I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Welfare is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland. Over time, the agreed principle has been that welfare policy, spending and administration in Northern Ireland maintain broad parity with that in place in the rest of Great Britain. The parity principle has served Northern Ireland well. It means that benefit claimants have been able to avail themselves of the same rates of benefits as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The UK Government have been clear that they will not fund a more generous welfare system in Northern Ireland than that in place elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Over the past three years, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been unable to implement welfare reform legislation that mirrors that of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which is in place in the rest of the UK. The Assembly’s Welfare Reform Bill was introduced in October 2012, but was stalled at Committee stage in February the following year. Following a petition of concern, the Bill fell at its final stage in May this year.
The Secretary of State has outlined the implications of this failure to maintain parity, and the various steps that have been taken to bring us to where we are today, with Westminster having to legislate for welfare reform in Northern Ireland. As welfare is transferred, clause 1 provides the Government with a power to legislate for welfare in Northern Ireland via an Order in Council.
Clearly, the use of petitions of concern is a matter for the Northern Ireland parties and for the Northern Ireland Assembly. All I ask is that parties in Northern Ireland recognise that the petition of concern is related to community concerns, and should not be used for things such as caravan legislation, or other such matters.
Taking this power enables the Government to implement Northern Ireland-specific flexibilities in the welfare system. When the 2012 welfare reform measures were first introduced, Northern Ireland’s Department for Social Development negotiated certain administrative flexibilities with the Department for Work and Pensions. They included, for example, a slightly different sanctions regime and the ability for welfare payments to be made to claimants on a fortnightly rather than a monthly basis.
In addition, as part of commitments made under last year’s Stormont House agreement, the Northern Ireland parties agreed a range of so-called top-up measures, which were designed to compensate claimants who were losing out as a result of the welfare reforms. The Assembly’s Welfare Reform Bill—the one that fell in May—was amended to reflect the various administrative flexibilities and top-up measures.
In providing a broad power, the Bill allows the Government to implement these Northern Ireland-specific flexibilities and top-ups. That reinforces the fact that the Government’s intent is not to impose Great Britain’s welfare system on to Northern Ireland. Instead, we are proposing to use the power provided by this Bill to legislate for the Northern Ireland-tailored welfare system agreed by the Northern Ireland parties.
The Order in Council that will follow this Bill, if passed, will make that clear. The order is based largely on the Assembly’s Welfare Reform Bill that fell at its final stage in May. It therefore includes the reforms made in Great Britain by the Welfare Reform Act 2012; the various flexibilities agreed between the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development and the Department for Work and Pensions; the amendments agreed during the passage of the Assembly Welfare Reform Bill; and provisions that allow for Northern Ireland Executive-funded top-ups.
The second reason for opting for a broad power in this Bill is that it enables the Government to implement other potential welfare reforms, such as those contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently being considered by the Lords.
The Northern Ireland Executive have just endured almost four years of political instability owing to their inability to implement the last major set of welfare reforms. It is important that the fresh start envisaged by the Northern Ireland parties is given time and space to grow and strengthen. If the Assembly considers the 2015 welfare reforms too soon, it could jeopardise this new-found consensus in Northern Ireland. It is therefore necessary for the Government to legislate for implementation of these measures.
The Minister is being very pragmatic in explaining the history behind this and why the Government are behaving as they are. Does he believe that it is desirable in the medium term that the welfare arrangements for Northern Ireland should mirror those of the rest of the United Kingdom, or does he think that this Bill will hold sway in the long term?
It is of course desirable that the welfare package and policy that this Government have come up with over the past four or five years is implemented across the United Kingdom. It is a good and well-needed reform. We also accept that, within the parameters of the devolved settlement, some devolved institutions have the ability to top up or be flexible in order to be able to deliver. In the long term, it will be interesting to see which delivers the best results for the people of those countries and whether our welfare reforms without flexibilities produce a better outcome than those that are adopted elsewhere.
Will the Minister state very clearly that there has been no change to parity? These are flexibilities that Northern Ireland has achieved. There are about a dozen very positive flexibilities and about 105,000 hard-working, low-paid families in Northern Ireland who will benefit as a result of the huge effort that has been put into resolving this issue.
It is absolutely the case that those flexibilities may turn out to suit the people of Northern Ireland, but it is also the case that the flexibilities and top-ups will be funded by Northern Ireland from the block grant. The UK Government will not fund on top of the existing UK roll-out, as has been clearly set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is important to get the message across that the funding to push forward with those flexibilities is coming out of the Northern Ireland block grant.
Will the Minister clarify another point? When the Minister for Social Development introduced this in the Assembly at the end of last week, he put it on the record that the Executive will be able to reclaim some of the financial penalties that the Treasury has already taken from the block grant. Is that the case?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Certainly, in the negotiations, some of the penalties due for not implementing the welfare legislation will be returned to Northern Ireland. I am happy to write to him setting out the envisaged amount and the exact timing of when it would start to be rebated.
It is important to stress three important considerations at this point. First, the Bill does not affect the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In other words, if the Assembly can agree to do so, it can continue to pass welfare legislation. The Bill therefore creates a situation in which welfare is both devolved—meaning the Assembly can legislate for it—and effectively reserved, meaning the Government can legislate for it as well. That situation may be unusual, but it is not without precedent, certainly when it comes to Northern Ireland. For example, there is similar concurrent legislative competence over regulations governing the flying of flags in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, the legislative approach outlined in this Bill has arisen at the request of the Northern Ireland parties. The Assembly last week granted its consent, by an overwhelming majority of 70 votes to 22, to this Bill. Consent was also granted to the Order in Council that will follow this Bill, and the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster. Thirdly, I can assure the House that the UK Government have no intention or desire to legislate on an ongoing basis for welfare in Northern Ireland. Welfare is properly devolved to Northern Ireland and will remain so. That is why clause 3 time-limits the power so that an order cannot be made after 31 December 2016.
As already noted, an Order in Council will follow this Bill. The order will make provision for welfare reform in Northern Ireland equivalent to the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and as I have pointed out, will provide for the various Northern Ireland-specific flexibilities and top-ups. First, legislating in this way, by an Order in Council, is the normal convention for secondary legislation with a devolution aspect. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commented, it is essential that welfare reform is implemented in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. Given that speed is crucial, the only way to have the necessary legislation in place in the desired timescale is to delegate the detail of the welfare provisions to secondary legislation. Members should, however, be comforted by the realisation that the content of the Order in Council largely mirrors that of the 2012 Act, debated at length and in great detail in this House. There will be an opportunity to debate the order next week. I trust Members will reserve any detailed questions regarding welfare reform for that debate.
Given the complexity of an Order in Council in any circumstances and of the Bill that is being taken through the House at breakneck speed this evening, will the Minister please express some element of regret that neither the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee nor the Work and Pensions Committee had an opportunity to scrutinise them and report to the Northern Ireland Office before the Bill came to the House?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that nearly all the provisions in the order have been thoroughly debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly over a long period, and this House has given considerable scrutiny to the 2012 welfare reforms and is doing so for ongoing reforms in the 2015 Bill. I am happy to arrange for the hon. Lady, should she so wish, to meet officials from the Northern Ireland Office and the DWP to discuss in detail any concern she has about the order between now and the debate next week, if that satisfies her.
The Minister touched on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. It is not really covered in the Order in Council. Will it be the subject of a different Order in Council subsequently under this legislation, or do the Government intend to amend the Bill to extend it to Northern Ireland?
The answer is that, yes, it will be subject to an order different from this one, which is due next week, as far as I understand.
In conclusion, I emphasise the points made by the Secretary of State. This is a good Bill for Northern Ireland, a Bill which will help resolve the long-running, politically divisive stalemate over welfare reform. The Bill is a crucial element of establishing and building on the “Fresh Start” announced last week. The Bill and the subsequent Order in Council do not guarantee political stability in Northern Ireland, but without them political stability and progress are, frankly, impossible. Our approach may appear unusual or unconventional, but it does have the cross-community support of the vast number of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. This Bill offers the only realistic prospect of resolving Northern Ireland’s welfare reform impasse, and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Minister for opening the Second Reading debate. Let us remind ourselves that the last few months in Northern Ireland have been very difficult. The murders in the summer and the budgetary stalemate on the issue of welfare led to a political crisis with potentially massive consequences for future governance. Months of talks throughout the year, culminating in the last 11 weeks, seemed at times to be going nowhere. So notwithstanding the failure to come to a conclusion on how to deal with the past—to the huge disappointment of all of us, not least the victims —there is huge relief that an agreement has been reached. All those involved— the Secretary of State, the parties, the Irish Government and many, in fact all, Members here—deserve credit for getting us to this point.
Without an agreement there was the real risk of the collapse of devolution or indeed the return to direct rule, either of which would have been unthinkable. However, that has been avoided and that is why I think the agreement is significant. As part of the agreement on welfare, a consent motion was agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow us to legislate for welfare reform here at Westminster, with a measure designed to ensure that the reform can take place as soon as possible without further financial penalties to allow stability to return and normal government arrangements to proceed. Of course, welfare reform is devolved to Northern Ireland, but the Assembly has consented to our legislating in this instance.
We should not forget that the agreement reached has also allowed other very significant measures, aside from welfare reform, to be adopted and other moneys released for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland: measures such as additional funding to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to combat the continuing terrorist threat, and money and increased efforts to tackle paramilitarism and cross-border crime. I want to highlight the funds for community initiatives such as bringing down the peace walls.
Today we are being asked to agree primary legislation that will enable the Secretary of State to reform the welfare system to apply the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and welfare aspects of the 2015 Bill to Northern Ireland. We will not oppose this legislation, but let us be clear: we have over recent years opposed much of the Tories’ welfare reform agenda and we will continue to do so. We accept, however, that the agreement does allow Northern Ireland certain welcome exemptions and the ability to mitigate the impact of these cuts. For example, there is the exemption from the bedroom tax and the £585 million to be made available over four years from the block grant to help with that; and to lessen the impact on the working poor, £240 million will be used to relieve the impact of the tax credit cut on the 120,000 families affected by it. That demonstrates clearly that the Tory Government’s welfare cuts, and indeed their austerity programme, are as much a problem for Northern Ireland as they are for any other part of the UK. However, as I said, we support the welfare mitigation measures as they recognise something I believe the rest of the UK understands as well, namely the special and particular circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland. Preserving the principle of parity in social security between Northern Ireland and Britain is more than just a convention. The Good Friday agreement specifically cited social security as an area where parity is normally maintained, and that principle remains important.
Many of the problems of significant mental illness, long-term worklessness and dependency on sickness and incapacity benefits exist in many parts of England, Wales and Scotland, but we know that Northern Ireland is a society coming out of conflict, so these welfare problems and issues are more complex and must be handled with greater sensitivity. Poverty remains a feature of life for a variety of groups, with a significant number of people in Northern Ireland still living in absolute poverty. Northern Ireland still has the highest disability living allowance claimant rate among working adults at 10.1%, according to the latest figures, whereas the average across Britain is 4.9%. Mental health remains a huge issue, with one in six people affected, and the suicide rate is 70% higher than the UK average. That is why we will not oppose the flexibility in the implementation of the welfare changes that this legislation and subsequent orders will allow.
Alongside any welfare reform programme there must be a jobs and growth programme. I urge the Secretary of State and the Government to work much more rigorously with the Northern Ireland Executive and business to give such a programme greater urgency. Reforming welfare is more than cutting benefits; it is about training, skills, opportunity and tackling low aspiration and educational underachievement. This has to be recognised, and new programmes are needed as part of increased efforts by the Treasury in regard to how the new National Infrastructure Commission, for example, affects Northern Ireland, the potential consequences of the EU referendum and the impact of poor broadband access. Welfare reform coupled with attention to such aspects would make a much greater difference.
