I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I inform the House that the noble Lord Caine, who will be well known to many Members of this House, cannot be with us because, sadly, his father passed away this morning. I am sure that we will all join together in sending our condolences to him and his family. We send him, and his mother in particular, our very best wishes. [Interruption.] Lord Caine.
Yes, Jonathan to you, Mr Speaker, I am sure.
I begin by inviting the House to join me in remembering those who lost their lives in the horrific Shankill Road bombing, the Greysteel massacre and the series of attacks that followed. These atrocities took place 25 years ago, but their effects are still felt by those who lost loved ones and by the dozens of people injured. Those who lost their lives will never be forgotten. People from across the community in Northern Ireland suffered in those dark days, and we must not forget that suffering.
When the people of Northern Ireland voted, by a huge majority, in favour of the Belfast agreement, they voted for a shared future in which no one would have to experience the suffering and loss that took place during the troubles. None of us in this House should forget, or underestimate, what was lost before the Belfast agreement, or what has been achieved since.
The Government remain completely and unequivocally committed to the Belfast agreement, not just because of what it stands for, but for what it has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. At the heart of that agreement is a devolved power-sharing executive Government, and restoring that Executive remains my top priority. Northern Ireland needs devolved government. It needs all the functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government. As Secretary of State, achieving this aim is my absolute priority.
The Bill delivers on a number of commitments that I set out in my last statement to the House on
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s purpose in bringing forward the Bill is limited to ensuring that administrative functions in Northern Ireland continue efficiently, and that it is not about deciding on key devolved policy issues, which are more properly decided on by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected, accountable representatives?
My hon. Friend sums up very well the intent of the Bill. It will enable civil servants to continue to run public services; it will not make them law makers. They will not have the power to change policy decisions, but they will have the ability to continue to make decisions. That is why the Bill is a matter for urgent debate, and why it is emergency legislation. Without the Bill, there would be a danger of essential public services in Northern Ireland not being delivered. That is why the Government have brought it forward.
The Bill does not give civil servants any new powers; rather, it gives clarity on the exercise of their existing powers in the absence of Ministers. It will be underpinned by supporting guidance that provides a framework for decision making for Northern Ireland Departments when a judgment is being made on whether those existing powers should be used in the absence of Ministers.
An agreement would have to be reached by the Democratic Unionist party, whose Members are here, properly take their seats in Parliament, and work assiduously on behalf of their constituents, and Sinn Féin MPs, who absent themselves and do not take their seats. Will an agreement between Sinn Féin absentee MPs and the DUP have to be arrived at by
I will—[Interruption.] I am not having a good day, am I? [Interruption.] I thank Stephen Pound; he is such a gentleman, as I am sure we all agree. [Interruption.] Better still, he is ensuring that I do not waste any water.
The date in the Bill was chosen after consultation with all the main parties in Northern Ireland. It is not easy to determine the most appropriate date, but we have chosen the date that we believe gives the best chance for an Executive to be formed, and for meaningful talks to take place.
I do not see this as a deadline as such; I see it as a date by which a decision will have to be taken on whether an election is called. The hon. Lady will be aware that the date is around the time when purdah starts for local elections. She will know very well that there are local elections in Northern Ireland next May. The date was chosen with that in mind, because clearly once a local election campaign starts, political parties focus on campaigning. She will know that we have had stable devolved government in Northern Ireland, but for most of the last 10 years, we have had a hiatus; that is far too long, and that is not right for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not what they deserve. I am trying to put in place, through the Bill, the best conditions to allow those talks to recommence, and to enable us to get an Executive in place. The date was chosen after consultation with all the main parties and the civil service of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has made several references in her speech so far to the political hiatus. Does she agree that the reason we do not have a functioning Executive and Assembly is that out of the five political parties in Northern Ireland eligible to be in the Executive, four—the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party—have all said that if the Secretary of State convenes a meeting of the Assembly for the purpose of appointing Ministers, they will be there and will appoint their Ministers immediately and without precondition, but one party, Sinn Fein, has declined to give such an undertaking? Should we not be honest with the House, and instead of blaming all of the political parties, put the focus where it belongs, on the people who do not take their seats here, who do not take their seats at Stormont and who are outside, looking in? They are the people denying Northern Ireland its proper democratic Government.
I do not want to provide a running commentary on the talks I have had with parties since the talks broke down in February between the two main parties. What I would say is that I have heard a willingness from parties that they want to get back into Government. That is why I believe that the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is that we give those parties the chance to get back into devolved Government and provide the best conditions to enable that to happen—and the Bill is part of achieving that. It is important that we use this time and the powers in the Bill to ensure that public services continue to be run and there is no distraction from the parties coming back together and forming a Government.
Does the Secretary of State accept that if an Assembly is to come back to Northern Ireland—and we all here support that—the structure of that Assembly has to be right, so that no one party can pull it down?
I want to see a fully functioning, devolved Government as we have seen in the past, as that would be best for the people of Northern Ireland, and so that many of the decisions and the policies that right hon. and hon. Members will raise today can be taken in the right place, which is Stormont.
Is cearta daonna iad cearta teanga agus tá cothrom na féinne tuilte ag lucht labhartha na Gaeilge.
Under the St Andrews agreement of 2006, the British Government pledged to introduce an Irish language Act based on the experiences of Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State uphold that commitment by introducing an Irish language Act if power-sharing institutions are not restored within six months?
I assume that that intervention contained a translation. That is my working premise—
I would be delighted to offer a translation if that would be sufficient.
I thought it had been offered, but if it has not been, I hope that the hon. Lady will indulge not just me, but the House.
Language rights are human rights and the Irish speakers of Ireland deserve fair play.
The hon. Lady is right that the St Andrews agreement includes a political declaration to legislate for an Irish language Act, but it is also clear that once devolved Government restarted in Stormont in 2008, that power became a devolved power for Stormont to legislate on. I support the fact that we have statutory underpinning for many of our indigenous languages. For example, during the 2010-15 Parliament, the Cornish language was granted statutory underpinning, and S4C, which was legislated for by a Conservative Government in the 1980s, has delivered a status for the Welsh language that I am sure the hon. Lady appreciates and enjoys on a regular basis. The important point is that it is a devolved power, and I am sure that as the leader of Plaid Cymru in the House she would not want to see the House undermining the constitutional devolution arrangements that exist across the United Kingdom, or cherry-picking points that right hon. and hon. Members may feel strongly about—and I have great sympathy with much of the strength of feeling—as we have to respect those arrangements.
The Bill will also enable key public appointments to be made in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, including reconstituting the Northern Ireland Policing Board. To make it clear to right hon. and hon. Members, a properly constituted Northern Ireland Policing Board is essential for proper governance and accountability, and public trust in policing in Northern Ireland. That is why it is essential that we pass the Bill urgently.
I shall turn to the specifics of the Bill. First, the Bill extends the period provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for Northern Ireland Ministers to be appointed before the local elections next year. As the House is aware, because Ministers were not appointed by
The Bill also contains a provision in clause 2 that this period may be extended once, for up to five months. That will remove the need for further primary legislation in the event that, for example, Northern Ireland parties have made progress towards a deal, but a short extension is judged necessary to finalise an agreement and form an Executive.
I want to be clear to the House—I will not wait until March to begin efforts to bring the parties together to work towards Executive formation. Following the passage of this legislation, I intend to meet party leaders to discuss the basis, process, and timing for a further phase of talks, and will at all times continue to stress the urgent need to restore devolution. I welcome all efforts to improve political dialogue between the parties in Northern Ireland, including those by church leaders, who I met earlier this month— following their meeting with the parties—to discuss how best to encourage meaningful political engagement towards the restoration of an Executive.
I admire the stamina and diligence that the Secretary of State has demonstrated in trying to achieve the restoration of the Assembly since January last year. However, I am intrigued to learn whether the Northern Ireland Office has taken time to assess the unpopularity of the Assembly in Northern Ireland caused mainly, although not exclusively, because the 90 MLAs continue to receive their full salary while not doing a full job. When the Secretary of State announced in September that she would cut MLA salaries, she delayed the cut until November. Can she explain that three-month delay to the people of Northern Ireland who are outraged by MLAs continuing to receive a full salary?
I know that the hon. Lady feels strongly about that matter and she has raised it in the House on several occasions. It is not a three-month delay: I made the statement on
Although I fully understand and appreciate the point made by Lady Hermon, I appeal to her to understand that at the end of the day these are people with families. Yes, I understand the public ire at the lack of an Assembly, but most of the Assembly Members are not functioning there properly through no fault of their own. As I explained to the House, it is the actions of one political party in Northern Ireland and its army council—its illegal army council—that are holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom. It would be nice just for once to hear the hon. Lady call them out for that, instead of labelling in such a way all 90 Members of the Assembly, many of whom are innocent of the charge that they do not want to make progress in Northern Ireland or do their job fully. We treat them unfairly when we label them all in the same way without calling out the people who refuse to do their jobs and sit outside; the majority of Assembly Members want to work full time and do the full job. Of course, the House has taken the decision to cut their pay and we support that, but there are practical issues. They and their families need proper notification. When she makes these points, the hon. Lady should not just put the blame on everyone.
Order. Before the Secretary of State responds, let me say this in good humour, if I may. Lady Hermon and Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson are themselves so unfailingly courteous to colleagues and, indeed, to everybody, that it is really very difficult to get annoyed with them—and I am not. I hope, however, that they will take it in the right spirit if I say that in respect of both of their “interventions”, the erudition was equalled only by the length.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I could not have put it better myself.
Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson makes an important point, in that it is not the fault of Members of the Legislative Assembly that this is the situation. The MLAs I meet regularly want to get back to the Executive and the Assembly, and it is important we recognise that. I also want to put on record once again that I am of course not cutting the pay of any of the staff of MLAs. As we all know in this House, our staff work tirelessly for our constituents, as do the staff of MLAs. They are dealing with casework and constituency matters, and it is quite right that those staff should not be prejudiced against as a result of decisions taken by others.
During the period covered by the Bill, it will be necessary to provide Northern Ireland Departments with certainty about their decision-making powers. Clarity is needed on the decisions that they should or should not make. This follows a recent court ruling against a Northern Ireland Department’s decision to approve a major waste disposal and energy generation facility. The Bill clarifies that a senior officer of a Northern Ireland Department is not prevented from exercising departmental functions in the absence of Ministers during the period for forming an Executive, if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. The Bill also requires that I, as Secretary of State, should publish guidance about the exercise of departmental functions, as I will, of course. That includes principles that senior officers in Northern Ireland Departments may take into account when deciding whether or not to exercise a function, and they are required to have regard to that guidance.
I thank the Secretary of State for her engagement on this issue. It will come as no surprise to her if I mention the transport hub, which is in my constituency but of regional significance for Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that the decision hoped for before Christmas is the type of decision that can be made under the terms of this Bill by a senior civil servant in the relevant Department?
I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues and members of all the main parties across Northern Ireland who assisted in the development of the guidance. Clearly, as Secretary of State I am not able to say what decision a civil servant would make, but we have looked at the kind of decisions and how they might be made. Given that the example she has cited was approved in the Programme for Government before the Executive collapsed and that Ministers had indicated that they had wanted to see it happen, it is the kind of decision that a civil servant should be able to take on the basis of the guidance as issued.
The Secretary of State is being very generous in giving way. From reading the Bill and listening to the Secretary of State’s answer, it is very unclear to me precisely which sort of decisions will or will not be enabled under this legislation. Can she give us an example of a decision that would not be allowed to be taken by civil servant?
I was just about to say that I have published a draft copy of the guidance and placed it in the Library of the House so that hon. and right hon. Members can have a clear sense of what it seeks to do. The important point is that throughout my period as Secretary of State—I put on record how supportive the hon. Gentleman was when he was my opposite number of the need to make legislative changes on limited occasions in this House for the essential running of public services—when we in this House have taken decisions and passed legislation, we have been very clear that what we are not doing is changing policy. Policy and legislation cannot be changed by anything in this Bill. It is about allowing civil servants to make decisions that have been part of a policy that has previously been agreed. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the draft guidance in the Library, and says if he has any suggestions for how the guidance could be strengthened or improved to help civil servants.
I want to be clear: civil servants in Northern Ireland Departments have acted in an exemplary fashion. They have behaved without political cover and without an Executive or Ministers in a way that we should all commend. They have enabled public services in Northern Ireland to continue to be run, and the people of Northern Ireland are continuing to receive their public services. Significant reform is needed in many public services, but this is not about policy decisions on reform. It is about enabling those public services to continue, because the best way to change policy and law in Northern Ireland is for Ministers to be in Stormont making those decisions on behalf of the people who elected them.
Can the Secretary of State say how many legal actions have been initiated in the few days since the contents of clause 3(4), on the retrospective empowerment of civil servants, were made known? I would be grateful for her confirmation or otherwise, but my understanding is that those legal actions that have been initiated will not fall within the scope of the retrospective action that she is seeking to take through clause 3.
Perhaps it is best if I write to the Chair of the Select Committee with specific details, although I want to be clear that we have put in a specific reference to decisions taken since the Executive collapsed because we do not want those decisions that have already been taken to be challenged on the basis that once the Bill is in place there is more cover for civil servants. We want to ensure that the decisions that have already been taken are not undone.
I had the privilege of visiting Lagan College, an integrated school in Belfast, and I would like to take this opportunity to convey to the Secretary of State people’s deep frustration that Stormont is not functioning and their deep frustration about how Stormont functions. Same-sex marriage is an example of a policy that Stormont voted in favour of but was then blocked by a petition of concern. As part of bringing the parties back around the table, is the petition of concern something that the Secretary of State will be encouraging them all to look at again?
At the moment I need to get this legislation through, then I can bring the parties together. The hon. Lady is right that the petition of concern was discussed during the last talks process. What I cannot say is what will be discussed in the next talks process.
on the question of decisions and what are believed to be non-controversial issues, senior civil servants were not making decisions on the back of the Buick ruling, and I want to ensure that those civil servants will be given the cover, under this legislation, to go ahead and deliver on issues that are not controversial, such as broadband, which needs to be delivered to rural areas.
It is precisely because of the uncertainty since the Buick judgment that we are bringing forward this legislation. I do not want to be bringing this Bill forward; I would much rather not be standing here at this Dispatch Box, taking the Bill through the House, because I would much rather that there were Ministers in Stormont making the decisions on behalf of their constituents; but there are not, and faced with the reality of the situation, I have to do what I consider to be best for the people of Northern Ireland, to ensure that their public services can continue, and that civil servants can continue to take the essential decisions in the public interest that they need to take.
It is vital that Members read the guidance alongside the legislative measures, as it clarifies the legal basis for the decisions.
I just want to be clear in my mind about what the Secretary of State is saying. I understand she is saying that there will be no change in policy and decisions will be made by civil servants in the Departments without changing policy. What happens when, in the absence of an Assembly and an Executive, there is a challenge to the policy—perhaps for being in breach of our international obligations? What happens then to the policy? Who is responsible then for dealing with that?
The hon. Lady introduced her ten-minute rule Bill yesterday, and I know she is a campaigner on a particular topic, which I suspect is what she is referring to. This Bill does not make civil servants lawmakers, so they will not be able to change the law—quite rightly. It also does not enable them to take new policy decisions, because it would be wrong to ask civil servants to do so. Civil servants across the United Kingdom act in an incredibly professional and independent way and they follow the decisions and the policy recommendations of Ministers, and it is right that they do that. The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that we need Ministers in Stormont, because Ministers in Stormont could quite rightly make those decisions. They could change the law, and they could make policy decisions on behalf of the people who elected them, and that is what the Bill is about—enabling us to have the best conditions and framework for talks to recommence, and for the parties to come back together and do the right thing by the constituents who elected them.
As I understand it, the Bill before us allows vital everyday public services to continue. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could possibly give us some examples of the types of everyday public services that the Bill will help to continue. I suspect they include health, education and transport—things that we all use every day—and it would give greater clarity to everyone to hear those examples.
I would strongly advise my hon. Friend to read the guidance, but she is right: the purpose of the Bill is to enable public services to continue to be delivered; and to enable decisions around infrastructure projects, where there has been clear ministerial direction in the past, to be taken, so that we can see continued economic growth. We have seen incredible economic growth in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. We have 60,000 more people in employment in Northern Ireland today than in 2010. I want to build on that. I do not want to see Northern Ireland go back. In the absence of an Executive, we are in great danger that Northern Ireland will come to a standstill. We cannot allow that to happen. However, the Bill is about the essential running of public services. It is not about policy decisions or changing the law. It is about enabling civil servants to carry on running those services.
On enacting existing provisions, would the Secretary of State be able to explain something to me? The Londonderry airport, which is owned by a municipal authority, has got money for public service obligation expansions. It is owed £2.5 million from a previous Executive decision, which was not drawn down last year. Is that the sort of provision, which has already been made, that could be decided under this legislation, and the money paid over?
It would not be right for me to answer definitively on any decision that a civil servant may make when this legislation receives Royal Assent, on the basis of the guidance, but the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the kind of decision that they may make. I have used Londonderry airport. It is a great airport, and it would be great to see more flights coming into it—and out, of course.
I am a relative newcomer to this place—I have been here only eight years—but I have just been to the Library, the Table Office and the Vote Office, looking for a copy of the guidance that the Secretary of State says she has placed in the Library, and nobody has a copy of it. Would she clarify where it is?
I have received a nod from the Box, which means that it is there, but we will check as to why it was not available for the hon. Gentleman, because he should see a copy of the guidance, given that I have said it is vital that Members read it. The hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench who has great dexterity when it comes to mopping up water—Stephen Pound—appears to have a copy, so I hope that copies will be available for others.
The guidance sets out a clear framework to support Northern Ireland Departments in making a judgment on whether those judgments should be made in the absence of Ministers. The Bill stipulates that I must have regard to representations from MLAs before publishing the guidance, which would of course also be the case, should there be any need to revise the guidance. I would welcome representations from MPs as well as MLAs on its content before I publish a final iteration, which I intend to do shortly after the Bill receives Royal Assent.
Those in the Northern Ireland civil service have a difficult task of weighing up which decisions they can take in the absence of Ministers, and I again pay tribute to their hard work and dedication. The combination of the Bill and the proposed guidance will provide a framework to inform their decision making. For example, it is advised that opportunities should be taken to work towards the 12 outcomes published in the 2018-19 outcomes delivery plan, based on the draft programme for government developed in conjunction with the political parties of the previous Executive.
The guidance takes as its starting point the fact that there are certain decisions that should not be taken in the absence of Ministers. Senior officers in Departments will then be obliged to consider whether there is a public interest in taking a decision rather than deferring it. The guidance does not, however, direct the Northern Ireland civil service to take decisions on the wide range of pressing decisions raised by various hon. Members in their amendments to the Bill. As I said earlier, the principle that established our interventions over the past year is that we will legislate when doing so is necessary to protect the delivery of public services and uphold public confidence.
Before the Secretary of State moves on, could she please give some hope and encouragement to the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland? We know the recommendations of the Hart report, and we understand from David Sterling, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, that legislation was drafted by the summertime. If a departmental permanent secretary does not have the power to take forward the Hart proposals, will the Secretary of State please confirm today that legislation will be taken through this House, because the victims are ageing, some of them are dying, and the situation is morally indefensible?
This is a matter that I know the hon. Lady feels very deeply about, and it is the subject of one of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Murrison, the Chair of the Select Committee. The difficulty with the Hart recommendations, as the hon. Lady knows, is that they were laid after the Executive had collapsed, and that means we have no ministerial direction on which of the recommendations have cross-party support and which do not. Although, from my discussions with parties, it is clear that everybody wants some action to be taken, it is not clear that there is a consensus in favour of every recommendation. However, I am sure the hon. Lady will be relieved to know that the David Sterling has written to me to say that he would like to consult on the recommendations, and I have thanked him for the fact that he is going to do so, because that is something that he can do as a civil servant. Even if he cannot make the final decision on which of the recommendations should be accepted, he can consult on how those recommendations would be implemented, and I welcome that decision.
Issues relating specifically to the victims of historical institutional abuse, for whom I think we all feel huge sympathy, have been outstanding for a considerable time. The Assembly collapsed only about a week before the report was due to be published, and that date was known to everyone, but may I suggest that there are other options? For example, we could consider the contributions from the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions that were mentioned in the report. Some work could be done to establish the number of victims who may be able to come forward to claim compensation and redress. It might be possible to consult on a specific scheme, and, rather than just consulting on the recommendations, use the coming weeks and months to make constructive progress in trying to secure justice and redress for the victims.
The hon. Lady makes some interesting suggestions. This might be a topic on which we could engage a number of MLAs on a cross-party basis to try to identify where there may be consensus and where there may be recommendations, or other elements, that could be acted on.
The Hart report is an excellent document, and I pay tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who did a tremendous amount of work. It is right that those victims should receive the justice that is appropriate for them, because they have suffered in a way that they should not have suffered, and all of us in the House feel strongly about that. However, I return to a point that I made earlier. The constitutional settlement is clear, and we cannot cherry-pick the matters about which we feel strongly, on whatever grounds, as matters with which we deal in the House. We have to respect that constitutional arrangement because not to do so would undermine a devolution settlement throughout the United Kingdom, and that would not be the right thing to do.
May I urge the Secretary of State please to agree to meet Judge Hart? She has rightly praised the integrity of his work, and the professionalism and dedication of his team. Will she also meet the victims of historical institutional abuse? She personally, as Secretary of State, needs to meet them, and to do so in a timely manner. Will she commit herself to meeting those victims, and also to meeting Judge Hart and hearing directly from him his suggestions about how we could implement his report?
I have met victims of historical abuse and heard their testimony. As the hon. Lady will know, when I served as a Home Office Minister, the issue of child abuse in England and Wales was within my remit, and I met many of those victims.
I do not need to be convinced of the need to do this, but we need to proceed in a way that is right and appropriate and that respects the devolution settlement. I would like to see MLAs engaging and cross-party discussion on a number of matters. This might be an issue on which it would be appropriate for all parties to come together and begin to work so that we can get a dialogue started, so that parties can start to regain trust, and so that we have the best chance of seeing devolution restored and power sharing at Stormont. That is the key issue.
The Northern Ireland civil service should be engaging with a range of policy decisions, some of which were outlined by my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly. I was surprised to learn from victims only last week that the NICS was engaging with them on a measure that would establish a commissioner for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse, and a redress board. I find it encouraging that the NICS is doing that, but I find it discouraging that there has been zero political engagement, political discussion or political direction on how best to make progress with these important matters.
As I have said, I want to see political engagement and political discussion—I think that that is absolutely vital. We need politicians to re-engage—with civil society, with business and with others—and I am heartened by the initiatives that church leaders have taken to encourage them to do so. I want to see more of that, and I am working with those church leaders and other civic groups to that end. I will reflect on that in the context of the inquiry.
My right hon. Friend is advancing a powerful defence of the reason she is not becoming involved in this particular case, namely the constitutional settlement. Does she not think that bolting on abortion legislation would have the same impact as someone else bolting on the matters that she has just been discussing, and that we really should not be using the Bill as a vehicle for such matters?
As I said, a number of amendments dealing with several matters have been tabled, including one specifically about the Hart report of the historic institutional abuse inquiry. The Bill is not the vehicle for such measures. This is a Bill to enable civil servants to make the decisions that are necessary to enable public services to continue to be run. Officials will not make major policy decisions as a result of the Bill, but they will act in the public interest, and I think that that is very important.
Does the Secretary of State accept that while there may be some grandstanding today by Members who want to force into the Bill policies that they particularly want to be implemented in Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, the Bill will not enable any public official to pursue such policies, regardless of whether an amendment goes into the Bill, because the Bill is not designed to give the powers that would rest with politicians and public representatives to civil servants, and, indeed, it would be unfair to do so?
The Bill will enable civil servants to act within the law as it stands today. It will not give them the ability to become lawmakers and to change the law. That is a very important point.
How do I respond to that, Mr Speaker? I grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way one last time. My question is about also about Hart. This is not grandstanding; it is pursuing an issue about which many of us—including, I know, the Secretary of State herself—feel very strongly. Is she saying that there is no prospect of legislating in this place to deal with the Hart recommendations, and that that will be done only once the Executive have been restored?
What I am saying is that the Bill does not enable that to be done. I am focusing on ensuring that the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament so that we can use the conditions that it puts in place to get the politicians back. The priority has to be a laser-like focus on getting politicians to agree to come back to restore power sharing at Stormont. That is what is best for the people of Northern Ireland.
Let me repeat that these measures do not set or change policy direction on devolved issues in Northern Ireland. That is rightly for the Executive and the Assembly, and our overriding priority is to see them up and running again. The NICS needs certainty about decision-making powers, and we should not be seeking to direct it on issues that clearly require ministerial decisions.
The various principles are set out in guidance rather than in the Bill, as Departments need a degree of flexibility and discretion to enable them to reach appropriate and necessary decisions, and to ensure the continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. That guidance, above all else, must be operable for Northern Ireland Departments if we are to provide the clarity and assurance that are needed to ensure that public services can continue to be delivered in the absence of Ministers. We have engaged closely with the NICS in developing the guidance, and the factual information provided by the NICS strongly informed the approach that we have taken to it.
The Government also recognise that, in the absence of an Executive, there will be some decisions that we should make, for instance in relation to the setting of departmental budget allocations for approval by Parliament to ensure that public services continue to function. As I have told the House before, we remain committed to making the decisions that are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland. Those are decisions, and actions, that cannot be undertaken without our intervention, particularly when legislation is needed, as it is for budgets and regional rates. When it comes to devolved decisions conferred on Northern Ireland Departments, however, the UK Government and Parliament should not be intervening directly. Therefore, while there is clearly a need to intervene to provide clarity, it is more appropriate for us to set out the framework for decisions to be made by Departments when it is in the public interest to do so, and that is what the Bill will do.
Finally, the Bill addresses the urgent need for key appointments to be made in Northern Ireland and in the UK in circumstances when those appointments require the involvement of Northern Ireland Ministers. Clauses 4 to 6 ensure that key posts can be filled while minimising the extent of UK Government intervention in what are, rightly, devolved matters. Clause 4 allows the relevant UK Minister to make specified appointments, exercising the appointments functions already conferred on Northern Ireland Ministers. As I set out in my written statement on
It is important, however, that we provide for a situation in which other vital offices unexpectedly become vacant, or filling other existing vacancies becomes more urgent. For that reason, the Bill includes the provision to add to the list of offices, by means of a statutory instrument, to allow the relevant UK Minister to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to additional specified offices.
All the appointments in the Bill are justice-based, and I completely take on board the point about those being the most pressing, but how does the Secretary of State plan to continue to monitor what other areas are pressing, because there are lots of roles in other areas that need to be filled, but that will not happen under the Bill?
We would use the power only if appointments were urgent and necessary. I would consult the main Northern Ireland political parties before bringing forward regulations, as I did before I introduced this Bill. Essentially, we are allowing appointments to be made to bodies when either a failure to appoint would mean that the body becomes inquorate, or the role is required to command public respect and show full accountability.
A large proportion of appointment functions in Northern Ireland are conferred on Northern Ireland Departments. The provisions that I have already outlined dealing with Departments’ decision-making powers provide clarity that Northern Ireland Departments are able to exercise the appointment functions conferred on them during the period for Executive formation. They would not transfer to them any appointment functions currently conferred on Northern Ireland Ministers.
The lack of an Executive has also had an impact on appointments to UK-wide bodies, as a small number require Northern Ireland Ministers to be consulted on or to agree an appointment by a UK Minister. The most pressing example is the appointment by the Home Secretary of a new chair of the Disclosure and Barring Service. Similarly, there are appointments made jointly by UK and Northern Ireland Ministers. The Bill deals with such appointments by allowing them to be made without Northern Ireland Ministers, but it retains the Northern Ireland input by requiring the UK Minister to consult the relevant Northern Ireland Department. The changes represent a minimal intervention and a careful balance to ensure that the bodies and offices are able to operate as normal, but without UK Government intervention at a policy or operational level.
The powers given to UK Ministers under clauses 4 to 6 expire at the point that Northern Ireland Ministers are appointed and an Executive is formed. Responsibility for the appointment functions affected by the Bill would then, rightly, revert to the Northern Ireland Ministers.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government. Achieving that remains my absolute priority, and that is why the Bill aims to restore the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly, and sets out a fixed period in which I will work closely with Northern Ireland parties to encourage them to form an Executive. During this period, the UK Government will continue to deliver on their responsibilities for political stability and good governance. Northern Ireland has made huge progress in recent years, but we can achieve even more with a devolved Government who unlock all the potential that Northern Ireland has to offer. I am focusing on achieving that outcome—it is the outcome that we all want to see—and I commend the Bill to the House.
May I begin by joining the Secretary of State in offering my condolences to the families of the victims of the Shankill bombing and, of course, to Lord Caine for his own loss?
From now on, there might well be less consensus on Northern Ireland, as it is very difficult to see how the Bill resolves the major issue Northern Ireland now faces. We operate on the basis of consensus, so we in the Opposition will not oppose the Bill’s passage through this House, but the Secretary of State is now straining the consensus that has existed on a bipartisan basis over the years, because the Bill is grossly inadequate for its purposes. We have now had 652 days of inactivity by herself and her predecessors in government. While I totally accept that she is perfectly able to say to others—particularly the leaders of the two major political parties in the Assembly—that they also share responsibility for that lack of action, real energy must be put into this; otherwise what this Bill will represent is simply an abject admission of failures of the past and a gross lack of ambition and hope for the future, and that cannot be acceptable.
There is a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland. The public are now entitled to begin to lose faith in the political institutions established under the Good Friday agreement. The public lose faith when they see that those institutions fail to work, and there are many issues, which I will touch on later, where we must have concern about the impact on the lives of Northern Ireland’s citizens. This constitutional crisis is therefore also now developing into a human crisis, and that is the measure against which I say that this Bill is simply inadequate.
In the past, we had the political ambitions of John Major as Prime Minister, working with Albert Reynolds, and Tony Blair as Prime Minister, working with Bertie Ahern, and we had the ambitions of the David Trimbles of this world, alongside at that time John Hume, and later on of Dr Ian Paisley with Martin McGuinness, who were prepared to take risks, but so as well were Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers. David Cameron intervened during the Stormont House agreement process, to make sure the prime ministerial writ was there. We have not seen that level of activity from our Prime Minister. I accept that she is, rightly, preoccupied with Brexit, but Northern Ireland matters, and the constitutional situation of Northern Ireland also matters. We must establish that. That is why the Bill is so disappointing.
Let me address why the Bill has come before the House. It obviously has some merit, and we strongly support the need to appoint people to bodies such as the Policing Board. That is common sense and the right thing to do. The Secretary of State is right to say that we need to prioritise some important decisions and that decisions must be made here in Westminster where those decisions cannot be made in Belfast at Stormont. However, the simple fact is that there are many other areas of activity where we must see action, too.
One of the drivers in bringing this proposed legislation forward is the Secretary of State’s concern that she would be judicially reviewed because of the failure to call an election. Ironically, that refers back to the question asked by Lady Hermon on the Hart inquiry. Victims of institutional abuse could not judicially review questions about Hart, so they took the judicial review about the timing of elections. It is ironic that the Secretary of State brings this proposed legislation forward but can say nothing helpful about the need for compensation for the victims of sexual and institutional abuse that Hart did so much to unearth. We can take those remedies, and I hope that the Secretary of State will think long and hard about why we cannot also see this as the kind of priority that would serve to achieve a consensus across the whole of Northern Ireland.
Equally, the Buick judgment has caused real uncertainty, but it has placed limitations on the capacity of civil servants. We need to be very certain that we are not doing more and returning to the position where we are asking civil servants to make politically controversial decisions that should only be taken by elected politicians, possibly and best of all, of course, in the Stormont Assembly; but if that does not happen, some of those decisions might have to come to the Secretary of State and this House for us to resolve.
This is particularly true in the light of the extraordinarily long period that the Secretary of State has outlined, with no certainty of any movement until March next year and a further five months if that fails. Frankly, it beggars belief that the Secretary of State should have to tell the House that a further five months could be necessary just in case we are close to an agreement at the end of March. That really challenges all our imaginations. It does not seem a reasonable justification of time to say that five more months would be needed to get us over a hurdle if we were almost there. We are all well aware of the interesting calendar that Northern Ireland presents, but we can and must do better than this.
We need to see energy from this Government in bringing together the five-party talks. The Secretary of State told the House on
“I have made no decisions about the right way to get talks restarted”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 646, c. 350.]
That was after 550 days of inaction. Another 60 days have gone by since then. Has she now given any thought to how to get those talks restarted? We need to see some urgency in relation to those talks. We need to see the leaders of the five political parties get round the same table. If they do not come forward—if that is the challenge posed by DUP Members—let us test that. Let us see who does not turn up for those multi-party talks.
