The Secretary of State was asked—
British Service Personnel Memorial
May I start by paying tribute to my predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has been typically generous and helpful with his time and efforts during the handover?
I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House will agree that we all owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of British servicemen and women who were killed upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten. Within the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire sits the armed forces memorial. Rightly, it includes the names of every member of the armed forces killed while serving in Northern Ireland, as a permanent reminder of their bravery and sacrifice.
Anthony Dykes, who came from Harworth, a mining village in my constituency, was murdered on 5 April 1979. His parents, Fred and Kathleen Dykes, are two of the finest people I have ever met and represent everything that is good about my community and this country. Other grieving parents have specific memorials. For Fred and Kathleen’s son and others who were killed or murdered on duty in Northern Ireland, there is no such memorial. Is it not now time that, as with other conflicts, there is a specific memorial for those who served our country and lost their lives in the conflict in Northern Ireland?
I understand and empathise with the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. In fact, as I visited the former Massereene Army barracks in Northern Ireland last week, I paused to pay my respects at a local memorial to two former Army engineers who were killed in 2009. There are many such memorials to individual acts of heroism or tragedy scattered not just across Northern Ireland, but around the rest of this country. Those commemorate individual actions and tragedies. The national memorial is the one in Staffordshire, and we should not underestimate its importance or value—it having been opened by Her Majesty the Queen and recording the names of everybody who has been killed on service in Northern Ireland and other conflicts.
One of the last formal acts I did as Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2013 was to unveil a memorial stone in the Belfast City Council memorial garden to the Ulster Defence Regiment and others who served in Operation Banner. May I invite the Minister to come with me to see the memorial there and to consider how best nationally we could reflect the Government’s recognition of sacrifice in Northern Ireland?
Britain is a global trading nation and is about to become more global, so we want to promote the strengths of Northern Ireland’s business community to a global audience. So far, I have visited CM Precision Components in Downpatrick, the Causeway Chamber of Commerce, Randox in Antrim, Coca-Cola in Lisburn, Queen’s University Centre of Excellence in Precision Medicine in Belfast and many Northern Ireland representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses, Chamber of Commerce, Confederation of British Industry and Institute of Directors.
On every visit I make to embassies in my role as Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, it has been made very clear to me that Northern Ireland has an amazing economy that is growing and has a rightful place around the world. Does my right hon. Friend—forgive me, I meant my hon. Friend; the day is young—agree that Northern Ireland’s economic achievements would only be greater if the Northern Ireland Assembly were out there assisting and promoting it through the Northern Ireland Executive?
I completely agree that things would be hugely improved by a functioning Assembly and Executive. I have been in this role for only a couple of weeks, but, as a former businessman, I have been hugely impressed by the economic progress since the Belfast agreement. Northern Ireland is open for business and we want the whole world to know.
In the meetings that I have held so far, I have been hugely impressed by the skilled and stable workforce in Northern Ireland. I have also been impressed by its world-leading research—for example, in the precision medicine centre that I visited at Queen’s in Belfast—and by the strong sectoral abilities in cyber-security, life sciences and aerospace. We are doing a great deal and we need to continue to do so to promote that economic growth.
The Minister will be aware in recent times of the success that companies have had across the globe in the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland from China to Taiwan, Australia and Dubai. There is perhaps a chance of hosting a conference in Northern Ireland to promote the agri-food business and business as a whole. Is that something in which he would be interested?
In relation to the Belfast region city deal announced in the recent Budget, will the Secretary of State justify or explain why the percentage of match funding guaranteed for Belfast is not being replicated elsewhere in the UK, most notably in my city of Dundee under the Tay cities deal?
As I understand it, city deals vary from place to place. They are situation and location specific almost by definition, so there is not a particular standardised approach to any one of them. They are tailored and deliberately so. I am afraid that that is what inevitably happens. With any luck, some other city deals, perhaps in other parts of Scotland, may conform more closely to what the hon. Gentleman is after.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to boost business in Northern Ireland will be to deal with air passenger duty and corporation tax, which are, unfortunately, devolved matters? Will he therefore encourage the institutions in Northern Ireland to get up and going again? If not, will the Government take some action?
My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, is absolutely right to point out that these are devolved matters and that they need to be taken forward by a devolved Assembly and Administration—the Executive. We want to encourage all sides to get going again, because, clearly, these issues are important to the people of Northern Ireland and need to be addressed.
EU Withdrawal Agreement
May I start by putting on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), the former Minister?
The withdrawal agreement is the best way for Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom to ensure that we leave the European Union. It protects all the things that we value in Northern Ireland—the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, and vital jobs and investment—and, for the people of Northern Ireland, it continues the progress that we have made over the past two decades under the Belfast agreement.
On Saturday 8 December, just five short days ago, the Secretary of State penned a letter to the people of Northern Ireland. The letter stated that the deal protects all the things that we value. As the Prime Minister is now desperately rushing around Europe to change that very deal, may I ask what the new letter will say this Saturday?
