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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 September 2015

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Membership: Business

1. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s membership of the EU on businesses. [901321]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid): The UK was the fastest-growing major advanced economy in 2014. The OECD forecasts that that is to continue in 2015. This Government’s ambition is for Britain to be the most prosperous major nation in the world by the 2030s, and free trade with the rest of Europe has a very important role to play in that.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I welcome those words. The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, was in Japan only last week, building on our strong cultural, economic and social ties with that country, which have developed over a long time, and promoting our exports, which increased by 27% in Wales last year, building on the work of established companies such as Toyota, Sony and Sharp. Those companies view Wales and the UK’s membership of the European Union as key to the trading relationship and the thousands of jobs it underpins. Does the Minister agree with them?

Sajid Javid: I respect the hon. Gentleman, but given the utter shambles of his party’s EU policy I am surprised that he wants to ask that question. It is clear that free trade is hugely important to the prosperity of our nation, and that means working with our EU partners on more free trade agreements. That is at the heart of our renegotiation, because we want more free trade with an EU that is outward looking, not just inward looking.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): First, may I congratulate the new Leader of the Opposition on his shift in policy in making Labour more Eurosceptic?

Is it not the truth that the European Union holds us back on free trade? Does our current account deficit of some £50 billion not prove that we would be better off out of the EU, with more free trade, more jobs and more business?

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Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend highlights an important issue. [Hon. Members: “Shambles!”] Labour Members are talking about their EU policy, but my hon. Friend wants to hear my answer. We want more free trade, which means that, at this point, we have to work with the EU. For example, if the free trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and the US—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—goes through as planned, it will add £10 billion a year to GDP, which is worth £400 for every hard-working family in Britain.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I utterly reject the idea that TTIP will be beneficial, but that is another question. The head of Vauxhall has said today that he is fairly relaxed about whether Britain remains a member of the European Union. We still import twice as many cars as we export, so there is plenty of scope for Britain to expand its manufacturing sector.

Sajid Javid: Under this Government, the manufacturing sector in Britain has been growing strongly, thanks to our policies to reduce the deficit and bring back economic confidence. As I have said, working with our EU partners is hugely important to increasing trade, particularly exports, and for sectors such as the automotive industry. They are doing very well, but they could do better if we keep working with our partners.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Given that so many of our firms are in supply chains that benefit from the single market, does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely necessary for the Prime Minister to make sure that we reform that single market so that we can stay in the European Union and continue to thrive as a nation?

Sajid Javid: We are focused on delivering a successful renegotiation, and once that is done we will let the British people make the decision in the referendum. Having a better single market is at the heart of that renegotiation: it is about having more competition, less red tape and more free trade.

Michelle Thomson (Edinburgh West) (SNP): Firms such as Nestlé and automotive companies such as Hyundai and Ford have indicated that a Brit exit could result in their scaling back. The UK automotive industry employs more than 700,000 people and accounts for 3% of GDP, according to KPMG. Does the Secretary of State really believe that it is worth risking foreign investment in the UK to solve an ideological battle within the Tory party?

Sajid Javid: The hon. Lady will know that the debate about the EU has been going on for many years and the right thing to do is to renegotiate. In order for that renegotiation to be successful, it is right to have a referendum. That is exactly what this Government are doing, and then the British people will decide. It is also clear that this Government have many policies that help industries such as the automotive industry to succeed, such as our investment in skills.


2. Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): What plans he has to increase the number of apprenticeships. [901322]

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The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid): The coalition Government have delivered over 2.3 million apprenticeship starts since May 2010, and this Government will support 3 million new apprenticeship starts over this Parliament. We are developing a comprehensive plan for growth, including more work with large employers, more help for small businesses and a new funding system supported by an employer levy.

Kevin Foster: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Support for further education colleges, including South Devon college in Torbay, will be vital to delivering more higher level apprenticeships and, in particular, degree-level apprenticeships, which provide the highest level of training. What plans does he have to support FE colleges, including South Devon college, in delivering that type of training for employers?

Sajid Javid: I know that my hon. Friend is very passionate about this issue. I am happy to congratulate South Devon college on its plans. Degree apprenticeships are a fantastic route to higher level training. I assure my hon. Friend that my Department is working hard with colleges, universities and employers to support what is an increasingly popular route.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I am afraid that there is an issue not just with quantity, but with quality. With further education in a state that is getting close to desperate, too few apprenticeships are of a high enough quality. I visited Mech-Tool in my constituency, where apprenticeships are four years long and people get good jobs afterwards. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure that we improve quality for the rest of our apprentices?

Sajid Javid: The hon. Lady makes an important point. No one wants an increase just in quantity; we at the same time want to see quality improve. I hope that the hon. Lady will, for example, support the Enterprise Bill, when it is introduced in the other place on Thursday, which will for the first time protect the term “apprenticeship”.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): The agricultural sector in this country is small, but important. One of the things that is holding it back is a lack of skills on the technical side of agriculture. Wiltshire college in Lacock is particularly concerned about that. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist in building up technical skills in agriculture in this country, and in particular to increase the number of apprenticeships in agriculture?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That issue has come up a number of times in the agriculture sector, and there is more work to be done. My hon. Friend the Minister for Skills is working on seasonal apprenticeships, which will help to make a change.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Britain has a serious and growing skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths, with businesses facing what they have called a “skills emergency”. Alarming new figures show that of more than 250,000 apprenticeship starts last year, only 140 were in science and maths, and fewer than a fifth of apprenticeships this year are in

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engineering. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how he hopes to close the skills gap when there are so few apprenticeship opportunities in those subjects?

Sajid Javid: May I again welcome the hon. Lady to her place and to her new position? I agree with her that there is a skills shortage. When we talk to employers across the country, that is one of the first issues they bring up. That is why the Government have brought significant investment and focus to bear on the issue. For example, we launched our higher apprenticeships earlier this year and I would like to see those increase; as I have said, we are currently seeing record growth. We are also setting up a network of national colleges: there will be seven national colleges, and I hope that they will all be operational by September 2017.

Ms Eagle: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his second welcome in as many days. I hope that there are some things we can agree on, even though we started off on very disagreeable terms with the Trade Union Bill yesterday.

There are serious concerns that in the rush to meet the Government’s artificial, politically driven target, many apprenticeships are really little more than a rebranding of entry level jobs. The latest Government figures show that only 3% of new apprenticeships starts were at the higher level. How can that be compatible with the Government’s aim of creating a highly skilled workforce?

Sajid Javid: As the hon. Lady perhaps knows, we are starting to see a significant increase in the number of people taking STEM-related apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships. She will also be aware that, in the recent Budget, we announced the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which will help to make sure that there is long-term sustainable funding not just for the quantity of apprenticeships, but for their quality. I hope that she welcomes that.

Mr Alan Mak (Havant) (Con): I welcome the Government’s move to ensure that all big Government contractors deliver apprenticeships as a key part of their commitment. Does the Secretary of State agree that, with over £50 billion a year spent on procurement contracts, that represents a huge opportunity to boost apprenticeship numbers across the country?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We looked at that issue in the coalition Government, but I believe that we can take it further and we will announce plans shortly.

Michelle Thomson (Edinburgh West) (SNP): I am delighted that the Secretary of State has learned the value of apprenticeships from Scotland. Our Parliament has created 25,000 places each year during its lifetime. It has now exceeded its target and brought the number up to 35,000 annually. Moreover, every apprentice in Scotland is guaranteed a job once their training is completed. As part of the plans to impose an employer levy, has he assessed the cost to Scottish businesses and apprenticeship opportunities that such a levy would impose?

Sajid Javid: I am pleased to hear that apprenticeships are doing well in Scotland—I have been following that closely. I would like to see more apprenticeships throughout

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the United Kingdom. That would be a good thing. I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the development of the employer levy. We are in the process of deciding exactly how it will work. We are talking to all devolved authorities and look forward to working with them on it.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Northern Ireland has a good story to tell with regards to the development of apprenticeships. However, with the resignation of the Minister responsible and the impending collapse of the institutions, will the Secretary of State indicate that he and his Department will step up to the mark if required, fill the gap and continue that good work?

Sajid Javid: Of course I hope that Northern Ireland is able to deal with these troubling issues and that there is no collapse of the institutions. If there is anything that we can do to help, we will of course look carefully at that.

Technical Skills

3. Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of technical skills required by employers. [901323]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid): To increase productivity we need to deliver the higher level, technical and intermediate-level skills that employers demand, as we have just heard. Our approach is to create a responsive, employer-led system of higher vocational education through expanding higher and degree apprenticeships and creating national colleges and institutes of technology.

Bill Esterson: We have a shortage of technical skills, not least in engineering and construction. According to employers, the Government’s focus on the number of apprenticeships amounts to little more than a re-badging of existing in-work training courses. When will the Government take the necessary action to deliver the high skills that are needed to boost productivity, growth and living standards in this country?

Sajid Javid: That gives me an opportunity to highlight the legacy of 13 years of Labour Government, when hardly anything was done to boost the skills of our people, particularly young people, in every sector. This Government have changed that. We saw progress under the coalition Government. As I said earlier, we will focus on higher apprenticeships, we will have national colleges and we will set up a prestigious network of institutes of technology.

18. [901343] John Howell (Henley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my constituent, Senior Aircraftman Shayne Hadland on winning a silver medal for aircraft maintenance at the WorldSkills competition in São Paulo and on being named best of nation for the United Kingdom? Does that not illustrate the importance of good technical skills and how the RAF is providing them?

Sajid Javid: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Shayne Hadland. It was a huge achievement to win such a prize at the WorldSkills competition—I know

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just how competitive it was. Luckily for Britain, we had many other winners and I congratulate them too. It is an inspiration to many people.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to improve the level of technical skills in the west midlands would be to get behind the proposals from the region’s local authorities and local enterprise partnerships for a combined authority and elected mayor with devolved skills budgets to improve skills, bring former industrial sites back into use, provide more housing and better transport links, and get the economy of the west midlands really moving?

