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Northern Ireland

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shared Prosperity Fund

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the shared prosperity fund on Northern Ireland. (906577)

May I first wish the hon. Lady a very happy birthday? Do not worry—I can assure the House that I will not be singing.

The shared prosperity fund is a central pillar of the Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda and will deliver for communities across Northern Ireland. The fund will inject around £127 million into Northern Ireland over the next three years to support communities, boost local business, and invest in people and skills. We will be working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and other key stakeholders to develop a plan that reflects the needs of Northern Ireland’s economy and society.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words.

According to the latest Asda Cebr income tracker, Northern Ireland has seen the largest relative fall in discretionary income, amounting to a huge drop of 13.3%. Living standards in Northern Ireland are under the most pressure in the UK, thanks to the Tory cost of living crisis, made in Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that short-changing Northern Ireland with the shared prosperity fund, as in Wales, will only make things worse?

Actually, we are boosting our investment in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady looks back over the past couple of years, to the previous spending review and the current one, she will see that we have just put in the largest block grant budget for Northern Ireland since devolution began in 1998, and that is aside from the extra investment we are making through the community renewal fund and the new deal, with £400 million for a range of infrastructure projects. We are making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades, and I am proud of that. But she is right that we need to see productivity and employment continue to grow in Northern Ireland, as they have over the past few months, so that we have a prosperous Northern Ireland that can build on the benefits of the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland Finance Minister has said that the shared prosperity money for Northern Ireland is £90 million short of what was provided by the EU. The Conservative manifesto promised that the shared prosperity fund would “at a minimum match” the size of the EU structural funding it replaced. When can we expect the shortfall to be made up?

It is worth the hon. Gentleman’s while having a clear look at all the figures going into Northern Ireland, because he is not making a like-for-like comparison. At the spending review we announced that the funding for the UK SPF will ramp up over the years, so that we get to a point where it will at least match the receipts of the EU structural funds. The EU regional development fund and the European social fund, on average, reaching about £1.5 billion a year—

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard later, because I answered that question about 30 seconds ago.

But is the Secretary of State aware that in the first round of levelling-up funding, Wales applied for and received almost 50% more than was first allocated, and for Scotland the figure was 10%, yet Northern Ireland got 3% less? Will he assure us today that the same will not happen with the shared prosperity fund, and that levelling up for Northern Ireland means more than just being hit by the same tax rises that are being inflicted on the rest of the UK by this Tory Government?

Again, the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the figures in the round and realise that, as I have said, we have been making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades—indeed, he may want to apologise for the previous Labour Government’s lack of funding for Northern Ireland. We now have the biggest sum of funding since devolution began in 1998. I saw for myself just this week the benefits that the levelling-up programme and the community renewal funding are making to community projects and businesses in Northern Ireland. That builds on the £2 billion from New Decade, New Approach and the £400 million new deal money, which will boost Northern Ireland. We will continue to do that to see Northern Ireland prosper in future.

The Secretary of State will know that there is £300 million in a bank account in Stormont that cannot be spent because the Democratic Unionist party walked out of the Executive. He will also know that there are families in Northern Ireland who cannot heat their homes or feed their children. If the Executive cannot meet after the election, will he commit to working with me to get that money into people’s pockets as soon as possible?

I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman —it does not happen all that often at the Dispatch Box—because I want to see that money being spent for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland, but I disagree with his analysis of why it is not being spent. That is money from last year’s budget, and for a couple of years running now the current Department of Finance in Northern Ireland has consistently underspent. The Executive needs to find ways of ensuring that the money is properly spent.

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has also identified a real issue with the Northern Ireland protocol, because the UK has put substantial extra money into the pockets of people across the UK through VAT and fuel duty cuts, but we cannot do some of that directly in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. We have therefore made that money available to the Executive and I want to see it get to the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Protocol

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (906578)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol on businesses in Northern Ireland.

I meet Cabinet colleagues regularly to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol does not command the confidence of a significant part of Northern Ireland’s population. This is about making sure that we get the balance right, and deliver on the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. That agreement must have primacy, which we have been clear about on many occasions in this House. This is more than an issue of trade; it is about peace and stability, identity and the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. (906590)

On trade, I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the latest round of UK-US trade talks yesterday, and the progress on the US policy, and joint policy, of worker-centred trade deals. When we were in Washington last month, it was made absolutely clear to us in Congress that this would be derailed by what many there would see as the undermining of peace on the island of Ireland. They included in that not only the Good Friday agreement, but the Northern Ireland protocol. Is the right hon. Gentleman really going to put at risk a trade deal with the world’s biggest economy?

