7.5 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing what has turned out to be a truly superfast debate. I rise to speak about many of the issues that have been covered by other Members. There is a lot of common purpose in the Chamber about the need to connect those people in the 5%—in the highlands and islands it is even more than 5%—who are struggling to get by without the kind of connectivity that is taken for granted in other urban areas.

We have heard from my party colleagues about what the Scottish Government and councils in Scotland have been doing to take forward additional work to ensure that we reach those places that have not been covered by the commercial proposition. In fact, only a few weeks ago I was delighted to be on the shores of Loch Ness for the launch of superfast broadband there. That would never have taken place under the commercial schemes, so the Scottish Government and the other agencies involved, including the UK Government, should be congratulated on that.

I must also point out that the UK Government need to do more strategically to ensure that that is taken forward. There are opportunities in digital learning, telehealth, business and leisure in rural communities that can only be taken up with what is important infrastructure. I know that the Minister is keen to listen and work with good ideas. I also urge him to look at some of the Community Broadband Scotland projects, such as the one in Badenoch, where Badenoch Broadband is looking to deliver more than 30 megabits per second. There are models to follow in Scotland.

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I echo what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said about technology and the advances that can be made. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the technology we are deploying today will be sufficient in the coming decades, or even in a couple of years’ time. We should be looking at a robust universal service obligation, and we should also be looking not only at 3G and 4G, but at 5G and the opportunities for new technology to roll out further connectivity for rural areas. The Minister could take this opportunity to make a commitment that when it comes to licensing for the 5G spectrum, he can include a universal service obligation that covers rural areas, such as those that have been represented today by other hon. Members and Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

7.8 pm

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate. In the digital donkey derby we have heard from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), whose constituency is ranked 563rd for connectivity, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), whose constituency is ranked 562nd. Well, my constituency is ranked 561st, which means we are very grateful for the 43% of premises that are connected to superfast broadband. However, the remaining premises—BDUK says that it is 70% and Ofcom’s digital survey says that it is 43%—still need to be connected. I support calls for transparency, so that we can get the real figures and understand why there are those different percentages.

I echo the calls for a universal service obligation, because that will deliver real change to my constituents in rural areas. It, along with the nodes that have been mentioned, may allow people to connect who have hitherto been unable to do so, even though fibre has gone to the cabinet, because they are more than 2 miles from the cabinet. A lady in Wrenbury, 2 miles from the cabinet, emailed to say that her business was suffering as a result of a poor connection, with speeds regularly falling below 1 megabit per second.

I have already started the process that my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) mentioned by surveying my constituents. Eighty-five per cent. of those who responded to the survey have not been connected to superfast broadband, which may reflect the 43% figure in the Ofcom infrastructure report. Nearly 70% of constituents have not heard from Connecting Cheshire or BT about when work will take place to connect them to superfast broadband. Regrettably, Connecting Cheshire is not updating its website, so someone who goes to check the figures is informed that they will be connected by March 2015. That has not been helpful to businesses or residential customers in my constituency. Eighty per cent. of respondents are having connection problems, and nearly 65% of them have not had their connection problems resolved. More than 90% of respondents have highlighted low connection speeds as their biggest issue.

I urge the Minister to consider the universal service obligation to impose 10 megabits per second, for which many organisations are campaigning, including the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association—and, indeed, several Members of Parliament who are desperate to see such a figure in their constituencies.

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7.11 pm

Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con): I echo the thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for his relentless work on this topic.

When one thinks about cutting-edge digital technology, the rolling hills and dry stone walls of the Yorkshire Dales might not be the first image that comes to mind, but I assure the House that this is an issue of vital importance to my constituents. We have heard a lot about farmers today. We know them as the proud stewards of our landscape who are working out in the fields with their hands to provide the food we require, but they are also cutting-edge innovators reliant on the latest in farming techniques and seed technology, and increasingly compelled by the Government to interact online with agencies such as the Rural Payments Agency. If they cannot access the internet, they are forced to use the services of a farm agent, who adds incremental costs to their business. They desperately need good broadband.

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): Talking of rural areas, the situation is the same in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) referred to education. With regard to educating our next generation of farmers, without access to broadband people find homework and sourcing things on the internet very hard to achieve. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?

Rishi Sunak: I completely echo those sentiments. I had a similar conversation with villagers in Moulton in my constituency who were worried about young families leaving the village because they were unable to get access to the internet for their children to do their homework. They took it on themselves to install a community broadband scheme, at a great cost of over £1,000 for the village as a whole and a few hundred pounds for households, so desperate were they to correct the problem and ensure that young families stayed there.

There are many rural businesses in the Yorkshire Dales, including bed and breakfasts, pubs, and small hotels. When we go on holiday, perhaps the first thing we look at on Expedia or elsewhere is whether the place will have internet and wi-fi access. When I speak to pub landlords in my area, their desperate cry to me is that they need such access to attract customers.

I very much support the motion and hope that the “not spots” summit can be organised quickly. I urge those in charge to consider two areas for discussion that I hope can provide some relief. The first is the use of satellite broadband vouchers. Satellite is not a perfect technology—it has latency issues—but in rural areas such as mine it can provide a panacea to those requiring a basic level of broadband. Those who want it complain to me that the up-front cost can be prohibitively high, often hundreds of pounds. Although meaningful, that cost needs to be put into perspective with the current costs of some of the BDUK schemes, which can run into thousands. In some areas, satellite can be a cost-effective solution for those in need.

Simon Hoare: I apologise to the House if I am banging on about local government today. Does my hon. Friend agree that if satellite is to be successful in a

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lot of our very pretty villages with listed buildings, conservation areas and so on, we will be looking to our planning authorities to show a degree of leniency instead of stopping the charge towards satellite by saying, “This is a very important building and you can’t have a satellite dish there”? We cannot have this held up for those reasons.

Rishi Sunak: I fully support those comments and those made by the Minister earlier. We must adapt the planning laws to ensure that mobile masts and satellite can deliver this vital service across rural areas, and I think that many of the rural communities in my constituency are aware of that.

The second topic for the summit could be transparency of BT’s roll-out. Satellite is one solution, but there are many areas where fibre will not work—the last 5% where it will be technically impossible or prohibitively expensive. In those areas, the Government are admirably backing the innovation fund to come up with new technologies. In my constituency, many of the alternative technology providers complain to me that they are unsure about BT’s future roll-out plan, and that uncertainty prohibits them from making the investments required to bring some kind of broadband to rural communities. This has been noticed by Select Committees as well. It would be wonderful if the summit considered what could be done to alleviate this blockage.

I commend the Government for their efforts thus far. Five years ago, only 50% of homes in my constituency had access to superfast broadband; today the figure is over 80%. That is terrific progress, but we must do more. This Government are committed to being a one-nation Government bringing opportunity to every part of this country, but if we are truly to build an inclusive society and economy that spreads opportunity to our great rural areas as well as our cities, we must ensure that broadband is there to turn those aspirations into reality. I join colleagues in urging that the summit happen as soon as possible with continued efforts to bring broadband to every part of the country.

7.17 pm

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on bringing forward this incredibly important debate.

I have asked only one question of the Prime Minister so far, and it was about “not spots” in my constituency. The Minister will be interested to hear that I received a very exciting reply saying that there would be three new mobile masts in my constituency to tackle “not spots”. In reality, unfortunately, the installation of those masts through the mobile infrastructure project—MIP—has been mixed, to say the least.

I am going to join in the chorus of the village people and mention three villages. In Assington Green, near Cavendish, people were very excited about the new mast, but it has died, it is finished, and it is not going to happen. It did not reach the deadline date, and we do not even know why; communication has been extremely poor. The Minister’s staff have been very helpful when I have emailed them questions about the masts, but there is no updating process and nothing to let us know what is happening. The second mast in Hitcham is a much

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better story, and I thank the Minister for that. The scheme was approved today, and Hitcham is likely to have a new mast by March.

The third mast was to be in Boxford, a village in which I have an interest because my children go to the local school. It is another beautiful village but a genuine “not spot”. The loss of this mast is very disappointing, because there was huge public support for it. At the very last minute, the owner of the land—a farmer—where the mast was going to be based withdrew because of very strong opposition from a small number of his neighbours. People in Boxford found that for commercial reasons there was not going to be a mast. They needed that intervention from us and were very grateful for it, so what prospect is there of it happening? Given the possibility of such last-minute interventions, is there any kind of flexibility in the timing of the MIP? Unlike the copper wires in our villages, the Minister does not have the problem of distance from the Cabinet. Will he use that influence to try to persuade the Chancellor to keep money going for next year, because if we have the time we can build the public support to get these masts built?

Finally, I hope the Minister will confirm that he will hold the summit. As well as inviting BT, will he invite small providers, such as County Broadband, which serves Suffolk and Essex and of which I am a customer—it provides a fantastic service—so that they can be on the same level? What role does the Minister see small providers playing in delivering innovative solutions to the problem of spreading broadband in our villages?

7.20 pm

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): I, too, commend my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) for securing this debate, which I am pleased to support as a vice-chair of the all-party group on broadband and digital communication.

I will, of course, focus on my own patch of Taunton Deane. We have the Connecting Devon and Somerset superfast broadband programme, which has been mentioned so eloquently by other fine Somerset speakers. I give credit to the Minister and the Government: this £90 million project is the largest broadband roll-out in the country. Things are going pretty well to get to the 90%, but—there is always a “but”—Devon and Somerset are the only two counties in the UK without a 95% minimum phase 2 broadband contract in place.

I held my own mini-summit on Friday night up in the Blackdown hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. I am afraid the event drew together a whole room of disgruntled people from Bishopswood, Otterford, Churchinford, Churchstanton and Pitminster—I sound like Clement Freud on “Just a Minute”—who were all concerned about when the second phase of the contract will be signed to get them from 90% to 95%. They fear they are going to be left out.

Representatives from Connecting Devon and Somerset appeared at the meeting, put on a good show and said they were in negotiation with 15 people who might bid for the contracts, but they will not do so until the new year, which means, realistically, that the work will not even begin until June. That will be a year after the contract negotiations with BT collapsed, and there is still no indication as to whether many of the people

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affected will be included. I would be really grateful if the Minister would comment on that and on how he sees the situation progressing.

I know that time is short, but I would like to pass on a few more comments that were made at my summit in the Blackdowns. I ask the Minister whether value for money could be considered on a slightly different basis. Perhaps investing in broadband could be looked at in terms of how much rural businesses give, meaning that it would become not a numbers game in terms of people, but a business game. The more businesses that are connected, the more the economy will get going, which is something this Government support.

Jo Churchill: May I suggest that my hon. Friend ask her summit attendees to provide the Minister with feedback and helpful information on the potential impact of the lack of broadband on their local economy?

Rebecca Pow: I thank my hon. Friend for that useful comment. I was going to continue feeding in a few more comments from my mini-summit. Many have already mentioned this, but can we be clearer about which communities are outside the scope of the current roll-out? That would at least allow residents and businesses to take decisions on whether they wish to pursue other options such as satellite broadband connection.

