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Northern Ireland Political Agreement

Volume 602: debated on Thursday 19 November 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the agreement reached this week in the cross-party talks at Stormont, but first I would like to pay tribute to Peter Robinson, who announced this morning that he will soon be standing down as First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party. Peter has been a central figure in Northern Ireland politics for over four decades. He has a long and distinguished record of public service in both this House and the Assembly, and he has championed the interests of Northern Ireland with unparalleled effectiveness, determination and dedication. He was key to the agreement reached this week and he can be rightly proud of his contribution. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him a long and happy retirement.

Last December, the Stormont House agreement was reached after 11 weeks of negotiations between the five largest Northern Ireland parties and the UK and Irish Governments. The agreement addressed some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland, including the finances of the devolved Executive, welfare, flags and parades, the legacy of the past, and reform of the Assembly to make devolution work better. All this was underpinned by a financial package from the UK Government that would give the Executive around £2 billion in extra spending power.

In the Government’s view, the Stormont House agreement was, and remains, a good deal for Northern Ireland. By the summer, however, it was clear that implementation had stalled. There were strong differences of opinion within the Executive over the budget and the implementation of the welfare aspects of the agreement, and these were preventing other elements of the agreement from going ahead. We were facing a deadlock, which, left unresolved, would have made early Assembly elections more and more likely, with an ever-increasing risk that collapse of devolution would follow. After all that has been achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, a return to direct rule from Westminster would have been a severe setback, and it is an outcome that I have been striving to avoid.

In August, a second issue arose to threaten the stability and survival of devolution. The suspected involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in a murder in Belfast raised the spectre of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and its malign and totally unacceptable impact on society. Faced with those circumstances, we concluded that it was necessary to convene a fresh round of cross-party talks with the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on matters for which they have responsibility, observing the well-established three-strand approach.

Those talks began on 8 September and have run for 10 weeks. The objectives we set were twofold: first, to secure the implementation of the Stormont House agreement and, secondly, to deal with continued paramilitary activity. I believe that the document published on Tuesday entitled “A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan”, makes real progress towards fulfilling both of those hugely important objectives. Crucially, it tackles the two issues that have posed the greatest threat to the stability and survival of devolution in Northern Ireland.

Let me turn first to the Stormont House agreement. The new agreement will help to give the Executive a stable and sustainable budget, assisted by further financial support of around £500 million from the UK Government. These funds are to help the Executive to tackle issues that are unique to Northern Ireland. They include support for the Executive’s programme of removing so-called peace walls and £160 million to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland in its crucial work to combat the threat from dissident republican groupings. The package also paves the way for completion of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Executive— something that could have a genuinely transformative effect on the Northern Ireland economy and on jobs and prosperity. The measures in the Stormont House agreement designed to address issues around flags and parades will now go ahead, and there is agreement on reforms to the Executive and Assembly to make devolution work better, including on the size of the Assembly, the number of Government Departments, use of the petition of concern and provision for an official opposition.

Secondly, the agreement takes Northern Ireland’s leaders further than ever before on the issue of paramilitary activity. It strongly reaffirms the commitment to upholding the rule of law and makes it absolutely clear that in no circumstances will paramilitary activity ever be tolerated. The agreement places new shared obligations on Executive Ministers to work together towards ridding society of all paramilitary groups and activities, and challenging paramilitarism in all its forms. It commits all participants to a concerted and enhanced effort to combat organised and cross-border crime, which the UK Government will help to fund.

A key element of the Stormont House agreement on which we were unable to agree a way forward was the establishment of new bodies to deal with the legacy of the past. We did establish common ground between the parties on a range of significant questions about how to establish those important new structures, but sadly not enough to enable legislation to go forward as yet. The Government continue to support these provisions because of the pressing need to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who we must never forget have suffered more than anyone else as a result of the troubles. So it is crucial that we all now reflect on what needs to be done to achieve the wider consensus necessary to get the new legacy bodies set up.

