Northern Ireland Executive Formation Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Chris Heaton-Harris Excerpts
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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With permission, I will make a statement on Northern Ireland Executive formation.

This Saturday would mark two years without a fully functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. That is two years without locally elected Ministers able to take important decisions on Northern Ireland’s schools and hospitals and the broader economy, and above all, it is two years in which Northern Ireland has been held back from achieving the massive potential of this unique part of the United Kingdom.

It was nearly two years ago that the then First Minister resigned over the old Northern Ireland protocol. The Government recognised that the protocol did not deliver to the people of Northern Ireland the same freedoms that leaving the European Union delivered for the rest of the United Kingdom. As the party of the Union, this Conservative Government have sought to address those concerns by replacing the protocol with the Windsor framework. I maintain that the Windsor framework was, and is, a good deal for Northern Ireland that addresses the issues around the old protocol and sets out a new way forward. However, it alone did not prove sufficient to allow the devolved institutions to function with the cross-community support that is such an essential bedrock of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

As such, for the past few months, my team and I have been holding discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties on how we could see the return of devolved institutions. Those discussions have been long and necessarily tough, but that is testament to the patience of all Northern Ireland’s political leaders, who—as I have seen at first hand—work tirelessly to make sure that Northern Ireland is the most prosperous and safe society it can be. One of the people I have been talking to most is the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). It has been a pleasure to work with him on these matters, and it was also a pleasure to confirm recently that the Government will support his Bill that seeks to create a dedicated route for eligible Irish nationals who wish to apply for British citizenship. If passed, that legislation would support the close historical and geographical ties between Ireland and the UK, and I commend him on championing that cause.

I am also pleased to be able to outline today the package of measures we are announcing, which has four key elements. First, it further protects Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom by demonstrating our commitment to restoring power sharing so that it has the broadest support from across the community in Northern Ireland. I know that I am not alone in believing firmly that the long-term interests of the Union are served by persuading those who might not vote for Unionist parties, or even think of themselves as Unionists, that Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom offers the best solution for them and their children. I have always believed that making Northern Ireland work—indeed, making Northern Ireland thrive—is the surest way to safeguard the Union, and I commend all Unionists on taking bold steps to make that case for the Union, too.

We will also legislate to reaffirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, including as reflected in the Acts of Union. We will also recognise in domestic law that, with the vital democratic safeguard of the Stormont brake that a new Assembly would wield, the idea of automatic and permanent dynamic alignment of EU law no longer applies. We will also future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s internal market against any future protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland, and with it, barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the deal promotes and strengthens the UK internal market, delivering new legislation to guarantee and future-proof unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensuring that internal trade within the United Kingdom takes place under a new UK internal market system. Only yesterday, we saw how quickly progress has been made, with a joint legal solution reached with the European Union on tariff rate quotas. That solution, which will be taken forward at the next UK-EU Joint Committee, will ensure that Northern Ireland traders can benefit from the UK’s independent free trade policy when importing agrifood goods, reflecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s customs territory. To maintain that focus on delivering in the interests of businesses for the future, we will put in place new structures, such as a new independent monitoring panel to ensure a practical and pragmatic approach without gold-plating.

Thirdly, the deal will recognise the importance of the connections across the United Kingdom, now and in the future. A new UK-wide east-west economic council will bring businesses and Ministers together to identify the opportunities that unite us across all parts of the United Kingdom, and a new body—InterTrade UK—will promote and facilitate trade within the United Kingdom, recognising that while international trade is important, so too is the vital trade that occurs within our internal market.

Finally, the deal will help put Northern Ireland’s public services on a sustainable footing, with funding totalling over £3 billion to support public services in Northern Ireland and provide a solid foundation for the Executive to deliver better outcomes in the day-to-day lives of the people in Northern Ireland. That funding is part of a financial package I announced before Christmas that will help address public sector pay pressures; provide an updated Barnett formula for Northern Ireland, now and into the future, reflecting the needs and unique circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland; and give the Executive significant funding to stabilise public finances.

