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Northern Ireland

Volume 667: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Veterans

Before I begin, may I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, on what I believe is—I am not sure—your penultimate day in the Chair? As I have said before, despite the odd disagreement in my past life as Government Chief Whip, your energy, drive and commitment to this role has been without parallel. I hope you will indulge me if I also pay tribute to two other departing Members with a strong interest in Northern Ireland: first, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who has served his constituents with good grace for over 20 years and clearly cares deeply about Northern Ireland and its people; and secondly, my ministerial colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has been in indispensable to me since I took over this role. He has been critical in driving forward preparations for Northern Ireland’s exit from the EU, and also in his tireless work for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. I would also like to wish all colleagues who are leaving Parliament my best wishes; as Chief Whip, I saw at first hand how tough this period of political history has been for all colleagues.

The UK Government are fully committed to the covenant. A veterans strategy was published last year and a consultation event held in Belfast in conjunction with the veterans support office. I am now working closely with colleagues to develop a comprehensive response to that consultation so that we can ensure that every veteran receives the support they need and the recognition they deserve.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but when is the pursuit of brave Northern Ireland veterans and former members of the security services going to come to an end? Is the Secretary of State aware that the Ministry of Defence supports a presumption against prosecution when a case has already been fully investigated, unless there is new evidence? May I urge him to support that proposal and make it an election pledge?

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a consultation going on, as he has referred to. The Northern Ireland Office is looking at the Northern Ireland challenges on legacy. These are very sensitive issues—the system is not working, and we will be reporting back to this House over the coming weeks.

May I, on behalf of my party, extend our best wishes to the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and the Minister of State, to the right hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has been incredibly helpful to me on a particular issue and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who has been a recurring strong voice for Northern Ireland?

The Secretary of State said three weeks ago that no party in Northern Ireland would have a veto, yet Sinn Féin used its veto on the extension of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland; it does not apply in whole or in part, because of Sinn Féin’s sectarian intransigence. Will the Secretary of State keenly pursue the full implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland?

The Government are committed to the armed forces covenant. As I said, we are engaging with the consultation that has occurred. We are clear on our responsibilities; the covenant is working across Northern Ireland, but we obviously need to ensure that it is working as efficiently and productively as possible for members of the armed forces.

In the 30 years since I attended the Remembrance service at Enniskillen after the tragedy and atrocity there, there has been recognition of the service by nationalists, Catholics and Irish people in the great war and in the second world war. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to encourage the joint remembrance of a joint sacrifice?

I will be joining Remembrance Day in Enniskillen in a week or so, and I will be thinking of all the people who have contributed in the way that my hon. Friend refers to.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), may I gently say to the Secretary of State—and I apologise for all the grief I have given him over the past few years—that, on this very important matter, when I was the Veterans Minister I had the great honour of visiting Northern Ireland, and I have to say to him that the covenant, which the coalition Government did so much to advance in that time, has just not happened in Northern Ireland, and it is because of sectarian differences? That is not fair, and those in Northern Ireland must have exactly the same rights under the covenant as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to her for the work she did in that role. I am aware that there is more to do, which is why we have been consulting on how the covenant is being implemented. There are things to improve, and we will make sure that we improve them.

MLAs’ Salaries

2. What plans the Government have to make a further decision on the salaries paid to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. (900144)

It is deeply frustrating that there has been no functioning Assembly for so long. MLAs’ pay is deeply controversial, but they are doing important constituency work. I have said that I will review MLA pay, and I am currently doing that.

I echo the sentiments about colleagues who are leaving, in particular my fellow Northern Ireland Affairs Committee member, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who has stood up for Northern Ireland.

At the Select Committee last week it was revealed that the cost of MLA salaries has reached over £15 million since the Assembly was dissolved. MLAs do good constituency work, but is it not time to use that mechanism as a tool to get the Assembly back up and running?

My hon. Friend is right that this is a challenge. It is a controversial amount of money, but in my view we have to do everything we can to encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together. We need to review pay, but we also need to encourage the Assembly to get up and running.

There is a lot of talk about reducing the salaries of MLAs, but I am sure the Secretary of State will agree with me that many, many MLAs work hard in their constituencies to provide constituency services through their offices. That is an important factor.

My hon. Friend is right. The quality of political leadership and the quality of MLAs is high. We need all MLAs to come together and get going in the interests of Northern Ireland.

