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Northern Ireland

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Cross-border Trade

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (903756)

I have regular conversations with the Irish Government on a range of issues. We both recognise the importance of the trade that takes place across the island of Ireland, which is worth some £4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Equally, though, we must not forget the importance of the GB markets to Northern Ireland, where sales are worth some £14.6 billion. We are committed to protecting both these vital markets.

Scottish Government analysis has shown that a no-deal scenario could cost Scotland up to 8.5% of its GDP. Government analysis suggests that Northern Ireland could be cost up to 12% of its GDP. Does she believe any analysis she has seen, and is this too high a price to pay to keep a Tory civil war from breaking out?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has dealt with the issues concerning the leaked report. It is important to state that the UK Government want to achieve a good deal for the whole United Kingdom that protects the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

If this Government are so determined to take us out of the customs union and the single market, how do they see us avoiding a hard border on the island without having a hard border in the Irish sea?

The United Kingdom Government have been clear that we do not want to see a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Irish Government have said the same, as has the European Commission. I think it is clear that we will make sure there is no hard border.

The voice of Wales and Scotland is being heard loud and clear in the current Brexit negotiations. That of Northern Ireland most certainly is not, because of the impasse. In answer to Questions 4 and 5, the Secretary of State will no doubt say that the solution is the restoration of the Executive, but if the Executive is not restored, what will she do to make sure the voice of Northern Ireland is heard in the current negotiations in Brussels?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He will know that I have been working extraordinarily hard over the last few weeks on talks, and I will address those matters when I answer Questions 4, 5 and others. The important point is that for Northern Ireland’s voice to be heard in the way the Scottish and Welsh voices are heard, we need a devolved Government in Stormont. That is what we are working towards.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and the fact that she is in discussions with the Irish Government. In her discussions, has she reflected with the Irish Government on what would happen to cross-border trade if one part of these islands that was in the common travel area joined Schengen, as the Scottish National party keeps arguing for? That would see a border not just in the Irish sea but across this island.

We are clear that the economic and constitutional unity of the United Kingdom is fundamental to all we are doing, and we are determined to ensure that the UK single market—the most important single market to Scotland and to Northern Ireland—is retained.

Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is Ireland’s largest trading partner and that 30% of all employment in Ireland is in sectors that are heavily related to UK exports, will the Secretary of State outline what discussions have taken place to ensure that this mutually beneficial partnership continues unhindered by the petty point scoring, statement making, headline grabbing whims of EU leadership?

Given that the Irish Republic would lose out most if there was not a good deal with the European Union, is the Secretary of State making it clear to all the Irish Ministers she is meeting that they have a role to play with the European Union and that they should be standing up for their country’s attitudes and making sure we get a good deal, which is to their benefit?

The reality is that a good deal is a win-win for everybody—not just Ireland but all the EU27 member states. Not having that is a lose-lose; nobody benefits from not having a good deal.

The Prime Minister has been clear that there will be no continuing customs union between the UK and the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree that that means a divergence of regulations between Ireland and Northern Ireland and that paragraph 49 of December’s agreement must be activated? In that case, will she tell us what

“specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”

she is proposing?

The hon. Lady makes the point that there are unique circumstances in Northern Ireland—unique anywhere across the whole of Europe—and those unique circumstances have to be reflected. The UK Government’s intention is to resolve the matter of north-south trade—and east-west trade—through the overall UK-EU agreement, but we are absolutely determined to make sure that we respect the integrity of the north-south border and that we respect the agreements that were made in Belfast nearly 20 years ago.

May I welcome the glistening new team to the Front Bench? I am sure the whole House agrees with me in saying how pleased we are—we are absolutely delighted—that the Secretary of State’s predecessor is recovering so well from his surgery. May I particularly welcome the Parliamentary Under-Secretary? He is the eighth Minister that I have had the privilege of shadowing; I do not know whether this attrition is anything to do with my personal behaviour, but I plead not guilty.

Now that the new team have had a chance to find their way around, particularly on the border, and they have studied the issue of the electronic border, do they believe that such a frontier is feasible or is it just a fantasy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I too pay tribute to my predecessor, who I am pleased to say is recovering well at home. I know the whole House wishes him well, wishes him a speedy recovery and looks forward to welcoming him back to this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the matter of the border. We are determined that there will be no new physical infrastructure at the border, and we will maintain things such as the common travel area, which has been in existence since well before the EU.