I will ask the Minister some questions, which may help in his summing up and in future deliberations. First, he set out the timetable for one of the orders, but can he spell out the timetable for the Orders in Council which will follow from this paving legislation and the process that will apply to them in view of the consultation that was asked for and the meetings that he referred to? Secondly, what scope is there for that consultation with respect to these orders? In the Assembly debate on the legislative consent motion, the Minister for Social Development spoke of agreement in principle to the change to the welfare system in Northern Ireland being introduced at Westminster. Will the Minister explain what that agreement in principle means? Thirdly, so that we can all be clear, will he outline which welfare parts of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill this legislative process covers? Fourthly, can he confirm that the plan is that any regulations necessary to implement the Evason group’s recommendations for mitigation will be subject to Assembly scrutiny and approval before they are made in this House?
This has been a tough road and nobody doubts that, with such a high level of welfare need in Northern Ireland and huge reliance on incapacity benefits, change is needed. As I have said, we will therefore not oppose these measures, but change in Northern Ireland has to reflect its special circumstances. All the parties have sought to convince the Government of this, some would say with much success. However, in Northern Ireland as well as in the rest of the UK, a different Government programme of jobs, growth and investment alongside reform would be of greater benefit.
This legislation falls at the end of 2016. Will the Minister explain why that date was chosen? Given that sunset clause, let us hope we can all build a secure future in Northern Ireland so that we do not find ourselves in yet another crisis in a year’s time. We will not oppose the Bill as the dangers of an agreement not being reached were huge, with potential restoration of direct rule. This has been averted. Northern Ireland’s political institutions are stabilised, notwithstanding the continuing debate, so let us ensure that as the UK Government work with the Irish Government and all the parties, we continue to support the building of a peaceful Northern Ireland where there is prosperity, fairness and opportunity for all. That has to be our continuing task.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It provides us with a brief opportunity to examine the provisions of the Bill in some detail, but I cannot help thinking that the much more appropriate place for such a debate and decision making would be the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is no secret that welfare reform has proven a contentious issue not just in the last round of talks, but for some time. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary will be familiar with the many arguments that I and colleagues made, not only over the past 10 weeks, but in the annual crisis talks that we have held over the past three years.
On a point well made by the shadow Secretary of State, focusing on welfare reform in isolation and neglecting the serious challenge of joblessness will simply fail. It will not work. Punishing and sanctioning people for a failure to get a job that does not exist, without looking at the wider economy, is economically illiterate. The Secretary of State will no doubt assure us that the proposed changes to corporation tax will solve all our problems, but I do not believe they will and a large number of experts agree with me. Corporation tax is a valuable tool at our disposal, but it is not the silver bullet. It will not solve all the problems. The SDLP has always agreed with the need for welfare reform, but never at the cost of crucifying some of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.
Over 10 long weeks of negotiation the Secretary of State has heard me and other colleagues repeat the need to move away from welfare reform and start to address the serious issue of joblessness. Although our hard-won peace process helped transform Northern Ireland, it was never meant or expected to be the final chapter. The majority of sensible people believe that if we are to see our society and its people fully emerge from conflict, we need another kind of transformation. We need a prosperity process that produces training, skill development and economic opportunity. We need to do something about the vicious downward spiral of low skills, low wages and low productivity that strangles much of our economic hope.
At the core of our prosperity process has to be strong collaboration between business and third-level education, linked in turn to research and development investment, in line with best practice in Britain, the south of Ireland and right across Europe. It never ceases to shock me that Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million and a mere 700,000 of them—much less than half—are economically active. We are falling much too far behind our neighbours on this side of the Irish sea, in the south of Ireland, and across Europe. A massive programme of sustainable economic regeneration is urgently needed to generate the revenues we need to build prosperity in Northern Ireland. If fewer than half of our population are economically active, how can that not have a devastating impact on living standards for so many?
We must tackle the low level of economic activity in that adult population by seeking to provide a wide range of regionally balanced economic opportunities. Our goal must be to get at least 1 million of those 1.8 million people across Northern Ireland into meaningful and worthwhile work. Lifting our economy is one of the best ways of helping those on welfare to get the hand up that they are promised. We must put meaningful economic regeneration at the heart of our devolved Administration. Only then can our people realise their hopes, aspirations, ambitions and full potential.
I am deeply disappointed that the “Fresh Start” agreement made no reference to job creation, economic development or prosperity, despite these issues being raised repeatedly at every plenary session of the recent talks. The biggest challenge that we face is getting people into work or into meaningful apprenticeships and genuine skill improvement as a pathway towards jobs. I repeat that we are caught in a vicious downward spiral of low skills, leading to low wages, and, in turn, to very low productivity. This cycle has to be broken.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comment, but the point I am making—I hope he would take it because it affects his constituency as well as mine—is that it is all very well to talk about moving people from welfare into work in places like the south-east of England or London, where there are jobs, but we cannot move people from welfare into work if there is no work for them to go to.
The vicious cycle has to be broken, but it will not be broken by pious platitudes or wishful thinking; it can be broken only by active intervention by both the Government here and the Executive at Stormont. I repeat my previous calls to the Secretary of State and to the Northern Ireland Executive to honour commitments that we have discussed across the negotiating table over the past 10 weeks, and plead for each of us to play whatever part we can in generating prosperity. If we fail to create prosperity, we run the risk of the institutions failing again, with recurrent crises and a return to the process through Stormont House 3, which none of us wants.
I think it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are 30,000 more people in work in Northern Ireland, compared with 2010. The Northern Ireland economy is growing again—it is recovering—and the Executive should take some pride in that because they have obviously contributed strongly to it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments and the commitments she has made. I know that she probably has empathy with much of this.
This is not just about my constituency. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is sitting behind me. I look at a town such as Ballymena, which will apparently lose some 5,000 jobs in the next two or three years. That is horrific to me; I grew up not far away from it. That is the problem I am looking at. These people need our attention and need some hope, because there is nothing there but despair. However, I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to make that point, as he has done so very well on many occasions.
The SDLP has tabled amendments that would provide some flexibilities. They are a reflection of, and very compatible with, some of the amendments we made during the consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill at Stormont that was voted down by Sinn Féin and the DUP. These flexibilities would limit the Secretary of State’s power and influence in making a benefit cap in Northern Ireland and reduce the maximum period of the sanction from 18 months to six months. We are deeply concerned by the outcome of the sanctions in Britain, which have treated claimants extremely unfairly. We feel that this is a matter properly to be dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is now time that this Government recognised the unique circumstances of people living in Northern Ireland, who are crying out for fair play and an economic opportunity. Put simply, they are crying out for hope and a better future for themselves and their children. Seventeen years after the Good Friday Agreement, it is time to make good on the promises made at that stage of prosperity, peace and hope for all our people.
I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to his point about the amendments. Clearly, if they went through, that would again break parity, so there would be a financial cost to all that, and the IT systems in Northern Ireland would have to compensate as well. Who would pay for that?
First, I welcome the fact that we now have this Bill before the House of Commons. Had the Government listened to us some time ago, we might have saved a year in which we would we have saved the money that is now being returned to the Treasury. More importantly, we would have saved the damage that has been done to devolution. Apart from the costs involved, the stalemate that has arisen from the failure to agree the welfare reform proposals that we thought had been agreed this time last year in the Stormont House agreement has led to a budgetary crisis in the Assembly. During that stalemate, many of the spending proposals could not be undertaken, with a budget that we knew would have been overspent had we gone through to the end of the year. All that has played out badly in Northern Ireland with regard to the credibility of the Assembly.
This agreement, and the fact that we have now removed one of the most toxic issues that was affecting the work of the Assembly, namely welfare reform, is therefore to be welcomed. I am glad that we have now got this issue on to the Floor of the House.
The hon. Gentleman is a very senior member of his party, and rightly so—he has been in it for an awfully long time. Will he therefore give us some insight into the negotiations which—thank goodness, after all this waiting—managed to persuade Sinn Féin to agree to this deal? What was the turning point? What was the significant agreement with Sinn Féin whereby it agreed to welfare reform? I am intrigued to know what his new leader, or future leader—[Interruption.] I would be delighted, in fact, if there was a new leader, but will he just answer the question instead of speculating about the leadership?
If the hon. Lady had thought of the trend that there has been since the DUP became the largest party in Northern Ireland, she could easily have identified the reason why this has happened. We were told that we could not get devolution because Sinn Féin would never divorce itself from violence, and then it did; we were told that we could never get policing and justice devolved because Sinn Féin would never support the police, and then it did; and we were told that we could never get welfare reform through because Sinn Féin was opposed to it, and we faced it down on that. The record of the DUP should not be compared with the record of the Ulster Unionist party when it was the largest party in Northern Ireland, because it rolled over to Sinn Féin whereas we have stared it down on all these issues and succeeded. I cannot get into the mindset of Sinn Féin. All I know is that a year ago it was saying that under no circumstances would it accept Tory diktats on welfare, and now it has asked the Government to bring forward this legislation, to take it through the House of Commons, and to implement the changes.
I welcome that, because our party never accepted that the devolution of welfare was necessary. Given the parity principle, we would always have been caught in a position whereby we either reflected Westminster legislation or paid the cost of it, which, even in terms of different systems, was never going to be sustainable. Now we are where we are, and I am pleased about that, because it removes one of the biggest barriers to making devolution work in Northern Ireland. I hope that we have now laid the foundation for more workable devolution in future, because we are a party that believes in devolution and wants to see it work. I think that the sacrifices we have made indicate that.
Secondly, this measure brings immediate benefit to Northern Ireland. It removes the toxicity that existed around welfare reform, but also enables us now to move on to deal with the issues that need to be dealt with.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) said that one of the reasons he is not happy is that the agreement does not provide for jobs. I want people in my constituency to be off welfare and to have the dignity of work, but the hon. Gentleman said that the deal does nothing to get people into employment. However, it paves the way for corporation tax changes in Northern Ireland, which will be a job creation measure. Half the savings made from fraud and error in welfare can be retained by the Northern Ireland budget. The agreement specifically says that we can deal with training and youth unemployment. A capital financial package will be available for shared education and shared housing, which will create jobs for people in the construction industry. The Northern Ireland Executive will also be able to keep some of the capital receipts from the sale of assets, and they can be ploughed back into the economy.
The hon. Gentleman was, therefore, wrong to say that the Bill does nothing but penalise people on welfare without giving them an alternative. The Executive now have in their hands the means to provide some of the things that he and I are concerned about. I know that he was not making a cheap political point, because he has a record of being concerned about unemployment not just in his own constituency, but right across Northern Ireland. At least this agreement secures the resources by which some of those issues can be addressed.
Thirdly, although we cannot deviate from parity without there being some cost to Northern Ireland, the Executive have taken it upon themselves to look at where we could change some of the welfare issues and put our own imprint on the Northern Ireland welfare system. Over the next few years, £585 million will be devoted to just that. On cuts to the spare room subsidy, for example, we took the view that we did not have the housing structure to allow for the flexibility required in the housing market, so we have put money into exempting people from the benefit reduction that would have incurred. On the changes to rates—or council tax, as it is known in the rest of the United Kingdom—we have put £17 million aside so that low-income families will be supported and not lose out. Money has also been put aside for tax credit changes. The approach has been tailored. The Bill will go through—as has been agreed by the Executive, and asked for by the Assembly—with those flexibilities. It is a good deal, which is one of the reasons we will be pleased to go through the Lobby tonight in support of the Bill passing through this House.
Finally, there are still those who wish to conduct guerrilla warfare against the institutions in Northern Ireland. Some of them do so because they want to score points against other political parties. We have seen an example of that today. Last week, the Social Democratic and Labour party criticised Sinn Féin in the Assembly, saying, “How dare they dilute devolution by asking for this welfare reform Bill to be taken to the House of Commons? The House of Commons should have no say over it, because it’s a devolved issue.” Now that the Bill has come here, however, SDLP Members are complaining because the House of Commons cannot have a say on making changes. That was, of course, a convenient way of beating Sinn Féin.
