Skip to main content

Northern Ireland

Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 2 September 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

The Economy

While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, I am confident that it has a promising economic future, with its talent, great companies, entrepreneurial spirit and world-leading sectors and universities, as well as world-class hospitality, leisure and cultural offerings. We will continue as a Government to work with businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive and local partners to ensure that we not only get the economy back up and running but are laying the foundations for a sustainable, growing and stable economic future.

In my constituency of Hertford and Stortford, the eat out to help out scheme has been a massive success and given our local economy a huge boost. Will my right hon. Friend let the House know what the uptake has been in Northern Ireland?

I have not tested all the venues in Northern Ireland that were taking part in the eat out to help out scheme, but I did my bit to support the sector, as I am sure many colleagues around the House did. Comprehensive figures are not yet available, but I do know that over 1,500 restaurants in Northern Ireland signed up to the scheme in the first week of operation, highlighting just how important the scheme has been to give people confidence to go out and businesses a chance to see their customers again.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Northern Ireland businesses are concerned about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. Businesses I have spoken to report very little or no progress on export health certificates for animal-related food products being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That potentially means increased costs for Northern Ireland businesses, and those costs will be passed on to Northern Ireland consumers. What will he do to ensure that arrangements are put in place to prevent that from happening?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We recognise the unique position of authorised traders, such as supermarkets, with stable supply chains and comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution operations, moving pre-packaged products for retail sales solely in Northern Ireland. We continue to look at specific solutions for the trade, working with the trade. EHCs and accompanying notes for guidance will be made available from 1 November on the EHC form finder, to allow exporters and certifying officers to familiarise themselves with the requirements.

I welcome that news, and I want to follow that up with a question about the formal guidance that is required from the Government on the definition of unfettered access. Can the Secretary of State explain how a trader in Northern Ireland will get qualifying status in order to benefit from unfettered access in shipping goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and in the other direction? What extra processes would a trader in Northern Ireland face if they did not have qualifying status? The Secretary of State will be aware that this has significant cost implications for Northern Ireland businesses. Will he therefore commit to discussing this matter urgently with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that guidance is issued to Northern Ireland businesses on the definition of unfettered access as soon as possible?

I can confirm that we are very keen to give as much guidance and information to businesses as early as possible. We are committed, as I said, to providing Northern Ireland’s businesses with unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. I am very clear about what that means. It means no import customs declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland. It means no safety or security declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland, no tariffs to be applied to Northern Ireland goods entering the rest of the United Kingdom in any circumstances, no customs checks, no new regulatory checks and no additional approvals required for placing goods on the market in the rest of the United Kingdom. For further reassurance, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will introduce legislation for unfettered access shortly, and we will continue to provide that guidance.

I listened carefully to the very good questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but I do not think that that will reassure businesses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was very clear about what we already knew: the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a number of administrative requirements; businesses will trade at a competitive disadvantage; and consumers in Northern Ireland are likely to see increased prices as a result. The economic facts are—and this is a real worry—that, for a population of 1.9 million, the burden on British firms will be too much, and they will cease wanting to export in large numbers to Northern Ireland. Export health certificates are a major concern and a major cost. I will check the record, but I think the Secretary of State just said that there will be more formal guidance. He has his own view. That is not an agreement, and there are additional costs, so what will the costs be for those businesses?

I did say that notes for guidance will be available from 1 November this year. We are very clear that we are one single market—we are one customs union within the United Kingdom—and that is why we are very clear about the fact that we want unfettered access and we will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. We have already said that there will be some limited checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We have announced the trader support scheme. The guidance that we issued just before the recess was warmly welcomed by Northern Ireland businesses. We continue to work with them so that, as we develop our processes, we ensure that there is good, smooth, fast, efficient delivery, as the protocol outlines, that does not disrupt the lives of people in Northern Ireland, in a way that works for business as well as the people of Northern Ireland.

