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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:00 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 8:00 pm, 8th January 2020

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 Thursday 19 December.

I am taking this debate on behalf of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is currently in Belfast in talks with the Northern Ireland parties and working towards getting Stormont back up and running.

On 18 December, the Northern Ireland Office published on gov.uk a report setting out the latest position on progress on Executive formation, transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, and the abortion law review. The Northern Ireland Office has laid copies of that report in both Houses now that Parliament has returned. Copies of all the previous reports are available on gov.uk. It was the seventh and final report published on these issues in line with our obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

It is this Government’s absolute priority to get Stormont back up and running before the 13 January deadline. Colleagues across the House understand the issues at stake here. Failure to restore the institutions will raise difficult and urgent decisions about the future governance of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State remains in Belfast today to facilitate talks. All five party leaders remain positively engaged in the process, and our assessment is that it remains possible but challenging for the parties to secure a political agreement before the deadline. We all recognise how closely the deadline is looming. If 13 January passes without agreement, the Secretary of State will fall under a legal obligation to call an Assembly election. I am hopeful that, as we have heard in previous debates of this nature, Members from all parties will join me in urging the parties to come to an accommodation so that a restored Assembly and Executive can get on with resolving the real challenges that continue to frustrate the daily lives of the people of Northern Ireland.

Turning to the abortion report, the Government are working towards the laying of regulations for a new legal framework for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, as required by the 2019 Act. The new framework will be in force by 31 March 2020. Women and girls who are seeking access to services in the meantime can do so in England free of charge, with all costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed, accommodation, paid for by the Government. Arrangements can be made by contacting the central booking service, and we have published the contact telephone number and the services provided on gov.uk.

The public consultation on the legal framework for the provision of such services closed on 16 December. During the consultation period, officials continued engaging with health professionals, individuals who have been affected by the law, civil society organisations, and women’s groups—including Doctors for Choice, Alliance for Choice, Here NI and the Women’s Resource and Development Agency—on the proposals set out in the consultation document. We are currently analysing the responses, having received good levels of engagement from many different viewpoints. As was made clear in earlier debates and, indeed, the foreword to the consultation, we were seeking views on the question of how the framework can best be delivered in Northern Ireland, not on whether the reform should be happening.

The Government’s response to the consultation will be published in due course. We are happy to continue discussions with interested parties as the regulations are taken forward in line with the requirement under section 9 of the Act that the recommendations of the 2018 UN CEDAW Report are implemented in respect of Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020. The Government will continue to abide by our legal obligations.

On the presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will always owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law and were themselves accountable to it. The Government are strongly opposed to our service personnel and veterans being subject to the threat of vexatious litigation in the form of repeated investigations and potential prosecution arising from historical military operations many years after the events in question.

The Government recognise the concerns that have been expressed about how the current system is operating in Northern Ireland and are committed to seeking the prompt implementation of the Stormont House agreement proposals on legacy in order to provide both reconciliation for victims and greater certainty for military veterans. Any legislation that improves the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Parliament and have the support of a restored Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working closely with ministerial colleagues, the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government to that end.

We take very seriously the issue of transparency of donations to Northern Ireland parties. Northern Ireland parties are now subject to the same reporting requirements as other parties across the UK. That is a significant step forward, but the question of retrospectively opening up records from 2014 remains genuinely difficult. At a time when threats to elected representatives are all too common, we must be very careful that anything we do should not lead to intimidation against members of the public who donated to parties. We will consult the Northern Ireland parties in due course on any future change to the legislation, but I hope the House will understand that for now our focus must remain on securing agreement to restore devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland.

On higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, there has been no progress since the last report on the subject, which was laid on 4 December. No business case has been submitted, so we are not able to assess proposals. The Government have been clear on their commitment to turbo-charging the economy and levelling up all regions across the UK. The Derry and Strabane city deal and the inclusive future fund, which formed a £105 million economic package for the north-west, is further evidence of that commitment. We are aware of the support that exists for the extension of higher education provision in the north-west, and this is another example of a project in Northern Ireland facing barriers due to the lack of devolved government. Restoring the Executive would remove blockages and, with Executive approval, allow funding to be unlocked for expanding higher education provision in the north-west.

Turning to payments to victims of troubles-related incidents, in October the Government launched a public consultation on a scheme for regular payments to, or in respect of, individuals living with serious disablement caused by troubles-related incidents. The proposed scheme is intended to provide acknowledgment to those injured in troubles-related incidents through no fault of their own. The consultation closed on 26 November. Responses are being carefully considered and will inform final decisions regarding the scheme. The consultation proposed not to make payments to individuals with a criminal conviction directly related to the incident in which they sustained the injury. We will make regulations by the end of January, as specified in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. The scheme will then be open for applications no later than the end of May 2020. Victims injured through no fault of their own deserve this form of acknowledgment and measure of additional financial support, which is a core element of the Stormont House agreement proposals to help address the legacy of the troubles. It remains vital that we make progress on this and related matters.

The Government are also under a duty to make regulations to provide for same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020. On 23 December 2019 the Northern Ireland Office laid regulations before Parliament that mean that, from next week, on 13 January, same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships will be lawful in Northern Ireland. Couples will therefore be able to register their intent to enter into such a relationship, with a minimum 28-day notice period required. Therefore, as previously stated, we expect ceremonies will be able to take place during the week of Valentine’s Day.

There are still two key issues on which we will be seeking the views of the people of Northern Ireland before we legislate further, namely same-sex religious marriage, together with the appropriate protections, and the right to convert from a civil partnership to a marriage, and vice versa. We want to consult on both matters in order to ensure that the legislation takes proper account of the specific circumstances in Northern Ireland and provides adequate religious protections. The consultation will seek views from religious bodies and individuals on how religious same-sex marriage will be provided for in Northern Ireland, and how protections can best be achieved. We also want to get the right approach for conversion entitlements for Northern Ireland, given the different approaches taken across the rest of the UK. The Government hope to be able to launch a short consultation on those two issues from mid-January, and we will bring forward regulations as soon as we are able to do so in 2020.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity not only to discuss these important matters but, more importantly, to hear from Northern Ireland Members, and I recognise the sincere and deeply held views on some of the topics discussed. In conclusion, I reiterate the Government’s undiminished commitment to see Stormont back up and running again. Northern Ireland needs its own locally elected representatives making decisions on local issues and making Northern Ireland’s voice heard across the UK.