I too thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his kind words of welcome. He and I have worked together on a number of issues, but this is the first time we have met across the Dispatch Boxes, and I look forward to constructive engagement with him and his team.

On my hon. Friend’s question, this Government are committed to reaching our pledge of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. Through our industrial strategy, we are committed to helping young people across the country to develop the skills they need for the future. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that delivering apprenticeships in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. As such, that is another reason why we need to see a restored Executive up and running.

Employers in Northern Ireland recently told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that while there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place they are having to pay the apprenticeship levy but have no access to the funds to take on apprentices, because without an Executive the block grant is not being distributed. The apprenticeship levy in Northern Ireland is turning into a stealth tax for businesses. Does the Minister agree that this is another reason why we urgently need a Northern Ireland Executive in place?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and gives an excellent example of why it is so important that we have a devolved Assembly up and running again. Important decisions, such as the one she mentioned, need to be taken, and that is why we need the Assembly up and running as soon as possible.

It is worrying that we hear of the loss of apprenticeships, and yesterday we had an announcement that Williams Industrial Services in my constituency has actually gone into administration. What help will the Minister give us to ensure that we retain manufacturing and the apprenticeships there?

May I say at the outset that I am very sorry to hear about the position of the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? I very much hope that the employers will follow all the legal processes by way of consultation and everything else that needs doing as far as the employees are concerned.

On the promotion of more jobs, it is clearly important that the devolved Assembly is up and running because it has a critical role to play. In the absence of such a devolved Assembly, however, I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are doing all we can. Indeed, only recently we met Invest NI with a view to seeing what is happening in Northern Ireland and what we can do to help.

One of the best apprenticeships programmes is run by Bombardier. Does the Minister agree it is fantastic news for those apprentices that the complaint against Bombardier has been soundly rejected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is very welcome news that the United States International Trade Commission unanimously agreed with Bombardier, and we very much look forward to working with Bombardier, which plays such a critical role in the UK economy, particularly in Northern Ireland.

Devolved Government

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the talks, so I ask for your forbearance while I give an answer that is slightly longer than usual. Over the past weeks, the political parties—particularly the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—have engaged in discussions on the key issues that remain to be resolved. They have done so with the continuous support of the UK Government and, in accordance with the three-strand approach, the Irish Government. Those discussions have built on the progress that was made in previous talks to reduce further the gaps between them. An accommodation between the parties has not yet been reached, but there is no doubt as to their collective commitment towards the restoration of devolution. I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable. That remains my focus.

In welcoming the Secretary of State to her new post, may I gently say to her that she should have been making a statement on this today? Every party in Northern Ireland says that it wants a deal, but significant gaps remain. Can she outline what those gaps actually are, and what she is doing to try to resolve them and bring people together?

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly distinguished in this area and knows Northern Ireland politics well, that we are at a very sensitive stage in discussions. I have been committed to making no running commentary on the talks while they are ongoing. There have been very intense and detailed discussions. I believe that we can reach an outcome, but I will do nothing that might jeopardise that.

Will the Secretary of State set a deadline for the talks so that the people of Northern Ireland know when they will have some government back, either in Northern Ireland or via direct rule from here?

I was clear at the outset that the talks would take weeks, not months. We have been in intensive discussions for two weeks now, and I hope to see the matter resolved as soon as possible.

Does the Secretary of State agree that in normal civil society a party that wins an election comes together and forms a Government, and parties that do not win an election and do not want to be in government go into opposition and hold that Government to account. Have we not now reached the stage in Northern Ireland where normal civil society ought to be operating?

I firmly agree that, after almost 12 months without devolved government, we absolutely need to have the Stormont institutions back up and running. The people of Northern Ireland voted for their politicians, and it is incumbent on those politicians to deliver. However, we respect the fact that this is a cross-party and cross-community resolution, as set out in the Belfast agreement. As I have said, I am determined to do everything possible to give this the best chance to succeed and to get devolved government back up and running, and I will do nothing to jeopardise that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to ensuring that devolved government is restored as soon as possible. Does she agree that one of the stumbling blocks is that certain parties—namely, Sinn Féin—keep coming forward with new demands that were not part of the original aim of forming the Executive?