Above all, attendees wanted assurances that rural properties will continue to be connected by whatever means—poles, wireless, satellite, fibre, fibre to the remote node or anything else the Minister might come up with. Community fibre partnerships might be relevant, although that would mean that people would themselves have to pay. There are rumours that the Minister might send vouchers wafting their way, but they are not terribly keen on them, for various reasons. Similarly, when the clouds come down and the rain rushes on to the Blackdowns, satellite does not work terribly well, but perhaps we should consider it as a temporary measure.

Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con): Kent has been very keen on vouchers and was only recently allowed into the broadband voucher scheme, but we fear that funds are running out. Does my hon. Friend agree that extending funding for broadband vouchers should be a priority for the forthcoming spending review?

Rebecca Pow: That is an interesting point. People in the Blackdowns were quite negative about vouchers, but perhaps they should consider them more closely. I believe that people can receive £3,000 as an up-front contribution towards a satellite dish and to help with installation, but they have to pay for it monthly. Perhaps we should be a little more magnanimous in the Blackdowns and look more closely at that. The overall consensus was that fibre optic is still the best option for whoever wins the contract for the remoter parts of Taunton Deane.

In conclusion, let us have fibre to all premises and new houses in future; let us look very carefully at the Ofcom review of connectivity; let us fight for rural connection and our urban “not spots”; and let us do it all through this summit.

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7.25 pm

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): Having spoken in February’s debate held by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), which itself built on several other debates in the last Parliament, I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister must feel that this debate is somewhat like the film “Groundhog Day”, albeit with some new and very welcome characters. Rather like the protagonist in that film, he is doomed to repeat the same debate over and over again until we get it right.

I welcome the Government’s support and commitment. Almost 30% of the properties in my rural Newark constituency have gained access or the ability to access broadband as a result of public subsidy. That is not what failure looks like. None the less, 20% of properties remain unconnected, which will be the subject of the summit proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), if the Minister takes him up on it.

Nottinghamshire is on the cusp of another significant stride forward, for which I need the Minister’s help. I apologise to the rest of the House that this is specific to my own county. Further to the initial superfast extension programme funding, Nottinghamshire County Council and Broadband Delivery UK agreed to allocate an additional £1.3 million to Bassetlaw and Newark in my constituency. However, it remains to be contracted as we do not yet have the BDUK state aid assurance for the change request. Once we have that assurance—I look to the Minister for help with that—I understand that the contract can be exchanged very quickly, and once he makes that crucial intervention, the Minister will be feted in the villages of Nottinghamshire like a latter-day Robin Hood, or perhaps, in the Minister’s bearded days, Friar Tuck.

The word “summit” seems to be overused, but I, too, have held one and have two brief observations to make. The first relates to something that has not been discussed yet, namely demand. The present value-for-money test as to whether a community can get broadband depends on an opaque view of how many residents will take it up. It does not actually look at the reality. We have polled residents in some of my constituency villages, some of which have said that up to 75% of constituents will take it up. I believe them, because they are an engaged and thoughtful lot. That would have tipped the formula in favour of investment, but it was not taken into account.

Conversely, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) has rightly said, we need to address low take-up. On average, the figure is 18% to 20%. It is absurd for us to debate this level of public subsidy and investment if take-up is 10% or 15% in some parts of our country, particularly in deprived areas such as the city of Nottingham a few miles from my constituency. We should campaign as hard for higher take-up in deprived areas in particular as we are for subsidy and investment in more prosperous ones.

7.28 pm

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing this debate.

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The variations stated in the motion exist in my constituency. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to learn from a survey conducted by uSwitch that Sandy Lane in Cannock was the street with the fastest broadband in the whole country. If people are looking for fast broadband, they know where to come—move to Cannock! I add a word of caution, however: although that is excellent news, it is unfortunately not the case that our broadband and mobile coverage is good for all residents and businesses across my constituency.

I was recently contacted by a resident of Fair Oaks in Birches Valley. Their property is served by the Rugeley exchange and a street cabinet, both of which have been upgraded to deliver fibre broadband. However, given the way in which the technology has been deployed, the property is too far from the enabled street cabinet for a cable to be connected—an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). That leaves a number of rural properties in the valley with no immediate hope of superfast broadband. They only have a hope if and when the next phase of upgrades takes place, and if their location is factored into plans.

The House can imagine my surprise when I went on to the Superfast Staffordshire website. It stated that the valley was enabled for superfast broadband, which was “available to order”. Well, it is not, nor is that included in future plans. We must ensure that such properties do not miss out. I noted from the website that Keys business park is not connected and that the time frames for connection have not been confirmed. Bluechipworld Sales and Marketing Ltd is a fascinating business in that business park, and I visited it only a couple of weeks ago. It designs and manufactures high-tech devices from its sites in Cannock and China. Its designers are employed and based in the UK—in Cannock—and, importantly, that gives young people career opportunities.

Jake Berry: My hon. Friend’s point about a high-tech company in her constituency creating employment is similar to the one that I made in relation to my constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say what vouchers could be made available for business customers, not just individuals, who want to bring high-tech engineering companies to our constituencies.

Amanda Milling: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Broadband speeds are important for that technology business, because it can take four to six hours to transmit its designs to China. We rightly talk about productivity, and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that this is an example of why we desperately need to roll out superfast broadband quickly, efficiently and universally.

I welcome the motion, and I hope that residents and businesses across Cannock Chase, including in Birches Valley and Keys business park, will enjoy the broadband speeds that those on Sandy Lane in Cannock experience.

7.32 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on holding this debate and the hon. Members who have pushed for it. I applaud the many informed and moving contributions that we have heard, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen),

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my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith).

I am pleased to stand at the Dispatch Box for the first time as shadow Minister for the digital economy.

Mr Vaizey: What took you so long?

Chi Onwurah: Well, it has been a long time. Before entering Parliament in 2010 I spent 20 years as an electrical engineer building telecoms networks around the world. I confess to having had a geeky worry that my technical knowledge would suffer as part of the privilege of being elected to the House. The Government have been so ineffectual, however, that my technical understanding remains as relevant as ever. Ministers should be ashamed of that, because it is their failure.

The UK has the sixth largest economy in the world, and is a developed nation with aspirations to lead the digital world. It is a country where Government services are “digital by default”, yet we have heard from many speakers in all parts of the House about the dire state of our digital infrastructure. I am not going to repeat all the terrible tales that we have heard: 1.8 million homes that cannot get broadband; dial-up speeds; businesses unable to do business. The economic benefits of better digital infrastructure—or, in some cases, of any kind of digital infrastructure—have been emphasised. The UK’s productivity problem was mentioned, and it is one of the biggest challenges that our economy faces. We have the second worst productivity in the G7. Ministers contribute to the problem, with a lack of productivity when it comes to providing the digital infrastructure that this country needs. The Government’s own broadband impact study states:

“It is now widely accepted that the availability and adoption of affordable broadband plays an important role in increasing productivity”.

The Minister laughs, but this is serious for many of his MPs. Better infrastructure increases productivity by

“supporting the development of new, more efficient, business models, enabling business process re-engineering to improve the efficiency and management of labour intensive jobs, and enabling increased international trade and collaborative innovation”.

Many Members on both sides of the House have given examples of that. As the new Leader of the Opposition and the new shadow Chancellor told conference this year, at the heart of our forward-looking narrative will be plans for investing in the future, including “investment in fast broadband to support new high technology jobs”.

Jake Berry: Does the hon. Lady accept, with the thought of the new Leader of the Opposition in her mind, that the natural step after the renationalisation of the railways is the renationalisation of BT?

Chi Onwurah: It is possible, as the last Labour Government demonstrated, to have a telecoms network that includes competition if there is a strong regulator and a Government who are committed to ensuring that competition delivers services for consumers. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

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The internet provides social benefits, as we have heard. Online shopping is often cheaper, and the internet opens up access to public and private services. It is not right that some people cannot access Government services for which they pay or, even worse, that they are penalised for not being able to access them online, whether they are farmers or people on benefits trying to sign on and do their job hunting online. The internet opens up a world of free education and is a window on the globe. It is absolutely ludicrous that the Government have not been able to provide what has become the fourth utility.

The Government attack the right to strike for working people, but they have effectively withdrawn their labour when it comes to superfast broadband. Underneath the polite tone of the motion, Members in all parts of the House know that anger is growing among their constituents, especially in rural areas. The truth is that it will take more than a summit to reverse a failure by the Government to deliver on their promises, which lacked ambition to begin with. When the Labour Government left office they left fully funded plans for basic broadband—[Interruption];I am sorry, it is the truth—to be delivered in two years and superfast broadband to be delivered to 90% by 2017. The remaining 10% would be covered by mobile broadband.

Now we are falling further and further behind our competitors. Australia is aiming for 100 megabits for 93% of premises by 2021, and South Korea will have 1 gigabit by 2017, yet we do not have a target this decade for getting everyone online.

Instead, we have had five years of ad hoc funding announcements and vanity projects whenever the Chancellor has wanted to sweeten the latest round of punishing austerity—a series of disconnected policy initiatives that were never very ambitious, but that have suffered from delays nevertheless.

The crown jewel in all those projects—the £790-million rural superfast broadband programme—was handed entirely to one company because of a badly designed, monopoly-favouring procurement programme that has been panned by every Committee to have considered it in this House and the other place and criticised by anyone who has taken a passing interest in it. That is the fault not of BT, but of Ministers.

What we need from the Government is a vision for a market-led, future-proof, universal digital infrastructure. Ultimately, that means fibre going to premises and real investment. It will not come along on its own. Ministers need to set out a vision for our digital infrastructure. They need to tell us how we will get there and ensure that it happens. Instead, all we have is complacency and chutzpah. Demand in this debate has outstripped supply, as is the case with broadband in the UK. I urge hon. Members to remember the importance of digital skills and digital inclusion, as well as digital infrastructure. There are still 5 million households that have no access to the internet and 1 million more who do not feel confident using it.

The Government have no coherent strategy. There is a lack of vision and a staggering level of incompetence in implementation. There has been a super-slow crawl-out, rather than a roll-out, to just 2 million premises so far, with constant delays.

James Heappey: Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Chi Onwurah: I am afraid that there is no time.

The Minister says that we are the best in Europe, but he chooses which countries to compare us with. We are 10th out of all the countries in Europe. As we have heard, there is better coverage in the Serengeti than in some parts of the UK.

We will not oppose the motion, but the Labour party does not believe that a summit can overcome the five years of complacency and incompetence from this Government or can fulfil Britain’s broadband potential.

7.42 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It gives me great pleasure to respond to this important Back-Bench debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on becoming the Opposition spokesman. I have always regarded her as, in effect, the shadow spokesman on this matter. Rather like the new leader of the Labour party and shadow Chancellor, I have left some very unhelpful quotations over the past five years in which I have praised her knowledge and expertise. I obviously resile from them all now that she is the official Opposition spokesman.

