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Northern Ireland

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Protocol

1. What recent progress the Government has made in negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905870)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905881)

I begin with some brief remarks regarding the public apology to be delivered on Friday 11 March by the Northern Ireland parties to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.

The Hart report into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland was published in 2017. I particularly thank and note the hard work of the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who put so much time and focus into this, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act in December 2019, securing a key recommendation of the Hart report to establish a redress system for victims who suffered abuse while resident in these institutions in Northern Ireland.

It is only right that victims and survivors are now receiving a formal apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered while residing in institutions that were meant to care for them. This is another key recommendation of the Hart report, and it is to be welcomed. For too many years, the voices of victims and their appeals for help went unheard, and on 11 March they will receive a full and unconditional apology that is so deserved.

In answer to Questions 1 and 9, I regularly meet Cabinet colleagues to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The situation in Northern Ireland is serious, and the Government are keeping all options available to make sure we achieve a positive outcome.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s statement.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine threatens to undermine global food security, including for people across these islands, by cutting the world off from 30% of all grain supplies and undermining global production of fertiliser for other foodstuffs. Unbelievably, recent media reports suggest that senior Brexiteers are pressing the Government to trigger article 16 and proclaim unfinished business with the EU. Such action would be reckless and unnecessary even without a war raging on the European continent. Will the Government take triggering article 16 off the table once and for all?

Absolutely not. We are very clear that we have to keep all options on the table. Article 16 is part of the protocol and, if we cannot resolve these issues, it is the proper legal process to take things forward. Ultimately, the right result, and the result on which we and the Foreign Secretary are focused, is getting a resolution by agreement with the EU. Be in no doubt that we are determined to make sure Northern Ireland can access goods from Great Britain in the way it should, which we should all support.

Many of us in this House are deeply concerned about the lack of progress in these negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the sovereignty issue for Northern Ireland still remains on the table with regard to EU lawmaking? Although the context is quite different, it is worth remembering that we are also dealing with the Ukrainian situation, which is also an issue of sovereignty.

My hon. Friend makes an important and accurate point. The reality is that we have not seen enough progress, and are not yet seeing enough flexibility and pragmatism from the EU. What is positive is that there is a recognition now, including in the conversations I have had with Vice-President Šefčovič, that issues with the protocol need to be resolved. We all want to see that happen at a much faster pace, and to see more flexibility on all these issues, both on trade and, as he rightly says, on remembering that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its internal market.

We know that viruses and many infectious agents do not stick to international, let alone domestic, borders, as we have seen in both the human and animal health settings. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the UK and the EU were to agree a veterinary and SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—agreement, that would not only protect the biosecurity of the UK, but facilitate trade and the movement of plant and animal produce between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend gives an example of one area where we are keen to see flexibility from the EU, so that we can see some resolution. We have put forward a range of constructive proposals to meet the objectives—respecting the single market of the EU while making sure that we achieve our prime priority, which is protecting all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—such as the green channel proposals, which can deal with east-west customs and those SPS burdens that he mentioned. We have to make sure that we find a resolution that works, and that means goods can flow from Great Britain to Northern Ireland—the goods that are not at risk of moving to the EU—in the way they always have done.

The Prime Minister has told the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that negotiations on the protocol have only a 30% chance of success. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment?

I am not sure I am in a position to give betting odds in terms of percentages. The experience we have had with the EU so far, in the past six to nine months, has shown us a lack of the pragmatism and flexibility that we need to see. We have not seen the EU move in a way that allows us to resolve the issues of the protocol, either the trade issues or the wider issues of identity and sovereignty. It is important that we do that. We have to be realistic about the reality of that lack of progress and flexibility, which is why I am clear that we take no options off the table.

The reason the Secretary of State cannot give a direct answer to the question is because Ministers and the Prime Minister have been telling so many people informally so many different answers. That is a reason why there is such a lack of trust in the Government at the moment. Queen’s University Belfast has just carried out a poll, which found:

“The UK government is by far the most distrusted…of all actors”.