I apologise; I would very much like to give Members much more explicit and detailed answers, but that would simply not be appropriate at this stage. However, as before, I commit to returning to the House as and when I have something concrete to say on the matter.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her new post—and the Under-Secretary of State—and wish her well in her continued efforts to facilitate talks in Northern Ireland. She knows that we are not the stumbling block to the restoration of the Executive. In the meantime, will she give a clear commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, and to this House, that the budget for Northern Ireland will be set as soon as possible, given that the head of the civil service has said

“we cannot go much beyond the beginning of February without clarity about how much departments and various public bodies are going to have to spend next year”

because the lack of a budget is affecting services, including health and social care? The current position is intolerable. We need a budget and we need it now.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments—he and I have discussed this issue. He will know that my predecessor took action on the matter, and obviously I have had discussions with the civil service in Northern Ireland. I have met some very dedicated public servants who are doing their best to deliver, but in the absence of devolved government that is becoming increasingly difficult. That is why we need devolved government, and we need it quickly. I understand the point he makes. My predecessor took action on the matter and I am sure that he will be assured by that.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, in so far as that goes, and I look forward to her bringing forward proposals, without prejudice to the ongoing negotiations, so that we do not have a situation in which Departments, people and services are suffering. Does she agree that the recent statement by Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin about Northern Ireland being a “putrid little statelet”, justifying IRA murder in order to bring about rights, shows the sheer disgrace, irony and hypocrisy of Sinn Féin preaching rights and equality by justifying murder and disrespecting the state of Northern Ireland? Does she agree that that sort of attitude must stop? If respect is to mean anything, it has to mean Sinn Féin showing respect towards Unionists and those who believe in the Union.

I think this shows that it is incumbent on everyone in public life to think very carefully about the words they use in public and the way they may be interpreted.

I too welcome the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary. I look forward to working with them and of course wish the Secretary of State’s predecessor a speedy recovery.

We understand that the Secretary of State will not want to give a running commentary on the talks, but there is enormous frustration in Northern Ireland after a year in limbo, with successive Secretaries of State telling us exactly the same thing. Can she at least confirm that one of the big sticking points in the talks is rights—not just language rights, but marriage equality rights? Can she tell us whether she will consider taking that issue off the table by legislating for equal marriage rights in Northern Ireland, which are enjoyed in Staffordshire?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I said, I do not wish to say anything at this stage—I know it is frustrating for all that I cannot say more, and I am frustrated too—but I will come to this House and make a full statement as and when I am able to. Equal marriage is clearly a devolved issue and quite rightly should be legislated for in Stormont. That is the right place for this legislation to be enacted, and I look forward to a devolved Government being in place that can do that. He will recall that when the matter was debated in this Chamber for our constituents in England and Wales, these Benches were entitled to a free vote and Members of Parliament voted in line with their conscience.

And the right hon. Lady will know that Northern Ireland did have a vote in the Assembly on this issue in November last year. It voted in favour of taking forward marriage equality for Northern Ireland, so she could show leadership on this issue and respect devolution, and potentially bring forward the prospect of devolution being resolved. Will she answer a very simple question that I think many people in Northern Ireland will want me to ask: what is she going to do differently in the weeks and months ahead to show leadership and break the deadlock?

The talks have resumed. They are detailed and intense. The parties are engaged and are working late into the night most nights to reach a resolution. I think that the politicians in Northern Ireland understand the frustration of the people of Northern Ireland and want to deliver for them, but there are differences that need to be overcome. I am doing everything I can to try to get a resolution so that accommodation can be found and devolved government can be restored.

I would like the Secretary of State just to take a few moments to explain to the House and the people in Northern Ireland the level of engagement with the smaller parties in Northern Ireland—the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, and the Ulster Unionist party—in the recently resumed talks. I have had it reported to me that they had a cup of tea and a bit of a chat, and said, “Thank you and goodbye, see you on Thursday.” I cannot believe that that was the level of engagement, so would the Secretary of State give some reassurance about the level of engagement with smaller parties, please?

