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Northern Ireland Executive Formation

– in the House of Commons at 11:18 am on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 11:18 am, 16th January 2020

Prior to Christmas, the UK Government initiated a period of political talks to get Stormont up and running again. Following nine months of negotiations, and nearly four weeks of intensive discussions over the Christmas period, last week the Tánaiste and I tabled a draft text to all parties and made it available to the public. The document, entitled “New Decade, New Approach”, set out what we assessed to be a fair and balanced deal, based on all the discussions between ourselves and the parties, and on what the parties told us would represent the right deal for Northern Ireland.

I am delighted to tell the House that all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties accepted the deal as a basis for re-entering devolved government. Ministers have been appointed, an Executive has been formed, and the Assembly is open for business. Devolution is restored in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister visited the Assembly and met the Executive on Monday to mark the positive moment of restored devolved government. I know that the whole House will join me in welcoming and celebrating the return of devolved government, and in congratulating party leaders on their confident decision to make this happen.

I thank my team in the UK civil service, the Northern Ireland Office and No. 10 Downing Street for their months of work to make the deal happen. I also thank the Northern Ireland political parties, the Westminster parties and Tony Lloyd. I want to put on record the debt that I owe my two predecessors, my right hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). I also thank my right hon. Friend Mrs May for all the work that she put into this issue during her time as Prime Minister. Finally, on a personal level, I thank Jonathan Stephens, the retiring permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, Ross Easton and, above all, Lilah Howson-Smith.

The Good Friday agreement, which was signed more than 20 years ago, brought with it an unprecedented period of peace, prosperity and growth for Northern Ireland. That progress, however, always was and always will be underpinned by the institutions that it created. Now that those institutions have been restored to full working order, we can carry on with the important business of moving Northern Ireland forward and bringing its people together. The institutions for north-south and east-west co-operation can work again as intended.

The “New Decade, New Approach” deal sets out a range of commitments for the Executive, the UK Government and the Irish Government. It commits a new Executive to addressing the immediate challenges facing the health service, reforming the education and justice systems, growing the economy, promoting opportunity and tackling deprivation. The deal does not seek to restore the Executive for its own sake, but offers real reforms aimed at making it more sustainable and transparent so that the institutions can begin to rebuild trust and confidence with the public. The deal also gives the Executive a seat at the table when we discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol with the European Union. It solves outstanding cases which have been causing real concern to families, so that all the people of Northern Ireland are treated in the same way when bringing family members to this country.

Yesterday the Government announced that we would provide the restored Executive with a £2 billion financial package that would deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and support the deal. That financial commitment represents the biggest injection of new money in a Northern Ireland talks deal for well over a decade. It has already allowed the Executive, this morning, to pledge to deliver pay parity for nurses in Northern Ireland, the first such intervention in a devolved area and one that has now ended the nurses’ strike, and it will continue to support the Executive’s delivery of the priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.

Provided over five years, the deal will include a guarantee of at least £1 billion of Barnett-based funding to turbo-charge infrastructure investment, along with £1 billion of new resources and capital spending. That will include significant new funding of about £245 million to transform public services, including health, education and justice, and a rapid injection of £550 million to put the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing, including £200 million over three years to help to resolve the nurses’ pay dispute immediately and deliver pay parity.

The UK Government will ring-fence £45 million of capital, and will provide resource funding to deliver a Northern Ireland graduate-entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, subject to Executive approval. They will also provide £50 million over two years to support the roll-out of ultra low emission public transport. Moreover, the agreement will provide £140 million to address Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. That money will help to strengthen our Union, and will support the four key areas set out in “New Decade, New Approach”. I hope that the whole House will join me in welcoming the announcement.

These funds will come with stringent conditions attached. In particular, through this agreement I will convene a UK Government-Northern Ireland Executive joint board. This will provide a clear role for the UK Government in overseeing the implementation of this financial package. More broadly, it is right, as we have heard in recent days, that the Executive should focus on ensuring that public services and finances can be delivered more sustainably. Northern Ireland taxpayers deserve to know that their money is being used efficiently and effectively.

