Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 24th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd 3:55 pm, 24th October 2018

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.