Amendment 5

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Lord Empey:

Moved by Lord Empey

5: Clause 3, page 4, line 2, at end insert—“( ) The Secretary of State must, on or before 21 October 2019, publish a report on progress on the establishment of a Renewable Heat Incentive Hardship Unit in the Department for the Economy (unless an Executive has already been formed).”

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, I have tabled Amendments 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. They may not be in the same order as they were in Committee, but they cover the same areas of substance. I draw the attention of the House to one change. Members may recall that in a discussion on these amendments in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is not in his place, indicated that children’s health had been omitted from this list. It was after a discussion involving him that the Minister was happy to include a reference to the waiting times for children, as well as on other matters.

I have drawn to the attention of this House on a number of occasions the serious delays in the Northern Ireland health service. It has reached a stage where, last week, the Nuffield Trust produced a damning report on the length of time for which people had to wait. Their health, welfare and quality of life have been dramatically affected by this, and I have no doubt whatever that life expectancy, and life itself, have suffered and been extinguished while people have been waiting on these lists. There are enough noble Lords in this place, particularly those from the medical profession, who know the dangers of delay in cancer diagnosis. The breast cancer waiting times for one of the trusts last year were absolutely outrageous. Noble Lords should think of the anxiety and suffering in a family when that situation arises. I hardly need to draw any clearer a picture.

I shall deal with other matters, such as the renewable heat incentive hardship unit; the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, gave an undertaking in March that it would be established. While some steps have been taken, they have been faltering and insufficient, and rely purely on a European Union ruling that it is able to offer loans for only six months at commercial rates, which is absolutely pointless and of no value whatever to the people on this scheme who have found themselves, through no fault of their own, in dire financial straits.

I also point out that the purpose of this scheme was to encourage people to move from the use of fossil fuels to the use of renewables. That was the objective, but what do we have today? I was speaking to a boiler operator the week before last and he has gone back to oil. This is happening in other areas, so what has happened? We have taken a sum of public money and put it into a scheme, the objective of which was to provide renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint. So, what have we done? We have got many of the people who took up that scheme into serious financial trouble and just left them sitting there. We are now back to the stage where fossil fuels are their only option and they are back to using them. The money has been completely wasted and people have been put into dire straits in the meantime.

I know it is difficult for Ministers here to have their will in Northern Ireland departments over which they have no direct control—that point was made in the debate—but this issue will not go away. There are quite a number of noble Lords in this House who will persist with this until we get justice for the people who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves in dire financial straits. I hope that the amendment will focus attention as we go through.

On Amendment 6, the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, made a very impressive contribution in Committee on Monday, but the Government did not feel able to accept his amendment. However, we know that the law on libel in Northern Ireland is outdated and poses a threat to a number of areas of activity. I firmly believe that it has to be addressed.

Turning to Amendment 7, Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the United Kingdom. A strategy, Protect Life 2, has been prepared and is sitting on a shelf, unable to be implemented because of the present crisis. Many noble Lords here, from Northern Ireland and other places, know what I am referring to. Because of our recent past, we have a higher level of mental health issues plus a lower level of mental health provision. The combination of those things compounds the fact that we have a strategy that is perfectly sound but cannot be implemented. It is just sitting there because no Minister is in place. That is not the fault of the Front Bench in the House today. I understand that, but the facts are the facts. I hope that the parties will yet surprise us and come up with an arrangement—sooner rather than later. But in the event that that does not happen, even on humanitarian grounds we owe it to people to ensure that the strategy at least begins to be implemented, so that the departments can take steps to alleviate a serious problem.

Amendment 9 deals with something that is not immediately upon us, which is why it would insert a date of 1 December this year for a report. This is because certain mitigations on welfare support measures are covered financially until the end of March next year, but difficulties would be created in the absence of their renewal. Perhaps I may deal with what we call the bedroom tax. I am totally of the view that it is right to try as best one can to match the size of a property to the occupants, so that we do not have vast numbers of empty, half-used properties. However, you cannot ensure that people will move into single-room accommodation if it is not there. That is the problem we are confronted by. If people are in the later years of their lives, you cannot simply uproot somebody in their 70s or 80s and try to force them into the private rented sector if there just is not the public sector accommodation available.