That is because so much is happening in the shadows; Ministers are telling people different things behind closed doors. Since the Executive collapsed, there has been no statement to the House. Following five rounds of negotiations between the UK and the EU Governments, there has not been a single statement to the House. Will the Secretary of State promise to bring discussions out of the shadows and start making statements to the House, so that we can have things on the record and not behind closed doors?

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands how negotiations need to work. We have been clear that it is right and appropriate that we have the space to have those private negotiations with the EU, which is why we have not gone out and publicly outlined some of the specific details we have put. But we have been very clear, and I am very clear publicly as well as privately, that we take no options off the table. We do need to resolve this. There is a point at which there is a judgment call for the UK Government to make on whether those negotiations are able to progress in a way that gives us confidence that we can get to a positive resolution. We have not seen that flexibility from the EU yet, but we will continue to strain every sinew, and the Foreign Secretary continues to talk to Maroš Šefčovič, to do everything we can to get a resolution that works. But we have to be very clear: this is about a resolution that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement and protects the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

The period of purdah in the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election is fast approaching. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the need to make real, serious progress before that period commences? Does he anticipate that such progress will be made?

It is important that we get progress as quickly as possible, regardless of the pre-election period in Northern Ireland, because every day that we are not seeing that flexibility from the EU is another day when consumers in Northern Ireland cannot access products; when the Jewish community cannot access, technically, under the EU provisions, kosher food; when businesses cannot get access to the products they need; and when more than 200 Great Britain businesses are not supplying Northern Ireland. That affects the economy of both Northern Ireland and the wider UK, and we need to resolve that as quickly as we can.

Further to that answer, may I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the situation of my constituent from Dromore who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair? Three weeks ago, the ramp on the back of her disability-adapted motor vehicle broke. When she went to order the spare part from the supplier in England, she was told it could not be sent to her because she was not registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is precisely the kind of difficulty that the protocol is causing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland and the idea that we just ignore it, sweep it under the carpet and forget about article 16 ignores the rights of my constituents.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are multiple examples out there, whether it is the issues for the Jewish community that I just outlined or the individual case he has. Both he and I have heard of cases of other people who are unable to access products and goods, some of which are very important so that they can continue to live their lives in the way that any other UK citizen could. That is not good enough. We need to be clear with the EU that its current lack of flexibility puts at risk the very thing that the protocol was there to protect: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. It is right that we keep the pressure on. We will strain every sinew, and I hope the EU will show flexibility and pragmatism to resolve the issue that it now recognises, which is that the protocol is not working and is, I have to say, just not sustainable in its current form.

At this time, households throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, are struggling because of rapidly increasing home-heating costs. In Northern Ireland, we are subject to European Union VAT rules, which means that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to reduce VAT on home-heating oil, he would need the permission of the EU and all 27 member states. Surely, it cannot be right that my constituents are being deprived of the support they need from the Government because of the protocol.

In February this year we put a further £250 million into the Executive to allow them more flexibility, on top of their underspend, to support people at a time when there are such pressures. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight another of the many areas where the protocol is creating real problems on the ground for people in their everyday lives. We must remember that the protocol itself says it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities; the right hon. Gentleman has given yet another example of how the implementation of the protocol is doing exactly that. That has to stop.

I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks at the outset about victims of historical abuse and the forthcoming apology.

Another important part of the Northern Ireland protocol is article 3, which says:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure that the Common Travel Area and the rights and privileges associated therewith can continue to apply…in particular with respect to free movement to, from and within”—

the island of Ireland—

“for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality.”

Does the Secretary of State recognise the potential economic and political strain that the introduction of an electronic travel authorisation system could put on freedom of movement across the border? What engagement does he plan to have with the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic and their partners in the EU in respect of how to make sure such frictions do not take effect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that throughout the pandemic we have made sure we have kept the common travel area flowing and open. That has not necessarily been the case on the part of the Irish Government at certain points, but we have done that; we think it is important and we will continue to do that. I am looking to have further talks with the Irish Government. My officials have been talking to them about all these issues this week and last week, and I will continue to do that myself as well.

Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Next month marks 75 years since the young Princess Elizabeth made her famous pledge:

“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”.

My Department is working closely with colleagues across Government, and we will play our full part in celebrating the achievement of Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her platinum jubilee. It will be the nation’s opportunity to recognise all that she has given to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, to express to her all she means to us, and to say to her with gratitude and in unity: long may she reign over us—God save the Queen.

I very much associate myself with the Minister’s remarks. I know the celebration of the platinum jubilee will be a cross-Government effort, but will he assure me that he is working with the devolved Administrations to ensure it is an entire-UK event, with all parts of the United Kingdom joining together to celebrate this momentous occasion?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is an occasion that should unite the whole of the United Kingdom—all regions and all nations of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working closely with local authorities and the Government in Northern Ireland to make sure that this is something that brings communities together. We will want to remember some of the 25 occasions that the Queen has visited Northern Ireland: three of them as Princess Elizabeth and 22 of them as Queen. We want to involve young people and we want to use the opportunity of the jubilee to celebrate the best of Northern Ireland.

I recently was proud to join colleagues from across the House in setting up the all-party group for the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the celebration extends across the United Kingdom and that it is used to showcase the benefits of our UK, with Northern Ireland as an integral part of it?

This occasion should bring us all together. In that light and specifically with reference to Northern Ireland, I would like to welcome the comments of the Leader of Sinn Fein who said that she wanted to

“extend to the British Queen a word of congratulations because 70 years is quite some achievement.”

She said:

“That is what you call a lifetime of service.”

Those comments have made it easier for us in Northern Ireland to celebrate this in all communities across the whole of Northern Ireland.

The platinum jubilee presents a great opportunity to celebrate and reaffirm the place of all parts of our United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland, which, this year, has celebrated its centenary year. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the celebrations will include UK-wide events, including in Northern Ireland, to celebrate all 70 years of Her Majesty’s service? Will he also encourage all primary school-aged children in North West Durham to take part in my competition to design a platinum jubilee card for Her Majesty?

The example that my hon. Friend gives of the competition that he is running in his own constituency will, I am sure, be replicated across the House. I can give him the assurance that Northern Ireland will participate in all of the national events around the jubilee: the platinum pudding competition; the big jubilee lunch. This is a great celebration for us all to enjoy in a spirit of unity.

The Minister was right to reflect on the comments from the Leader of Sinn Fein. They are rare and he will know that, in Northern Ireland, there still pervades a lack of generosity about the huge commitment and dignity that Her Majesty has shown our United Kingdom. He will also know that there is a stark contrast between the Northern Ireland Office’s position on celebrating the centenary last year, with the construction of a forum and the allocation of funds, and the tame approach when it comes to the platinum jubilee. Will the Minister outline whether he will dedicate significant resource, so that we can celebrate this historic achievement in style?

I do not totally agree with the characterisation of the hon. Gentleman around the centenary programme that the Northern Ireland Office ran. I thought that it was bold, that it was inclusive and that it recognised the unique circumstances—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman said that he welcomed it. Sorry, I misheard him. Mr Speaker, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I am so used to criticism from the Democratic Unionist party that that rare outbreak of consensus passed me by. I can give him my total assurance that we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be coming forward with some very innovative ideas about how we will mark it, especially in Northern Ireland.

Promoting Trade and Investment

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) that it is particularly good to see him in his place today?

I recently attended the Northern Ireland Day at the Dubai Expo, where I met many Northern Irish businesses already exporting globally, including White’s Oats, Kiverco and Greenfields. We also had the opportunity to meet with two sovereign wealth funds, which, I am pleased to report to the House, have accepted our invitation to come to Northern Ireland and look at the opportunities to invest in Northern Ireland as part of their programme of investing in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Thanks to our exit from the European Union, the United Kingdom is able to strike trade deals around the world without being constrained by the bureaucrats in Brussels. Can he assure me that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Trade to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland which export their products are given full and due consideration in all trade deal negotiations?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as a former Minister of State for Trade Policy, I bring that worldview to my role as Minister of State in Northern Ireland. The short answer to his question is yes; I am delighted that we have now opened a new Department for International Trade hub in the heart of Belfast. I recently met the Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons at the Northern Ireland Showcase and we introduced him to the President of the Board of Trade before Christmas. We have put £8 million into Invest NI to help it to promote Northern Ireland abroad. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom’s offer to the world and will benefit fully from our international trade agreements.

