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Northern Ireland

Volume 638: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Political Parties: Loans and Donations

1. For what reasons the decision was made to publish information about loans and donations given to Northern Ireland political parties dating back to July 2017 rather than 2014. (904409)

The recent publication by the Electoral Commission of donations and loans data for Northern Ireland parties is a positive step that should be welcomed by the whole House. The decision to backdate transparency was taken on the basis of broad support from the majority of political parties in Northern Ireland.

It has recently been revealed that a portion of the largest ever political donation given to a party in Northern Ireland was spent on services linked to Cambridge Analytica. In the light of that, should not the Secretary of State backdate transparency regulations to 2014, so that we can finally have full disclosure about where that cash came from?

As I say, the decision to backdate to July 2017 was taken due to the broad support of the majority of parties in Northern Ireland. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), took time to consult the parties, and July 2017 was the date that they wished to start the transparency from.

I think that my right hon. Friend has already answered the question I wanted to ask: did all the parties agree not to take it back to 2014?

As I say, my predecessor consulted all the parties, and this position was supported by the broad majority of them.

The Secretary of State will be able to confirm that even if the regulations did go back to 2014, no information would be published that has not already been published. Will she also confirm that there is a disparity when there is no mention in this Chamber or elsewhere of the dark money received by Northern Ireland parties from foreign jurisdictions? This is the only place where that is allowed to occur, and it should stop.

I firmly believe that transparency is the important thing that we have here. We should all know where money is coming from, and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

I am very interested to hear the Secretary of State’s explanation of why the Northern Ireland Office deliberately and wilfully ignored the advice and recommendations of the Electoral Commission that the publication of donations to political parties in Northern Ireland should be backdated to 2014, not 2017.

There was no wilful ignoring or anything else. My predecessor consulted all the parties in Northern Ireland and there was broad support for July 2017.

We know about one questionable donation that was channelled from Scotland through the Democratic Unionist party to be used in the Brexit referendum. People are rightly asking what the original source of that money was and whether there are others that we do not know about. If the Secretary of State will not consider revising the recent decision to limit transparency by taking it back to 2014, will she bring forward legislation to allow the individual parties to instruct the Electoral Commission to reveal their donation data?

As I have said, we are keen to ensure that there is transparency, but the question the hon. Lady asks is a matter for political parties themselves, not the Government.

Leaving the EU: Discussions with Political Parties

2. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. (904410)

8. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. (904416)

The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with the Northern Ireland political parties on a range of issues. This includes matters relating to the UK’s departure from the European Union. As we have said repeatedly, these conversations are no replacement for a fully functioning, locally elected and democratically accountable Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland need, and that is what we are focused on.

Does my hon. Friend agree that as we leave the EU, it is essential that current levels of security and co-operation between the UK and Ireland, which are so important in the fight against terrorism, are maintained and enhanced?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. All parties have been clear that there will not be any disruption to north-south security co-operation when it comes to policing and tackling the terrorist threat. I applaud the incredible work done by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda to keep us safe. That will not change after our EU exit.

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that as the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU, this Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement remains steadfast?

Yes. I can categorically provide my hon. Friend with the commitment that he seeks. Our negotiating strategy puts our support for the Belfast agreement at the heart of our approach to the Northern Ireland-Ireland dialogue. As the Prime Minister and others have said on numerous occasions, we will continue to abide by the UK’s commitments in the Belfast agreement.

Given the meeting on Monday between the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Michel Barnier, will the Minister confirm that it remains the Government’s clear position that the so-called backstop arrangement proposed by the EU Commission is something that no British Prime Minister or Government could ever agree to?

The Prime Minister has made her views absolutely clear on that. Our country’s economic and constitutional integrity will not be harmed.

I thank the Minister for debunking the notion that, as a result of the transition arrangements, somehow the Government have reneged on that pledge and for confirming that the Government remain firmly committed to the constitutional, political and economic integrity of the UK. Will he ensure that industries such as the Northern Ireland fishing industry are protected after we leave the EU and that we will take back control of our territorial waters, including our rights for our fishermen?

The right hon. Gentleman makes some very good points. I can confirm that the agreement reached in December in the joint report remains, and that Britain will do all that it can to ensure that all our industries, particularly fisheries, are maintained and that our fishermen and the industry are well looked after.

I am sure that one issue the Minister and the Secretary of State will have discussed with the political parties in Northern Ireland is the problems they see with a hard border returning in Ireland. What are those problems and what does the Minister suggest that we do to avoid them?

