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Northern Ireland

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—


Our long-term plan is delivering a stronger economy across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit, and we are boosting enterprise and investment by cutting corporation tax.

The manufacturing sector makes up roughly one in four jobs in Northern Ireland, so it is not surprising that 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland want us to stay in the European Union. Are those businesses right, or is the Secretary of State right?

The Government’s position on this is clear, and we are united in delivering our long-term economic plan to ensure that we deliver economic stability for Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome confirmation in the Assembly only this week that 80,000 people are working in manufacturing in Northern Ireland—more than at any point since Labour crashed the economy in 2008.

Just this morning the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began an inquiry into the energy sector, in particular the electricity sector, in Northern Ireland, and high energy costs are a problem for the manufacturing sector. No doubt we will speak to the Secretary of State, or perhaps a Minister, about that issue, but does she have any initial thoughts on that problem?

I gather that my hon. Friend has been having lively discussions in his Committee on these matters, including on issues relating to the super-connector. It is important that those issues are resolved, so that everything possible can be done to keep energy costs low in Northern Ireland. The UK Government have taken action to support high-energy industries, saving them around £400 million over this Parliament, including exemptions from certain EU obligations.

The Secretary of State will be well aware that many companies in Northern Ireland are seriously worried about the impact on them of the new apprenticeship levy. In the light of those concerns, what steps is she taking in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to soften the blow of that new levy?

I discussed those matters yesterday with the Minister responsible for apprenticeship and skills. The Government are working closely with the Executive to try to resolve concerns about the levy, and we are determined to minimise any administrative difficulties that come as a result of it. In reality, the levy will deliver a significant sum to support apprenticeships in the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

It is clearly good news that manufacturing jobs and output are increasing in Northern Ireland. What further steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy is further rebalanced in favour of the private sector?

The implementation of the Stormont House agreement, and the measures on economic reform that it contains, are vital, as it is that the Government continue with their long-term economic plan, which is delivering the stability that manufacturing needs to flourish in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State recently joined the chief executive officer of Invest Northern Ireland at the successful launch of the “Exporting is GREAT” roadshow, and I thank her for attending. Northern Ireland is the only region of the United Kingdom in which exports have grown by 9% in the past 12 months. What other initiatives will the Government commit to, to ensure that exporting continues to be boosted for companies in Northern Ireland?

We will continue with our “Exporting is GREAT” programme which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has a strong focus in Northern Ireland, and we will use our network of embassies around the world to promote Northern Ireland. It is positive that there is a commitment to devolving corporation tax setting powers to the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as finances are sustainable enough to make that possible, and the forthcoming reduction in corporation tax will be an even greater support for exports.

The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland exports as much to the rest of the EU as it does to the rest of the world combined. Does she therefore appreciate just how important that makes continued membership of the EU to businesses in Northern Ireland, and will she encourage a remain vote to help those businesses?

The Government remain absolutely committed to doing all we can to promote exports from Northern Ireland and inward investment into Northern Ireland. Both sides of the debate are committed to continuing to work together strongly to deliver our manifesto commitments and our long-term economic plan, whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June.

Mr Speaker and fellow Europeans, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will join me and the House in welcoming the latest official trade figures, which show an increase in manufacturing exports. The value of goods exported in the last period was up by £6.6 billion—a 9% increase—from 2015. Interestingly, they also show that the majority of exports—52%—went to the EU, while the largest value increases were to the United States of America and South Korea. Does this not prove the case for remaining? Do we not have the best of both worlds? Do we not have an ideal opportunity to trade with the world’s biggest trading bloc and the major economies of the rest of the world? I am sure she will agree with that.

I agree with the Prime Minister’s statement that trade will continue after the referendum, whatever the result. He was clear that we would continue to trade with the EU if the British people choose on 23 June to leave the EU.

Security Situation

2. What recent discussions she has had on the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (905249)

The Government are determined to do everything possible to keep people in Northern Ireland safe. I meet the Chief Constable, the Justice Minister and others regularly to discuss the security situation. I would like to acknowledge the exceptional work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which does an outstanding job tackling the terrorism threat.

