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Cost of Living Increases

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

5. What steps the Government are taking to help tackle increases in the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (901356)

6. What steps the Government are taking to help tackle increases in the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (901357)

14. What steps the Government are taking to help tackle increases in the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (901365)

The Government have taken decisive action to help tackle increases in the cost of living across the entirety of the United Kingdom, including support for the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland, who will receive up to £1,000, including a one-off £650 cost of living payment. Yesterday, our new Prime Minister, whom we warmly welcome to office, made it clear that the Government will announce further action later this week.

The Conservatives’ low-pay agenda means that public sector pay awards are insufficient, and are pushing millions of people into poverty. Health and local authority workers in Northern Ireland are balloting over poor pay awards, as is happening in Wales. Will this new Conservative Government end their predecessors’ low-pay agenda and provide the two nations with the required funding to provide an inflation-proof pay rise, which people need and deserve?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I preface my answer by saying that I welcome the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my friend, to his position. I know that he will engage constructively with everyone and with all political parties in Northern Ireland.

I was discussing the matters that the hon. Lady raised with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Jayne Brady, at the weekend. Northern Ireland has received the largest block grant since devolution in 1998, and as my right hon. Friend the new Prime Minister has made clear, we stand ready to make further announcements later this week. However, we also continue to urge the parties in Northern Ireland to get a reformed, devolved Executive up and running in Northern Ireland so that the people who elect politicians in Northern Ireland can hold them accountable for the decisions that impact their lives.

A quarter of all children in Northern Ireland are living in significant poverty—the same proportion as in my constituency in York—but that is about to get worse. It is an indictment of this Government that they have failed to protect children from the cost of living crisis and have failed to invest in their future. What fiscal steps is the Minister calling for from the new Chancellor so that every child can have a warm meal in their stomach each day and a warm home to live in?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the extent of the challenge, but as she is incredibly fair-minded I know that she will acknowledge that Northern Ireland has significant challenges that go back many generations. If, for example, we could get Northern Ireland to the average UK level of productivity, it would be worth some £16 billion to the Exchequer. If we could get the level of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland to the UK average, there would be an extra 50,000 people in work in Northern Ireland. That is the scale of the challenge that will face all Governments as they try to improve the opportunities for all communities across Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is poorer, it is less well, it is more dependent on public sector pay and it is going to be hit much harder by the cost of living crisis, so why do the UK Government not spend the £400 million that has been allocated but is not being spent because Stormont is not sitting directly on the people who need it most, rather than being preoccupied with cutting Northern Ireland off from the single market, which will make things even worse?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the scale of the challenge. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, came to Northern Ireland to meet the Communities Minister and the Economy Minister to seek ways that the UK Government could get help directly to people who need it so desperately in Northern Ireland. We are absolutely clear—the whole House will understand this, and my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State made it clear earlier—that the protocol is a negotiation between the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union. We have committed publicly and straightforwardly to fixing the challenges of the interpretation and implementation of the protocol, and we believe that while we crack on with that, the parties should crack on with reforming devolved government in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will know that the cost of living will continue to be exacerbated by the absence of Stormont and a functioning Executive. Protocol issues are being prayed in aid as an inhibitor to the restoration of Stormont. He has worked his socks off over the summer to try to bring things to a helpful and meaningful conclusion. Is he in a position to update the House on the progress he has made?

The Chairman of the Select Committee asks about an incredibly important point. Getting a restored devolved Government in Northern Ireland will help enormously in delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. We absolutely acknowledge that the protocol—its interpretation and application—is the impediment to the Democratic Unionist party going back into government, and we will fix that.

My hon. Friend is correct that I have spent a very busy period over the summer engaging with the Irish and elsewhere. I would like to place on record in the House today my thanks to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the former Prime Minister, Sir Tony Blair, for their assistance in the work that I have done over the summer. This weekend at the British-Irish Association in Oxford, I had constructive and prolonged talks with Vice-President Šefčovič, and I am convinced that if the appetite exists, we can find a way to a negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland protocol in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and all the people of the United Kingdom—and in the interest of finding a new way of working in partnership with the European Union post Brexit.

I welcome the new Secretary of State. I hope he has had time to savour those moments of ecstatic relief upon realising, as a former Chief Whip, that he no longer has responsibility for the Tory parliamentary party.

Northern Ireland has unique energy needs: a reliance on heating oil, different regulation, a preponderance of small businesses and very low disposable incomes. Will the Minister confirm that in tomorrow’s energy announcement, Northern Ireland will hear not only what will happen to it but when payments will start to be made?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question and I say to him that he is held in deep affection across Northern Ireland. He is right to identify Northern Ireland’s unique energy challenges, which I have seen and heard about myself on visits in recent weeks. I know that the new Prime Minister will be hearing those messages too and will want to update the House as soon as possible.

Let me use this occasion to pay tribute to the wonderful visits team in Northern Ireland, whom my right hon. Friend will remember—Nadine, Kathryn, Nicola, Helena and George. They have supported me so brilliantly on the 277 visits that I have carried out over the last 12 months as Minister of State, 107 of them to businesses.

Yesterday, the Resolution Foundation told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that there had been a disgraceful lack of discussion about the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland. Ofgem does not exist there, so there is no price cap on energy; 68% of homes are fuelled by oil, so costs went up in February; and a non-functioning Executive means that there is no £400 support payment. Can the Minister tell us why the Government have allowed the people of Northern Ireland to suffer for longer, and how he intends to right that wrong?

I have to say that that would have been an absolutely brilliant question, if the hon. Lady had not listened to any of the answers we have given so far. I have pointed out that the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, was there talking to the Economy and Communities Ministers. We are working with every effort to try to get help directly to the people of Northern Ireland.

I have explained what we are doing in terms of the underlying economic challenges in Northern Ireland. I have not pointed out that, in addition to all that, we have made the largest block grant since devolution with £400 million on the new deal, £617 million on city deals, £730 million on Peace Plus and £2 billion through the New Decade, New Approach commitment negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). The Government are doing everything they can to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, as they are for people across the entire United Kingdom.