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Northern Ireland

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 27 October 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Protocol: EU Negotiations

1. What progress the Government have made on negotiating a permanent settlement on the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. (903814)

We have been in discussions with the EU since the publishing of the EU’s proposals on 13 October in response to our Command Paper from July. We are seeking to understand the detail of some of the headline claims that the EU has made on issues such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures and customs checks. We continue to work closely with the EU and are hopeful that we will be able to bridge any gaps between our positions.

The law firm Carson McDowell has said that not one business has raised concerns about the European Court of Justice or its role as the court of ultimate appeal under the Northern Ireland protocol, so why are the UK Government prioritising a Brexit purity issue as their key demand in negotiations with the EU when it is completely immaterial to businesses in Northern Ireland?

Actually, a whole range of businesses and business groups, as they are working through the detail of the EU’s proposals, have concerns about whether they cover enough to deal with the issues in Northern Ireland. That is why it is important that we have these negotiations. For us, it is also important, and ultimately important for business, to ensure that the mechanism to deal with any issues is one that is licensed there and more traditional in international agreements and transactions. The role of the ECJ, as we have seen already this year, does not provide that, and ultimately, therefore, does not provide stability for Northern Ireland businesses or indeed the political structure of Stormont. It is therefore important that we make sure that that is resolved to have a proper working solution.

Why has Brussels seen the legal text on the changes that the Government want to make to the protocol but the democratic leaders of Northern Ireland are still completely in the dark? Will the Secretary of State urgently share that text with them?

This is a legal text we have shared with the EU, as we did with the papers we published earlier this year, which sadly we did not have too much feedback from the EU about. This is about engaging with the EU in a confidential manner to allow the space for these private negotiations and discussions to go ahead. It is right that we do that and do those negotiations in a proper, business-like way.

It is quite important that we have feedback from Northern Ireland as well. Not only will the Secretary of State not share that text with those I mentioned, but politicians, communities and businesses in Northern Ireland are completely excluded from the negotiations. Does he accept that it is not sustainable for a Secretary of State to say to the people of Northern Ireland, “We have decided what is best for you—take it or leave it”? Will he therefore move the talks to Belfast and give Northern Ireland’s politicians a seat at the table?

I am happy to let the hon. Lady know that the reality of what is happening is quite different from what she outlined. The politicians in Northern Ireland are involved, and not just here in this House: only yesterday Lord Frost and I engaged with both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as we are doing on a regular, pretty much weekly, basis. We have also engaged with businesses all the way through, via the Business Engagement Forum—indeed, I met business representatives on Friday last week—so that they, and civic society, are fully involved with feeding into the negotiations, which of course, absolutely, are quite rightly between the UK Government and the EU.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to see the removal of the Irish sea border on the movement of goods within the UK internal market between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that tinkering around the edges of the protocol without removing these unnecessary checks and impediments to trade within the United Kingdom is totally unacceptable?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. This is a point about consistency. We need to ensure that we have that free movement of goods—that goods are moving from Great Britain across to Northern Ireland for use and consumption in Northern Ireland—recognising also that we have a responsibility about goods moving into the EU. We are determined to deliver that. Sadly, the Opposition have been quite clear previously that they are happy to see a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are absolutely categorical about the fact that we want to ensure that goods can move freely and goods that are being consumed and used by the people of Northern Ireland can reach them in good order and in good time, as they should do and as we are determined to see happen.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he also agree that in addition to resolving the trading issues and removing the Irish sea border, he and the Government need to pursue the full restoration of article 6 of the Acts of Union, which makes it very clear that there should be no barriers to trade within the United Kingdom and that there should be respect to the principle of consent, which is at the heart of the Belfast agreement?

The right hon. Gentleman will, I know, be aware that this issue is subject to legal proceedings, so I hope he will excuse me being relatively brief in my reply. I reiterate our commitment in the Command Paper that we need to remove the burden on trade and goods with the UK and to ensure that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland can continue to have full and normal access to goods from the rest of the UK. It is also worth colleagues across this House remembering that not only does New Decade, New Approach ensure that we have that full internal market in the UK, but the protocol that was agreed, in its principles, is very clear that it would not only not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland, as is currently a problem, but will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom. We are determined to deliver on that objective.