Will the Secretary of State join me in praising our security services for helping recently to uncover a cache of paramilitary arms? If she can, will she tell the House whether the armaments found were a historical cache or more modern weaponry?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are limits to what I can share with the House, but I can assure him that the police are doing everything they can to bring to justice whoever was responsible for this cache of arms and that efforts, both north and south of the border, remain intense in seeking to press down on the terrorist threat. Sadly, there continues to be a significant amount of activity from small groupings seeking to pursue their aims by terror, but, thankfully, in the vast majority of cases, their plans do not result in harm being carried out, and that is because of the excellent work of the police.

11. It is obviously excellent and heartening news that the number of shooting incidents has fallen to its lowest level since 1969, but there obviously remains a credible threat from dissidents. Does the Secretary of State agree that even more needs to be done to choke off funding from organised crime and smuggling on both sides of the border? (905259)

A huge amount of work is being done on these matters, but my hon. Friend is right that more can always be done. I warmly welcome the publication of the report on paramilitary activity by the panel this week. We have managed to get national security attacks down to 16 in 2015 from 40 at their peak in 2010, but it is crucial that Northern Ireland as a whole moves forward, away from paramilitarism. Many of the recommendations in the panel’s report will help us to achieve the goal of ending paramilitary activity.

I am sure the Secretary of State and the whole House will join me in wishing Northern Ireland and the green and white army all the very best in the Euros, which start this Friday. Indeed, I extend that to all the teams involved from the British Isles.

On a more serious note, on security, the threat level assessment of Irish-related terrorism was recently raised from “moderate” to “substantial” for Great Britain. Has the Secretary of State given further consideration to the calls to increase PSNI numbers by 1,000, as recommended by the Police Federation, and certainly to bring them up to the level recommended by Patten?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on the Northern Ireland football team and the other teams from the British Isles. I wish them well in the competition.

On the security situation, the Government of course support the efforts by the police, not just through the block grant but through the additional security funding, and further funding will be made available to tackle paramilitarism under the “Fresh Start” agreement. It is crucial that every effort be made in this area. The UK Government will continue to do all they can to support efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the panel set up under the “Fresh Start” agreement reported today on ways to tackle paramilitarism. Some of the recommendations fall within the remit of the Northern Ireland Office. Will she give an initial response to the report, and will she join me, the Northern Ireland Executive and all the parties in Northern Ireland committed to ensuring that the choice for people in Northern Ireland is now clear—either a democratic, peaceful way forward, or facing the courts and prosecution by the police?

I can certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on those sentiments. It is a continuing tragedy that so many people in Northern Ireland are injured or murdered as a result of these brutal paramilitary-style assaults. My initial reaction to the panel’s report is to welcome it. I think it makes many good points, and I very much look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive as they develop their strategy in response to this important report.

Following on from that, yesterday’s panel report publication suggests that the PSNI has chosen to engage with some known terrorists rather than arrest them. How concerned is the Secretary of State about that assertion?

The panel makes reference to certain contacts that have taken place on an informal basis with some of these groupings. The panel’s report sets out a road map to seeing an end to those kinds of interactions. It is something that we shall work towards in the future because we do not want these organisations to exist any more.

EU Referendum

3. What discussions she has had with the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; and if she will make a statement. (905250)

5. What discussions she has had with the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; and if she will make a statement. (905252)

Ministers have regular meetings with representatives of the Northern Ireland parties to discuss a range of issues. The Government’s position is clear: we are safer, stronger and better off in a reformed European Union.

Only two countries in the EU run a trade surplus with Britain: Holland and Germany, and the rest have a deficit. If there is Brexit, the rest will vote for tariffs, which would lead to inward investment moving from Northern Ireland into southern Ireland, and it will be the same for extra opportunities and jobs. How can the Minister and indeed the Secretary of State justify supporting Brexit when it will lead to a movement of jobs to the south, along with advancing the cause of unification and the rising of sectarian tensions?

If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I fully support remaining in the European Union, and so do the United Kingdom Government. We are acutely aware of the points he raised, as 87% of the agricultural exports of Northern Ireland go south to the Republic, and we do not want to see any trade barriers put in the way. That is why we want to remain in the European Union.

There has been a period in which both Ireland and Britain have been outside the European Union and a period in which they have both been inside it, but if we vote to leave, it will be an historically unprecedented period in which one is out and the other is in. What assessment is the Department making of the impact of that on the border between our great nations?

The Government are clear that, should the United Kingdom leave the European Union, the border between the EU and UK will be the land border in Northern Ireland. That will place us outside the customs union, which will mean delay, checks and other reforms that will hamper our ability to export to and import from the Republic of Ireland.

