Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 18th February 2019.

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Moved by Lord Duncan of Springbank

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 9 January be approved.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, this Government are committed to the Belfast agreement. At the heart of that agreement is devolved power-sharing executive government. Restoring the Executive remains our priority. Northern Ireland needs the political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors to be fully functioning. However, in the absence of devolved government, the UK Government must ensure the maintenance of good governance and public confidence in Northern Ireland.

In November last year, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland brought forward legislation which, among other things, addressed the need for urgent appointments to be made to a number of public bodies. The initial phase of appointments under the Act has enabled the reconstitution of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which recently met for the first time in its fully constituted form. This has also allowed: the recruitment of a new chief constable for Northern Ireland to be initiated; the replacement of the outgoing chair and board members of the Probation Board; appointments to the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission; and the initiation of a recruitment process to appoint a new Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Under the 2018 Act, the Secretary of State also committed to make further appointments that are required in the absence of an Executive. The purpose of this instrument is to specify which further offices require appointment. In preparing this instrument, my officials have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service to identify those critical appointments that will arise soon. This instrument would add to the list in Section 5 of the Act, enabling the Secretary of State, as the relevant UK Minister, to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to the following offices: the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People; the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee; the Northern Ireland Housing Executive; the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland; the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland; and, finally, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. These are important offices for which the exercise of appointment functions in the coming months is vital for the continued good governance of Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, the Minister has brought forward a further list of appointments to public bodies. Although I have no objection to those in principle, I want to put on the record the difference between the Government’s approach to, say, the appointment of a member of the Livestock and Meat Commission and to an issue which I have raised in this House many times: the mess and crisis in our health service. Is the Minister aware that, against a target of 95%, only 62% of patients are being dealt with in emergency departments? The comparable figure in England and Scotland is 89%. English doctors recently put out a statement saying that they believed people were dying as a direct result of those figures. Yet our figures are infinitely worse and are getting worse every quarter. Time and again I have raised the more than 280,000 patients waiting for consultant-led appointments. Nearly 100,000 of those are waiting for longer than 12 months.

The Minister has said that his right honourable friend in the other place is taking the initiative and that meetings with the parties have been called. I welcome that, although it does seem somewhat ill prepared. We are a few weeks before a set of elections, so whether we can expect a positive outcome is open to question. The Minister will also shortly be returning to this House with further pieces of legislation, including a budget for Northern Ireland—the third one that the Minister has proposed—even though there is now no prospect of using the former Executive’s spending plans as a template because they are so out of date. He will also be coming forward with the second portion of the legislation under which this set of appointments has been made, because it has to be looked at again after five months.

There is a set of priorities here, but the priorities coming from the Government seem to be the wrong ones. I would have thought that people’s lives and welfare were a higher priority than some of the things in these regulations, albeit that I am for them. I have no objection to them, but they are being done against a background of hoping that if we pull the blankets over our heads the problem will go away. It will not. The Minister may find that in the talks that are being initiated next week, I believe, we will all be proved wrong, a massive amount of good will will flow and we will get devolution back—I hope that that takes place. If I am not surprised and pleased by that—if we find that it is not the case and things drift on—what will the Minister and his colleagues do? Are they just going to leave these health figures to get worse and worse, or are we actually going to do something?

The Minister has told noble Lords a number of times that the Government were prepared to look at all options and that we were going to look outside the box. We were going to look at alternatives—that is a phrase that is running around at the moment. So what alternatives are we going to look at? I believe that there are alternatives: putting direct-rule Ministers in place is one. It is not one that I want to see, because I know how hard it will be to get them out and get devolution restored, but a point will come when things just cannot be dribbled any further. That is my anxiety about this.

I am not objecting to what the Minister is proposing, I am just observing the core of government policy over the last period. For instance, we are having this set of meetings to restore devolution a few weeks before Brexit and a few weeks before local government elections, and against a background where there has been no engagement of any significance between the parties for the last number of years. Would it not have been better to have done something positive last year, before Brexit came right up to the wire and before local government elections? Instead, what did we do? A couple of meetings were called in the entire 12-month period, one of which lasted 42 minutes. I have forgotten how long the other one lasted, but it was neither here nor there.