We need to look closely at this because, in the absence of a local Minister combining housing policy with welfare policy, which is what should be done, in our system that is just not working. I hope that those matters will come forward by December and that, in the absence of an Executive, we do not do the usual thing and leave it until the middle of March—a fortnight from the end of the financial year—so that a whole crisis and another piece of rushed legislation are coming through. The date of 1 December 2019 is in Amendment 9, which gives time for the Government to discuss with the Northern Ireland departments. It also gives time for us to plan ahead and means that if legislation is required, there will be at least three months in which to insert it and get it done, rather than having last-minute—or five-minutes-to-midnight—legislation coming through. That is the purpose of my amendments and I beg to move Amendment 5.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 5:15 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, I welcome Amendment 7, as tabled by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as a trustee of the mental health service for adolescents which is the Brent Centre for Young People in north London, as noted in my entry in the register of interests. That centre’s work has been in progress for 50 years; originally, it dealt principally with young people at risk of taking their own lives. The clinicians there tell me that they have never had a young person take their life while under treatment in that centre. They have described to me how when a young person meets a clinician who immediately understands where they are coming from and their concerns, it is immediately effective in assuaging the fears of the young person.

What I am trying to say is that where appropriate services are available, they can be very effective. It troubles me very much to hear that this strategy, developed in Northern Ireland, has been on the shelf for two and a half years because of the vacuum of power. I warmly welcome my noble friend’s efforts to highlight these points today. I hope that the Minister may have something comforting to say on the matter of young men, in particular, taking their lives in Northern Ireland because there has been insufficient action to address their needs.

Photo of Lord Eames Lord Eames Crossbench

My Lords, not for the first time the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has put his finger on urgent issues to do with Northern Ireland. I congratulate him on his persistence in that approach. Today he has once more alerted the Committee to an urgent need that can be traced back to the fact that we have no local administration. The extra strain of business and of making decisions passed on to our Civil Service has been a consequence.

I want to speak particularly about the amendment to address the rising suicide rate in Northern Ireland. This is one more example of the legacy of our past, of what we have been through; it has cast its shadow not on that generation but on the new generation. I have had personal, recent experience of the rector of a parish coming to me, even in my retirement, to seek advice for the son of one of those involved in our Troubles. The son had only recently learned of some of the actions and involvement of his father, and this preyed on his mind so much, even in middle age, that he saw no alternative but to end his life. That is an exceptional case, I accept, but it does something to illustrate that this issue is not just for now: it is a legacy reaching back to us from the past.

The report to which the noble Lord referred is gathering dust. Lives are being threatened. Thank God that in some cases prevention intervenes, but if this Bill produces nothing other than a new recognition of human need—nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with “us and them” and all the usual phrases we have in Northern Ireland—then the opportunity could be seized to put pressure on those avenues that can directly relate to the human need, which is a legacy issue and an overlap. There is a crying need at the moment in Northern Ireland to address prevention of the taking of human life and I urge the Committee to remember that.

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

My Lords, I support these amendments, which I hope the Government will be able to accept—I think they have indicated that they will, as they are asking for reports. This is valuable work that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is recommending, covering what I regard as the people’s priorities in Northern Ireland. The reality right now is that these issues are adversely affecting people in a whole range of services across the Province, as he rightly says. I respectfully and slightly diffidently suggest that these are probably the issues that exercise people day to day, more than some of the issues that apparently divide the parties in the talks. Those who are in talks should look at these issues and the consequences of their not being able to establish an Assembly to address them, because I think that is what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want their Assembly to do.

As I said on Monday, in one sense it is easy to ask for reports and easy, perhaps, for the Government to agree to reports, but I underwrite what I said on Monday: if those reports are going to happen, can they be considered and produced with a view to being the basis of policy action, rather than just a statement of events? That at least will have made use of the time that has been lost, so that if, as I hope, we have an Executive and Assembly in place, they will have some meat that they can start to action sooner rather than later. If the worst happened—even direct rule—there would not be a hiatus before we got to grips with things. The situation has gone on for so long that the consequences are becoming more serious every day. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, says, we are talking about lives being lost. The longer it goes on, the harder and more costly it will be and the longer it will take for Northern Ireland to catch up.

