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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
24 October 2018
Volume 648

House of Commons

Wednesday 24 October 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Care Placement of Young People

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1. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the placement of young people from England in private sector care homes in Wales. [907183]

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The Government are clear that the needs of the child are paramount when making decisions about the right care placement. The specific issue the hon. Lady refers to has not been raised with me directly by the Welsh Government.

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More than 300 children from England are placed across Wales, often in small Welsh villages. Problems are experienced by some police forces and local authorities about early notification of vulnerable children being placed there who may be seduced into county lines, grooming operations and generally be vulnerable in isolation. Will the Secretary of State share my concern and raise it with the Welsh Assembly Government?

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The hon. Lady clearly raises a very important point and is passionate about the subject. The most appropriate and suitable setting should always be the overriding factor in deciding the best placement for a child, but planning policy and approval from care inspectors should also be considerations, and, naturally, the police should be part of that process. I will happily raise the matter with the Welsh Government.

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Does the Minister share my view that it is crucial that there are enough foster parents with the right skills in the right areas to care for children and meet their diverse needs? Would not a collaborative approach between local authorities be helpful in that respect?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. The appropriate setting has to be the overriding factor at all stages, but, of course, not all local authorities can offer appropriate settings for some complex needs that different children will have. Co-operation between authorities is always helpful and it is something that we want to encourage.

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Plaid Cymru’s North Wales police and crime commissioner has long warned that, post Brexit, criminals will use the common travel area to gain access to the UK. This warning has been reaffirmed today in a National Audit Office report. Will the Secretary of State tell me what provision he is making personally to protect Wales from becoming both the highway and the victim of international organised crime?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, but I am not sure where Brexit is linked with this. Clearly, there is freedom of movement across the European Union and the common travel area—those positions will still be in place, particularly in relation to the common travel area. I do not think that this is about where the children originate from, because, clearly, there are Welsh children being sited appropriately in England as well. We have to have as an overriding factor the most appropriate setting and it is important that the authorities co-operate wherever the regulations come from.

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It is no secret that the Secretary of State does not speak as Wales’s voice in Westminster on Brexit. He has, in fact, poured scorn on the efforts of others who seek to make representations for Wales in Brussels. He may be aware that, together with other sensible Opposition leaders in this place, I am meeting Michel Barnier tomorrow, and I will do my duty to represent my country. Does he have any Wales-specific priorities that he would like me to raise with the EU Brexit negotiator-in-chief, or would that be against England’s interest?

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In relation to private sector care homes?

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The hon. Lady talks about meeting Michel Barnier tomorrow with other colleagues, but I hope that she will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Prime Minister who is acting in the UK’s interest rather than in any local national interest.

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Returning to the subject, what changes does my right hon. Friend propose in terms of inspection of care homes to ensure that children are safe in those care homes?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. The social care innovation programme plans to change the laws in England so that local authorities have to promote the physical and mental health of looked-after children, and this would be a major step forward in this area of policy.

Leaving the EU: Aerospace Sector

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2. What representations he has received from the aerospace sector in Wales on the priorities for that sector when negotiating the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. [907184]

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The UK, and specifically Wales, is home to a world-class aerospace industry. I have regular meetings with the aerospace sector and met Airbus last month in north Wales as part of my engagement with the CBI. It is a top priority to continue to create and maintain the right conditions post Brexit for this growing international sector to thrive.

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First, I welcome the Minister to her post. In June, Airbus said that a no deal Brexit would severely undermine

“UK efforts to keep a competitive and innovative aerospace industry.”

It concluded that it would be “catastrophic” to have a UK Brexit. Does the Minister agree?

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As I have said, the aerospace sector in north Wales is absolutely vital. Airbus has been making those statements through conversations with those involved with the north Wales growth deal. I know, having met the hon. Gentleman last week, that a thriving sector, and the skills associated with it, are absolutely vital. The F-35 avionics global repair hub shows that this is a sector in which we are world-leading, and the UK Government in Wales will continue to support it.

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My hon. Friend is quite right to mention the importance of the proposed north Wales growth deal to the aerospace industry in north Wales. Can she say when the Government are likely to make a substantive announcement about that deal?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his long-standing commitment to the north Wales growth deal, and for pushing for action and progress in this area. There are some very positive movements, and we hope to make real progress. We need a further update from the Welsh Government, and there will be key meetings later this week.

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Airbus employs many of my constituents in Newport and Filton. Close collaboration between the Civil Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency is vital to this industry. What are the Government doing to safeguard that?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the jobs and opportunities around the avionics sector in Wales. We are aware of the benefits of collaboration, and seek that as part of the overall deal. It is something that Switzerland—a non-EU member—enjoys, and we will continue to look for it as part of our overall deal.

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Airbus employs a number of constituents in Eddisbury. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to striking a deal that provides for frictionless trade in this sector?

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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how important this sector is in her constituency. As an assiduous constituency Member, she raises the challenges ahead, but a good deal that works to support jobs in the supply chain is absolutely the primary focus of discussions, and a pragmatic, frictionless deal is what the Government are working for.

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With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate Louise Magee, general secretary of Welsh Labour, and her partner Luke Holland, who have had a beautiful baby girl, Catherine Ivy, who is to be known as Kitty? Mother and baby are doing fine, and Luke is coping well, I understand.

I welcome the Minister to her place. The Welsh Government have pledged £3 million to support Airbus in preparing for Brexit. ADS, the national trade association that represents aerospace companies, has urged the Chancellor to ensure that there is enough financial liquidity for companies such as Airbus, which rely on just-in-time European supply chains. What are the Minister’s priorities for the Welsh aerospace sector?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I have said in my previous answers, Wales has a deep-rooted, world-leading aerospace sector, and the Government understand that. There has been cross-Government engagement with all key stakeholders to support it. Frictionless trade and supporting the sector are absolutely vital, and we are ready to work and step up to that challenge.

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That may well be, but the Government’s Brexit advice paper suggests that companies such as Airbus may move their headquarters to an EU member state in the event of no deal, which would be absolutely catastrophic for our Welsh economy. Does the Minister agree with her Prime Minister that no deal is better than a bad deal, as far as Wales is concerned?

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The UK Government in Wales are not complacent about the challenges of all scenarios. They are working extremely hard to make sure that all the opportunities are there in any deal, and are working to make sure that the sector thrives. That is vital to the Secretary of State, and to the UK Government. We will continue to stand by the Prime Minister in getting that frictionless deal.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

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3. What representations he has received from the Welsh Government on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. [907186]

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12. What representations he has received from the Welsh Government on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. [907195]

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13. What representations he has received from the Welsh Government on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. [907196]

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The UK’s exit from the European Union provides us with an opportunity to reconsider how funding for growth across the UK is designed and delivered. In our manifesto, we committed to engaging with the Welsh Government on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and that work is under way.

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At the moment, the so-called opportunity of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund falls within the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a Department wholly devolved to England. It therefore does not understand the needs of the devolved nations and is bound to put the needs of England before those of the devolved nations. Does the Secretary of State agree that the devolved nations should have control?

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The answer is in the title—it is the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and, therefore, joint work is taking place across Government. As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have shown a strong interest in it, as have my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Clearly, we are keen to work together.