Sajid Javid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the proposal for a west midlands combined authority looks exciting and should be taken seriously. Obviously, the Government are considering all the proposals and need to look at their merits. I have met a number of people behind that proposal and it would be great to see whether we can work together and bring it forward.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): Dorset Young Enterprise is a voluntary organisation that goes into schools to help improve skills with local employers. I declare an interest as someone who has worked within Dorset Young Enterprise. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such organisations are vital in closing the skills gap and ensuring that young people leave school ready to start work?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that Dorset Young Enterprise and many groups like it throughout the country are doing a hugely important and vital job in closing the skills gap. The Government could look at how we can support that not just in Dorset but throughout the country. He is absolutely right to raise this matter.

Apprenticeships: Travel Costs

5. Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to help apprentices with the cost of travelling to work in rural areas. [901325]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid): Apprenticeships are paid jobs with quality training, and availability is determined by employers. There is no central publicly funded support towards travel costs, but some local authorities run schemes that help apprentices with such costs. Apprentices who were previously unemployed may be able to benefit from a travel discount card operated by Jobcentre Plus.

Scott Mann: It has been brought to my attention that many young apprentices struggle with their first car insurance premium. Will the Secretary of State consider bringing in special insurance premiums for apprentices?

Sajid Javid: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that important point as the cost of car insurance is an issue for many young people across the country. Many insurance companies already offer ways to reduce the cost of insurance for young drivers, for example by installing driver monitoring devices, and I would welcome other approaches by insurance companies to reduce

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that cost. My hon. Friend may have some ideas in that regard, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss them.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister realise that many young people in the rural part of my constituency have difficulty getting to the fine Kirklees further education college in Huddersfield? I beg him to take notice of Professor Alison Wolf’s clarion call that if we put all our money into apprenticeships and neglect our FE colleges, we will be on the road to ruin and will never sort out the productivity challenges of our country.

Sajid Javid: I listen carefully to what Professor Alison Wolf says. The hon. Gentleman points out the pressures faced by the FE system, and he will know that as the quantity and quality of apprenticeships increase—for example, with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy—that will help to support our college system.

Construction Sector: Cash Retention

6. David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): What steps the Government are taking to tackle cash retention within the construction sector. [901328]

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles): We are working with the industry through the Construction Leadership Council and its supply chain payment charter, which includes a commitment to zero retentions by 2025.

David Simpson: I am sure the Minister will agree that cash retention is having a major difficulty on the cash flow of SMEs across the United Kingdom. Surely some form of sanctions needs to be in place to alleviate cash-flow problems when companies are going out of business.

Nick Boles: I certainly agree that there are some problems with the system, but it is also a fairly deeply embedded feature of the construction industry. We must act on the basis of evidence, which is why the Government will commission an analysis of the cost and benefit of retention payments to inform future action. We endorse entirely the Construction Leadership Council’s commitment to remove such payments from the industry by 2025.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): With last week’s construction output figures going backwards, and with so many small construction firms facing cash-flow difficulties, is it any wonder that the house building programme in this country has been so lamentable? Do we need to do more to help SME construction firms, for example with a help-to-build underwrite of some sort behind that loan finance for small building companies? We should not just avoid adding to borrowing; we should make a real difference for those construction firms, particularly small ones.

Nick Boles: We certainly want to support a range of construction firms, both small and large, but it would have been nice if the hon. Gentleman had taken advantage of his Back-Bench position to reflect a little more openly and honestly on the legacy of the last Labour Government, which saw the construction industry crushed.

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Housing starts are up by 50% from the low that was achieved at the end of the last Labour Government. There is a lot further to go, and we will work closely with construction firms to make that progress, but let us be honest about where the industry started.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Will the Minister and his colleagues hold a range of discussions with their colleagues in the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to discuss the need to reinstate the aggregate levy scheme, and particularly the exemptions, as that would assist the construction sector and the cash-flow situation for industries in Northern Ireland?

Nick Boles: I would be happy to invite the hon. Lady to meet me to discuss that in detail.

Government Strategic Support

7. Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s strategic support for industries and sectors. [901329]

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): Through sector councils and meetings with companies across all sectors we will continue to work closely with industry to understand its needs and what more Government can do to retain the UK’s competitive position within the global economy.

Stephen Kinnock: I thank the Minister for her response. Given the crucial role of the steel industry to the British manufacturing sector and our very sense of pride and prestige as an industrialised nation, will you today agree to accelerate the full implementation of the energy-intensive industries package? Crippling energy bills are crippling the steel industry, and it is time for the Government to act.

Anna Soubry: The question was obviously to me, Mr Speaker, but that does not matter. Importantly, we know that the steel industry faces very difficult times. It would be fair to say that these are the most difficult times it has ever faced in this country. We are looking at all the things that the Government can do to continue to assist the steel industry, and we have already started that work, which is one of the reasons why I am going to China next week, specifically to talk to the Chinese about their over-production and the allegations of dumping. I could expand on other points and will no doubt do so in answer to supplementary questions.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): Rolls-Royce’s two factories in Barnoldswick are a key part of Pendle’s aerospace supply chain. When I visited Rolls-Royce in Derby in August, bosses told me of the huge benefit of the Government’s aerospace growth partnership. Does my hon. Friend agree that the continuation of that successful partnership is vital for that sector?

Anna Soubry: The short answer is yes. I am more than happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to meet those companies and see the great work that they do. The aerospace sector is incredibly important and I pay tribute to all who work in it and all the success it has had.

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20. [901345] Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is right: there is a crisis in UK steel making and 2,000 jobs in my constituency are at risk. I have secured a Backbench Business debate on Thursday, and I would be grateful if Ministers could come to pledge their support for UK steel making. We have to see action on energy prices and business rates. If we do not, UK steel will have no future. It is up to Ministers now to take action.

Anna Soubry: I am delighted that the hon. Lady has secured that debate on Thursday and I will be there. It follows on from the debate that we had in Westminster Hall. As we know, there is an over-production of steel across the world. The consumption of steel has fallen dramatically and that has meant, for example, that the price of slab has almost halved. People say we could do something about the price of energy—if only it were that simple. It is hugely complicated. We already have a compensation scheme and we are looking at how we can expand it, but we have to make it clear that if we begin to take the pressure off electricity-intensive industries, we have to shift it somewhere else. It is not as simple as it perhaps seems, but the hon. Lady can be assured that we are well aware of what is happening in SSI UK, which is why I met it last week.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): High energy costs are affecting not only the steel industry—something I know from my own constituency—but the plastics industry. Over the summer recess, I visited both Amaray and RPC in the town. What steps are Ministers taking to help the plastics industry?

Anna Soubry: As I said, we are aware of the particular pressures that high electricity prices put on industries, especially those that use the most, and a compensation package is available. We all want a greener, cleaner environment, so we have set targets that we have to meet, and a cost is associated with that. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that, especially as it affects the industries in his constituency of Corby.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister and I have discussed the clear and present dangers to the UK steel industry in a constructive fashion several times since she took her post. Given a summer of deeply worrying developments in the steel industry, not least with the news today from Redcar, can she assure us—notwithstanding what she has said today—that she has the full backing of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to take whatever action is necessary urgently to stand up for the steel industry in the UK?

Anna Soubry: Unfortunately, I was not present at Prime Minister’s questions last week, but I know that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) put a question to the Prime Minister, who made it very clear that he wants to give his full support to our steel industry. We recognise its importance to the economy and I am delighted that I have had so many very positive meetings with Members, notably Opposition Members, in which we have explored all the difficulties

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in an atmosphere that has been frank about what more we can do. We also have to understand that we are limited in what we can do. The state aid rules just do not help.

Self-employed People

8. David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): What steps he is taking to support self-employed people. [901330]

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): The new enterprise allowance and start-up loans schemes are making it easier for people to move into self-employment. We have appointed Julie Deane, founder of The Cambridge Satchel Company, to carry out an independent review and recommend what more we can do to support those who are self-employed.

David Rutley: The growth in self-employment is an important and positive trend, and I welcome the announcement of Julie Deane’s independent review. Will my right hon. Friend confirm to the House that it will include a full review of how the Government and their agencies communicate with the self-employed, so that they are fully aware of all the available support? Does she agree that that would help them to achieve their aspirations and to play an even greater role in taking forward the Government’s long-term economic plan?

Anna Soubry: As somebody who was self-employed for more years than I care to remember—about 20 years —I am fully aware of not only the benefits but the disadvantages. My hon. Friend makes a really good point about the importance of communication, so that people who are self-employed know what assistance is available. Julie will be looking at that particular aspect, and we welcome and look forward to her report and her recommendations.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): By how many hundreds if not thousands of pounds will self-employed people lose out from the removal of working tax credits, which we will be discussing today, from working people, including the self-employed?

Anna Soubry: The straight answer is that I do not have a figure, but I will find out and I will write—[Interruption.] No, don’t be silly. I will write to the right hon. Lady with that figure. Let me make it absolutely clear: the rebalancing of our economy, paying off our debts, reducing the deficit and making sure that work pays are at the heart of what the Government stand for. That is what we were elected on, with a very clear manifesto and the support of the British people. We are doing the right thing by hard-working families.

Regional Growth

9. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote regional growth. [901331]

12. Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote regional growth. [901335]

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14. Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote regional growth. [901337]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): The Government remain totally committed to the rebalancing of our economy through unleashing the economic potential of our cities and regions. We have invested in infrastructure, connectivity, and science and innovation across the country, not least in the northern powerhouse and most recently with the £235 million that the Sir Henry Royce Institute focused on research into advanced materials. We have agreed 28 city deals, 39 growth deals and a total investment of £7.7 billion, including the transformation of the Greater Manchester devolution agreement. It is working: the north-east and the north-west are now cited as the fastest-growing regions in the country. We are going further and are now discussing a further 38 radical devolution proposals to empower local regions.

