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Northern Ireland

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland’s Place in the UK

In the year of Northern Ireland’s centenary, the Government have delivered the largest funding settlement to Northern Ireland since devolution, record investment in public services and vaccines at a rate possible only because of our great NHS. We are boosting local economies through city and growth deals and providing, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, a UK contribution of more than £730 million to the Peace Plus programme to contribute to a more prosperous and stable Northern Ireland. This is a Government working for Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland is stronger for being part of the UK, just as much as our United Kingdom is stronger for having Northern Ireland as an integral part of it.

Internal trade is one of the key strengths and benefits of being part of our United Kingdom. Irish Government statistics, however, suggest a 60% increase in north-south trade with the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the diversion of trade is clear evidence of the need to invoke article 16?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, highlighting one of the reasons why, when we published our Command Paper in the summer, we said that, as of then, the conditions to trigger article 16 had been met. We are very clear that we do not rule that out. If we have to use article 16, we will, but we are in negotiations with the European Union. The ideal solution for us would be to come to an agreement with the EU, but that has to be one that delivers on the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

A great strength of being an integral part of the UK is being able to benefit from the excellent trade deals being agreed around the world now that we have left the EU. Clearly, different regions and nations will have different needs from those deals, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in trade negotiations as a means of strengthening its place in the Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as a Government of the whole United Kingdom, we are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland’s businesses and consumers have access to and benefit from new trade deals. The Department for International Trade now has an office in Belfast and, just last month, I hosted, with the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Board of Trade in Derry/Londonderry. I look forward to doing more on that. We work with businesses in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure that we can deliver and involve them in these opportunities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every UK citizen and resident should have access to a similar level of healthcare? Will he guarantee that nothing in the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol will put at risk access to medicines and covid vaccines for residents and citizens of Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of our UK-wide NHS that everyone in our country can expect to receive quality health services, regardless of where they live. Currently, because of unnecessary regulatory and trade barriers in the UK internal market, we have seen difficulty in safeguarding medicine supplies. Unlike the EU, which some in this House will remember attempted to trigger article 16 earlier this year, with the intent of putting a hard border for vaccines on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and Ireland, this Government would never do anything that jeopardises access to medicines or covid vaccines for the residents of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland shares many of the same traits as our great county of Lancashire, Mr Speaker, including world-class expertise in aerospace and cyber-security. Does the Secretary of State agree that we can and should do much more to join up Lancashire and Northern Ireland, so that we can do even more together?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This relates to a range of areas, including the strategic transport network, which will bring people and businesses across the UK closer together and which is helping us to build back better. It is also important to look at the business and general communication links that mean that all parts of the UK and businesses in it can work together to develop the economy for the benefit of people across the United Kingdom, including in his constituency.

A prosperous Northern Ireland is a force for democracy in Northern Ireland, so what role does my right hon. Friend see the levelling-up fund having in strengthening the economy in Northern Ireland and therefore strengthening its democracy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: prosperity is an important part of peace and is what has led to the peace that we have seen over the past 23 years. Northern Ireland is benefiting from being part of the fifth largest economy in the world. In addition, it is receiving its largest funding settlement since devolution. We are investing to ensure that we level up in Northern Ireland, with £60 million this year from the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund, as well as £400 million from the new deal for Northern Ireland and more than £600 million in city and growth deal investment to drive growth. We will continue to build back better and level up in Northern Ireland through the upcoming UK shared prosperity fund, as well as the global Britain investment fund.

The Downing Street declaration states,

“on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

That is a direct quote from the declaration—signed, of course, by a Conservative Prime Minister. Does this British Government still agree with that principle, or are they going to abandon the consent principle that means the people of Ireland, north and south, will decide the constitutional future of our island, not the British Government or anybody else?

We are absolutely clear, as we have been consistently, about our dedication to and determination to continue to deliver on the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which includes the principle of consent. This Government understand the difference between consent and impartiality and make no apologies, just as I make no apologies for being a Conservative and a unionist who believes in the Union and that the Union is stronger for Northern Ireland’s being in it. That does not detract from the reality that the future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.

Much to the Prime Minister’s presumed disappointment, his proposed bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland has been rejected as “impossible to justify” by his own advisers, as it would cost £300 billion, 22 times more than the Prime Minister’s estimates. Does the Secretary of State agree that that flight of fancy is a perfect example of why Westminster should leave devolved matters such as transport to devolved nations? They know what is needed, and it is not impossible projects such as that, based on ideology.

