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Amendment 12

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Lord Empey:

Moved by Lord Empey

12: Clause 3, page 3, line 39, at end insert—“( ) After making a report under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must publish a report on or before 10 September 2019 on progress on the establishment of a Renewable Heat Incentive Hardship Unit in the Department for the Economy.”

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, the Committee will see that I have a number of issues in Amendments 12 to 16. I have to say—I have said this to the Minister before—that I believe that this Bill, which was set out to be a relatively simple exercise, has now transformed itself into something totally different. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described it as a Christmas tree, so I take the view that if people at the other end are entitled to put baubles on the Christmas tree, I can put tinsel on it. Let us be under no illusion. Once the dam is breached, people will flow through with their own ideas and are perfectly entitled to do it. I have chosen a number of things because I believe they are very important to the people of Northern Ireland. Most of them are not being addressed, yet people are in significant difficulty as a result.

I will start with Amendment 12. The RHI has proven to be one of the most significant developments in Northern Ireland in recent years. It was ostensibly the reason Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive in 2017. I have never believed that that was the only reason. Nevertheless, it is on paper as the reason. As we discovered when dealing with rates and the renewable heat incentive in March, many people are in great distress as a result.

After we had discussed things, the Minister promised that a unit would be established within the Department for the Economy to look at the individual circumstances of everybody who was at risk and at a loss as a result of the change in the premiums being paid for the use of the boilers. It appears to me that the department has taken an exceptionally narrow view of what that means and is confining itself to European Union rules stipulating that it could provide loans at commercial rates for up to six months and that would probably be as far as it could go. That is no use to the people.

In the debate earlier, before the dinner-break business, people referred to undertakings that the Government gave. In this particular case, the relevant Minister at the time appealed to the banks in writing for them to lend to people who were going to operate these boilers. The banks responded to the Minister, loaning money on the undertaking that the rights were being grandfathered and there was a 12% return. Some people got these boilers, calculated the income that they had received from them over the 20 years of the scheme, put that into business plans and perhaps went on to borrow money for other related projects, such as additional chicken houses and so on. They now find that the premiums they are in receipt of are a mere fraction of those they had put into their business plans and were promised by the Stormont Government at that time. They also find themselves in the bizarre situation that the Republic of Ireland is about to introduce a similar scheme for 15 years, while the scheme that exists here, which pre-dated the Northern Ireland version, will be continuing for its 20-year period. So the competitiveness for the person using one of those boilers in Northern Ireland compared with in the Republic or the rest of the United Kingdom is totally destroyed. I say to the Minister that this requires urgent action, and the action so far flagged up by the Department for the Economy is totally inadequate.

I come now to Amendment 13. We have all agreed that the welfare system was in urgent need of reform. It was unwieldy, far too complicated and, most important, it was not properly supporting people into work. Yet, instead of simplifying the overall benefits system, the reforms made it even more difficult, with new layers of complexity and added delay. In 2015, the local political parties in Northern Ireland agreed that a package of measures was required. This included support for people moving from DLA to PIP, or perhaps from DLA to nothing at all, as well as many other issues, such as additional support for the independent advice sector. One of the most important mitigations was in relation to the social sector size criteria. While we can all accept the principle behind families being allocated homes that most reflect their needs, the reality in Northern Ireland did not—and, shamefully, still does not—have the stock to reflect modern demand; in other words, there are insufficient homes for single people or small families.

If, as is so greatly feared, the current mitigations expire next March and nothing is there to replace them, many thousands of local families face the prospect of serious financial hardship. Let us take the bedroom tax alone: a massive 34,000 households would lose support valued at £22 million per annum. I repeat: this is not because people are refusing to downsize; it is because there are literally not the houses for people to downsize to. It is as simple as that. There have been talks between the parties of Northern Ireland in recent months on the issue of future mitigation. I am told that they have gone quite well so far, yet the Department for Communities in Belfast has repeatedly said that decisions on the provision of any future support from April next year can be a matter only for incoming Ministers. That is why I have tabled this amendment and put the realistic timeframe of December on it.

On Amendment 15, the Minister will be aware that we have a serious problem with suicide in Northern Ireland. It is at the highest level in the whole of the United Kingdom. Troubles-related issues may be part of it; indeed, I have no doubt that that is the case. But we are the only UK region without a current mental health strategy and our funding per capita for mental health services is far below the UK average. We have this very difficult situation, yet the Protect Life 2 strategy has been sitting on the shelf for over two years. We are talking about individual lives; primarily the victims are young men. I believe there is widespread support among the political parties in Belfast to see this strategy taken off the shelf. I think this was referred to last week by other colleagues here and that everybody is on the same hymn sheet. At the end of the day, however, the strategy is still sitting there, nothing is happening and, without it, the departments are not in a position to take decisions. The advice that the parties have been given by the Civil Service is correct: this requires a Minister to take a decision, and that is not happening.

