I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill gives effect to key elements of the fresh start agreement of 2015 and the Stormont House agreement of 2014. It is an important stage in the implementation of those agreements, which, taken together, have the potential to help us to secure a more peaceful, stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.
Before turning to the detail of the clauses, I will remind the House of the background to their contents. As the House will recall, following just over 10 weeks of intensive talks, the Government, the Northern Ireland Executive parties and the Irish Government reached the Stormont House agreement on 23 December 2014. It addressed many of the most significant challenges facing Northern Ireland. Some of those challenges, such as the long-standing disagreements over flags, parading and the past, were deeply damaging to political relationships within the devolved Executive and were fuelling community divisions. Others, particularly the state of the Executive’s finances and disagreements over welfare reform, were jeopardising the effectiveness and sustainability of devolution itself.
The Stormont House agreement included proposals to give the Executive a workable and sustainable budget; to set a path towards resolving contentious issues around flags, symbols and parading; to establish new bodies to help to tackle the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past; and to deliver reforms at Stormont to make devolution work better. All of that was underpinned by a financial package that gave the Executive about £2 billion of extra spending power.
The Stormont House agreement was and remains a good deal for Northern Ireland. However, by last summer, it was clear that implementation had stalled. That was largely due to disagreements in the Executive over the budget and finances, at the heart of which was the decision by the nationalist parties to withdraw their support for the welfare reform package agreed at Stormont Castle the preceding December. As the stand-off continued, it had the knock-on effect of preventing decisions on other elements of the agreement from being taken. Sadly, the sense of crisis was intensified by two brutal murders in Belfast, one in May and one in August, which once again raised the spectre of the malign influence of continued paramilitary activity on the streets of Northern Ireland.
As we entered last autumn, the political situation looked increasingly perilous. We faced the prospect that resignations might trigger early Assembly elections. That could easily have led to the collapse of the devolved institutions and a return to direct rule from Westminster. That would have been a major setback after all that has been achieved under successive Governments during the past 20 years. It was an outcome that the Government acted strenuously and decisively to avoid.
First, in a speech in Cambridge on 5 September, I made it clear that we could not let the financial impasse continue indefinitely and that if there was no resolution to the dispute, we would be left with no option but to legislate in Westminster for welfare reform.
Secondly, following discussions with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, it was decided that the time was right to convene a second round of cross-party talks, which began at Stormont House on 8 September. Once again, the talks included the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government on matters for which they are responsible, in accordance with the long-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs. The objectives we set ourselves were twofold: to secure the full implementation of the Stormont House agreement and to deal with the impact of continued paramilitary activity.
The talks once again lasted for 10 weeks and concluded on 17 November with a document entitled “A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan”, which was agreed between the UK Government, the Irish Government and the two parties representing a majority of Unionists and nationalists in the Executive. In the Government’s view, that agreement goes a long way towards satisfying the objectives that the participants in the talks set themselves. It gives the Executive a stable and sustainable budget that includes welfare reform; it unblocks progress on other crucial elements of the Stormont House agreement, including institutional reform; and it strongly reaffirms support for the rule of law and places fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s political representatives to work together with determination to rid society of paramilitary activity and groups. This agreement, like the previous one, was underpinned by a financial package from the UK Government, this time worth up to £500 million.
I can inform the House that progress on the implementation of the fresh start agreement has been good. On 18 November, the day after it was reached, the Assembly passed a legislative consent motion for Westminster to go ahead with welfare legislation. The subsequent Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015 was given Royal Assent on 25 November and the related order was passed in early December. The Government are working closely with the Executive on the extensive secondary legislation that is required to deliver the new welfare system in Northern Ireland. We hope to be in a position to begin bringing that forward shortly, with a view to completing its passage through both Houses as soon as we can.
On 21 December, the UK and Irish Governments, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, established a Joint Agency Task Force to reinforce efforts to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime. The Executive have established the three-person panel envisaged by the agreement to make recommendations for a broad-ranging strategy to disband paramilitary groups. The appointments process for the new flags commission is under way. A Bill to reduce the number of Government Departments from 12 to nine has completed its consideration in the Assembly. A further Bill to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly per constituency from six to five is set for its final stage of consideration in the Assembly tomorrow.
The Bill before the House today represents further significant progress, dealing with elements of the fresh start agreement that require UK Government legislation. Clauses 1 to 5 make provision to put into effect a treaty, to be agreed between the UK and Irish Governments, that will establish the independent reporting commission. The Bill sets out the commission’s primary objective to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland. It will report on progress towards that objective and on the implementation of relevant measures by the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Executive that were agreed in the fresh start agreement. The Bill makes provision for key aspects of the new commission’s work, including the duties to which it will be subject and the legal privileges to be conferred on it as an international body. These are intended to ensure that the commission is able to engage with a range of sources of information in performing its important functions, but will avoid doing anything that might put life, safety or national security at risk. I appreciate that hon. Members will wish to see the text of the treaty. It has not been possible to provide that today, because it has not yet been agreed between the UK and Irish Governments, but we will of course place a copy in the Library of the House in due course as soon as we can.
Clause 6 and schedule 1 will extend the time available for the allocation of ministerial positions in the Executive from seven to 14 days after the Assembly meets following an election. The purpose of the change, as set out in the Stormont House agreement, is to allow parties more time to agree a programme for government on a cross-party basis prior to the allocation of ministerial positions. It is hoped that this will encourage a more bipartisan approach to the programme for government.
Clause 7 will amend the pledge of office for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, reflecting strong commitments set out in the fresh start agreement to give unequivocal support for the rule of law and to work collectively to achieve a society free of paramilitarism once and for all. Clause 8 will introduce a similar undertaking by all Members of the Assembly.
Clause 9 will implement the commitments in the fresh start agreement for the UK Government to legislate, with Assembly consent, to increase fiscal transparency in Executive budgets, thus helping the Executive to deliver an affordable and sustainable budget.
If I may take the Secretary of State back to clause 8, I am very pleased about the introduction of a new pledge for all MLAs. They will not be able to participate in any proceedings, or do anything within the Assembly, unless and until they have taken the new pledge. When they have taken the new pledge, however, what sanctions will there be if they fail to honour it, and who will decide?
Naturally enough, any sanctions relating to the actions of MLAs are matters for the Assembly, rather than for the Chamber and the legislation proposed here today. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention.
Clause 9 provides that the Northern Ireland Finance Minister will have a duty to specify—
I am terribly sorry to intervene on the Secretary of State again, but if I may say so that was a rather flippant response and not at all characteristic—she is always so well briefed. Clause 8 actually states:
“Standing orders shall provide for the procedure for giving the undertaking.”
It does not say in clause 8 that Standing Orders will be passed in the Assembly on sanctions for MLAs who do not honour the new pledge, so it must be in this proposed legislation.
I am very sorry. I did not mean for my answer to sound flippant or not serious. It remains the case that the Bill does not provide for sanctions and neither does the fresh start agreement. In terms of internal matters of discipline within the Assembly, that really is a matter for the Assembly itself to determine. What I can provide further clarification on is that an individual who refuses to give the undertaking will not be able to participate in Assembly proceedings, or receive any of the privileges of office or salary.
Clause 9 provides that the Northern Ireland Finance Minister will have a duty to specify to the Assembly the amount of Government funding available, as notified by the Secretary of State. The Minister will have to show, when delivering a draft budget, that the amount of Government funding required by that draft budget does not exceed the amount specified as being available.
Before the Secretary of State moves on to that more detailed point, does she agree that the provisions outlined in the Bill should be extended here? Members who do not take their oath in this place receive privileges and benefits, and are not excluded. Maybe we should learn something from the situation in Northern Ireland and apply it to this place.
I am very much aware of the concerns the hon. Gentleman and his party have on such matters. Issues relating to privileges and expenses are House business, and he and his colleagues are welcome to raise them at any time for the House to consider. In due course, we will look at Short money too.
Just to take a step back in relation to the cross-border task force, I understand a meeting was held in December 2015 to establish it. Can the Secretary of State clarify today how often the task force will meet or is it scheduled to meet?
I think we need to distinguish between the ministerial meeting, which was a one-off, and the agency task force, which will meet regularly. I do not know that it has scheduled a timetable of meetings as yet, but I am sure that once it does I will be able to supply the hon. Gentleman with details. One would expect it to meet regularly to conduct its important work. The membership has been formulated, so it is already cracking on with its work.
Does the Secretary of State agree that cross-border co-operation on a whole range of issues, not least organised crime, is made much easier by the fact that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are members of the European Union?
I was wondering when that subject would come up. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are a whole range of reasons why the relationship between the UK and Ireland has improved massively in recent years.
I have outlined the main features of this short, but important, piece of proposed legislation on Northern Ireland.
There is one area that is not in the Bill. Will the Secretary of State inform the House when the legacy Bill will come forward? Many people throughout Northern Ireland are grieving deeply and want to know when the proposals will come forward.
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, which I was about to come on to. Sadly, I am not able to give her a date for the presentation of that proposed legislation, but, as I will go into, I am determined to work as hard as I possibly can to build the consensus necessary to enable us to introduce it. I agree with her: it is very important that we press ahead.
I must put on record my gratitude for the co-operation of Her Majesty’s Opposition in agreeing to a somewhat faster than usual passage of the Bill through the House. This should enable measures relating to the pledge of office, the undertaking and the extension of the time available for ministerial appointments to be in place in time for the new Assembly when it meets in May. It will enable the new independent reporting commission to be established as soon as possible.
I am very conscious, returning to the point made by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), that some important elements of the Stormont House agreement are not, sadly, in the Bill we are discussing today.
Given that the welfare reform legislation was microwaved through here and that this Bill will be fast-tracked, can the Secretary of State give an undertaking that the legacy Bill will not be fast-tracked and that her commitment to building consensus will extend to proper consideration for victims and the wider public interest, and not just be something cobbled up between parties?
I need to reflect on that, but I definitely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the legacy Bill will be in a very different category from the other two pieces of legislation—the Bill today and the welfare legislation. In those circumstances, we should do everything possible to make sure that it has an ordinary timetable. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will not give an absolute undertaking on that for today’s purposes, but if we get to the stage of being able to present that Bill to Parliament, it is highly likely that we will want to proceed with it on the basis of an ordinary timetable rather than an expedited one, given the sensitivity of the issues.
As I set out in my speech in Belfast on 11 February, the Government are and remain committed to establishing these legacy bodies. We have a manifesto commitment to do so. We will continue our efforts to build the consensus needed to allow us to present legislation to this House. We have made more progress than any of our predecessors in getting close to achieving an agreed way forward on the past. We are now closer than ever, I think, to resolving the main outstanding problems standing in the way of getting these new bodies set up and operating.
I shall continue to engage with the political parties in Northern Ireland, with victims and survivors and with those who represent them, and I am particularly grateful for the input and work of the Commission for Victims and Survivors in trying to facilitate this process and for working hard to try, with me, to build consensus for the new bodies.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one element of the legacy issue that is paramount in the minds of many survivors of the troubles is that under no account and under no circumstances must Northern Ireland be seen to go forward on the basis of treating the perpetrators of violence in the same way as those who were innocent victims of that very violence?
I entirely agree. We on the Government side would never accept a rewriting of history. I think we should always recall the dedication of, and sacrifices made by, both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the armed services in Northern Ireland. We should salute that sacrifice, and I am absolutely convinced that in the vast majority of cases, the members of the security forces performed their duties with the utmost integrity and professionalism.
I want to pay tribute, too, to the dignity and determination with which victims and survivors approach the legacy matters under discussion. I have been deeply moved on many occasions when I have met victims and survivors to hear of their experiences and their tragedies. I have welcomed the chance to meet many of them over my years as Secretary of State. They have different and divergent views on a number of issues, but almost all are agreed that the current mechanisms for tackling legacy cases are not working as they should.
The legacy bodies proposed in the Stormont House agreement will not be perfect and, sadly, even when they are set up, they will not provide every answer to every question. Sadly, no set of solutions that we could devise here or in Stormont could ever achieve that, but I believe that those bodies would deliver significantly better outcomes for victims and survivors than the status quo. For that reason, we will continue to pursue them with diligence and dedication.
As a result of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, I think politics in Northern Ireland is probably more stable now than it has been over the past three years. Economically, although there was undoubtedly some heart-breaking news from Bombardier last week, it is still the case that 46,000 more people are in work compared with 2010 and the unemployment register is down by more than 40% since its peak in 2013. The fresh start agreement also takes us closer to the point where we can complete the transfer of corporation tax powers to the Executive—a move that I believe can have a transformative effect on the economy there.
