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Northern Ireland

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—


Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing, one of the most horrific losses of life during the troubles. Our thoughts are with the families who lost loved ones that day and others who are immediately affected by what took place. I will be in Enniskillen this Sunday to pay my respects.

My Department and I hold regular conversations with Cabinet colleagues and Departments—including the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, whose Minister I met with yesterday, and the Ministry of Defence—to ensure that veterans can access support, no matter where they live in the United Kingdom.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill will provide certainty to those who served in Northern Ireland by ending the cycle of reinvestigations that has burdened too many for too long?

The Bill, which is continuing its parliamentary passage, seeks to deliver better outcomes for all those affected by the troubles. We have consulted widely on this crucial issue, and much of what we have heard is reflected in the legislation. I obviously concur with my hon. Friend’s view.

I spoke to the Secretary of State beforehand, so he will know about this question. Is the Secretary of State aware of the disgraceful treatment of Royal Ulster Constabulary veterans in the form of the disablement pension, which is being administered contrary to legal judgments in place? Will he make contact with the Department of Justice’s permanent secretary to rectify this despicable situation immediately? People have been waiting for 20 or 30 years for this and it is not sorted out yet.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which he raised with me just a few moments ago. I would appreciate it if he would write to me about the subject so that I can take it up further, as he requested.

Benefits of the Union

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.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the progress of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. (902055)

The Government are united around our shared objective of addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past in a way that delivers for those directly impacted by the troubles and helps society in Northern Ireland to move forward. As the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill continues its parliamentary passage, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and I will continue to work closely with colleagues across Government and across the House to ensure that the legislation is effective and durable.

It was good to see that the Secretary of State visited the WAVE trauma centre; I know that will have focused his mind on the perspective of victims. This is a very complex and difficult piece of legislation to get right, but he will know that, as drafted, the Bill does not have the support of any of the parties in Northern Ireland. Given that we now have a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State, does he see an opportunity to progress the Bill in a way that will bring people with the Government?

The answer is, basically, yes. The Government understand how important addressing the legacy of the past is for Northern Ireland. We recognise that the Bill is difficult for many, and we continue to engage with stakeholders such as WAVE and across the piece regarding their concerns and how we can address them as the Bill proceeds through Parliament. I hope that the hon. Member recognises, though, that there is no perfect solution to this issue. We are committed to a way forward that deals with Northern Ireland’s troubled past as comprehensively and fairly as we possibly can.

When might we see the legacy Bill back in this place, and will there be a necessary review of moral equivalence and terminology?

The Government are clear that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland and those on all sides who sought to destroy it. The legislation seeks to deliver better outcomes for all those most affected by the troubles. It is important to remember that that includes the families of service personnel, more than 1,000 of whom were killed during the troubles. The Government will continue to engage with those most directly impacted by the legislation about their concerns and how these might be addressed. The Second Reading of the legacy Bill in the House of Lords will take place in a couple of weeks’ time.

Has the Secretary of State accepted the cold, hard fact that to have any legitimacy the final outcome of the legacy Bill needs the support of innocent victims and relatives of those murdered by terrorists, just as in the wider political realm any outcome of the protocol talks needs support across the community or it, too, will be doomed to failure?

Yes, I absolutely understand that point. Everything that we have been doing since I became Secretary of State is about trying to engage and consult more with those who had issues with the legacy Bill. It is never going to be a perfect solution to this particular problem, because no perfect solution exists. However, we will do our best to address all the concerns that people raise with us.

The Bill is welcome and, obviously, complex. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will see it through to the end, and will he confirm that this legislative proposal is very much the last-chance saloon? These are very complex, historical issues and this is the one chance that we have to try to resolve them. However, in the spirit of trying to build compromise and consensus, will he and the Government keep an open mind about cross-party amendments in the other place?

I am quite sure that the Bill is the last legislative vehicle with which any Government will try to address this problem, so it is very important, and it is incumbent on me as Secretary of State, to ensure that we use all the time that we have to improve the Bill, in such a way as my hon. Friend suggests. And yes—I am listening to all parties and all the consultees we talk to, and I am going out to visit victims and victims’ groups in Northern Ireland to try to gauge better what sort of amendments will improve the Bill.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has declared that the Bill is unlikely to be found compatible with convention rights. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has called it “fatally flawed”. Does the Secretary of State dispute that, or will he make changes to it?