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The retention of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund at Westminster undermines the devolution of economic development. Does the Secretary of State not see that his Government’s refusal to give the fund to devolved Governments is yet another power grab?

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I certainly do not accept the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question in relation to a power grab, because the Welsh Government supported the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which demonstrates that his assertion does not stack up. On EU aid and how it has been spent in Wales, more than £4 billion has been spent over 17 years and west Wales and the valleys remains the poorest part of the United Kingdom. The development of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund is a great opportunity to reshape something that suits local communities and businesses far better and more efficiently.

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This is a shambles. Over a year ago, the Secretary of State boasted of an efficient and responsive UK Shared Prosperity Fund, but today he admits that the Government have not even started the consultation on it. With months to go before the Brexit catastrophe, what guarantees do we have that there will be any fund fit for purpose for Wales or the other nations of the United Kingdom?

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The hon. Gentleman is highly selective in his references. He fails to recognise that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed to guarantee the funding for the existing programme until 2020. That gives us the opportunity to design a UK Shared Prosperity Fund with appropriate consultation with the devolved Administrations, as well as with businesses and local authorities, and we are ready for immediate discussions before the consultation.

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In the past, too much EU funding was wasted in Wales on low-impact projects that did not help to close the economic gap. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the prosperity fund will not just repeat the mistakes of the past, but will be used in high impact projects to renew the Welsh economy?

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My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point and obviously speaks with experience. He will remember the £38 million Technium project that built nine office spaces across Wales with the support of EU aid, six of which closed after nine years because they were unsustainable. That demonstrates the waste that was in the system: we can design a much better system for local businesses.

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This is my first ever Welsh question, and I came because I want to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) to her position and wish her well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which should benefit the south-west and Wales, provides us with an opportunity to break away from the complex and restrictive processes that characterise the EU structural funding scheme?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will recognise that the current rules on EU funding exclude some areas that should qualify because they have wards that are among the most deprived in the UK. We can design a UK fund that is more appropriate for and responsive to those local communities.

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What opportunities does the UK Shared Prosperity Fund provide for making sure that the money is spent on our priorities in all four constituent parts of our United Kingdom?

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My right hon. Friend makes an important point, and he will recognise the benefits of co-operating on a cross-border basis. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund could give us an opportunity to consider how that can work imaginatively—although obviously I do not want to pre-empt any consultation.

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rose—

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It is always a pleasure to hear the dulcet tones of the hon. Gentleman, but I said “Owen” rather than “Nick”.

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Long may it continue.

In the first spending period after Brexit, will Wales receive more money or less than it would have received under EU structural funds?

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The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to pre-empt the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review and Budgets that will come within that period. It is wholly inappropriate for me to respond on that basis, and much will depend on the detail of the nature of the deal we get with the European Union.

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Businesses and community organisations across Wales are alarmed at how little detail has been provided about the Shared Prosperity Fund. They are doubly concerned that the consultation that has been promised by the end of this year has not even started. Will the Secretary of State at long last provide a date for this consultation and, if he cannot, may we at the very least have a date on which we can have that date?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we will consult on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund very soon. I am sure that even he will agree that the existing programme has not gained the greatest value for money, as he will also be aware that the then first Minister, Rhodri Morgan, said that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we are now on our third round of EU funding. There must be a better way.

Non-funded Pension Schemes

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4. What assessment he has made of the implications for public authorities in Wales of the Treasury’s draft valuation directions for non-funded pension schemes. [907187]

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The valuations indicate that the amount employers pay towards the schemes will need to increase, and details will be finalised when the valuations are completed early next year. Treasury has committed to support the Welsh Government with additional funding in accordance with the statement of funding policy.

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The 2016 actuarial valuations will have an unprecedented impact on the constrained resources of local authorities, teaching institutions, the fire service and police forces in Wales if UK Government funding is not forthcoming. Will the Minister confirm that this funding will be forthcoming from the Treasury to the Welsh Government?

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The hon. Gentleman raises this concern on behalf of his constituents, and it is correct that some increases in costs were predicted in the 2016 Budget. We will of course apply the principles set out in the statement of funding policy in determining any additional funding for the devolved Administration, and continue to do what is right for Wales.

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On the Minister’s first outing at the Dispatch Box, will she join me in welcoming the additional funding given to the Welsh Government to fund teachers’ pay rises in Wales?

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Order. This is about non-funded pension schemes, not funding pay rises. It was a nice try, and the hon. Gentleman is a cheeky chappie, but we will leave that one there and come to the other Smith, Nick Smith.

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What is the Minister going to do to protect police numbers, given these financial pressures?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that we have tackled the fiscal challenge that Wales has suffered with for decades. In fact, Wales now benefits from £120 for every £100 spent in England. As I said earlier, we will do what is right for Wales, as we have done in the case of teachers raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes).

Exports/Foreign Direct Investment

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5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on increasing (a) exports from and (b) foreign direct investment into Wales. [907188]

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Since 2010, Welsh exports have increased by 41%, growing faster than the UK average of 36%. There are a whole host of exporting success stories and it was a privilege to support SureChill and Hydro on the Prime Minister’s recent trade mission to Africa.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he outline what specific measures he is looking at promoting at the forthcoming UK Board of Trade meeting in Swansea to promote trade and investment in both Wales and the wider UK?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for the work he did at the Department for International Trade and his contribution to the establishment of the UK Board of Trade, which is an excellent innovation. It will be in Swansea in a number of weeks, so we have a great opportunity to highlight and champion to international businesses the best that Wales can offer in terms of exports.

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The Welsh automotive sector is a real success story, but it depends on frictionless trade. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that continues after Brexit?

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The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that that is a plan for and determination of our negotiations. That is exactly what we will seek to agree with the European Union. It is in the UK’s interest, it is in the European Union’s interests and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is working to that end.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of our biggest exports is tourism, and the sector deal still awaits to be made. Will he undertake to speak to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see whether the sector deal for the UK, and Wales in particular, can be enacted?

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My hon. Friend, with his great knowledge and interest in Wales, recognises the value of tourism to the Welsh economy, and I meet him regularly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for delivering on the industrial strategy, but my hon. Friend is right: Lonely Planet named north Wales the fourth top place to visit in the world in its recent report. [Interruption.]

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There are a lot of very noisy private conversations taking place, but I want to hear the mellifluous tone of Jonathan Edwards.

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The latest HMRC statistics show a 7% increase in Welsh exports to the EU, worth £643 million, while non-EU exports have fallen. Is it not the reality that trade deals with the US, China and the moon will never replace lost trade with the single market and the customs union?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the export data that I highlighted—that exports from Wales have grown faster than from other parts of the United Kingdom—and I could cite a range of export opportunities in other parts of the world on which Wales is doing better than other parts of the UK. I am hugely impressed by the renewed interest in the UK by an international audience as a result of our leaving the European Union—Aston Martin, Qatar Airways and a host of others that I could cite are clear demonstrations of that.

New Prison: South Wales

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6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the plan to build a new prison in South Wales. [907189]

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This Government are investing in the prison estate—replacing older prisons with high-quality, modern establishments. A new prison in Wales could create up to 500 jobs and contribute £11 million a year to the economy.

