Northern Ireland Questions

9th May 2018

Shailesh Vara answers MPs’ questions on his Northern Ireland Office ministerial portfolio.

Child Tax Credit

1. How many women in Northern Ireland have applied for an exemption to the two-child tax credit cap on the ground of non-consensual conception. [905142]

May I start by paying tribute to Stephen Neil Heaney, who tragically died while taking part in the Belfast city marathon a few days ago? I think that the whole House will join me in conveying our deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.

The implementation process for child tax credit is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. To protect claimant confidentiality, the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has established an exceptions team to handle any applications for benefit payments for a third child under an exemption to the two-child tax credit cap on the ground of non-consensual conception. The Department has advised that, to date, the team has received no applications for an exemption on the ground of non-consensual conception.

Many women say that they are put off from applying for this abhorrent exception under the rape clause due to shame, trauma or perhaps fear. In Northern Ireland, women and those who assist with and endorse their applications, such as GPs, social workers and midwives, face an extra hurdle, as they risk prosecution under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 for failing to report details of a crime. What is the Secretary of State doing to support women in Northern Ireland and protect them from that risk?

The hon. Lady raises a sensitive issue, which is being treated sensitively by all concerned. She will appreciate that criminal law is a devolved matter, but I can assure her that in the 50 years since 1967, when section 5 was introduced, no prosecutions for failing to report a rape case took place. The outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has said that it would be highly unlikely that one would happen in the future.

I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about the tragic death at the Belfast marathon in my constituency on Monday.

The Minister is right to indicate that this is a devolved matter, but we are implementing national policy in Northern Ireland. May I invite him to ensure that we operate this policy in the most compassionate and caring way possible? Will he meet a range of stakeholders including myself, Women’s Aid, the Royal College of Midwives and others?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should deal with this in a sensitive manner. I am of course more than happy to engage with relevant stakeholders, and to meet him and any others he wishes to bring along.

The benefits charity helpline Turn2us has evidence that women are choosing to abort and terminate their pregnancies as a result of this Government’s despicable two-child cap. The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers says, despite the Minister’s assurances, that the law is the law and that women and those who support them in their applications could find themselves prosecuted under section 5 of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1967. Will he accept that the two-child policy, and the rape clause of which it stands part, is abhorrent and unacceptable, and will he support its abolition?

I repeat what I said earlier: this is a devolved matter. We have to respect—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady in particular, given that she is a Scottish National party Member, will want to respect the rights of the devolved Assemblies. Criminal law is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland. I say again that there have been no prosecutions at all as regards the rape issue in the 50 years since 1967 when section 5 was introduced, and that the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has said that it is highly unlikely that there will be any.

Hansard

 

Inward Investment

3. What progress has been made on attracting inward investment to Northern Ireland. [905144]

With support from this Government, Northern Ireland stands among the UK’s most popular inward investment destinations. We have increased the block grant in real terms, proposed a city deal for Belfast, with more to follow, and created business opportunities through our industrial strategy. Ultimately, however, political stability is key to economic growth, and that means a restored Executive delivering for the Northern Ireland economy. That remains my overriding priority.

I am sure that my hon. Friend and the rest of the House welcome the news of Bombardier’s investment in Northern Ireland. My constituency is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, and I am sure that the economy of Northern Ireland reflects that. What is his Department doing to ensure that SMEs also benefit from inward investment in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is right to point out the importance of small and medium-sized businesses, which do a fantastic job in Northern Ireland and contribute a huge amount to the local economy. I have met many of those small businesses, and I have nothing but praise for them. They have contributed towards the 52,000 more jobs and 12,300 more businesses since 2010. The Government will continue to engage with organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses and Invest Northern Ireland so that those small businesses can fulfil their maximum potential.

There is no progress on the border’s status after Brexit, which will crunch inward investment badly unless Northern Ireland remains part of the customs union. The alternative is a border in the Irish sea. Which is more likely: customs union or sea border?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady should deal with facts rather than what analyses say. If she took an interest in what the Belfast Telegraph has to say, she would have read on Wednesday 2 May the inside-page headline, “Top US software firm to create 50 new jobs in Belfast investment”. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) has welcomed the new Bombardier contract, which is worth more than £500 million. I am afraid the facts are that business is continuing, and continuing to prosper.

One of the reasons why there is so much inward investment in Northern Ireland is the peace created by our soldiers, policemen and special forces, with whom I had the honour of serving in the 1970s. If we are to honour the bravery of people such as Robert Nairac and my other colleagues who lost their lives in the Province, the consultation should flatly say, “We are not having a conversation. We will protect our soldiers, putting them first and the terrorists second.”

