Northern Ireland Questions

21st March 2018

Shailesh Vara answers MPs’ questions on the work of the Northern Ireland Office.

Leaving the EU: Discussions with Political Parties

2. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. [904410]

8. What recent discussions she has had with Northern Ireland political parties on the UK leaving the EU. [904416]

The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with the Northern Ireland political parties on a range of issues. This includes matters relating to the UK’s departure from the European Union. As we have said repeatedly, these conversations are no replacement for a fully functioning, locally elected and democratically accountable Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland need, and that is what we are focused on.

Does my hon. Friend agree that as we leave the EU, it is essential that current levels of security and co-operation between the UK and Ireland, which are so important in the fight against terrorism, are maintained and enhanced?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. All parties have been clear that there will not be any disruption to north-south security co-operation when it comes to policing and tackling the terrorist threat. I applaud the incredible work done by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda to keep us safe. That will not change after our EU exit.

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that as the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU, this Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement remains steadfast?

Yes. I can categorically provide my hon. Friend with the commitment that he seeks. Our negotiating strategy puts our support for the Belfast agreement at the heart of our approach to the Northern Ireland-Ireland dialogue. As the Prime Minister and others have said on numerous occasions, we will continue to abide by the UK’s commitments in the Belfast agreement.

Given the meeting on Monday between the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Michel Barnier, will the Minister confirm that it remains the Government’s clear position that the so-called backstop arrangement proposed by the EU Commission is something that no British Prime Minister or Government could ever agree to?

The Prime Minister has made her views absolutely clear on that. Our country’s economic and constitutional integrity will not be harmed.

I thank the Minister for debunking the notion that, as a result of the transition arrangements, somehow the Government have reneged on that pledge, and for confirming that the Government remain firmly committed to the constitutional, political and economic integrity of the UK. Will he ensure that industries such as the Northern Ireland fishing industry are protected after we leave the EU, and that we will take back control of our territorial waters, including our rights for our fishermen?

The right hon. Gentleman makes some very good points. I can confirm that the agreement reached in December in the joint report remains, and that Britain will do all that it can to ensure that all our industries, particularly fisheries, are maintained, and that our fishermen and the industry are well looked after.

I am sure that one issue the Minister and the Secretary of State will have discussed with the political parties in Northern Ireland is the problems they see with a hard border returning in Ireland. What are those problems and what does the Minister suggest that we do to avoid them?

The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and many others have made it absolutely clear that there will be no hard border.

That is not much of an answer. The Government should acknowledge that the parties all think that there would be problems with a hard border, as do the Chief Constable, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Irish Government and many Conservative Members. Should he not therefore acknowledge the problems and tell the House that the only way to avoid a hard border is for us to stay within the customs union and the single market?

The people of Britain—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—collectively agreed to leave the single market and customs union, and that will be the case. As for the border, the December joint report made it absolutely clear that there will be no physical infrastructure and no hard border. There will be a frictionless border, and that is what is being negotiated and discussed.

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Leaving the EU: The Economy

4. What steps the Government are taking to identify opportunities to strengthen Northern Ireland’s economy as the UK leaves the EU. [904412]

I am not even going to try to follow that.

The Government are committed to building a stronger economy fit for the future right across the United Kingdom. That is clear from our industrial strategy and the Chancellor’s spring statement, where we continue to identify further opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, however, a key requirement for stronger growth is political stability. That is why it is essential that a restored Executive are in place to take forward strategic decisions to deliver for Northern Ireland’s economy.

Tayto has operations not only in Corby, but in Northern Ireland, and it is very good news that in recent times the operation has expanded considerably. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that such UK-wide manufacturing industries continue to grow and prosper?

Tayto Group is the third largest snack manufacturer in the UK. It employs some 1,500 people right across the country—from Tandragee to Corby, and from Scunthorpe to Devon—and is one of the many success stories for growth. Through our industrial strategy, we are creating conditions in which successful businesses such as Tayto Group can thrive, helping them to invest in the future of our nation. We are shaping our business environment to take on the challenges and opportunities of new technologies and new ways of doing business, especially as we leave the EU, and to develop new trade relationships and expand our global trade networks.

The Institute of Export and International Trade says that if Northern Ireland is not in the single market or customs union, it will face 350 million new product codes. How many tens of thousands of administrators would Northern Ireland need to continue its current trade, let alone expand it?

I can rebut such pessimistic claims with actual fact. The employment figures that we will publish this morning say that there are 66,000 more jobs now than in 2010, with 15,000 of them created in the last year. Since 2010 we have 12,300 new businesses.

When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, this House will no longer be prohibited from reducing the rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. If the institutions are not up and running by that time, would the Minister consider taking that step?

We very much hope that the devolved Assembly will be up and running, because it is for the Assembly to take the decision of reducing corporation tax. We are very committed to it doing that on the basis that it can show sustainable finances.

Despite the ongoing political situation, Northern Ireland has had a very positive business environment this year, particularly in relation to foreign direct investment. Will the Minister consider establishing a formal and regular business forum to include Invest NI, and organisations and local businesses in Northern Ireland, to ensure that they can maximise opportunities that arise from the UK leaving the EU?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have just been assured by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary that he would be happy to participate in such a venture.

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Police Recruitment and Overtime

9. If she will hold discussions with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on recruiting more officers and reducing its overtime budget. [904417]

Policing is a devolved matter and should be overseen by a restored Executive at Stormont. The Chief Constable continues to engage extensively with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice on operational and financial issues. Both the Secretary of State and I have met the Chief Constable to discuss various issues. The PSNI does a superb job and will always have the fullest possible support of this Government. We have committed an extra £32 million a year to support its response to Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

I thank the Minister for his response. Bearing in mind the fact that the potential overtime bill for the PSNI is £48 million, will he further outline his perception regarding recruitment, as it would be better to have a recruitment policy involving more feet on the ground, because that would adjust the overtime bill and ensure that police officers would not be burnt out because they have to work overtime? Will Ministers agree to do that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but he will be aware that PSNI operational matters such as staffing levels are a matter for the Chief Constable. I hope that he will take on board what the hon. Gentleman says.

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Live Animal Exports

11. What steps she is taking to prevent the unnecessary suffering of live animals exported from Northern Ireland. [904419]

The Government are committed to improving the welfare of all animals. We expect animals across the UK to be transported in conditions that comply fully with welfare requirements, and would prefer animals across the UK to be slaughtered close to the point of production. Animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland; it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy.

May I seek assurances that, as we leave the European Union, in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom we will use the opportunity to enhance animal welfare standards?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government share the public’s high regard for animal welfare, and we are proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. He will appreciate, however, that animal welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and it would be for a future Northern Ireland Executive to determine their own policy. We have been clear that when we leave the EU, we will not only maintain the existing rules on animal welfare but, where possible, look to strengthen those requirements.

As the Minister has said, Northern Ireland has very high animal welfare standards, and surely we can do better than what the EU offers in terms of animal welfare standards.

It is our intention not only to stay at the same level but to continue to improve our levels of animal welfare.

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