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Northern Ireland

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Protocol: Trade with Great Britain

What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Northern Ireland protocol on levels of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (914354)

Before I answer, let me say that I am sure the whole House will join me in offering my support and thoughts to the Police Service of Northern Ireland officer who was subject to a cowardly attack earlier this week. Those who attack our public servants and emergency services personnel have nothing to offer the communities they claim to represent. I am sure the whole community will join everybody across this House in support for that officer and for such a way forward, and people will I hope come forward with any information they may have to help bring those responsible to justice swiftly.

Overall freight flow between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has returned to normal levels. We are continuing to monitor and assess the situation, including any potential change in trade patterns. The temporary operational steps that we announced in this House in March have ensured that we prevented any significant immediate-term disruption to goods flows, as I have outlined, including food, and have provided space for the continued discussions on the protocol implementation in the Joint Committee.

I share the Secretary of State’s concern and alarm over recent events.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and industry leaders are expected to withdraw up to 90% of medicines sent to Northern Ireland from the UK due to the unaffordability of meeting new Brexit-incurred costs and red tape, with Lord Frost stating last week that “difficult issues remain”. What do the UK Government plan to do to minimise and prevent further disruption of the distribution of medical supplies to Northern Ireland caused by a hard Brexit?

As I think we showed with the action we took just a month or so ago, which I have outlined, we will ensure that we take the action we need to take to continue to see the flow of goods and products. Obviously, the medicines issue is one we are working on intensively with the European Commission to address, with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost working at the moment on all of those issues—the outstanding issues—that the hon. Member highlights. There are some difficult issues, but we will do what we need to do, working in partnership with the EU, to get a resolution that works for the whole of the UK.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning unreservedly the attack on the female police officer, and our support is fully with her and her colleagues at this time.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol continues to cause for both consumers and businesses. What steps are the Government going to take to replace this protocol with arrangements that fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, as I am sure will the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its personnel.

The protocol is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, as we outlined in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which legislated for that very fact. I have been very clear that there are outstanding issues with the protocol, and some of them are difficult issues. They are ones that need to be resolved from the point of view of both consumers and businesses, and just to restore confidence across all the communities—the whole community—of Northern Ireland. We are determined to do that, and I think we have shown with the actions we have taken that we want to do that in a pragmatic, flexible way that works for the people of Northern Ireland. We are also working, through the work Lord Frost is doing, to do that in partnership with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Ultimately, however, this is about making sure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement in all of its strands.

The Secretary of State will also be aware that there is potential for significant difficulties with the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Again I ask the Secretary of State: what measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that medicines flow freely into Northern Ireland, and that everyone here in Northern Ireland will not be disadvantaged in accessing medicines and pharmaceutical products?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which of course we are working on and take seriously. The recitals to the protocol themselves state that it

“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”,

and very clearly, as well as food supplies, medicines absolutely fall within that. So it is well within the remit of the protocol to ensure that that flow can continue in the proper and flexible way it always has. We continue to work intensively with our friends and partners in the EU, but as I have said before, we will do what we need to do to ensure that Northern Ireland has access to the market in the way it would as part of the United Kingdom. That is what the structural integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal customs union is about.

Can I echo the comments of the Secretary of State on the despicable attempted murder of a serving police officer? All my thoughts are with the officer, her colleagues and her family today.

As recently as Monday, when wider protests over the Northern Ireland protocol resumed, anonymous social media accounts were still being used to exploit the situation and lure young people to the interface in Belfast, with provocative messages inflaming an already tense situation. Will the Secretary of State, working with the police, make it clear in the strongest possible terms that social media giants such as Facebook have a responsibility to act to prevent their platforms from being exploited to inflame tensions in the interface communities?

Yes, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. I think it actually—I hope Members excuse the colloquial language—beggars belief that anybody could think that the cowardly act of putting a police officer and a young child at risk is a way to further their cause. I warmly welcome the condemnation all around of that cowardly action.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: as I outlined in the statement I made last week, it is important that we are very alert to the risks of social media. People who look at social media should be alert to who may or may not be behind encouraging them to do things in a hugely inappropriate way that could ruin their lives and the lives of others. Yes, this is something we are taking forward and working on with social media companies—absolutely.

The Social Democratic and Labour party sends every good wish to the PSNI officer, after the appalling experience she has had at the hands of the warped throwbacks who have absolutely nothing to offer people here.

We appreciate that sanitary and phytosanitary checks are a tricky issue internally for the Conservative party, but as the person in government in charge of speaking up for Northern Ireland, has the Secretary of State personally articulated to his Cabinet colleagues how the UK-EU veterinary and SPS arrangements could address the frictions in trade? Has he directly asked them to put the interests of Northern Ireland ahead of a theoretical power to diverge that the UK does not look as if it is going to use any time soon?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments as, I am sure, does the PSNI.

