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Northern Ireland

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Structural and Investment Funding: Transition Period

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of devolving spending in Northern Ireland of (a) structural and (b) investment funding after the end of the transition period to the Northern Ireland Executive. (909534)

The UK shared prosperity fund will help to level up and create opportunities for people and places across the United Kingdom. The Government will co-ordinate funding on a UK-wide basis, working with the devolved Administrations and local communities to ensure that it is used most effectively. The Northern Ireland Executive and the other devolved Administrations will be represented in the fund’s governance structures to help target this funding to the people and places that are most in need.

The spending of the shared prosperity fund, according to clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, would override devolution, with no duty to consult on spend in devolved areas. We know that the internal market Bill intends to breach international law, and yesterday it was indicated that a further breach of international law was likely to come in the taxation Bill. Far from being limited and specific, it seems that disregard for the Good Friday agreement is unlimited while people desperately want certainty and a deal. Can the Secretary of State give us any assurances that next week’s Bill will not further undermine the Northern Ireland protocol and the chances of a deal and the certainty and the stability that people so desperately want?

If the hon. Lady looks at the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, she will see that they are about protecting and delivering on the Good Friday agreement to ensure that there are no borders. To deliver that, it is important that we have no border not just north to south, but east to west as well. On the UK shared prosperity fund, if she looks at my answer to the substantive question, she will see that I was very clear that the devolved authorities would be part of that, but of course this is money over and above; this is extra money that we will be looking to spend—in the same way that the EU has always been able to spend— once we have left the EU to ensure that those communities have the support that we have said they would have.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any spending requirements and demands made by and within Northern Ireland would be enhanced and likely to receive a more welcome ear in the Treasury and elsewhere were the Executive to crack ahead and create the independent fiscal council, which would act as a very convincing mouthpiece for those pleas?

My hon. Friend makes a hugely important and very accurate point. I think we sometimes forget this but the fiscal council was actually first agreed back in the “Fresh Start” agreement of 2015 and recommitted to in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal of January this year. I have been talking to the Executive about this. I had hoped to see it up and running by the autumn. I think it is important that the Executive and the Department of Finance get on with this and deliver on it. It will help them for budgeting purposes and ensure that, in the same way that we have the Office for Budget responsibility and the Irish Government have an independent fiscal council, people can be clear about the transparency and understanding of the money being spent in Northern Ireland. I think it would be the right thing to do, and I am looking forward to seeing the Executive deliver it as quickly as possible.

UK-EU Future Relationship: Businesses

What assessment he has made of the effect on businesses in Northern Ireland of negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (909535)

We want a relationship with the European Union that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. We will have a relationship with our European friends—one that is inspired by our shared history and values. The whole of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland, stands to benefit from such a trading relationship with the European Union. In fact, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge potential under the Northern Ireland protocol, and of course Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy tariff-free access to the EU market, alongside unfettered access to the whole of the UK.

I hope you are well, Mr Speaker.

Scotland is the largest exporter of seed potatoes in the single market. It is a product on which a great many Northern Irish potato farmers rely. This has been placed under threat by the lack of equivalence between the UK and the EU after the transition period. When will the Minister confirm a date on our attaining equivalence on seed products? If he cannot give us a date, is that not more evidence that the Government do not care about Scotland’s farming communities?

Actually, it is quite the contrary.  The hon. Gentleman can look at the delivery of money last week, for farmers particularly. That is evidence of the Government’s determination to deliver on our commitment to, and our understanding of the importance of, the agriculture and farming community across the United Kingdom, with £315 million going to Northern Ireland farmers. Through the Joint Committee, we are working with the European Union on some of these final issues to ensure that we do have that free flow. We have been saying to our partners and colleagues in the EU that they need to play their part in being pragmatic about ensuring that we continue to see that sensible free flow of trade across the United Kingdom, as a sovereign nation.

You look well, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State will recognise the importance to Northern Ireland businesses of getting agreement on the classification of qualifying goods and qualifying businesses as they relate to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK single market. What progress has been made on securing such agreement and on defining at-risk goods, and what measures will the Government bring forward in legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses really do have unfettered access to the UK internal market?

I should put it on record that I also think you look well, Mr Speaker.