Rehman Chishti: On regional growth, the Government have committed £7 billion of the £12 billion regional growth fund, including £488 million to my own South East local enterprise partnership, which is creating more jobs, homes and growth. However, when does the Minister expect the remaining £5 billion to be allocated? Does he expect the overall pot to grow?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend is right and I take this opportunity to congratulate him on his leadership locally in helping to secure that £7 billion and the £488 million that has gone into the Thames Gateway in north Kent. Decisions on the remainder of the RGF will be made in the spending review, but I will point out that we restated in the spending review guidance our commitment to the full £12 billion and to a radical package of devolution across the country.

Kevin Hollinrake: Regional growth in Thirsk and Malton depends largely on access to superfast broadband. We are delighted that 95% of premises will receive superfast broadband by 2017, but the final 5% percent is without doubt the biggest challenge. Many businesses cannot wait until 2020 to get access to superfast broadband. Will the Minister confirm that he will look at ways to open up the market to create more competition for the final 5%, thereby increasing the pace of roll-out?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is great news that, as a result of our £800 million programme, 95% of the country will have superfast broadband by 2017. However, the final 5% or 10% in the most rural areas require special attention, which is why my hon. Friend the Minister for the Digital Economy is actively looking at a package of measures to help the most marginal rural constituencies. We have launched an £8 million pilot programme looking at vouchers, mobile broadband and a range of innovative schemes, including social investment finance models.

Heidi Allen: The Minister might recall that a few weeks ago I mentioned to him the incredible economic growth in Cambridgeshire which risked being hampered because of infrastructure constraints. We are ready to present an innovative private funding model to him, so can I secure some time in his diary to share the proposals with him?

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George Freeman: I would be delighted to give my hon. Friend a date. She makes an important point, and I welcome the ambition set out in the “Case for Cambridge” manifesto. Having sat myself on the board of the Greater Cambridge partnership, I well know that Cambridge is now a global technology cluster. Only last week, I went to visit AstraZeneca’s £500 million global research and development hub site. It is a city that needs global infrastructure, and we welcome the ambition set out in the manifesto.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Regional growth in Yorkshire and the north-east is dependent on good transport links, so the cancellation of electrification between Leeds and Manchester and Leeds and Newcastle was a bitter blow to our economy. May I urge the Minister to urge the Chancellor to review the decision in the autumn statement and to look at the skills capacity in the transport sector, which is pushing up costs and prices in the electrification area?

George Freeman: First, the programme has not been cancelled; it is paused. It is a massive programme. [Laughter.] Opposition Members do not know much about running major projects. It is absolutely necessary that we get it right. The howls of derision opposite reveal their embarrassment at our success. You would think we would get more thanks for what we have done: a £7 billion regional growth fund; city deals across the country; 11,000 small and medium-sized businesses helped; and 130,000 jobs created, not least in the north.

Jo Cox (Batley and Spen) (Lab): The Minister will know that the suspension of the business rates revaluation in 2013 has had different effects in different parts of the country. Will he commit to investigating how businesses in my constituency, like so many in the north, were disadvantaged by the decision and find a way to redress this north-south divide?

George Freeman: I would be delighted to feed the hon. Lady’s comments into the Government’s review of business rates, which is already in hand. We recognise that particularly in many small towns business rates have a crippling effect on the high street. That is why we have launched a major review, which is ongoing and live at the moment.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), the Minister did not talk about the midland main line, but gave a list of other things he was doing. The cancellation of the midland main line electrification is a significant blow to south Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and the east midlands. What representations has the Department made on the impact on businesses and regional growth of not electrifying the midland main line? Will he respond to the question and tell us what is actually happening?

George Freeman: I dealt with that point. The midland main line is an important strategic rail route, and we are pausing to make sure we get it right. We will take no lectures from the Labour party on economic competence, when its own shadow Chancellor, according to his biography, is committed to the overthrow of capitalism.

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Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (Con): I am aware that the Life Sciences Minister is creating a specialist life sciences enterprise zone to support sites across the UK hit by the global pharmaceutical corporate restructuring. Will he commit to providing every possible support to Covance, a pharmaceutical company in Alnwick, in my constituency, where more than 140 scientists’ jobs are at risk?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend has raised this matter with me already, and the Office for Life Sciences stands ready and is taking a close interest. We have already made contact with the local authority and will offer every support we can to its bid to make sure the site remains viable and that we protect local jobs.

EU Membership: Business

10. Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on businesses of the UK leaving the EU. [901332]

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): The Prime Minister is focused on reforming Britain’s place in the EU, and rightly so. A wind of change is blowing through the EU, and it is a wind that wants reform. We are in a process of renegotiating, and when we have completed that renegotiation, the question will be put to the British public.

Peter Grant: Earlier this morning, the Secretary of State referred to the difference of opinion on the Labour Benches with regard to our membership of the European Union. Will the Minister take this opportunity to demonstrate the undeniable, 100% unity that exists on the Conservative Benches by confirming that she and all her ministerial colleagues will enthusiastically promote the positive case for remaining in Europe when the time comes?

Anna Soubry: I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to this place, but I do not think the Conservative party has ever shied away from the fact that we are not all as one when it comes to the future of our European Union membership and whether we should stay in or leave. What is absolutely the case is that, unlike other Governments who had the opportunity, we are trusting the British people. We are in a process of negotiation. We will go to the people, and let the people decide whether or not to stay within the EU.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Has the Minister seen the report from Business for Britain, entitled “Change, or go”? Does she agree with one of its conclusions, that leaving the European Union would

“not entail a loss of influence on the world stage.”?

Anna Soubry: I will be fascinated and delighted to read this document, and I am sure my hon. Friend will send me a copy, but given my long-term support for our continuing membership of the European Union, I might need a bit more persuading than his document could provide.

Mr Speaker: It looks as though it is going to be a very lengthy read, I must say, and probably rather heavy as well.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): As part of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, and as he visits various European capitals, he presumably has a list of reforms that he wants enacted. How many directly relate to business?

Anna Soubry: The Prime Minister has set out his broad categories. He continues to meet leaders throughout the European Union, and he continues to put the interests of our country first and foremost. In due course, and most importantly, the people of this country will decide whether or not to stay within the EU. As to my answer to the previous question, I take it all back—I am not reading a document of that length, but I will have a five-minute conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall).

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the 1980s, the European Union accounted for about 30% of world trade. By the beginning of the next decade, that figure will be about 15%. Over that time, our trade deficit is growing to £50 billion a year. Is it not clear that Britain would be better off outside the EU?

Anna Soubry: Given the views of the new Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, it might be a good idea for my hon. Friend to meet him and persuade him further of the case that he advances. It seems that there is another major shift in the policy of the Labour party.

EU Membership: Business and Universities

11. Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of the value of UK membership of the EU to businesses and universities. [901334]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson): Our world-class universities, with their close links to business, are at the heart of the global knowledge economy. They will benefit from the reforms we want to see in place across the European Union. As the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise just said, the EU is our biggest market. Reform and growth on the European continent is good for British business, and it is good for our globally networked universities.

Gerald Jones: Universities UK recently highlighted the risk to potential funding and collaboration if Britain withdraws from the UK. That applies to my own constituency as well. Does the Minister agree with that, and does he support Universities UK and its campaign?

Joseph Johnson: I discuss these issues regularly with Universities UK, which recognises that reform across the European Union will support growth and competitiveness. In turn, that will help the links that our great universities have with business.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that last year our trade deficit with the European Union was £62 billion, and that it is therefore nonsensical for anybody to argue that we will see the end of free trade with the EU if we were ever to leave it? When he has confirmed that, perhaps he can set out what on earth we get for our £18 billion membership fee every year.

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Joseph Johnson: We want to see the completion of the single market so that British businesses can compete more effectively across promising sectors of the European single market. We have a strong export sector and we want to break down further barriers that prevent our businesses from fulfilling their potential in that market.

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): May I stiffen the Minister’s answers? The truth is that British universities win more research grants from the European Research Council than any other country in Europe. Well over £1 billion flowed in last year from Europe into the British science base, which is more than any other country received. The European Union and our membership of it is mission critical to our success and the future of our high-tech, high-productivity industries. Over the months to come, will the Minister join me in helping to ensure that British universities are at the forefront of leading the campaign for this country to stay in the European Union?

Joseph Johnson: British universities and British science punch well above their weight around the world, and they secured 16% of the last batch of grant money from the European Union. That is because we have a competitive, world-class research base, and we are the Government who are supporting it and providing a stable climate for business and universities to invest in research and science. The Labour party would jeopardise that with its new economic policies, which would destabilise our business climate.

Small Businesses: West Yorkshire

13. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What recent support he has provided to small businesses in West Yorkshire. [901336]

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): A total of 892 StartUp Loans have been issued to entrepreneurs across West Yorkshire, amounting to nearly £5 million, and 890 West Yorkshire businesses have secured guarantees under the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, amounting to £87 million. Through the growth deal funding in 2015-16, we have supported the establishment of a growth hub in the Leeds city region, which helps businesses across West Yorkshire to gain access to joined-up, expert advice, grants and loans.

Jason McCartney: I welcome that positive news. As the Minister knows, one of the big challenges for my local businesses, which are expanding at a fantastic rate, is finding new premises. There are many derelict mill sites, but they need a big capital injection to prepare them for the expanding businesses. Will the Minister continue to consider investing through the regional growth fund and the business growth deal to support those wonderful businesses, creating jobs and apprenticeships?