I want to emphasise that, in very large part, the agreement published on Tuesday takes on board a wide range of points made by all five Northern Ireland parties during the 10 weeks of talks just concluded. As the overwhelming majority of issues were in the devolved areas, this agreement has rightly been driven by Northern Ireland’s elected leaders, in particular by the First and Deputy First Ministers. I would like to reiterate my sincere thanks to them and to all the five Northern Ireland parties who worked with determination and commitment in the talks. Thanks also go to the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and of course to Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Sean Sherlock from the Irish Government, who all devoted many long hours to this process and made an invaluable contribution to its successful outcome.

Implementation of this week’s agreement is already under way. On Tuesday, the Executive voted to support it; yesterday, the Assembly passed an legislative consent motion on welfare legislation at Westminster; and the Northern Ireland welfare reform Bill will be introduced to Parliament later today. I believe this package as a whole gives us the opportunity for a fresh start for devolution. It is a further stage in delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to implement the Stormont House agreement, and it is another step towards a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and her usual courtesy in allowing me early sight of it. I join her in paying tribute to Peter Robinson, who has announced that he is to step down. His contribution to peace and progress in Northern Ireland has been immense. He has taken tough decisions and tried to reach out to all communities. Northern Ireland is a better place in no small part thanks to his immense work. I join the Secretary of State, as I know all Members would, in wishing him well for the future.

I begin by complimenting all those who have contributed to this document, including the UK and the Irish Governments. It is a document that, despite some obvious challenges and indeed omissions, once again offers Northern Ireland a way forward. It is one more stepping stone towards the brighter, better future that the people of Northern Ireland want and deserve.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is the implementation of the agreement that is crucial and that the people of Northern Ireland do not want to be faced in a year or two with another crisis? This really has to be a fresh start. Is she, like me, confident that the measures contained in the agreement really offer a way forward in a number of areas? In particular, we welcome the commitment to bring an end to paramilitarism. Paramilitary activity has to end, and the proposal for a new strategy to bring this about, overseen by a panel, is critical. Is the Secretary of State, like me and many people I meet in Northern Ireland, worried about these groups and their particular attraction to some young people. Apparent easy money, lack of career opportunities, educational under-achievement and indeed a false belief that membership of such groups can provide status are all aspects that need to be tackled so that many of these young people can grow up in relative peace. Will the Secretary of State use her position to ensure that countering the attraction of these groups for young people is one of the strategic priorities, as I believe it should be?

In relation to the establishment of the joint agency task force, will the Secretary of State say more about how cross-border co-operation will work, what resources there will be for the PSNI, and, crucially, whether she expects the number of prosecutions to increase? I welcome her confirmation that work will be undertaken in respect of flags and parades. Does she agree that that work is both urgent and crucial?

Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that it has not been possible to reach an agreement on legacy issues and the past? Will she say more about what the issues were, and how she believes they can be resolved? How, for example, will the clash between national security considerations and disclosure be resolved? Victims and survivors must clearly be a key part of any agreed process. I understand that dealing with the past is incredibly difficult, given the competing narratives and contested versions of events, but a comprehensive approach is critical to continuing progress in Northern Ireland.

The problem with the search for truth and justice is that they often seem to be unattainable possibilities, but is it not the case that the people of Northern Ireland and their politicians have arrived at compromises that were apparently impossible, and have built consensus where none seemed likely?

Will the Secretary of State ensure that further efforts are made to deal with the past? What plans has she to meet victims and victims’ groups, and discuss a way forward? Given that no agreement has been reached on the issue, will funds be provided for the PSNI so that it can continue its legacy work?

The House has been asked to legislate on welfare reform. We will not oppose those measures, but a programme for jobs and growth is also needed in Northern Ireland, as it is in the whole of the UK. What measures in the agreement, over and above the devolution of corporation tax, will provide such a programme, while also improving the infrastructure?

As I said at the beginning, I see this agreement as a stepping stone towards a shared future. Of course there are frustrations and disagreements—of course there is disappointment at the inability to reach agreement on legacy issues—but could not the alternative have been a situation in which the devolution settlement itself was at risk with a return to direct rule—both those outcomes are unthinkable?

Whatever people may consider to be the agreement’s imperfections or disappointments, there is another breathing space: there is another opportunity for Northern Ireland to move forward, combat criminality, banish paramilitarism, tackle sectarianism, and establish a Government that is stable financially and politically. That opportunity must be grasped, outstanding issues must be resolved, and a fresh crisis in a year or two must be avoided.

