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Northern Ireland

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Prospects

What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for the Northern Ireland economy in the next 12 months. (903599)

While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, as we do across the United Kingdom as we come out of covid-19, I am confident that Northern Ireland has a promising economic future as we recover from this crisis. We will continue to work with business, the Executive and local partners to make sure we do everything we can to get the economy not just back up and running, but turbocharged as it moves forward, laying the foundations for a stable and sustainable economic future.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree with me that the much talked about reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland to 12.5% would be a major boost to the economy of the Province? If one or two parties in Northern Ireland are not keen on that idea, would the Government consider introducing it once we are free of the shackles of the European Union in that respect?

I think we are all looking forward to being completely free of the shackles of the European Union. We in the UK Government remain committed to supporting the Executive to achieve the devolution of corporation tax, so that they will have the power to make the decision that my hon. Friend has outlined. In the Stormont House and subsequent “Fresh Start” agreements, we made it clear that these powers would be devolved and provided, subject to the Executive’ demonstrating that their finances are on a sustainable footing for the long term. It is for the Northern Ireland Executive to take the steps necessary to place those finances on a sustainable footing, such as by putting in place the fiscal council, which I hope they will do very swiftly.

There are 600 job losses at Bombardier, 400 at Thompson Aero, and another 200 at risk from the cancellation of the Airbus neo—new engine option—project. Northern Ireland cannot afford to lose these jewels in the crown of its economy, so will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government step in with a strategy and support for the aerospace sector similar to that provided by France, Germany and the US?

The hon. Lady asks a very important question about the aviation industry more widely. Obviously, I have spoken to the chief executive of Bombardier in particular, and my colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), have been in constant co-ordination and contact with the relevant companies.

The UK Government have provided some £2.1 billion through the covid corporate financing facility to the aerospace sector and airlines more widely, and additional flexibility for UK Export Finance to support £3.5 billion of sales in the next 18 months, as well as putting £0.5 billion into our aerospace research and development over the next few years. We are determined to do everything we can to support all sectors of our economy, including the Northern Ireland economy.

Covid-19: Co-ordinated Response

What discussions he has had with representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government on co-ordinating the response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903600)

What discussions he has had with representatives of the Northern Ireland Executive on co-ordinating the response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903610)

Throughout the covid-19 outbreak, the UK Government have continued to meet regularly with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as well as other Executive Ministers, to co-ordinate the response and, importantly, to take steps together towards a healthy and full economic recovery.

I am delighted to learn about the positive relationship that exists between the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government during this unprecedented crisis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the Northern Ireland Executive face some critical challenges in the near future, the spirit of co-operation, which will benefit not only Northern Ireland but the whole of the United Kingdom, should continue?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It has been a really positive period of working together, across all the devolved parts of the United Kingdom, with the UK Government. I have had regular weekly meetings with both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, apart from the wider Government meetings that they and their Ministers have been involved with. That is a positive sign of how we have been able to work together for the best interests of everybody in all communities in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will continue in the weeks, months and period ahead.

I also welcome the positive way in which the Northern Ireland Executive have worked with the UK Government during this crisis. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that this positive spirit of co-operation continues?

Absolutely. There has been an absolute unity of purpose in dealing with covid over the period from all parts, and the relationships—east-west, and of the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland and the UK Government—have been very positive. We have worked together and met regularly and, as I say, I think that has been a positive sign for what we can achieve in the future.

Business Support: Transition Period

What steps he is taking to support businesses in Northern Ireland in preparation for the end of the transition period. (903601)

I am working closely with businesses across Northern Ireland to ensure that they are ready for the end of the transition period, which will come at the end of December this year. The first business engagement forum meeting was held on 10 June, and my officials continue to engage in detailed technical discussions, as we did before that and as we will continue to do.

The Prime Minister continues to insist that Northern Ireland businesses can simply throw customs exit declarations “in the bin”, while Michel Barnier continues to insist that this would be incompatible with the UK’s legal commitments. The Secretary of State says that consultations are ongoing, but does he not see that this cannot drag into the autumn? Business needs clarity now, given that preparation for a no-deal exit takes months. If he cannot provide that, he owes it to business to extend the transition period until proper answers are found.

We will not be extending the transition period; we have made that clear. On the wider point, we will set out more detailed plans for extensive support from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for Northern Ireland businesses that will be engaging in the new administrative processes, and we will issue that guidance this summer. I shall be clear, as I have been previously at this Dispatch Box: Northern Ireland businesses trading with the rest of the UK are part of the UK customs territory. They will have unfettered access.

On that point, are the Government actively seeking a waiver from the EU to prevent the need for customs declarations on goods being shipped between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? How advanced are such discussions, if they are taking place?

