The Secretary of State was asked—
Northern Ireland Economy
Before I answer the questions, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in condemning the murder of Joe Reilly last Thursday in Belfast. My sympathy is with his family and with the local community. It is a stark reminder of why we must all continue to work together to ensure that this sort of violence has no place in Northern Ireland.
The UK and Northern Ireland economies are fundamentally strong. In Northern Ireland, economic activity increased by 1.6% over the year and 64,000 more people are in work compared with 2010. That means that we are well placed to build a stronger economy that works for everyone.
I welcome the growth of the Northern Ireland economy, and particularly the fact that unemployment has fallen to its lowest levels since Labour’s great recession. I also welcome last week’s excellent news of the investment from Thales. Will my right hon. Friend continue to prioritise making the case for Northern Ireland as a great place to live, work and do business?
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I will not tire in talking up the Northern Ireland economy and underlining what a great place it is to do business. He highlights investment; outside London, Northern Ireland is the leading UK region for attracting inward investment across a range of sectors. He is right to highlight the new and innovative investment from Thales, with its space propulsion facilities in Belfast, which underlines what a great place Northern Ireland is to do business.
I certainly underline to my hon. Friend that we stand by our commitment to the devolution of corporation tax powers, subject to the conditions around fiscal discipline and financial stability agreed in the Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements. The Northern Ireland Executive have indicated that they would like corporation tax to be set at around 12.5% from April 2018, and they estimate that that could create 30,000 more jobs.
I join the Secretary of State in his comments about the recent murder. It is important that we all redouble our efforts to ensure that such events are a thing of the past.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, to build and strengthen the economy of Northern Ireland, investment in infrastructure is absolutely vital? The announcement by the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive that he was delaying the major York Street interchange project—for access to ports, an airport and a major road thoroughfare through Belfast to the rest of Northern Ireland—is a bit of a blow to that strategy. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to reiterate to the Minister for Infrastructure that all EU projects that are signed off before we leave the EU will be funded even if they continue after we leave the EU?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the continuance of EU funding. He will have noted the statement, which he has referred to, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer underlining that the Government will guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects that are signed off until the point at which the UK leaves the EU, even where projects continue after we leave. It is important to underline that message. There should, therefore, be more projects coming forward, and we should continue to benefit from EU funding up until the point at which we depart.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for underlining that important commitment, which should allow investment in that much-needed project to go ahead.
On the question of exporters, who have received a boost as a result of the revaluation of the pound, Northern Ireland was the only area last year that grew its exports, by 9.5%. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment that the new Department for International Trade will work closely with Invest NI to continue that really positive news for Northern Ireland, along with many other very positive economic indicators for the Province?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to underline the fact that the value of goods exported from Northern Ireland increased to £6.6 billion, which emphasises the strength of the Northern Ireland economy. The Secretary of State for International Trade has underlined his all-UK approach to his work, and he will want to work with Invest NI and the Executive to ensure that there is that clear message of seeing further investment and further exports coming from Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the role that manufacturing plays in the Northern Ireland economy. It directly contributes more than 85,000 jobs—some 10% of employment—and, clearly, it provides high-skilled jobs. As a Government, we will continue to work with the Executive on the issues of skills and pathways into employment. It is notable that we have seen record employment levels. We want to work with the Executive to ensure that that very positive picture continues, underlining the fact that we want to see further investment in the economy.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the financial and related professional services industry provides jobs for some 31,000 people in Northern Ireland and generates more than 6% of economic output. What are the Government doing to ensure that Northern Ireland will have the benefits of passporting for financial services after the UK leaves the EU so that that industry is not damaged?
I underline the work I have done as Secretary of State to reach out to the business community. Indeed, I have established a new advisory group, and one of the sectors we have met is the financial services sector. We are listening keenly to the information that it is providing us with as we frame our all-UK approach to the negotiations that lie ahead with the EU.
On the back of the Chancellor’s comment to Nissan that it will be compensated for losses due to Brexit, the Secretary of State for Scotland said at the Dispatch Box two weeks ago:
“whatever support is put in place for businesses in the north of England will apply to businesses in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 287.]
Given that the manufacturing sector plays such a pivotal role in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that his Government’s policy will apply to Northern Ireland in the same way as it appears to apply to Scotland and the north of England?
We take an all-UK approach. That is the way in which the Chancellor has been approaching his announcements about support post the departure from the EU, ensuring that we do have such a UK-wide approach, and indeed his preparations for his autumn statement. The approach will be to support the UK, with Northern Ireland being a core part of that.
Armed Forces Covenant
The armed forces covenant is making a real difference in Northern Ireland. Bids for funding from the armed forces covenant fund have been more successful in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. Grants that have been made include £450,000 for Combat Stress to help veterans with mental health support, and £600,000 for the Somme Nursing Home in Belfast to enable it to add more bed spaces for veterans requiring nursing care.