Experience leads me to agree with the hon. Gentleman that implementation is key, and that reaching an agreement is just the start of a broader process. However, I warmly thank him for his support for this agreement and the Stormont House agreement. I also agree with him that a strategy to end paramilitarism in Northern Ireland must include programmes for young people to ensure that they are not drawn into activity of this kind. We had some constructive discussions about that during the talks, and I am sure that it will form part of the strategy foreseen in the agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the task force, the surge in criminal activity, and the cross-border work. That work will be based on structures that already exist, but it will involve renewed vigour and activity, and there will be £25 million of additional funding to support action against paramilitarism. The UK Government are determined to do all that we can to work with the devolved bodies, the Minister of Justice and, of course, the Irish Government and the relevant agencies there. The PSNI and the Garda are working together, which is crucial. They do tremendously effective work now, and I am sure that the existing levels of co-operation will rise still further in the future. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that progress on matters relating to flags and parades is urgently needed. One of the aspects of the agreement that I welcome most is the fact that it allows that progress to be made.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment that we were unable to reach a conclusion on the legacy issue. However, we did make progress on, for example, the role of the implementation and reconciliation group and its relationship with the other legacy bodies, and on a number of aspects relating to how the Historical Investigations Unit will work and the devolution of responsibility between the HIU and its director. I think that we made significant improvements to how proposed draft clauses might work by clarifying the role of the Department of Justice. We had many discussions on national security. We did not manage to find a solution to that to which everyone could sign up, but I am sure that the shadow Secretary of State will agree it is crucial that we ensure that we do nothing to jeopardise national security.

I agree that an important way forward from now on is to meet victims groups, and I will be doing that soon. I also hope that I will be able to meet the victims commissioner soon to discuss the best way forward because we need to find a way to get these bodies set up.

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s indication that he will not be opposing welfare reform. He is right to state that it is crucial that we do all we can to promote jobs and prosperity in Northern Ireland. A crucial way to do that is to ensure that the Executive have sound public finances. There have been many illustrations in recent years of the hugely negative effects Governments face if they cannot make their budgets add up, so getting the Executive’s budget on a sustainable basis and ensuring that it is delivering effective government for Northern Ireland is a crucial way to deliver the prosperity agenda, which is so important for Northern Ireland’s successful future.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her achievement in bringing the parties to an agreement. I know that she has put an enormous amount of time, effort and indeed patience into the negotiations. In her statement, she referred to the importance of ensuring that young people do not get drawn into paramilitary activity. Does she agree that one way in which we can try to help with that is through improving and increasing integrated education? I understand that some funds were made available in the Stormont House agreement for those purposes and that there are projects waiting to start. Does she think that, with this agreement, that funding will now be available for those projects?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He is right that integrated education is a crucial means to address sectarian division in Northern Ireland, as is shared education. There are funds available in the £2 billion Stormont House agreement package, which will now be released. We are contributing to a £60 million programme to promote confidence-building measures to see the interface barriers, or so-called peace walls, taken down. That is another way to bring communities together, which is a key part of ensuring that paramilitary groups disband once and for all and are no longer part of Northern Ireland’s present day.

May I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about Peter Robinson and his four decades of service?

I congratulate the Secretary of State, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland parties on coming to this agreement. It should be hailed a success. It would have been easy for any politician to have stumbled during this.

The additional funding in recognition of the particular problems in Northern Ireland, a legacy of the troubles, is welcome and the welfare provisions equally so. The bedroom tax will not be applied, nor will some sanctions. I wonder whether after today’s proceedings the Secretary of State might set out the differences between the two welfare systems, in written form, to allow us a better understanding.

Part of the funding for the welfare package, if I have understood correctly, will come from savings made through tightening up on error and fraud. Given the role that welfare reforms played in creating the recent difficulties, is there an alternative plan if those savings are not realised? I say, in passing, that the inclusion of a sunset clause in the Bill is welcome as a sign that the UK Government do not intend to continue to exercise control over the welfare system.