Much of what I am announcing today is the result of a significant period of negotiations between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party, led by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). Many of us in this Chamber last week could not have failed to be struck by his unshakeable advocacy on behalf of the Unionist cause. That same determination, fortitude and tact was at the heart of his approach during those detailed discussions, and further to the right hon. Member’s comments in this place last week, I am absolutely sure that the whole House will join me in expressing support for him in utterly condemning those shameless figures who have tried to threaten and intimidate him for simply doing his job. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The right hon. Member is a man who is truly committed to Northern Ireland. He is truly committed to the Union, and has always worked hard to find solutions and improvements when others have taken the far easier path of simply criticising and heckling from the sidelines.

The result—as I hope hon. Members will agree—is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and for the Union. With this package, it is now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together, end the two years of impasse and start work again in the interests of the people who elected them. This week, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley was clear that this depended on the Government demonstrating their commitment to the Union, not just in word but in deed. That is exactly what we will do. Today, I am publishing the details of the deal, but I am also laying before the House the statutory instruments that enshrine several of its commitments in law. Those instruments will be debated in this place tomorrow, subject to a change in its future business with the will of the House, as an immediate show of good faith.

Once those instruments are passed by this House, as I hope they will be, I trust we will have the conditions to move onwards and to see Ministers back in post in Stormont swiftly. As those Ministers take their places, they will face massive challenges, but they have the tools to grasp those challenges, not least in moving to resolve the public sector pay issues that have been so disruptive. They will also be able to grasp the opportunities offered by Northern Ireland’s unique economic position and the good will that it enjoys across the world.

It is only right that I acknowledge that, for many in the community, an important part of this will be seeing Michelle O’Neill take her place as First Minister following the democratic mandate she won at the May 2022 Assembly election, recognising that the First and Deputy First Ministers remain equal in law. I look forward to working with the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister and all their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to improve the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether Unionist, nationalist or other. As we move forward swiftly to give effect to our commitments, I urge the parties to do the same thing by notifying the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to recall Stormont, electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and appointing new Ministers to the Executive.

It is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years. Today, we have presented a plan that will deliver the long-term change that Northern Ireland needs. It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire United Kingdom. It is only by sticking to this plan that we will become a more united and prosperous country together, and I commend this statement to the House.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

This is a very significant moment. It is our chance to restore to the people of Northern Ireland what they desperately need but have been without for almost two years: a functioning Government. It will also mark a first in Northern Ireland history when Michelle O’Neill takes up her position as Sinn Féin First Minister in a power-sharing Government with a DUP Deputy First Minister. I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his tireless efforts that have brought us to this point. His is a great achievement.

I would like to acknowledge the courageous and decisive leadership of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who in the face of abuse has consistently and persuasively made his case for change, while always being clear that he wanted to return to government with an agreement that was acceptable to all communities. I also want to thank the other party leaders in Northern Ireland—and I join the Secretary of State in doing so—who, with great wisdom, have allowed the time and the space for this deal to be reached, as well as to express my thanks to all the officials involved.

On the legislative changes that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State has set out, I welcome the Government’s commitment not to ratify any new Northern Ireland-related agreements with the EU that would create new regulatory borders. This will be a helpful brake on divergence. Could the Secretary of State say when the new UK internal market lane will come into being?

We will of course examine in detail all the proposals in the statutory instruments to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—I understand that we are likely to debate them tomorrow—because we need to get on with this so that the Assembly can be recalled and the Executive established as quickly as possible. I have always made it clear that we believe in Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market of the United Kingdom, and that we support any practical measures to reinforce it that are consistent with the Windsor framework, which we also support, and that have the support of nationalists as well as Unionists. On that basis, we will vote for the legislation.

The money that the Secretary of State has announced, including the needs-based funding formula and the stabilisation funding, will enable a restored Executive and Assembly to give public sector workers a pay rise, for which they have waited too long, and to start to tackle the huge challenges facing communities and public services and make the most of the great economic potential of Northern Ireland. We also welcome the plans to defer and then write off Stormont’s overspend, provided that the Executive produce a new fiscal sustainability plan. How quickly does the right hon. Gentleman expect the money to be transferred, and when does he think the new Executive will produce a budget?

