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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:36 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 10:36 pm, 28th October 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 23 October.

On 23 October, I published a report setting out the latest position on progress on Executive formation, transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry university, presumption of non-prosecution, troubles prosecution guidance and the abortion law review. This is the third report published on these issues in line with the Government’s obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

I was disappointed on Monday to have to extend the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. I extended the period because the parties have still not been able to reach an accommodation to get Stormont back up and running. Failure to extend the period would have meant removing from the Northern Ireland civil service what limited decision-making power it currently has. That would not be in Northern Ireland’s interest and it would have precipitated an early Assembly election.

While the political parties continue to be unable to reach an accommodation, public services in Northern Ireland continue to deteriorate, hospital waiting lists get longer and frustration continues to grow. I have been in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in the past few weeks for discussions with all five main political parties. That contact will continue over the coming weeks, as will my close working relationship with Simon Coveney, the Tanaiste, in line with the three-stranded approach.

The issues that remain between the parties are few in number and soluble in substance. It will take real commitment for the main parties to reach a compromise on those issues, but just this weekend, both the largest parties said that they wanted to restore the institutions as soon as possible. I say to the two major parties, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin: I stand ready to facilitate further talks if and when they are genuinely willing to move forward, but it is a compromise that they must be ready to reach themselves, and it cannot be imposed from this place.

Continued failure to restore the Executive will bring about extremely difficult choices about how to ensure effective governance in Northern Ireland. The Government will need to consider the appropriate next steps, including considering the duty that will be placed upon me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election.

A restored Executive and Assembly remain the best way forward for Northern Ireland, not least in the light of the UK’s impending exit from the EU. Northern Ireland needs Stormont up and running, a restored Executive and the political leadership that would bring, and I will continue to do my best to make that a reality.

Turning to abortion, I recognise that this is a sensitive and often divisive issue and that we will continue to hear representations from both sides of the debate as we move towards laying the regulations, but Parliament has spoken and the duty under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 has now come into effect, the Northern Ireland Executive having not been restored by 21 October. Immediate changes to the law have now resulted: sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 have been repealed and there is now a moratorium, meaning that all prosecutions and investigations that were under way will now be stopped. We have had confirmation that on 23 October the one live prosecution in Northern Ireland was dropped and that the woman is no longer facing criminal charges.

We will consult on the proposals for the new legal framework and the regulations, which are to be made by 31 March 2020. In the meantime, women seeking access to services in England can do so free of charge, with all costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed, accommodation, being paid for by the Government. Arrangements can be made by contacting a central bookings service, and we have made this number and the services provided known on gov.uk. We continue to engage with health professionals in Northern Ireland and will reach out to the widest possible range of stakeholders to hear their views on the consultation proposals over the coming days and weeks. We are also working with health professionals to ensure that the appropriate services can be established in line with the new legal framework. It is crucial that we get the legal framework right, and we are confident that service provision in Northern Ireland can meet the needs of women and girls.

On the presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland remains a major priority for the UK Government.