I was asked earlier whether this debate felt like groundhog day. I have to say that I have welcomed every single speech from those on the Government Benches—they have been brilliant, original and effective, and have displayed yet again the huge range of talent that exists on our Benches in representing our constituents and putting their issues on the agenda. The point when I thought it was groundhog day was when the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central gave her speech. It is 2015 and the Labour party is still talking about a policy that it came up with in 2009. That policy was uncosted, required a tax that did not exist and contained no plans, yet it would have brought only 2 megabits to the country. Quite rightly, when the first Conservative Secretary of State came in, those plans were torn up because we knew that the country wanted 24 megabits. It wanted superfast broadband, which is what we have delivered.

While we have heard a lot of fine speeches from Government Members, I have to mark out the speech by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for sheer brass neck. It is astonishing that he talks about BT’s failure, when it was his Government that presided over the digital region project in south Yorkshire, which went bust, resulting in £50 million of taxpayers’ money being written off. The only superfast broadband project that started under his Government was the one in Cornwall, which relied on European money and involved BT. Cornwall is now one of the best connected regions in Europe.

The right hon. Gentleman accused me, because I happened to say that I might be mildly sceptical about the break-up of BT, of cosying up to corporate interests. Of course, those who are calling for the break-up of BT include such small businesses run out of a back bedroom as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk. It is absolutely astonishing.

Stephen Timms rose

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Mr Vaizey: He’s coming back for more. I welcome that.

Stephen Timms: The accusation about cosying up to corporate interests came from the Financial Times, not me. Does the Minister not accept, with the benefit of hindsight, that he should have ensured that some of the public subsidy went to a provider other than BT?

Mr Vaizey: The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that BT has me over a barrel when it has just paid back £129 million seven years early, thanks to the contracts we negotiated.

Let us look at those contracts. We said that we would deliver superfast broadband to 90% of homes and businesses in the country by the end of 2015. That is exactly what we will do. Three contracts have finished and 38 are ahead of schedule. I remind hon. Members that the reason BT bid for the contracts and that Virgin, for example, did not was that the state aid conditions required open access. Therefore, only companies that were prepared to see their networks used by their competitors were going to bid for the contracts. That is why BT was the only bidder in town.

Many of my hon. Friends have talked about Connecting Devon and Somerset, which did not sign a phase 2 contract with BT. I have sat in a room with hon. Friends and listened to officials from Devon and Somerset telling me that BT was not delivering. I now hear from my hon. Friends that BT is delivering.

As I have said, we have got £129 million back, thanks to the contracts. We are now going further. We have said that we will get to 95% of homes and businesses by the end of 2017. I am confident that we will deliver that as well. New technology and competition will help. Virgin has announced £3 billion of investment to compete with BT’s roll-out. It will get to 3 million to 4 million homes. Sky and TalkTalk are building a network in York to see how it can roll out fibre to premises.

That is a good example of how councils have to partner with telecoms providers, because they have to help with the planning. It is important that we keep the costs down. I hear people complain about the lack of broadband in central London, but Kensington and Chelsea refused to give planning permission to a single green box of BT’s for two years because it did not like the design. Councils have to get with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said, when we want to put up a mobile mast, we can suddenly find that the landowner has withdrawn their permission because of local objections. If we are going to build this infrastructure, there has to be a bit of give and take. Councils and local communities have to accept that the infrastructure has to be built. We might need to have taller masts and some structures in rural settings.

Now that BT has announced the roll-out of its G.fast technology, I am confident that 10 million homes will get speeds of 300 megabits or more over the next five years. We have the fastest roll-out and take-up of 4G in the world. We inherited a stalled auction programme from the last Labour Government that we had to resurrect and we are now back on track.

It was appalling to hear the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central say that we should have a policy like Australia’s, which is massively over budget and involved

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a huge legal battle over many years effectively to nationalise the main telecoms operator. That pretty much cost the last Labour Government in Australia the election. We will not go down that road—that is for sure.

My hon. Friends are, of course, interested in the remaining 5%. I have written to all hon. Members setting out where broadband has got to in their constituencies in the last quarter, how many homes are being connected and, importantly, how many homes are not being connected. I am prepared to sit down with all my hon. Friends and visit their constituencies over the next six months to discuss areas that are not getting broadband, so that we can work together to deliver it.

Albert Owen rose

Chi Onwurah rose

Mr Vaizey: I give way to the hon. Member in whose constituency 0% of homes were being connected commercially and now, thanks to this Government, about 80% are connected.

Chi Onwurah: Me?

Mr Vaizey: No, I am giving way to the hon. Gentleman on the Back Benches.

AlbertOwen: The Minister echoes the success of the Welsh Government in delivering to my constituency because it was a partnership. Will he sit down with Welsh Government Ministers, and others, to see what best practice could be used so that England can follow in the tracks of Wales?

Mr Vaizey: As my hon. Friends will be aware, I should have singled out the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) because a Labour Government in Wales are responsible for rolling out superfast broadband and—guess what?—according to the Labour party, superfast broadband is brilliant in Wales but terrible in England. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) could not make up his mind whether he wanted to condemn or support the roll-out of superfast broadband in Scotland by the Scottish Government and the SNP. I take all such critiques with a great pinch of salt.

Chi Onwurah: The Minister said that I wished for a policy that is the same as that in Australia, but that is not what I said. I said that we needed a target as ambitious as Australia’s and the one in place by the new conservative Prime Minister there.

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Mr Vaizey: I am all for targets but let us have some delivery. Australia has an ambitious target and zero delivery. We have a realistic target that we have hit time and again, and we will continue to do so. We have passed superfast broadband to more than 3 million homes and businesses, and when the next figures come out it will be close to 4 million. We must also deal with the last 5%, and by the end of this year we will set out our plans.

It is no secret that we are looking at a universal service obligation, and we will not be tied to some piddling European target of 5 megabits. No, when we look at a universal service obligation we will look at a British universal service obligation to deliver the kind of British broadband speeds that British citizens and businesses require. Over the last four years we have delivered that to more than 3 million homes and businesses, and we are fast approaching 4 million. We are hitting our targets time and again. We may not be able to beat the Australians at Twickenham, but when it comes to broadband we beat them hands down!

7.52 pm

Matt Warman: I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I do not think that many debates secured by that Committee will have included contributions by Members from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, and this debate has shown that superfast broadband is genuinely a national problem that needs a national solution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) suggested a social tariff to emphasise how much this problem affects those who have the least money to spend on subscriptions, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) said that small providers will play a crucial role in the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) spoke about people leaving villages because of the digital divide, and that emphasises the scope and scale of the problem that we face. This is not just an English problem and it is appropriate to end by citing the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who said that if we want all four corners of these islands to be prosperous, we must create the conditions for economic growth. That is what this debate has been about, and the “not spot” summit that I hope the Government will organise shortly will be a crucial part of the solution to the national problem of superfast broadband roll-out. I commend this motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes variations in the effectiveness of roll-out of fixed and mobile superfast broadband in different parts of the UK; and calls on the Government to host a not-spot summit to consider ways to tackle this issue.

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7.54 pm

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the political situation in Stormont.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) who has co-sponsored this debate, to all those who supported my efforts to secure this debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee that gave me this opportunity.

I know that the eyes of some hon. Members—especially those who are not here—may glaze over when they see that the debate is about Northern Ireland yet again, but I do not apologise for that. This is about my home, our home, my constituency and my family, and it is as important to me as I expect each hon. Member’s constituency is to them. Yes, I am afraid it is Northern Ireland to be debated.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Don’t apologise.

Danny Kinahan: Thank you. In my maiden speech three months ago, and in numerous interventions, I continue to make the point that the devolved Government of Stormont does not work. Indeed, the First Minister has publicly described it as “dysfunctional”, and it could not be more so. I raise this matter today because I am fiercely proud of my home country, of being Northern Irish, both British and Irish, and in fact a large part Scottish too. I long to see my country at peace with itself.

In my maiden speech I chose as one of my key points to call for a real push for the Union and for all parts of the United Kingdom to work together, not just for Northern Ireland but for all members of the Union. I firmly believe that the majority in Northern Ireland want a Union for everybody that lives up to the core values of fairness, tolerance and freedom of speech, and embraces the spirits of enterprise and hard work that make these islands great. I enjoyed hearing the Prime Minister make the very same points in his speech in Manchester last week.

Why do I raise this issue? It is because I want all hon. Members—Labour, Liberal, Conservative, SNP and each party present in the House—to take an interest and help to move Northern Ireland to the next level of normality. We want a peaceful society where diversity is respected and cherished, and a society that has a functioning Government and Opposition, protection for minorities, and dynamic and decisive politics without a criminal element linked to it in any way. I am extremely happy and proud that my party recently made the brave decision to move into opposition in an attempt to move Stormont forward.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in his contribution, and I congratulate him and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on securing this debate. The hon. Gentleman touched on the fact that the Ulster Unionist party’s withdrawal of its one Minister from the Executive in many ways precipitated the current crisis. For the benefit of my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland, will he outline when and under what circumstances the Ulster Unionists will take their place in the Executive again?

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Danny Kinahan: I thank the hon. Lady for that interjection, and we will wait to see what happens in the next elections before we decide whether we, and others, go back in. Yes, it was our party that precipitated things, but we only moved into opposition. The actions of others may have precipitated things further.

I know that all hon. Members will support the aims I have mentioned, and all will have done so in their constituencies throughout the United Kingdom. I wish to emphasise that we cannot simply devolve and forget, and all four countries will always benefit from working together in the Union. At Home Office questions today we saw a perfect example of that when I mentioned the lack of visible policing on the ground which allows paramilitaries to fill the void. The Minister just said, “Talk to Minister Ford.” That is not satisfactory.

We owe so many people so much for all they have done for Northern Ireland—the politicians, the armed services and people from many other walks of life—and we in Northern Ireland are for ever grateful. We all want to see better, and we all believe in better. In 1998, almost three quarters of a million citizens—more than 71% of those in Northern Ireland—supported the Belfast agreement. That was a ringing endorsement for putting the past behind us and looking with hope to a brighter future. They supported the vision that Northern Ireland could be a country of equals where religion, culture and heritage would not define opportunity or aspiration. I remember the excitement and genuine belief that this was a change that would offer future generations not only a better life but the chance to be themselves with no fear of intimidation or violence.

I came home in 1984, after serving my time in the Army. I remember the dark days when Belfast was somewhere many avoided, where armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets, where shopping bags were searched at checkpoints, and where the temptation to eat out or go to the cinema really did not exist. In 1998, the Belfast agreement lifted the lid. Enjoyment, excitement and the genie of a thriving economic future were released. The sheer buzz that I think the majority felt in Northern Ireland was quite wonderful: we had a hope of a better future and it was in our hands. It was not a perfect solution, but nevertheless a hope we have so nearly squandered. It was meant to create a system that would adapt and change over time, and become a form of government that lived up to the principles of that 1998 agreement. Instead, the very system put in place and supported by individuals during the referendum on both sides of the border has been changed, without the opportunity for those same individuals to voice concern or disagreement, into this dysfunctional quagmire.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman alludes to the dysfunctionality of the system of government we have, and he quoted others who have said likewise. Does he accept and agree that his party and other parties were the architects of the structures that he now describes as dysfunctional?

