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Northern Ireland

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Office: Belfast

What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the EU’s request to establish an office in Belfast. (902570)

I have regular discussions with the Executive on the protocol and wider matters, and I look forward to having further productive discussions with Ministers before the end of the transition period.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. But given the dismissive attitude of some in his Government on this particular issue, how can we in Northern Ireland have any confidence that he will faithfully implement the Northern Ireland protocol? Given all that is happening right now, is it not surely time to begin to agree to a transition period extension so that we can finally get a proper agreement on Brexit, which is, in our view, impossible to do at this time?

There is no reason why the European Commission should be requiring a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol. We are focused on our determination to ensure that we fulfil all of our obligations to deliver on the protocol. The best way we can give certainty and confidence for business is to follow through and deliver on our promise to make sure that we leave and have everything in place at the end of December this year.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

What steps he is taking to support businesses in Northern Ireland (a) during the covid-19 outbreak and (b) in preparation for the end of the transition period. (902572)

What steps he is taking to support businesses in Northern Ireland (a) during the covid-19 outbreak and (b) in preparation for the end of the transition period. (902573)

What steps the Government has taken to support (a) businesses and (b) the self-employed in Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (902584)

The UK Government are backing businesses in Northern Ireland through UK-wide measures including the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. In preparation for the end of the transition period, we are committed to implementing the protocol. That includes unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

The Secretary of State will already be aware of the vital cross-border trade and employment dynamics that existed pre-covid between counties such as Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh and neighbouring County Donegal. What planning is taking place with the devolved Administration in Belfast and the Irish Government to ensure that the emergence from lockdown promotes an urgent regeneration of the crucial cross-border economy?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We are very focused on the whole economy of Northern Ireland. In fact, one of the biggest and most financially well-supported growth deals in the whole of the United Kingdom is the one in Northern Ireland dealing with exactly these economic issues. I can assure him that I have regular meetings with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and also co-chair a fortnightly meeting with the Republic of Ireland’s Tánaiste, to be sure that we take, where appropriate and proper, a joined-up approach.

The Secretary of State will value the importance of lifeline ferry services, and the news of potentially 1,000 job losses at P&O is devastating. What assessment has he made regarding the impact of a reduction or loss of the P&O Cairnryan to Larne service, and what discussions has he had with P&O and the trade unions on safeguarding this vital link between Scotland and Northern Ireland?

I was pleased to be able to announce only a week or two ago the £17 million package that we put in place to protect the five ferry routes to ensure that we keep connectivity for Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had conversations with P&O and other ferry operators just in the past few days.

Just as in my constituency of Aylesbury, small businesses and the self-employed are a vital part of the economy in Northern Ireland. As we move to the next stage of the coronavirus crisis, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have all the guidance and support that they need to regain lost trade and to flourish once more?

My hon. Friend makes a really good and important point. Throughout the crisis, both I and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), have been in regular contact with businesses across Northern Ireland to ensure that we understand the pressures that they are facing, and to make sure that we can work with the Northern Ireland Executive to continue to focus on the economic recovery in the form that they need. He is quite right: wherever we are in the United Kingdom, including in Great Yarmouth, we have to make sure that we are focused on the small businesses that are often the heartbeat of our communities. We are also determined to make sure that we do that in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive.

We go across to Louise Haigh, who is standing in as the temporary shadow Secretary of State, and wish Tony Lloyd well.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I also send all our love and best wishes to my hon. Friend and predecessor, the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who continues to make a recovery from covid-19?

The Secretary of State will regret, as I do, the disrespectful way in which the devolved nations were cut out of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Sunday and the confusion that reigned across the UK as a result. Will he commit to ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive are fully consulted and informed on the next phase of lockdown and future changes to messaging?

I would like to offer the hon. Lady a warm welcome to her new role. I look forward to working with her for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. If you will indulge me briefly, Mr Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who served in his post admirably for over two years and through three different Secretaries of State; I hope that the hon. Lady only deals with one Secretary of State in her time in office. I was hugely pleased to hear of his recovery, and I am glad that he has decided to continue to represent the people of Manchester as he recovers, as he has done over the last four decades.

We are working with the devolved authorities. They have Ministers sitting on all the committees that are discussing issues around how we deal with coronavirus, and all the devolved authorities were present and part of the decisions made at the Cobra meeting on Sunday, ahead of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; that was a very quick promotion.

