I beg to move,
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration, and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be completed at today’s sitting.
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on this Motion.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on this Motion.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) Where paragraph (2) or (4) of Standing Order No. 83L (Reconsideration of certification before Third Reading) applies in relation to the Bill, the Speaker shall, where it is not possible to do so immediately in accordance with paragraph (7) of that Order, announce the Speaker’s decisions under paragraph (2) or (4) of that Order no later than 15 minutes after the conclusion of proceedings on the previous stage of the Bill.
(5) Where a legislative grand committee decides on a Consent Motion under Standing Order No. 83M to withhold consent to the Bill or any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill since Second Reading, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill and any proceedings on consequential consideration without any Question being put.
(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions (but no others) in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded.
(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(10) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) (a) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10).
(b) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question already proposed from the Chair.
(c) If that Question is for the amendment of a Lords Amendment the Speaker shall then put forthwith:
(i) a single Question on any further Amendments to the Lords Amendment moved by a Minister of the Crown, and
(ii) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(d) The Speaker shall then put forthwith:
(i) a single Question on any Amendments moved by a Minister of the Crown to a Lords Amendment, and
(ii) the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House agrees or disagrees to the Lords Amendment or (as the case may be) to the Lords Amendment as amended.
(e) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown that this House disagrees to a Lords Amendment.
(f) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees to all the remaining Lords Amendments.
(g) As soon as the House has:
(i) agreed or disagreed to a Lords Amendment, or
(ii) disposed of an Amendment relevant to a Lords Amendment which has been disagreed to,
the Speaker shall put forthwith a single Question on any Amendments that are moved by a Minister of the Crown and are relevant to the Lords Amendment.
(h) Where a single Question would be put under sub-paragraph (c)(i), (d)(i) or (g) in circumstances where some or all of the Amendments concerned are certified under Standing Order No. 83O (Consideration of certified Motions or Amendments relating to Lords Amendments or other messages) in relation to a particular part or parts of the United Kingdom, the Speaker shall put forthwith—
(i) a single Question on any Amendments for which the certification is in relation to England,
(ii) a single Question on any Amendments for which the certification is in relation to England and Wales,
(iii) a single Question on any Amendments for which the certification is both in relation to England and in relation to England and Wales, and
(iv) a single Question on any Amendments for which there is no certification.
(i) Where a single Question would be put under sub-paragraph (f) in circumstances where, if there were (or are) separate Motions to agree in relation to each of the remaining Lords Amendments, some or all of the Motions would be (or are) certified under Standing Order No. 83O (Consideration of certified Motions or Amendments relating to Lords Amendments or other messages), the Speaker shall put forthwith—
(i) in the case of any remaining Lords Amendments for which there would be (or are) Motions certified in relation to England, the Question that this House agrees to those Lords Amendments,
(ii) in the case of any remaining Lords Amendments for which there would be (or are) Motions certified in relation to England and Wales, the Question that this House agrees to those Lords Amendments,
(iii) in the case of any remaining Lords Amendments for which there would be (or are) Motions certified both in relation to England and in relation to England and Wales, the Question that this House agrees to those Lords Amendments, and
(iv) in the case of any remaining Lords Amendments for which there would be (or are) Motions which would not be (or are not) certified, the Question that this House agrees to those Lords Amendments.
(j) If a division is held on a question put under sub-paragraph (h) or (i), the Amendments shall be agreed to only if, of those voting in the division—
(i) in a case falling within paragraph (i) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England
(ii) in a case falling within paragraph (ii) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England and Wales,
(iii) in a case falling within paragraph (iii) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members, a majority of Members representing constituencies in England and a majority of members representing constituencies in England and Wales, and
(iv) in a case falling within paragraph (iv) of that paragraph, a majority of Members,
vote in support of them.
(k) Paragraph (9) of Standing Order No. 83O shall apply to a decision made by virtue of sub-paragraph (j) above on a Question as it applies in relation to a decision made by virtue of paragraph (7) of that Order on a Motion.
(12) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(13) (a) This paragraph applies for the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12).
(b) The Speaker shall first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair.
(c) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown which is related to the Question already proposed from the Chair.