Danny Kinahan: I thought that might be the question. We certainly were the architects, with others, who took great risks. I have already said it was an imperfect system. What came later was much more imperfect, but I do not want to change this into a petty debate.

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Changes, such as the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, have removed ownership of the process from the Assembly and forced every future election to be a purely sectarian headcount. Northern Ireland is now locked into mechanisms that actively stop any improvement happening. Today, we need the support and leadership of this House to help us to move forward. We have an election process for the First Minister that means we have, in reality, a co-equal First Minister and Deputy First Minister, neither of whom can do anything unless the other agrees it. It is an admirable idea, but one doomed to failure as so often neither First Minister—that is what they both are—can agree with each other. It is almost an endless game of brinkmanship, a game of chicken that sees Northern Ireland’s people suffer each time there is a disastrous crash because neither First Minister will give an inch. We have an Executive of all parties, with the intention that those parties will work together and decide together. Again, that is an admirable idea, but not when the two main parties squeeze and ignore the other parties at every turn, forcing matters through and then claiming that they were agreed under the excuse of collective responsibility. All this must change.

Part of the structure of the Good Friday agreement was the creation of a petition of concern. This was a legislative tool to safeguard the rights of minority groups by offering either the nationalist or Unionist community the ability to veto legislation that would infringe their rights. This tool, designed with the right intentions, has been misused in the most underhand of ways. Since the last Assembly election in 2011, it has been used no fewer than 34 times to block issues including: better recycling, allowing the National Crime Agency to work in Northern Ireland, the provision of services and support for military veterans, to prevent Ministers even being held to account, and, of course, to stop same-sex marriage. It is obvious that the petition of concern no longer protects minority groups, but in many instances has actively been used to undermine them. The intention was never to use this as a vehicle to reinforce such politics, but that is exactly what it does.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman talks about the dysfunctionality of the existing Assembly. Does he not accept that for the past eight years, while the Democratic Unionist party has been the largest party, the Assembly has not had to be suspended once? It has not collapsed on numerous occasions, which it did when his leader and the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party were in charge and First and Deputy First Ministers in the Assembly.

Danny Kinahan: Thank you very much. I take those points very much on board. Rather than get buried in petty Northern Ireland politics, I will just point out that most of those collapses were actually caused by the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Those who were involved in the construction of the Good Friday agreement recognised that a simple or quick fix could never be an option. Indeed, those who were key in bringing this agreement to the people saw this as a first step towards a fair and equal society. They recognised that paramilitarism, segregated education, identity, culture and how to deal with victims and survivors were all complex issues that would need to be

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addressed many years beyond implementation of the 1998 framework. Sadly, in the 17 years since the signing of the agreement these issues have simply not been addressed.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Going back to the question of the suspension of the Assembly on four different occasions up to 2002, does he recall that on none of those occasions was a suspension brought about by a disagreement between the parties that held the First and Deputy First Ministerships? The suspensions were all caused by crises relating to the decommissioning issue, usually because of decisions and antics involving the British Government and certainly not involving the SDLP.

Danny Kinahan: Thank you very much. I am in a very good sandwich here, or between two thorns on a rose. I very much take those points on board.

The squabbling that has ensued, due to the mistrust of politicians, has not only made these matters even more divisive but has allowed them to taint issues such as healthcare, social justice and the economy.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Danny Kinahan: No, I am going to carry on for a moment.

Indeed, every avenue of life in Northern Ireland in which politics has a role to play fights against the stagnation that those politics have created. The current impasse, which is nothing more than the outworkings of this mismanagement and the mistrust of the major parties leading the Assembly, has placed Northern Ireland in a precarious position, not only economically, as political parties have failed to agree the implementation of welfare reform, but socially as the continued bickering and public statements of dislike and intolerance further drive a wedge between the sections of nationalist and Unionist communities.

Ian Paisley: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Danny Kinahan: I will later.

Our youngest generation, those who grew up in a post-1998 world, are among those who despair most at our inability to govern and our seeming fixation on creating obstacles instead of solutions. This was the message given to me loudly and clearly on the doorstep in the May elections. I am aware that, like those young people, many Members of this House are frustrated by the seeming inability of politicians at Stormont to see beyond narrow orange or green-tinted positions and genuinely attempt to make the brave and bold steps required to move our country forward. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we look at Stormont’s inability to implement policy or offer the leadership Northern Ireland deserves to rekindle that sense of hope, opportunity and aspiration I alluded to at the beginning.

Ian Paisley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We are now 15 minutes into his speech and there is not a lot of what he has put to the House this evening

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that I disagree with, but the current impasse in Northern Ireland is nothing to do with bickering. It is nothing to do with people falling out. It is to do with blood shed on our streets and the murder of an individual. The hon. Gentleman needs to address that point. We will agree or disagree and fight in the Assembly about all the other minor points, but this House needs to hear about the growth of criminality in Northern Ireland, and what this House is going to do about challenging that criminality, that murder and that mayhem.

Danny Kinahan: I will get to that point towards the end of my speech, because I think it is absolutely key.

Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): I entered the House with hope that the four corners of Britain could come together to form a solid table to hold the hopes and aspirations of everybody. My friends in Northern Ireland now enjoy 40,000 more people in employment than in 2010; unemployment has fallen for 27 months in succession; and employment is up to 67.8%. Surely these are things to hang on to—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Interventions are meant to be short. We are struggling with time, and I want to get everybody in.

Danny Kinahan: I could not agree with the hon. Lady more. I entered the Chamber with hope, and I intend to keep fighting for exactly the same things as she—

Sammy Wilson: You’ve been very negative so far.

Danny Kinahan: It is better to start off negative and end up with hope. The hon. Lady gave some good examples, but they have happened despite, not because of, the Government in Northern Ireland.

I want to offer some examples of the failures. The social investment fund was created in 2011 with the intention of providing £80 million for key programmes and infrastructure projects that would directly benefit the most economically and socially challenged communities in Northern Ireland. By 30 March this year, £2 million was all that had been allocated; £78 million might now never be spent, with community groups and the most vulnerable being the ones who suffer. As of this June, only £3.5 million of £12 million available for childcare provision had been spent, which meant another £6.5 million had been lost. This is appalling, considering the number of working families struggling owing to the lack of accessible and affordable childcare in their area, especially given the present welfare debacle. Some 20% of the population are currently on health waiting lists, some of which reach beyond 18 months. It is a situation recognised as unacceptable by national experts.

On shared education, which most recognise as the holy grail in addressing so many of the issues, recent research found that almost half of Northern Ireland’s school children were being taught in schools where 95% or more of the pupils were of one religion. In the 2011-12 academic year, 180 schools had no Protestant pupils on their rolls, and another 111 taught no Catholic children. In October 2010, the First Minister said:

“I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long.”

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He said that consideration should be given to tasking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration. Five years later, little if anything has changed. Under the Stormont House agreement, if it can be agreed, we are about to tie ourselves to spending £150 million on investigating the past, yet our own Justice Minister has said it will only really clear up one or two cases. Just think how much better that money could be spent elsewhere. Our victims and survivors need justice and support, but there has to be a better way.

There are many more examples, especially from the last four years of the dysfunctional Northern Ireland Assembly, but time prohibits me from listing every one.

Sammy Wilson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Danny Kinahan: I will keep going, otherwise the hon. Gentleman will not have time to speak later.

Commentators inside and outside politics recognise that the primary reason for this continued dysfunction is the creation of what we in Northern Ireland call the silo mentality of Ministers. When the coalition Government was agreed in 2010, neither coalition partner got exactly what it wanted out of government, but both parties were able to set personal and ideological positions aside to do what they deemed was right for the nation. Sadly, the opposite is now true at Stormont. Ministers are challenged by Executive colleagues not because of their policy approach, but because of party political or ideological differences. It is said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The Stormont Executive have proven that nowhere is that more true than in that political Cabinet.

If the UK Government were to design an education policy that ran contrary to their health policy or an inclusion policy that ran contrary to their housing policy, the electorate would quickly become fed up and ask for a new Government. That is unavailable to the people of Northern Ireland. Without a formal Opposition, there is no chance for change. Again, I congratulate my party as the one that made that brave step in creating the ’98 agreement and now, 17 years later, is doing the same for a strong Opposition. If those elected cannot be held to account, removed from Government or placed in a position where party comes second to the needs of those they represent, is it likely they will ever produce an effective Government?

Finally, I come to the elephant in the room of political debate in and about Northern Ireland: the continued undermining of political and social progress by criminals under the guise of terrorism—those who wish to rely on the violent struggles of our past at the expense of a political future. The House must recognise that the vast majority of acts carried out by these groups are not ideological but criminal and range from drug dealing to tobacco and fuel smuggling, punishment beatings, prostitution and racketeering. These ugly groups use Northern Ireland’s dark past and the Assembly’s inability to deal with these issues as cover to get away with the most heinous of crimes, including cold-blooded murder, with absolute impunity.

If any Member sitting on these Benches were considered to have a direct link with an active criminal or terrorist gang, I am sure that every other Member would not let that person remain here, occupying a seat in the greatest of all Parliaments. We all know that one party will not

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take its place in the House, meaning that we cannot include its Members in the debate or hope they will have the courage to speak and defend themselves in front of Members. I do not stand here to call out individuals, political parties or groups, although to make certain points I have had to do so; I stand here to highlight that without confidence in those we expect to govern with a fair hand, no citizen can truly support any elected body.

I have perhaps painted what some might see as a negative and rather depressing landscape for Northern Ireland, but I wish to emphasise that nothing could be further from the truth. The resilience of the people of Northern Ireland ensures that no matter how tough the challenge or how demanding the task, they rise above it and do what they have always done best: show hospitality to those who visit, continue to see the funny side of the challenges facing them and do what is best for them, their families and their neighbours. Many years ago while travelling, I met an Alaskan pipeline worker who had travelled around the world three times. When I asked him where the best place was, he replied, without knowing where I was from—surprising that!—“Northern Ireland”. He said that its inhabitants were the friendliest and loveliest of people. Above all, I wish to ensure that that remains the case.

I know you want me to finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am very nearly there.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman was advised to take about 20 minutes, but he is now on 23 minutes. A lot of Members want to speak. If we do not get other Members in, we are going to kill the debate.

Danny Kinahan: I was going to give the House some examples of some great Northern Irishmen and women, such as Mary Peters and Rory McIlroy, to show that we are a great country. To end, I wish to note that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) is the happiest place in the UK. I thank Members for listening to me.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I advise Members that I am now introducing a five-minute limit that might have to go down to four, so please let us try and get through the debate as quickly as possible.

8.18 pm

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): As a co-sponsor of this debate, I acknowledge the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) as the force behind persuading the Backbench Business Committee to allow us to have it, and he made a thoughtful speech tonight. He is a new but valuable member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, and I know that he will contribute to its work for some years.

When beginning a speech in this place, it is normal to say what a pleasure it is to take part in the debate, and while it is always a privilege to speak in this Chamber, it is rather regrettable that yet again we have to hold a debate on Northern Ireland because of problems in the Province, especially when, as the hon. Gentleman said, so much is right and working there.