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Over one third of adults released from prison in Wales go on to reoffend. Considering that the last prison that the Ministry of Justice built in Wales cost £250 million, does the Secretary of State not think that money would be better spent on rehabilitative measures that actually help those who need them—which, alongside a presumption against short sentences, in Scotland has been shown to reduce recidivism rates considerably—rather than on another costly UK Government vanity project?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and clearly we would like the population of the prison estate to decline, but of course we also have to keep the community safe, and it is the right thing to do. We need to modernise the estate, and we would like to build a prison in south Wales.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that high-quality modern accommodation located as near to prisoners’ homes as possible is a vital part of the rehabilitation process? Will he therefore join me in welcoming this Government’s extra commitment to spending on the prison estate?

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I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest and the expertise that he shows in working with the police on this basis. A new prison would create 500 new jobs. More importantly, it provides for much better outcomes for offenders, in order to help their rehabilitation and keep our communities safe.

Welfare Changes

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7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on people in Wales of the UK Government’s recent changes to welfare benefits. [907190]

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11. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on people in Wales of the UK Government’s recent changes to welfare benefits. [907194]

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Our welfare reforms are incentivising work and supporting working families. The employment rate in Wales is at a record high, and the unemployment rate is at a record low. We will continue to take a test and learn approach, acting on feedback and improving the system as it rolls out.

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Why are this Government determined to press ahead with managed migration against the advice of more than 80 disability organisations, the Resolution Foundation and the National Audit Office that they should not do so until the major flaws in the universal credit system are sorted so that it can cope with the higher claimant volumes?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I dispute its premise. This is a personal, focused benefit, which offers us an opportunity to help people with health conditions, provide tailored support from work coaches, assist with housing costs, and give advances. We are listening and responding during the roll-out. This is a huge change in a complicated system, and we are testing and learning, but above all we are helping people.

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Universal credit is a shambles. In my constituency, a homeless gentleman was told that phone claims for universal credit were not allowed, and that claims must be online only, although he has no access to IT or a computer. Vulnerability was not considered, and, ironically, the man was even offered a home visit. Will the Minister urge DWP colleagues to reconsider the online system and reintroduce phone claims?

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There is an opportunity to make phone claims. I would be happy to hear about that constituency case, although it is very concerning. This benefit is about ensuring that people are better off in work, and are able to respond in particular circumstances. In the Cwmbran jobcentre, positives are being fed back in terms of adjustments and simplification on the ground. If that is not happening in this gentleman’s case, will the hon. Gentleman please let me know?

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Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a shame that Labour Members fail to recognise the transformative effect of universal credit in lifting people out of poverty and getting them back into work? That is in stark contrast to Labour’s approach, which left people trapped on benefits for decades or more.

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My hon. Friend is exactly right about the myriad complex reasons for which people may struggle to get back into work. The reason may involve personal circumstances, it may involve long-term legacy benefits, it may involve skills, or, indeed, it may involve confidence. With this project of universal credit, if we continue to scare people off approaching jobcentres and making use of advice—budgeting advice, and the advice of work coaches—then we will not be listening and learning from the people whom the Labour party has left to fester on legacy benefits, and that will not help anyone.

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rose

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rose—

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Order. Having consulted his scholarly cranium, the Clerk advises me that, by land, Witney is closer to Wales than Torbay, and upon that basis, I call Mr Robert Courts.

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I, too, welcome the Minister to her post. Does she agree that the Government’s welfare reforms show that people are better off in work, and that it is the best route out of poverty?

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I absolutely agree. From Witney to Torbay, people are getting into work more quickly, staying in work longer and progressing in work, which is very important. We are listening and learning. This is a huge change, but we do not need to row back. Claimants are getting into work and staying in work, and, as we know from the Prime Minister, the route out of poverty is having a job.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 24 October. [907243]

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It has been announced this morning that Sir Jeremy Heywood is sadly standing down as Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service to concentrate on his recovery from ill health. Jeremy has been an exemplary public servant for more than three decades, serving with the highest distinction Prime Ministers and Ministers in all parties in the finest traditions of the civil service. As he steps down, he can look back on a contribution to public life that few in our country can match, and I am personally very grateful to him for the support that he has given me as Prime Minister since my first day in No. 10. I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering our very best wishes to Jeremy and his family.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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Two teenage brothers from my constituency, Somer and Areeb, have lived in Glasgow since the youngest was five years old. They are now naturalised Glaswegians, but they live in constant fear of deportation to a country from which they fled in fear of their lives. Their school friends at Springburn Academy rallied to their cause by launching a petition, which has now been signed by more than 90,000 people, and which was recently presented to the Home Office by the school and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. However, that action has been met with callous indifference.

When the Leader of the Opposition met the children in August, he was appalled by the lack of compassion shown by the Home Office towards these boys who have been kept in limbo for years. Will the Prime Minister now review the case, and meet the boys to witness at first hand what life is like at the sharp end of this Government’s hostile environment?

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Every case in relation to people’s right to stay here in the United Kingdom is looked at extremely carefully, and I will certainly ensure that the Home Office looks again at this case.

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Q2. If music be the food of love, we could certainly do with a lot of music just now. In that regard, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Sir Michael Parkinson having opened the expanded premises of the United Kingdom’s first jazz centre in Southend on Saturday, inspired by Digby Fairweather and displaying wonderful jazz memorabilia and music—and is that not yet another reason why Southend should be declared a city? [907244]

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I have of course been known to move to a little bit of music myself on occasions. I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this excellent new centre, and I am extremely pleased that it was opened by my constituent, Sir Michael Parkinson. My hon. Friend might know that culture is one of the key strands of the Government’s GREAT Britain campaign; that is about promoting arts from across the whole of the UK to global audiences. We like to see and support events around the country showcasing the excellent range of performing arts that we have, and I join my hon. Friend in welcoming this new jazz centre—and I note the bid he has put in once again in relation to Southend.

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I join the Prime Minister in thanking the former head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood for his public service and wishing him well in his recovery. I know from my conversations with him what an impressive, well informed and dedicated public servant he is, and I hope he gets through this difficult condition he is in at the present time.

The Prime Minister says that austerity is over; the Conservative leader of Walsall Council says austerity is alive and kicking. Who is right?

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After a decade of austerity people need to know that their hard work has paid off and that, because of their sacrifices, there are better days ahead. We will be setting out our approach in the spending review next year. [Interruption.] What does it mean? I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what it means: it means debt going down as a share of the economy and support for public services going up. Unlike Labour, we will continue to live within our means and we will not go back to square one.

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This process has not been very convincing to Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall Council, who says: “Never ever believe what you hear from central government, austerity is not over.” The Prime Minister’s MPs seem to have lost confidence in her, and so have her councillors. Not far away, in Derby, the Conservative council says the financial outlook is “extremely challenging with Government austerity measures confirmed as continuing.” Will the Prime Minister try to cheer up these gloomy Tories in Derby and confirm to them that next week the Budget will cancel the planned £1.3 billion cut for local government next year?

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Actually, we are making £1.3 billion more available in the next two years to councils, and I am pleased to say—[Interruption.] I am pleased to say that council tax is down in real terms since under the last Labour Government. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to make statements about what should be in the Budget, perhaps we ought to look at his past predictions. He said our plans would mean 1 million people losing their jobs. What have we seen? We have seen 3.3 million more people in work. He said our plans would mean Greek levels of youth unemployment. What have we seen? Youth unemployment is at a record low. He will find out next week what is in the Budget, but there is one thing that we know for certain: Labour will still make a mess of the economy.

