The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Economic and Social Effect
We have now left the EU with a good deal. Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory and will be able to participate in our free trade deals. The Prime Minister negotiated hard to ensure that measures are in place that reflect Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. There will be no hard border with Ireland. At the same time, the agreement completely safeguards Northern Ireland’s integral place within the United Kingdom, and the arrangements on rights and consent within the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The Prime Minister got the majority he asked for to deliver the Brexit that he wanted, but is it really possible for him to deliver on his promise that there would be no forms and no checks—no barriers of any kind—not just between Great Britain and Northern Ireland but between the north of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?
The protocol provides important protections in that respect. Of course we will be working through the Joint Committee, and through the legislation that has been promised with the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, to deliver on those promises.
The Government’s assessment of the economic impact of the withdrawal agreement had little by way of forecasts in terms of Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that this shows the lack of regard that the Government have shown to Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit process?
The Government have put Northern Ireland absolutely at the centre of this process. That is reflected in the nature of the protocol that is agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement and legislated for through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020. But of course the end result will depend on the free trade agreement negotiated between the UK and the EU, and it is too early at this stage to speculate on the details of that. Northern Ireland does enjoy special protections in this process as a result of the protocol.
The Minister was very careful not to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) as to whether there will be checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The First Minister is clear that there will be. The EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, is clear that there will be. Many people in industry and commerce in Northern Ireland believe that there will be. Does the Minister agree that there will be checks, or does he say that there will not be checks, on goods going from GB to Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister has been clear. Beyond our obligations under international law, there will be no changes for movements of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When discussing the protocol with the EU, the UK will be ambitious on how flexible we can make this system. Northern Ireland remains part of the UK’s customs territory.
The Minister is of course right that the Prime Minister has been crystal clear. The very simple question for the Minister is this: is the Prime Minister right or wrong?
The Prime Minister is always right.
One of the ways of consolidating the benefits of leaving the EU would be to make Northern Ireland the most attractive part of the UK to trade. When I was Secretary of State, we had an all-party campaign that had the support of all the business community. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of my successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the Executive now have the power to reduce corporation tax. Some Members of the Executive are a bit gloomy about this. What steps are the Government taking to encourage Members of the Executive to take this amazing power to match corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point—of course, he speaks with considerable experience in this area. It is right that we agreed, as part of previous agreements, that the Executive should have that power. If Ministers from the Executive wish to use it, we stand ready to engage with them, as long as they can show that the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive will be sustainable on the basis of any move in corporation tax.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the special status that Northern Ireland has, now that we have left the European Union, means that there is a bright new future for all the people in Northern Ireland, and that that future should be embraced, not greeted with the doom and gloom from Labour?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. What I see when I visit businesses in Northern Ireland is a determination to deliver for the economy to make sure that people in Northern Ireland enjoy the benefits both of being part of a global and outward-looking UK and of getting the best relationship with our European neighbours. That is an endeavour on which we must all now work together.
Northern Ireland Executive: Financial Package
The UK Government are providing the restored Executive with a £2 billion financial package that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland and supports delivery of the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. This financial commitment represents the biggest injection of new money in a Northern Ireland talks deal in well over a decade. The £2 billion of extra investment gives the Executive the means to transform the lives of people in Northern Ireland for a generation.
In January 2020, when making a statement about the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, the Secretary of State told the House that the financial package was a good start. I love a good start, but I also like good progress. Will he update the House on what progress has been made in building on the good start to ensure investment in better mental health services and dealing with the legacy of the past?
Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right. There has been a very good start, and there have been multiple meetings here in Whitehall with joint Ministers. We have had a Joint Ministerial Committee in Cardiff, and yesterday both the First and Deputy First Ministers attended, for the first time ever, a recruitment drive by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We have seen a very positive start, and I hope that that continues.
Thank you very much. I thank my right hon. Friend for his previous answer. Will he confirm for the House and for the communities of Northern Ireland that this is the most generous package of its kind that has ever been allocated to Northern Ireland through a process like this?