Others, such as Traditional Unionist Voice, would have liked the Bill to have been delayed, because they hoped the whole deal would unravel as a result. They want to destroy devolution, despite all the benefits it has brought to Northern Ireland. For that reason, it is important that we address the issue urgently. It has taken long enough to strike the deal, and now that it has been struck let us deliver it for the people of Northern Ireland. Tonight the House of Commons can play a role in helping to improve conditions in Northern Ireland by passing this Bill.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about this most extraordinary Bill. It is so sad that it has become necessary, not because of what it does—we welcome much of what is in it and the fact that it can now happen, and it takes us out of the quagmire of inactivity that I spoke about in the Chamber a few weeks ago—but because our legislators in Northern Ireland are unable to do it themselves and are happy to pass the buck to Westminster. It is also a worse deal than that offered in the original Stormont House discussions, and it shows that the Government are happy to listen to only the two main parties in Northern Ireland, rather than the five that are in the coalition or the opposition coalition.
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Ulster Unionist party was one of a number of parties that I listened to. It repeatedly said that the Executive had to have a sustainable budget, and that was undeliverable without welfare reform, so the agreement reflects input from the UUP.
Not at the moment.
Was it a case of, “Any deal will do,” perhaps to keep the Prime Minister happy or, more importantly, to fit in with the First Minister’s resignation and glorification at his party conference last weekend? That is deeply worrying.
Some five weeks ago I spoke about the Stormont crisis in an effort to show this House that the present Stormont devolved system does not work. The current Government do not work and I intend to show why that is the case. During that debate we highlighted the fact that, out of the £80 million in the social investment fund, only £1 million had been spent. I also showed that shared education, the racial equality strategy, same-sex marriage and many more things were all stalled by the Executive. I also raised the fact that welfare reform could not be agreed, because Sinn Féin had pulled out of the Stormont House discussions after initially agreeing with them. The consequence is that all our Departments are grinding to a halt; no budget was agreed as a result of welfare not being agreed. So, here we are, passing it over to Westminster to do it for us.
I remember it being made very clear in the Stormont Chamber that, in effect, all the Finance Minister had to do was allocate the Barnett formula funds to the various Departments and that she was no more than a glorified accountant. It seems that we cannot even do that. We have had to hand over the responsibility to Westminster so that it can do the allocation for us.
Stormont is a legislative Assembly—its job is to legislate. May I make it absolutely clear that my party—the Ulster Unionist party—has all along been against handing power back to Westminster? Yet here we are, handing back to Westminster the power to legislate. It is very sad that Stormont cannot even do what it was set up to do.
I would also like the hon. Gentleman’s party to say what it agreed with Sinn Féin along the way. [Interruption.] I was not involved at that point.
In this fresh start—or should we call it a false start?—Stormont cannot sort out paramilitaries, so it sets up a panel to advise us on how to deal with them, and it cannot decide who the vulnerable are, so it sets up a panel to advise us, and so it goes on. Stormont can legislate, so it legislates to give that very power away. In my time at Stormont, I saw nothing but strategies, reviews, reports and, in so many cases, parked initiatives, which are now all sitting on shelves and gathering dust. That shows Stormont unable, as ever, to take action; unable to act; unable to do what it is there for; and unable to make things happen.
If we read through the overlong false start document, we can see many examples of exactly that. It is all buried in the language of stall and inaction, and all stuck in the quagmire of indecision. The agreement has wording such as that it
“has the potential to nudge history forward”.
I do not want the word “potential”; I want a document to say that it “will” nudge history forward. The document sets up a strategic taskforce body to report and bring forward recommendations for a strategy. We need not strategies, but actions. It sets up a trilateral ministerial meeting that will set out goals. That is an improvement of the wording, but we need more on how we can achieve goals and how we can get actions.
On community engagement and prevention, the document talks of three programmes on vulnerable people, participation and influence, and women and reducing offending. Those programmes are yet to be produced; again, we need actions. I hope those programmes proceed with actions, not strategies. Furthermore, to deal with paramilitaries, we are setting up a panel to produce a strategy. That is another strategy, but at least this one has a written promise to put into action the panel’s recommendations. There is much more. Today’s action is an abdication of responsibility. Indeed, one of the Sinn Féin Members of the Legislative Assembly has said that the
“suggestion that responsibility for administering the benefit system should be returned to Westminster would be a betrayal of the most vulnerable in society.”
This deal is a worse deal than the one supposedly agreed in the Stormont House agreement—or Stormont Castle deals—of 11 months ago. Sinn Féin Members, who reneged on that deal, must feel pretty silly: they held up the whole agreement and the budgets of every single Department, to the point where nearly every person in Northern Ireland felt the pain—all, we believe, so they can be seen to oppose austerity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
We now have this Bill handing power over to Westminster so that parties can blame the Brits, blame the English for the cuts and blame all of you in Westminster for good housekeeping. That is the same good housekeeping that the Stormont Finance Minister argued for and accepted only three years ago. That seems to be in the past: DUP Members are now happy to hand the power over so they too can blame Westminster. I wonder why —there must be an election coming. They are as bad as Sinn Féin at times, ducking their responsibilities and playing politics with our fantastic little country.
This deal is worse. DUP Members are happy to accept £345 million in full mitigation, minus the tax credits, rather than the £564 million in the original Stormont House discussions. They are happy to accept £500 million for shared education, but it is now aimed not just at shared education, but at shared housing. They are happy to tie themselves to the unknown welfare cuts through Westminster that may arise this Wednesday or in next year’s Budget. It seems that no one thought of that. They are happy to lose the return of welfare fines that we have already paid owing to their inaction: some £100 million in 2013 to 2015, and I believe a further £29 million of wasted welfare fines from this year—money we could have better spent in so many other areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one reason why we paid money back was that his party, when it was having its Jeremy Corbyn moment, was prepared to oppose the welfare changes and was therefore responsible for some of those payments? He cannot run away from that and blame it on somebody else; his own party took that stance.
We had very good reasons for taking that stance at the time. We can certainly complain because we are where we are today.
We really need help on welfare in Northern Ireland. It pains me to say so, because I do not want to be part of a begging bowl Government. I want to see Northern Ireland thrive. We have the high-tech skills, the best schools and the entrepreneurs, but we also have the unemployed, the disadvantaged and mental health problems that the years of troubles have left us with. As other hon. Members have said, we do not have the jobs and skills base for those at whom the welfare reforms are aimed. We need reskilling and the right manual jobs for this new welfare system to work.
The roll-out of universal credit in Northern Ireland has experienced major delays and other problems while dealing only with the easy cases. On the disability living allowance and personal independence payment, Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of DLA claims for poor mental health than in Great Britain: in 2010, mental health issues were the disabling condition for 23% of all DLA claims in Northern Ireland, whereas the equivalent figure was 12% in Great Britain. When it comes to tax credits, the changes will hurt far too many, and even with the Chancellor’s minimum wage plans, the childcare help and housing plans, 121,000 people will still be left short by just under £1,000 a year, which will affect our economy, our health service and, of course, our mental health numbers. We need to mitigate the tax credit cuts. With Westminster as yet not changing its plans, Stormont will have to pick up the effects of these cuts. That is one reason why this deal is not as good as it could be. As I have said, it is worse than the original Stormont House agreement.
The Bill really shocks me in that it is only agreed by the two main parties. It is almost as though the Government wanted a deal at any cost, but many have felt that we needed a whole new deal—not a Stormont House agreement, but a complete reworking of all post-Belfast agreement deals. We could have done not with a fresh or even a false start, but with a new start to tie up all the loose ends, such as the legacy issues; better government with a proper opposition; proper action not just on speaking rights and finance, but on a change in the committee structure; and a reworking of the petition of concern, but not into the damp squib of what looks like an effectual code.
So much more could have been included in the deal. I wish we had seen it as a way of drawing a line in the sand. I believe today is a sad day for Northern Ireland. We have shown how big a failure our Stormont is in its present hands and how it cannot agree on anything. I want to see Northern Ireland really thrive. It has the skills, and if we could have more action and more decisions, it can get there. I am grateful for what we have got today, but it could have been so much better.
I do not know where to begin in following the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). I must say that to him with the greatest sincerity. I suppose I have the advantage of being in politics a little longer than him. I have a long memory, and when people start to rewrite history, as he has this evening, it beggars belief. I was a member of the party to which he now belongs, and I witnessed that party’s failure of leadership at critical times in Northern Ireland. Many of the problems we have today are the result of that failure of leadership, such as on the Belfast agreement.
The hon. Gentleman talked about post-1998 agreements, but the core issue and problem with Stormont is what the Ulster Unionist party created in 1998. That is the difficulty we have. Would that we could change it and get the reforms that we desperately want. The DUP has been out ahead consistently arguing for reform at Stormont from 1998, and it continues to argue for that reform. I note that one of the reforms he did not mention is the reduction in the number of MLAs. My party supports that and would like it to happen now. There are lots of ways in which we can make Stormont more effective and tidy up the mess that others have created.
I believe that this is a better deal for Northern Ireland. I am absolutely convinced of that. It is a better deal for the people I represent for a number of reasons. It will create an opportunity to bring prosperity to Northern Ireland. We need that. I am proud of a Northern Ireland that stands on its own two feet, not a Northern Ireland that is on its knees. That is the kind of Northern Ireland that I want for the people I represent in Lagan Valley—a constituency that was once the heart of the Irish linen industry, which created employment, generated prosperity and gave people hope. That is where we want to get to. I want people to have employment and the dignity of work. The agreement provides part of the framework that will help us to achieve that. On that, we are most certainly with the Government.
I believe that welfare reform, which is the purpose of our debate this evening, is needed. Even the SDLP supports the principle of welfare reform. We have supported the Government on some aspects of welfare reform and opposed them on other elements, because we recognise that there are different circumstances in Northern Ireland arising out of more than 30 years of conflict, which have left us running behind the rest of the United Kingdom. We have a higher level of post-traumatic and conflict-related illness, which means that we have more claimants than other parts of the United Kingdom. Our economy has also been affected. The slowness of the recovery is due, in part, to the many years of under-investment. A lot of the money that we needed for investment went into security in Northern Ireland. We are beginning to move beyond that. We are looking to build a Northern Ireland that is about prosperity.
I say with the greatest of sincerity to the hon. Member for South Antrim, if we keep talking Northern Ireland down and talking in negative terms, how on earth do we ever hope to attract investment to South Antrim and other parts of Northern Ireland? How on earth will we send out a positive message in a very competitive world, where many countries are looking for investment, if we go around with long faces and talk down the little country that we belong to? That is negativity. It is not the true spirit of the once-proud Ulster Unionist party.
When I hear the hon. Gentleman saying that his party does not agree that this Parliament of the United Kingdom should legislate for Northern Ireland, I have to pinch myself. Is that the party of Jim Molyneaux? Is it the party of Enoch Powell? Is it the party that argued from these Benches over the years for a Northern Ireland that was proudly part of the United Kingdom and of this Parliament? The Ulster Unionist party is now reduced to decrying the idea that this Parliament should legislate for our part of the United Kingdom. It is incredible that a Unionist would argue that this Parliament has no right to legislate for Northern Ireland. It is a Sinn Féin argument that I did not think I would hear a Unionist utter. This Parliament has the right to do it and should do it. That is why we support the Bill that is before the House this evening. The Assembly had the opportunity to debate it and a number of parties oppose it.
Interestingly—I am drawing towards a close, Mr Deputy Speaker—the hon. Member for South Antrim talked about tax credits and the need to protect the vulnerable. When it came to the vote on tax credits, the Democratic Unionist party went into the No Lobby and the hon. Gentleman abstained. In the other place, when there was the opportunity to do something about tax credits, the Ulster Unionist party was nowhere to be seen. Its peers disappeared. When I hear the cant that comes from some of these Benches about the need to protect the vulnerable in our society and the need to protect working families in South Antrim, I wonder where the hon. Gentleman was when some of us took the stand that needed to be taken for those vulnerable people in South Antrim.
