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Northern Ireland

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU

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.

Northern Ireland Economy

This Government are delivering a fundamentally strong economy for Northern Ireland, with unemployment down to 3.3% from over 7% in 2010. Nearly 19,000 new jobs have been created over the last year, the highest number on record, meaning that more people have the security of a regular pay packet for themselves and their families.

Redditch has a proud history of manufacturing businesses that trade with Northern Ireland. One such business is Trimite, which manufactures specialist coatings for the defence and aerospace industries. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give to my constituents at Trimite and other businesses that there is a prosperous global outlook after Brexit?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the opportunities for United Kingdom manufacturers—those in her constituency of Redditch and those based in Northern Ireland. The Trade Bill will enable the UK to continue with existing trading arrangements, and that will provide certainty, continuity and reassurance for businesses such as Trimite.

Companies such as Siemens in my constituency show an interest in and have an important stake in Northern Ireland. Has my right hon. Friend made any recent assessments of the economic impact of their remaining in the UK?

Northern Ireland benefits substantially from being part of the world’s fifth largest economy, with access to an internal UK market of about 65 million people—the most significant market for Northern Ireland businesses, worth £14.6 billion in sales and supporting thousands of jobs. This Government have built a strong economy that can invest in services such as the NHS and deliver public spending. On Monday, I visited Omagh to see the Strule shared education campus, which is benefiting from £140 million of funding from this Government.

13. The uncomfortable truth is that production output in Northern Ireland has fallen by 5% and foreign direct investment has fallen by 50%—both being the largest falls in any region of the UK. Does the Secretary of State put that down more to her Government’s complacency about the peace process or their reckless mishandling of the Brexit process? (905874)

The prospects and opportunities for Northern Ireland are absolutely fantastic. I am working to make sure that Northern Ireland benefits from all the opportunities that Brexit affords the United Kingdom.

In welcoming the progress in the economy in Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State realise that sport plays an important part in that? On Friday, the Commonwealth Games Federation will meet to decide whether Belfast will get the youth games. It is a small amount of money. Birmingham is getting a huge amount for the Commonwealth games the following year. The permanent secretary has said no, so will she step in?

As I said to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), I urge party leaders across Northern Ireland to make the views of the parties known, so that the civil service of Northern Ireland can make the right decision.

15. Investment in young people is vital if the businesses of the future are to succeed. What investment is my right hon. Friend making to support the young people of Northern Ireland? (905876)

I have just referred to my visit on Monday to the Strule shared education campus in Omagh, which is benefiting from £140 million of UK Government funding—funding that is only available because this Government are delivering a strong economy.

We know that the greatest roadblock to economic growth in Northern Ireland is the lack of an Assembly being in place. That economic difficulty is being created because no decisions can be made. What measures are the Department and the Secretary of State taking to allow that to happen, so that we can go forward?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is an appeal against the Buick judgment, which I think is what he was referring to. That appeal will be heard on Monday, and we await the outcome of it, but the Government stand ready to take whatever decisions are necessary.

The economy really will be damaged if planning decisions cannot be made. May I urge the Secretary of State to take swift action to ensure that planning decisions can be made by civil servants in the Executive if necessary?

I assure my right hon. Friend that we will take whatever steps are necessary in the light of the appeal that is due to be heard on Monday.

Leaving the EU: Border Policing

3. What assessment she has made of the requirements for (a) physical and (b) electronic infrastructure to police the border after the UK leaves the EU. (905864)

Clause 43 of the December joint report makes it absolutely clear that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls on the border. As for the use of technology, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the details of a potential solution have yet to be worked out.

I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware that the Government’s own assessment shows the economy being damaged by the Government’s plans and that the least worst option is staying in the customs union and the single market. Is that the case, or does he have alternative economic advice that he could publish?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The fact is that the Northern Ireland economy is doing very well, with the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and exports are increasing. On the single market and the customs union, let me be absolutely clear: the people of the United Kingdom collectively voted to leave the EU, and that includes the customs union and the single market.

Does the Minister agree that there would be no need for any kind of border infrastructure at all if the UK and the EU could agree what everybody wants, which is a comprehensive free trade agreement?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We need to have a comprehensive economic agreement with the European Union. That is possible, and I very much hope that all parties will work towards it.