I stand by the comments that I made in the letter. This is the best deal to ensure that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union as one united kingdom. The Prime Minister, though, has recognised the concerns that there rightly are around the backstop, and she is seeking to address those concerns.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what aspect of this deal would require the Northern Ireland Assembly to be sitting? If the Government cannot get devolution in Northern Ireland back up and running, will they resort to direct rule to implement their deal?
We all want to see the Executive back up and running, and we want to see the institutions in place. The Good Friday agreement achieved so much for the people of Northern Ireland and those institutions are such an integral part of them. I know that the politicians in Northern Ireland do want to come back to do that. I think the hon. Lady is referring to the Stormont lock in paragraph 50 of the joint report, and the Government stand by that lock.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether she has carried out any analysis on the exact economic and competitive advantages that Northern Ireland would have over the rest of the United Kingdom in the event of the backstop being activated? If she has, will she publish them? If she has not, will she commission some?
Article 5 of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol on the withdrawal agreement, which states that
“free movement for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality, to, from and within Ireland”,
means that people will be able to move about as part of the common travel area. So with the end of free movement post Brexit, what additional checks will be imposed on people travelling to and from Northern Ireland from the UK mainland?
The hon. Gentleman does not understand the way that the common travel area works today and the fact there is free movement across the island of Ireland for all citizens and nationalities. Of course there is a good working relationship between the Border Force agencies in Northern Ireland and their equivalents in the Republic, so that we can ensure that those who do not have the right to be in the United Kingdom do not access the United Kingdom.
Throughout the debates on the EU, we were talking about the European arrest warrant. I give the Secretary of State another opportunity today to clarify why there has been in the withdrawal agreement little in the way of commitment on the European arrest warrant, which is key to policing in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the European arrest warrant is used in Northern Ireland more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and it is an incredibly important instrument. I hope that he has read the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement, which is clear that in the future security partnership we will have a deeper relationship with the European Union than any other third country, including on surrender of EU nationals.
The Prime Minister has told us that she is on a quest for “democratic legitimacy” for her agreement in respect of Northern Ireland. Is this not a curious term to use given that the one group of people who have been consistently ignored by the Government are the people of Northern Ireland, who voted not to leave the European Union?
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Nearly 17.5 million people in the United Kingdom, including people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine, voted to leave the European Union. The people of Northern Ireland want to see this deal, because they want to see us leave the European Union in a managed way that is not chaotic and that works for Northern Ireland.
I have significant engagement with businesses across Northern Ireland, and I have found an absolutely consistent message, which is that those businesses, to protect jobs and to protect the progress that we have made since the Belfast agreement, want to see this deal so that Northern Ireland can leave the European Union, with the whole United Kingdom, in an orderly way. In fact, we were very pleased to welcome 12 business and civic society leaders to Westminster last week to express exactly that view.
Given the desire by all sides to avoid a hard border between the Republic and the north when we exit the European Union, why is that not, in a legally enforceable way, within the withdrawal agreement or the backstop agreement so that we use new technology for these purposes, not old and untried technology?
My hon. Friend will know that the backstop can be ended, if we go into it in the first place, by the future relationship or by alternative means, and that can of course mean new technology. But at this time there is no technology that deals with the issue of the border in a way that respects the rights of the people of Northern Ireland and respects the Belfast agreement and the way that it operates.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the evidence presented to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee following our visit to Northern Ireland, published on Monday, saying that businesses and trade bodies in Northern Ireland are crying out for clarity and certainty as we leave the European Union?
I was delighted to find myself on the same aeroplane as the BEIS Committee on its visit to Northern Ireland, and am sure that it heard the same message I hear when I am in Northern Ireland, which is that businesses want certainty and clarity, and would like to see us implement this deal so that we can ensure that we leave the European Union in an orderly way.
As I have said, this is the best deal. This is the best way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as a whole in an orderly way, but the Prime Minister has recognised and listened to the concerns of the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and many others in the House about the backstop, and she is looking to assuage those concerns.
The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. She is telling everybody that this is the best deal, it is a wonderful deal and everybody should accept it. However, the Prime Minister is telling everybody that nobody likes it, the Irish do not want it, Europe does not want it and the British Government do not want it. How does the Secretary of State explain the utter contradiction in those arguments?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is a contradiction. I think he is talking about the backstop. We all agree that the backstop is a very uncomfortable thing that none of us wants to see introduced, just as we never want to see any insurance policy called upon, because the fact that it is called upon means that the worst has happened.
I welcome the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) back to the Government—although, with recent developments, it may be a short stint.
In recent weeks, the Secretary of State has publicly stated that the current backstop protocol puts Northern Ireland in an unrivalled position in the world as a destination for foreign direct investment. However, her Cabinet colleague the Scottish Secretary has said that any suggestion of an advantage for Northern Ireland is a wholly false argument. Who is right—the Scottish Secretary or her?
