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United Kingdom Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the next meeting of the United Kingdom Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board will be held; and what will be on the agenda.

My Lords, the first meeting of the joint board, which has oversight for transformation in health, education and justice where these draw on funding provided under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, took place on 22 July. We are looking to schedule a further meeting very shortly—this autumn—for which an agenda has yet to be finalised. It will, however, include a review of progress to date.

How often do the Government envisage meetings of this important new board linking Westminster and Stormont taking place? What assessment have the Government made of the stability and prospects of their fellow board member, the Northern Ireland Executive, restored to work at the beginning of the year?

It is not clear how many meetings will be held each year, but suffice it to say that with the last one held in July and one coming up shortly, they will be frequent enough. The joint board has no specific powers of statutory underpinning; it is a discursive forum to facilitate close working between the UK Government and the Executive. Finally, the assessment is that the NDNA has proved vital in light of the pandemic. It is fair to say that it has worked well due to the commitment and leadership of the Northern Ireland political leaders.

Will my noble friend ensure that at future meetings of this body attempts will be made to ensure that the people in the devolved regions—not only in Northern Ireland—understand the sources of funds for public services? It is not clear in the devolved regions where the money is coming from and, specifically, how much additional money comes to the regions from Parliament, as opposed to money raised locally.

My noble friend makes a very good point about the accountability of funds. He will know that part of the establishment of the joint board is setting up a fiscal council tasked with assessing and reporting on the sustainability of the finances and spending proposals. As he said, it is important to put the funding for Northern Ireland in the context of funding for the other devolved Administrations.

What discussions have been taking place in this area on the question of the customs border in the Irish Sea? Can the Minister enlighten us? It seems to me that there is a misunderstanding on the part of the Government. They say that this problem will be solved if, as we hope, there is a trade deal, but the reason for that is that at present there is regulatory alignment between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If the Government’s objective with Brexit is to diverge over a whole range of areas, as they envisage, will there not have to be a proper customs border in the Irish Sea, and does that not require extensive consultation with the Northern Ireland authorities?

I admire the noble Lord’s ingenuity in steering the Question in that direction. However, I remind him that the purpose of the joint board is to review the use of funding provided under the NDNA agreement. These matters are not, as such, for the joint board.

Does the Minister agree with the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report on the New Decade, New Approach agreement where it highlights the need for a long-term financial plan for the implementation of the agreement but acknowledges [Inaudible] on public finances in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that long-term financial planning will be on the agenda of the next meeting of the board?

I think I picked up most of what the noble Baroness said. I know that some information has come out from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. One recommendation was for an annual report, and that is linked in with the question that the noble Baroness asked about sustainability in the future. It is not an unreasonable request but we would need the agreement of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to take that forward.

My Lords, first, will support for the aerospace industry in Northern Ireland be on the next agenda of the board? Secondly, will the victims payment scheme be on the agenda, and do the Government propose to indicate what money they will make available for that scheme?

I cannot say what will be on the agenda beyond, as I said earlier, a discussion about the progress that the joint board has made so far. However, I will certainly take the point that the noble Lord has raised back to officials. I think that we will be able to explore the victims payment scheme during the next Question, but this is very much a matter for the Executive to take forward. The funding is there and comes out of the block grant.

My Lords, the services sector accounts for 75% of gross value added in Northern Ireland and 22% of external sales by Northern Ireland firms. Can my noble friend suggest that helping this sector, hard hit by Covid, should be on the board’s agenda? It ranges from retail and transport to health and professional services, and from tourism to the arts. For example, “Game of Thrones” has brought new visitors to Castle Ward as the location for Winterfell, home of the House of Stark, and many other beautiful places, but I worry that Northern Ireland faces a chilly winter.

My noble friend makes a good point about the services sector, and I saw for myself the site of “Game of Thrones” when I was in Northern Ireland three or four weeks ago. The services sector is very important: it accounts for over 80% of employment and a total of 634,000 jobs. However, I remind my noble friend that the focus is much more on health, education and justice as part of the joint board’s remit.

My Lords, will this board be the forum for discussion about the Prime Minister’s proposal for a feasibility study of a bridge or tunnel between Northern Ireland and Scotland? If not, where will that be discussed?

Will the agenda for the next meeting of the joint board include the establishment of a UK government hub in Northern Ireland, which is envisaged in the New Decade, New Approach document, was a commitment in the last two Conservative Northern Ireland manifestos and would underline the importance that we attach to Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom?

My noble friend makes a good point about emphasising the union. This Government continue to want to show the importance of the union and how all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, benefit from it. The city deals are one example of direct funding to the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the answers from the Minister, but can I take him back to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden? He asked when the next meeting would be—to which he received an answer—and what would be on the agenda. All I have heard so far from the Minister is what will not be on the agenda, despite some excellent suggestions from the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, my noble friend Lord Liddle and others. Perhaps I may press him on this, because there is a sense of urgency here. We were greatly appreciative of the work of the former Secretary of State in securing the New Decade, New Approach deal, but if all the Minister can tell us about the agenda is that there will be a review of the progress that has been made, it does not leave us with much confidence that real progress is being made. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Caine, about the manifesto is apt. I hope that the Minister can give us some meat on the bones here and tell us exactly what will be discussed and what will be on the agenda. That was the Question.

Indeed, the noble Baroness is right, and I have taken on board her question. This is very much a matter for the Executive and I do not have in front of me the details of the agenda. However, at the first meeting, the terms of reference were agreed, and it remains up to the Executive to decide whether to make this, and indeed any other matter relating to the agenda, public.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the deep concern over the threat by the EU to block the free movement of goods, including food, from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In the event of the Union not coming to an agreement by December, will the Government give an assurance that they will exempt goods and food from the EU-commanded checks? This has major implications for Northern Ireland industry.

I will take note of that point because, again, the noble Lord’s question takes us further from the point raised about the joint board.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and we now move to the third Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank.