support that should not be taken lightly or for granted. Although people voted for peace in overwhelming numbers in 1998, they wanted more: they also voted for hope and the right to hope for a much better future. They voted—this is better put in the words of Seamus Heaney—that “hope and history” would “rhyme”. They voted for economic opportunity for their children. They voted for a new dispensation that would tackle the root causes of division and ensure that violence would never again gain a significant foothold in their world or in the politics of Northern Ireland.

However much our people may differ on politics or on our views of the past, present or future, there is a shared conviction in Northern Ireland that our future must be different from what went before, in that it must be much better. They know that, however difficult it may be, that future has to be a shared future.

We have had 15 years of congratulating each other that the killing has stopped, but that is not enough any more. We need to move on and get some sense of greater progress. As long as we fail to tackle the underlying causes of the division in Northern Ireland, people will not feel safe and we will not be safe. We need a credible, practical, workable and productive cohesion-sharing and integration strategy, and we need it now.

The return of devolution was such an important goal that many people got impatient with me and colleagues in the SDLP for sharing our anxieties and our concerns and preaching that anxiety at times over the past few years, but now at last that important truth is beginning to be recognised. We note that in the past few weeks the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has found it necessary to state publicly in the strongest terms that the support of the UK Government for our Executive is conditional on progress being made in tackling community division. A couple of days before that the Irish Foreign Minister, Eamon Gilmore, said clearly that our First Minister and Deputy First Minister are mandated by the Good Friday agreement, which put them in office in the first place, to work for reconciliation. The time has come for us to produce some meaningful results.

We warmly welcome these new tones, this new realism, because it had been missing from the communications between Governments and from the two Governments for some years. We must recognise that the two Governments are the ultimate guarantors of the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement.

In my mind there is another side to reconciliation, the one that gets too little recognition, and it is this: tackling division is honourable and a good thing in itself, but there is a little more to it. Tackling division is an absolute necessity if we are to have any hope of achieving the prosperity mentioned in the motion. Division carries a direct cost or an absolute cost, but worse still for me, it also carries an opportunity cost. Beyond the challenge

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of tackling division, there is so much unfinished business in the major challenge of building prosperity. We will have difficulty finding the road to prosperity if we do not first find the road to maturity in dealing with flags and parades and the unhealed wounds and scars of the past.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a key way of making that work is to get the right understanding and the programmes for many of the young men and women in both communities who are stuck and cannot find an opportunity and a way out?

Dr McDonnell: I agree fully with the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but unfortunately we do not have or have not had until now Government Ministers queuing up to estimate the foreign investment opportunities lost as a result of the disorder in the past few months, but let us in the House not deceive ourselves. There is an economic cost to disruption, violence and disturbance in the streets, and I believe, unfortunately, that the same young men who wrapped themselves in flags are the very ones most likely to pay that cost. They are the ones who will suffer and remain on the margins.

We have had our peace process and it was good. We now need a prosperity process vigorously backed by the two Governments. It is with regret that I say that although the current Government have done many good things for the economy, too little progress has been made in helping to improve our economy, with unemployment currently at record levels. As others have pointed out, we needed that reduction in corporation tax to give us the rocket boost—for want of a better description—to get us moving economically. The level of youth unemployment in particular is a desperate cause for concern and cannot be isolated from the ongoing social unrest.

I do not doubt the Government’s stated commitment to rebalancing the economy, but the current economic path laid out for us will not take Northern Ireland to economic stability. We need investment in our economy and we need to create the economic confidence to build growth and develop the private sector. This Government’s attachment to austerity is unlikely to do that for us. On an island of fewer than 6 million people—we have fewer than 2 million in Northern Ireland and fewer than 4 million in the Irish Republic—economic and cross-border partnership is essential. In that context, we need an enduring commitment to serious north-south partnerships and projects such as the Narrow Water bridge and the A5, both of which will open up significant economic opportunities for Northern Ireland. The SDLP will continue to make a positive case for that kind of north-south partnership.

That is not to sidestep our responsibilities and commitments within the devolved Executive in Northern Ireland. I believe that our highest priority is to tackle division and to do so now.

