Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 658: debated on Wednesday 10 April 2019

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: No Deal

1. What recent assessment her Department has made of the potential effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (910246)

12. What recent assessment her Department has made of the potential effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (910257)

Today is the 21st anniversary of the Belfast agreement. Our commitment to the agreement and its successor agreements remains steadfast. It has been instrumental in bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland and remains the bedrock of the significant progress that has been achieved since 1998.

We want and expect to leave the European Union with a negotiated agreement. However, as a responsible Government, we have been working intensively to ensure that all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, are as prepared as possible in the event of a no-deal exit. We have been clear that the unique social, political and economic circumstances of Northern Ireland must be protected.

May I echo the Secretary of State’s words about the Belfast agreement?

Organised crime does not stop at the border, and the European arrest warrant is a vital tool in modern policing. What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary to ensure that we retain this crucial means of tackling crime in all circumstances of leaving the EU?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the European arrest warrant is vital, and it is used in Northern Ireland perhaps more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is a very important tool that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services need to have access to. There is, of course, a way to make sure that they have access to it, and that is to leave with a deal.

As the Secretary of State has said, the Good Friday agreement was signed 21 years ago today, and it was a landmark achievement of the Labour Government. It ensured ongoing equality between those in Northern Ireland who consider themselves British or Irish. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, those rights will need additional protection. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that those vital rights are undiluted and protected for all in Northern Ireland?

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a landmark achievement. It took many years and many people take credit for it, and quite rightly so. We have been clear that there will be no diminution of rights when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. That is set out very clearly in the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement, which means, as I said earlier, that the answer is to vote for the deal.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy that cutting corporation tax to the level enjoyed by businesses in the Republic of Ireland would more than compensate for any loss of attractiveness of Northern Ireland to foreign direct investors and the associated job losses?

This House gave the Northern Ireland Executive the power to cut the corporation tax rate. That is an achievement of this Government, and we believe it would help the economy of Northern Ireland. We need a functioning Executive—we will come on to that issue later—for that power to be used, and that is what we all want to happen.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are already differential rates of duties and VAT between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that, whether we leave with a deal or no deal, co-operation and ensuring that there is no hard border is in everyone’s interests?

I agree that it is in everyone’s interests that we co-operate with all our friends in the European Union, and in particular with Ireland. My hon. Friend is right. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—a separate jurisdiction and a separate sovereign country—and therefore there are differences. As I have said, the best way for us to leave the European Union—the way that will protect so many of the things that have been achieved in the past 21 years—is to leave with a negotiated agreement.

Of course everybody wants to get a deal that can get through this House of Commons. I remind the Secretary of State that she, along with us and Members from her own party, voted for an amendment saying that the backstop had to be replaced with alternative arrangements. Will she confirm that she still stands by that, and will she encourage her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to adopt that approach, which the Leader of the House referred to yesterday?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there was a majority—the only majority in this House for anything—for the Brady amendment. I was one of those who voted for it, because I want to see changes to the backstop. Of course, that is something we have achieved through the agreement that alternative arrangements could be part of the way in which the backstop is replaced. As I have said, we all want a negotiated exit that works for the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming on the record in the House today that she agrees that changes do need to be made to the backstop—it is important to recognise that. With regard to a no-deal outcome, she will have heard the Irish Taoiseach, and indeed Michel Barnier, say that in the event of no deal there will not be any hard border on the island of Ireland and that arrangements will be made to ensure that checks and controls are made operationally away from the border. Does she understand the frustration, therefore, with people who say that, in the event of no deal, there will be no hard border, but who are insisting on a backstop, which could actually bring about the conditions that they say they want to avoid?

I understand the many frustrations that there are around this process. I voted for the withdrawal agreement—I voted for it three times. I believe that it is a fair and balanced way for the whole United Kingdom to leave the European Union in a way that respects fully the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements, and that is what I want to see us deliver.

Devolution

On 26 March, I laid before Parliament a statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. This follows the recent engagement that I have had with the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. On the basis of those conversations, I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution and the other institutions at the earliest opportunity.

I think it is fair to say that the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of many political leaders in Northern Ireland over recent months, so will she at least concede that she is probably not the best person to be chairing those talks? Will she repeat the best practice of previous Secretaries of State and appoint an independent chair to lead those talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks, but I do want to look at what is the best way to achieve a successful outcome from the talks, and I am open to looking at all options for how to achieve that.

In the absence of local rule and the absence of direct rule there remains a vacuum. Will the Secretary of State now look at the possibility of Members of this House asking written questions about issues of devolved responsibility to give some accountability to the local civil service?