My right hon. Friend makes some very good points. He will be aware of the ongoing discussion about the consultation, but he will appreciate that I will not make any further commitments at this stage.

If we are to maintain a stable economic environment for inward investment, if we are to have democratic oversight of decisions such as that of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to recall neurology patients and, indeed, if we are to have a legislature in Northern Ireland that is capable of changing the law for victims of rape who may fall foul of the UK Government’s foolish two-child policy, we need the Stormont Assembly back in action. Can we have a very clear road map from the Minister today setting out how the Government intend to get that Assembly back in operation?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. Both the Secretary of State and I very much look forward to working with him constructively. He raises a good point about the need to have the devolved Assembly up and running again, and I assure him that the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and I, and all those concerned, are very keen to do so.

We are doing an enormous amount. The hon. Gentleman will be aware there were intensive talks in February, when the two main parties in Northern Ireland got close but not close enough. We are not giving up. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is having regular conversations with the parties. Only a couple of weeks ago she met the five main parties with a view to seeing how we can make progress and get the Assembly up and running.

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Leaving the EU

6. What assessment her Department has made of the effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. [905148]

8. What assessment her Department has made of the effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. [905150]

The Government are committed to delivering a Brexit that upholds the commitments we have made to the people of Northern Ireland to uphold the Belfast agreement, and to avoid a hard border and any border down the Irish sea.

The Department for Exiting the European Union’s own impact report predicts an 8% hit to economic growth in Northern Ireland—a part of the UK that has long been less economically developed than others—after we leave the EU. Why are the Secretary of State and the Minister prepared to let Northern Ireland suffer, when they could avoid that by following the Labour party’s lead and committing to a new customs union?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the economic analyses of the past have not always been exactly accurate. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, he might wish to reflect on the fact that as well as the huge economic benefits that I outlined in answer to earlier questions, over the past year exports are up by 9%.

Paragraphs 47 and 48 of the joint report identified the commitment to north-south and east-west co-operation. The Government have still not published the results of the mapping exercise on the 140 areas of cross-border co-operation. Will the Minister tell us when we can have the list demonstrating those 140 areas of co-operation?

The hon. Lady should be in no doubt that we are committed to the commitments made in the joint report.

Is the truth not that we have seen record foreign direct investment into the United Kingdom as a whole despite Brexit, and that when we leave, Northern Ireland will continue to be a top destination of choice for investment? After all, we do have the fifth largest economy in the world.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the good point that we have one of the leading economies in the world. Leaving the European Union will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom to pursue a new path and trade policies that benefit us, and us exclusively. I agree entirely that we have a positive future outside the European Union. [Interruption.]

Can we have a little quiet so that I can hear the questions and the answers?

I am glad to hear what the Minister and the Secretary of State have said about the integrity of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm that whatever happens and whatever the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom will remain together economically, politically and constitutionally?

I can absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance: the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will remain intact. There should be no doubt about that.

Every right-thinking person should welcome that commitment, not only on the political front but economically, given that the vast bulk of sales from Northern Ireland go to the Great Britain market. Those who advocate separating out Northern Ireland into the customs union while the rest of the United Kingdom leaves it would inflict economic misery on all our constituents. Will the Minister take the opportunity to remind Leo Varadkar that when he talks about not leaving Northern Ireland behind, what he means is sucking Northern Ireland into the institutions of the EU, which would be economically disastrous for all our citizens?

Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that neither she nor any other Prime Minister would ever compromise the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. That means that Northern Ireland is very much a full part of the rest of the country, along with Scotland, Wales and England. There is no question whatsoever of having a border at the Irish sea—none whatsoever.

I call Stephen Pound. [Interruption.]

I think the House recognises that I am a beacon of stability in an ever-changing Opposition Northern Ireland team. Sadly, I am always the bridesmaid.

The European arrest warrant is vital to policing in Northern Ireland—we all accept that—and enables the Police Service of Northern Ireland to co-operate with colleagues in the south. Many have commented that no visible progress has been made on the replacement of the critical EU policing frameworks that enable vital cross-border co-operation. Will the Minister outline what discussions his Department has had with Home Office colleagues about this vital issue, and reassure not just the House but the people of Northern Ireland?

It is good to see that the hon. Gentleman is still in his place and that there is some continuity in the shadow Northern Ireland team.

As far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned, a huge amount of progress has been made. The hon. Gentleman raises the very important issue of the European arrest warrant. The various Departments are all working together to ensure that we achieve the very best deal possible. Yes, the Northern Ireland Office is speaking with the Home Office to make sure that we get the very best deal in terms of protection and of the replacement framework that we will have when we leave the EU.

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