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Northern Ireland

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Peace Plus Programme

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the Peace Plus programme in Northern Ireland. (910924)

Mr Speaker, before I begin, I hope you will not mind, but I just want to send my very best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and to Minister Edwin Poots from the Northern Ireland Executive for a full and speedy recovery for both of them.

I would also like to send best wishes to President-elect Joe Biden on the inauguration later today. He is a man who has a strong personal connection with the island of Ireland. We all know that the US has been a huge supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland for many decades.

I am pleased that the UK Government are the majority contributor to the Peace Plus programme. We have committed to providing over £500 million between now and 2027, which will fund activities that promote peace and reconciliation. The framework for Peace Plus is in development now, but we remain as a Government committed to that Peace Plus programme and to engaging with key partners to ensure that, once agreed, it will have maximum impact for all the people of Northern Ireland.

As we enter the centenary year for Northern Ireland, it would of course be easy to reflect upon a history that has been characterised at times by division. Given the possibilities of the new EU trade deal, of dual trade in Northern Ireland and relative peace and prosperity, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be looking forward with confidence as one Union?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As Northern Ireland enters its centenary year, it is the right time to shine a light on what makes it so special as we look to a bright future. Fostering economic growth and social cohesion is key to building a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. I was pleased to be able to announce the £400 million of new money, in the new deal for Northern Ireland just before Christmas, to help boost economic growth, competitiveness, infrastructure and the social fabric. We are planning an exciting programme to promote Northern Ireland’s potential across the United Kingdom, and also internationally.

Payment Scheme for Victims of the Troubles

What recent representations he has received on funding for the payment scheme for victims of the troubles. (910925)

From recent engagement with victims’ groups, their overriding concern is that the scheme be open for applications as quickly as possible. We share that objective, and I will continue to work with the Executive’s delivery of this scheme. We must make sure progress is not diverted by any red herrings. This is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are funded from the block grant. The Executive need to step up and fund this scheme. The Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive needs to step forward and to get the independent fiscal council organised to provide that independent advice and scrutiny to help them on these budgetary matters.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Eighteen months ago, I was proud to play my part in finally delivering the payment to victims who had campaigned for decades for redress for the unimaginable suffering they endured during the troubles. The fact that it still has not been delivered, though, should shame us all. So does the Secretary of State agree that failing to deliver on these promises to victims will do immense damage to trust, and when will he act to ensure that those promises are kept in Northern Ireland?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—being, as he outlined, part of the process—we are all proud to have got this moving forward. He is absolutely right: I think there is a moral as well as a legal and an ethical duty to ensure that the victims are able to access that programme of work. I know the work is ongoing to do that. In the Department of Justice, the Minister there is passionate and determined about that, as is the First Minister. One of the frustrations I had in 2020, I have to say, was the fact that it took a court case to get the Deputy First Minister to even designate a Department. That simply was not good enough. The Department of Finance now needs to ensure that it does not play games with victims and their pensions and payments, and that that money is made available to the Department of Justice to get on and deliver this programme.

May I first, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, echo my right hon. Friend’s opening comments this morning? I welcome, too, as he has, the movement on the historical institutional abuse payments, but he will be aware that there are other issues with regard to legacy remaining outstanding and long overdue. I know he is consulting on these at the moment. Can he give a commitment that that consultation will have concluded, any draft legislation will be published and a route plan to delivery will be in the public domain by the time the House rises for the summer recess-?

To my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee, I have to say that this is to the huge credit of the Committee and the work it has done. The recent piece of work it has done looking into legacy has been immensely helpful. There have been some very useful contributions in that. He is quite right: we are engaging widely on this issue at the moment. Obviously, this was delayed, as we were all—across both the Irish Government and the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and of course in communities—focused on covid over the course of last year, but that work is now ongoing, and I certainly intend and hope to be able to fulfil the timeline that he has just set me as a target.

May I join the Secretary of State in sending the best wishes of the whole House to the former Secretary of State and to the Minister, Edwin Poots?