If the Minister comes back to this House in few weeks’ time with his budget and with the second part of this legislation, I sincerely hope that he comes back with a clear idea of what is going to happen, because people are suffering directly and I believe that their welfare and, indeed, their lives could very well be at risk through the lack of decision-making that has been clear for well over two years now. I hope the Minister will bear these things in mind when he comes back to the House.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:15 pm, 18th February 2019

My Lords, I operate in this House on one principle above all: to agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Empey says. I am happy to adhere to that principle again today.

I have three specific points that I want to raise on this instrument. First, it reaches us just days before a new Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People needs to be appointed. Why was the instrument not brought forward earlier? Secondly, the instrument specifies, as my noble friend has said, six appointments deemed to be critically important. What criteria were used to establish which appointments are critical and which are not? My third and final point follows from that and concerns offices not deemed to be of critical importance. What is to happen to them? Are they to remain vacant when their current holders reach the end of their term, pending the restoration of devolution, which today seems but a distant hope?

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was concerned with sins of omission rather than commission in terms of the content of the statutory instrument. He raises the point that effectively we are going on and on in this limbo of democratic nihilism, if I can call it that, having to institute ad hoc measures as and when necessary to fill the gap in the absence of real political initiatives. I presume that the Minister will be back here in less than five weeks, when the first term of the 2018 Act expires, because it is difficult at the moment to see that we are going to be in a position to restore the Assembly by the end of March—I do not believe that anybody would think that at all likely. So the question that arises is: what practical steps are the Government going to take to ensure that we do not get to the end of March, let alone the end of August, without having got to a position where functioning decision-making by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland can return? I am sure that the Minister does not find it comfortable to come to the House and say, “Please allow me the right to nominate these particular posts”. However, perhaps he could say something about Friday’s meeting, which I gather lasted 90 minutes. I am not aware that any specific proposals were on the table, which has not been well received.

I hope, from the Minister’s point of view, that the Government have started to think about what they can do to break the deadlock. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that a Secretary of State in a UK Government who are propped up by a hard-line unionist party in Northern Ireland is likely to find the perception of her office somewhat compromised in Northern Ireland. I repeat what my colleagues have said on numerous occasions: is it not time to find some independent authority that might bring parties together and start to identify what it would take to break the deadlock and get things back to normal?

Therefore, my specific questions on this statutory instrument—somewhat along the lines of what the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said—are, first, what were the criteria that made these urgent, and what other appointments are coming down the track that may require us to be back here in the very near future? Secondly, much more to the point, what assurances can we have that there is any reasonable momentum to try to ensure that we get the political process back, or will we have either to impose direct rule—which I think many of us would regard as a disastrous failure—or institute new elections? Nobody is particularly happy about that either, but it may be the only way to unlock the democratic logjam.

The Minister is always entirely and highly constructive, conciliatory and thoughtful—if I may say so, I would rather he was in charge of the talks; if that was the style we might make more progress. It is important to try to find out what the real obstacles are, not the synthetic ones that have been put up, and how we can build, through trust, a means of getting these decisions away from this Parliament and back to the Assembly, where they belong.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on his consistency on the issue he has raised and on the fact that he is completely right—a pretty powerful combination. Are the Government cherry picking what they are seeking to do? I know that “cherry picking” is now a fashionable expression, but it seems that the Government are cherry picking appointments. What about other appointments? Why have these ones been selected—is there a particular reason for it? Also, what about the functions to be carried out by these appointments? Are there any constraints on how these individuals can carry out their functions, given that there are serious constraints on how government departments in Northern Ireland can carry out their functions?

The whole position seems extremely illogical. We need an indication of progress—I endorse the comments that have been made. Surely the time has come, not just for the Secretary of State to say that she is doing her best—I am sure she is—and for the Minister to say that he is sure that the Secretary of State is doing her best, but to have a new initiative on knocking heads together and bringing the parties together. Surely an impartial umpire/facilitator is needed. Let us get on with making that appointment, then we can have some progress.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, these questions go beyond the direct area of Northern Ireland, although obviously that is the greatest priority. They affect the workings of the intergovernmental mechanisms that bring Wales, Scotland and England together as well. There is a danger of that dimension picking up its own momentum and of Northern Ireland not being adequately involved. I hope that that will also be borne in mind as we try to make progress on these matters.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative

My Lords, I support what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. I agree entirely with the comments of the noble Lord opposite, but I want to open up something that touches slightly on what he said—and I am afraid that in doing this, I may add to the list of things that the Minister has to consider.

