The work continues on PMS

I had a telephone conversation yesterday with the Secretary of State, Mr Owen Paterson, and he assured me that work was continuing to seek a fair and just resolution to the PMS crisis. As yet we have no black and white outcome, he said, but ministers and officials are pressing on, and are seeking a solution.

There is a twin track approach in this quest, with efforts still being made to bring about a commercial solution as well as a reconsideration of what we have come to refer to as Plan B. The Secretary of State said that the Working Group was equally serious about both options.

It’s important that we stay patient for the next few weeks. Clearly the Spending Review next month is a deadline that the Ministerial Working Group is very aware of, and there is an urgency to their work.

The Secretary of State confirmed that the last meeting of the Ministerial Working Group was very constructive, and the statement following today’s meeting is also positive. It’s good to see that the Treasury are actively involved in the discussions as represented by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Mark Hoban.

I hope to see Mr Paterson next week for further discussions on this topic.

Here’s today’s statement:

Members of the Ministerial Working Group on the Presbyterian Mutual Society met today in Belfast to assess progress towards a resolution for those PMS members who remain unable to access their investments in the Society, which entered administration in October 2008.

Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mark Hoban came to Belfast for the first time in his ministerial role to attend the meeting. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson MP chaired it.  First Minister Peter Robinson, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, NI Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment Arlene Foster and Minister of State for Northern Ireland Hugo Swire also took part.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Paterson said:

“My colleagues on the Ministerial Working Group and I are encouraged by the progress which has been made in the fortnight since we last met.  We remain committed to finding a fair and just resolution quickly and to that end I’m confident that we have taken a significant step forward today.

“Work has been going on intensively in the several months since the election and the momentum is increasing further.

“We are all conscious of the need to identify a way forward in the context of the Spending Review next month. We know that PMS members are keen to know more about the options we have been working on, and we hope to be able to offer more insight in the near future.  We will meet again in two weeks.”

Stand up for the Ulstermen

ulster-29-edinburgh-21It’s been a great start to the new season by Ulster, winning all three of their opening games and now riding high at the top of the Magners League. Last night they defeated Edinburgh 29-21.

An outstanding performance from scrum-half Paul Marshall earned him the Man of the Match award, and that was especially interesting given that Ruan Pienaar, the superb Springbok scrum-half, arrived to join the team this week and watched the match from the stand. Brian McLaughlin has a great problem.

Andrew Trimble gave an energetic performance, scoring the opening try, and BJ Botha and Rory Best were powerful in the scrum. It’s the best start Ulster have made in the league for some years and bodes well for the rest of the season.

The only problem is, that with church commitments on Friday evenings in September, I have missed their two home wins at Ravenhill and have had to be content with a TV recording. Maybe I should stay away?

PM Q and A

Thanks to our MPs at Westminster for continuing to raise the issue of the Presbyterian Mutual Society with the decision-makers in London, and especially for this good question from Dr William McCrea during Prime Minister’s Questions today, which extracted a re-affirmation of his pledge from the PM. Here’s what Hansard reported:

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Before the election, the Prime Minister said:

“If I am Prime Minister a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS”— the Presbyterian Mutual Society—and continued: “you’ve done the right thing and you deserve for that to be recognised and rewarded.”

How soon will that pledge be honoured?

The Prime Minister: I am determined that we will honour that pledge. This is important. I know how angry people in Northern Ireland are when they hear British politicians say, “Of course, nobody lost any savings in the crash.” People did lose money, including in Northern Ireland, and they are right to be upset and angry.

A working group is trying to go through those issues and to find an answer. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is involved in that, and the Chancellor is engaged in the issue. It is not easy, but we are determined to find a solution so that we can give satisfaction to people who lost money in Northern Ireland and who currently feel that they have been let down.

It was interesting, in some clear role-reversals, to hear the former Secretary of State taunt the current Secretary of State about the PMS. It’s just a pity Mr Woodward didn’t sort it all out when he was in power.

Mr Shaun Woodward (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for their kind words. It has been a huge privilege for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and I to serve the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever my future, which is in the hands of my hon. Friends, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will continue our bipartisan support for his policy.

During the general election, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) talked about targeting Northern Ireland and the north-east of England for special cuts in Government spending. The Secretary of State tried to blunt that with the prospect of cutting corporation tax, but he will know from the Azores ruling that it is legal only if Northern Ireland bears fiscal consequences. What is his estimate of the annual additional cut the Treasury would have to take from the annual block grant to fund a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%?

Mr Paterson: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I would just like to correct an inadvertent comment on my colleague the Prime Minister, who did not target Northern Ireland; he just said, correctly, that it is one of those parts of the United Kingdom that is over-dependent on the public sector. On the question of the corporation tax sums, I say, bluntly, that nobody knows. That is why I am working closely with my Treasury colleagues-in particular, the Exchequer Secretary-to work out exactly the cost. Some international accountancy firms have estimated that, according to the Azores ruling, about £100 million to £150 million would have to be taken off the block grant.