My plea to the Minister, which I hope he will take positively, is that this not be just a gesture of good will —that there is a real, practical determination to ensure that, if reports are produced, they are valuable and help to implement policy decisions sooner rather than later in the event of the Assembly being established, or of Parliament or the Government recognising that action needs to be taken even in the absence of an Assembly.

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

My Lords, in the debate on Monday evening I joined many noble Lords in supporting the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has brought before the House. These amendments certainly focus our minds on issues that in many ways cross every boundary in Northern Ireland and are not divisive. If your Lordships were to speak to practically every party in Northern Ireland, they would find that they came together on these issues. As we have suggested before, is it not possible that the Assembly could come together and an Executive could be formed, that they could function and take forward these priorities which unite us, and that in the talks process they could continue on the other contentious issues that divide us? Until now, that has gone unheeded. I believe that most parties agree with that manner of taking things forward, but unfortunately that has been hindered.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, rightly says that the Front Bench is not currently responsible for many of these issues. I could accept that, but it does not have the responsibility for two major social issues on which it is legislating in the Bill. It feels that it can take those issues forward, but it leaves this behind. What is more important? People are left dying while waiting for operations or cancer treatment—left lying on trolleys, waiting for their operations or even appointments to take place. There is a long waiting list for appointments to see a medical practitioner. The elderly are left without community care. These are life and death issues.

I agree with each and every one of the amendments. In the previous debate, my noble friend Lord Morrow, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, gave a list of other things which are certainly sitting there. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is right to give the example of suicide. The strategy is there, but it has not been operated. The Government feel that they can get involved and have agreed to take forward in legislation the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, but they will not get involved in something which is indeed life and death.

The House may not have realised that, before this debate, we debated the wild animals in circuses Bill. I know there are plenty of clowns in circuses, but nobody is laughing in Northern Ireland over the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has raised. They bring great concern to the people of Northern Ireland. We could debate each one, but I will not take the time of the House, because I have spoken on them before. It is right that we should have a report on suicide. Amendment 7 says that:

“The Secretary of State must, on or before 21 October 2019, publish a report on progress of the implementation of the Protect Life 2—Strategy for Suicide Prevention in Northern Ireland”.

It is sitting on a shelf. We certainly want to see progress. I therefore believe that the debate has allowed us to raise issues that are very relevant to life and death in our Province at this time.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, I want to make two points in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has done. He has been consistent over quite a period of time, particularly in raising issues regarding the health service.

For a long time, I worked as a doctor and psychiatrist in Northern Ireland; I am familiar with the situation there. I was asked to chair a Royal College of Psychiatrists commission for the whole UK on suicide, on which we produced a report. The noble Lord is absolutely right to keep asking this question and pressing the Government on a range of issues, particularly those regarding health- care. We want to see many other issues brought forward—the noble Lord mentioned RHI and libel law, for example —but he is right to point out that suicide and healthcare are matters of life and death and that the longer they are postponed, the more people’s lives will come to an inappropriate end. I welcome what he has done and support him in it. I ask the Government to support what he says.

There is another element that is very much the meat of the Bill. Effectively, the noble Lord points out that we are moving towards direct rule because, simply, there is no other way of getting any business done in Northern Ireland. There is no government there; that is an impossible position and it is simply not acceptable. I heard a lot of talk about what is democratic and what is not, but not having a Government is a very serious matter. There are a number of ways in which the Government can address this. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, mentioned one that has been floated several times by a number of us: getting the Assembly to meet and debate these kinds of issues. We could have an election to an Assembly, although part of the point of this Bill is to postpone that; I accept that the summertime is not a good time to do that, but this situation cannot continue.

We will either have an election or move into direct rule. The Bill and the amendments to it take us in that direction. It is regrettable but inevitable that we move in that direction if there is no other option; we cannot continue not having a Government. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and point out the import of what he says about not just specific issues but the issues in this Bill. I plead with the Government to take serious action after the Summer Recess in respect of either an election or some other way of returning government to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

To clarify, while I understand how the noble Lord has interpreted what I am doing, does he accept that I believe in devolution and want to see those departments there? My purpose has nothing to do with pushing us in the direction of direct rule; I want to push us in the direction of devolution.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

I wholly accept what the noble Lord says: he does not intend to push things towards direct rule. However, the implication of him having to raise these matters through amendments here, rather than them being raised by colleagues back in Belfast—despite what all of us wish, which is to move towards devolution—is that we cannot continue with no Government in the medium term. That is what we have. I entirely accept his bona fide commitment to devolution but that is an inevitable consequence.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was here on Monday, for reasons that I am sure we all understand. The message then was exactly what he says: we are moving inexorably towards direct rule.