As we go forward there will continue to be difficulties and challenges. I need hardly remind the House that despite some success in suppressing their activities, the threat from dissident republicans is severe and the need for vigilance is constant. We are also, of course, approaching some very sensitive centenaries—commemorations that can have very different meanings for different parts of the community. Northern Ireland has, I think, entered 2016 more positively than for some time. For our part, the Government remain determined to deliver our manifesto commitment to help build a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. The Bill is intended to help that process, and I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Secretary of State to the debate, and I hope she stays in.
The Bill delivers some of the key aspects of the 17 November 2015 fresh start agreement and the 2014 Stormont House agreement. These agreements ended a financial and political impasse in Northern Ireland that threatened the survival of the devolved institutions and exposed us to the very real possibility of a return to direct rule, which would of course have been disastrous. The Bill is therefore very welcome.
As we address the substance of the Bill, it is crucial for us to stress the importance of economic development. As the Secretary of State acknowledged, the job losses announced at Bombardier last week were a terrible blow to advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland and a personal tragedy for those who will lose their jobs and for their families. They will now, of course, have to seek employment elsewhere. Jobs in Northern Ireland, as across the UK, are crucial as the strength of the economy and opportunity help to deliver continued progress for everyone.
Of course Bombardier operates in an incredibly competitive global market and demand in that world market has not been as strong as we would have liked. However, the Government have a responsibility, so what are they doing to support those who remain at Bombardier? What are they doing to help ensure that those workers find a route back to employment as swiftly as possible? When the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), winds up the debate, will he say what support has been offered to the workforce and to the Northern Ireland Executive? What discussions will he and the Secretary of State have with the rest of the Government to encourage more direct foreign investment into Northern Ireland?
As we begin to discuss this Bill, let us remind ourselves that the previous 12 months have not been the easiest in Northern Ireland. The murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan in the summer and the budgetary stalemate around the issue of welfare led to a political crisis that required all the skill and commitment of those involved to get an agreement to break the stalemate and allow progress to be made. I have said before and I want to put it on record again that all of those involved—the Secretary of State, all the parties in Northern Ireland, many of whom are represented here, and the Irish Government —deserve huge credit for achieving the fresh start agreement. Without that 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.
I know there was huge disappointment, as well, that no agreement could be reached on how to deal with the past. I and many others have raised this issue here over the last few weeks and months. As I said, however, I know that huge progress was made and I am glad that the Secretary of State has reiterated that now is not the time to give up, but to build on the progress that has been made while recognising the challenges and difficulties that remain.
The publication of the draft treaty on the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval was, I think, welcome—to show not only the direction of travel, but how much progress was made in the talks. Victims must be at the heart of any future agreement, as of any agreement—that is clear to us all. The recent allegations with respect to various atrocities of the past demonstrate more than ever the need for a process to be agreed. Victims must not feel that they are locked out of any progress, which is why I urge the Secretary of State to be as transparent as possible, even where difficulty remains, and to continue to seek agreement.
Agreement has not been reached on how to deal with the past so it could not be included in the Bill, but I say to the Secretary of State that we need to take an urgent look at the resources available to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and indeed the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland to support investigations and to speed up the inquests that they continue to be required to do. More and more delay for victims is unacceptable.
Does my hon. Friend agree—as I do—with the First Minister of Northern Ireland, who has said that we need to get real when it comes to the funding of investigations of legacy cases? The PSNI operates within stringent budget constraints. It has to prioritise front-line policing, but it is being asked to do more and more. While the current impasse exists, should it not receive funds from this place rather than having to use some of its own resources to deal with the legacy of the past?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and with the First Minister and others in Northern Ireland who have pointed out that, although agreement has not been reached on how to deal with the legacy issues, the PSNI, the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland and others are still required to deal with the consequences of those issues. Given that the Secretary of State has put aside money pending any agreement, surely it would be acceptable to give at least some of it to those bodies in order to reflect the continuing work that they must do in trying to investigate and resolve some of the difficulties. I think that the First Minister has made a perfectly reasonable request, and, although I know that the Secretary of State will not be able to respond to it now, I hope that she and the Minister—and, indeed, the Government as a whole—will consider it.
May I intervene briefly to offer some assistance? The fresh start agreement makes it clear that the £150 million package to support the legacy work is linked to the establishment of the new bodies. However, we are listening carefully to representations, particularly those relating to inquests. If a credible reform package for inquests is put together, we will of course take very seriously any request for funds to support it.
That is a helpful response. I think that everyone in the House—and, indeed, in Northern Ireland—will have heard what the Secretary of State has said, which implies that she is open to making money available both to the PSNI and to the Coroners Service. I think that that is what victims would expect. They know that it is difficult to reach an agreement on how to deal with the past—and, although the institutions, or the proposed institutions, are there, agreement has not been reached—but, at the same time, work has to be done. Given that the money is there, we would support the Secretary of State if she—or, for instance, the Treasury—estimated at any point that at least some of the money could be released to enable that work to be done as soon as possible, because I think that people in Northern Ireland would expect it to be done as soon as possible. The First Minister would have been pleased to hear what the Secretary of State has said.
The House has been in the habit of dealing with Northern Ireland legislation in one day, but we believe that that should happen only when the need is truly urgent. We supported an emergency procedure with respect to welfare reform, and I promised the Secretary of State when I resumed my current role that we would maintain a bipartisan approach based on the principle of consent. I hope that our actions have demonstrated that commitment, but I want to make it clear that in this instance we have agreed to an expedited procedure rather than an emergency process. This procedure allows us more time to consider the Bill, while still making it possible for us to secure Royal Assent before the approaching Northern Ireland elections. I assume that any necessary legislative consent motion will be forthcoming in order to ensure that measures relating to the pledge of office, the MLA undertaking, and extension of the time available for ministerial appointments are in place in time for the Assembly's return. I am told that the Northern Ireland parties themselves are keen for that to happen.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a fair and reasonable point about discussion of the legacy issues in due course. I think that anyone in Northern Ireland would expect discussion of those significant and important issues to take place by means of due process in the House, and not to be speeded up.
Will Her Majesty’s Opposition be tabling amendments to clause 8 to make it absolutely clear that a sanction will be applied to MLAs who make the pledge and take their seats, but then do not abide by the pledge that they have made? There is a code of ministerial responsibility for members of the Executive, and there are sanctions, but there are no sanctions in the Bill, and that is an obvious omission.
I will say something about pledges later in my speech, but, whether we table amendments or not, I think that the hon. Lady is right to ask for clarification. I shall be quoting one of the pledges which contains a qualification, and I shall be asking what that means. Even if we accept that this is Stormont business, I think it is right for such questions to be asked in the House of Commons.
The Bill will establish an independent reporting commission to monitor progress towards ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. That is a key aspect of it. Paramilitary activity is totally unacceptable and has no place in Northern Ireland, but we shall have to consider in Committee what progress has already been made, and why this initiative will work when others have not. How will progress be judged, and what will happen if it stalls?
The issue of disclosure will also have to be explored in Committee. It is bound to arise, because the Bill requires the Secretary of State to provide guidance on how national security and individuals are to be protected. We shall need an explanation in order to ensure that the problems that prevented an agreement on how to deal with the past do not happen again and prevent the Commission from working effectively—or, indeed, from working at all.
The Bill modifies the pledge of office to be taken by Northern Ireland Ministers, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). The revised pledge will include fresh obligations to work together on a shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary groups and activity, and the Bill introduces a parallel undertaking for Members of the Assembly, who must commit themselves to demonstrating a peaceful pursuit of change and progress. That is to be welcomed. However, the revised pledge includes seven newly agreed commitments, one of which is
“to accept no authority direction, or control on my political activities other than my democratic mandate alongside my own personal and party judgement”.
I think that, in Committee, Members may want to hear a full explanation of the qualification in that pledge.
The Bill extends the period allowed for the appointment of Northern Ireland Ministers, once the Assembly is elected, from seven to 14 days, which we hope will allow more time for a programme of government to be agreed. It also provides for the promotion of fiscal transparency and support for the Executive’s delivery of a stable and sustainable budget. It must be made clear what block grant the UK Government will provide, and how spending above that will be funded. I look forward to some interesting discussion of that in Committee.
If the hon. Gentleman accepts that principle, will he—through the usual channels, and with the support of the Opposition and the Government—table a motion in order to resolve, finally, the anomaly that allows Irish Republican Sinn Féin Members to benefit from privileges in the House without taking the oath?
As I have said, that is House business and I therefore cannot commit myself, but the hon. Gentleman has heard what I have said. We expect all Members of this House to commit themselves to democracy and the democratic process, and I think that that is what all of us have done.
I was talking about the budget, the promotion of fiscal transparency, and support for the Executive’s delivery of a stable and sustainable budget. This is another area that will need to be examined in Committee.
Northern Ireland is not out of conflict; it is coming out of conflict. Huge progress has been made, but challenges remain. The cloud of paramilitary activity still hangs over too many communities and impacts on too many people. This activity, whether republican or loyalist, never had a place in society, and it certainly has no place now.
The major elements of this Bill represent another step towards the principle that must be at the heart of any democracy: that the rule of law is paramount in every community—law enforced by the police and subject to an independent judiciary. The success of this Bill, the new pledges and the independent commission will be judged on how far they bring that goal about.
I just want to make a fairly brief intervention in this debate. Before I do so, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether you will allow me a few seconds to refer and pay tribute to my constituency assistant who died very suddenly a few days ago. His name was Mark Calway, and he worked for me for 14 years and took a particular interest in matters Northern Ireland—and indeed in matters the Republic of Ireland—helping me quite a bit with my work on the Select Committee and as co-chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. His death is a stunning shock, and my heart goes out to his parents, Brian and Maureen. I do hope it is in order for me to pay the greatest tribute to him possible today. All hon. Members know how much we depend on our staff, and when they are personal friends as well, such a loss, at the age of 49, is terrible. Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker.
May I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the work she has done in getting us to this point? I know—or I think I know—how difficult things were back in September when it looked as though the institutions in Northern Ireland might collapse. I know how much work she put in—or I am guessing I know that. Her dedication was total. She was absolutely determined that the institutions would not collapse and that we would in fact find some degree of agreement and a solution that would enable us to move forward. The fact that we are here today demonstrates that she was successful in that, so I really do want to pay tribute to her—and her team—for the very hard work and extraordinarily long hours put into this.
Before I was Select Committee Chairman, I served as shadow Minister for about five years. During some of that time we dealt with an awful lot of legislation—statutory instruments—in Committee upstairs, taking major decisions on behalf of the Province and the people in Northern Ireland. On many of those occasions, at the beginning of my speeches I said how wrong and inappropriate it was to govern the Province in that way, yet we really did face the prospect of going back to the previous situation, and that worried and frightened me. It came about as a result of a couple of tragic murders in Northern Ireland and the linkage between them and people in the Assembly who were allegedly sympathetic to that kind of activity. I am very pleased that this Bill makes it clear that there is no place, either in this place or the Assembly in Northern Ireland, for people who hold those beliefs.
Many years ago we heard the famous and chilling statement that some people would proceed with the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other. Those days are long gone, and anybody who tries to practise that or carry out politics in that way should be in prison, deprived of their liberty. There is no place in the Northern Ireland Assembly for that kind of people. We would not want to work on Committees in this House or anywhere else with people who by day are in the debating Chamber and at night are on the streets causing trouble and wreaking havoc. We would not accept it in this place, and it should not be accepted in Northern Ireland, so I am very pleased that the Bill paves the way for removing that kind of behaviour.
I appreciate the point the hon. Gentleman is making. Sometimes we do have to stop and pinch ourselves and recognise how far Northern Ireland has come in recent years. The point he is making about Northern Ireland politicians taking decisions about the needs of the people of Northern Ireland is emphasised today, as there have been something like 26 amendments on the Floor of the Northern Ireland Parliament today, being voted and consulted on and considered by Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. That shows that instead of decisions being taken in Committee Rooms here, they are being taken in Northern Ireland by the elected representatives on the Floor of the Assembly, and they are very prosperous and good decisions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which emphasises far more strongly than I was able to the importance of the Assembly’s functioning. When we sat in Committee taking big decisions, the great problem was that by the nature of the arithmetic of this House, there were very few people on the Committee from Northern Ireland. The decisions were taken by people like me and many others from English constituencies, with very few representatives from Northern Ireland, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point.
The most urgent priority was dealing with the paramilitary aspect, but there were other issues, which are dealt with in the Bill. One was the agreeing of the budgets. I have mentioned before what happens when there is power-sharing rather than the straight democratic system that we have in this House. We all know why we have that power-sharing, and it has brought people together, but there may be times when there has to be compromise in the way the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive do business. There may be times when politicians in the Assembly and the Executive take their stances, make their points and make their objections, but at the end of the day there has to be agreement; if not, and if there is an overuse of the petitions of concern—I accept that both sides have used them to excess—it is not going to be very helpful. If we cannot get agreement on important issues such as the budget, we face the rather dark prospect of the institutions collapsing, as we almost saw, and power being brought back to this House. That is not something I want to see.
