Amendment 5

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

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 5:00 pm, 17th July 2019

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.