On an equally serious note, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, this Government are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why we have taken the steps that we have taken in legislating for the first phase of unfettered access; that is what those clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are for. We are building on and learning from the discussions that we have had with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are pushing hard to secure agreement with the EU on a number of outstanding issues that relate to the protocol, including that of at-risk goods. We accept that tariffs should be paid on goods moving from Great Britain into the EU, but there should not be any tariffs on internal UK movements that begin in Great Britain and end in Northern Ireland; they are internal movements. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to comment on the progress of the negotiations, although we are keen to move through them as quickly as possible. I reassure him that we are focused on those issues and are determined to deliver in full on our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful response. I am sure that he will agree that those who talk loudly about the Good Friday agreement are the people who are threatening the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland by insisting on measures that are completely unnecessary in terms of protecting the agreement. Will he therefore indicate what progress has been made in securing a commitment from the EU to a significant grace period to allow Northern Ireland businesses sufficient time to adjust to the new arrangements that will be introduced when the transition period ends on 31 December?

The right hon. Gentleman identifies, quite rightly, the importance of ensuring that there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have accepted the sanitary and phytosanitary checks. We are working with the EU, and both the UK and EU have committed to that intensified process, as colleagues will have seen, and to resolving all outstanding issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, including securing the flexibilities that we need for trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

As I said, the discussions are ongoing. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to understand that I am limited in what I can say as I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions, but we continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive around the practical implications and operational delivery. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and with industry, traders, representative bodies and local authorities to ensure that they are engaged, supported and ready for trading from January 2021. I encourage any business that has not already done so to sign up free with the Trader Support Service.

The Secretary of State will know of the anger among Northern Irish businesspeople over the accusation by the ironically titled Minister for Efficiency and Transformation that they have their

“head stuck in the sand”

on Brexit. Only 30 days from the hard Brexit cliff edge, does the Secretary of State appreciate that most people will have far more sympathy with Northern Irish businessman, Stephen Kelly, who suggests that it is the Government who have their “head stuck somewhere else”? Is it not the case that Northern Ireland businesses have simply been an afterthought in his Government’s chaotic hard Brexit?

If only the hon. Lady was talking to Northern Ireland businesses directly, as my team and I do regularly, most weeks. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), also engages with businesses in Northern Ireland, as we have been doing consistently throughout this process—including Stephen Kelly, who I do know. It is the information from businesses that fed into the Command Paper that we issued earlier in the year, as well as the guidance that we issued and the work that we are doing to ensure not just that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain—I hope that she and other colleagues will support us in ensuring that it is in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to deliver unfettered access, which she claims in her question to support—but also that we get a good free flow of access to ensure that the whole UK internal market can work together, including Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Given the fact that the Secretary of State has already admitted that the clauses removed by the Lords from the UK Internal Market Bill will break international law, and that the Irish Government, the new US President-elect and the people of Northern Ireland believe that those clauses breach the Northern Ireland protocol, will he commit today to not reinstating them in the Bill next week?

Actually, what those clauses have been about is ensuring that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. That is something inherent in the protocol. It plays a part in delivering on one of the key sentences in the first few paragraphs in the Northern Ireland protocol that says we will ensure that we do not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support us in ensuring the Northern Ireland businesses can trade in mainland Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom. That is what those clauses are about, as an insurance policy, but obviously our main focus and aim is to secure the right agreement for a wider free trade agreement with the EU, and, indeed, to work with the specialist Joint Committee.

Transition Period: Business Preparedness

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland are prepared for the end of the transition period. (909536)

We have published guidance throughout the year and are providing extensive support to Northern Ireland businesses. For instance, as I mentioned, we have the Trader Support Service, which is backed by £200 million of funding from the UK Government, and has been well received—it has now had over 16,000 registrations. As we approach the end of the year, we will continue to provide detailed sectoral guidance and information on Government support, and we will step that up as we approach the conclusion of the negotiations to ensure that clear, accessible messages and guidance are provided as soon as possible.

With barely 700 hours to go until the end of the transition period, it is absurd that so many issues still need to be clarified. Does the Secretary of State recognise that Northern Ireland businesses require a clear legal framework in which to operate, and as such, any changes or mitigations have to be agreed with the EU under the protocol, including potentially any grace period, and that doing the opposite places Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position going forward and will create long-term problems for them arising from such unilateral action by the Government?

There is a range of things that businesses can be doing and should be doing now, regardless of what the outcome may be, such as signing up to the Trader Support Service. We are intensifying, and have intensified, our work with the specialist Joint Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting the clauses in the UK Internal Market Bill that will give businesses certainty by delivering unfettered access to the whole of the UK.

I have been contacted by a large number of my constituents who are involved in the agrifood sector and other businesses. With special reference to the packaging of products and the new labelling structure, I am ever mindful of the approach of 31 December, which has a cost factor for the labels as well. What information has been released for manufacturing companies to have certainty over their packaging?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that underlines why we are working with him to provide as much certainty as possible. On this particular matter, I am pleased to be able to tell him that we have recently updated our guidance on labelling changes that are required at the end of the transition period. That guidance is now available on, and I will make sure that my office sends him the link so that he can send it on to any of those businesses that are inquiring already.