As the Secretary of State said, not only is co-ordination across the UK important, but the unique situation in Northern Ireland means that co-operation with the Republic of Ireland is equally important. Can he explain why those in Northern Ireland who hold an Irish passport, as is their right under the Good Friday agreement, are still unable to check their eligibility for the self-employed support scheme, and can he commit to urgently rectify that problem before the scheme starts to pay out?

We are aware of that issue, and I hope to be able to outline exactly how we are dealing with it very soon. It is something we are aware of and looking to rectify.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), it is also the case that Northern Ireland citizens who hold a Northern Ireland driving licence cannot use that document to verify their claim for support from the self-employed income support scheme. Clearly, that is entirely wrong. It means that self-employed people in my constituency are being disadvantaged and cannot make their claim or have it verified. Will the Secretary of State liaise with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to ensure that Northern Ireland driving licences are an acceptable document for the purposes of verification for the self-employed scheme?

Yes, I am happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman to see whether we can find a logical, sensible and swift solution to that challenge.

Can the Secretary of State advise us what additional funding he is seeking to support the Northern Ireland economy, as we hopefully emerge from lockdown over the next few weeks and months? He will be aware of the situation with our economy, as with the economy across the United Kingdom. We are all anxious to know what additional support might be available from the Treasury for the recovery of our economy in Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is hugely important that we are ready, as we come out of lockdown, to not just recover from the economic situation with coronavirus but then turbocharge the economy across the United Kingdom, and particularly in Northern Ireland to see the economy flourish and grow. We have given £1.2 billion to the Northern Ireland Executive through the Barnett consequentials. That is on top of the UK-wide schemes, such as the job retention scheme. The Treasury and the Chancellor continue to look at everything we need to do to support businesses, people and every part of the United Kingdom as we come through this, and to ensure that we come out of it in a way that will allow our economy to re-flourish and grow in the future.

With covid-19 consuming so much effort internationally, does the Secretary of State agree that the EU simply will not indulge further UK Government brinkmanship on transition? The resulting cliff edge will be a step too far for many Northern Irish businesses, so why are his Government pushing ahead with their reckless timetable, despite widespread support across the political divide for an extension?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s reference to widespread support. The position of the British public, restated in December last year, is very clear—they want to see things done, so that we as a country can move forward. It is in both our interests and the EU’s interests to be ready to move forward in January 2021. The best certainty we can give business, which we are focused on, is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK, and we will do that through the Northern Ireland protocol.

Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

What discussions he has had with his counterparts from the (a) devolved Administrations, (b) other administrations of the UK and (c) Republic of Ireland to facilitate (i) co-operation and (ii) mutual aid during the covid-19 outbreak. (902577)

We are working closely with the devolved Administrations in our response to covid-19. As I have said, representatives from each Administration attend Cobra meetings, as well as the many detailed implementation groups that sit underneath the Cobra and Cabinet structure. The Tánaiste, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and I also meet regularly, and we hope to do so again later this week. We agree that continued close contact and co-operation will rightly remain essential in the weeks and months ahead.

The contact tracing app that the UK Government are developing is apparently different from the one that the Irish Government are advocating, which may create significant difficulties not only on the island of Ireland but in relation to travel to and from the rest of the UK via, for example, Welsh, Scottish and English ports. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government on the proposed app, and what would he advise people in Northern Ireland to do?

The app offers a huge opportunity to be an important part of our work as we come through covid-19 into exiting from this in a sensible and logical way and with awareness of how the virus has spread across the UK. It is important that people take part. I give a huge thank you to those who have been involved in work on the app.

I have been in conversations with the Irish Government —I spoke to the Tanaiste on this issue only a few days ago—as well as with the Northern Ireland Executive, to ensure that all our experts and chief medical officers are working together to ensure that we have a joined-up approach where practical, sensible and appropriate so that we get things working in a way that is good for the health of all the people of Ireland. I am focused on ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland get the best possible care.

Covid-19: The Union

. We are working, and will continue to work, closely with all the devolved Administrations, who are fully committed to suppressing the virus across the UK. Our response to covid-19 is a collective national effort. The Executive are following a science-led path, doing what is best for the people of Northern Ireland, recognising the overall approach that we are taking across the UK to fight this pandemic.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with most people in Dudley and with me that we are stronger as one United Kingdom in responding to coronavirus? Will he let the House know whether the devolved Administration has improved outcomes for people in ways that we can share across the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The short answer is, yes. This is a good example of how the United Kingdom has been stronger than any single part of it, so we are stronger together as a family. As I have said, we will continue to work closely with all the devolved Administrations. I remain in close contact with both the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland to co-ordinate the response and share information and insights. That approach has been effective, allowing us to work together on issues of common concern, including the provision of personal protective equipment, while allowing plans to be tailored to ensure that they address the particular local situations that we all face.