(d) The Speaker shall then put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown on or relevant to any of the remaining items in the Lords Message.
(e) The Speaker shall, subject to sub-paragraphs (f) and (g), then put forthwith the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in all the remaining Lords Proposals.
(f) Sub-paragraph (g) applies where, if there were (or are) separate Motions to agree in relation to each of the remaining Lords Proposals, some or all of the Motions would be (or are) certified under Standing Order No. 83O (Consideration of certified Motions or Amendments relating to Lords Amendments or other messages).
(g) The Speaker shall put forthwith—
(i) in the case of any remaining Lords Proposals for which there would be (or are) Motions certified in relation to England, the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in those Proposals,
(ii) in the case of any remaining Lords Proposals for which there would be (or are) Motions certified in relation to England and Wales, the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in those Proposals,
(iii) in the case of any remaining Lords Proposals for which there would be (or are) Motions certified both in relation to England and in relation to England and Wales, the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in those Proposals, and
(iv) in the case of any remaining Lords Proposals for which there would be (or are) Motions which would not be (or are not) certified, the Question that this House agrees with the Lords in those Proposals.
(h) If a division is held on a Question put under sub-paragraph (g), the Proposals shall be agreed to only if, of those voting in the division—
(i) in a case falling within paragraph (i) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England,
(ii) in a case falling within paragraph (ii) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England and Wales,
(iii) in a case falling within paragraph (iii) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members, a majority of Members representing constituencies in England and a majority of Members representing constituencies in England and Wales, and
(iv) in a case falling within paragraph (iv) of that sub-paragraph, a majority of Members
vote in support of them.
(i) Paragraph (9) of Standing Order No. 83O shall apply to a decision made by virtue of sub-paragraph (h) above on a Question as it applies in relation to a decision made by virtue of paragraph (7) of that Order on a Motion.
(14) (a) The Speaker shall put forthwith the Question on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for the appointment, nomination and quorum of a Committee to draw up Reasons and the appointment of its Chair.
(b) A Committee appointed to draw up Reasons shall report before the conclusion of the sitting at which it is appointed.
(c) Proceedings in the Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion 30 minutes after their commencement.
(d) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with sub-paragraph (c), the Chair shall:
(i) first put forthwith any Question which has been proposed from the Chair, and
(ii) then put forthwith successively Questions on Motions which may be made by a Minister of the Crown for assigning a Reason for disagreeing with the Lords in any of their Amendments.
(e) The proceedings of the Committee shall be reported without any further Question being put.
(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.
(16) (a) The proceedings on any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to those proceedings.
(17) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(18) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken or to recommit the Bill.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(19) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(20) The Speaker may not arrange for a debate to be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(21) (a) This paragraph applies if the House is adjourned, or the sitting is suspended, before the conclusion of any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(b) No notice shall be required of a Motion made at the next sitting by a Minister of the Crown for varying or supplementing the provisions of this Order.
(22) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(23) (a) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at 7.00pm, 4.00pm or 2.00pm (as the case may be) on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders or by any Order of the House, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill on that day.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business for a period of three hours from the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill or, if those proceedings are concluded before the moment of interruption, for a period equal to the time elapsing between 7.00pm, 4.00pm or 2.00pm (as the case may be) and the conclusion of those proceedings.
In the course of my brief remarks, I also propose to address amendment (a).
From the outset, let me say that the Government fully accept that what we are asking the House to do today is exceptional. We agree that taking all stages of the Bill through the House in a single day is not ideal and I fully understand that a number of right hon. and hon. Members will have misgivings about it. I would very much prefer not to have had to take this approach. I note the amendment tabled by the Social Democratic and Labour party. However, I can assure the hon. Members who tabled the amendment and the whole House that the Government are embarking on this procedure only because we view it to be absolutely necessary in this specific case.
The Secretary of State may, like me, be a little reticent today, but will she reflect on the huge irony that on 5 September Martin McGuinness said it would be a huge mistake for the Secretary of State to be legislating on this matter, yet today he now welcomes it?
I very much welcome the fact that there is now a broadly based acknowledgement among the Northern Ireland parties that the financial sustainability of the Executive is crucial for the success of devolved power-sharing government, and that that requires the implementation of welfare reform. This has been a long and involved debate, but I am glad we have got to the right destination in the end.
