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Devolution and Democracy

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Select Committee statement

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to present to the House our third report of this Session, entitled “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland—dealing with the deficit”. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, since when there has been no effective ministerial decision-making process at Stormont.

I pay tribute to the Northern Ireland civil service, which has done a fantastic job of trying to hold things together during the impasse. As I will go on to describe in my short statement, it is not good enough to expect the Northern Ireland civil service to continue the work of trying to keep the ship on an even keel. The time has now come for further measures that will enable good governance in Northern Ireland. In the absence of that, I am sorry to say that it is the Committee’s view that people in Northern Ireland will notice a difference in their day-to-day lives. It is a demonstration of the importance of Ministers in our way of life and our democracy that such a deficit should have been caused by the collapse of the Executive, and it is very clear to everybody that the lack of ministerial decision making is impacting on people’s everyday lives.

We launched our inquiry on 24 November 2017. It was aimed not at being a post-mortem—that is for others to do in the fullness of time and there is no shortage of people wishing to do that—but at looking at where we are now and how we can deal with this impasse in the short term to try to deliver to Northern Ireland the governance it needs and to make the institutions more robust in the future. We have to accept that what we have at the moment is just not working for most people.

It is important to understand at the beginning that while we consulted widely—we are very grateful to everybody who contributed to our consultation—we were not able to take evidence from one of the large parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin. That is clearly an omission. It was not the Committee’s fault; it was an omission on the part of Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin was asked repeatedly to contribute—it would have added to our report had it done so—but it chose not to. We tried to consult as widely as possible across the community in Northern Ireland, and I think the report has a balanced reflection of opinion in Northern Ireland, as well as a remarkable degree of consensus.

The Committee’s principal recommendation is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should restart the active facilitation of talks between parties. There is currently a sense of drift in Northern Ireland. There is a frustration on the part of people resident in Northern Ireland that important decisions are just not being made. The solution is very clear: the restoration of the institutions at Stormont using the power-sharing arrangements laid out in the Good Friday agreement. However, we have to face the prospect that that is not going to happen in the immediate future. In those circumstances, it is just not acceptable for us to continue kicking the can down the road and not making crucial ministerial decisions.

In annex 1 of the report, the Committee lists a number of decisions that need to be made right now. It is a long list and it is growing every single day. It is very wide-ranging, touching on practically every facet of life in Northern Ireland, from plans for Kilkeel harbour to the York Street interchange and from the likely delay in implementing a reduction in tourism VAT in Northern Ireland to a failure to build new homes. All of them touch on day-to-day life. Unless we get decisions made by Ministers on these issues, people will start to notice a real difference in the way that they live their lives compared with life in the rest of the United Kingdom. We feel that that is unacceptable.

The High Court ruling of 14 May on the Mallusk incinerator decision was that it was not acceptable for civil servants to make a determination on this planning issue in County Antrim. I think this is the beginning of a process. If the High Court should say that it is not appropriate for civil servants to make such decisions, there is bound to be a catalogue of similar decisions stacking up that will be delayed because we cannot get a ministerial decision without a Minister in place to make such determinations.

The list grows day by day, but help is indeed available to Ministers. In such things as the Hart report, the Bengoa report and the draft programme for government, agreed by the last Executive, we have guidance for making those crucial decisions available to Ministers. If they stick to that script, they will not go too far wrong. However, we need to do more than that. The Committee also recommends taking legal and procedural advice on how to set up committees of Members of the Legislative Assembly to improve scrutiny during the current impasse. It is important that we do what we can, imperfect though it may be, to ensure that democratic voices are heard in Northern Ireland and impact on ministerial decision making.

I will briefly highlight two areas that are in urgent need of ministerial attention. We cannot constitute the Northern Ireland Policing Board because we do not have MLAs capable of populating that board. That is causing real problems. It means, for example, that senior appointments to the Police Service of Northern Ireland cannot be made. We recommend that Ministers take in hand the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and implement the changes necessary to ensure that the board is able to conduct its statutory functions.

We would like Ministers, in the absence of an Executive, to take action on the Hart report and to introduce legislation, if necessary through this Parliament, to ensure that the victims that Hart identifies are given the redress that they have waited far too long for. We would also like Ministers to explore the role of local government. Councils—they were reduced to 11 in 2015, of course—told us that they are capable of doing more. In the absence of an Executive, that potential has to be explored. We would like Ministers to take note of the pilot that is under way by the Building Change Trust into civic assemblies. We have to ensure the long-term stability of the institutions and make them more robust. In our report, we touch on the sensitive issue of the Good Friday agreement, which contains within it the prospect of a review at some point, and we make recommendations about that, accepting all the sensitivities that surround it.

Everything these days has a Brexit angle, and this one certainly does. We found that the voice of Northern Ireland was not being heard properly in Brussels, when we took evidence from Mr Michel Barnier, and that civil servants struggle to have their voices heard equally with Ministers from Scotland and Wales. That needs to be remedied.

We took evidence widely for the report, and I am grateful to all those who gave willingly of their time to make it the—I hope—thoughtful and constructive piece that it is. I look forward to the Minister’s response today and the Government’s response in due course. I promise him that we will be tracking progress on a regular basis and my Committee will publish regular updates on progress made against the recommendations that we make in this report, our third of the Session.

This week marks 20 years since the people of Northern Ireland endorsed the Good Friday agreement. The Committee is right to say that power-sharing devolution is the best structure and that the absence of the Assembly is impacting on daily lives. That is why everyone should be focused on getting devolution back up and running. Will the Chair confirm that as the Good Friday agreement was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, any changes to it need to be by the expressed wish of the people and political leaders of Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is, of course, absolutely right. We practically say that on every single line of our report, because it is vital that we understand the tenets of the Good Friday agreement. It has a unique status. It was a remarkable achievement and is, of course, held dear in the hearts of those who have benefited from it over the past 20 years. Anything that is done needs to be done with consent, and that runs like a vein through the report that we published this week.