Lord Frost recently said that there could be “no role” for the European Court of Justice in arbitrating disputes around the protocol. If that genuinely now represents the view of the UK Government, in contrast to when they negotiated and signed that protocol, can the Secretary of State tell the House how he would prefer to see disputes arising from the protocol arbitrated and settled? If he cannot share the text with politicians in Northern Ireland or in this House, can he at least give us a clue about what the outline of such a solution might be?

As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, there are different mechanisms for arbitration where there are disagreements between parties about things that have been agreed in international arrangements, including the withdrawal agreement itself. Those are working very well. What we have seen this year is how the EU has used the ECJ, even with the infraction proceedings around the processes we had to take forward in March to ensure that we could continue to get goods to Northern Ireland. It shows a very one-sided approach to this matter. It does not work, including for the stability for the Northern Ireland, and it is right we correct that. We have outlined that in the Command Paper, and that is part of the negotiations we will be having with the EU.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Cabinet Discussions

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (903815)

I meet regularly with Cabinet colleagues to discuss Northern Ireland-related matters, including issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol, where it is vital that we find more productive and sustainable arrangements to deliver more effectively on the protocol’s objectives. It is worth remembering that it is clear that the protocol should protect the integral place of Northern Ireland in the UK’s internal market, minimise the impact on the lives of citizens, maintain the necessary conditions for north/south co-operation, and, importantly, protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its strands.

There are high volumes of trade between businesses in Northern Ireland and Yorkshire, including in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Many different business sectors are involved, but food and drink is particularly prominent, and I have had concerning reports of excess bureaucracy affecting trade. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that business and trade flows as smoothly as possible?

My hon. Friend makes an important point that has been echoed by the business community, the hospitality industry and the food and drink industry in Northern Ireland, even just late last week. It is something we need to resolve. That is why it is important we continue the work, as part of the discussions we are having with the EU, to deliver on what we set out in our July Command Paper as a way to resolve the issues over the protocol.

The Northern Ireland protocol is still causing significant damage in Northern Ireland and great anger for those who are impacted by it. Whether Ministers want to believe it or not, we are heading towards a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland if the issue is not resolved. Does the Minister accept that the only reason we have checks and a debate about the European Court of Justice having a role in Northern Ireland is because Northern Ireland is now subject to EU law? Unless that issue is dealt with, the Northern Ireland protocol problems will not be resolved.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, further highlighting the issues around the European Court of Justice. At present, we have a system where EU laws are imposed on Northern Ireland without the consent of anyone in Northern Ireland—he is absolutely right. The challenges and disputes about these laws are also settled in the Court, only one of the two signatory parties to the protocol, and that obviously came before the wider trade agreement. The CJEU sits at the apex of the system. In addition to causing an imbalance in the equilibrium of east-west and north-south arrangements, we believe the oversight is not necessary. To preserve the structure and the gains that we have seen through the peace process of 23 years in Northern Ireland, we believe they must be replaced by something much more in keeping with the intentions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and traditional international trade agreements.

Legacy of the Troubles

4. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to address Northern Ireland legacy issues. [R] (903817)

The Government will bring forward legislation to address the Northern Ireland legacy issues very soon, focusing on information recovery and reconciliation.

East Devon is home to many veterans who proudly served their country, risking everything while following orders. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in his forthcoming legislation, we will stand by our promise to end vexatious claims against those who served in Northern Ireland?

The Government are absolutely committed to fulfilling their manifesto commitments to provide certainty to the many veterans who served courageously to defend the rule of law during the long years of the troubles. I can give my hon. Friend and his constituents the reassurance that we will deliver on our manifesto pledge, but we are also clear that this is about ensuring that we are addressing the needs of victims and veterans at the same time.

