The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Common Travel Area
Before I answer, I would remind the House that this is the final Northern Ireland questions before the Assembly election on 2 March. These are critical elections for the future of Northern Ireland, and I would urge the parties to conduct the campaign in a manner that allows for the speediest return to partnership government. Only power-sharing government will deliver the political stability that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see, and which remains the priority for this Government to secure.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, maintaining the common travel area is one of the Government’s 12 priorities in negotiating exit from the EU. It is the Government’s intention to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the common travel area while protecting the integrity of the UK’s immigration system.
Mòran taing, Mr Speaker—thank you, good morning.
Thank you very much indeed. All compliments gratefully accepted.
A hard border would be disastrous for communities that live along that border, especially in economic terms. What assurances can the Secretary of State offer that the common travel area will be top of the agenda in any Brexit negotiations? Will it be more important than restricting the freedom of movement elsewhere in the UK, for instance? Will Ministers assure us that the common travel area is part of any trade deal done with the European Union?
I have already indicated the priority that is given to securing the common travel area. This is a very strong commitment that this Government have given, and a point that I have underlined on many occasions. It is also a shared intent with ourselves, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. It is therefore with that approach, and with that shared will, that we look to the negotiations ahead, getting the common travel area secured and seeing that frictionless border that is equally important to the politics and life of Northern Ireland.
Will the common travel area be the UK’s only area of free travel with the EU or will it be free trade and free travel?
As I have said, the priority, as set out in the 12 points that the Prime Minister made in her speech, was securing the common travel area. That has served us over so many years, dating back to the 1920s. We believe that it is really important that we seek to attain that, as well as getting frictionless trade in goods, which is also a key priority.
I welcome the Government’s determination to maintain the common travel area across our islands. Does the Secretary of State agree that the friendly relations it symbolises could only be strengthened by the Republic joining the Commonwealth as an associate member, as suggested by Senator Frank Feighan during his visit to the House yesterday?
Obviously that is a matter for the Irish Government, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about strong, friendly relationships between ourselves and the Irish Government is well made. It was with that intent, and with that theme, that the Prime Minister met the Taoiseach earlier this week and underlined the importance of continuing to work together to get the best outcome for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that while this Government are committed to the free movement of people and goods across the whole of Ireland, it is also important that the European Union should do its bit to see Ireland right as well?
The European Union and member states recognise the significance of Northern Ireland, and the significance of the politics on the island of Ireland. Indeed, we have seen investment and political engagement from within the European Union. We will continue to underline that in the negotiations ahead, and that is why I remain positive that we can secure a good deal for Northern Ireland within the UK but outside the EU.
There is broad alignment of policy in relation to the Republic of Ireland and the UK. That has been part of the bedrock of the common travel area and its existence over many years. Indeed, it is an aspect of how we have sought to create new visa issues in relation to China that have allowed travel to Ireland and also to the United Kingdom, and how co-operation between ourselves and the Irish Government is very good.
As I have indicated to the House this morning, we are committed to securing the common travel area and, yes, we are also committed to dealing with issues of immigration, which were at the forefront of the campaign. The Home Office is working on the detail of a new immigration policy that I am sure will be a matter of debate in the House in future.
The Government have rightly sought to identify the issues that affect different regions and sectors of the economy and to build those into their negotiating position. Regardless of the common travel area, can the Secretary of State assure us that all parts of the United Kingdom will leave the EU on an equal basis and that no special arrangements, different conditions or special circumstances will be afforded to Northern Ireland that would weaken our position within the United Kingdom and treat us differently from other parts of it?
As a Government, we are very clear about the strengths of the Union and how that matters to us all. The approach that we take is based on getting the best possible deal for all parts of the United Kingdom. Yes, there will be some specific factors in Northern Ireland of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware––we have talked about the border and there are other issues as well––but our approach is with that intent and focus. Therefore concepts of special status are the wrong approach. It is rather about looking at special factors and special circumstances and dealing with them effectively.
May I agree with the Secretary of State in that we are very impressed with the strength of the Union, too––that is, the European Union? Beyond the common travel area, there appears to be a significant gap between the wishful thinking and the reality of movement of goods. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the effect of exiting the customs union on the movement of goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic?
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen, the Prime Minister’s speech underlined the clear desire of the Government in the negotiations ahead to get the best possible trading arrangements with the European Union and therefore we are reflecting on how we do that, whether that is some form of membership of a customs union or a bespoke customs agreement. He should be intent on our desire to get that deal and to see a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome the comments of the Secretary of State on having an election that produces parties that want to work together, because that is exactly what we want. When it comes to the common travel area, have we looked at the legal implications, not just within other Departments but in how it is respected by Europe itself? Does it really exist there? Do they see it as a law that stands in place?
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the ability for the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom to make arrangements in relation to the common travel area has been recognised in previous EU agreements. It is therefore that approach that we take in securing the future of the common travel area and underlining its importance to our European partners. I am positive that we can do that.
The economy in Northern Ireland continues to grow. Since 2010, there are 54,000 more people in work and, over the year, the employment rate has increased and the claimant count has now fallen for the ninth consecutive month. The Government are committed to working with the Northern Ireland parties to bring about political stability. This is key to bringing further growth and investment to Northern Ireland.