In recent discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland, was the issue of the European arrest warrant raised? Will the Secretary of State come to the House and make a statement on the serious implications for the Police Service of Northern Ireland if the availability of the European arrest warrant were closed down to the Chief Constable?

I can assure the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning about the European arrest warrant. We very much hope to have, as the Prime Minister has suggested, a UK-EU security treaty that will be all-embracing and bespoke. As the GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said this morning, it is important to recognise that four European countries have benefited directly from our intelligence in the past year.

With regard to the border, throughout Operation Banner and the troubles in Northern Ireland, the military and the police desperately tried to get a hard border between the north and south. We would blow up crossing points and the following morning they would be open again. With the automatic number plate recognition that we have now, there should be no hard border, and I cannot see how it could be possible.

One of the dividends of the Belfast agreement is that we no longer have physical checks, along with security installations, at the border.

Security Situation

The threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland, meaning an attack is highly likely. The Government provided the Police Service of Northern Ireland with £230 million between 2010 and 2016, and we are providing a further £160 million in this Parliament. Our response to terrorism and paramilitary activity is co-ordinated, effective and fully resourced.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend says, but how can it be right that loyal octogenarian veterans now have to look over their shoulders as a result of spurious and vexatious complaints in relation to allegations of which they have already been cleared? Is it not time for a statute of limitations to back our servicemen and women?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituents on this matter. I am sure he will agree with me that the current mechanisms for investigating the past are not delivering either for victims or for veterans. Right now, too many cases are not being investigated, including hundreds of murders by terrorists.

I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) has overcome his natural shyness and self-effacement. It is not beyond the wit of the Chair to call two DUP Members on the same question, and I hope he is heartened by that declaration.

The Chief Constable in Northern Ireland has expressed some concerns about cross-border security in today’s Belfast Telegraph. Will the Secretary of State give us some assurances about what discussions she has had with the Irish Government to allay the concerns that the Chief Constable has raised?

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already said, I have had conversations, including this morning, with the Chief Constable about these matters, which I also discuss with Ministers in the Irish Republic and other politicians there.

Some of those responsible for ensuring the peace in Northern Ireland during the days of the troubles are now being summoned to court again. Many of these individuals are suffering from all kinds of post-traumatic stress disorders and are terrified about going back to Northern Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that anyone called back to court will be wrapped around with a package that makes them feel safe and secure?

My right hon. Friend, who has served in the Northern Ireland Office, knows a great deal about this matter. He is right that the current situation simply is not working—it is not working for victims and it is not working for veterans—and that is why we want to deal with it.

With viable devices being found in County Down as recently as the start of this month, will the Secretary of State outline what discussions she has had with the Chief Constable to ensure there are sufficient resources and sufficient police officers on duty in stations throughout County Down to make sure that terrorists do not succeed?

I have had such discussions with the Chief Constable regarding County Down and all of the other five counties of Northern Ireland.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), Michel Barnier has said this week that the United Kingdom could not remain in the European arrest warrant system post Brexit. What plans does the Secretary of State have to meet this concern, and to address the issue of the 300 additional PSNI officers for which there will be a vital need post Brexit?

As I have said, I discussed this matter with the Chief Constable this morning. We need to make sure that there are arrangements in place so that the way in which the arrest warrant has operated, very successfully, in Northern Ireland can continue.

Article 50 Negotiations

There is regular engagement by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union with the EU’s chief negotiator, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland hopes to have a meeting with the chief negotiator for the EU very soon.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will the Minister therefore enlighten the House about the timetable for publishing the Government’s policy on the backstop for the Northern Ireland border, and as I say, with the discussions ongoing, will the Secretary of State discuss that with the chief negotiator?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we do not give a running commentary on all the meetings we have, but he should be aware that there is certainly a backstop and it will last until the end of December 2021.

I do not see any Member standing on the Government Benches—[Interruption.] Yes, there is. Mr Duncan Smith, calm yourself. I call Charlie Elphicke.

Does the Minister agree that threats from the European Union about having a hard border in Northern Ireland are simply unhelpful, and that what we need is co-operation in the use of technology so that things can continue to flow just as they do today?

May I just say that the European Commission has agreed, in the joint report it signed in December, that there will be no hard border—no physical infrastructure on the border? It is also incumbent on us to make sure that the details of the Belfast agreement are met, which means ensuring that there is not a hard border.