The Secretary of State has already been asked about having an independent chair, which has worked in the past. It is difficult to find an independent chair who would be acceptable to all the parties, but it is not impossible. It was not impossible in the past, and it should not be now. If taking that step could begin to unlock this logjam, we must look at taking it. I have also said to her on a number of occasions that we need to re-institutionalise the use of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which has fallen into disrepute. It is part of the Good Friday institutions, and it has not disappeared. It has not in any sense been abolished. It met once in London, but I understand that the agenda was so slimmed down that it had little merit other than to reintroduce Ministers from either side of the Irish sea to one another. We have to do better than that. We have to get the next meeting in Dublin tabled, with an agenda that will be helpful in moving us all forward.
We need to see a change of gear and a change in energy, because this matters enormously in regard to the sorts of things that will not be done. People have already asked the Secretary of State about matters that they hold dear in their constituencies, such as the airport in Londonderry, the York Street interchange, the dualling of the A5 and the A6, and the introduction of proper broadband connections across Northern Ireland. Those are important issues, and I agree with her that they could be delivered through the capacity of the Northern Ireland civil service under the Bill. However, there are issues that go beyond that capacity and that the civil service would struggle to address. I want to talk about a number of those issues, because they are massively important. I also want to quote the Secretary of State again. She said that, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly,
“the UK Government will always deliver on their responsibilities for political stability and good governance in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 644, c. 757.]
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and we are now entitled to see this Government beginning to deliver on those issues.
I want to raise some topical issues. A court judgment in Belfast today involves a woman whom I have met, Sarah Ewart. That judgment allows her to take forward her case that the decision to refuse her an abortion in Northern Ireland was outwith the law. I congratulate Sarah on her bravery in taking her case forward. If she were to win it, where would the remedy lie? The Minister of State is a lawyer, and I hope that he will tell us the answer to that question when he responds to the debate. We know that if Sarah has to fight her case all the way through to the Supreme Court, as has happened in a previous case, the chances are that the Supreme Court will make the identical judgment and say that its judgment is binding because it relates to a named individual. In those circumstances, the Supreme Court will make it absolutely clear that the remedy lies not in Stormont but here in Westminster, because the judgment is about the conformity of the United Kingdom, not just Northern Ireland, with the European convention on human rights. Ministers over here have to think about this, because it is an important human issue.
Christine Jardine has tabled a helpful amendment relating to the Hart inquiry, and I hope that the House will reach a point at which this issue can be resolved. I repeat to the Minister the pleas that we heard from my hon. Friend Owen Smith, the hon. Member for North Down and others about ageing victims. I have met some of the victims, and they are no longer young people. Some of those affected have now passed away over the passage of time, so we have to bring the question of institutional abuse to a conclusion. We have to do what we can to implement the Hart judgment, and we cannot wait until August next year or beyond if the Secretary of State’s ambitions do not come to fruition.
We must also look at what the Secretary of State can do here at Westminster. Again, she needs to show some urgency in trying to resolve the kinds of things that have held up the agenda in Northern Ireland in the past. For example, why is the historical enquiries unit not being set up? There is also the question of pensions for victims of the troubles. These are the kinds of things that can be, and should be, done here. The consultation has taken place, and we need to see definitive action now. We need to see a road map of how the Secretary of State will put urgency into these different processes.
The Secretary of State has said that the Bill deals with important issues, and that is true, but there are still issues of enormous importance that will not be affected by the legislation. There are things that the civil servants will not be able to resolve, but they will still affect the lives of the people living in different parts of Northern Ireland. One issue that I have raised before in the House is the benefits system. The Stormont Assembly was able to provide some mitigation against the impact of Government cuts to welfare spending. Ironically, those cuts are affecting my own constituency and those of Ministers here in England, but the protections afforded to people in Northern Ireland through Stormont are already beginning to expire, and they will have done so by next March. Nothing in the Bill will allow those mitigations to continue, even though they were consensually built in by the Stormont Assembly. That kind of decision needs to be made.
On a different level, we have heard today that coaching is now being cut back. That includes the coaching of young people through the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Football Association. This might seem small in the bigger scheme of things, but these small things make a material difference to people’s way of life. We also know that Harland and Wolff is looking for decisions about training programmes. Such programmes would enable the company not to import welders from the Baltic states because it would have the capacity to train people from the Belfast constituencies. That would make a huge difference to individual lifestyles there.
I also want to touch on the crucial question of the Northern Ireland health service, which is now in a very bad state. We know that it no longer has the ability to hit the targets that it has established for itself. For example, the target of seeing most people within nine weeks and none over 15 weeks is now being massively breached. There are people with spinal conditions who have waited more than 155 weeks to be seen in Northern Ireland, and that is simply unacceptable. There is a story of a young girl who needs a spinal correction to allow her to lead a normal life. She cannot wait 155 weeks for that kind of treatment and nor should she have to, so we need a real review of what the health service is doing. Looking at waiting lists across the piece, 1,500 people in England wait for over a year, but the figure for Northern Ireland is 64,000. I almost cannot find the right word to describe that situation. It is so grossly unfair as to challenge all our imaginations, and we simply cannot say that it is okay to wait for reform.
Turning to cancer care, several of us are wearing Macmillan Cancer Support badges today because we know the importance of cancer treatment. In Northern Ireland, the cancer targets that were established in 2009 have never been met and people are waiting months to be seen. We know that any delay in the first exchanges with doctors can delay treatment and that delayed treatment causes death. I therefore have to say to the Secretary of State that the failure to deal with health reform in Northern Ireland is causing premature deaths among the people of Northern Ireland, and that problem is just as important as seeing people on the Northern Ireland Policing Board—important though that is.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we would all like to see action on those important issues. He has listed actions for probably about half the Northern Ireland Departments, but what solution should the Government adopt? Yes, we would all like to see the Assembly administered, but if we cannot get that, is he suggesting that we should have direct rule so that we can take such decisions, or does he have some creative solution?
In the past, previous Northern Ireland Secretaries have taken specific action from Westminster—not direct rule, but specific action—in areas of great urgency, such as social care. Looking for specific actions now would show not only that we are taking this constitutional crisis seriously, but that we are taking the human crisis seriously, too. I think that matters, and I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect long and hard on that. We have a few days between now and this Bill going through its stages in the House of Lords, so I hope that the Secretary of State can reflect in that time on what can be done—what ought to be done—to begin to consider some of the issues being raised.
Labour strongly supports the need to appoint people into the right official positions. That is certainly one of the reasons why the Bill has to go through the House today—I hope that no hon. Member would want to see it delayed—but we are worried about the operation of the new powers for civil servants. It must be made clear that they are not politicians and have no mandate to make new decisions. The Secretary of State said that at the Dispatch Box, and I respect her intentions and do not doubt that she meant what she said, but the letter of the law gives enormous power to civil servants, so we need transparency around their decision making and clear and binding guidance to ensure that there can be no excessive action.
In the end, the responsibility for the things that I have discussed—health in particular—should be with the Stormont Assembly and the Executive, but if that cannot happen, it will have to come to this House. I have spoken to the Secretary of State in private about this, but I do not think that I will be breaching her confidence to say that my worry lies with the length of time that is built into the Bill. When the original discussions took place across this Chamber some months back, we were talking about a fairly limited operation, but that has now expanded enormously, with the first knife coming at the end of March and the second in August. That is an awful long time. We have already had 650 days of no change, and we face half as much again if we reach that August deadline. That is not acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland; it is not acceptable constitutionally; and it is certainly not acceptable for the people who need better from this Government.
I am grateful to be called in this important debate and am happy to support this Bill. The measures within represent a sensible compromise, but this is like trying to find the least bad of all the really bad options. We would all agree that by far the best situation would be to have an Assembly and to have Ministers of the Executive in place taking such decisions, but that is not the situation that we are in, and it is not one, based on the dates set in this Bill, that I suspect we are going to see in the next six, eight or even 10 months. The question now is about what we should do here for the people of Northern Ireland to try to get important decisions taken to deliver public services as best as they can be delivered, to try to improve the economy in Northern Ireland, and to try to improve the lives of ordinary people.
There are no easy options here, and the most extreme would probably be to appoint direct rule Ministers from this Parliament to take such decisions. That would lead to sensitivities in the relationship with the Irish Republic and the nationalist community, which is sadly not represented in this House—at least not by any nationalist MPs. That is a radical decision that the Government are not keen to take. However, we could have been pursuing other possibilities to try to get a bit nearer to a situation in which we could take some of the decisions that need to be taken. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published a report that discussed how we could at least have a shadow Assembly or allow the committees to meet just to get some local engagement and local scrutiny to allow some decisions to be taken from here that have some level of accountability in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting suggestions as to how there could be some democratic accountability even in the absence of a functioning Executive. However, just as Sinn Féin has blocked the formation of the Assembly and the introduction of direct rule, it has also made it clear that it would not even accept that level of accountability. That is where the real problem lies. Sinn Féin—the boycotters—have been pandered to for far too long.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and do not pretend that any of the solutions are easy. Such issues were tested by the Select Committee, but it would have at least been worth trying to see whether we could have some sort of cross-community committees or assemblies. Even if Sinn Fein boycotted them, hopefully the other parties in the Assembly would have been willing to attend. There is a real prize here. There are decisions that need to be taken that would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland, but they will not be taken, even with the powers we are discussing here. If we could have found a compromise that got at least some of those things moving forward, it would not in any way have been a perfect solution, but it would have been better than what we have here.
The hon. Gentleman is making some constructive suggestions, some of which have been made by some of us before. We have an education crisis at the moment, and many schools deplore the current funding position. Does he agree that if MLAs from across the divide in Northern Ireland were to convene in Stormont to discuss a way forward and to make representations to the permanent secretary, they may find that they have much in common and may eventually say, “Why aren’t we back in here taking the decisions, rather than letting one party block everyone else from doing things?”?
That was roughly what I was alluding to in my response to the previous intervention. If we can find some way of having cross-community meetings and engagement and some sort of agreement that can then allow a decision to be taken here, that would be real progress. However, there would still need to be some Minister in this Parliament to take such decisions with the cover of that level of consent or agreement from Northern Ireland, but the Bill does not provide for that.
I am pretty torn about what I would have had as my priority for this Bill. We want decisions to be taken, but we are so far from when the Executive last met that it is unlikely that most of the decisions that we want to have taken will have had any clear steer from the Executive. We therefore need some level of political decision making here when we cannot rely on previous guidance, and we would all want such things to be done by Ministers with some level of accountability and some public scrutiny, not behind closed doors.
My other concern about the Bill is whether Parliament has gone too far. We are now giving huge power to civil servants, and huge power to the Secretary of State to issue guidance that those civil servants have to follow. We are in danger of allowing a situation that we would never normally allow in England. We would all be up in arms if the Government introduced such a Bill for our constituents in the rest of the UK, saying, “We don’t really want to have Parliament scrutinising and deciding all these things. We are going to give the Secretary of State far more power to issue directions to the civil service to take really important decisions.” We would say it was completely unacceptable and undemocratic, that it weakened Parliament and that there was no public scrutiny or public accountability. We would never agree to it.
With this Bill, in effect, we have been forced to find a compromise between those two extremes of wanting decisions but not wanting to have too much power in the hands of civil servants. We have found a compromise: the Secretary of State has to issue certain guidance and the civil servants have to have regard to it. We all know what “have regard to” means. It means that civil servants have to do it unless there is very good reason not to do it.
I am probably in the same place as the Government, and I reluctantly accept that the only way to balance those competing objectives is to have this halfway fudge of advancing a little further, of pushing at the boundaries of what civil servants can decide. We get there by having guidance from an elected Secretary of State. She can encourage, advise and guide civil servants to do certain things, giving some cover from court cases. That is about as far as we can get without appointing direct rule Ministers.
Parliament should be careful to make sure the Bill contains all the protections we want to see. We may or may not have much time to debate the amendments in Committee, but some of the amendments would be helpful, because there is nothing in the Bill, for example, to stop the Secretary of State revising the perfectly reasonable and sensible draft guidance she has published to stick in some important decisions she would like to see taken. At no point in the next six, eight or 10 months —however long this period lasts—would any of us, including the Secretary of State, want to be in a situation where difficult, conflicting, controversial decisions are directed through such guidance because there is no other way of making them.
None of us would like to see hospitals being closed in Northern Ireland through guidance issued by a Secretary of State with no public scrutiny. Such things could be done through guidance, and those decisions could arguably be in the public interest if civil servants felt they were consistent with the best delivery of health services. We could see all manner of difficult things being done, consistent with this Bill, that we would not normally allow.
It would be a constructive step forward if there were a provision saying that, if the Secretary of State wanted to change the guidance she had already published, the new guidance had to be published in draft so it could be scrutinised by the Select Committee to make sure it contained nothing to which this House would not have agreed in advance of this Bill.
The Bill does not say what happens at the end of March or August, whatever period we end up with. Are we saying that this really is the last chance and that, if an Executive cannot be formed by the end of March or August, there has to be an election? We have stretched the wording of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, on the Secretary of State’s duty to propose an election date, for some 350 days. If we get beyond the period for which we are legislating, we cannot stretch it any further. There would have to be an election pretty much forthwith to give the people of Northern Ireland a chance to choose one or more different parties that may be more constructive in their discussions.
I would have liked the Bill to make clear the intentions of this Government and this House. The Northern Ireland Act was agreed between the parties and legislated for by this House, and the consequence of an Executive not being formed is that an election date should be proposed. We do not yet have an election date, which is the right call. An election probably would not have made any great difference over the past few months, as the same two parties would have been put back in the same position, but surely we cannot let this continue forever.
If we get to the end of March or August, is it the Government’s policy that there would then be an election and, as everyone probably thought was the case, we revert back to keep trying elections until something else happens? What happens if that still fails? Would we say, “After the election there will be a period for talks, and if you cannot form an Executive by the deadline, it has to be direct rule”? Is that the Government’s plan, or do they plan to limp through until the end of March or August and revert to the position we have been in for the past 350 days?
We are trying to give certainty to the civil service and to the people of Northern Ireland about the position. It would be good to have some certainty on the consequences if no deal can be reached.
My final comments are on appointments. It has to be right that we cannot have important bodies in Northern Ireland and elsewhere not meeting and not functioning because we have not been able to appoint people to them. It makes sense to find a way to make consensual appointments with which all sides of the debate are happy, but those decisions are meant to be taken on a cross-community and cross-party basis in Northern Ireland, and they now have to be taken—I accept with consultation—by the Secretary of State in Westminster. Allowing some form of public scrutiny on the most senior proposed appointments would be helpful in giving confidence that the right people for those jobs are being appointed. Allowing pre-appointment hearings by the Select Committee for key appointments would be a positive step in showing the people of Northern Ireland that the right people are being entrusted with those important functions.
There are ways to improve the Bill but, in the current situation, it is a sensible compromise and it is the best way to achieve the competing objectives. I happily support Second Reading.
I echo the comments of both Front Benchers on the Shankill bombing. I was 13 at the time, but I remember the incident vividly. I particularly remember the children who were killed, one of whom was also 13, which is one reason why it sticks out. My thoughts and the thoughts of my colleagues are with all those affected by the bombing and the associated attacks that followed.
I reiterate once again that we are extremely disappointed that it has come to this. We accept, rather reluctantly, that the Bill has become necessary amid the current legislative vacuum in Northern Ireland. I have just attended my first British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I found it an extremely useful, enjoyable and sociable event. I met new people from across the UK and the Crown dependencies to discuss the important issues we face together.
Brexit, as would be imagined, was the main topic of conversation. That being said, some of the conversations about Stormont and the restoration of the Executive were rather frustrating. Many people seem to accept that meaningful talks will not resume until after Brexit, which is ultimately why we are debating this Bill today and why we reluctantly support it. However, on behalf of the SNP, I urge the Secretary of State and all parties to get back round the table with a sense of purpose and urgency. Given the importance of the European Union to the Good Friday agreement, it is imperative that Northern Ireland’s collective voice, the voice of its elected Assembly, is heard on Brexit.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, apart from Lady Hermon, we do not hear the voice of the majority of people in Northern Ireland on Brexit in this Chamber? The majority of people in Northern Ireland—now the overwhelming majority, according to new polling—voted for us to stay in the European Union. Does it trouble Gavin Newlands, like it troubles me, that we never hear their voice?
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. Sinn Féin’s decision not to use their voice is a matter for them. However, only last week the Prime Minister turned down a request to meet the four major parties that advocated a vote to remain in the European Union—Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party and the Greens.
On the parties getting round the table to try to reach agreement, does the hon. Gentleman agree that what the people of Northern Ireland and the people in this House need to hear from each and every one of the parties is two words: “We’re ready”?
