Northern Ireland Questions

5th September 2018

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

Leaving the EU

1. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. [906640]

13. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect on Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. [906652]

May I start by paying tribute to Lord Melchett who, when he was in the House of Commons, was Peter Melchett? He did outstanding service to the nation when he was here. Indeed, he was a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office in 1976.

May I also say, Mr Speaker, that in the past 36 hours or so in Northern Ireland there have been three car crashes, which have taken the lives of four people? I am sure the whole House sends our sympathies and condolences to the loved ones of all those who have died.

The UK Government are determined to deliver the best deal for the whole of our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. We are committed to avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, while maintaining the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We have proposed a comprehensive future partnership between the UK and the EU that would meet these commitments.

I thank the Minister for that response and for his tribute to Peter Melchett who, as well as serving in the Northern Ireland Office, was a good friend of mine, a lovely man and a passionate environmentalist.

Is it not the case that the backstop proposal is now just dead in the water? The Government are not going to get anywhere with it. A poll this week said that people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland if a hard border was put in place. Are not the Government sacrificing the Union on this altar? Would not the best solution be to move forward with plans to stay in the single market, stay in the customs union, avoid a hard border, and protect the people of Northern Ireland from Brexit?

I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Lady that it is our intention that there will be no hard border and no physical infrastructure. The people of this country voted in the referendum, and this Government’s intention is to make sure that we are not part of the single market or the customs union. The whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will be leaving those two institutions.

One of the reasons why a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain was because they understood the consequences of leaving the European Union on jobs, livelihoods, communities and cross-border relationships—not simply economic relationships, but personal ones. Given the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, and given that the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland are evidently not understood by leading figures in the governing party in Westminster, what are the Government doing to ensure that the concerns and interests of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are properly heard and represented at the negotiating table?

As far as the referendum is concerned, it was not a regional referendum but a national referendum, and the people of the United Kingdom took a decision to leave. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, let me make it absolutely clear that we are committed to ensuring that the devolved Administration is up and running again. We are working very hard to ensure that that happens. He should remember that the last time Northern Ireland went into direct rule that lasted for five years, and the period before that lasted for 25 years. It is very easy to slip down the road to direct rule, but we want to avoid that because it is important that local people have local representation that can be accountable locally.

On 27 June, Mr George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee:

“We do not know who is leading the multiagency response to the land border”.

What has been done to give clarity in the weeks since he made that statement? In particular, what proportion of the uplift to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Force, as announced by the Government, will be assigned to Northern Ireland?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are in regular contact with all stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including the police. There is detailed planning for a no-deal scenario, but we very much hope that that will not be the case.

May I remind the Minister that in the December joint report on article 50, the EU agreed that the United Kingdom would make sure there was unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom in all circumstances? Reports over the summer suggest that Mr Barnier appears to be devising creative solutions to try to get around the commitment that he made. May I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State to remind him that he signed up to those words and that we expect him to deliver on the commitments that he has made?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that point at the forefront of our proceedings following the recess. He is absolutely right: Michel Barnier made the commitment; and the European Union and Britain signed up to the joint report in December. We intend to hold him to it.

May I bring the Minister back to the question asked by the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which he did not answer? The issue highlighted by the Chief Constable of the PSNI, which we have raised directly with the Prime Minister, is what extra resources are being given to prepare for Brexit. Those resources have been requested by the Chief Constable, since he has made it very, very clear that he has not had a fair allocation.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will issue guidance in the future. We are working on it at the moment and working with all the stakeholders. It will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future, I hope.

With the greatest respect, we are not asking about issuing guidance; we are asking about the allocation of resources. I really want to press the Minister on this issue, since it will have a very big impact on the resourcing of policing in Northern Ireland more widely. What are he and the Government going to do—this has been on their table for many months now—to allocate to the Chief Constable the resources that he needs and that he fairly has asked for?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning. We are in regular dialogue and we are considering the proposals that he has put forward. That is what I can say. We hope to come up with a solution in due course.

The Government are right to reject the EU’s proposals for a customs border in the Irish sea. Will the Minister remind the House of the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Republic and Great Britain?

It is important to remember that 58% of the external sales of Northern Ireland—over £14 billion—is with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is four times more than its trade with Ireland.

Two weeks ago, the Government published advice for UK businesses on the potential impact of a Brexit no deal. Unbelievably, businesses in Northern Ireland were asked to

“consider whether you need advice from the Irish Government about preparations you need to make.”

That is a quite extraordinary abdication of responsibility. Will the Minister confirm what involvement his Department had in the preparation of the advice, and will he commit to giving further assistance to businesses in Northern Ireland?