The hon. Gentleman refers to issues on which consensus and agreement were reached. Does he agree that the issue of corporation tax was one on which consensus was reached eventually, and that people were and are looking forward to the prospect of possibly tens of thousands of jobs being created in Northern Ireland? How does he feel about the fact that the delay in reaching that consensus was principally down to Northern Ireland’s and the UK’s membership of the EU? It seemed to delay it for many years.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and I would make two points in response. When the Select Committee looked at the issue—it was the first issue we looked at under my chairmanship back in 2010—it was not unanimous in its support for devolving responsibilities for corporation tax, but all the parties in general were in favour of it. Corporation tax was one of the few issues that every party in Northern Ireland agreed with the policy on, which was a real positive.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, I am afraid. We could have done something about it then. The corporation tax rate for Northern Ireland could have been changed in 2010, or long before that, had it not been for our membership of the EU. I am not sure how far Mr Deputy Speaker will allow me to pursue that argument, but even if we wanted to reduce VAT on tourism in Northern Ireland, it would not be legal under EU rules. There are a number of ways of looking at membership of the EU. We spent two and a half hours on it earlier, and I do not suppose we will be allowed to spend too much longer on it now, but the point the hon. Gentleman makes is absolutely right.
Indeed there is, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I was saying that I accept that petitions of concern have been used to excess by both sides and had not been very helpful in coming to agreements on important issues. This is not contained in the legislation, but I know that the fresh start agreement did address that point and did request in a very strong way, as it were, that that facility should not be abused for the reasons we have given.
I do not wish to detain the House any longer, but this small but important Bill moves us in the right direction. I compliment and congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing it and—as I said earlier—on the enormous amount of hard work she has put in.
I shall be brief to allow time for other Members to make substantive contributions to the debate, and to spare Members from having to listen to my voice for too much longer.
There were, and are, people who would rather see this whole process fail than succeed. They have their reasons, and there is some form of logic that underpins that position. It is, however, the right of a people to govern themselves, to take decisions close to home, and to protect their peace. In Northern Ireland, that peace was fashioned relatively recently and at great expense, and it is harried by a continual undercurrent from disaffected minorities. Political leaders on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland are thirled to a peaceful and democratic political debate, but they have a legacy to address that may cause them some long and uncomfortable times in the years ahead. They must, however, find a way to put the history of their communities in context when looking to the future of those communities. The scars of yesterday cannot be allowed to become open wounds again, and it seems that that is the hardest task they face, no matter what happens in this place.
The land has paid a heavy price of being what it is and where it is, and communities that belong to the land have paid a heavy price for ideology and intransigence over the years. This Chamber has seen many debates, questions and angry exchanges, which at times seemed to pay little or no attention to the lives that were being affected, and often lost.
The Bill is a step forward, providing that it is accepted by Stormont. There is no magic wand to wave, but a collective movement will allow politicians at Stormont more freedom to plot the direction of travel. It is they who must address the legacy issues, and they must do so in Belfast, rather than London. Stormont should decide on the domestic frameworks to serve the people. They will operate under some severe financial restrictions, but they will at least have control over some of the levers of taxation that they will need, in particular—others have already noted this—the devolution of corporation tax. The devolved Administration should be able to decide tax rates and incentives for companies as well as individuals, and I see no reason why the other devolved Administrations around these islands should not have the same power.
Gaps have opened between the points of the Stormont House agreement, the fresh start agreement, and the Bill, but I welcome the forward momentum that the Bill helps to keep going. I congratulate the Whitehall team that has brought it this far—I assume that these were not the easiest days. Credit should also go to those in this Chamber who have played a positive and forward-looking role in this process: the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State, and those Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland.
While I acknowledge the efforts of Ministers and civil servants on this side of the Irish sea, we should also acknowledge those of their counterparts in Belfast and Dublin. The efforts of successive Irish Governments throughout the peace process, and the development of devolution, have been vital in helping deliver the possibility of a peaceful and prosperous future, and it is particularly apt to note that in this year of remembrance for the Irish nation.
The people of Northern Ireland suffered the effects of the troubles, and they continue to suffer them now in the form of higher unemployment and a legacy of arrested community development—I associate myself very much with comments made by the shadow Secretary of State about economic development. Nothing will change that overnight, but we are at least now looking in the right direction, and the SNP supports the Bill.
I welcome the debate on this Bill, and the DUP supports the Bill as well as the proposal to fast-track it. I commend the Secretary of State for her speech to the House, which was the latest in a number of wise statements that she has made on Northern Ireland and wider issues in recent days. I commend her for all those statements.
As a general rule, we are keen to see the fullest possible parliamentary scrutiny of legislation that affects Northern Ireland, and in the past a great deal of such legislation has been passed on an emergency basis. Although often that was unavoidable and understandable, we all accept—not least for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson)—that that was not the best way to operate. Often, such emergency legislation was the result of some breakdown or failure of the political process in Northern Ireland, and I am glad that the Bill does not fall into that category.
This Bill has been drafted as a result of political agreement, and not political disagreement or crisis. It is based on a political agreement from last November, and it has involved considerable consultation and work in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the Northern Ireland Executive. The Bill is only part of the implementation process of the Stormont agreement. A long list of issues were agreed, and they are all being progressed and implemented either in the Assembly, through this House, or directly administratively by the Executive and other agencies, as set out by the Secretary of State. I welcome that progress. The Executive in Northern Ireland has already agreed that a legislative consent motion should be put before the Assembly for clauses that deal with devolved matters, and I understand that that motion will come before the Assembly in mid-March.
I am confident that despite the need to fast-track the Bill, we will have the opportunity for adequate consideration. It is important that a number of measures introduced by the Bill are in place so that when Assembly elections are held and the results come in, everything is in place for the new Assembly and Executive to operate under the new legislation, without any hiccup, delay, or question mark about that. In particular, it is essential that the House deals with the agreement of a programme for government, extending the period to appoint Ministers, new paragraphs for the pledge of office, and an undertaking for Members of the Legislative Assembly, before the Assembly is dissolved at the end of March.
In the light of the recent controversy surrounding the scrutiny of MLAs’ expenses, and—unfortunately—the damage that that does to public confidence in the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill would be an appropriate vehicle with which to introduce in Northern Ireland an institution comparable to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, so as to rebuild public confidence in the expenses vetting procedure in Northern Ireland?
IPSA is a whole other area of debate, and I am sure it will evoke much argument and discussion in this House. The DUP suggested the introduction of an IPSA-style regime some time ago, but we could not get agreement on that. The First Minister of Northern Ireland made a speech on Friday night, outlining again the importance of transparency and of that matter being dealt with and taken forward in precisely that way. Whether the Bill is the right vehicle for that remains to be seen, because it would require agreement and consultation within Northern Ireland. That could—and indeed should—happen, and I encourage parties to do that. It is important to maintain confidence in the integrity of the Assembly. We in this House know what it is to have gone through that kind of controversy, and we want to ensure that things are progressed properly, openly, and with the utmost transparency.
However, when IPSA reported on expenses in Northern Ireland, it found a pretty satisfactory situation overall—it is not as if the entire situation was unsatisfactory. We must ensure that there is confidence, and I and the DUP support whatever steps are needed to introduce an open and transparent system in which such matters are not decided or administered by Members; I hope others will agree.
The Bill, as the Secretary of State has said, seeks to implement aspects of the fresh start agreement, which represents a new beginning for politics in Northern Ireland. I totally agree with what she said about the situation in Northern Ireland. It is more positive now. There is a more positive view of the Assembly and politics, because people have seen that agreement can be made. It was difficult, but things can get done when there is agreement and we can move forward. We must continue to build on that.
It was not, of course, possible to resolve every issue, especially in relation to the past. We have discussed that and will discuss it in much greater detail. Of course, it is not in the Bill—we should be discussing what is in the Bill—but I want to state again that, as far as our party is concerned, we are quite happy for the details of how far we got on all that to be published so that the victims, their families and all the people affected can see openly how much work is being done, how much progress has been made, where the gaps are and what needs to be done to bring the process to a conclusion.
The two issues that threatened imminent destruction of devolution at that time—paramilitary violence and welfare reform—have been addressed, agreed on and dealt with and are subject to provisions in the Bill. The resolution of the welfare reform issue was extremely important; the importance of resolving it cannot be underestimated. It was the single most important issue, from a financial perspective, to be resolved to allow the Assembly to function. I deeply regret that even after the fresh start agreement there were still Members of this House and of the Assembly who opposed the implementation of the agreement. They did not seem to recognise that without a budget that measures up and is sustainable, one cannot continue with devolution.
I am glad that there are politicians in Northern Ireland who are prepared to face up to reality, grapple with difficult problems and sit down to reach sensible outcomes through dialogue and agreement. I am pleased that this House was able to take forward the welfare reforms and the Northern Ireland Assembly was able to agree that the mitigations and some of the enhancements to the welfare system will be allowed to proceed as well. Of course, that is very important. We on these Benches would not have designed this welfare system for Northern Ireland, but it recognises the constraints and parameters within which we must operate financially while going a fair distance to meet some of the problems and issues raised by our constituents.
I am pleased that all the major targets under the fresh start agreement and the implementation plan are being met and that deadlines are being kept. Unlike with the Stormont House agreement of 2014, I believe that there is every reason to expect that every aspect will be implemented in full. On the welfare reform agreement, it is important to note that Eileen Evason’s group made recommendations that came in under budget and will be implemented by the Assembly and the Executive. That allows more money to be spent in other areas by the Executive, who have now passed a budget for next year ahead of time which has been dealt with by the Assembly as it should have been.
On the issue of paramilitary violence, the panel on paramilitary disbandment has been set up and has begun its work. The trilateral meeting to tackle paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime met before Christmas. The Executive are seized of the importance of making progress on this issue, because, at the end of the day, as we made very clear when the crisis blew up, we are not prepared to sweep these matters under the carpet. They must be faced up to by everyone who wants to see Northern Ireland move forward. There must be not only a commitment in words to democracy and the rule of law but an implementation of that in practice. That is why we on these Benches, and back in the Assembly, as elected representatives of the people, will not allow these matters simply to be ignored or to be used as a political football for a temporary political point-scoring exercise before being forgotten about. We are serious about these issues and we want them to be addressed, and to be addressed properly.
I am also glad that the Executive has agreed the reduction in the corporation tax rate to commence from April 2018. The reduction to 12.5% is an extremely important addition to the range of attractions that Invest Northern Ireland will be able to go out and promote across the world to possible investors and those who are interested in coming to Northern Ireland. I welcome that and express our gratitude to the Government for their support on this matter. Many parties and people who will no doubt claim credit now gave up on corporation tax. Our party never gave up on it. Some people said that the possibility was over and done with and would never happen—that is the reality—but we did not give up.
I pay tribute to the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who made corporation tax a very important issue. He recognised the value of having the measure in place. Indeed, I pay tribute to him for the work he did, along with the Secretary of State and other parties, to make this fresh start agreement happen. His commitment to ensuring stability in devolution cannot be underestimated. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for the agreement. The corporation tax provision, in particular, was something that he felt very strongly about and that our party has always believed in. I am glad that it is now proceeding. When the First Minister goes to New York and Washington and to the west coast in March, along with the Deputy First Minister and others, the strength of her argument about coming to invest in Northern Ireland will have been greatly increased as a result of this agreement. This tax reduction is another reason why there should be investment in Northern Ireland.
The legislation to reduce the number of MLAs and reorganise and reduce the number of Government Departments is also nearing completion. As we heard, tomorrow there will be further debate on that. The Assembly has passed a resolution to allow an official opposition to be created and that work has been taken forward by the Assembly authorities. Nominations have been sought from the parties and applications sought from the public for the flags commission, and we expect that to be established by the end of March. There has also been progress made on the fiscal council and the compact civic advisory panel.
All in all, progress on the fresh start agreement has been very positive and has heralded a better atmosphere at Stormont, where things are getting done. The Bill is a further positive step in implementing what has been agreed. If I might say so in passing, it is an interesting commentary on the media that when there is a hold-up in the Assembly, a massive issue of confrontation on political issues, a stand-off or when things are not getting done, there is a mass of attention and commentary. We do not hear the same reporting or the same level of discussion in the media, on the radio and on television when things are getting done, day by day and week by week. Legislation has been passed and progress is being made, but it is as if nothing is happening at all. There is hardly any reporting at all—I do not hear about any of it. It is interesting how sometimes good news, positive developments and progress are massively under-reported in Northern Ireland, whereas anything negative or bad is given massive prominence.
As other Members have said, it is worth putting on record the distance that Northern Ireland has come and the progress that has been made. For all the backward steps and ups and downs, we have made enormous progress. The political institutions that came back after the St Andrews agreement have provided a much more stable environment and I believe that that needs to be celebrated.
