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Northern Ireland

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Troubles: Legacy and Reconciliation

1. What his Department’s planned timetable is for when the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recovery will be operational. (901645)

7. What progress his Department has made on implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023. (901651)

I start by welcoming the return of the devolved institutions to Northern Ireland, following the publication of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper earlier this month and the Windsor framework, which was agreed exactly a year ago yesterday. Let me also take this opportunity to mention that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will celebrate their 25th anniversaries on Friday.

The Government are doing all that we can to support the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery in delivering effectively for victims and families. Significant progress has been made since the ICRIR was established in December last year, and I expect the commission’s doors to open on 1 May.

In the light of this morning’s High Court ruling, does the Secretary of State still think that after 1 May the citizens of Northern Ireland should be the only people in the UK denied the right to seek justice for crimes committed during the troubles, through civil cases and inquests?

Mr Justice Colton handed down his judgment at 10.15 this morning. It is a very complex case. I am told that the judgment runs to over 200 pages, and I am yet to see it. It will take some time to consider, but we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings very carefully. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act.

It is deeply concerning that the Government’s own imposed 1 May deadline means that inquests will be unable to conclude as they otherwise would. We have heard reports that there was only one specialist in the Ministry of Defence dealing with these inquiries, and that possibly MOD delays in providing material have caused additional hold-ups. We really need to understand what the Government are doing to ensure that inquests can conclude by the Government’s self-imposed deadline.

I humbly remind the hon. Lady that the original deadline, before we tabled amendments to the Act, then a Bill, in the House of Lords, was 1 May 2023, so there has been an extra year. The Government continue to assist the Northern Ireland courts in good faith on legacy matters. There is no question of the Government deliberately seeking to frustrate inquests. The Act allows a coroner to request a review of a death by the independent commission, led by chief commissioner Sir Declan Morgan, if the inquest has not been concluded via the coronial process by 1 May 2024.

The Government’s legacy Act is opposed by victims groups, all the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and others. This morning, the Belfast High Court found that the Act’s immunity provisions are not compliant with articles 2 and 3 of the European convention on human rights. Given that immunity has always been presented as the central foundation of the legacy Act, what do Ministers intend to do about the judgment, and how can the commission become operational when one of its central powers has just been struck down?

As I say, this is a very complex case. The judgment runs to over 200 pages, which were first being reported on less than 90 minutes ago, so it will take some time to consider, but we remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.

Recognising that the issues raised in today’s judgment will take some time to be conclusively determined by the higher courts—assuming that the Government appeal—does the Secretary of State agree that it would be quite wrong to close the door on inquests and civil cases from 1 May? That will deny citizens in Northern Ireland rights that citizens in the rest of the UK take for granted. Will he therefore extend the deadline, not least to ensure that inquests that would otherwise be stopped on 1 May can continue, so that a decision can be reached?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that this is a complex case that is likely to head to further action in the higher courts, but I want to consider the judgment carefully, look at all 200 pages, and take the legal advice that he would expect me to take in such circumstances. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.

The Union

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901647)

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901649)

13. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901657)

The Government are fully committed to protecting and upholding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, a commitment we reaffirmed recently in the Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union”. That included proposals for new measures in domestic legislation to protect unfettered access to the UK internal market, and to affirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This Government are convinced that that is the best way we can safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

What action has my right hon. Friend taken to ensure that no new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can emerge from future agreements with the European Union?

We have ended the presumption of automatic alignment with EU law by making it clear that the very narrow set of goods rules that apply in Northern Ireland are subject to the democratic oversight of Stormont, including the Stormont brake. Once the brake is triggered for a rule, or where an entirely new rule is brought forward, it will be for the UK to determine at the Joint Ministerial Committee whether that provision should apply in Northern Ireland. Here again, the Government have established the protections available through statute. We believe that there are very strong reasons for saying that we have ended the presumption of automatic alignment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Minister of State on their very impressive achievement in restoring the Northern Ireland Executive. Does the Secretary of State agree that good cross-border transport links are vital to safeguarding all parts of our Union? In my border constituency of Clwyd South, Iusb think of the electrification of the north Wales main line, which links to north-west England, and improved road links, such as the proposed Pant-Llanymynech bypass between Wales and north Shropshire.

I have to congratulate my hon. Friend on making some excellent constituency points as well as highlighting the importance of good transport links across our Union. The need for those links was recognised in the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, and more recently, earlier this week, when we talked about the reinvestment of money that would have been spent on the northern sections of High Speed 2 into ensuring good connections across our country. Those connections include the A75, which is a vital connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Union is strongest when people can see and feel its benefits to their daily life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a prosperous Northern Ireland, with a stable, devolved Government, is the surest way to safeguard the Union’s integral place in the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I absolutely, 100% agree with his sentiment. It is a real pleasure to see the devolved institutions at Stormont up and running. You, Mr Speaker, have a new colleague there: the former Speaker was desperate to retire for two years—tributes were paid to Speaker Maskey at the time—but Speaker Poots is now in place. It has been wonderful, too, to see the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister working together to achieve good solutions, on public services and a whole host of other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. The Union is best served by devolved institutions working. I very much welcome everyone’s commitment to that cause.

