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Northern Ireland

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Referendum on the Future of Northern Ireland

What assessment he has made of public opinion on the holding of a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. (908104)

My apologies for not being with you in person, Mr Speaker, but as you know, I am self-isolating at the moment.

The UK Government are fully committed to the requirements set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in relation to the circumstances that require the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It remains my view that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

It is now just seven weeks before we embark on the biggest change to our trading arrangements that we have seen for a generation, yet food producers still have no idea what arrangements they have to put in place to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s avoidable failure to prepare now risks damaging Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market?

I simply do not agree with that outline. Apart from the discussions that I have had with food producers and, indeed, the suppliers and retailers of food across Northern Ireland, one of the key things we have always been focused on delivering is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market across the whole United Kingdom. We are still focused and determined to do that, and that is what the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill delivers. I am confident that the work of the specialist joint committee will be completed to ensure that we continue to have that good, free flow of goods, so that Northern Ireland continues not just to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, but to have a unique opportunity to develop its economy as we leave the European Union after the transition period, from January 2021.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the conversation about our constitutional future is happening right across our community and every family in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Good Friday agreement provides the mechanism for dealing with that constitutional future through a unity referendum. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what criteria he will use in future to determine when a border poll will be called?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense of people having a strong constitutional debate. We are seeing that across the United Kingdom and I encourage that; I think it is important that we all look at and discuss the strength and importance of the Union. In Northern Ireland, we have seen about £2.4 billion of support, because it is part of the UK, as we deal with covid. On his specific question, the High Court, in a recent judicial review on this very matter, agreed that there is no legal requirement, nor that it is in the public interest for the Government to set out a specific policy detailing any fixed criteria on the holding of a poll.

Union between Northern Ireland and the Rest of the UK

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 that 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 for 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 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.

Universal Credit Migration: Child Poverty

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the migration to universal credit on the level of child poverty in Northern Ireland. (908106)

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the migration to universal credit on the level of child poverty in Northern Ireland. (908111)

The UK Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to families and employers throughout the covid crisis. We want to see a prospering economy that reduces child poverty. Welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, with no official statistical information yet available on its impact in the current year. However, the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to combating poverty via the anti-poverty and child poverty strategies, which were agreed in “New Decade, New Approach”.

The first lockdown saw an 80% increase in universal credit claims in Northern Ireland. The five- week wait for universal credit increases family debt and child poverty. With Christmas seven weeks away, and in the middle of a second lockdown, is it not now time to end the five-week delay?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advances are a mechanism for getting claimants faster access to their entitlement, allowing them to receive 13 payments over 12 months, with up to 12 months to repay the advance. Basic eligibility checks for advances are now completed remotely, allowing people to access the support they need despite covid-19 restrictions. The repayment time for advances has already been extended to 12 months, and it will be further extended to 24 months from October 2021.

The legacy of the troubles and the intergenerational trauma means that Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of disability, mental health issues and low pay in the entire UK. This means that the £20 per week cut to universal credit planned for 2021 will hit Northern Ireland the hardest of all. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rule it out, to stop families sliding into hardship?

I recognise the factors that the hon. Lady points to, and it is important that there was extra funding under NDNA to recognise some of the unique factors facing Northern Ireland. The extra £20 a week has been put into universal credit to support people through this difficult time.

We are ever mindful that Northern Ireland has already given £1.3 million for free school meals. Can the Minister further outline the impact of child poverty on the additional 100,000 children in Northern Ireland who are now on that list due to covid, according to the facts from the Department for the Economy? Will he also tell us whether additional assistance will be available for those in households who are now excluded from tax credits if they have a third or fourth child born after the 2017 cut-off date? How can we help these extra children who are now subject to child poverty?

I do not recognise that estimate. The official figures that the Executive have published suggest that child poverty has decreased in both absolute and relative terms since 2015, but I absolutely recognise the need to provide extra support during this time. There is extra resource available to the Executive in terms of the £2.4 billion provided so far, and we will continue to work closely with them to support families in Northern Ireland, while recognising the £9 billion that has already been put into strengthening the welfare system across the UK.

Leaving the EU without a Deal

What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (908107)

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 on the basis of the deal set out in the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which will apply in all circumstances. The question now is whether we can agree a deeper trading relationship with the EU, similar to the one that it has with Canada, or whether our trading arrangements will be more comparable to those the EU has with countries such as Australia. We have taken extensive steps, in close co-operation with the EU, to implement the protocol, and we continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland to deliver this by the end of the transition period.