I thank the Minister for his response. Northern Ireland is in 10th place among all the regions of the United Kingdom for small grants. Beyond the Battlefield has applied for LIBOR funding for four years running, with a substantial and detailed business plan, but it has not been successful. Does the Minister consider that to be fair? What steps will he take to address that imbalance, and to help groups and bodies such as Beyond the Battlefield to prepare successful applications?
I commend the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends for making sure that they have secured the largest proportion of the big pot, although I appreciate that he is now going after the small pot. His point about how to secure the funding is really important, and I am more than willing to sit down with him to talk about how we can support that package.
Will the Minister confirm that he and the Secretary of State have the determination and the will to eliminate all impediments to the full implementation—I do mean the full implementation—of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland?
May I add to the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and to those of other hon. Friends representing Northern Ireland? When I went there as the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I was, frankly, deeply struck—perhaps only an English person can say this—by the complete lack of drive to ensure that all its local authorities signed up to the military covenant, as local authorities have done across the whole United Kingdom. There is no reason why the covenant should not be in effect in Northern Ireland just as much as it is elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that every council should participate. I get the opportunity to meet lots of councils, and I know that a lot of them are making a massive contribution, but where they are not I reassure her that I will push those councils to do so.
May I disagree with the Minister? The armed forces covenant is not working especially well in Northern Ireland. There is £100 million in the LIBOR funds for the whole military covenant. Can some of that be used to make sure that the mechanisms work—that is, that we get a nominee on to the covenant reference group, that the reserve forces and cadets association gets the support it needs to help all soldiers and that the champions get some help?
I know that there are opportunities to get on to the committee that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I will support him if he wants to do that. I know it is a big issue, and I say this as ex-services personnel myself: I want to make sure that this works, and that every partner—not just councils but health authorities and housing authorities—works together. But this is devolved, and it is up to the Executive to make it work. However, as someone with a history in this area, I will assist him in every way I can to ensure that that is delivered.
The shadow of the past hangs heavily over the questions that have been asked and there are many unquiet graves still on the island of Ireland. Bearing in mind that it is now 42 years since the atrocity of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and in view of the vote in the Dáil Éireann, what contact and communication is the Minister having with the Irish Government on this question?
I agree that that act 42 years ago was appalling, and offer my sympathies to the families of those who were lost. There is a continuing dialogue with the Irish Government and their Foreign Minister. We will continue that and I am quite happy to have discussions with the hon. Gentleman if he wants further information about the progress we are making.
Leaving the EU: Republic of Ireland
I have met and will continue to meet counterparts in the Irish Government as we work through the challenges ahead. The UK-Irish relationship has never been stronger. It is a unique relationship, and in the coming months we will strengthen co-operation to help to secure the best outcome from the EU negotiations.
I think my right hon. Friend will agree that both the common travel area and the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have served us well for decades. Will he do everything he can to ensure those arrangements continue and that there is no establishment of hard borders within the island of Ireland or within the UK?
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State reassure us that the common travel area is a key priority. Does not the fact that citizens of EU countries will be able to move freely to live and work in the Irish Republic make a nonsense of the leave campaign claims that Brexit means that somehow we can take back control of our borders?
No. This Government are very clear that the EU referendum underlined that free movement cannot continue as it does today. We are considering carefully the options in relation to migration policy as well as border policy, to ensure that both work in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
I entirely agree. There are very strong relationships and connections between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other UK Government agencies. Those have been and will continue to be really valuable and we are determined to maintain them.
A number of institutions have been established for discussing these matters with the Government of the Irish Republic, including the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those are the bodies through which discussions take place, and not some ad hoc arrangement?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the structures that have been in place since the Belfast agreement, such as the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, which will meet again in a few weeks. They are really important and valuable structures that can and will be used in supporting the negotiations ahead; there is of course the new Joint Ministerial sub-committee as well.
Given that Her Majesty’s Government, the Irish Government and political parties in Northern Ireland want to see the special relationship and soft border continue, is it not incumbent on the European Union to allow us to exit on terms that will enable us to preserve that relationship?
My hon. Friend underlines a very significant point, which is the support that other EU member states have provided to the political process in Northern Ireland over many, many years. That is a point we have underlined and the Irish Government have underlined. We will continue to do so as we look towards the negotiations.
Charlie Flanagan said in Derry on Friday night:
“I view my role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement as a solemn duty and—together with the Taoiseach—will be working to ensure that all aspects of that international agreement are fully respected in the new arrangements between the EU and the UK. Ireland has a seat at the EU table which we will use in the best interests of the whole island.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise that that will include the need for a bespoke and explicit reflection of the key constitutional precepts in annex A of the Good Friday agreement in any new EU-UK treaty?
The Irish Government and the UK Government are co-signatories to the Belfast agreement. I have said on a number of occasions that we stand behind our commitments. There are unique circumstances that operate on the island of Ireland: the common travel area, the single electricity market and so on. We are determined to find the right solutions that serve Northern Ireland well and all of the all-Ireland issues.