The right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in this field and who will, I am determined, remain the last direct rule Minister, knows that there are some constitutional arrangements. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 was very carefully drafted so that it respected the separation and independence of the Northern Ireland civil service, and we mess with that at our peril.

Has my right hon. Friend set a timetable for these talks so that she can bring the various leaders together and make sure that we restore devolved government?

I would like to see talks resume as soon as possible, but I am acutely aware that there are issues, including the fact that local government elections are now being fought in Northern Ireland and that we are in purdah, that create difficulties for what can be achieved, but I do want to see as soon as possible a short, focused set of five-party talks.

The Secretary of State has previously said that formal talks could not take place until after the local elections on 2 May, which she has just referred to, but given the Brexit developments, or a lack thereof, is she now proposing that all-party talks will now not happen until after the European elections at the end of May, which would bring us into the heart of the marching season? How can she possibly justify yet another delay in attempting to restore the Assembly that nearly 80% of the Northern Irish public are crying out for?

The hon. Gentleman refers to a number of issues that may be making it more difficult for parties to find an accommodation to enable them to restore devolution. I know that he is a supporter of devolution, and therefore I suggest to him that the best way that we can all help on that is to vote for the deal.

More than two years ago, Sinn Féin collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since then, rather than looking for its restoration, it has been fixated on getting a border poll and on stirring up sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland at the expense of people who want decisions made on education, health, infrastructure, job promotion and so on. In the face of Sinn Féin opposition to setting up the Assembly again, what plans has the Secretary of State considered to get decisions made in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is devolved government in Stormont, with local politicians making decisions for the people who elected them. That is what we are all determined to see, and I am as determined as anybody to make sure that I put the conditions in place so that we can enable that to happen.

May I join the Secretary of State in commemorating the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement? One of the casualties of the lack of devolved governance is the compensation scheme recommended by Sir Anthony Hart some five years ago. In the time since that report, 30 victims of historical institutional abuse have died. Only one person can now resolve the issue, rather than pushing it further down the road. Let me make a heartfelt plea to the Secretary of State. Will she now announce to the House that she will take the power to ensure that compensation is paid and announce a date when those compensation payments will begin?

I do not wish to correct the hon. Gentleman unnecessarily, but the recommendations of the Hart inquiry came two years ago, just after the Executive collapsed. Since that time, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, has completed a consultation, and we await its results; that would need to be done in any event. I stand ready to look at the appropriate action that needs to be taken when the consultation recommendations are brought forward and I hear from David Sterling.

Devolved Government

9. What discussions she has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. (910254)

As I set out previously, the statutory instrument that I laid before Parliament on 26 March extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution at the earliest opportunity.

Given that the Secretary of State has previously stated that she wishes to ensure the best chance of restoring devolution, is she concerned that no opportunity to successfully bring the parties together has yet presented itself?

We have tried on a number of occasions to bring the parties together. My hon. Friend will know that we had an intensive period of talks last year that were very close to a successful outcome, but it has just not been possible to do that. I would not wish to say to the people of Northern Ireland that we were able to do something if I did not genuinely believe that we could. I therefore need to ensure that the conditions are right to have the best chance of success, because that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing £350 million for the Belfast city deal, but does she agree that it is vital that we do similar for Londonderry?

I was delighted to co-sign the heads of terms for the Belfast region city deal with partners last month. It is a significant milestone, which will ultimately deliver the first city deal in Northern Ireland. Let me be clear that there is no room for complacency. I have committed to delivering a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals right across Northern Ireland, and I am now working hard with local partners and colleagues across the Government to make progress on the Derry and Strabane city deal. Negotiations are progressing well, and I am hopeful that Cabinet colleagues will be in a position to agree a deal following the conclusions of local council elections in May.

As the Secretary of State outlined, the statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation in Northern Ireland runs out on 25 August. What steps will she take if we get closer to that deadline and do not see any devolved government being restored?

We are looking at all options, but clearly the only sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland lies in getting the institutions back up and running. The restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland is my absolute priority, and the willingness to restore the Executive is there among the political parties. I will do everything in my power to get the Executive back up and running as soon as possible.

Given that Northern Ireland has now reached the world record for the longest period ever without a Government, would the Minister consider forming an Assembly of the willing to return devolved government to Northern Ireland?

We remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors, including the provisions setting out an inclusive, power-sharing Government. An approach that excludes representatives of either part of the community is not a sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland.

In the absence of Ministers at Stormont, how has my right hon. Friend engaged with public authorities and local authorities in Northern Ireland to ensure political stability and good governance?