The health service in Northern Ireland is facing incredible pressure from the pandemic, with warnings from some hospitals about running out of beds and key supplies for covid and non-covid patients. The Minister will know that our health service relies on medicines from across the EU and on co-operation with the health service in the Republic of Ireland, which is made possible through the EU common framework. Does the Minister agree that the disruptive end of the transition—right in the middle of this battle with the pandemic and winter pressures—is bad enough, but that leaving without a deal would be downright dangerous for people’s health in Northern Ireland?

Let me agree with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the national health service, which benefits Northern Ireland enormously, and the enormous importance of access to supplies of medicines, both through the Republic of Ireland and from the rest of the UK. It is important that Northern Ireland’s position and the supply of goods to Northern Ireland are protected by the protocol and that unfettered access is delivered both in terms of north-south movements and of access to the rest of the United Kingdom, which provides crucial support to Northern Ireland.

May I wish you a happy first anniversary in the Chair, Mr Speaker?

Criminality, smuggling and modern slavery, as my hon. Friend knows, cannot be the winners in a no-deal Brexit scenario at the end of this year. Can he assure me that the importance of these issues with regard to Northern Ireland are well understood at the heart of government and that he and the Secretary of State are doing all they can to combat them going forward?

Absolutely. I recognise that the Chair of the Select Committee is doing an important inquiry into these issues. I have written to him with some initial written evidence, and I look forward to giving more detailed evidence in due course. The protocol does preserve the huge gains of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement by removing the major security risks associated with any requirement for checks at the land border and by providing a practical solution to avoid such processes on the island of Ireland. All the way through the implementation of the protocol, we have remained very aware of other potential security implications, including in the event of a non-negotiated outcome with the EU. We have well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place, and we believe that the excellent working relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána will continue, but I absolutely recognise the importance of the issues that he raises.

The Minister, Lord Agnew, said that there had been a “head-in-the-sand” approach by traders to the Brexit changes to come, but less than 60 days until the protocol comes into force, the IT system to underpin custom declarations is not fully operational, the border operating model has not been published and the port infrastructure needed is now rated undeliverable by the Department in charge. This is a monumental failure of preparation, but it is not the fault of business; it is the fault of this Government— the only people to have their head in the sand. Will the Minister now apologise to Northern Ireland businesses for the worry, the stress and the additional burdens that they are having to bear?

I recognise the importance of providing certainty and information to Northern Ireland businesses. We have set up the business engagement forum through which we have been engaging with businesses large and small to provide them with the detail, but, as the hon. Lady will recognise, talks are ongoing in the Joint Committee. What we need to do is ensure that we deliver the smoothest access to protect unfettered access, as we are doing through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and to deliver on the protocol for those businesses to provide the certainty that they need.

The leaders of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the United Reform Church Scotland, the Methodist Church Scotland and Quakers in Scotland are united in their concern over the UK Government’s actions on Brexit, with their plan to break international law, to act on devolved matters against the wishes of devolved Administrations and to place the peace of Northern Ireland in peril. That concern, they say, is shared by church leaders across the Irish sea. What can the Minister say to reassure these representatives of Scotland’s faith communities that his Government are listening to anyone as they career forward on their misguided path?

I reiterate to the hon. Lady the answer that I gave earlier that we have already left the European Union with a deal and that we want to make sure that we deliver on our commitments under the protocol, absolutely protecting our commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. I am afraid that, rather than raising concerns about the reality of the Government’s intention, some of these people may have been misled by some of the statements from the SNP.

Transport Connections to Great Britain

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of transport connections between different parts of Northern Ireland and Great Britain. (908108)

The Government are building a stronger and fairer economy for the future. To support the aim, the Prime Minister has announced an independent Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy. The review will consider how connectivity by road, rail, air and sea across the whole UK can support economic growth, increase quality of life and strengthen our Union.

The north Wales main line railway connects Great Britain across the Irish sea and is vital for travel. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department for Transport and the Union connectivity review to see the line enhanced for the benefit of my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend speaks up for north Wales effectively and makes an important point. The Government will engage positively with the Union connectivity review, which will look at how we can improve the transport landscape across the whole UK, including connections between Wales and Northern Ireland. Levelling up across the whole United Kingdom is an absolute priority for this Government.