From the conversations I had in the past couple of days at BIPA, I can say that some have that desire to get back to the table. That came from all parties I spoke to—people from either community and from none. That is what I heard, but I also heard resignation that it might not happen.
It is important that we make the record clear: just as among Conservative and Labour voters there is division, so one cannot say that it is Sinn Féin that represents remainers. Many Unionists voted to remain, and no doubt many republicans voted to leave. The point is that their voice is not being heard in this Chamber.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making that point, as I had not intended to portray it. I have spoken to several Unionists who voted remain, so she makes a valid point.
I am going to make some progress, and then I will come back to the right hon. Members.
The people of Northern Ireland have spent too long in limbo. As we have heard from both Front Benchers, key decisions have to be made and functionality must be restored. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. The Scottish National party, like most Members of this House, firmly believes that new talks must be established immediately to restore the Executive and Assembly. The Secretary of State has to come off the bench on this and be much more proactive, not in legislative terms—we see that today—but in leadership. Along with Irish Government counterparts, she should be working night and day to initiate a new round of inclusive talks. With the UK Government totally distracted by Brexit and internal party infighting, I say again that an independent mediator could and, if no early progress is made, should be brought in, so that progress can be made for the sake of good governance in Northern Ireland.
Nothing must be done to undermine the Good Friday agreement, so this piece of legislation must be temporary. Given the five-month extension the Government have built into the Bill, and from conversations I have had with Members from all communities, it seems to me that there is consensus that Stormont may not get back up and running until September, following the council elections and the marching season. That is almost another full year from now, and for me and many other Members of this House that is a matter of real regret.
There is also general consensus, on all sides, that this Bill has, sadly, become necessary, but there are also concerns that having to legislate at all is potentially a slippery slope and a situation that must not be allowed to drift or be extended beyond what is absolutely necessary; a political vacuum must not become the new normal in Northern Ireland. I am relieved that the Government have conceded that their Henry VIII powers in clause 4 were not justifiable, and have heeded the concerns of the House of Lords report and tabled amendments so that the affirmative procedure is used instead.
Amid ongoing austerity, the absence of decision making is straining Northern Irish public services. Decisions are urgently required to provide direction and funding to vital services. As we have heard, current conditions are placing particular pressures on health and education, which are among the most important services a Government can deliver. The collapse of the Executive and the subsequent failure to deal with the situation has also placed great stress on the civil service in Northern Ireland. Direct rule can never be countenanced, but as the shambolic Brexit process is a central reason for the ongoing crisis, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure talks progress swiftly. The chaos within the UK Government must not be used as an excuse for the lacklustre attempts since February to re-establish political institutions in Northern Ireland. After all, this is not just about public services and appointments; it is about protecting and maintaining the peace process.
I do not want to be accused of scaremongering or of attaching more significance to this than it warrants, but yesterday the first report of the Independent Reporting Commission was published and, although there were clearly parts we can all welcome, the commission is clearly concerned about the impact of the ongoing political impasse. The report praises all those in the public, voluntary and community sectors who are working to tackle paramilitarism, but it says that the absence of political leadership has been a significant impediment to that task. It also notes that in the absence of an Assembly, new powers, such as unexplained wealth orders, cannot be introduced, and that any change in the current regime for managing paramilitary prisoners cannot be considered in the absence of a Justice Minister. I sincerely hope that in reading that report the Secretary of State has been given a renewed sense of urgency on talks.
I turn back to Brexit, as it is wreaking havoc on every aspect of politics in these islands. The broader instability caused by Brexit is a central reason why it has proven so difficult to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. There are many reasons why the Executive and the Assembly collapsed, but it is Brexit, the elephant in the room, that is prolonging the concerning political vacuum. I remind colleagues across the House that March is quickly approaching and we still have no confirmation of plans to extend the period for withdrawal. The threat of a new border becomes closer by the minute.
Northern Ireland is the central conversation in the Brexit talks, so it is vital that its voice is heard. As we have heard so eloquently, in June 2016 Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the European Union, as 62% of Scots did. The Government continue to try to ignore Scotland—will they also ignore the people of Northern Ireland? If the UK Government plough on with a no deal hard Brexit, they will wreak further havoc on the businesses, public services and entire economies of all within the UK. That is nothing short of economic vandalism of the highest order.
As we have seen from reports, Northern Ireland will be hit hardest by a disastrous no deal scenario. This month, business leaders in Northern Ireland have warned that a no deal must be avoided at all costs. According to the Government’s own figures, crashing out would shrink the Northern Irish economy by 12%. The Director of CBI Northern Ireland has warned that this would be the equivalent of another financial crisis. This would be a dramatic hit to GDP inflicted upon the people of Northern Ireland despite their vote to remain.
We in the SNP want to see stability, and strong and inclusive economic growth in Northern Ireland. We want to see Northern Ireland grow, so that public services, businesses, families and individuals can prosper. After all, not only is a prosperous Northern Ireland good for all who live there, but it is in the interests of Scotland, and indeed of England, Wales and our friends across the European Union. The twin threats of a new border and massive economic damage can be easily removed if the UK pursues a policy of staying within the European single market and customs union; there would be no need for new economic borders across land or at sea. Trade and relationships, business or personal, would continue to flourish between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and beyond.
In a blatant attempt to wreck any agreed backstop in Northern Ireland, the European Research Group cynically tabled reckless amendments to this legislation. Mr Baker subsequently withdrew them on Monday, saying that it would not be in the “public interest” to attach them to emergency programming. Perhaps for the first time I find myself in agreement with him and his ERG colleagues, but I would go further and suggest to him that his group and its entirely regressive aims are not in the public interest, and the less we hear from them, the better.
I remind Members that in December last year the UK Government agreed the need for a backstop in the first phase of negotiations with the EU, so they must stay true to their word.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I wanted to make a point about the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe. He withdrew those amendments because he recognised the necessity of this Bill for the people of Northern Ireland. I thank him for having done so, because it has meant that the people of Northern Ireland, who need their public services to continue to be delivered, will be able to have that, as this Bill will not now be affected by amendments that would have served to wreck it.
I appreciate the intervention from the Secretary of State, whom I am sure had to urge the hon. Member for Wycombe to withdraw the amendments for that reason. The simple fact is that they should never have been tabled in the first place. In order to protect the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland must achieve a special relationship with the EU. The SNP will never support wrecking amendments designed to undermine the backstop and, thus, undermine the Good Friday agreement. Just last week, the First Minister of Scotland said:
“we fully support the Good Friday Agreement and the maintenance of an invisible border. And so the Scottish Government will do nothing to stand in the way of Northern Ireland achieving a special relationship to the EU, if that is what is required.”
On the backstop, the hon. Gentleman spoke a lot about the need for economic growth in Northern Ireland, and prosperity is a key part of the peace process, so does he understand our concern that the backstop, which would create a border in the Irish sea and a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and its single biggest market—a market that produces more business for us than the European Union states and the rest of the world combine—would not be a good idea for the benefit of our economy?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is clear to most people in this Chamber that the answer is for all UK countries to remain in the single market and customs union, which would take away the need for any border in the Irish sea. I should add that my constituents voted two to one to remain, and they certainly have a voice in this Chamber, too.
Many Members from different parties will agree that the best option across the UK is, as I just said, continued membership of the customs union and single market, which would resolve the need for any economic borders or increased regulation. This policy, which the Scottish National party has proposed for a long time, would also act to protect jobs and livelihoods in Northern Ireland, as well as in Scotland and right across the UK. It is the only political and economic position and policy that makes sense and is achievable.
The UK must give Northern Ireland and the restoration of its Assembly the attention that it deserves and requires. The delays in the establishment of effective talks can no longer be accepted. The Government must get round the table and help to restore the Northern Irish Executive and Assembly to full functionality. The institutions of the Good Friday agreement must be championed and restored by all in this House.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Second Reading debate. May I start by expressing my admiration of and gratitude for the Secretary of State’s energy and perspicacity in trying to achieve a settlement in Northern Ireland? Whatever regrets we have about the situation in which we find ourselves, we are all united in our admiration for the energy that the Secretary of State has applied to this process. I sympathise with her, because in the actions she is taking she is trying to sail between Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, she must do nothing that would impede the restoration of proper democracy and the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland; on the other, she must do what she knows to be best for the people of Northern Ireland. I shall comment largely on my perception of Northern Ireland lagging well behind where it should be, and increasingly so. I shall express in unequivocal terms my fears about what that might mean in 10 months’ time, if we are no further on.
On Monday, I had the great pleasure of visiting Belfast with members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. For the first time—to my very great shame—I visited the Royal Victoria Hospital, where I talked to deeply committed and dedicated professionals who are right at the top of their game and who work there doing their very best for the population of Northern Ireland. I must say to the Secretary of State that I came away deeply depressed, because it is clear that Northern Ireland is not getting what it deserves. In comparison with the population of the rest of the United Kingdom, it is lagging significantly behind on key healthcare indicators. We heard that morning from service users, particularly in the fields of mental health and cancer care—key healthcare areas. Were their experiences to be replicated in our constituencies, we would be very upset indeed. The reasons are complicated, but we are left to conclude that the absence for nearly two years now of Ministers capable of taking decisions is a significant part of the piece.
We are now to complicate another 10 months of potential delay, with no clear solution following that. We could call another election but, as has been alluded to already, without good will on the part of both the principal parties in this matter, it is likely as not that we would get pretty much the same outcome. I have detected no particular enthusiasm or appetite for an Irish language Act, which is the biggest roadblock to the process. I get a lot of people asking, “Why don’t I have the same healthcare expectations as people over the other side of the Irish sea?”, but I do not get angst expressed to me about the inclusion of an Irish language Act. It is self-evident that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland simply want to get on with their lives. They want to have expectations across a range of public sector functions that at least approximate those that exist in Great Britain. It is a failure for all involved if they do not achieve that sort of approximation. We have a devolved settlement, so there will always be difference—of course there will—and I guess we should celebrate that, but the people of the United Kingdom have a legitimate expectation that, broadly speaking, outcomes will be similar right across the piece. That is not the case in Northern Ireland, and it is getting worse. We have to work out a way to deal with that.
I welcome the Bill, but it should have been introduced to the House well before now—incidentally, that would have given us more time to consider it—because I am afraid that the situation we are currently in was predictable. We have simply lost time. In so far as it is a straightforward, simple Bill that will achieve the outcomes that the Government want, I very much welcome it, although I would have gone much further. The need to go much further is in the guidance. I hope the Secretary of State has some sense from the House that we are likely to support her in the development of the guidance in the months ahead.
I assume that the guidance is the same as that which was given in draft form to the helpful Northern Ireland Office officials who briefed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a few days ago. Getting hold of a copy today was quite difficult, but if it is more or less the same, I have been through it and must say that it is cast in extremely anodyne terms. It refers to decisions made by the Executive who have now folded, and to the draft programme for government and its 12 exciting outcomes, which are of course not outcomes at all but aspirations cast in the most anodyne terms imaginable.
In the weeks and months ahead, the Secretary of State will be faced more and more with Northern Ireland slipping backwards compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, unless some fairly significant policy decisions are made. I do not know the extent to which, on the basis of this Bill, it is safe for the Northern Ireland civil service to make some of those decisions, because some of them are really quite complicated, but they need to be made if we are to see key public services restored to the level at which they should be.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern not only about the policies that the civil servants will not implement—indeed, the Bill would not give them the powers to implement them anyhow—but that civil servants may even avoid the day-to-day functions of government, because the Bill does not instruct them to do anything? It simply says that it does not prevent them from doing anything. Given the inertia, caution, procrastination and lack of decision making that we have seen so far in the Northern Ireland civil service, there is no guarantee that any decisions will be made, even with the Bill.
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he is a little harsh on the Northern Ireland civil service, because of course civil servants will act as civil servants always do. They are not politicians, they do not do policy and they are acutely aware, all the time, of legal challenge. I take my hat off to David Sterling and his people for doing what they have managed to do since January or March 2017, but the fact is that key decisions have to be made. We have already heard about the distinction between policy and decision making; some of the decisions are policy, but some are simply nuts-and-bolts decision making. I fear that there will come a point when the line will be crossed, and the Secretary of State may very well come back here to seek further guidance from this House on what she can legitimately do to prevent the backsliding to which I have referred and hopefully start making progress on some of these key public service areas.
Reading through the guidance, I am heartened because it seems to give the Secretary of State really quite a lot of scope. She will have heard—and, I suspect, will continue to hear in the balance of this debate—a great deal of support from across the House for her being pretty proactive in issuing guidance to the civil service so that it can do what is necessary to advance the day-to-day living experience of the people of Northern Ireland. In particular, I note the enjoinder in the guidance that “particular weight” must be given to the avoidance of
“serious detriment to the public interest, public health and wellbeing”.
In response to the point made by Sammy Wilson a few moments ago, I will reflect briefly on one example, which I mention as an exemplar more widely explicable to the whole piece. At the Royal Victoria Hospital on Monday, we heard from a group of cardiologists—people who are leaders in their field—how the inability to share data with the rest of the United Kingdom was proving to be an impediment because there was a failure of a particular decision that had to be made by a Minister. That has clear implications for healthcare in Northern Ireland, because if Northern Ireland cannot compare and contrast its performance and what it is doing with other parts of a similar healthcare service, it cannot really make improvements. That is just a small example of the kind of thing that we are talking about today which I hope will be covered in the guidance. I urge the Minister to ensure that the guidance that she issues is much more specific than that laid out in the framework published today. I think that she will end up having to issue really quite a lot of guidance, and I urge her very strongly indeed to push the limits as far as she possibly can.
I was particularly taken with the remarks of Tony Lloyd, who speaks for the Opposition. It is actually quite rare in this place that there is much in the way of consensus. Mercifully, reaching it tends to be easier in matters to do with Northern Ireland than in most public policy areas. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks, which I very much welcome, were exceptionally positive in regard to our sense that the Secretary of State really will have to issue guidance that is as prescriptive as possible, within the scope of the Bill, in order to move things along in Northern Ireland. That is the sense that I got from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.
I do not wish to go on too much longer, but I want to mention another point. In the Brexit context—there is always a risk that a debate like this will be overtaken by the issue of the moment—a great deal is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment that is of a unique nature. I have mentioned healthcare, but much of the economy in Northern Ireland is pretty unusual and has a uniqueness that needs to be reflected by those who are currently dealing with Brexit. Of course, it is a perfect storm in a sense, because not only is there a uniqueness regarding the various sectors; there is also a lack of an Executive—of a body advocating specifically for Northern Ireland. Now, the Government will say, “Well, it’s for us to negotiate in Brussels”, which is perfectly true, but we know full well that Scotland and Wales are separately making their points to our interlocutors in Brussels. That is not the case for Northern Ireland.
In relation to Brexit and the Secretary of State’s guidance following this legislation, would it not be helpful for the Secretary of State to look back at the letter signed—if my memory serves me correctly—on
I usually agree with the hon. Lady and I agree with her on that point. Of course, the general principle in these matters is that one relies on what has gone on before—the decisions of the Executive and so on. It would certainly be in that tradition and spirit to rely on the remarks of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at that time, as a starter for 10.
The issue I have is exemplified by the farming and growing sector in Northern Ireland, which Lady Hermon will remember we have debated at some length in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There are particular facets of Northern Ireland quite apart from the border that need to be considered in the context of Brexit. It is important for provision to be made to ensure that that happens. I am not clear that it has happened to the extent to which I would like, and I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on that.
I also ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the Select Committee’s report, “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland—dealing with the deficit”, which we published in May, and which made some helpful suggestions on how she might consult with the public and various bodies in the absence of an Executive. If this goes on and on, and she is led more and more to issue guidance and consider policy, it is helpful—particularly in the context of the Good Friday agreement, but in any event—to ensure that she has consulted as widely as possible.
If I feel a little disappointment about this Bill—a very concise piece of legislation, on which I congratulate the Secretary of State—it is because it has not really reflected in any meaningful sense the recommendations made in the Select Committee report, which is now just months old. I think that is a mistake, because some of the suggestions are pretty unobjectionable and would have helped matters along, particularly measures such as civic forums, which have been tried before quite successfully and which could give the Secretary of State the sort of confidence that she was doing things that had the support of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. That is in no way to try to subvert the institutions set up by the GFA or to suggest that they are not going to be restored, but in the interregnum it is important to get some sense of what people want. Those sorts of innovative bodies are a possible solution in the context of Northern Ireland.
