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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 30 September 2020

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Internal Market: Northern Ireland and Great Britain

What progress his Department has made on ensuring unfettered access to the internal market for goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain after the end of the transition period. (906624)

We have committed to delivering unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole UK market. We continue to discuss our approach to the protocol with the European Union, and we have put in place a safety net to ensure that qualifying goods do not face exit procedures upon leaving Northern Ireland for the rest of the UK, delivering our promise of unfettered access.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, and I welcome the UK Internal Market Bill being passed by the House, because it does indeed put in place the benefit for Northern Ireland businesses that he describes. Can he say a bit more about how businesses based in my constituency, for example, can export to Northern Ireland without restrictions and how we will ensure that businesses and constituents in Northern Ireland get unrivalled access to the whole United Kingdom market?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a difference with businesses in Great Britain trading with Northern Ireland. We are determined to give them the certainty that they want and need. That is an important part of delivering on the protocol, which says that it

“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”.

That means ensuring good free trade. The protocol makes it clear that there will be some changes for goods movements into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. We are consulting businesses in Northern Ireland and working with our partners in the European Union to deliver on that, and there will be a slimmed-down Finance Bill that includes all the commitments we have made to the people of Northern Ireland that are outstanding at that point.

I echo the comments made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). Our concern is also about goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and that includes products used in the manufacturing process for goods that are then sent back to Great Britain. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Finance Bill will contain specific definitions in relation to goods not deemed at risk that are for consumption exclusively in Northern Ireland, or are part of the manufacturing process in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. At the heart of our approach is our determination to ensure that trade flows freely, so that businesses trading in and with Northern Ireland can continue to trade properly. We will make full use of the provisions in the protocol to deliver on that, and we will continue to discuss this with the European Union. As I say, there are still issues that we are discussing as part of the free trade agreement and through the specialist Joint Committee, but we will ensure that all the commitments made by myself, the Prime Minister and other colleagues at the Dispatch Box are delivered through a slimmed-down Finance Bill later this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and I have been meeting businesses in the agrifood sector, and they are particularly concerned about the definition of qualifying businesses and qualifying goods for the purposes of the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to GB and vice versa. I understand that the Government are preparing a statutory instrument on that. Can the Secretary of State update us on the progress made to bring about such a definition?

Yes. The withdrawal agreement includes provision for the Government to define the qualifying status for goods and businesses in Northern Ireland, as part of ensuring that they benefit from unfettered access. We are also engaging with businesses, as the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are. I have been engaging with businesses—and will do so again later today—in Northern Ireland and with the Executive to work through the means for delivering that qualifying status. There will be an ability for us to deliver that, and we will do it by secondary legislation under the withdrawal Act before the end of the year.

Just like their counterparts in Kent and Scotland, Northern Irish businesses need clarity on the looming post-Brexit reality. The Secretary of State must know that the last-minute shambles of the internal market Bill delivers the exact opposite and fails to provide much-needed reassurance. Does he appreciate the damage that this lack of clarity is doing to Northern Irish businesses?

Northern Ireland businesses responded very positively to the Command Paper and the guidelines we set out earlier in the summer. The UK Internal Market Bill delivers on that and on the key objective of guaranteeing unfettered access. I think it is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to talk about this. We are delivering unfettered access—something the SNP wants to block by putting another border between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

UK Internal Market Bill: Effect on the Union

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of the UK Internal Market Bill on Northern Ireland's place in the Union. (906625)

The UK’s internal market has functioned seamlessly for centuries. As the transition period ends, we will ensure that the most successful Union of nations in the world continues to thrive, and we will do this while maintaining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the gains of the peace process. The Secretary of State and I regularly meet Cabinet and other ministerial colleagues across Government on this point, including through the Cabinet Committee on Union policy implementation, which is driving forward the Government’s Union strategy.

To continue a theme, Wrexham has one of the largest trading estates in the UK, and trading with Northern Ireland via Holyhead port is vital for Wrexham’s future growth. Will the Minister give us reassurances that from January, seamless trade around the UK will continue, as it is essential to our Union’s growth and prosperity?