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The Prime Minister did not get round to mentioning the record numbers of people on zero-hours contracts; the record levels of in-work poverty, meaning that people who are in work have to access a food bank; or the fact that wages are lower in real terms than they were eight years ago and that her Government have cut 49% from local government since 2010.

Staffordshire police has lost 500 officers. On Sunday, the chief constable, Gareth Morgan, said sorry to his police colleagues and their families as they had to cancel rest days just to maintain the service. He apologised to his officers. Will the Prime Minister apologise to the police as well?

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The right hon. Gentleman talks about the police and about what is available for the police. Of course, what we saw at the last election was the Labour party saying that £300 million more should be made available to the police. What we have done is make available £460 million more to the police. If he wants to talk about figures, I have a book here that is edited by the shadow Chancellor. In it, an article by an economic adviser to the Labour party says about its last manifesto that

“the numbers did not add up”—[Interruption.]

I have even got the page marked. It also said that this was “a welcome feature” and “largely irrelevant”. Well, it may be irrelevant to the right hon. Gentleman and the shadow Chancellor, but it is not irrelevant to the people whose taxes go up, whose jobs are lost and whose children have to pay Labour’s debt.

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Only one party costed its manifesto in the last election, and it was not the Tory party.

For all that the Prime Minister says about the police, the reality is that there are 21,000 fewer police officers than there were eight years ago. She should listen to the chief constable of the West Midlands, who says that criminals are taking advantage of these cuts. He says:

“We are struggling to deliver a service to the public. I think the criminals are well aware now how stretched we are.”

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the house that people on universal credit “will be protected”. The very next day, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that, on universal credit,

“some people will be worse off.”

Which statement is true?

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I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what I made clear to the House: those people who are moved through the managed migration process on to universal credit will indeed have, I think, around £3 billion of transitional protection. Let me just tell him what happens under universal credit—

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No, no, no. Answer the question!

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The shadow Foreign Secretary says “No, no, no.” Labour Members do not want to know what happens in terms of universal credit: 200,000 more people into work, 700,000 people getting the extra money they are entitled to and 1 million disabled households getting more money per month. We are not replicating the old system, because the old system did not work. This is a system that helps people into work and makes sure work pays.

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The Prime Minister is completely out of touch with the reality of what universal credit is about: £50 per week worse off; weeks waiting for the first payment when people move on to universal credit; people going into debt and losing their homes; and people who are stressed out beyond belief because they cannot make ends meet and have to access a food bank just to feed their children. That is the reality of universal credit.

Eight years of Tory austerity means that there are 40,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS. The number of students applying for nurse training has fallen by over 16,000 since the cut in the nurse bursary. The Prime Minister told us that austerity was over. Will the Government take the necessary step next week in the Budget of restoring the nurse bursary so that those who want to become nurses in our NHS can realise their ambitions?

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The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the wait that people experience in order to get their first universal credit payment. We announced in last year’s Budget that we were reducing the period of time that people had to wait for their first payment, and what did the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party do? They voted against that change.

The right hon. Gentleman said that if austerity is ending, we should be doing more for the national health service. May I remind him that this Government have announced that we will be putting £394 million a week more into the national health service? At the last election, Labour said that, with 2.2% more money going in each year, the NHS would be the envy of the world. I can tell the House that we are not putting 2.2% in. We are not putting 2.5% in and we are not putting 3% in. We are putting an extra 3.4% in, with a long-term plan that will deliver for people up and down this country.

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Applications for nurse training dropped by 12% in September—that is the reality of taking away the nurse bursary. Those who want to become nurses cannot afford to go into debt in order to do a job that they want to do and that we all need them to do.

This Government are simply not being straight with the public. They promised an end to austerity; they cannot even fool their own councillors. They promised the NHS an extra £20 billion, but we do not know where it is coming from or when it is coming. GP numbers are falling, health visitor numbers are falling and nurse numbers are falling. They promised that universal credit would protect everyone, but the Work and Pensions Secretary let the cat out of the bag, saying that

“people will be worse off”.

The Prime Minister claimed that she is ending austerity, so will she confirm that next week’s Budget will mean more police on our streets and more nurses in our hospitals, and that elderly people in desperate need of care will not go ignored and forgotten by her Government?

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What have we seen under this Government? We have seen more money being made available to the police, more money for the health service, more money for social care, more money going into local authorities, and more money going into our schools. At the end of this Parliament, we will be spending £500 million more in real terms on people of working age and children in our welfare system.

Let us look at what we now know about the Labour party’s alternative. We now see, as reported by a respected academic, that Labour’s plans, by its own admission, would cost £1,000 billion. That is the equivalent of £35,000 for every household in this country. We know what that would mean: higher debt; higher taxes; fewer jobs—Labour just taking us back to square one.

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Q3. Belmont and Betteridge special schools do a fantastic job of educating children with special educational needs in my constituency, but over the past decade they have had to contend with an explosion in pupil complexity—emotional, behavioural and medical. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need a careful examination of what lies behind such seismic changes so that we can deliver the best possible outcomes for all our children for years to come? [907245]

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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. It is absolutely vital that such children have the right combination of education, health and care provision to ensure that they have the support that is right for them and that they are able to reach their full potential, just like other children. Our reforms to both SEN provision and disability assistance are key to that. However, my hon. Friend’s question was about research, and the increasing complexity is an important matter. I am pleased to say that the Department for Education has several research projects under way in fields relating to such children and young people, and we are committed to building up a rich body of evidence on both identification and the outcomes of educational experiences. The Department is also scoping new work that will help to lead to our understanding of such issues so that we can ensure that these children get the support that they need.

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The kidnapping, killing and mutilation of the respected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has rightly shocked the world. The killing has all the hallmarks of being a premeditated murder. Angela Merkel has announced that her Government will no longer approve new arms sales exports to the Saudi kingdom—that is moral leadership. The UK Government must take decisive action; words of condemnation will not do. Will the Prime Minister finally commit to ending the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia?

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It might be helpful if I take this opportunity to update the House on this particular issue. As I told the House on Monday, we condemn the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the strongest possible terms. After his disappearance, we made it clear that Saudi Arabia must co-operate with Turkey and conduct a full and credible investigation. The claim that Mr Khashoggi died in a fight does not amount to a credible explanation, so there remains an urgent need to establish exactly what happened.

The Foreign Secretary, other Foreign Ministers and our ambassador have been making our position very clear to the Saudi Arabians, and I expect to speak to King Salman later today. I can tell the House that no Minister or official is attending the investment conference in Saudi Arabia, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is taking action against all suspects to prevent them from entering the UK. If these individuals currently have visas, those visas will be revoked today.

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I am afraid that the Prime Minister said nothing about arms sales. Condemnation will not do; it is action that is required.

The Saudi Arabian regime is responsible for multiple human rights violations: critics face death by crucifixion; teenagers are tortured; and women are imprisoned for campaigning for their human rights. The brutal bombardment of Yemen is pushing that country to the brink of famine, and now we have the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi. What more evidence of criminality does the Prime Minister need before she fully commits to ending the sale of arms to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia?