As I have said, I have already laid the SI to extend the period during which an Executive can be formed. We need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to get the politicians back into Stormont, running devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland, but of course I work closely with local councils and others—including on city deals, as I set out earlier.

Will the Secretary of State outline for the House what fresh thinking or fresh ideas she has to try to break the impasse we have had for well over two years now?

As I said earlier, I rule nothing out. I am looking at all the options that are available in terms of getting the conditions right and getting those successful talks. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions, I would be very grateful to receive them. I rule nothing out. I will of course let this House know at the earliest opportunity when I do have developments in that area.

There is always a DUP contest between seniority and youth. On this occasion, I call Mr David Simpson.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

With all the discussions that the Secretary of State has had with the various parties, I am sure she has come to the conclusion that the only party that is holding progress back is Sinn Féin. We in this part of the House would form a Government in the morning.

You are probably not aware, Mr Speaker, that I managed to offend the hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room earlier, so I will point out that you allowed youth to win on this occasion.

Of course I have met all the party leaders and all the main parties in Northern Ireland. I do believe that there is a willingness to see devolution restored, and I want to see that at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—I will always defer to my junior colleagues. The Secretary of State knows that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would restore the Executive tomorrow, without preconditions. Sinn Féin is the only party that has allowed its political prejudice to get in the way of progress in Northern Ireland. Will she commit, at the end of the time-bound period of discussions, to call the Assembly and put the parties to the test?

As I say, I want to see devolution restored at the earliest opportunity. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the willingness of his party. I am convinced that the other four parties are determined to see devolution restored, and we need to get the conditions right to allow that to happen.

14. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the extra-budgetary payment to Northern Ireland agreed between her Government and the DUP on the devolution settlement? Does she realise that Scotland and its people have been denied a total of £3.4 billion as a direct result of this dodgy deal, which may have broken the Barnett formula? (910259)

I do not think it is right for the hon. Lady to make that assertion. There are unique circumstances and pressures in Northern Ireland. The Government respect that and want to make sure that it is reflected in the financial settlement.

In the absence of devolved government, the direct decisions being made by Westminster for Northern Ireland are increasing every day, whether on the Offensive Weapons Bill, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, the two-child policy, or even what will happen with the Open golf tournament. The Secretary of State tells us that she respects devolution, but these decisions are being made behind closed doors with civil servants and without the involvement of the people or representatives of Northern Ireland. If she thinks that is acceptable, will she publish in full a list of all the policy decisions she has made under this new legislation, including the legislative consent motions and who has signed them off, so that we know who is really running Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady did very well to get through the question and still have some voice left.

The decisions that are taken by the civil servants in Northern Ireland—the permanent secretaries—are published. That is part of the conditions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. But to be clear, that Act does not allow new major policy decisions to be made; it allows for policy decisions taken when the Executive was still in place to be continued. As I say, no new policy decisions are being taken under that Act.

Devolution and peace in Northern Ireland are precious and hard won. That is brilliantly captured with great humour and poignancy in the latest series of “Derry Girls”, which I know the Secretary of State is a fan of. Will she join me in congratulating Lisa McGee and the entire production team on another brilliant series?

I am absolutely delighted to congratulate everybody involved in “Derry Girls”. I have not yet seen the final episode, so I do not want any spoilers.

Universal Credit

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of the two-child limit in universal credit on families in Northern Ireland. (910249)

Both the Secretary of State and I were delighted by the recent announcement by the Work and Pensions Secretary that parents who had their third child before the two-child limit was introduced in April 2017 would not face the cap. This will help thousands of families across the UK, including Northern Ireland. The administration and implementation of universal credit is a devolved matter, but Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities knows of no complaints, issues or problems experienced by claimants in the operation of the two-child policy.

The cruelty of this policy, as was confirmed by the UN rapporteur, is most acute in Northern Ireland, where families are bigger and abortion is illegal, which has been condemned by the Supreme Court. Surely in the case of non-consensual conception, women who seek to exercise the already humiliating rape clause will risk the prosecution of professionals who assist under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Can we have some clarity on this human rights double whammy?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that concern, which has been raised on previous occasions because of the depth of worry. I would just reassure her that in the 52 years since section 5 was passed, there have been no prosecutions for failure to report a rape in Northern Ireland. I would add that an outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland said that it is very unlikely that anyone will face prosecution in future.

The Minister appears to be presenting some new legislation to us. We are not familiar with the information he has just given, and I hope we can have a bit more detail.

I rise in sorrow and in anger to say that the roll-out of universal credit has had an unmitigated devastating impact on the poorest people in Northern Ireland. If universal credit is not good enough for the Minister’s constituents or my constituents, why is it good enough for Northern Ireland, where the level of long-term unemployment is twice the national average? Does he believe that making the worst-off worse off is acceptable?