Obviously, the focus of the UK Government’s work is to get trade deals that work for the United Kingdom as a whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland wants to and should be able to benefit from those trade deals. We have also got to make sure—this should always be our prime focus—in a shared way with our friends in the US, who have a strong interest in the Good Friday agreement, and strong involvement in it and support for it, the primacy and delivery of the Good Friday agreement. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Good Friday agreement has three strands, and east-west is one of them.

The cost of shipping from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is up 27%. Nine out of 10 traders in Northern Ireland are reported to face difficulties with six out of 10 forced to re-route goods because of the protocol. The European Union’s interpretation of the protocol is damaging business now, it is undermining the Good Friday agreement now and it is threatening Northern Ireland’s rightful full place as part of our United Kingdom now, so does my right hon. Friend agree that the time to fix it is right now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important and accurate point. The protocol and its implementation are having a profound impact, and change is needed urgently to resolve the issues that affect businesses, consumers and communities. I remind the House that this is the consistent position of the UK Government going back to March 2019, when the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the importance of the Good Friday agreement. The Attorney General himself outlined that the Good Friday agreement will always have primacy for the UK Government. It is right that we deliver on that, and we will do.

After five months since the Government renewed negotiations with the European Union on the protocol, we have no visible progress, have we? Instead, we have a series of op-eds aimlessly threatening article 16. Now, bizarrely, the Prime Minister confirms on a visit to India that he is ready to tear apart his own deal, while expecting the Indian Government to trust him with a new one. Will the Government get a grip on treating negotiations with the respect they deserve, and use something called statecraft, and diligence, to find a settlement with the European Union?

I have got used to listening to those on the Opposition Front Bench defending the European Union against the people of the UK on a regular basis, but that was quite something. The reality is that the EU’s protocol implementation —and we are not seeing in the negotiations the flexibility from the EU that we need to see to find a resolution—is detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. I would respectfully say to the hon. Lady that she should think about standing up for the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the UK. That is what we will do to defend and protect the Good Friday agreement and resolve these issues.

In those discussions with Cabinet colleagues, will my right hon. Friend commit to pointing out that there would be a terrible hypocrisy if, having pointed out to Russia and her allies the importance of abiding by an international rules-based system, we were then to countenance breaking our internationally agreed obligations?

Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union or the Attorney General in March 2019. The Secretary of State pointed out that if

“the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions”—[Official Report, 12 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 289]

the UK could seek agreement to end the provisions, which would be, for obvious reasons, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday agreement.

Another week, another rattle of the sabre by threatening to deploy article 16. I wonder who the Secretary of State imagines is impressed by such behaviour, apart from a number of hardliners in a Conservative and Unionist party that seems increasingly incapable of conserving or unifying anything, least of all itself.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to have a closer look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the sense that there is a view across all parties that we need to resolve the issues in the protocol. Some parties have stronger views than others about what those issues are. Nobody in the Unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have consent across the communities. We no longer have a First or Deputy First Minister, and we no longer have a North South Ministerial Council. That is the Good Friday agreement under threat. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman stands for, but I stand for defending the Good Friday agreement and defending the United Kingdom, its people and its residents. We will do that.

In trying to find an alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol that has cross-community support, what note has the Secretary of State taken of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report of March 2019? The report made it very clear that there are acceptable technological, technical and procedural ways of dealing with the border that do not involve onerous checks of the sort that we see now.

My right hon. Friend correctly points out that there are now technical solutions. We have tried to talk to the EU about them, and we want the EU to show flexibility and recognise that there are solutions that can work today to deliver what is required in a way that works in Northern Ireland and protects the single market. We understand and respect the EU’s desire to protect their single market. For us, it is about the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland.

If we are going to use the situation in Ukraine as an example, does the Secretary of State agree that the last piece of advice we would ever give to a sovereign nation such as Ukraine is to cede control of part of its territory to a foreign entity? And yet those who advocate the protocol advocate precisely that—that a large degree of the laws and regulations in Northern Ireland should be imposed by the European Union, and that I and my colleagues should have no say whatsoever in how they are drawn up. The Secretary of State and the Government last year published a Command Paper, indicating steps that they would take to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. When will the Government take those steps?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, not least because in the vision outlined in its opening pages, the protocol makes it clear that we will not disrupt the everyday lives of people and their communities, and that we will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom and all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Those are the effective vision statements that we are determined to deliver on. As I said, we will keep everything on the table. We want to get a resolution, by agreement with the EU, that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. If we cannot do that, we will need to take action to ensure we deliver on the peace and prosperity of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government are a co-guarantor of the Belfast agreement. The Secretary of State will know that since the introduction of the protocol, the North South Ministerial Council is no longer functioning, and we do not have a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly is limited in what it can do, and the east-west relationship is at its weakest point since probably 1998. The Government therefore need to send out a clear message to Washington and others that the protocol is incompatible with the aim of maintaining Northern Ireland’s political stability and political institutions, because it changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, and that is not acceptable.

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. We find ourselves in a ridiculous situation where the EU’s position on implementing the protocol means that the very document that was designed to help to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the thing that is putting it most at risk. We recognise that, and we are very clear that that needs to be resolved.

As I say, we take nothing off the table. We want to get an agreement with the EU, and we want them to recognise the challenges that this is creating for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. We are clear that we need to, and we will, resolve this issue. If we cannot do so by agreement, we will have to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom and, obviously, the people of Northern Ireland.

Levelling Up White Paper

3. What assessment he has made of the impact of the “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” White Paper on communities in Northern Ireland. (906579)

The “Levelling Up” White Paper sets out clearly and compellingly the Government’s mission to spread prosperity and opportunity to every part of our United Kingdom. Alongside the £617 million in city and growth deal funding, the levelling up, community renewal and community ownership funds have invested £62 million to date in the people and places most in need in Northern Ireland as a demonstration of our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing 11 successful levelling up fund applications? Does he agree that the levelling-up agenda, together with the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and some of the other funds that he mentioned, is an excellent example of how the might of the UK economy can be shared throughout every nation of the UK?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The levelling-up fund and our commitment to Northern Ireland are unshakeable. The levelling-up fund is yet another demonstration of why Northern Ireland’s place is integrally as part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward this afternoon to joining the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), at the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs to hear him explain the vision for the next phase of levelling up in Northern Ireland.

Women's Services

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906580)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906587)

Women in Northern Ireland cannot currently access the same basic healthcare support that is available in the rest of the UK. This is unacceptable. I have committed to return to Parliament directly following the Assembly elections in May and, if necessary, we will make regulations to ensure that services are commissioned.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that he will act on abortion services in Northern Ireland after the elections in May, but does he understand that it is hard for women to take his word at face value after so many missed deadlines on this important issue, which will have had real health impacts? Will he please put on record that he intends to lay the regulations that he has prepared before Parliament within a month of the Queen’s Speech?

I recognise the hon. Lady’s support for this policy and for women in Northern Ireland. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland must make the services available to women and girls. If it does not, as I have said, I made a commitment to the House on 24 March via a written ministerial statement that I will make regulations to resolve this unacceptable situation that must be fixed for the people and the ladies of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurances that he will act if necessary after the Queen’s Speech and the elections in Northern Ireland. Does he have a date in mind when women in Northern Ireland will be able to access this essential reproductive healthcare service? When will they actually be able to get the service that this House voted for over two years ago?

I am sure that the right hon. Lady recognises that this has primarily been an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver on. I have been clear: they have not done that, that is not good enough and we need to resolve that issue. We are already recruiting the team from my Department to put the commissioning in place. I will return to the House soon after the May elections if that has not been progressed by the Department of Health to lay the regulations to ensure that these services are provided.

Northern Ireland Legacy Matters

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on his legislative proposals on Northern Ireland legacy matters. [R] (906582)

The Government’s core and shared objectives in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past are to implement an effective investigation and information recovery process that will provide answers for families, deliver on our commitments to those who served in Northern Ireland and help society move forward.