I believe it is necessary to adopt this fast-track procedure to ensure that welfare reform is no longer an issue that is undermining the political process in Northern Ireland, as it has done over the past four years. I believe it is necessary to take this approach if we are to implement the agreement reached at Stormont last Tuesday, and I believe it is necessary that we take this approach to underpin the stability and survival of power-sharing devolved institutions at Stormont.
The proposed legislation is a fundamental part of the agreement reached last week. If we do not get it on to the statute book and continue with the implementation of last week’s agreement, there will be a very serious risk that devolution would collapse, leading to a return to direct rule. A resumption of direct rule would inevitably mean many items of long and complex primary legislation being taken through by Order in Council month after month, potentially year after year. Not only would that mean denying such legislation the scrutiny in the Assembly, but it would inevitably take up large amounts of parliamentary time.
I do not propose to detain the House for long on this procedural matter, but it is important to understand some of the background to the Bill in order to emphasise its crucial significance and the crucial importance of getting it on to the statute book as soon as possible.
The Secretary of State has chosen her words very carefully and very deliberately, describing rushing through all the stages of a welfare reform Bill in one day as “exceptional”, “not ideal” and “absolutely necessary”. Where does she think the emergency comes from? Who is going to renege on last week’s very welcome agreement? Which party is going to renege on it? Why should we have emergency procedure today and rush through all the stages?
As I will explain, the primary legislation enabled by the Bill has had extensive scrutiny over the last four years. The Order in Council published alongside the Bill reflects the proposed welfare legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly that fell as a result of the tabling of a petition of concern. That proposed legislation had a First stage, a Second stage, a Committee stage, a Consideration stage, a Further Consideration stage and a Final stage, and there was an extensive debate on a legislative consent motion. It has, therefore, had extensive scrutiny, including 21 weeks of cross-party talks this year and last year. It is not an ideal way to legislate, but the proposed legislation, at its heart, has had extensive scrutiny.
The Secretary of State has outlined what debate there has already been on the terms of the Bill. Will she accept that one reason for urgency is that, until the Bill is passed, Northern Ireland will continue to lose money by the day to the Treasury by way of payments that have to be made back because of the differences in the welfare arrangements, and the Northern Ireland budget cannot sustain that?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The difference between the level of benefits in Great Britain and Northern Ireland is £2 million a week, which is a drain on the resources of the Executive that they can ill afford at this difficult time for the public finances. Successive attempts to resolve the welfare question over the last four years have foundered, which has contributed largely to a political crisis in Northern Ireland and the Executive’s finances. By early autumn, it looked increasingly likely that the issue would bring down the devolved institutions themselves. As he points out, this has been costing the Executive money—approximately £2 million a week. That is the difference between what the Treasury is prepared to pay—to fund up to parity with Great Britain—and the cost of continuing to run an old, unreformed welfare system in Northern Ireland. The Executive estimate that the cost to their budget will rise to more than £200 million next year and to more than £500 million a year by the end of this Parliament. That is simply unaffordable, and the figures do not even take into account the costs of IT.
Although welfare is technically a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, up to now it has always retained parity with the rest of the UK and been fully integrated into the UK system, through the Department for Work and Pensions. Once Great Britain moves entirely to the new system, based around universal credit, Northern Ireland will no longer have access to the DWP computer systems on which it currently relies to assess and deliver people’s benefits. It would be left with no option but to devise, implement and maintain an entirely separate and more expensive system and meet the massive costs of the IT needed to support it. For a small devolved Administration, that cost would be prohibitive.
The Secretary of State is explaining well the need for emergency legislation, and although it is not desirable to pass legislation in one day, it is far more desirable than the Assembly collapsing from not having a viable budget and all legislation having to come back here.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We have to get a move on with implementation. We do not want the “Fresh Start” agreement to suffer the same fate as the Stormont House agreement, implementation of which stalled relatively early on. It is important we do all we can to move ahead with implementation.