I note the substantial commitments made by the Irish Government in this agreement and their desire to improve links to, and economic development in, the north. I welcome those commitments and their commitments to assisting in ending paramilitary activity. That commitment on all sides is particularly welcome and interesting. I wonder whether the Government are in a position to explain what they see as being the scale of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and whether it is mainly a criminal undertaking now? The signs, though, from this agreement are good and I offer the support of my party in helping to make it work.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her support for the agreement. As the Leader of the House said, it is crucial that we see support in all parts of the House for this agreement, which will signal a way forward for the devolved institutions.

The hon. Lady kindly mentioned the Irish Government. I share her sentiment that Minister Flanagan and the Irish Government have played a very important role. Indeed the process was also strongly supported by the US Government, with Senator Gary Hart playing a constructive role throughout, which was much welcomed.

The hon. Lady asked about the differences in the welfare system. The proposal in this agreement, reflecting the Stormont castle agreement back in December, is that the system applicable in GB will apply, but benefits will be topped up by the Northern Ireland Executive drawing on funds from the block grant. Under this agreement, rather than write that all in advance, a fund has been agreed and a panel will be set up to decide how to allocate those funds, but one of the areas to which those funds will be devoted relates to the social sector size criteria.

The hon. Lady asked about the programme for making savings in error and fraud in welfare. I believe that that could save significant amounts of money and the Northern Ireland Executive believe that it will save very substantial amounts of money. The agreement makes it clear that half of any savings resulting from this can be shared by the Northern Ireland Executive and used for whatever purposes they deem appropriate.

The sunset clause is an important part of the legislation that we will consider next week. These are exceptional circumstances; we must urgently take action to enable the Northern Ireland Executive’s finances to be put on a sustainable basis, but there is no justification for the powers to be extended into the future. The key challenge comes in the next year or so, and that is why the sunset clause has been inserted.

In relation to the hon. Lady’s question on the scale of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, I direct her to the assessment we published a month or so ago making it clear that, very unfortunately, members of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland are extensively involved in a range of criminal activities, such as drug dealing, money laundering and in some cases murder as well.

May I add my thanks to Peter Robinson? I met him first in 1970, when he was an aspiring politician and I was aspiring to be a halfway decent infantry officer. I liked him then. He is honest, he is straight, he knows how to talk to soldiers, and he is in no small part responsible for the decent situation we now have in Northern Ireland. I thank him, with all my colleagues, for what he has done in his work.

I am delighted to associate myself with those comments. Peter has done a huge amount of work for the good of Northern Ireland. He has achieved many things in his long career in public life, and Northern Ireland is the better place for his input into public life and politics there over four decades.

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, thank the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State and those other Members who have paid tribute to Peter Robinson today? There is no doubt that, as far as we are concerned, words are not adequate to convey the thank you that we as a party—and everyone who values progress in Northern Ireland—owe to him for the work he has done not just recently, but over a lifetime of dedicated service to Northern Ireland. When one thinks back over the years to the dark days when politics was a dangerous occupation—it remains so for some—one realises that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for the sacrifices he and his family have made to make progress in Northern Ireland. We thank him sincerely for all he has done.

Today’s agreement is, of course, another tribute to the work Peter and others have done to try to move Northern Ireland forward. There will, of course, be snipers—there will be those who will want to downgrade this agreement—but the reality is that without this agreement, devolution would fail. We would be back to direct rule, which is, effectively, as far as Unionists are concerned, joint rule with Dublin. That is a far less appealing vista. What we have instead is an agreement that will provide a fresh start, allow us to move forward and put the budget on a sustainable footing.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we will now have the best welfare system in the United Kingdom? Help will go to the people who will be affected by the working tax credit cuts. That is something that those who voted against or sniped at the welfare changes need to bear in mind.

On paramilitaries, we are determined that a blind eye will never be turned to violence or to the actions of the paramilitaries.

On the legacy of the past, I share the right hon. Lady’s disappointment that an agreement could not be reached, but it is right that we should never allow a hierarchy of victims to be created and that we should not allow those who were so-called victims of the state to be elevated above the victims of the paramilitaries. She is right to hold the line, along with us, in protecting national security. I want to thank everyone involved for the work that has been done to achieve this milestone agreement.