UK Transport Connections

The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues regarding transport connections, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland, given its unique geography. The recently announced independent Union connectivity review will consider how connectivity across the UK can support economic growth. Both the Secretary of State and I have met Sir Peter Hendy and look forward to hearing his recommendations in the summer.

Does the Minister agree that good transport links between all parts of the United Kingdom are vital, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that the Scottish Government are refusing to engage with the Union connectivity review, thereby depriving my constituents of good transport links in all parts of Scotland and better links with other parts of the United Kingdom?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Every part of the United Kingdom can benefit from investment in our shared infrastructure and connectivity. Unwillingness to engage with the review risks Scotland missing out, and I would certainly urge the Scottish Government to rethink. They should follow the example of the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive, who has been engaging constructively with the review.

My father left Northern Ireland in the 1950s and settled in Wolverhampton, which has a large Northern Irish community. It is the same for many communities across Great Britain, including in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that excellent transport links to Northern Ireland are absolutely crucial, and will he make that clear to Sir Peter Hendy as part of the Union connectivity review?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I recognise, having many Irish and Northern Irish constituents myself, that it is vital that there are excellent transport links across the Irish Sea for trade, for tourism, for the Union and to bring families together. The review will make recommendations on how best to improve connectivity across the UK, including across the Irish Sea, and in the long term certainly we will be making that case to the review.

The main threat to our connectivity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom over the winter is the unprofitability of airlines due to the covid restrictions. In the medium term, new routes need to be opened to business centres in Europe. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will discuss with the Treasury, first, the reduction or suspension of air passenger duty for a limited period of time and, secondly, what help can be given to opening new routes between Northern Ireland and business centres in Europe?

The Secretary of State and I work closely with colleagues across Government and in the Executive to support the Northern Ireland economy and make the case on air connectivity. There have been discussions with the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Treasury on those matters. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Treasury is reviewing the air passenger duty issue.

Covid-19: UK-wide Response

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909538)

The Government and the devolved Administrations continue to work closely together to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the United Kingdom. As set out in our joint statement of 25 September, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations hold a

“shared commitment to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there”.

Today’s news about a vaccine will be welcomed across every part of the United Kingdom. I was pleased we could agree a united approach to Christmas planning last week. Although each devolved Administration control their public health policy, we have been co-ordinating positively on our response to covid throughout the year.

Coronavirus knows no boundaries, and it is absolutely vital that the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly work together to deal with it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely crucial that we have effective co-operation—north-south and east-west—and a co-ordinated approach to dealing with this pandemic?

I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friend. This Government are determined to work together with the Northern Irish Executive and the Irish Government to ensure that measures safeguard the health and wellbeing of UK and Irish citizens. There is an existing memorandum of understanding between the chief medical officers for Northern Ireland and for Ireland, which formalises co-ordination and co-operation between the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in relation to covid-19. The Secretary of State continues to hold regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as the Irish Government, to co-operate on covid issues.

With the positive news that the UK will commence covid-19 vaccinations from 14 December, will the Secretary of State commit that if logistical support from Her Majesty’s armed forces is required in Northern Ireland, it will be provided speedily and with the same resources as the rest of our nation?

I would just like to take a little bit of a liberty, Mr Speaker, and take this opportunity to express my deep disappointment that once again the six-time world superbike champion and South Antrim native Jonathan Rea MBE was overlooked for the shortlist of the BBC’s sports personality of the year. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree with me on that.

I fear to tread in such a contentious area. The hon. Gentleman is right that the news on a vaccine is good news for the whole United Kingdom. We want to ensure that it is rolled out effectively across the whole United Kingdom, and we shall certainly make representations to ensure that that includes Northern Ireland.

Integrated Education

The Government continue to be committed to integrated education in Northern Ireland, which is why we provided £500 million of funding to the Northern Ireland Executive for the development of integrated and shared schools as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement. The Executive have confirmed that they have so far spent £31 million to the end of 2019-20, and the full £500 million of “Fresh Start” capital has been committed to the end of 2025-26. We want to see investment delivered quickly in Northern Ireland, and the establishment of an independent fiscal council would support the Assembly to hold the Executive to account on delivery, as well as on other fiscal and budgetary matters.

Who we learn with and live alongside could scarcely be more fundamental to how we see the world. Integrated education is one of the major unfulfilled legacies of the Good Friday agreement. Is it not time to seize the opportunity presented by the “New Decade, New Approach” deal and together drive real progress on shared education that will build a fairer society?

