Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 1:12 pm, 24th October 2018

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 29 June 2017, the 1998 Act requires a further election before an Executive can be formed. As I set out in my 6 September statement, an election at this time would not be helpful, nor would it increase the prospects of restoring the Executive. The provisions of clause 1 aim to create a period in which an Executive can be formed and talks can take place, by removing that current legal impediment to an Executive being formed for a defined period. Let me be clear about what that means: as things stand, if the parties were able to find agreement and form an Executive, the House would have to pass primary legislation to enable that to happen. During a recess or periods of intense parliamentary activity, we might be unable to find parliamentary time to allow an Executive to form. I do not think that that barrier or impediment to forming an Executive is one that right hon. and hon. Members would want to see, and the Bill will therefore enable an Executive to be formed without the need for primary legislation during the period covered by the Bill.

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.