Is this not a massive climbdown by the Government? I say good luck and well done to the parties that stood out against the Government and their nasty welfare reforms. Should the Government not now fund a welfare system on the mainland in the same way as they are funding one in Northern Ireland with a £500 million bung to places such as Newry, Belfast and Omagh?
I would describe the outcome of the cross-party negotiations as a sensible compromise. The welfare reforms we have introduced in Great Britain, which we think are a better system, will be implemented in Northern Ireland, but from its own resources—from the block grant. The Northern Ireland Executive have made the reasonable and legitimate decision to top up some of those benefits.
I go back to my previous remarks. The cost of a computer system would be massive. Budgets for other Departments would have to be cut significantly to pay for a more expensive welfare system, with an inevitable impact on front-line services and capital spending available for crucial infrastructure such as road improvements, almost all of which would probably be swallowed up by the need to build a new computer system. That scenario would undermine the credibility of the devolved institutions but, even more importantly, do irreparable damage to the political relationships that are central to making power-sharing devolution work in practice.
Last December in the Stormont House agreement, the Northern Ireland parties agreed to take forward welfare reform as part of a wider package of measures. It is well known, however, that by March this year progress had begun to founder, when the two main nationalist parties withdrew their support for the Assembly legislation on welfare reform. On 26 May, that legislation passed its final stage, with the backing of three of the five main parties then in the Executive, but was blocked by the other two parties using the petition of concern, meaning that it did not have the necessary cross-community support, so by June we were once again faced with almost complete deadlock. The Executive then passed a budget that was based on an assumption that welfare reform would ultimately be adopted, but which would exceed the controlled totals available from the block grant if it was not.
The Secretary of State might add that Northern Ireland has achieved a better deal in terms of welfare payments, and it could have done so a year ago if parties had not tabled the petition of concern and instead supported the changes. Now we have people on the mainland complaining that we have a better deal, but that is because we negotiated it, and it could have been operational a year ago. It is Sinn Féin that has done the U-turn, no one else.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the arrangement could have been reached some time ago, but the important thing is that we have got to a sensible compromise. As for this being a good deal for Northern Ireland, I agree that the combined financial package—£2 billion under the Stormont House agreement and a further half a billion pounds or so under this agreement—will help Northern Ireland and will be a good deal, but it is aimed specifically at the challenges that are unique to Northern Ireland, such as dealing with peace walls, paramilitary-related crime and the terrorist threat.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene a second time. I wonder whether she could enlighten the House as to what exactly persuaded Sinn Féin, after all these weeks of arguing, rowing and opposing the welfare reforms, to do the deal last week? What was the turning point?
I promise to speed through the remainder of my remarks. The hon. Lady may wish to direct that question to Sinn Féin, but at the heart of it I think Sinn Féin, like the other parties in the Executive, really wanted to make devolution work and realised that, without compromise on welfare questions, the Executive would not have a sustainable budget and that pretty soon that would mean no effective devolution at all.
Last year we made it clear that, if the welfare issue were not resolved, we would have to legislate here to deliver welfare reform in Northern Ireland, even without the consent of the Assembly, but we acknowledged that that was a last resort, and we made resolving the issue a key goal of the talks getting under way. As the House will be aware, they began on 8 September and successfully concluded 10 weeks later, last Tuesday, resulting in a new agreement, called “A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan”, which has been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Executive. In that agreement the Executive made a commitment to passing a legislative consent motion asking Westminster to legislate on its behalf for welfare reform. That motion was debated and passed by the Assembly last Wednesday with a majority of 70 to 22. It was supported by the First and Deputy First Ministers, and because it was backed by their respective parties—the DUP and Sinn Féin—it had the necessary cross-community support to succeed. The LCM therefore represents the clearly expressed will of the Northern Ireland Assembly that we in Westminster deliver this legislation.
The Assembly has moved quickly and decisively to deliver on its side of this crucial aspect of the “Fresh Start” agreement. It is now the responsibility of the Government to deliver on our side of that deal. We need to retain that momentum in the House; we cannot afford another stalled implementation process of the kind that occurred earlier this year. As both sides of the House acknowledged during my statement last week, if that were to happen, it is likely that early Assembly elections would result, followed by a real risk of suspension and direct rule. After all that has been achieved in Northern Ireland in recent years, that would be a very severe setback. It could take several years to re-establish devolution.
