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Political Situation

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

The political situation suffered a setback on Monday following Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the Welfare Reform Bill. It is very important for the Stormont House agreement to be implemented fully and fairly, including all the sections on welfare and budgets. I will continue to work intensively with the Northern Ireland parties to resolve the impasse.

What does the Secretary of State consider to be the wider political implications of Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the welfare proposals?

The political implications are very serious. They put in jeopardy corporation tax devolution, a financial package of about £2 billion in extra spending power, and a fresh approach to the past which is designed to produce better outcomes for victims and survivors. All that is under threat as a result of what has happened this week, and I will do all that I can to retrieve the situation so that the Stormont House agreement can go ahead.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Her Majesty’s Government must take resolute action against Sinn Fein over its irresponsible and selfish behaviour, which is jeopardising the Stormont Parliament and everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland so far?

As I said, the approach taken by Sinn Fein is hugely disappointing and dramatically different from everything that it has been saying over the past few months. I am urging Sinn Fein to change its approach. It is vital that we have a responsible and realistic approach to welfare. The welfare reform package agreed under the Stormont House agreement is a good one, a generous one and a fair one, and therefore it is vital that it is implemented.

May I wish all my friends in Northern Ireland the very best for the future? People often take for granted the peace and stability that has been secured in Northern Ireland since the 2007 agreement, but that was won only after conflict, terror and hatred going back centuries, through very difficult negotiations. It took dedicated skill and constant strong leadership by the Labour Government to achieve it. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining that progress requires nurturing by this Government and by any Governments to follow?

I do accept that. This Government will continue to do all they can to support and nurture that political settlement. That is a message that all parties need to hear, including Sinn Fein—that we should not take risks with political stability in Northern Ireland, because the consequences could be very grave.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is not just Sinn Fein, but their lapdogs in the Social Democratic and Labour party who have blocked welfare reform in Northern Ireland and put the Assembly in jeopardy? Will she spell out the consequences for corporation tax, the economic package and the long-term sustainability of the budget in Northern Ireland as a result of that irresponsible behaviour?

If this question is not resolved, if the welfare reform legislation remains permanently stalled, obviously the rest of the Stormont House agreement does not happen. That includes the financial package and the devolution of corporation tax, but we are not at that point yet. It is important to work intensively, and in the meantime the UK Government will do everything we can to continue to implement the agreement.

The Secretary of State will be at pains not to feed the sense of impasse that surrounds the Stormont House agreement. She knows that there were two elements to the understanding on welfare reform—one was the understanding about the amount of money from the Executive’s budget that could mitigate measures; the other was the degree of leeway within the welfare spending. Has anything changed in the lines from the Department for Work and Pensions that have given rise to the allegations that Sinn Fein is making against the Democratic Unionist party?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do all we can to keep the situation as calm as possible. Unfortunately, episodes of this kind are characteristic of the implementation process of agreements. It will be helpful for as many facts as possible to be made clear about how the welfare reform programme will operate in Northern Ireland and how the top-ups will operate. It is a generous package, and once the details are clear I hope everyone will be convinced of that.

At this, the last Northern Ireland questions before the election, there is an air of some melancholy. Who knows where we will meet again or on what side of the Dispatch Box? May I ask the right hon. Lady what, in her three years as Secretary of State, in which she has been unfailingly courteous, she would consider her proudest—her finest—achievement?

Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) asked a question. I want to hear the Secretary of State’s answer, and she is entitled to have her answer heard.

Up until Monday, I would have said the Stormont House agreement. I think that is still the greatest thing that I have contributed to and it is still on the road. We have had a bump on the road, but the Stormont House agreement will carry on. The other thing of which I am proud is the progress that we have made towards devolution of corporation tax. I do not want to see that thrown off course by events that have taken place this week.