On 7 August the Cabinet Secretary flew into Northern Ireland to announce a business package of £335 million. That money is apparently designed to alleviate the costs of border checks and Brexit red tape that the Prime Minister has repeatedly said does not exist. As a signed-up member of the Brexit Cabinet, can the Secretary of State assure Scottish businesses that the same level of financial support will be put in place to meet all the costs of Scotland being dragged out of the European single market?

The support package that we put in place, which is £155 million for the IT systems we have outlined and £200 million for the Treasury support scheme, is in order to recognise the unique situation of Northern Ireland—one that Scotland has a rather different position to. I am very clear that one of the things we will be looking to deliver as we go forward is the ability for Northern Ireland to trade prosperously as part of the whole of the United Kingdom—something I am sure that Scotland will benefit from as well.

In line with the protocol, Border Force is currently recruiting for jobs in Northern Ireland advertised as open to UK nationals only. In the press this week, the Home Office claimed that this does not prevent those who identify as Irish from applying. But will the Minister accept, as indeed the Home Office did when this previously happened in 2018, that the words “Irish nationals are not eligible for reserved posts” does not reflect the rights framework in the Good Friday agreement, and will he ask the Home Office to rework the advertisement and the rules to make them compatible with Northern Ireland’s fair employment legislation?

I am very happy to have a look at that. Obviously, as the hon. Lady will know, the Home Office outlined an update to the citizenship situation to rectify it for people so that however they wish to identify they can have the full rights that they wish to exert. However, I will happily follow up on that and come back to her.

The Union

What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (905441)

The UK Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the Union. We are committed to strengthening the link between our four great nations, levelling up the whole country. That is why the Prime Minister has created a Cabinet coimittee on Union policy implementation. Our commitment to Northern Ireland is demonstrated in the £2.2 billion we have provided to help fight coronavirus, including an extra £300 million announced at the summer economic update.

May I begin by welcoming today’s news on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland? Carshalton and Wallington residents have noticed that next year will be the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, so what plans does the Northern Ireland Office have to commemorate the United Kingdom as we know it today?

I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. This centenary represents a significant national anniversary. In the new decade, new approach deal, the Government recognised that the centenary provided an opportunity to reflect on the past as well as to build for the future in Northern Ireland across the UK and internationally. We are committed to facilitating national recognition and international awareness of the centenary. On his recent visit to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a centenary forum and a centenary historical advisory panel. This approach will offer us the opportunity to work with a broad spectrum of people to deliver an ambitious and exciting programme of events to mark this important national anniversary. Further details about the centenary programme will be set out in the autumn.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Infrastructure at Ports

What assessment he has made of the infrastructure that will be required at ports in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol. (905442)

With just four months left until the protocol comes into force, the National Farmers Union has warned that a clear lack of guidance is threatening the trade in agrifood products—Northern Ireland’s largest import. So can the Secretary of State clear one thing up—will each agrifood product require an export licence certificate, costing up to £200, or not?

As I have set out previously, the protocol obliges both the UK and the EU to seek to streamline trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to avoid controls at Northern Ireland ports as far as possible. As the hon. Member may well know, discussions are ongoing about the process by which this is conducted and the frequency. We want to bring the level of checks down to a proportionate and pragmatic level, as we have outlined before, for agrifoods and live animals. At Larne and Belfast there have been checks of one form or another in place since, I think, about the 19th century, and that is what we are building on. But there will be no new infrastructure.

Border Control Posts

If he will publish details of the UK Government request to the EU to establish border control posts at Northern Ireland ports. If, as the Prime Minister has claimed, there will be no checks or border controls for British goods entering Northern Ireland, what exactly are the new border posts at Northern Ireland sea ports and airports for exactly? (905443)

I will answer the substantive and supplementary questions together and just repeat what I said a few moments ago—there will be no new infrastructure in Northern Ireland for borders.