We all hope that the Executive will be restored sooner rather than later—I think that the Secretary of State is as confident as she possibly can be that this will all happen within the next 10 months—but Northern Ireland is a unique and special place, and sadly we cannot necessarily guarantee that that will be the case. We therefore need—this has been mentioned previously—some idea about what will then happen.
We have to work on the assumption that a further general election will result in nothing new. Sometimes when we throw the cards up in the air, they fall down in a way that may surprise and delight us—or otherwise—but our working assumption has to be that such a thing will not change very much, which is presumably why the Secretary of State has not called an election up to this point. We will then have to decide what to do. Although I welcome the Bill, we cannot continue to kick the can down the road. One way or another, sadly by force of circumstance, the Secretary of State may again have to start making some of the difficult, crunchy decisions that have been made in this place since 1998.
One thing is for sure: it is simply not acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland to continue to sustain the sub-optimal public services about which my Committee has heard evidence, despite all the hard work of those on the ground and all the effort to try to stop up the gap indefinitely. I sympathise with the Secretary of State in her dilemma and absolutely support her intention to get the Executive back up and running, but I sound a cautionary note and ask her to start thinking: what on earth do we do in 10 months’ time, when we are back in the same place?
It is a pleasure to follow Dr Murrison, the Chairman of the Northern Affairs Committee. In his response to the Bill, he was, as always, considered and thoughtful. He highlighted the lack of ambition that we would ultimately like to see for good governance and for democratic decision making in Northern Ireland.
At the commencement of these proceedings, the Secretary of State made an announcement of condolences to the noble Lord Caine. May I take this opportunity, personally and on behalf of my party colleagues, to extend our condolences to the noble Lord Caine and to his mother following such a bereavement?
There has been a lot of talk so far about the Bill, and there is at least one level of consensus: it is what it is. It is not ambitious. It does not deliver good governance in Northern Ireland. It does not compel decision making in Northern Ireland. It provides no legislative vehicle for issues that require legislation in Northern Ireland. We understand and accept the position that the Secretary of State finds herself in—the constitutional barrier that she is wrestling with—but she knows that we are of the view that this place should be taking a much more interventionist approach towards the affairs of Northern Ireland and that, in that sense, the Bill is an opportunity missed.
I do, however, want to convey my appreciation to the officials from the Northern Ireland Office who have engaged directly with me and with my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly in our consideration of this Bill. I spent much more time with them than I had planned to, and I think they spent much more time with me than they wished to. I think it fair to say that, while we are where we are, it is not ultimately where they or we would wish to be in terms of how we see this Bill.
But one thing is certain: we should not be here. We should not be yet again considering how we deliver for Northern Ireland in this Chamber—it should be happening at Stormont. Although we have thus far today considered this issue only lightly, Sinn Féin Members need to end their boycott of good governance, of democracy and of participation at Stormont and here at Westminster. They refuse to allow the re-formation of an Executive; they refuse to see a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and they refuse to take their seats in this House. They have shown no sign that they recognise the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland. They show no sign that they are impacted by the lack of decisions being taken in Northern Ireland. They show no sign that they are concerned about people on ever-increasing waiting lists and ever-increasing housing lists, or about the extension of our mitigation on universal credit and welfare reform that needs to be renewed next year. They show no sign of concern whatsoever.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not fair that those Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who do want to address those issues on behalf of their constituents are being punished by the Sinn Féin lock-out at Stormont? Until it is grasped by the Northern Ireland Office and by the Secretary of State that the responsibility lies at the door of only one party, and unless either the system for establishing the Executive of Northern Ireland is changed or it is made quite clear that sanctions will be imposed, this situation will continue, because there is no penalty on Sinn Féin.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The majority of the 90 Assembly Members who have been elected to serve their constituents put themselves forward because they believe in public service, not stagnation. They are not like a puerile child participating in a game, not liking the rules, recognising they are not scoring goals, picking up the ball and walking off the pitch.
Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson, in the discussions on the Bill with the Northern Ireland Office, we put forward a modest proposal that, to give some democratic accountability to this mechanism in Northern Ireland, the Assembly Members, on their reduced pay, should have a role in scrutinising the Departments that will exercise the decisions that fall subject to the Bill. The Northern Ireland Office told us that it was not possible to do this because Sinn Féin was unlikely to take part in such scrutiny mechanisms. Sinn Féin has a veto over even the most modest of proposals. How long are this Government going to allow Sinn Féin to veto democratic progress in Northern Ireland?
That is an incredibly fair point to make, and I intend to address it later on. There has been a dereliction of duty. The opportunity to serve the people is not being taken by one party and one party alone. As it holds out for its purely partisan and narrow agenda, everyone else in Northern Ireland suffers.
No one should be under any illusion about our approach to these issues. In October last year, Arlene Foster, our party leader, indicated that she would seek the establishment of the Executive immediately and that if the Assembly created did not deal satisfactorily with the outstanding issues that had been raised as a stumbling block for progress, it should be brought down again in six months. She said, “Put me to the test.” She said, “Let us maturely and rationally reflect on the outstanding issues that you have; you can consider the outstanding issues that we have, and if we can’t resolve them, then bring it down—but at least try.” Before Arlene Foster sat down from making that speech, Sinn Féin had ruled it out. It had ruled out a restoration of the Executive, where Brexit and every public service that was of interest to the people of Northern Ireland could be considered.
As I reflect on these matters, standing here again to debate a Northern Ireland Bill that should not be necessary, I am reminded that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, James Brokenshire, said in September 2017 that nine months without a Government to steer policy had left the country with “no political direction” and left critical public service reform wanting. He continued:
“In the continuing absence of devolution, the UK government retains ultimate responsibility for good governance and political stability in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and we will not shirk from the necessary measures to deliver that.”
That was only 13 months ago, yet here we are. He famously talked of a “glide path” to direct rule. Frustratingly, this is a never-ending holding pattern. It is not in the interests of democracy and not in the interests of good government.
The Bill has been described—kindly—as a “limited measure”. It has been described by my constituency predecessor as
“a sticking plaster on a broken leg”.
It has been described as a poor substitute for democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland making decisions that affect the people they serve. It is through that prism that we have to consider the Bill.
The Bill does not provide certainty. It contains no certainty on decisions. It does not provide compellability. There is no compulsion on civil servants to make decisions that impact the people of Northern Ireland—decisions that need movement—but on key policy areas, there is no compulsion to do so. There is no progress on the 200-plus decisions that have lain in abeyance among the range of Departments since the suspension of the Assembly.
Is the worrying thing for my hon. Friend the fact that many of those 200 decisions are sitting there not because of the court decision, but because of the inertia that exists in the Northern Ireland civil service? The Bill will not make a blind bit of difference to the fact that some senior members of the civil service—not all—will not make a decision to get up in the morning if they think they might get some criticism for it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment. I think it fair to say that there are a range of views on this issue, and some accord with the description that he has outlined. There are civil servants in the Northern Ireland civil service who have been incredibly courageous during the time that we have not had democratically accountable Ministers.
But there is the rub—the Bill relies solely on the willingness of a senior departmental official who is impervious to direction and impervious to the views of politically mandated, democratically elected representatives and who can decide whether or not they wish to proceed. The guidance is there, but if we go through that guidance fairly, I think we could decide that something is within the public interest or outwith it at our own discretion, and that is a fault.
I will expand more on this in my speech, but this is a critical point to do with the civil service. We can all criticise civil servants. There are good ones and bad ones. But, particularly in Northern Ireland—I experienced this when I was the Minister—the fear of judicial review in the civil service will not be addressed by the Bill. Bravery is fine, but if this Government do not back civil servants, there will still be fears, not about public opinion, but about whether they will be dragged through the courts, which we have seen so many times in the Province.
That is a key consideration. The Bill does not insulate civil servants from the prospect of judicial review. We know from our experience in the courts in Northern Ireland, compared with England and Wales, that ultimately it is easier to progress a judicial review in Northern Ireland. Whether for unaccountable civil servants acting in the best interests of the country or democratically elected Ministers serving the people who elect them and the people of Northern Ireland, the challenges in the courts are still there.
The Bill seeks to replicate the understanding that was there prior to the Buick decision. I remember saying a year ago to the Minister of State that the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 empowers senior departmental officials to take decisions. Ultimately, it was considered by the courts, and the one fundamental ruling they made was that a decision of such regional significance that was controversial and/or significant should be considered by an Executive Committee. The Bill might seek to address that, but it does not absolve anyone from the legal requirement inserted through the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which amended the Northern Ireland Act 1998, for consideration over and above the individual Department.
That was a significant safeguard injected into the legislative framework arising out of the Belfast agreement on controversial or significant decisions. In that sense, the Bill empowers civil servants to a greater level than a democratically elected and accountable Minister. That is difficult. That is my reading of clause 3(5), and it is constitutionally a troublesome step. I have to accept the position that the Northern Ireland Office has adopted, which is that it will not provide an overarching mechanism and it cannot empower officials to replace what would have been the Executive Committee, but the Bill is deficient in that regard. I am not sure that the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will be able to answer or provide any solace on that issue.
Some consideration has been given to clauses 1 and 2, on the timescales for the re-formation of an Executive. I will put on record clearly for Lady Hermon, in response to the question that she raised, that never once during any of our discussions with departmental officials in the Northern Ireland Office was a date discussed. No date was discussed, and it is not politically driven. Timescales were discussed, but no specific date was ever discussed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to follow up on that, since he referred to me. There was not a date agreed or discussed with Northern Ireland Office officials, but there was a timescale. I am not a member of the party, so I was not present at the meeting. Let all the people of Northern Ireland hear the timescales. Was it six months or nine months? What was the timescale?
Those considerations are exactly the same ones that the hon. Lady will have had in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. The response that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Lady was that the broad parameters were discussed by all parties. I am being honest and sincere in saying that no date was ever discussed.
No date was ever discussed.
I see in the amendments tabled by Nigel Mills an earnest desire on his part to get progress going in Northern Ireland. He does not want to see a lengthy delay. Let us not kid ourselves. I have spent a considerable part of this speech commenting on the Sinn Féin boycott that exists today and has existed for the last 18 months and that has frustrated the meeting of the Assembly, the formation of the Executive or Sinn Féin sitting in this House.
If the hon. Lady wants an answer to this question, Conor Murphy has been quite clear about Sinn Féin’s position. When we met at the steps of Stormont in August this year and we asked, in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland, for Sinn Féin to end its boycott, Conor Murphy’s response was, “We envisage Ministers being appointed by April 2019.”
I will just finish this point, if I may.
It is clear that the intransigence, stagnation and unwillingness to resolve these issues has not only pertained for the last 18 months but is intended to continue. That is bad for Northern Ireland, for all the people of Northern Ireland, for the issues that remain outstanding and for the people we represent. I will give way one more time.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene again. I asked about the timescales that had been articulated by the hon. Gentleman and his DUP colleagues. I did not ask about Sinn Féin. To tweak the question slightly, can we give the people of Northern Ireland any confidence at all that the deadline mentioned in clause 1 of the Bill—
Don’t worry, I recognise that. I am not going to enter into Northern Ireland politics.
I have 11 Members down to speak. If some Members are not going to speak, can they let me know? At least then I know what I am working to.
I intend to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker, but you knew that anyhow.
I say respectfully to the hon. Lady—an honourable Lady in name and nature—that that is a fair question, but if she follows the logic of what I am saying, she will see that it is not one for us. We want to see the restoration of an Executive. We have indicated no red lines. We made an offer of an olive branch last August, and it was rejected in 35 minutes; it was not considered. We have the clearest of clear indications from Sinn Féin that it does not envisage having Ministers appointed until April 2019. It is a disgrace, and it bears no resemblance to the needs, the frustrations, the angst, the wishes or the aspiration of every single person who lives in Northern Ireland.
I have mentioned that this Bill lacks certainty. That is a product of the way in which it is framed, and the Secretary of State has sought to issue guidance. It is right that the civil service has been empowered to advance decisions that are couched within the public interest. However, I have no certainty whether a planning decision for the power plant envisaged in my constituency will be advanced by civil servants. Why is it necessary? Because some of our older power stations are coming offline. There is a need for this planning approval to be given so that the power station can form part of a capacity auction this autumn for future years. If it is not advanced, we will be in a difficult situation in Northern Ireland. The same can be said for the north-south interconnector. It is a necessary part of infrastructure that we support—we think it is imperative for the future of our energy arrangements—yet there is no certainty that this Bill will advance a decision on the north-south interconnector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South raised the transport hub in the south of the city. It is an important project that has regional significance in that it connects every part of Northern Ireland to our city. It has significant public resource allocated to it, and it will be necessary for the future development and aspirational growth of Belfast city and Northern Ireland. Is there any certainty that this Bill will advance that decision? Regrettably, there is none. Professor Bengoa—
I will be brief. My hon. Friend referred to the uncertainty about the transport hub in Belfast. Does he agree with me that senior civil servants should heed what has been said today by the Secretary of State? Given the consensus about this issue, there are clear indications that this is very much the type of decision that could be made and in fact, from my point of view, should be made under this guidance.
Absolutely right. Mr Deputy Speaker, we gave time to my hon. Friend, but we have saved time on what I was about to say. This is an important point and such civil servants should take cognisance of their ability to make these decisions, and they should make these decisions.
Very helpfully and importantly, paragraph 10(c) of the guidance outlines that NICS departmental officials are encouraged to
“continue to advance preparatory work” up to the point at which a ministerial decision would be required. That goes some way to addressing the point made by my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson. No longer can a departmental official say, “I’m sorry, we can’t advance that project or strategy, consider an alternative or engage with interested groups because we don’t have a Minister”; they can, and I think that is crucial.
As a constituency representative for Belfast East, I look to the regional stadium development fund as a prime example. The Executive agreed that they would spend £36 million on stadium development. Strand 1 of that scheme said there would be £10 million for a football club in my constituency—Glentoran football club. Officials say they cannot advance it because they do not have a ministerial decision. Well, of course they can, because it is an Executive priority, it is agreed, the consultation has been issued, the consultation responses are back, the consultation responses have been appraised by officials and they know exactly the direction of travel. Preparatory work still needs to be concluded, particularly with the Irish Football Association on the funding matrix for such a development, and that work should continue.
Transparency needs to be at the heart of this Bill. I was therefore pleased to see in paragraph 15 of the guidance a requirement on departmental officials in Northern Ireland to report to the Secretary of State monthly on any decision that has been taken under the Bill. That is really important, and it goes to the heart of transparency of government. The notion that senior civil servants could take decisions and not tell the people or that they could fail to take decisions that we know remain outstanding is one that is well worth consideration. I am pleased to see that that is included in the guidance.
There is a whole other issue that should have featured as part of this Bill. I look to the Minister to see whether he can give any comfort on this issue at all. We have no legislative forum in Northern Ireland. This is the only legislative forum in this country that can legislate on behalf of Northern Ireland, and every week, Bills go through this place that could and should be extended to cover Northern Ireland: issues that are not controversial; issues that do not cause difficulty between political parties; and issues that are normal and run of the mill. It is important that they are progressed and that we in Northern Ireland do not lose the opportunity for legislative change. We do not have any certainty that the ad hoc procedures and ad hoc approach to the inclusion of Northern Ireland in England and Wales legislation and the extension of that legislation to Northern Ireland will take place. That leaves us in a ridiculous situation. We are asked to come here and vote on issues that affect the people of England and Wales and yet not get any progress for the constituents that send us here. It is not right.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Brine, had the courage to include Northern Ireland in non-branded medicines cost regulations back in March. He said that he sought a legislative consent motion, but there was no Northern Ireland Assembly. None the less, it was the right thing to do, and it was in the public interest to include Northern Ireland. Yesterday, the Civil Liability Bill should have included Northern Ireland. Animal welfare changes that have been brought forward by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should include Northern Ireland. In Westminster Hall, in debate after debate, we ask Ministers whether the Government will extend the same provisions in the absence of an Assembly to cover Northern Ireland, and they say that they cannot because it is devolved. I invite the Minister, if he can provide comfort for us now or later in his summation, to outline the steps that we can achieve to make sure that there is certainty that, when a legislative vehicle gives the opportunity to extend something sensible to Northern Ireland, we seize that opportunity.
My hon. Friend makes a very, very important point. The Bill really covers only the issue of Executive functions and decisions taken at administrative levels, so the whole area of legislation is left to one side—obviously. There is the issue not only of extending legislation for England and Wales to Northern Ireland, but of legislation that is sitting with Government Departments in Northern Ireland ready to go, which cannot be progressed. Earlier, somebody mentioned the unexplained wealth orders, for instance, to tackle paramilitary crime and criminal organised crime in Northern Ireland—a sensible measure that is supported by everybody and that should be progressed. The police want to see it happen; everybody in Northern Ireland wants to see it happen. Why can that not be progressed?