Mr Woodward: The right hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland is over-dependent for a very good reason: because of the troubles. The answer to the question is contained in the report produced by Sir David Varney for the Treasury, and it is that £300 million would be taken out of the block grant. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that the net cost to the Exchequer for 10 years would be estimated at £2.2 billion. He is a very good sort of fellow, so why does he not level with the people of Northern Ireland? Just as his party’s electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists left them with nothing, just as his party’s talks on the Presbyterian Mutual Society look like leaving small investors with nothing, the promises on corporation tax will result in at best nothing and at worst an invitation to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to wield the axe.

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask for brevity, please, from the Front Benchers; other Members want to get in.

Mr Paterson: I am sorry that the tone has descended. All my colleagues in Front-Bench positions inherited the odd prawn behind the radiator. We inherited Northern Ireland and a whole bag full of old langoustines stuck under a radiator going at top speed. We face a long-term problem with the economy. The Varney report is, sadly, now out of date. It cited a figure of more than £300 million, whereas the independent Northern Ireland Economic Reform Group, which carried out a detailed study of the benefits that a reduction of corporation tax would bring, gave a lower figure. The fact is that we do not know yet, and we will be studying this in detail and introducing our proposals later in the autumn.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, which is that in our relations with local government, at a difficult time in terms of budgets, we should be giving it money and taking away the ring-fencing and complications and all the different grants. We should say, “There’s the money. You’re democratically elected, you decide how that money is spent.” That is what people are going to see from this Government, and I think it will be welcomed by local government up and down the country.

The Royal Irish Regiment

The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Colin Weir
The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Colin Weir

This week I had the opportunity to visit the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment prior to their deployment to Afghanistan later this month. It was great to find everyone in good heart, and, with all their training completed, they are eager to make the transition to their challenging assignment.

As I wished them well, I assured them of our prayers and support as they carry out their crucial mission. Their task is to establish stability and good order in Helmand province, primarily for the benefit of the Afghan people who live there, and ultimately for the benefit of all of us in the western world.

We wish our world were a better place. The writers of the Old Testament dreamt of a new age in which all human crookedness would be straightened out and all rough places made plain. The deserts would blossom and flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All humans would be knit together, and everyone would look to God and delight in Him.

The Chaplain, Rev Stephan Van Os
The Chaplain, Rev Stephan Van Os

The word which the biblical writers used to describe this state of affairs was “shalom”, which we normally translate as “peace”. But shalom means much more than the absence of war and conflict. It means health, wholeness, and a universal flourishing. It is a rich state of affairs in which all needs are met and all gifts are positively employed. Shalom is simply the way things ought to be.

We live in a world which is clearly deficient in shalom. It is a sinful, broken world. God hates sin, not just because it violates his law, but because it violates shalom. It breaks the peace and it interferes with the way things are meant to be.

We are innately shalom-destroyers. Robbery, assault, malicious gossip, blasphemy, idolatry, unfaithfulness and perjury break the peace. Sin is a parasite, a vandal and a spoiler. But shalom is built by truth-telling, thanksgiving, encouragement, faithfulness, love, and the worship of God.

God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. God is so committed to establishing shalom in our broken world that he gave his Only Son, Jesus, to live, die and rise again so that this world might be renewed and redeemed. Jesus Christ was the great shalom-maker, and when his kingdom is fully established, it will mean that everything will be restored to the way God originally intended it to be.

img_0437Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God. It is by the irresistible grace and power of Jesus Christ that we can be inwardly transformed so that we become shalom-builders, not shalom-destroyers.

On this anniversary of 9/11 when we remember how the shalom of the western world was so massively disturbed, we affirm our need for shalom and for the power of Christ to transform and change our world. That transformation begins in my heart.

Please remember to pray for these brave men of the Royal Irish Regiment as they take on their important duties, and pray for their families at home as they await their safe return.

Update from the Secretary of State

I received a letter today from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Owen Paterson, updating us on the current situation with regards to the Presbyterian Mutual Society. This is what he wrote:

At our recent meeting to discuss PMS, I indicated that I would be in touch to update you as the situation moved forward.

I chaired a meeting of the Ministerial Working Group yesterday – the Minister of State for Northern Ireland Hugo Swire, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mark Hoban, the First and deputy First Minister and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment also participated.

As you are aware, the legal and commercial sensitivities surrounding PMS limit what I can say publicly at this stage. However, in broad terms, I wanted to emphasise again the commitment that the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive share to finding a just and fair resolution to the PMS crisis. The commitment was very much in evidence during the course of the Ministerial meeting on 8 September; the intensive work being carried out by officials from Whitehall and Stormont was reflected in the constructive proposals being worked through by my colleagues on the Ministerial Working Group.

We are considering several options with the aim of finding the best available solution for the thousands of PMS members who have been unable to access their investments since the Society entered administration in 2008 – and in so doing, we have been mindful of the many representations made to us by individuals, families, Church congregations, elected representatives and other public figures seeking that a satisfactory solution be found.

Complex issues still need to be resolved, but the will exists to identify a way forward in the context of the Spending Review this October. The Ministerial Group will meet again in two weeks to review progress. I hope this note offers some reassurance that progress is being made and that we expect to be able to provide more detail in coming weeks as to the way forward.

We thank Mr Paterson for his update and assure him and his colleagues of our prayerful support as they seek to resolve these “complex issues”. As we wait, we encourage one another, as Jesus did his disciples, to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1-8).