The story that will appear in tomorrow’s newspaper—we might as well settle up for them—will be a photograph of the number of Members in the Chamber now compared with a photograph of the number of Members in the Chamber three hours ago, when the Prime Minister was speaking. It is such a crass story, but they run it week in, week out, telling people to look at the lack of interest in this place when Northern Ireland is being discussed compared with when a European issue or a financial issue is being discussed. We might as well ask the press to go ahead and publish that anyway.
On such issues, I always think that quality, not quantity, is what matters. I apply that to all Members present in the House; every Member who is here for this debate is of the highest quality. I welcome those who are here, particularly Members from constituencies outside Northern Ireland, including those who have served on the Select Committee and taken an interest in Northern Ireland matters. Their support and interest in Northern Ireland is greatly welcomed, and we value it very much indeed. I have already commented on some issues about press and media reporting, and my hon. Friend will understand if I do not take that too much further now.
We could go into detail on the independent reporting commission and other matters, but this is a Second Reading debate and so is about the generality of the Bill. We will have more opportunities to discuss it, and I welcome the fact that the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House. I welcome the good co-operation that there has been between the Government, Opposition Front Benchers and the Northern Ireland parties on how this Bill should proceed. It has been an excellent example of how parliamentary scrutiny should happen. As I say, we understand why this Bill needs to be fast-tracked. It is not being done out of any sense of crisis; it is being done out of a sense of wanting to make sure that progress continues to be made and that the provisions are in place before the Assembly elections. We wish the Bill well, and we thank those who have been responsible for the agreement on introducing it and those who have worked so hard to bring this Second Reading debate to fruition.
I want to speak briefly about a number of faults or flaws in the Bill, which we certainly hope to address during its next stage.
Tackling paramilitary activity is paramount, and paramilitary activity continues to blight our society in Northern Ireland, not least in and around my constituency, where Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan were both ruthlessly gunned down in the past 12 months. Such events may not, thankfully, be as common as they once were, but they still happen on our streets. Those two murders are stark reminders of the paramilitary activity that persists nearly two decades after the Good Friday agreement was signed.
Throughout the talks that led to the Bill, we were clear that a whole-community approach is imperative if we are to root out paramilitary activity once and for all. Parties cannot and must not be seen to indulge in any class of paramilitary activity, in any circumstances, at any time. That should not be limited to certain groups or individuals, or to activity in certain constituencies; there should be no exclusions or opt-outs. It requires unequivocal and universal condemnation, and a united front, from all democratic parties and from all in civic society. Any vestige of paramilitary behaviour or structures is an affront to democracy, not just in Northern Ireland but anywhere else where it might exist, and should not be accepted. Furthermore, such vestiges continue to blight, obstruct and undermine every opportunity for economic recovery, which is desperately needed in Northern Ireland in the light of some of the news of the past couple of weeks.
The pledge proposed in the Bill, to be undertaken by Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly, is a step in the right direction, but the content of the pledge requires further scrutiny, particularly on the transition away from paramilitary activity. We in the Social Democratic and Labour party realise that ridding our society of paramilitary activity will by no means be an overnight process, but support in the transition has been allowed to become, or be seen as, a degree of tolerance of some element of paramilitary activity. That cannot be allowed any further.
The big absence in the Bill is, of course, any reference to the legacies of the past and, particularly, to issues pertaining to legacy. We have made our views clear: victims, survivors and their needs must be paramount, and vague claims about national security cannot and must not be used to prevent disclosure and block every effort to uncover truth and to establish accountability and transparency. There is no degree of honesty or integrity in that.
Northern Ireland society cannot, as some would have it, just move on and forget about the past, abandoning the hurt and the needs of victims and survivors. The wounds of the past must be healed, and the victims and survivors across our society have waited far too long. For many of them, this Bill—or another, if there is one coming, which we would like to see sooner rather than later—is the last real chance for any sort of meaningful truth or genuine justice. It is perfectly understandable that many of those people feel enormously let down by the shortfalls of not only this Bill but previous Bills. Dealing with the past and its legacy has been far too much of a piecemeal exercise. We will work to amend the Bill at the next stage, and we will work on any other Bill that may emerge. We will seek amendments on the needs of victims and survivors, and on the needs of communities that have been blighted and tortured by paramilitary activity.
We would also welcome some reference in the Bill to other issues that have been left out. We would like it to make much greater progress on dealing with flags and parading. Those things lead to disturbance and need to be addressed, as does dealing with the past and its legacy.
The Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State referred to the economy. During the Stormont House talks we discussed prosperity and the need for an overall comprehensive economic recovery strategy, or a prosperity strategy, but somehow that has been forgotten about. Corporation tax has been mentioned. The SDLP was talking about that 20 years ago and has fully supported this approach at all times in between, but corporation tax will not do everything—it is not a magic bullet, dare I say? There is a desperate need for third-level education, training, apprenticeships and skills development, to go along with propping up and developing a newer and better economy. I say to the Secretary of State that I would have been keen to have some reference in the Bill to the economy and creating a prosperity process. I know that there are issues she wishes to deal with urgently, but we need to address a dire economic situation, and attention has been drawn to that by the Bombardier situation.
I want to provide reassurance that, like the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government are absolutely committed to enhancing and increasing prosperity in Northern Ireland. Our main vehicle for the work we do together is the economic pact, so the fact that the issue was not expressly referred to in the fresh start agreement does not mean the two Administrations are not working closely to bring that about.
I thank the Secretary of State for that, and I am reassured, but I look forward to further stages of the Bill and the opportunity to flesh it out, amend it and make additions, where appropriate, to ensure that it is as comprehensive as possible and does all that we would expect it to do.
May I start by not only giving our sympathy to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for losing his assistant, but sending our huge thanks to him and the many others who have helped us in Northern Ireland, be it through the British-Irish Parliamentary Association, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee or in other ways? A mass of people are always trying to help us get somewhere.
I welcome the Bill, although I still have doubts about various parts of it. We felt when we saw it that it was a bit of a sticking plaster, rather than a chance to have a rebirth of Stormont. I welcome the many changes that are being made, but we wait to see whether they really get there. Today, I wish to touch on a few changes that we want to see to the Bill and on some of our concerns.
When the independent reporting commission is appointed, we would like to see more people involved than just the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Too much of what happens in Northern Ireland tends to be done by the two main parties in the Executive. We must find a different way. We could go through the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission. Whatever way we choose, we should move away from just involving the two main parties.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will put the guidance in place. It is certainly necessary to have somebody outside of ourselves to help move us along, although I realise that such a task is a poisoned chalice at times and may well require the wisdom of Solomon. None the less, we do need guidance. I know that it falls on our shoulders most of the time, but, as I have long been saying, we should not leave it all to the devolved Assembly. We must have Westminster working with Stormont. We should all pull together and work together instead of things being left to Stormont when everything gets stuck.
I am really happy to see in the Bill the change from seven to 14 days to try to get a programme for government in place. We must remember that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) who put that idea forward when he was leader of our party. He wanted a longer period of time to be available to get Ministers chosen, but in line with an overall programme for government, which I hope will be achieved within 14 days. If there is any doubt in that regard, will the Secretary of State look at how we can get something in place to ensure that it happens? We want not Ministers working in silos but a joint programme for government well into the future.
I very much welcome everything in the Bill to do with trying to remove paramilitaries from Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist party was very much behind raising that matter to the top of the agenda during the talks. I would like the Secretary of State and the Minister to make it clear exactly what is meant by “paramilitary”. As we take the Bill forward, I am sure that that is where we will find many of our difficulties. There are many grey areas that need to be clarified. For example, will someone who knocks on doors asking for funding to help pay for the bonfires be called a paramilitary? Will someone who raises the Union flag be deemed a paramilitary? Over many years, the Union flag, which should be the flag of all of us and not offensive to anyone, has been turned by some members of the community into a sectarian flag, which it should not be. Will someone who puts up that flag be treated as a paramilitary? We need clarity, and we need to talk our way through this. One story from my patch is that members of the Boys Brigade were going to take their standards into the local church. They were prevented from taking in the Union flag by one party, which said that such action was sectarian. We need to stop that happening.
There are other matters that need clarifying. When I started off in the council, I was lucky to go to France with a group that would have been known as one of the bonfire groups from Antrim. In those days, it cost us £120,000 to clear up after the bonfires. We had 11 different community groups—others would have given them stronger titles than that—that did not talk to each other. Going away together allowed us to get everyone to work together to find ways forward and find the commonalities that existed. In time, we reduced the number of bonfires and improved most of them—not all. The next time we had the bonfires, it cost only £40,000 to clear up. We must be absolutely clear—will such groups be deemed paramilitaries? If Members of the Legislative Assembly and others talk to such groups, will they be seen to be dealing with paramilitaries when they take the oath? We need clarity on the whole issue.
As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, we need an organisation with teeth to allow us to ensure that MLAs, Ministers and others are abiding by their oaths. It is essential that we find a way of enforcing that in the future, but we must all do it together. I agree with what has been said about IPSA. We have discussed whether we should try to get IPSA into the Bill, because it is essential that we get something that works much better in Northern Ireland. Most people in Northern Ireland do not think that expenses are under control. They do not think that anyone accepts any responsibility when they have done something wrong. There is such a whiff of corruption, or of things not being right, that we must have an organisation with some sort of teeth, and IPSA seems to carry out such duties extremely well, so let us try to bring it in.
It is great to hear that there are moves for an Opposition in Northern Ireland, but we need to put one or two things into the Bill to allow us to improve how that operates —whether it is on the finance or how Committees are manned—so that we really have a proper Opposition. We must be careful about how we deal with that, but we need to work together.
I long to see things happening when it comes to legacy. I know that we all had differences, and the issues need to be dealt with quickly, but not so fast that we do not all get the chance to talk and have our say. It is vital that Northern Ireland finds a way forward that moves us away from all the legacy issues, so that we can begin to thrive and build our future together.
We have had much mention of corporation tax, but it is not the silver bullet. We must do a whole mass of other things together. As a party, we wanted the devolution of corporation tax years ago, but there were differences between the parties on how it would work, which really slowed things up. Let us get everything in place—better infrastructure, air passenger duty and rates changes—and let us work on all those issues together. I see the Bill as a start to the improvements in Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and the Minister for all the work that they and their teams have done to bring forward this Bill. Having been involved in much of the negotiations in the past, I can say in all honesty—we should always give credit when it is due—that the Secretary of State has gone way up in my estimation for the clear stance that she has taken on issues both in the public domain and privately around the negotiating table. She has done so with great clarity and that is something to be welcomed from a Secretary of State. She has also been ably supported by the Minister.
I pay tribute to Mark Calway, who worked for my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). I had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions as he took an interest in Northern Ireland. I know that my hon. Friend and his team will feel his loss very deeply, and we extend our sympathy to him and to Mark’s family.
Tackling paramilitarism is an important element of this agreement, and it is long overdue. As a party, we have pressed time and again for the paramilitaries to leave the stage. At times I have heard their spokespersons in the media talk about their big contribution to the peace process, but they have delivered little by way of the necessary steps. For far too long, they have been begrudging about the action that the paramilitary organisations need to take. They have continued to straddle the fence between democracy and the rule of law on the one side, and continued involvement in criminality and at times, sadly, in murder on the other.
One reason for the political crisis in Northern Ireland last year was precisely to do with this continued involvement by members of paramilitary organisations in criminal activity and in carrying out murders. As the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) reminded us, those murders took place in his constituency. We need to be absolutely clear that there is no room for ambiguity, for grey areas or for straddling the fence between the rule of the law and involvement in criminality and paramilitarism. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better, which is why it is vital that we continue to pursue this agenda, and the Stormont agreement marks a significant step in taking it forward.
The right hon. Gentleman condemns paramilitarism, whatever shape or form it takes—loyalist paramilitaries as well as republican paramilitaries. In that connection, will he put on record his thanks, and the thanks of many people, to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for completing yet another search for the remains of Lisa Dorrian, who disappeared 11 years ago, and was murdered by those with loyalist paramilitary connections? Her family have never had her returned for a Christian burial, and tragically her mother died broken-hearted earlier this year. I would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman condemned equally loyalist and republican paramilitaries.
The hon. Lady speaks of the individual, personal and family suffering of the victims of paramilitary violence. Let me make it clear that when, as a party, we refer to paramilitarism we mean paramilitarism across the political divide. I had the pleasure of taking the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State to Lisburn to visit a community project in my constituency. We have worked hard with people who were previously involved in paramilitary activity to enable them to complete the transition to what is now purely community development work, and those communities have been transformed as a result. For example, the Old Warren in Lisburn in my constituency has been transformed as a result of the transition of people previously involved in loyalist paramilitarism to purely community development. I commend the Resurgam Trust in Lisburn and its leadership for what they have done to transform that community by enabling those people to make that transition. I assure the hon. Lady that that is precisely the kind of effort that needs to take place in Northern Ireland.