Absolutely. The unexplained wealth orders are a key example of how we should have extension of those provisions for Northern Ireland.
I mentioned the courageous nature of some decisions, and I know that Sir Mike Penning will agree with me that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland was incredibly courageous in making the changes required through regulation to allow for medicinal cannabis prescriptions. We wanted to see those English and Welsh regulations extended to Northern Ireland, and it has been done through another vehicle, and we are grateful for that.
Here is a key example of where it goes wrong. When the definition of co-ownership housing associations in Northern Ireland was not changed because we did not have an Assembly, but it was changed for England, Scotland and Wales, the derogation offered by the Treasury stopped. That means that if somebody does not take the opportunity to change that definitional issue now for Northern Ireland, our co-ownership schemes will not be able to use financial transaction capital tax, and it will not have the budget to provide the social houses that are required or the social mechanism through which somebody can purchase a home for the future. That is a disgrace.
To assist my colleagues, I have withdrawn from the list of those wishing to speak in this debate, but I want to intervene on the subject of housing. In Lambeg, which is in Lisburn in my constituency, and which is famous for its drums and has some very nice housing, some former Ministry of Defence homes are available for transfer, free of charge, to a Northern Ireland housing association. That housing would provide much-needed accommodation for young couples, first-time buyers and so on. That transfer cannot be concluded because the Department needs ministerial approval. The houses are falling into disrepair. The transfer would benefit the community, and particularly young people in my constituency, but it is not happening. Is not that the kind of decision we want made, so that our constituents benefit?
That is an important point to make, and that matter should be progressed.
I have a final, broad point about the participation of Members of the Legislative Assembly. They have been elected to serve their people and wish to do so, and MLAs are required for good governance in Northern Ireland. There are many decisions that could be taken by civil servants, but there is no direction on what those decisions should be. The only way that civil servants can get a true appreciation of what politicians who have been elected to serve the people wish the direction of travel to be is to ask them—to include a participative process, and to encourage politicians to come in, share their views, and shape policy proposals and decisions for the future. The Bill does not take the opportunity to do that. We have mentioned the historical institutional abuse inquiry. That is a classic example of where elected MLAs could be engaged in discussions on how that matter is progressed.
Gavin Newlands referred to the Independent Reporting Commission, which published a report yesterday. How sad is it that, 20 years after the Belfast agreement, we still have an independent reporting commission on paramilitary activity? I have been in this House for only three years, and in that time, I have had a constituent murdered by the IRA; that is the Provisional IRA, not a dissident group. Another constituent—a serving prison officer—was blown up by dissident republicans, through an under-car booby trap bomb. He died of his injuries a week later.
People come to my constituency office every week because of the pressure that they face from paramilitaries in my community—loyalist paramilitaries; paramilitaries who intimidate young families out of their homes; paramilitaries who lend money and extort a return; and paramilitaries who sell drugs and destroy individuals and their communities. The Independent Reporting Commission report pleads for political direction and political involvement, and for the participation of the people who have been elected to serve our society and want to do so. That is the prize in restoring the Executive. That is what we want. That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve, and though the Bill does not deliver that, it extends the time and opportunity for delivering that. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
We have eight speeches to come, and about an hour to play with, so if speeches could be around seven minutes, that would be very helpful.
As one of two former Northern Ireland Ministers on the Government Benches, let me say that I know how difficult the ministerial team has found it to get to this position with the Bill. The Bill is far from perfect, and it is very easy for us on the Government Back Benches—and for those on other Benches, and for the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister—to tell everybody what should have happened. It would be very easy to criticise—and there was a bit of criticism from the shadow Secretary of State—but the Secretary of State is dancing on the head of a pin, because without a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, the whole area around the Northern Ireland agreement is in a difficult position.
Nobody in this House—nobody who really understands the Northern Ireland political position—would dream of having a situation in which civil servants were empowered by the Bill to progress things in a way that people in any other part of the United Kingdom would find completely undemocratic, and that would never be passed by this House. To perhaps not dance on the head of a pin, this is as close as we will get to direct rule without direct rule.
Some of the political persuasions in Northern Ireland want that to happen. They want crisis. For their own political beliefs, mostly around a united Ireland, they want to make the whole thing collapse. We are very close to that. We cannot have a situation in which the Province is brought to its knees because one group of people want one thing and another group cannot accept that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we had a degree of honesty from Sinn Féin—if that is possible—about whether they really want an Assembly back, and if they do, is it only on their terms?
That intervention is spot on, in many ways. It cannot be on one group’s terms. The Good Friday agreement is specific that it must involve the groups coming together.
In the time I was a Northern Ireland Minister, I met people from all parts of the Province, from all political persuasions and faiths, many of them together in the boxing rings and around rugby. Not once was the Irish language raised with me during my time in the Province. It may have been raised with the Secretary of State, but it certainly was not raised with me. Myriad things were raised, including the difficult situation of the historical investigations, the health service, bridges, roads and lack of infrastructure—all being blocked because one group in the Assembly had a veto. I like to use the word “veto” because I think the public understand it better. To me, that is fundamentally wrong.
We have to ask today whether Sinn Féin want to be part of the process. If not, they should come out and say so. If they do not want the Assembly, Administration and Ministers in place, they should say so. If they do want the Assembly to sit—although it is difficult to see how it could, considering the previous comments by Sinn Féin’s political leaders—they should get into the room, sit down at the table and thrash it out like their predecessors did.
I dealt with the late Martin McGuinness. I never thought that I would get on with him. We were miles apart politically, but he was actually quite pragmatic. He wanted better things for his community—like some of the parties in the House who do not want to be part of the United Kingdom, but come here, thrash things out and are part of it. That is why I have always found the fact that Sinn Féin does not come here, take part and argue its case fundamentally wrong and undemocratic to its constituents.
I will not give way to the great Lady, simply because I know so many other colleagues wish to speak in the debate.
The Bill worries me. I worry how amendable it is, which could impose things on Northern Ireland that are devolved matters. I accept that the Assembly is the right place. In a perfect world, I would like to see no abortion, but we do not live in a perfect world. We have abortion legislation here, and I was on the Opposition Front Bench during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008—a really difficult Bill—and we had a long debate about abortion. I personally think that a woman’s choice is important and we should allow abortion, but I would like to reduce the length of time in which the foetus can be aborted. However, it would be fundamentally dangerous to impose a decision made here on Northern Ireland when it is a devolved matter. I personally think that it should happen in Northern Ireland, but that is for the politicians who were duly elected there to deal with. If the amendment is passed today, it will cause chaos and division in Northern Ireland, and I shall vote against it if it is selected.
I have to say to those on the Front Bench that I have told my Whips that if that amendment were to be in the Bill, that is one reason why I would not be voting for the Bill later. But there is another reason, which is just as important. A whole group of veterans made Northern Ireland safer than it was when we went in. Many Members of this place have served in Her Majesty’s armed forces and been decorated for it. I find inconceivable the way that a British Conservative Government are dealing with British ex-servicemen. Years and years after we served and after the investigations have taken place, we are being treated like we were terrorists. That is the way we feel.
I first went to Northern Ireland in 1975, and Captain Robert Nairac, who sadly passed away there—we think, although we still do not know the exact facts of what happened to Robert—was my captain. I am surrounded by people saying to me, “Why are you”—this Government, this House—“not protecting me, rather than letting me be dragged back to a court in Northern Ireland for something that was finished years ago and of which I was found not guilty?” That form of double jeopardy is fundamentally wrong and it should be covered in this Bill. The Bill is concise and capable of containing that protection. I raised this matter at business questions last week, and the Leader of the House, in good faith, told me to go and speak to the Ministry of Defence. It has nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence; it is to do with the Northern Ireland Office and the Prime Minister, and that is the most important thing.
As has been mentioned a number of times in this House, this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Shankill bomb. The person responsible for that was convicted in a court of law, but was released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement after serving just seven years for the murder of nine innocent civilians, including two children. That is absolutely appalling. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is grotesque that Sinn Féin, who defended that and fought for early release of those murderers from prison, is now going after those soldiers who were in Northern Ireland to defend, to protect and to do their job?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. Sinn Féin sees their people who were doing those atrocities as combatants. They were part of their army; that is why they called them what they did. But they do not look at our veterans in the same way; actually, I think they look at them with derision. I served with Catholics from Belfast in the Army, and they could not go home—certainly, if they did, they could not tell anyone what they were doing. When I was in basic training, many of them stayed with me, with us, because they felt that they could not go back, even though they were Unionists and they wanted to serve in the British Army. Many people from the south served in the British Army. We have police officers from the Republic now who are serving in the police force in Northern Ireland. That is the sort of thing we had, but we still do not have peace.
What peace do we have in Northern Ireland? We have touched on this, and on the murders of prison officers. When I was the Minister there, David Black was shot with a weapon that most people in Northern Ireland know was an AK47, from the Gaddafi era, that was supposed to have been placed out of use and out of everything. He was shot on the M1 going to work. What sort of peace is that?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the pursuit of people who should clearly not be pursued as they have been through a process that has long been done with. Does he agree that that matter should actually be being determined by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland? It is a clear and blatant abuse of process that old criminal lawyers will understand. Does he also agree that it is not good enough that the covenant has not been fully extended through the entirety of Northern Ireland?
Perhaps unusually, I agree with my right hon. Friend on nearly everything she says apart from her point about the Attorney General. British soldiers who were there to keep the peace—that is what I was sent to do—were sent by the British Government and so, in my opinion, the only Attorney General who should look at it is the Attorney General here. We were sent there not by Northern Ireland Ministers or Attorney Generals, but by those who were here. My Prime Minister at the time sent the troops. I went in ’74; there were lots before me and lots after us. It cannot be right—it cannot—that this Bill ignores what was given by so many to protect the Province.
I fundamentally think I was sent to this place to do a job—to protect my constituents and look after them, after they have looked after us. If this House is not willing to protect veterans who served in Northern Ireland, I am afraid I cannot support the Bill.
This is the eighth or ninth time since devolution collapsed in Northern Ireland in January 2017 that we have had so-called emergency legislation, and the Bill is arguably the most important, wide-ranging piece of all that emergency legislation. As the Minister heard, there will of course be support for it, because it is necessary to facilitate the further good governance of public services in Northern Ireland, but it is a profoundly unsatisfactory process, both in general and in particular today—the way in which we are going about delivering legislation for Northern Ireland, and the way in which this piece of legislation has been brought forward.
In the first instance, I would say that the notion that the Bill is a piece of emergency legislation is in itself questionable. Of course it deals with some important matters, notably the appointment of people to the Policing Board and other boards in Northern Ireland, but Members ought to know that the Policing Board has been without its political members since March 2017. It has now been without its independent members for almost six months. If that is such an emergency, the Government seem slightly slow to respond. Equally, I would say that we all understand how the Buick ruling has undermined the status of civil servants and their security when taking important decisions, but that too was some months ago now, and I believe that that could have been dealt with in rather shorter order.
However, the really important point is not the question of the emergency, but the nature of the substance of the issues that we are dealing with today, because as several Members have suggested, the proposed changes are profound. It is everything short, if you like, of direct rule, but it gets as close to direct rule as we could have without calling it as much.
The guidance has been mentioned several times today. I think it was remiss of the Secretary of State to say that that guidance had been placed in the Library of the House, because it had not. It had been published online on the NIO website, alongside the legislation, but it was not referred to specifically in either the legislation or the notes to the legislation, so hon. Members such as myself who would have liked to be able to read that, as far as I am aware were unable to do so, unless we knew that it was on the website, which was not true in my case at least. I know that some people on the Front Bench and elsewhere, and perhaps the Chair of the Select Committee, and certainly some of the other political parties who were consulted, will have been given the guidance, but we were not given the guidance.
The guidance to the civil service was deposited in the Library on Monday, and it is also available today on the gov.uk website, from which other people in this Chamber were able to take copies. So, from our point of view, it was deposited on Monday. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that at face value, and perhaps seek to retract some of the accusations that he has made in this direction.
All I can say is that I went personally to the Library and asked the staff, and asked them again, and asked them to check; indeed, I also went to the Table Office and the Vote Office, and none of the people responsible in those offices said that they had a copy of the guidance. We then learned that it had been provided to other people, but only through the NIO website, from which I gather it was given to the Opposition Front-Bench team last week. I do not think that is satisfactory, not least because the substance of the guidance is so important—the issues that the legislation deals and does not deal with, the way in which the Secretary of State is offering guidance to civil servants, and some of the misunderstanding as to how that guidance will be provided on an ongoing basis are incredibly important.
I asked the Secretary of State earlier whether she could give me a specific example of a decision that might or might not be made by the Northern Irish civil service departments in the light of this guidance, and she could not do so. I suspect that that is because anyone who reads the guidance, as I now have, can see that you could drive a coach and horses through it. There are any number of instances that one could choose to identify in which it appears that decisions might be made in the public interest, or in order to improve wellbeing or economic performance in Northern Ireland, and, equally, there are many instances in which one might choose to interpret the legislation as inhibiting such decisions and actions.
The crucial distinction seems to involve the question of policy. However, I put it to the Minister that even if Northern Ireland civil servants cannot amend policy on an ongoing basis, one would assume that, as a corollary, they now have the capacity to make operational decisions that could be of enormous significance to citizens in Northern Ireland, relating to, perhaps, the closure of a hospital, school or some other vital facility.
Dr Murrison implied, at least, that the Secretary of State would have to provide further guidance in respect of those operational decisions that might be undertaken, but according to my reading of the legislation, that is not the case. My understanding is that the Secretary of State will publish, on a monthly basis, some reference to the decisions that have, potentially, been made, or, rather, civil servants will report to her on the decisions that they have made under the guidance, but there is no obligation on her to provide the House with details of any decisions that she is instructing civil servants to make—or objecting to their making—on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
That brings me to the principal point that I wish to make. We seem to be taking a very big step in further strengthening the hand of Northern Ireland civil servants to make important decisions. We have had practically no opportunity to scrutinise the guidance and to understand fully what it means—what its implications are not just for Northern Ireland, but for the devolved settlements across these islands. It seems to me that this is another example of the Government’s rushing through Northern Ireland legislation, characterising it as absolutely vital and urgent when in reality it deserves further scrutiny.
Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of a significant point that was made, in a very interesting speech, by Gavin Robinson—to whom, of course, I apologise for addressing him earlier as “you” instead of “the hon. Member”. [Laughter.] The significant point in that excellent speech was the indication given by a very senior Sinn Féin member that Sinn Féin had no intention whatsoever of abiding by the timescale and the deadline of
I am not sure that that intervention is entirely pertinent to the point that I was making. However, I will say in response to it that what I heard was a reference to Conor Murphy’s having said that he did not think Ministers would be in place before April 2019, which is broadly in line with the mysterious deadline that the Secretary of State has specified in clause 1.
My view is that no one party in Northern Ireland is blameless in respect of the impasse in which we currently find ourselves. I think that all parties need to get round the table, and that, crucially, the Governments on both sides of the Irish border need to do more to make this a more dynamic process. Torpor, drift and lassitude have characterised the approach of our Government, in particular, to an impasse that has lasted for nearly two years. If this is such an emergency, I think that the real emergency has been the lack of drive and dynamism. We heard from my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd about some of the ideas advanced previously by him and by me about an independent chair, potentially the Prime Minister—maybe not the current Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister—who would have a greater influence in these matters. There are myriad ways in which the Government could be trying to drive this forward, but they are not doing so, and that causes me grave regret.
I shall conclude by making three brief points. This Bill essentially allows civil servants in Northern Ireland to take a very wide-ranging set of decisions and to be given legal and political cover by the Northern Ireland Office to do so, but it does not apparently allow decisions to be taken about the Hart inquiry recommendations on victims of historical institutional abuse, and that is morally indefensible. Hart reported just after the Assembly collapsed, but the inquiry was established by the Assembly and is widely supported across the Assembly. David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, has said in terms that he already has the legislation on the books in order to deliver for those victims, and it is a disgrace that this legislation is not going to deal with their case. It should do, and there is no excuse for it not doing so.
Secondly, there are 500 victims of the troubles who have been gravely injured mentally or physically, as a result of no fault of their own in the vast majority of cases. They deserve a victims pension. It is clear that the compensation paid to individuals in the past is insufficient given that those people are living longer, thankfully, than was ever imagined. It is vital that the Government put in place a pension for victims.
