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Northern Ireland Update

Volume 630: debated on Thursday 2 November 2017

With permission, I would like to make a statement about the current political situation in Northern Ireland.

As the House is aware, Northern Ireland has been without a properly functioning devolved Executive and Assembly for nine months. During this time, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, as the two largest parties in the Assembly, have been engaged in a series of discussions to restore inclusive, power-sharing government at Stormont. The latest phase of the discussions began in August and has run for the past nine weeks.

It is the responsibility of the parties to reach an agreement, and the Government have been working tirelessly to support this process. In addition, I have kept in regular contact with the Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour party and Alliance, as well as with representatives of business and civil society. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has also remained closely involved throughout the process and has held a number of discussions with the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as keeping in contact with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. In addition, the Irish Government have been involved in the process, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs. I would like, in particular, to acknowledge the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney.

Our efforts have been focused mainly on bridging a small number of differences between the two largest parties—particularly around language and culture—that have prevented a sustainable Executive from being formed. While important progress has been made, the parties have not yet reached an agreement. Therefore, I am not in a position to bring before the House the legislation necessary for an Executive to be formed this week.

The consequence of this is that it is now highly unlikely that an Executive could be in place within a timetable to be assured of passing a budget by the end of November, which is the point at which we and the Northern Ireland civil service assess that Northern Ireland will begin to run out of resources. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen, and we would be shirking our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland were we to do so. That is why the Government will take forward the necessary steps that would enable a budget Bill to be introduced in the House to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.

This budget Bill would deal only with the current financial year. It would incorporate figures provided by the Northern Ireland civil service, reflecting its assessment of the outgoing priorities of the previous Executive. It would not set out any spending decisions by me or the Government. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has indicated, I would expect the budget Bill to be considered in this House shortly after the November recess.

Subject to parliamentary approval, this Bill would give the Northern Ireland civil service certainty to plan for the rest of this financial year, by giving the necessary legal authority to spend to existing plans. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record my deep appreciation for the professionalism of the Northern Ireland civil service in maintaining public services during this very difficult time.

The Government’s strong desire would be for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland to take forward their own budget, so I am taking this step with the utmost reluctance and only in the absence of any other option. I want to make it clear to the House that passing a budget in Westminster does not mark a move to direct rule any more than the passing of legislation by this House to set a regional rate did in April. Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that this is not an obstacle to continued political negotiations and that the Government will continue to work with the parties with that clear intent.

Even now, however unlikely it may be, should the parties demonstrate that an Executive can be formed in the immediate future, I would clearly wish to proceed with legislation to allow that to happen, on the condition that a means could be created to provide an expedited procedure on an exceptional basis to enable the budget to be passed by the end of November.

In addition to preparations for budget legislation and in recognition of the strength of public concern, I will reflect carefully on the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. This is a devolved matter and I cannot intervene without primary legislation in Westminster. As I recently told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in the continued absence of a functioning Assembly, the status quo is not tenable. I will therefore be seeking independent advice on MLA pay and on what steps may be taken to reflect the current circumstances.

I still hope that the parties can resolve their differences and that an Executive can be formed. We will continue to work with them and support them in their efforts. Together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors and to the institutions they established. It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored—to see locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters, such as health, education, transport and economic development.

We are clear that Northern Ireland needs a properly functioning and inclusive devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation north-south and east-west, but ultimately the Government are responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland and will do whatever is necessary to provide that. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement and for his great efforts in keeping me briefed at all crucial points during the talks. I know he agrees that it is profoundly disappointing that 10 months after the breakdown of Stormont, and following two elections and countless and—I hate to say it—increasingly meaningless deadlines, the larger parties remain deadlocked, unable to agree with one another on the agenda for change and unwilling to show trust in one another.

I also put on the record my support for the work of the Northern Ireland civil service in keeping services going and for the work of the Irish Government, particularly Simon Coveney, the Foreign Minister, alongside the Secretary of State, in trying to bring about a resolution. We agree on all of that, but we disagree, I suspect, over what more could have been done during those 10 months—and could still be done—to bring about a resolution.