NHS Waiting Times

4. What recent assessment he has made with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland of the adequacy of resources for tackling NHS waiting times in Northern Ireland. (902056)

10. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland on tackling NHS waiting times in Northern Ireland. (902062)

We are acutely aware of the pressures facing the health service in Northern Ireland. A fully functioning devolved Government is the only way to deliver the necessary reforms to transform healthcare. We have made that point repeatedly to party leaders.

Around one in four people in Northern Ireland are on an NHS waiting list and the role of staff is vital. I understand that the outgoing Health Minister in Northern Ireland wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to implement the summer pay award, as Stormont cannot. Will he take that forward?

The hon. Lady will know that we are deeply concerned about the state of the Northern Ireland Executive’s finances and that officials are working urgently with the Northern Ireland civil service to take things forward. Of course we will keep matters under review, but as health is a devolved matter, I have to say that the best way forward would be the restoration of the Executive.

Two years ago, the Health Minister Robin Swann, who did such a good job, averted industrial action by ensuring comparability between pay for nurses in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales. The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council says that the budget for health will be 2% lower next year than this year. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be money to pay the nurses, without whom there will be no impact on the dreadful waiting lists?

The recommendations of the independent review bodies, which have responsibility for determining pay for health workers, were published in July 2022. The Minister of Health was unable to implement the recommended pay increases because there had not been a wider Executive decision on public sector pay. Pay parity with NHS England was restored after a Northern Ireland-wide strike in 2019-20, but in the Executive’s absence, pay divergence has occurred again.

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government are providing £121 per person for the Executive for every £100 of equivalent UK Government spending over the 2021 spending review period to deliver public services in Northern Ireland. I think his constituents and mine would consider that quite generous funding.

Trade in the UK

5. What steps his Department is taking to help Northern Irish businesses trade with the rest of the UK. (902057)

The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses can trade freely throughout the United Kingdom, so our approach has two strands. Under the protocol, by the end of the year we will, I am sorry to say, have spent £340 million helping traders to process 2.3 million customs declarations through the trader support service for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That vividly illustrates the problems with the protocol, which is why we are in constructive dialogue to deliver change, as I said earlier, and why we are keeping the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill before Parliament.

Northern Ireland boasts some of the UK’s most innovative businesses. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Northern Irish businesses are placing environmental, social and governance considerations at the heart of their operations? Does he agree that cementing Northern Ireland’s place as a global leader in ESG will stimulate regional jobs and growth and will turbocharge investment in the Province and across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Northern Ireland boasts some of the UK’s most innovative businesses and is a fantastically attractive place to invest. An increasing number of organisations in Northern Ireland report on environmental, social and governance standards. I regularly visit businesses in Northern Ireland, as does the Secretary of State. We will continue to take an interest in their approach to ESG.

What businesses in Northern Ireland want, alongside political stability, is dual market access. As well as working to ensure that businesses have access to the rest of the UK market, will the Minister ensure that access to the European market will be preserved and that the Government will do nothing to compromise it?

We are committed to maintaining dual market access. We hope to negotiate a position with the European Union in which that is possible, while preserving the east-west strand of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We want to restore the constitutional status of Northern Ireland while ensuring that market access; I very much hope that we will do so by negotiation.

May I take the opportunity to associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the 35th anniversary of the bombing in Enniskillen? Our thoughts are with all those who continue, to this day, to be affected by that event.

Maroš Šefčovič has said that

“if there is political will”,

issues around the Northern Ireland protocol could be resolved

“within a couple of weeks.”

Does the Secretary of State understand the political damage that has been caused by the Government’s failure to begin negotiations on the issue earlier in the year? Will he commit to doing all he can to achieve a negotiated settlement before the year is out?

I shall have to answer procedurally, but of course we understand the political implications of where we are. The most significant, if I may say so, is the collapse of the institutions because of the legitimate concerns of Unionism and of the DUP in particular. That is why the Secretary of State and I have been very clear that we recognise the legitimate interests of all parties, including the European Union and Ireland, and it is why we are resolute in the United Kingdom’s own interests. Of course if we completely conceded our interests we would achieve a deal within weeks, but the point is that this country and this Government are humble in accepting the legitimate interests of the EU and resolute in defending our own. I very much hope that we will reach a negotiated settlement.