It was one of the tragedies of conflict, and our troubles in Northern Ireland, that families not only suffered the loss of a loved one but were not able to mourn properly, because their loved one’s remains had not been returned to them. The family of Lisa Dorrian are a case in point, and we hope and pray that one day they will at least have the dignity of being able to bury the remains of their loved one. I appeal to those who know where Lisa Dorrian’s remains are to give that information to the police. I appeal to them on the grounds of basic Christian principles: even those involved in such wrongdoing should see that it is the right thing for a family to be able to have some degree of closure and have their loved one’s remains returned to them.
The Bill makes provision for the establishment of the independent reporting commission, which we welcome. The commission will report annually on progress on ending continued paramilitary activity, and we hope that it will shine a spotlight on republican and loyalist paramilitary groups that continue to engage in criminal acts and acts of violence. That will apply in Northern Ireland, but one of the important provisions in the Bill is that it will also apply in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. In recent times, we have seen the effects of paramilitary gangster-type activity in Dublin, which is unacceptable, and we must all co-operate to ensure that such activity is brought to an end. I hope that the good people of the Republic of Ireland, who go to the polls shortly, will think long and hard about who they elect to their national Parliament and where they stand on questions such as the special criminal court and the need to bring to an end paramilitarism, gangsterism and criminality, wherever they develop and emerge.
We welcome changes to the pledge of office for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and, crucially, a new undertaking to be given by all Members elected to the Assembly after May that will commit them to non-violence and to supporting the rule of law. No such undertaking has been required in the past, even though an undertaking is required of councillors in local government. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is absolutely right: we need to be sure that it is not just a question of a paper exercise but that sanctions are in place so that if Members breach that undertaking they can be held to account. I assure her that we will examine the Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly to see whether such a sanction exists. If it does not, we are prepared to introduce and support an amendment to the Bill to ensure that provision is made for such a sanction.
The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and others have made reference to things that are not in the Bill, and it is a matter of regret that we cannot yet legislate for the provisions of the Stormont House agreement dealing with legacy matters. The Democratic Unionist party supports full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. We are doing nothing that holds back implementation of the agreement. We are all aware that implementation has not taken place because of a stand-off or impasse on the question of national security. Here I differ from the hon. Gentleman. He talked about victims, but I am interested not just in the victims of the past but in ensuring that we do not have more victims in future. When we take action that compromises the security of our people and brings into the public domain the manner in which the security forces operate to counter terrorism we put people at risk in Northern Ireland. We put lives at risk, and we create the potential for future victims in Northern Ireland, because sadly not everyone has signed up to the peace process. Not all paramilitary organisations are on ceasefire. People out there today are targeting others—in my own constituency, in the past couple of weeks there have been two instances of prison officers having to leave their home because of threats from dissident republican organisations.
Knowledge and intelligence have, thankfully, prevented attacks from going ahead, which tells us that our security services continue to operate to prevent loss of life and prevent further victims from being created. I would say to the hon. Member for Belfast South and the Social Democratic and Labour party that, yes, we want the maximum disclosure that is available, but we also need to ensure that the security of the people we represent is protected. Yes, we want processes to be in place for innocent victims of terrorism to enable them to have access to information and justice and a degree of closure. At the same time, we must not compromise the ability of the security forces to protect the community in Northern Ireland and prevent further victims from being created in future.
On the national security issue, no democratic party should give cover to Sinn Féin on this issue, because we know that what their game is. It is about rewriting the history of the troubles. The reality is that 90% of all the killings that occurred in the troubles were carried out by paramilitary organisations. However, if we look at the media coverage, read the newspapers and look at the amount of money spent on investigations and inquests, proportionately far more of that resource goes on the 10% of deaths attributed to the state. Many of those deaths were the result of the security forces killing people who were engaged in acts of terrorism, but far more emphasis is put on those deaths than on the 90% of innocent victims murdered by paramilitary organisations.
I agree with my right hon. Friend on the 90% versus the 10%, but it now appears that in some instances where the Provisional IRA carried out atrocities there is an attempt by Sinn Féin to blame those in the security forces, the police and the Army. The abysmal audacity of some people knows no bounds, beyond even what my right hon. Friend described.
My hon. Friend is right. We constantly hear the Sinn Féin mantra that it is not just a case of 90% versus 10% of killings, but that the state was somehow responsible for directing many of the paramilitary-related deaths. No one with any rational thought in their head will fall for that nonsense from the republican movement.
There is now an investigation resourced from outside Northern Ireland into the actions of the agent known as Stakeknife, Freddie Scappaticci from west Belfast, in which the emphasis is on the killings that he allegedly may have been involved in, but the question for me is who was directing Freddie Scappaticci? Who was giving the orders to Freddie Scappaticci to carry out the internal investigations of alleged republican informers? It was the IRA army council, some of whom, as we know, are now senior political figures in Northern Ireland—the very same people who point the finger at the Secretary of State and at the Government. However, as I said recently in a radio interview, far more fingers are pointing back in their direction when it comes to those issues.
The audacity of Sinn Féin and the IRA in this matter needs to be highlighted. It affects not only Northern Ireland cases—we have the case of Loughgall—but cases involving murders on the mainland, such as the Birmingham case. Now there is an attempt to blame the security services in England for the Birmingham bombing. It is atrocious. We have to nail this one, and nail it true.
My hon. Friend is right. We apply the same standard to republican-related murders and loyalist-related murders. The idea that the Ulster Volunteer Force, for example, would be exonerated from the Loughinisland killings in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) because of allegations of collusion is just as perverse and absurd as the idea that the IRA would be exonerated from the massacres and murders that it committed in the past. The same applies on both sides.
In conclusion, we want to see progress in dealing with the legacy issues. We want to see the historical investigations unit established, with full police powers to investigate the unsolved murders. I talk to the innocent victims, and as they look on at what is happening, they feel that they are not being given a fair crack of the whip, an opportunity. We must move matters on. In the interim—I raised this before with the Secretary of State—the First Minister, Arlene Foster, has supported the call for the resources already set aside for historical investigations to be allocated to the legacy investigation unit of the PSNI so that that money does not come out of front-line policing in Northern Ireland.
The PSNI needs to continue to deal with current crime and with the current terrorist threat, so we do not want to see the police budget depleted by the continued drawing down of resource for the investigation of legacy cases. Those need to be investigated, absolutely, but we hope the Secretary of State will listen to what the Chief Constable and the First Minister have said and allow some of that resource to be freed up and transferred to the PSNI to enable it to do more to help the innocent victims of terrorism.
Like others, I welcome progress on the Bill. There are two aspects on which the Ulster Unionist party has been to the fore. The first is the continuing terrorist activity in Northern Ireland and beyond. The second, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), is the need for more time after elections to allow negotiations on a programme for government. We hope that those two weeks will be beneficial for Northern Ireland in the next term of the Assembly and in future. I look on those as positive aspects. The extension of the time for negotiations was proposed by us as far back as 2011.
I am almost tempted to go into some topics that are not in the Bill, but perhaps what is in the Bill is enough for us to discuss. The legacy issues will need to be dealt with and there must be equality and fairness in any inquiry or investigation. That is not apparent now. For example, I understand that the PSNI legacy unit has almost 20 officers involved in the Bloody Sunday inquiries. That is fine. The problem is that there is not one PSNI officer currently working on the Enniskillen investigation, for example, so there is a huge imbalance.
On the commission to look into terrorist or paramilitary activities, we must consider recent history, even since the Belfast and St Andrews agreements were signed. The UDA, the UVF and loyalist paramilitary and terrorist organisations have been mentioned. They have been responsible for some brutal murders. We have just heard the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) mention Lisa Dorrian. It is a terrible affliction that her family suffers daily. I cannot imagine what it is like.
On the opposite side also, the republican movement, particularly the IRA, has been responsible for some brutal murders. Let us not forget that, as has been mentioned, the IRA and Sinn Féin are inextricably linked and they sit at the heart of Government. Think of some of the murders that have taken place—Robert McCartney, Denis Donaldson, Paul Quinn and more recently Kevin McGuigan. What strikes me about all those is not just the brutality, but the clinical way in which those murders were carried out. Such planned executions could be carried out only by an organisation with the ability of the IRA.
Let us not forget that the Chief Constable said that the IRA and the army council still exist. We need to deal with that and with the question of whether they are inextricably linked with Sinn Féin. That is a major question that will hang over the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland people for years to come. That is why there is major concern in Northern Ireland that someone who may still be a member of the IRA army council will have the privilege of appointing representatives to the commission.
The hon. Gentleman is outlining the case that Sinn Féin and the IRA are one and the same. Does he agree that in all probability in the two weeks after the Assembly election that will remain the case when decisions have to be made about whether to be in the Executive or out of it?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. That has been the case for some time now, and it will remain the case, irrespective of what the commission comes up with. There will remain a huge question mark over some people’s right to remain senior members of the Executive.
The second aspect of the Bill is the pledge of office for Ministers and the undertaking for MLAs. That is welcome, but I have major concerns about its effectiveness. The hon. Member for North Down indicated that she is concerned about how sanctions—if there are any—will be applied, and I agree with her. Whether we can do anything about that may be an issue for the Committee stage, and I do not know whether the Secretary of State will come back with any suggestions on that. However, I am not so sure whether a pledge of ministerial office or an undertaking as an Assembly Member will make much difference to people who bombed and murdered in the past. If people could do that in the past, these things are not going to make a huge difference.
The third aspect of the legislation is the commitment and the statements in the budget. There was a major logjam in the Executive for months over the financial provisions and the budget issues, and that is why it is welcome that we are trying to progress the matter. Many Departments suffered greatly because of that blockage: health waiting lists rocketed; road and other infrastructure maintenance and development almost came to a standstill; and care for the elderly and vulnerable was greatly diminished, which everyone feels very sorry about, particularly if they are a carer and did not have help and support because of a political logjam.
Again, I come back to the issue of sanctions. We have heard about the sanctions regarding the pledge of office and the undertakings. What will be the sanction if the budget or financial undertakings are not lived up to? There does not appear to be any sanction mechanism for those who deliberately hold up the process and prevent everyone else from getting the benefit of a financial deal.
I welcome the progress that has been made, but only time will confirm whether the proposals deliver on the issues of terrorism, commitments by elected representatives and commitments on budgetary and financial resolutions.
The hon. Gentleman should be personally congratulated for the legal case he brought, where sanctions were imposed on someone who tweeted evil about him and the gallant organisation he was a member of—the Ulster Defence Regiment. He has demonstrated that, where there is a legal remedy, that is sometimes the best sanction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Obviously, that is still rumbling on, but we got a sanction of some degree. I hope that the Assembly or this House can provide sanctions in this legislation. Like many others, I will await the outcomes and the outworkings of what is proposed here. As hon. Members will appreciate, I have some concerns about the outworkings of some of the proposals, and particularly about the sanctions, but I give the Bill a fair wind at this stage.
I am delighted to participate in this Second Reading debate. I offer my condolences to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) following the bereavement of his staff member. I also offer my condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) following his family’s bereavement last night.
In its generality, the Bill deals with trying to eradicate paramilitarism. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), I want to emphasise not only my party’s consistent support for political and economic stability throughout Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland, but, above all, our unequivocal opposition to all forms of paramilitarism, whether it comes from republican or loyalist paramilitaries. Paramilitarism, and what it fed and spawned, created not only instability but fear. It was like a cancer running throughout our society.
There were also other issues. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to the murder of six innocent men in Loughinisland on 18 June 1994. That is a night I will never forget, because two people who were murdered that night were directly related to relatives of mine—one was an uncle and another was a cousin. In that respect, therefore, I know the character of those people, and their only political act on any occasion was to register their vote. Never by word or deed did they undertake any form of paramilitary activity, but they died at the butt of a gun, and their bodies were strewn over a pub.
I would therefore say to the Secretary of State that her comments on 11 February were in some ways unfair, because at the moment the independent police ombudsman is undertaking, and near the completion of, another inquiry into what happened in Loughinisland on that night and why it happened. Were there elements of collusion between the then RUC and those who perpetrated those awful crimes on that night, robbing the community that I represent and, above all, that I live in of six good people and irrevocably changing our community, not because what happened moved people towards violence in any form, but because it left them in a state of fear, in a community that had never known any form of violence before? I urge the Secretary of State in that respect to be particularly careful, because her words on 11 February could be construed as trying to obfuscate that inquiry by the police ombudsman, which is near completion. That is the second inquiry, because the previous ombudsman’s inquiry was inconclusive and, in many ways, could be perceived as being deliberately inconclusive.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s comments, and I have huge regard for her. I would just like her to put on record this evening her gratitude to the RUC, which stood between the whole community of Northern Ireland and absolute mayhem through more than 30 years of appalling violence. Three hundred and two RUC officers paid the ultimate price with their lives. I am sure she would like to put on record her gratitude for the sacrifice and courage of the RUC through the awful years of the troubles.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We were always opposed to the murder of members of the security forces, whether those security forces were the RUC, the UDR or the Army. We saw what that did to those people and to their families. That murder and that paramilitarism against members of the security forces was totally unacceptable; we condemned it at the time, and we will always condemn it—we are very clear about that. Let me move on to other issues.