First and most importantly, we believe that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could get stuck into this problem and try to bring about a resolution of the impasse. It is inexcusable and completely inexplicable that she has only visited Northern Ireland once during her 15 months in office—and that for a 15-minute photo call at an agricultural show during the election campaign. She has not attended a single substantive session of the talks in Belfast or made a single substantive intervention to try to move things along. I know that things have been difficult recently, but the odd phone call to the Taoiseach is just not good enough. The days of Prime Ministers—or Presidents—flying to Northern Ireland to fix things might be past and overstated, but they could at least give it a go. Our Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, has not done that. The Opposition want her to make a greater effort.

Secondly, the time must have come to consider drafting in some outside help for both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. The Labour party has a proud record of bringing about progress in the Northern Ireland peace process, and independent chairs and observers have proved useful in the past. At this juncture of the impasse, will he consider doing likewise and bringing in a fresh pair of eyes?

Thirdly, will the Secretary of State tell us any more about his intentions now that this round of talks has failed? We will support him wholeheartedly, of course, in bringing forward a budget. Public services in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, need investment, not cuts. He will have to tell the House how he intends to consult with the parties on priorities and ensure that funds are spent equitably.

There are reports in the press that the Secretary of State has been discussing with the parties other ways to sustain and find a role for the Assembly, even under direct rule. Can he tell us what that might mean? Let me be clear: direct rule will be a profoundly damaging, retrograde step in the peace process. A shadow Assembly of some sort, perhaps scrutinising or even advising direct rule Ministers, would be a way to sustain vital north-south and east-west relations and institutions—things that are crucial to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That might provide some mitigation. It is certainly an idea that Labour Members will be willing to explore as a means of sustaining the talks, and perhaps as a bridge back to devolution.

Given that ultimate objective that we share, may I urge the Secretary of State to resist, given what he has said today, short-term pressure to cut MLAs’ pay? Cutting politicians’ pay is always a popular thing to argue for, but we need this generation of Northern Irish politicians to work and talk together to try to bring about power-sharing. While he is right that patience is wearing thin in Northern Ireland, he should resist steps that would undermine the ability of the parties, particularly the smaller ones, to negotiate and engage.

Finally, may I give the Secretary of State a foretaste of what life will mean for him under direct rule and ask him to agree that this morning’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes shameful reading for his Government, particularly in respect of Northern Ireland? It shows that more children will be driven into absolute poverty in Northern Ireland by the universal credit changes and the pernicious two-child policy than in any other nation of the UK. Will he therefore commit to using his forthcoming budget to undo that harm to the children of Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments in support of the proposals to bring forward a budget Bill and about the necessity of having the financial stability that will help the Northern Ireland civil service to continue with the work that it has already been doing in ensuring that public services are delivered and that there is that focus on the people of Northern Ireland. I acknowledge the rightful support that he has given to all those in the Northern Ireland civil service engaged and involved in this important work.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the profound disappointment at not finding a resolution to date. Northern Ireland needs devolved government. I profoundly believe in devolution and the sense of locally elected politicians making decisions locally and being held accountable by an elected Assembly locally. That is profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland. He talks about other options. My focus remains very firmly on how we see devolution restored; I think that anything else is a backward step. There are, yes, concerns about the delivery of public services while we are taking the step that we have outlined today. Ultimately, this simply cannot carry on for ever. We need to ensure that political decision making is taking place.

The hon. Gentleman highlights issues around the process and the steps to follow on from it. I stress that bringing forward the budget Bill should not mark an end to the talks. Indeed, the parties themselves have indicated that they remain committed to finding a way forward in seeing how discussions between the DUP and Sinn Féin can continue in order to find resolution on, yes, a small number of issues where difference firmly remains between the two parties. While there has been positive progress on a number of fronts during certain weeks, we are not, as I have indicated to the House, at the point of reaching agreement.

The hon. Gentleman highlights the potential role of the Prime Minister. She has been actively involved in talking to the parties. She has had meetings with the parties at No. 10, bringing them together. She does remain actively involved, including through continued discussions with the Taoiseach, in finding the right way that we can work together as two Governments to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach that is respectful to how these issues in respect of Northern Ireland are undertaken.

The hon. Gentleman makes points about interventions and suchlike. Clearly, we do keep these issues under careful review, and I do not rule anything out in respect of the way forward. We want the engagement between the two parties that has been undertaken in earnest, in a concerted way, to continue. They have shown that they can make progress in that format, and we want to support them in continuing with that. I earnestly want to see the restoration of the devolved settlement—of the institutions that are at the heart of the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and underpin the framework that we have in Northern Ireland. I want that to be restored at the earliest opportunity, and we are doing all that we can as a Government to see that it is brought about.

The hon. Gentleman makes certain points in relation to the economy and various other things. Universal credit is about making work pay. It is about how we get people back into work, seeing those pathways, and seeing that things are supported. We are looking very carefully at how it is implemented in Northern Ireland. In response to his comments about the position of Northern Ireland, I would point to the picture of prosperity, of jobs, and of an economy that is growing—and to tourism, with more people coming to Northern Ireland. That is a positive picture of what Northern Ireland is and what it can be. I encourage him to underline that in the messages that he gives.

With a due sense of disappointment and weariness that I know my right hon. Friend shares, I welcome today’s statement. I commend him for his patience and fortitude during this process.

Last week, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair, visited Newry and spoke to businessmen. Nowhere in the United Kingdom are the effects of Brexit going to be felt more acutely than in Northern Ireland, yet that region stands to suffer in the negotiations because its voice will not be heard clearly enough alongside the voices of other home nations. Given that the Executive are likely to be in abeyance for the balance—or a large part—of the negotiating period, what measures will be put in place to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work of his Committee, which has had a clear focus on and interest in the issues around Brexit and Northern Ireland. I am sure that it will continue to do so. The evidence that it has been producing has been very helpful and informative. This Government want to see the most positive outcome for the United Kingdom as a whole, very firmly including Northern Ireland. That is why we published the paper during the course of the summer highlighting how we can deal with this effectively to see the positive outcome that I know can be achieved for Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. We will certainly continue, as we have done throughout the first phase of the negotiations, to underline the specific factors and elements in Northern Ireland to ensure that they are addressed effectively and that the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland are recognised. We will continue to work with the Northern Ireland civil service, and the parties in Northern Ireland too, to ensure that those unique factors are addressed. I am determined that that is what the outcome will be.

The people of Northern Ireland have every right to be disappointed with the politicians who should have been negotiating and achieving a return to a functioning Executive. It will now fall to this place, which lacks the detailed knowledge that Stormont politicians have, to set a budget for Northern Ireland, when it should be a matter for Stormont.

It is essential that control is passed back to Belfast as soon as is politically possible. What exactly are the insurmountable barriers that the Stormont politicians face, and how does the Secretary of State intend to break them down? Reimposing direct rule would be a foolish thing to do in any event, but, as has been referenced, Brexit and the coming border issues make it ridiculous. How, exactly, will he avoid that and ensure that Northern Ireland moves forward? Is he considering changing the legislation governing power sharing to ensure that future elections cannot result in stalemate negotiations that harm the people Stormont should be helping? What timescale will he put on getting an Executive up and running before calling new elections?

Unfortunately, I must express my disappointment at the fact that, highly unusually, I received the Secretary of State’s statement by email with only 50 seconds to spare, and the written statement six minutes after he began to speak. I would be very grateful for an understanding of how that occurred so that it does not occur in future.

I will follow up with the hon. Lady on that point after the statement. It is certainly not my intention to prevent her from being properly briefed in advance of statements; that is not how I operate. I will make inquires after the statement and revert to her to ensure that she is kept properly informed, in the usual way. I take seriously the point that she has raised, and I will pursue it to ensure that there is no repetition of the situation.

The hon. Lady made several points about the outstanding issues. As I have indicated, I think we are talking primarily about sustainability in respect of the Assembly and the Executive, and about issues of language, culture, identity and respect. Those have been underlying elements in our discussions, over many weeks, and it is important to get them right to provide a sense of sustainability and allow the Executive to get on with the job of serving Northern Ireland. I think that politicians on all sides seek earnestly to get those things right.

