Labour leader says new Northern Ireland Secretary asked if passport for Derry was needed

The Labour leader has claimed the new Secretary of State once asked if "you needed a passport to get to Derry".

Sir Keir Starmer was welcoming the new cabinet ministers to the front benches of the House of Commons after a week of turmoil which saw the prime minister lose over 50 members of his cabinet and was forced to resign.

"We have a new Chancellor who accepted a job from the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon and then told him to quit on Thursday morning," he said.

"A new Northern Ireland Secretary who once asked if you needed a passport to get to Derry, and a new Education Secretary whose junior Ministers have literally been giving the middle finger to the public. It is truly the country’s loss that they will only be in post for a few weeks."

As Sir Keir made the remarks new Northern Ireland Secretary Shailesh Vara can be seen shaking his head and saying "that's not right."

Mr Vara was formerly a minister in the Northern Ireland office for 10 months in 2018.

The passport claims were made in the Sunday Times.

In a statement, the NIO told UTV: "The Secretary of State is clear that these comments have no basis in truth whatsoever. The event reported simply did not happen. "An official would also never refer to Derry/Londonderry as 'Derry'. "The Secretary of State pointed out that misinformation of this sort only detracts from the serious and important issues concerning Northern Ireland that he wishes to concentrate on."

It was a rowdy Commons chamber before the two leaders went head to head, with Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ordering two Scottish MPs to be ejected from the House. Alba Party pair Kenny MacAskill and Belfast-born MP Neale Hanvey were told to leave after the former was heard trying to raise a point of order and appeared to say "we need a referendum". He then refused to sit down and continued to speak, prompting Sir Lindsay to act.

The Speaker said: "I will not tolerate such behaviour. If you want to go out, go out now.

"If you stand again, I will order you out. Make your mind up."

Mr MacAskill rose to his feet again before Mr Hanvey also stood up and started speaking, but he could not be heard over the heckling from Tory MPs.

Sir Lindsay then named the pair, meaning they are suspended from the House.

He said: "Neale Hanvey, I'm now naming you and Kenny MacAskill to leave this chamber. Serjeant, deal with them. Out now, Serjeant-at-arms escort them out."

Meanwhile, in the Commons, a bill to rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol is progressing through the committee stages. MPs are attempting to amend it and dilute its aims, something the DUP opposes.

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Mr Vara said the government was intent on getting the bill into law, despite the possible distraction of a Tory leadership content.

"This is vital piece of legislation and it will be getting the attention it deserves," he said.

"Business is continuing, notwithstanding there is a leadership election."

He said the government was determined to reach agreement with the EU, but if they could not reach a resolution, "we have to act".

"We have proposals... I do believe with proper good will and intent, we can reach a compromise."

His predecessor Brandon Lewis had indicated he would implement abortion services in Northern Ireland over the head of the Department of Health.

MPs at Westminster voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, but full services have not been established. Health Minister Robin Swann has argued that he needs the support of the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services. Mr Lewis, last month, said he was preparing to act on the delay.

Mr Vara said it was vital services were commissioned.

"It is vital women and girls in Northern Ireland have the same healthcare facilities for abortion that woman and girls throughout the rest of the UK.

"It is important the Department of Health does all it can to make sure those services are available as quickly as possible."

Mr Vara said he was delighted to return to Northern Ireland and had met with all the main party leaders and had discussions with Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister.

He said he was determined to see power sharing restored.

Asked what the best thing about Northern Ireland was, he said the people and also the food.

Although he did say at times the portion sizes were too big.

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