Yes, I can. That is why the Government are very pleased that the Bill has completed its passage through the House this week. The provisions in the Bill ensure that there will be no new checks, controls or administrative processes on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and provide a power for Ministers to disapply or modify the requirement for export declarations or other export procedures on such movements.

It is very welcome to hear that a slimmed-down Finance Bill is coming later in the year, but not a single clause in the internal market Bill changes the fact that new requirements on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland will be coming into force in 13 weeks’ time. Why is a coalition of business groups still waiting for answers on 60 of the 67 basic questions that it put to the Secretary of State in June on how the protocol will work? Why is there still no border operating model? Why has the necessary infrastructure been described by the permanent secretary for environment and agriculture as undeliverable? Is it not time for both the EU and the UK to act in Northern Ireland’s interests and deliver the certainty that businesses are crying out for?

The hon. Lady rightly calls for certainty, but in making the criticism that she does, she appears to be criticising the protocol that her Front Benchers have been arguing that we cannot interfere with. It is essential that we deliver on the protocol and deliver certainty for businesses, and the steps that we have taken in the UK Internal Market Bill help us to do so. I am not going to take lectures on upholding the integrity of our Union from a party that refuses to rule out backing a divisive second independence referendum in Scotland.

Those are absolutely ridiculous comments from the Minister. We have been supporting the protocol and the implementation of it, and it is the divisive, lawbreaking UK Internal Market Bill that has undermined the implementation of the protocol. While criticism from five former Prime Ministers, the leaders of three Northern Ireland parties and the Speaker of the US Congress and the resignation of the Government’s most senior Law Officer may not have concerned the Government, I wonder whether the comments of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland have. Sir Declan Morgan said that the threat to break the law may have undermined public confidence in the legal system. I wonder whether the Minister now regrets the comments made by the Secretary of State and the actions of Governments over the past fortnight.

We have been repeatedly clear through the passage of the Bill that we are respecting and delivering on the protocol. We remain absolutely committed to the peace process, to the Good Friday agreement and to acting within the UK’s constitutional set-up, and that is what we will continue to do.

Northern Ireland: 100-Year Anniversary

In August, the Prime Minister visited Northern Ireland, announcing the establishment of a centenary forum and centenary historical advisory panel, ensuring that we listen to diverse perspectives as we create a bold and ambitious centenary programme. As well as being the centenary of Northern Ireland, it is the centenary of the United Kingdom as we know it today. We are committed to delivering our programme that will allow the public to engage with the history of the centenary while supporting Northern Ireland businesses and its tourism industry, and promoting Northern Ireland on the world stage.

Does my hon. Friend agree that next year’s important anniversary for the UK as we know it today is also a fantastic opportunity to mark Northern Ireland’s future and its diverse people, business and culture?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is an opportunity to look ahead towards a bright and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. It is a chance for people across the British Isles and abroad to celebrate the progress made while showcasing the people and places that I have so enjoyed getting to know since my appointment last year.

The Minister will be aware that I put a written proposal to the Treasury about a commemorative celebratory coin for Northern Ireland in its 100th anniversary year. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to elaborate on what progress has been made on that celebratory coin for our nation, and will he elaborate on what the Treasury has told me, which is that the Government will use this opportunity to promote Northern Ireland on the world stage and celebrate its people, culture, traditions and enterprise because we have made such a vital contribution to this United Kingdom?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I are in firm agreement that we should mark this historical centenary in a way that facilitates national recognition and international awareness. Specifically regarding a commemorative coin, this is a matter for the Treasury. It is a proposal that I have shared with ministerial colleagues previously, and I am very happy to explore it with them further. On the international dimension, he is absolutely right. We will be working with the Department for International Trade and our colleagues at the Foreign Office to ensure that promoting Northern Ireland around the world is an opportunity that is taken during this centenary.

Tourism Industry

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. (906627)

I continue to work closely with colleagues across the Government and the Executive to support the tourism industry in Northern Ireland. The industry has benefited from financial support provided by the UK Government, including through the job retention scheme and the extension of the 15% VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism sectors. I welcome the new UK- wide Escape the Everyday campaign, promoting domestic tourism and promoting Northern Ireland across the UK as a great place to visit.