I offer my sympathies to the families of Dennis Hutchings and John Pat Cunningham during what must be an incredibly difficult period for them. The last time I raised the forthcoming Bill, I was told that veterans were being consulted. The Secretary of State will therefore be aware that a range of views are held, including in Northern Ireland where many oppose a blanket amnesty. Will he commit to continued close engagement with veterans to fully understand the views of those who served?

I join the hon. Gentleman in offering my condolences and thoughts to those families. As in the rest of our engagement, we have heard a range of views from across the community, particularly on that side of the discussion from the veterans community. We are considering that carefully.

We have always been clear that dealing with the past in Northern Ireland must equally address the needs of victims and veterans. I am happy to restate the answer that I gave the hon. Gentleman previously and say that we will continue to engage closely with veterans groups across Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we seek to bring in legislation to address those important, complex and sensitive issues.

After more than four years, two general election manifestos and a hand-signed promise in The Sun newspaper from the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State has delivered nothing. My question is very straightforward: “Where is your Bill, Brandon?”

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on the issue for a long time and he has been forthright in his determination to deliver for the veterans community. We set out our Command Paper in July just before the summer recess. As we said we would, we have been engaging with interested parties in the past couple of months, including not just the veterans community but victims, civic society and, more widely, the political parties in Northern Ireland. As we said in the Command Paper, we are still focused on delivering legislation to the House this autumn.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House clearly which of the groups representing the families of victims that he has met have agreed with his proposals?

As I said when I launched the Command Paper, we appreciate that it is a very sensitive and complex issue that will affect a huge range of people. We have had wide engagement across victims groups and with victims who are not represented by groups. We are taking on that feedback at the moment and we will come forward with proposals very soon.

My constituent Edward Vaughan-Jones’ brother Robert, 2 Para, died at Warrenpoint in 1979. Some 42 years later, the family’s wounds have not healed due to repeated investigations and a lack of conclusion. Can my right hon. Friend outline when Mr Vaughan-Jones will receive a conclusive report on his brother’s death so that he can finally have some sense of closure?

My deepest sympathies are with Mr Vaughan-Jones and the many other families who have waited far too long to get answers about the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths. We are determined that part of the process of information recovery will mean that families get the answers that they have not had. They have waited far too long and we need to resolve that issue soon.

Leaving the EU/Northern Ireland Protocol: Haulage Industry

5. What recent assessment his Department has made of the impact of the (a) UK leaving the EU and (b) Northern Ireland protocol on the haulage industry in Northern Ireland. (903818)

Many of the same supply chain issues experienced in Northern Ireland are seen across the United Kingdom. We are seeing a shortage of HGV drivers across all supply chains. The Government have introduced a range of solutions to ease the pressures across the UK. We are separately in intensive discussions with the European Union to find solutions to the current issues that are being caused by how the protocol is being applied. The haulage sector has been impacted and we continue to engage with it to understand the issues it is facing to ensure that the work we do with the EU gets a resolution that works for it.

Logistics UK, which represents 400 haulage operators in Northern Ireland and is responsible for 90% of goods transferred across the Irish sea, welcomed the EU’s proposals to improve the Northern Ireland protocol as a “leap of faith” and a positive step. Why have the UK Government refused to accept those proposals and instead insisted on sinking the negotiations with ideological demands rather than practical considerations?

Again, I am afraid that I need to correct the hon. Lady’s misunderstanding of the situation. I met representatives of the haulage association on Friday who are clear that having looked at the details of the EU proposal, it does not work and it is not enough. They are much more focused on what we outlined in the Command Paper. We need to resolve those issues and I hope that, in the conversation with the EU—it has moved, which we welcome—we will get enough movement to deal with the issues that have been raised by the haulage industry, even those raised on Friday of last week.