Does the Secretary of State agree that whether in Bolton or Belfast our two time-tested institutions—the Union and the NHS—have exuded extraordinary heroism in the covid cataclysm that has swept the planet?

Yes, and my hon. Friend’s language is spot on. We have all seen how the NHS has responded with heroism and agility. I thank all key workers across the United Kingdom for their professionalism and dedication to looking after people. We have seen fantastic co-operation between all political parties in Northern Ireland and across the UK, and the devolved Governments have worked together in a way that is good for all parts of the United Kingdom as we tackle this crisis.

Withdrawal Agreement: Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol

What progress he has made on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement. (902588)

The Joint Committee met on 30 March and the Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met on 30 April. The protocol has of course been part of those discussions. Our intention in implementing the protocol is to protect Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom and cement the huge gains that we have all seen from the peace process. We believe that it will be necessary to support business and the wider population in understanding the protocol before it comes into effect.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He knows—he confirmed earlier in these exchanges—that Northern Ireland businesses will continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has made a commitment that we will not check goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State set out a bit more detail for the House about the progress that has been made in implementing both those important commitments?

My right hon. Friend is right. I want to put this in the clearest possible terms: Northern Ireland businesses will have unfettered access to the market of the United Kingdom and across GB. This is something, as he rightly points out, that many of my Cabinet colleagues and I have not just commented on publicly but about which we feel strongly. We look forward to delivering on that before the end of the year —we will deliver on that promise.

I heard what the Secretary of State said about the one-way unfettered access, but in 33 weeks Northern Ireland businesses will have to comply with EU customs and regulatory rules and two VAT systems. When will the Government let those businesses know exactly what they need to do to comply with the protocol in order to keep trading?

We will ensure that businesses have plenty of time to be ready for January next year. One of the key parts of that is ensuring that we have unfettered access. We will not put borders down the Irish sea or anywhere else. Unfettered access is a hugely important part of respecting the Good Friday agreement, as well as the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. The best way for businesses to have fluidity of access to the market is to have unfettered access. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is what we will do.

Legacy Issues

What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to tackle Northern Ireland legacy issues; and whether those proposals will require cross-community support. (902594)

I recently published a written ministerial statement setting out the way forward on the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. We have begun engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government and other key stakeholders, with a firm focus on finding consensus on the detail of the proposals, which will allow us to move forward.

The Victims’ Commissioner said:

“The aim of addressing the legacy of the past must be to build a better future”.

Why did the Secretary of State, in that spirit, not consult with key organisations such as the Commission for Victims and Survivors before publishing his statement on 18 March? Does he agree that victims must be at the heart of the proposal, and that any proposals must have their full support?

Colleagues will appreciate that it was appropriate to lay the written ministerial statement before Parliament first. That is the process of how we work in this House, but I say to the hon. Lady that I have been engaging with victims groups, as has my Minister of State, and I will continue to do so. I have spoken directly to victims groups, which are an important part of the process. I gently say to the hon. Lady that the WMS very clearly references the importance of ensuring that we do the right thing for victims. They are absolutely at the heart of this, and it is important that they are.

Covid-19: Personal Protective Equipment

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the supply of personal protective equipment to Northern Ireland from the UK procurement system during the covid-19 outbreak. (902568)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the supply of personal protective equipment to Northern Ireland from the UK procurement system during the covid-19 outbreak. (902591)

The UK Government and the Executive have committed to ensuring that those on the frontline in responding to covid-19 are provided with the critical PPE that they need to do their job safely. As part of our UK-wide approach, the Government have allocated around 5.5 million items of PPE to Northern Ireland, which in turn has sent 250,000 gowns to the rest of the UK.

Earlier this week, Moy Park, which is the largest manufacturing employer in Northern Ireland, sadly experienced the tragic covid-19-related death of a valuable worker, meat packer, Unite member and human being. Everyone should expect to return home safely after a day’s work. Given what the Minister just said, is he happy with the adequacy of the supply of PPE from the UK to Northern Ireland? Perhaps people in Northern Ireland are not. Also, when will resources be provided to ensure that all frontline workers in high-risk sectors, such as poultry and meat processing, will finally be safe at work?

First, let me say that every death from covid-19 is a tragedy for the individuals and their families, so let me pass on my condolences to the family involved in this particular case. Of course, PPE is an important part of the equation, as are proper social distancing guidelines, and it is important that businesses such as Moy Park follow the social distancing guidelines, as I am assured that they have been.

Like those in other parts of the UK, including my constituency, care homes in Northern Ireland have been overlooked, with PPE not sufficiently reaching them. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Executive on the distribution of PPE to ensure that our most vulnerable and frontline workers are protected in this crisis?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Northern Ireland Executive has been distributing PPE to the care home sector. Part of the 5.5 million items of PPE that the UK Government have been making available to Northern Ireland has been deployed in that sector, but it is an absolute priority that we continue to get a grip on the issue of care homes. I know that that is a priority for the Executive as well as for the UK Government.

The recent events of covid-19 have underscored the fragility of international supply chains, certainly with regards to PPE, when international demand is very high. Would my hon. Friend undertake at the appropriate time to discuss with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Westminster the opportunity to grow this important area of our economy, thereby creating future jobs and enabling us to produce enough PPE in this country with a UK badge?

My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes an important point. Of course, it is vital that we work on the international procurement effort with the devolved Administrations, as we have been, but it is also essential that we maintain our domestic supply. I pay tribute to businesses in Northern Ireland, such as Denroy Plastics, which the Secretary of State spoke to yesterday, and O’Neills, which he visited just before the outbreak and which has switched over its production lines to producing vitally needed PPE and is making a huge contribution already.

Air Connectivity: Great Britain and Northern Ireland

What steps his Department is taking to safeguard air passenger routes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (902569)

What steps he is taking to ensure that air connectivity continues between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. (902582)

The Government are committed to maintaining air connectivity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during these unprecedented times. That is why we worked with the Executive to provide a £5.7 million financial support package to City of Derry and Belfast City Airports to ensure that services to and from London will continue.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s £5.7 million investment in maintaining air passenger flights is an important step in ensuring that that vital support link is maintained so that, post covid, we continue to strengthen the economic links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This support package is key to safeguarding vital connectivity, providing links to Northern Ireland’s key economic zones. As he knows, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from the Union with Great Britain, which is Northern Ireland’s main market for sales and tourism. We want to further strengthen these ties to support the movement of medical supplies and key workers and to assist with Northern Ireland’s economic recovery from this crisis.

Given the integration between the Northern Ireland economy and the GB economy, air connectivity is vital to any recovery plan out of this health crisis, yet it has practically stopped at present. Will the Minister commit first to continue support for our airports, including Belfast International, secondly to work towards the abolition of air passenger duty, which adds substantially to costs, and thirdly to give every encouragement to present airlines and prospective carriers to open routes quickly again?

The hon. Gentleman makes some excellent points. It is vital that we continue to prioritise connectivity. As he knows, we stepped in where necessary to protect connectivity that might otherwise have been lost. Ministers agree that at this stage Belfast International is financially stable, but we will certainly keep that under review and continue to work closely with the Executive on all those issues.

Ferry Crossings

What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (902571)

What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (902575)

What steps the Government is taking to support the continuation of ferry crossings between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (902583)

The Government have, together with the Northern Ireland Executive, made available a financial package of up to £17 million to keep critical freight routes open between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This reflects the huge importance of these connections and ensures essential goods, such as food and medicines, will continue to flow.

The Belfast-Liverpool ferry is vital to businesses in Wrexham. Does my hon. Friend agree that free-flowing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is of great benefit to the Union, which is why the Government’s success in keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union is beneficial to us all?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. This package helps ensure that we keep freight capacity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The funding will help to maintain the flow of critical goods across the Irish Sea and throughout the Union. And yes this underlines the importance of keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK customs union, so that goods needed in Northern Ireland and Great Britain can continue to flow freely.

The Government have acted swiftly to protect ferry services between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and I welcome the measures they have put in place. Many businesses here on Ynys Môn rely on goods coming to and from Northern Ireland and Liverpool. Will he continue to monitor the wider economic impact of services on north Wales, given its close proximity to Liverpool?

Each route is integral to the supply of critical goods within the United Kingdom. Public service obligations are an established mechanism for supporting routes and are being used here to temporarily support routes affected by covid-19. The Government continue to engage closely with operators and ports on the Irish sea and we will continue to listen and take appropriate steps at the right time to protect critical supply routes, wherever they are.

Can the Minister confirm that keeping these ferry routes open is sustaining the supply chain of food and medical supplies that are so vitally needed on both sides of the crossing, including in the Vale of Clwyd?

Absolutely, yes, and I think the exchange of PPE that was referred to in earlier answers to questions is a good example of that, where both GB has benefited from those connections to Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland has benefited from those connections to Great Britain.