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House of Commons Hansard
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20 July 2016
Volume 613

The Secretary of State was asked—

North-south Electricity Interconnector

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1. What discussions he has had with System Operator Northern Ireland on the completion of the north-south electricity interconnector. [905908]

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Let me say at the outset what a privilege it is to have been appointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). She played a very important role and made a significant contribution, and I, for one, fully recognise that. I look forward to working with right hon. and hon. Members across the House to maintain that approach of continued political stability, greater economic prosperity, and safety and security, as part of a bright positive future for Northern Ireland.

I understand that the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), met EirGrid, the electricity system operator across the island of Ireland, to discuss the proposals for a new interconnector. I hope that proposals to deliver a stronger, more secure and more competitive network in Northern Ireland can be progressed quickly.

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May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his new position and welcoming all his colleagues? I look forward to working with them over the coming months. He will know the benefits that the interconnector would bring, not only to Northern Ireland, but to the Republic of Ireland. Our understanding is that Sinn Féin is one of the biggest objectors to this. Does he agree that that shows its lack of understanding of simple economics?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warmly welcoming me to my post, and I felt this in a positive way when I was in Belfast on Monday. He raises the issue of the interconnector, as he has done on a number of occasions. This is being considered by the Northern Ireland Planning Appeals Commission—it is a decision for the Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive—but I reiterate that given the significant potential to help to reduce energy costs for Northern Ireland businesses, I would hope to see the project move forward as quickly as possible.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position and his very able partner, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who has been an outstanding Member of this House. Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity, at this early stage, to make an assessment of the long-term future of the all-Ireland energy market in the light of the referendum result? Will the result alter that market in any way?

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Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I certainly recognise the importance of the all-Ireland arrangements for electricity and for gas. In the continued negotiations and discussions on Northern Ireland and the UK being outside the European Union, that will be a core part of the issues we will be taking forward.

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I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on their appointments, and thank the previous team for all the work they did for Northern Ireland. On an alternative electricity supply and the renewable heat initiative, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has told us that it may cost our block grant £140 million. Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is an investigation as to what has happened?

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Coming into this role, I recognise the issue of costs for electricity and power more generally, and its importance in the context of the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed, this is why I made the points I did about the electricity interconnector. I will look closely at the points the hon. Gentleman makes, and I look forward to discussing this and other issues with him and other colleagues in the months ahead.

Economic Development

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development in Northern Ireland. [905909]

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5. What recent discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on economic development in Northern Ireland. [905912]

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I am determined to build on the progress this Government have made in delivering peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland. We have already taken significant steps to back businesses across the UK, including reducing corporation tax and bringing the Exporting is GREAT campaign to Northern Ireland in May.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and I join in the remarks made about his predecessor. Will he continue the Government’s work to ensure that the private sector continues to grow? In his discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive, will he emphasise the need to improve private sector investment, so that more jobs are created in Northern Ireland and more people can gain from prosperity?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the creation of jobs and prosperity. I am sure that he welcomes today’s figures, which show further falls in unemployment and the claimant count in Northern Ireland, and increased employment, underlining the important aspects that he highlights. Yes, I will certainly be discussing with the Executive the role that I have to play with regard to investment and how we promote further jobs, growth and opportunity.

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Will the Secretary of State reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the devolution of corporation tax powers as set out in the Stormont House agreement? Does he agree that a vital part of that is that the Executive demonstrate that their finances are on a stable and long-term footing?

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We do want the UK to stand out as a low-tax destination for business. We have already cut the rate of corporation tax from 28% to 20%, and we will cut it further. My hon. Friend makes the point about the devolution of corporation tax powers. They are subject to conditions around fiscal discipline and financial stability. We look forward to working with the Executive to achieve that and to see that that further devolution takes place.

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May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), on their new positions? I look forward to working constructively with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office in the coming days. May I also pay tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who played an enormously positive and constructive role in Northern Ireland, and was instrumental in bringing about the “Fresh Start” and Stormont House agreements? We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to her.

I thank the Secretary of State for the discussions that he has already had with some of us and with the First Minister and the Executive Office. Can he spell out for the benefit of the House once again what he has already said publicly in Northern Ireland, which is why there is no question of a border poll in Northern Ireland?

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I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome and indeed for the very warm comments that he made about my predecessor, which I wholly endorse. I have been quite straightforward about this issue of the border poll. The conditions are set out very clearly in relation to the Belfast agreement, and I have been very clear that those conditions have not been met.

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The reason why they have not been met is that the overwhelming majority of people in both communities in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State recognise the irony and the illogicality of those who are talking so much doom and gloom about Northern Ireland and the UK post the Brexit referendum, when their main policy—their main raison d’être—is to drag us out of the United Kingdom, which would be the most financially catastrophic and politically demoralising thing that is possible to imagine?

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Let me underline the comments made by the Prime Minister about the very special bond that binds the peoples and nations of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a very simple message. Now is the time to come together and to work together to secure that bright positive future for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom outside the European Union.

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On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, may I welcome the new ministerial team and indeed the shadow Secretary of State to their positions? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), who was the former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who really has carried out an enormous amount of work in Northern Ireland.