I should like the Secretary of State to explain to the people of Northern Ireland why he is still dithering about cutting the salaries of MLAs. He cannot possibly justify continuing to pay MLAs almost £36,000 a year each during the next five years, and the general election campaign will bring no expectation of the Assembly being restored. For goodness’ sake, give the people of Northern Ireland some good news. Cut their salaries and do not dither.

The hon. Lady is being tough on me. At the Select Committee the other day I committed to doing a review as a result of her question, and I am doing that review.

Leaving the EU: Peace in Northern Ireland

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on peace in Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. (900145)

Northern Ireland’s security situation has been transformed as a result of the peace process. Although the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism continues to be assessed as severe, hard work by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others means that most people are not affected. Challenges remain and will continue after EU exit, but Northern Ireland is a place where people want to work, study and live free from the threat or use of violence.

The Prime Minister will spend the next several weeks trying to sell his damaging Brexit deal in Northern Ireland, among other places. The Chief Constable of the PSNI believes that that deal could lead to an increase in violence and civil unrest. What additional funding will the Secretary of State commit to community policing in Northern Ireland to help him cope?

The PSNI has received additional funding in the run-up to Brexit. I remain in constant touch with the Chief Constable, and I will ensure that the funding and resourcing they need to do their job, which they do day in, day out to protect the citizens of Northern Ireland, is there.

There is widespread disquiet among Unionists about the proposed deal, because of the concept of a border down the Irish sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the UK comes out of the interim period and has a free trade agreement, Northern Ireland can have absolute equal status with the whole of the rest of the UK if mutual enforcement is introduced both north and south of the border? That would get rid of the need for a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and a border down the Irish sea.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The Government, through this deal, are ensuring that the United Kingdom comes out of the EU as a whole. On east-west trade, we are doing everything we can to ensure that there will be unfettered access to the GB market and no barriers to that trade.

10.   How many of the Government’s additional 20,000 police officers have been allocated to Northern Ireland, and what flexibility is there if the security situation deteriorates in the light of the deal? (900153)

The PSNI operates on a very flexible basis. My view is that it is well resourced—as I said, it got additional funding through the recent funding increase for the police—but I will keep monitoring that over the coming weeks.

There can be no justification in any circumstances for the use of violence against a democratic decision taken by the people of this country. Nevertheless, the EU withdrawal agreement could create a precedent whereby the principle of consent is altered. The principle of consent is fundamental to Unionist support for the political process and our participation in it. I ask the Secretary of State to look again at what the Government have proposed in this agreement and the damage it is doing to Unionist confidence in the process.

As my right hon. Friend knows, there is no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. I accept that there have been significant questions from the Unionist community. I met with a range of Unionist community groups, including the Orange Order, on Saturday. I will continue to have those meetings and to reassure people that there is no constitutional change and that the arrangements for the Assembly and the Executive remain unchanged.

I thank the Secretary of State for his most generous words. I have to say, the warmth and kindness he displayed are not normally characteristics of the Whips Office, which made them doubly welcome.

This is a bittersweet occasion, but for me the bitterness is assuaged by the sweetness of the 21 years I have worked in Northern Ireland, in that most beautiful part of the world, with some of the finest and sweetest people anyone could ever hope to meet. I implore the Secretary of State and all those who will assemble in the new Parliament to strain every sinew to see that those children born 21 years ago, who are now a new generation of adults in Northern Ireland, may finally know the peace to which they are entitled and let Northern Ireland finally flourish and bloom in peace and prosperity.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. My conversations with young people in Northern Ireland are the most moving and humbling I have ever had, and I will do everything I can to ensure that the opportunities those women and men have are maintained and can flourish. All the young people I have met in Northern Ireland so far in this job show every hope for a successful future for Northern Ireland.

Customs Regulations

4. What steps the Government have taken to ensure that customs regulations are the same in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. (900146)

The withdrawal agreement is clear that the UK Government are committed to protecting Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market, and we have guaranteed that Northern Irish businesses and farmers will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. When the withdrawal agreement comes back, those clauses on unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will be in it. Businesses in Northern Ireland will benefit from tariff-free access to the UK single market while also benefiting from future trade deals negotiated with the UK.

It is one of the defining characteristics of a nation state that goods moving into a territory are subject to regulations that are not there for goods that move within it. That is why the withdrawal agreement is a threat to the future of the Union that is the United Kingdom. It is why the former Prime Minister was absolutely right to discount completely the possibility of a customs border down the Irish sea. Why has the Conservative and Unionist party changed its mind?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the key priority was to maintain no hard border on the island of Ireland—the thing that has ensured peace there for the last few decades. As I said, we will deliver on the commitments in the protocol on unfettered access for NI businesses into the GB market.