Consensus is historically difficult to achieve in Northern Ireland but when it comes to dealing with the past I am sure that we can all agree that the current process is failing those who have suffered, so we need a new way of delivering justice, and soon. Does the Secretary of State agree that his Bill or any proposals he brings forward must not in any way weaken or undermine our commitment to international law?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate his support on a point that I have made consistently: the current system is failing everybody. That is why we need to bring forward proposals that work for the people of Northern Ireland, for the victims as well as those who served so admirably in Northern Ireland to protect life and country. I can assure him that we are absolutely determined that this will be article 2-compliant. It has to be for it to be effective for everybody.

The sacrifice made by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, GC, is one that I and many across Northern Ireland will never forget. Over 300 officers were killed and 9,000 injured at the hands, mainly, of the IRA. A recent report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland laden with innuendo has caused great hurt among former RUC officers and families who lost loved ones. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the service and sacrifice of the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment and all those who donned a uniform are not besmirched under the auspices of addressing the legacy of the past?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. There are so many people—hundreds of thousands—across the RUC and the armed forces who put their own lives at risk to protect others, and there is a huge difference between those who went out every day to protect life and those who went out determined to destroy lives. There can never be a moral equivalence; we would never accept one. She is absolutely right.

Platinum Jubilee

The Northern Ireland Office is working collaboratively with partners on a range of proposals to celebrate Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. I am pleased to tell the House that next week we will unveil a jubilee hamper, bringing together the very best of Northern Ireland’s food and drink produce, which we will be presenting to Windsor Castle, Clarence House and Kensington Palace. We want the jubilee in Northern Ireland to bring communities together and celebrate the amazing personal achievement of Her Majesty the Queen.

My right hon. Friend has touched on the deep respect and admiration that everyone across the United Kingdom has for Her Majesty the Queen—something that we see in Northern Ireland and that I see in Wales, particularly in my constituency of Clwyd South. Does he agree that that is amply demonstrated not only by the plans that he will outline but by the many street parties and local events being planned by communities large and small across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this will be an event and a weekend that brings all citizens of our United Kingdom together in celebration as we collectively salute the service of Her Majesty the Queen.

We should never forget, of course, that Her Majesty the Queen was among thousands who lost close family members during the troubles and that, by her actions, she has supported the efforts towards peace and reconciliation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee is a fantastic opportunity for communities across Northern Ireland to come together not only to mark this important milestone but to recognise how much progress has been made towards peace and prosperity during her reign?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Northern Ireland we are determined that the celebration of this historic event will bring communities together. I have acknowledged previously in this House the words of the leader of Sinn Féin, who extended her congratulations to Her Majesty, saying that

“70 years is quite some achievement.”

This jubilee can be celebrated across communities and in every part of our United Kingdom, and we are determined that it will be.

The Minister will recall that at Northern Ireland questions six weeks ago, he said that

“we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration,”

and that he and the Secretary of State would be

“coming forward with some very innovative ideas”.—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 311.]

So far we have a hamper and the potential for an annual garden party. I do not want our celebrations to be lacklustre; I want the NIO to bring a level of sparkle and joy to the platinum jubilee celebrations. Is there more to the plans the Minister will unveil next week?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, and the whole of the Northern Ireland Office, will be sparkling throughout the jubilee celebrations. We will be unveiling very shortly another very exciting proposal—a competition in Northern Ireland’s schools for something to be presented to Her Majesty on behalf of the young people of Northern Ireland. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not be disappointed, and I say that knowing that that is a very high bar to cross with the Democratic Unionist party.

Nationality and Borders Bill: Implementation

7. What recent discussions he has had with the (a) Northern Ireland Executive and (b) Irish Government on plans for implementing the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill. (906584)

The Government continue our close co-operation with both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on immigration matters, including on the Nationality and Borders Bill. We will continue to work, as we always do, to ensure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will grant UK Ministers draconian powers to strip UK citizens of their citizenship so long as they can claim citizenship in another country. As most Northern Irish people can claim Irish citizenship, Northern Ireland’s people are threatened in a way no other people in the UK are; they could be stripped of their citizenship without warning or notice. How can the Secretary of State justify that?

I thought the hon. Lady was going to outline all the excellent work that the SNP will do in Scotland to start finally taking part in the asylum scheme. At the moment, only one council in Scotland is doing that. Regarding the Nationality and Borders Bill, we will continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement and respect all its parts, including people’s right to be Northern Irish, Irish, or Northern Irish and British—something we have always done and will continue to do.

That is the end of Northern Ireland questions. 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