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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:08 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 8:08 pm, 8th January 2020

May I congratulate the Minister on making a 20-minute speech in just over eight minutes? He has been on his feet all day. This is an important report and he has raised a number of important issues.

I will begin where the Minister began. I hope he will at least be able to help the House in response to some of my questions. Under the legislation that this House passed to provide safe and legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland, the UK Government are obliged to make provision for that service in Northern Ireland by 31 March. As the Minister told the House, the consultation on the matter has concluded. Will he guarantee that if the House has to discharge that legislative duty, the consultation will be brought to the House in time for us to examine the results before taking the necessary legislative steps? I hope we recognise that by that time, the Stormont Assembly may well be back in operation, and if the Assembly were to legislate contrary to the UK Government’s establishment of a process for safe and legal abortion, our efforts would have been futile. I ask for the establishment of the closest possible working relationship between the Westminster Government and a newly formed Executive in Stormont to ensure a smooth transition, so that we can deliver to the women of Northern Ireland what the House dictated: safe and legal abortion from 1 April.

The Minister spoke about the prosecution of those who perpetrated violence during the troubles. I quote from the report that is before the House tonight, in which the UK Government quite rightly say that they

“will continue to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues that provide better outcomes for victims and survivors”.

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the potential for payment to victims of the troubles. That is right and proper. Many of those who suffered are no longer with us—some of them for obvious reasons, but some simply because of the passage of time—so they cannot avail themselves of any compensation, but a group of people depend on progress being made in this area. The Minister’s words will be welcome, but we need to see real progress.

Of course, outcomes for victims and survivors include, where appropriate, the prosecution of those who have perpetrated violence against them or their families; that is a legitimate demand. Although we want, as the Minister rightly said, to avoid vexatious prosecutions, let us be absolutely clear that we in this House are not turning our back on the rule of law. Those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, must still face the full force of the law. There can be no statute of limitations that provides an artificial form of protection, because that would be unacceptable to the House and the public and incompatible with our obligations under international law.

I move on briefly to an allied question—payments for victims of institutional abuse. The Minister may not be able to give me a full answer tonight, but it would be helpful to see what the process of payments for victims of such abuse will look like. The Opposition were very happy to work with the Government on the matter before Christmas. Generally speaking, I am against the overly rapid emergence of legislation, because it can cause problems later on, but we quite rightly conspired to insist that that legislation was put on the statute book before the House was dissolved for the general election.

We now need to know how that process is working out. Where are we up to with interim payments for victims of institutional abuse? Where are we with the creation of a redress board to develop a well-worked formula for those who suffered, some of them because of the incompetence of the statutory authorities and some, sadly, at the hands of those who were there to offer care?

One way or another, our society owes support to what is now an ageing population. Their numbers are decreasing day by day, and I hope the Minister can give us some satisfaction.

The Minister may not be totally apprised of the question of business rates, which has emerged in recent hours. The announced business rate revaluation seemingly results in severe increases in payments, particularly for certain parts of retail, small shops and the pub and hotel trade. There will ultimately be an obligation on a reformed Assembly to deal with this issue, but I would like the Minister to take on board the fact that this can have a detrimental impact.

Looking to our own constituencies, most Members know that a small shop, a pub or a hotel can be central to keeping our town centres and communities alive. It is important in my constituency and it is obviously important in Northern Ireland that we have some sense of proportion in any change to business rates.