It is, ultimately, for the parties to reach agreement. Yes, we have worked with them and encouraged them, and we recognise our responsibilities as a Government under the various agreements that we hold, but the parties need to be accommodating and reach agreement. No agreement has yet been reached, so we are having to take the next step that I have set out in the statement today. The budget is necessary to put Northern Ireland’s public services and finances on a sound footing. We will continue to support the parties to find agreement, in the knowledge that the situation cannot continue indefinitely.

The hon. Lady highlights the election duty that I continue to be under, in legislation. I have to keep the matter under review, knowing that that is the only power that I have in law. I want resolution and agreement, because that would be the best possible outcome.

My constituents in Kettering find it absolutely abhorrent that threats of prosecution should hang over armed forces veterans for events that happened 40 or 50 years ago, while known terrorists have effectively been told that they will never be prosecuted for their known crimes. If the Secretary of State is bringing legislation to the House, will he ensure that it contains clauses designed to stop this witch hunt?

I pay clear tribute to the incredible service, bravery, dedication and sacrifice of all who served to uphold the rule of law and secure the political freedoms in Northern Ireland that we enjoy today. I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes about the concern about witch hunts and the operation of the system. I want to move forward with a consultation around the Stormont House agreement that sets out new institutions and bodies that are firmly intended to be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable, thereby ensuring that soldiers are not unfairly treated. That, I believe, is the right way forward, and it will give everyone the opportunity to contribute and express their point of view. Ultimately, it will allow us to move forward with those institutions, which I firmly believe represent the best way forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the advance notice of it and for the consultations that he has had with us here, and with our party, as the process has developed. The contact and interaction with him, his office and the Government more generally have been very good.

It is worth reminding the House how we have got to this point. As recently as December, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin had an agreed programme for government. None of the issues that Sinn Féin is now citing as critical preconditions were raised by the party in December. Sinn Féin pulled the Government down and walked out, and it is now setting new preconditions for the formation of a Government. The DUP, the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party—the other parties eligible for Government—would set the Government up tomorrow, but Sinn Féin is blocking it. The Secretary of State is perfectly right to come to the House, as we have urged him to do, and get the budget set.

We cannot allow the drift to continue. At some point in the very near future, we will need to have Ministers. If they are not Northern Ireland Executive Ministers—we and other parties want them to be, but Sinn Féin is blocking that—they will have to be Ministers from here. They will have to take decisions, because we cannot allow the economy or Northern Ireland to drift. We will work with them in this place to ensure that the good governance of Northern Ireland continues, alongside Northern Ireland politicians in a consultative role back home at Stormont.

Let us get on with the job of removing the new preconditions and demands that Sinn Féin has set out since December. Let us get on with the job of governing Northern Ireland from Stormont. If that is not possible, we must get on with the job from here, in consultation with our politicians back home.

I support the right hon. Gentleman’s message about the need for Northern Ireland to get on with the job and the need to restore devolved Government. He makes several points about how that can be done. His party is closely involved in the negotiations with Sinn Féin, and in the work that has been done and the efforts that have been made to restore devolution. I say again that that has to be the focus. The optimum outcome is to have a functioning locally elected Assembly and Executive serving the people of Northern Ireland.

I encourage the right hon. Gentleman and his party to continue the efforts that they have made over an extended period to find the way forward, look for a space of agreement and provide a sense of stability for Northern Ireland. We all want agreement to be reached to make it possible to deal with public services, deal with the economy and encourage jobs and growth. The public in Northern Ireland want that service and positive movement. I underline the fact that we must all have that resolute focus in our minds in the weeks ahead and work to achieve that outcome, so that decision making can progress in Northern Ireland.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his pragmatic, diplomatic and calm approach to the negotiations, and I commend the Prime Minister for placing trust in him and getting involved when required to assist in getting the process under way. Will he confirm that he will cease this legislation immediately the parties agree to form an Assembly and a proper devolved Government in Northern Ireland; and that while he has the powers in the legislation, he will take input from the Northern Ireland parties to ensure that spending decisions are made in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point that he has made. As I indicated in my statement, should an agreement be reached that enables an Executive to be put in place quickly—however unlikely that is—I would obviously not want to introduce the budget Bill. There are important steps that we have to take, however. The civil service has underlined to us that the end of November is a crucial time, by which they need the budget to be in place. That is why I am taking the steps that I have outlined today. This is not about the UK Government setting the spending priorities; that remains firmly with the Northern Ireland civil service, which will continue to get on with that job, as it has done over recent months. That is why I have made the point that this is not about direct rule or UK Government Ministers setting the individual priorities. It is important to resolve the issue quickly for all the reasons we have heard today, and that is where our earnest focus must lie.