I urge the House to support the motion and the Bill that we shall debate shortly. In tabling this allocation of time motion, the Government have guaranteed six hours on the Floor of the House today for consideration of what is a very short Bill. I believe that will give us the opportunity to scrutinise all the tabled amendments and new clauses. With that in mind, I cannot support the SDLP amendment to the allocation of time motion, and if it is pressed to the vote, I must ask my colleagues to oppose it.
The motion as drafted reflects the long-standing practice of the House. Expedited legislation for Northern Ireland is by no means unusual. In fact, the last Northern Ireland Bill was very unusual and did not involve an expedited timetable. Withdrawing the amendment to the motion would allow us more time for debate on crucial amendments and new clauses as the debate continues this evening.
I also highlight the fact that the six hours of today’s debate is just one part of a much longer process. If the Bill passes, it will be followed by debates in both Houses to approve the Order in Council to be made under the powers contained in the Bill. It is also the case that the welfare legislation that it will enable us to introduce has been considered in depth in the context of its application in Great Britain and debated in this House on many occasions. The order, published alongside the Bill, reflects the draft legislation for Northern Ireland that was debated at very great length in the Assembly. As I said earlier, it went through no fewer than six stages of scrutiny stretching over three years, plus the recent debate on the LCM.
These measures have therefore been very extensively considered and scrutinised in the Assembly, as well as being the major focus of two sets of cross-party talks lasting for a total of 21 weeks this year and last. None of the contents of the measures will come as a surprise. They are a crucial part of an agreement that is vital to the stability and survival of devolved government in Northern Ireland—an agreement that genuinely offers a fresh start for Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions. It is vital that we implement it as a matter of urgency. That is why I am asking the House to adopt this emergency procedure today. I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move amendment (a), after sub-paragraph (6)(b), at end, insert—
“(ba) the Question on any amendment, new clause or new schedule selected by the Chair for separate decision;”
I am glad to move this amendment, which stands in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) as well as mine.
The Secretary of State has tried to explain the circumstances in which we face this programme motion. The amendment does not alter the time taken by the House in respect of that motion—I wish it did. We would have liked to have more time, just as our colleagues in the Assembly—not just SDLP Members, but Members of other parties—wanted more time to debate the issue last week. The original vote in the Assembly—on whether the business should be taken there this week to give the Assembly parties time to digest things—was 58 to 33. That meant that the legislation would have come here following what happened in the Assembly.
The Secretary of State suggested that the legislative consent motion followed standard practice. It does not. Paragraph (6) of the timetable motion makes it clear that at the conclusion of the Committee stage, no amendment or new clause tabled by anyone other than the Government can be put to a vote. The right of the House to vote, properly, on an amendment has been completely circumscribed by the timetable motion as it stands.
The Secretary of State actually had the neck to say that if the amendment were withdrawn, that would allow more time for debates on crucial amendments and new clauses. By providing only two hours for the Committee stage and Third Reading, the Government have ensured that there will not be any significant time in which to debate any amendments or new clauses, and also—in paragraph (6)—that no new clause, and no amendment other than a Government amendment, can be put to a vote. That is a very unusual procedure, which Members should not tolerate. If they do, they will risk creating a precedent that they will regret.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is advancing this argument. Does he not accept that the legislative consent motion sent legislation back to this House for this House to pass on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Is he saying that he would prefer this House to override the wishes of the people who are elected in Northern Ireland? That is what his argument amounts to.
It is not what my argument amounts to. If the Assembly is saying in the legislative consent motion tabled by Sinn Féin and the DUP that it wants the legislation to come here, we should do our legislative business in proper order. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there should not be any debate at all, and that we are lucky to have the right even to table amendments.
Let us look at what the legislative consent motion says. Members of other parties might like to know what they are being asked to support. If they are being told, “Take this on foot of the legislative consent motion”—if they are being told that the legislative consent motion is holy writ—they should bear in mind the fact that it says:
“That this Assembly consents to the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill 2015 being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament”—
that is a reference to the Bill with which we are dealing today—and
“approves the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster”.
