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Northern Ireland

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Early Learning and Childcare: Funding

1. If he will have discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring similar levels of funding for Northern Ireland to that announced for early learning and childcare in the spring Budget of 2023. (905481)

Today is a day of reflection in Northern Ireland. It marks an opportunity for people to think about the tragic and needless loss experienced by so many families during the troubles. It also allows us all as a society to reflect on how far Northern Ireland has come from the most difficult days of the troubles, and the further work required to ensure that we never again return to violence and that Northern Ireland is a truly peaceful, prosperous and reconciled society, which is something this Government are determined to deliver.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to note that my permanent secretary since January 2020, Madeleine Alessandri, is leaving the Department next week for another role within Government. I would like to place on record my thanks to her for all the help and guidance she has given me and everyone else over the last 10 months.

In answer to the question, in his spring Budget the Chancellor stated that Northern Ireland would receive Barnett consequentials for 2023-24 and 2024-25 as a result of increased UK Government spending on childcare policy reform in England.

The Secretary of State may be aware that there is no childcare strategy in Northern Ireland and very little support, which is placing many families under extreme financial pressure because of growing costs, exacerbating inequality among children and forcing many, particularly women, to abandon their career for years. Research by the advocacy group Melted Parents demonstrates that families in Northern Ireland have been consistently failed on this issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that childcare must be recognised as a core part of the economic and societal fabric, as well as a tool to give kids a great start in life? Will he support the Department of Education and others to ensure that families in Northern Ireland can finally access the benefits promised in the Budget, promised in New Decade, New Approach and promised before that as well?

The Government recognised in the Budget, as I have just mentioned, how important childcare is for all the reasons the hon. Lady gave, and we do work with the Department of Education as much as we can. According to its figures, in the 2022-23 academic year there were 22,715 pupils in funded pre-school education in Northern Ireland, which is 91% of three-year-olds in the population. However, she makes a very valid point about how this needs to go further, as it will do across the other parts of the United Kingdom.

Healthcare

2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the performance of the health service in Northern Ireland. (905482)

13. Whether he is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to help reduce waiting times for healthcare in Northern Ireland. (905494)

We are acutely aware of the challenges facing the health service in Northern Ireland and, indeed, across the UK. That is why tackling waiting lists is one of the Prime Minister’s top five priorities. The performance of the NHS in Northern Ireland is not good enough, substantially because much-needed reforms have been avoided for years. Taking action to cut waiting lists and transform healthcare in Northern Ireland is the job of the devolved Government. For that reason, and many others, we urgently need the parties back in the Executive.

Over 500,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting either to see a clinician or to have treatment, which represents one in four of the population. Does my hon. Friend agree that health services desperately need a working Executive to help address the huge problems they are facing?

Yes. Without an Executive, local leaders are not able to deliver reforms to transform public services, and that is now being felt in the most uncomfortable, undesirable and difficult of ways by people in Northern Ireland, especially by those on long waiting lists. Northern Ireland desperately needs a working Executive.

I share the expressed concerns about the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland and about support for the NHS, which is struggling. However, as the Minister mentioned, we are seeing similar problems across the United Kingdom. If it is one of the Prime Minister’s priorities, could he not meet the leaders of the NHS in each of the devolved nations, and the leaders of those devolved nations, to discuss how they can learn from each other and perhaps tackle the problem on a wide scale across the board?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just said to me that the British-Irish Council did not discuss health this time, but it has in the past. That would be a good forum for that discussion, but the hon. Member will realise that it is rather above my pay grade.

Power Sharing

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland. (905483)

I regularly discuss Northern Ireland affairs with my extremely interested Cabinet colleagues and keep them fully abreast of the efforts being made to restore the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. My total focus is on the return of a devolved Government, and the Windsor framework is the basis on which to do that.

In the past, successful attempts to restore power sharing involved weeks of intensive talks between both Governments as well as the five main parties in Northern Ireland, but there is a vagueness about the current process. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he will try the previously tested methods over the coming summer?

I give an assurance to the hon. Lady that no stone will be left unturned in trying to get the Executive back up and running. The one thing that I did learn from the Windsor framework negotiations is that confidentiality in modern-day British politics and western politics is key in trying to get anything over the line.

The Windsor framework will make a significant difference to businesses and communities in Northern Ireland as they seek to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the Windsor framework agreement has an international dimension, in that it has improved the status of the UK around the world, allowing the Prime Minister and the President of the United States to agree the Atlantic declaration and other such agreements?

