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Northern Ireland Government

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 6 September 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the restoration of government in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland needs devolved government. It needs all the functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. As significant decisions are taken at this critical time, Northern Ireland’s voice must be heard. With new powers coming back from Brussels and flowing to Stormont, Northern Ireland needs an Executive in place to use those powers to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead. As relationships evolve, a functioning North South Ministerial Council is vital to ensure that Northern Ireland makes the most of its unique position within the UK and in relation to Ireland.

Other critical strategic decisions need to be taken for Northern Ireland—on, for example, investment, reform of public services and future budgets. Critical cross-cutting programmes addressing social deprivation and tackling paramilitarism are stalling following 19 months without devolved government. As this impasse continues, public services are suffering. Businesses are suffering. The people of Northern Ireland are suffering. Local decision making is urgently needed to address this. The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government. With determination and realism, we must set a clear goal of restoring the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly.

In the absence of an Executive, I have kept my duty to set a date for a fresh election under review. I have not believed, and do not now believe, that holding an election during this time of significant change and political uncertainty would be helpful or would increase the prospects of restoring the Executive, but I am aware of the current legislative position. In order to ensure certainty and clarity on this issue, I intend to introduce primary legislation in October to provide for a limited and prescribed period during which there will be no legal requirement to set a date for a further election and, importantly, during which an Executive may be formed at any point without the requirement for further legislation. That will provide a further opportunity to re-establish political dialogue, with the aim of restoring the Executive as soon as possible.

While Assembly Members continue to perform valuable constituency functions, it is clear that during any such interim period they will not be performing the full range of their legislative functions. Therefore, in parallel, I will take the steps necessary to reduce Assembly Members’ salaries in line with the recommendations made by Trevor Reaney. The reduction will take effect in two stages, commencing in November. I confirm that this will not reduce the allowance for staff, as I do not think that MLAs’ staff should suffer because of the politicians’ failure to form an Executive.

I wish to commend the key role that the Northern Ireland civil service has played during the period in which there has been no Executive in ensuring the continuity of public services in Northern Ireland. Following the recent decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the Buick case, I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the NICS and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services. The legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will therefore include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable Northern Ireland Departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services. I intend to consult the parties in Northern Ireland about how this might best be done. I will also bring forward legislation that will enable key public appointments to be made in Northern Ireland, as I set out in my written statement on 18 July.

At the same time, I am conscious that this is no substitute for the return of elected Ministers taking decisions in the Executive and being accountable to the Assembly. I intend, therefore, to use the next few weeks to engage in further discussions with the parties and the Irish Government, in accordance with the three-stranded approach, with the intention of establishing a basis for moving into a more formal political dialogue that leads to a restoration of the institutions. These discussions will also seek views from the parties on when and how external facilitation could play a constructive role in the next round of talks.

Be in no doubt that no agreement can ever be imposed from outside Northern Ireland. It must be reached by those closest to these issues—those who have been elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland want a restoration of their political institutions, and that is what this Government are committed to achieving. This statement represents a clear way forward and a plan for Northern Ireland, and I commend it to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, although the fact that it was shared with the rest of the world might make that slightly irrelevant. Let me say at the outset that I give a cautious welcome to the proposals she has set out. However, let us be very clear that the demand of the people of Northern Ireland is quite rightly to see the restoration of democratic government, and that demand must be echoed in this Chamber.

I welcome the reference in the statement to external facilitation for future talks, but will the Secretary of State clarify whether we are talking about an independent chair, which we have urged on her in the past, or is this simply a mechanism to move the agenda on? It is important to say that the capacity to have an independent chair is something that could break the logjam. I also welcome the decision—it is overdue—on MLAs’ pay. Members on both sides of the House have been urging this on the Secretary of State and it is well beyond time, so that is a step in the right direction.

We are clear that many decisions on critical issues are now held in the logjam caused by the democratic crisis in Northern Ireland. For example, there is the issue of the existence of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. In the light of the arrest of two journalists over the weekend, that kind of oversight is fundamental to accountable policing in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. There is the issue of nurses’ pay in relation to making sure that a nurse in Newcastle in County Down is paid the same as one in Newcastle upon Tyne. There are also issues with a legislative flavour, such as equal marriage. That has already been sanctioned by the Assembly, but it needs a change to be made here.

It is not acceptable to have a process of governance by judicial review, or a situation in which people cannot go to an elected Assembly Member or Member of this House, but have to go through the courts to seek justice. Part of the test of what the Secretary of State has set out must be whether the kinds of issues that have been mentioned will be resolved. Will it mean that the ordinary folk of Northern Ireland do not have to resort to the courts to seek the kind of justice that my constituents, and those of the Secretary of State, do not have to seek there? Will the arrangements mean that nurses pay will be brought into line and ensure that we have a policing board? The answer to the second point is almost certainly yes, but the answer to the first is less certain.

