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Leaving the EU

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2018

1. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. (905862)

I meet the political parties in Northern Ireland regularly to discuss a range of issues including the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. As I have said repeatedly, these conversations are no replacement for a fully functioning, locally elected and accountable Executive.

As part of my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the political parties, what steps has she taken to ensure good governance and stability?

During my discussions with political parties, I do need to ensure that we discuss a range of issues, such as the appointments that cannot be made in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers. I am actively considering the issue of those public appointments, including assessing what action could be taken to address the problem. I will return to the House before the recess to set out my course of action in more detail.

May I thank the Government for their engagement at the highest level with the Democratic Unionist party here on these Benches on a continuing and intensive basis? In the absence of devolution, it is important that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard here, in the corridors of power. I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind that Monsieur Juncker and Monsieur Barnier go to Dublin tomorrow and that we are likely to hear a lot of harsh rhetoric. Will she encourage them to bear in mind the principle of consent in the Belfast agreement and its successors, and not to take a one-sided approach to this issue in Northern Ireland?

I have been clear, as have all Ministers in this Government, that we are committed to the Belfast agreement and all its principles, including the principle of consent. I hope that the political leaders that the right hon. Gentleman referenced have also heard that message.

The Secretary of State referenced the absence of devolution. Of course, one of the issues is the absence of funding for the Commonwealth youth games in 2021. Will she look carefully at what might be done to bring forward funding for this prestigious event? It should not be stopped as a result of Sinn Féin refusing to form a Government.

I met the Commonwealth Games Federation last week and I am aware of the concerns about this matter. I urge political leaders across Northern Ireland to make clear their support for the Commonwealth youth games in order that the Northern Ireland civil service can release the funds.

There is already a border, which is a tax border, an excise border and, as my right hon. Friend will know very well, a security border. The Government have made some very sensible proposals that whatever the final arrangements are on the border, there should be more authorised economic operators. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with local parties in Northern Ireland and parties in the Republic of Ireland about extending the use of authorised economic operators?

My right hon. Friend is very aware of and knowledgeable about the border, having been my predecessor in this role as Secretary of State. I can assure him that I have discussed with all political parties—both north and south of the border—the matter of the border and the practical ways in which we can overcome the problems that some people put forward as being an issue.

The EU has been instrumental in helping Northern Ireland to address its legacy issues and in promoting economic development. What are the Stormont parties—or, indeed, the Government—saying needs to be done to address the deficiencies there once the UK leaves the EU?

Many people bear credit for the developments that have happened since the signing of the Belfast agreement and the economic development of Northern Ireland. I say gently to the hon. Lady that perhaps the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom has more of a bearing on its economic strength than many other matters.

The technical note published on 7 June spoke of free trade agreements that could be entered into that would not affect any temporary customs arrangements. What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the parties on specifically what form those free trade agreements might take and who they might involve?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is of course responsible for those free trade agreements. However, my hon. Friend alludes to the very important point that for Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union as part of the United Kingdom means that it will have access to those free trade arrangements with the rest of the world and a land border with the European Union. That puts Northern Ireland in a unique, privileged situation.

Brexit is the most fundamental issue that our generation faces. The voice of Scotland is heard through its Parliament and the voice of Wales through its Senedd; the voice of Stormont is silent. What urgent initiatives is the Secretary of State now going to take that will make a material difference in getting Stormont back to work?

The hon. Gentleman is right. In the absence of a functioning Executive, the normal processes—the Joint Ministerial Council meetings, for example—do not have Northern Ireland representation. I am working, together with my officials and Ministers in the Department, to ensure that all Northern Ireland parties are fully apprised of the situation. As he says, the important point is that if an Executive were in place, a full voice for Northern Ireland would be heard in all the normal structures that enable it to be heard.

But it is not just Brexit: there are many urgent decisions now piling up in Northern Ireland. Those decisions cannot be made by civil servants—the High Court has decreed that—and cannot be made by devolved Ministers because there are none. The case of Billy Caldwell is urgent enough for the Home Secretary to act here in England for the Secretary of State’s constituents and mine, so what will she now do to make sure that Billy is not an unwitting victim of this constitutional crisis?

The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a number of matters that are pressing. I have already referred to public appointments. I can also confirm that I will bring forward legislation before the summer recess to put the budget on a statutory footing for 2018-19.

The use of medicinal cannabis is of course a matter for the Home Office for the whole United Kingdom. That is why I welcome the decision by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to have a review of the use of medicinal cannabis. I assure the hon. Gentleman that during the whole of last week, officials from my Department were in close contact with health officials in Northern Ireland, and that, across Government, we pressed to make sure that the case of Billy Caldwell was dealt with with suitable respect and dignity for the little boy.