Many of us in this House did not approve those clauses as initially introduced. Many of us, in a number of parties, voted against aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Is the idea that we must now, on foot of the legislative consent motion, turn ourselves inside out—members of the Labour party, the SDLP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the Green party Member—and say, “We opposed the Bill when it was debated in this House, but we no longer oppose it? We now approve the welfare clauses that were in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster.” Well, my position on those clauses has not changed, the position of my hon. Friends in the SDLP has not changed, and I should be very surprised if the position of members of the other parties had changed.
The legislative consent motion goes on to approve
“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.”
Members might want to take a careful look at just what is in the legislative consent motion, and note that they are being asked to contradict their position in relation to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced here.
Some of us are trying to use the Committee stage to table due amendments which would be relevant to the Bill. The Secretary of State again tried to confuse things by referring to the amount of scrutiny that had been given to the Bill that was before the Assembly, which has now been largely transposed into a draft Order in Council running to 126 pages. What we are being asked to consider today is not that draft Order in Council, but the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill, all 58 lines of it. Meanwhile, we are being asked to nod through 237 lines of a timetable motion so that we will not have the right to table amendments and put them to the vote. If the Secretary of State really meant what she said about time for debate on crucial amendments and new clauses, she would not be resisting this amendment; she would be agreeing to it so that paragraph (6) would be amended and the Chair could put other matters to the vote if that is what Members and the House so wished. This is about good parliamentary procedure.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not sure how far you are treating some of these arguments as relating to the matters of substance as opposed to procedure, but the Secretary of State talked long on those points, as did others.
Let us be clear: a couple of different arguments have been used as to why everybody should just pass this through today as a matter of urgency. One has been that if we do not scramble this through fast, the institutions are in danger of collapse. Who was bringing the institutions to the brink of collapse? It was the very people who are being celebrated as heroes. The SDLP never threatened to bring the institutions down; we never once on any of these issues in the last number of years have used the word “crisis” or threatened the existence of the institutions. We have never said we would make this a make-or-break issue and the institutions would crash if we did not get our way. Sinn Féin and the DUP have variably and respectively, and sometimes collectively, said that at different times over the past couple of years, but it was never the position of the SDLP. We have adhered to our position on welfare reform without at any stage threatening the institutions. The position of Sinn Féin and the DUP came to threaten the institutions—because, after all, who else can threaten the institutions or bring them to the point of collapse but those two parties?
The second argument in relation to the exigency is the money argument. We heard it repeated again in the last intervention. Let us remember: the money argument arose because the Treasury chose to respond to the Assembly’s failure to pass the legislation by imposing what it at one stage called fines and also called penalties—indeed, DUP Finance Ministers used those words as well—but later we were told, “No, you can’t call them fines or penalties; they are savings forgone.” The fact is that it was a Treasury tactic: “Unless you pass this legislation—this karaoke Bill—through the Assembly on the same terms as we had it in Westminster, we will fine the block grant.”
Order. We will have these debates later. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, he is moving an amendment to the allocation of time motion, but we are in danger of opening up the entire debate at this stage, which I do not want to do, as I want to save something for the next part.
Yes, but I am partly answering points that the Secretary of State spent some time on and others made interventions on.
We must remember this point about the fines and the pressure that puts on the budget. It was the Treasury that chose to create a budget stress in the hope it would induce the Assembly to pass the legislation. That budget stress became a budget crisis, and that budget crisis in turn contributed to the political crisis which the Secretary of State now tells us will be resolved by this Bill and this programme motion.
I will not stray into the areas where we are seeking to amend the Bill through the amendments tabled for later—I hope we can discuss those in Committee—but I want to make the point that Members of this House should not be under the illusion that they have to adopt a procedure with a timetable motion in relation to this Bill that they would not adopt for anything else because it is safe to do so as it is in the name of taking forward the peace process or the “Fresh Start” agreement.
There are parties that support some parts of the “Fresh Start” agreement but not other parts, and there are parties that support the welfare reform changes but do not endorse the whole of the “Fresh Start” agreement. Other Members in this House from parties outside Northern Ireland should not think they have to turn their own position on welfare reform and the current Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently going through Westminster inside out as a way of supporting progress and stability in Northern Ireland. Progress and stability in Northern Ireland can easily be supported in the context of this House following its due procedures and not accepting the almost unprecedented provision that means in Committee nothing other than clauses stand part or Government amendments can be voted on.