We continue to take forward discussions on the implementation of the protocol in the Joint Committee and in the specialised committee, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware. As we set out in the Command Paper, we will discharge our responsibilities in a way that is effective, that upholds our international obligations and that respects the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Provisions must include the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences for businesses and traders, and we will respect what we promised, which is unfettered access.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Are the Government promoting a trusted-trader scheme, particularly for key retailers such as those that operate between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? What discussions about that has the Secretary of State had with the business engagement forum?

We are working with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive to ensure that any new administrative procedures are streamlined, avoid any unnecessary burdens and do not affect any flow of trade. There should be no tariffs on internal UK trade because the UK is a single customs territory. For example, a supermarket delivering to its stores in Northern Ireland poses no risk whatsoever to the EU market. No tariffs would be owed for such trade. The principle needs to be formalised with the EU in the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee. We are talking to businesses, including via the engagement forum and other opportunities, to explore proposals to make sure that we maximise the free flow of trade.

Hello from Dorset. My right hon. Friend knows that Northern Ireland businesses want to prepare to make Brexit a success; the problem is that they do not quite know what they are preparing for. In reflecting on last week’s Select Committee hearing, is my right hon. Friend persuaded of the merits of providing stepping-stones between now and 31 December, so that business knows what to prepare for and in what timeframe?

As I said, we are working with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive to support preparations for the end of the transition period at the end of this year. As we engage, including through the business engagement forum that we have already established, we will set out further details to help businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period at the earliest appropriate moment. I assure my hon. Friend that further guidance will be published this summer to make sure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the transition period, which will be at the end of December this year.

An HMRC whistleblower recently warned that the new customs declaration service system is not only delayed but does not talk to other HMRC systems, some of which are 20 years old. With criminal organisations and smugglers ready to take advantage of any gaps in systems, how confident is the Secretary of State that this IT solution will work and provide proper controls to prevent businesses and the Treasury from losing millions of pounds in tax?

I am very confident that HMRC will be able to provide the support and the work that business needs to be ready for when we leave the European Union’s transition period at the end of December this year.

Sporting and Cultural Events

What support he is providing to help attract major sporting and cultural events to Northern Ireland in 2021. (903602)

Northern Ireland has a rich sporting and cultural heritage and is a great setting for any event, as proven by the success of the Open last year. While any decision to bid to host major events is a matter for the Executive, my officials are in regular contact with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and their devolved counterparts to support UK-wide events.

The United Kingdom’s involvement in next season’s world rally championship is currently very uncertain: nine of the 11 rounds have already been chosen and GB is not currently part of that choice. The WRC promoter has previously spoken about the need to rotate Rally GB into Northern Ireland, where most of the competitors wish to participate. Can the Secretary of State save the WRC? Will the Secretary of State assist by co-funding the event with the Northern Ireland Executive during our centenary year?

The hon. Gentleman is a consistent and passionate advocate of hosting a round of the world rally championship in Northern Ireland. We can safely say that if it does come to Northern Ireland, he will have been a driving force. In the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, the Government have already pledged up to £2 billion to help the Executive to deliver on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, but I would be very happy to support the Executive to foster closer ties and better collaborative working across sectors of the UK to attract the WRC and a portfolio of other events to Northern Ireland.

Covid-19: Public Security

What steps his Department has taken to help protect the security of the public in Northern Ireland during the covid-19 outbreak. (903603)

I maintain close contact with the Northern Ireland Executive’s Justice Minister and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Public safety obviously remains at the forefront of the PSNI’s efforts, and thanks to its dedication during this period, public safety has not been compromised. By working closely with and financially supporting the Executive, we have worked together to protect our hospitals and frontline responders and maintained essential public and emergency services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in commending all those involved in maintaining public safety in Northern Ireland for their commitment and efforts during the unprecedented and difficult circumstances of the past few months?

Absolutely. I have had the great honour and pleasure over the past few weeks of being able to meet some of the teams in the ambulance service and the PSNI, who have been working through the covid period in some very difficult circumstances, having to prepare themselves to go out to work to keep people safe and healthy. We owe them all a huge debt of thanks for the amazing work they have done over this period to keep people safe and healthy; I absolutely join my hon. Friend in welcoming that.

Of course, keeping people safe in Northern Ireland should always be the priority. However, that has not always been the case. In 1981, Paul Whitters, aged 15, was killed in Derry, and Julie Livingstone, aged 14, was killed in Belfast. Both were killed with plastic bullets. The files relating to their deaths have been reclassified and withheld until 2059 and 2064 respectively. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no good reason to keep those files closed, and will he now act to allow the parents of those children to see the files?

I have enormous sympathy for those families who lost loved ones—especially children, which is a tragedy—during the troubles. The files mentioned by the hon. Member are currently held by the National Archives and were closed to protect the privacy, health and safety of individuals named in those files. A freedom of information request to the National Archives is the most appropriate next step to enable a full independent review of the files. Such a request can be made by anyone, including the hon. Member, and my Department would provide any necessary assistance to the National Archives if such a request were received.

