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.