Amendment 14 is about libel legislation in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Black, has tabled a more specific amendment that will be dealt with later, so I shall not go into detail. Basically, we are on the same page, but I was looking to try to give some kind of kick-start to this. We have fallen far behind the rest of the country, and I support what the noble Lord will propose at a later stage.

On Amendment 16, I have described our situation with health time and time again. On Second Reading I referred to the latest report from the Nuffield Trust, backed up by Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University, its co-author. The statistics are sobering. Upwards of 120,000 people out of a population of 1.8 million are waiting for more than a year for a consultant-led appointment. Every target is being missed: if the target is 95%, most of the percentages are in the low 60s. We are not close to other regions in the rest of the United Kingdom, and the capacity of the service to meet the demand from the public is simply not there.

We are flying in nurses from Great Britain. Their air fare is paid, their accommodation and meals are paid, and their hourly pay is grossly above that of the ordinary nurses on the wards. Although the agency nurses do a good job and we could not survive without them, this cannot be a sensible or economic way forward. When people are flying in and out, they are not in a position to open up a relationship with a patient or understand that patient. Moreover, different systems operate in different trusts. This is an inefficient and highly expensive way of providing a service.

In our earlier debates we talked about life. I did not get into the argument about abortion, although I have my own views on it—but we understand that the fundamental thing is a respect for life, and choices. Yet we know that the way in which the service is being delivered in part of our own country is at such a level that life is being affected. If a cancer patient waits weeks and months for an appointment, that directly affects their chances of survival. In diagnosis time is of the essence, as many noble Lords will know.

Our situation is out of control, and all the projections are that it is getting progressively worse. Every quarter the figures are worse than those for the quarter before. How many times do we have to learn that? The fact is that politics are being put before the welfare of hundreds of thousands of our citizens. None of us knows how often we shall have to depend on the health service. Not one of us in this Chamber knows how we shall be placed. Those figures represent mothers, fathers, sons and daughters; they are real people, and they are suffering because the service is not delivering.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

I commend the noble Lord for consistently raising this subject, and for the passion with which he has done so. To support his case, does he agree that there is also a serious problem of lack of childcare, and the dreadful waiting times for children in the NHS in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

The noble Lord is correct. All our services are suffering, not through any lack of attention, or any attempt on anybody’s part not to provide a good service, but because people are overwhelmed. Decisions that were taken in the Treasury some years ago affecting the position of consultants’ pensions and other things are now impacting seriously on waiting lists because a lot of those consultants are absenting themselves. There is a perverse situation that the more work there is, the more they are making a liability for themselves. These are the sorts of things that are happening.

Leaving aside the politics of it—I do not want to see direct rule; I spent years of my life trying to see Stormont get going, accompanied by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and other Members who are in the House today, and we want to see it work—there is a humanitarian issue at the back of all this. People are hurting, and the longer the prevarication is allowed to persist, the greater the risk to individuals. The truth of the matter is that people will die on these waiting lists—we have to be honest about this—and collectively we are standing around watching this. I suspect that that is not a sustainable position for any of us to keep. It is in those circumstances that I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 9:00 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his amendments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hain, I commend him for his persistence on these issues. He brings home to us the realities of day-to-day life and the need to have an Assembly to deliver that.

Much more importantly, given that these are modest amendments that are asking only for reports, so I imagine that the Government might be able to accept them, the positive might be that at least we would not be completely wasting our time between now and October if it were possible to assemble really useful statistics and assessments that would enable the development of policy, so that as and when the Assembly gets up and running—if we want to be positive about it—it has something that it can get to work on, rather than having to start from scratch. This seems to be a practical suggestion. One can be very dismissive about commissioning reports and say that that is kicking cans down the road or not making decisions, but in the end policy requires information, statistics and recommendations, and for them to be constructively used. I hope the Minister will take on board that if he accepts the amendment, it means what it says. The reports should be not just a list of facts and figures but useful in terms of formulating policy that can be implemented sooner rather than later.

