Extension of period for forming an Executive

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 9th July 2019.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 6:45 pm, 9th July 2019

I should probably start by formally begging to move that clauses 1 to 4 stand part of the Bill. If I do not say that, bad things will probably happen and we will not get to the important part of our proceedings.

I begin with the four amendments tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve, which would require the first progress report under clause 3 to be made on 4 September, not 21 October. As he mentioned, fortnightly reports would then be required from 9 October until 18 December if an Executive had not been formed. Any report under clause 3 or any regulations under clause 2 would be subject to an approval motion in this House and a “take note” motion at the other end of the corridor.

The Government agree that Parliament must be kept closely informed of progress towards restoring an Executive in Northern Ireland, which is precisely what clause 3 provides for, and we are willing to consider or accept various other reporting obligations, as I made clear in response to the earlier group of amendments. I continue that good will and positive approach under this second group of amendments.

Given the fundamental importance of these issues, I am happy to confirm that we accept my right hon. and learned Friend’s amendment 14, on the progress report to Parliament on or before 4 September. However, I have to disagree with him and oppose his other amendments.

The requirement for regular fortnightly reporting throughout the autumn, subject to a vote on each occasion, would simply be an excessive and unnecessary procedure. I also note that the requirement for fortnightly reports and motions would attach to many of the other reporting obligations on different topics that hon. and right hon. Members seek to add to clause 3. The amount of parliamentary time we booked up throughout September and into the autumn, should the Executive in Stormont not have been created, would start to mount.

I appreciate that what lies behind my right hon. and learned Friend’s amendments is not solely a concern to keep abreast of the progress towards restoring the devolved Government in Northern Ireland. He is very clear that his interests are a great deal broader and are primarily motivated by concerns about Brexit. We happily accept amendment 14, but, for the reasons I have laid out, I hope he will understand that we are not minded to accept his other three amendments, which I hope he will not press after he has had a chance to consider my remarks.

I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) for tabling amendments 6 and 7 on veterans. There is broad agreement, after a couple of urgent questions and a couple of debates in Westminster Hall and in the House over the past month, that the current legacy system is not working well for pretty much anyone. The system has to change, and it has to provide better outcomes. The system has to ensure that everyone is treated fairly, particularly the armed forces and police officers.

The draft Bill on which we consulted last year would require a new body investigating legacy cases to do so in a fair, balanced and proportionate manner. We have just finished consulting, and we have published the responses in the past week. Interestingly, there were strong and widespread views against either an amnesty or immunity from prosecution, and both my right hon. Friends were keen, and rightly so, to make clear the difference between those two proposals and the ideas proposed in their amendments.

There is widespread concern about former soldiers being pursued by vexatious and unfair court cases 40 or 50 years after they finish serving. Amendments 6 and 7 would require the Secretary of State to report on progress towards introducing a presumption of non-prosecution, and they would require the Attorney General for Northern Ireland to produce guidance on legacy cases with a presumption in favour of prosecution in cases where a weapon had been unlawfully obtained. That is a worthy attempt to make a distinction and to unravel the tendency in some cases for people to try to create moral equivalence between terrorists and Her Majesty’s armed forces.

It is important to be clear that the specifics of the particular or associated issues that are being proposed here did not form part of the Stormont House agreement. They were not recommended or supported widely in the responses to the consultation either. There are also some other technical concerns about whether the UK Government can direct the Attorney General for Northern Ireland—I think that is problematic. In principle, however, the point is this: I intend to take the two amendments in the spirit in which I think they are intended. I think they are intended to be a valid and sincere attempt to move this issue forward.

It is time and past time that a solution was found to this issue. Whether or not the precise details of these specific proposals are approved of in all their details in the report or approved of only in part and other things perhaps brought forward instead is beside the point. The important thing is that these two reports could serve as a way to advance that cause, identify solutions and move this forward. It is overdue that we do so and I am delighted to support the amendments.

I now move on to the points made about the armed forces covenant, which several right hon. and hon. Members, particularly from the Northern Ireland Benches, put eloquently and with great passion. I am dealing here with new clauses 15 and 16, and amendment 18. As we have heard, the armed forces covenant is hardly a new policy and it has always extended, in principle, to Northern Ireland. We continue to need to strengthen the delivery of the covenant in Northern Ireland. We have heard today some concerning and sometimes shocking examples of occasions when it could and should have been applied but had not been. The principle of the covenant was formalised in the Armed Forces Act 2011. In accordance with the Act, the Secretary of State for Defence is legally obliged to publish an annual report, which sets out the key deliverables under the covenant. This report incorporates progress in delivering the covenant across the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. We also ensure that covenant delivery is kept on track through a number of committees and boards.

Everyone in this House has, as our Government and our Democratic Unionist party confidence and supply partners certainly have, consistently demonstrated a commitment to upholding the principles and universality of the covenant, which is evident in the work reported in each of the annual reports laid in the House. We will continue to report progress to Parliament, we recognise our commitment to our confidence and supply partners to have full implementation of the armed forces covenant across the UK, and we are committed to looking at further legislation if that is required.

Amendment 19 and new clause 18 relate to the definition of a “victim” and stand in the name of Nigel Dodds. The definition of a victim is laid down in legislation—the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a devolved matter, any change to this definition would need to be agreed with the parties in the Executive and, ultimately, by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government recognise that the definition of a victim is something that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have campaigned on for a number of years, and we commit to looking UK-wide at how we can make sure the victims are duly recognised and protected in law. I hope that, with this commitment and the one I made previously, the right hon. Gentleman is willing not to press his amendment.