I thank the Minister for that response. Indeed, the lower VAT is helpful, but will he discuss with Treasury colleagues the potential benefit to Northern Ireland of extending that lower rate even further?

I absolutely recognise the point that my hon. Friend is making. The extension of the 15% VAT cut for hospitality and tourism to the end of March next year will provide vital support for the tourism industry through these challenging times. The approach taken by this Government is already one of the most generous and comprehensive globally, but we will continue to monitor the impact that the measures are having, to provide the necessary support for businesses and individuals. I know the Secretary of State will be meeting representatives of the hospitality industry later today.

In relation to Northern Ireland tourism, may I say that it has to compete not only on a world stage, but with the market from the Republic of Ireland and its predatory actions? It has been fast and loose in terms of using the opportunity of state aid, but in relation to air passenger duty, it has sucked the life out of our international trade to our international airports. What can be done in relation to using APD as a tool to help our tourism industry?

I absolutely recognise the competitive pressure that Northern Ireland faces, and it is something that I have discussed with hospitality and, indeed, the aviation industry in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury is looking into what can be done on the APD front, and we will certainly take on board the views of Northern Ireland businesses.

UK Internal Market Bill: Good Friday Agreement

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of the UK Internal Market Bill on the Good Friday Agreement. (906628)

This Government will always make sure that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is protected. I speak regularly with my colleagues on that very issue. We will not allow anything to shake our steadfast commitment to it.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will be aware that the Good Friday agreement encourages co-operation across the island of Ireland, including on security. He will know that, last week, the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice said that, to prepare fully, she needed clarity on negotiations and on the delivery of the protocol. What guarantees can he give us that the vital sharing of intelligence and information will continue after Brexit?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the co-operation has been shown to work exceedingly well, as we have seen in the past few weeks with the quite phenomenally successful operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners in the Garda in arresting terrorists. That operation highlights how well that co-operation works on the ground. Obviously, we are very keen to ensure that that kind of co-operation continues after we leave the European Union, and I know that our partners are keen on that as well.

Covid-19: Economic Recovery

What recent discussions he has had with businesses in Northern Ireland on the recovery of the Northern Ireland economy from the effects of the covid-19 outbreak. (906630)

The Secretary of State and I have engaged extensively with Northern Ireland businesses and have been impressed by their resilience and adaptability. This Government will do everything they can to help people and businesses through this extraordinary time. Businesses in Northern Ireland will benefit from the job support scheme, VAT reductions being extended and the extension of bounce back loans.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the latest package of measures in the Government’s winter economy plan? Those measures will ensure that we continue to protect jobs and help businesses through the uncertain difficult months ahead to ensure that Northern Ireland not only recovers but has the opportunity to prosper as part of the United Kingdom.

I absolutely will. I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the comprehensive winter economy plan. The Government are providing support for businesses and employees throughout the United Kingdom with an unprecedented series of grants, loans and support schemes. We are steadfast in our commitment to strengthening the Union and levelling up opportunities for Northern Ireland to prosper, and that includes our investments in the city and growth deals programme, which covers the whole of Northern Ireland.

Abortion Services

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for women seeking access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. (906633)

In March this year, the Government made the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, which set out the new law on access to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Since then, we have been dealing with the response to covid-19. However, I am pleased that some service provision has commenced on the ground in Northern Ireland through existing sexual and reproductive health clinics across all the health and social care trusts. I hope that longer-term services can be commissioned as soon as possible so that access is available locally in all cases set out in the regulations. The Government stand ready to provide whatever support we can to Northern Ireland’s Minister of Health and his Department to assist them in this regard.

We all know that the time for debate about the need for abortion services for the women of Northern Ireland is long gone. These women deserve equality of access to these vital services without having to travel to the mainland. What discussions has the Minister had on the funding needed for the UK Government to commission and sustain new abortion services for the women of Northern Ireland?