I feel sorry for the hon. Lady; she should think bigger and better and be more optimistic about the future of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right that we look at the things we can do to improve our country. If we do not look at those things, we will never achieve anything exciting that can drive our economy. It is absolutely right that we look at how we ensure that the connectivity of the whole UK is working for the benefit of the UK. Scotland is able to continue as a strong economy as part of the United Kingdom because it benefits from its links with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to secure the Union is to ensure that Northern Ireland works, that we build a shared and integrated society and that all traditions in Northern Ireland are equally respected?

Yes, absolutely. An important part of that is looking at how we deliver on areas of the Good Friday agreement that have not yet been delivered on, including things such as integrated education. I think it is still shameful that only 7% of the population benefit from integrated education. There is always more to do, and we can do that working together for the benefit of the whole community of Northern Ireland.

There are many in Northern Ireland, myself included, who believe that the protocol represents the greatest threat to the Union at this time. Recalling the commitment made by the Government in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, what urgent steps do the Government intend to take to deliver on that commitment and to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I want to be clear: the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland. Societal and economic difficulties have been faced across both unionist and nationalist communities and by the business community, who are very clear about that. There is also a sense that identity is being eroded and east-west links weakened. That is compounded by the very real issue of trade diversion, which has already been mentioned this morning. The European Union and the Irish Government need to recognise that the lack of movement on the Northern Ireland protocol is leading to a loss of confidence in the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Restoring the balance between east-west and north-south is vital. That is why we continue to press through negotiations for a new balance to the protocol, but we are clear that all options remain on the table. We will do what we need to do to correct the situation for the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it. This Government will not allow the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, of which we are co-guarantors, to be put at risk.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Another commitment made in New Decade, New Approach was the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation to promote and to undertake proper research into the benefits of the Union to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress made in establishing the Castlereagh Foundation?

In July, I appointed an advisory committee to provide advice on appropriate delivery partners to establish the Castlereagh Foundation, the legal form it should take, the role of the foundation and the cost to establish it. I thank the committee for its work; it is putting forward a proposal that I expect to have on my desk to look at and consider, to be able to make some decisions on the appropriate next steps, in the imminent future.

Consultations on Addressing Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past: Victims Groups

2. What recent representations he has received from victims groups on consultations on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's past. (904548)

Since publishing the Command Paper, the Government have engaged with a range of stakeholders, including victims groups, who we have always said must be central to discussions on legacy. Victims groups have provided evidence at sessions that the Government have convened with Northern Ireland parties and in partnership with the Irish Government, in addition to the Government’s own bilateral engagement. The process has been hugely valuable and we are all grateful to those who shared their views on this important and sensitive issue.

The Secretary of State has said that the victims groups are central to all he is doing in this regard, but now that there appears to be total unanimity in opposition to the Government’s amnesty proposals among the people most directly affected in Northern Ireland, how will he reconcile their opinion with his desire to proceed in the face of such opposition?

As I have said before, we are working through the feedback that we received over the summer and autumn following the engagement that we had with a range of parties with an interest in this matter: victims groups, political parties and other stakeholder groups in civic society. We need to be honest about what is achievable, and about the reality that the current system is not working for people. It is not providing the information and it is not getting to the truth. Our focus is on ensuring that we are able to deliver a package that can get to the truth for families who have waited for far too long.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the current position is not working, and I think we should all congratulate him on trying to grapple once again with an issue that has been left lying there for too long. However, if his proposals are to secure any traction, they will have to be compliant with article 2, and we will have to see a fully fleshed out plan for truth and reconciliation. Can he give me assurances on both points?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key points that we made in the Command Paper—we will be setting out a lot of the work we are doing on this—was about ensuring that people can see that investigations will continue. There will be an information recovery body that will be able to get to the truth and will have access to information in a way that we have not seen before. We are determined to deliver on that, and we are determined to ensure that what we deliver is article 2 compliant.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Command Paper was published back in July, and since that time there have been two pauses, or perhaps more. That implies quite directly that the Secretary of State’s thinking is evolving. Can he tell the House, with as much precision as possible: what is the difference between his thinking as it currently stands and his thinking in the paper that was published in July?

I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. I look forward not just to sparring with him at the Dispatch Box, but to working with him for the benefit of Northern Ireland in the period ahead. I am sure we will be able to ensure that, on a range of matters, we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, along with his team.

We have not had pauses as such. We said when we published the Command Paper that we wanted to engage with parties, and we agreed at the summer British-Irish intergovernmental conference with the Irish Government to do that in partnership. That work continued over the summer and autumn and just last week we had a meeting of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference which is developing that work. This is a very complicated, complex area, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). We want to bring forward this package of work and legislate for it to ensure that we deliver for people in Northern Ireland—for victims who have waited too long for information. So there have not been pauses; the work continued throughout the summer and autumn.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind comments. I am also grateful for the messages and exchanges that we have had in the run-up to today.