It is true, and I am slightly surprised by the element of pleasure that worldwide institutions—other Governments, the European Union and the United States Government, as my right hon. Friend says—have taken in seeing the Windsor framework come to fruition and, indeed, by how we are now talking about all sorts of important other things that seem to have been unlocked by the Windsor framework agreement.

Today is a day of reflection across Northern Ireland, and I share the Secretary of State’s support for those who are participating. The Secretary of State has said that the Government need to demonstrate that Northern Ireland remains a “strong and integral” part of the United Kingdom to restore power sharing. The problem for him is that his Department still plans to impose immunity for terrorists on Northern Ireland, against the wishes of all local parties and all victim groups there. Does he not see the damage that that could do to the Union?

This question is about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which is currently on Report in the House of Lords. I disagree fundamentally with the principle behind what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Yes, none of the political parties in Northern Ireland is behind this particular Bill, but in great fairness to the Democratic Unionist party, it has never been behind any sort of amnesty. That has been a principled position on its part from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement onwards, which I completely understand. I do not think I will ever be able to win that argument with the DUP. However, we do need to address these issues. We have a question later on legacy and a family who need information to allow themselves to reconcile the death of a family member. The Bill that we will present, which will be article 2 compliant—I truly believe that—will get information for a whole host of families who have not had it for well over 25 years.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s detailed answer. There are ways forward that the DUP and other parties have supported, but the Government have chosen a different path. His Department cannot be fully focused on restoring power sharing while it is spending so much precious time on this Bill. Yesterday, even the Irish Government officially requested a pause in the Bill’s passage through Parliament. The Secretary of State says that the Bill will be a different beast after the Lords, so will he consider giving people the time to assess the changes before it returns to this House?

This Bill has had a long gestation. It had two days of consideration on the Floor of this House in its original form this time last year. It had one of the longest Committee stages ever in the House of Lords, taking nearly five months to complete. We laid a whole host of amendments as a Government at that point. It has its first day on Report today and another day next Wednesday. This House will have plenty of time to consider those amendments and others when the Bill returns to this place.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to his outgoing permanent secretary, Madeleine Alessandri, and we wish her well in her new position.

The Secretary of State will be aware that since New Decade, New Approach at the beginning of 2020, we have pressed for legislation that will protect Northern Ireland’s ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom and respect our economic rights under article VI of the Acts of Union. Are the Government any closer to bringing forward such legislation?

I very much look forward to being in a space where, following further conversations with the right hon. Gentleman, I can bring forward legislation in this place that does exactly what he needs it to do for his party to be able to give me a date when it will go back into the Executive in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will know that we want to see Stormont back up and running and fully functioning again, but it is critical for us that Northern Ireland’s ability to trade with its biggest market—which is, of course, the rest of the United Kingdom—is protected. We do have concerns about the practical outworking of proposals in the Windsor framework and what it means for the movement of goods in the non-EU lane. The Prime Minister has stated that there will be free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we need to see that reflected in the practical arrangements, which, I have to say, are not matched by what the EU is saying about the non-EU lane and its operation.

The right hon. Gentleman has detailed knowledge of this area, and I do enjoy our regular conversations on these points. He knows that in the Command Paper on the Windsor framework, which was published back in February, we detailed the British Government’s view of how we could bring in unfettered NI to GB trade as we move forward. We need to put more flesh on that bone—of that I am sure—but, as he knows, I constantly seek his guidance to ensure that I get this bit of my job completely right.

Electronic Travel Authorisation Scheme: Tourism

4. What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of the tourism sector in Northern Ireland on the implementation of the electronic travel authorisation scheme. (905484)

I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that the Department most recently met with Northern Ireland tourism organisations alongside the Home Office for discussions on how to communicate the ETA requirement on 7 June. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also hosted a tourism roundtable with sector leaders at Hillsborough castle on 20 April. The Government will continue their engagement with the tourism sector, which we recognise plays a vital role in Northern Ireland’s economy.

I am grateful for that answer, but does my hon. Friend acknowledge that if an ETA exemption was granted for tourists—or, indeed, people claiming to be tourists—travelling from the Republic of Ireland, that would undermine the integrity of the whole scheme?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is the Government’s policy. We have engaged closely with not only the tourism sector but our friends in the Irish Government on this issue. I hope that we will be able to work together to ensure that there is a consistent and coherent communication strategy to ensure that tourists know they must register for an ETA and must continue to comply with the UK’s immigration requirements. I should say that whether one stays at Hillsborough castle, the Travelodge or any of the other great hotels in Northern Ireland, it is a wonderful place to visit.