Looking across at the Opposition Benches, I see representatives of three parties and an independent. Although I see some disagreement, I also see a

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determination in all of them to make things in Northern Ireland work. Sadly, however, problems seem to get in the way of the institutions functioning as well as they might.

As I see it—I have only five minutes—there are two problems to address tonight and in the next few weeks. The first is the crisis—it is a crisis—of government in Northern Ireland, where there are no longer properly functioning institutions. We could say that that resulted from the very bad murders that took place—indeed, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) pointed out, we cannot skate over them—followed by the Chief Constable’s assertion that one of the murders was carried out by the IRA, which was supposed to have disbanded a long time ago. We cannot ignore the fact that that is what brought about the immediate crisis.

It is also right to recognise—the hon. Member for South Antrim devoted much of his speech to this point—that the institutions were not functioning before that. The real and deeper reason for this problem, as far as I can see, is the design of those institutions. We know why they were put together all those years ago—to bring people together and to get them talking to each other instead of firing at each other—and there could be no better reason than that for designing those institutions. No one’s heart could have failed to leap at the sight of Dr Ian Paisley sitting with Martin McGuinness. That really gave us hope. Thinking back, we have to accept that the way in which the institutions were designed—with those who wanted to be elected to the Assembly having to designate themselves Unionists or nationalists or neither—could be said to have institutionalised the very sectarianism we were trying to get away from.

It is important to address the longer-term problems. I do not think we shall get solutions this side of next year’s elections in Northern Ireland, but from that point on we have to look at ways of ensuring an effective decision-making body. The institutions have brought people together, and we should not underestimate that magnificent achievement, which is a tribute to all those who worked so hard to bring it about and to the people of Northern Ireland and the great resilience they have shown.

It would be unfortunate, however, for anyone to suggest that revisiting the Belfast agreement in order to improve it is somehow an attempt to unravel it. That cannot be the case. An attempt to make sure that the institutions work better in the future would enhance the principles of the Belfast agreement, and we have to show courage in doing that. I would rather see proposals for improvement come from Northern Ireland—from the Assembly, but also from ordinary men and women in Northern Ireland rather than from this place. It is up to the people in Northern Ireland in those institutions to agree them and make them work.

We must address the immediate crisis. I would say to anyone on the Assembly in Northern Ireland who is listening to the debate that I led for the Conservative party many times when we were in opposition. Direct rule from a Committee Upstairs gave no one in Northern Ireland an opportunity to have their say on major parts of legislation. It is surely better to make the institutions work.

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8.23 pm

Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP): I am grateful for the two contributions so far, which I found thoughtful and interesting. I thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) for bringing this debate before us today, but all of us here and those who sit in Stormont are in danger of losing the confidence of the population of these islands through a seeming inability to find a resolution and get government back on its feet. If we take it that all parties are acting in good faith, we are left wondering why no one can find the common ground where all sides need to stand.

Very few politicians furth of Scotland have a good understanding of Scottish politics, so I am going to imagine that most politicians this side of the Irish sea will have a similar difficulty in fully understanding the politics of Northern Ireland. I hope that any shortcomings I have will be forgiven.

The continued impasse surpasses understanding. It surely should not be beyond the wit of politicians to find a way to work together even when they do not agree.

It is easy to understand that there is a different dynamic in Belfast, thanks to the unique governance arrangements and the need to ensure power sharing. It is easy, too, to understand that there are issues in politics in Northern Ireland that we do not have in our constituencies—or at least not to anything like the same extent—and that we do not have the same political history to contend with.

That said, I cannot bring myself to believe that any voter would cross a ballot paper in the hope that their elected representative would enter into a disagreement and find ways to continue it. I do not believe that either side of the great divide was carried to power on a wave of hope that they would create a situation that prevented anything from happening. If nothing else, the history of devolution in Northern Ireland has shown that the strongest wills on both sides of the fence can sit together and plan a common future, can work together and find accommodations to suit, and can make changes that do not require anyone’s capitulation, humiliating climbdown or pyrrhic victory.

I can well understand the position of wanting nothing to do with implementing the welfare cuts that are being forced on the poorest in our society, but I cannot understand the thinking that says that shutting down government is the better option. Equally, is not the continued existence or otherwise of the IRA or any other organisation that might appallingly choose violence as a route to social change a matter for the police and the security services rather than a point of argument for politicians? The people who elect us are entitled to expect better.

The Stormont House agreement, which appeared at first to be an excellent piece of collective decision-making has become something of a millstone and a point of contention, which is very unfortunate. The agreement could be the basis for forward movement if all sides were prepared to act in good faith and allow others the opportunity to do the same.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the work done by the Secretary of State in getting the agreement made. I acknowledge the work that she continues to do to try to get a resolution. It is not often that someone

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from my party will praise a Tory Minister and I will admit it sticks a bit in my craw, but the praise is very much deserved on this occasion and I hope her representative will pass it on to her. I hope he will also pass on my plea to her to keep the shadow of direct legislation, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), from this debate and to keep trying to get a resolution. Her deadline is, I think, at the end of this month—fewer than three weeks away. I hope she will be prepared to extend that deadline if it looks like there is a chance of striking a deal.

Getting Stormont back on its feet is the priority, but making sure that the parties working there come to an agreement on the basis of trust and respect might be the harder job. The political parties of Northern Ireland must, I believe, be prepared to accept that the other side of the argument might actually be acting in good faith and that although the Stormont House agreement might not be the best they could get, it is what is on the table just now. Posturing instead of acting could be damaging.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Ben Wallace): In the spirit of what the hon. Lady has said, if for whatever reason the financial settlement made it impossible for Stormont to continue functioning, would she support the Government legislating on welfare if it were the only option?

Deidre Brock: I do not feel that I am qualified to answer that, if the Minister will forgive me. I certainly feel that we must take every opportunity not to interfere in the discussions, and that any form of direct rule should not at present be looked at. I still feel that there is scope within the discussions to take that idea forward and ultimately to reach some agreement.

Posturing instead of acting could do damage that might take too many years to repair—and refusing to compromise could do the same. I believe that the people deserve no less than a compromise.

8.29 pm

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, and to follow the excellent speeches that have been made so far. I will not detain the House by repeating all the good words that have been spoken about how important it is for an enduring settlement to be achieved, although it is clearly very important for Northern Ireland to find a stable political process that can deliver for its people. I think we would quite like to avoid the annual round of crisis talks, and to get this matter sorted out for the long term.

On a more flippant note, I must say that I am surprised that we have got this far in the debate without anyone mentioning rugby or football, given the weekend’s events. May I be the first to congratulate the Northern Ireland football team on qualifying for the European championships? [Interruption.] I know that I should not have mentioned rugby—it is all going to go wrong—but that is an example of Ireland’s working together, and it could be a template for how we can move forward.

Let me now turn to a rather more parochial English activity. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that the solution to the crisis cannot be yet more money from Westminster and the taxpayers, that the parties in Northern Ireland must find a solution within their

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existing budgets, and that there is no way of buying them out of the problem. I welcome that, because I think it must be the right solution. Every time we back down over here and offer more money, we create a problem, because in a few years’ time there will be another dispute that the parties cannot resolve between them, and they will think that there is some way in which we can fix it for them.

I urge the Government to be very cautious about taking the power to carry out welfare reform, because I think that that will mean a cop-out by politicians in Northern Ireland. They will not have had to find the money; they will not have had to fix their own budgets; they will not have had to choose their own welfare system. If we do this for them, they will be able to run around saying, “We never agreed to it. All those evil people in Westminster forced this terrible scheme on us. We would never have done anything like this.” They need to make a choice between welfare spending and other budget priorities, and that is what we should be saying to them.

We need the Minister to explain the Government’s time frame. How far can we go with no effective government of Northern Ireland without forcing an Assembly election? Can we really limp on until the end of March and the start of the election period? Is there any real prospect of a deal before the Irish and Northern Irish elections, or will there be another six months of to-ing and fro-ing and hokey-cokey, with Ministers being appointed and then resigning on the following day? Is there, realistically, a solution without the holding of elections in Northern Ireland a great deal sooner than next May?

I said that we should be very cautious about taking over the welfare reforms, but I think that there must come a point at which, if there can never be a deal in Northern Ireland, we cannot just sit back here and watch government fall apart and public spending descend into chaos. At some point we must say, reluctantly, that there really is no other way, although I think that that would be a rather poor outcome. I ask again, however, “What is the timetable?” Is the end of October, which we just heard mentioned, the hard deadline for a deal, or can we allow this to drift on until Christmas and try to deal with it in the new year?

At some stage we must be clear and say, “Here is the time frame: sort this out, or we shall have to do it for you, no matter how bad that is”, but we must also be clear about the fact that it is a last resort, and not the outcome that we want to see.

8.32 pm

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I think it worth highlighting, at the outset, the reasons for tonight’s debate, and why the political situation in Stormont is so fraught.

First—and I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say this explicitly in Manchester last week—there is the failure of the two nationalist parties to proceed with the agreement on welfare reform into which they entered at Stormont House in December last year. Secondly, there is the murder of Kevin McGuigan by people who, according to the Chief Constable, are current members of the IRA, an organisation which—again, according to the Chief Constable; not according to Unionists, not according to politicians, and not according to speculation —is still in existence.

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Let me say something about the immediate aftermath of the Belfast agreement. We have heard a litany of faults in relation to Stormont, and I agree with much of it, but the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) ought to remind the House that all the issues that he spoke about in connection with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, Ministers in the Executive, all-party government and petitions of concern were issues that we opposed at the time, and that he and his party supported and implemented. Let me say, with the greatest respect, that he should not come here and try to revise history. It should also be remembered that when, after the Belfast agreement, the previous Assembly kept being suspended and there was dysfunctionality, people such as David Trimble were prepared to proceed regardless of what the IRA did. Even when there was no decommissioning, even when people were being murdered on our streets by the IRA, and even when police assessments were made and far more was going on, no action was taken.

As we have demonstrated, the DUP is not prepared to carry on with business as usual, or sweep such matters under the carpet. They cannot be swept under the carpet. Imagine if a political party in government here had some kind of militia or paramilitary organisation doing such things on the streets! It would not be tolerated for a minute, and no one else should tolerate it either. If we truly value democracy, we must make clear that only those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods should be eligible for places in Government, and that if they are found to be not so committed, action must be taken.

Later this week, some of us will gather in the Undercroft to commemorate the loss of Ian Gow. The despicable contempt for democracy that robbed the House of Commons of that gallant Member lives on in the men who ordered his murder and the murder of so many others. Let me say directly to the Secretary of State and to Ministers that if they will not act to protect peace and the political institutions in Northern Ireland, we not only will but must act. However uncomfortable and however awkward that may be, we will not sit idly by and let terrorists return us to the dark days of the troubles. Others may want to run away, but we will not. We will stick to the task of making Stormont better, and making it work.

The current crisis is precisely what is expected when, time after time, one participant in government thinks that it can play by a different set of democratic rules from those applying to the rest of us. In so doing, it is causing severe damage to Stormont, and to the type of peaceful, stable future that the people of Northern Ireland want and deserve.