Does the Minister not agree that the reality is that trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue very much as it has for centuries—regardless of whether we are in or out of the European Union?

What my hon. Friend misses is that export into the Republic of Ireland is also a gateway into the rest of the European Union and provides access to 500 million customers for United Kingdom goods. If we leave the European Union, that will, of course, be hampered; there will be a customs union on our borders, which will mean delays and barriers to our trade.

The Secretary of State will have noticed the recent significant slowdown in foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland because of the uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of a UK exit on the future of job creation and specifically of a British exit decision that might arrest foreign direct investment and render the reduction in corporation tax as of little benefit?

It is certainly the view of the United Kingdom that if we leave the European Union, that foreign direct investment would be put under threat. It might go elsewhere in the EU rather than in the UK. We do not want to see that happen; we want to continue to remain in the EU. Luckily, I think for all of us, there is not long to go before we can cast our votes.

The EU debate has focused over the last few days on migration. Does the Minister agree that migrants have brought in great skills to Northern Ireland, and will he clarify how he sees migration working after Brexit, if we leave?

What is often missed by people who want us to leave the European Union is the fact that, owing to our United Nations obligations under the 1951 treaty, the 1967 appendix and the 1984 and 1989 convention rights, if we did leave we would have to continue to take people who come to our shores seeking asylum and refuge. We would still not be able to decide 100%. Only North Korea can do that, and I do not fancy following North Korea.

During his discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, has the Minister said whether he thinks that it would help the police if we left the European Union, given that, before the introduction of the European arrest warrant, extradition took, on average, a year rather than the 48 days that it takes now, and given that 162 criminals have been removed from Northern Ireland since 2009 through the use of the arrest warrant?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The ability to remove people whom we do not want so that they face trial elsewhere in Europe is a very powerful tool for our forces of law and order in Northern Ireland. We have deported 190 people to face trial, including terrorists from Spain, and we have managed to bring back 34 people to face justice in the United Kingdom. That is a tool that we need: it keeps people safe in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom as a whole, and to turn our backs on it would be foolish.

I agree with what the Minister has said, even if his own Secretary of State does not.

Both the Chancellor and the Northern Ireland Office have spelt out the consequences for the border of leaving the EU. Moreover, I have a copy of a letter to the Newry Chamber of Commerce & Trade in which the Home Office also spells out the potential consequences for the common travel area, given that an estimated 30,000 people cross the border every day. The letter states:

“If the UK left the EU these arrangements would be put at risk.”

Does the Minster agree, and has he told the Northern Ireland parties that?

The common travel area existed before the European Union, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is totally unclear what arrangements would exist after a Brexit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union, so that we can take advantage of both the single market and the free travel of people, skills and trade that we enjoyed before membership.

Terrorism Threat

4. What steps the Government is taking to tackle the increased terrorism threat in Great Britain from Northern Ireland. (905251)

Our first duty is to keep people safe, and we give our full support to the police and the intelligence services. The threat level in Great Britain recently changed to “substantial”, meaning that an attack by dissidents is a strong possibility. People should be vigilant and alert, but not alarmed.

Police and prison officers who tirelessly serve the community day in and day out are often the targets of republican dissident activity. What measures are being taken to mitigate the risk that they face?

An extensive range of measures are being taken. The protection of police and prison officers is at the heart of our efforts to counter the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, because the threat that they face is one of the most serious faced by any profession. The additional security funding provided by the Government under the “Fresh Start” agreement is contributing to necessary protections for the police and prison officers who do such an important job for our whole community, and we will continue to do all that we can to protect them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, while we face a threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, the greatest such threat comes from the Republic of Ireland, as has been demonstrated by the recent arms and explosives finds and arrests, and does she agree that those dissident republicans have the capacity to launch campaigns on the UK mainland?

It is certainly true that dissident republican terrorist groupings have the aspiration to attack in Great Britain. Their main focus remains Northern Ireland, but they do have that capability and lethal intent. Every effort is being made to counter their activities, including their activities south of the border, through the co-operation that now exists between the police services and other security organisations in the north and the south.

Organised Crime and Terrorism

6. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border efforts to stop organised crime and terrorism. (905253)

In December, as part of the implementation of the “Fresh Start” agreement, I attended a meeting with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive at which we agreed on new measures to enhance co-operation on cross-border organised crime.