Clearly we have a responsibility as a Government to business people in respect of what we will do or what we intend to do, but we cannot speak for other countries. It therefore of course makes eminent sense for businesses in Northern Ireland that do deals across the border to consult so that they find out what is happening with other EU countries. The UK Government cannot speak for the Irish Government, so that dialogue is important.

How do the Government plan to ensure that our departure from the European Union is used as an opportunity to strengthen the Union?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are leaving the European Union as four nations. It is absolutely clear that the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not in any way be compromised. In our negotiations with the European Union, we speak as the United Kingdom, not as any specific one of the four nations.

May I share the Minister’s sentiments about Peter Melchett and the recent loss of life due to the car crashes?

Tourism has been a success story in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, helping to transform the image of Northern Ireland throughout the world. It is therefore worrying that figures released in August show a 6% drop in visitors between January and March. The Prime Minister and most of her current and past Cabinets have barely set foot in Northern Ireland over the past two years, so may I suggest a group booking? Such a visit would help to end the drip of uninformed, unhelpful comments about Northern Ireland from the Government Benches that has become dispiritingly regular.

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment to the shadow Northern Ireland Office team. We look forward to working with her in a constructive way.

It is important that we speak up for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union. The hon. Lady talks about tourism. More people visit Northern Ireland now than before. They are spending more money and staying longer. The “Lonely Planet” guide has recommended Belfast and the Causeway coast as the No. 1 region in the world to visit. It is important to recognise the strengths of Northern Ireland and to build on them.

Hansard

Inward Investment

3. What recent steps she has taken to attract inward investment into Northern Ireland. [906642]

Northern Ireland has proven itself to be a top destination for inward investment from companies from the rest of the UK and also from overseas. Over 900 companies worldwide have invested in Northern Ireland, and I welcome this week’s announcement that PA Consulting will be creating 400 new jobs in Belfast. I firmly believe, however, that Northern Ireland can do even better, and we continue to work to restore stable, devolved government so that Northern Ireland can maximise its potential as a place to invest and do business.

I share the Minister’s enthusiasm. Northern Ireland is clearly a key driver of United Kingdom exports and will be even more important as we leave the European Union, so what steps is the Department taking to foster further investment and also to sell the opportunity of Northern Ireland as a top exporter around the world?

One of the fastest routes to a strong economy is through a healthy, growing export economy. The Northern Ireland Office is working with Departments across Whitehall, including the Department for International Trade, to maximise UK Government initiatives such as the GREAT campaign and the recently launched export strategy to promote exporters and help them to realise their potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly champion new investment announcements in Northern Ireland and promote Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest and do business. That is something that was referred to in the Budget as well.

How on earth does the Minister expect to attract inward investment into Northern Ireland when we have not had a functioning Assembly for 18 months? We have a Secretary of State who said some months ago that she was “minded” to cut the salaries of the MLAs, but she has done absolutely nothing about doing so, so can the Minister give us some very good news today and announce a cut in MLAs’ salaries?

I am delighted to be able to give some very good news to the hon. Lady: in July US company Allstate, which is one of the many companies that are investing in Northern Ireland, opened Northern Ireland’s largest single office development for 15 years, investing £30 million. Allstate employs around 2,200 people in sites in Belfast, Derry and Strabane so, notwithstanding the present circumstances of not having a devolved Administration, the economy is looking up, business is coming in and we continue to try to get that devolved Administration up and running.

Hansard

Sporting Events: Representation

7. If she will take steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure people of Northern Ireland have the right to choose to compete in sporting events for the UK or the Republic of Ireland. [906646]

The people of Northern Ireland have a proud history of sporting achievements gained while representing both the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is for individual athletes, subject to the rules of their respective sport’s governing body, to decide which country they wish to represent. This Government are wholly supportive of this choice being maintained.

The Minister is, as he knows, quite wrong. A young Northern Ireland sportsperson who wishes to, for example, box for the United Kingdom has to move to Great Britain; otherwise, they have to box for Ireland. That is the case in other sports, too. The Belfast agreement said that everyone had the right to choose to be British or Irish. Surely this must apply to sport, and the Minister must do more about this because it is just not fair.

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who I know has taken a passionate interest in this subject; we have talked about it before. She will of course be aware that Northern Ireland has won serious medals at the Commonwealth games for boxing. The issue itself is a devolved matter, and is also an issue for individual athletes and their governing sporting bodies to take up. As far as the boxing association of Northern Ireland is concerned, I suggest that it continues its dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Does the Minister agree that all sportsmen and women should have the right to represent the country they choose to, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria for that country?

As I say, if people have the merit to represent their country, there is no reason why they should not, subject to the rules of the governing body of their sport.