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Union between Northern Ireland and the Rest of the UK

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

What steps the Government is taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (908105)

What steps the Government is taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (908121)

We have always as a Government stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations and a Union of people that works for everyone. We share cultural, social and economic ties that together make us safer, more secure and more prosperous. As a Government, we are absolutely committed to levelling up across the whole UK, taking every opportunity to strengthen the economy of Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom. We have shown this, as I say, through the £2.4 billion that we have supplied to support Northern Ireland through the fight against coronavirus, including the extra £900 million announced in the summer and the £200 million announced as part of the winter economy plan.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Does he agree that we need unfettered trade across the Irish sea so that business such as mine in North Devon can trade with the rest of the United Kingdom as usual?

Absolutely. It is imperative that we ensure that the UK internal market continues to function effectively and efficiently at the end of the transition period. A strong UK internal market provides benefits to our domestic businesses and consumers, as my hon. Friend outlines, and it gives confidence to our external trading partners. That is why we as a Government have been very clear that there should be no tariffs on internal UK trade—that we want to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses. Of course, we are ensuring that unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain as provided for in the protocol.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committing £600 million towards growth deals that will help to boost the recovery and ensure that we level up in every part of Northern Ireland?

Yes, absolutely. We have committed £617 million already—the city and growth deals programme in Northern Ireland, that is the largest across the United Kingdom—together with the complementary inclusive future fund. That commitment has been matched by the Northern Ireland Executive, so the funding totals more than £1.2 billion, which provides a real opportunity to deliver on that levelling-up programme. Such initiatives help to drive growth and innovation in local economies, and have a positive and lasting impact on employment, skills, infrastructure, tourism and regeneration. That will benefit people across Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland has had higher covid-19 rates than any other part of the United Kingdom in this second wave, yet its calls for the furlough scheme to be extended to cover lockdown were ignored for almost three weeks until the Government finally caught up with the rest of the country. Despite repeated questioning, however, it is still totally unclear whether the furlough scheme will be extended for Northern Ireland and the other devolved Administrations. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether Northern Ireland will receive the full backing of the 80% furlough scheme should it extend or reintroduce restrictions?

The 80% furlough scheme ran until the end of October, and the Government announced an extension so it will continue for businesses that need it until 2 December. The Treasury has been clear about this. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will keep it under review, because we want to make sure that we get the support there for people who need it. Our track record has shown that we have done that. We continue to do that and to make sure that support is there for the people and businesses that need it across Northern Ireland.

That is just not good enough. Northern Ireland has been in lockdown since 16 October and has not had the furlough scheme in place. The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that the furlough scheme would be in place for the devolved Administrations should they need it. The confusion reflects the complete contempt with which the Government treat the devolved Administrations.

Further to the commitments made by the Government, significant sections of New Decade, New Approach, which supported the reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Executive, have still not been delivered. Key among the promises was to increase police numbers to 7,500 in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State now ensure that that promise is kept and that the upcoming Finance Bill is used to deliver the funding for vital community policing?

In the hon. Lady’s question, she outlined the answer about furlough in a sense, because the scheme has been in place. It was in place until the end of October and the Chancellor has extended it to 2 December, so it covers the period for which Northern Ireland has had extra restrictions. We have been working with the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Executive throughout the period. I meet and speak regularly to the First and Deputy First Ministers.

That scheme is on top of the £2.4 billion of support that the Government have put in place through the Barnett consequentials formula to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive have what they need to support people and businesses through covid-19. That is on top of the furlough scheme and the bounce back loans, so it is clear that we have put that support in place.

On the wider NDNA commitments, it is important to continue to deliver on them despite the challenges of covid-19. We have been doing that. We have been having joint board meetings, which I instigated recently. The next one will be in January. We will continue to assess the programme of work to deliver NDNA. It is important that some of those things are done, particularly the establishedment of an independent fiscal council that can give transparency and confidence to people about the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Executive.

I am sure the hon. Lady knows that policing in Northern Ireland is devolved, so it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I know from my conversations with the Chief Constable that they work closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and I encourage them to make sure that they have the funding that they need.

The Secretary of State will be aware that strengthening the Union is also a matter for the local community level. He will know of the excellent and transformational work of organisations such as the Resurgam Trust in my constituency and the Schomberg Society in the Mournes. The Government committed to establishing a culture and community fund as part of New Decade, New Approach to promote our heritage and culture at community level. What steps has he taken to implement that fund?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We provided a further £2 billion of funding to implement the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We have ring-fenced £140 million for Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. That fund can cover a range of projects that support community reconciliation initiatives to ensure that we are removing barriers and bringing people in Northern Ireland together. The allocation of funding for specific projects remains subject to final decisions, but Ministers will be taking those forward through the joint board, which is now meeting regularly.

Staying with the agreement, the Government also gave a commitment to scope the establishment of a Northern Ireland hub here in London. Given the current economic situation, does the Secretary of State agree that such a hub is important for strengthening Northern Ireland’s economic position and its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom?

Yes, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are committed to the agreement and to scoping the potential for a Northern Ireland hub in London. It is something I believe would be good for Northern Ireland; I absolutely share that view. We will be working with the Northern Ireland Executive to explore the options for delivering such a hub, which would complement Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office itself in ensuring that Northern Ireland is fully and loudly represented at the heart of government and at the heart of the UK in our country.