Finally, as we reflect on the importance of this moment, since the Good Friday agreement was signed the people of Northern Ireland have been without a devolved Government for over a third of the time. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to work together—all of us in the House—to prevent the institutions from collapsing again in the years ahead? Stability is everything, especially to the people of Northern Ireland after all they have been through, and we all have a duty to ensure that it endures.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his very kind words and for all the work he has done with me on these matters. I really do appreciate the way we have been able to work together. It has contributed to our getting to this point and it has made a big difference, so I thank him for that.

The shadow Secretary of State is completely right that everyone in this House will need to work together to ensure stability for Northern Ireland and to ensure that the institutions do not fall again. It is vital that we all understand the responsibility that sits with us in this place: we are guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We have a responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, and in every way we should consider that in everything we do, because this Union is stronger for it.

The shadow Secretary of State asked some questions. We hope to have the UK internal market lane in operation as soon as possible, and we obviously need some legal changes—I mean, other changes—to have that done. The money will flow as soon as the new Executive is up and running, and I very much hope that a new Executive will be sitting very soon.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I warmly commend the hard work of my right hon. Friend—and good friend—the Secretary of State. It is only a week ago that we passed legislation to extend the election period, and heard the impressive and powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). He has demonstrated, with his colleagues in the DUP, that to lead is to choose and to make difficult decisions. They have done that, and I think respect and praise are due in large measure for their hard work.

I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper incorporates many of the sensible recommendations from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), which we share, on further legislation to make sure that the position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is absolutely cemented. I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper looks forward to new investment—not just the important investment in public services, but the enhanced investment zone proposal of £150 million, which will be at the centre of how we attract new inward investment to realise the huge potential that Northern Ireland presents for jobs and the economy both here in the UK and across the wider world.

It is tempting for this Parliament, once it passes the secondary legislation, to say that the job is done, but we cannot afford to devolve and forget. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not devolve and forget?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his welcome for this package of measures. It is a package, and it has been negotiated over a long period of time, with a better understanding of all the things that Northern Ireland needs to be an active and wonderful part of the Union. I welcome his comments on the investment zone, and he is absolutely correct in what he said at the end. Northern Ireland will never be forgotten in this place, and I hope we are demonstrating that today.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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Can I just say on behalf of my party that we very much welcome the progress that has been made? We are firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and we welcome the publication of the Command Paper.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the distance that has been travelled by all parties in getting to this point, but we were brought to this point by a failure of politics around the manner in which the UK chose to leave the European Union. Now that the politics has moved on, it is time for the politicians in Northern Ireland to step up, and we wish the MLAs well in that endeavour and look forward to seeing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taking office in what will be a very significant moment in history for all in these islands.

The Secretary of State describes his party as being the party of the Union, and I say to him that it has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the Union that Northern Ireland has for some time had the offer of a status, in its access to the UK market and to the European market, that other parts of the Union are now deprived of. I am sure that voters will draw their own conclusions from that.

I want to ask two questions. When might the details of any new fiscal framework emerge? While I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the new east-west economic council, can the Secretary of State clarify what role there might be for the other devolved institutions in these islands to make that new council as successful as it possibly can be?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, his welcome and his help in the past few weeks and months, which has been much appreciated. Again, it has helped us to get to this place. He is right to recognise that Northern Ireland is a special place, and has a special place as the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the EU. In the past, that has created disadvantage, but we hope it will create advantage for it in the future. Everyone recognises that; it was recognised in the Windsor framework and, as he will see, in various choices we are making in the Command Paper.