Last March, I was pleased to host the Integrated Education Fund here in Westminster. We had a very positive cross-party discussion with the fund about how we all support our shared desire to ensure that every child in Northern Ireland gets a good education in a good school. Despite the pandemic, good progress is being made on the ground with the parties to support children. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister commit to doing all they can to support them in delivering this long overdue legacy work?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of this issue. As she knows, under the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, the Executive agreed to establish a programme for government, including an

“Enhanced strategic focus and supporting actions on educating our children and young people together in the classroom, in order to build a shared and integrated society.”

I have met some of the Northern Irish parties to discuss progress on delivering shared and integrated education, and I share their ambition to speed up delivery. I believe that the establishment of an independent fiscal council would help to accelerate that delivery.

Transition Period: UK Trade

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to trade with the rest of the UK after the transition period. (909540)

Our commitment to unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the rest of the UK, as outlined in NDNA and the 2019 manifesto, remains unequivocal. We have brought forward draft regulations that establish the definition of qualifying Northern Ireland goods, ensuring no changes in how Northern Ireland businesses move goods directly to the rest of the UK from 1 January 2021. The UKIM Bill will ensure that qualifying Northern Ireland goods will continue to be placed on the whole UK market, even where the protocol applies different rules in Northern Ireland. Our priority for a longer-term qualifying goods regime is to confer the benefits of unfettered access specifically on Northern Ireland businesses. That is being developed in close co-operation with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive and will come into force in 2021.

More than 100,000 freight units destined to and from Northern Ireland transit through Holyhead port each year. Unfettered access is key to not only the Northern Ireland economy but the Anglesey and Welsh economy. Can the Minister confirm that at no stage will this Government allow a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and that that is just as important as avoiding a tariffs and customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?

My hon. Friend is right, and I know that her constituency of Ynys Môn plays a vital part in the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The protocol was designed to address a particular set of problems in a way that upholds the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is a practical solution to avoid a hard border with Ireland, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole. The protocol is also clear that the UK must function as a single customs territory in practice, and that means fulfilling our commitment to delivering unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the Great Britain market as well.

Good Friday Agreement: Implementation

The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we will continue to support the institutions in delivering peace and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland. A key institution created as a result of the agreement is the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was restored this year following the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement in January. The best way forward for Northern Ireland lies in strong devolved institutions that support the Executive and Assembly to deliver on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday agreement comes of age today, as it became effective 21 years ago. It provided a platform for the development of excellent economic and social relationships between Northern Ireland and Merseyside. What conversations has the Secretary of State had to ensure that nothing that happens in the next month puts that progress at risk?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is exactly what the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are about—ensuring that businesses in Northern Ireland continue to trade as part of the United Kingdom with unfettered access, which is of benefit to companies in Liverpool, so I hope she will support the Bill when it comes back to the House.

Last week alone, three journalists were issued with violent threats by loyalist paramilitaries. The BBC has seen evidence that loyalist paramilitary groups have over 12,500 members, and there are more dissident groups than during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State agree that a toxic combination of deprivation and a failure to deal with the legacy of the past has created a fertile breeding ground for paramilitary groups?

I am sure the hon. Lady would agree with me that obviously there is no place for violence or threats of any description to anybody in Northern Ireland, including media and political players in Northern Ireland. It is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for it, and actually arguing that it is in any way acceptable because of any other particular issue is, I think, a fallacy and the wrong position to take. I have to say that we are making huge investments. There has obviously been about £20 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive this year, between the block grant and the extra support that the UK Government have put in, on top of having what are financially the biggest city and growth deals in the United Kingdom to ensure that we are levelling up. That is something we are determined to do for the people of Northern Ireland, as we are for the rest of the United Kingdom.

On Monday, the Secretary of State told the House that he had ceased engaging on legacy issues at the request of victims groups, but he knows that the largest cross-community victims group in Northern Ireland, the WAVE Trauma Centre, has expressed serious concerns at his lack of engagement and, indeed, has described him as “dangerously deluded”. Can he confirm to the House exactly when he will meet those at the WAVE Trauma Centre and when he will present an update on legacy proposals to this House?

I am a little bit surprised by what the hon. Lady just outlined, as it was actually the WAVE group that, back in March, asked us to pause on engagement as it and its members were focused on covid, which I think was a reasonable position. I think it was right, as people were focused on covid. However, as I have said a few times to the hon. Lady and to this House, I think that action on legacy, which is such a sensitive and important issue, to make sure we can help Northern Ireland move forward and put the troubles in the past is an important thing to do. It is also important to get that information for the victims and the families of victims who have been looking for that information now for far too long. We are determined to do that by engaging with the people of Northern Ireland, as well as our partners in the Irish Government and the United States and the political parties in Northern Ireland, and when we have done that, I will come back to this House. However, this has to be something that is done with the support of and engagement with the people of Northern Ireland.