May I ask the Secretary of State about south-east England airport connectivity, which is very important to the economy of Northern Ireland? Could he have a word with his Cabinet colleagues and speed up the decision on airport capacity in the south-east of England?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. Indeed, I very much look forward to working with the Select Committee. I note that he is tempting me into a broader area of policy in relation to airport capacity. He will know that the previous Transport Secretary made a clear statement on the timing of that, and, obviously, the matter requires further consideration.

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May I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to the Under-Secretary of State on their appointments? Has the Secretary of State and his officials, working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, made any calculation of the economic damage to Northern Ireland as a result of the vote to leave the European Union when the people voted to remain?

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I certainly recognise that there were differences of view on the EU referendum, as there were across the rest of the United Kingdom. Our focus now needs to be on what Northern Ireland can be, and on what we can achieve in terms of trade, jobs and new opportunities. It is precisely that positive agenda that I intend to take forward.

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I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, and also commend the former Secretary of State for her hard work on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Austerity has hit all of us hard, but Northern Ireland has special circumstances which make the impact even harder. Will the Government now consider reversing the austerity measures so that Northern Ireland’s economy can recover from the damage done?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her warm words of welcome. Again, I underline the figures that we have seen today, showing further falls in unemployment. It is right that we have a strong, stable economy, and that we continue to look outwards. I point the hon. Lady to the fact that the total value of goods exported from Northern Ireland over the past year has increased by 9%—a figure which outperforms the rest of the UK.

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I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State and his Minister to their posts, and assure him that we on the Labour Benches will do everything we can to carry on the bipartisan approach, doing the best we can for the people of Northern Ireland. I also thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Everyone I have met in Northern Ireland asked me to thank him for his work.

For years the rebalancing of the Northern Ireland economy has been promoted by the Government, and intrinsic to this has been a push to reduce corporation tax, but in recent discussions that I have had with businesses in Northern Ireland, they have told me that it is much more important to address the huge skills gap in Northern Ireland, where far too many young people are leaving school unable to read and write properly. What will the Secretary of State do to help the people of Northern Ireland to bridge that gap?

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We need great brevity as there are a lot of questions to reach.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. I certainly want to continue the bipartisan relationship. He highlights the issue of skills. I absolutely recognise that and will work with the Northern Ireland Executive on apprenticeships and on creating jobs and opportunities for young people, to give them the best possible advantages.

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Splendid.

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May I suggest to the Secretary of State that for his summer reading this month, he looks into a number of reports—the report recently produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the referendum, the report from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association on its economic plan, and crucially the report from the Economic and Social Research Institute that was produced for the Irish Government in November last year to show that the trade deficit between the north and the south following Brexit could fall by at least 20%? Will he come back to the House in the autumn and tell us why his predecessor and the Northern Ireland Office were so badly prepared for Brexit?

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I am always grateful for recommendations for summer reading and I will add the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions to my list. It is important to recognise that exports from Northern Ireland to the United States increased by more than 80%, and also increased to Canada and Germany. We will certainly promote that positive outlook for Northern Ireland.

Cross-border Crime

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3. What steps the Government are taking to reduce cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. [905910]

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8. What steps the Government are taking to reduce cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. [905915]

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The joint agency task force, created under the “Fresh Start” agreement, is tackling cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. The task force has completed a strategic assessment to identify priorities and is co-ordinating joint law enforcement operations against the criminals involved.

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for welcoming the report of the joint agency task force. Does he welcome the success of the joint operations already carried out?

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Yes, I certainly do. It is important that we maintain the focus on combating organised crime and on responding implacably to paramilitarism. I do recognise the successes to date.

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I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. I am sure his previous experience as Security Minister will stand him in good stead. Does he agree that in this pending Brexit world, closer co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana is more important than ever? What plans does he have to make that happen?

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I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments on the need for good cross-border working relationships between the PSNI and Garda Siochana. I have already had a conversation with Frances Fitzgerald, the Irish Justice Minister, to underline that. We have very good relationships and I want to see them continue.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Does he agree that tackling cross-border crime involves tackling paramilitarism? Has he had a chance to look at the report published by Stormont yesterday with respect to action, in particular, to consider what may be done about decommissioning residual paramilitary weapons? How is that going to happen?

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At the outset, may I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work? He and I have obviously had a number of discussions on issues of crime and security over many, many years. I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Executive’s action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime. This represents another significant milestone in terms of the commitment set out in the “Fresh Start” agreement. It provides a positive basis on which we can now move forward, and I look forward to the more detailed action plan, which will be published shortly.

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May I warmly associate myself with the comments made by so many other people? I note that this is now my sixth opposite number facing me—it is almost as if I am being used as a training aid for young, thrusting Tories.

Last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and I met Chief Constable George Hamilton, he expressed his grave concern about the implications for the European arrest warrant post-Brexit and the desire not to go back to the old extradition methods. What assurance can the Secretary of State give us that the European arrest warrant can survive post-Brexit?