Another point of concern that Parliament will have to accept, whether or not we get the Assembly up and running, is that the effect of the lack of government over the last two and a half years is that Northern Ireland has fallen further and further behind. We may be facing all the difficulties, which I will not elaborate on, of a confused and uncertain Brexit situation where it may be impossible to find the resources to catch up. The longer time goes on, with waiting lists rising and other problems such as farmers facing bankruptcy over RHI and people struggling with welfare benefits, the Bill that will be required to bridge the gap and get things back to where they should be will be infinitely bigger and required in a shorter time than those two and half years.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is doing a service to the people by highlighting this issue, but it is of value only if something gets actioned. I therefore hope that the Government will accept the amendments and the obligation to produce reports, but also that they will recognise that those reports will need to be substantive to be useful.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I warmly support this group of amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I shall touch on just two of them. The first is Amendment 12, which the Government should have no difficulty in accepting. I recently tabled a Written Question asking them when the report on the establishment of a renewable heat incentive hardship unit, promised on 19 March, would be forthcoming. The reply that I received on 20 June stated:

“A call for evidence in relation to the form and function of the unit will shortly be released, and will close at the end of June. This will inform the Terms of Reference of the Unit”.

The Department for the Economy,

“anticipate that the panel will begin to accept applications in September 2019”.

By happy coincidence, the amendment moved by the noble Lord requires a report by 10 September. That seems to fit in admirably with the department’s plans.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I echo the comments on health of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. No one will doubt the deeply depressing assessment he has provided this evening, following earlier, deeply troubling accounts of the decline of the health services in Northern Ireland. It is truly tragic that health services have deteriorated so markedly under this Conservative and Unionist Government. Surely all the Northern Ireland parties would give their blessing to government initiatives to reverse the decline. Therefore, the message must surely be action, and action this day.

Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his amendments. In particular, I focus on his remarks about health in Northern Ireland. It is worth putting on the record that, given the restrictions which he vividly outlined and the lack of resources due in the main to the absence of an Executive, the health service in Northern Ireland has performed remarkably well. I know from personal experience how, with the pressures centred on it, the health service in our community is struggling but managing to cope in many instances.

The noble Lord also referred to mental health. In the past few years, I have had reason to work with those who were paramilitaries during the Troubles and who are now, as they see it, seeking ways to rebuild shattered communities. In that scenario, it is remarkable how suicide, self-harm and other degrees of self-inflicted physical injury are not being reported as they ought to be. That is just one segment of a vast field that is crying out for better finance, support, research and leadership. In listening to the noble Lord’s words on his amendments, I hope the Committee will take this very seriously.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in their support of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I do so bearing in mind that these are all devolved issues. Like him, we certainly want to see these taken forward by a devolved Administration. However, if these reports come through and there is no devolved Administration, the issues are so urgent and of such importance that they should not be allowed to lie there. Action has to be taken. Whoever the new Secretary of State may be, they will have to action these reports whenever they come through. I am delighted that the date is given; it is certainly not an extended period of time to allow these reports to be brought forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, reminded the Committee how the Minister promised the setting up of the renewable heat incentive hardship unit, and that it would look at each individual case. Many are in great distress at present; many are enduring tremendous financial hardship because of the tariff that has now been set. We have been told by civil servants that this is because of European legislation and regulation. I thought the Irish Republic was supposed to be in the same European Union, and England is a part of that as well. Yet the tariffs in England and the Irish Republic are completely different from the tariff that has been set for Northern Ireland. The new tariff will put people into great financial hardship. I appeal to the Minister for action on this matter to ensure that whether in the Irish Republic, England or Northern Ireland, the tariff is equalised, so that no one feels that they are being unjustly penalised for something that was never their fault. No matter whose fault it was, and we wait for such a report, it certainly was not those who applied to be part of the scheme.

I support the future welfare and mitigation support measures that will be in place after March 2020. We must ensure that those put in place are continued, and that people in the Province at the lower end of the financial scale do not face continued and further hardship.

I had a keen interest in suicide prevention both as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and when I was in the other place. The strategy needs to be progressed urgently. I say that because, wearing another hat, as a Minister, I have gone into so many homes where, sadly, people across every section of the community and of all ages have committed suicide; it is not only young people. I say this also having experienced it with loved ones of my own. It is never more keenly felt than when the experience comes into one’s own family circle. Then you know what it is to be left completely broken. You have no answers—so many questions, but no answers. We need to do something urgently, because so many are witnessing the heartache of suicide. That is a reality across the Province.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, mentioned the health service. The statistics are horrendous, but remember, we talk about statistics, but each one of these statistics is a fellow human being. People are suffering because of this. There is a decline in the health service. I pay tribute to our doctors, nurses and auxiliaries and all who are doing sterling work in the health service, but it has been stretched to the limit and is at breaking point. Many targets are missed. Many of our older people are lying in hospital when they should be at home. They want to be at home with their families, but there are no packages available for them because there is no one to care for them in their own homes. They are then accused of bed-blocking, when all they want to do is get home and be looked after within the confines of their own home and family circle.

I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord that these are issues of vital importance, but we must remember that while we have the reports, if no Assembly comes into being—and I trust one will—urgent action must be taken by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour

I support the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. They are extremely sensible, so who would not? The noble Lord has raised this on a number of occasions; in a way it is a cri de cœur, because we have all these unresolved issues in Northern Ireland. We should remember that this is asking for reports, not action, because nobody can take that action.