On the fiscal framework, I very much hope that the incoming Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers responsible will work with His Majesty’s Treasury in great detail to make sure that we get that absolutely right. I have never conducted a negotiation with His Majesty’s Treasury in that sort of way, but I imagine that it has quite tight pockets, is very difficult to get hold of and probably would not want ongoing commentary. However, I am sure that it will make the matter as public as it can, when it can. Finally, on the east-west body, it is important that it works with all parts of Great Britain.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his patience on this deal, as well as the Prime Minister and the DUP on negotiating such a tough and positive document. The Northern Ireland parties have been incredibly patient through the past months, and I pay tribute to them. I put on record my thanks to the Labour party and the shadow Secretary of State for Labour’s support for the Government’s deal. This deal will be a huge relief to many across Northern Ireland, who have got to the end of their tether, whether the issue for them is public services, waiting lists or other elements of society. Does the Northern Ireland Secretary agree that the deal is a significant boost to the economy, to peace and to the Union?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for his kind comments. Yes, I absolutely believe that this deal will bring greater prosperity to Northern Ireland. When I was given this role, I was, in essence, given three tasks by our Prime Minister. The first was to help him find a route through the Northern Ireland protocol conundrum, and that became the Windsor framework. The second was to try to get Stormont up and running, so that local people make decisions for their fellow people in Northern Ireland, and I would like to think that we are getting there. The third was to make Northern Ireland one of the most prosperous parts of our United Kingdom; I think we can all agree on that aim.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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On occasions such as this, it is courteous to thank the Minister or Secretary of State for the statement, but may I, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and my party, thank the Secretary of State most sincerely for his steadfast endurance in our negotiations, for his commitment to ensuring that we got to this stage, for not giving up, and for resolving the issues that have been an impediment to devolution operating sufficiently and properly in Northern Ireland? He will know that on Monday evening and into Tuesday morning, my party took a significant decision to move forward, on the basis of what we know to be in the Command Paper published today.

Although we were told that the Windsor framework could not be reopened, we have succeeded. Although we were told that there would be no change to the green lane, it is gone. We were told that there would be no removal of barriers to trade between GB and Northern Ireland, but we have removed all checks within the UK internal market system, save for those ordinarily required for dealing with criminality and the prevention of smuggling. We were told that there would be no legal change to the Windsor framework or the EU text, yet—this was part of the process of ensuring trust and commitment—colleagues will have noticed the publication just yesterday of more than 60 pages of legislative changes to text on the European perspective. That will allow rest-of-the-world products and the benefits of UK-wide trade deals to truly be available UK-wide.

We are very grateful to the Secretary of State and to the Prime Minister, who was here earlier, and we are grateful for the offers of support and commitment from His Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition. We are grateful for having got to this place today. We have turned the impossible into the possible, and are delivering the undeliverable in this Command Paper. We are hopeful for the future, but the Secretary of State will know that our position is predicated on full and faithful implementation and delivery of what we have achieved. Today’s Command Paper and yesterday’s legislative changes were published; in the spirit of the trust that we have established, and given the process that needs to flow, I would be very grateful if he could indicate that tomorrow, subject to what the Leader of the House does, we will see the introduction and passage of the legislation that is so crucial to this programme.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. As I mentioned in my statement, he has been integral to what has been happening over the past few weeks and months. I really do enjoy working with him, and am looking forward to doing so in the future. He mentions a host of things. He is right to say that the Command Paper is clear: we will provide clear legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and other UK Government authorities to eliminate any physical checks when goods move within the UK internal market system, save for those checks required as part of managing the risk of criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease.