Are any conversations going on with the taskforce with regards to the extension of the article 50 period? If so, will the Minister reiterate that that would be rejected totally and out of hand?

As I said earlier, we will not be giving an ongoing commentary on all our meetings. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have the implementation period until the end of December 2020, and then the backstop agreement, but only if that is required under specific circumstances, and no more.

Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector

6. What steps she is taking to help ensure the sustainability of the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. (905867)

I recognise how fundamental agriculture is to Northern Ireland economically, socially and culturally.

The Secretary of State and I are fully committed to ensuring that, as negotiations progress, the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced. We want to take the opportunities that leaving brings to reform the UK’s agricultural policy and ensure we make the most of those for our farmers and exporters.

Bagged salad, seed potatoes and beef are the high-quality products that make up around a third of Northern Irish farmers’ exports. Those farmers rely on the EU for around 90% of their income, and they would see animal and plant health tariffs and produce checks as a nightmare. How can the Minister guarantee those farmers a future income and a market while also guaranteeing environmental standards?

The hon. Gentleman is right: agriculture and farming is a massive industry in Northern Ireland. Some 49,000 people are employed in the sector and there are 25,000 farms. What I will say to him is that if we can get that overall economic framework with the EU through negotiations, the tariffs he refers to will not apply.

Armed Forces Veterans: Legacy Investigations

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on legacy investigations into the conduct of armed forces veterans in Northern Ireland. (905868)

This House knows that, were it not for the bravery of the British Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George Cross, there would never have been a Good Friday agreement. Yet the Secretary of State's proposals include legacy investigations into veterans—in some cases going back 50 years. Will she agree to give evidence to the Defence Committee inquiry into this matter so that we can ask her how her proposals are compatible with the principles of the armed forces covenant?

I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend. As I said at the recent Police Federation conference in Northern Ireland, we owe all those who served an enormous debt of gratitude. Without the contribution of our armed forces and police, there would quite simply have been no peace process in Northern Ireland. I want to reassure my right hon. Friend that we are consulting on how to address the legacy of the past. This is a consultation.

Chester is a garrison city, and numerous constituents who have retired from the services are affected by uncertainty. I have no problem with crimes being investigated where there is evidence, but what comfort can the Secretary of State give those servicemen and ex-servicemen in my constituency who have served honourably and are living under a cloud of suspicion and uncertainty?

Those people are living under that cloud of uncertainty under the current system, and I want to see an end to the disproportionate focus on our veterans that is happening under that current mechanism. There is widespread agreement that the current system is not working. I urge the hon. Gentleman and all his constituents to respond to the consultation—we are consulting.

An end to disproportionate focus is not the answer we need. What we need is for a line to be drawn, and the way to draw that line is to have a statute of limitations and a truth recovery process. Why has the Secretary of State excluded that from the consultation when it was supposed to be included?

I know that my right hon. Friend feels strongly about this issue. I urge him to respond to the consultation—I repeat, it is a consultation. There are differing views on this matter and differences of opinion, and we do need to hear from everybody.

Our armed forces and security forces served bravely and valiantly during the troubles. What action has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that no one who served is unnecessarily dragged into the criminal justice system for actions that have already been investigated?

Again, I urge the hon. Lady to respond to the consultation. We want to get this right. We want to make sure that we have a proportionate, fair and just response, but let us remember that 90% of all murders in the troubles were committed by terrorists.

Legacy Issues

8. What progress she has made on the consultation on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. (905869)

The consultation entitled “Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past” launched on 11 May and will run until 10 September. We are determined to provide a better outcomes for victims and survivors, and to ensure there is not a disproportionate focus on former soldiers and police officers.

Even though it is absent from the legacy consultation, and further to the questions asked by my right hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), will the Secretary of State reconsider promoting a statute of limitations so that veterans are protected from legal assault and are not hounded into old age?

There are strong views on this matter and I urge everybody who has views to respond to the consultation. There are a number of different opinions.

12. When determining the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, will the Secretary of State ensure that the wishes of the vast majority of people on either side of Northern Ireland are acknowledged? They draw a massive distinction between the perpetrators of violence and those who suffered as a result of it. (905873)

The hon. Gentleman makes that point very well. We do need to make the distinction that 90% of all killings were murders by terrorists.