In the spirit of constructive relations, let me share with the Secretary of State a bit of advice that comes from my experience. My last job was as the shadow Victims Minister, and when I was drafting the Victims of Crime and Anti-social Behaviour, Etc (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters) Bill, I learnt that offering support only works when the victims are in the driving seat. According to the proposals that are currently on the table, the victims are not even in the car. Rather than delaying—the Secretary of State did promise it in the autumn and he did promise it before Christmas, and it has not emerged—can he give a clear assurance, on behalf of the victims, that he has gone back to the drawing board and will only return with proposals once victims are front and centre and in the driving seat? That is what they deserve, and that is what Governments should deliver for them.

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to this, but we must hear from some other Front Benchers, and I am not going to make it if we do not have shorter questions and answers.

I appreciate that this is a complex issue, and I will be very clear about this. We want to ensure that we are delivering for the people and the whole of Northern Ireland, for the victims, and obviously for all those who served in Northern Ireland as well. This is a complex area, and our programme and the work we are seeking to deliver will deliver for victims. Victims are consistently saying that they want to get to the truth of what happened. The current system is not delivering that. Our Command Paper sets out a plan for a way to do that. We need to be honest about the current system’s failures and look at a new way forward. The Command Paper sets that out. We will look into the feedback we had over the summer and autumn, and we will do that very soon.

On the weekend, I received another call from the media with a briefing from the Northern Ireland Office saying that legislation and a statement would be coming out this week, and so on. This is the seventh deadline to produce this legislation—self-set by the Secretary of State—that he has missed. Does he have any intention at all of honouring his word?

I do not recognise what my hon. Friend just outlined. I said that I would set out to Parliament our intended direction of travel and what we wanted to do before the summer recess, and we did that with the Command Paper. We did have an ambition to legislate this autumn, and I was determined to do that, but we have to ensure that we are delivering and focusing on the work that we have seen over the summer and autumn in the ongoing conversations with victims groups and veterans groups, the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland. This is a complex area, and we have to make sure that when we deliver legislation on this, it is legislation that works for the people of Northern Ireland and for those who served in Northern Ireland as well.

Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

8. What assessment he has made of the progress of the negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol. (904554)

The status quo cannot continue. Nearly six months ago we presented a Command Paper outlining how we thought we could resolve the serious issues within the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU brought forward its own proposals, but these do not have the support of businesses or society and do not remove the need for unnecessary checks on goods that will remain in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market. We want a negotiated solution and we are engaging constructively but the gap between us is still large. We will do what we need to do to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Members of this House have said on the record that the Prime Minister personally told them that the Northern Ireland protocol was being agreed with the specific intention to renege on it in the future, so how can any future trade or negotiating partner trust the UK when it is clearly acting in bad faith?

The UK Government have been very clear and transparent about our intentions all the way through, as we were when we launched the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill last year, as we were when we took action back in March, and as we were when we published the Command Paper. The current situation with the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the United Kingdom internal market and it is not working for anybody or any business in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable and it needs to be corrected.

The Secretary of State has said today that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland, but it was his Government who negotiated the protocol and voted for the exit from the EU. Is he not embarrassed to stand here as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a Government who have effectively thrown Northern Ireland under the bus in the name of Brexit?

The objectives the Northern Ireland protocol include ensuring that the everyday lives of people and their communities are not disrupted, that the UK internal market is respected and that all three strands of the Good Friday agreement are respected. The EU’s implementation of the protocol is breaching those issues and we will not tolerate that. It is abhorrent to be in a situation in which members of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland cannot practise their religion under the EU’s requirements. That should not be tolerated by anybody in this House.

I welcome the Government’s dialling down of the rhetoric on the protocol, but may I urge them to speed things up? This issue and these negotiations are affecting our international relationships in steel and other matters, and the very fragile ecology in Northern Ireland. May I also urge the Secretary of State to assist my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his need for a negotiated settlement on the Irish sea checks and regulations?

My right hon. Friend is right: we need to see this resolved quickly, but that obviously requires the European Union to recognise the very real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland and the fact that we need to see movement from the EU to get to a resolution that can work for businesses in Great Britain supplying Northern Ireland, and for Northern Ireland’s citizens.

It is almost 12 months since the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed and concluded yet, despite all the talk and all the bluster from Lord Frost, the UK Government have still not reached an agreement on the transporting of medicines to Northern Ireland. This is a matter of life or death. Will the Secretary of State please give a concrete guarantee to the House now that an agreement on medicines will be reached before Christmas?

