Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 4:43 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, noble Lords will not be unaware of the ongoing criticism in the press and media of the existence and the conduct of your Lordships’ House. We find ourselves in the position of being continuously subject to ridicule and indeed contempt in cases. It is interesting that two of the first four Private Members’ Bills before us this Session deal with matters pertaining to this House. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is no doubt about to launch himself into another series of activities, and there is another Bill further down the list. I believe this proves the need for further action. With the noble Lord, Lord Burns, reporting this summer on ways to reduce numbers, the time has come for the Prime Minister to appoint a Minister for Lords reform and settle things for the foreseeable future. We need out of this ongoing limbo. I believe consensus is within our grasp as we struggle to deal with the size and imbalance of the House—which, I remind noble Lords, was created not by this House but by successive occupants of No. 10 Downing Street. Perhaps the Minister will respond to this in his wind-up.

I have often mentioned my unhappiness with the current policy with regard to the devolved Administrations. I call it a policy of “devolve and forget”. The wretched Sewel convention is at its heart. I note that the Constitution Committee of this House has also expressed some concerns. I am all for devolution, but there still needs to be parliamentary oversight. The lack of such oversight is why Northern Ireland got into trouble in the 1960s and 1970s. We have not learned from that, and we are repeating the same mistake today by ignoring what is happening in the regions. Growth in the devolution of powers to cities and regions in England cannot be left without some form of oversight; otherwise, we go back to the time of the city state. It has to be said that changes to our constitution in recent years, especially following the Scottish referendum in 2014 and the introduction of English votes for English laws in the other place, have left us with many pieces of unfinished constitutional business. I have to say that the handling of those issues was perhaps not the coalition’s finest hour.

With regard to the announcement today in the Scottish Parliament, I had the pleasure of watching the First Minister of Scotland deliver her Statement, and I was very glad to hear it. I hope it is the first positive sign of some realism because, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, said, the Parliament was being used as a battering ram not to strengthen the union but to bring it to a conclusion. I think he was quite right on that, and the announcement from Scotland today is very welcome.

With regard to Northern Ireland and the deal that was struck yesterday, it would be impossible not to have concerns. In recent years, purely from a delivery point of view, the Stormont Executive have been a flop, with scandal after scandal and inefficiency, while the RHI controversy, if it is as reported, is downright incompetence. Judge Coghlin’s inquiry into the botched scheme has not yet held its first hearing, but he has already amassed the equivalent of 1,000 lever-arch files full of documents. His report’s first public hearings will be in October. I do not know how long it will take, but you can count.

While no devolved Administration will look a gift horse in the mouth, one cannot be other than concerned at the reaction in the press and from some other nations at the news of extra money for Stormont. I could make a case all day for extra resources, but the fact that it is linked to votes in the other place makes it look bad. I can well understand that the people in Scotland, Wales and the regions of England are unhappy. The Barnett formula is a delicate flower and has been good for Northern Ireland. If that formula is unravelled, it could cost us dear in the long run.

What concerns me most, however, is that unionism in Northern Ireland has been linked to cash. Look at the cartoons in the papers today. I have never been a believer in begging-bowl unionism, yet some in the media have spun it this way. The cut and thrust of politics reveals it as a numbers game, and people are inevitably going to exploit an advantage if it arises. That applies to all parties, and do not let any of them deny it. However, unionists must never create the impression that their unionism is cash based. That is not what being part of the union should be about. Unionists must also be aware of the needs of others in the UK and that their ongoing support is the only way in which the nation can stay together in these troubling days as we approach Brexit. The sad reality is that, if the numbers surrounding the losses expected to flow from the RHI scheme are to be believed, nearly half of yesterday’s cash will be swallowed up in making good those losses. What an irony it would be if those figures are correct.

Given the mess that Stormont got into last December, which in my view could easily have been avoided by a little grace and leadership, Sinn Fein now has to make up its mind whether to stick with the institutions or play the Dublin card. Mr Adams should never have been given this opportunity in the first place, but I hope good sense will prevail and the parties will agree to re-establish the institutions. If not, I hope the Government will be prepared to keep an open mind on ways in which devolution can be preserved, as a little thinking outside the box is preferable to collapse and direct rule. Remember, in the advancing pace of the Brexit negotiations, Northern Ireland’s voice is not being heard. This state of affairs cannot continue.