Indeed, my hon. Friend is right. Voters in Northern Ireland realise that this is a good package. There is a Budget coming up in March, and I am sure that if the Executive prioritise their programme of government there will be a positive future for the whole of Northern Ireland.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that all the welcome financial assistance being made available to the new Northern Ireland Executive will be subject to the Barnett formula? Will he also say what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on this matter?
I think that the hon. Lady knows that this package is a unique package for Northern Ireland, and is not subject to the Barnett consequentials. She also knows that there is a very, very good Secretary of State for Scotland, who enjoys working positively with her and her colleagues.
There is some discussion about exactly what £2 billion extra means among the parties in Northern Ireland, and it is important that the Government maintain trust with the people of Northern Ireland to honour financial and economic commitments. In the wake of the renewable heat incentive scandal it is important that the Government ensure transparency and value for taxpayers’ money. Can the Secretary of State tell us what investment is required to fund the Bengoa review, and what assessment has been made of savings from delivering an integrated education service?
The answers are to be found with the Executive. It is up to the devolved Government to look at how best to spend the package. It is up to the parties and the Executive to work through how they deliver on their side of the agreement, which is to transform both the health service and education. It is not for me to come up with those answers, but I look forward to hearing theirs.
The security situation in Northern Ireland remains severe.
In light of the answer that the Secretary of State has given, can he advise the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure a smooth transition and continued security and peace in Northern Ireland when the withdrawal agreement transition period comes to an end on 31 December?
There are very good discussions with the EU on security matters, and there are very strong bonds with the Irish Government. I remain confident that the security situation that I have just described can be well managed with our current relationships and within the remit of the transition agreement.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the continued presence of dissident organisations in Northern Ireland, and will he say that there is no place in our society for those who peddle hate and division?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have to condemn the ongoing activities of dissident republicans. I pay tribute to the police and to our security services for all the work that they do to make sure that Northern Ireland remains safe.
What about those who have been responsible for security in years gone by? When will the Government put an end to the vexatious claims against our brave armed forces?
We have said—and the Prime Minister could not be clearer on this—that we will end vexatious claims, for both the police and the armed forces. We look forward to bringing forward legislation in that regard in due course.
I welcome that the Secretary of State just said he is going to end vexatious complaints against police officers. In the light of that, will he commit to meet Mark Lindsay, the chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, and officers from the Retired Police Officers Association, so that they can put to him their grave concerns about the non-criminal charges that it has been suggested should be levelled at former serving brave police officers in Ulster?
I will, of course, meet those the hon. Gentleman mentioned as soon as possible.
The Secretary of State will know that the Stormont House agreement is the process agreed by all parties, after consultation with victims, on how to address the legacy of the troubles on the basis of truth, justice and reconciliation. Does he agreed that that is the settled process, and is he confident that the Government will stick to it and to the principle that everybody is equal before the law?
I am confident that we can deliver on the Government’s priority of ending vexatious claims for our armed forces and the police, but I also look forward to working with all parties in Northern Ireland to develop a consensus on how we move forward on the Stormont House agreement.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the support from political parties and community organisations, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland recruitment campaign? Will he encourage young nationalists to join the police and pursue a noble career and profession? Will he also join me in commending the work of PSNI officers, the Garda Síochána and, indeed, police throughout the whole of these islands?
It was such a positive event yesterday, when we saw the First Minister and Deputy First Minister attending that recruitment drive. I encourage all young women and men in Northern Ireland who are interested in the police service to join, whatever their background.
Northern Ireland Economy
Northern Ireland is a leading destination for inward investment, with employment at a record high and unemployment at a record low. However, there is more to be done to unleash Northern Ireland’s economic potential. The UK Government are providing significant funding to Northern Ireland, including through a £1 billion Barnett-based investment guarantee and £562 million for city and growth deals that cover the whole of Northern Ireland.
When the Minister discusses these matters with the Executive, will he consider discussing—along with corporation tax, which he should raise—the levels of VAT on tourism and air passenger duty? I understand that both have been reduced in the Republic of Ireland.