Payments for Victims of the Troubles

What assessment he has made of the timescale for the implementation of the pension scheme payments for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905444)

What assessment he has made of progress on implementing the payment scheme for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905445)

What assessment he has made of progress on implementing the payment scheme for victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. (905450)

We welcome the formal designation of the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to provide administrative support for the scheme. Victims should never have had to go to court to see such progress. The Executive must now move to ensure that the scheme can be opened as soon as is practical, so that applications can be processed and payments made to victims who have already waited too long. The implementation of the scheme, including timescales for delivery, is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but I look forward to seeing them progress this issue as quickly as possible.

Paddy Cassidy and Raymond Trimble have died since the pension and payment scheme became law, and many other victims are extremely ill. I urge my right hon. Friend to do whatever he can to provide the Executive with confidence that money will be forthcoming in the usual way through the block grant. Will he also do everything possible to dispel the horrendous myths that have been peddled about the payment scheme over the past few weeks? The scheme will primarily benefit civilians on both sides of the community who are desperate to have the recognition that they have been promised.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. He was intrinsically involved in driving forward this issue. Words fail me: it should never have taken this long to get to this stage and it should never have taken a court case. My right hon. Friend is quite right that the Northern Ireland Executive are funded for the scheme through the block grant, and he is also quite right that this is about recognising people who have suffered for far too long. He and at least four of the party leaders in Northern Ireland were keen to see this scheme move forward; thankfully, that will now happen—and yes, I will give all the support that I can and that the Northern Ireland Executive need to see the scheme deliver as quickly as possible.

I, too, welcome the news that the Department of Justice has been designated to implement the victims’ payment scheme, but does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that it took a court to tell Sinn Féin to stop playing politics and finally designate the Department?

My hon. Friend is right. I have consistently expressed my disappointment—to say the least—at the lack of progress in establishing the scheme, as have the First Minister and others. It was wrong for Sinn Féin to hold up the process of designating the Department. I am pleased that it has now happened, but it is a shame that it took a court case.

Last week, Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson described victims of the troubles applying for the victims’ payment scheme as

“mainly…those who fought Britain’s dirty war”

or were

“involved in collusion.”

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those grossly insulting comments to the victims, many of whom live in my constituency?

The simple answer is yes. Particularly with people having waited so long, to see an insensitive, ill-advised and inappropriate comment like that was the last thing that anybody needed. It should never have been made in the first place, and we should all condemn it and move forward to make sure that victims get what they have morally and legally been waiting far too long for.

May I begin by reflecting on the fact that this summer we lost the great John Hume, a peace campaigner and politician who, more than any other, is responsible for the peace these islands enjoy today? I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his extraordinary wife Pat, his family and our friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Yesterday would have been the 40th birthday of Tim Parry who, along with three year-old Johnathan Ball, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993. The peace foundation set up in their name supports victims of terrorism nationwide, but at the end of this month that service will close unless Ministers deliver on the funding that they have promised in the House. In this week, of all weeks, will the Secretary of State step up and secure the future of this vital service?

First, I join the hon. Lady in her comments about John Hume and his family. I was honoured to be able to attend the funeral, which was a great example of how something can be done so sensitively, delicately and appropriately, even at a difficult time such as with covid. It was a real honour to be there.

As I said earlier, a range of victims have waited too long for things such as victims’ pensions and victims’ payments, so we need to see that moving on. We need to see a whole range of areas moving on. I hope that, with the work we can do with the Northern Ireland Executive, not least with the introduction of the independent fiscal council, we can see the Executive start to allocate their funding and move on with these projects.

I think the Secretary of State may have misheard me: I was talking about the Warrington Peace Centre, which previously enjoyed funding directly from the Home Office. I hope he will consider that and raise it with his colleague the Home Secretary.

The father of Tim Parry, Colin, has said, on the anniversary of his son’s 40th birthday, that the appointment of Claire Fox to the House of Lords offends him deeply. Given her continued refusal to apologise for defending the Warrington bombing, may I ask whether the Secretary of State was consulted on her peerage? Has he raised any concerns with his colleagues in No. 10?