Covid-19: Economic Recovery

What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (903604)

What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (903606)

What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (903607)

What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (903611)

What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (903624)

The UK Government have supported Northern Ireland businesses and employees through grants, loans and the job retention scheme. The additional funding available to the Executive as a result of the Government’s coronavirus response amounts to £1.3 billion so far. In addition, the UK Government have provided £2 billion in new investment for Northern Ireland through the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, to turbocharge infrastructure investment and provide the best possible platform for businesses to grow.

The impact on the economy in Northern Ireland has been severe. What will the Minister do to avoid a double whammy once the 28 weeks have passed in the case of a no-deal Brexit to stop chaos, confusion and potentially violence between parties in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady is right to recognise that there has been a severe impact, and we are determined to work hand in hand with the Executive on the response to that. I was pleased to see them publishing their own plan, and their focus on skills and infrastructure is an objective shared with the UK Government. This certainly needs to be a joint endeavour, to ensure that we support a strong economy and the conditions for safety and security for the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is reported to be heading for a prolonged economic downturn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said, its aerospace industry is in crisis, with significant job losses at Bombardier and Thompson Aero. The Secretary of State can stop further decline by putting pressure on the Treasury to accelerate defence procurement programmes. Why has he not done that?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the covid-19 outbreak has had a severe impact on the aviation and aerospace sectors around the world. The UK Government have already provided significant support for the sector, including through the business interruption loan scheme, the job retention scheme, and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, £2.1 billion through the covid corporate financing facility, with additional flexibility from UK Export Finance. Of course we will have contact with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, and we are always happy to work with the sector to promote job opportunities in Northern Ireland.

Virtually every major commercial aircraft programme in the world comes back in structure, services or parts to Northern Ireland, yet the recent redundancies have been greeted with no more than a shrug of the shoulders from Ministers, who seem to think that general statements are enough. When will the Minister meet the workforce at those plants and put his weight behind a plan to help them survive this crisis?

UK Government Ministers and officials have been engaging with key stakeholders in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has met the key business leaders in this context to inform our response to covid-19. The lead Department on this, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has been engaging extensively with the trade unions. Only this morning, I spoke to my ministerial colleague at BEIS to ensure that we can continue to co-ordinate our work on aviation.

Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer that business will have unfettered access within the UK, could the Minister explain why HMRC is telling businesses to prepare for new formalities in west-east trade, and could he describe them?

The simple answer is that it is not. We want to make sure that we meet our commitments in a way that imposes a minimal burden on business and provides unfettered access. We are absolutely clear that we will provide that unfettered access and legislate for it through this House.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has already mentioned the severity of job losses at Bombardier, which drives a host of other supply-chain companies. What is the Minister doing to support capital investment in the supply chain to maintain jobs and skills at this particular time?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the supply chain is crucially important to this industry. Making sure that we take the right approach to unfettered access and that we provide support across both the UK and the Northern Ireland economies is crucial in that respect. That is why we are working very closely with colleagues at BEIS and in the Executive to make sure that the support is there up and down the supply chain.

Covid-19: Hospitality and Tourism

What steps his Department is taking to support Northern Ireland’s hospitality and tourism industries to prepare for the lifting of covid-19 lockdown restrictions. (903605)

The UK Government have made £1.3 billion of additional funding available to the Executive as part of the coronavirus response. That has enabled them to provide £25,000 grants to businesses in these sectors and to extend the initial three-month business rates holiday to 12 months for most Northern Ireland businesses. Prior to lockdown, I visited many of Northern Ireland’s beautiful tourist attractions and saw first-hand the amazing experience and the giant welcome that Northern Ireland offers to visitors. I look forward to encouraging everyone to visit as soon as the public health guidelines allow.

I agree wholeheartedly that tourism is indeed a jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown. Does the Minister agree that—subject to public health guidance, of course—now is the opportune time to really promote Northern Ireland as a destination? As it is in the common travel area, quarantine does not apply to English, Welsh and Scottish visitors, so they can fly into Belfast or sail across the Irish sea and still be on staycation.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I absolutely encourage people to avail themselves of those opportunities. It is worth noting that on 1 May the UK Government, together with the Executive, announced a generous £5.7 million funding support package for City of Derry and Belfast City airports so that we can keep this connectivity going. There is a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland tourism. As we enter the recovery phase, many more people from across the UK can go and visit the beautiful sights across Northern Ireland.

Cross-border Transfer of Jobs

What discussions he has had with representatives of businesses in Northern Ireland on the cross-border transfer of jobs to the Republic of Ireland. (903608)

Northern Ireland is and will remain a great place for businesses to invest and grow. Only this week we saw Belfast listed among the top 10 tech cities of the future. A number of companies have recently announced investments in the Northern Ireland economy, including Randox, Cygilant and Hypixel Studios.