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We are concerned about the humanitarian issues in Yemen. We are actually the third largest humanitarian donor to Yemen, where we have provided significant support to millions of men, women and children. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, yes, we do support the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, which has been recognised by the United Nations Security Council and came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi.

On defence exports, the procedures we follow are among the strictest in the world. They were introduced in 2000 by the late Robin Cook, and they were updated in 2014 by the Conservative-led coalition Government to reflect our obligations under the arms trade treaty. A licence will not be issued to Saudi Arabia or any other destination if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. In July 2017 the High Court ruled that our sales to Saudi Arabia were compliant with those regulations, but of course we keep things under review.

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Order. A lot of Members are still waiting to contribute, and we must try to accommodate them.

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Q7. The shadow Chancellor visited Gloucester last week and said that my constituency has suffered from austerity. In fact, Labour’s high unemployment has been slashed; investment, manufacturing and apprenticeships are strongly up; a new centre for the homeless has been established; our two NHS trusts are rated good; and a new Gloucester transport hub funded by the Government opens tomorrow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although we must do more, all we have achieved so far would be severely damaged if the Opposition leadership had its chance to impose economic bankruptcy on us again, with constituents better off on benefits than in work? [907249]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this Government’s record. I congratulate him on the work he has done and pay tribute to his work with the charity HaVinG—Having a Voice in Gloucester—alongside Bishop Rachel. The charity is doing important work in Gloucester.

My hon. Friend is right that, overall, we see employment at a near record high, youth unemployment at a new record low and real wages rising. That is the benefit of a Conservative Government taking a balanced approach to our economy. The one thing we do know is that the Labour party would undo all that good and leave our economy in a mess once again.

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Q4. May I give the Prime Minister some brief relief from Brexit and ask her about dogs? Last week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, with its specific breeds definition, was not fit for purpose, as hundreds of pit bull-type dogs are confiscated yearly and destroyed, with no impact on dog bite numbers. Will she ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to act urgently on the Committee’s recommendations and not take the approach of the Lords Minister, who told the Committee that even a good-tempered dog had to be put down as “collateral damage”? My wonderful bull terrier-type dog was rescued from the streets, and to think of her being destroyed because her face did not fit in court is chilling. [907246]

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We have heard quite a bit about the dog situation, but I think we are going to hear more.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I had not looked at the detail of the Select Committee report on that particular issue, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State is a keen dog owner, as indeed is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is sitting next to me, and that the Secretary of State will be looking at this issue very carefully.

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Q10. We might not make much whisky in East Renfrewshire, but we do enjoy drinking it, and Scotch whisky is the jewel in the crown of our food and drink sector. Last year’s duty freeze has raised more money for the Exchequer, just as Scottish Conservatives argued it would, and the industry continues to make more positive investment in our communities. Would not the least we could do on Monday be to extend that freeze for another year? [907253]

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I thank my hon. Friend for the lobbying he has carried out, and I am sure that the Chancellor heard what he said. Of course, as ever, everybody will have to wait until the Budget is delivered to find out what is in it. My hon. Friend and my Conservative colleagues from Scotland mounted a robust campaign on Scotch whisky duty last year, and we were pleased to be able to take the stance that we did on the duty, because we recognise the importance of Scotch whisky to the UK. I have to say that 2017 was a record-breaking year, and that in the first half of 2018, Scotch whisky exports increased further to nearly £2 billion. This is an important industry.

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Q5. How does denying, delaying or disrupting visas for Moldovan and African trade commissioners, Palestinian academics, artists at WOMAD and Celtic Connections, or Malawian priests and pupils enhance the Prime Minister’s vision of a global Britain? Does the Prime Minister understand that the visa crisis and perceived travel ban serve only to prove that the “hostile environment” lives on, and that Brexit is a small, isolationist retreat from the world stage? [907247]

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The reality is far different from the situation the hon. Gentleman has suggested. There is no travel ban. We remain open to business and to people from around the world, and we will continue to be so under the new immigration system—a skills-based immigration system—that we will be introducing when we leave the EU.

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Q11. Women who have concerns about proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that would allow self-definition of gender have had their meeting venues cancelled, have been subject to intimidation and have even been dragged into courts as a result of private prosecutions. Will the Prime Minister agree to a short meeting with a victim of sexual violence who believes that these plans will needlessly put more women in danger? [907254]

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My hon. Friend raises a very important subject. It is right that we are making these proposals on gender reform, but of course this is a very sensitive issue and we have to make sure that any changes take into account their potential impact on women. I am very sorry to hear of the experience of the individual whom he mentioned.

In the run-up to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act and during it, officials met more than 90 different groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, women’s groups, refuges and domestic abuse charities, but this is an important and sensitive issue, and we want voters to be heard. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that I will ask a Minister from the Government Equalities Office, which leads on this issue, to meet him and the individual concerned to hear directly about their experience?

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Q6. It seems that our laws allow rich and powerful men to pretty much do whatever they want, as long as they can pay to keep it quiet, so does the Prime Minister support the Court of Appeal’s decision to back non-disclosure agreements that have been used to silence women who have been sexually harassed and others who have been racially abused? [907248]

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The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on a particular case that is currently before the courts. What I will say, and what I have said previously, is that sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law and such abhorrent behaviour should not be tolerated. An employer that allows the harassment of women to go undealt with is sending a message about how welcome they are and about their value in the workplace. Just as we will not accept any behaviour that causes people to feel intimidated or humiliated in the workplace, there must be consequences for failing to comply with the law. Non-disclosure agreements cannot stop people from whistleblowing, but it is clear that some employers are using them unethically. The Government are going to introduce for consideration and consultation measures to seek to improve the regulation around non-disclosure agreements and to make it absolutely explicit to employees when a non-disclosure agreement does not apply or cannot be enforced.

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Currently, if someone pays a mortgage, their mortgage payments every month help them to build up their credit history, but if someone pays rent every month, that does not happen, which just is not fair. We can fix this situation for 15 million renters. The Creditworthiness Assessment Bill could help to give millions more renters throughout the country affordable credit, including mortgages, so that we can all get on in life. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of next week’s Budget to look at whether the Government could support this Bill, which has cross-party support and has already passed through the Lords unamended?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. As she will be aware, I cannot say what will be in the Budget next week, but she will have noticed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was here to hear her point.

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Q9. My constituency, unlike that of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), does depend on the scotch whisky industry, which is perhaps why the industry is suffering, given that so many people like myself are currently supporting Macmillan with “Go Sober”. There is also the threat from Brexit, of course. Stubborn Brexiteer isolationism could see us faced with a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and a disconnect with parts of the country that voted overwhelmingly for remain. Is the Prime Minister ready to accept that her party’s narrow-minded nationalism poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom and that Brexiteer belligerence could break up Britain? [907251]

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We are working in the national interest and we are working for a good deal with the European Union that will ensure that across all industries that are important to this country, including that of members of the Scotch Whisky Association, we can continue to trade with not only the EU but other countries around the world on good terms that will enhance that industry which, as the hon. Lady says, is important for her constituency. We are working for a good deal for the whole United Kingdom once we are outside the European Union.