The hon. Gentleman knows more than anyone that the deal is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. We have set out what that involves. It includes new measures in domestic legislation to affirm unfettered access and Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, as well as new structures, and steps to ensure that the full benefits of the Windsor framework are felt by people and businesses. As is shown by the draft tariff text that he mentioned, we can continue to show the joint solutions that the UK and EU can deliver under the Windsor framework. He asked me a very specific question about the timetable. I am committed to the timetable, as are the Government. Everybody in this House should know that. In all transparency, it is unbelievably important that, with the leave of the House, we get the business changed, so that we can debate those two statutory instruments and they can be passed. They are a fundamental part of the timetable that leads to Stormont’s return.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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I welcome the progress made towards the restoration of power sharing, and thank the Secretary of State and the DUP for their dedicated work on that. I am sure there will be much to welcome in the papers published today, which we will need to scrutinise carefully in the 30 or so hours before we are asked to vote on them. However, one thing that we know that they do not contain is a removal of Northern Ireland from single market legislation. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government commit to continuing the dialogue with the EU, so that we can amend the Windsor framework, and restore democratic control over law making in every part of our United Kingdom?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. Friend—one of the longest-serving former Secretaries of State in this House—for her comments and questions. She is absolutely right in all she says. The Command Paper, which I do hope people will have the opportunity to read before tomorrow, contains quite an amount of detail on the deal. It is a comprehensive deal. The statutory instruments tomorrow are just two small parts of a much wider package of items in the deal; this is all outlined and detailed in the Command Paper. To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, she will also see an important change that we intend to make to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; it now has a powerful democratic safeguard in the Stormont brake, which the new Assembly will have immediately at its fingertips.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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As the Members behind me know, I was married in County Armagh at the very height of the troubles, and I heard the explosions and saw the huge bomb damage. Tragically, my wife’s family lost a number of friends in the troubles. I served for 12 years in the Scottish Parliament, so I have some knowledge of devolution. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State to make possible the maximum liaison between a restored Stormont—Godspeed to that—and devolved institutions such as the Scottish Parliament, so that the maximum benefit can be drawn from responsible working devolution?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he is absolutely right. I know of his history and the story about his wife, which he has mentioned to me a number of times. I thank him for his interest in all things Northern Ireland and all things Union. In fact, there is a body, the British-Irish Council, that does exactly what he suggests, at the highest level. Hopefully, at the next meeting of the British-Irish Council, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland will attend with representatives of all the other devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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The proposed legislation is of great constitutional significance, yet it is merely a statutory instrument and not an Act of Parliament. What restrictions on its lawmaking has the EU agreed over the single market in Northern Ireland? What democratic improvements are being made to the Stormont brake in Northern Ireland to ensure divergence, and to enable the United Kingdom Government to remove or veto the imposition of EU laws?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He and I have had a number of discussions over the years on these sorts of matters, and his question is a very wise one. As I mentioned, we are amending section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, so there is now a powerful democratic safeguard on the flow of EU law, which a new Assembly will have immediately at its fingertips. I thank my hon. Friend, because I know about the work that he did to ensure that section 38 was included in the Act. I hope he recognises that we are adding Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, which is a strong addition to section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020. Indeed, his original clause has been a big part of the solution to this conundrum, and I am truly grateful to him for it.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Despite the gains made by my party leader and deputy party leader in these negotiations, the fact remains that there are still EU-manned border posts being built in Northern Ireland, which will create a border within our own country. When the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, Ministers and Assembly Members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws that are made in Brussels, which they will have no say over, no ability to amend and no ability to stop. That is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed and Brexit-betraying Government refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland.