My hon. Friend raises some important points. Northern Ireland’s tourism potential is enormous. I can confirm that, as was previously committed, the Government are reviewing the devolution of APD, and that review is ongoing.
We welcome the success of Invest NI and others in attracting investment to Northern Ireland, but it is essential that we continue to have unfettered access to our biggest market, which is Great Britain. Economic growth is dependent on that and we need the Government to honour their commitments to ensure that we continue to have that access in both directions.
I absolutely recognise the importance of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises. We will honour our commitments and have committed, through the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, to specific legislation on the issue. I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman and the other parties on delivering that.
Will the Minister indicate the timescale within which the Government hope to bring forward legislative measures? It is essential that business has the certainty that it needs at this time to take investment decisions.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the commitment is to have the legislation in place by the end of the year, but there will of course have to be discussions through the usual channels as to the precise timing.
I thank the House for returning me to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
A strong economy requires access to a skilled, motivated workforce. Clearly, we have to ensure that the skills base in Northern Ireland is supported and grows, but will my hon. Friend assure me that the voice and needs of the Northern Irish economy will be heard loudly in the Home Office as we finesse our immigration policies?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his re-election as Chair of the Select Committee. He makes a very important point, which I have also heard loud and clear from Northern Ireland businesses. I think they welcome some of the indications from the Migration Advisory Committee report. Of course, the Northern Ireland Office will ensure that the concerns and interests of Northern Ireland businesses are communicated across Government, including to the Home Office.
The Minister is right to say that the Northern Ireland economy has enormous potential, and there is no doubt that restoration of the Executive will unlock a great amount of that potential. Will he also explain the benefits that the Northern Ireland economy will receive from being part of the fifth largest economy in the world—that of the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend speaks with enormous knowledge of this area. She is absolutely right: Northern Ireland’s economy benefits enormously from its membership of the United Kingdom, and there will be new opportunities for Northern Ireland as we trade more globally and strike new free trade deals around the world.
“New Decade, New Approach” Agreement
Following the restoration of the institutions, I have of course been in frequent contact with the Chancellor and other Government colleagues to discuss the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. This agreement, as we heard earlier, is supported by a generous financial package of £2 billion and also comes with strings attached, with reform required in health, education and justice. The new Finance Minister has already been to London to meet the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and me.
The “New Decade, New Approach” document was created not by the five parties in Northern Ireland but by the UK and Irish Governments. It has set high expectations among the public in Northern Ireland. Will the Government commit generously to fully funding this agreement?
As the hon. Lady knows, this agreement has already delivered an end to the nurses’ strike in Northern Ireland. Having sat through hours of negotiation and discussion, I say to her that it was always clear that the parties had to prioritise what they wanted from Government. They are about to do that, and I look forward to hearing their plans in due course.
Northern Ireland Executive Restoration
The “New Decade, New Approach” deal has restored decision making to locally accountable representatives in Northern Ireland and guarantees the Good Friday agreement. It has ended three years of stasis at Stormont and is already having a beneficial effect on Northern Ireland’s citizens.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Conservative Government have demonstrated their commitment to strong devolved government and funding for all of our nations within this United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have delivered in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and we are delivering on our commitments to the Union.
Over the past few years, this House has made a number of important decisions on very important devolved areas of government in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland are best placed to make those local decisions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Ensuring that the Good Friday institutions are retained and enhanced was an absolute priority of the UK Government, and Northern Ireland is best served by the power-sharing agreement that is in place.
A stable Government needs confidence in the community. A Northern Ireland Minister was mentioned in a recent programme on the horrific murder of Paul Quinn. If that Minister— Mr Conor Murphy—has any information relating to that incident, he should make it known to both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I condemn wholeheartedly that horrendous murder. As with any crime, anyone with information should come forward immediately.
Will the Secretary of State clarify his earlier answer in relation to the Stormont House agreement? He did not refer to it in detail but talked in generalities. A commitment was made recently in “New Decade, New Approach” and it was Government policy back in 2015. Is it still Government policy to fully deliver on Stormont House?
What I have said is that we are going to deliver on the commitment of ending vexatious claims against our armed forces and police officers. I have also said that I will discuss with all Northern Ireland parties how we will deliver on all aspects of the “New Decade, New Approach” document.
Following on from that answer, can the Secretary of State confirm that the specific assurances given on Armistice Day last year about the ending of repeat investigations in the absence of compelling new evidence is entirely compatible with the restoration of devolved government and all that that entails?
I thank my right hon. Friend for all his work in this area. I was reading his Defence Committee’s 2017 report again at the weekend. I confirm that we can deliver on the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s priority of ending vexatious claims against our armed forces and the police, and we can deliver for victims and survivors in Northern Ireland.
Customs Regulations: Consistency
The deal makes clear that Northern Ireland is in, and remains part of, the UK customs territory. It allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The arrangements that we introduce will reflect this.
The Minister talks about unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but according to a Treasury document leaked during the election campaign, firms will have to complete exit summary declarations—at a minimum—so I ask him again: will firms have to complete customs declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and if I ask that again in a future questions session, will he give the same answer?
It is absolutely clear that the process of goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain is within the control of the UK Government. We have made clear commitments with regard to ensuring unfettered access to the whole of the UK internal market.
EU Withdrawal Act: Effect on the Union
The deal implemented in domestic law through the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 means that we have left the EU as one United Kingdom. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland guarantees Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK. This Government will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union and our steadfast belief that Northern Ireland’s best interests are served within a strong United Kingdom.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told us yesterday that we do not need a deal with the European Union. If he is right, what will that mean for the future of Northern Ireland in the Union?
I think the point that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was making is that we already have a deal with the European Union; we have left the European Union with a deal, and that is good news for Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom.
EU Customs Declarations
As I stated earlier, the deal makes it crystal clear that Northern Ireland is in, and remains part of, the UK’s customs territory. It allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The arrangements we introduce will reflect this. As Great Britain and Northern Ireland are in the same customs territory, no tariffs will be due on goods coming from Great Britain and staying in Northern Ireland.
The European Commission released documents showing that EU import formalities on goods imported from the EU, such as customs declarations, would end up taking place in Belfast. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is struggling to hear what I am saying. Does he not think that the best way of ensuring that there are no barriers to trade would be to remain in the customs union?
As the hon. Lady will recognise, there are specific arrangements in the protocol that protect Northern Ireland’s position with regard to trade with both Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is in the UK’s gift—and we will deliver on our commitments—to ensure that Northern Ireland has unfettered access to whole of the UK internal market.
Here we go again from the SNP, but here we go again with the answer. As there has been no increase in UK Government departmental spending in England, there are no Barnett consequentials. Like previous Northern Ireland support packages, this funding addresses unique challenges, as was the case with city deals and support for farmers in Scotland and Wales.
We welcome the return of the new Executive and new moneys for Northern Ireland, but given the Prime Minister’s previously stated opposition to the Barnett formula, will the Secretary of State confirm for the record whether the Government still intend to abide by it?
I can confirm that we absolutely plan to abide by the Barnett formula. That is why, as part of this Government’s commitments, we are levelling up across the nations of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will know that farming and fisheries are an important part of our local economy. He mentioned Barnett consequentials for farmers. Can he give specific assurances that farmers and fishermen will be looked after now that we have left the EU?
I can confirm that we will look after everybody after we leave the EU, but I am also reticent, sitting so close to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in making any commitments about the forthcoming Budget.
Order. Before we start Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, for the first time, the House of Commons is starting a trial scheme to provide a British Sign Language interpretation of Prime Minister’s questions online. A signed version of the session is available live on parliamentlive.tv. Everyone deserves to be able to follow such a key moment in the parliamentary week, and I am committed to making our proceedings as accessible and clear as possible. I want to thank everyone who has worked hard to make this happen.