This morning’s High Court ruling confirms what every fair observer knows: that the Government’s legacy legislation is not compatible with human rights. It puts the needs of perpetrators ahead of the needs of victims, and it is not supported by any party in Northern Ireland or across the island of Ireland. The Secretary of State cannot truly believe that it serves the rule of law or our shared future in any constitutional arrangement. When will the Government repeal that completely unacceptable legislation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that she will have to refer to the answer I gave earlier. The Court judgment was handed down only earlier this morning; it is a complex case and we have more than 200 pages of judgment to consider. I do not even believe that the Government KC has gone through the ruling yet in any great detail. We were not given any notice beforehand of what might be in it, but obviously I pledge that we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings carefully. As I will continue to say, we remain committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, including delivery of the ICRIR.

The recent “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper claimed to

“copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union,”

yet the British-Irish agreement makes it clear that the agreed position is

“for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination”.

How does the Secretary of State square that clear contradiction in the UK Government’s commitments to all the people of Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. First, getting the devolved institutions in strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement running is of vital importance, because it means that the strand 2 institutions can work properly for everyone in all communities, and it also allows the strand 3 institutions to work in a better way, because they can include representatives such as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and bodies such as the British-Irish Council, so there is a whole host of things involved. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland obviously requires the consent of a simple majority of its people. All the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement still stand.

One thing of great importance to this place is our education system, including the trips that people make to Parliament. We want to safeguard the Union, so what steps are being taken to ensure that students in Northern Ireland have equal access to educational tours of Westminster? Bearing in mind that students in Northern Ireland should have the same access to them as those in England, but that the cost of flying over can be prohibitive, will consideration be given to additional funding to allow some sort of subsidisation?

Northern Ireland, being across the Irish sea, is in a geographic location that makes travel difficult to other areas of the United Kingdom. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s keenness to help Northern Ireland students benefit from learning across the Union. We put in place a £3.3 billion financial package for the incoming Executive that helps us to achieve some of those objectives by providing support for Northern Ireland, given its unique challenges. However, if he has individual cases in mind, I would be interested to hear about them, and will consider what we might do in future.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the fact that the new UK East-West Council will have its first meeting next month in Belfast? One of its key objectives is to encourage greater educational co-operation across the United Kingdom, as well as binding Northern Ireland more closely into the wider economy and the UK internal market.

I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the new East-West Council and its situation, and I also look forward to seeing the North South Ministerial Council functioning. The UK East-West Council will bring together a wealth of experience and knowledge from representatives of the United Kingdom Government, the devolved Administrations, business and the culture sector, and educational leaders. We are committed to getting it working in March and doing good things.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the financial package that the Treasury has put in place to support our public services in Northern Ireland, but our commitments on public sector pay mean that there remains a significant gap in the next two financial years. Will he work with us to seek further support from the Treasury, so that we can ensure that the Executive lives within its budget and that we can pay our public sector workers a decent wage for the vital work they do?

Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his work to ensure that the devolved institutions—the Executive and Stormont—can come back together. He has achieved an amazingly good, historic piece of work. It is good to see the Executive back up and running, making choices and opening negotiations with the unions to get the public sector in Northern Ireland back on track, on pay and work. I believe that there is a meeting today between the Finance Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I will always happily work with the right hon. Gentleman on all those agendas.

Economic Growth

The Government are committed to the economic growth of Northern Ireland, working closely with other UK Departments, the newly formed Executive and NI businesses. Our plan includes boosting trade and investment, building on the success of the Northern Ireland investment summit last year; levelling up Northern Ireland’s economy, including through our city and growth deals worth £617 million; and implementing the key deliverables of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper. Only last night, I attended Retail NI’s supplier showcase, and I am very grateful to have made it back first thing this morning.

I thank the Minister for that very full answer. Given that the rest of the United Kingdom—the internal market—is the biggest market for Northern Ireland, what role does he see for the new InterTrade UK, particularly with respect to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about Northern Ireland’s most important economic relationship being with Great Britain. As set out in the Command Paper, the Government are working to establish InterTrade UK, fulfilling our pledge to grow the economy by ensuring that businesses large and small can maximise the full range of east-west trading opportunities. Implementing the Windsor framework and the Command Paper are, of course, Government priorities, and I am pleased that I am responsible for them. We will update the House in greater detail at an early opportunity.

The “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper states that

“there will be no checks when goods move within the UK internal market system save those conducted by UK authorities as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach”.

Regulation 13 of the Windsor Framework (Retail Movement Scheme) Regulations 2023 requires officials to check the ID numbers on the seals of all retail consignments entering Northern Ireland, and break open 5% to 10% for visual inspection. Is my right hon. Friend now able to confirm when, or if, that regulation will be removed?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his insightful and well-rehearsed question—well-researched question. [Laughter.] Perhaps I should not have got that early flight after all, Mr Speaker.