I should like once again to pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Gentleman and his party on achieving this agreement. He is absolutely right—as was the shadow Secretary of State—to say that if this process had failed, we would have been staring direct rule in the face, and I would have had to head off and write a programme for Government. We would have had to prepare for office. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are always parts of these agreements in which one would have liked to go further and difficult compromises that have to be made, but the crucial point is that this agreement will secure the continued operation of devolution. Without it, there would have been a real danger of suspension, collapse and a return to direct rule. I believe that this can be a fresh start.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about welfare, he is right to suggest that at the end of this process, Northern Ireland will have the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it will be one of the most generous in the world because, for all the reforms that have taken place, this country retains a generous welfare system across the board, and rightly so. It is crucial that we get this agreement implemented and ensure that it sticks, and I will be working with the right hon. Gentleman and with all the five Northern Ireland parties to do my best to ensure that that happens.

Northern Ireland is a long way from Essex, but I am sure that everyone is very pleased that that important part of the UK can have the fresh start that it deserves. Does the Secretary of State agree that this agreement will provide Northern Ireland with a safer, more secure future and put an even greater distance between the past and the present, which will benefit the whole of the UK?

I believe that strongly. This agreement will pave the way for a safer, more secure future. Returning for a moment to the previous question, it is important that we strive to find a way to resolve our differences on the legacy bodies. We must ensure that when the bodies are set up, they are entirely fair, proportionate and balanced and that they do not focus disproportionately on just a handful of cases in which the state was involved. This Government will do all that we need to do to protect our national security; we will not compromise on that in any circumstances.

Will the Secretary of State accept that, while many of us have misgivings over parts of the agreement, including over what is not in it, that does not in any way detract from our support for its positive aspects, which we have long advocated, and which we advocated in the negotiations, including the whole-community approach to paramilitaries and the signing up by all parties to a uniform position on eradicating paramilitarism from our society? She said at the talks, as she has said publicly and consistently, that there would be no agreement on the past without an agreement on welfare reform—that that was the hard message for Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour party. However, we have now apparently ended up with an agreement on welfare reform but with no agreement on the past. People want to know how that came about. Would she consider publishing clauses on the past, on a without-prejudice basis, and committing them for pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses, so that they could be the subject not of some sort of private abeyance to be sorted out between herself and Sinn Féin but of proper consideration by Members of both Houses here and by the public in Northern Ireland, particularly the victims?

On the way forward on the institutions dealing with the past, we will certainly give consideration to the proposals the hon. Gentleman puts forward. I think we all recognised that it was difficult to reach the conclusions we needed to get to within a structure containing just the parties. We need to reflect on whether we can have a wider, more inclusive process. Of course we will give consideration to whether we can publish a further draft of the Bill in the future, but we have not made a conclusive decision on this.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the linkages between the past and welfare reform. To the end, I was arguing to keep legacy in, and I wish we had been able to do so; even if we could not agree on all the issues relating to legacy, I had hoped that we would be able at least to agree on a fair selection of areas where consensus had been achieved. I could not get everyone to sign up to that, but I will continue to strive to find a way to get these legacy bodies set up, as that is crucial for victims and survivors.

Lastly, I pay tribute to the work that his party did in the talks process, particularly on the legacy matters, but also on paramilitaries. The Social Democratic and Labour party’s call for a whole-community approach to ending paramilitarism will resonate in this House and across Northern Ireland.

In welcoming this deal, may I ask the Secretary of State to say a little more about what sounds like £500 million of new funding for Northern Ireland outlined in her statement? Will she go a bit further by saying that if there are any further disputes between parties in Northern Ireland, they will not be fixed by more money from Westminster?

In these extremely difficult days for the public finances, we thought very carefully about what additional support we were able to provide on top of the Stormont House agreement package, but we did feel that a case had been made credibly and strongly to us that Northern Ireland does face unique challenges in the United Kingdom and that therefore there was a case for additional support, on top of the favourable conditions in relation to the block grant. That breaks down roughly as: £160 million of additional security funding for the PSNI to help it counter dissident republican terrorists and paramilitary groups; £25 million for tackling paramilitary activity and strategy; £3 million for a verification body in relation to paramilitary activity; £60 million for programmes to build confidence and see inter-faith barriers coming down; crucially, as a result of the legislative consent motion passed by the Assembly last night, the savings forgone payments—sometimes referred to as welfare penalties—will stop, and that means that a further £40 million will be added to the block grant for the next two years; and we also have £125 million to support a programme to eliminate fraud and error, which we have already discussed. The Executive believe that that will yield substantial savings, half of which they are allowed to retain, and that that is likely to take the total value of the package to well over half a billion pounds.