If there are to be east-west arrangements, may I press my right hon. Friend to try to ensure that they are cost-neutral for Northern Irish business?

I am having proactive discussions with the Treasury, and I agree that we need to have no costs and no barriers for Northern Ireland business.

In the light of that answer, how does a Unionist Secretary of State justify export declarations on £18.5 billion-worth of trade flowing from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and what charge will be placed on that £18.5 billion-worth of trade?

Through this agreement, the United Kingdom maintains total control of how that is applied. As my hon. Friend knows, we are working day in, day out to ensure that Northern Irish businesses can send their goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain with absolutely unfettered access.

May I return to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)? Could we not consider the mutual recognition and mutual implementation proposals in much the same way as we administer the common travel area?

Over the coming weeks, and then when we enter the implementation period, we must do everything we can to deliver on the commitment that I have just made to unfettered access for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and ensure that trade can continue as it is now.

Northern Ireland in the UK

As part of the world’s sixth largest economy, Northern Ireland benefits from sharing resources to fund public spending on defence, education and health, and from access to the UK’s unique international networks. It also benefits from the Government’s UK-wide policies, including recent increases in the national living wage and the personal allowance. As Conservatives and Unionists, we should always support the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it.

In an interview on Radio Ulster this morning, I reiterated our unwavering commitment to Ulster from the Tory Back Benches. I trust that the Minister agrees that, despite the DUP’s initial reservations about the withdrawal agreement, they will hopefully realise that it is in all our interests for it to be passed as soon as possible.

I do agree with my hon. Friend. I think it is clear that this deal safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the customs territory of the UK, safeguards the principle of consent, and safeguards the right of the Northern Ireland Assembly to opt out of future arrangements if it chooses. It absolutely safeguards Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom.

One of the hallmarks of this United Kingdom is fairness and justice for people who have been victims, wherever they have suffered abuse, but today the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland feel very frustrated and angry about the fact that because an election has been called, the Bill that was designed to address that issue and provide compensation will not now proceed. Can the Minister please indicate, even at this late stage, that it will be allowed to proceed?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to this issue. Time is of the essence when it comes to the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill, and we will do all we can to ensure that it is passed before the general election: my Secretary of State has made that clear. No decision has yet been made about the Bill prior to the dissolution of Parliament, but we will do everything possible to take it forward.

I must press the Minister on this issue. We have literally only a few days and hours left. Surely the Minister can give a more definitive explanation. Surely he can give a definitive commitment that, on this issue, he will step forward. There is cross-party support here in the House, and there is cross-community support in Northern Ireland. Please, please get on with it.

I absolutely recognise the urgency of the matter. Earlier this week, the Secretary of State stated publicly that in order to speed up the delivery of redress mechanisms, he had tasked officials in the Department to work at pace with the Executive Office, and to begin preparations for the scheme once it becomes law. Those preparations will continue, and we will also provide whatever support is needed to assist the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that victims are paid as rapidly as possible. However, I recognise that this is a question for the House, and we will work with the usual channels to see what we can do on that front as well.

May I begin by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for your courtesy and consideration to the Opposition’s Northern Ireland team?

It would be remiss of me not to recognise the ending of the place on the Front Bench of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who will be sadly missed on our side of the Chamber and, I believe, on the other side as well.

As the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has said, it is absolutely intolerable that victims of institutional abuse, who had been led to believe that legislation would pass through this House imminently, now face the prospect of the Leader of the House and the business managers frustrating their simple call for justice, even though the Secretary of State, the Opposition and the Democratic Unionist party want that legislation. Will the Minister ensure that he talks to the Leader of the House and demands that that Bill be brought forward before Parliament is prorogued?

It is clear that we have agreement across the House on how important this issue is, and we are doing everything we can to move forward on it. I will certainly have those conversations, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also have those conversations with the usual channels on his side of the House.

Leaving the EU: Withdrawal Agreement

6. What economic assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. (900148)

12. What economic assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. (900155)

In my last questions, may I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his over-generous remarks and associate myself with his kind words about my north-west London neighbour, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)? I should also like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support over many years in the Chair.