All parties have been included within the talks process since 24 January. I have met all the main party leaders on a number of occasions, including at the roundtable on Monday, and we are due to hold another one later this week. The hon. Lady will understand that unless the two big parties—the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—can reach an agreement, we are not able to achieve devolved government, so it is right that there is detailed, bilateral discussion between those two parties. Yesterday, for instance, I spoke to or met all the party leaders.

Frictionless Border

6. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. (903762)

11. What assessment she has made of progress on maintaining a seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903767)

We speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government on a range of issues. In the joint report agreed with the EU at the December European Council, we reached an agreement that will maintain the common travel area. We also agreed that any future arrangements agreed between the UK and the EU must be compatible with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will continue working closely with the Commission to agree a legally binding text for the commitments made in December.

If the Government are committed to regulatory alignment on both sides of the Irish border, has it made it easier that the Prime Minister has declared that there will be no membership of the customs union or single market?

Let us be absolutely clear: we have said we will be leaving the customs union and single market. We hope in phase 2 of the negotiations to secure the best possible trade deal with the EU, but we are committed to a frictionless border.

Does the Minister agree that once the UK leaves the EU we will have a duty to protect the rights of Irish citizens under UK law, through the common travel area, which predates Britain’s membership of the EU?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and is right that the reciprocal rights under the common travel area between the UK and Ireland predate either country’s membership of the EU. I can assure him that the joint report from last December contains a commitment to maintaining the common travel area arrangement.

A recently published European Parliament report has indicated that it will be possible to have a frictionless border after we leave the EU, but is the Minister not concerned about the friction in relations between the UK Government and the Irish Republic? Will he comment on the threat issued by the Irish Foreign Minister yesterday that he will block negotiations unless legislation is introduced to force the Northern Ireland Assembly to introduce EU regulations?

All the parties involved recognise that this is a difficult negotiation, but we are all committed to being flexible and coming up with innovative solutions. Our relationship with Ireland goes back centuries: trade, geography, history and so on. We have an excellent working relationship with Ireland. We hope to continue that relationship to secure the best solution possible to the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister confirm that whatever arrangements are needed to achieve a frictionless border between north and southern Ireland will apply to the whole UK?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK. That will stay as it is currently.

Leaving the EU: Transitional Arrangements

7. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903763)

14. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (903770)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has regular conversations with Cabinet colleagues on a range of EU exit issues, including on an implementation period. We recognise the importance of negotiating an implementation period that benefits the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] We welcome the EU’s agreement to negotiate an implementation period. The precise terms should be agreed as quickly as possible to provide vital certainty to businesses and citizens. [Interruption.]

Order. It is most unfortunate that neither the Minister’s mellifluous tones nor the content of his answer could properly be heard because of the number of private conversations. I think he deserves a more attentive audience.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I grasped the word “negotiation” in there. Has the Secretary of State agreed a concession in those negotiations with the Brexit Secretary that will allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market and customs union, while the UK leaves, to avoid a hard border—yes or no?

I say again that the United Kingdom is committed to leaving the single market and customs union and to the integrity of the constitution and our economy.

I think that we are all a little confused about how the Government intend to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Minister’s Cabinet colleagues are falling over themselves to secure the maximum possible separation from the EU and the least possible realignment. Has he ruled out the idea of separate arrangements for Northern Ireland governing trade and commerce, or not?

Let me say again that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom remains. We are in phase 2 of the negotiations, and these matters are currently being discussed. I am sure that all the parties—Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union—recognise the difficulty of the issue and will be as flexible and innovative as possible.

Does the Minister agree that it is about time the Government demonstrated a “no surrender” attitude to the EU bureaucrats who try to blackmail us and bully us over flights, passenger duty and everything else? Stand up to them, man! Stand up to the EU, and let us get on with leaving it. [Interruption.]

Let me just say—[Interruption]—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will stand up to anyone and everyone when it comes to maintaining the best interests of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

The Good Friday agreement was one of the greatest legacies of the last Labour Government. Is the Minister content that messing up the border issue could make destroying the Good Friday agreement one of this Government’s legacies?

I assure the hon. Lady that the joint report published in December this year by the European Commission and the United Kingdom makes it absolutely clear that the Belfast agreement remains intact, and all of it will remain intact.