The past few days have given us much cause for celebration, but this is not job done. Three years without an Executive was completely unacceptable, and it is now down to all of us to ensure that this never happens again. We need an Executive that will go forward on the basis of trust and mutual respect and, above all else, focus on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. For my part, I will ensure that the UK Government fully implement their commitments under this deal, but I will also be working with the Executive to ensure that the letter and the spirit of this agreement are being delivered. I commend the statement to the House.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 11:25 am, 16th January 2020

I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of his statement. I also want to thank him for the work that he has personally put in to ensure that we now have the restoration of Stormont. His place in the history books will be assured on that basis. I join him in acknowledging the role of the many others that he has name-checked this morning, and on behalf of the Opposition I thank all those involved. We now have an opportunity to examine what the deal offers. Undoubtedly, the major gain is that we now have a functioning Executive and Assembly once again in Northern Ireland. That matters enormously to the people of Northern Ireland, the people of the United Kingdom and the whole of the island of Ireland. I should also place on record our acknowledgement of the important role played by the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister.

I shall turn now to the details of the Secretary of State’s statement and more generally to the restoration of the Executive and the work he has in front of him. Will he give us absolute clarity on the case of Emma De Souza and her husband Jake de Souza, who have campaigned hard for the right to be able to live together in this country of ours? She is an Irish citizen living in Northern Ireland. I think that the words in the documents are clear, but it would be unremittingly good news if the Secretary of State could clarify that that situation will be resolved. I think that that is what he said, but it would be helpful if he could place on record the names of those two individuals and how this will affect them.

The document rightly makes reference to the Stormont House agreement. The Secretary of State will know that, 21 years on from the Good Friday agreement, many of the victims and their families are still looking for justice and knowledge of what happened to their loved ones, whether they were murdered by terrorists or even, in some cases, by the forces of the Crown, because that possibility does exist. The Stormont House agreement ensured that there would be a historical investigations unit, and that was an important commitment, but will the Secretary of State put it beyond doubt that he has confidence in the capacity of our police to investigate this, and in the independence of our prosecution services and our judiciary, to ensure that the Stormont House process can be completed in a way that will give satisfaction, as far as we ever can do, to the families and victims of the tragedy that took place in Northern Ireland all those years ago?

I shall now turn to the contentious issue of finance. I applaud the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste for standing in front of Stormont with this document. As the Secretary of State has told us this morning, the two of them tabled a draft text to all parties. There is no doubt that the document is now owned by the Executive and the Assembly, but it is also owned by the UK Government, and the Secretary of State and this Government—the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in particular—must accept the important but challenging programme of work within it. The Prime Minister, who rightly went to Belfast to celebrate the return of the Executive, is party to the ambitions of the document, but he is also party to the need to make proper finances available.

My first question for the Secretary of State relates to the hopefully soon-to-be-concluded nurses’ pay parity dispute. While he said that £200 million will be made available—a lot of money in a health context—the reality is that the cost of providing pay parity and the cost for equivalent awards for other professions in the Northern Ireland health and social care sector is likely to be £200 million on an annual basis, not as a one-off. The package must be properly funded if we are to ensure that we can begin to see a narrowing of the disparity in pay in healthcare between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

More generally, there is a real issue about the funding of the whole package. The moneys that the Government have made available so far will simply not be adequate for this ambitious document which, I repeat, is owned by the United Kingdom Government just as much as it is by the Northern Ireland Executive. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have written a joint letter to the Prime Minister making the point that the money is not adequate. Finance Minister Conor Murphy also told me that he is working things through to discover the real financial consequences of the document, and they will be significantly more than the moneys the Government have made available.

This is a really important moment in the history of our two islands. The Secretary of State deserves enormous credit for the restoration of the Executive, but the process cannot now be frustrated by a penny-pinching attitude from a Chancellor and a Prime Minister who will not accept the consequences. I say directly to the Secretary of State that he has to do better. He must go back to other Ministers and say, “We now need to see the resources made available.”

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for his personal comments about me and my team. To confirm the situation on the DeSouza case, we are fully committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and there should never be an incentive to renounce British citizenship. That is why we have provided the same family reunification rights to all the people of Northern Ireland.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about broader issues for victims and those seeking justice, I point him to the Prime Minister’s comments. He and the Government are clear that we cannot accept the unfair or vexatious pursuit of our veterans when there is no new evidence. However, that must obviously be balanced against the need for truth for victims, and the Government will be addressing that in due course.