I noticed that in his introduction the Minister made reference to the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement is in a very difficult situation at the moment, because the Government’s withdrawal agreement takes the heart out of the Belfast agreement and rips it to pieces. To give detail on that, I draw Members’ attention to a paper that may be on the Policy Exchange website this afternoon, but which will be generally available quite soon thereafter, by Graham Gudgin, who has gone in detail through the ways in which the withdrawal agreement destroys the Belfast agreement—it is as strong as that. That will also impact on the possibility of doing something through the mechanisms of the agreement for consultation between the Government and the people of Northern Ireland and bringing in other parties. This is another matter which cannot be left in abeyance. Does the Minister have any thoughts about what the Government can do to restore the health of the Belfast agreement?

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, on Thursday last, my noble friend came to the Dispatch Box and gave another interim Statement, saying that he hoped before long to come back with definitive pronouncements. I asked him specifically about two issues. First, if we cannot have the Executive restored, which we would all like, surely the Assembly, which has been elected and the Members of which are still paid, could meet. There is no insuperable obstacle; my noble friend Lord Trimble has made this point on several previous occasions and is nodding now.

The other point I referred to was the appointment of what my noble friend referred to as a “facilitator”—I do not much like the word—who would be impartial and would preside over the meeting of interested parties. We must recognise the fact referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I think: namely, that the very existence of a pact between the Government and the DUP means that there is a perception that the Government are not as even-handed as I am personally convinced that they are. That is a problem.

My noble friend referred to my next point last Thursday and I bring him back to it. We are having a series of holding Statements and measures such as the one this afternoon—I endorse what my noble friend Lord Lexden asked: what are the criteria?—but there comes a point, and it is coming very soon, when a real initiative must be taken by the Secretary of State to try to get the Assembly functioning and the power-sharing Executive restored. It is now more than 20 years—almost 21 years, I must get my maths right—since the Belfast agreement: an historic agreement which gave great comfort and joy to many people and which, for a time, worked extremely well. We are now teetering on the brink of the imposition of direct rule—and we must face up to that, because we cannot go on like this.

No one in his or her right mind wants the reimposition of direct rule, with all the problems and regression implicit in it. So I beg my noble friend to add a little, when he comes to respond, to what he said on Thursday last. We all admire him—I am one of those who believe that if he had been put in charge, things might have moved at a slightly faster pace—but we want him to tell us something that will give real, positive encouragement and will amount to a promise of a true initiative taken, I very much hope, before 26 March.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 3:30 pm, 18th February 2019

My Lords, this debate has been short but important. This statutory instrument is not about Brexit. It is not a dry, uninteresting, bureaucratic instrument that needs to be passed on the nod—although of course we on this side will support it. But it is symbolic of what is wrong in Northern Ireland. Of course, the instrument is important; these ministerial appointments must be made, otherwise things in Northern Ireland will go wrong—so I repeat that we will support it.

Government and democracy in Northern Ireland have collapsed because of the absence of the institutions of the Assembly and the Executive. There is no representation of nationalism in either Chamber in Parliament. The Assembly does not meet and has not done so for more than two years. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said some months ago, that means that the only people operating in Northern Ireland are members of local authorities, which have very limited powers. So Northern Ireland is the least democratic part of our United Kingdom—which is ironic given that 21 years ago we spent a great deal of time building up the Good Friday agreement to make Northern Ireland the most sophisticated democratic part of not only the United Kingdom but probably the world. That has also meant that decisions on important issues such as health and education are being made by civil servants. In effect, institutionalised bureaucracy is running Northern Ireland at the moment. It is a terrible state of affairs.