There is a clear need to ensure that economic stability is embedded in Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said when he referred to issues to do with corporation tax and the loss of jobs last week at Bombardier in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and other job losses. The most important thing is to ensure that existing economic stability in Northern Ireland is protected. What better way to do that, I say again, than through continued membership of the European Union, because we have a ready export market in the south of Ireland and are also able to trade with the wider Common Market? I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on her position in that respect.
Moving on to elements of the Bill, clause 1(4) deals with the independent reporting commission, to which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can nominate two persons. I suggest that there would need to be a legislative input for the Justice Department, despite the character of the independent reporting commission. It could be argued that any Northern Ireland nominations should be made by the Executive as a collective body, or chosen from proposals made by parties. The issues that fall to the independent reporting commission brought the parties together in September last year, because they refer directly to the murders of Gerard Davison in the first week in May last year and of Kevin McGuigan in August. Both people resided in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South.
During the negotiations—I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister will recall this—we in the SDLP circulated papers to the three Governments and all parties on a whole-enforcement approach and a whole-community approach on how to address the issues of paramilitarism. Despite fresh start being designed and managed to be a two-party deal, there should have been all-party work on IRC membership. How can the work and the mandate of the IRC, which includes Dublin representatives, be reconciled with Sinn Féin’s approach to Tom Murphy from South Armagh? I would like to press the Secretary of State on precisely how much new moneys are to be made available to the National Crime Agency and the PSNI, when those moneys will be released, and how they will be split between the National Crime Agency and the PSNI.
Clause 2(3)(a) deals with national security, which was referred to by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. Paramilitarism and criminality are therefore to be addressed, but unfortunately the British Government can invoke national security, and that allows for the protection of agents who have information, thereby impeding work on the resolution of many cases.
Clause 6(1) deals with institutional reform. Yes, 14 days before the appointment of Ministers is okay, but fresh start refers to a proposal that parties have to agree to go into the Executive before the programme for government is finally agreed. Have the Government contemplated any amendment to this proposition? The pledge of office for Ministers states that they must
“support the rule of law unequivocally in word and deed and…support all efforts to uphold it.”
How can this be reconciled with Sinn Féin’s view on the National Crime Agency? The NCA is a vehicle for the rule of law, yet in February 2015 Sinn Féin opposed a motion in the Assembly that proposed support in word and deed, and refused to endorse it at a recent meeting of the Policing Board. How does the new pledge address Sinn Féin’s approach to Mr Murphy? The same applies to the pledge of office for Assembly Members.
In the Stormont House talks, and in our submissions to those talks, we have made the point time and again that capricious or divided political messages on paramilitarism exacerbate the challenges facing people trying to move community transitions and graduations away from ingrained paramilitary interests. A genuinely united political stance from all parties in the Assembly is imperative if we are to enable statutory agencies and community groups to challenge ongoing paramilitary activity, which should be condemned outright from whatever quarter it comes. For that reason, the ministerial pledge of office and the undertaking by Assembly Members are welcome, but further clarification is required.
One element of the pledge, in particular, requires further scrutiny: the reference in the pledge of office and the undertaking by MLAs to their duty
“to support those who are determined to make the transition away from paramilitarism”.
Will the Secretary of State or the Minister provide some clarification on that? Rooting out paramilitarism is not an overnight process, and scope has to be allowed for transition, but that cannot apply to illegal or untoward activity by paramilitary groups, or manifest itself as respect or tolerance for different classes of paramilitary behaviour. As MPs representing Northern Ireland constituencies, we have seen many examples of paramilitary activity.
As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, I regret the fact that there has been no legislative addressing of the legacy issues that need to be dealt with—the victims and the past. I urge that such legislation be introduced and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle said, it is subjected to detailed scrutiny by this House, because we owe that to all the victims and all those who have suffered so terribly as a result of such heinous violence that was never asked for and never called for.
In the outworkings of all these agreements, we must try to achieve political and economic stability, because that is what we all strive for and all want to see. For the betterment of all our constituents and all the citizens of Northern Ireland, we must ensure that social justice is provided for and that inequalities that have been inherent across the community for some years are totally addressed. We must also ensure that we see the sustaining of existing jobs and the provision of new jobs through the building up of small and medium-sized enterprises, but also jobs through foreign direct investment. I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that this comes about.
I join my right hon. and hon. Friends and colleagues in acknowledging the presence of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is diligent as the Chair of the Select Committee. He has suffered a close personal loss in the untimely death of Mark Calway and he has the sympathy of all of us. I also acknowledge the message of sympathy from my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), which I will pass on to my sister.
This Bill takes forward aspects of what has been called the fresh start agreement. I said at the time that an undue amount of political Febreze had been attached to that particular agreement, because it was not as widely agreed as the photograph on the front of Library briefing paper for this Bill would suggest. It implies that all the parties were agreed, but we and the Alliance party have made it clear that we see most of the agreement as being between Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist party and the British and Irish Governments.
That does not mean that the rest of us did not make significant contributions to the discussions. My hon. Friend is right to point out that, while other parties said a lot in front of the cameras about how the issue of paramilitarism had to be brought to a head, mine was the only party to make substantive contributions, on paper, on how to progress. We suggested a whole enforcement approach, because many parties and people believed that a blind eye was being turned to different levels of criminal activity and that bye-balls were being given to particular people. There was a feeling that the Governments were happy to allow some crime to continue, essentially on the basis that it related to personal assets. Even if those assets and criminal activities derived from former paramilitary activities and associations, they were somehow deemed not to be political any more.
When we asked the relevant authorities about those assets and activities in the past, we were told that they were being treated as personal and family issues, not as political or organisational matters. Many parties have raised that issue and it has been discussed in previous debates in this House, including by some hon. Members sitting behind me. It relates to fuel laundering, various aspects of smuggling and, indeed, environmental crime, which involves significant quantities of illegal and hazardous waste. Clearly, there are vestiges of former paramilitary associations and a hangover or nexus of certain paramilitary groups or people who were formerly associated with such groups.
Although we advocated a whole enforcement approach, I acknowledge that both Governments were adamant in the negotiations that no blind eye was being turned and that all the relevant agencies, both individually and collectively, were pursuing everything possible. The Governments accepted, however, that perhaps there needed to be even more visibility and that they needed to be more vocal. That is why the commitments emphasise the role of the cross-border taskforce and similar efforts.
We also advocated a whole community approach, because that is what is needed if the north is going to achieve a wholesome society free of all the abnormalities of paramilitary traces and the other divisions that are a hangover of the past. In fact, our paper said:
“Political parties ought to be showing coherent and consistent shared standards which recognise and repudiate nefarious paramilitary interests and involvements. This should reflect a shared approach which is about rooting out paramilitarism and its trace activities, not just singling out particular groups or given parties.
Parties should unite in adhering to a whole-community approach to achieving a wholesome community free of sectarianism, communal division and vicious vestiges of ongoing paramilitarism. A whole community approach should entail more than challenging paramilitary practices or presences in our own constituency or highlighting them in someone else’s. It should mean that we all see pernicious paramilitary activity in any corner of the north as an affront to the wholesome democratic society we should want as this generation’s legacy to the next.
Deep cleansing the spectrum of residual orbits and habits of paramilitarism should be a key dimension in any programme for cohesion, sharing and integration in a healthily united community.
The converse is also pertinent. We cannot eradicate the recurrence of, or recourse to, paramilitarism in given settings without overcoming divisions, tensions, apprehensions and grievances which paramilitaries convert to their own utility.”
In calling for that whole community approach, we posited the idea of parties making new declarations and suggested something along the lines of the Mitchell principles or the Nolan principles of public life. We wanted every party to make meaningful pledges and to adhere to clear commitments, but, as my hon. Friend has said, the Bill does not provide for that. There is no guarantee that the representatives of all the parties will unite around and adhere to any pledges. Instead, the Bill adds to the pledge of office for Ministers and creates a parallel pledge for Members of the Legislative Assembly.
Whenever there have been controversies regarding whether parties have been consorting or engaging with paramilitaries, the allegation has related not just to MLAs or Ministers, but to councillors. Are councillors not bound by the standards of the pledge in the same way as they are to their commitment to non-violence? We are debating this proposed legislation, so should it not also apply to MPs, or are they free of the standards? They apply to MLAs and to Ministers, but not to others. We need a more articulate approach than the pledges as they appear in the Bill.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is right to point out that there is no way of enforcing or arbitrating with regard to any dispute or controversy. That applies not just to the pledge taken by MLAs; it applies very directly to the pledge of office taken by Ministers, because there is no means of arbitrating on alleged breaches of the ministerial code. The Executive have no means of doing that. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have still not suggested a clear way of investigating and making judgments on alleged breaches of the ministerial code. People can take each other to court alleging breaches of the ministerial code, but the Executive have no sensible, clear or credible mechanism to address the issue, even though that is what is needed.
A similar mechanism is also needed for the Assembly in order to decide whether an issue should go to the Committee on Standards and Privileges or elsewhere. It is not good enough to leave the decision to Standing Orders. The issue should be subject to a higher-order political decision, rather than be decided by the Assembly’s Committee on Procedures when it considers Standing Orders. That was the mistake made many years ago in the original Northern Ireland Act 1998. The provisions around the petition of concern in paragraphs 11 to 13 of the Good Friday agreement were very particular about how limited the use of petitions of concern was to be. Petitions of concern were to be used selectively in instances where people alleged that there had been a breach, or that there was an issue of human rights or equality. A mechanism would be set up on the basis of petitions of concern to test that issue, and then things would proceed.
Unfortunately, rather than providing for what was in the Good Friday agreement, the legislation simply stated that Standing Orders would provide for the devices that were mentioned in paragraphs 11 to 13. That was never done right, which is why we have the situation that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury complained about. We have a wide open, drive-by, veto-style petition of concern, which has been used on a tit-for-tat basis and often frivolously.
The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point about the principles that should be in play in public life. Is there not a certain irony in the fact that his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly have, alongside Sinn Féin, this evening signed a petition of concern to retain and enshrine religious discrimination in the selection of teachers in the Province?
My colleagues have signed a petition of concern against a current proposal. [Interruption.] It is a matter of trying to protect existing laws and not change them rashly before an election. The DUP has cited that in relation to other matters. It is about defending the existing equality provisions. What happens with a petition of concern should be what was decided under the Good Friday agreement. Rather than that being the end of the matter, it should be the subject of an investigation by a specially appointed committee to see what issues of rights and equality are involved, to test those issues and to allow the matter to proceed. That is how it should have been, as per the agreement. That has been our consistent position on how petitions of concern should properly be dealt with; they should not be abused as they have been.
I turn to the pledge of office by Ministers and the undertaking by Members of the Assembly. The commitment is confined to Ministers and Members of the Assembly, and does not extend to other party politicians. In addition, the pledge of office requires Ministers
“to work collectively with the other members of the Executive Committee to achieve a society free of paramilitarism”.
I would hope that the Ministers’ commitment would extend much further than simply to working with their ministerial colleagues. Similarly, the commitment of Assembly Members should extend further than just to working with their Assembly colleagues.
There is also the question of what some of the terms mean. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was right to point out the final sub-pledge in the pledge of office by Ministers and the undertaking by Assembly Members, which is
“to accept no authority, direction or control on my political activities other than my democratic mandate alongside my own personal and party judgment”.
In the same pledge of office, Ministers pledge to be bound by decisions of the Assembly and the Executive Committee. The final sub-pledge appears to contradict that, so there is potential tension there. In addition, if we fill the gap that the hon. Member for North Down mentioned by creating clear standards and sanctions, people will have to accept some trammelling of their political conduct, because they will be listening to others as to what the due standards of behaviour and engagement should be. I think that there is a problem, which the hon. Member for Gedling was right to identify.
I want to take up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Down mentioned about the second to last of the sub-pledges, which is
“to support those who are determined to make the transition away from paramilitarism”.
That might seem to be fair enough as a general statement of support, but what does it mean in practice? Are there potential tensions between that and other parts of the pledge, such as the commitment
“to challenge paramilitary attempts to control communities”
“to challenge all paramilitary activity and associated criminality”?
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) earlier questioned whether some of the former paramilitary personalities who have talked a lot about their positive contribution to the peace process have been more laggardly in relation to certain standards and practices, and whether they have turned a blind eye to certain things.