I politely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because unemployment in Northern Ireland has been falling steadily, which is one of the huge success stories of Northern Ireland’s economic progress since the troubles. The previous Assembly introduced some rather important legislation, which is still in operation, that mitigates some of the local concerns about the operation of universal credit in Northern Ireland.

Security Situation

The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. Our top priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.

It is 21 years to the day since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. I will always remember the devastating bomb that ripped through Omagh, the town of my birth, just months before. Does my hon. Friend agree that the agreement has been vital in delivering the relative peace in Northern Ireland and that it must not be jeopardised?

I do. As the Secretary of State rightly mentioned earlier, the Belfast agreement was a landmark moment for Northern Ireland and all its neighbours. The peace that it has helped deliver is the foundation of so much of the economic and social progress that has been made since. Of course, the terrorists know that, which is why it is essential that we never let them win.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Police Service of Northern Ireland does a fantastic job? Will he confirm that the Government will continue to do all they can to support it?

Yes, I do. The Police Service of Northern Ireland does a terrific job of keeping everyone safe across the community in Northern Ireland. I am sure I speak for everybody here in expressing our admiration and thanks for the work it does.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I am very glad that the Prime Minister has just taken her seat, because the question relates to dissident republicans. Has the Minister been made aware by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that dissident republicans are responsible for the recent spate of thefts of ATMs across Northern Ireland and are intent on using the stolen money to purchase weaponry to attack police officers and others along the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

There has been a great deal of speculation about this matter. I hope the hon. Lady will understand that all I can say in my response here is that policing is an operational matter. There are ongoing live police investigations into this matter and therefore I cannot go any further into it. However, I am sure that everybody here will have heard her concerns and registered them clearly.

Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State made a statement saying that the threat level for January was at “severe”, will the Minister outline what efforts have been made to increase police presence in local community policing to build relationships within communities? How much extra funding has he secured for the police?

I am happy to report that there has been a great deal of extra funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There was £230 million of extra security funding over the 2010 Parliament and there has been £131 million over the current spending review period, plus £25 million to tackle paramilitary activity. In December, we announced another £16.5 million to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland prepare for EU exit.

What action are the Government taking to tackle delays in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland? That is essential to ensuring we do more to bring to justice people responsible for terrorism.

My right hon. Friend, as a former Secretary of State, will appreciate that that is predominantly a devolved matter and that many things would be on the plate of a restored Stormont Assembly and Executive. I am sure that that would be one of them, but first it is essential to get that Executive and Assembly back to work.

In these heightened times of threats against politicians, anyone standing for a council election in England this May does not need to have their home details published. In Northern Ireland, that is not the case, which has led to the Social Democratic and Labour party councillor Máiría Cahill having to withdraw from fighting her seat. Will the Minister tell the House why in England legislation changed but we did not do that in Northern Ireland? When will that change be made?

This matter has come up in the press recently and I know it is causing concern to all parts of the House and in all communities in Northern Ireland. We are tremendously sympathetic. The difficulty is that changing the laws in Northern Ireland in time for the local elections will probably be impossible. We all want to try to ensure that this is dealt with so that the law is in line as soon as we can.

Open Championship 2019

8. What assessment she has made of the effect on Northern Ireland’s economy of hosting the Open championship 2019. (910253)

As a former tourism Minister, I am delighted that in July the Open championship is making an historic return to Northern Ireland after 68 years. Tourism Northern Ireland expects up to 190,000 spectators will attend the event at the Royal Portrush golf club and estimates that the benefit to the Northern Ireland economy will be £80 million. Tourism in Northern Ireland is going from strength to strength. During the first quarter of 2018, visitors spent an unprecedented £180 million.

What steps is the Minister taking to capitalise on this top international sporting event to promote Northern Irish tourism and showcase business opportunities?

My hon. Friend will know that tourism is a devolved matter, which is yet another reason for the Stormont Executive to reform quickly. I also urge businesses to use the event as a huge marketing opportunity. Portrush will be a target-rich environment for them, full of potential customers, suppliers and contacts for all sectors of Northern Ireland’s economy—not just tourism. I am sure they will grab it with both hands.

If the hon. Gentleman intends favourably to reference Rory McIlroy, I will call him. If he does not, I will not.

He is one of the best golfers in the world. Will the Minister meet Invest Northern Ireland, as I have, to ensure that we maximise every potential investment opportunity on the back of the Open returning to Royal Portrush after an absence of almost 70 years?

I am happy to meet Invest Northern Ireland and anyone else who wants to bring more investment into Northern Ireland.