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Benefits of the Union

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

2. What recent assessment he has made of the benefits of the Union for people in Northern Ireland. (902054)

We believe that the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union in history, and the Government are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland may flourish and prosper as an integral part of it. That is why we are continuing to work tirelessly for Northern Ireland’s people to restore the Executive, support the roll-out of our energy support package and unleash the full potential of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

I am sure that the Minister’s assessment will have shown that one of the key benefits of the Union for the people of Northern Ireland is the ability to trade with the rest of the UK. Therefore, what progress is he making in fixing the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, which may hinder that ability?

The Government are engaging in constructive dialogue with the European Union to find solutions to the problems that the protocol is causing. We are also proceeding with the legislation before the House, which aims to fix the problems in the event that we cannot reach a negotiated solution. Of course, it is the Government’s preference to reach a negotiated outcome.

The Social Democratic and Labour party seeks to build a new Ireland by persuasion and consent and with the endorsement of the widest possible number of people in Northern Ireland, but the rational mechanism for constitutional change is set out in the 1998 agreement, in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and in accepted democratic norms. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have no intention of unpicking the principle of consent?

Absolutely. The Government are fully committed to the principle of consent and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Indeed, our actions are all guided by that full commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and its protection.

Everyone in the United Kingdom was supposed to get the same support this winter, but two thirds of homes in Northern Ireland are heated by heating oil. So that those families can plan ahead, can the Secretary of State or the Minister tell us precisely when they will get their support?

We look forward to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy making a statement, but I will just take this opportunity to put on record that households in Northern Ireland will benefit from: the energy price guarantee, reducing the per unit cost of electricity and gas, which is in place from November and backdated to October; the energy bill support scheme, a £400 payment to all households; the alternative fuel payment, a £100 payment to households not using gas in Northern Ireland; and, of course, the energy bill relief scheme. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that people are anxious and I regret that today I cannot give an exact date, but we look forward to BEIS making a statement.

I hope the Minister will encourage his colleagues in BEIS, because it is already winter. Some 60% of homes are being heated by heating oil and they need that support right now. In Britain, heating oil bills have risen from £615 to £1,500, but in Northern Ireland they have risen from £820 to a staggering £1,900. Does he think it is fair that both are getting the same £100 payment?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have taken that up with our counterparts in BEIS. We do so frequently and intensively. My right hon. Friend has just said to me that he met the energy Minister on Thursday. We will continue to press colleagues in BEIS. They are fully aware of the situation and the imperatives, and I think a full answer on the justification for the £100 would meet with Mr Speaker’s disapproval at this moment.

The Minister rightly said that the Union is both a political and an economic union. In the High Court and the Court of Appeal, in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol and its application, the Government’s lawyers argued that the protocol superseded article 6 of the Act of Union itself—the Union with Ireland Act 1800—which is the basis for the economic union. Will the Government and the Minister assure us that, in any negotiations with the European Union, they will strive to restore our full rights under article 6 of the Act of Union and our place in the UK internal market?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to commit that, yes, the Government are determined to restore the constitutional position of Northern Ireland fully within the United Kingdom. That is our intention. I cannot get into the niceties of the legal arguments that were made, but, if I may so, as I understand it, I think they are broadly technical.

Can I also refer to the comments made by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), and raise the energy support scheme and the £400 that is to be allocated to the electricity accounts of domestic households and non-domestic users—businesses and so on—in Northern Ireland? I have spoken with the Secretary of State for BEIS to urge that the payment is brought forward in good time. Will the Minister assure me that he will continue his efforts with us to ensure that the £400 payment is made to the people of Northern Ireland as soon as possible?

We certainly will continue those efforts together. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman meeting the Business Secretary. I hope he will not mind my saying, though—I understand the reasons he is not in the Executive and that is why we wish to press forward on the protocol—that matters would be somewhat easier if a functioning Executive were in place.