Lastly, there is nothing in this Bill that allows for the people of Northern Ireland to have a greater voice than that represented through the DUP on the question of Brexit. The most important issue facing Northern Ireland is the prospect that the Good Friday agreement is in jeopardy right now, as a result of the reckless way in which Northern Ireland is being treated in the Brexit process. It is essential that we get the Assembly back, but if the Assembly cannot deal with it, Ministers in the NIO need to start speaking up, and I say to them, “We need to hear your voices on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland on Brexit, and if you do not speak up, you are letting the people of Northern Ireland down.”
I will try to be brief, but this is a subject that I hold close to my heart. Let me start by saying how much I wish that we were not here. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland and was born in Omagh at the beginning of the troubles, I spent my childhood knowing what it was like to live at a time of violence within the United Kingdom. This year marks 20 years since the Omagh bombing and 20 years since the Good Friday agreement, and the peace that we have today is precious, and also very fragile as Gavin Robinson reminded us.
I have said before in this Chamber that we should not jeopardise the Good Friday agreement. We should not jeopardise it with a hard border between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. We also should not jeopardise the right to self-determination that the people of Northern Ireland made with their clear decision that they wished to be part of the United Kingdom and part of our precious Union here. It is always difficult for someone like me who is no longer living in Northern Ireland but is watching from afar to form a view, but I think that it has partly been having Stormont and having local decision making that has meant that the Good Friday agreement has lasted for so long. Local decision making is key to holding this whole situation together. So that is why I wish we were not here: I wish the Stormont Assembly was meeting and we were not put in the position of trying to pass legislation in this place.
I was back over in Northern Ireland last month, and time and again people outside politics were telling me how frustrated they were by the current situation—not only by the lack of decision making in Stormont, but by what that is doing for key decisions that affect everyday lives. They mentioned many projects—local transport projects, health projects and a particularly beautiful education project. In Omagh, on the site of the old Army barracks, there is a £140 million investment to build the Strule schools project, which will bring all six secondary schools in Omagh on to one site, so instead of the Catholic and Protestant children being in different schools where they never meet, they will still have their own school ethos but they will meet and be together. That will be such a powerful sight, but when I drove past it, the gates were there but there was nothing behind them because the project continues to be delayed. We need to ensure that the civil servants in Northern Ireland can get on with making the key decisions, and we cannot wait forever. That is why I will support Ministers in ensuring that they can get local decision making going.
I want to talk a bit about the subject of abortion, which I know will come up again and again today. I have spoken about it in the Chamber before, and it is an emotional issue on which people have strong personal views. I support the right to choose, and that is something that I believe in very strongly, but I also feel very sensitive about people in one part of the world telling people in another part of the world what they should do on this issue. It is an issue that should be determined locally.
When I spoke about this last time, it was on the eve of the High Court judgment on human rights. I pointed out that if part of the UK was found not to be upholding key human rights, we in this place would have to act. When I was back over in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to listen to the testimony of a mother who had had the most hideous experience of being forced to carry a baby to term, even though the baby was never going to live and actually died in the womb.
It is worth having another read of the High Court judgment, because on the one hand it says that we are in breach of our human rights in key areas such as rape, incest and foetal fatal abnormality, but on the other hand the judgment does not stand formally because the Court ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have the legal power to bring a case in its own name. As I understand it, that is a failure of the legislation that was passed here under the then Labour Government. The language was not clear enough in the Bill that established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to give the commission the power to bring such cases in its own name. That issue needs to be corrected, and I am told that that would put the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on a level playing field with its equivalents in other parts of the United Kingdom. If that had already been the case, that legal judgment would have been binding, which would have helped to facilitate the local changes that are needed to ensure that the women of Northern Ireland do not have their human rights breached.
There are many more things that I would like to say. I believe that it is still worth fighting for frictionless trade across the Northern Irish-Irish border and across the Irish sea and the English channel. By finding a solution that keeps the whole Union together, we will find a relationship that works for our ongoing relationship with Europe as well. I will support the Bill this evening, but with a heavy heart, because I wish that we did not have to be here.
I will try to be relatively brief, because my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson has made a fantastic speech in which he articulated many of the issues that I wanted to touch on. I am also conscious that my hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who is sitting behind me, is keen to speak and to have sufficient time to articulate his issues, and I do not want to disappoint him in that regard.
I want to talk about the specifics of this legislation. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East in thanking the team at the Northern Ireland Office and the ministerial team for all their work and for the help they have given to me and the Democratic Unionist party team to enable us to understand better the issues in the Bill. They also gave us the space to raise our concerns and issues, some of which I will touch on today.
As already articulated, this Bill is not a perfect solution. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is far from a perfect solution, because it is so limited in what it can actually do and in the powers that it gives to senior civil servants. The context of course is that that is also difficult and troubling, because giving such powers has at its heart a democratic deficit that goes to the centre of British constitutional democracy. I will touch on that again later, not least because it is almost unprecedented in decision making in any part of our United Kingdom.
Throughout the process, from the first suggestion of this approach, the ministerial team in the Northern Ireland Office will be aware that DUP Members have expressed disappointment over the ambition of the proposals. That disappointment arose not because the Secretary of State was keen to ensure that some decisions can happen in Northern Ireland, but because putting Northern Ireland back into a pre-Buick but post-collapse position is insufficient. The legislation gives only limited scope for decision making by senior civil servants, about which the Secretary of State was frank and clear, but I am grateful that there are some exceptions, although they are small, covering planning and big investment decisions when they are non-controversial and enjoy a broad consensus and when decisions are clearly in the public interest. I put it on the record again that I welcome the Secretary of State’s clarity that a decision like that on the transport hub, which is of regional significance and critical to Northern Ireland’s economy, can be made under the terms in the legislation.
However, I share the sentiments of Vicky Ford that it is extremely disappointing that we are where we are. This is not where any of us want to be. I do not want to go into great detail, but it is worth reminding ourselves of how we have reached this point. My DUP colleagues have already articulated our frustration, because we want to get back into government to work and to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. My colleagues who are Members of the Legislative Assembly were elected to do that job, but they cannot. They, like Members of every other party, are frustrated from entering the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive by one party, but one of the frustrating things about the process thus far has been the tendency by many to look at all the parties in Northern Ireland and say, “You’re all as bad as each other. You’re all holding back progress. Why don’t you just get on with it and get back into government?”
I was here for most of the first part of the debate, but I had to be away to attend a Committee. I just want to agree with the hon. Lady. Only one party is stopping Stormont reconvening, and it is Sinn Féin. It is in Sinn Féin’s interest to screw up—I use that phrase advisedly—the whole idea of Northern Ireland being self-governing, and it will continue to do that. I suspect that we will still be here arguing like this next year. I wish that the situation was not like this, because Northern Ireland is a great place. One party—Sinn Féin—is ruining what should be happening.
I thank and agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I came in to work for and with Government back in 2007 on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I was an adviser in the office of the First Minister, and I worked closely not only with our DUP team, but with the Sinn Féin team. Back in 2007, that was challenging, because the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is a joint office. Part of my job was to advise the First Minister and try to get agreement on a range of issues to be signed off by the Ministers in the relevant Department. What did that mean in practice? It meant that every letter and every policy—everything that went out of the Department—had to be agreed between the DUP and Sinn Féin. I was one of the people charged with seeking those agreements for ministerial sign off.
I say this today not because of any blind hatred or opposition to Sinn Féin, because we worked the system, and we worked it hard, to try to deliver on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland. We had to make very difficult compromises, decisions and agreements to make devolution work in order to try to stabilise the peace.
It was therefore particularly disappointing when the collapse happened, and I recognise all those people across all parties, including Sinn Féin, with whom we worked to try to make Northern Ireland work. It is in that context that everyone here, including on the Labour Benches, should be clear about who is causing there to be no government in Northern Ireland today. We would go back into government tomorrow morning. We are willing to turn up, and we are not asking for anything. One party is saying to every other party in Northern Ireland, “You are not going into government unless we get our demands.” That is blackmailing not just the other parties in Northern Ireland but the people of Northern Ireland who want to see issues addressed such as health, health transformation, education, necessary infrastructure and the fantastic projects happening on the ground to foster good relations—those things cannot happen.
In the main, the Bill gives unaccountable senior civil servants the power to make some decisions, and it has been acknowledged that most of them will be routine, non-controversial, low-level decisions. As my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson rightly said, the vast majority of the 200 decisions that have been listed are not controversial, but they cannot be taken under the terms of this Bill. That is why, right from the outset of this process, we expressed disappointment, because the time has now come that, if Sinn Féin will not move on and if they want to boycott the Northern Ireland Assembly, they should allow those who want to work to work. There need to be ministerial decisions on a whole range of important issues.
New clause 7 has received some coverage and has caused some controversy because of the two issues relating to Northern Ireland. I echo the comments of many on both sides of the House that we recognise these issues are of deep concern to many people in Northern Ireland. These issues are of deep concern to many people in my constituency. We have heard the experiences of women, particularly in relation to life-limiting conditions and fatal foetal abnormalities. We have listened to their stories and experiences, and they are incredibly difficult. I challenge anyone not to feel empathy for the very challenging circumstances in which those women find themselves.
I spoke on behalf of the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly just prior to the collapse on a report we commissioned, and I urged people to wait, to let us see the report and to approach the situation with compassion and care. That report has been received, and I honestly believe that, if the Northern Ireland Assembly were re-established, the report would be debated, considered and decided on where it rightly should be dealt with. The only thing holding that up is the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly, and there would be no impediment to the Assembly getting back to work tomorrow if Sinn Féin dropped their red line.
Yes, there are some concerns about the Bill, and I conclude by addressing some specific issues for Northern Ireland. The historical institutional abuse inquiry has been mentioned, and I have frequently met victims and victims’ groups over the past seven to eight years. I have put on the record, and wish to say again, that we in the Democratic Unionist party are hugely sympathetic to what those people experienced, particularly as children, in those institutions. That is an example of an issue that needs to be addressed. A huge amount of work needs to happen on a possible redress scheme—a support scheme— and who would be eligible for it and what mechanism could be used to introduce it. But that can happen at the moment, in preparedness for a decision to be made; my understanding is that under terms of this Bill and guidance that is the type of decision that cannot be made.
In the absence of such decisions, if there is no restoration of the Assembly, I urge the Secretary of State and her team: be a little braver, step up and make the decision to say, “It has gone on long enough.” Victims, those suffering, those in need and those sitting on waiting lists need decisions, and they need to be ministerial decisions. Although that needs to happen now and in a couple of months’ time, it needed to happen yesterday—it needed to happen a year ago. This is now urgent across such a wide range of issues.
Briefly, I wish to touch on the issue of the definition of a “victim”. I mentioned in an intervention that this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Shankill bomb, an incident that demonstrates so acutely the grotesque nature of the definition of “victim” in Northern Ireland. Under that definition, which is holding up issues such as the victim’s pension and other support, the nine innocent victims of that atrocity—that IRA act of terrorism—are gauged to be same as the IRA bomber who blew himself up and killed himself planting that bomb on that day. That is grotesque and appalling. People right across all the political parties, here and in Northern Ireland, have a number of issues they are really concerned about and care deeply about. I recognise that many care deeply about the Irish language Act, but there are many other issues to address, such as the one I mentioned. What a wrong to turn around and say to the families of those who were murdered and injured on that day, “That bomber is treated the same under victims’ schemes and victim support as the people he went out to murder.”
Connected to that is the point relating to our veterans. We do need our covenant—we need full implementation of the covenant. Northern Ireland has 3% of the UK’s population, but we contribute 7% to the Army, which is vastly higher in terms of proportion across the United Kingdom, and we do deal with the legacy. When people come back, they have done their duty and have seen some terrible things, not because they chose to go there, but because that was their job and duty. We therefore have a responsibility to do what we can to support them. We need the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. We also need to address the issue of the disproportionate and grotesque attempts to pursue soldiers and police officers who did their duty, stood up to protect and were only there with a gun in that situation because they were placed there to protect people. We need to get that addressed urgently, and with that I will conclude.
May I just say to the two gentleman that we need to bring on the Front Benchers just before quarter to?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make a comment. First, let me thank the Secretary of State for introducing this legislation. We know that the people of the Province have been held to ransom by the wiles and machinations of an obstinate, intransigent and downright petulant Sinn Féin for too long. Other Members have said that and I want to reiterate it. It seems Sinn Féin is happy enough to be the party of absenteeism at home as well as in the UK, happy to take the Queen’s notes and not legislate, and happy to leave our country tottering on the brink. It is about time that we in this place reminded Sinn Féin that if it does not and will not do its job in Northern Ireland or here, we and the British Government will do that job for it.
My personal opinion is that we should be implementing direct rule in this legislation if an Assembly Executive are not formed within the next six months. I believe it is time we did that. For too long, we have pandered to Sinn Féin and gotten nowhere, except for in Northern Ireland Departments that are afraid to allocate money. I want to make some comments about that. Clause 3(4) states:
“The absence of Northern Ireland Ministers is not to be treated as having prevented any senior officer of a Northern Ireland department from exercising functions of the department”.
Subsection (5) makes reference to something
“not to be treated as having prevented the exercise of that function”.
That all sounds right and proper, but the fact of the matter is that, although it gives permanent secretaries some function in terms of where they are, it does not go far enough. The difficulty for me came when I read the guidance on decision making. Although the principle of the legislation is to ensure that the decisions that should be taken are taken, the framework for decisions leaves a lot to be desired. The guidance says that
“the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers does not prevent a senior officer of a NI Department from exercising a function of the department if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to exercise the function”.
Surely that translates into, “If an official wishes to stick their neck out, this will not stop him or her.” How many officials are prepared to do that? I suspect that there are very few. It is all very well, but where does the Bill say that decisions must be made unless there is a reason not to make them? We all know the issues clearly. It is important to encourage permanent secretaries to make decisions that have been in the pipeline for too long.
This morning, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard about the need to recruit some 600 police officers before the end of the year. There are some plans to try to do that to bring the figures up. We also have to address paramilitarism. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is clear about what it is doing and wants to do. I am happy with the PSNI’s commitment, but will the Secretary of State say how the Bill addresses it?
Last week, I met the Unison representatives of the health workers at the Ulster hospital in Belfast. They are as annoyed as I am that in Northern Ireland we cannot access some of the drugs that we can access on the mainland. Compared with some parts of the United Kingdom, we have second-class access to cancer care in Northern Ireland. For some people, there is a backstop down the Irish sea when it comes to healthcare for those in certain parts of the mainland compared with us in Northern Ireland. I express great concern about that. Why is it that agency staff cost the health service in Northern Ireland £150 million? I suggest that that is lazy management. It is not cost-effective to spend £150 million this year on agency staff when the staff could be employed full time at a much lower cost.
What about the pay for nurses—the 6.5% over three years for the nurses? There is a backstop down the Irish sea when it comes to the nurses in Northern Ireland getting their 6.5%. Perhaps the Secretary of State will listen to this question, if that is possible: when will the nurses in Northern Ireland get their 6.5% pay increase? Will the changes in this legislation make that happen? We have been very involved with community pharmacies and we understand the issues clearly. We need to help the permanent secretary to enable the changes to take place.
Let me refer to the food-processing grant scheme and the lack of an appropriate scheme. I had a meeting with the Minister of State on this matter, which affects three of the largest employers in my constituency. When I attempted to engage the permanent secretary on the issue, I was given the following response—I quote the Minister of State, who is sitting there writing furiously:
“You have asked for a reconsideration of a decision to restrict the availability of grant to SMEs in Northern Ireland. If the measure was to be extended beyond the SME sector and the available evidence, that would require a direct Ministerial intervention. There are no plans to launch this new scheme in the absence of a DAERA Minister.”
Will the permanent secretaries be able to legislate on the scheme to enable three of my large local business to take advantage of a processing grant scheme that is available on the mainland? It is available in Scotland, Wales and England, but it is not available in Northern Ireland.
On fishing, Brexit will bring us some access to our own waters again, which is good news, but we also need fishing harbours in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel that can take up the opportunities and make sure that they happen. For that to happen, we need someone in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the permanent secretary to be responsible, take those decisions and ensure that we get the second slipway at Portavogie, the large scheme at Kilkeel and the improvements needed at Ardglass, which are currently on hold.
We will always talk about our own constituencies, as I have done, but I just want to plug a project in my constituency that is still sitting in the system—the Ballynahinch bypass. Why are we unable to get progress? The bypass is ready to go and the plans are in action, including the acquisition of land, but we are unable to move the scheme forward. A Northern Ireland Water sewerage scheme for new builds is also on hold in Saintfield in my constituency. There are lots of new builds in Newtownards and Comber, and we may have to upgrade those systems as well, so I am very conscious of that issue.