What input can the Minister say that he has had into the Union connectivity review, and how tangible does he expect the outcome to be in promoting and cementing business and cultural relationships across the whole United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that connectivity is crucial to business. As such, it will not surprise him that both the Secretary of State and I, along with the Department for Transport, the Cabinet Office and other groups, have met the Union connectivity review to make clear the importance of this for Northern Ireland.

Net Zero Emissions Target: Manufacturers

What discussions he has had with manufacturers in Northern Ireland on achieving the Government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. (908109)

The Government are committed to meeting our target of net zero emissions by 2050. The Secretary of State and I regularly engage with businesses across the manufacturing sector to discuss how the green economy is an opportunity to drive economic growth and reduce emissions in Northern Ireland. We are pleased that the Northern Ireland Executive have endorsed the extension of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland and have pledged to pass a climate change Act.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that he is a keen advocate of the hydrogen economy, as am I. Manufacturers such as Wrightbus in Northern Ireland are leading the way in the production of hydrogen buses—a perfect example of how we can decarbonise public transport. Does the Minister agree that greater investment in the hydrogen economy is essential not only for our net zero targets but for building jobs in every part of the United Kingdom?

Let me say an absolute yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does with the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen. Northern Ireland has proven expertise with hydrogen electric power in the bus sector, and we have seen the introduction of the world’s first hydrogen and electric double-decker bus by Wrightbus this year. We continue to support and promote hydrogen technologies in Northern Ireland and right across the UK. The UK Government have already invested £121 million into UK hydrogen technology, and we are actively exploring with UK Departments and with the Executive how best secure specific funding for hydrogen production in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the acquisition of Bombardier in Northern Ireland by Spirit AeroSystems. He well understands the importance of aerospace for the Northern Ireland economy, but the aerospace sector needs to transition to meet the needs of the green economy, so will the Northern Ireland Office be a powerful advocate in government for a substantial investment in green technologies across the aerospace sector throughout the UK?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I very much welcome the news that Spirit AeroSystems has acquired Shorts. I recently met with union representatives, who outlined their concerns about the immediate challenges facing the aerospace industry. This investment in such a major local employer of high-quality jobs is an important step in providing certainty to the company and its employees at a difficult time for the industry. Of course, there is much more to do, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that innovation and green investment have an important part to play in the recovery phase. The UK Government will be doing everything we can, working alongside the Executive, to support a strong economic recovery and innovation in the green economy in Northern Ireland.

End of Transition Period: Ports of Entry

What assessment the Government have made of the preparedness of ports of entry in Northern Ireland ahead of the end of the transition period. (908110)

What assessment the Government have made of the preparedness of ports of entry in Northern Ireland ahead of the end of the transition period. (908112)

The Government continue to engage regularly with the Northern Ireland Executive as we get on with delivering the protocol and preparing for the end of the transition period. As well as working with the Executive, we are working with port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to deliver protocol requirements at pace. We are also continuing discussions with the EU in the Joint Committee, informed by close working with the Executive, to secure a pragmatic approach to agrifood checks.

Last month, the operators of Northern Ireland’s four ports told Stormont that facilities to check goods arriving from Great Britain would not be in place by the end of transition. There were also concerns about the IT system, potential delays and the lack of clarity from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. With eight weeks to go, this is an absolute shambles. Who does the Minister hold responsible?

The work is continuing. As we have previously set out, we are expanding some existing entry points for agrifood controls in Northern Ireland, building on what already happens at ports such as Larne and Belfast to ensure that new processes are as streamlined and efficient as possible. We continue to work closely with the Executive, port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to take this work forward at pace, but the hon. Lady will recognise that some of these issues are subject to ongoing discussions in the Joint Committee.

The Minister rightfully has a reputation as being a decent individual, but will he not now apologise to businesses that so close to the beginning of next year—so close to the new regime coming in—businesses still do not know what regime they are going to operate under? Is not an apology now absolutely necessary from this Government to businesses in Northern Ireland?

Let me first say what a pleasure it is to see the hon. Gentleman, if only on the screen, and welcome him back to the House, certainly from my perspective. In the last three months, we have published, on 7 August, operational guidance to Northern Ireland businesses covering customs, sanitary and phytosanitary measures and manufacturing goods, announced a £200 million trader support scheme service to support traders in Northern Ireland to meet the requirements of the protocol, announced over £150 million of investment in IT systems needed to operate the protocol’s requirements, and made progress on the recruitment and training of new staff to operate the protocol. However, I absolutely recognise the need to provide greater certainty, and we will continue to do that both through the business engagement group and through our work on the Joint Committee.