The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and many others have made it absolutely clear that there will be no hard border.

That is not much of an answer. The Government should acknowledge that the parties all think that there would be problems with a hard border, as do the Chief Constable, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Irish Government and many Conservative Members. Should he not therefore acknowledge the problems and tell the House that the only way to avoid a hard border is for us to stay within the customs union and the single market?

The people of Britain—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—collectively agreed to leave the single market and customs union, and that will be the case. As for the border, the December joint report made it absolutely clear that there will be no physical infrastructure and no hard border. There will be a frictionless border, and that is what is being negotiated and discussed.

Leaving the EU: Cross-border Trade

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (904411)

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (904413)

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (904414)

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border trade after the UK leaves the EU. (904415)

I have regular conversations with the Irish Government. We both recognise the importance of the trade that takes place across the island of Ireland, which is worth £4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Equally, Great Britain markets are fundamental to Northern Ireland, with sales worth some £14.6 billion. As the Prime Minister reinforced in her Mansion House speech, we are committed to protecting both these vital markets.

The Tánaiste told the Dáil yesterday that there would be no formal withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK if the Irish border issue was not resolved. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), has already said this morning that there will be no hard border, but will the Secretary of State explain how that will come about?

I do not think that the hon. Lady has said anything that is news to anybody. We are committed to the agreement we made in the joint report and to the Belfast agreement and all that it stands for. We will ensure that there is no new physical infrastructure at the border and that there is frictionless trade.

Simon Coveney also told the Dáil yesterday that the UK Government had provided a cast-iron guarantee that there would be no physical infrastructure, checks or controls at the border post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State confirm this—yes or no?

I think that I just answered that question. There will be frictionless trade and movement at the border, and no new physical infrastructure.

Last week, the Prime Minister spoke quite favourably about the “Smart Border 2.0” report from Dr Lars Karlsson. Yesterday, in evidence to the Brexit Committee, Dr Karlsson confirmed that the report was not tailored to the needs of Ireland and that it was incompatible with the December agreement that there would be no hard border in Ireland. Can the Government confirm that Dr Karlsson’s report will not form the basis of any future negotiations or agreement with the EU?

Yesterday, the Irish Foreign Minister suggested that the EU-UK transition arrangements could be extended beyond 2020 if better arrangements were not in place for the Irish border. Do the problems with dealing with the border mean that the UK could stay in the single market, the customs union and the common fisheries policy for longer, but without having any say?

I presume that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before the announcement in Brussels by Michel Barnier and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The transitional arrangements will end in December 2020. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and leaving the European Union means leaving the single market and the customs union—that is what we will do.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend has every sympathy with the Irish Government. They did not want Brexit, and there are lots of risks for Ireland and no upside. Will my right hon. Friend nevertheless impress on her interlocutors in Dublin that the option presented in the draft withdrawal agreement is wholly unacceptable and that they should work with us to ensure that option 1 in the December joint report goes ahead?

Both the UK Government and the Irish Government have stated that they would like to address the issue of the Irish border through the overall UK-EU relationship, as set out in option 1 in the joint report.

A competitive free trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union is clearly in the interests of both Northern Ireland and the Republic. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take the opportunity to suggest to the Taoiseach and others that it is in their interests to put pressure on the European Union to negotiate just that deal?

I would sum it up by saying that this is either a win-win or a lose-lose; there is no win-lose option whereby one side loses and the other wins. We will all benefit if we secure free trade arrangements and deal with the Irish border through the overall UK-EU relationship.

Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence that we will find a satisfactory solution to such trade issues in the negotiations before we leave the EU?

I do share my right hon. Friend’s optimism. I believe that we can negotiate a deal that works for all sides.

Does the Secretary of State think that it would be a good idea to ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Mr Barnier to come to the border—not for a press conference, but for a full day—to see the hundreds upon hundreds of crossing points and to debunk the nonsense and myth of a hard border, which would be irrelevant and impossible to enforce?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are more crossing points in the 310 miles of land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic than there are on the whole eastern land border between the European Union and non-member states. However, I think that it will reassure the hon. Gentleman to know that both Mr Barnier, who was working in the European Commission at the time of the Belfast agreement, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union are very familiar with that border.

Now that spring has come and there is a lightness and warmth in the air, may the equinoctial optimism extend to all politicians in Northern Ireland!