The regulations deliver equivalent outcomes, in practice, to the rest of the UK so that women and girls can enjoy similar rights in accessing abortion services in Northern Ireland going forward. We are in constant dialogue with the Executive about their overall funding settlement. As the hon. Lady will recognise, there have been substantial increases in their funding, thanks to the Barnett consequentials of funding across the UK, including in health.

I listened very carefully to the Minister’s answer. In this pandemic, it is even more important that women do not make risky journeys. Despite the clear indication of this Parliament, women’s rights are still being denied in Northern Ireland because of the difficult local politics—which we understand. What discussions is he having about specific funding for wider abortion services, and is he considering a legal duty to provide?

I think that we all recognise the importance of this issue. I understand that sexual and reproductive health clinics are providing some services consistent with the regulations. I am pleased that an interim solution has been reached on the ground in Northern Ireland so that the health and safety of women and girls can be protected by access to services locally. We all want the Executive to be able to move forward with formal commissioning of further services, and we will continue to support them in doing that.

The Minister will be aware that tomorrow marks the commencement of Down’s Syndrome Awareness Month, when we celebrate Down’s syndrome, raise awareness and promote inclusivity within our society. With that in mind, what assessment has he made of the impact of the Government’s decision to allow for termination to birth for diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that many people see this as disability discrimination within the womb that would be illegal outside the womb?

Let me first join the hon. Lady in commenting all those living with and supporting people with Down’s syndrome. There is absolutely no intention whatsoever of any form of discrimination. As I repeatedly made clear in the debate on the regulations, they do not list specific conditions but rather ensure that we have complied with what CEDAW—the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—requires. These are complex decisions. It is only right that women can make individual, informed decisions, following medical assessments, clear provision of information and proper support from medical professionals. That support should be there in cases where they choose to take their pregnancies to term even in cases of severe foetal impairment. We will continue to support the Department of Health and the Executive to deliver on this issue.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What recent representations he has received on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (906635)

We continue to engage regularly with stakeholders from across Northern Ireland and beyond on the implementation of the protocol. We have heard loud and clear the need for further clarity and certainty to ensure that we are all ready for the end of the transition period. Some of the steps we have taken over the past few months are about delivering on that. We are committed to implementing the protocol, as our recent work on the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, for example, highlights. We have been working hard to ensure that this is done in a way that delivers in full on our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, including our commitment to deliver unfettered access to Northern Ireland businesses to the whole UK market.

I am not sure that the Secretary of State told me what representations he had received, which is what I actually asked. He conceded earlier that there would be some changes to the movement of goods as a result of the protocol. Can he tell us what that will look like in practice, because that is the clarity that businesses want?

I thought that I had actually answered the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am meeting businesses on a regular basis. The business engagement forum talks to businesses across a range of sectors in Northern Ireland. In fact, this very afternoon, I will be meeting more business representatives in Northern Ireland to talk about a range of issues—not only recovery from covid, but delivering on the protocol and what happens after the end of the implementation period. What these businesses have consistently wanted is certainty about unfettered access, which the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill delivers. We will continue to focus on seeking an agreement through the specialist Joint Committee and through the free trade agreement to deliver that. We have also been clear that there will be some checks—particularly, for example, SPS checks for live animals and agrifoods. We are delivering on that with the Northern Ireland Executive. These checks are building on the checks that have been in place since about the 19th century. We are determined to deliver in a way that works for people and businesses in all communities in Northern Ireland.

The businesses of Northern Ireland urgently need to see the detail on the border operating model down the Irish sea. This was promised previously by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by the end of July. It is not essential that we see the outcome of the Joint Committee, so can the Secretary of State clarify when that will be published, because it is so urgent?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about businesses wanting as much certainty as they can get. We are still working through things with the specialist Joint Committee, but we are also engaging with those businesses. As I say, we are having regular weekly meetings with businesses—a range of businesses—across Northern Ireland to ensure that we deliver what works best for those businesses in Northern Ireland.