Anna Soubry: Of course we will continue to consider investing, but during this period we are looking at our future plans for public spending, and it is all part of that.

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Foreign Students

15. Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): What representations he has received from the further and higher education sectors on the number of students from abroad studying in the UK. [901338]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson): We have built a world-class university system in the United Kingdom. According to data published today following a survey, we have 10 of the world’s top 50 universities and four of the world’s top 10, and we warmly welcome the growing number of international students who choose to study at them. As I made clear in my first speech in my current role at the Going Global conference, there is no cap on the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the UK. However, it is right that we continue to seek to drive out abuse, and to tackle it wherever it exists in our system.

Kirsten Oswald: What economic assessment has the Minister made of the impact on the Scottish economy and the Scottish further education sector of the tier 4 regulations?

Joseph Johnson: International students who come to this country bring significant benefits to our higher education system, which is why there is no cap on international student numbers and the Government have no intention of introducing one. Our further education system also benefits significantly from the 19,000 or so international FE students in this country.

Topical Questions

T1. [901346] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade (Sajid Javid): Over the summer, my Department has been responding to the Treasury’s request to find savings in the BIS budget. That is a vital part of the Government’s plan to eliminate Labour’s record budget deficit, support the recovery, and protect the economic security of the nation. We have also been preparing important legislation: the Trade Union Bill, which received its Second Reading here yesterday, and the Enterprise Bill, which will be introduced in the other place later this week.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate all the British people who took part and won in the summer WorldSkills competition in São Paulo.

Philip Davies: Whatever one’s view of Sunday trading, does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely absurd that a Tesco Express can open all day on a Sunday, but a Tesco Superstore can open for only six hours? Will he commit himself to taking steps to allow people to work and shop when they want to, not when the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers tells them they can?

Sajid Javid: My hon. Friend always raises important issues like that. It is absolutely right for us to take a fresh look at Sunday trading rules, which have not been considered carefully for many years, and that is what

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the Government are doing. My hon. Friend will be fully aware of our proposal to devolve the relevant decision-making to local authorities.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): In The Independent last week the previous Business Secretary described the deafening silence from this new Government on industrial strategy as “ominous”. Has the current Business Secretary decided if he has an industrial strategy yet?

Sajid Javid: Our policies for dealing with all industries are very clear: we have a very active dialogue with all industrial groups and with many companies, as well as with leading business groups, and that dialogue will continue. We do that, for example, through the sector councils; we listen very carefully to what they have to say and work in partnership wherever we can.

T2. [901347] Suella Fernandes (Fareham) (Con): I recently visited SMR Automotive in Portchester, a global leader in vehicle exterior mirrors and camera-based ADAS—advanced driver assistance systems. With 750 jobs locally, it is an outstanding example of manufacturing. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure quicker and greater access to brownfield land so that companies such as SMR can expand?

Sajid Javid: It is great to hear another example from the UK’s successful automotive industry; it is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of British business. We encourage the effective use of land by reusing brownfield land. Local planning authorities, through their local plans, need to respond to market signals and set out a clear strategy for allocating land suitable for development.

T3. [901348] Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Following on from the question of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), it is not just USDAW members who are opposed to changes in Sunday trading. Last week, for example, the British Retail Consortium said:

“There is a strong consensus across the industry that the proposal to devolve these decisions to a local level, rather than them being decided nationally, is a matter for concern.”

Will the Business Secretary truly take account of the consultation and, if business, workforces and the public say no, not make those changes?

Sajid Javid: As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the consultation is about to close and we will carefully look through its responses, as we always do, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees with choice, so that local authorities can decide if it is the right thing for them. If, for example, there is a local area with higher unemployment than elsewhere and the local authority thinks the changes will help to create jobs for local working people, that will clearly be a good thing. There was a time when the Labour party was the party of working people; what has happened?

T5. [901350] Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the example mentioned last week in the Science and Technology Committee of a £2 million Innovate UK investment leveraging a further £44 million from the private sector? Does he agree this shows the importance of Government supporting science?

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The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson): Yes, I do agree. Science and innovation are among the UK’s greatest strengths, and the example my hon. Friend gives—I believe he is referring to the drug discovery firm Summit plc—is a good example of the way public investment in R and D crowds in additional private investment. Every £1 the public invests in R and D crowds in an additional £1.36 of investment on average.

T4. [901349] Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): Scottish Renewables announced yesterday that the sudden early withdrawal of the renewables obligation has already hit investment in projects, deeply concerning the sector. What assessment has the Minister made of the further impact the Government’s stance could have on the future viability of institutions such as the Green Investment Bank and the innovation they fund?

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry): There are a few questions in there, and forgive me if I did not catch all of them, but I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to give her a full set of answers. On the renewables obligation, we are very aware of the burden it places on a lot of our industries, but, as I explained in a previous answer, if we move it from one sector, we have to find somewhere else for it to go, and it will either fall on the individual consumer or another part of business. It is not as simple as it appears at first blush.

T7. [901352] David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the steps being taken by the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences to accelerate the adoption of new, properly tested medical treatments in the NHS. Can he confirm that this not only has tangible benefits for patients, but also helps underpin the strength of the life science sector in north-east Cheshire and across the country?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): The accelerated access review that we have launched is about unleashing the power of the NHS to support 21st-century drug development and the test beds putting technology into practice in our health system. As my hon. Friend says, this has benefits not just for patients, but for industry, and not least for the north-west. During my visit to the Alderley site with my hon. Friend in the spring, I saw at first hand the power of that cluster in advanced medicines manufacturing and technology, and I think it has a very bright future in 21st-century life sciences.

T8. [901353] Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): With only 6% of 16 to 18-year-olds going into apprenticeships, may I ask the Secretary of State what specific steps he is taking to ensure that the 3 million apprenticeships that the Government hope to create are of good quality, are quality assured and have proper qualifications that will lead to increasing the trainee’s career prospects and are not used, as we are currently seeing in the north-east, as a ruse by less scrupulous employers to employ young people on cheap wages?

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles): The hon. Gentleman will know that under the previous Government we had apprenticeships that did not even involve an employer and that lasted a few months. This Government have

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introduced a 12-month minimum. They have put employers in charge of developing apprenticeship standards so that apprentices learn skills that employers value, and they are introducing an apprenticeship levy to ensure that there is funding for the 3 million apprenticeships that will benefit his constituents.

T9. [901354] Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): The current law allows for strikes to be called by unions on the basis of a mandate for industrial action that was secured up to two years ago. That is unfair on those whose lives are inconvenienced by strikes on which a vote was taken years ago. Does my hon. Friend agree —[Interruption.] The Corbynistas on the Opposition Benches should calm down. Does he agree that strikes should take place only on the basis of a current mandate?

Mr Speaker: I do not think that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has ever previously been so described.

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was a National Union of Teachers strike in 2014 that closed 1,500 schools and colleges. It was based on a mandate from two years before, and it had secured only 27% turnout in the ballot. That is wrong. We are changing that, which is why I am delighted that the Bill passed its Second Reading so handsomely yesterday.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): In his written statement of 20 July, the Minister of State for Skills announced that the aim of area-based reviews of post-16 provision would be to create “fewer, larger” providers, and that colleges would remain “independent institutions.” Will the Minister explain how those two statements demonstrate policy coherence or indeed any logic at all? Will he confirm that the only means by which he can reconcile those statements is by cutting off funds to starve colleges into submission. Is that what he will do?

Nick Boles: I am slightly surprised at the hon. Gentleman who is a great man and a great Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. He knows full well that it has required no arm twisting or strong arming by Government to encourage lots of colleges to combine with each other to form very successful groups. Manchester college and others are great examples of it. It is that kind of sensible consolidation to increase the strength of the college system that we will be encouraging through the area reviews.

Will Quince (Colchester) (Con): At the weekend, my wife and I visited Bill’s, which is a new restaurant in Colchester and part of a large chain. At the end of the evening the bill had an automatic 10% gratuity, which the staff member said that they did not receive. Does my hon. Friend agree that the public expect staff members to get the tips in recognition for the service rendered?

Sajid Javid: Yes, absolutely. When a diner leaves a tip, they rightly expect that to go to the staff. Recent reports have suggested that some restaurants are not doing that, which is unacceptable. I have already launched a call for evidence. I will see whether the Government need to take any action. If they do, nothing is off the dining table.

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Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Over the summer, we have seen example after example of consumers’ data—credit card details, travel records or dating preferences—being hacked or shared without their permission. What is the Minister doing to ensure that consumers can own and control their own data?

Nick Boles: I am very happy to talk to the hon. Lady who has a great deal of expertise in this area to take ideas from her. [Interruption.] Yes, I do believe in learning from those on the Opposition Benches on occasion about how we can do better on this important issue.

Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Many of my constituents are employed on the minimum wage, with an average salary of £15,000 in Boston and Skegness. Has the Minister made an assessment of what impact the national living wage will have on my constituency?

Nick Boles: I am delighted to remind the House that from the beginning of October the national minimum wage, which will benefit all my hon. Friend’s constituents over the age of 18, will go up by 3%. That is the highest increase since 2006. Next April, the national living wage will come in, and it will give his constituents over the age of 25 a significant benefit. That is the result of this Government’s economic plan working. [Interruption.] It is benefiting working people throughout the country, and I would have thought that the Labour party, which used to stand for working people, would support it.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): The Office for National Statistics has stated that in July our manufacturing output dropped, our exports—particularly to the emerging markets—dropped and that confidence levels among our manufacturers was very low. Given that the Chancellor said in 2011 that he was backing the “march of the makers”, what additional measures will the Minister take to ensure that that boast can become a reality?

Sajid Javid: I always listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says. He did a great job as Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee and he makes some important points, but he will be fully aware that manufacturing crashed as a proportion of our economy under the previous Labour Government, almost halving in size. Under this Government, the proportion has gone up as we rebalance the economy. He is right, however, to identify the question of exports, and we have set up an export taskforce to come up with new initiatives that will make a huge difference.