What must be done now to salvage Stormont from the place in which republican killers have left it? Twenty years into the process, the paramilitaries must go away. In the words of the Secretary of State, they must disband. Whatever emerges from the talks process this time must do the job that the Independent Monitoring Commission plainly did not do last time. The Government must be honest with us, and tell the public what is being achieved—or, just as important, what is not being achieved. A new mechanism for ridding us at last of the scourge of republican and so-called loyalist criminal gangs must be credible, independent, robust and transparent. There must be an end to the smuggling, the racketeering,

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the drug dealing and the fuel laundering. Criminality must be tackled. For some time we have suffered because republican “untouchables” have grown fat and still more corrupt. Let us now have some British Eliot Nesses. The Prevent strategy that the Home Secretary employs against home-grown Islamist terrorism is full of useful lessons for the Northern Ireland Office. It is time that we got results in dealing with paramilitaries and criminals.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am following closely what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement remains the best hope for the people of Northern Ireland and its institutions?

Mr Dodds: I entirely agree. Even before the resolution of the crisis became unavoidable because of the killing of Kevin McGuigan and what flowed from it, we had the deadlock and chaos that resulted from the failure to implement the Stormont House agreement, and the failure to get on with welfare reform that had been agreed by the SDLP and Sinn Féin, resulting in the fact that we could not have a proper, sustainable budget on which to base future plans for the Assembly of the people of Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson: My right hon. Friend has referred to criminality. In the wake of the killing of a member of the Garda on the border this week, the Garda have said that there is a corridor of criminality along the border. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that needs to be addressed?

Mr Dodds: I totally agree, and I want to take this opportunity to express the sincerest condolences to the family of the Garda officer who was so despicably murdered as he went about doing his duty on behalf of people in the Irish Republic.

We must create some kind of high-profile taskforce to take on the terrorist godfathers and their criminal activity. We should give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, MI5, the National Crime Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Army and our friends in the Irish Republic security forces the tools they need to do the job. We need targets and we need results. The public have suffered at the hands of these crime lords for long enough.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Dodds: I cannot, as I do not have any more time left to give way and other Members want to speak.

We must get on and implement the Stormont House agreement. We cannot go on wasting £10 million each and every month, as we have to do in Northern Ireland with, effectively, the Executive handing that over to the Treasury. It could pay for more than 2,100 people to get knee operations or more than 1,800 people to receive hip operations. Instead, we are handing that money back to the Treasury as a result of this nonsense that is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment.

The past is part of the talks process. Let me be very clear that, as far as the DUP is concerned, we do not want to visit the fantasy land the current Leader of the Opposition seems to dwell in. We are very clear that we

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will not let the past be rewritten. We know who the terrorists were and there will be neither amnesties nor excuses granted. Nothing that emerges from the talks process will lead to anything other than an honest accounting of the past, as far as we are concerned.

We want a settlement that endures in Northern Ireland: one that works, one that delivers for our people, one that sees us co-operate for the good of all. Sinn Féin faces the same choice it has always faced: either choose to become truly democratic politicians like the rest of us, or stay in a crime-tainted world. Sinn Féin cannot be allowed any longer to stand in the way of peace and progress.

8.40 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend—I want to call him that as I have known him for 30 years—the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who have been successful in securing this debate.

I am not going to pretend that I have a great family lineage in the Province; I do not, but I was brought up on the atrocities that took place during the troubles and dominated the news headlines during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I was present at the Harrods bombing in 1983 and the Brighton bombing in 1984. Over the last five years, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I have gained a better understanding of the issues and challenges facing this great Province.

These challenges break into three separate parts: the need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, especially welfare reform; the threat from organised crime and terrorism; and confidence in the justice system and the legacy from the troubles.

The Northern Ireland economy is very similar to that of my constituency in Plymouth in that they are both dependent on the public sector. In my patch, over 32% of people work in the public sector. The proportion in Northern Ireland is similar, at over 30%. That issue must be dealt with.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Assembly having the opportunity to change the rates of corporation tax could encourage the private sector to help to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy?

Oliver Colvile: I thoroughly agree, and that is why I hope that there will be some movement on that come 2017. I ask this question: why has Northern Ireland not got a city deal? We in Plymouth have not only ended up getting a city deal, but land has been released which the Navy no longer needs and we also have an enterprise zone. My hon. Friend is right that movement on corporation tax is the right thing to do.

I welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on his return to the post of shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope he will continue the bipartisan approach he took the last time he held the post. I also hope he can help convince his leader and the shadow Chancellor to give up their support for IRA terrorists. Perhaps he might like to take them to meet

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the victims of the atrocities to hear at first hand of their real anguish at losing close relations, and maybe they can get an education.

I also pay tribute to Anthony Golden, who was killed earlier this week. It appears that his murderer was facing charges of membership of dissident republican groups and was out on bail. That proves that terrorism is not only an issue for Northern Ireland, as it also happens in the south and to us all here on the mainland, too. What discussions is my hon. Friend the Minister having with his opposite number in the Republic to tackle organised crime and terrorism?

I also want to speak a little about confidence in the justice system and the legacy issues. We should remember that my city of Plymouth, through its military, made major sacrifices and lost lives during the troubles. During my visits to Northern Ireland, I have met a number of victims’ families and they all want to see justice. So, last November, I supported the Government’s proposals on the European arrest warrant. The warrant gives powers to our police forces to apply for the arrest of potential criminals and for them to be returned to the UK to face justice. Will my hon. Friend the Minister explain why the PSNI has refused to apply for a European arrest warrant to bring Rita O’Hare back to the UK?

Rita O’Hare was put on trial in the 1970s for plotting to kill someone in the Army. She was given bail and subsequently escaped to the Republic to become Sinn Fein’s envoy to the United States. Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell were approached by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to bring her back to the UK. Despite their support, Blair was told by his Law Officers that he could do not that as she would be arrested. I have pressed the PSNI to apply for a European arrest warrant, but I have been told that there was not enough evidence to proceed. I am sorry, but if there was enough evidence to bring her to trial in the 1970s, why is there not enough now? This is ridiculous; she should be brought back to the UK to face trial.

Since the decision to give Northern Ireland what I would call home rule and to devolve responsibility, it appears that the Executive have had difficulty on occasions in taking responsibility for what goes on in Northern Ireland. Welfare reform, rebalancing the economy and dealing with legacy issues should be the responsibilities of the Executive and the Assembly. Ministers and the Northern Ireland Committee have roles to play, but the Northern Ireland Executive have to be more willing to take responsibility for devolved matters. I will continue to press for the Northern Ireland Committee to help by undertaking an audit of what has happened since the Good Friday agreement, to ensure that we can deliver on that and have better community consultation. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) is quite right to call for help from Whitehall when there is no alternative, but that should be the last port of call. In short, it is time for grown-up politics and for Northern Ireland to work as part of the Union.

8.47 pm

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), on securing the debate. This is my first speech as a Back Bencher for

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more than 14 years, so I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I am a little rusty. I never sought the role of shadow Secretary of State, but it turned out to be an immense privilege and left me with a deep affection for Northern Ireland. That affection is built on the straight talking and warmth encapsulated as “the craic” among so many people I met.

I feel a great sense of pride but also responsibility as a consequence of my party’s legacy in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Whatever the collective political failures of recent years, it is important to recognise that many of Northern Ireland’s leading politicians would hold their own intellectually and administratively at the highest levels in any democracy.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome back my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker)—who is not in his place at the moment—as shadow Secretary of State. He is widely trusted and respected in Northern Ireland. I also want to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his tremendous support during my period in the role. I strongly support both of them in maintaining Labour’s support for a bipartisan approach. The principle of consent must apply to any change to Northern Ireland’s status within the UK. It is also important that my party should maintain equidistance between Northern Ireland’s mainstream parties.

So, what are the causes of the culture of crisis that has led to a cycle of despair and, in turn, to public disillusionment with the political system? There are a number of factors involved. Three successive years of elections have meant that politicians are reluctant to make compromises that might affect their core support. Sinn Féin’s overriding political priority has been to make progress in the south and to do nothing in the north to undermine its anti-cuts, anti-austerity position. Also, post-Ian Paisley senior, the Democratic Unionist party has been wary of being seen to work in an authentic partnership with Sinn Féin. An accommodation is not a partnership. Furthermore, too many people are still trapped in worklessness and inter-generational poverty and not seeing their lives getting better via a peace dividend.

What might the solutions be? The Stormont House and Stormont Castle agreements must form the basis of a way forward. There has to be a viable budget that takes account of agreement on some measures to mitigate the impact of welfare changes, including non- implementation of the pernicious bedroom tax, but Sinn Féin has to accept that such a viable budget is a reality facing all democratic Governments. This will require tough choices including changes to the welfare system. The only case I can see for further additional UK Government finance is a new fund to support the development of a new universal mental health service to tackle the inter-generational trauma unique to Northern Ireland. There also has to be a plan, with measurable timelines, to oversee the disbanding of all paramilitary structures. Such structures should be anathema in today’s Northern Ireland. The structures to deal with the past need to be agreed as soon as possible, and the Government should honour the Good Friday agreement commitment to a public inquiry into the Finucane murder. This can and should be time-limited, with a finite budget.

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An incoming 2016 Executive, and, where appropriate, the UK Government, should commit to the implementation of the excellent Heenan-Anderson Commission recommendations to systematically tackle worklessness and inter-generational poverty. Alongside that, we need an economic plan that includes a city deal, and investment in skills and infrastructure, essential if the devolution of corporation tax is to make a real difference. It is right that there should be the establishment of an official recognised Opposition, preferably from 2016 onwards, but we also need a new movement binding together civil society, business, trades unions and the Church to apply pressure to politicians and to create the space and permission for politicians with courage and vision.

Seventeen years on from the end of the troubles Northern Ireland is a much better place, but it is still a society emerging from conflict, coping with the wounds of its past. In truth, that means it will take at least a generation, perhaps two, to move from a cold to a lukewarm peace and then to a normal society. What is needed more than ever is courageous political leadership, coupled with a shared and ambitious vision for prosperity and social justice.

Lady Hermon: I just want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who worked extremely hard as the shadow Northern Ireland spokesman for a considerable time. I am curious to know whether his experience and expertise on Northern Ireland have at any stage been asked for by the current leader of his party. I think his plea tonight was almost for his party leader to read what he was saying about Northern Ireland. Has his party leader ever sought his view?

Mr Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for her generous comments, and I thank all Northern Ireland politicians represented in this House for the tremendous support they gave me during the time I did that job. They do not get enough credit for the many constructive and positive things they do to try to move Northern Ireland forward. In direct answer to her question, I can say that in the context of the reshuffle I did have a brief conversation with the leader of my party about the challenges facing Northern Ireland. When I meet the leader of the Labour party in the next few weeks on a one-to-one basis I will certainly be raising a number of issues with him, one of which will be my analysis and my view of the appropriate position that my party needs to take if we are to continue to adopt, along with the Government, a constructive bipartisan approach to moving Northern Ireland forward. There are many things we could do that may undermine that, and we must resist the temptation to change our long-established positions, which have, despite some disagreements, on the whole earned the respect of all of Northern Ireland’s political parties. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North, the shadow Minister of State, has insisted that we stay true to those positions. On that note, I will bring my remarks to a conclusion.