It is wrong that we are circumscribed by time, and it is wrong that we are being muzzled. This is all courtesy of Sinn Féin. It is to make sure we cannot table amendments that capture some of the amendments we tabled when the Assembly Bill came forward earlier this year. They were rejected by a petition of concern tabled by the DUP, and they were rejected by the votes of Sinn Féin as well. [Interruption.] Yes, and Sinn Féin and the DUP voted down SDLP amendments to the Assembly Bill that—[Interruption.] Yes, they voted down amendments that were in the same spirit as the amendments the Conservatives had voted down in this House to the original Bill on welfare reform. The DUP voted down amendments and petitions of concern against amendments that were in the spirit of amendments it had supported in the original legislation, so it has turned it inside out, and that is up to it to do, and Sinn Féin.
No parties in this House need abandon their own positions. We should be able to take amendments in this House and vote on those amendments. The Government are in a compact with Sinn Féin and the DUP to make sure the amendments cannot be voted on. They do not want the embarrassment of the Tories having to vote down these same amendments that Sinn Féin voted down in the Assembly earlier this year: the picture of the Sinn Féin -Tory-DUP axis would then be complete because we would be able to show who had voted down which amendments consistently. The case would be that the Tories voted them down originally, then Sinn Féin and the DUP voted them down, and then the Tories voted them down again now. It is to avoid that picture. That is why we have this kangaroo parliamentary procedure that is being used.
From Sinn Féin, a party that in the past supported kangaroo courts, we now have a kangaroo parliamentary procedure whereby things were rushed through in the Assembly the other day by the legislative consent motion; and now, not only are measures being put through on a timetable motion here, but the rights to table amendments with a view to their being voted on are being supressed by this programme motion. Members should resist that by supporting the amendment.
The amendment to the programme motion will, if passed, not cost any time or add any delay, so it does not relate to any of the concerns that the Secretary of State raised. The programme motion could be passed with the amendment and there would be absolutely no jeopardy to the timetable that the Secretary of State has tried to impress upon the House.
I know that there is an attempt by the SDLP and others to try to derail what has been agreed by parties in the “Fresh Start” document. The amendment before us today is an attempt to do that and also shows the inconsistencies that have existed since this impasse was reached in the Northern Ireland Assembly. We support the programme motion because we want this issue dealt with and we want it dealt with quickly. We want it dealt with for the following reasons.
First, despite what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, there is urgency given the financial consequences of delay for Northern Ireland. The issue is not just the haemorrhaging of money to the Treasury on a daily basis because of the differences between benefit rates in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the United Kingdom. I must also say that it is not unfair of the Treasury to be asking for this money. The parity principle has always applied when there have been changes in welfare and benefits in the rest of the UK. Although the matters had been devolved to Northern Ireland, the principle applied that provided Northern Ireland replicated and reflected the changes that occurred in the rest of the United Kingdom, the payments would be made in full by the Treasury, and as part not of the block grant but of annually managed expenditure. It was always clear, however, that if Northern Ireland decided that it wanted the luxury of having a different system—the Secretary of State has described the problems that that would cause—that difference would have to be paid for. When the SDLP and others blocked welfare reform changes in Northern Ireland, they knew what the penalty would be. That penalty is being paid today, and it will be paid tomorrow and every day for as long as the delay lasts. That will have an impact on the amount of money available for dealing with hospital waiting lists, for schools, for roads and for everything else.
Another problem has arisen as a result. It is not just a question of money haemorrhaging to the Treasury. There has also been an impasse in the rest of the budget, so money that should have been allocated as a result of monitoring rounds has not been allocated, and budgets that should have been set have not been set. We were heading for a budget overspend, which would have brought devolution to a halt. There cannot be devolution if there is no money to pay for the work of the Departments and the expenses that the Departments incur.
I do not think there is any chance of reclaiming those overpayments. I wish that there were, but there is not. Unfortunately, we just have to pay. This issue needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency today, and we support the Government’s proposal for the limited time.