The question therefore arises of whether or not, when we criticise or challenge such people, we will be accused of not supporting those who are determined to make the transition away from paramilitarism. Many people use as a justification for their demands for funding for particular schemes—jobs for the boys, set-ups and all the rest of those things—that they are all about weaning people away from paramilitarism. Other people in the community sometimes challenge that by questioning why they were not interviewed for posts that had become available in community organisations or whatever, while other people were interviewed. We need to look at such issues.
We should remember the very glaring example involving my hon. Friend the Member for South Down. When she was a Minister, she decided to cease her Department’s funding of the conflict transformation initiative because the Chief Constable and other senior police officers made it very clear that those in the Ulster Defence Association, which was essentially funded and supported by the conflict transformation initiative, were up to their necks in a series of high-profile crimes. The Chief Constable made that clear, and high-profile criminal activity was taking place at the time. My hon. Friend brought that to the Executive, which told her she had to decide because it was a matter for her Department. However, when she made her decision, they changed their ideas. Members of other parties said, “Oh, no. The conflict transformation initiative is supporting people who are trying to make the transition away from paramilitarism,” while as far as others were concerned, the money was going to support and indulge people who were up to their necks in crime at that time. Which was it?
There are potential tensions in how any of us might interpret the pledge and the undertaking in clauses 7 and 8. We could take them in very different directions, so work is needed to refine them and define them better. We must also ensure that somebody else can arbitrate, because otherwise there will be a lot of arguments between the parties on such issues. The one thing we do not want is for parties to end up arguing with each other about who opposes aspects of paramilitarism either now or historically. The more united and coherent the parties can be seen to be, the better.
We want to make sure that that applies at all levels to resolve many of the existing issues. If there are controversies about party politicians turning up at particular events or protests that paramilitaries are also attending, we need to be able to deal with such issues. We must ensure that the pledge governs what happens when there are other controversies, such as the naming of the play park that has often been mentioned in this Chamber. It should be clear that we have an absolutely coherent pledge relating to paramilitary practices, either historical or current, and that we all have the same yardstick. That would provide protection for all individual politicians put under pressure at community level to get involved in this, that or the other, or to lend their presence to an event. A proper, articulate and robust pledge could give us a lot in that respect.
There are other issues about the Bill that I want to mention, before I touch on what is not in it. As hon. Members have said, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will appoint members of the independent reporting commission. In the fresh start agreement the reference was to the Executive, but the Bill makes it clear and explicit that the power lies with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I share the view of other hon. Members that that needs to be the subject of wider consideration and consultation. There are also issues to consider about the Secretary of State’s powers in respect of the commission. The fact that the Secretary of State will be in charge of defining and possibly changing many interpretations means that more work and consideration is needed.
I want to make a few points about clause 9, which is about draft budgets. The Government say they have included the clause because they want to ensure greater transparency and sustainability in relation to the budget. I am all for transparency in budgets, as I was when I had the job of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. In various talks, the Social Democratic and Labour party has advocated going much further on budget transparency. As well as designing the whole procedure for a fairly transparent process of draft budgets that are fully considered in the Assembly, open to public consultation and then subject to the revised budget procedure, we have advocated in various talks, going right back to Leeds castle, the idea that after the revised budget is approved by the Assembly, each departmental Minister should, within a number of weeks, make a statement about their own spending plan and be fully answerable to the Assembly on how they will deliver it. We thought that that would add to the transparency, but it was not to the taste of many of the parties that were talking a lot about transparency. I remember Peter Robinson telling me, “We don’t want that much transparency—that would be just too much.” I think there should be transparency in how the Assembly follows up on budgets.
Under clause 9, a statement will be laid before the Assembly about the amount of UK funding to be allocated. Will the Secretary of State consider accepting an amendment to take that further by saying that the statement should specify exactly how the Northern Ireland Barnett allocation was calculated? That would allow people in the Assembly, and Members here, to see exactly how the spending amount for Northern Ireland had been determined on the basis of spending commitments here and, possibly, on the basis of legislation and legislative requirements that had gone through this place. We would be able to see whether the two correlated.
A key argument that the Scottish National party and my party made in relation to English votes for English laws was that England-only or England and Wales-only legislation that goes through this place will inform the spending plans for England or England and Wales, and will, in turn, be factored into the Barnett formula. Therefore, let us have transparency. The Government tried to tell us that no legislation has those sorts of spending consequences. That is funny, because the same Government usually say, when they reject amendments to Bills, that they are doing so because there would be budgetary consequences. So they will not take amendments to legislation because there would be budgetary consequences, but with English votes for English laws they pretend that legislation does not have budgetary consequences.
The Government might be right, or we might be right. The way to prove who is right and to establish the facts in the future is to take the transparency provision a bit further. It should not be hard to colour in the budget statement a bit more. Rather than being just a brief outline statement, it should be well coloured in, whether in respect of the draft budget or the subsequent statement that comes with the revised budget. If people want transparency, that would be a good addition to the Bill.
There is a question over whether one intention behind the statement is that it can be used, in effect, as a budget cap. The Government say that it is about transparency and sustainability. However, when the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill was debated, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that the switch-on power would be activated only when the Treasury was satisfied that there was a balanced and sustainable budget. Some of us asked in the Bill Committee whether the Treasury would use that power to make a judgment on the spending plans of the Executive in relation to other matters, such as student finance, water charges or prescription charges. After all, the Treasury was using the Assembly’s failure to pass the welfare reform legislation to make the judgment that there was not a balanced and sustainable budget. The Financial Secretary said, “We will judge a budget on the sum of its parts.” He did not rule out the Government using the power to involve themselves in those other matters.
One reason why I welcome the provisions of clause 9 on draft budgets is that they settle a point that arose after the Assembly budget in 2008, when Peter Robinson was the Minister for Finance and Personnel. We tried to amend that budget and the programme for government, and we voted against aspects of it. A few months later, Peter Robinson announced that because the budget had contained indicative figures for 2009 and 2010, draft budgets did not need to be tabled before the Assembly in the subsequent years. The procedures that were laid down in the 1998 Act were clearly predicated on an annual financial exercise, but he said that he had received legal advice that the requirement for that exercise before each financial year had been discharged by covering the figures for all three years in the 2008 budget.
We challenged that at the time and took it to the Speaker of the Assembly. Unfortunately, he did not rule but said it was up to us to make a legal challenge. The flaky advice given by Peter Robinson was followed by that of his successor as Minister of Finance and Personnel, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who said that the draft budget exercise was not needed. Clause 9 is clear that it will be an annual exercise. There is absolutely no ambiguity or doubt in how it is framed: it is an annual exercise. A draft budget has to be tabled and debated fully every year, with an additional statement made ahead of it. We are glad that that is set out in the Bill. It may restore the Assembly’s role in transparency, which needs to be amplified. The Assembly should be doing much more scrutiny of budgets and spending; that should not just be left to bodies outside the Assembly.
Members have raised issues not covered in the Bill, and the Secretary of State, in her opening remarks, addressed issues relating to legacy. Like my colleagues, I regret that, rather than our ending up with an all-party agreement, welfare reform was agreed by the three amigos of Sinn Féin, the Tories and the DUP—the austerity alliance. This Bill is now being brought forward, and we await the legacy legislation. It is important that it is not rushed. It is also important that we give some issues full consideration again. I recognise that the Secretary of State thinks the measure of agreement apparent around the table at Stormont House was the highest degree of agreement there has been. I would make the point, however, that Eames-Bradley offered a much better prospectus for dealing with the past. So did the Haass proposals, although not as good as Eames-Bradley. They were watered down in the Stormont House agreement, and they have been watered down further in a number of respects.
Victims’ groups have their own concerns, upsets and apprehensions about some of the issues involved. I ask them, and all parties, to consider all the issues in the round, not least with respect to the potential to deal with what have now been called “thematics”. It is hugely important that the historical investigations units is set up to undertake the work formerly done by the Historical Enquiries Team and the work on the past done by the police ombudsman, but we should recognise that the HIU will be confined to looking at killings. We should also recognise that it will work, a bit like the HET, on the basis of reports being provided to the families. Those reports will then be treated as the private property of the families.
Many cases, however, are linked. There are wider patterns, themes and issues at stake, not all of which relate to killings, and many of them need to be scrutinised and given an airing. In many ways, we think that would help to answer some of the questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. He says that there is an unbalanced approach to the past, and that those who are seeking the truth and want the past to be investigated are concentrating entirely on what the state did and not on what paramilitary actors did. The whole question of thematics and patterns in those investigations could lead to more balance, which is why we in the SDLP in particular put such emphasis on that.
I recall that in the Haass negotiations, Richard Haass himself replied to points that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley made about a failed market in relation to the past, whereby people with the means and the motives were pursuing the aspects of the past that interested them, while others were being left aside. He argued that thematics was one way of evening the situation up and ensuring that other pictures and other concerns were looked at.
Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Despite the noises off, I want to take this opportunity to express on behalf of my colleagues and friends how very sorry we are to hear that he has had a bereavement in his extended family. We would be most grateful if he would offer to his sister our sympathy and support at a time when her partner was tragically killed in a traffic accident last night. We are very sorry indeed that death has visited her door and the hon. Gentleman’s door at such an untimely stage of life.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind condolences, which I will certainly pass on. I accept them in the spirit in which she has shared them—not just on her own behalf but on behalf of her colleagues as well. Of course, whenever we experience the shock of death like that, it comes as a throwback. I did not know what had happened when I spotted the tapes across the road and the police action that was going on; it looked like a security operation that would have been familiar to so many of us down the years. In talking to the police at the scene, I had memories of other occasions, which brought to mind once again the position that we are all talking about, from our different party stances, when we deal with the concerns of victims and survivors about the past. This is why we need to give the issue full consideration now.
When the legacy legislation comes forward, we must ensure that it is going to be fit for the needs and purposes of victims and survivors. We must listen to them, and think a little more about what they say. I hope that the sort of consensus that the Secretary of State says she wants to build will not be one in which she just tries to square things off between herself and one or two other parties. It must be done much more widely.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) has said, we will bring forward amendments on some of the issues that I have mentioned, in an attempt to proof and improve the Bill. We are obviously not opposed to its passage, because we need the changes that it makes, for instance to the timeline for the appointment of Ministers, and we need to allow a programme for government to be aired and shared before Ministers are appointed. If that is to happen in time for the mandate of the next Assembly, the Bill will have to go through. We are certainly not throwing any spanners in the works in respect of the timing, but we want to try to improve the Bill and make good some of the gaps and wrinkles in it.
Even in respect of the limited things the Bill does, we think more could have been done. Why should the First Minister and Deputy First Minister remain the singular appointments of two parties? Why not revert to the original Good Friday agreement principle of electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister? Sinn Féin and the DUP no longer have a problem in going through the Lobbies together. They could not do so originally in 2007 when devolution was restored, which is why the whole system of appointing the First and Deputy First Minister had to be changed, but now that they can do that and now that they are happy to be an axis and be in a power pact, there is absolutely no reason why they should not. The First and Deputy First Ministers should be mandated by the Assembly. We have tried to secure such an amendment to other Bills. I do not know whether we will try it with this Bill, because we may concentrate more on the matters that are in it than those that are not.
Second Reading debates are often described as timely, well-informed and apposite, and occasionally that is true. Tonight we have heard an excellent Second Reading debate, featuring first-class contributions from all corners of the Chamber.
Let me associate myself, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), with the expressions of sympathy for the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on the death of Mark Calway, whom many of us knew. The hon. Gentleman has sustained that loss with great forbearance and courage, and he has the sympathy of the House, as has the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for a family bereavement that I hope we can all bear with him, while expressing our sympathy and condolences.
One constant theme ran throughout tonight’s debate, and I am delighted to say that, for once on these occasions, it was a theme of optimism. This was a serious and a sober debate, but at every stage there was that chink of light, that chance of hope, that good news, and that commitment to a better, shared future. That is what we heard from Members of every party, and I think it was one of the most important things that we heard.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) observed—rather flatteringly, I suppose—that we were represented more in quality than in quantity tonight, but many more people beyond the Chamber are watching us tonight and following our deliberations, and many will be noting, with admiration and gratitude, that we are moving on in Northern Ireland: moving on to a better and a shared future. This may not be the most important piece of legislation that has ever been dealt with on the Floor of the House, but it is an essential, crucial building block in that wall, that architecture, that structure of the peaceful Northern Ireland to which we all aspire. I have been greatly impressed by the quality, and the determination, of the comments that have been made tonight.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock)—above and beyond the call of duty—presented herself on the Front Bench tonight despite suffering from something approaching laryngitis. May I suggest a certain marvellous distillation? It is available both in Ireland and in Scotland—although we tend to spell it correctly in Ireland—and it is available to the hon. Lady on request. Whether she has already been able to avail herself of a small nip I cannot say, but I can say that, as a prophylactic against such throat conditions, it is admirable and well recommended. It is also a very, very powerful curative factor.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North rightly said that this was only part of the implementation of the Stormont House agreement. Throughout his speech and others, we were privileged—we were almost blessed—to hear some extraordinarily incisive interventions from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), although I have to say that her suggestion that the IPSA empire should be extended to Northern Ireland is a tad controversial. We may need to discuss it at some later stage.