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): Last week the World Economic Forum published its “Inclusive Growth and Development Report”, which states that

“efforts are required to improve access to education as well as its quality, which would be important for tackling…the low levels of social mobility in the country.”

What efforts is the Secretary of State making to achieve that?

Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman might not have noticed, but we are investing a huge amount of effort and money, through an apprenticeship levy that will be coming in in 2017, in the expansion and improvement of apprenticeships to create opportunities for young

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people and people in later life. I very much look forward to his contributing to the debate on this subject and supporting the apprenticeship levy in the Lobby.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Last but not least—I call Mr Bone.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The previous Secretary of State gave his approval for Rushden Lakes, a major retail and leisure facility in my constituency.

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The development is now well under way, and it will create thousands of jobs. Will the Secretary of State find time in his calendar next year to show his support for the development and for the success of Conservative economic policy?

Sajid Javid: Yes, absolutely, and I hope that Mrs Bone will be able to join us.

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Northern Ireland

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): With permission, I would like to make a statement about political developments in Northern Ireland. First, I welcome back the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) as shadow Secretary of State. I hope we can continue the constructive working relationship that we had when he last held the post. With that in mind, I would say that the new Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor are on record as having expressed their support many times for a united Ireland. That is an entirely legitimate view, as is the clearly held preference on the Conservative Benches that our country should stay together and that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. It would be helpful for the shadow Secretary of State to confirm when he responds to this statement that, under his party’s new leadership, the consent principle at the heart of the Belfast agreement will remain paramount.

Last week we started a new round of cross-party talks focused on two issues: the continued presence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the pressing need to implement the Stormont House agreement. The talks began on Tuesday with a meeting of all the participants, at which everyone agreed that those two issues needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency, although views differed on the sequence in which they should be considered. On Wednesday morning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested three well-known members of the republican movement, including the northern chairman of Sinn Féin, in connection with their ongoing investigation into the murder of Kevin McGuigan. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on a live police investigation, save to say that all three were subsequently released unconditionally. These developments had dramatic political consequences.

On Thursday evening, Peter Robinson announced that Democratic Unionist party Ministers, with the exception of Finance Minister Arlene Foster, were resigning from the Northern Ireland Executive. The First Minister himself has stepped aside, with Mrs Foster taking over the functions of that office for a period of six weeks. That does not trigger an early Assembly election—that would happen only if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister were to resign. Nor does it mean suspension of the institutions or a return to direct rule—that would require primary legislation at Westminster, which is not something the Government believe would be justified in the current circumstances. It also does not mean that the Assembly or the Executive cease to function, but the situation is very grave.

A number of Departments are left without ministerial leadership, and relationships between the parties have almost completely broken down. That leaves the devolved institutions looking increasingly dysfunctional. Over recent days, I have been maintaining close contact with the five main Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government, and I have kept the Prime Minister constantly updated on the situation. Yesterday, I held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings at Stormont, aimed at establishing a basis for further intensive talks. I plan to hold further such discussions at Stormont tomorrow and in the days ahead.

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The events I have outlined do not alter the fundamental issues that need to be resolved. First, the brutal murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have brought into sharp focus the continuing problems around the existence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, and the involvement of some of their members in criminality and organised crime. The Government are clear that paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society. They were never justified in the past, they are not justified now and we all need to work together to find a way to bring to an end this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society. The Government are working with the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive on how to achieve that goal. For example, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission. The remit the parties might wish to give to such a body is likely to be different from the matters addressed by the original IMC, reflecting changed circumstances. But there might well be scope for such a body to play a part in providing greater community confidence and repairing working relationships within the Executive. The Government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. In the days to come, we will continue to listen carefully to representations made to us on the best way to ensure that all parties can engage in this process.

The second issue on the agenda is just as important as the first. Resolving the differences that have been blocking the implementation of the Stormont House agreement is crucial if the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive are to be placed on a sustainable footing. Without welfare reform and steps to tackle in-year budget pressures, there is a real danger that Executive Departments could start running out of money, becoming steadily less able to pay their bills, with the serious negative impact that could have on front-line public services. As we have seen in those parts of Europe where Governments are unable to control their debts and live within their means, some of which are supported by the new leader of the Labour party, it is the vulnerable and most disadvantaged who suffer most in such situations. We have therefore made it clear that if these matters are not dealt with by the parties, as a last resort the Government would have to legislate here at Westminster, a position on which I hope we would have the support of the hon. Member for Gedling.

As things stand, every day that passes is likely to see the devolved institutions less and less able to function effectively. We have limited time, so once again I urge all parties to engage intensively and with focus, determination and goodwill in the talks under way. We on the Government Benches, and I hope those across the whole House, continue to give our full support to the Belfast agreement and the institutions it created. There can be no doubt that power-sharing, inclusive government comes with its frustrations and difficulties—indeed, I hear about them every day—but as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister often reminds this House, the Northern Ireland political settlement was a huge achievement. It has transformed life in Northern Ireland for the better, and it is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved with political leadership and vision. On so many occasions in the past 20 years Northern Ireland’s politicians have come together to achieve the seemingly impossible. It is

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time to do so again, so that we can continue on the road to a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. I commend this statement to the House.

12.40 pm

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for her good wishes and for advance sight of her statement. Let me take this opportunity to thank all the parties in Northern Ireland, as well as many others, for their good wishes.

Let me say straight away to the Secretary of State that it is the Opposition’s intention, as well as my own, to pursue a bipartisan approach based on the agreements reached, in particular the principle of consent. Our policy remains absolutely the same and I emphasise that to the Secretary of State and all those who are listening to or reading this debate.

I take up this post again at a time of real challenge in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State reassure us all that the full authority of the British Government, working with the Irish Government and with Washington, will be used to help resolve these difficulties along with the parties of Northern Ireland? The current problems of political stability revolve around continuing paramilitary activity and the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.

Following the murders of Gerard Davison and then Kevin McGuigan, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that some Provisional IRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose than before, although some members still engage in criminal activity. Does the Secretary of State agree with this assessment? Can she explain what it means and give her assessment of what it means for communities? Will she update the House as far as she can on the investigation by the PSNI into the two murders I mentioned earlier? Does she agree that we need once and for all to end any ambiguity on the issue of paramilitary activity? As she said, paramilitaries have no place whatsoever in Northern Ireland, so will she update us on her assessment of the level of paramilitary activity in all communities, the threat it poses and what is being done to combat it? Does she agree that supporting a more comprehensive approach across all departments and agencies could be beneficial?

The rule of law must be paramount and there can be absolutely no compromise on that principle. The parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are all committed to that, but in the light of the Secretary of State’s statement to the House last week and today about the IMC, will she update us further on the current position, what she is considering and what any of the proposals she has outlined actually mean?

Let me turn to the implementation of the Stormont House agreement, which was a tremendous achievement by all involved. It has clear proposals on finance and welfare, on difficult issues such as flags, identity, culture and tradition, parades and dealing with the past, and on institutional reform—many, if not all, of the hugely challenging and difficult issues that arise in the context of Northern Ireland with its different traditions. However, it was a negotiated agreement to move forward on those matters, not to leave them as being too difficult to resolve, reflecting a desire to tackle them. It showed hugely courageous political leadership from all involved, including many in the Chamber today.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the price of negotiating a way of successfully implementing the agreement would be another historic milestone? Does she agree that it would take forward the peace process by saying that, although we have brought about a substantially better Northern Ireland now is the time to deal with many of the outstanding issues arising from the different traditions and competing narratives as well as legacy issues around victims, mental health, economic insecurity and poverty?

On that basis, how will the Secretary of State play her part in helping to break the impasse, particularly on welfare reform? Are there other ways of supporting vulnerable people with targeted Treasury money to help, for example, mental health or economic insecurity, both of which are significant legacy issues? Does she accept that to break the deadlock the same proposals cannot always be put forward time and time again? Although Northern Ireland should not be treated as a special case, there are in Northern Ireland special circumstances.

Can the Secretary of State also tell us what progress is being made on a Bill to implement the Stormont House agreement? Is there a timescale, and is a legislative slot available? She knows that many people would feel let down if bodies designed to deal with such issues cannot be set up.

These are immensely challenging issues, but let me once again reassure everyone in the House, and in Northern Ireland, that Her Majesty’s Opposition will work hard, in the spirit of bipartisanship, to play our part in helping to make the continuing progress that we all want to see. It is my strong belief that talks, discussion and negotiation, in the end, are the only way forward. Is the Secretary of State hopeful that roundtable talks will be possible in the near future? The prize of a more prosperous, stable and peaceful Northern Ireland is within reach. Let us all play our part in helping to seize it.

Mrs Villiers: I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his clear commitment to a bipartisan approach and his reiteration of the consent principle at the heart of the Belfast agreement, which I am sure will be warmly welcomed across the House. In response to his first question, yes the full authority of the Government will be deployed in our efforts to try to resolve these two very serious issues facing Northern Ireland’s political leaders.

Do I agree with the Chief Constable’s assessment of the situation in relation to the Provisional IRA? Yes, I do. The shadow Secretary of State asked me to expand on that. I think that we need to be cautious about what information we put into the public domain, but we are giving serious consideration as to whether there is a fuller picture that we could share with the parties and the public.

The shadow Secretary of State asked for an update on the police investigation. I do not think that it would be appropriate, or that it would serve the interests of justice, to provide a running commentary, although I appreciate that interest in the case is high. I think that the important thing is for the police to be able to get on with their job and to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.