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Given that the new generation of diesel engines are much cleaner and are comparable with petrol engines, will the Prime Minister use her good offices to help to adjust vehicle excise duty rates, which are having the perverse effect of encouraging people to hang on to their older, more-polluting diesel cars and causing job losses due to falling sales in the car industry?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I think that she was making a Budget bid; as she will know, and as I have said in previous answers, the Budget will be announced last week. Nevertheless, this is an important issue because we saw demand for new diesel cars fall by 17% in 2017. That decline is in line with the trend in other major European car markets—demand fell by 13% in Germany, for example. It is because of the health impacts of nitrogen oxides that we see these changing patterns and that it has been important to take action. We want to ensure that manufacturers come forward with cleaner cars as soon as possible.

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Q12. West Yorkshire police has 900 fewer officers than it had eight years ago. The result is a 45% rise in violent and sexual crimes in my constituency this year. Now the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners has warned that the Government’s pension shortfall will cost £165 million and leave 4,000 fewer officers on our streets. For West Yorkshire alone, that will mean another 400 officers lost. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a national scandal and that the police should be fighting crime, not fighting for funding? [907255]

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The hon. Lady particularly referenced sexual abuse crimes and other crimes of that sort. We have seen an increase in the number of crimes being reported, but that is partly because we now have an atmosphere where people are more willing and ready to come forward and report these crimes. She refers to pensions; this issue has been known about for some years.

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There have been reports today that the Government are willing to agree that the European Court of Justice would be the final arbiter in most cases arising from Brexit. As this would be inconsistent with the Prime Minister’s previous commitments, will she authoritatively deny it?

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I see quite a few reports and claims about what is happening in relation to Brexit, but I have not seen those particular reports. If they are as my hon. Friend has suggested, they are wrong. We have been very clear, in the work that we have been doing, about ensuring that the European Court of Justice will not have jurisdiction in the UK in the future.

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Q13. This week’s hard-hitting Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment in public places, the use of NDAs by perpetrators of sexual harassment, the pernicious two-child policy and women bearing the brunt of budget cuts to services show that equality is stalling under this Government. How is the Prime Minister going to address this? [907256]

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The position is not as the hon. Lady has set out in her question. In fact, we see women with greater opportunities today. For example, there are more women in the workplace. Crucially, action is being taken as a result of the work that we have been doing on the gender pay gap and the requirement on companies to report on gender pay, and the pay gap has been coming down over the years. I absolutely take seriously the issue of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. It is very important that anybody in any workplace is treated—and feels that they are being treated—with respect and dignity, and that action is taken to ensure that we eradicate sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

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Does the Prime Minister agree that when veterans have already been investigated by both military and civilian authorities, they should never be hounded and pursued unless there is overwhelming new evidence? I thank the Prime Minister for her personal engagement on this issue, but does she agree that what is happening to numerous Northern Ireland veterans is against natural justice, damaging to recruitment and contrary to the military covenant?

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We owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law and were themselves accountable to it—something that will always set them apart from and above the terrorists who, during the troubles in Northern Ireland, were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of members of the security forces. The current system in Northern Ireland is flawed. It is not working. It is not working for soldiers, for police officers or for victims; and, of course, that group of victims also includes many soldiers and police officers. Although a number of terrorist murders from the troubles are actively under investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other police forces, I am clear that there is a disproportionate focus on former members of the armed forces and the police under the current mechanisms for investigating the past. We are committed to ensuring that all outstanding deaths in Northern Ireland should be investigated in a way that is fair, balanced and proportionate.

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Q14. The Prime Minister has already said that she does not know what is in next week’s Budget. As she probably does not know whether she is going to be Prime Minister next week, perhaps that is not a surprise. Does she agree that providing tax reliefs for private schools is not a good use of public money? Will she just have a little word about that with the Chancellor, who is sitting next to her? [907257]

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What I said about the Budget was that I was not going to tell the House today; hon. Members will have to wait until Monday.

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My right hon. Friend will remember visiting the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, which sits between the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and my constituency of Loughborough. The Prime Minister knows that the “N” relies on the NHS being able to work with and benefit from the rehabilitation of those brave members of the armed forces she has just spoken about. What we really need now is my right hon. Friend to bring together people in national Government with local NHS commissioners to get the final decisions made so that we can ensure that we have this world-class facility to benefit people in need of rehabilitation. I will not be going there myself, but I can see that repairing injured legs is very important.

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First, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the courage and dedication of our armed forces. For the vast majority, their experience of serving is positive. Of course, we do see those members of our armed forces who sadly do suffer injuries that are life-changing. The rehabilitation capacity and capability that has been built up at Headley Court and that is now being put forward in the new Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre is very important. It was incredible to actually meet people who had been through that rehabilitation and see the massive change it had made to their lives.

This could be a huge benefit to the national health service as well. I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting this issue. The question of national health service patients being able to use this centre is an important aspect. Everybody’s aim is to be able to ensure that that can happen. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is currently reviewing the proposal for NHS patients to benefit from this legacy of expertise in the new centre.

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Does the Prime Minister not accept that the very sensible objectives of universal credit, to simplify benefits and improve work incentives, were seriously undermined by the 2015 Budget of her friend, the former Chancellor, who slashed the work allowance, and that that, together with administrative rigidity, is now causing enormous hardship for families and single parents? So will she listen to the charities and her own Back Benchers who are urging her to pause the roll-out until these deficiencies are remedied?

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The right hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that the universal credit system introduces a system that is simpler, with a single benefit and a single claim, rather than something like the six claims that people might have been making. It is also a benefit that encourages and works with people to help them into the workplace, and a benefit that ensures that, as they earn more, they keep more. This is a benefit that is good for people, as we see from the extra numbers in work in receipt of universal credit and from the fact that, for people who go on to universal credit, the evidence is that they then go on to earn more in the workplace. Encouraging people into work; making sure that work pays; a simpler system: those are the benefits of universal credit.

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As a children’s doctor, I have seen how some young people with life-threatening conditions, and their families, can struggle to receive the care and support they need, particularly respite care and out-of-hours community care. I would therefore like to draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the report by the all-party parliamentary group on children who need palliative care, which I co-chair with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). May I ask my right hon. Friend to take a personal interest in this report so that we can work together to ensure that our most vulnerable children, and their families, get the support that they need?

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This is an important issue, and obviously my hon. Friend, with her particular experience, is well aware of it in a sense that many of us will not be. I thank her, first, for the work that she undertakes as the co-chair of the APPG on children who need palliative care. Of course, I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with those parents who find themselves in this situation. We have made a commitment to everyone at the end of life, including children, setting out the actions we are taking to make high quality and personalisation a reality for all and to end the variation in end-of-life care. This covers a whole range of aspects, including practical and emotional support, because that is an important aspect of good end-of-life care. That is set out, of course, in our end-of-life commitment and our ambitions for palliative care framework. But it can be difficult for some commissioners to develop suitable care models for children. That is why, I understand, NHS England is convening an expert group to develop commissioning models that are suitable for this particularly vulnerable group of patients and ensure they get the support and care they need.

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Can the Prime Minister assure the hundreds of my constituents in Warrington South who have been trapped in their homes by spiralling ground rents that the Government’s commitment to crack down on unfair leasehold practices will be fulfilled and that the Government will restrict some ground rents to zero, as promised by the former Housing Minister less than a year ago?