May I associate myself with what those who have spoken have said about the contribution made by Peter Robinson, who has announced his retirement from active politics? I have engaged in Northern Ireland affairs throughout my time in this House, but particularly between 2001 and 2010, when our service overlapped. We did not always agree when we had matters to deal with, but there was no doubting at any point that Peter Robinson was a man who was staunch in support of his community and his party. On behalf of my colleagues, I send him and Iris our very best wishes for a long retirement.

May I also add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on an agreement for which there must be a broad welcome, given the context of it? I should, however, say that it is regrettable that significant areas remain outstanding, and I agree with her in respect of the legacy issues she listed. Will she assure us that the budget for dealing with these legacy issues will not be taken from the current operational budget of the Department of Justice? What discussions has she had with the Minister of Justice on that so far?

I keep in regular touch with the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice on all these matters. Of course it is crucial that we all work together to try to ensure that the policing and criminal justice system is as properly resourced as possible. That is one reason why additional security funding was provided in the last spending review. We have now announced further additional security funding for this forthcoming spending review period.

I should also point out that the legacy funding provided in the £2 billion package of the Stormont House agreement amounts to £150 million. It was a priority to try to relieve the pressure on the PSNI so that it could devote its resources to policing the present rather than the past. Naturally, that £150 million package is delayed for the moment pending the establishment of those legacy bodies. The money is still there on the table, and it is another reason why we should get on and try to find an agreement to set up those bodies, so that that funding can be used. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a matter of regret that we have not yet been able to reach consensus on how we establish those bodies, but we will continue to work on that with his party and others to try to find a way forward.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her patience and diligence in delivering this much needed package. I also wish to pass on my appreciation to Peter Robinson as he takes a well-deserved retirement. I met him at university many years ago, and he has been in public life ever since. What a remarkable job he has done.

In her statement, my right hon. Friend referred to the devolution of corporation tax. Will she clarify when that will happen and whether it is contingent on any other measures that will need to be implemented?

The Government’s position is that we will give the final go ahead for the devolution of corporation tax once the conditions on financial sustainability in the Stormont House agreement are met. We have already passed the legislation to enable us to do that. We just need commencement of that legislation to enable the transfer of power to take place. The agreement published this week sets out the aim of the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver a reduced rate of corporation tax operating from April 2018. I know that we are all working on that and hoping that that target date will be met.

I thank the Secretary of State for bringing forward her statement today. May I, too, pass on some words to Peter Robinson to wish him well in his retirement and in future years?

In her statement, the Secretary of State suggested that the involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in a murder in Belfast led to the conclusion that it was necessary to convene a fresh round of cross-party talks. How concerned is she now that all those involved in the discussions, including Her Majesty’s Government, the Irish Government, the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Alliance party and others, all accept that the IRA is still in place, but Sinn Féin does not?

The crucial issue is that all participants in the talks process are absolutely clear that there is no justification whatever for paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, that they must all disband, and that for that to happen we need not just a surge in criminal justice activity, but a broad approach that embraces the whole community in working for the day when those organisations are consigned to Northern Ireland’s past rather than its present.

May I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to Peter Robinson and with the remarks that have been made about the hard work of the Secretary of State, her Department and her officials in securing this agreement? One positive aspect of that agreement are the reforms of the Assembly, particularly the creation of, and provision for, an official opposition. Does she agree that that is a very important part of the normalisation of Northern Ireland politics?

Indeed. It is something for which the Conservatives have been campaigning for many years, particularly during the tenure of my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). It is a big step forward that there will be more formal provision for an Opposition. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments about the officials of the Northern Ireland Office, all of whom have worked tremendously hard during this talks process and the previous one.