As we set out in the Command Paper, as we transition to the UK internal market system, we will provide clear legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and other UK Government authorities, through our risk management approach, to eliminate any physical checks when goods move within the UK internal market system, except those conducted by UK authorities and required as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach to managing the risk of criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease risks. I recognise the importance of my hon. Friend’s question, and I will update the House on our plans in greater detail at the earliest reasonable opportunity, which I hope and intend will be before we break for the Easter recess.

It is good news that the Executive are back up and running. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new Executive take full advantage of all the devolved capability they have, particularly on taxation, to encourage the private sector to grow and thrive in Northern Ireland?

I will certainly give the Executive every support, while of course respecting the devolution settlement. To give my hon. Friend one example, the reason I was in Northern Ireland last night with Retail NI was to promote the Department for Business and Trade’s terrific offering in Northern Ireland, which includes a trade and investment hub that covers the UK Export Academy and the export support service. There are now 16 DBT export champions, which includes in-person support. If anyone wishes to learn greater detail, I recommend that they go to the website.

Will the Minister liaise with the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland to maximise the benefits of promoting and developing the only enterprise zone in Northern Ireland, which is in my constituency, as are excellent broadband facilities—the best in these islands? That way, we can promote our economy, bring inward investment and create prosperity.

The hon. Gentleman makes a great case for his constituency, and I would certainly like to see terrific levels of investment into it. However, I would like us to go further: I would like to see that investment zone reach right across the whole of Northern Ireland. I hope and expect that together, the UK Government and the restored Executive will make the most of that opportunity.

Why do the UK Government think it is good thing for Northern Ireland to have access to parts of the EU single market, but not for other parts of the United Kingdom to have such access, particularly those parts of the United Kingdom that voted to remain in the EU and the single market?

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for his question, but he will know two things. First, the word “access” is somewhat contested. I would encourage him to go and look at the figures for trade between the United Kingdom and the EU, and satisfy himself of the effect of our leaving the European Union. Secondly, in all seriousness, we should all reflect carefully on the status and circumstances, not only of geography but of history, of Northern Ireland. It is because of the unique status of Northern Ireland that we have been able to agree unique arrangements, and I do not imagine the European Union would have agreed those unique arrangements for any other territory.

According to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, Northern Ireland received proportionately less than Scotland, Wales and England in the first round of levelling-up funding. In the latest round of funding in November, not a penny was allocated to Northern Ireland, and the Government said this was because the Executive were not sitting. Is there good news for the people of Northern Ireland today? Now that power sharing has been restored, will the Secretary of State update the House on any discussions he has had about ensuing that a fair share of levelling-up funding goes to Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point, and I will be glad to continue such conversations with the Executive. As she knows, we have made available a generous package of £3.3 billion overall. We are having conversations on the detail of those areas of funding that have been repurposed, and those conversations will continue. When we can update the House in fuller detail, we will of course be glad to do so.

East-West Business Council

The Government are working to establish an east-west business council, as set out in the Command Paper, fulfilling our pledge to establish a unique forum—for key representatives across the United Kingdom from Government, business and the education sector—to identify opportunities for deepening connections between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in important areas such as trade, transport, education and culture. I shall be in regular contact with other Ministers across Government to ensure the timely delivery of this commitment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence has estimated that 80% of Northern Irish freight exports to England come through Scotland, while a considerable proportion of NI trade with Britain is direct trade between the north of Ireland and Scotland. Given this, what concrete role does he see, or propose, for the Scottish Government on the new East-West Council?

Of course, the Government of Scotland have their rights and are entitled to be part of these arrangements, and we shall be respectful in engaging with the Scottish Government to ensure they play a full part, fully respecting the devolution settlement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Northern Ireland Members of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), play a very important role in improving understanding between the EU and the UK about the way in which the trade and co-operation agreement should work, and in easing the way for a better relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union?

I do agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I pay tribute to him for the leading role he plays in that forum, and I am most grateful to him. A large number of colleagues, whatever their view on exiting the European Union, have put a great deal of effort into building up the bonds of friendship that are so important as we go forward under the trade and co-operation agreement. I am most grateful to him for highlighting the important work of that forum, and I again pay tribute to him for his leading role.

The East-West Council, as proposed, is something that I am personally very enthusiastic about, because it potentially opens up a space in which Scotland and Northern Ireland can co-operate, along with other parts of the UK, on all that they have in common economically, socially and culturally, and that we will continue to have in common irrespective of whatever constitutional arrangements may be in place in future. Will the ministerial team at the Northern Ireland Office agree to meet me, so we can discuss how Scotland could play a positive role in that and to get the engagement with other parts right?

We now come to Prime Minister’s questions. We are joined in the Gallery today by Dr Andreas Norlén, the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament, and his delegation.