8.53 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is an honour and a privilege to follow such a forceful and well-argued contribution from the hon. Member for Bury South

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(Mr Lewis), and I think we would welcome his comments —we certainly would on this side of the Chamber. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) on securing this debate. While we are on the subject of congratulations, let us congratulate the Irish rugby football team on having achieved qualification where England could not, the Northern Ireland football team on qualifying for Euro 2016 and even the Republic on getting to the play-offs for Euro 2016.

I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the best in conducting the negotiations, as I am sure the whole House does. They are at a delicate stage and they clearly need firm but fair guidance.

Let me discuss my personal history. I was at university in Liverpool in the 1970s, where I represented people from both sides of the sectarian divide. I visited Northern Ireland for the first time then and I was shocked by what I saw. I was there on business in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a very different sort of world to the one it is today. The opportunities that arise in Northern Ireland for business, for tourism and for the greater good of its people are legion. We should look at the positive things that have taken place. Personally, I have had to work with people whom I could not stand in various different political institutions. I take my hat off to those who have to work with people who were literally seeking to murder them only a few years ago. The positive aspect of the changes that have taken place needs to be emphasised. People must understand what can happen when things move forward.

I well remember the words of the late Jim Callaghan who said that it was an easy decision to send in troops to Northern Ireland, but a very difficult one to get them out. Clearly, what we do not want to do is go back to some form of direct rule, because it will then be much more difficult to get a settlement that will lead to proper—

Bob Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Just as a point of fact, in the spring of 1970, I remember Jim Callaghan telling my platoon that the British Army would be out of Northern Ireland by Christmas 1970.

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his contribution. He makes the point quite clearly.

Dialogue clearly needs to take place between the different political parties in Northern Ireland, but paramilitary organisations and criminal gangs have no part in that dialogue. We must give full support to the police in ensuring that the rule of law and order is instituted in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on their steadfast support for a proper process and a bipartisan approach. I am concerned that those paramilitaries may have been encouraged by other Members of the Opposition, and that they may be instituting some of their attitudes. I have school friends who were in the pubs in Birmingham when they were bombed. I was in the bar in the Grand Hotel in Brighton an hour before it was bombed. I have personal memories of what happened during those days. We must never go back to them, and we must ensure that we institute proper democratic solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland.

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Time is running out. I ask the Minister, in his reply to this debate, to set out how we can ensure that the budget for Northern Ireland is delivered. I also ask him to set out very clearly the position on welfare. We cannot have a situation in which one part of the United Kingdom is carrying on with a huge deficit and not implementing the Budget. Equally, we need to ensure that we implement the Stormont House agreement as opposed to just allowing things to drift. Clearly, the legislation will take some time to pass through this House. We cannot have deadlines being set and then being ignored.

I accept that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is at a delicate stage in her discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland, but we cannot allow this impasse to continue unabated. Encouraging news emanates from those talks, but no agreement seems to be taking place. It is not right that some political parties that are not present in this Chamber can hold up the talks and express platitudes but not implement the agreement to which they have put their names. Clearly, we need to impose some deadlines and some structure and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the economic recovery that will flow from democracy, institutional investment and the rebalancing of the economy so that the private sector can improve the jobs and the life prospects of all the people of Northern Ireland.

8.59 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), on getting the Backbench Business Committee to agree to this debate.

It will come as no surprise to most people in the Chamber who know me that I am going to talk about the role of trade unions. The trade unions in Northern Ireland are one of the very few voices that are genuinely non-partisan and cross-community. With no disrespect to those sitting on the Northern Ireland Benches to my left, we have seen tonight that there are clear disagreements within the political parties, but the trade unions in Northern Ireland have always played a role in representing people regardless of where they come from or what their beliefs are. These are the people who have to face the reality of Government policy on the ground, whether that is a public sector pay freeze, the cost of living squeeze or the impact of welfare benefit cuts, and I asked them for their view today. On behalf of Unison, the biggest trade union in Northern Ireland, I received the following response:

“trade union members in Northern Ireland fear a return to sectarian violence, a return of a gang law-enforcement culture and a breakdown of institutions and public safety.

The unions…are fighting to save the peace process and Good Friday Agreement, from a politically engineered dispute between the DUP and UUP in the run up to the 2016 elections.

DUP ministers are only…taking office for one hour a week then resigning, and taking full salary”

to progress their policy—[Interruption.] If Members want to intervene, I am happy to take an intervention.

Mr Dodds: I hope the hon. Gentleman will clarify that that is not the case. Indeed, the crisis came about not as the result of some kind of Ulster Unionist-DUP

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dispute but because of the IRA murder of a person on the streets of Belfast. That is what we should all be concerned about.

Mr Anderson: I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman says, but, as I said earlier, this is not what I am saying; it is what was said to me by those who represent people on the ground in Northern Ireland. That is their view, and the view of the people who try—

Sammy Wilson: It shows how partisan they are.

Mr Anderson: Well, what I said is the case.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents trade unions across the whole of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, took a motion to the European TUC, which represents 60 million workers across Europe. The ICTU is convinced that without the input of both Governments and the US Government there will be no movement forward in Northern Ireland. The congress supports fully the devolved Administration of Northern Ireland, wants the Government to be involved and to give a financial stimulus to ensure the continuation of the political institutions, and believes:

“The austerity measures being imposed on the citizens of Northern Ireland by the…Government are a major impediment to the resolution of the political impasse.”

Despite all the progress, Northern Ireland remains a society emerging from conflict:

“A society which has the lowest levels of any region in the UK of investment, educational attainment, and the highest levels of mental ill-health.”

The suicide rate is some 70% higher than in any other region, and poverty, the security spend and economic inactivity are all higher on any scale. The unions believe:

“The failure to achieve a political resolution in the talks…will result in the fall of the political institutions and direct rule...by the Westminster Government”,

which is the last thing that anybody over there wants. That will be unforgivable. The unions believe it will take us back to where we were and will

“result in the emergence from the shadows of the so called…para-military groups”.

While Members speak about the fact that one thing that led us to where we are now was what the police lead us to believe was the involvement of the IRA in the killing earlier this year, the unions believe that the failure to get the system up and running again will take us back to the full-blown impact of what we saw for far too many years.

I suggest that the people involved on behalf of the Government should sit down with the trade unions once in a while. I know that they are not very keen on talking to the trade unions on this side of the Irish Sea, but perhaps they might like to talk to the trade unions on the other side of it, which are genuinely committed to seeing the community go forward. Their track record shows that they have been there and shows their work with people on the ground, so the Government should ask for their view and work with them to try to make things go forward. At this moment, we are facing an impasse that will not be helped by having direct rule imposed in any shape or form.

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9.4 pm

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) who introduced it was almost apologising that we should be discussing Northern Ireland again. I far prefer to have politicians sitting in the House of Commons talking about Northern Ireland than have young men out on the streets of Northern Ireland killing each other, so it is always a pleasure to be able to take part in such a debate.

Murder should have no place in politics. It is ballots, not bullets, that should decide issues in the 21st century in this United Kingdom. When a culture of violence develops, we see a Garda officer from the Republic to which the person in question claims to have loyalty shot dead while going about his duties. That is what happens when a culture of violence and criminality is allowed to fester under the excuse of a flag of political belief.

It is also important that we have budgetary and fiscal responsibility. It is safe to say that there are considerable differences between the Administrations in Westminster and Edinburgh on Scotland’s future fiscal direction, yet they have managed to agree a balanced budget, and will implement it regardless of the outcome of the Scottish Parliament elections next year. That sends a message to others.

Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in Scotland we are dealing with a one-party Government, while in Northern Ireland we are dealing with a five-party Government, some of whose members would make the leader of the Labour party look like a member of the Conservative party?

Kevin Foster: It is clear that in Northern Ireland everyone, not just some Members of the Assembly and the Government, needs to take responsibility for making balanced budget proposals and agreeing an effective Assembly Government based on sustainable finances, a point that I have made following the last two statements to the House by the Secretary of State. If people do not agree, it behoves them to state what they would agree to and then be prepared to discuss that to keep the whole system going. We could spend all night listing issues with how the Assembly works, and there are some who are not prepared to accept some of what was signed up to. It can be easy to get an agreement, but implementing it is usually slightly more difficult.

There is a golden opportunity to secure a peace process for the future. The speech that I was looking for in this debate was the one made by the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). We could have a fascinating debate lasting until the early hours listing all the problems, but the hon. Gentleman set out solutions. I may not agree with every point that he made, but he was certainly right to say that there needs to be a positive approach to finding a solution to the current impasse. All parties, not just some, need to take responsibility.

I hope that the Government will continue to move down the path set out in the Belfast agreement, support the implementation of the Stormont House agreement and support Northern Ireland’s politicians in coming to a point where they are able to govern on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland and deliver many of the benefits that devolution should be bringing. That, for me, is the core of the matter. I want to see a time when

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Northern Ireland debates in this Chamber are about the economy, jobs and the future, rather than the past and the constitutional situation. I am as fervent a Unionist as the next person; I believe that the four nations are better together than they are apart. Clearly, there are those in the Chamber who disagree with that statement, but to be fair they show that one can pursue their argument through democratic debate, not by any other means. For me, the solidity of the Union lies in being able to discuss those issues rather than constantly coming back to the constitution.

Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): I think that we all want to discuss the economy and the good things about Northern Ireland and the rest of the Union. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we cannot ignore criminality, paramilitary actions and murder on our streets?

Kevin Foster: No, we cannot have murder as part of our political debate. Paramilitary groups have no place in this country. They should disband and respect the fact that, as I said earlier, decisions nowadays will be taken by ballots, not bullets. We go about achieving that by making sure that we have an agreement that all parties can take forward. No devolved Assembly can live for very long without a sustainable financial position. Governments in Wales and Scotland agree balanced budgets despite huge political disagreements with Westminster. I hope that we can see some parties take a lesson from that in Northern Ireland to allow the Assembly and Executive to proceed with sustainable finances for the next few years.

It has been a pleasure to have the chance to contribute to the debate. I hope that we can go forward on the basis of a positive plan that allows us to put Northern Ireland’s future back exactly where it should be: in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people and their elected representatives, not coming back to a Committee Room in this House for direct rule.

9.10 pm

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): It is good to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), a lovely part of the world, and to hear his contribution. I am glad to have this opportunity to take part in the debate and to say a few words, but I will be brief as I know there are still a few Members who want to contribute. We have had so many debates in this Chamber about Northern Ireland, and I have listened with interest to the speeches tonight.

We have had a number of history lessons going back to the 1970s and 1980s, but the general public out there in Northern Ireland want to know where we go from here. Make no mistake—the Assembly is in a crisis. As we have this debate here tonight and as we discuss other issues tomorrow and on Wednesday, the discussions will be ongoing in the Assembly to try to find a resolution to the issues and concerns that there are in the structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Any deal or understanding that we come to at the end of these talks, and any agreement, if there is one, needs to be comprehensive. It needs to deal with the issues that were agreed in the Stormont House agreement.