The civil servants are limited in how far they can go. Every government department in Northern Ireland has now reached its limit for what a civil servant can do. The decisions that really matter now can be taken only at ministerial level. If you compare the last two and a half years with other occasions, either when the Assembly had not been created or had been but was suspended, there was direct rule; in other words, decisions were being taken by Westminster Ministers. Now, for two and a half years, no one is doing anything. No decision has been taken at all, and it just cannot carry on any more.

As much as we agree with all the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and those raised by other Members of the Committee, particularly on the health service, they are all meaningless unless we have an Assembly and Executive, or direct rule. I do not know what they are saying in these talks in Belfast. I know what issues divided them originally—the RHI, the Irish language, equal marriage and others—but do they talk about what is not being done in Northern Ireland when they face each other? Do they talk about the things that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others have raised today? That is what ought to be at the back of their minds when they are negotiating. If it is not, it should be.

It is a disgrace that we have got to a situation in which Northern Ireland is the least democratically effective part of Europe. Only the councils operate there now. We can talk until the cows come home in this Chamber and the other, but without powers to take decisions it is meaningless. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that we should raise these issues by way of the reports added to the huge list in the Bill now. The Northern Ireland Office and the NICS have a great task ahead of trying to work out the answers to these questions.

I just hope that, when the Minister goes back to his boss, who is involved in these talks, he makes it plain to her that, overwhelmingly and across the political divide in this Chamber, people are concerned that not taking the decisions that apply to schools, hospitals, roads, social services and welfare is talked about in the talks, rather than the limited issues that divide people. I know that ultimately what has caused these long two and a half years is a lack of trust between parties. It is mistrust. There is no trust and confidence between them. Until you have that, you cannot have a coalition set up by the Good Friday agreement. Of course it is that. While all this is happening, while they distrust each other, the people in Northern Ireland are suffering.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 9:15 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for once again bringing these matters before us. Yes is the answer to the question; we will commit to report on each of these items. I could sit down now, but let me flesh that out a little more. There is no point in producing a report that sits on the shelf. It needs to set out in detail the scale of the issue and the challenges to resolve it, and put forward means by which we can address them. We commit to reporting back on each of the issues the noble Lord has raised. Either I or, depending on events, my successor will do so. It is important to stress that we need to make progress on each of these.

On the RHI question, I had hoped to bring about more progress, but I was reminded of the limited powers that a Westminster Minister has when trying to deal with devolved civil servants where there are no direct means of instruction. We hope, as my noble friend Lord Lexden again said, that we will be able to address the hardships and the widest possible definition of them, bringing up the points made by the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Empey. It is important to see these in their broadest sense, as I said when I addressed these matters previously.

I can think of no issue more important to mental health in Northern Ireland than the question of suicide strategy. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, was right to remind us of what a challenge it has been. I thank him again for the work he has done with the former paramilitary bodies seeking to return to a wider community base. We will be able, I hope, to do something with that. We need to understand the scale of the problem. The figures in Northern Ireland are shocking and we should be able to scale that, so we can see what has to be done. On the question of welfare mitigation, I give the same commitment: we will produce a report that sets out those aspects of mitigation that need to be addressed.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, brought up the question of younger people. That was not part of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, but I think it should have been, so we will commit to that as well. We have to see exactly how younger people are affected by this, so we will commit to that additional report alongside. It is important that we have that.

As to the question of libel legislation in Northern Ireland, we will report on that, although I am not sure exactly how. I am aware that my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood will be bringing up this issue shortly. I will happily commit to meeting him and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, to talk about this separately, in addition to committing to that report. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will be willing to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

I am grateful to the Minister for his undertakings. I am also grateful to noble Lords on all sides for their broad support for these measures. It was an omission on my part not to have included the point raised by noble Lord, Lord Hain: I should, on reflection, have included that, but I appreciate that the Minister has given us an undertaking. On the basis of what the Minister has promised, I know it will require a lot of work over the next number of weeks—that is the challenge—but at the end of the day I think it will be useful work. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that by proposing and preparing reports we will ensure that, in the event that the Assembly returns, it will have something to work with. Because, let us be honest, the Minister’s department does not, on its own, have the capacity to deal with all this: it will have to rely heavily on the Civil Service in Belfast, which does know and is dealing with this on a daily basis, to have input into the reports. That information could be very useful to an incoming Assembly and incoming Ministers in the relevant departments. So procedurally, if he is going to do this, I am happy to accept his assurance and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.

Amendments 13 to 16 not moved.

Clause 3, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 4 to 7 agreed.

Clause 8: Marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland