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House of Commons Hansard
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18 March 2020
Volume 673
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1. What assessment he has made of the effect of Budget 2020 on the Northern Ireland economy. [901559]

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The Budget is a fantastic boost for Northern Ireland as we support the Executive to deliver on the public’s priorities, providing substantial investment for Northern Ireland’s economy with an additional £216 million in 2020-21. The economy will benefit from the announcements on tax cuts, including an increase to national insurance thresholds and the employment allowance. Since the Budget, we have also heard yesterday’s announcement, which will result in an additional £640 million for the Northern Ireland Executive, taking total covid-19-related Barnett consequentials to more than £900 million.

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Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of mental illness in the UK. The Government pledged money to Northern Ireland as part of the confidence and supply arrangement to address those challenges, but that money has not materialised. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor in relation to that funding, and do the Government intend to keep their promise?

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The hon. Lady makes an important point. We all want good support for mental health and to see people with mental health issues getting the right support and healthcare. As I have outlined, we have a very substantial Budget for the Northern Ireland Executive, and I hope we will be able to see good provision. I spoke to the Health Minister yesterday about covid-19, but the issue that the hon. Lady raises is one of those that we will continue to have conversations about.

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The link between health and the economy is now automatic because of the coronavirus situation. If I had been asking the Secretary of State a question about health in Northern Ireland two weeks ago, I would have pointed out that there is a £600 million shortfall in bringing the Northern Ireland health budget up to speed. How much money exactly will be put into that budget to ensure that the health system there is robust against coronavirus, and to build up the capacity that it ought to have so that it catches up with the rest of the UK?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, a key focus for the Northern Ireland Executive is how we improve, and how they improve, health support for people across Northern Ireland. Quite rightly, everybody’s focus at the moment is primarily on not only wider health issues, but the specifics of dealing with coronavirus. The Executive have been hugely focused on that, including the Deputy First Minister, the First Minister and the Health Minister, all of whom I spoke to yesterday. That is where the focus is. There is a substantial budget—as part of the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, there is £2 billion of support for the Northern Ireland Executive, and I hope that we will see a really improved health service for the people of Northern Ireland.

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The Secretary of State has to do better than this. The amount of money that has been made available for coronavirus and health generally is not enough for the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Will the wider moneys available guarantee support for those who cannot get sick pay and cannot pay their rent, and guarantee that those whose small businesses are under pressure will still be in business when we get through this crisis?

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I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that there is £2 billion linked to the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. As I said, last week’s Budget announcements will provide £900 million for the coronavirus situation. That is a substantial amount for Northern Ireland, on top of the money that the Executive already have. I share his desire to see the Executive delivering strong and good healthcare for Northern Ireland, and we will work with the Northern Ireland Executive on that.

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May I appeal to the Secretary of State, in his work with the Executive on the Budget and the economy, to have a strong focus on farming? It is at difficult times like this that people realise fully the importance of food security to our nation, and to every family and household in this country. We need to ensure that we look after our farmers in Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom.

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My right hon. Friend, with her huge experience in this area, is right regarding the United Kingdom and particularly Northern Ireland. I held a roundtable conversation with people in the agricultural sector in the last week or two, looking at what we can do to ensure that they can be successful both now and as we go through the process of leaving the European Union, because food security is important for the United Kingdom. The agricultural sector is hugely important in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to work with it to ensure that it is successful.

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The Secretary of State is right to highlight some of the positive announcements in the Budget last week and yesterday’s emergency measures, but does he accept that a huge opportunity was missed by not mentioning anything about air passenger duty? The Chancellor said last night that he will engage with the Transport Secretary imminently about what we can do to protect the aviation industry. The loss of Flybe was hugely significant to regional connectivity, and the Government will have to move on air passenger duty in the weeks to come.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the challenges, and we are very focused on ensuring that connectivity continues. This is a hugely important issue for us, and it is good that some of the routes that Flybe has vacated have already been picked up by organisations such as Loganair and Eastern—and hopefully by others as we go forward. With coronavirus, this is a particularly difficult time for the airline industry, which is why the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary are focused on it. I have spoken to the Transport Secretary and he is acutely aware of the importance of ensuring that we keep strong connectivity.

The hon. Gentleman is not entirely correct, in that the Budget outlined that the Treasury is taking forward a piece of consultation work around APD. I understand people’s determination to see that delivered; the Chancellor is very aware of it. We are very alert to the work that we have to do, and we will continue pressing on the importance of connectivity between GB and Northern Ireland.

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The Northern Ireland economy is much more heavily based around the public sector than those of other parts of the United Kingdom, and covid-19 may make the situation even more acute. What further fiscal measures can be taken, in anticipation of a post-coronavirus future, to ensure that we redress that balance and make the Northern Ireland economy far more self-sufficient?

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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Despite the challenges we that all face —internationally and here in the UK—due to coronavirus, there are really good opportunities in the wider economy for Northern Ireland. He is right about the differential between the private and public sectors, which is one of the reasons why we have put such substantial support into the city and growth deals, which offer a huge opportunity for economic growth in Northern Ireland and job creation through the private sector. Obviously, we have the very substantial package that the Chancellor announced last night, including some very important and large numbers—circa £900 million for Northern Ireland —and I will repeat the point that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made: for the benefit the United Kingdom, we will do whatever it takes.

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On air passenger duty, I reiterate the concern about stresses on small and regional airports such as Belfast. What goes on in Belfast links with Southampton and Bournemouth. I know that the Secretary of State is very alive to this, but will he have conversations with the Transport Secretary to find out when the review on APD will be brought forward?

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I can assure my right hon. Friend that the conversation between myself, the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor on the issue is ongoing. We are very focused on ensuring that there is good connectivity around the whole United Kingdom. I appreciate that Eastern is an important airline for connectivity around various regions. A number of other airlines are looking at picking up the routes for Belfast. We must also make sure that we have good connectivity with Derry/Londonderry and other places around the whole United Kingdom. We will look to deal with that as quickly as we can despite the challenges of coronavirus, which will make this a very difficult time for the airline industry, as per the Chancellor’s comments last night.