The answer on the point of equal marriage is within the gift of the Secretary of State. She must recognise that moving away from Good Friday agreement legislation is a significant change, and it is not unreasonable for her to consider when she could use her capacity for legislation in this Chamber to move on those things that Northern Ireland needs.

There is a serious democratic issue at the heart of this. Of course, after the Buick judgment, we must give clarity to civil servants, but at the moment civil servants in Northern Ireland have no one to account to—not the Secretary of State, and not Members of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State must look at the democratic deficit over this period—it could run for another 600 days. I do not wish for that, but it brings us back to the central point that we now need to proceed with real urgency. We must have capacity for early decision making, and some of that must be reflected through the only democratic institution available, which is this House. Therefore, some of that oversight must be considered here. That is not direct rule; it is the way in which democracies shine a light on decisions that are being made. Otherwise, we risk civil servants being dragged back into the courts to be judicially reviewed over incinerators or any other decision they want to make.

This is a small step, not the giant leap we need. The Secretary of State is right that we need urgency in the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, and we need five-party talks to be delivered with a degree of urgency that has simply not existed to date. Democratic accountability must be put back. The decisions that are frustrating and blighting the lives of people in Northern Ireland must be brought to a conclusion. This is a small step, and in general terms, guardedly, we will look to support the Secretary of State where appropriate. However, she must do more to break the logjam.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. The decisions that are being taken today are not easy, and I appreciate his guarded support for what we are doing. I will continue to work with him to ensure that the House is comfortable and happy with the decisions that we are taking. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. In an ideal situation, we would not have had 19 months without devolved government, but we have had that. We must act within the parameters of the situation in which we find ourselves, rather than where we would like to be.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have worked throughout with four key principles in mind. First is our commitment to the Belfast agreement, and second is our obligations as the UK Government under that agreement. Thirdly, I have always acted to ensure that we remove any barriers to devolution and the restoration of power sharing. Fourthly, as the representative of the UK Government, I must bear in mind that the 1.8 million United Kingdom citizens who live in Northern Ireland are entitled to good governance, and decisions needed to ensure that good governance have been taken in this House. We will continue to take such decisions as appropriate and with the support of communities within Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned my reference to external facilitation, and I have made no decisions about the right way to get talks restarted. He is right that those talks need to restart, but I need to work with the parties. Over the next few weeks, I intend to spend an intensive period, working with the parties and with the Irish Government as appropriate, and obviously with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition—again, as appropriate—to ensure that we have the right framework to get what we all want, which is government restored in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman refers to MLA pay. I should pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who makes this point any time I do anything either in the House or at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and has been a campaigner on this matter like few others. I did not want simply to beat MLAs by cutting pay; I needed to make sure there was an incentive for them to come back into devolved government. We want to use it to ensure that MLAs and politicians do the right thing and form a devolved Government. As soon as one is formed, the legislation we passed to cut MLA pay will fall away under the sunset clause passed in this House.

On the Policing Board, I have already said I will legislate to make sure that public appointments can be on a statutory footing. The hon. Gentleman is right: the Policing Board is probably the key example that everyone refers to. That is because policing in Northern Ireland has to be done with the consent of the public and all communities there, and having a properly constituted Policing Board is incredibly important to that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to equal marriage. It is probably worth clarifying the situation. While the majority of MLAs voted for equal marriage, it was stopped by the use of the petition of concern, not a failure to act. The Assembly did not give permission for equal marriage legislation to be taken forward. That seems a technicality, but it is the reality of the situation. There is no legal basis on which Northern Ireland can have equal marriage at this stage. I voted for equal marriage in this House, and I am proud to have done so, for my constituents and his—I refer here to Newcastle-under-Lyme, as well as Newcastle in County Down and Newcastle upon Tyne. Equal marriage, as with many other matters, is rightly devolved, and it is right that those decisions be taken by politicians elected by the people of Northern Ireland, not politicians in this Chamber, where appropriate. I respect the principle of devolution. Even if there are things we disagree with, we still have to respect that principle of devolution.

I will look carefully at the hon. Gentleman’s point about oversight and the democratic deficit. In my conversations and discussions with all parties about how decision making can take place, there will be a range of options available to make sure that when we bring legislation forward we do so with the broad support of the people of Northern Ireland and those who represent them. To do otherwise would not help the work we want to do and the clear objective we all have of seeing government restored to Stormont and locally elected politicians being appointed as Ministers and making decisions on behalf of the people who elected them.

