Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:29 pm on 5th December 2022.
My Lords, I join all those who have spoken in warmly congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Weir, on his admirable maiden speech and welcoming him to the House, even though his arrival means that the border between the Cross Benches and the DUP is even more crowded—fortunately, cross-border relations are very good. I have no intention of being tempted into responding to some of the things said about the protocol in this debate with which I disagree rather profoundly, and I suspect that the noble Lord and I will be crossing swords on the matter in future. I made a firm resolution that I would talk about the Bill only and not about the protocol, and, as noble Lords can tell, I am not even mentioning the protocol, despite gross provocation from, for example, the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.
It is a very unfortunate Bill; I regret it, but I support it. I regret it on constitutional grounds; we should not be passing retrospective laws and I very much regret that it confers on the Secretary of State power to legislate by a statutory instrument which we will not even see before it takes effect. This seems to be very wrong, but the admirably clear Northern Ireland Office memorandum explains that we are where we are and that we have little choice. I was grateful for the letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, which also makes that pretty clear. So we are where we are, and we have to pass the Bill.
I regret it because I regret the situation which has led to its necessity. Those who voted in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections were entitled to see both a working Northern Ireland Assembly and an Executive. It seems that it is not right that their choices are being put to one side.
I also regret it because, as a former civil servant, I have deep sympathy with the plight in which senior officials in the Northern Ireland Civil Service as going to find themselves as a result of this Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, pointed out that we are not in an unprecedented situation, but the economic and financial situation in Northern Ireland is much more complicated now than it was when this situation last obtained. Particularly in the health and education sectors, there are very serious problems which will have to be dealt with without political control, political steer and political decision-making. I feel very sorry for these civil servants; were I one of them, I would find this situation really quite difficult. However, we are where we are and, therefore, with regret, I support the Bill.