Worse, the absence of these institutions threatens the Good Friday agreement considerably. Over the past few months, we have argued that Brexit is a major threat to the agreement—which I believe it is—but this is a major threat, too, because central to that agreement was the establishment of the Assembly, the Executive and the north-south ministerial bodies. They were all agreed on in a very sophisticated peace process, but they have been gone for two years now.

One of the Brexit issues affecting this—a point which I think the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was hinting at—is that, had there been an Assembly or an Executive, it is likely that those bodies would have resolved the issue of the backstop, because nationalists and unionists would have come together to try to work things out. That is the purpose of the arrangements in Northern Ireland. What has occurred there is a tragedy. Every Member who has spoken in the debate echoes those sentiments and the need for the Government to change tack and become much more urgent in trying to restore those institutions.

Of course this is happening against the backdrop of the current Brexit negotiations. I cannot imagine the Prime Minister or the Taoiseach going to Belfast in the next few weeks when all these other things are happening. Incidentally, they could have gone there more frequently in the past; both Governments are to blame for the fact that they have not done so. Once again, Members of your Lordships’ House have referred to the need for an independent chair or facilitator, such as George Mitchell, and to the fact that proper all-party talks should take place, with every party represented there and a proper structure. Based on what we are seeing at the moment, there is even a case for taking the parties away somewhere like they did in the past, when they took parties to various parts of the United Kingdom and locked them up in rooms for weeks on end until they came to an agreement. These things can happen—it has been done before—but there seems to be no urgency in all this, even though there is a deadline, as there is for Brexit. Nothing is happening.

It is worth reminding the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin—which is not represented in Parliament even its members were elected to it—that by not having these institutions, they are breaking the provisions of the Good Friday agreement, which people in the north and south of Ireland voted on. I hope that in a few moments’ time, the Minister will tell your Lordships’ House that we will make those ministerial appointments and also give us an indication of a change of direction, a greater sense of urgency and more structured talks to ensure that we make progress in Northern Ireland. If it does not happen, this drift will end in direct rule—and when you are in direct rule, it is the devil’s job to get out of it.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, as with other debates on Northern Ireland, this is one of two halves. I will focus on the first half, which concerns the instrument itself and some elements of it, and then move on to the wider issues which have been raised.

My noble friend Lord Lexden asked a number of questions to which I will attempt to provide answers. The first thing to emphasise is that the appointments have been identified by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The principal criterion for that identification was obviously timing. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that this should have been brought before the House earlier, but we have to bring all the measures together. I accept my noble friend’s first point and apologise to him: they should have come forward earlier.

The second point concerns when the broad functioning elements of the boards become, if you like, out of kilter with the membership. There needs to be a recognition of the balance of the members on the individual boards themselves. A number of the appointed chairs and vice-chairs have reached the end of their terms, which in itself creates the need to move forward. Some have indicated their intention to accept an extension, and that is the likely outcome. However, again, the key aspect has been identified by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, not by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. It is our intention to do so only as far as the legislation allows, in order to move the situation forward in that regard, following the detailed advice we have received. There may be other information I can provide and if so I will make sure that it is conveyed to my noble friend directly and shared more widely. I have no desire to keep secrets on this issue.

My noble friend is also correct to say that there will be others unless we resolve this matter. In answer to the question, “Which others?”, it will be all the others, frankly, unless we can get this moving. Every appointment will be done in this way until we actually have a functioning Executive. I am not trying to exaggerate the case or make it seem worse than it is, but that is the reality of where we are. Until there is an Executive, this legislation will allow us to move forward with each appointment that is required. While it is true to say that we may think that some are more important than others, all of them are important to the good functioning of governance in Northern Ireland, be it those I have iterated today or those that will be need to be iterated in the future, should we not make progress on an Executive. Perhaps that is a rather dispiriting answer, but it is the correct one.