The Secretary of State mentioned that she is taking these steps in the national interest. Does she feel that it is in the national interest that old soldiers who participated in securing the successful outcome after the years of the troubles and the creation of civil government in Northern Ireland should be dragged through the courts, as is happening at the moment, decades after the events in which they were involved?

My right hon. Friend has campaigned on the treatment of veterans for many years. I have spent considerable time listening and talking to him about it, and he is right: the current situation is not tolerable. It is not acceptable that veterans are being subjected to a disproportionate focus by the authorities in Northern Ireland. We want to change that, and are consulting on how to do so, to stop veterans being dragged through the courts in the way he has described.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I also pass on the apologies of our Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who has had to go up the road on urgent constituency business. He apologises for the fact that I am here in his place.

The Scottish National party stands by the principle that policy decisions in devolved institutions should be taken by devolved Administrations, rather than by Whitehall. We agree with the Secretary of State on that. On the Brexit negotiations, which are approaching their final stages—apparently—the Irish border is a really significant issue in those negotiations, and it is important that the voice of the people of Northern Ireland be heard in them. Can the Secretary of State give us assurances that that voice will be heard, despite the current absence of a functioning Executive?

The impasse has gone on for a very long time and the Scottish National party agrees that it needs to end. However, I have slight concerns about what the Secretary of State says with regard to talking to all the parties. I appreciate that, but my concern is that it is difficult for the UK Government to be seen to be an honest and unbiased broker given their reliance on the DUP, which is one of the parties involved in this negotiation. Will she try to give us some reassurance on this point, particularly to help the people of Northern Ireland understand her position?

I thank the hon. Lady for her points. I received a note from the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). I understand that he has constituency business. We are all constituency MPs first and foremost and our constituents come first in all matters, so we all sympathise.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments and for her support for the proposals. She is right when she says that the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is not being heard through the proper channels in the Brexit discussions. She will know there are representatives of the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly in the various Joint Ministerial Committee meetings and so on. They enable the voice of the people of Scotland and Wales to be put through those forums. That is simply not possible without a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. We have ensured that all the main parties in Northern Ireland receive thorough briefings on Brexit. I endeavour, as a member of pretty much every committee on Brexit in the Government, to ensure that the voice of Northern Ireland is heard.

The hon. Lady asks about a framework by which talks could happen. As I said in the statement, I am making no decisions about how talks might best happen. I am very pragmatic about that. I want the talks to succeed, so I will consider and discuss all options with the parties to make sure we get the restoration of devolved government, which is what we all want to see.

I welcome the statement, but the Secretary of State will know that there are important and sensitive political judgments to make in areas such as health and education reforms which were planned before the Executive fell apart. She envisages giving the power to civil servants to make those really quite difficult political judgments. Does she have another plan for how we can see some progress for those key public services?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a very assiduous member of the Select Committee. As I said in my statement, I want to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that decision making can be made in a way that has broad support across Northern Ireland. There are a variety of ways that that can be done and a variety of lengths to which we can go in terms of decision-making powers. I want to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland before making any final decisions.

My party welcomes the Secretary of State’s announcement, particularly on reducing MLAs’ pay. The DUP is the party of no preconditions: we want to get into government tomorrow. Unfortunately, others who walked out of the Executive have set preconditions. Hopefully, she will get on with that job. May I draw her attention to the part of her statement where she said that MLAs

“will not be performing the full range of their legislative functions”,

thereby justifying the reduction in pay? Does she not apply the same logic to abstentionist Members of Parliament? Yesterday, we had a very important business reception at which the Secretary of State spoke. A Sinn Féin MP actually boasted that they did not have to leave the reception to come up here to vote and go through the Division Lobby. They claim hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money for not performing their full legislative function.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his cautious welcome for the announcements I have made today. Pay and allowances for Members of this House are a matter for this House. It is therefore not appropriate for me to comment on them. The decision I have taken today with regard to MLA pay is in relation to the recommendations put to me by Trevor Reaney, which were commissioned by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). It is right, given that a decision has been taken to deal with the election duty, that we recognise that MLAs are not performing their full range of functions at this stage and that their pay should reflect that.

I thank the Secretary of State for her comments. It is absolutely unacceptable for politicians to walk away from their decision-making responsibilities but still continue to pocket their pay. I am very pleased to see the Secretary of State for International Development, who holds responsibility for women and equalities, in her place and listening very intently. Does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland agree that crucial decisions on women’s rights should be taken locally in Northern Ireland, but that if they are not taken they cannot be delayed in perpetuity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these are matters for the devolved Government. That is why we need to see a devolved Government: so that such decisions can be taken by those whom the people of Northern Ireland elected to do so for them. The sooner we have those people in Stormont, taking those decisions and dealing with those important matters, the better for everyone.