I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of the important role played by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, particularly during the previous period of direct rule, when there were 18 meetings between 1999 and 2007. With no devolution, and with the horrors of Brexit looming ever larger, what plans does she have to reconvene the BIIGC, and when and where will it be reconvened?

It seems ironic that on the day when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight, we have scheduled 12 hours of programmed time in which to debate Northern Ireland legislation.

It may well not be enough; it will depend on how the shadow Secretary of State feels.

I regularly discuss with both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach issues relating to our commitments in the Belfast agreement, and I continue to reflect on those matters.

I am bound to say that I am a little disappointed that there was a less than fully attentive audience for the legendary thespian performance of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), to which many of us have become accustomed over the last two decades, but there are always other occasions on which people can listen more closely—and should.

Another time. Let us keep it for the long summer evenings that lie ahead. I call Tom Pursglove.

Leaving the EU: The Economy

4. What steps the Government are taking to identify opportunities to strengthen Northern Ireland’s economy as the UK leaves the EU. (904412)

I am not even going to try to follow that.

The Government are committed to building a stronger economy fit for the future right across the United Kingdom. That is clear from our industrial strategy and the Chancellor’s spring statement, where we continue to identify further opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, however, a key requirement for stronger growth is political stability. That is why it is essential that a restored Executive are in place to take forward strategic decisions to deliver for Northern Ireland’s economy.

Tayto has operations not only in Corby, but in Northern Ireland, and it is very good news that in recent times the operation has expanded considerably. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that such UK-wide manufacturing industries continue to grow and prosper?

Tayto Group is the third largest snack manufacturer in the UK. It employs some 1,500 people right across the country—from Tandragee to Corby, and from Scunthorpe to Devon—and is one of the many success stories for growth. Through our industrial strategy, we are creating conditions in which successful businesses such as Tayto Group can thrive, helping them to invest in the future of our nation. We are shaping our business environment to take on the challenges and opportunities of new technologies and new ways of doing business, especially as we leave the EU, and to develop new trade relationships and expand our global trade networks.

The Institute of Export and International Trade says that if Northern Ireland is not in the single market or customs union, it will face 350 million new product codes. How many tens of thousands of administrators would Northern Ireland need to continue its current trade, let alone expand it?

I can rebut such pessimistic claims with actual fact. The employment figures that we will publish this morning say that there are 66,000 more jobs now than in 2010, with 15,000 of them created in the last year. Since 2010, we have 12,300 new businesses.

When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, this House will no longer be prohibited from reducing the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. If the institutions are not up and running by that time, would the Minister consider taking that step?

We very much hope that the devolved Assembly will be up and running, because it is for the Assembly to take the decision of reducing corporation tax. We are very committed to it doing that on the basis that it can show sustainable finances.

Despite the ongoing political situation, Northern Ireland has had a very positive business environment this year, particularly in relation to foreign direct investment. Will the Minister consider establishing a formal and regular business forum to include Invest NI and organisations and local businesses in Northern Ireland, to ensure that they can maximise opportunities that arise from the UK leaving the EU?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have just been assured by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary that he would be happy to participate in such a venture.

Police Recruitment and Overtime

9. If she will hold discussions with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on recruiting more officers and reducing its overtime budget. (904417)

Policing is a devolved matter and should be overseen by a restored Executive at Stormont. The Chief Constable continues to engage extensively with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice on operational and financial issues. Both the Secretary of State and I have met the Chief Constable to discuss various issues. The PSNI does a superb job and will always have the fullest possible support of this Government. We have committed an extra £32 million a year to support its response to Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

I thank the Minister for his response. Bearing in mind the fact that the potential overtime bill for the PSNI is £48 million, will he further outline his perception regarding recruitment, as it would be better to have a recruitment policy involving more feet on the ground, because that would adjust the overtime bill and ensure that police officers would not be burnt out because they have to work overtime? Will Ministers agree to do that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but he will be aware that PSNI operational matters such as staffing levels are a matter for the Chief Constable. I hope that he will take on board what the hon. Gentleman says.

Leaving the EU: Healthcare

10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that healthcare provision in Northern Ireland is maintained after the UK leaves the EU. (904418)

There is ongoing positive engagement between UK Government officials and the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that the current provision is maintained as part of the common travel area, as agreed in the joint report in the December Council.