Before I turn to the broader elements, I should say that I welcome the support of the House for the instrument, which is a necessary one and will help in the functioning of these bodies. I was anticipating a broad discussion, so perhaps I may say this. On Friday of last week all the parties gathered together in Northern Ireland. It was the first time that that had happened in more than a year and it was an attempt to move things forward in a fashion which would ultimately lead to the creation of a sustainable Executive. Noble Lords may have read about the outcome of that meeting. It was not wholly supported by the Sinn Féin party, which has made its points very clear in the newspapers, which your Lordships are more than at liberty to read. I was saddened to read those reports but they are a matter of public awareness. That is not good and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

The Northern Ireland Office had hoped that, using this, we would be able to see the steps which could be taken to bring about the very things that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has put to us. He mentioned the notion of an independent facilitator. Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I do not like the term either, but I accept that it is one we are using at the moment. I also recognise the need to think outside the traditional, such as, “Let us always meet in the same office space”; rather, we should be thinking of new places. I had hoped that out of these gatherings a clear timetable would emerge to bring about those very things, and to be able to stand before noble Lords today repeating a Statement from the other place on what we all hoped would happen. We did not make the progress we had hoped for, and for that I am sad and sorry. That does not mean that we stop or that this is the end of the journey, but it has not led to the breakthrough I hoped to see. That is a simple statement of fact.

None the less, we cannot in good conscience fail to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. He is correct to say that noble Lords will be seeing a bit more of me over the next few weeks, I am afraid, because I will be bringing forward further legislation. Not the least will be the Northern Ireland Budget, and I do not doubt that the noble Lord will make the points that need to be made on the health service, the wider education service and so on.

You might recall that this time last year, when I spoke of that Budget, I said it was getting ever more difficult to plot the trajectory from the point of the outgoing Executive and their spending ambitions to where we are now. It is getting considerably harder. Last year I said that that would be the last time I would make that point, and events have made a liar of me: it was not the last time. I hope the one coming will be the last time, but the noble Lord rightly raises his eyebrows, and I take that on board. There is also the issue of the five-month extension window, anticipated in the Act of last year, within which we can look at delivering the Executive. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is quite correct that that will necessarily have to be brought forward in the next few weeks as well. He is right to flag these things up.

I struggle to find new ways to tell noble Lords the same thing. I do not wish to sound complacent as I do so, but finding new ways to say this is proving difficult. Ultimately, the only way we will be able to move this forward is for the parties themselves to recognise the need for progress. Until that happens, the Government themselves will be unable to create the “eureka” moment. It is not wholly in their gift.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

The Minister is making a powerful and practical point, but why cannot the Government proceed with some kind of independent mediator? Exactly as others have said, the perception of a Government who are parti pris does not help and makes it much easier for Sinn Féin to do and say the things it does. I am not naive—I am not saying that it would not say that to an independent mediator—but why are the Government finding it so difficult to move forward on that?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

The noble Lord is right to raise that point. There are only so many times I can talk about the box metaphor and thinking outside it before noble Lords become tired of that. We had hoped, through those discussions last week, to get some coherent agreement on moving things forward on that basis, and we were not able to do so. We now have to think afresh. We have to think whether that can be done without the support of all the parties involved. These things need to be thought through again. I am not trying to postpone answering the noble Lord’s question, but I am aware that we have not been able to resolve it in the fashion I would like. That remains at the heart of the problem.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I hope I will be forgiven for reverting to a point made five minutes ago: the DUP being the only actor in London on the backstop question. Many other things could have been said and could have led to more constructive engagement if there had been discussions on that question between all the parties in Northern Ireland. I do not know what the agenda, the scope or the protocol was for last week’s discussions, but is it not rather intriguing that such a remark can be made at this critical moment without putting any flesh on the bones of that scenario?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

The noble Lord, Lord Lea, raises a slightly cryptic question, and I am not wholly sure I can answer it in the manner I would like. The UK Government, Ministers and civil servants have been engaged in a series of bilateral discussions with all parties—it has been ongoing for quite some time—to find the means by which we can bring people into the same room to have appropriate discussions, out of which will emerge the structures and necessary elements for talks that will lead to the formation of a sustainable Executive. That is not a secret; that is our ambition—it always has been—and we have been doing it for quite some time. It is appropriate to put the point that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, made at the end of his speech, which the noble Lord will perhaps accept as an answer of sorts. Had there been a fully functioning Executive and an Assembly discussing the Irish backstop, they may well have come up with an answer. Just let that sink in. But for many different reasons, the political parties in Northern Ireland have not been able to find the right means whereby the Executive can be restored, and that voice has been silenced. There is no point in pretending otherwise.

