Northern Ireland Questions

7th February 2018

Shailesh Vara answers MPs’ questions on Northern Ireland.

Apprenticeships

3. What steps are being taken to increase the number of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland. [903758]

I too thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) for his kind words of welcome. He and I have worked together on a number of issues, but this is the first time we have met across the Dispatch Boxes, and I look forward to constructive engagement with him and his team.

On my hon. Friend’s question, this Government are committed to reaching our pledge of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. Through our industrial strategy, we are committed to helping young people across the country to develop the skills they need for the future. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that delivering apprenticeships in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. As such, that is another reason why we need to see a restored Executive up and running.

Employers in Northern Ireland recently told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that while there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place they are having to pay the apprenticeship levy but have no access to the funds to take on apprentices, because without an Executive the block grant is not being distributed. The apprenticeship levy in Northern Ireland is turning into a stealth tax for businesses. Does the Minister agree that this is another reason why we urgently need a Northern Ireland Executive in place?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and gives an excellent example of why it is so important that we have a devolved Assembly up and running again. Important decisions, such as the one she mentioned, need to be taken, and that is why we need the Assembly up and running as soon as possible.

It is worrying that we hear of the loss of apprenticeships, and yesterday we had an announcement that Williams Industrial Services in my constituency has actually gone into administration. What help will the Minister give us to ensure that we retain manufacturing and the apprenticeships there?

May I say at the outset that I am very sorry to hear about the position of the company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? I very much hope that the employers will follow all the legal processes by way of consultation and everything else that needs doing as far as the employees are concerned.

On the promotion of more jobs, it is clearly important that the devolved Assembly is up and running because it has a critical role to play. In the absence of such a devolved Assembly, however, I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are doing all we can. Indeed, only recently we met Invest NI with a view to seeing what is happening in Northern Ireland and what we can do to help.

One of the best apprenticeships programmes is run by Bombardier. Does the Minister agree it is fantastic news for those apprentices that the complaint against Bombardier has been soundly rejected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. It is very welcome news that the United States International Trade Commission unanimously agreed with Bombardier, and we very much look forward to working with Bombardier, which plays such a critical role in the UK economy, particularly in Northern Ireland.

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Frictionless Border

6. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. [903762]

11. What assessment she has made of progress on maintaining a seamless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. [903767]

We speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government on a range of issues. In the joint report agreed with the EU at the December European Council, we reached an agreement that will maintain the common travel area. We also agreed that any future arrangements agreed between the UK and the EU must be compatible with the UK Government’s commitment to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will continue working closely with the Commission to agree a legally binding text for the commitments made in December.

If the Government are committed to regulatory alignment on both sides of the Irish border, has it made it easier that the Prime Minister has declared that there will be no membership of the customs union or single market?

Let us be absolutely clear: we have said we will be leaving the customs union and single market. We hope in phase 2 of the negotiations to secure the best possible trade deal with the EU, but we are committed to a frictionless border.

Does the Minister agree that once the UK leaves the EU we will have a duty to protect the rights of Irish citizens under UK law, through the common travel area, which predates Britain’s membership of the EU?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and is right that the reciprocal rights under the common travel area between the UK and Ireland predate either country’s membership of the EU. I can assure him that the joint report from last December contains a commitment to maintaining the common travel area arrangement.

A recently published European Parliament report has indicated that it will be possible to have a frictionless border after we leave the EU, but is the Minister not concerned about the friction in relations between the UK Government and the Irish Republic? Will he comment on the threat issued by the Irish Foreign Minister yesterday that he will block negotiations unless legislation is introduced to force the Northern Ireland Assembly to introduce EU regulations?

All the parties involved recognise that this is a difficult negotiation, but we are all committed to being flexible and coming up with innovative solutions. Our relationship with Ireland goes back centuries: trade, geography, history and so on. We have an excellent working relationship with Ireland. We hope to continue that relationship to secure the best solution possible to the issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister confirm that whatever arrangements are needed to achieve a frictionless border between north and southern Ireland will apply to the whole UK?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK. That will stay as it is currently.

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Leaving the EU: Transitional Arrangements

7. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. [903763]

14. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiating a transitional arrangement with the EU that benefits Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. [903770]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has regular conversations with Cabinet colleagues on a range of EU exit issues, including on an implementation period. We recognise the importance of negotiating an implementation period that benefits the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] We welcome the EU’s agreement to negotiate an implementation period. The precise terms should be agreed as quickly as possible to provide vital certainty to businesses and citizens. [Interruption.]

Order. It is most unfortunate that neither the Minister’s mellifluous tones nor the content of his answer could properly be heard because of the number of private conversations. I think he deserves a more attentive audience.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I grasped the word “negotiation” in there. Has the Secretary of State agreed a concession in those negotiations with the Brexit Secretary that will allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market and customs union, while the UK leaves, to avoid a hard border—yes or no?

I say again that the United Kingdom is committed to leaving the single market and customs union and to the integrity of the constitution and our economy.

I think that we are all a little confused about how the Government intend to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Minister’s Cabinet colleagues are falling over themselves to secure the maximum possible separation from the EU and the least possible realignment. Has he ruled out the idea of separate arrangements for Northern Ireland governing trade and commerce, or not?

Let me say again that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom remains. We are in phase 2 of the negotiations, and these matters are currently being discussed. I am sure that all the parties—Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union—recognise the difficulty of the issue and will be as flexible and innovative as possible.

Does the Minister agree that it is about time the Government demonstrated a “no surrender” attitude to the EU bureaucrats who try to blackmail us and bully us over flights, passenger duty and everything else? Stand up to them, man! Stand up to the EU, and let us get on with leaving it. [Interruption.]

Let me just say—[Interruption]—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will stand up to anyone and everyone when it comes to maintaining the best interests of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. Let us hear Thangam Debbonaire.

The Good Friday agreement was one of the greatest legacies of the last Labour Government. Is the Minister content that messing up the border issue could make destroying the Good Friday agreement one of this Government’s legacies?

I assure the hon. Lady that the joint report published in December this year by the European Commission and the United Kingdom makes it absolutely clear that the Belfast agreement remains intact, and all of it will remain intact.

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