As I think it has already been outlined, Claire Fox will be sitting as a Cross-Bench peer. She has already provided her own answer to that question, and I will let her words deal with the matter. I will certainly talk to the Home Secretary about the issue that the hon. Lady raises about the funding for the Warrington bombing. What we have seen over the past few weeks is that there is still a need and a determination for us to keep a focus on security issues. I also want to take a moment to pay huge credit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners for the amazing operation that they ran just two weeks ago, arresting some 10 people, which is probably the biggest step forward that we have seen in a generation in ensuring the peace and security of the people in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the £150 million that has been set aside in the New Decade, New Approach agreement with regard to legacy resolution issues, but the funding of the pension scheme is of concern to all parties, as it was to the Select Committee. Can he confirm that he will ensure that, through the block grant, moneys that are required on top of the £150 million will be forthcoming so that justice can be done and the money paid in a full and timely way?

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right. This matter is devolved and it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to pay for through the block grant. Those discussions will go ahead in the normal way, but, as I have said, as the money is already there, this is something that the Executive can be moving on with. They can start getting this process going and start getting these payments out to the people who have already waited too long.

I also thank the Secretary of State for all he has done with regard to the victims’ pension fund. May I ask him to outline what steps have been taken to claw back the money from Sinn Féin that was spent on the court case that took place solely because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to do the right thing and appoint a Minister to oversee the fund. Sinn Féin should pay the legal fees.

The court was clear that the Executive, through their action of not designating, or refusing to designate, a Department, which was down to the Deputy First Minister, were acting illegally. The hon. Gentleman puts forward an interesting proposal, which I am sure that the Finance Ministry, in terms of wanting to make sure that Northern Ireland’s finances are well spent, will consider properly.

Leaving the EU: the Economy

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on the Northern Ireland economy of the UK leaving the EU. (905448)

What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to the Northern Ireland economy of the proposals set out in the Government’s July 2020 UK internal market White Paper. (905456)

By the end of this year, the process of transition to our new relationship with the EU will be completed. I and colleagues across the Cabinet are determined to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits fully from the opportunities that that will bring.

I am sure that all in business will welcome the announcement from the Secretary of State that there will be guidance given to all those trading in Northern Ireland by 1 November, but can he explain to the House how one formulates guidance for the implementation of a deal that has not yet been done, or will that guidance be written on the presumption that there will be no deal?

As we did with the guidance that we outlined just before the House broke for the summer recess, we have done it in conjunction with our partners in businesses across Northern Ireland through the business engagement forum that we have put together. We are consulting with businesses about what they need to live on the protocol, and that protocol does give confidence to businesses about what will be in place next year.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the UK internal market is the cornerstone of simplicity in terms of uncertainty over attracting investment to all parts of the United Kingdom, and any detractors from the Government’s plan and policy to maintain the integrity of the UK internal market would be undermining the potential investment in their community.

Absolutely right. My right hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The UK internal market Bill will outline that integral structure of the United Kingdom as one customs union and one single market, which will give confidence to businesses and investors to the benefit of all our economies.

Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland Border

What recent discussions he has had with the Irish Government on the operation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the end of the transition period. (905449)

I and ministerial colleagues speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government. The protocol itself provides for a practical solution that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland in all circumstances, including in the event that we do not agree a free trade agreement, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, can leave the EU as a whole.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State. He will know that small and medium-sized enterprises with business across the border are in a state of uncertainty at the moment, given what is potentially going to hit them in four months’ time. Given that, the trader support service announced last month is particularly welcome. What discussions has he had with trade organisations in Northern Ireland about the trader support service? When does he anticipate the service actually providing services to SMEs?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We—not just myself, but ministerial colleagues—have had continual engagement with businesses. The Business Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have both been in Northern Ireland engaging with businesses and representative organisations, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. We will continue to do that and we aim to have the scheme running in September.