Unfortunately, a number of parties reneged on that. Although we know the reputation of Sinn Féin and we know its links to the provos, as history has shown us,

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I am extremely disappointed in the stance of the SDLP. On SDLP Members’ understanding of economics, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is a former Finance Minister so he understands finance, or he should understand finance. Every Member of this House will understand that if there is no money in a business, cash flow stops. It is all over. That is exactly the problem in Stormont.

Yes, we have had a murder on the streets of Belfast, and that is important. Blood on the streets of Belfast—we cannot ignore that; it must be dealt with. The paramilitaries must be dealt with, whether they be republicans or loyalists. They need to go away, in the words of the Secretary of State. But without money one cannot run a business. That is the problem of the Assembly. Welfare reform needs to be agreed, and quickly.

The point was made earlier that we are handing back tens of millions of pounds to the Treasury. Where is the business sense in that? Why? Because Sinn Féin and the SDLP, but more so Sinn Féin on this issue, are facing elections in the Republic of Ireland and they believe that it will have a detrimental impact on them if they agree to welfare reform. Welfare reform has to be implemented. The Government and the Prime Minister only recently said that there was no more money. Do we like that? No, but we have to go with it because there is no finance. Stormont needs to be resolved. We are a devolutionist party, and I believe that Northern Ireland is ruled better from Stormont, but there must be trust. At present the trust is not there. It needs to be re-established.

9.14 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): In following the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), I will respond to his challenge to my party, but I do not want to respond only to the issue of welfare reform and the challenges in the devolved budget resulting from the Treasury’s budget bullying tactics. The Treasury is imposing a fine on the block grant that is given to the Northern Ireland Executive under the Barnett formula. It adopted that tactic because it thought that creating budget stress for the Assembly would force through welfare reform, but that budget stress became a budget crisis, and that in turn is feeding a political crisis.

The Treasury needs to take a different course. I ask hon. Members to contemplate what would happen if the British Government decided to introduce a provision in the Scotland Bill that would require any disagreement between Ministers in London and Edinburgh on welfare issues in Scotland to be resolved according to the terms they are using in Northern Ireland. How would those on the Treasury Bench react if some of us proposed a new clause that would specifically forbid the Treasury ever doing in Scotland what it is now doing in Northern Ireland: using budget interference to impose a different view of welfare reform?

Although the scheme for devolution set out in the Scotland Bill is different from the notional legislative devolution that Northern Ireland has, the fact is that there is a scheme for devolution there, and it requires and presumes, by the nature of the legislation, agreement between Ministers, but there is no provision for when there is disagreement. It certainly would not work if Scotland were to be treated in the way Northern Ireland has been treated. Therefore, if the Treasury would not

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treat Scotland that way in relation to the future of devolution and welfare, it should not treat Northern Ireland that way now.

Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that using the word “fine” misrepresents the situation? The money that is being paid back to the Treasury is the difference between what is being spent and would have been spent had the welfare changes introduced across the rest of the United Kingdom been introduced in Northern Ireland. The fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has made a choice means that there is a difference in the amount of money spent, and that is why the money has to be paid back.

Mark Durkan: Whether we call them fines or penalties, as the hon. Gentleman and his party have done previously, or savings forgone, which is the language the Treasury uses, they are the same thing and the result is the same: serious pressure on our budget. There are other pressures on our budget as a result of some of the choices that the Executive have made. They are not choices that I would have made when I was Finance Minister—given that my period in that office has been brought up—but they are not choices that I had to make either.

Let me return to the issues that now confront all the parties in the Stormont House talks. Serious attention is rightly being paid to the question of paramilitarism in its various manifestations and manipulations. We are glad that that issue has come to the fore, although we regret how it has come to the fore. In the scoping for the original Stormont House negotiations late last year we said that we wanted paramilitarism, organised crime and criminality on the agenda. Unfortunately we did not get support from others, because they did not seem to believe that it was a relevant issue. It clearly is. Many hon. Members have touched on some of the features of criminality that clearly derive from our troubled experience. Whether people want to pretend that some of these people are simply privateers, having been privatised from some other paramilitary group, or something else, the fact is that collectively we have to confront what that means. We have done that before in previous debates on a cross-party basis—for example, when looking at organised crime in the border areas and elsewhere.

We, as parties, must also ensure that we are not divided on the issue of paramilitarism by taking a differential approach to it depending on what side of the community it appears to come from. We should avoid making different demands on and criticisms of the police according to their response or non-response to one feature of paramilitarism, as opposed to another, because that would send out a signal that we are still divided and that the paramilitaries are somehow attached to and serve particular sides. Nor should we create difficulties for the police. Parties should be robust in using the accountability mechanisms for policing to challenge and engage policing at all levels, but we should not catch the police in the middle of our party political differences.

That is why at Stormont House my party is advocating a whole-community approach to dealing with paramilitarism. If we are to create a whole community in Northern Ireland, we need to overcome historical sectarian divisions and all the convulsive ruptures that aspects of our culture and traditions have sometimes brought about, such as parades. At Stormont House—this

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is often forgotten—we agreed new financial commitments on shared and integrated education, but we need to go further. We need to invest in shared housing to build more intentionally shared communities close to the new shared education estate so that one will reinforce and support the other in changing society.

When people voted for the Good Friday agreement—I am probably the only person in the Chamber who was there negotiating it, and I take my share of whatever people want to say in the way of blame or criticism—we were proved absolutely right in the way we had done it. It was about creating transformational politics in Northern Ireland, and not, at best, episodes of transactional politics where people appear to share power now and then, and turn their backs on each other and let the community down at other times. We need to use these Stormont House negotiations not just to make good the better promises of Stormont House but to go back to the original promises of the agreement.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. To get everybody in with equal time, we are going to move to a three-minute limit.

9.21 pm

Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP): The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said that we should be more positive about some aspects. How much more positive can we get than Northern Ireland qualifying for the European football championships for the first time at the weekend, and the Ireland rugby team topping their group in the rugby world cup, although there were quite a number of Ulstermen playing for Ireland as well? Let us be fair—there are some positives. Perhaps we should just let the sportspeople of Northern Ireland run Northern Ireland. Would we have a better place? I do not know. It is difficult to replicate the euphoria in the sporting world in Northern Ireland in politics at the moment, but that is what we need to try to do. However, we cannot ignore what is happening on our streets—the murder and the criminality. All those aspects must be dealt with.

It is incumbent on us to go back to where we were in December. Not every party agreed with the Stormont House proposals. In fact, Sinn Féin was the only party that totally signed up to them. Let me quote what some of its members said at its party conference in March this year. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, said of the deal they got at Stormont House in December:

“Welfare reform is a fresh start that we need to seize with both hands”.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness referred to a

“remarkable achievement which has the potential to give the executive a fresh start…Against all the odds we have forged a way forward, we have achieved a deal in the interests of the people…We are immensely proud of the achievement”.

Only a couple of days later, they reneged on that deal. Why? Is it because they want to demonstrate that Northern Ireland is unworkable? There is a real challenge for us to prove that it is workable. We need to bond together—perhaps without Sinn Féin, but we need to do it. We need

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to bond together with unions, with representatives of the community, with public representatives, and, dare I say it, with sportspeople to make sure that Northern Ireland is a workable country and that Sinn Féin and those who are determined to drive that away cannot be successful.

9.24 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): First, may I say that the negativity in some of tonight’s speeches is not representative of the record of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Indeed, parties as diverse as Sinn Féin and ourselves have been forced to work together, yet have brought forward a programme for Government that, as was pointed out in an earlier intervention, has seen the economy through the recession, kept employment levels higher than ever through that kind of trough in economic activity, and introduced innovative policies, including taking unemployed teachers off the dole queue, helping young people with literacy and numeracy problems, and changes to business rates, which have now been replicated in Scotland and Wales. There have been innovative policies and good work has been done, despite the fact that many of the parties’ views have been so diverse.

We have a problem at the moment. Economics was always going to be an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly, given the fact that there are people there who are to the left of the leader of the Labour party, and others who would be quite happy sitting on the Tory Benches. There was always going to be a problem with economics and we have now come to the issue of welfare reform.

Part of the problem is the way in which the Government have handled the issue. Instead of making it very clear from the start that no leeway would be given beyond the substantial changes made and that no handouts or further money would be thrown at the problem, that hope was always held out. There are still people in Northern Ireland who say, “If we went collectively, we could somehow or other escape the changes that have had to be made in the rest of the United Kingdom.” That is nonsense, but unfortunately it has been assisted by the unwillingness of the Government to take on Sinn Féin and tell it and the SDLP, “Look, we have allowed changes to be made on welfare in Northern Ireland and it’s going no further.”

The Government have to make it clear to Sinn Féin that criminality and the party’s association with criminals who launder money and engage in illegal activities, and its defence of them because they are former comrades, will not be accepted and that it has to be dealt with. Until that clear message goes out, I believe the present impasse will remain.

9.27 pm

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and congratulate the hon. Members for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate on the political situation in Stormont.

The SDLP is committed to the talks process for the people of Northern Ireland. Our citizens have well and truly lost patience with the political situation in Stormont, with it hurtling from one crisis to the next because of

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the dysfunctional mismanagement by the two parties at the centre. The parties, and the British and Irish Governments, must commit to full and comprehensive outcomes.

Sinn Féin completely refuses to acknowledge the Chief Constable’s assessment of the possibility of paramilitary involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan in the Markets area of Belfast earlier this summer. There is also, of course, the failure of the DUP to work the institutions. Their approach of 10-minute Ministers going in and out has resulted in the public being sick, sore and tired of long waiting lists for healthcare. Our Minister for Health is a Minister for 10 minutes one day and then not a Minister for five days. That compounds an already difficult situation in that Department.

There is also a situation with renewable obligations for energy and renewable technologies in Northern Ireland. The people were told that they would last until the end of March 2017, but what the 10-minute Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment refused to tell them was that they were actually going to end in March 2016, thereby impacting on local industry and local capability, where there are enormous opportunities.

Mr Dodds: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ritchie: No, because other people want to speak.

Mark Durkan: Take a minute.

Ms Ritchie: Maybe I will.

Mr Dodds: Does the hon. Lady dissociate herself from and repudiate the recent words of her party leader, who referred to Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland as “taigs”?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I do not think that that is exactly what our party leader said.

Mr Dodds: He did say it.

Ms Ritchie: What I would ask is whether the DUP is fully up to power sharing, because that is the kernel or particular issue.

Mr Dodds: You do not repudiate it.

Ms Ritchie: I am not saying that.

Lady Hermon: I can assure the hon. Lady that I will not follow the comments made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), but he is quite right to ask the question.

The issue I wish to raise is quite different. The people in my constituency certainly want to know whether, if Sinn Féin agreed to some form of welfare reform, the SDLP would follow suit. When is the SDLP going to agree to the welfare reforms that have been rolled out across the rest of the United Kingdom?