Under the proposed agreement, all businesses will continue to trade across the north-south border without tariffs or new regulatory checks. Businesses in Northern Ireland will continue to benefit from tariff-free access to the UK’s single market while having the opportunity to benefit from any future trade deals negotiated by the UK after we leave the EU.

Has an economic assessment been prepared to illustrate how much of a competitive advantage Northern Ireland will gain from effectively remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market, compared with other businesses across the rest of the UK? If so, will the Minister publish it?

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the impact assessment. I do not recognise her comments about competitive advantage or disadvantage. I hope that she will recognise that the circumstances in relation to Northern Ireland are special because of the land border, and that the proposed agreement responds to those special characteristics.

The Foreign Secretary has described the deal as “cracking” for Northern Ireland. It stands to reason, then, that the deal must be less cracking for the rest of the UK. Why is Northern Ireland getting special treatment when it voted to remain, while Scotland, which also voted to remain, is having to take the bad hard Brexit that the Tories are so determined to push through?

I understand, I think, the point the hon. Gentleman makes, but I return to what I was saying. He knows that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are special in relation to our exit from the EU because of the existence of the land border and because of the importance that we all attach to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. One of the great achievements of this new proposed withdrawal agreement is the removal of the need for a hard border.

Heysham in my constituency is the nearest mainland UK port to Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that my area could be a boomtown if we had a free port, as 10% of the north-west’s GDP comes in through our port, and it will be 20% once this withdrawal agreement has been finalised?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his creativity in introducing that point, which I am sure will have been heard by the relevant Secretary of State. He raises an important point about the opportunity and need to talk up the UK economy and to talk up the opportunities to increase business and trade links across the UK internal market once we leave the EU.

Welfare Mitigation Payments

7. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020. (900149)

8. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020. (900151)

The mitigations in place were agreed by the previous Northern Ireland Executive and are sunsetted in March 2020. Ministers here in Westminster do not have the power to instruct the Northern Ireland civil service to take action or to direct spending in relation to devolved matters. Any extension of those mitigations will be a matter for the Northern Ireland civil service and restored Executive Ministers.

I am—[Interruption.] I am sure that the people of Selly Oak would like the welcome that the Prime Minister just received.

In view of the importance of this issue, will the Minister consider amending the Bill, because it is clear that if the people of Northern Ireland face this welfare cliff edge, there will be major problems from March next year?

This is an incredibly serious issue. Thousands of people in Northern Ireland benefit from these mitigations, and there is a sunset provision for the end of March 2020. The hon. Gentleman will know that alternative mechanisms are available to the devolved Administration to extend the mitigations, but that is not ideal. The best way would be to change the legal framework, which is best done in Northern Ireland by a Northern Ireland Executive, and the day when it is restored cannot come too soon.

Does the Minister agree that many families in Northern Ireland are particularly affected by the Government’s policy to cap benefits for families with more than two children? When he next sees the Prime Minister, will he ask for the lifting of the cap, which affects poor children throughout the whole United Kingdom, to be part of his election manifesto?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and the Prime Minister has heard it directly.

It is not for me to revisit the bowels of welfare policy, but the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on Work and Pensions has raised a serious point about extending the mitigations. That is for the devolved Administration and would be an urgent requirement for a restored Executive.

The introduction of universal credit has had a devastating impact in my constituency, but women in Northern Ireland who wish to access an exemption to the two-child limit, known as the rape clause, may still be subject to criminal prosecution for not reporting under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, as confirmed by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State commit to lifting the two-child limit that places families into further hardship?

That is an extremely important and sensitive issue. The hon. Lady will know that, in practice, there have been no prosecutions under section 5 of the 1967 Act in the past 50 years. She will also know about the guidance from the Attorney General and from the outgoing DPP, particularly on the status of public interest. I come back to the same old riff: any change in the law is for a devolved Executive and a devolved Administration. This is a serious issue, so it is about time elected politicians in Northern Ireland stepped up to their responsibility.

When giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed that Northern Irish businesses will have better access to the EU single market than Scottish businesses. Shamefully, this Government will not publish an economic assessment of the Prime Minister’s deal, but we know from independent research that it will hit Scotland hard. Will the Minister therefore ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is sitting next to him, whether Scotland’s man in the Cabinet demanded that Scotland’s businesses be given the same access to the single market and customs union as Northern Irish business, or did he sit there meekly, abandoning them to their fate?

The Government have published an impact assessment in relation to the proposed withdrawal agreement, and we have rehearsed the arguments about the arrangements in Northern Ireland. These are Northern Ireland questions, and I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.