Victims of the troubles have been badly treated in the last year in particular and are fast losing confidence in whether we will all deliver on the promises we made to them in this House. The troubles pension was legislated for in Westminster, it applies to victims across the UK and beyond, and we simply cannot wash our hands of our responsibility, so will the Secretary of State urgently meet with the relevant Ministers in the Executive to discuss meeting the upfront costs of the scheme, which he must accept are not reasonable to be funded out of the block grant, and ensure that the pension too many have waited decades for will finally be delivered?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be aware that I meet with Executive Ministers on a regular basis, whether the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister or indeed the Justice Minister, who is taking this work programme forward, and who I have to say is doing a very good piece of work. She is still, as of the last conversation I had with her, on target to have the administrative structure in place—I think her intention is by the spring, or late March—in order to allow victims to apply for the scheme. She has also been very proactive as the owner of this portfolio in engaging with victims’ groups both directly and, as I am sure we have all seen, on social media, so I think they are very much aware of the work she is doing to get this progressed. I have said to her that I will continue to give her my full support. The UK Government have shown our support through not just the approximately £15 billion of block grant but the £918 million uplift that we secured through the spending review. I look forward to seeing the details as the Executive are able to work through exactly what they think this scheme will cost. It is a priority for the Executive—it is clearly a part of “New Decade, New Approach.” It is a devolved matter. I look forward to seeing exactly what the Department of Finance in the Northern Ireland Executive is putting into this priority to deliver it for those victims, as is required.

I am sure the Justice Minister and other Ministers who have been pursuing a meeting with the Secretary of State on this issue for some time will be pleased to hear that he has now committed to that.

Another issue of confidence for victims is the delay in the publication of the Shawcross report, which the Secretary of State’s Government commissioned, into compensation for victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terror. Why are the Government refusing to publish this report and fulfil their promises of compensation for victims?

First, I would just correct the hon. Lady: what I actually said was that I have been talking to the Justice Minister—I spoke to her just a few weeks ago—and she raises the victims’ payments issue quite widely on a regular basis. Obviously, I talk to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister very regularly—often more than once a week—on a range of issues, including this one.

We recognise the very sensitive issues that are raised in the scoping report Mr Shawcross has produced. Ministers are now carefully considering the internal scoping report in order to ensure that we can do justice to the important and sensitive issues that it covers and to give due respect to the victims it is working for. We as a Government are working hard to ensure that across these issues we are doing everything we can to make sure that the victims get the support that they need.

“New Decade, New Approach” Deal

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the implementation of the New Decade, New Approach deal. (910926)

Good progress has been made in implementing the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, despite the challenges that have been posed by the ongoing public health crisis. The Government have released over £550 million of the £2 billion of funding agreed in the deal. That has already delivered multiple commitments over the last year, including appointing a veterans commissioner, launching the shared history fund as part of our programme to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, and establishing the governance structures that underpin NDNA.

Last January, the Government made a commitment in the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement to introduce legislation within 100 days to address legacy issues. The current delays in bringing forward proposals are understandably causing concern among those veterans who served in Northern Ireland and are rightly anxious to bring an end to the vexatious prosecutions of former British servicemen. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are indeed still committed to bringing forward legacy proposals, despite the inevitable delays as a consequence of the current pandemic?

Absolutely. We will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the troubles in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, ends that cycle of investigations that is not working for anybody, and ends unwarranted vexatious claims against former British soldiers. These proposals will deliver on our commitment to Northern Ireland veterans. We will provide a fair, balanced and proportionate system for all those affected by the events of the past. As my hon. Friend rightly says, progress on this has, as with other priorities, been affected by covid-19, but we are now moving forward, and we intend to move forward as quickly as we can, ensuring we are working across all communities.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comments in relation to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), and my constituency colleague, Edwin Poots. Our thoughts and prayers are with them both.

Paragraph 11 of annex A of the “New Decade, New Approach” document commits the UK Government to negotiating flexible arrangements for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol, yet that has not happened. We have seen over the first few weeks of January the enormous difficulty that the protocol is causing for consumers and businesses alike in Northern Ireland. What is the Secretary of State going to do to resolve this problem?

The right hon. Gentleman and I share a strong desire to ensure that we keep trade flowing as smoothly as possible, with unfettered access, as we promised, for Northern Ireland businesses, which we have delivered, and that we have a smooth flow from Great Britain into Northern Ireland as well. I will continue to work closely with him and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to do so.

It is important that we do not overstate some of the issues. That does not mean that there are not issues; I appreciate that there have been challenges. The grace periods, though, are working well. Goods are moving, and we are working closely with traders as they adapt, particularly here in Great Britain. Our focus is on taking this work forward to ensure that we can deal with the issues here permanently, continuing to take a pragmatic and proportionate approach in maintaining Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right; as the Prime Minister rightly said last week, we will not resist using article 16 if it is appropriate and right to do so.