Some 33.4% of all exports from Northern Ireland go south across the border and 54.7% go to the EU. Leaving the EU will affect Northern Ireland more than any other region in the UK. The previous answer was pretty vague, so what specific steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that those exports are protected in order to protect inward investment?
The specifics of the mechanism are for the negotiation, but what we should understand is that Northern Ireland produces high-quality goods, has a high-skilled employment base and it will be successful. We will facilitate that.
Does the Minister agree that news from Northern Ireland is seen, read and heard across the world? Is it not important, therefore, that the institutions get up and running again straight after the forthcoming elections to give confidence to potential investors right across the world that Northern Ireland is, indeed, a great place to invest?
My hon. Friend, who is very wise on Northern Ireland issues and makes a massive contribution, is right. We can do much from Westminster, but it is the parties in Northern Ireland that need to take responsibility, come together and guide the economic growth that is so needed in Northern Ireland.
As the Secretary of State noted, there is an Assembly election that will be followed by negotiations on ministerial responsibilities, all in uncertain times. Can the Minister offer any assurances that austerity will not be the rock upon which peace founders? Will the funding for legacy issues be guaranteed in the new Assembly, and will funding for other policy imperatives be eased? Will he ensure that the Assembly can function properly in financial terms?
The Government are committed to developing an economy that works for everybody in the United Kingdom. We are implementing an industrial strategy, which has a massive part to play in Northern Ireland. I welcome the consultation that has been launched, which includes Northern Ireland. The economy in Northern Ireland is strong. There is a desire between the UK Government and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that we have a constructive and positive relationship in the future.
The Government believe that reducing the rate of corporation tax to 12.5% in Northern Ireland could bring significant benefits for jobs, investment and growth. I hope that we can return to the wider progress we have proposed on this issue following the Assembly election and the formation of a new Executive.
Does the Minister accept that, with unemployment in Northern Ireland at its lowest level since 2008 and Northern Ireland posting the highest increase in exports of any region of the United Kingdom last year, the Executive were making substantial progress in improving the economy of Northern Ireland over the previous two years?
I recognise all those statistics. It is important that we constantly reiterate the positive position that Northern Ireland is in. Like me, Members of this House and the people of Northern Ireland want the Assembly to come back together and offer guidance and leadership to make sure that we grow the economy.
Those of us on the Democratic Unionist Benches certainly share that aspiration. We want to see devolution up and running, and we want to see jobs and investment. The Minister will understand our frustration and the frustration—and, indeed, anger—of the people of Northern Ireland that the good progress we were making has been put in peril, as have jobs and investment, as a result of Sinn Féin’s decision to collapse the Executive and cause an unnecessary election. Will he commit to work, over the coming weeks and months, with those of us who are in this House to improve the situation for people’s jobs and investment into Northern Ireland?
I am not going to get involved in the politics of Northern Ireland and why the Executive fell down. What is important is that the people of Northern Ireland want leadership from their politicians in Northern Ireland. What I can promise the right hon. Gentleman is that the Secretary of State and I will do everything to make sure that we have a strong Assembly that offers leadership in Northern Ireland.
May I start by asking the House to accept the Labour leader’s heartfelt apologies for his mistaken statement last week, when he said that a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been killed? I am sure the House will agree that we all want to see the officer make good progress. We wish him and his family well.
There is no doubt that political instability worries businesses, but a much bigger day-to-day threat is the burden placed on business by the crushing cost of energy in Northern Ireland. Electricity generators are charging customers 58% more than the EU average, while pulling in gross profits of €900 million a year. Will the Secretary of State meet the energy regulator urgently to impress on it the need to rein in these fat cat profiteers?
We will do everything we can to ensure that there is a good economic link between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The common economic connector is an important part of that and we will work together to resolve that issue.
Article 50: Northern Ireland Assembly
We are determined that Northern Ireland’s voice will be heard. All the devolved Administrations will be fully engaged in the process of preparing to leave the European Union. We will continue to consult the devolved Administrations, including through the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations).
Membership of the single market is obviously critical to Northern Ireland. Given the commitment to the common travel area, will the Minister tell us what blockages, apart from political ones, remain to Scotland and Northern Ireland remaining part of the single market?
The Prime Minister was robust in her stance on wanting the freest and best possible trading arrangements with the European Union to allow UK companies to operate with and trade in the EU. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that.
I agree that Northern Ireland is a great place to do business. There are some amazing companies, entrepreneurs and businesses there. That is why we want to see Northern Ireland continue to grow and flourish and have an Executive in place at the earliest opportunity.
We continue to have meetings with our community sector roundtable, and only last week I met representatives of the business community through my business advisory group. I am very clear about continuing to listen intently to views across Northern Ireland to help inform our approach as we look to the negotiations ahead with the EU.
Sinn Féin’s decision unilaterally to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive means that they have excluded themselves from any discussions on article 50. Will the Secretary of State, along with the Brexit Secretary, continue to work closely with members of the Northern Ireland parties that attend this House, to ensure that our voice is heard deeply and fully in that important matter?