As I have already underlined, the Government are determined not to see a return to the borders of the past. We want to strengthen the common travel area. Work with the Irish Government has been ongoing for many months and will continue, reflecting the important issues the hon. Gentleman highlights on the movement of people, the movement of goods and services, and the sense of politics and identity, which is why this is such a priority.
The hon. Gentleman wants to get into negotiations that have not yet started. I underline the shared will and commitment of ourselves, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to support the common travel area and to ensure we do not return to the borders of the past. That is the work we have ahead of us.
We have already heard the huge concerns in Northern Ireland about the specific problems posed by Brexit. One fundamental issue that has not been addressed so far is the fate of the Good Friday agreement, which is an international agreement formally registered with the United Nations. Will the Secretary of State tell the House today what specific measures he and civil servants in Northern Ireland have taken to ensure that this important issue is not left behind in the wake of Brexit?
The Government remain fully committed to the political settlement and the institutions set out in the Belfast agreement and all its successors. The key principles established there, the details that have been taken over successive Governments, are things that we do not want to unsettle and that we will maintain. I assure the hon. Gentleman of the focus we are giving to this matter.
Leaving the EU: Northern Ireland Economy
Following my appointment, I established an advisory group to ensure the voice of business is heard. It is clear that our focus now needs to be on what we can achieve in terms of trade, jobs and exploiting the opportunities of the UK’s exit from the EU.
The Secretary of State referred a few minutes ago to taking a whole-country approach to the EU referendum negotiations. The Chancellor recently spoke to the British Bankers Association about the specific needs of the banking industry. If special privileges in terms of the single market are afforded to the City of London, will the Secretary of State be asking for the same privileges for Northern Ireland?
I set up the advisory group and am speaking to individual sectors within the Northern Ireland economy precisely to ensure that their voice is heard as we prepare for the negotiations ahead, and to ensure that, where there are specific issues and concerns, they are heard as part of those preparations and are reflected in the negotiations.
My hon. Friend identifies—I think rightly—the opportunities for bringing about greater focus on enterprise in the Northern Ireland economy, where there has been significant reliance on the state to support employment. We need to work with the Executive on skills and opportunities, which is precisely what we will be doing. [Interruption.]
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the businesses in Northern Ireland, especially the small and medium-sized enterprises, are second to none, and that whatever they face with Brexit, they are up for the challenge.
I have heard that message very clearly. There are some fantastic, innovative businesses and some great family businesses in Northern Ireland. We want to support them to take that next step, to grow their business and to look at the new opportunities for exports. I think they now have a great opportunity to do that.
Leaving the EU: Northern Ireland Economy
The Government take part in regular direct discussions with the Irish Government through a number of forums, including the upcoming British-Irish Council. We will ensure that we engage closely with all relevant partners to secure the best outcome for Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier comments about the increase in employment, which is very important, but in light of the significant damage to the British economy, the dramatic fall in the value of sterling and the increase in the price of food and fuel as a result of the referendum, does he accept that many businesses in Northern Ireland are frightened that damage to the Northern Ireland economy will be magnified relative to the British economy?
I reiterate for the hon. Gentleman the strong base that we see, with record levels of employment, exports that have grown significantly and continuing foreign direct investment. I will continue to champion business in Northern Ireland and to underline the fact that Northern Ireland remains open for business. A number of firms are continuing to invest and create jobs, which we will continue to welcome.
I have already had two meetings—with the Taoiseach and with the Irish Foreign Minister—and there are more meetings and discussions to come. The British-Irish Council meeting is coming up in just a few weeks’ time. Border issues such as protecting the common travel area and not seeing a return to the borders of the past are a priority, and also a shared objective between the two Governments. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that over the past few months there have been reports from the retail trade in Northern Ireland of a veritable multi-million pound boom along the border in shoppers from the Irish Republic, and that we should do more to encourage that as business continues to make progress?
The threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be “severe”, meaning that an attack is highly likely. Our response to terrorism and paramilitary activity is co-ordinated, effective and fully resourced. This Government’s focus is on keeping people safe, and we will ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
Does the Minister agree that it is damaging both to the security situation in Northern Ireland and to the peace process when former members of the armed forces who have been cleared on multiple occasions are now arrested for offences that are alleged to have taken place more than 40 years ago? Will he agree to meet me to discuss the broader issues surrounding the case of Corporal Major Dennis Hutchings?
Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities, who act independently of Government and politicians. The Government therefore cannot comment on individual cases. However, I am more than willing to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the broader issue that he has raised.
In the past two years, 1,631 police officers—a quarter of Northern Ireland’s police force—have been injured or assaulted while on duty. When will the Northern Ireland Office fund and support a new recruitment drive to return the number of officers to the 7,800 required under the Patten settlement?
Does the Minister agree that the best way of tackling paramilitarism and criminality in Northern Ireland is to adopt the community-wide approach that was outlined by the SDLP during last year’s Stormont House talks, rather than throwing money at paramilitary organisations?
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but I can give her some comfort. We have ensured that £25 million is available specifically to counter paramilitary activity, and we are working with the Executive to deliver that. We look forward to seeing the report in the near future.