I strongly welcome the arrangements that have been agreed as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement, but does the Secretary of State agree that there must be both strategic and operational co-operation to dismantle gangs and their activities?

I would agree, and that is exactly what is happening. The new joint agency taskforce established as a result of the “Fresh Start” agreement enables exactly that kind of operational co-operation on cross-border crimes such as fuel laundering, human trafficking and drug smuggling, and I welcome the progress that has been made on that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that is really important that cross-border crime should be tackled as part of the follow-up to the panel’s report on paramilitary activity? It will continue whether we are in the European Union or outside it, and it must be tackled head on.

There is absolute determination on the part of the Governments of the UK and Ireland and the law enforcement agencies of both countries that we should continue to do everything we can to co-operate in countering the terrorist threat and the criminality associated with terrorist and paramilitary groups.

The Secretary of State must recognise how much organised crime—including cross-border crime—is derived from paramilitarism, and how much it uses networks and assets that have been accrued under paramilitary campaigns. Does she therefore agree that any serious effort to eradicate paramilitarism on a whole-community and whole-enforcement basis cannot ignore such criminal enterprises with menaces, which are the vestiges of paramilitarism?

I agree, and it will be well worth considering the views in the panel’s report on the laws that apply to organised crime in Scotland and the ways of cracking down on this kind of criminality there. It will be worth considering whether we could learn lessons from Scotland and impose statutory changes of that nature in Northern Ireland.

Implications of the UK Leaving the EU

7. What assessment she has made of the potential implications for border controls and security in Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. (905254)

Having the UK and Ireland in the EU guarantees the free movement of people and goods across the border, boosting cross-border co-operation and trade. The UK and Ireland will always co-operate closely on security matters, but membership of the EU enhances our ability to co-operate with member states to combat crime and terrorism and keep our country safe.

The most passionate Europhile I know is the Irish ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall. He says that, in the event of Brexit, the principles of the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area would be maintained. Rather than inflating fears about the border, is it not incumbent on our Minister to de-escalate and deflate those straw men?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen campaigner for Brexit and he no doubt also wants to control his borders. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot want to control his borders and make checks while letting everything just carry on as normal. With all due respect to the Republic of Ireland, it would be up to the European Union to decide what it did on the border of its customs union and not necessarily up to individual states. That is why Brexit would put our safety at risk and put barriers to trade across that border.

As has been mentioned, we have had a common travel area between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole for 100 years. What reassurances can the Minister give me that, regardless of the outcome of the referendum—he will know that I back remain—cross-border co-operation and security will remain a priority in Westminster and in Stormont?

We will of course seek continued security co-operation. No one is alleging that that would stop, but we would perhaps lose the European arrest warrant, Europol and all the organisations that allow us to build trust and to carry out successful intelligence work in order to counter terrorism.

Does the Minister agree that it is inconceivable that there would be no changes to the current cross-border arrangements if the UK were to leave the EU? Will he urge the Secretary of State finally to admit that she is wrong to say that there would be no such changes, primarily because this is a matter not just for her but for the Irish Government, and Ireland would still be in the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are two options for what happens at the border: either there would be more controls at the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, or there could be an internal border within the United Kingdom similar to the one we had after the war, but I do not think that the Unionists in Northern Ireland would want that at all.

Will the Minister of State assure me that the amicable relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will continue, no matter what the outcome of the referendum, and that any adjustments that need to be made when we vote to leave the EU will be decided through mutual agreement between the two nations? That is the way in which all business should be done.

Were the United Kingdom to choose to leave the European Union, the negotiations about what would happen between the sovereign state of the United Kingdom and the European Union would be done between the European Union and that country. The Republic of Ireland would therefore have a say in that, but it would not have an overall say on the terms of our exit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union and to take advantage of its security, because we are better, safer and stronger in it.

Given that Brexit will threaten policing and security in the communities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the communities of Ireland, will the Minister advise the Secretary of State to get out and campaign for the European arrest warrant to remain in place and for a remain vote on 23 June?

It is delightful to hear the Scottish National party talk about Great Britain from time to time. We will of course be delighted to ensure that we maintain the European arrest warrant and our membership of Europol by staying in the European Union, so I suggest that we all get out and campaign.