The Joint Ministerial Committee met earlier this week in plenary session, and I was pleased to see representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive. We want that to continue. Obviously, in the House, I will continue to listen to the views of right hon. and hon. Members to ensure that we carefully reflect Northern Ireland’s voice.
Although the foul, mephitic fug of Brexit has cast the land into shadow, life must go on. Further to the Secretary of State’s comments, he will accept that the JMC is currently the main body for consultation with the devolved institutions. Yet this body has no authority, no Standing Orders and no fixed rules. Will the Secretary of State commit to formalising the role of the JMC, the crucial body during the negotiations in these dark days?
The Joint Ministerial Committee operates between each of the different nations of the UK and regulates those arrangements. We see it playing an important role, not only now, but in the future, with European negotiations being part of that, in seeking to ensure that the voice of the devolved Administrations is heard loud and clear and to get the best arrangements for all parts of the UK.
I know that the House will join me in condemning the despicable shooting of a police officer in north Belfast on Sunday 22 January. Our thoughts are with the injured officer, who remains in hospital, his family and colleagues.
My officials and I have regular discussions with the Justice Minister, the Chief Constable, and partners as we work to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure.
My right hon. Friend will have the support of the whole House when he speaks so warmly of the police officer who was so brutally attacked only recently. I know the Secretary of State is working closely with the intelligence services, the military and the police to ensure security in the region. Will he please tell me a little more about what he is doing to take forward the security of an important part of the United Kingdom?
I commend the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Security Service and other agencies to keep Northern Ireland safe. The level of threat in Northern Ireland is severe, as that appalling incident underlines. I will continue to work with all partners to secure the safe Northern Ireland we want. I spoke to the Chief Constable on that issue only this morning. [Interruption.]
Order. May I gently remind the House—[Interruption.] Order. We are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland—a matter of enormous importance and gravity. Perhaps we can respond accordingly.
I agree entirely with a number of the points the hon. Gentleman has made. This was an utterly despicable act and an attack on the whole community, and should be seen as such. The Chief Constable has made those points about people feeling confident in coming forward. There is an ongoing investigation—it is very live—and we are looking through our approach to confronting paramilitarism to see that people have confidence to come forward to give evidence. That is clearly work that needs to continue.
My hon. Friend will wish to know that we have a severe level of threat in Northern Ireland from terrorism. The appalling attack we saw on a young, brave police officer just in the past fortnight underlines the nature of that threat and the fact that there are those in Northern Ireland who would wish to commit acts of violence against the police, members of our armed forces and prison officers. We must be vigilant against that threat.
Does the hon. Member for South Down wish to contribute on this question?
No, the next one.
Well, we might not get there. We will see.
May I join in the condemnation of the deplorable attack on the police officer? May I also use this occasion to pay a quick tribute to my constituent and opponent, and now fellow former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, for the calibre and tenure of his service in our democratic institutions? I wish him well in his personal battle.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, in meeting Executive Ministers, he would be meeting Ministers who have taken a pledge to uphold the rule of law, based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts? Will he meet that same benchmark and remove the comments he has previously made—
Order. Enough! We have got the gist.
I am very clear on upholding the rule of law and seeing that we support our agencies, which have that independence to pursue evidence where they see it. Indeed, there is a very live ongoing investigation to get to the bottom of that appalling act and hold those responsible to account—it was an appalling act against a brave PSNI officer who was doing his duty, upholding the law and protecting the community.
Is not the job faced by the police in Northern Ireland to keep people safe made harder by the tendencies of the Northern Ireland courts to let terrorists out on bail, sometimes only weeks after an original arrest?
There are important issues that need to be examined and addressed in relation to the criminal justice system. Bail is one part of that, as are sentencing and the time it takes for cases to proceed. We will continue to work with the Executive to see that progress can be made.
In dealing with—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady can scarcely be heard by anybody, let alone the Minister.
Thank you; that is very kind of you, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful indeed.
In dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State will recognise how important it is that the Northern Ireland Office sends a very clear message that the rule of law prevails in Northern Ireland, so will he kindly take this opportunity to put on the record his full confidence in the independence and integrity of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and indeed the Director of Public Prosecutions?
I am very happy to do so in very clear and unequivocal terms: it is essential that we uphold the rule of law without fear or favour, and I absolutely support the work of the police and all those who are responsible for taking that forward and seeing that those who are committing the acts that we are discussing this morning are held to account and brought to justice.
On Monday, I met a woman whose mother was killed 46 years ago and who asked me to ask the Secretary of State whether he understood that there can be no real peace unless we deal with the past. To that end and as a start, will the right hon. Gentleman commit to raise with the Irish Government the need to ensure the fullest possible public access to the papers relating to the Kingsmill murders and to deliver an effective route by which the families of those who lost loved ones at Ballymurphy can reach some form of closure?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and his message about the raw pain and emotion that continue to be felt by so many of those who were affected by the troubles is one that I equally recognise. It is important that we can make progress in relation to the Stormont House legacy bodies. We will continue to make representations to the Irish Government on a range of issues, and I note the specific point that he raises with me this morning.