New Decade, New Approach: Implementation

What progress his Department has made on the implementation of the proposals in the “New Decade, New Approach” document published in January 2020. (906636)

Despite the need to focus on covid-19, quite rightly, good progress has still been made in a number of areas in delivering on the new decade, new approach agreement. We have been releasing money from the £2 billion of funding set in the deal, changing the family migration rules for the people of Northern Ireland, holding the first joint board meeting, announcing the appointment of a veterans commissioner and, indeed, setting out our intentions for marking the centenary of Northern Ireland next year.

I welcome the tremendous progress that my right hon. Friend has made in delivering on the new decade, new approach deal, including appointing a veterans commissioner, as he has just pointed out, but also holding the first meeting of the joint board. Does he agree that this demonstrates that the deal signed earlier this year is working well?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The deal is a good example of ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive are able to function and flow. They have worked very well through the difficulties and the challenges of the covid period, and they continue to work well. It is good to see all five parties working across the Assembly and across the Executive to deliver for people right across all communities in Northern Ireland.

Covid and Brexit are of course the headline acts—my right hon. Friend is right—but the NDNA cannot be forgotten. The Government response to our Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report was, possibly understandably, thin. Can he assure me that delivering the NDNA in full has his energy and commitment, because he knows how important that agreement is for progress and peace?

Yes. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is absolutely right about delivering on that in full both in the legislation we will need to pass in this House, which we will bring to this House in due course, and in making sure that things are being delivered across the NDNA—whether the independent fiscal council, which I have spoken to both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about, or continuing the joint board meetings, the leaders’ meetings and the whole range of things that we need to do. Working together, these are the issues I discuss with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, generally on a weekly basis at least, to make sure that we continue to deliver.

UK Internal Market Bill: Political Party Discussions

What discussions he had with Northern Ireland political parties prior to the publication of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (906637)

We are committed to working closely with the devolved Administrations. I want to thank the Executive for their engagement to date, including their response to our consultation on the Bill. I can confirm that I did speak to Northern Ireland’s party leaders about the UKIM Bill ahead of its introduction, and I look forward to continuing to engage with the Executive as we progress towards the end of the year.

Given that the leading member of the United States Congress, the Democrat nominee for President, the Trump-appointed special envoy to Northern Ireland, the Irish Government, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and three of the five parties of the Executive have all condemned the Secretary of State’s juvenile lawbreaking boasts in this House, does he now accept that he has done more harm than good?

I would just respectfully say that the hon. Lady may want to have a look at exactly what I said in this House, which was giving a straight answer to a very direct, straight question and making a statement of the position. It is a position that will ensure that this Government deliver on our overriding promise to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, and ensure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement.

Legacy Investigations: Cross-community Support

What steps he is taking to help ensure that Northern Ireland legacy investigations proceed on the basis of cross-community support. (906638)

The Government have been clear that we will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the troubles, which focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of investigations that have failed both victims and veterans alike with vexatious claims. We are committed to making progress on this and, indeed, to engaging with the Irish Government, the Northern Ireland parties and stakeholders from across the community on this issue.

The Stormont House agreement was agreed by the overwhelming majority of political parties in Northern Ireland, was endorsed by the British and Irish Governments, and had cross-community support. Will the Secretary of State recommit to the principles of Stormont House and reconfirm the central involvement of victims’ groups in any legacy proposals?

Yes, as I outlined at the time of the written ministerial statement, we absolutely do follow through and we intend to follow through on the principles of Stormont House. It is hugely important that we are all working with all communities, and particularly the families and the victims who suffered so much through the troubles. I was so pleased that we were finally seeing the victims’ payment scheme going forward. It is a hugely important step for all those people in Northern Ireland.

Some Members of this House want an amnesty for veterans who served in Northern Ireland. In 1976, Majella O’Hare, who was 12 years old, was walking with her friends to church. She was shot twice in the back, and killed, by a British paratrooper. Does the Secretary of State believe that that paratrooper should be immune from prosecution?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am unable to comment on any particular cases, but we all recognise the sensitivities, difficulties and complexity of all the issues that come through the troubles, which people in Northern Ireland have been dealing with for a very long time. We have made a commitment through NDNA, and as I did in the written ministerial statement earlier this year, to find a way to work through this, working with all parties and all communities in Northern Ireland, and we are still determined to deliver on that.