The Government have admitted that there will be divergence in the future. On page 17 of the Command Paper, there is an indication that there will be a legal requirement to assess whether new legislation impacts on trade between Northern Ireland and GB. If it does, Ministers have to make a statement. We have had the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), saying only this week that that does not mean that the UK Government cannot introduce laws that diverge from the EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland. Which is it? Is Northern Ireland going to find that it has the ability to stay tied to the United Kingdom, or will the Government happily proceed to change laws here in Westminster, regardless of the impact it has on Northern Ireland?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, but some of the points he made were actually incorrect. In the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, we said that there would be checks on goods going into the EU single market. I think that every piece of legislation we have proposed in this place has said that, but it will be UK folk operating the UK internal market scheme. Today, on the fourth anniversary of our leaving the European Union, I can tell him that the agreed package of measures will not change the freedoms and powers we have secured through Brexit or the Windsor framework. It will not reduce our ability to diverge, nor our commitment to do so, should it be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to clause 13C in one of the statutory instruments. A whole swathe of things happen behind the scenes before a Bill is brought before this House. One of them, which the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has complained to me about before, is something we call the parliamentary business and legislation committee, or PBL. We do a Star Chamber of Bills, and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales attend to state whether there is any adverse effect of the legislation being mooted. What the right hon. Gentleman rightly asked for is transparency and the publication of a written ministerial statement when there is the possibility of a significant adverse effect on GB-NI trade. Publishing a written ministerial statement is not in any way what he says it is.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the DUP? Clearly, this is still a highly emotive issue, and understandably so, because when we left the EU, I, the House and the country were promised that we would leave as a United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but, as we have heard, it will still be subject to EU laws, so that axe is still grinding away and we must get rid of it. What is unhelpful is Sinn Féin’s whispering about unification at this highly emotive time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me, the House and this country that Northern Ireland will always be part of the United Kingdom? We are stronger together.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I have to tread slightly more carefully on that particular issue, because as Secretary of State I am responsible for making an independent assessment of the conditions that might lead to the border poll to which my hon. Friend alludes. I have to be very careful, but I am comfortable suggesting that, certainly in my lifetime, Northern Ireland will be a strong and wonderfully prosperous part of the United Kingdom. However, it is very important to outline the parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that allow for all these things to happen, and any change would absolutely depend on the consent of both communities at the time. I certainly do not think anybody judges that to be in place at this point.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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It is important to point out that the people of Ireland, north and south, will decide the constitutional future of Ireland—nobody else. This is a very good day for the people of Northern Ireland, and I am very glad to see it. We are about to see something very significant: we will have the first ever nationalist First Minister and the first ever nationalist leader of the opposition, and I wish them well. In order to properly maintain this progress and make the most of it, will the Secretary of State convene a process with all the political parties and the Irish Government to look at how we can reform the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, to make sure that no one party can ever pull them down again?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the proposal. He mentioned at the very beginning of his question that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement relies on the consent of both communities and then suggested reform, which certainly does not have the consent of one of them. However, I understand the point he makes. When people have asked me about future reform of the institutions, I have always said that this is a conversation that should be started within Stormont and by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. The thing I hope for is not that particular conversation; it is for Stormont to be returned so that elected folk from Northern Ireland can govern for the people of Northern Ireland.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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It is absolutely vital that the democratic institutions and lawmaking powers are returned to the elected politicians in Northern Ireland, and today is clearly very historic and symbolic. At the same time, however, we know that Northern Ireland’s economic lifeblood is linked to the rest of GB, and I concur with the rest of my colleagues who have spoken on this issue. It is vital that we ensure not only that there is the ability to diverge and have the freedom to secure Northern Ireland’s economic lifeblood, but that the prosperity of Northern Ireland remains. May I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that we have the full ability to do that, and that it will be backed up by this Government in Westminster?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted to give her the assurance she seeks, because this announcement will reduce neither our ability to diverge, nor our commitment to do so should that be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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Many of us welcome this day and hope that the restoration of Stormont is possible. If the Government are capable of removing trade barriers with the European Union for the constituents of Belfast, many of my constituents would like to see them do the same for them. May I press the Secretary of State on what he said about amending section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, because he will know that is the foundation of the practical application of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that many of us hold dear. His Command Paper talks about the “pipeline of EU law”. Can he clarify for the avoidance of doubt that any amendment he makes will not see any regression at all in the rights upheld in that document, and in particular the rights afforded to every single member of the communities in Northern Ireland in the wording of the Good Friday agreement and under the European convention on human rights?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Yes, I absolutely can.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
