The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, which we debated last week, has now been taken through both Houses. It provides for a period in which an Executive can be formed at any time, allowing for time and space for talks to take place without an election having to be called. I continue to engage with the main parties to discuss the implementation of the Bill and next steps towards the restoration of devolution, and I have called a meeting for that purpose tomorrow, in Belfast. I am also continuing to engage with the Irish Government, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I will be in Dublin on Friday for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Additionally, I am actively considering how and when external facilitation could play a constructive role in efforts to restore political dialogue. This will form part of my discussions with the parties. I am also extremely keen to support grassroots and civil society efforts to facilitate political dialogue following a productive meeting with Church leaders earlier this month.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend: as members of the Conservative and Unionist party, we know that devolution is the best way to strengthen our precious Union. That is why it is absolutely vital that decisions that are rightly devolved should be made by politicians elected by people in the nations and regions of our country, as appropriate under the devolution settlement.
My hon. Friend again makes an important point; we discussed it last week. The very best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is devolved Government—the people they elected representing them and making decisions on their behalf.
The point of the legislation is that it provides the space and the time for the parties to come together and put the best conditions in place for those parties to come back around the table, do the right thing by the people who elected them, and form an Executive and get back into the Assembly.
In the continuing absence of devolved Government, the Secretary of State will be aware that a further 1,044 neurology patients have been recalled following the further revision of the notes of Dr Michael Watt in the Belfast trust area. That brings the total number of patients recalled to 3,544. Has the Secretary of State spoken to the Health Department in Northern Ireland about this issue, and what can she say today to provide assurance and relieve the anxiety and worry that many of these people will obviously have at the present time?
My Department’s officials and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Mr Vara, speak regularly to the permanent secretary and other officials in the Department of Health. I also meet the permanent secretary to discuss various matters, including those we discussed in terms of the Bill last week, which, when it becomes an Act of Parliament, will give civil servants the ability to make decisions, as they rightly should. But that is not a substitute for devolved Government, and we need to have Ministers in place to make important decisions, because these are devolved matters that should be dealt with by devolved Ministers.
I hear what the Secretary of State says, but these are people living with real anxiety and real worries at the present time, and she has an opportunity to do something about it now. Rather than wait, can she not say something to these people that will provide them with real hope that the inquiry will proceed quickly and that action will be taken to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman, who as a constituency MP represents many people affected by this, cares deeply about this matter and wants to see action taken. I, too, want to see action taken, and I will be happy to discuss this with him separately in terms of what actually can be done under the devolution and constitutional arrangements in place.
If the Executive are not restored by the end of the year, will the Secretary of State use the powers she is about to get under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill to issue guidance to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a proper cancer strategy, since it is the only part of the UK that does not have one, and I am afraid that outcomes are reflecting that?
My hon. Friend, who served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and is Chair of the Select Committee, understands the devolution settlement and constitutional arrangements better than many people. He will know that it will be for Ministers to make the decision on the implementation of the cancer strategy, but clearly the guidance that accompanies the Bill will be issued after Royal Assent, and I would hope that civil servants will take the decisions that they can take within that guidance.
I think the House will want to recall that this is the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel massacre, and our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.
The Secretary of State makes the point that devolved matters should be dealt with by the Assembly, and she will recognise that social security is a devolved matter. She probably cannot tell the House how many people will lose as they transfer to universal credit, but what she can do is give guidance to civil servants saying that the roll-out will stop in Northern Ireland until there is an Assembly competent to make that decision.
I join the hon. Gentleman in marking the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel attack. It was a horrific and totally unjustified attack that killed eight and wounded a further 19, and 25 years on, we must not forget the sacrifices that were made or the huge progress that Northern Ireland has made since the Belfast agreement was signed 20 years ago.
The hon. Gentleman asks about welfare in Northern Ireland. Again, I refer him to the constitutional and devolution settlements. He knows how they operate; the guidance will be issued and civil servants will make appropriate decisions.