My party fully supports what is happening here this evening because we want to move on; we need to move on. We have been bogged down for far too long. We want prosperity for Northern Ireland—let’s get on with it.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, but I regret the fact that the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill is not being discussed in the place where it should have been discussed: the Northern Ireland Assembly. All of us should have the higher ambition of ensuring the fulfilment of a meaningful devolution process. As one of the parties that negotiated the Good Friday agreement along with both Governments, supported by the majority of people on the island of Ireland through the two referendums that established the political institutions, we believe that this debate on welfare reform should be taking place in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
As a party, we believe in the principle of welfare reform, but we recognise that people do not choose to be on benefits. It is not a lifestyle choice, as was pointed out during the debate on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill back in July.
For a party that has always supported devolution, it is not just a matter of regret but the cause of a deep sense of anger that the power to deal with this welfare legislation has been passed back to this Chamber from the Northern Ireland Assembly through a legislative consent motion, simply to save the blushes and electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin, with the acceptance and acquiescence of the DUP.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to tax credits. I recall us all going through the No Lobby, but it is interesting that this enabling legislation will facilitate in-work tax credit reductions. The DUP will support that, which is something of an anomaly. That is a difficult situation that it will have to explain to the electorate.
It is interesting to note that, according to research carried out by the Library, 112,500 people in Northern Ireland are in receipt of tax credits and the annual £60 million of tax credit top-ups for the next four years will meet only 40% of what Northern Ireland will lose.
I do not mean to cut the hon. Lady off during a flourish of rhetoric, but does she accept that the welfare reform legislation does not include changes to tax credits? Those have been made through other legislation that is totally separate. It is wrong to set up a straw man by indicating that there is a connection between this legislation and tax credits.
My understanding is that the British Government, whose representatives are here today, including the Secretary of State, are claiming that that is the situation.
The people of Northern Ireland fought long and hard with political parties and both Governments to secure the democratic political structures. The SDLP wants to see the bedding down of those institutions through political stability; economic prosperity; greater devolution in respect of fiscal flexibilities, broadcasting and telecommunications; and the deepening of the north-south and British-Irish structures that were facilitated by the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We do not want to see power removed from the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to be given to the Secretary of State and this Chamber. That was not the purpose of the Act that we voted for in 1998, when power was given to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive.
Will the hon. Lady just reflect on the past few months? If she and her colleagues have ever listened to the Stephen Nolan show on Radio Ulster, they will have realised that the prolonged arguments over welfare reform have, most regrettably, managed to bring the Assembly into disrepute. As a committed devolutionist—I know the hon. Lady shares my views—does she agree that unless we settle the argument over welfare reform, the majority of people in Northern Ireland might prefer direct rule? I am sure she would not want that, and it is not something that I wish for, but the issue has to be settled and the Bill will do that.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. As a committed devolutionist I want to see devolution in Northern Ireland, and I want it to grow and deepen. That is why I do not like the fact that the Bill is being discussed in this Chamber. As for what happens on the Stephen Nolan show, I would say that the people of Northern Ireland are sick, sore and tired of in-and-out Ministers who lasted for 10 minutes, and who did not bring a certain level of judgment and decision making to urgent issues such as waiting lists and other things that impacted on the daily lives of our constituents. Let us hope that from this day forward we can all move on and have the ability and capacity to deliver for all the people.
I welcome the top-ups and the mitigation measures, and I hope that they will still exist after the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review. As the Secretary of State will recall, during questions on her statement I asked her about that specific issue, and she confirmed that that would be the case. I hope that those measures will not be cancelled as a result of cuts that might flow from the comprehensive spending review, or as a result of announcements that the Chancellor might make about mitigation for tax credits that will allegedly come from decisions that were made in the House of Lords on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill some weeks ago.
The SDLP never tried to derail the top-ups or mitigations. I well recall meetings that we had in 2012. In February 2012 a delegation, including my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), met the then Minister in the other place—Lord Freud—to deal with these issues. We suggested that one top-up could deal with the eradication of the bedroom tax, and it took many months for the then Minister for Social Development to come to that realisation. We had a further meeting in November 2012 with Lord Freud at the DWP, and at that stage we again understood from him that a top-up for the bedroom tax would be one mitigation measure. We had no problem with that because we support those mitigation measures and we want to ensure that they are retained and bring a level of comfort and solace.
Let me emphasise again that nobody chooses to be on benefits. It is not a lifestyle choice; it is due to force of circumstance. For example, people do not necessarily have access to employment in the area where they reside, or the necessary travel arrangements to get to particular places of employment; or sadly, as in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), many people have lost their jobs, and do not find suitable employment that corresponds with their academic, engineering or vocational qualifications. That is a matter of deep regret.
The Government, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, must ensure that resources are invested and projects equitably distributed to afford balanced regional development throughout Northern Ireland in a way that allows job opportunities in the west and the south-east to compare with those in the city of Belfast.
This Bill should not be being discussed in Westminster, and its Second Reading and further stages should have been dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In that respect, the power of devolution has been removed. We have tabled amendments to curtail the Secretary of State’s power over our welfare system—power that has been handed over by Sinn Féin and the DUP. We have heard much about Sinn Féin and Tory cuts, and they are happy to allow the Tory Government to implement those cuts along with the support of the DUP. Devolution was hard fought for and hard won in Northern Ireland, and the SDLP unquestionably refuse to give it up.
Rather than reflecting on where we are this evening, would the hon. Lady not do better to spend her time focusing on the SDLP’s failure to promote any consensus on welfare over the past three years in Northern Ireland? If she had focused on those actions, we would not be here tonight.
Does my hon. Friend recall that in 2011 in the Northern Ireland Assembly, when the Welfare Reform Bill was going through this House, the SDLP proposed in the Assembly that a special committee should be set up to undertake parallel scrutiny and to anticipate the implications of that Bill, so that we could have consensus and address Whitehall? That was voted down by the DUP.
I thank my hon. Friend. I well recall that because I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the time, and I was party to that proposal. I clearly remember that we were trying to achieve consensus on the best way to ensure that the best mitigation measures were put in place. That proposal was refused by the DUP and Sinn Féin—the cosy partners in government who deliver only for themselves and not for the wider public.
I speak as a former Minister for Social Development who had direct responsibility for benefits, and I well remember introducing a household fuel payment Bill, which was separate from measures that existed in Britain. That Bill sought to address fuel poverty and ensure that people who felt it would be difficult to pay for both eating and heating—we agreed with them—did not have to make that choice. The SDLP has always stood by the people and by the principle of consensus, and it is a matter of deep regret that others did not do so. I regret that the Bill is not being dealt with in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and that the power of devolution on these matters has been removed from our colleagues in the Assembly on a cross-community basis.
We are not taking away the power; we are taking the power in parallel. The power remains in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and should Ministers there wish to do so at any time in the future, they could bring forward welfare legislation. We are not removing the power, we are sharing it in a parallel process.
I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, but it would be much more helpful if he and his colleagues supported our amendments, which would help to clarify matters and to further delineate such measures. Before he winds up the debate, will the Minister reflect on our amendments as we move to the Committee stage?
The hon. Lady does at least engage in debate on these issues. We might appreciate her anger against the welfare reform proposals were it not for the dual standards that her party has adopted. She is railing against some of the measures in the Bill. For example, her party opposes the bedroom tax, as she calls it, but it was her own Minister who introduced the removal of the spare room subsidy for people who live in the private sector. On the one hand, she condemns the Government for picking on people in the public sector, but her own Minister introduced it for people in the private sector, where rents are even higher.
I well recall that measure being debated and it related solely to the private rented sector.
I regret that the Bill has not been taken in the Assembly, where it rightfully belongs. I hope the Minister will reflect on our amendments in his winding-up speech and provide greater clarity. I hope Northern Ireland can be a place of work, endeavour and prosperity. That is our job, the job of Parliament, the job of Cabinet and the job of the Northern Ireland Executive.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am reminded of the passage in Scripture from Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verses 1 to 8:
“To everything there is a season”.
I believe the season for change is now and that the Bill can deliver that change for people.
I would like to start by paying tribute to the outgoing First Minister and DUP leader, the right hon. Peter Robinson. The DUP has been at the forefront of securing a new future for a new Northern Ireland, striking the right balance between bringing those of us more sensitive to the past along with those who found it easier to move on. It is thanks to people such as Peter Robinson who made difficult decisions and were willing to sacrifice themselves personally and politically, and even in terms of their health, that we have had the longest ever sustained period of power-sharing. We provided free travel on public transport to everyone over 60 and secured the single largest ever investment in Northern Ireland by supporting Bombardier’s £520 million investment in the new C-Series aircraft. In difficult economic times, when heating prices were escalating, we made payments totalling £22.5 million to 150,000 households, which each received a £150 fuel payment. Devolution, with the DUP and Peter Robinson at the helm, has delivered for Northern Ireland.
I put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State and the Minister for their patience, good temperament, energy and civility, and for staying the course. I say well done to the Secretary of State and to the Minister.
It is fair to say that the welfare reforms passed in this place in 2012 have plagued the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly over the past three years. Since the restoration of devolution in 2007, no other proposed legislation has had such a troubled passage through the Assembly, including other welfare reform. Indeed, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) guided a welfare reform Bill through the Assembly in 2010, despite the fact that it included some controversial changes to the employment and support allowance and the introduction of the bedroom tax for the private rented sector.
The failure to pass equivalent legislation to the Welfare Reform Act 2012 in the Northern Ireland Assembly has undermined political stability in Northern Ireland and threatened the very existence of devolution, largely because of the impact it was having on public finances and the sustainability of the Executive’s budget. Consistent with the statement of funding policy, Her Majesty’s Treasury began fining or penalising the Executive two years ago for the savings forgone as a result of the failure to pass welfare reform at Stormont. In 2013-14, £13 million was lost. Last year, the Executive’s coffers lost £87 million. This year, it has been approximately £9.5 million each and every month. In such tough financial times, that was money the Executive could ill afford to squander.
I am sorry to say that Sinn Féin and the SDLP failed to live up to their responsibilities. They even failed to live up to the commitments they made in the Stormont House agreement just last year. They were content to see the Executive lose more than £150 million, with one SDLP MLA even telling the Assembly that it was a price worth paying. Have we ever heard anything as nonsensical as that? A price was certainly paid, but it was paid by every person in Northern Ireland. It was paid by vulnerable people in Northern Ireland who were deprived of services for which the Executive could not afford to pay. The £9.5 million a month that the Executive have been losing could have paid for 1,800 knee operations and 2,100 hip operations. The self-styled defenders of the vulnerable—we have them here, sitting in front of us—were, by their inaction and irresponsibility, hurting and harming the vulnerable.
This past week, a way forward has been agreed. The “Fresh Start” agreement, forged after 10 weeks of talks, reaches a resolution on welfare reform. The agreement will see welfare reform enacted in Northern Ireland—what we are debating today—but recognises Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances via various flexibilities. The agreement explicitly rules out the introduction of the social sector size criteria, or bedroom tax as it has become commonly known. That is an appropriate reflection of the fact that Northern Ireland’s social housing profile has been skewed towards three-bedroom family homes and that in certain places, especially Belfast, moving from a three-bedroom home in one part of the city to a two-bedroom house elsewhere may involve crossing a peace wall. It is not, therefore, a simple or straightforward option for many.
The agreement also sets aside £345 million, an average of approximately £86 million a year over the next four years, to mitigate the worst impacts on Northern Ireland of welfare reform, including the bedroom tax. Professor Eileen Evason will head up a small working group to bring forward proposals within this financial envelope to maximise the use of those resources. The £345 million, and the very welcome £240 million set aside to compensate those hardworking people also adversely affected by the Government’s proposed cuts to tax credits, comes at a cost to the Executive, but we believe it will protect the most vulnerable. This party is out to ensure that we protect the vulnerable.
Some, in essence those who have resisted welfare reform from the start, have turned their attention to the fact that the Bill is passing into law through Parliament, as opposed to the Assembly. We have heard that from previous speakers. The Assembly, of course, passed a legislative consent motion last week. The argument that this legislation is not being scrutinised properly is false. In the past few weeks, it has been debated and debated and debated, in the Assembly, in its Committees and on the airwaves like no other issue in the history of devolution. The truth is that welfare reform needs to pass in Northern Ireland or else the existence of devolution will be in serious and immediate jeopardy. That is the fact of it. Without the enactment of the deal reached last week, the Executive’s budget will not work. More public money that could be spent on health and education will head back to the Treasury. Financial flexibility secured at Stormont House will collapse and the long-term sustainability of the Executive’s finances will be fatally undermined. On the whole, the agreement looks like a good deal for stability, for Unionism, for all parties and for Northern Ireland. We have a chance to go forth and build on all that has been achieved to date and to continue to build a new Northern Ireland for all our citizens.