I echo the comments that have been made from all parts of the House in relation to the retirement of my party leader, Peter Robinson. I add my personal tribute to the contribution he has made over many years to the politics and the people of Northern Ireland. I thank the Secretary of State for the hard work that she and her team put in during these talks, and commend her for the progress that has been made. I welcome the constructive tone of the comments from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). We now need to build on the progress that has been made and work towards delivering for the innocent victims and those who have suffered so much. Let us look at ways in which we can find an agreement to implement the legacy elements. What we cannot do, especially at this time, with our national security threatened by terrorism, is compromise the work of the security services who are here to protect every single citizen of this country.

These national security questions are very difficult. We reflected hard on whether we could stretch ourselves to find a way through on this, but we have not been able to so far. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot take risks with our national security. There is documentation that could be disclosed in Northern Ireland which would give support, knowledge and expertise to terrorists, not just in Northern Ireland but around the world, so I am always aware of that being a hugely important part of my role. The role of a Government—our first duty—is to safeguard the security of our citizens; sadly, events over the past fortnight or so have demonstrated how important that duty is.

I thank the Secretary of State for the hard work that she has put in over many weeks and months this year, and I thank the team that work with her, advising her so diligently. I welcome the investment in policing, but can she say a little more about what steps the Executive will be taking to reform the public sector and ensure a more sustainable financial approach into the future?

The Executive have already embarked on a very significant reform, funded by a voluntary exit scheme, which will see the Northern Ireland civil service contract considerably. These are difficult decisions, but I believe that with reform in the coming months and years, the Executive will be able to release more funds for crucial front-line services, and I very much welcome the announcement of significant additional funding for healthcare that the Executive announced today.

I begin by congratulating Peter Robinson on his retirement and on the hard work that he has put in since the agreement. I congratulate the Secretary of State, too, on her hard work, and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on his sensible comments. All parties involved in the agreement have shown how important the Northern Ireland situation and this deal in particular are to the House and to the security of the wider UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no alternative to the deal? In order to avoid direct rule, the deal was crucial for the peace process in Northern Ireland to continue. Does she agree that by avoiding direct rule, she has provided the largest and most significant step in controlling, monitoring and dealing with any potential future paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland?

I think I can agree with all that. Devolved power-sharing government requires two crucial things, the first of which is the ability of parties to work together. The paramilitary question was having a toxic impact on working relationships. Another crucial thing for any Government, devolved or not, is a workable budget. They must be able to live within their means. This agreement today sets a path to addressing both of those. As has been said, there are parts that we would all have liked to see added to the agreement and there are compromises in it. These stages in Northern Ireland’s process forward are never without their imperfections, but this is a good step forward for Northern Ireland. Without it, I am convinced that we would be headed steadily and surely towards suspension and direct rule, which would be bad for Northern Ireland. We have worked hard to try to avoid that and will continue to do so.

I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for the Stormont House agreement that all parties have worked so diligently to effect. I am particularly pleased to note that the issue of flags will be progressed. Is there a timetable for this in Northern Ireland?

There is a timetable for the commission to report on flags. I believe the plan is for it to report within 18 months but, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I cannot remember the exact date. It is another reminder that with the Stormont House agreement and the fresh start agreement in place, we need to get on with implementing them. That is why I welcome the fact that the legislative consent motion was passed yesterday and the Bill will be introduced to Parliament within minutes and debated. The debate on the welfare legislation will take place early next week.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for the very kind tribute that she paid to our party leader. I echo the thanks and gratitude to the Secretary of State and her team, for I know the very long hours that she personally has put into dealing with the situation in Northern Ireland. There will, of course, be some nay-sayers in Northern Ireland about this deal, but will the Secretary of State go as far as to say that this is by far the very best welfare deal that anyone in the United Kingdom could have? We know that there will be some people who hate the deal so much that they will be on their knees tonight in Northern Ireland praying that Scotland comes up with a slightly better deal so that they do not have to welcome it, but over 105,000 low-paid families in Northern Ireland will today be grateful that their tax credits will not be cut in the way that they would have been under another deal or under direct rule.

On national security, will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no change whatever to the national security portfolio and arrangements? Although there is £160 million available to assist the police in dealing with the dissident and Irish terror threat, if ISIS uses our border as a soft way into the United Kingdom, can the right hon. Lady confirm that additional resources will come from the national budget to assist with that?