Covid-19: Film and TV Quarantine Exemptions

If he will hold discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on implementing exemptions from covid-19 quarantine rules for international film and TV productions in Northern Ireland similar to those recently implemented in England. (905451)

Self-isolation exemptions have been in place since 5 July for the whole of the United Kingdom for all international cast and crew working on qualifying TV and film productions. We have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the film and TV industry, which has been a major success in Northern Ireland and represents a significant part of its economy estimated to be worth £270 million a year. This has seen important projects such as “The Northman” and “Line of Duty” restart filming, bringing significant investment to Northern Ireland’s economy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the quarantine exemption arrangements could be the catalyst for reigniting the Northern Ireland film industry, where 49 locations were used for “Game of Thrones”, including Winterfell. Although the days of House Stark have passed, I hope that the exemption will allow for Northern Ireland to continue to be a beacon for the film industry across the world.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, over the summer we introduced the exemptions. We absolutely recognise what a crucial and important sector this is, and the benefits of its success can be seen across Northern Ireland, not least for the tourism industry. Local success stories such as “Game of Thrones” and “Derry Girls” benefit every part of Northern Ireland. Programmes such as “The Fall” have firmly established Northern Ireland as an ideal destination for film and TV projects. The restart of filming in significant projects shows that the industry can continue to achieve global success.

Aerospace Sector

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for the aerospace sector in Northern Ireland. (905478)

The Government recognise that this industry is key to Northern Ireland’s economic success, with the sector in Northern Ireland valued at over £1.8 billion. Like many sectors, aerospace has come under immense pressure during the pandemic. That is why we put unprecedented support in place through the job retention scheme and the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility. Last week, I met Bombardier at its Shorts site and Stratospheric Platforms to discuss the challenges and opportunities for developing the sector and how the UK Government can support their success.

Ministers seem to be doing little more than shrugging their shoulders as the UK’s world-leading aerospace sector goes to the wall. When will they step in with sector-specific support?

The UK Government have made available £2.1 billion to the UK aerospace sector through the covid corporate financing facility and additional flexibility for UK export finance, which is supporting £3.5 billion of sales in the next 18 months. I continue to work closely with my colleague the aerospace Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). I am determined that we do support businesses in Northern Ireland, as across the UK.

I trust that the Minister’s visit to Bombardier last week was successful. He knows how important aerospace is to the Northern Ireland economy, but he also knows that there is a cliff-edge coming in the job retention scheme and in the support for our aerospace sector in particular. He also knows that should redundancies continue and the situation gets worse, the skills will be lost and they will not come back. The time is coming. Talk is talk. We need to see action. We need to see a bespoke package of support for aerospace in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

I absolutely sympathise with the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and the crucial importance of this sector and its skills to his constituency. The covid-19 outbreak has seen a severe impact on aviation and aerospace industries around the world. The UK Government have provided significant support to the sector, including the business interruption scheme and the job retention scheme. The Chancellor has confirmed that that commitment remains in place until October, but one of the things I discussed with Bombardier on my visit last week is the vital importance of maintaining that skills base. That is a point I will absolutely take to colleagues across government.

Security Situation

The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. The Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure across the UK. Terrorism, paramilitary violence and criminality have no place in Northern Ireland. They must not hold us back from progress towards a peaceful and prosperous future. As I said earlier, thanks to the hard work and professionalism of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners, 10 people have recently been arrested and charged with a range of terrorism offences under the Terrorism Act 2006. Those arrests are the biggest step in tackling violent dissident republicans in Northern Ireland in a generation, and I thank the PSNI for its work.

What action have the Government taken to protect those who provided security in Northern Ireland, in both the police and military, from vexatious historical accusations?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We as a Government are clear: we will put an end to vexatious claims against our brilliant armed forces. We are also determined to address the legacy of the troubles, as I set out in my written ministerial statement on 18 March, and we will deliver on that.

Order. That is the end of Northern Ireland questions, so we now come to Prime Minister’s questions. As we await that, may I wish the Leader of the Opposition a happy birthday?