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May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for his important endorsement, which is encouraging? May I ask my right hon. Friend about paragraph 145 of the Command Paper? Can he give an example of the circumstances in which a Minister might say that there would be an effect on the internal market and what that might restrict in practice?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Off the top of my head, I cannot give an example, because I have not yet needed to do that in the PBL—parliamentary business and legislation committee—as I have stated. The practical effect is one of transparency. I am aware that there are many Select Committee Chairs in this place. We want to ensure that when a Bill potentially has a substantial adverse effect on GB-NI trade and we are making those decisions, we are transparent about it and we tell people about it. The best way to do that is to inform this House through a written ministerial statement.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I remind him that we have been pressing the Government for action rather than words for more than two years, but we welcome the fact that action has been taken, both on trading and the constitutional position. Does he agree that subsequent to the next few days, we need to continue to work to close the narrow gap that remains? We have made significant and substantial progress towards what we asked the Government to do. Will he also indicate to the wider community in Northern Ireland that even when someone gets a large number of votes, such as Sinn Féin, if they have a mantra that their day will come, it will also go with less fanfare?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I see all politics as a process, actually. All politics is an evolution. In the Windsor framework, there is provision for when matters are discussed about Northern Ireland in the Joint Committee—the body that looks at the EU-UK relationship, legislation and its effect—that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can attend. We are not only moving on through Stormont returning, but we are ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard and that that process can continue.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
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Given everything that the Secretary of State has said, can he assure the House that article 6 of the Act of Union, which guarantees that everybody within that Union shall not be disadvantaged in any way, particularly with reference to trade, is still in place and will remain so?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I point my hon. Friend to the very large section and annex in the Command Paper on the Acts of Union. I know my colleague the shadow Secretary of State dug out the Acts of Union to read them in relation to this business. There are many bits of the Acts of Union that we would not really want to have now, because they introduced tariffs of their own, but I ask my hon. Friend to look at the annex in the Command Paper where we go into great detail on exactly the answer he wants.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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We thank the Secretary of State for his very welcome statement, and we take the opportunity to congratulate Michelle O’Neill on becoming the First Minister and all the other parties that have managed to bring this agreement about. Does he think that this agreement will lead to an increase in all-Ireland institutions and their effectiveness—in culture, tourism, transport, health and so on—and does he agree with the point, made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), that ultimately it is for the people of Ireland to decide their long-term future, not anyone else?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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On the second point, it is for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland to decide their futures in that particular matter. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there is a little way to go in this process before we have the First Minister and Deputy First Minister sitting, and this is an important part of that timetable, but we welcome that happening. He asked about all-Ireland institutions. This agreement means that those institutions set up by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, such as the North South Ministerial Council, can function correctly, and it also sets up new east-west bodies to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is equally recognised and made stronger.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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May I join the shadow Secretary of State in hugely welcoming this great achievement by the Secretary of State, by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and by all the other party leaders with whom he successfully agreed to re-establish devolved Government at Stormont? As the son of a Northern Ireland Unionist family, I believe it will only be good for the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Can my right hon. Friend confirm when the internal market levy and the changes to tariffs on goods from countries with which the UK has a free trade agreement will come into place?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. The factually correct answer is probably that those measures will come into place when the legislation is passed through this place.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State knows that 2025 is just too long to wait for veterinary medicine issues to be resolved in Northern Ireland. That grace period is totally unacceptable. He knows it will decimate veterinary practices, affect farm viability and, according to the British Veterinary Association, have a detrimental impact on public health. In paragraph 141 of this Command Paper, the Secretary of State indicates that he will set up a veterinary medicines working group. I welcome that, but will he confirm that if a speedy solution is not brought forward by the spring, he will table legislation in this House to unilaterally deal with this matter once and for all?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman is right; I think it is paragraphs 136 to 141 in the Command Paper that detail the issues he has rightly raised in this place, with me privately and in meetings with my officials. It is probably fair to say that he was the genesis of the veterinary medicines working group idea in paragraph 141. That group will receive expert opinion, and that is a vital part of the solution to this problem. My intention is to listen carefully to the group’s recommendations, because it will have the experts in this matter. At that point, he and I can have the next bit of conversation, although I hope that will not need to be the case, because I would like to think we can pursue solutions through technical discussions with the European Union, but let us see.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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I echo the comments of many colleagues across the House in welcoming the progress made on this matter. Through the Secretary of State, I thank the many people involved for the effort they have put in. We have two draft statutory instruments before us amending two sets of primary legislation, with the words “constitutional law” in one of them. The questions asked during this statement hint at the breadth and depth of the issues that such instruments raise. It seems slightly incongruous that they are coming to this place last, even though they are the first concerns of this House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members should have time to read, digest and debate the instruments? Can he explain why the current proposals are for exactly that to be done in just 24 hours and with a short debate?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I know that he has talked to my Minister of State on these matters. Actually, our Standing Orders state the debating time for these things. The House is an interesting being, and I would not want to get in the way of its Standing Orders.

