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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 8:22 pm, 8th January 2020

I rise to speak in this debate for several reasons. I applaud the fact that the Minister is here for this debate and the Secretary of State is not; that is not something we usually say, but given the task the Secretary of State is engaged with and his focus on it, it is welcome. I share the Minister’s hope that the talks conclude with a positive outcome and that prior to next Monday’s deadline an agreement will be reached to secure the Executive in Northern Ireland, as devolved government is unquestionably the right long-term solution for Northern Ireland. I listened carefully to what he said about the options available to the Secretary of State, but I think that the Government, this House and all the parties in Northern Ireland, more of which are now represented in this House than was the case prior to December’s election, collectively owe a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure that that part of the United Kingdom is properly governed. I say to the Minister and to the parties in Northern Ireland that if by next Monday we do not see an ability to restore the Stormont Executive, I do not think, for reasons I will set out in a moment, that either option of kicking the can down the road by extending the deadline or having another Assembly election will be up to the task. I fear that we will be confronting a binary choice of getting the Assembly up and running or having, to some extent, Executive decisions taken by Ministers accountable to this House.

Let me just set out one area where I think that is necessary, and here I pick up from what the shadow Secretary of State said. I agree with what he said about the important health workforce issues in Northern Ireland. The fact that nurses there are on strike is incredibly regrettable, but worse is the performance of the health service.

Let us look at two particular factors. One is the length of time for which people are waiting for treatment. In the most recent set of statistics for England, 1,233 people were waiting more than a year for treatment—to see a consultant. I understand that in Northern Ireland—I do not think I need to elaborate on the difference in population sizes to many Members—the number of people waiting for more than a year to see a consultant is 103,000. That is more than a third of all the people waiting for health treatment. The cancer waiting times mean that a fifth of those people who receive a cancer diagnosis receive that diagnosis in the emergency department of a hospital. I do not know what the precise statistics are, but it seems likely that thousands of people are therefore dying unnecessarily because they are not receiving timely health treatment.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland—with Ministers accountable to the people of Northern Ireland and able to take the necessary decisions to reform the health service, implement pay awards, recruit the necessary staff and make sure that the health service is running efficiently—is leading directly to the unnecessary deaths of people in Northern Ireland. If we are unable to see the re-establishment of a Stormont Executive and Assembly next week, we cannot in good conscience allow the situation to continue if it means the early deaths of citizens of part of our own country.

Ministers and the Government are going to be faced with a very difficult decision. If we do not see a restored Executive and Assembly, it is not going to be a realistic option—unless we are literally on the cusp of an agreement—just to kick the can down the road again and extend the deadline or have elections. I have looked carefully at the result of the general election in Northern Ireland and how it compares to the result of the most recent Assembly election. When I look at the difference in performance of the relevant political parties, it does not seem to me that there is anything about an Assembly election taking place in the present political circumstances that would lead to an outcome that would enable the formation of an Executive after such an election, which cannot take place next week.