As one of the last direct rule Ministers, may I tell the Secretary of State that however engaging it is for those involved, direct rule is not a good form of government? I wish him well in re-establishing the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Will he indicate how the extra money agreed between the DUP and the Government is involved, and whether it is part of the budget settlement? If I were to table parliamentary questions about the details of the budget after it has been agreed, would he answer those questions, or will he find another mechanism of accountability?

I acknowledge the presentation that the right hon. Gentleman, with the experience of his role in Northern Ireland, makes about the challenges and the fact that this is not the outcome we want. As we have made clear throughout the process, the budget Bill speaks to the main estimates that were put in place earlier this year. We are operating within that framework. It is open to the House to vote, through supplementary estimates, for further moneys to be made available to Northern Ireland during the course of the financial year; and votes in this House obviously matter. As a Government, we stand by our commitments, and as a party, we stand by the agreement reached with the Democratic Unionist party, and nothing I have said today changes that.

I want to place on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State and his team for coming to the House to set out the current position, and for being so helpful in his answers. For the benefit of my residents in Aldridge-Brownhills and I am sure those elsewhere, will he set out the extent to which he and his team, as well as civil servants and the Prime Minister, have undertaken work and made commitments to try to find a way through what is clearly a very difficult situation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining the work—the hours and days that have gone into supporting the parties—that so many people have done. We as a Government have made an absolute commitment to a positive outcome and a resolution. That has involved working closely with all the parties in seeking to reach a solution, by providing ways in which they can consider how to bridge the gaps between them. We will continue to do so because this matters so much. As I have said, we have made the utmost commitment to restoring the devolved Government and seeing them get on with the job at hand, and we will certainly continue with that work.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. We are of course disappointed that we do not have a devolved Government in Northern Ireland, because that has an impact on my constituents every day. I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who represents the Scottish National party, that we are quite capable of reflecting what happens in Northern Ireland. I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, and I think I have acquired a little knowledge of how Northern Ireland works, which I would bring to the House if we had direct rule.

May I tell the Secretary of State that the armed forces covenant is very important to us? It is part of the negotiations, and our agreement with the Government includes its full implementation in Northern Ireland. There will be no outcome that does not see the armed forces covenant provide for the servicemen and women, the veterans and families from Northern Ireland who have served this country. We look to the Government to support us in securing such an outcome.

I pay tribute to the armed forces for the incredible work they do for us every day. As a Government, we have underlined our commitment to the military covenant, and we want it to cover all parts of the United Kingdom. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that that has involved, for example, my attendance last week at a cross-departmental group—Ministers from across Whitehall coming together—to assess progress. We want the important benefits of the military covenant to be felt in all parts of the United Kingdom. Yes, we must recognise the differences across the UK in how the covenant is delivered, but we none the less accept its significance.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. Notice of a full minute might have been helpful, but the 50 seconds we got was useful. I quite understand if the usual channels were slightly preoccupied with other matters within the Government this morning.

I remember the last time we had direct rule from this place, and it was a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of doing business both for the people of Northern Ireland and for the procedures of this House. The Secretary of State is right to do anything he can to avoid that. Has he considered the proposal from my noble Friend Lord Alderdice that, notwithstanding the absence of an Executive, the Assembly might be reconvened as a body to which matters could be referred and which Ministers here could consult as they go about the business of the administering they will have to do?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about what the outcome needs to be. I know that he earnestly wishes to see, as I do, the restoration of an inclusive, functioning devolved Government. He points to other scenarios and solutions, but I would say to him that our focus must be on how to get an agreement. That must be the priority. I know other points have been made about different structural or constitutional ways in which Northern Ireland could operate, but it is important to focus on supporting the parties at this time. I will obviously continue to reflect on a range of points that have been made to me, but it is important to keep the focus on that at this time. However, I note the points that he and others have made in recent weeks.