At the moment, children from Northern Ireland can access emergency heart surgery in Dublin, cancer patients from the Republic can have treatment in Derry and ambulances cross the border to attend emergencies. Can the Secretary of State give an absolute guarantee that that will continue post Brexit?

I visited the hospital in Derry and saw for myself the excellent treatment that patients from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland receive there. About a third of the patients at that hospital come from the Republic. It is essential that we maintain that situation by maintaining the common travel area, as agreed in the joint report in December. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a considerable hubbub in the Chamber, which is arguably discourteous to the people of Northern Ireland and certainly unfair on Members from Northern Irish constituencies. Let us have a respectful hearing for Mr David Simpson.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the European health card system. Does she envisage that system continuing when we leave the European Union, or will there be some other arrangement?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that that was one of the early matters to be settled as part of the negotiations with the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was able to ensure that that will continue.

Live Animal Exports

11. What steps she is taking to prevent the unnecessary suffering of live animals exported from Northern Ireland. (904419)

The Government are committed to improving the welfare of all animals. We expect animals across the UK to be transported in conditions that comply fully with welfare requirements, and would prefer animals across the UK to be slaughtered close to the point of production. Animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland; it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy.

May I seek assurances that, as we leave the European Union, in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom we will use the opportunity to enhance animal welfare standards?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government share the public’s high regard for animal welfare, and we are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. He will appreciate, however, that animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy. We have been clear that when we leave the EU, we will not only maintain the existing rules on animal welfare but, where possible, look to strengthen those requirements.

As the Minister has said, Northern Ireland has very high animal welfare standards, and surely we can do better than what the EU offers in terms of animal welfare standards.

It is our intention not only to stay at the same level but to continue to improve our levels of animal welfare.

Devolved Government

Order. It is impossible to hear the Secretary of State. She did not realise just how popular she was, but now she knows.

I set out the Government’s approach to restoring devolved government in my statement to the House on 12 March. As I said then, the UK Government remain determined to see devolved government re-established. We are continuing to work with all the Northern Ireland parties—and with the Irish Government, as appropriate—towards restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.

What progress has the Secretary of State made on involving Assembly Members in scrutiny? Has she had discussions with the political parties, and does she expect them to be involved in the scrutiny of the budget proposals announced yesterday?

Specifically on the budget, I made sure that all the main political parties represented in Stormont had sight of it before I announced it, because I sincerely hope that they will be the parties that will actually deliver that budget. The right hon. Gentleman will also know from my statement of 12 March that I have had a number of representations and that I continue to receive suggestions about how we might get some form of functioning Assembly working in Stormont, and I am considering all those approaches.

Does the Secretary of State realise that so long as Sinn Féin refuses to enter the Stormont Assembly without laying down pre-conditions and continues to create a toxic political atmosphere in Northern Ireland, there is little chance of restoring devolved government, and that she must consider ways of ensuring that Northern Ireland is governed properly in the meantime?

As I have said, several suggestions and representations have been made to me about what the next steps might be, and I am considering all of them. I am looking at what we can do to ensure that we get something that gets us back on the road towards having a fully restored devolved Government.

Youth Commonwealth Games

13. What support the Government is providing for the hosting of the 2021 Youth Commonwealth games in Belfast. (904421)

Under the terms of the devolution settlement, responsibility for sporting events such as the Commonwealth youth games is a matter for the devolved Administration. The Government are continuing to work towards the restoration of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland for precisely that reason. [Interruption.]

I am afraid that that is really not good enough from the Secretary of State. Northern Ireland has won the right to host this hugely important sporting event, and the Secretary of State must make these decisions. We cannot wait until we get another Executive, which could be a very long time coming. The decision must be made, and the Secretary of State must actually show that she is in charge.

I feel as if I were answering questions in my previous role at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because this issue crossed my desk there. My officials have met the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council to discuss whether the option of holding the 2021 games in Northern Ireland could be sustained until such times as the devolved institutions are restored and in a position to consider the decisions required.

Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on tourism, including event-driven tourism. Our work is linked with that of Tourism Ireland, but unfortunately, we do not believe that we are getting a fair crack of the whip in terms of delivery for our contribution to that body.

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had in mind a particular focus on the games and just accidentally neglected to say so.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the 2021 games would bring tourists to Northern Ireland, and I have had discussions with both the Tourism Minister and others about tourism in Northern Ireland. He will welcome the call for evidence announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week with regard to specific tourism issues in Northern Ireland.