Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:04 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2:04 pm, 24th October 2018

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 6 September:

“I have made no decisions about the right way to get talks restarted”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2018;
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, 9 July 2018;
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.