The second reason for dealing with these matters quickly is that we have already had a debate on them in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I listened to the SDLP Assembly Member for West Belfast, Mr Attwood, talking in the Assembly for about 60 hours about his opposition to the measures and giving us his fanciful ideas on how we could avoid having to implement welfare reform in Northern Ireland—
Order. This debate is on the allocation of time motion. I know that the hon. Gentleman is building the basis of his argument, but I am a bit bothered that he is going to tempt other Members to talk about the same issues. I want to be able to get everybody debating the depth of the Bill.
I hope that what I am saying is relevant, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The relevance is this: we do not need an extensive debate here in this Chamber because these matters have already been extensively debated, and decisions made on them, in Northern Ireland. The irony is that, only last week, the SDLP was arguing that there should not be a legislative consent motion because welfare reform should be decided in Northern Ireland. Now that the Bill has been shaped and agreed on by the parties in Northern Ireland, SDLP Members want Members of this House to be able to change it. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they do not want anyone else to get their sticky fingers on welfare reform, only to argue when the Bill arrives here that the House of Commons should make decisions that override the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For that reason, we support the Government’s allocation of time motion, which will allow these matters to be dealt with quickly. It will not allow amendments to be tabled that would change the Bill or the will of the Assembly. We want the will of the Assembly to be reflected. The Secretary of State knows what the will of the Assembly is, and the Bill reflects the views of the majority in the Assembly. We should therefore get this done quickly tonight.
I rise to support the amendment tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell).
Subsection 6(c) of the motion refers to
“the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown”.
This seriously undermines the principle of parliamentary democracy and throws into question the role of the Cabinet, the Executive and Parliament. In proposing this, the Government are seeking to subjugate the role of Parliament in making decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has said, this instrument has been used incredibly rarely, and we must ask why the Government have decided to use it on this occasion. What secret deals took place in the meeting between the Prime Minister, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on 6 November? Perhaps this is unsurprising, given the rushed nature of this process. If we cast our minds back to Wednesday of last week in the Northern Ireland Assembly, we remember that the legislative consent motion was discussed, and that the draft Bill—all of whose stages we will debate tonight—and the Order in Council were published during that debate. Members across the Assembly therefore had little time to consider those matters.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we believe that this instrument is an abuse of parliamentary democracy, an abuse of this House and an abuse of the role of Parliament and of the Cabinet. This should not happen. There will be no diminution of the time available for debate on other aspects of the Bill. This is a matter of procedural priority and propriety, and of the accountability of this House. In any liberal democracy, there will be questions about accountability and about the role of Parliament and the Cabinet. The Cabinet should not seek to subjugate Parliament in this regard. We believe that this matter has serious implications for devolution in Northern Ireland, and that it could set a difficult and dangerous precedent for other devolved institutions in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Lady recall that last week, in a flurry of rhetoric, her own spokesman on this issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly asked, in terms, “How dare anyone take this issue, which we have fought for so long to have devolved, to the House of Commons so that people outside this jurisdiction can make decisions about what happens in Northern Ireland?” Is she now saying that he was wrong, and that she wants this House to make those decisions, over the heads of Assembly Members?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to direct me down a certain path. That debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly dealt with the measures in the Bill and with the legislative consent motion. Tonight, we are debating my party’s amendment to the allocation of time motion. I remind Members of the motion’s statement that
“the Question on any amendment moved or Motion”
can be made only “by a Minister”.
That means that we can debate our amendments but we cannot move them. Is that not unquestionably undemocratic, in this particular House? Therefore, I second and support our amendment.
I think I covered most of the key points in my opening remarks. The motion, as drafted, is not unusual, and there is a fairly broad consensus on the need to progress with this legislation quickly. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the grouping and selection, and I am sure they will be keen for us to debate everything we can in the hours ahead. I welcome the opportunity—
No, I am not giving way. I welcome the opportunity to debate the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) at the Committee stage, and I am sure he will have sufficient time to put on the record these points as he so wishes. Obviously, he has also had considerable time during this discussion to make a number of useful points.
Main Question put and agreed to.