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We are indeed following up on our commitments in that area.

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The whole House should welcome the commitment to another £20 billion for the NHS. Does the Prime Minister agree that is it vital that the NHS produces a plan to use that money wisely and to strengthen frontline care, including expanding GP services for my constituents in Chipping Barnet?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the biggest cash boost that the NHS will have received in its history. It is important that this money is used carefully and properly, to ensure that care for patients is improved. That is one of the principles that we have set out for the 10-year plan that the NHS is working on at the moment, and I am sure the NHS will be looking carefully at the GP services in her constituency.

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I am sure the whole House will want to send their best wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who is recovering from a recent operation. In his absence, and with his blessing, we will proceed with the Third Reading of his Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill this Friday. It is a Bill that will save lives and give hope to many. The Prime Minister previously has been very supportive, as has the Leader of the Opposition. Will she today reconfirm her support for this important Bill on Friday?

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First, may I join the hon. Gentleman and other Members of the House in wishing the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) the very best? We do indeed continue to support the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is very important, and it will save lives.

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May I join my right hon. Friend in her praise of and best wishes to the retiring Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood? He not only served many Governments, but appeared in front of many Select Committees, including my own, and was as popular among Members of Parliament as he was among his colleagues. He will be missed.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. As I said, Sir Jeremy has been for more than three decades an exemplary civil servant. His public service is second to none, and I am sure that he enjoyed the opportunity to appear before my hon. Friend’s Committee.

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Oh, I imagine it was probably the height of his enjoyments. Who could possibly have thought otherwise? We are grateful to the Prime Minister for what she said.

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Given the £1.2 million-worth of cuts per year since 2014 to children’s services in my constituency, does the Prime Minister believe we have adequate resources for special educational needs and disabilities in Peterborough?

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We treat the issue of children’s services very carefully, because all children, no matter where they live, should have access to high-quality care. Spending on the most vulnerable children has increased by over £1 billion since 2010, but of course, this is not simply about money; it is about how councils deliver good and excellent services. We need to ensure that everybody is delivering according to best practice. That is why we are improving social work training and spreading innovation and best practice, and where councils are not delivering the standard of service we expect, we will intervene to make sure they improve.

Point of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful to you for accepting this point of order.

It is entirely correct that Members of both Houses engage in robust political debate around the parliamentary estate, but today we have learned that the violent, racist thug and fraudster known as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or Tommy Robinson, was invited on to the estate and wined and dined in the House of Lords yesterday. I understand that sometimes we have to engage with views that we might not agree with, but surely a man who is as guilty as he is of stirring up racial hatred, organising violent, thuggish crimes around the country, setting up the English Defence League and everything that comes with it crosses a line, and such a person should not be invited to walk among us on the parliamentary estate. Can you advise me and other Members whether that is in order, and will you take it up with your counterpart in the House of Lords?

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, of which—I make no complaint about this—I have had no advance notice, so I am reacting on my feet and I am perfectly content to do so. What I have to say to the hon. Gentleman is twofold. First, I share his assessment of the individual concerned: a loathsome, obnoxious, repellent individual. I make no bones about my view being the same as his on that front.

Secondly, and this is the procedurally significant point, the question of who might be invited to dine in the other place is outside my remit. I always appreciate the enthusiasm of the hon. Gentleman for extending my reach and scope. I am very grateful to him for thinking in those terms. However, this is a matter for the other place, so when the hon. Gentleman asks me for my advice, my advice to him is that, if he wishes to pursue the matter, he should in the first instance—as a matter of both courtesy and practicality—write to the Lord Speaker to register his views, perhaps enclosing the relevant extract from today’s Official Report. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Housing Reform

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to housing; to make provision about housing space and thermal performance standards; to place a duty on the Secretary of state to require the provision of serviced plots of land; and for connected purposes.

I am pleased to introduce the Housing Reform Bill, which will improve space standards, increase the minimum thermal performance of new homes and require the Secretary of State to provide serviced plots of land at scale to offer real choice to anyone who wishes to get their own place to live, whether through a housing association, a housing co-operative, a council house—to that end, the Minister may have noticed the article by Lord Porter in The Guardian the other day—or for private purchase. I declare my interest as an ambassador for the Right to Build Task Force, which is supported by the Nationwide Foundation, the charitable arm of the Nationwide building society.

The Prime Minister has said that housing is the Government’s top priority domestically. True, there have been four Housing Ministers in the past year or so, which does not make it sound like the Government’s top domestic priority, but after all there have been eight Housing Ministers in the past eight years and 17 Housing Ministers in the past 17 years. No recent Government have really taken housing seriously enough, although there are encouraging signs with the new Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). I will come on to him later; I am delighted to see him in his place.

The planning system should be about making great places to live that are well designed and well built; well connected; well served with schools, health, community and sports facilities; environmentally sensitive, where green is normal; part of a thriving economy with local jobs; and active, inclusive and safe—that is to say, fair for everyone. In other words, we should separate the business of place making from the business of home building, which, so long as it is done to the required standards, can be built by anyone, including—increasingly, and often to higher standards—in an off-site factory.

Instead of that, we have a system that is broken. According to the National Audit Office, 74% of the Government’s housing budget goes on housing benefit, which is 3% of all public expenditure. Some 86% of people would like to own their own home but, despite this, home ownership is falling. There has been a surge in the number of people privately renting, particularly families with young children, not because they want to, but because they have no choice.

Dr Julie Rugg of the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy, who has done excellent research in this area, points out that in most cases the private rented sector is now a proxy either for people who wish to buy but cannot afford to do so, or for people who need to be in social housing. We have scarcely considered the long-term consequences for pension provision and affordability of people not owning their own homes, if more people are paying rent until they die. Meanwhile, we have two nations developing: one nation of those people who are invited to landlord evenings by estate agents and who in some cases already own several buy-to-let properties; and another entirely separate nation of those who cannot afford somewhere to live at all, either to rent or to buy. Home ownership among young adults has collapsed, falling to just 27% in 2016 from 65% 20 years ago.

We have a system that maximises opposition. I have yet to meet the grandmother whose daughter has just had a second baby who does not want her daughter’s family to have a good home. However, the reason there is so much opposition to new housing is that most people feel they have no real say over what gets built; where it gets built; how it performs—its thermal performance; what it looks like; crucially, who has the first chance to live there; and what the benefits of the new housing will be for the existing community. If we change all of that, we change the conversation.

We need a system where there is not a prolonged argument that prevents houses from being built quickly. At present, a very small number of very large companies build houses when, and only when, it is sufficiently profitable to do so. I do not blame them for that—they are doing their duty by their shareholders—but there are no real alternatives at scale for consumers who wish to buy something else. We have to tackle the root causes of the lack of supply. Some 67% of people are unlikely to, or would prefer not to, buy the product of volume house builders. That figure is based on research by the trade body for volume house builders, the Home Builders Federation.

The normal essentials for any vaguely competitive market to operate properly—first, real variety and choice for consumers; and, secondly, low barriers to entry for new suppliers—are wholly absent. My Bill will fix this by doing three things. First, it will improve minimum space standards. The large volume house builders are making houses that are ever more like shoe boxes, and they need to be stopped. When the 1961 report by Sir Parker Morris, “Homes for today & tomorrow”, was published, it ushered in a brief period when a decent amount of space was considered normal. The 1970s are blamed for many lapses of taste, but at least one thing that went well—so well that it is now regarded almost as a halcyon period in this respect—was that houses started to get bigger. Now they are getting smaller again.