Secondly, as I tried to underline in a previous answer, a timetable has been agreed with the Democratic Unionist party, which the Government are committed to, and if we fulfil it, that will lead to the restoration of Stormont. The House is full of agile and able Members of Parliament who are amazingly good at scrutiny, and I know that they can do that very, very well in the time provided.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I thank my party leader and deputy leader for the many gains in the Command Paper. However, our leader said that there remains work to do. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm whether Northern Ireland still remains under the EU’s single market laws for the production of food and agrifood? Does the EU customs code still apply in Northern Ireland? Does he accept that such a situation is not compatible with UK sovereignty and Northern Ireland’s place as a full part of the United Kingdom? In accepting that, would he say that more work needs done on this? Will he further outline what assurances he has had from the EU that the rules governing the new internal market system are acceptable to it?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. May I recommend that she re-reads the Windsor framework and indeed the Command Paper?

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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I applaud the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and the wider Northern Ireland team. I know—I have seen this up close and personal—how passionate and dedicated they are on this issue. The people of Northern Ireland will ultimately be the winners when it comes to decisions being made locally, closer to them.

As a Member of Parliament from the new intake, I think it is a great shame that we have often felt at loggerheads with Democratic Unionist party Members. Ultimately, I share a huge amount of their values, and I absolutely appreciate their passion and how closely they cling to their identity. I share that passion. Will the Secretary of State ensure that this marks a new chapter when we can work more collaboratively to promote the place of Northern Ireland within our Union, which we all love?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend. I know that he is passionate about Northern Ireland: indeed, I saw his passion when I hosted him and he visited and looked around Northern Ireland. The answer to his question is yes. Yes, we need to move forward. Yes, we need to work with the Democratic Unionists. Yes, we need a positive way forward for Unionism so that Northern Ireland can forever stay part of our United Kingdom.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I am hopeful that Northern Ireland is now in a better place. I have always understood that, in the context of a hard Brexit, Northern Ireland would require some special arrangements. My party has always been open to maximising flexibilities, provided that those are done in a legal way and that we protect our dual market access.

On the financial package, I very much welcome the £3.3 billion for Northern Ireland, which reflects a cross-party effort. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a need for a further discussion to happen—potentially in the next Parliament—on a long-term review of Northern Ireland’s fiscal framework and fiscal floor? On reform, will he recognise that, building on precedents, the UK Government must lead that process? If we are talking about safeguarding the Union, we also have to talk about safeguarding the Assembly and the Executive.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, which has been raised with me for months—if not since I became Secretary of State—by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who is rather keen on making sure that we have a long-term agreement and process in this space. I really look forward to working with Ministers in a reformed Executive on exactly that.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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In the light of the answer the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart)—or the lack of an answer—I would like to reiterate that point as well as ask about implementation and how Northern Ireland is affected by not getting access to duty-free. Every other airport in the United Kingdom has access to duty-free, yet those flying from Northern Ireland to any part of Europe cannot avail themselves of duty-free—it is the only airport on these islands where that cannot be done. That is one area where the single market is affecting us.

We are still part of that single market and, from what I see in the Command Paper, we will continue to be. As a consequence, in our energy market in Northern Ireland—I would like an answer on this—we are paying a carbon tax at an entirely different rate from any other part of Great Britain. For our electricity supply, our carbon offset is twice the level paid in any other part of the United Kingdom. What measures on that are included in the Command Paper? It was handed to us at what I would call the eleventh hour and 59th minute. We would like to be given time to get into the details. We very much feel like we are being bounced through a timetable and that we will not get through the detail that is supposedly in the statutory instruments and the Command Paper.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points. I think it is fair to say that Northern Ireland was part of a single energy market across the island of Ireland well before we left the European Union and that there have always been interactions on that basis. The answer to his question is contained in the Command Paper.

There are a whole host of things to say, but I will just make the point about the difference for Northern Ireland. It does have access to the EU single market and unfettered access to the UK’s internal market, but it is not subjugated to the European Union arrangements. It will not pay into the European Union budget. It is not subject to European Union freedom of movement, services rules, environmental rules, labour rules or procurement rules; neither is it subject to the European Medicines Agency, the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. Northern Ireland has unique circumstances because of its geographic location. Everybody recognises that. We want it to thrive in our Union, and with the Command Paper that direction of travel is set.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I welcome the statement. If a future UK Government were to diverge substantially from EU product regulations and standards for Great Britain, what would be the impact on what the Secretary of State has announced today?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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First, we would be allowed to do that—100%. Secondly, there would be a written ministerial statement stating that exact fact so that Ministers and others in the Northern Ireland Assembly could debate and make provision for it.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement and the hard work he has done—I say that sincerely. Government actions until now have undermined some of the trust of Unionist people, so there is a clear need for messaging from the Government that the concerns that Unionists have been expressing for the last two years are being dealt with through secure legislative processes here and with the EU. My Strangford constituents—some of them are in the Gallery today—are proud of their Britishness. I am sure that the Secretary of State can confirm—I hope he can—that we in Northern Ireland are as British as those in London, Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle, and, indeed, Edinburgh and Scotland as well.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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And Daventry. I can confirm that 100%. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am very proud that he is a proud Brit, as I am.