I support the comments made by others earlier in this Question Time about the need for the UK Government to work with the Executive to deliver the payment scheme for victims, but there is another aspect of New Decade, New Approach that requires Government commitment, and that is the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure me that when the armed forces Bill comes forward in Parliament soon, Northern Ireland will be treated on exactly the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom, with full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland?

Yes. Further strengthening of the armed forces covenant in law is both an NDNA commitment and a manifesto commitment for the Government, and we are determined to deliver on that; the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Ministry of Defence is working closely with my Department and the devolved Administrations to draft legislation that will ensure that no former member of the UK armed forces is disadvantaged as a result of their service, and we are determined to deliver for the whole of the UK.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (910930)

A pragmatic and proportionate approach has been taken to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, protecting unfettered access to the whole of the UK market for Northern Ireland businesses, supporting businesses to adapt to new requirements, delivering additional flexibilities, and ensuring that the protocol’s operation reflects Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.

Goods continue to flow effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Initial issues, which I accept there have been, are being addressed in consultation with businesses, and that work will continue. We recognise the importance of a strong economy and strong social as well as economic links for Northern Ireland with the whole of Great Britain as part the United Kingdom, and we need to ensure that they are impacted as little as possible in everyday lives. The protocol itself sets out that very fact.

But it is not working. The Northern Ireland Secretary has denied that there is a border; the Prime Minister has denied that there are border checks, yet the queues and chaos confirm that there are both, with new customs declarations and rules of origin, while businesses have had insufficient preparation time and support. Can the Secretary of State categorically say when—that means on what date—there will be seamless movement of goods across the border? I fear that many in the supply chain will not withstand more chaos.

I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady is referring to, because what she describes is not what is happening in Northern Ireland; queues are not the issue. There have been reports of empty shelves, which is absolutely true. I have also heard Welsh Ministers talk in meetings about empty shelves in Wales, which we all saw, partly as a result of the challenges at Dover and the Dover straits just before Christmas due to covid. There have been issues for parcels and parcel deliveries, because the guidance, I fully accept—I have outlined this—was published on 31 December, but that is not what the hon. Lady outlined. It is important that we work pragmatically and sensibly, looking at where the issues are, to ensure that we find a way through them, working with business, so that we get a permanent resolution and the protocol can work and deliver the smooth, free flow of trade that we all want to see and that is important for Northern Ireland.

It sounds to me like the Secretary of State has not been listening to the Road Haulage Association, which has warned that supply chains to Northern Ireland are close to collapse because of the problems with the new processes at the borders. As he says, there have been scenes in Belfast of empty shelves in supermarkets, but there have also been reports of hauliers losing huge amounts of money because lorries are having to return to Northern Ireland empty. Will the Government listen to the Northern Ireland logistics sector and take urgent action to address that?

As I said in my previous answer, we are working with the industry on some of the issues it is facing. There is a range of different things. The issue the hon. Lady referred to—vehicles moving from Great Britain back into Northern Ireland—is about ensuring that Great Britain businesses are engaged. I encourage businesses to engage with the Trader Support Service. Companies that have used it have found it a really good, easy way to ensure the free flow of goods. It is why supermarkets are able to get that good flow of products through. Companies such as Marks and Spencer have seen a really good flow through. I encourage companies to sign up to this Government-supported and paid-for scheme.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told me last week that there is an issue with groupage, but at the same time he said that lorries were able to get into Northern Ireland without hindrance. Obviously, both those statements cannot be right. The experience of Northern Ireland hauliers will feel very familiar to Scottish hauliers and exporters. James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, has referred to “crippling” red tape. It is clear that the UK Government are simply not on top of the Brexit problems at border crossings. How will the Secretary of State resolve groupage issues and the disruption which is causing such difficulty for businesses and consumers?