Jobs and Investment

6. What steps the Government are taking to create jobs and attract investment in Northern Ireland. (903819)

12. What steps the Government are taking to create jobs and attract investment in Northern Ireland. (903825)

The Prime Minister has been very clear that our levelling-up ambitions are not about points on a compass but about people and communities throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. We are delivering for Northern Ireland through our plan for jobs, our £600 million city and growth deal programme, and through the new deal for Northern Ireland, which will fund the promotion of Northern Ireland trade and investment globally.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that, for all the Government’s support for enterprise, innovation and new investment in Northern Ireland, they must not be frustrated and deterred by a second, unnecessary layer of bureaucracy?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely the legitimate interest of the United Kingdom Government to deliver prosperity and opportunity for every part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and we will work in partnership with others, including the Northern Ireland Executive, to do just that.

I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box. Does he agree that the £400 million that we are committing to implement the Northern Ireland new deal will not only boost economic growth and competitiveness but, taken with other recent investment, represents the largest boost from a UK Government in decades?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On top of the £400 new deal funding there is a swathe of other funding totalling just over £1 billion to small businesses and communities, delivering trader support new technology and the PEACE PLUS programme. This is the largest investment by any Government in Northern Ireland in decades, and it is warmly welcomed by businesses and communities in Northern Ireland.

The Liverpool city region and Northern Ireland broadly share the same population of just over 1.5 million. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, just as Liverpool can benefit from all the economic benefits of a freeport zone, there is no reason why we cannot extend that across the whole of Northern Ireland—and, indeed, across the whole of north Wales—so that we are not just limited to 45 km, and the whole of the UK can benefit from this excellent economic plan?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that freeports are a vital tool in the armoury to boost prosperity, trade and investment, and to attract global investment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working closely with the Executive and others to find the right freeport model that will deliver for Northern Ireland.

The primary responsibility for job creation in Northern Ireland lies with the Executive, not the UK Government, so how can the Government justify their approach to the shared prosperity fund, which takes away the spending power that the Executive previously had in relation to EU structural funds, and centralises that, stopping the Executive doing any joined-up investment in skills and job creation?

The primary responsibility for job creation is private sector business. It is entrepreneurs; it is people who create products and sell them to customers. What we are doing is making sure that businesses in Northern Ireland, as across the rest of the United Kingdom, have the tools to create the jobs and to create wealth and prosperity across the whole of Northern Ireland.

The Minister will know that sport is an economic driver. He will also know of the bid for the world rally championship to take place in Northern Ireland next year. What encouragement can the Minister and the Northern Ireland Office give to ensure that that is a successful, proactive event that will lead to spin-offs and job creation?

The hon. Gentleman is a huge champion of that project. We are well aware of the proposals that are being worked up, and I understand that the Executive and Tourism Northern Ireland are looking at them. If they come forward with proposals that work they will find a willing partner in the Northern Ireland Office. I will not commit to how many wheels or what part of the vehicles we will pay for, but we will step up to help to make this project a reality.

The director of a Northern Irish retail consortium has said that Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity to become a hub of investment, because it remains within the EU single market. To have access to the EU single market is a boon for Northern Ireland, and UK Ministers who have previously defended the protocol have stated that it is a boon. Why do the UK Government deny such a best-of-both-worlds situation for Scotland, where the people also voted to remain?

The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, Lord Frost and others have made it clear that we need to refine how systems are working in Northern Ireland. It is not working as we want it to work. It is impeding businesses, and it is disrupting communities and trade. That is why the Government at all levels are busily engaged in finding a solution that works for Northern Ireland. I am not sure that I am going to take any lectures from the Scottish National party about holding our United Kingdom together.

I welcome my right hon. Friend and Dorset colleague the Minister of State to his place. I am sure he will agree that political stability is a key element in creating jobs and attracting investment. Will he do all he can to ensure we have a fully functioning Stormont, working hard to improve the economic situation in Northern Ireland?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and that is why the Secretary of State and I were both at this Dispatch Box yesterday for Report and Third Reading of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill, a vital tool agreed under New Decade, New Approach to provide enhanced stability to the institutions in Northern Ireland, but ultimately it is for the parties in Northern Ireland to work together to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

Agricultural Labour

7. What assessment he has made of the availability of agricultural labour in Northern Ireland and its impact on the profitability and viability of that sector. (903820)

We are moving to a high-wage, high-skilled economy and the Government are encouraging all sectors to rely increasingly on workers from the United Kingdom, but we have listened to the concerns of the sector and 5,500 poultry workers are now eligible to enter the UK for work, on top of the 800 butchers who were already eligible to enter the UK for six months under the skilled worker route.