Does the Minister recognise that Ireland is marketed internationally as a single entity with respect to tourism? Does he understand that treating movements on the island of Ireland the same as any entries into the UK from the rest of the world is not fair and does not recognise the specific circumstances that exist on the island?

I am most grateful to the hon. Member. We do recognise elements of what he said, and indeed we have had those conversations most recently with the Irish Government at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. It is the Government’s position that we should not create a loophole through the ETA scheme, but we do need to ensure that we communicate clearly with everyone the need to register and comply with immigration requirements. He may know that we have created an exemption for third-country nationals who are ordinarily resident in Ireland, and of course the requirement does not apply to citizens of the UK or Ireland under the common travel area, which we will continue to honour.

Education Funding: Community Groups

5. What recent discussions he has had with community groups on the potential impact of changes in the level of funding for education in Northern Ireland. (905485)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are acutely aware of the challenges facing the education sector in Northern Ireland. He has met member organisations of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action to discuss these issues, and I have been engaging with stakeholders about the wider cost of division in education, which a report by researchers working independently at Ulster University recently estimated was an extraordinary £226 million per year. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be preferable for the Northern Ireland Executive to be restored so that they may make decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland, including the right level of funding for education.

The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has announced that it will not proceed with proposed cuts to early years, extended schools and youth service programmes, which is broadly welcomed by community groups. Will the Minister confirm whether the Northern Ireland Office took direct action and advised on how guidance should be interpreted?

We are always willing to work closely with the Northern Ireland civil service, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we have put in place an Act of Parliament to formalise arrangements by which decisions are taken by Northern Ireland civil servants during this governance gap. We will continue to work closely with civil servants, but if he would like to discuss a specific concern more closely with me, I will be glad to meet him. The answer to the problem is something that I think the whole House agrees on: it would be preferable to have locally accountable, devolved Government restored as soon as possible to take those decisions.

Our Prime Minister has described education as the

“closest thing to a silver bullet there is”.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard concerns about the fact that Northern Ireland’s education budget is going down as the budgets in the rest of the UK are going up. Will the Minister make the case for further investment in education in Northern Ireland and continue to pursue integration, which is crucial to the future success of education?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. Integration is central not only to the Government’s policy but to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I am rather grateful that there has been some small controversy over the Ulster University report on the cost of division. We must have that conversation. If we are spending £600,000 a day on maintaining a system within which only 7% of children are educated in formal integrated schools and, overwhelmingly, children are educated separately as Catholics or Protestants, we should have a serious conversation about the cost of that system.

Universities recently wrote a joint letter to the Secretary of State warning that his budget will force them to cut student places and will have a “fundamental and dangerous impact” on the future of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister carry out an assessment of the effect that a loss of student placements would have on Northern Ireland’s economy, so that the House can be fully informed of the long-term impacts of the budget?

We are in frequent conversation with the vice-chancellors. The hon. Gentleman will remember that we have taken a power to commission advice and to consult, and he will know that there is a need to look at revenue raising. All those things come together and point in a direction on which I hope, in the end, there will be consensus: to ensure that the excellent higher education sector in Northern Ireland continues to be a beacon of great education for the world.

Public Services: Budget

6. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the budget for public services in Northern Ireland. (905486)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the budget for public services in Northern Ireland. (905489)

For many years, the UK Government have recognised the unique challenges that Northern Ireland faces. We have provided around £7 billion in additional funding to Northern Ireland since 2014, on top of the Barnett-based block grant. Northern Ireland Executive spending per person is around 20% higher than the equivalent UK Government spending in the rest of the United Kingdom.

A recent study has showed that 90% of people in Northern Ireland are having to cut back on their spending. The cost of living crisis means that a third are cutting back a lot on basics such as food, fuel and housing. Against that background, the Secretary of State’s Government are imposing real-terms budget cuts across almost the whole public sector in Northern Ireland. At the time of a cost of living crisis, are his budget cuts making the crisis better or worse?