On the finances, at £2 billion, this is the best financial deal of any Northern Ireland talks settlement. The hon. Gentleman referred to a letter from the two First Ministers. I have seen the letter and the reply, which points out that this is an injection of money for this talks process: £1 billion of new money and a guaranteed £1 billion of Barnett-based funding up front. We then have the UK Budget in March, and we have a deal for Brexit. The key task for the Executive is to focus on their priorities. The hon. Gentleman referred to the programme for Government in appendix 2, which clearly states that the

“parties agree to publish, within two weeks of the restoration of the institutions, the fuller details of an agreed Programme for Government.”

This Government stand ready to work with the Executive over the coming months and years, and we really want to support them. This £2 billion is an extremely good start, and I am confident it is the basis for a strong future for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Conservative, Maidenhead

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his achievement in ensuring that the Executive can be reformed. It has been tantalisingly close on a number of occasions over the past couple of years, but he has brought it to fruition.

I also commend the Northern Ireland parties for coming together in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland, and I welcome the representatives from the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party to the House, alongside the representatives from the Democratic Unionist party.

I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) and for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) on their commendable work over the years.

The Government are committed to having no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the annex to this plan says that the UK Government will

“legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market”.

It does so on the assumption that that unfettered access is as unfettered as it is today. What are the implications of these commitments for the future trade deal between the UK and the European Union?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks and comments. This deal, above all, guarantees the Executive a seat at the table as we implement our Brexit deal. It also underscores our commitment to ensuring, in law, unfettered access for goods from NI to GB, and it reconfirms that all the arrangements for Northern Ireland in our Brexit deal are subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. The SNP warmly welcomes the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland. I am sure we all recognise the importance of the restoration of devolved government to Stormont and, in particular, the positive impact that could have on the everyday lives of people all over Northern Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland have been left without local government for three years amid Brexit and amid a crisis in their public services. There is no doubt that this absence of government has had a profound impact on their daily lives. All the work that the parties have put into enabling the restoration of devolved government must be applauded, and their efforts must be warmly welcomed, as the Secretary of State said. There is no doubt that the new Government have a huge task ahead of them, but the spirit in which the agreement was reached provides them with great opportunities.

I heard what the Secretary of State says about funding. Last night the Government committed to an additional £1 billion in support of this agreement. To be clear, we believe that that is a necessary and welcome investment, but can the Secretary of State confirm today that those moneys will be subject to the Barnett formula?

In the agreement and in the Secretary of State’s statement, the UK Government commit to a new deal for Northern Ireland in the context of it being dragged out of the EU against its will. Is he able today to detail more fully to the House what this new deal will involve, and to identify some of the specific measures that are planned?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Going back to the financial package, there will be £2 billion up front and then, obviously, the usual Budget arrangements in March. It is not for me to comment on those Budget arrangements—I think I would get into huge trouble with the Treasury if I did —but all of us in this House and across Government realise that, when the Executive come forward with their programme for government and as they work through the coming months, we need to stand ready to assist them.

The Executive need to take a different approach from the one they have historically taken. They need to reform. We are setting up a board, and we are looking at how to encourage greater productivity. I was slightly disappointed to hear this week that water rates have been ruled out. The Executive need to look at their own revenue-raising measures, as well as coming to the UK Exchequer for cash.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Conservative, Staffordshire Moorlands

I join others in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, for the work they have done. I know too well the hours and hours that have been put in to get to this point, and my right hon. Friend deserves great credit for being able to stand here today to deliver this statement. The new deal includes the setting up of an office for identity and cultural protection. I would be interested to hear from him how he sees that office being used to bring the community together, rather than driving a wedge between.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for that and I again pay tribute to her work; there were many, many references to specific meetings and engagements, and to a specific bottle of wine, when she hosted party leaders, and she made a big difference to the overall process. I thank her for her efforts.

On the office of diversity, these now are devolved matters, but I absolutely concur with the direction of my right hon. Friend’s question: let us not make this deal add to the division. Everything needs to focus on bringing the community in Northern Ireland together.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons)

May I add our voice of appreciation to the Secretary of State and his team for their efforts to help the political parties in Northern Ireland to secure agreement, to the former Secretaries of State, the right hon. Members for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) for the work they have done, and to our former Prime Minister, Mrs May, for her efforts and for the particular attention she paid to Northern Ireland during her term of office? We welcome the deal as being fair and balanced. Of course, as for all parties, elements of the deal will be difficult and challenging for us going forward.