As I said in answer to previous questions, a range of issues have come together at the same time: companies who made commercial decisions before the deal was secured and before even the protocol was agreed before Christmas, let alone the guidance notes on parcels, and of course the covid challenges we have had. We have had a few issues come together in early January at the same time. We are working through all those issues with businesses, including ensuring that Great Britain businesses are signed up to the Trader Support Service and the Movement Assistance Scheme so they understand their ability to flow products into Northern Ireland. All those businesses and people will continue to ensure and support the fact that the Government secured a good deal with the EU. It is just a shame that the Scottish nationalists decided to vote against it and effectively wanted to see no deal, which would have seen real chaos across both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I thank the Secretary of State for the considered engagement he has had over the past seven to 10 days on the issue of steel. The Secretary of State knows just how important aerospace is not only to my constituency but to the Northern Ireland economy as a whole, with £1.9 billion-worth of activity each year. ADS is concerned about the additional tariff which is now being placed on goods considered to be at risk for the aerospace sector, yet when the raw materials are brought into Northern Ireland for processing, they can then subsequently leave Northern Ireland tariff free because of the air worthiness agreement. There is an issue on these raw materials. They are not at risk for onward transit. I would be very keen for the Secretary of State to agree this morning that he will engage on this issue as constructively as he has with steel.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He has been a strong and passionate supporter and promoter of the sector for the benefit of Northern Ireland for a very long time, and I think everybody can recognise that. He outlines some specific details. We have been very clear that there should not be any tariffs on internal UK trade. We will make full use of waivers and reimbursements to minimise the impact on business in any scenario. I will be very happy to engage with the sector directly, and with him and any other colleagues, on this issue. We have pledged £1.95 billion for aerospace research and development through to 2026, alongside £125 million in grants to be awarded through the Future Flight Challenge. There is an opportunity for the industry and I would be keen to work with him to ensure we can deliver on that for the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his words about Edwin Poots. Everybody here is rooting for the Minister in his battle. Has the Secretary of State given any thought to structures he can use to engage with the Irish Government on the protocol and other relevant issues now that they are not meeting within EU frameworks? Specifically, does he think the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference can be used more constructively going forward?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments on Edwin Poots. I had a communication with him this morning, and he is determined and focused on continuing to do his good work for the people of Northern Ireland and having a good and full recovery, as I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) is.

The hon. Lady is right: there are a range of ways, as she has outlined, that we can continue to engage, and we are determined to do so. I know that the Taoiseach, like the Prime Minister, is very keen to build a good, strong friendship and partnership with our closest neighbours in Ireland. I talk to Minister Coveney on a regular basis. We also have quad meetings with the Northern Ireland Executive, me, Simon Coveney and other Ministers where relevant, so we have a good join-up. We are determined to work together to make sure we do that for everybody across Ireland and all the United Kingdom.

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. (910928)

The Secretary of State and I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the devolved Administrations on this crucial issue. Although each devolved Administration controls their own public health policy, we have been co-ordinating our responses to covid, seeking alignment in policy and approach where appropriate to ensure that measures safeguard the health and wellbeing of the whole United Kingdom. Our commitment is demonstrated through the UK Government’s procurement of vaccines and tests on behalf of all parts of the country, working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are deployed fairly across the UK.

Obviously, the world-leading steps that the Government have taken to acquire and roll out the vaccine have benefited every part of the United Kingdom. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Northern Ireland is benefiting, and will continue to benefit, from this vaccine roll-out, which is only possible if our devolved Administrations continue to work together as one Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am pleased to see that Northern Ireland now has the highest vaccination rate in the UK, and, indeed, across any jurisdiction in Europe, with almost 6% of the population having been vaccinated. This clearly demonstrates the strength of the Union when we, as four nations, all work together. To date, over 114,000 people in Northern Ireland have successfully been vaccinated, including care home residents and health and social care staff. The vaccination programme began on 8 December, and by 6 January the mobile teams had visited 91% of care homes and achieved uptake levels of 90%-plus for residents and around 80% for staff.

Centenary of Northern Ireland

There are a number of important strands to our centenary programme, including historical understanding and engagement, and supporting trade and investment, which showcase Northern Ireland’s rich potential. We also want to focus on the future, especially Northern Ireland’s young people, and will ensure that their voices are heard in the centenary programme. We recently announced £3 million to support this work, including a £1 million shared history fund, supporting the engagement of non-profit organisations across the UK with the centenary. We are continuing to develop the centenary plans and will publish them further over the coming months.