The budget for Northern Ireland was set out in the spending review a couple of years and is unchanged. All UK Government Departments are being asked to absorb inflation and energy costs within their budgets; Northern Ireland’s Executive is no different. I am fully aware of what is going on with the cost of energy, food and other things in Northern Ireland, as I meet people regularly who tell me about it.

New research from Northern Ireland found that women were the shock absorbers of poverty, with 75% struggling to pay for food and 73% struggling to pay their electric bills, leading to mothers missing meals to feed their families. The saving efficiencies to the Northern Ireland budget include cuts to holiday hunger payments and, now, free school meals. Will the Minister explain why women and children are forced to starve to repair the chaos that the Tories caused to the economy?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in one aspect. The budget is fair and allows for the statutory things to be delivered. I meet with women’s groups very regularly—I met a whole group of them last week. I fully understand the implications of the budget. However, it should be for Northern Ireland Ministers to sort it out.

Beyond the cost of living crisis, there is a crisis facing public services across Northern Ireland. To give one very pertinent example, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Simon Byrne, reported to the policing board last month that the force faced a budget gap of some £141 million. That is a gap that can only be met by cutting police numbers further. Given that police numbers are already at 6,500, which is 1,000 below the recommended establishment figure quoted by Chris Patten and the lowest number since 1978, that is clearly a poor situation. Given the severe terror threat, what will the UK Government do to ensure that Northern Ireland has a police force capable of meeting continued security challenges, as well as meeting the needs of the communities the police force is there to serve?

The police budget in Northern Ireland is devolved. It comes through the Department of Justice, which has to live within its means just like every other Department, but I regularly meet and talk to the chief constable. The UK Government also provide an extra £32 million a year for such security measures.

Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery

7. What recent progress his Department has made on establishing the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. (905488)

I have identified the right hon. Sir Declan Morgan to be appointed chief commissioner designate of the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. Hopefully, his appointment will come into effect when the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill receives Royal Assent.

I welcome the progress made towards establishing the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, but after 40 years of waiting—I have also been raising the case in the Chamber over the past three and a half years—Mr Vaughan-Jones and his family have never received a conclusive account of what happened to his brother Robert, 2 Para, at Warrenpoint in 1979. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the case and progress?

My hon. Friend raises a critical point and I would be delighted to meet her to talk about it. As I said earlier, many families across Northern Ireland and Great Britain still do not have the answers they require about the acts of serious harm committed in the troubles. The system has not worked as it is, which is why we need to pass the Bill and establish the ICRIR as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. When it comes to recognising the need for reconciliation and information recovery, it can never, ever be a substitute for victims’ access to justice. Will he confirm that innocent victims will always be a priority for the Northern Ireland Office and this Government?

Promotion of Northern Ireland Businesses Overseas

11. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to promote Northern Ireland businesses overseas. (905492)

As a result of the Windsor framework, Northern Ireland will be in the unique position of being part of the UK internal market as of right, having privileged access to the EU market, being under UK services regulation, and having access to the free trade agreements to which we are acceding. In addition, I have led trade missions with Invest Northern Ireland to Canada and South Korea to promote brilliant Northern Ireland businesses overseas, and will take further similar steps.

What will be the benefit to businesses in Northern Ireland of working with the UK Export Academy?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the UK Export Academy, brought forward by the Department for Business and Trade. To illustrate its success, I would point to Lowden Guitars, which takes its products from its factory in County Down to customers in Australia. I encourage businesses across Northern Ireland, and indeed across the UK, to use the Export Academy, as he implicitly suggests.

How will the New Deal for Northern Ireland funding help to boost economic growth and increase Northern Ireland’s competitiveness overseas?

The £400 million in the new deal for Northern Ireland funding will underscore the UK’s commitment to supporting and protecting the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland. New deal funding has been invested in projects such as £15 million for the Skill Up project to improve skills, £11 million for a cyber-AI hub at Queen’s University Belfast, and a number of other projects, including £8 million for Invest NI to help to promote trade. It is a commitment of which we are very proud and I could speak at even greater length.

What is the Northern Ireland Office doing, and what is the Minister doing, to promote Northern Ireland businesses at COP28, which will provide a significant opportunity for those businesses to be marketed on the world stage, especially those involved in hydrogen technology? We have a hydrogen hub in my area.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a personal interest in this subject, and I should be happy to meet him to discuss how we can do more. There are some excellent businesses in Northern Ireland, including Catagen, which has an incredible technology for converting wind power and water into hydrocarbon fuels, and other businesses which should have the opportunity to participate.