We welcome the measures for veterans in Northern Ireland, the appointment of a new Northern Ireland veterans commissioner and the full implementation of the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. These are welcome developments for the men and women who served our country. We also welcome the establishment of an Ulster British commissioner to promote the culture, heritage, arts, literature and so on of the Ulster British people of Northern Ireland. We believe that that is an important step forward in promoting and supporting the identity of all of us who regard ourselves as Unionists and having our place in the United Kingdom. On the commitments made on Brexit, I echo the question asked by the former Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister has talked about Northern Ireland having full access to new trade deals, so it will be interesting to see how that works out in practice.

The funding issue has already raised by the Opposition Front Bencher. We are concerned that, if this deal is to work and devolution is to be effective in Northern Ireland, the resources need to be there in order to ensure sustainability. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the remaining balance of the confidence and supply agreement moneys previously committed by the Government will be included and will come to the Northern Ireland Executive in full?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his victory in the Democratic Unionist party leadership election and I look forward to working with him. I echo his comments on the commitment of this deal to veterans and to the armed forces covenant, things that he and his party have campaigned so long for. I also pay tribute to Nigel Dodds and Emma Little Pengelly, who have left following the election, for their work. On the issue of funding, I can confirm that the confidence and supply funding will be dealt with in the estimates process in the usual way.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend on his tenacity and skill in getting us to this point, and getting the institutions up and running. He touched on the issue of health. Sadly, health outcomes in Northern Ireland are now shockingly bad. In December 2018, all five trusts in Northern Ireland failed to meet their targets and recently we have been getting reports that people in real pain are having to wait three years to see a specialist. A clear signal of where to go was given by Professor Bengoa’s report right in 2016. It is not just a question of saving money; clinical efficiencies are to be gained from the proposals in that report. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, in putting this very generous injection of money into Northern Ireland, money will be directed to programmes such as Bengoa, which will deliver much more efficient outcomes?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My right hon. Friend is correct that the Bengoa report, which is in the process of being implemented, is key to the transformation of health services in Northern Ireland. By the way, as part of the financial deal, £245 million is dedicated to the transformation of public services. We have outlined in the deal that, as well as the project board, we are looking for reform initiatives in health. Robin Swann, the new Health Minister in Northern Ireland, has got off to an extremely good start in sorting out the nurses’ pay dispute.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Labour, St Helens North

May I acknowledge that on the Opposition Benches today we miss the voices of David Hanson and Vernon Coaker, who were passionately committed to Northern Ireland, and of course we miss Nigel Dodds and Emma Little Pengelly, who were held in high regard right across the House?

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste on their efforts in securing the agreement, along with the ministerial and civil service team who helped to deliver it, but may I press him on the finances? The new Finance Minister said yesterday that the settlement that the Secretary of State imposed on the Executive was an act of “bad faith” and that he cannot and will not accept that. How does the Secretary of State intend to mend the gap between the expectations of devolved Ministers and the pay and financial settlement that he has imposed on the new Executive?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the same-sex marriage regulations that came into force on 13 January, giving same-sex women and men in Northern Ireland the opportunity to marry by Valentine’s day this year.

On the concern about the level of finances, we all represent our own constituencies, and Northern Ireland has around 20% more funding than any other part of the UK. I have outlined the package and confirmed that there will be a UK Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I look forward to working with the Finance Minister, as does the Treasury, as he develops well-costed plans based on good value for money for UK taxpayers.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

I warmly welcome the restoration of the Executive and devolved government in Northern Ireland, in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. I join others in commending my right hon. Friend and his team and, indeed, the work of the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney. We know just how challenging this has been, but it is a very positive development to see all five parties now within the Executive.

May I touch on the issue of sustainability? Now that the Executive have been re-established, it is important that they remain there—that they continue to serve the people of Northern Ireland and that we have that local decision making. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the steps that are being taken and will be taken to ensure that the devolved Government in Northern Ireland remain, and remain serving its people?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he personally did on the talks process before he had a spell of very bad illness, for his continued commitment to Northern Ireland and for his assistance, advice and counsel to me since I took on this job.

On sustainability, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the chapter on sustainability that was developed, as were all parts of the party-led agreement, by working groups earlier last year, there are many initiatives on supporting and funding Opposition parties and on looking at how things would work should the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister resign.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I thank the Secretary of State, the Tánaiste and all their officials for the enormous effort that was put in to make sure that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement were restored. In particular, I welcome the commitment to the Graduate Entry Medical School at Magee in my constituency of Foyle. As the Secretary of State will know, and as has already been said, there are lots of commitments in the deal, and there is a gap between the commitments and the financial package offered. One of the commitments in the deal is to extend and expand the Magee university campus to 10,000 students. We have been waiting since 1965 to see that achieved. Will the Secretary of State continue to work with the Irish Government and our newly established Executive to finally, once and for all, see a full-sized university in Derry?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the work for which he campaigned so hard. The £45 million ring-fenced capital for Derry medical school is a great news story for Derry. Clearly, there is a decision for the Executive to make on whether to fund more student places or take action in other areas, but I stand ready to support the Derry medical school in any way I can.

On the commitment to the financial package more generally, as I have said before, we stand ready to support the Executive as they develop their priorities.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

It is welcome that the military covenant will be in full force in Northern Ireland—something that we struggled to do when I was a Minister of State. Will the Secretary of State come out a little more forcefully and let us know exactly what will happen with our veterans—the people, like me, who had no choice whether they served on Operation Banner—and how we will protect them from vexatious claims against them, which are destroying their lives?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

First, I pay tribute to the UK service women and men who took part in Operation Banner for the work they did, the dedication they showed, and the commitment—them and their families. Yesterday, the Prime Minister was absolutely clear that we cannot accept the unfair or vexatious pursuit of our veterans when there is no new evidence. We will bring forward legislation, but that will be this Government’s focus as we develop legislation for this agreement and for the armed forces more generally.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I, too, welcome the re-establishment of the Executive and the decision to ring-fence £45 million for the medical school in Derry. However, given the failure of Ulster University to deliver successive promises over the decades, surely an independent university would be a better vehicle.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman is right to question some of Ulster University’s ongoing projects, but on the other hand, Northern Ireland universities are among the best in the country. We need to support Ulster University and ensure that we deliver the project of getting the medical school up and running. That will be in the best interests of people in the north-west and more generally.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend and all those on both sides of the Irish sea, who have worked so hard to get us to this joyful place? My right hon. Friend knows that there is a huge pent-up demand among the people of Northern Ireland for change and reform in many areas that have lain stagnant for the last three years. How confident is he that there is the resilience among the official corps to deliver in a speedy way the changes for which the people of Northern Ireland have been waiting far too long?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend is right about the need for reform and change. I pay tribute to David Sterling and his team at the Northern Ireland civil service who for three years have had to step in in the absence of political decision making from the devolved Assembly and Executive. I also remind all those supporting the new Executive that, as well as funds, we must focus on reform, change and transformation.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment, dedication and strength of character in getting the deal over the line. On nurses, the extra £109 million to maintain an equal pay standard for this year and next year is welcome, but will he outline the steps he has taken to enhance the block grant, which will enable our staff to provide bursaries to keep training, increase the numbers of frontline, highly trained staff and reduce and keep waiting lists at an acceptable level?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

As I said earlier, about £245 million is going into the transformation of public services and £550 million into resource support, of which £200 million will resolve the nurses’ pay dispute. It is up to the Executive and the Assembly to work out how they want to spend that money and to address any other opportunities that they may find coming from the Budget in March.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his personal achievement, which involved reserves of patience, diplomacy tenacity, and, I dare say, menace—qualities that, clearly, the Conservative Whips Office in the previous Parliament was the ideal breeding ground for. One of the frustrations of the past few years is that the absence of an economy Minister in Northern Ireland meant that the development of the industrial strategy did not have that Executive leadership. Opposition Members there contributed magnificently in certain particular cases, but will he emphasise to the new economy Minister that Northern Ireland should take advantage of the big opportunities that are available to the whole of the UK, particularly the opportunities that exist for the manufacturing and industrial traditions of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my right hon. Friend for his compliment. I was Chief Whip, but cannot remember people making those types of kind remarks. I would also like to point to the work that he did as Business Minister on Bombardier and other issues in Northern Ireland and on making sure that those businesses were retained. On the role of the economy Minister, I was very heartened when I met the Prime Minister and the Executive. Nichola Mallon from the SDLP has taken over that important brief. I can think of no better person to move that issue forward. She talked about turbo-charging the Northern Ireland economy, which matches very well with the priorities of this Government.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I join in praising the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste and their teams for this deal and also stress my understanding of the importance of linking any new cash for Northern Ireland with reform and transformation. May I ask him about the petition of concern and share the view that many people are sceptical and feel that the reforms do not go far enough, but are, none the less, prepared to give it a go. Will he give us a reassurance that, if things do not work out correctly, the Government will look at this again? Will he also recognise that, as society in Northern Ireland transforms, more and more people no longer identify as either unionist or nationalist, and that that must be recognised in the institutions?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The hon. Gentleman is right. His party led the way during the talks process on analysing and reforming the petition of concern. There have been very positive reforms of the petition of concern, but, as a UK Government, we have said that we will review it every six months and that, at the end of this Assembly term, we will stand by to take action and intervene if it is being abused.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