That is very much at the heart of the discussions that Lord Frost is continuing to have with the EU. The hon. Lady highlights a clear problem. The EU needs to come to the table with proposals to resolve these issues so that people can have confidence in having access to medicines, rather than having that access prohibited by the way in which the EU wants to implement the protocol.

The Secretary of State keeps threatening to invoke article 16, but he never quite gets round to doing it, does he? There is a pattern of behaviour here: the Secretary of State talks a great game but he never plays one. Where is your Bill, Brandon?

My right hon. Friend is right that we have not yet triggered article 16. As we said, the conditions have been met, but article 16 is not the solution in and of itself; it is the start of a process. It is right that we strain every sinew to reach an agreement with the EU, because that is what gives certainty for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. It is a reality that if we are not able to secure an agreement with the EU, and if the EU is not able to move in a way that delivers for Northern Ireland, we do not take anything off the table.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent Office for National Statistics data indicating that Northern Ireland is faring the best of all UK regions due to the protection and dual market access of the protocol. He will also be aware of the BBC “Spotlight” investigation into very murky goings on at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, showing that loyalist threats to the protocol were confected for and by political actors. Will he acknowledge that there has been a year-long campaign of reality distortion to mask the fact that the protocol, which has majority and growing support in Northern Ireland, is required by the people of Northern Ireland?

We have always been clear that we want to ensure the protocol works for people in Northern Ireland, and at the moment it does not. In my engagement with business representative groups across Northern Ireland last week, they were very clear that the status quo does not work for businesses in Northern Ireland and the EU’s offer does not deliver a solution.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government’s legal representatives are now telling the courts that the Northern Ireland protocol represents a temporary suspension of parts of the Act of Union. When will this temporary suspension come to an end?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an open court case, but we are determined to ensure we resolve the issues for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and for the UK internal market.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: Core Functions

6. If he will make an assessment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s ability to carry out its core functions. (904552)

We value the important work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in championing human rights in Northern Ireland. We are committed to ensuring the commission has the resources and the ability to carry out its functions, and we remain in close contact with the chief executive and their staff.

One of the many risks of activating article 16 is the chance that human rights safeguards secured under article 2 and relied on by organisations such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will fall by the wayside. Will the Minister confirm that any negotiations involving the protocol will not lead to the unravelling of article 2 commitments?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that the provisions of article 2 are unconnected to any triggering of article 16. We are absolutely committed to seeing no diminution of human rights in Northern Ireland.

Exports to Northern Ireland: Businesses in Great Britain

9. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses in Great Britain which export to Northern Ireland. (904555)

International trade is vital to boosting prosperity for this country, and trade within the United Kingdom is essential for our sense of connectivity and belonging, which is a priority for this Government.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the steps he is taking to support trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]

Order. We should know better. When a Member is asking a question, you should not be walking in front of him. That is just not fair.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Despite these measures, east-west trade remains disrupted because of the EU’s application of elements within the protocol. I wholeheartedly support the Minister’s efforts to remedy the situation, but if those efforts are unsuccessful, will he confirm that all measures, including invoking article 16, remain on the table?

The Government have been absolutely clear that we want to find a sustainable and durable solution to the problems created by the protocol. Under the strong leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Lord Frost’s unrivalled grasp of the protocol, we are determined to reach that solution.

Would not the best way by far to support east-west trade, and to overcome the entirely self-inflicted wounds that this Government have created with the protocol, be simply to realign with the single market and the customs union?

That is so 2016, is it not? SNP Members are still not reconciled to the democratic decision that the British people took to control their own destiny and leave the European Union. We are determined to find a sustainable and durable solution to the protocol, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Lord Frost and the Secretary of State are all clear that if that cannot be achieved, we will take whatever actions are necessary to secure the interests of the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

The Irish Times carries a piece that states that the Republic of Ireland now has the highest debt in all of Europe and 20% higher costs of living than Northern Ireland, and it now requires a multibillion-pound bailout from Europe to deal with the consequences of Brexit. Is it not the case that, by contrast, Northern Ireland is part of the fifth largest economy in the world, and that not only is it part of a strong and growing economy, but it requires the friction that exists between businesses in Northern Ireland and GB to be removed? Invoking article 16 will allow that friction to be removed.

We do not need any international comparisons to sell the benefits of Northern Ireland being an integral part of our United Kingdom. It is good for jobs, it is good for health and it is good for prosperity. We are definitely better together.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions—[Interruption.] Mr MacNeil, I do not need any help from you. This is an important message to those people who are watching. Before I come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on