May I bring to the attention of the Minister, in case he has missed it, the words of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who said recently that businesses in Northern Ireland were telling him that because of the uncertainties they faced they were considering shifting jobs into the Republic of Ireland? Will he not listen to the warnings of a very highly respected former Secretary of State and actually start engaging with businesses instead of just disregarding them?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s respect for the former Secretary of State, but there is no need for Northern Ireland businesses to move elsewhere to trade with the UK. The Government will provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK market. Working together with the Executive, we can provide strong conditions for recovery that will make Northern Ireland an excellent place in which to invest.

EU Relationship

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK's future relationship with the EU in relation to Northern Ireland. (903609)

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK's future relationship with the EU in relation to Northern Ireland. (903615)

We are committed to working hard to deliver a relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. The relationship we are seeking will work for all of the UK, including Northern Ireland, and will best serve the interests of Northern Ireland businesses and consumers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that, with business facing the hardest level of uncertainty in our lifetime because of coronavirus, it would be an enormous mistake to do as many Opposition Members are suggesting and extend the transition, the talks and all the unwanted uncertainty, delaying the start of our new relationship indefinitely?

My hon. Friend is quite right. First, extending the transition period would bind us into future EU laws, without our having any say, yet we could still have to foot the bill. Secondly, extending the transition period would simply prolong the negotiations and increase uncertainty for business. That is why we will not extend the transition period. This country needs to be able to design our own rules in our own best interests, and that is what we will do.

What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that, when discussing the protocol of the EU, the UK will be ambitious in respect of how flexible we can make the system?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. Our top priority is to protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement and the gains of the peace process to preserve Northern Ireland’s place as a key part of the UK. Our approach is at all times guided by these priorities and sets out how we will meet our obligations in the protocol. The Command Paper that we published in May outlines how the protocol can be implemented in a flexible and proportionate way to protect the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland, as well as the whole UK, and indeed the EU. The protocol puts legal obligations on both sides and makes it clear that it is for both the UK and the EU to respect Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK customs territory. We stand ready to work with the EU in a collaborative and constructive way to uphold the integral role that Northern Ireland has in our community and the role of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Since Patrick was a boy, trade across these islands has been critical to our economies in all parts of these islands. Trade for businesses is worth some £14 billion with Northern Ireland and £35 billion with Ireland. What guidance are the Government giving to British businesses about the different rules they have agreed with Northern Ireland and on trade with the Republic, as part of the European Union?

I would just say that if the hon. Lady has a read of the Command Paper, she will see that it outlines our position on the protocol. As I said earlier, we will be publishing guidance for businesses shortly. The key issue for businesses in Northern Ireland is that they will have unfettered access to the UK as part of the UK’s internal market.

Restoration of Assembly Powers

As my hon. Friend knows, following successful talks in January this year, the Executive and Assembly were restored on 9 January with their full powers. We are grateful for the progress that they have made since in delivering public services, bringing to an end the nurses’ pay dispute in Northern Ireland and working alongside other parts of the UK to tackle coronavirus.

My hon. Friend will know that this House has passed draconian laws that have been put on the people of Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to abortion. Can he confirm that it is now up to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to decide whether to keep those laws, to reform them, or even to revoke them?

As my hon. Friend knows, the regulations to which he refers do not replace or remove powers from the Executive. I remind him that they were introduced and approved by this House via an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, following a three-year absence of devolution. We have delivered regulations that came into force on 31 March, as we were required to do. Parliament has now approved the regulations and they remain the law on access to abortion services. Abortion remains a devolved issue, and the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate on that or amend the regulations, so long as it does so in a way that remains compliant with the CEDAW—convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—recommendations and convention rights.

“New Decade, New Approach” Deal

What progress his Department has made on the implementation of the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. (903616)

The Government, despite the challenges of the pandemic, have continued to progress work where possible to implement our commitments. These include helping to end the nurses’ pay dispute, launching and progressing the recruitment process for a veterans’ commissioner, releasing £553 million of funding out of the £2 billion made available to progress implementation, and making changes to immigration rules. We will also be restarting the process with the Executive for organising a joint board that will provide quarterly reviews of UK Government funding provided under the deal.

Now that covid and our response to it are thankfully less all-consuming, does my hon. Friend agree that now is the time to see some real progress from the Northern Ireland Executive?

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend, but we should recognise the manner in which the Executive have worked collaboratively to tackle the immediate crisis, including the way in which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have demonstrated leadership and the ability to put their differences aside, working together to protect the public.

The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have set out our complete commitment to ensuring that the “New Decade, New Approach” deal is implemented in full. As the Secretary of State said earlier, one aspect on which we would welcome rapid progress is the independent fiscal council.