4.5 pm

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and to participate in this important debate.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) made reference to the motion, which has three important principal components that everybody is recognising today. The first is the “significant and positive developments” that have taken place; the second is the challenges that remain; and the third is that this House is committed to the process as we move forward. It is good to see consensus in the Chamber today and I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on bringing this debate to the Floor of the House.

I have always been reticent about participating in Northern Ireland debates. They could be compared with debates on Europe, in which everybody pulls out their old speech, dusts it off and reads it. I am pleased to see that that is no longer the case with Northern Ireland debates. The hon. Member for Belfast South spoke about raising the bar. In each of these debates, we take stock of what has happened and raise the bar even further. That shows the progress that has been made and is being made.

Perhaps I am personally marred by my experience of serving in Northern Ireland in the ’90s. My life was spent in uniform, stopping cars and asking for identity documents. I lived on fortified border checkpoints, in the Strabane and Omagh areas, that would now be more associated with Helmand province. It is pleasing that that world no longer exists and that things have moved on.

I recall two striking events. On one occasion, I went into a newsagents in my uniform and asked for some chewing gum. The lady refused to serve me because she would get a brick through her window if she was seen doing so. On another occasion, I bumped into a friend from university in Strabane while he was coming out of WH Smith. We had not seen each other for a while and he wanted to give me a hug, but he realised that he could not because I was in full uniform. He was a citizen of the area and I was doing my job in uniform, and I thought how mad that dichotomy was within the UK. I am pleased to learn of the advances that have taken place.

There is a huge irony here. All of us travel abroad occasionally. Wherever we are in the world, if we want to have a good drink, make some new friends and feel at home, we end up going to the Irish bar. How different it was when I served in Northern Ireland. I would go away for two or three months on leave, go to Irish bars and then return back to the situation in Northern Ireland. I found that very strange indeed.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, I am pleased by how much progress has been made towards a more cohesive and stable society, as more and more powers are devolved. On security, the watch towers have all but gone and the civil police now lead on security matters. The Army is confined to barracks or has withdrawn completely.

Politically, the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to sit. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that there had been questions over whether the Assembly would continue to exist. It is there, it works and it is making decisions. It is taking the lead increasingly using its devolved powers. Such is the progress that the UK decided that the G8 summit should take place at Enniskillen.

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Economically, Northern Ireland has of course been affected by the global downturn, as have all parts of the UK. However, it is now seen as a place to invest in. Steps are being taken to renew the economy and to rebalance it away from an over-reliance on the public sector.

The tourism industry has been mentioned, and I, too, was going to mention Titanic Belfast, not least because there is a synergy with my constituency. Just down the road from my constituency in Southampton is the other museum that recognises what happened with the Titanic. I believe that the Belfast project cost something like £100 million and about 290,000 visitors a year were expected, but it is now exceeding 800,000 visitors a year. That is a fantastic indication of where the tourism industry as a whole is going. Northern Ireland is now seen as a place to invest, and we must also mention the developing aerospace industry.

Time is short, so I will not repeat the Secretary of State’s comments about the important aspects of the Chancellor’s Budget that will affect Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the country.

It is clear that more needs to be done, and we must not be complacent about the situation in Northern Ireland. There remains a minority who seek to fan the flames of violence, turn the clock back and undo all the good work. Last year there were about 60 shooting incidents and 30 bomb attacks, along with half a dozen or so paramilitary-style attacks including punishment shootings performed on both sides of the sectarian divide. Of course, compared with more than a decade ago when there were more than 600 shooting and bombing incidents annually, progress has absolutely been made, but that shows that the threat level has to remain at severe.

We police by consent in this country and expect the majority of the people to obey the law. We do not live in a police state. Long-term peace will prevail only if all of Northern Ireland condemns acts of terrorism and says that they are not the present or future that we want. We want a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. Every time a bomb goes off, it deters another investor. Every time another shooting occurs, it deters another visitor or holidaymaker who was considering going to Northern Ireland. We must never forget that.

I welcome the debate and the House’s interest in continuing to examine the issues, challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland. I am pleased to see the cross-party consensus on how we should move forward. I join others in saying that more must be done to ensure that Northern Ireland builds on its recent successes and strengthens democracy so that it does not turn back to the violence that it experienced in the past.

4.12 pm