There has been debate in Northern Ireland; it just has not been taking place in Stormont. There has been serious engagement, but mostly through the pages of the media. Politicians have been involved, but not sitting in a forum such as this where they have a particular, structured debate. So voices are being raised, but the Executive themselves and the function they represent have been missing in action. When the history books come to be written of this moment, I do not doubt that a great omission in Northern Ireland will be seen, especially on the issue of the backstop. Above all others, this is the time when we need a fully functioning Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland to thrash out, backwards and forwards, all the issues.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:45 pm, 18th February 2019

Is there any reason why all the parties should not be brought together specifically to discuss the backstop?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

That is an interesting issue. I suppose the question is whether they are brought together in the form of an Assembly, which has certain logistical elements, or in a different configuration. I would like to see the parties brought together to have a serious discussion on the backstop, now more than ever. This is the time when we need to make sure that the voices of those people who live in Northern Ireland, for whom the border is a real issue, are heard. Far too many experts on Northern Irish issues have suddenly appeared over the past few weeks and months—which has been somewhat resented, I think, by the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

I do not want to labour the point, but surely what my noble friend has just said illustrates the good sense of getting the Assembly together. It could be done. That could be the item on the agenda. It cannot put us back, but it could possibly take us forward.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

That is constructive advice, as indeed all noble Lords have given today. I will take it away and make sure that it is heard by those who need to hear it. I would dearly like to make progress on that; I am tired of giving the same speech over and over again, and noble Lords are tired of hearing it. If we can get to the stage where we can move on to new ground and new issues—where we simply applaud the good governance in Northern Ireland—what a great step forward that would be. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, would stop raising his eyebrows at me when he mentions health issues, and I would be much happier in those moments. However, here we are—again.

I was trying to find a way to describe the events of Friday. It was not easy to find a positive way to do it, but I did find one way, which noble Lords may or may not find useful. Many noble Lords will be of an age that they can remember Angela Lansbury in her prime in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”. She sang a song—

Sing it!

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I will.

“After all it’s a step in the right direction

It’s a step in the right direction after all”.

The rest of the song, I will not sing. I merely note it is a reminder that even small steps, as long as they are taken in the right direction, can make us go forward. I hope that the step taken on Friday is a small step in the right direction and will lead to some serious movement.

I must return to the matter at hand: the regulations. I have a form of words that I have to say—I have it in a bundle somewhere.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

While the noble Lord is looking for his music score, I will say that it is good that we can have a moment of humour on an issue like this. But the question was asked about the backstop and the role that Northern Ireland could play. When we asked what input people from Northern Ireland would have into the whole Brexit debate, we were told repeatedly that there would be consultations and so on. It did not happen that way.

In my view, instead of the Belfast agreement being used as an obstacle, parts of it could be the solution. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, referred to the other parts of the agreement. We are forgetting that the agreement is a complicated mixture. Even at this late stage in the process, I ask the Minister: what alternative thinking is going on in the NIO as to how we might replace Stormont? I have not had an answer to that, either today or on other occasions when it was raised. The bits and pieces of the jigsaw are all on the table, but nobody is putting them together in the right way.

Trade flows across the Irish border represent 0.1% of European trade flows. How is it that, as a nation and as a continent, we are in such a state over that when we are ignoring the very institutions that are a part of the solution? Will the Minister reflect on this and consult with his right honourable friend in the other place? Perhaps he should serenade her, as he has a talent for it.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I thank the noble Lord for giving me a moment or two to find my place in my notes and for the reminder that these are serious issues. He is correct, I did not give him an answer to his question. He will be aware that I was not able to find the right answer to give—and that is part of the challenge, to be frank.

I am also aware that I have not appropriately answered the question of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. I will reflect upon that, come back to him on it and share the answer more widely with other Members of the House. I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, made the point about seeing this not simply through the lens of Northern Ireland but through a broader sense of the devolution settlements. He is absolutely right. We cannot lose sight of that fact, either.

However, I have found my form of words, which are: I beg to move.

Motion agreed.