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I am always grateful to continue the interplay between myself and the hon. Gentleman in so many different ways. He makes a serious and important point about the European arrest warrant—something I was very conscious of in my previous role at the Home Office. I see this as a core part of the negotiations that the Home Secretary and others will be taking forward, recognising the huge benefit to the UK—and to Northern Ireland—of having those extradition arrangements under the European arrest warrant.

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14. In respect of paramilitary groups that are engaged in cross-border organised crime as well, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to identify and deal with these individuals specifically? [905922]

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I have already highlighted the work of the joint agency taskforce. It is a question of all the law enforcement agencies working together to identify the organised criminal groups. That is precisely the activity that is intended. Equally, I recognise the work that the National Crime Agency does more broadly, which absolutely helps to support this.

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In Northern Ireland recently, incidents have increased and severe violence has been used at cross-border posts. Organised crime gangs and criminal networks outside of the islands are involved. Does the Minister recognise that the increase in crime needs to be top of the agenda in any forthcoming Brexit talks?

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As I have already indicated, I do see the whole issue of safety and security as a priority. That requires good working relationships between the PSNI and the Garda Siochana. I had a meeting with Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris in Belfast earlier this week to discuss those very issues, and this certainly is a matter that I regard as a priority in moving forward with my role.

Security Situation: Trade

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4. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on trade of the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [905911]

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May I begin by recognising the enormous contribution of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace)? I wish him well in his new role. I am determined to build on the progress this Government have made in delivering peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. This Government have already taken bold steps to back businesses across the UK, including reducing corporation tax and bringing the Exporting is GREAT campaign to Northern Ireland.

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I, too, welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box—he was an excellent member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. On trade and crime, he will know that there has been a hangover of paramilitary crime affecting trade along the border. There has been a complete delay in dealing with fuel fraud. Will he agree to meet me and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and to bring along Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials to boot, to allow us to discuss this issue and resolve it once and for all?

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I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and other Members from both sides of the House. May I just put on record my respect for the fact that he has managed to secure a £5 million trust for local employers? [Interruption.]

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Order. We are discussing very serious matters, including the security of Northern Ireland, to which exchange the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has a related question, might wish to contribute now.

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10. Following the recent threat increase, will my hon. Friend assure the House that he remains absolutely committed to ensuring that our security agencies, police and others have the equipment to deal with any threats they might face? [905918]

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I reassure my hon. Friend that this Government have already increased PSNI funding by £160 million, with £25 million specifically to address paramilitary activity.

Electoral Offices

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6. What the Government’s plans are for the future of electoral offices in Northern Ireland. [905913]

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The Government want to make sure that Northern Ireland voters can benefit from the introduction of digital registration. This new technology also provides an opportunity for the chief electoral officer to examine how electoral services can be delivered more effectively.

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I, too, welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State to their place and thank the former team. Does the Minister accept that there may be some difficulties with online registration that are particular to Northern Ireland and not to other parts of the United Kingdom?

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The system has been working in the rest of the United Kingdom since 2014. A full public consultation on the reform proposals and models will start this autumn, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will make a full contribution to the process.

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13. What consideration has been given to adopting the cross of St Patrick as a unity flag for all communities representing Northern Ireland? [905921]

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The issue of flags in Northern Ireland is sensitive and complex. Any change in existing arrangements would require cross-community support. The Stormont House agreement included a commitment to a commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition, and that was established in June.

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During the consultation process on electoral services, will both the Minister and the Electoral Office ensure that accessibility is a top priority, so that local people outside Belfast can have access through their local electoral offices for registration and photographic ID purposes?

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The key thing to say about the issue of digital registration is that it is not replacing the old system. The existing system will stay in place and there is an opportunity to contribute on the issues relating to rural communities in particular, which I know many Members from Northern Ireland are concerned about.

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I call Fabian Hamilton. Where is the fella? He is not here.

Republic of Ireland: Discussions post-EU Referendum

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9. What discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland since the EU referendum. [905917]

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rose—[Interruption.]

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Order. Answering Question 9, Secretary of State.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have held a series of meetings and phone calls with political leaders in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, and these will continue.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team. There is not one politician with an ounce of sense who suggests that a hard border would be of benefit to either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, but some are suggesting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State take this early opportunity to rule out such a nonsensical and dangerous proposal?

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The issue of the common travel area and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is absolutely at the forefront of my agenda. I recognise, as do the Irish Government, the real benefits of the common travel area. It is about not just the movement of people, but goods and services. I certainly do not want to see a return to the borders of the past, which is why I will engage with colleagues across Government, as well as the Irish Government, to get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) must be heard on matters that pertain directly to his constituents.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I extend my courtesies to the new ministerial team.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the concern is to avoid not just the creation of new border posts, but the unnecessary and unhelpful borderism that the separation of north and south—of non-EU and EU—would entail? The new Immigration Minister gave an example of borderism yesterday when he boasted of his pre-Brexit bout of borderism with the HGV levy on cross-border trucks.

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I certainly recognise the various points the hon. Gentleman has made. Border issues are significant both for the movement of people and for goods and services, and that is intrinsic to the overall arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is why I have made a very clear commitment in all my statements to ensuring that we do not return to the arrangements of the past, and that is precisely what will remain a priority for me in my role.