I hope that the fresh start can be just that, but for now it is important that we make the transition from agreement to implementation as smoothly as possible. We have been waiting months for the agreement to cement Northern Ireland Assembly’s future, and today we are playing our part in that process, ensuring that—to use a recently used phrase—we are not on the wrong side of history. As our First Minister said in his last speech to the party conference as leader on Saturday, Ulster is no longer at the crossroads, but on the motorway to a better future. Building on the achievements of the Northern Ireland Executive, led by the DUP and Peter Robinson, we have secured the exemptions, subsidies and incentives we need to keep Northern Ireland moving forward: the promise of more than £500 million; formal structures that deal with the scourge of paramilitarism and confine that episode to the history books—where it belongs; more help for health, including financial commitments, including for those with mental health issues and other vulnerable people in our society; and, of course, the devolution of corporation tax, which, as many of us know, is a game changer.
My hon. Friend will have heard the speech from the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), who said that corporation tax was not a silver bullet. Is it not ironic that during the negotiations on the financial bail-out, one of the things the Republic of Ireland held on to was the corporation tax level?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know corporation tax is not a silver bullet, but it would make a big, big difference to Northern Ireland. We see it as the catalyst for more jobs, a better economy, improved opportunities and the wage packets that people need in Northern Ireland, so we would like that issue resolved as well. As he said, Northern Ireland has for too long been at a competitive disadvantage from the Republic of Ireland’s much lower rate of corporation tax.
The day after the agreement was signed, the headline in one of the main newspapers in the Irish Republic was that the battle was on for jobs. They obviously appreciate the nature of the competition and the advantage that Northern Ireland will now have over them.
The battle is truly on, and the battle for us, as MPs, is to ensure that the jobs come to Northern Ireland, and that is what we will do. With Northern Ireland enjoying relative peace and a highly educated and motivated workforce, we now have the power to revolutionise its economy.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) misconstrued my argument. I said that corporation tax was a useful tool but not a silver bullet and that we could not continue to do without the necessary skills, apprenticeships and general training. Major companies, including Almac in his constituency, are having to move abroad. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, along with corporation tax, we need the necessary third-level education and skills?
For the record, the money to upskill the workforce to do those jobs is provided in the agreement. When it comes to further education or upskilling in companies or factories, the agreement gives us the chance to do something. We have to realise the good things about the agreement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) talked about people in the House and outside too often talking down Northern Ireland. That talk frustrates and scunners me. We need to consider the positives.
The Northern Ireland economy needs to bring in the quality and world-class jobs that too often our young people seek on other shores. We need to bring them home and give them the chance to do those jobs in Northern Ireland. The agreement does just what it says on the tin: it gives us a fresh start. Let us finish the job and keep Northern Ireland on that motorway to a better future. Moving forward, we do not want Northern Ireland to be a special case under any circumstances. Building the new and leaving behind the old still remains the aim, but it is hard earned, and provisions such as corporation tax and others in the deal will facilitate the transformation of Northern Irish society.
In conclusion, no Northern Ireland Member is enamoured with the proposed welfare reform legislation, which is why we opposed most of it, but we have to be realistic. Social security in Northern Ireland has always operated on the basis of parity with Great Britain. Refusal to enact reforms will come at a cost. Northern Ireland can and will pay a price to protect the most vulnerable, and the “Fresh Start” agreement does just that. It is time for sense to prevail. Northern Ireland will have the most generous welfare system in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We will also put our public finances back on a sound footing, not least by unlocking a sizeable financial boost from Her Majesty’s Government. Most importantly, however, we will have saved devolution.
Is it just me or if a constituency starts with “South” do others get depressed after that Member has spoken? It appears to be a trend. After the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) spoke, I was depressed. In fact, his analysis of Northern Ireland’s economic situation as a result of the crisis gave me a headache that not even aspirin could cure. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), too, depressed me when he told me that 5,000 jobs were going in my constituency. Thank goodness it was an exaggeration! It is depressing that 1,800 jobs are going and that another 500 will be affected, but they have not gone yet and efforts are being made to help people into better employment. Moreover, they will receive such generous redundancy payments—among the most generous ever—that they probably would not be entitled to the welfare reform package anyway, and we are hoping to move them into other manufacturing jobs. So the comparison of chalk with cheese comes to mind. Then, of course, we had the oration from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). At one point, I saw the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State flee, and I thought she was going to end up speaking to Jonathan Wood and Timothy Timber, while people ran to get some air and to revive because they were getting so depressed.
The picture is not that bad. That message has to go out loud and clear. It is not that bleak or awful.
Yes, they should cheer up. We should all cheer up.
I welcome the fact that Westminster is legislating on this matter. This is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and if the Assembly is incapable or dysfunctional, this place should threaten to take those powers from it—and it should take them. Thankfully, some people, having made threats, saw the light. In that regard, we have seen an important change in the political regime. For years, when Sinn Féin threatened, Sinn Féin got. Mr Blair was quick to bend over for their every wish because they made threats. So I must salute the Government, because when Sinn Féin threatened, Tough Theresa stood up to them. When they threatened, Tough Theresa said no, and I think we should salute her for it. That was no roll-over Unionism from the Government, and we welcome it. We welcome the change of regime and the fact that Sinn Féin cannot go on making threats or suggesting ominously that things could come to a sore and sad end if it does not get its way.
I welcome the fact that that is no longer the case under this regime, but let us look at some of the U-turns that have been performed in the last year and a half, because they are amazing. In an Assembly debate, Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, made the most derogatory comments about the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the Northern Ireland Minister at the time. He said that the Minister had entered into this debate
“in a very clumsy way”
and that he had
“ventured into areas of responsibility for the Assembly and the Executive—areas that he had no right to venture into.”
Last week, Mr McGuinness voted for this Minister to have a direct say in those affairs. He said one day, “You can’t go into that area,” and the next day he voted for this Minister to take these powers and make the decisions for him.
Mr McGuinness is well and truly on record as threatening Tough Theresa, going so far as to say on 5 September this year that
“Any move by the British government to impose…welfare”
reform on Northern Ireland
“would be a huge mistake”
that would seriously undermine devolution. Of course, it was Mr McGuinness—Mad Martin—who made the huge mistake of making a threat and then not being able to follow up on it.
Here is what happened: an agreement was made—an agreement that the public can cast their eye on and then support or reject. Of course, the Assembly has already indicated that it will support it. We have had the mild approach by the hon. Lady, but she should be standing up to Sinn Féin tonight, poking them in the eye and telling them that they are the ones who have rolled over. She should be joining us and supporting us in this campaign. I welcome the fact that others have stood up to them.
Mr McGuinness also made very critical comments of what he called “millionaires’ row” in this House. He said that it was because of those millionaires that these terrible welfare reforms were being introduced. As it turns out, he has now asked the same millionaires to implement them because he could not do it.
I can understand why the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) and other Members in this House now look jealously at Northern Ireland. The welfare reform system, with its flexibilities, that we now have in place—and could have had over a year ago if we had been listened to then—is, to quote the Secretary of State, the most generous and best welfare reform system in the world. That is what she said last week. I welcome that fact, and I can understand why other Members are casting envious looks at Ulster at this time. I hope the flexibilities that have been introduced will demonstrate that we were correct to make the effort—both through our Department for Social Development at home and on these Benches—to secure them.
Those flexibilities should be reflected on briefly in this House. We have ensured, for example, that individuals on benefits in Northern Ireland will not be financially worse off as a result of the changes. We are ensuring that the moneys that Northern Ireland will spend will mean that a family on benefits will not be made worse off by the changes that are made—that they will be able to continue to budget on the sort of income that they have now. The frequency of universal payments that we will allow for will enable people to have payments made flexibly over a month, instead of just receiving a one-monthly payment. That is a very important change to help low-income families to manage their incomes wisely.
The split in universal credit will be flexible in Northern Ireland, so that people will not be penalised in the ways that, it is alleged in this House, mainland people in receipt of those payments could be penalised. We have also ensured the direct payment of universal credit to landlords, so that people can avoid getting into rent arrears. That is an important point to make. We have protection for those receiving housing benefit—my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) touched on those changes—and we have ensured that the sanctions for those on benefits will be changed. We will ensure that there will not be waste—that the right benefit goes to the right person at the right time—but that, for example, the strict sanctions with civil penalty provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill will not apply and that the sanction period will be reduced to two years. For those who may face sanctions, it is important to make the point that a more forgiving system will be put in place.
Where both people in a home are on benefits and that home breaks up, we have also ensured that one claimant cannot spite the other claimant by stopping their benefit. There will also be good flexibility for joint claims in homes. There will be changes to the medical reports system in Northern Ireland—changes that I know are jealously looked at by Opposition Members from constituencies on mainland Britain. We have lone parent flexibility, which is not available to the same extent here, and there will be an extension of discretionary housing payments in the social sector.
Those measures and many, many more will help low-paid families in Northern Ireland and people on benefits. That is something that we strive to do because it is those families who have put us on these Benches and given us the privilege to speak for them. We are the voice for those voiceless people. We were prepared to speak up for them and make this welfare change, which was coming down the tracks, more palatable than it would have been otherwise. I am very proud of the stand that my party has taken to ensure that we made those changes and secured those flexibilities.
I welcome the point that the Minister of State made to us about how the Executive will be able to reclaim some of the financial penalties that Northern Ireland has already paid—and could be paying—and which the Treasury has already taken from the block grant. I look forward to the Minister calculating what they are and writing a nice big juicy cheque to give the money back to the Northern Ireland Executive at some time in the future.
As part of the “Fresh Start” agreement, a panel will be formed under one of the best known experts, Professor Eileen Evason, who will look at how the legislation is affecting people and will advise us on it. I do not think anyone who knows Eileen Evason or has followed her career could ever say that she is a patsy for anyone or will pull her punches. She will tell it as it is, and I believe people will listen, because her expertise far surpasses that of many people who deal with these issues in Northern Ireland. I think her advice and guidance will be most welcome.
The hon. Member for South Down made some calculations. It is important to put on record the facts about the amount of money that will be available. The Stormont Castle agreement made available an average of £90 million a year to mitigate the most harmful aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The fresh start initiative will make available £345 million over a four-year period. That is a significant difference, and that money is for the exact same purpose. In addition, the “Fresh Start” agreement is making available a further £240 million over those four years to deal with the proposed reductions in tax credits. Obviously we await the Chancellor’s statement on Wednesday to see how that will be fully calculated.
This is good for Northern Ireland. It could have been an awful lot worse. We could all easily get depressed, with some Members saying, “We just don’t want anything to do with it,” but we have to be engaged in the art of what is possible and practicable, and that is what we are trying to do as constituency Members in this House.
My constituency does not have the term “south” in it, although I may have to begin by slightly depressing the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) by responding to one of the final points he made. He made some big claims about the “Fresh Start” deal, talking about how the original Stormont House deal provided for mitigation measures of £90 million a year on average, whereas the “Fresh Start” deal involves £345 million over four years. I think most people would know that four £90 millions comes to £360 million, which is slightly more than £345 million, if we are talking about the average over four years.
Many points have been raised in the debate—points that go far and wide away from the immediate subject of the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill. I will have to follow others in covering some of that ground, relating to the provenance of the whole debate and the Bill.
The SDLP, has been castigated and people have said, “Oh, you never tried to build consensus on welfare reform.” As I tried to explain in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), as far back as when the original legislation was going through this House, we tried with other Assembly parties to build a consensus in the then Assembly, to anticipate what the implications would be and not to wait for the legislation to be passed through this House, with the Assembly and a Minister being faced with the need to take forward karaoke legislation that would not be to our taste or liking. We tried in late 2011 to get a special committee set up in the Assembly precisely to do that on an all-party basis and to feed into the legislation as it was coming through this House.