While it is obviously important to bring investment into Northern Ireland, my constituents in Derry are struggling right now with soaring energy bills. A mile across the border, the Irish Government are cutting vehicle excise duty by up to 20% for petrol and diesel. This Government are very keen and very quick to raise national insurance contributions and to cut universal credit. Will they be quick to cut vehicle excise duty to save people from the soaring costs that are crippling home budgets?

On 3 February this year the Government announced that the Northern Ireland Executive will receive an additional £250 million to help them to support households with the cost of living. He mentions tax changes, but it would be imprudent of me as a junior Minister to comment ahead of the Chancellor’s making statements to the House.

It was a real pity that we could not land the return of the world rally championship to Belfast in 2022. Can the Minister please confirm that we will pull out all the stops for 2023?

I can. We did extensive work with the Department for the Economy and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was heavily involved in lobbying on that. We think it would be a great thing to bring to Northern Ireland and we are determined to build on the work we have already done to see whether that is possible next year.

Last week, I was in Northern Ireland with members of the UK Trade and Business Commission, where we heard from a major supermarket about the impact that the protocol could have in future if the grace periods no longer exist. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) earlier, when he suggested an SPS agreement as a way forward. Can we be clear that the Government are seeking an SPS agreement with the EU that differentiates the goods that are at risk of going into the EU, and those that are not?

I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in high regard, that I was delighted that he was in Northern Ireland to hear first-hand some of the challenges Northern Ireland is facing. What we are seeking, as the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have all made very clear, is to take the protocol back in its application to how it was intended. It says in the protocol that,

“the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in…Northern Ireland”.

It also refers to,

“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”.

The disruption that the implementation of the protocol is having in Northern Ireland is not sustainable. That is why the Government are committed to finding a negotiated solution.

On inward investment, the realisation of the redevelopment of Casement Park, a third sporting stadium in Belfast, would give Northern Ireland the opportunity to host sporting events on an international stage and bring communities together. What input or influence, if any, have the Secretary of State and his Minister on that? Could the £1.2 billion that the Northern Ireland Executive have returned to the Treasury since 2016 be used to realise such projects for Northern Ireland?

I welcome the comments from the Labour Front Bench. We look at a whole range of opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland, to give it the opportunity to attract inward investment and to host international events. That will be a core part of what we are able to do through levelling up, and it is a key thing that the Secretary of State and I have been driving through our city and growth deals to help Northern Ireland and communities in Northern Ireland to attract investment that creates jobs and prosperity, which is the best way to underpin peace.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022

7. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 on political stability in Northern Ireland. (905879)

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 was specifically designed to improve the sustainability of the Northern Ireland institutions. The benefits include allowing more time and space for the formation of an Executive following an election or the resignation of the First or Deputy First Minister.

I was pleased to serve on the Bill Committee for that legislation, and it is now clear that it was timely, given the recent resignations of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is emphasising to Northern Ireland’s political parties that they all need to play their part and work together to achieve stable devolved Government?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is absolutely right. I continue to speak to a range of stakeholders, including the party leaders in Northern Ireland, about the importance of having a strong, functioning Northern Ireland Executive. A couple of them are in the Chamber now, and I have expressed to them my desire to have a First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated now and after the May elections.

The Government have been clear that they want to legislate for the language and culture package of New Decade, New Approach before the Assembly rises for the elections, which is only two weeks away. Is that pledge going to happen in the next two weeks?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our promise, as is the Prime Minister, as we set out last summer, and indeed that we deliver on all our commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal, which brought Stormont back.

Before we 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 parliamentlive.tv.