I trust that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to somehow use the unique situation in Northern Ireland and the success of Northern Ireland to try to impute a special status to Scotland. The fact is that Northern Ireland has a land border with Ireland and therefore will be in an unrivalled position, because it will be the only place that has both a land border with the European Union and access to trade deals through the independent trade policy of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]
I do not wish to tempt fate, but at the moment, the Government Benches are a model of decorum. By contrast, there is a very large number of noisy private conversations taking place on the Opposition Benches, which I feel sure will now cease, as the Front Bench spokesperson comes in.
I welcome the Minister of State to his place. Paragraph 50 of the EU-UK joint report last December made it clear that there would be a guarantee, consistent with the 1998 agreement, that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive would be consulted on any regulatory changes. Why did that guarantee disappear in the withdrawal agreement? Why did the Secretary of State allow it to disappear?
The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point. This withdrawal agreement is the only agreement that we can guarantee is consistent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. He refers to paragraph 50 of the joint report. The Government’s commitments under paragraph 50 still stand, but quite rightly, we do not want to negotiate our sovereign rights, which are a sovereign matter for the United Kingdom, with the European Union. We want to do it unilaterally.
Paragraph 50 was very clear about the role of the Assembly and the Executive. The Secretary of State’s words are not good enough. Why should Northern Ireland Members have confidence in this Government? Why should the people of Northern Ireland believe that this Government are committed to devolution, to the peace process and to the Good Friday agreement?
It is this Government who have inserted in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship our absolute commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is this Government who are committed to abiding by all our commitments under paragraph 50 of the joint report, including the points about the Stormont lock and unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market of Great Britain. We stand by those commitments.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Since the withdrawal agreement protects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the consent principle as guaranteed by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, does the Secretary of State agree that it is unforgivable for the Labour party—the architects of the Good Friday agreement—to appear to have abandoned the Good Friday agreement by voting against the Brexit deal negotiated by the Prime Minister?
It is clear that more needs to be done to address the legacy of the past. The current system in Northern Ireland is not working well for anyone. This needs to change to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles and to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated. We are carefully considering all the views received in almost 18,000 responses and intend to provide an update in due course.
As the Secretary of State will recall, I have been raising with her for over a year the issue of military veterans who are being legally scapegoated for political and financial gain. It is getting worse. We now have the case of David Griffin, a retired Royal Marine, who is being reinvestigated for an alleged offence 46 years ago, of which he was cleared at the time. He is a Chelsea Pensioner. Is the Secretary of State proud of the fact that, on her watch, we have given “get out of jail free” cards to alleged IRA terrorists and we are now pursuing Chelsea Pensioners instead?
My right hon. Friend raised this case with the Prime Minister last week. I, too, am upset to see this situation. This is a result of the current system that we all want to see changed. I say very gently to my right hon. Friend that I have also wanted to work with him on finding a solution to this, and I look forward to continuing to do so, because there is no one simple solution, but we all want to see the system changed.
While the headlines are dominated by Brexit, the sad reality is that the witch hunt against our veterans who served in Northern Ireland continues. Can the Secretary of State outline what discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on finding solutions to stop that witch hunt?
I can assure the hon. Lady, with whom I have spoken about this matter on a number of occasions, that I work across Government with all colleagues, because we need to find a way to deal with this issue. There is no one simple solution, but we have to have a way to deal with this that is legal, fair and proportionate.
In supporting the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), may I remind the Secretary of State that veterans were upholding law and order in the Province and it was the terrorists who were trying to kill people? We should bear that in mind when looking at this issue as a whole.
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that that is exactly what we are doing. We would not have seen the peace process without the hard work, dedication and dignity of our armed services and our police. They are the reason that we actually were able to have a peace process and we must never forget the sacrifice they made.
May I, too, welcome the Minister of State—[Interruption.] Thank you, ma’am—the Prime Minister is very gracious. May I welcome I believe the ninth Minister to whose substance I have stood as mere shadow? May I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), a decent man who is wrong on Brexit, but right on many other things?
May I ask the Secretary of State this? She has previously made it clear that she does not support a statute of limitations in Northern Ireland. Does she therefore agree either with her colleague the Secretary of State for Defence, who describes the persecution of veterans as a “ridiculous vendetta”, or with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which says that
“we have the law and…we should all be equal before it”?
It is possible to agree with both. It is a delight to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who has incredible popularity in this House. I hope that he heard the documentary on the BBC yesterday, when the Defence Secretary made it clear on the record that we are looking at every option across Government. We are working across Government on this because we all want to see a solution to this problem.
Armed Forces Veterans
This Government are clear that it is only due to the unstinting efforts of our police and armed forces that we have relative peace and stability in Northern Ireland today. I was honoured to meet the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland recently when launching the veterans strategy there.
Three hundred and nineteen Royal Ulster Constabulary officers murdered, 258 Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers murdered, and over 200 of those cases unresolved—what is the Secretary of State going to do to bring justice to those gallant members from our community?
The hon. Gentleman puts it very well. We need to see this issue dealt with. The current system is not working for anybody. We need to see it resolved. We are working through almost 18,000 responses to the consultation and we look forward to working across the House to find a resolution that works for everyone.