Among the issues that we said we wanted to address at that time was the bedroom tax. When the legislation was going through, the SDLP was the only party from Northern Ireland that spoke about the implications of the bedroom tax for Northern Ireland and said that measures were needed to deal with it. There we were; we were adopting that approach in this Chamber, and we were trying to work with other parties in the Assembly properly to address those issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Down has said, as well addressing the issues in this Chamber, we were meeting the Minister for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud. Early in 2012, he acknowledged that many of the claims made by the hon. Member for North Antrim about allowing for flexibility and the split in universal payments were promised to us. He said that if the Assembly had a unified approach to trying to get those measures, they would be made available. We were promised that the Department for Work and Pensions would have no problem if the legislation for Northern Ireland included the direct payment of housing benefit to landlords. We were also promised that the DWP would make sure that the computer system it was bringing forward would allow for that.
Much of what is being called part of the conclusion to this good “Fresh Start” approach was always available—some of us had always worked on that basis and had always advocated it inside the Assembly, yet we were being told by DUP Members, including the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) who is unfortunately not in his place, that we were scaremongering when we expressed our concerns about the implications of this Bill.
The hon. Member for North Antrim, among others, has referred to the mitigation of sanctions, but again we fought and argued over that issue in the Assembly and in various all-party talks, trying to get agreement with all parties. We had useful discussions, not least with the DUP Minister for Social Development, about that and other matters. I do not think that anyone could say that at Stormont House 2014, the SDLP was found wanting in trying to make sure that we could reach some agreement and resolution on welfare reform.
As I have said, we subsequently ended up being castigated. Sinn Féin accused the SDLP of having sold out or caved in on welfare reform before anybody else, but the point we made in Stormont House was that we wanted to ensure that there would be mitigation and that any mitigation measures would be sustainable and within the devolved budget. That is why we indicated that we could go for a mitigation package. The First Minister told us on a Wednesday evening that officials were telling him that this “option C package”, as it was called—it was a combination of other options—would cost £93 million out of this year’s devolved budget.
The SDLP said that we wanted to see improvement in estimates in some areas, but that we could go with £100 million out of this year’s budget and the projections beyond that. The UUP wanted to see estimates improved and the Alliance had some concerns about the estimate being more than was allowed for in the budget, but said that it would go with the £93 million if it bought about a deal. Sinn Féin on that Wednesday evening said that it would not go with that. It said that it had to be “option C plus”, but it could not tell us what was in that option. It thought it would cost a lot more money. Sinn Féin representatives said that somebody somewhere in the building would be able to tell them, and they would be able to tell us.
By the Thursday evening, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister came into the Executive room where the five parties were meeting, and the First Minister informed us that he and Martin had been having conversations with each other and with officials, that they now had an agreement and that it would cost £94 million out of the budget. Once again, the SDLP position was that we wanted to see the estimates and that we would allow up to £100 million. That is what helped to bring about the fact that people saw that there was a way of solving welfare reform problems. The Stormont House agreement said that proposals would be developed and would be brought to the Assembly, but whenever the legislation came to the Assembly, it was exactly the same as the draft Bill that had existed before the Stormont House agreement. That is why the SDLP tabled amendments in the Assembly. They were not Bill-shattering amendments in any way, but they nevertheless triggered a petition of concern from the DUP, which had the effect of a veto. In any case, the amendments were voted down by both Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Several of them were. Some would have had cost implications, but many were cost-neutral. That was one of the arguments that the Minister made at the time. We checked whether the British Government were consulted by the Minister or anybody else and asked whether there would be a problem if the amendments were passed, but the British Government made it clear that they were not consulted and that they had not acted against our amendments in any way. They were not saying that our amendments would have threatened to derail the Stormont House agreement or were in any way in breach of it. It was entirely the decision of Sinn Féin and the DUP to veto our amendments by the petition of concern and by voting against them.
You will not want me to anticipate the Committee stage too much, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the fact is that the amendments we have tabled for the Committee stage capture some of those same amendments. I ask people to read those amendments in the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Down has said because they would not derail or damage the Bill.
On the wider politics of this matter I can perhaps reach some agreement with the hon. Member for North Antrim, because they involve a strange change of position on the part of Sinn Féin. All along, Sinn Féin said that it was going to oppose welfare reform completely. All along, it said that no claimant—now or in the future—would be a penny worse off as a result of any changes. SDLP Members said that we could not subscribe to that position. We said that could not pretend that we could guarantee by any tactics, in the Assembly or here, that we could protect every last penny of benefit for any existing claimant or any new claimants into the future. We were very clear, honest and honourable about that.
Sinn Féin election posters this year were on the theme of “Stop the Tory cuts”. Some of us said that Sinn Féin was in no position to stop Tory cuts unless it was in a position to stop a Tory Government, and, as a party that does not take up its seats, that was not going to happen. It was nonsense, but that is what Sinn Féin said. We were told by Conor Murphy:
“The Tories have no mandate in the north for their cuts agenda. The local parties need to make it clear that Tory cuts to public services and the welfare state are unacceptable.”
Now, apparently, those Tory cuts to the welfare state are acceptable to Sinn Féin. Martin McGuiness told us:
“I am not prepared to preside over the austerity agenda that the British government are inflicting on our executive. My conscience would not allow me to do it.”
Well, he has got over his conscience now, and he is quite happy; perhaps he is pretending to himself that he is not presiding over it by virtue of having handed the power to Westminster. I may now receive a voice-activated intervention from the Minister, who will tell us that the power has not been handed over and that Westminster will have a parallel, or concurrent, legislative power, which Stormont will also have. There will be a power switch on both walls, but only the power switch on the Westminster wall will be activated and used for the next 13 months during which, after the Bill is passed, a series of orders and regulations will be made.
We have been told about the sunset clause. Sinn Féin seems to be allowing some people to suggest, in social media, that it is a very clever thing, and that a big line is to be drawn in the sand at the end of 2016, because many of the more nefarious and controversial aspects of the current Welfare Reform and Work Bill are meant to kick in in 2017. The sunset clause, however, will apply only to the decision-making powers that are now being taken by the Secretary of State. It will not apply to the content or effect of any of the decisions that are made by him or her. All the changes that are made in direct rule legislation here, in Orders in Council and in other instruments, will still apply in 2017 and beyond.
We have heard many references to the Assembly’s legislative consent motion. We should bear in mind that it includes the words
“approves the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster”.
Some of us did not approve those clauses as they were initially introduced; we argued against them, and voted against them. I recall members of the DUP expressing concerns about some of those clauses, voting against them, and voting for amendments. Unusually, the legislative consent motion did not even make provision for amendments. Other such motions have not just allowed Westminster to pass a Bill, but allowed amendments to be tabled. For some reason, this motion precluded that.
Many of us are in difficulty because we are being asked, on Second Reading, to approve matters on which we have already voiced and recorded our disapproval. That applies not just to the SDLP, but to a number of other parties. We are being told to do that because it will be the great deal that will move everything forward. Members have touched on other aspects of the deal, but my concern relates directly to the Bill.
I am certainly not saying that we should set aside the mitigations and the other measures that have been so carefully agreed to. Indeed, I think that we should have done more work on those. I also think—I raised this at Stormont House in 2014—that we need to think, collectively, about whether there is the proper demarcation between Westminster and the Assembly in relation to welfare reform.
Perhaps we should look at what has been happening in Scotland. I am not suggesting that we should adopt an exact model of the Scotland Bill, but I think we should take account of some of the issues and ideas that have flowed from those debates. I think we should look to the longer term, and ensure that we do not fall into the trap of either allowing karaoke legislation to be pushed through the Assembly as a result of “budget bullying”, or creating the potential for political crises. There is a different delineation in the scope of the devolution of welfare in Scotland. I think that we may need to examine what is happening there, given the emphasis that many Members here have placed on some of the most sensitive benefits in Northern Ireland, relating to disabilities and other long-term conditions including mental ill health.
It was part of the original Stormont House deal in 2014 that parties would be prepared to look at how wider issues of devolution—not just tax, but benefits—were being handled elsewhere, with the aim of securing a more sustainable adjustment for the future. If we want to avoid the spasmodic crises in which parties end up trying to find a brink on which to teeter every time there is disagreement about important issues such as these, we may need to do something else.
When I raised the need to ensure that we were in a better position in the future and suggested ways of dealing with the medium to longer-term issues, I did not receive much support from members of other parties. The First Minister merely said that my problem was seeing around too many corners too early, and that perhaps we should just let some things go and they would be all right when we got to them. The fact is, however, that we anticipated a great deal of difficulty with welfare reform, which is why we argued for a different approach in the Assembly all those years ago, as well as here. We have been proved right, to the extent that, if we had all taken a different course together, we might be in a better position.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State power not just to translate the rules in relation to benefits from the 2012 Act, but, as the Minister has indicated, to prepare an Order in Council to translate proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The legislative consent motion refers to “the welfare clauses”. I note that the shadow Secretary of State did not receive an answer to his very fair question, which my party colleagues also asked in the Assembly last week: what exactly is meant by “the welfare clauses”? Some Members seem to believe that they do not include tax credits, but the Treasury now counts tax credits as welfare for many purposes, including the welfare cap. We have different notions of welfare, and the welfare measures in that Bill are not restricted to conventional social security benefits; they extend to tax credits as well. We have a right to more clarity, and I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will receive a clear answer to his question.
This has been a bit confusing. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Down pointed out that not all the tax credit losses would be covered by this package, we were told that tax credits were nothing to do with it because they did not constitute devolved welfare. At the same time, however, DUP Members have claimed that the mitigation on tax credits has been the significant part of the deal, and the main justification for accepting it. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that it must be counted for the purpose of one side of the argument, but not for the purpose of another side.
In response to the challenge presented by the fact that some are not prepared to work for consensus, the Secretary of State may well confirm that in the Stormont House talks we made it clear that we wanted all the parties to agree that the Institute for Fiscal Studies should be invited to provide us with a quick regional analysis of the implications of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and the tax credit changes. That would also test the Secretary of State’s argument at the time that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill was a good deal for Northern Ireland—she used exactly the same words she is using for this Bill for the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, before the Government were moved to say they would amend it or mitigate it in some way. On these measures, she said that we needed to take account of the changes in terms of the tax thresholds and the national living wage that would make good the loss. We were saying, “Let’s get the IFS to do this so we’re not just relying on figures from our own officials in the Department for Social Development or anywhere else.” Again, however—surprise, surprise—the SDLP put forward an idea for all the parties to go with, that was informed and would have been neutral and constructive, but it was not supported. That was not for lack of action by us to try to take a consensus approach and make sure all parties have a better-informed approach in that regard.
We were being told by the Secretary of State—Sinn Féin and the SDLP in particular were being told this—both publicly from the Dispatch Box and in the talks that there would not be a deal on the past if there was not a deal on welfare reform. It was said that welfare reform had to be settled and move forward or else there would be no progress on the past. But now we have a deal that gives us welfare reform moving forward in the way the Government want—entirely in the Government’s hands—and we do not have a deal on the past moving forward. People want to know how that came about; it is not only the victims who want to know that.
When we listen to Sinn Féin on this, it tells us, on the past, “No deal is better than a bad deal,” but then we ask them about welfare reform, and they tell us, “A bad deal is better than no deal.” It is a complete contradiction; the only consistency is Sinn Féin’s inconsistency and lack of principle. Of course Sinn Fein might well try to tell us, “Oh no, we’ve delivered on our promise,” because Gerry Adams’s big promise was, “No one will have a reduction to any benefit under the control of the Assembly or the Executive.” So how does Gerry keep his promise? He removes it from the control of the Assembly or Executive and hands it to direct rule.
We must remember that it is direct rule we are giving; it is going back to the old Order in Council position. Such measures cannot be amended—indeed, the sponsoring legislation for the system we have tonight cannot even be amended either, unfortunately, because of the way the allocation of time motion works. That is what we are stuck with; that is the choice Sinn Féin has made and it has yet to explain adequately why.