It is all very well saying they are eligible to come in, but the industry is telling us that its ability to deliver the food needed, particularly for Christmas, is deeply jeopardised by the Government’s failure on both migration and skills to ensure the workers we need in our food processing industry are here. How can a Government who so passionately advocate for Brexit be so ill-prepared to deliver it?

When people voted to leave the European Union, they wanted us to level up the United Kingdom and increase wages for the workforce—including, by the way, the 60% of the hon. Gentleman’s Chesterfield constituents who voted to leave the EU. We are taking the opportunities of that and I wish he would join me in promoting Northern Ireland’s vibrant agri and food sector, including companies such as Kennedy Bacon and Ballylisk Dairies, which I have visited in the last couple of weeks and are excited by the opportunities.

For many years, agriculture in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has been very dependent on overseas workers, even before the high levels of EU migration of recent years, so will the Minister do everything he can to make sure agriculture in Northern Ireland can still access the overseas and seasonal workers who are so crucial to making sure our food supply is resilient?

My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State speaks with great authority on these matters. There has been extensive engagement with the sector. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I had engagements around the Balmoral Show recently. We have both visited businesses in this sector and are listening carefully to their concerns.

Northern Ireland Assembly

I continue to work closely with the whole of the Executive and the political party leaders on the issues that matter most to the people of Northern Ireland. Obviously, the promise of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement for devolved government locally accountable to the people of Northern Ireland must never be forgotten and is hugely important in making sure we deliver on the promise of a stable and genuinely co-operative Executive, built on respectful relationships and trust. That is where stability comes from and that is what I hope to see continue in Northern Ireland.

Threats to collapse the Assembly hang over Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State is sleepwalking towards a political crisis. Key safeguards have still not reached the statute book 22 months on. Northern Ireland simply cannot afford this, so will the Secretary of State fast track the legislation through the House of Lords and commit to passing it in the coming weeks so there is at least a caretaker Executive in place?

It was disappointing in the summer when one of the political parties tried to bring down Stormont with various threats about what it was going to do. At the moment it is important that we see stability at Stormont. We had the legislation yesterday in the Chamber and I am sad the hon. Lady was unable to join us on something she clearly cares about. It is important that we see stability there, working with all the parties and making sure they are delivering on what the people of Northern Ireland care about. That has to be the main focus and the legislation going through the House at the moment will help with that, but the way we keep stability at Stormont is around not legislation in Westminster but the political parties at Stormont focusing on working together to reform education, healthcare and the other issues that matter for the people in Northern Ireland.

New Decade, New Approach

9. What progress the Government are making on implementing the commitments set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. (903822)

The Government are making good progress across their commitments under New Decade, New Approach. As the hon. Gentleman will know, only yesterday, the Secretary of State and I were delivering on the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill from the Dispatch Box while he was enjoying his love-in with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley).

I am glad to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. One of the commitments that he did not mention was this Government’s commitment to bring in a package of legislation around language and culture. When are they going to do it?

The commitment of the Government to bring forward that package remains undimmed. I would not want to deny the hon. Gentleman his anticipation and excitement by revealing exactly when, but he will not have long to wait.

On another important commitment, on abortion, we are clear that the cycle of inaction must end and we welcome the Secretary of State’s determination on this, but it is a serious matter that the legal obligations are still being ignored. Will the Minister confirm the report today in The Guardian that he intends to instruct trusts to commission services? Will that require primary legislation? When will he act?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Secretary of State is leading on this, and I am sure he would be delighted to talk to her.

I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings for both Prime Minister’s questions and the Budget statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be available to watch on—[Interruption.] I think it is important that people listen to this, so I will say again that the British Sign Language interpretation for Prime Minister’s questions and the Budget statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be available to watch on