The year 2021 marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, which paved the way for the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today. In Burnley and Padiham, we are proud Unionists and want to share in the celebration of this momentous date, so will my hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking to make sure that all parts of the United Kingdom can share in this celebration?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. Given the significance of this anniversary, we want to ensure that marking the centenary has a lasting legacy both in Northern Ireland and right across the UK. The shared history fund will support the engagement of a wide range of arts, heritage, voluntary, community and other non-profit organisations across the whole United Kingdom. We are engaging with Departments across Government, including the other territorial offices, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as we continue to drive forward on this and other elements of our centenary programme.

Abortion Services

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. (910931)

I recognise the hon. Lady’s work on this important issue and appreciate the engagement that we have had on it to date. Regulations have been in place to make provision for safe and lawful access to abortions since 31 March 2020. Some service provision has been available since last April, with over 719 women and girls having been able to access services locally by mid-October last year. We take our moral and legal duties on this matter very seriously and remain disappointed that full abortion services remain to be commissioned by the Department of Health, which would be the most appropriate way to progress the matter. We continue to monitor the situation closely.

It is a very familiar situation. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and a vulnerable woman have been left with no option but to take the UK Government to court to ensure access to abortion at home—except we are in a different situation, because this House voted to require the Secretary of State to uphold these women’s rights and ensure that they could access abortion at home. With clear evidence that over 100 women have been refused abortions and that they are buying pills online again, will the Secretary of State and Ministers confirm that they will act to uphold UK legislation, save the UK taxpayer court costs and act to intervene now?

I can confirm to the hon. Lady that we continue to engage with the Minister of Health and his Department on commissioning full services, and have been since the regulations came into effect. We remain of the view that this is the most appropriate way to progress the matter. I am pleased that the Northern Health and Social Care Trust was able to resume services early this year, and I am hopeful that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust will soon be able to do so as well. The Government continue to fund access to services in England, particularly where local access may not be available; even in the current circumstances, some women and girls have availed themselves of those services. We continue to monitor the situation closely and will consider further legislative action at Westminster at the appropriate time, should it be required.

Members across this House, and indeed the country, will be shocked that women are still not able to fully access these services, and that the services are still not being commissioned. It is unconscionable that women are travelling, against Government advice, during a pandemic because of a lack of service. I hear what the Minister says. I welcome his work on this issue, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, we seem to be back here again. Every day is a tragedy for women in Northern Ireland who have to travel. Will the Minister expand on his comments? What will he consider doing and, crucially, how soon will he act?

I recognise the strength of feeling behind what the hon. Lady says. It is the right of women and girls in Northern Ireland to access healthcare, including high-quality abortion care, in the full range of circumstances set out in regulations. I believe, as I think she does, that those rights should be the same across the United Kingdom. We continue to engage with the Minister of Health and the Executive on this, and we believe that this is best progressed by the Executive. However, I reiterate that we will closely monitor the situation, and we will absolutely consider whether further legislation is required by this House.

I am grateful to the Minister for his recent correspondence on this issue. There is considerable support in Northern Ireland for the change in the law, but unfortunately political games are being played. While local action is better, will the Minister confirm that he will not let this issue slip indefinitely, and that he will act within a matter of months if no action is taken by the Northern Ireland Executive?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is one of those who has pressed hard on this issue. We recognise the urgency of this matter, but we also recognise the huge challenges facing the Executive, and indeed every part of Government, relating to the covid situation. We want progress on this issue. We would prefer that to be delivered by the devolved institutions, but as I said, we stand ready to act if that progress is not made.

It is still a matter of deep regret that the overwhelming view of the people of Northern Ireland, in wanting to protect life, was and is still disregarded by those in this place. I take a contrary view to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). On implementing what the Government term adequate abortion provision in Northern Ireland, is the Minister concerned that under Northern Ireland’s abortion regulations, sex-selective abortion is permitted? The regulations permit abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, within which time it is possible to determine the sex of the foetus. What measures will he take to address this matter of deep concern?

I recognise that the hon. Lady has taken a consistent and firm position on this issue. The Government take this issue seriously. It is about protecting the rights of women and girls. The regulations in Northern Ireland, as she will recognise, do not make any reference to sex-selective abortion. They follow the same approach as those in the rest of the UK on this issue. The Government publish an annual analysis of the male-female birth ratio for England and Wales to see whether any evidence of this issue arises. The latest reports show no evidence that this is an issue in England and Wales. We will continue to report on the sex birth ratio, and will work with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to consider including Northern Ireland in this analysis in future years. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the implementation of the regulations, and urge the Executive to move forward with commissioning.