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I agree that there must be no ambiguity about the fact that there is no role for paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It is time that all these organisations disbanded. I also agree that we need to work across agencies and Government Departments, with the Government and the Executive working together, and indeed with groups in society, as we develop a broader strategy to deal with the scourge of paramilitarism. There is no easy political fix; we need a range of people making an effort to bring an end to the paramilitary presence in Northern Ireland.

With regard to the Independent Monitoring Commission, the important thing is not to prejudge what the parties will put forward during the talks. In my discussions with all the parties in recent days there has been some recognition that an independent body of that sort could play a role in resolving the questions around paramilitaries.

I agree with the shadow Secretary of State’s comments on the importance of implementing the Stormont House agreement. The Bill is being worked on as we speak, and we still hope to be able to present it to Parliament next month, as planned. I agree that it is important to press ahead with creating the institutions on the past that are contained in the Bill in order to give better outcomes and greater support to the victims of the troubles who have suffered most at the hands of terrorists.

Lastly, the shadow Secretary of State mentioned the implications of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances in relation to welfare. We have often said that we will not fund a more expensive welfare system in Northern Ireland than we do elsewhere in the UK, but our settlement with Northern Ireland does reflect the fact that it requires extra help, which is why public spending per head in Northern Ireland is considerably greater than it is anywhere else in the UK. Northern Ireland’s special circumstances are one of the reasons why the Stormont House agreement is accompanied by a package worth £2 billion in additional spending power for the Executive.

Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for the steady manner in which she has reacted to recent events.

I congratulate the newly appointed shadow Secretary of State and thank him for the robust manner in which he stated that Her Majesty’s official Opposition will stand by the Belfast agreement and succeeding agreements that guarantee that Northern Ireland is a fully participating part of the United Kingdom so long as the majority deliver their consent. I am glad that that was delivered in the face of the new shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is no longer in his place.

In the talks, the Secretary of State has the full support of the people of Northern Ireland, who are exasperated and bewildered that the Stormont House agreement has not been delivered. Will she go forward by making it very clear that the current generation will be let down if the parties that are being difficult at the moment do not deliver on their responsibilities, and that future generations will be let down, because if powers were taken back to this Parliament, the local politicians could no longer implement corporation tax reduction, which is key to the long-term prosperity of every single citizen in Northern Ireland?

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Mrs Villiers: I agree that it is in the interests of the current generation and future generations that the Stormont House agreement is implemented, not least because of the tremendously positive impact that devolution of corporation tax powers could have in rebalancing and transforming the economy in Northern Ireland.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his place as the new shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I welcome the robust way in which he set out the commitment to maintaining Labour’s approach on support for the principle of consent. I wish him well in holding the line in terms of the position of the Labour party.

Does the Secretary of State accept that we need to be reminded in this House of how we have got to this position: namely, Sinn Féin’s decision to renege on its commitments in the Stormont House agreement; and Sinn Féin’s links to an existing IRA, in the words of the Chief Constable, whose current members carried out a murder on the streets of Belfast? People need to remember how we got to this point today.

So far as the Secretary of State is aware of the First Minister’s discussions with the Government in relation to our concerns about the basis on which talks need to take place, will she commit to continuing to discuss with us in the next number of days how our concerns can be addressed to allow full participation in the talks by us and others? We will then be able to have a proper talks process that will resolve the outstanding issues and not cause any further fudge or putting off of the difficult decisions? We need to move forward, but it can only be on the basis of our concerns being addressed.

Mrs Villiers: It is important for us to recognise the reasons why we have got to where we are on this. I do recognise that Sinn Féin’s change of mind on welfare reform has played an important part in destabilising relations between parties. One cannot have a coalition that works effectively if it is incapable of delivering a workable budget.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s last questions, of course I will continue to engage with his party and others to discuss how we ensure that we have an effective talks process in which all parties can engage with enthusiasm and determination.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Secretary of State said that she was very reluctant to reintroduce direct rule, and rightly so. I speak as somebody who led for the Conservative party for a number of years when major decisions on Northern Ireland were taken upstairs in a small room with very few Members of Parliament present, even fewer Members from Northern Ireland present, and nobody from the Assembly able to influence the affairs of Northern Ireland. Has she been able to put it to those taking part in the talks that the very stark choice is that either we make the institutions work or we go back to that very unsatisfactory way of governing Northern Ireland?

Mrs Villiers: I firmly believe that no one wants to wind back the clock and go back to direct rule. As I have said, there are difficulties and frustrations with power-sharing and inclusive government, but it is hugely

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preferable to direct rule. That is one of the reasons why the Government are determined to work as hard as we possibly can with Northern Ireland’s leaders to find a way through to ensure that the Executive and the institutions can continue to work effectively to deliver on their priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.

Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I particularly welcome her view that this is not the time to re-impose direct rule. I must question, however, the need for the party politics in her statement. I hope that we can go forward in a more cohesive and co-operative manner.

The resignation of the First Minister and Ministers at Stormont was an unwelcome development. I understand the political frustration and I appreciate the stresses that politicians in Stormont are working under, but there needs to be leadership now, and the presence of all of them at the negotiating table is needed. A willingness to compromise by all parties to the negotiations is needed as well. No one should be going into these talks with anything but the best intentions and a determination to find a way forward that will allow the resumption of the Executive’s business at Stormont.

Alongside the full engagement of the UK Government, the involvement of the Irish Government would be advantageous. Ireland is not a disinterested party in this affair, and the good offices of her Government may provide an additional channel of opportunity. I understand that the Secretary of State has already been in touch with her Irish counterpart, and I hope that she will bring us up to speed on those discussions.

It is to be hoped that all the concerned parties will go into the negotiating rooms with a positive attitude and a determination to come away with a result that everyone can live with, even if it means that each has to give ground to get there. They have to enter into those negotiations without preconditions and without prejudging the outcome, and come to the table in a spirit of compromise and co-operation. The only real alternative is for them to lay out their case and allow the voters to judge them in an election, but that would leave Northern Ireland without the Assembly for even longer.

I wish the Secretary of State well in her endeavours over the next while, but may I ask her how far she considers us to be from getting all the parties around that table and whether she will update us on her discussions with the Irish Government?

Mrs Villiers: In answer to the hon. Lady’s first point, I make no apologies for holding to account the official Opposition and their new leader. It is useful that they have confirmed today that the consent principle remains paramount for Northern Ireland.

I agree that we are in a serious situation. The hon. Lady talks of the need for Northern Ireland’s leaders to enter talks with a positive attitude and a willingness to compromise. I firmly believe that all the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly want this to work, are trying to find a way through, and want to resolve these two important questions. They are going to be extremely tricky to get right, but with determination I think it is going to be possible.

The Irish Government have been taking part alongside the UK Government in the round of cross-party talks that we have recently started, in accordance with the

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three-strand approach. I do recognise that their input can be very positive in trying to find a resolution on these matters.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and welcome the reassurances of the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) in respect of the position of his party under its new leadership.

My right hon. Friend will remember from what happened at Christmas how important it was to engage those within civil society in the talks. I would be grateful to know what efforts have been made to re-engage with them in the light of recent events, and also what efforts have been made to contact the American authorities, who were extremely helpful at Christmas in brokering what we hoped was going to be an agreement.

Mrs Villiers: I agree that it is helpful for civil society to be involved in trying to resolve these questions. As I said in response to the shadow Secretary of State, if we are going to deal with this paramilitary problem we need a response from across society, not solely from politicians. The business community can play a part, not least because they have campaigned long and hard for the devolution of corporation tax and can see it slipping through their fingers unless these matters are resolved.

I agree that the influence of the United States has often been hugely positive and helpful in Northern Ireland’s political history over the past 20 years. I keep in regular touch with the representative of Secretary of State Kerry, Gary Hart, who is following events closely.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State has mentioned dealing with the past. Has she had time to read the harrowing evidence given by the victims of Libyan-imported Semtex? There were strong views on how previous Governments and the current Government have dealt with the issue. The Government could help to sort this out—they really must do something. Will the Secretary of State please assure us that she will read the evidence and take action to make sure that the matter is settled once and for all?

Mrs Villiers: Of course I will read the documents to which the hon. Lady refers. I fully recognise the scale of the suffering caused by the Libyan Semtex. The UK Government have always tried to provide support to the victims of those brutal incidents. It is our policy not to espouse individual claims, but we are doing our best to provide support for victims in their efforts to find a way forward. We will continue to do so, but the reality is that the situation in Libya continues to be very difficult. Of course, however, the interests and needs of the victims of Libyan Semtex are taken into account in our relationship with Libya.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be no peace, security or long-term stability in Northern Ireland until we have dealt with the paramilitaries, and will she confirm that the police and security services are getting all the support and resources they need to do just that?

Mrs Villiers: I believe that the police and security services have the resources they need to properly and appropriately combat the dissident republican threat.

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One of the reasons it is crucial that the Stormont House agreement is implemented is that, if the Executive do not have a workable budget and they continue to pay out on a more expensive and flawed welfare system, that will mean fewer resources for the police, which could have worrying consequences for front-line services.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The importance of implementing the Stormont House agreement should not lead to any indifference about its detail. Obviously, some of us have different views on welfare reform, but I will not dwell on that now. Questions about the past are particularly important. The Secretary of State should be aware that many victims and victims groups are expressing suspicion and concern about the burden of the proposals relating to the past and the fact that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland is declining to have open consultation and hiding behind the fact that negotiations are taking place among party leaders.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that, if she introduces the proposed legislation, she will not hide behind or rest on the fact that there was no proper consultation, she will meet the victim groups to hear their concerns and suspicions, and she will avoid the sort of misadventure a previous Government got into in 2005 with the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill? Many of the victims groups view the schemes and language attached to the arrangements on the past as on a par with that misadventure.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman and his party do not share my view on welfare, but I emphasise that the agreement they helped to secure at Stormont castle was a good one for welfare in Northern Ireland. It provides a reformed system that is more effective in rewarding work, but it will also top it up from Northern Ireland’s own resources, giving Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom and one of the most generous in the world.

