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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:35 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 11:35 pm, 28th October 2019

I was encouraged to see that Greg Clark takes such an interest in Northern Ireland matters, but then I realised that he and my hon. Friend Jim Shannon have an Adjournment debate this evening, which is perhaps why he is here.

I do not want to rehearse arguments from a fortnight ago. The recurring nature of these reports means that important issues for Northern Ireland get aired quite often in this House, and there is no need for me to repeat my speech of two weeks ago, but I want to re-emphasise one point to the Secretary of State. Having sought and received an assurance that we would get written confirmation of the questions asked, I think it is discourteous that we have not had substantive replies to those questions and that they were not available for us to share more publicly with those who take an interest in the legislative change around termination and want to be satisfied with the legislative framework in Northern Ireland. Given that the law changed last Monday, the very least we would have expected was a response between the debate and then. I leave that point with the Secretary of State. I do not expect him to have full answers this evening, though he may surprise me; if he does, they would be most welcome.

The second issue that I raised a fortnight ago was the phraseology used in the report around progress on dealing with legacy prosecutions and what the Government are doing in that regard. Today’s report does not say it, but two weeks ago the report said that there had been no further progress on that issue. I highlighted the fact that the Prime Minister had given a commitment to legislate on those matters in response to questions during debate on the Humble Address. That, to my mind, is substantive change. That is an important aspect that should have featured in these reports, but yet again it does not.

I am grateful that the Secretary of State is here tonight, since he was unable to be with us a fortnight ago. He has, in fairness to him, been engaged thoughtfully and continually in issues in Northern Ireland, but I wish to raise with him my disappointment yet again at the content of this report. He knows full well that, when the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill was passing through the House in July, myriad amendments were tabled at various stages, and all of them sought to ensure that reports would be brought forward. Section 3(18) of the Act says that, by 21 October, prior to the publication of this report, the Secretary of State must bring forward a report on the progress of libel reform. Section 3(19) says that, by 21 October, the Secretary of State must bring forward a report on the progress made on implementing the Protect Life 2 strategy in Northern Ireland—a strategy that aims to equip our social services and health sector to tackle suicide, by providing the infrastructure, scaffolding and support for individuals who find themselves in the depths of despair—yet that does not feature in the report we are debating tonight, contrary to the provisions of the legislation.

We were to receive a report on the hardship unit that was recommended as part of the renewable heat initiative. That is in the legislation and it was due for 21 October, yet it is not here. What is the point of putting down amendments and amending the legislation to require reports if they are not before us and they are not available to us? Subsection (20) states that a report is to be published by 21 October, to be laid before us so that we can discuss it, on the demands for elective care in Northern Ireland and the impact for children on waiting lists. Where is it? It is not here.

I apologise in advance if I have fundamentally misunderstood the phraseology in the Act, but to my mind it is quite clear: reports are to be brought forward by the Secretary of State by 21 October on this range of issues—suicide prevention, libel reform, hardship and the RHI, elective care demand and so on—yet they do not feature. We can come back every fortnight and have the same debate about terminations, as important as that is. My right hon. Friend Nigel Dodds, our leader, highlighted that there are many Northern Ireland issues that do not get attention in this place, but here we have a legislative requirement to bring forward reports and there is nothing—nothing. I think it is a dereliction of duty.

The Secretary of State has heard from Lady Hermon and my hon. Friend Emma Little Pengelly about the consultation on a victims’ pension. I do not think anyone who has a heart could fail to have been moved this evening by Claire Monteith, a victim—she lost her brother and her mother was severely injured in the Omagh bomb—who quite rightly makes the point that her grief, which is associated with an atrocity that came four months after the Belfast agreement was signed, should not preclude her or her family from those provisions. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the comments that he made. He is not going to prejudge the consultation—the consultation is framed as it is—but I think he knows, and would personally and privately accept, that when the consultation responses are considered, this is something on which there will be movement.

I have a couple of questions for the Secretary of State, which perhaps unfairly arise out of the emergency business statement we had earlier this evening. The Leader of the House said that 9 December cannot be fixed as the election date because there is a need to bring forward a Northern Ireland budget Bill. We do not have much time. I am not aware of the engagement that would ordinarily be necessary in advance of bringing forward a Northern Ireland budget Bill, but the House could be rising at the end of this week. We could be dissolved next week, yet there is an indication from the Leader of the House that a budget Bill will need to be passed.

I ask the Secretary of State this: he is not a business manager any more, but does he know when the budget Bill will be introduced? Can he give us an assurance that a budget Bill for Northern Ireland passed this week or in the early part of next week will contain the provisions that he knows are required on co-ownership housing? He knows there is a legislative fix sitting ready and waiting to go on the Office for National Statistics definitions of who can avail themselves of financial transactions capital. Co-Ownership housing in Northern Ireland has been categorised as a private organisation. In every other part of the United Kingdom, there has been a legislative fix with ONS guidelines to say that people can still avail themselves of FTC. This fix should have been done a year ago and it should have done by a Northern Ireland Assembly, yet it has not been done. The outworking of that is that affordable housing and support for people who want to get on the property ladder do not exist—they will go. So can he commit that he will include provisions that will amend the situation in relation to co-ownership housing?

The Act that we are discussing tonight says that the Secretary of State is mandated to bring forward proposals to deal with welfare mitigation. That was agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly three years ago to remove the worst vestiges of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, recognising that we do not have a housing stock that would allow for the bedroom tax—we simply do not have one and two-bedroom properties for those in larger homes to move into. We have an impending welfare crisis in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State is mandated by the Act to bring forward a report on 6 December, but he and his two junior Ministers voted today for an election. When are we going to have clarity around welfare mitigation? The Secretary of State needs to know that 34,000 households in Northern Ireland will be directly impacted by a failure to extend mitigation. We are talking about £12.50 a week or £50 a month. Some 1,500 people in Northern Ireland will lose their protective cap for benefits. Those families are going to lose £47 per week on average, and up to £100 per week, if there is not a fix for welfare reform. The additional resource for advice services will go as well. Given that the Secretary of State was keen to vote for an election and knows he is under a duty to bring forward a clear plan as to how we will extend welfare mitigation in Northern Ireland, will he include that as part of his budget Bill?

Finally—there is one more speaker to come, and we want to give the Secretary of State plenty of time to respond—the Secretary of State mentioned last Monday that he had extended the provisions under the EFEF Act. However, he knows he cannot do that singularly. He knows he is under a legislative requirement to seek a positive affirmative resolution for that within 28 days. If this House dissolves and he has not sought that positive affirmative resolution from this House to extend the provisions of the Act, they will fall during an election campaign. Will the Secretary of State therefore indicate when he intends to seek that positive affirmative resolution from the House so that he can extend those powers? Will he do so as part of the Northern Ireland budget Bill?