Amendment 16A (to Amendment 16)

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 10:00 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, in many respects this has been a longer extension of the earlier debate. I almost wish that someone had asked me a question at the beginning so that I could have stood up then. In fact, the MLAs will be consulted as part of the ongoing consultation envisaged with the stakeholders. However, the difference is that they will not get a lock on that, which would mean that only a majority could help us move forward. Therefore, the views of the MLAs will be taken and heard but they will not be a determining factor in arresting progress on this amendment. It is important to be aware of that as we make progress. It is also important, as I said when we discussed this issue a longer time ago, that the scope we are discussing is the scope we have received from the other place. The criticism of proceedings in the House of Commons, and those issues, are deemed out of order in the Companion. We have to accept that what has arrived here is something that we can act on and take forward, which we must do.

It is important to stress, throughout each of our discussions on this wider question, that the Government are not seeking to take forward an abortion amendment. We have received from the other place a clear statement, by a clear majority, on a conscience issue and a free vote. For good or ill, in response to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, the Prime Minister, in this instance, would be able to exercise her conscience in the same way as anybody else in that House. This is not the UK Government’s policy, nor is it the policy of my party, but responsibility rests with this Government to ensure that what we are able to do in moving this matter forward is safe, sound and secure. That responsibility rests with us, and that is what we have sought to do in engaging with all noble Lords throughout this process—to ensure that we are able to deliver on that.

The discussion has ranged more widely than the question of consulting with the MLAs. I do not wish to extend the debate significantly in this direction, given that one of noble Lords’ concerns has been the scope from the other place, but I will touch on a few elements. By any definition, we have to accept that the situation in Northern Ireland is dysfunctional. The devolution structures that have been put together are not working. One can argue that the structures are at fault, or that the problem rests elsewhere, but the problem we face now is that the outcome is the same no matter which you decide is responsible. The situation that we face is serious, and I do not think there is a single Member in the House tonight who would not wish to see these matters taken forward by an Assembly and an Executive in Northern Ireland. For reasons that are all too apparent, however, certain parties in Northern Ireland are not able to deliver against that instruction. That is a great shame, as we probably all agree. We all recognise that noble Lords sitting here at this late hour should not be taking these matters forward in this fashion, but we are doing so because of a failure and a fault in the system in Northern Ireland

As the people of Northern Ireland look at what we are doing here, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are sick and tired of all politicians, of all rank and measure. They are tired and weary now because they seem to be in a situation where politicians are all over them when it comes to an election, then—lo and behold —seem to disappear when it comes to the heavy lifting. They now see all politicians of all parties, of all ilk and all places, in exactly the same way. That is a terrible situation to be in, and we need to restore the confidence and trust of the people of Northern Ireland in the elected system. We need to get the Executive up and working, and get this moving forward, but that is not what we are able to do through this amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has made a passionate speech this evening, and she has received a number of emails in response to a particular letter. I am sure we all have a large number of those in our inboxes now, but the number of emails needs to be judged against the population of Northern Ireland. The population is 1.871 million, and we need to recognise that the passion of those who have responded should be applauded, but it is not a means by which we can determine the view or the will of the people of Northern Ireland; nor should we consider it so. It is an important measure, but it is not in itself an adequate measure.

The amendment before us now broadly says that the MLAs must be consulted and their response to the consultation will determine what happens next. We cannot accept the amendment, but I stress that the MLAs will be consulted, and I can go further by ensuring that MLAs receive an update on each of the aspects that noble Lords will be updated on as a consequence of the earlier amendments from the other place. If your Lordships are so minded, we can ensure that MLAs receive exactly the same information that comes from the reports we have commissioned, or are about to commission, to ensure that they are fully abreast and aware of all of these aspects. We will do all we can to engage directly with the MLAs to ensure that they are fully aware of each step. I have no problem with committing to do that now, but I cannot have a lock placed on progress on this matter. That would place the Government in the invidious position of having been, both from the other place and through our own vote this evening, in a clear position, but then having to say that they must await the views of MLAs. We cannot have that, I am afraid; it would not be appropriate. I therefore ask that the amendment be withdrawn.