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Covid-19: Support for Businesses

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

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.