I want to make one point to the people of Northern Ireland. They are being served incredibly well in your Lordships’ House by the noble Lord, as well as by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friend Lord Trimble, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. They are active in your Lordships’ House after all the distinguished service they have given, and continue to give, in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will send a reassuring message.

I hope, above all, that their unity on the subject of devolution will spur on our colleagues from the DUP and others to redouble their efforts to get the Assembly meeting and an Executive formed. If we have to wait a little time, as the noble Lord has said, and many of us have said, time and again, can we please have the Assembly meeting, its committees meeting? That, at least, is something. I very much hope that long before any of the dates in this Bill come, we will at least see that happen.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, I strongly support the view that what we need is a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Paying attention to items that separate us is very detrimental to making progress. On the items that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has cited, perhaps reliable legislation is not quite so important as the others, but all the others are vital for day-to-day life in Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that the Northern Irish parties, all elected to the Assembly with the responsibility that they have, can come together on such items to get things done. Otherwise, if we have a progress report on implementation, what is it going to tell us? That nothing has happened. That is absolutely useless.

What we really need is to do our level best to get the Executive into action. I understand that there are some matters that divide the principal parties in Northern Ireland. In fact, there are things that divide people continually, but having a Government who can carry out the essential matters referred to in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is an urgent matter, and the responsibility primarily lies with those who have been elected to the Assembly. I hope that the Government will do the best they can on these items, but surely the main message is that those responsible, elected by the people to serve in the Assembly, should come together and form an Executive to carry these things out.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, for bringing forward these amendments. There seems to be a consensus in the House on the importance of forming an Executive as soon as possible. The noble Lord serves that cause by illustrating the serious issues that have not been processed. We are 100% behind the re-forming of the Executive, and we hope that the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland see the wisdom of that. The amendments are interesting and useful, and I hope that the Government will be saying appropriate warm words.

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has raised important issues and made some very valid points, and I add my name to those who have expressed their gratitude to him for doing so. My noble friend Lord Duncan has been keen to update the House on progress in establishing the RHI hardship unit, and I am very happy to accept the requirement to publish this report by 21 October or earlier. The reports that the noble Lord requests are on libel and suicide strategy.

I note the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble and right Reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and I have taken note of the tragic anecdotes that have been told. The issues of NHS waiting times and welfare mitigations were also raised. All are matters of great importance, as my noble friend Lord Duncan set out in Committee earlier this week, and we fully understand the reason for raising them in this place. We are without a sitting Assembly in Northern Ireland to debate these matters and to consider ways forward that serve all of the people of Northern Ireland.

These are all devolved matters. It is this Government’s fervent hope that Northern Ireland’s political leaders can see their way to agreeing to restore the devolved institutions. We have had some passionate speeches to this effect during this short debate. As these are devolved matters, I do not purport to be able to significantly enlighten the House on the substance of the important issues the noble Lord has raised. But in light of the great value of these amendments, I am happy to accept them today and to commit to one-off reports on the issues specified.

In conclusion, I will answer a question that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, on what might happen upon the production of the reports. I say on behalf of the Government that it is our sincere hope that the incoming Ministers in Northern Ireland will draw from these reports to make progress on these important issues. They will be published and will therefore be public documents.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, and for the consensus that has emerged. Like many noble Lords, particularly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I would be much happier if we were not sitting here debating these matters. Clearly, we have a unique situation: yes, Stormont has been suspended before, but it was replaced by direct rule. This is the first occasion when Stormont has been suspended and has not been replaced by direct rule. Therefore, we have a most unique situation—a Civil Service that is working but which is not accountable to anybody. To use the vernacular, it is bonkers, and the question is how long we can put up with it. However, let us focus on the issues, which are worth looking at on their own merits. Perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, said, they could provide at least a basis upon which policies could be implemented when a suitable Government are established. In that spirit, I commend the amendments on the Marshalled List to your Lordships.

Amendment 5 agreed.