Obviously, I am always making the case in the UK Government for the best outcome for people in Northern Ireland, and it is right that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom in terms of trade. As I have said, SPS checks in one form or another, recognising the single epidemiological unit and biosecurity of the island of Ireland, have been in place since about the 19th century. We must ensure that we have a proper, pragmatic, flexible, free flow of goods, so that a consumer in Northern Ireland is able to have the same experience as a member of the United Kingdom anywhere in the United Kingdom. We are determined to ensure that we deliver that.

Recent Disorder

What steps the Government are taking to tackle the causes of the recent disorder in Northern Ireland. (914355)

The sporadic localised disorder that we have seen in Northern Ireland is completely unacceptable, and I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) in that regard over the past couple of weeks. The factors behind that disorder are complex and, as I have said, multifaceted. All communities in Northern Ireland must work together to resolve current tensions and unrest. I have been in regular close contact with political and community leaders, as well as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and it is clear that, as we know in this House, the only way to resolve differences is through dialogue. In that regard, we all have the ability to lead the way by example.

I join colleagues in expressing full solidarity with the police officer affected this week. It is important always to remain united in opposing terrorism. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a trade-off between the nature of the UK’s Brexit, and the level of checks down the Irish sea as a consequence? The UK Government can play a key role in defusing those tensions if, like many other sovereign states, they follow through and negotiate that bespoke agreement.

As I outlined in a statement last week, and as I have just said, the tensions and issues that led to violence a couple of weeks ago are multifaceted and, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of issues are going on. I would be wary of putting this on any one issue, or of giving anyone the view that it is acceptable to argue that, because of tensions over the protocol, it is acceptable to use violence. There is much more to what happened the other week than that. As I have said, we want to work towards a practical pragmatic solution with our partners in the EU, to ensure we have that good, free and flexible flow of products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the way we want, and as we deliver from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the reasons behind the violence are multifaceted, but the barriers to trade, which the Prime Minister repeatedly and wrongly denied existed, have played a part in the growing political instability in Northern Ireland. We need solutions. Will the Secretary of State do what he did not do in last week’s statement and confirm that his Government are seeking an agreement on common veterinary standards? That would go a long way to lowering barriers to trade in food products across the Irish sea.

We are working intensely with our partners and colleagues in the European Union. Lord Frost is currently working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on a wide range of issues, including agrifoods, so that we get a resolution that works for the people of Northern Ireland, with Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have seen an increase in tensions, particularly in Unionist communities, and we need to recognise the issues around a sense of identity. We can all play a part in helping the EU to understand better the lasting impact of the action it took when it went to trigger article 16 just a couple of months ago. The disruption affects people across all communities in Northern Ireland, and we want that to be resolved in partnership with the EU.

May I associate myself, as others have, with the remarks that the Secretary of State made with regard to the horrible and horrific event yesterday in Dungiven? That and recent scenes remind us all too well of the horrors of the past and surely must reinvigorate us all to ensure that they do not become either endemic to the present or part of Northern Ireland’s future.

Will the Secretary of State assure me that the PSNI has adequate resourcing to proactively interrupt social media platforms and posts, which are clearly the new way of communicating types of disorder? The PSNI needs to be able to monitor and intervene. Can he assure me that the full resource of the state is available to it to ensure that this important work is done to the best of its abilities?

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes a very important point, as others have, about the impact and importance of dealing with social media. Yes, absolutely: I have spoken to the chief constable and outlined to him our full support and we are working with the police to ensure that they have access to the full capabilities to work and deal with social media issues. We obviously recognise that policing is a devolved matter, but they have our full support and we will continue to work with them on those issues.

May I, too, associate myself with the comments about, and send our best wishes to, the serving police officer? As a former special constable, I know that the whole police family will be reeling today, and my thoughts are with them all.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the peace process has never been as vulnerable as it is now. The north-south institutions fundamental to the support of Irish nationalists are under pressure, and the east-west relationship has been seriously undermined by the Prime Minister and his approach to Brexit. The Secretary of State bears a responsibility to help stabilise the situation, so will he ensure that the British-Irish Council is urgently convened to give Northern Ireland representatives a voice in discussions around the protocol and huge decisions about their own future?

Yes. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks back: a while ago, we announced that the British-Irish Council would meet on 11 June. It continues its regular meetings, which have never stopped; the last one was in November. But yes—as it has been regularly meeting.

I suggest that 11 June is not an urgent meeting and recommend that that meeting should be brought forward urgently to discuss these important issues.

The Secretary of State will know that some very young children, born long after the Good Friday agreement, have been involved in some of the recent disorder. Does he agree that, wherever appropriate, working with the PSNI, restorative justice should be used to ensure that those children are not criminalised and do not run the risk of falling into the toxic, coercive grip of paramilitaries?

Yes, absolutely. I will also just say that the Northern Ireland Executive have been involved in the specialist committee, which feeds into the Joint Committee, through the work that we do through the engagement forums and, actually, a meeting with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič just a few weeks ago. They are consistently involved and feeding into the process and the work that we do with the EU, but as I say, the British-Irish Council date was set a short while ago.

On the hon. Lady’s comments about young people, she is absolutely right; I fully support that point. Community groups and youth groups have been working with young people, not just in the last few weeks but consistently over the last year or so. They do amazing work to help young people to see a way through to a prosperous and exciting future. We should all be doing all we can to support, promote and encourage that so that people are not tempted, whether through social media or though bad advice in the heat of the moment in the streets, as we saw a few weeks ago, into the type of behaviour that gives them a criminal record and curtails their opportunities for the future.

May I take this opportunity to associate myself and my party with the comments that have been made on both sides of the House about the disgraceful and despicable attempt on the life of a serving police officer in Dungiven on Monday?

In these times of heightened tensions in the community, language and leadership matter, so does the Secretary of State consider that the Prime Minister’s referring to the “ludicrous” barriers that result from the protocol—a protocol that he himself insisted on the terms of—are a help or a hindrance to reaching a solution in Northern Ireland that all parts of the community can accept?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman betrayed a lack of understanding, in the sense that people of the whole community of Northern Ireland are affected by these problems and the outworkings of the protocol. Whether it is somebody who has a nationalist constitutional view or a Unionist constitutional view, the practical outworkings for both consumers and businesses are real for the whole community. There is an added sense, as I outlined earlier, that the identity of the loyalist Unionist community in Northern Ireland has been affected, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right. It is helpful in that it clearly recognises—the hon. Gentleman sadly does not—the sense of injustice and feeling of attack on identity that is there in the Unionist community. We have to be clear that we recognise that and want to deal with that with our partners in the EU. To pretend it is not there simply is not going to handle the problem.

Dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer and her young child in County Derry this week. I take this opportunity, as an Irish nationalist, to send those dissident republicans a very clear message: your quarrel is not with the police, it is not with the British state; it is with the people of Ireland and that is a battle you will never, ever win.

Given the Prime Minister’s very speedy response to an issue about football—as important as that is—compared with the quickness of his response to the violence on the streets of Northern Ireland for almost 10 days, does the Secretary of State agree with me that we need an active, engaged and interested Prime Minister in dealing with our peace process?

Yes, absolutely, and I am very proud of the fact that we do. We have a Prime Minister who has been very much engaged. The hon. Gentleman should look at the Prime Minister’s comments and the fact that he was talking to the Taoiseach in the early stages. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks about dissident republicans. The Prime Minister has been actively involved. He has been in full communication all the way through this process. In terms of looking at how people deal with this, I would just say that all Members of this House, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s own party, need to think very carefully when they are tweeting things that could be seen as incendiary to make sure we all take the right tone on these matters to ensure we return calm for people as quickly as possible.

Having spoken to my constituent yesterday who was the subject of such a disgraceful attack, I can tell the House that the victim and her family deeply appreciate the unanimous support, and that the wider community in County Londonderry does as well. The Secretary of State has indicated his concern about the rising tensions. Will he take more steps now to understand the activities that are going on, the rationale behind them and the need to stand up to the violence, but also the need to understand and take action to deal with the underlying problems that exist in those areas?

Yes. I think the hon. Gentleman alludes to a wider issue that the previous questioner rightly raised in the statement last week. A multi-faceted set of issues came together over the last few weeks. We should not allow ourselves to miss out on the fact that it is important and highlights why we have to do more work to ensure that, as we are levelling up and building back better across the United Kingdom, that reaches all communities and that all communities can benefit, see opportunities, see growth, and really have a better opportunity for a better and brighter future.

Police Officer Numbers

What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect of Budget 2021 on police officer numbers in Northern Ireland. (914356)

The UK Government fully support the excellent work of the PSNI. I would like to thank all the officers involved in keeping people safe during the recent unrest and send my best wishes to those who were injured, as well as associating myself with the remarks we have heard across the House today about the appalling and cowardly act in Dungiven. Policing in Northern Ireland and police funding are primarily devolved matters. I welcome the further funding allocated to the PSNI by the Executive, which provides the PSNI with an additional £12.3 million for staffing. But how the PSNI allocates its funding is an operational matter for the Chief Constable, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

The Minister will know that 7,500 officers was a core commitment of New Decade, New Approach. Given the vital importance of neighbourhood policing in tackling disorder, what steps will the Government take to ensure that commitment is met?

The hon. Gentleman is right: this was a commitment for the parties in the Executive under the New Decade, New Approach announcement. Clearly, the UK Government provide funding to the Executive through the block grant, but the Secretary of State has also spoken to the Chief Constable and made clear that, if he puts together a business plan, we will work with the Department of Justice to make sure that that can be properly supported. We certainly stand ready to support them in that regard.

Leaving the EU: Peace in Northern Ireland

In the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed, there has been a transformative change in Northern Ireland. The hard-won peace has created the conditions for economic growth, investment and stability. As we left the European Union, the protocol was designed to protect the agreement in all of its strands and to safeguard the stability created. It is only by respecting all elements of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—north-south as well as east-west, and, obviously, Northern Ireland itself—that we will secure strength and stability into the future.

My good friend the late Charles Kennedy attended Lochaber High School and Glasgow University. He went on to represent a highlands constituency with distinction for many years. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic was neither here nor there. I would say that Charles Kennedy was an excellent example of integrated education. What more can the UK Government do to assist the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Government in getting integrated education going in the Province and reaping the benefits from it?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important and powerful point, which I absolutely agree with. One of the things in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that has not managed to be delivered on enough is integrated education. I am absolutely determined for us to do all we can to support the Executive to take that forward—obviously, education is devolved. As I have outlined in relation to the new deal package of money, it is an area that I am very focused on, and I want to work with the Executive to take integrated education forward over the period ahead for the benefit of the long-term stability, peace and prosperity of people in Northern Ireland.

Would the Secretary of State agree that it is not Brexit or leaving the EU that has had an impact on peace in Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland protocol that has been imposed in Northern Ireland by the EU, leaving us in a position where we have not yet got the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom, leaving us with a trade barrier between east and west? This has meant additional bureaucracy and administration for local businesses and that there are businesses from England that do not wish to engage in the additional checks that are required. What progress is being made to remove this injustice from Northern Ireland, as we feel we are being punished for leaving the EU?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I said earlier, some of the tension that we have seen over the last few weeks is multi-faceted, with a number of issues involved. On the hon. Gentleman’s points about the protocol, that is something that we are working through. We are working intensively with our partners in the EU. Lord Frost is working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We are very much aware that the protocol is there. From the EU’s point of view, it wants to protect the sacrosanct position of its single market. We are focused on and determined about protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as I said before, in all three of its strands, and we are very alert to the fact that east-west is as important as any other strand. We want to make sure that we deliver on that and get a solution that means that this can work in a proper, pragmatic way that means that a consumer, a business and a citizen of Northern Ireland can have the same experience as a citizen anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Recent Disorder

What representations he has received from relevant stakeholders on the recent disorder in Northern Ireland. (914359)

I have been in close conversation with political and community leaders and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in response to recent events. Their unification in condemning the unrest has been a welcome sign that those engaged in the destruction and disorder that we saw do not represent Northern Ireland. We as a Government will continue to engage with stakeholders across the whole community in Northern Ireland to find solutions that work for everybody and to ensure that we are always clear that the right way to express concerns is through dialogue, engagement and the democratic process—never violence.

The Secretary of State is right: dialogue is important, as are inter-Government relations between the UK and Ireland. It is a vital part of upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and managing tension that leads to disorder, so why has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference never met under this Prime Minister, and why has the Prime Minister never chaired the British-Irish Council? Can he commit that he will chair the next meeting, whether it is in June or sooner, as it should be?

The British-Irish Council has never ceased to meet regularly and has always been chaired in the same way. The conversations are ongoing between ourselves and the Irish Government. Even over the last few weeks, whether that has been with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney or the Prime Minister talking to the Taoiseach, that engagement has been ongoing and will continue, because we are partners working together, with a long relationship—a positive relationship—that is of benefit to the people of the Republic of Ireland and the whole of the UK.

Mental Health Services Funding

What comparative assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of funding for mental health services in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (914363)

We recognise the importance of ensuring that there is proper provision and access to mental health services right across the UK. Health services are devolved in Northern Ireland. The funding allocated to this specific service is therefore a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to allocate from within the substantial resources provided by the UK Government. The Government are providing funding of £14.2 billion to the Executive in 2021-22 and we would, of course, support them allocating some of this funding for these vital services.

Recently published figures show that between January 2017 and September 2020 mental health referral targets were missed more than 42,000 times at emergency departments in Northern Ireland. Given that rates of suicide in Northern Ireland continue to be the highest of any part of the UK, will the Minister please confirm that the funding in New Decade, New Approach to tackle the mental health crisis will be urgently released?

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the acute demand on all health services across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, and she is also right to refer to the funding in the NDNA agreement. There was £50 million allocated for mental health support through the confidence and supply agreement. That funding is part of £350 million provided under that agreement to support the health sector, but there is a further £60 million of capital and resource funding for medical purposes that the Government have since announced and approved, and we continue to deliver on our NDNA commitments to the Executive.