Power Sharing

I engage regularly with the Northern Ireland parties—indeed, I spoke to all the Executive party leaders only this morning—and I will continue to keep my Cabinet colleagues fully apprised of those discussions.

The Secretary of State told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he would be calling an election

“at one minute past midnight”

on 28 October, but that did not happen, which has left Northern Ireland in limbo. Reports have since emerged that the Secretary of State was directly overruled by the Prime Minister. Is that true, or did he mean to intentionally mislead a parliamentary Committee?

At this week’s session of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly—which you kindly opened, Mr Speaker—we were able to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland relating to the protocol and the talks. Voices were raised from across Europe, and from all parts of the House, encouraging the Government and the European Commission to reach an agreement, because that is the gateway to co-operation on so many other things. I commend the Secretary of State on having the talks, and I say to him, “Let’s get a decision.”

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work he does in the Assembly. It is a vital new institution, which has deep roots in the European Parliament as well as this Parliament, and it will add great value to our discussions.

Cost of Living

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling the cost of living crisis in Northern Ireland. (902059)

The UK Government are providing vital support to households and businesses across the UK to help with the rising cost of energy. This is an issue that the Secretary of State and I raise frequently with colleagues across Government, including the Business Secretary and the Energy Minister. We seek to provide urgent support for households and businesses across Northern Ireland.

The Minister has been asked several times this morning about the £400 energy support payment. What is the blockage preventing the payment from being made now, and when will this be sorted out?

The hon. Gentleman will of course understand that these schemes need to be delivered by officials, and that effort has been hampered substantially by the absence of a functioning Executive. We should all acknowledge that without an Executive, these things are more difficult to deliver. As I said earlier, we are well aware of the imperatives, and once again I urge all parties to re-form the Executive so that we can give people the prompt help that they deserve.

Peace and Prosperity

Peace and prosperity are intrinsically linked, and the Government are committed to delivering both in order to help Northern Ireland reach its full potential. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his expert contribution to that end when he served in the Department. We are investing £730 million in the new PEACEPLUS programme, which will support economic growth and community cohesion. The Government also provide significant resources to tackle the threat from terrorism, paramilitarism and organised crime.

I saw for myself that growth and city deals offer a huge opportunity in every part of Northern Ireland to improve economic performance and strengthen society, which underpins the peace process. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to maximise the benefits of those deals, we need an Executive in place working hand in hand with the UK Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that our £617 investment in city and growth deals presents an historic opportunity to generate innovation and growth across Northern Ireland. He is also right to say that we need a functioning Executive to drive forward that delivery.

This morning I met members of East Border Region, a cross-party, cross-border local authority-led organisation delivering peace and prosperity across the border. Will the Minister agree to meet them to discuss the work they have done over the past 50 years?

Certainly, I would be glad to meet them. If the hon. Lady will write to me, we will take that up.

Northern Ireland Protocol

The Government are engaging in constructive dialogue with the European Union to find solutions to the issues caused by the protocol. We are also proceeding with legislation that aims to fix the practical problems that the protocol has created in Northern Ireland in the event of our being unable to reach our preferred negotiated solution.

The trader support service has helped thousands of businesses in Northern Ireland to navigate the way in which goods move under the protocol. How will this very important service be funded over the next year?

Both the trader support service and the movement assistance scheme provide support to traders moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. By the end of this year we will have spent £340 million helping traders to process 2.3 million customs declarations through the trader support service for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we very much hope that we can find a negotiated solution to the protocol issues that will mean we do not have to spend this money in the future.

The Northern Ireland protocol has resulted in the ripping up of the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent, and the fall of the Assembly. It has also imposed EU law on part of our country, and that law will be imposed by the European Court of Justice. Does the Minister accept that we cannot improve on that and we have to remove it?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Actually, I think there is a negotiated path where we can completely change how we deal with the protocol, which would mean that it dealt with the issues of governance and trade and all the other practical issues that are causing legitimate concerns to the communities he represents.

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