I thank the Secretary of State for apologising for something that clearly should not have happened. Even now, looking at the BBC report, there is a lot more detail about the salary structure. Will she tell the House exactly what she is going to do on Assembly pay? It is on the BBC website. There is only one party—we all know that—that has refused to go back in without any preconditions. If we get the Assembly back again, what is to stop one party deciding that it is going to walk out again? Are we not coming to the crucial point where, ultimately, we are going to have to look at the arrangements for how the Belfast agreement, in this particular instance, actually works—or does not?

I apologise again for the error that led to the BBC report. That should never have happened and I apologise again to the House. The hon. Lady asks a question about the mechanics in relation to MLA pay. I will now write to all MLAs to inform them that I intend to reduce their pay in two stages, as set out by Trevor Reaney, with the first reduction in November and the following reduction three months later. I hope that that will incentivise MLAs to come back around the table and to re-form the Government and appoint Ministers, which we all want to see them do. That is the priority for all of us. We want to make sure we deliver that as soon as possible.

It appears that one party, namely Sinn Féin, are frustrating the whole talks process, and that they are doing so for party political advantage in the general election in southern Ireland. May I urge my right hon. Friend to lay out a timetable not only for legislation in this House, but for the talks process that should take place and lead to a natural conclusion? If the talks fail, the conclusion must be what action we have to take in this place.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). My hon. Friend raises the point that she raised. I will address both their points now. We are all concerned about the sustainability of the Executive. This issue needs to be resolved. Clearly, the changes made to the Belfast agreement in the 2007 St Andrews agreement have made the situation we have found ourselves in for the past 19 months more likely. We therefore need to look at the sustainability of the Executive. On a plan or framework for talks, I want to meet all the main parties in Northern Ireland over the next few weeks and make a decision at that stage. As I said earlier, it is important to be pragmatic. We cannot impose this decision; it has to be taken by the politicians in Northern Ireland, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

May I invite the Secretary of State to join me in commending Naomi Long on the initiative she took earlier this week in relation to getting the parties together at Stormont and talking? It is surely apparent now that the exercise in collective hand-wringing that we are all engaged in here today is not going to bring about the change that we need. In the past, when we reached an impasse of this sort, we looked outside—I am thinking of the likes of Senator George Mitchell and others who played an important role in moving on the process when that was necessary. Will the Secretary of State give that sort of initiative the bulk of her attention, because, frankly, as somebody who has been engaged in this issue for years now, I do not see any other means of achieving the progress that we need?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the initiative of the Alliance party and Naomi Long, who I spoke to earlier today. I commend her for taking that initiative, which demonstrates that there is some low-level engagement between the parties. That is something I want to explore. As I said in my statement, I rule nothing out. I will look at all options, but I need to do the right thing by the parties in Northern Ireland. As I have said previously, I cannot impose this; it has to be something that the parties in Northern Ireland are willing to choose and comply with.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House today and for the statement that she made. She has rightly related and referred to the strategic decisions on investment in agri-food sectors, which I have discussed with the Minister of State, and on issues of health and education, roads, fishing and so on—things that are critically important. There is a need to address the issue of social deprivation, as well as tackling paramilitarism, which is rampant in my constituency, as the Secretary of State knows.

The announcement on MLA pay is the right decision—I put that on record—although most MLAs, including my own colleagues, want to get the Assembly working fully and immediately. However, everyone is being punished due to the refusal of one party, namely Sinn Féin. If we are going to hit the pockets of Northern Ireland Assembly Members, which is right, does the Secretary of State agree that the same principles being applied to Northern Ireland Assembly Members should now apply to those who refuse to do their work in this House?

The hon. Gentleman refers to many, many of the decisions that need to be taken. We need ministerial decisions to be taken so that those many urgent matters around public services and their delivery, the reform of health and education, and matters regarding paramilitarism can be dealt with. We need Ministers to do that, and the right Ministers to do it are those whom the people of Northern Ireland elected to represent them. That is what we all want to see.

The hon. Gentleman made the same point as his colleague, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), regarding the situation in the House. That is a matter for the House, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will take it up with the House authorities, which no doubt he does on a regular basis.

In response to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), the Secretary of State outlined the approach with the Northern Ireland parties on Brexit in general. In the absence of a functioning Assembly, will she outline how she is working with the Northern Ireland parties, in particular on the movement of goods and of people across the Irish border after Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the Government’s White Paper, which sets out our proposals on the movement of goods and people following the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. He will have seen that the White Paper sets out pragmatic and sensible suggestions as to how those movements could continue in the way that they have done historically and in a way that works for the whole United Kingdom. Clearly, the Northern Ireland parties have been briefed on the White Paper, which is a public document.