On the proposed legislation, there was a discussion about having a consultation in Northern Ireland, but there was not enough consensus to enable that to happen. We will do everything we can to engage with a range of groups and with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in advance of publishing our Bill, which we propose to do shortly.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): The Secretary of State says that the Government will legislate on welfare reform as a last resort. Can she indicate how close we are to that last resort? Can she conceive of a situation where we could get to next year’s Assembly elections with no deal, without us having to take over that responsibility?

Mrs Villiers: We have reflected on whether it would be appropriate to set deadlines at this point. I do not think we are at that stage yet, but I reiterate that we cannot let this situation drag out indefinitely. The public finances are at stake. We have a duty to safeguard the interests of the taxpayer and we believe that, if the Northern Ireland parties cannot resolve these questions, ultimately this House will have to do so.

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Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Despite the present crisis, is it not a fact that the Belfast agreement has saved the lives of so many people, certainly compared with what happened previously? May I tell the Secretary of State, since she was not here at the time, that when atrocities and crimes were being committed by the IRA, the overwhelming majority of Labour Members of Parliament denounced such actions, as we did, of course, the murderous crimes of the loyalist gunmen? To describe the actions of the IRA in any way as an armed struggle is absolutely wrong and farcical.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I welcome the reminder that the vast majority of Labour Members denounced IRA atrocities very vocally at the time. It was right that they did so.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): My right hon. Friend has set her face against the reimposition of direct rule at this stage and does not like to set deadlines, but could she tell the House, so that the parties in Northern Ireland can be very clear, what conditions she thinks would make it necessary to bring primary legislation before this House to reintroduce direct rule?

Mrs Villiers: I will reflect on whether we could talk about more specific conditions, but I am really not sure that trying to set them out at the Dispatch Box today would be helpful. All the parties know that we need to find a way through this. They have a deal—all five parties agreed it at Stormont castle. It is a good deal for Northern Ireland, giving it a better welfare system—one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. We need to find a way to get that back on track and get it implemented.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I join others in welcoming the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his new position? The maintenance of a bipartisan approach in this House has been enormously useful and necessary at times to keep the peace process on track. I say to the Secretary of State, in the nicest way possible, that that may occasionally mean that she and her colleagues will have to resist the temptation to make the most obvious digs, however tempting that may be.

May I welcome, albeit with a heavy heart, the Secretary of State’s recognition of the possible need to create a future Independent Monitoring Commission-type body? May I encourage her to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Irish Government and other interested Governments about the remit and possible membership of that body so that, should its constitution ever be necessary, it can be done as effectively and as quickly as possible?

Mrs Villiers: I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Lib Dems will continue to take a bipartisan approach. He makes fair points about a potential new IMC. This is an urgent matter for Northern Ireland’s political parties to consider, but I agree that the input and thoughts of the Irish Government and contacts in Washington could also be helpful.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I join other Members who have welcomed the remarks of the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), particularly because I remember the necessity, as a young officer, of checking

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under my car for explosives every time I used it. Will the Secretary of State join me in regarding with the utmost horror the now well-known comments made by the shadow Chancellor, which in particular endorsed armed struggle, bombs and bullets?

Mrs Villiers: I condemn those comments and hope the shadow Chancellor has changed his views. I have no doubt he will be questioned on that in days to come.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): It is important for Her Majesty’s Opposition to express very clearly from their Front Bench that they will support the self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland. That is an important confidence-building issue and I welcome the statement made by the shadow Secretary of State and hope that others on Labour’s Front Bench were listening.

Does the Secretary of State agree that at some point the can kicking will have to stop and that the Government will have to start dealing effectively and determinedly with the issues of criminality that go right to the heart of the poison in Northern Ireland society? The sooner that is tackled, the better for everyone—both Catholic and Protestant—in getting these people off their backs.

Mrs Villiers: Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome Labour’s confirmation of its strong support for the consent principle. His point about criminality has been at the heart of many of my discussions with his party colleagues and others over recent days. I am convinced that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Garda and their security partners are doing a huge amount of good work in tackling such matters, but I am of course open to seeing whether we as a Government can, with others, do anything further or take any further action to provide confidence that no criminality will be tolerated and that we will do everything we can to combat it.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): My right hon. Friend has raised the issue of perhaps creating an independent monitoring commission. What consideration has she given to the terms of reference, the membership and the timetable for the introduction of such a body, and whether any of the political parties in Northern Ireland could veto such an exercise?

Mrs Villiers: We would aim to build consensus across the five main parties. I would hope that we can discuss the terms of reference and membership in due course. As always with such matters, there is a trade-off between time and the perfection of the organisation: some structures may be ideal, but would be problematic if they took a long time to get established. We need to look for a compromise or middle way that provides an effective independent institution in which people can have confidence, but does not take forever to set up and to report.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): If I have learned anything from Northern Ireland in 30 years it is, first, do not leave a vacuum, and secondly, choose your words very carefully. The Secretary of State has come to the House today and has quite clearly not chosen her words very carefully in relation to tackling the history of some of my leaders. In the interests of moving things forward, what will her leader do now? I am not asking what my leaders did in the past, but what her leader will

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do now. Will he engage in a better way than he has during recent impasses in Northern Ireland, when his not being there has been very unhelpful?

Mrs Villiers: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister remains constantly engaged in these matters. He is updated all the time, and he has played a hugely positive role in delivering many things in Northern Ireland recently, not least the legislation on devolving corporation tax, which he championed for many months. We should bear in mind that it is important to scrutinise the new leadership of the Opposition. The track record of the attitude of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the shadow Chancellor on IRA violence is very worrying, and I make no apologies for challenging them in the House on such matters.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): In the absence of elected ministerial leadership, what decision-making or interim processes will be put in place in individual Northern Ireland Departments?

Mrs Villiers: Such matters will clearly have to be discussed in the talks, but whatever process is ultimately set up, we must take into account the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I, too, welcome back the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I also welcome his comments on the issue of consent in relation to the people of Northern Ireland, and I look forward to that being repeated by his party leader and the shadow Chancellor.

The Secretary of State will be aware that very few cases of criminality have been brought by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for fuel laundering and tobacco and alcohol contraband products. Is the Secretary of State willing to engage the National Crime Agency in tackling the issue of criminal and organised paramilitary activity? It is an international issue, because some of those concerned come from the Republic of Ireland jurisdiction. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that they are not let off the hook by making sure that the Garda Síochana is also involved in tackling such criminality.

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise matters relating to HMRC and the National Crime Agency, as well as law enforcement bodies south of the border. They all have a hugely important part to play in tackling organised crime, criminality and cross-border crime, and I know that they are making every possible effort. I will engage with my colleagues across government who have responsibility for such bodies to see whether we can do more to ensure that we do everything we can to combat criminality and cross-border crime.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the excellent Secretary of State for coming back to the Commons to update us. I am not sure about the timescale in relation to what is undoubtedly a crisis. Are we talking about having to resolve it within weeks or within months? If it has to be done within weeks, will she undertake to request a recall of Parliament during the conference recess, if necessary?

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Mrs Villiers: I do think we must press ahead as a matter of urgency. Last time I stood at the Dispatch Box, I said that we should aim for a period of four to five weeks. These matters are hugely difficult, but as every day passes, the credibility of the institutions is at stake. We do not want them to carry on in a dysfunctional way; we want to find a way to ensure that they are back up and running properly to enable them to deliver on their priorities in achieving a secure Northern Ireland for the future.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his position.

When I was Minister for Social Development back in 2007, I had to take action to ensure the protection of the then political institutions in Northern Ireland, because of paramilitarism. That position was supported and substantiated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but it was not supported by either Unionist parties or Sinn Féin. In that respect, does the Secretary of State agree that we need all parties in Northern Ireland to commit to round-table talks to discuss and resolve all the issues in order to underpin the political institutions and ensure that there is no further frustration among the wider public? Does she agree that there is a need, as the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) emphasised, for the active involvement of a member of the American Administration, possibly as the independent chair of the round-table talks?

Mrs Villiers: As I said in my statement, we will only find a way ahead if we can engage all of Northern Ireland’s five parties in the process. I think that the American influence is positive, which is why I am engaging regularly with Senator Hart and keeping him updated. He has provided very helpful influence in relation to previous discussions, and I will continue to work with him.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. She will agree with me that with power comes responsibility. In Wales and Scotland, devolved Administrations agree balanced budgets. Does she agree that it is now important that all, not just some, parties in Northern Ireland are prepared to agree a deal to do the same and to implement and deliver it?

Mrs Villiers: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not possible to function as a Government unless that Government can live within their means. That is the key to everything else. If they do not have a workable budget, they will be plunged into the sort of chaos that we have seen in some parts of Europe. That is why it is imperative to implement the Stormont House agreement. It gives Northern Ireland a good deal, a workable budget and sustainable public finances.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): In her statement to the House, the Secretary of State directly quoted the Prime Minister’s description of the political settlement in Northern Ireland as “a huge achievement”. It was, and it is. At what stage does the Secretary of State believe that it would be helpful for the Prime Minister to go to Northern Ireland and become directly involved in finding a resolution to the current difficulties?

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Mrs Villiers: The hon. Lady will be aware that the Prime Minister makes regular visits to Northern Ireland. I am sure he will do so again in due course. I assure her that he is in day-to-day contact about events as they unfold. He is hugely supportive of Northern Ireland matters and is taking a great interest in what is a very serious political crisis.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): The situation is extremely worrying and getting more dangerous all the time. The ordinary people of Ireland, including families—like mine—who live close to the border, are frankly worried sick over this. Is it not time for the Prime Minister and No. 10 to bother to get themselves involved?