Sinn Féin does not have the protections it says it wants, therefore, and it now tries to pretend that we are in a completely new situation because of 8 July—because the Chancellor announced a Budget on 8 July that changed everything and threatened a lot more people. We all knew there was going to be a Budget on 8 July. In fairness, Sinn Fein, like ourselves, pointed out during the election, and even back last year at Stormont House, that whatever package we had, if the Tories got back into government other cuts could be sought. There was speculation: sums of £12 billion or £16 billion were mentioned. We also knew that, even if Labour returned to government, it was committed to applying the welfare cap on a UK-wide basis. So we knew there were going to be difficulties. Therefore, for Sinn Féin to pretend that a completely new situation that nobody could have predicted came about with the return of the Conservative Government and the Budget of 8 July is completely wrong.
Sinn Féin’s argument back in July was that all parties should work together in facing the Government and we should join forces with Scotland and Wales as well. When some of us looked for that approach at the recent Stormont House talks, we found there were no real takers for it, not even Sinn Féin, which had advertised itself as the main sponsor and advocate of that way forward.
People will want to know why we have come to this position, therefore. They will want to know why Sinn Féin has used the so-called threat of collapse of the institutions to collapse its own position. We have known for some time that the DUP has been in something of a roll-over mode in relation to welfare reform legislation, because the DUP position has been that once the legislation went through Westminster—[Interruption.] The DUP position has been that, once the legislation went through Westminster, we have no choice but to go along with it; that has essentially been the line it has pushed in the Assembly. It also never objected to the fine and never raised any argument against it. One would think that it was almost in on it at the beginning as a tactic. The threat of a fine was never used before in relation to welfare changes, which were not always reflected in Northern Ireland on the basis of parity, but it was used this time. But essentially, the DUP’s position has been to say, “We weren’t really for that legislation when it went through Westminster”, even though there were parts of it that they did not really oppose. DUP Members actually voted down amendments from the House of Lords, including measures to protect child benefit from the benefit cap. The DUP’s position has been to say, “We have to comply with this”, whether in the name of parity or to avoid fines. It has adopted a roll-over approach.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is making every effort to build consensus on this issue. He has said on a number of occasions that this is “karaoke” legislation. Is he really saying that, while he is happy to follow the substance of what is being asked of him, he is having difficulty in striking the right tune?
The karaoke legislation is the legislation that goes through the Assembly. The Assembly is told that, in the name of parity, it has nominal legislative power, but it has to stick to the words and music set down by Whitehall; otherwise, there will be fines, penalties and threats. That kind of budget bullying would rightly not be accepted in relation to the new devolved procedures in Scotland. I am sure that the Treasury would think twice before daring to apply penalties and fines in relation to the concurrent decision-making powers that will apply under the Scotland Bill. The Minister talked about parallel powers. The Scotland Bill contains measures referring to decisions being made concurrently. Some decisions are to be made by the Secretary of State for Scotland and others by Scottish Ministers, but the clauses refer to decisions being made concurrently and to consultation. There is no suggestion that a disagreement between a Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers would result in the kind of budget penalties that have been invoked in the context of Northern Ireland. That brings me back to the point that we shall need to look at this in a wider context after we get over this particular episode.
I was making the point that the DUP has been in an acquiescent, roll-over mode for some time. The bizarre thing is that Sinn Féin is now in hand-over mode in this regard. Its best way of holding on to its position is to hand over power to the British Government—the Tory Government—and to give them direct rule in relation to these matters for 13 months. Some of us have tabled amendments that would provide a middle way, even though the DUP and Sinn Féin have already got a legislative consent motion through the Assembly. The effects of that could be mitigated if we were to pass amendments to better delineate the powers that the Secretary of State could exercise, as well as the other powers that we are told will remain seated with the Ministers in the devolved Assembly, not least those relating to the vexed question of sanctions. The hon. Member for North Antrim mentioned that in his speech.
Many people in this House have fundamental concerns about how the sanctions regime that stems from the 2012 Act operates. I have even heard Conservative MPs saying that, although they have no problem with the rationale behind the benefit changes in the Act, they have serious questions about the sanctions regime. I believe that Members from Northern Ireland and elsewhere share those concerns. Having listened to the debates on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and the Scotland Bill this year, I know that Members have concerns about how the sanctions would apply in Scotland and elsewhere.
That is one reason why some of us are making decisions in the name of consensus. We think we are putting forward concerns that other parties have expressed, and we are trying to create a legislative answer to them and have trust in ourselves. After all, I heard the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) saying that we should not be talking down Northern Ireland and its institutions. Some of us are trying to maintain the democratic institutions there, even if Sinn Féin and the DUP have to let some of these matters go, and we should at least ensure that we hold on to our responsibilities relating to sanctions, among other things. We have to do more than have a form of devolution that says, “Yes, we have all the power and we are making all the decisions, but this one we didn’t want. A big boy made me do it.” Sinn Féin’s answer this time is, “A big girl is going to do this for us.” I refer to “Tough Theresa”, or whatever the hon. Member for North Antrim is going to call her. That is not good enough, because if we are to give people confidence, we have to show that we are serious about using our powers when we have them and not let them go. That applies to the corporation tax power as well as to other things that other people talk about.
The final point I wish to make is about the wider aspect of the fresh start. Some of us made strong contributions about paramilitarism during the Stormont House talks. We emphasised, and shared papers with other parties about, a whole community approach to rooting out all traces and vestiges of paramilitarism in our society—not just singling out groups and singling out parties. We suggested a common declaration that should be taken by everybody. We put forward those proposals—we did not see proposals from other parties. We are glad that some of our proposals have found their way into the fresh start, but we think the proposals there could be better, stronger and more amplified. Similarly, we proposed a whole enforcement approach, covering all the policing agencies and the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs pursuits that should be undertaken, including those on a cross-border basis. We sought a whole community approach and a whole enforcement approach.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) has said that he was disappointed about the wider economic aspect of the package, and we see the reason for that when we compare what is in the package with the range of proposals and ideas that my party put forward and shared with other parties. I hear Conservative Members talk about the importance of reducing corporation tax so that we can compete with the south, and somebody was quoting a recent newspaper headline. We need to remember that our task in the north is not just to compete with the south with a comparable rate of corporation tax; we need to recognise that the south has built up because of its huge investment in further and higher education and in skills, and a very significant investment in infrastructure, and we are not matching that in the north. It is not there in the current programme for government and it is still not there in the vision after the fresh start. We need to be moving a lot further on that.
It is not only the south we need to be competing with; we need to recognise that as a regional economy, localities and city constituencies such as mine are having to compete with cities and city regions on this island, too, which are benefiting from things such as city deals and various other packages and measures. Although I do not buy all of the bluff and guff that goes with the whole northern powerhouse idea and so on, the fact is that significant drivers for economic growth are being given, and they are allowing cities and regions to shape things for themselves and we are leaving ourselves out of them in Northern Ireland. We should have had something in the class of city deals as part of this package, too.
Where there are positive things that allow us to move forward on issues, my party is prepared to recognise them. We are not going to be in denial about those things where there are difficulties. As ever, we need to build on what we have. We might not like exactly how we got here and we might not like the detail, but we always have to build forward—that remains our approach. As we build forward, we have to remember that the Assembly is meant to take on its responsibilities and to meet them, and it should not have been sliding over as handily as it did just to spare the blushes of Sinn Féin. The hon. Member for North Antrim says we are being too light on Sinn Féin, but we must recall why the motion has been put through here in the way it has been. We must remember why it is all being done so fast and why no amendments can be tabled. That is all designed to minimise the difficulty and the embarrassment for Sinn Féin. The timing of all this is not just to convenience the step-down by the First Minister; it is to cover and convenience the climbdown by Sinn Féin.
It is interesting to follow the fascinating and detailed contribution from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), with its insight into welfare reform. Let me make it clear at the outset that the name of my constituency does not begin with the word “south”—or indeed with the word “north”—but it does have “South” contained within it. I am happy to live up to that record—I hope it will not be as depressing in the minds of some as others have been or claim to be. My aspirin has already gone, so I think I will move on.
The Secretary of State, who is not in her place at the moment, must feel privileged to be referred to as “tough Theresa”. It certainly goes way beyond some of the names that I recall other Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland being called in the past. For example, I remember “Traitor” and “Lundy” to name but a couple, and there are loads more as well.
I am pleased that welfare reform is moving forward, because we could not continue as we were. I also wish to put it on the record that I, too, was disappointed that this did not go through the Northern Ireland Assembly for a reasonable and proper debate. I did note some Members saying, “Why shouldn’t the UK Parliament legislate for it? It has every right to.” Of course it has every right to do so. I do not deny that, and nor does my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). However, the reality is that we have devolution, and under devolution we should debate these issues, but, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, if there is a dysfunctional and unworkable Assembly, why should the UK Parliament not legislate? That is right. If the Assembly is dysfunctional, then, yes, let us legislate, and that is exactly what we are doing.
I must say though that had we had the debate in the Assembly, we might have achieved more clarity. For example, nearly £600 million will come from other Northern Ireland Departments to support welfare reform and tax credits. We could have had some indication of where that money was going to come from and what Departments would be affected—would it be Health, Regional Development, or Culture, Arts and Leisure? In bringing this matter to this place, that is the type of debate we are missing, but we are where we are, and that is what we must progress with. I want to reiterate once again that I am pleased to see welfare reform progress, because we could not continue as we were.
I assume that some parties in this House will have huge difficulties with this. The parties that voted against welfare reform in the past will find it hard to support this legislation. That may be so, but we must progress. Yes, Northern Ireland is getting a better deal in respect of money coming in to welfare reform and substituting for tax credits, but let us not forget that that money is coming from our own Northern Ireland block grant, which means that it will have to come out of other Departments and it will have to be paid for by the Northern Ireland Executive moneys. I noted that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) made an all-out attack on the Ulster Unionist party. He has every right to do so, and I am sure there will be more of that as time goes on. We will just take it as it comes.
Yes, we will do that as well. The right hon. Gentleman pointed his finger at the Ulster Unionist party, saying that we were to blame for what we have. Yes, it is easy to lay the blame on the Ulster Unionists, but let me remind him that his party has been the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the past 12 years. We still have the IRA army council in place, the IRA with arms and IRA members shooting people on our streets. I would prefer it if that were not the case, but that is the reality. I say to him that he should not point the finger at the Ulster Unionist party. His party has had 12 years to make the running in Northern Ireland, and take a lead on the issues. It is time that we made some progress.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking an intervention. I just want to prompt him to pay tribute to a Nobel peace prize winner. We do not have many in Northern Ireland, but Lord Trimble is certainly one of them, and he gave very courageous leadership to the Ulster Unionist party when it needed it. I am speaking as one who has been in the Ulster Unionist party and who is proud to say that about him.
I thank the hon. Lady for paying that tribute to Lord Trimble. I agree with her, and I would pay tribute also to John Hume, another former Member of this House. Indeed, I also wished Peter Robinson a happy retirement here in this Chamber the other day. I think that all Members make a contribution to our society. David Trimble and John Hume took risks. I have to say that, for me, that sometimes went too far, but I said that at the time. I was open and upfront about the fact that I thought a better deal was on the table, but we are where we are. We need to progress, and we need to rid Northern Ireland of terrorism, paramilitarism and criminality. The fact that that has not happened yet is a huge failure in our society.
We need to ensure that welfare reform protects the most vulnerable in our society, and I hope that we will do that, but we will not know the workings of that until a few years have passed. Why have we wasted so much time? The welfare reform legislation passed through this House three years ago. Why have we wasted time, money and energy in Northern Ireland by not progressing it? I do not agree with all the welfare reform changes, but that reform is here. It is part of our society, and we should be moving forward. It has cost our society in Northern Ireland dearly. To see that one only has to look at how the health waiting lists have spiralled over the past few months. We are told that that is because money is coming out of healthcare to support welfare institutions. We could not progress the way we were going.