I also want to associate myself, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about Peter Robinson. We do not give people enough credit on the Floor of the House for the work that they do. People often achieve great things and then move off the stage—perhaps to return; who knows?—and sometimes we neglect to thank and give credit to them. Not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman did absolutely the right thing, and I think that all Members will wish to associate themselves with his comments.
We heard from the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) about how things have moved on from the days of the bonfires, and we heard an extraordinarily sobering—as if sobering were needed—comment from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson). Sometimes, when we debate Northern Ireland business on the Floor of the House, we forget the full scale and extent of the seriousness of the subject that we are debating. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the deaths—more than 3,600—that occurred during the troubles, but let it never be forgotten that more people have died by their own hand since the Good Friday agreement than died during the troubles. It is that serious; it is that sobering. The work that we do here today must always be done in the context of the facts, the realities, of the existence—still—of a legacy that is so horrific that it is sometimes almost impossible to absorb its full strength. Those suicide figures, which are very seldom publicised, are utterly bone-chilling. Every time any of us feel that we are somehow flagging in our determination to drive forward the peace process in Northern Ireland, we must never forget that it did not end with the Good Friday agreement and that the problems still exist today.
We heard a wonderful speech, not for the first time, from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). Having considered her comments at great length, I have decided that, yes, I agree with her that I think we should certainly stay in the EU for many reasons. She was so right yet again to refer to the troubles and the victims.
It is interesting that we strayed far and wide, and occasionally we pushed the envelope of direct relevance, and certainly when we did move out, particularly in a wide-ranging, horizon-scanning speech by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), we trespassed in some of the byways and burreens of the debate which I had not anticipated we would be discussing. However, in one of the other interventions of the hon. Member for North Down, she referred to clause 8 and particularly the proposed new section 40A on the undertaking by members. I say to the House, and particularly the Secretary of State, that I do not think we have heard the last of this. I appreciate that it is Stormont business, but it is legislation on the Floor of this House today and it will be legislation in Committee stage on the Floor of this House. I suspect that clause 8, and particularly proposed new section 40A (1)(b), will come back to us to be discussed later.
This is one of the very few Northern Ireland debates that has not been blessed by a pithy and apposite contribution from either the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) or the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), and I confess to a feeling of some frustration and sadness, particularly as I enjoyed the company of both hon. Gentlemen in what was a cracking good night in the Elim Pentecostal church hall in Ards the week before last, where I have to say the orange juice flowed like—well, it flowed like orange juice. We had an absolutely brilliant evening, showing that we did not need artificial stimulation and there exists in the heart of Ards a wonderful community which I had not previously been that much aware of. But it was such a pleasure to actually be able to be speaking while both of them sat and had to listen.
This has been an excellent Second Reading debate and we will move into Committee next week. There will be more discussion, but let us not forget what I said right at the beginning: the leitmotif throughout this whole debate—the one consistent golden thread that has run through it—is a golden thread of optimism, and I give credit to every single person who has participated in the debate here tonight and so many of those outside this Chamber who have contributed. I look forward to the full implementation of the fresh start agreement and the Stormont House agreement as another step on the road to that shared peaceful future to which we all aspire.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who in every debate is optimistic and positive, and it is especially welcome that in what is, effectively, another stage of the Stormont House agreement and the fresh start agreement, we find ourselves in this Second Reading with the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and all those on the Opposition Front Bench for their continued support for making sure that we move Northern Ireland onwards to normalisation and ensure any bumps in the road that we have experienced are sorted out to allow the Northern Ireland political settlement to bed in and move forward so that the people there can take hold of the opportunities on offer.
With the leave of the House, I would like to respond to some of the points raised in the debate. I reiterate the importance of this Bill in the implementation of November’s fresh start agreement as a whole, as well as of the specific provisions, including those that give effect to the independent reporting commission and increase fiscal transparency in the Executive’s budget-setting process.
Paramilitary activity has been a blight on Northern Ireland society and is an issue which the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive will tackle together. The measures in this Bill will create an independent body that will report on the progress made towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland once and for all.
The draft budget measure achieves what was set out in the fresh start agreement, and it will ensure that the Executive cannot consider spending plans that exceed the block grant allocated from the Treasury.
Let me respond to some points raised by hon. Members. I join others in sending condolences to the family of Mark Calway, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) understands that we are here to support him and the family of Mark Calway in their loss. We are also incredibly grateful for the forensic support—if I can put it that way—that his Committee gives to Northern Ireland politics and Government policy. We know that pragmatic, forensic examination of our policies, and those of other people, will help build that trust in Northern Ireland.
I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) that as a former Member of the Scottish Parliament I know the internal workings of devolution, and some measures in the Bill that the SNP supports would not necessarily have been right for it in Scotland. However, I know that the SNP supports such measures for the reasons that the hon. Lady eloquently articulated, which are to try to move Northern Ireland forward and achieve a settlement that will allow people to put the troubles behind them.
I pay tribute to the DUP. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) articulated his tribute to the former First Minister, without whose actions we would not be discussing this Bill today, or indeed the previous Bill. I am grateful for the support that the DUP has given to the Government throughout this process, to try to resolve some of the issues that led to that impasse last year.
I am also grateful for the positive attitude and speeches by DUP Members, and the support that they have provided to allow an LCM to be put in place swiftly. Such determination by the Executive and the First Minister to deal with those issues in Stormont means that I am incredibly optimistic about Northern Ireland and how it will progress, and I hope that the bumps that appeared in the road when I was first appointed to this post are put behind us so that we move forward, deal with the paramilitary past, and hopefully stop such things in the future. We must also grasp with both hands the opportunities and economic challenges that are presented.
I hear the issues about legacy raised by the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell), and we all want to solve them. In the past few weeks and months my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Minister for the Armed Forces and I met the Lord Chief Justice, and the Minister of Justice, the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Everyone is united in trying to get to a position where we can deal with the legacy of the past and move forward, and the Treasury has agreed to a package of funding—£150 million —to do that. However, we cannot just impose that £150 million on an unreformed system. We are all trying to work together to produce a long-term solution, not a short-term solution.
The phrase “national security” is often bandied about as if somehow it is being used as an unreasonable block on progress. Throughout the troubles, informers, neighbours, workmates, and ordinary members of the public helped the security forces against people who intimidated their own communities. It was not just informers; it was everybody. It was people who did not agree with violence. They might not have been Unionists; they might have been nationalists. Not only do those people deserve our protection, but we have a duty to protect them. Without their information and helpful tip-offs, without the confidentiality hotline being used, and without people in the heart of those communities saying, “We don’t stand for violence and we want an end to paramilitary bullying”, we would not have reached the end of the troubles. When people bandy around the phrase “national security” as some throwaway line, we should remember that at the heart of this is the need to protect those people and provide the duty of protection that we owe them. Without them, more blood would have been shed on the streets of Northern Ireland, and we should not forget the role that they played.
Does the Minister agree that when investigating the past, the police ombudsman has always respected such matters fully? It has never breached or compromised anybody’s interest in that regard, so surely others could be trusted to adhere to the same standard?
Everyone is entrusted with the powers that they are granted. National security does not just cover the actions of the PSNI; it covers the actions of the security services and of a range of people involved in trying to ensure that our society is safe and secure. We should remember that national security is not taken lightly. It is open to scrutiny by our Intelligence and Security Committee in this House, by the ombudsman and by the courts. The coroner and the judges often make the final decisions on many of these issues and they see the full facts, so it is important to remember that national security is about protecting life and people.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott) is absolutely right about the financial provisions. To enable a stable and secure budget to go forward, it is incredibly important to allow everyone in the Assembly to have a role in producing a budget and delivering services for better governance and better services for the people in Northern Ireland. The extension from seven to 14 days for the appointment of Ministers is absolutely a good example of making Government work better. We are delighted that as a Government we can ensure that that is put in place.
Let me reply to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) on the definition of paramilitary and paramilitary activity. In our view, that should be left to the commission to decide. It would be hard in a piece of primary legislation to prescribe—and it is the Government’s view that it is not for us to do so—how the four commissioners and the commission should look at paramilitary activity.
I hear the comments made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) about paramilitaries leaving the stage. When I hear that comment, I often think I would not like to be in the green room at that time. There is no place for paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and there never has been. We must make sure that there never is in the future.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the Bill and his observations. Of course, the independent reporting commission will also cover paramilitary activity in the south, in Ireland, and that is incredibly important. I know that the people of Ireland will take note of that. The Garda, who have been incredibly supportive over the years in ensuring that cross-border activity is countered, know that all this will be effective between the north and the south, which is something that we will focus on.
The right hon. Gentleman made a powerful point, and it is important that we should be clear about it. It was INLA, IPLO, the IRA, the UVF, the Red Hand Commando and the UDA that killed innocent people on the streets of Northern Ireland and on the mainland of the United Kingdom. No amount of innuendos, or selective leaks and salacious allegations, can change that fact. It does not wash away their guilt by trying to move it on. The narrative that has been growing is very dangerous for the history of Northern Ireland, because the reality is that it was those groups that chose to go out on nights and kill people. It was those groups that planted the bombs. We will not let the alternative narrative be planted that somehow somebody else caused it and that they were therefore not guilty of what they did. We hear that, loud and clear.
On that basis, given that these organisations need to be rightly blamed and indicted for what they did, does the Minister now regret that the British Government for so long maintained the UDA’s status as a legal organisation and consistently refused to proscribe it?
If memory serves, the UDA was proscribed in 1992. I was not in this House and I was not privy to the work of Government. In fact, in 1992 I was walking around west Belfast. As for the idea that I can condemn or support the ruling, all I know is that when I was serving in Northern Ireland, I was grateful that the UDA was proscribed. I was grateful that the UVF was proscribed, and the Red Hand Commando. Any paramilitary organisation should be proscribed. Not only should any organisation that uses fear, terror and bullying be proscribed, but the people who take part should be convicted.
To the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) I say that we in this House should not forget the SDLP’s long-standing opposition to paramilitary intimidation. Very often, the SDLP bore the brunt of that intimidation. All the parties in this House have experienced at first hand intimidation by paramilitaries, either within the communities that they represented or in the neighbouring communities that sought to keep them out. I pay tribute to that long-standing commitment to peace and the democratic process. We do not forget that, but I say again that we should not take the issues of national security lightly.
On the legacy issues, as I have said earlier, all of us are trying our best. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly has meetings with the victims community to make sure they feel we are doing our best. We are going to get there. We are going to try to resolve this, and that will happen—we hope—as soon as we can all get agreement.
May I just press the Minister once more on this issue? He mentions dealing with the legacy of the past. I asked the Secretary of State, but I want to be clear about this because a number of questions have arisen throughout this interesting and good debate. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State look again at releasing some of the funding that the Treasury and the Government have put aside for dealing with legacy issues to fund the PSNI and the coroner service to deal with some of these issues which were supposed to be dealt with by other institutions? Because of the inability to come to an agreement, the PSNI and the coroner service have been left to deal with them but not been given the resources to tackle them. Will the Minister re-examine that?
Absolutely, we will support any measures that deal with the legacy, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said. We cannot just release the money; we need all the actors on the stage to produce the solution. We need the victims, the PSNI, the courts, the Lord Chief Justice and the Executive to support the solution. If we were just to release money but nobody else was supporting the schemes or the coroners’ courts changes, for example, we would not necessarily solve the issue. We will look with all seriousness and all support at any proposals to solve the legacy issues.
The good news is that we have the Treasury’s agreement for the sum in principle, which is half the battle, as anybody who has ever been in government will know—£150 million is there. That means that the gap between getting the money and delivering it is simply a matter of getting an agreement between all the significant stakeholders in Northern Ireland. We are all determined to do that and it is one of our priorities. We are all trying to get there and we will work with all parties in Northern Ireland to try to do it.
I thank the hon. Lady for reminding me of something: £28 million has been allocated for tackling paramilitary activity. As far as I understand it, how that is divided is an operational decision about who needs it and where it should go. That sum has been allocated, and we think it is a step in the right direction in tackling paramilitary activity. If there is any more to tell her, I will certainly write to her.
In closing, I wish to remind the House that this Bill has the support of the Northern Ireland Executive. It will deliver on the UK Government’s commitment to the fresh start agreement and it plays a significant part in our efforts to support a stable and workable devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. I urge the House to support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.