Mrs Villiers: I assure the hon. Lady, as I have other hon. Members, that the Prime Minister is very focused on this matter and will continue to be so. It is a worrying situation for many people in Northern Ireland, and it is important that we resolve these matters. The Prime Minister is 100% behind that.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): Secretary of State, last week when the Prime Minister spoke in this Chamber, Members listened to his impassioned plea for the institutions in Northern Ireland but felt that he missed the elephant in the room. Given the lack of any content in the statement referring to consequences, will the Secretary of State outline what concrete proposals she has for consequences for those who wish politically to disrupt or dismantle our institutions and our peace?

Mrs Villiers: A number of parties have raised their concerns about the way the rules on exclusion from the Executive work. It is important for the political parties to give thought to that. A number of parties have indicated that they would like to look again at the ministerial code and how it is applied. It is important to look at that in the cross-party talks, in which I hope all parties will take part.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Some people who are listening to this statement might think that the Secretary of State is struggling with her political priorities. She has referred to her various contacts with Senator Hart. Has she asked the parties in Northern Ireland whether they would welcome the assistance of a Senator Mitchell figure to act as an honest broker, in an effort to save the peace and institutions at this worrying time?

Mrs Villiers: The party that has raised that matter, as it has this morning, is the SDLP, so I have discussed it with that party and the Irish Government. It is obviously important that Washington and US figures continue to provide support. There is not a clear case for a Senator Mitchell-type role, but I am open to ideas and discussions on those matters.

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I am pleased to have secured a Back-Bench debate in this Chamber on 12 October to give everybody a chance to discuss this matter. We would like to get back to the Belfast agreement and the principles in it, which were voted on and agreed to in the referendums 17 years ago. On one key point

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from that agreement, we do not believe that the truth about the IRA can be negotiated as part of the talks, and neither can the issue of tackling paramilitary criminality. That should not be part of a process whereby nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The truth cannot be a bargaining chip. Will she ensure that that point is fully recognised?

Mrs Villiers: I do recognise that point. The hon. Gentleman’s party leader, Mike Nesbitt, has made it very clear. I reiterate that it is essential that both those questions are resolved. Both cause a huge threat to the sustainability and future success of the institutions. Therefore, both must be addressed.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that with all the punishment beatings, the shootings, the murders, the 160 criminal gangs operating on both sides of the border, and a fuel-smuggling organisation run by republicans that is the second best to western Europe, this is an unacceptable society for the people of Northern Ireland. A group of people who have been forgotten about—the wounds are being opened again—is the victims. We saw some of that yesterday on TV. The wounds are being opened again and people are suffering again. That is an intolerable situation to be in.

Mrs Villiers: It is always important to have a reminder of the interests of those who have suffered most as a result of the troubles and the terrorism that took place. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the problem in Northern Ireland of so-called paramilitary assaults. These things are utterly unacceptable. For people to seek to take the law into their own hands is just an

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excuse for violent thuggery. Many people have lost their lives or suffered permanent disability as a result of those assaults. That is one reason why we need to address urgently the role of the continuing paramilitary organisations, so that we can finally see an end to what really is a scourge on Northern Ireland’s society.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I am especially pleased to see the shadow Secretary of State back in his position. I look forward to welcoming him down to Strangford. He said that it was the best constituency in Northern Ireland and I know he will say it again the next time he is there.

Political developments in Northern Ireland are obstructed and held back by criminality. Dissident republicans—who have been involved in maiming and killing—are involved in my constituency of Strangford in illegal fuel smuggling and the disposal of that fuel. The rise in the number of people being intimidated out of their homes by thugs is at an unprecedented level in my constituency and it continues to cause great concern. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chief Constable in relation to those matters, and what steps will be taken to ensure that such criminality right across the Province and in my constituency comes to an end?

Mrs Villiers: I am regularly briefed on the actions that are taken to combat the dissident republican threat. That extends not only to their terrorist activities but to the criminal activities that they engage in to fund those terrorist activities. I am working closely with the PSNI and its security partners to ensure that the UK Government do all they can to combat this menace, whether on the criminal side, the terrorist side or both.

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United Kingdom Borders (Control and Sovereignty)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

1.25 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the re-establishment of the control and sovereignty of policy, administration and all other matters relating to the United Kingdom’s borders with the European Union and to the entry and exit to the United Kingdom of foreign nationals; and for connected purposes.

It is the paramount duty of Her Majesty’s Government to protect and defend the integrity of our national borders. There can be no doubt that today the British people expect and, indeed, demand that their elected Government do exactly that. I do not believe there has ever been an electoral mandate for open borders. On the contrary, Governments of all parties have promised the British people that they would strictly control the entry of peoples into our country.

Indeed, the expectation of my constituents is that our Government will implement a policy to guard our borders from land, sea, air and the channel tunnel; to manage our immigration system to serve our national interest; and, most importantly of all, to keep our people safe from harm. I have to tell the House that the clamour of the British people for such an approach is greater now than at any time before, and no Government can ignore it.

From the outset I should make it clear that, while it is my intention in presenting the Bill to introduce a vital change, restoring full control and sovereignty over our UK borders to Her Majesty’s Government and our elected Parliament, thus making it possible to achieve more sustainable levels of migration, I am not against immigration. Immigration to these islands over the centuries has been overwhelmingly positive in shaping our nation’s development and evolution, contributing to our cultural and economic success. Our island story has been enriched by the arrival of peoples of every nationality and, most especially in recent decades, those from our Commonwealth family of nations and territories, with whom we in the British Isles, including Ireland, share such a close bond through our cultural, historical and constitutional ties.

Immigration that is controlled and managed properly is therefore a good thing for Britain, but that can happen only if the power to decide who is allowed to enter our country and who is not allowed to enter is restored. A nation that does not retain sovereignty over its national borders will ultimately be powerless to determine its own destiny.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that net migration for the year ending March 2015 was roughly 330,000 people, of whom nearly half were EU citizens. The Immigration Minister described those figures as “deeply disappointing”, reflecting not just his frustration but the Government’s inability to make progress in reducing net inward migration to the tens of thousands that the British people were promised.

Immigration now stands at its highest level ever, with huge social and economic consequences for our country. Some may welcome that and say that it is good for

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Britain, but others may argue—as I do—that such a colossal increase in our population is unsustainable and sensible controls are needed. Whatever one’s view, my Bill will give the British Government and British Parliament, elected by the British people, the absolute right to decide what our future British immigration policy should be.

Once sovereignty is restored, Her Majesty’s Government may wish to continue with the current policy of free movement of people from Europe, or even extend it to other countries, and that would be their right as the democratically elected Government of our country. On the other hand, they may decide to restrict numbers entering the UK, perhaps adopt a points system for all entrants, similar to that successfully implemented by Australia, or give greater preference to the nations of the Commonwealth and Her Majesty’s realms, with whom we share so much in common, most notably our English language. They may choose whether to extend the ancestry rule, depending on their point of view, but whatever the Government of day decide, based on a democratic mandate handed to them by the British people, my Bill would restore the absolute power to do what Her Majesty’s Government believe to be right for Britain, and deny any supranational commission, Parliament or court the power to overrule us.

Control over our borders is one of the defining attributes of statehood: in short, a state cannot be truly self-governing unless it can ultimately exercise control over who can and cannot enter that country. Unsurprisingly, the better we do economically as a country, the greater the number of people who want to come here, but our public services are now under relentless strain as they struggle to cope with the number of people arriving. It may be true that European immigrants have paid more in taxes than they have taken out in benefits, but the tangible provision of Government services simply cannot keep up. It takes time to build houses, establish GP surgeries, hospitals, and schools, and with the strain that we see on public services today, it is obvious that the increase in our population is having a significant social impact on our nation.

We must be realistic about the length of time that it takes for people to integrate into British society, and it is not unreasonable to say that such a rapid increase in population—including some people from very different cultures—has led to tension within our towns and communities. However, I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who have travelled to these shores and chosen to make their home in Britain are thoroughly admirable people who are prepared to uproot their entire lives to make a new life for themselves. I welcome those people, so let me be clear that it is not immigration but uncontrolled immigration that I believe is unsustainable. If we are serious about achieving more sustainable levels, it is imperative that we first reassert sovereignty over our national borders.

Through our ever-closer integration with the European Union, I fear that we have lost sight of our place in the world as a global, trading nation, neglecting our close ties with the English-speaking world and Commonwealth, and instead aligning ourselves most closely with the one region of the world where economic growth is stagnating. My Bill would repeal all legislation that prevents the United Kingdom from asserting sovereignty over our national borders, freeing ourselves to look to the wider world and to enable the brightest and best talent to

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come to Britain, attracting highly skilled workers from Canada, India, Australia, the Caribbean, Africa, the Americas and the far east, as well as from Europe.

My Bill will give Britain a fresh start on immigration policy, restoring the right of control over our national borders to the British people and their elected Government. That must surely be the only reasonable position of a legislative body that wishes to govern in the interests of its own nation. Our immigration policy and control of our nation’s borders rightly belong under the jurisdiction of our own sovereign UK Parliament, and it is to achieve that goal that I commend this Bill to the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): The question is that the hon. Member have leave to bring in the Bill.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Certain Opposition Members have clearly indicated their dissent to this Bill, but they have not risen to oppose it. Can you give some indication of how the House might test the will of Members if no one opposes the Bill and see through their clearly indicated dissent by forcing a Division?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): There are a number of ways that people can indicate their dissent, including voting against something during a Division. It is perfectly possible for Members to indicate their dissent without voting against the Bill. I will now put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Rosindell, Mr Henry Bellingham, Mr Douglas Carswell, Sir William Cash, Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Frank Field, Mr Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Ian Paisley, Tom Pursglove, Gavin Robinson and Mr Laurence Robertson present the Bill.

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 22 January 2016, and to be printed (Bill 68).