I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend and his Committee colleagues for their report. The Government will respond in the usual way. I will make just one point: I hope that he agrees that it is appropriate that we give a huge thank you to David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, to all his permanent secretaries and indeed the entire Northern Ireland civil service for their fantastic work in the past 16 months, in the absence of a devolved Assembly. They deserve our appreciation. That needs to be recognised, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with those sentiments.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—of course I do—although we have to understand that David Sterling and his civil servants, who have done a remarkable job, should not be put in the invidious position of having to make decisions or feeling that they have to do so because there is no Minister, and then finding that the High Court judges that what they have done is ultra vires. That is unfair, which is one of the reasons why we have recommended that the Secretary of State comes forward before the summer with a framework, at least, within which she will start to make those crucial decisions.

I add to the record our commendation to the Committee Chairman for doing a splendid piece of work. He has brought together some very difficult issues into a single report that was unanimously agreed by the Committee. It was incredibly difficult work. The Committee endorses several political actions with regard to how committees should function in the current Assembly, even though it has broken down. It endorses the re-establishment of the Policing Board and states that we need ministerial decisions as quickly as possible. Those recommendations, carried unanimously by the Committee, should be implemented immediately. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister hear that loudly and allow for normal functions to continue.

I understand that the judgment by Justice Keegan, as mentioned on page 25 of our report, will be referred to the High Court on 25 June. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that we will get a quick, urgent decision from the bench, so that we will know whether direct rule will be implemented speedily or whether we will go back into the state of flux of negotiations?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The report is strengthened by the fact that it was unanimously passed by our Committee, despite the fact that it was wide-ranging and contained some extremely difficult material. That is a tribute to the Committee, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman.

I believe that the Keegan judgment is probably the start of a process and that there will be similar ones in the months ahead. I think that it should serve as a catalyst to Ministers to think about the framework to which I have referred and focus their attention on how they can start to make those crucial decisions to deal with annex 1 in the report, and the list is growing by the day. The hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in the judgment that has been made, but there will be more, I am sure, across Northern Ireland. Although I would not want to comment specifically on this one, I am confident that there will be several similar judgments ahead, and we need a strategy from the Government for dealing with them; it is clear that civil servants cannot make judgments of that sort because in our system those decisions are reserved to Ministers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and commend his Committee for its report. For me, there are two stand-out recommendations in the report. The first is the need for the Policing Board to be reinstituted, and the second is for there to be a Brexit Minister for Northern Ireland, because the Province’s voice is not being heard. These two recommendations can be advanced by the Government relatively simply: in the first case, with a legislative change—a lot of Northern Ireland legislation goes through this House pretty quickly—and in the second, with a ministerial appointment. Should not the Government just get on with it?

I thank my hon. Friend for the interest that he has taken in this matter, and he is, of course, correct on both fronts. We believe that there is no reason for further delay on the recommendations that we have made. I hope very much that the Minister, when he comes to respond to this in the fullness of time, will accept all the recommendations that we have made, but particularly those that are absolutely crucial now. Northern Ireland’s voice is certainly not being heard in Brussels alongside those of Scotland and Wales, although this is a UK Government responsibility and not a devolved matter.

Policing in Northern Ireland is a crucial and desperately sensitive issue. It is unacceptable that we cannot, for example, appoint senior police officers because of the lack of a Police Board. That, in our opinion, is a matter that simply cannot be delayed any further.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), on the leadership that he showed to all its members, enabling us to reach unanimous conclusions. There were times when we thought that that would not happen, but he managed to ensure that it happened in each case.

The backdrop was, of course, the stop-start, pause, start again extension of the talks process, to which pages 3 and 4 of the report refer. That, perhaps, indicates where we are at present. The Committee again took the opportunity to consider where we would go if the Northern Ireland Assembly did not function. The annex outlines—as did the hon. Gentleman at the end of his speech—the number of works still to be done and on hold.

Some of the Committee’s conclusions are very important. If the hybrid system for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has operated in the past, does not work out, we shall look towards direct rule. What are the Chairman’s thoughts about how we can pull Sinn Féin out of its obstinate position? Sometimes, we need to move forward and park the issues on which we disagree.

I have another question, about Brexit. The Committee concluded that the Secretary of State and other Ministers should be more active. How does the hon. Gentleman think it can be ensured that Northern Ireland’s voice is clearly heard in the Brexit talks?

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made an extremely important contribution to the report.

Clearly, without the co-operation of Sinn Féin, the recommendations in the report about the committee structure at Stormont, for example, simply will not work. That is inherent in the power-sharing structure, which forms such a big part of the Good Friday agreement. I urge Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist party and all the other parties in Northern Ireland to set aside the issues on which they cannot agree and get on with the issues on which they can agree.

I think that people in Northern Ireland are increasingly frustrated by the silly nonsense and the politicking. Matters that are important to them on a daily basis, such as healthcare, education and infrastructure, are not being dealt with because obstinate politicians are standing on their dignity in respect of certain matters. Although the politicians may hold those matters dear, the rest of the population clearly feel that they are not of a nature that justifies putting on hold the good governance of Northern Ireland.

As for Brexit, the hon. Gentleman knows—because he was involved—that we made a number of recommendations in relation to the representation of Northern Ireland, and I hope that Ministers will take them to heart. We need to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard. Given that the border is front and centre of the success or otherwise of the Brexit process, it is ironic that Northern Ireland’s voice is not being heard in Brussels at this time.