In Northern Ireland we have our fair share of the most vulnerable in society because of the decades of our troubles. We need to protect those people but we also need a practical, sensible review and we need reform. We could not continue as we were. People need to be realistic and accept that we need to build our economy in Northern Ireland the way the economy is being built everywhere else. We are all happy to play our part in that—I do not think that any Member in this Chamber would disagree—but we need society to play its part as well. We need people to accept that if we are to build a consensus in Northern Ireland, it has to be genuine. We have to rid our society of those criminals who are fuel-laundering, those who are still out shooting people and those who rule by the gun and the bomb. We cannot allow that to continue, and we need society to stand up to those people and say, “Enough is enough.” We need to move forward.
I am pleased that we are progressing with welfare reform. I heard some of the detailed explanations given by the hon. Member for Foyle. I will not repeat that detail, but there are many aspects of this that will be challenging for society in Northern Ireland over the next number of years—not least will be the challenge for other Departments as to where the £585 million will come from over the next four years.
I thank all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I will start with the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) who was asked to join in a tribute to David Trimble. It is important that we remember those giants of history who have contributed to where we are now. In a very decent way, the hon. Gentleman went on to talk about John Hume, another giant who helped Northern Ireland to progress to where we are at present. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the announcement made by Peter Robinson at the weekend. I had the privilege of speaking to Peter for a few minutes on Saturday. He is another man who has made an enormous contribution. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone realised what he then said. Hansard will correct me if I have got it wrong and I shall apologise, but I think he said that they all took risks to move forward. Sometimes it is important that people who lead take a leap and take a risk in order to move forward.
In a powerful speech, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that we have to try to move on from welfare reform. That said it all. We cannot be trapped by it. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said that the stalemate that existed has had not only a financial cost but a credibility cost for the institutions of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman was right when he pointed that out. Of course it is difficult and of course it poses challenges, but the agreement offers a way forward.
There are challenges for the Government too. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) pointed out in his contribution, it would be helpful if the Government could provide clarification on the questions that I and others asked, in order to inform our discussion. Notwithstanding the need to paint a positive picture of Northern Ireland, we would all agree that it is a great place, it is open for business and investment is going there. I know the Minister would agree that, as the hon. Members for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) pointed out, it is important that alongside a welfare package, there is a jobs and growth programme to ensure that every community in every part of Northern Ireland benefits from opportunity, jobs and investment. That is something that the Government, working with the Northern Ireland Executive, would benefit from if they pursued it with more rigour and more vigour.
The Minister can, like the Secretary of State, if I may chide her slightly, comment from a Treasury brief that X number of jobs have been created and X millions of pounds have been invested, but for some those opportunities are not available and that needs to be addressed.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) helpfully pointed out that part of the reason that the welfare reform changes are acceptable is the flexibilities that are built into the system and the top-ups that are available. Clearly, those will have to be worked out on the basis of the report to be done by Evason. It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little more about that when he winds up the Second Reading debate.
The hon. Member for Foyle, as I said, has been a determined welfare campaigner. I set out some questions, he set out some questions, and they need to be answered—
My hon. Friend is approaching the end of an extremely important speech, which was greeted with great support in all parts of the House. When the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) quoted from Ecclesiastes 3, he referred to everything having a season. Like everyone else in the House, I thought of the following line:
“a time to break down, and a time to build up”.
Is this not the occasion when we must start to build up?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He said that I could put it into my remarks, but I do not have the confidence in biblical matters that he has. I sometimes need biblical help.
In the end, the failure to agree in Northern Ireland could have resulted in the collapse of devolution or the return of direct rule—a situation that is not acceptable to any of us. Because a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly has consented, we are legislating here on welfare reform, and legislating in a way that will enable Northern Ireland to move forward and continue to make the progress we all want.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will respond to the debate. It has certainly been a powerful debate with many powerful contributions. I totalled up the amount of time spent on Members’ speeches, and the average length was 23 minutes. There have been many Second Reading debates in which Members have had only three or four minutes to speak, whether on an important subject such as this or about other matters. That shows that, despite the concerns about the legislative timetable, Members from Northern Ireland have been able to get their points across in the most powerful ways. Of course, we should not be surprised about that. I have never felt that oratory is dead in Northern Ireland. One cannot be trained in oratory; one is born with it. It is a gift that falls on all the Northern Ireland politicians I have met, or nearly all, from whichever side of the divide or the debate they come. Many Members from elsewhere in the United Kingdom have enjoyed their contributions today.
It is important to answer many of the points raised during the debate. I start, of course, with the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). I thank him for his support throughout this whole process. He has shown real leadership throughout, as before the election did his predecessor, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). I know that it was not always easy for Labour Members to talk about the welfare reforms that we were proposing, but nevertheless they showed real leadership. One of the reasons we are here today is that Labour has supported the Government throughout this process.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to spell out the timetable for the order. The order envisaged in the Welfare Act 2012 will be introduced imminently once this Bill is passed, as I hope it will be. The Order in Council covering the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would be introduced if and when that Bill is successfully enacted. Obviously, we could not do anything before then.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Evason group. We hope that all its recommendations would be subject to the Assembly’s approval and that it would be in the power of Ministers in the Executive to take them forward should they choose to do so.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the December 2016 timetable. That was the timetable that all parties envisaged would allow us to put in place the welfare reforms that were required and to take account of any changes between then and now. It is important that there is time for those to bed in when enacted.
Finally, on the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about economic prosperity for Northern Ireland, the economic pact is alive and well; it has not been rescinded or changed. There is still the potential for a city deal, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said. That is in the gift of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I was getting on to that, and indeed I have the answer. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is about more than just welfare. For example, it has clauses on full employment reporting obligations and apprenticeship reporting obligations that would not be considered to be welfare measures, while on the other hand it has a benefit cap that would be so considered. If he looks at the Bill, the hon. Gentleman will see that some parts directly impact on welfare, as welfare measures, while others, such as the reporting mechanisms, do not. I will be happy to write to him in detail subsequently.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) made a strong contribution. I always feel and understand his heartfelt compassion for his constituents who are on benefits and welfare. I pay tribute to him for his leadership of the SDLP and the good grace with which he has taken the recent change of leadership. I look forward to continuing to help and support him in trying to make sure that his constituents get into work and off benefits. We are really determined to make sure that the economic pact delivers for Northern Ireland, alongside the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made known his view that the UUP was locked out of the process and the concerns it raised were not addressed. Every single one of the UUP’s concerns, including a sustainable budget, legacy issues, paramilitary monitoring and organised crime, is addressed in this deal. They were addressed previously in the Stormont House deal and they are addressed in the new deal that we have before us tonight. The deal also comes with a significant amount of money: £185 million of new money will be made available to tackle paramilitarism and organised crime in Northern Ireland.
I add my tribute to that given by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) to his party leader. On devolution, the departing First Minister has navigated a very difficult course. I was in the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s, so I know that devolution is not straightforward, and devolution in a multi-party system is even harder. It is a real tribute to him that he has managed to bring Northern Ireland to this point and secured a new start with this deal. I hope that whoever follows him—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman’s powerful speech was a leadership bid—will continue in the same vein. As the shadow Secretary of State has said, this is about leadership. It is also about taking risks with one’s own electorate, not just those on the opposite side.
I say to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that it was not our wish, either, that the Bill be taken through in this way. We do not want Westminster to have to pull back some of the powers to pass welfare legislation. If we were in a different place at a different time, the Stormont Assembly would have agreed it, but unfortunately Northern Ireland needs consensus and the SDLP is just one of the parties involved. Although I admire its determination for consistency on welfare reform, the fact of the matter is that we could not let the situation continue.
We asked the Assembly to pass a legislative consent motion, and it is important that I put on the record its wording:
“That this Assembly consents to the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill 2015 being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament; approves the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster; the draft Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015; and the Executive’s proposals to enhance payments flowing from the agreement announced on 17 November 2015.”
Who are we to override that legislative consent motion? We believe in devolution, and a legislative consent motion from the devolved Parliament is asking this House to resolve the lack of consensus on welfare, to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I say to the hon. Member for Belfast South that the biggest barrier to lifting people out of poverty in Northern Ireland is a dysfunctional Northern Ireland Assembly. Devolution, when it works, will deliver a better deal for the people of Northern Ireland, and it is important that we get over the current barrier by passing time-limited measures in this House, so that we can move forward together.
I do not think that the Northern Ireland Assembly is dysfunctional. It deals with people’s problems and issues every day. The Ministers I have met since my appointment make daily decisions that can result in improvements. On welfare, however, after four years of the tortuous freezing of government, something had to be done. If the Northern Ireland Assembly grasps the deal that the parties have achieved, the future will be all to play for. The ability to deliver and to improve the lives of people in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is better than the situation for many of my constituents. A lot of Members who are not from Northern Ireland will be slightly envious of the flexibility, funding and generous package on offer to the people of Northern Ireland. We do that with good will, because we want Northern Ireland to move away from its troubles and give the best chances to its people.
As much as I might like to say that the Chancellor rings me up to consult me on such major issues from time to time, I, like the hon. Lady, will have to wait and see.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his kind comments about me and the Secretary of State. I want to place on the record that without the Secretary of State’s determination and patience this deal may never have happened. Patience is a quality that many politicians do not possess, but she certainly does. [Interruption.] I am always for a good career move, but it is true.
It is tempting to follow the hon. Member for North Antrim down the path of his speech about Unionism and the sovereign Parliament, but I shall resist doing so. Suffice it to say that I will help him to lobby the Mayor of London for more buses from Wrightbus in his constituency, and I will do everything I can to help him and Ministers in the Executive to facilitate jobs to mitigate the losses at Michelin. Ministers from the British Government are all here to help job prospects in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to do so.
I say to the hon. Member for Foyle that we had to move forward on the issue of tax credits and welfare reform in Northern Ireland. As I said earlier, the fact is that there was no consensus, and in the end it was important to resolve this issue. Northern Ireland could not continue to lose the money every day and every week because it could not implement the welfare changes that people deserve.
The Minister has talked about the issues that have attracted consensus and those that have not. He will know that the Stormont House agreement did reach consensus about dealing with the legacy of the past. So much so in fact, that in late October the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was circulated with draft clauses on dealing with the past. What on earth has happened to them? Have they been scuppered by the deal on welfare reform?
The agreement refers to continuing to try to address the legacy. I wish that was covered in the Bill and that we were dealing with it now—I and the team have spent a lot of time working on that draft legislation—but the issue has not gone away. We need to deal with it, and we will continue to consider the options. I ask the hon. Lady to recognise that the Northern Ireland Assembly still has the ability to get on and deal with the legacy should it so wish. I urge it to start that process, because we cannot just move on in relation to welfare and leave the legacy issue behind. I agree with her, and I will be pressing the parties to take forward that issue.
I am merely stating the reality: the Assembly has the power not only to pass welfare reform, but to deal with the legacy. A lot of what this is about is the lack of consensus in the Assembly. This issue is not about where power resides, but where purpose and determination reside in some of the parties. We hope, as does nearly everyone in Northern Ireland, that the legacy issue is dealt with. We will give support throughout the process for that to be done, and we urge the parties to do it.
Lastly, I hear what the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) says on the UUP’s concerns about the paramilitaries and the past. I, too, share such concerns. That is why we have got £185 million more to invest in pursuing and monitoring paramilitaries or ex-paramilitaries, as they may or may not be. It is really important to continue to keep a lid on the security situation and persuade people away from the path of violence to make sure that the only things about which we disagree in future are things such as welfare reform and the main social policy issues. I do not want to have to deal with paramilitaries in my back garden any more than he does. That is why we should all welcome the fact that the fresh start will bring £185 million to the table to continue to support the police—the PSNI—and the security services in monitoring paramilitary activity.
We should remember what the Bill is not about. It is not intended to diminish Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement. It is not a power grab by the UK Government. As I have said, we would much rather not have had to intervene at all, but the Bill is necessary finally to resolve the welfare reform impasse. That is what the Bill is about. It is intended to secure a fresh start, to provide political stability and to secure a basis for the Executive’s budget. I urge the House to support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).