Shailesh Vara answers MPs’ questions on his Northern Ireland Office ministerial portfolio.
Leaving the EU: Border Policing
3. What assessment she has made of the requirements for (a) physical and (b) electronic infrastructure to police the border after the UK leaves the EU. 
Clause 43 of the December joint report makes it absolutely clear that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls on the border. As for the use of technology, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the details of a potential solution have yet to be worked out.
I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware that the Government’s own assessment shows the economy being damaged by the Government’s plans and that the least worst option is staying in the customs union and the single market. Is that the case, or does he have alternative economic advice that he could publish?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The fact is that the Northern Ireland economy is doing very well, with the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and exports are increasing. On the single market and the customs union, let me be absolutely clear: the people of the United Kingdom collectively voted to leave the EU, and that includes the customs union and the single market.
Does the Minister agree that there would be no need for any kind of border infrastructure at all if the UK and the EU could agree what everybody wants, which is a comprehensive free trade agreement?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We need to have a comprehensive economic agreement with the European Union. That is possible, and I very much hope that all parties will work towards it.
In recent discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland, was the issue of the European arrest warrant raised? Will the Secretary of State come to the House and make a statement on the serious implications for the Police Service of Northern Ireland if the availability of the European arrest warrant were closed down to the Chief Constable?
In relation to the border.
Indeed. I am grateful for that nod from a sedentary position, which is very reassuring.
I can assure the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke with the Chief Constable this morning about the European arrest warrant. We very much hope to have, as the Prime Minister has suggested, a UK-EU security treaty that will be all-embracing and bespoke. As the GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said this morning, it is important to recognise that four European countries have benefited directly from our intelligence in the past year.
With regard to the border, throughout Operation Banner and the troubles in Northern Ireland, the military and the police desperately tried to get a hard border between the north and south. We would blow up crossing points and the following morning they would be open again. With the automatic number plate recognition that we have now, there should be no hard border, and I cannot see how it could be possible.
One of the dividends of the Belfast agreement is that we no longer have physical checks, along with security installations, at the border.
Article 50 Negotiations
5. When she plans next to meet the director of the taskforce on article 50 negotiations. 
There is regular engagement by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union with the EU’s chief negotiator, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland hopes to have a meeting with the chief negotiator for the EU very soon.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Will the Minister therefore enlighten the House about the timetable for publishing the Government’s policy on the backstop for the Northern Ireland border, and as I say, with the discussions ongoing, will the Secretary of State discuss that with the chief negotiator?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we do not give a running commentary on all the meetings we have, but he should be aware that there is certainly a backstop and it will last until the end of December 2021.
I do not see any Member standing on the Government Benches—[Interruption.] Yes, there is. Mr Duncan Smith, calm yourself. I call Charlie Elphicke.
Does the Minister agree that threats from the European Union about having a hard border in Northern Ireland are simply unhelpful, and that what we need is co-operation in the use of technology so that things can continue to flow just as they do today?
May I just say that the European Commission has agreed, in the joint report it signed in December, that there will be no hard border—no physical infrastructure on the border? It is also incumbent on us to make sure that the details of the Belfast agreement are met, which means ensuring that there is not a hard border.
Are any conversations going on with the taskforce with regards to the extension of the article 50 period? If so, will the Minister reiterate that that would be rejected totally and out of hand?
As I said earlier, we will not be giving an ongoing commentary on all our meetings. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have the implementation period until the end of December 2020, and then the backstop agreement, but only if that is required under specific circumstances, and no more.
Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector
6. What steps she is taking to help ensure the sustainability of the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. 
I recognise how fundamental agriculture is to Northern Ireland economically, socially and culturally.
The Secretary of State and I are fully committed to ensuring that, as negotiations progress, the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced. We want to take the opportunities that leaving brings to reform the UK’s agricultural policy and ensure we make the most of those for our farmers and exporters.
Bagged salad, seed potatoes and beef are the high-quality products that make up around a third of Northern Irish farmers’ exports. Those farmers rely on the EU for around 90% of their income, and they would see animal and plant health tariffs and produce checks as a nightmare. How can the Minister guarantee those farmers a future income and a market while also guaranteeing environmental standards?
The hon. Gentleman is right: agriculture and farming is a massive industry in Northern Ireland. Some 49,000 people are employed in the sector and there are 25,000 farms. What I will say to him is that if we can get that overall economic framework with the EU through negotiations, the tariffs he refers to will not apply.