I can confirm that if the welfare legislation goes ahead and the Executive proceed with the top-ups proposed under the agreement, Northern Ireland will have the most generous welfare system in the UK. I can also confirm that we are not proposing changes on national security. It continues to be a tier 1 priority for us. We recognise the lethal threat posed by dissident republican terrorists. Thankfully, they seldom succeed in their aims to harm, but there is no doubt that that activity is regular and that these groups have both lethal intent and lethal capacity, and it is only by the efforts of the police and their security partners that we do not see dissident republicans succeeding in more of their evil plans.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the concerns about ISIL being a factor in Northern Ireland, just as it is everywhere else in this country and beyond. Of course, we as a Government are absolutely focused on our efforts to keep people safe both from the DR threat and from the ISIL threat, and that includes work on cross-border crime and doing all we can to ensure that neither ISIL nor anybody else is able to exploit our border with the Republic of Ireland for criminal or terrorist purposes.

I associate myself with the good wishes to Mr Peter Robinson on his retirement. I thank the Secretary of State for her statement today and for all her hard work that led up to it. I find that in general there is widespread support in my constituency for the welfare changes we have introduced since 2010, based on the principles of helping those who are trying to find work and making work pay, while still controlling the cost of welfare. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these welfare reforms will be just as welcome in Northern Ireland?

I warmly agree with my hon. Friend. The reforms we have introduced into the welfare system in Great Britain give us a better system that has the rewarding of work at its heart and becomes more affordable for the taxpayers who fund it. That is another reason why I welcome the fact that that system will, I hope, apply in Northern Ireland as it does elsewhere.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members who have kindly offered me their thanks and congratulations in relation to my role in the process that was recently completed.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and join others in wishing Peter Robinson well in his retirement. We have differed politically on many occasions, but notwithstanding that, wish him well.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that she has ensured that next week’s comprehensive spending review supports and sustains the financial provisions of the mark 2 Stormont House agreement? Does she acknowledge that any modest financial gains contained in that agreement could be wiped out next week with one stroke of the Chancellor’s pen? Will she confirm the nature of the sunset clause in relation to the decision-making power in the Bill?

The sunset clause brings to an end the decision-making power by the end of next year. I can confirm that the £500 million package on offer is confirmed; it will not be withdrawn by the spending review. As for the rest of the spending review, I am afraid that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on that at this time, and that the hon. Lady, like the rest of us, will need to wait for the Chancellor’s autumn statement.

I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State and to all those involved in achieving a satisfactory outcome to these difficult talks. Will she give additional details on what efforts will be made to tackle organised crime and cross-border criminality?

We have already heard about the proposed cross-border taskforce. A key aspect is to build on the work of the organised crime taskforce in Northern Ireland and the cross-border work that is going on—for example, in relation to fuel smuggling—in order to bring fresh impetus and capacity to that in providing support for things such as forensic accounting to pursue the proceeds of crime. A crucial step forward is for the PSNI and the Garda Siochana to be able to share more equipment and facilities. That will enhance their effectiveness and their ability to co-operate, and policing resources can go further when they are shared, in part, between the two police services.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I, too, pay tribute to the Secretary of State for all her efforts in securing this agreement, and for keeping this House updated as matters have progressed. Cross-border policing is a challenge, and that has been alluded to. What more work can be done to make sure that forces across England, Wales and Scotland work with forces in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland to help solve this problem and to help feed intelligence up the chain to try to tackle these crimes where they happen?

There are extensive co-operation agreements that ensure that police services in Great Britain can share information with the PSNI, and I am sure there is always scope to build on those.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It has certainly been a long 10 weeks with very many meetings—a pretty gruelling process—but I am very conscious that while I have been engaged in cross-party talks for only a couple of years, there are many fine men and women in Northern Ireland who have been engaged in this kind of process for about 25 years. We need to pay tribute to their determination and all that they have achieved in transforming life in Northern Ireland. They are rightly an example held up throughout the world of how bitter division can be overcome, and how people who were once bitter enemies can find a way to work together for the good of the whole community.

Bill Presented

Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Theresa Villiers, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel and Mr Ben Wallace, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with social security and child support maintenance in Northern Ireland; to make provision in connection with arrangements under section 1 of the Employment and Training Act (Northern Ireland) 1950; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 99) with explanatory notes (Bill 99-EN).