Does the Secretary of State understand the frustration—indeed, the cynicism—felt by people in Northern Ireland about the word “deadline”? As a result of the changing deadlines, the word really does not mean anything. Is it not time that when Governments set deadlines, they should actually mean something? We have had nine months of parties having discussions and there has been no change, so what magic wand does he think will make any difference in the next few weeks, given that one party is quite happy to go back into the Assembly right away, and another is making ridiculous demands that it was not making when the Assembly fell?

Do you know what, Mr Deputy Speaker? I certainly do hear the frustration and cynicism among the public in Northern Ireland that the hon. Lady will have heard. They want to see a Government just getting on with the job of serving them. I do hear that, and I know there is huge frustration—I sense there is frustration on both sides of the House—at being in this position.

We could take steps towards saying, in essence, “Okay, we will move straight to direct rule,” or something similar, but I profoundly think that that is not the right way to approach this issue. Ultimately, this is about seeking space within which the parties can reach an accommodation and an agreement. Yes, this is difficult. For all the time that all those involved have spent on this, it has been hugely challenging to bridge the gaps. Doing so still remains possible, but it is certainly difficult.

We will continue to keep available to us a range of options for supporting the process and galvanising the parties to achieve the positive outcome that we all earnestly want. Equally, the hon. Lady rightly makes the point that this cannot just continue—I hear that message from the House very clearly—and there is a need for Northern Ireland to be able to make decisions. It is worth all of us putting in all our efforts to see whether we can get a positive solution so that the parties are able to find a space in which to work together and get on with the job. I encourage everyone with any influence to get behind that work.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement, and for the industrious energy and commitment he has brought to the talks process, which we much appreciate.

Northern Ireland community groups—Home-Start and other charities—need, as a matter of urgency, to know whether they will receive funding. Who will make such funding decisions, as Westminster cannot be expected to micromanage, and someone needs to send out a message about the state of play across the Province? Similarly, what will happen with the funding for the NHS and infrastructure projects that Northern Ireland should be provided with as a matter of urgency? The projects that will receive most of that funding have been waiting patiently, but the situation is becoming increasingly difficult. I urge the Secretary of State do something about finance most quickly.

Financial decisions will remain with the Northern Ireland civil service. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about voluntary and community sector organisations, and I have raised that with the Northern Ireland civil service. I am seeking to provide as much certainty and assurance as possible, because I know just how important those organisations are in delivering services across Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to all groups that do such an incredible job.

The hon. Gentleman points to decisions on infrastructure, and we would obviously like other public sector reforms. It is for the Northern Ireland civil service to do that work at this point. If possible, we obviously then want a devolved Government to move in and take those decisions, but if that is not possible, we will need further careful reflection on the next steps.

I am vice chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which recently met in Liverpool. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), addressed that meeting, and many right hon. and hon. Members were there. It was a grouping from across these islands, and across parties, and people with very different views were able to discuss and debate. It is important that such forums continue, including those established as a result of the Good Friday agreement. Such forums are critical, and decisions and conversations take place during them. My experience of this place is that people are not aware of the history, politics and passions that arise in this House, and that statements in this House have a profound impact on the people of these islands. We must keep those other forums going.

Today I have heard what we do not want, but I have not heard a plan for how we get from that to what we do want. As has been said, it is inexplicable that the Prime Minister has not been able to make the short journey—less than an hour—to Northern Ireland to give confidence to people there that this is one of her highest priorities. I urge the Secretary of State to encourage the Prime Minister to do so.

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of bodies outside this House and the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. As she said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary recently attended a session in Liverpool. It is helpful to have such forums so that people may debate and exchange their views, and I pay tribute to all Members of the House who support that important engagement and work.