I will soon draw my remarks to a conclusion, because I want to ensure that my hon. Friend Paul Girvan has the opportunity to speak. Just before I do, I will mention the education system. Many schools across my constituency have not been able to step forward as our allocation of pupils increases. We are looking into having a new build for Glastry College, or perhaps an amalgamation of Glastry College and Movilla High School. We will have to see where that goes, but we need someone in place to make the decision. We also need someone in place to make the decisions about children’s road safety outside both Grey Abbey Primary School and Abbey Primary School in Newtownards. These are real bread and butter issues for people who want to see change.
We are frustrated with a system that unfortunately does not bring accountability. With respect to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, who are both sitting on the Government Front Bench, this legislation does not deliver the accountability that I want to see. I challenge the Government to show that it will deliver on the education and bypasses that we need, and on nurses’ pay. We want to see accountability and responsible action from the Ministers and the Department.
I agree with the spirit of the Bill, but it is not forceful enough and will mean that decisions can be avoided. The people of the Province have lived in limbo for far too long. We deserve better; and the DUP deserves and demands better.
It is with great sadness that we are here today, debating yet another Bill that should not have to be brought to this House. Unfortunately, we are in this position because of the intransigence of one party, as has been outlined by many speakers. Sinn Féin had the opportunity to go into an Assembly with us; it will not. I am not necessarily saying that we should be dealing with talks. I think that we should recall the Assembly, and that those who are willing and want to be there should be there and take part in business. That might bring about a need to change the way in which the Assembly is set up, but—let’s be honest—we can move things whenever we have to.
This legislation is about allowing civil servants to make decisions, although many such decisions have been challenged. I appreciate that this comes on the back of the Buick ruling, associated with the Mallusk incinerator site—I use the term “incinerator” because that is what it is—and because of that, we have ended up with many civil servants looking for reasons not to make decisions, instead of for reasons to make them. Unfortunately, the people of Northern Ireland suffer as a result.
It is vital that we move forward positively. We do not want to go back to where we were in the past, as has been mentioned by previous speakers. We have moved on quite a bit in the last 20 years; we do not want to go back, nor do we want to be held to ransom by the implementers of some of the troubles or those who brought about the some of the atrocities in our Province.
There are difficulties associated with some of these decisions. Many are simple, straightforward and uncontroversial—many of which are associated with major infrastructure. The difficulty is that people have attempted to put something in this Bill that is very controversial to people of Northern Ireland, and we should not be trying to muddy the waters on that matter. I appreciate that it is a difficult situation, and that many people have suffered because they are having a baby who may be born with a life-limiting condition. I understand and appreciate that, but we should not have to attach it to this Bill. If we get an Assembly up and running, these decisions should be made there. These items should not be made red lines before entering into a Government; they should be debated on the Floor of a Northern Ireland Assembly and addressed democratically through that process.
We missed another opportunity in not including something associated with the past—the way that the military have been hounded in relation to what happened when they were trying to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. They were there as custodians of the British Government to ensure that we were able to sleep in our beds at night.
My hon. Friend refers to our esteemed and brave members of the military. There is a lot of talk about heroes of the peace process—does he agree that they are the real, unsung heroes of the peace process?
I have to agree with my hon. Friend—that is 100% right. I am from a family who have been affected directly. Many members of my family served in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately we suffered as a consequence of that and are still suffering today.
We have missed a shot in moving these matters forward. However, I do appreciate the work that has gone into trying to bring forward something that will potentially provide an opportunity for some decisions to be made. Not that many weeks ago, we passed a pay rise for the teachers. There was an excuse that that cannot be passed across to Northern Ireland, but we will get a Barnett consequential in the next Budget should we have a mechanism to pass that pay rise on. I believe that this Bill will give civil servants and permanent secretaries the opportunity to make those decisions and pass on those pay rises, which are long overdue.
We have had a long debate on this matter. I hope and pray that this will be the last time that we have to bring to this House such a piece of legislation that would normally be addressed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Let us hope and pray that we have that Assembly up and running, making decisions, in the near future.
During the course of this afternoon, two common threads have emerged that have run through all of our discourse. One of those is the unfailing courtesy and respect with which Members have addressed each other across the Chamber. This has been an occasion not for people trying to score parochial or party political points but to try, really try, actually to achieve what is best for those we care the most for: the people of Northern Ireland; the people of this United Kingdom. The second thread is the sadness that we are here at all, as has been expressed so eloquently by so many Members, and the feeling that we have somehow failed as politicians and as legislators because we have had to bring this Bill before us.
The opening comments by the Secretary of State will have engendered great sympathy from across the House and, I should imagine, outside it. She took a huge number of interventions, and she spoke entirely honestly and from her heart. The conclusion that I drew from her words was that if there were any other way of proceeding, we would take it—if there were any other possible mechanism, that is the mechanism we would seek—but we are in a situation where it is simply impossible to continue, and not just because of the great long list of concerns that have been expressed.
If anyone thinks that there is any shortage of urgency about addressing those concerns in Northern Ireland, they should have a look at the briefing paper put out by the House of Commons Library, which lists page after page of long-outstanding issues. We know all about the A5 and the York Street interchange; we know about nurses’ pay and the NHS. We know about all these issues, but we cannot do anything about them. There is the issue of dormant bank accounts. There are things that would be so good for the people of Northern Ireland. We must somehow break this logjam and move forward. Of course, in an ideal world, we would have an Executive and an Assembly, but we are not there yet. We have to do something now.
We should pay credit to David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service. There are some pretty tough jobs in the civil service, but his has to be one of the toughest. He has said on the record that he needs to be given legislation, to give “greater clarity and certainty” to decisions, not just because of the decision of Mrs Justice Keegan in the Mallusk case, but for the whole operation of the Northern Ireland civil service. We are asking them to carry the ball when we are not prepared to give them cover.
Dr Murrison referred to the Secretary of State as sailing a tight and narrow course between Scylla and Charybdis. He may have been piling Pelion on Ossa when he made that statement, because I think we tend to know that, but that is exactly it—the Secretary of State has been walking on eggshells. What we have here is not an attempt to give a blank cheque and carte blanche to the Northern Ireland civil service, but an attempt not to restrain them and constrain them in such a way that they can do nothing. There will be an element of accountability. There will always be judicial review, and there will always be very active local Members in Northern Ireland who will not be silent if matters are failing to be raised.
The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, referred to a poverty of ambition. I think, in all sincerity, that we could be more ambitious. At the moment, we are firefighting; we are responding to crisis. I do not see that we are laying out alternatives and ways in which we can move forward. Nigel Mills asked, “What can we do best?”, and that is the question we must all ask ourselves. At the moment, we are providing cover, and we are allowing the civil service to act, but we are not solving the problem or resolving it in any way whatsoever.
I think Gavin Newlands spoke for us all when he said that the Bill is accepted reluctantly. I think we all accept it, but with great reluctance. In the intervention from Mr Campbell, he referred to two words that echo throughout Northern Ireland. I have to say, there are two words I have always associated with it in the past—the first is “No” and the second is “Surrender”. I am glad we have parked that and moved on. Now the two words are, “We’re ready!” and I am delighted to hear that.
Gavin Robinson, whose constituency I have had the enormous pleasure of visiting with him, called for a more interventionist approach. He is absolutely right, and I agree with that. It must be so desperately frustrating that the community groups and organisations he works with are being starved of funds and resources and starved of that accountability and link to legislation. He is doing everything he can. If only we could do more to help him. Sadly, the words that I remember from him are,
“we are where we are.”
That is the tragedy, but we have to get from where we are to somewhere forward.
I had the great honour of shadowing Sir Mike Penning when he was a Minister. He is one of eight Ministers I have shadowed over the years; I do not know whether the fact that they all sought promotion immediately afterwards has anything to do with me. He spoke from a position of knowledge. He is held in great affection in the House, and we wish him well in everything he does.
My hon. Friend Owen Smith talked about torpor, drift and lassitude, which sounds a bit like a firm of solicitors in Swansea. I know exactly what he means—torpor, drift and lassitude are, in some ways, the characteristics that are seen from outside.
Vicky Ford spoke from an Omagh background. I welcome her to our regular sessions here on this subject. We are always looking for new input. Her comments were very emotionally grounded, and we all respected them.
Emma Little Pengelly, in a typically excellent and elegant speech, referred to the democratic deficit. She also talked about an unaccountable civil service. I am not entirely sure that the civil service is unaccountable. I think it does operate in daylight, and there is transparency. The main point she made—this is one thing that none of us must ever forget from this afternoon’s deliberations—was about the implementation of the Hart report. We simply cannot allow the Hart inquiry report to lie on the table. It is too important. She spoke with such passion that I challenge anyone not to bend their every sinew to try to achieve the implementation of that report.
I have to say that I have never heard Jim Shannon speak faster. I have a terrible feeling that a new category in the Olympics has recently been introduced—speed talking. I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman, and did he not quite rightly say that this is about bread and butter? This is indeed about bread and butter.
I think Paul Girvan spoke for all of us when he said—let this be the coda of this debate—that we do not want to be going back. We do not want to go back, we will not go back, we cannot go back: Northern Ireland deserves better. What we do this afternoon is not going to resolve the problem, but it will be a small step on the way and will allow some element of normality. Above all, however, we must never, ever go back.
May I start on a rather sad note? I extend my condolences and sympathies to Lord Caine, who is known affectionately to all of us as Jonathan Caine. Jonathan is a friend of mine and I have known him for many years. I think all of us in the House would agree that, as far as Northern Ireland issues are concerned, Jonathan is the fount of all knowledge and the one we go to because he knows all the answers. At this difficult time, we extend our sympathies to him and his family.
The intention of the Bill is to create a time-bound period for intensive efforts to restart political dialogue, which might enable the Northern Ireland political parties to form an Executive at any time, as well as to support essential decision making during that period and to ensure that key public appointments can be made until an Executive are in place.
There have been occasions when Sinn Féin representatives have turned up at meetings. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will take it on board that the last time we had direct rule it was for five years, and the time before that it was for 25 years. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly to the people of Northern Ireland, that no stone is left unturned. We are bringing in this Bill to ensure that we can have some space and time during which to get those talks up and running again to try to get the Assembly functioning for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
We have heard from a number of speakers, and I wish to thank all of them. If at all possible given the time constraint, I wish to make brief comments about all the speeches. The shadow Secretary of State, Tony Lloyd, made a very thoughtful speech. May I say that we very much welcome his broad support for the measures we are introducing? He was critical of the time periods, but I would simply say that we must have the time periods we feel are necessary to try to get the flexibility we may need if the talks reach a particular stage. As I say, it is so important that we get a functioning Assembly. He also mentioned the case of Sarah Ewart. He will understand that there is a long-standing convention in the House that it is inappropriate to make comments about ongoing cases, and I hope he will take that on board.
My hon. Friend Nigel Mills raised concerns about the guidance given to the Northern Ireland civil service. I say to him and to others that we very much welcome comments from people—especially those, like him, who are on the Select Committee, but also others—who wish to make a contribution.
Gavin Newlands urged the Secretary of State to work night and day to try to get the Assembly up and running. I can assure him that that is precisely what she has been doing since the day she became Secretary of State, and I can also assure him that she will continue to do that. We welcome the support that he and his party are giving to this measure.
The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison, gave a very detailed speech, rightly highlighting the lack of decisions in Northern Ireland in the absence of Ministers and the impact that that is having on the ordinary citizen. That is why it is so important that we pass this Bill to allow the facility to try to get the Assembly up and running. Again, he made reference to the guidance given to the Northern Ireland civil service, and I say the same to him that I said to my hon. Friend Nigel Mills that we would welcome any comments that he may have.
Gavin Robinson gave a learned speech in which he praised, quite rightly, the civil service in Northern Ireland. May I add my praise to the wonderful work of David Sterling and his team—all the permanent secretaries and the thousands of civils servants who have worked to keep Northern Ireland going for the past 20 or so months? He rightly pointed out the transparency of decisions, and will have noted that that is provided for, which is important. He specifically asked about ongoing legislation in this Chamber. I can confirm to him that this Government will continue to take steps to introduce and extend legislation to Northern Ireland following careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. We have done so to date, balancing the public interest need with our respect of the devolution settlement and fully restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.
The speech of my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning clearly reflected his experience of Northern Ireland. He spoke of the need for determination to get the Assembly up and running again. Owen Smith gave a characteristically feisty speech. I have to say that, although there have been various comments and reservations about the Bill, I was somewhat disappointed that he could not bring himself to give broad support for what we are doing, but instead concentrated his entire speech on being critical. That is matter of regret for the whole House when we seek to get the best for the people of Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend Vicky Ford gave a passionate speech full of feeling. She spoke about the importance of the Good Friday agreement. I agree with her entirely on that importance, and on the fact that we wish we were not in this place right now and that we were not having to pass this legislation, but, as has already been said, we are where we are.
Emma Little Pengelly also made the point that this is not where we want to be, but we are here and therefore it is necessary to get this Bill through, and it is good to have the broad support of the House. She spoke of the need for ministerial decisions. We recognise that there should be ministerial decisions, as those decisions are vital to the people of Northern Ireland. That is why this Bill allows us the opportunity to try to get the parties to think again around that table and to get the Assembly running.
Jim Shannon gave a detailed speech. Again, I note his concerns and reservations, but, broadly, he agreed with the spirit of this Bill and that is welcome. Paul Girvan rightly spoke about the issues that really are for a devolved Assembly to take. That is why, as I have said, it is important that the whole House is united in trying to get the parties to make sure that the Assembly is functioning.
The UK Government would have very much preferred it if the parties had reached an accommodation and formed an Executive by now. In the absence of such a development, action must be taken. This is to ensure that we can have the protection of the delivery of public services by giving the Northern Ireland civil service certainty to take decisions in the absence of an Executive and also to keep key bodies and offices functioning properly by ensuring that appointments can be made to them.
This really is an important Bill, and we introduce it with reluctance, but we are doing so with the best of intent to get the best for the people of Northern Ireland. I therefore urge that this Bill be read a second time.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister asserted that the respected Oxford economist and professor, Simon Wren-Lewis, said, in reference to Labour’s manifesto,
“the numbers did not add up”.
However, Professor Wren-Lewis disputes the accuracy of those remarks. He issued the following comments this afternoon, and I would like to be clear that these are the professor’s words, not mine:
“Apparently the Prime Minister quoted me saying about Labour’s 2017 manifesto ‘the numbers did not add up’ In fact I said ‘Let us suppose the IFS was correct’ and examined consequences. I have never taken a view on whether they did/didn’t add up. If that is what she said, she”— he goes on to use a word that I am unable to use, regarding the incongruous relationship between the Prime Minister’s comments and the truth. I just repeat that those are the professor’s words, not mine.
Would it be appropriate for the Prime Minister to come back to this House to correct the record and apologise to the renowned professor in question? May I seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, on the best course of action?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he knows, and as Mr Speaker always says when dealing with such points of order, what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box is not a matter for the Chair. I am quite sure that whatever the Prime Minister said today, she said in good faith, but the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring another version of that to the attention of the House, the Prime Minister and her Ministers. By raising this point of order, he has succeeded in doing that. As for when the Prime Minister will come back to the House, I am quite sure that, in the normal course of events, she will be back here soon—certainly by next Wednesday, when of course the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will have the opportunity to ask her about this directly, and I am sure that he will take that opportunity.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions today, the Leader of the Opposition asserted that the number of those on zero-hours contracts was going up. In actual fact, the figure is going down. Is there an opportunity to draw that fact to the attention of the House?
First of all, that was not further to the point of order. Just as the Chair has no responsibility or control over what Ministers say in the House, so they have no responsibility or control over what the Leader of the Opposition says in the House. I say the same to the hon. Gentleman as I said earlier: facts are being disputed, and I am quite sure that he will question the Leader of the Opposition closely the next time he has the opportunity to do so.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, raise the point that the Leader of the Opposition claimed today that record numbers of people were on zero-hours contracts. That is false according to the House of Commons Library, which makes it very clear that the number has dropped from 903,000 to 780,000. How does one clarify the matter, in order to ensure that the Library remains a trusted source of data?
Do not interrupt me. We rely on the Library to give us balanced and entirely impartial information, but once again, once a Member of this House has information in his or her hand, the way that they present it, and the arguments that they make with it, is a matter for them. The hon. Lady asked how she can draw this matter to the attention of the world in general; she has just done so most effectively.
Would anyone else like to continue Prime Minister’s questions? We have a very important Bill in front of us, and I do not wish to take any further time out of the limited amount left for it.