By way of analogy, if parties do not turn up to this House, or if people resign, or if there is disagreement, we do not collapse Parliament. Will the Secretary of State look at how changes might be introduced in Northern Ireland, working with the local parties, to ensure that, regardless of what disagreements there may be, we do not see the institutions collapse again?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

There are a series of commitments in this deal, which have been agreed to by the parties, that will require certain bits of legislation in the Assembly. In my view, they will ensure that we never again have to see—as we have had to in the past three years—the loss of the Assembly and the Executive.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

May I add my voice to the collective delight at this announcement, and to highlight my delight at reading the words about educating children and young people of different backgrounds together in the same classroom? I ask the Secretary of State to commend the work of the Integrated Education Fund and the Northern Ireland Council for integrated education, and to seek assurance that the moneys in the transforming education programme could be used to further this purpose.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I pay tribute to those organisations, and can reconfirm that there is a focus on education reform in the agreement. I would expect the Executive to be looking very closely at how education is being operated. It is a very high-performing sector of education in the UK, but there is a lot of transformation to be done.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the frequently stated commitment of the Government to end the witch hunt of our ex-service people—the “vexatious” prosecutions that he and the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer have referred to—will not be sacrificed on the altar of Stormont political expediency?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and pay tribute to his service for our country during his period in the armed forces. Let me say again that there is nothing in the agreement that takes away what the Prime Minister said yesterday; we cannot accept the unfair or vexatious pursuit of our veterans when there is no new evidence.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I, too, welcome the statement. I acknowledge what the Secretary of State has said—that this is a good start in financial terms. But given that he has said it is a good start, it means that we are not finished yet, so perhaps he could elaborate a little bit on that. I recognise and welcome the fact that he is now talking in corporate terms, mentioning all the parties, rather than the singular approach he used before Christmas, when he singled out my party for some criticism. On the issue of singularity, will he join me in welcoming the fact that the leader of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, said 10 days ago that the

“negative attitude and disrespect…is consigned to the past”.

We all recognise that. Hopefully that will also be the case for Sinn Féin, and they will not abuse the Irish language and therefore will not have to be confronted about it, as myself and others have had to do in the past.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I am a friend of the DUP, as I work with all parties in Northern Ireland. I welcome Michelle O’Neill’s comments. We need to ensure that this is a new chapter in how we deal with each other when it comes to respect for each other’s backgrounds and priorities. The atmosphere in that Executive meeting with our Prime Minister was extremely positive, with five political parties from all parts of the political spectrum working together in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I thank my right hon. Friend and all involved in finally reaching this most important agreement. As someone who spent quite a lot of her teenage years waiting for hospital appointments in Derry/Londonderry, I particularly warmly welcome the announcement of a new medical school. We opened a new medical school in Chelmsford a couple of years ago, and it has had a massive impact on our city. I am sure that anyone from Derry/Londonderry who wants to come and see it would be hugely welcome there.

I often get asked this question by my constituents, so would my right hon. Friend confirm for the record that the funding available for Northern Ireland is available to all parts of the community?

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I thank my hon. Friend for her text messages, WhatsApp messages and all her support during this period. I can reconfirm that the funding package that the UK Government are providing will be provided to the Executive, and should be distributed across communities in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

Coming from good Ulster stock myself, I am delighted to congratulate the Secretary of State, along with his counterpart in Ireland, Simon Coveney, for the work that they and all Members, both here and in Northern Ireland, have done to bring about the Assembly resitting. An essential element of the Good Friday agreement, which is the foundation of that Assembly, is the notion—whether Members in this House agree with it or not—of a referendum on the unity of the Irish nation. Now, I am sure that would also mean that the Secretary of State agrees with me that the Union is consensual.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I think the Prime Minister was very clear about his views on those issues yesterday. I have no further comments to make.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Mr Speaker said that this statement should only go on until 12 o’clock; we have now gone past that. A substantial number of people wish to speak in the debate this afternoon, so I am afraid that we are going to move on.