The hon. Lady highlights the role of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has been actively engaged with the process and has been kept closely informed about the steps that have been taken. No one should be in any doubt about her close interest in the process and her desire to see a positive outcome from it. The hon. Lady speaks about flying people in and so on, and although we keep all options firmly on the table, our judgment at this point is that that would not have made a difference. This is about how we can constructively support the two main parties to find a resolution on those core issues, which we have done with the support of the Irish Government. We will continue to support that process and we are considering other interventions and ways that we can help constructively. I will keep the House informed about that process, because we need a resolution quickly in the best interests of Northern Ireland. I hear the hon. Lady’s point, but this is about getting that optimum outcome and using people, interventions and the work of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in the most effective way.

The House will know that I have long-standing concerns about the implementation of the two-child policy and the rape clause in Northern Ireland, especially when there is no Assembly in Stormont to mitigate specific concerns about section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, which will see third-party verifiers such as social workers, doctors, nurses, midwives and women’s aid workers facing prosecution for trying to support women. What specific discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers? I urge him to speak to his colleagues in the DWP, and to use his influence to get rid of the rape clause and the two-child policy once and for all, before women are harmed.

The characterisation that the hon. Lady has given to the House is not quite right. Specific guidance has been provided on this matter, but perhaps I can write to her, because there are a number of issues and a lot of sensitivity attached to this, including on factors such as disclosure. I will write to her with details on this matter, because I realise its importance. I know the careful way in which colleagues at the DWP have considered this issue and worked on it locally to ensure that these important issues are addressed effectively as universal credit is rolled out.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Issues of culture, identity and language remain deeply divisive in what is still a deeply divided society in Northern Ireland. It is therefore all the more disappointing that Sinn Féin has decided to make its cultural agenda a barrier to government in Northern Ireland, and it is the hundreds of thousands of people from across all communities in Northern Ireland who are suffering most because of that decision. Will the Secretary of State commit to doing everything he can in his budget considerations to minimise the detriment to the people of Northern Ireland, particularly on health, education and public services?

The budget Bill will effectively reflect the priorities set by the Northern Ireland civil service—these are not numbers that I set myself in bringing forward the legislation. As the hon. Lady will know, the Northern Ireland civil service has recently reallocated an additional £40 million to address pressures such as those within the health service. I am sure that she will have an opportunity when we debate the Bill to underline important points about the delivery of services in the areas where some of the pressures lie at the moment, and on the need for reform and getting on with the job.

It is disappointing that we have reached the point where the Secretary of State has to set a budget. Will he set out clearly how the process will be properly scrutinised and say what time will be allocated for that? I am deeply concerned that, by default, more and more powers are drifting away from Northern Ireland to this House. Does not that show that more emphasis needs to be put on the mediation process?

May I amplify what I said in my previous answer? The budget lines—the numbers that will go into the Bill—will not be set by the House; we will be approving them. Effectively, they will provide the legal authority for the budget that the Northern Ireland civil service has been operating to thus far, based on civil servants’ assessment of the priorities of the outgoing Executive. That obviously reflects changes that have taken place this year. This should not be seen in any way as me or the Government somehow stepping in and saying, “You’re going to put this budget line here.” I will simply take the recommendations provided to me, and it is important that I make that clear on the Floor of the House. As I said, this should not be seen as a step towards direct rule. It is about implementing and giving statutory authority to the budget. I acknowledge that this is a serious step and I do not want to be in this position, but I have to be as a consequence of the need to have legal authority in place by the end of the month. I am sure that the House will have an opportunity to debate the Bill when we return from the November recess.

May I press the Secretary of State further about his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and the involvement of the Prime Minister? He said that the Prime Minister has been taking calls, and as has been said, she has been to Belfast once. There is a serious point here because over the past 35 years, every Prime Minister from all parties has led from the front on solutions in Northern Ireland, including in reinstating devolution. Can the Secretary of State set out the Prime Minister’s actual involvement in terms of hours? Nobody in the House doubts his sincerity in trying to resolve the issue and restore devolution, but there is a point about the Prime Minister leading on this, as she does on Brexit. I urge him to ask her to lead from the front.

I say again that the Prime Minister is committed to Northern Ireland issues, but the hon. Gentleman should know that previous interventions by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have not automatically led to change. We keep under review what will be effective and what will make the difference on particular processes, steps and interventions, but this is about the parties themselves taking the leap and finding an agreement, and how we act to support them. We will continue to do so and to keep all options under review.