Volume house builders routinely construct what are little more than shoe boxes, even commissioning extra-small furniture for show homes to create an optical illusion, whereby rooms in a house seem larger than they actually are, to deceive their customers. We need nationally enforced minimum standards, rather than the set of rather ad hoc arrangements we have at present. There is clear evidence that people in larger spaces are healthier, which reduces the burden on the NHS.

We also need better lifetime adaptability not as an add-on by the rare more thoughtful developers, but as standard, so that houses can easily be made suitable for young families, older people or individuals with a temporary or permanent physical impairment. In this context, I am looking forward to the launch later today by the all-party group on healthy homes and buildings of its report, “Laying the Foundations for Healthy Homes and Buildings”. The chairman of the group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is one of the sponsors of my Bill.

Secondly, my Bill will raise the minimum thermal performance standard that new-build residential property must achieve. We have known for decades how to build a house that costs nothing to heat, but the main house builders just do not do it. The main capital cost may be slightly higher in the short term, although even that is not necessarily true, but the long-term higher costs of poor-quality housing and higher heating bills are borne the most by those who can least afford to do so, and there is also the excessive and wholly unnecessary extra burden on our planet.

It is possible to produce homes that cost a few pounds per month for heat and hot water. I recently saw one at Graven Hill in Oxfordshire, and I know that the Minister, although he has not been in office for very long, has already visited Graven Hill, which is the site of the biggest self-build and custom house building development in the UK, where eventually 1,900 serviced plots will have been built on. I saw a house where, with mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, someone can have heat and hot water for £125 a year.

Thirdly, my Bill will require the Secretary of State to provide or to ensure the provision of serviced plots of land at scale—that is to say, plots of land where the difficult parts, such as the connections for water, gas, electricity and broadband, are already done. On the continent it is quite normal to go to one’s local authority and buy a serviced plot of land. One can be produced for £12,000 to £15,000, plus the land cost. The Right to Build Task Force is working with willing local authorities across the country to make it more normal here, but we could go much further.

Recently, the city of The Hague in the Netherlands has provided serviced plots that can be purchased for €40,000, and a house can then be built for about €120,000 or £105,000. If somebody cannot afford to buy the plot, they can rent it and buy it later. Another innovative scheme in the Netherlands, known as “Ik bouw betaalbaar”—“I build affordable”—takes people on limited incomes who are on the housing register and helps them to bring forward their own affordable scheme to their own design. Lord Porter referred to that in the article in The Guardian the other day. I propose a system where such plots could be obtained by anyone from a housing association or a local council to a private individual or a housing co-operative. Simple rules would prevent volume house builders or other developers from buying large numbers of plots and would also prevent flipping.

We have sites with service plots, but not enough of them. It should become a normal choice. In the past 20 years, the ratio of average house prices to average incomes has doubled from three-and-a-half times average income to 7.7 times average income. In the 1980s and until the late ‘90s, the average 30-year-old could afford a deposit for a home if he or she saved for three or four years; now, they would have to save for nearly 20 years. The system is broken. We need a radical change of approach, and to succeed we must engage the energy of our people.

I know that there are people who say that this cannot be done, or, if it can be done, that it can be done only on a small scale in certain limited sites. It is certainly true that it works for small sites, but those people who do not believe that it can be done on a large scale are wrong, and the reason why I know they are wrong is that I have seen it being done; it is just not being done here in the United Kingdom. We will not succeed without muscular help from Government and without engaging the energy of our own people. To those people who think that the energy of our own people is insufficient, I simply join Rod Hackney, the architect, in saying that it is a dangerous thing to underestimate human potential and the energy that can be generated when people are given the opportunity to help themselves. I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Richard Bacon, George Freeman, Jeremy Lefroy, Hilary Benn, Siobhain McDonagh, Mr Simon Clarke, Sir Vince Cable, Eddie Hughes, Mr Clive Betts, Jim Shannon, Sir Robert Syms and Sir Graham Brady present the Bill

Mr Richard Bacon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 277).

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill (Business of the House)

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill:

Timetable

(1)(a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.

(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:

(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

(3)(a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

(4) If, following proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration of the Bill, a legislative grand committee withholds consent to the Bill or any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(5) If, following Reconsideration of the Bill—

(a) a legislative grand committee withholds consent to any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill (but does not withhold consent to the whole Bill),

(b) the Bill is amended to remove any provisions which are not agreed to by the House and the Legislative Grand Committee, and

(c) a Minister of the Crown indicates his or her intention to move a minor or technical amendment to the Bill,

the House shall proceed to consequential Consideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;

and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (17)(a) of this Order.

(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.

(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(10)(a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(11) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.

Subsequent stages

(12)(a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(13) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12) of this Order.

Reasons Committee

(14) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.

Miscellaneous

(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.

(16) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(17)(a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(18)(a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(19) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.

(20) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

(21) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.—(Karen Bradley.)

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I should inform the House that an amendment has been put to me, and I am calling the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) to speak to and move her manuscript amendment.

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I beg to move a manuscript amendment, in line 43, paragraph (6), after sub-paragraph (b) at end insert—

“(ba) the question on any amendment, new clause or new schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision.”

There is much talk right now in this Chamber, and indeed in our country, about what a meaningful vote is. I wager that a meaningful vote is one that people can vote on—a very simple line. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and I have tabled this amendment to today’s programme motion because we are concerned about the programme motion. Let us be clear: we understand that this is considered emergency legislation. We have no desire to delay this important legislation as it passes through the House, but because it is emergency legislation it is all the more important that, where there are concerns about what it may concern, or may include, or may not include, the House is able to take a view and Members are able to decide. Therefore, to see the programme motion today and discover that a crucial element of it—one that is in most other Bills—is missing is a concern to us. It is the part that allows the Chair of proceedings the right to select any amendment, new clause, or new schedule for a vote. To remove that section of a programme motion and not to inform the Opposition of that is a concern to us because it recognises that there may be issues on which Members have a strong view, but, by dint of the programme motion, not by the consent of the House ahead of the time, they would not get a say on them.

I am sure that the error is in overlooking the matter rather than a deliberate intent by the Whips to deny a debate. Therefore, my hon. Friend and I wish to be extremely helpful, which is why we have tabled a manuscript amendment to restore that section of the programme motion, which allows the Speaker and the Chair, at their discretion, to select any amendment, new clause, or new schedule for a meaningful vote on this legislation.

I say to everyone in this House that, whatever they think of the amendments tabled for today, to cross this Rubicon and decide that there are some matters on which the House should not be paramount is a dangerous move to make. I also say that the people of Northern Ireland, who have already seen so much democratic dysfunction, deserve better from this House.

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rose

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I will happily quickly give way to the hon. Lady, but I know that the House wants to get on and have its say about this process.

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I will be very swift indeed. I just want to say to the hon. Lady that there are many colleagues on the Conservative Benches who are absolutely with her on this, and that this item should be voted on.

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I thank the hon. Lady, because I know that she, like me, believes that the democratic process must be open and transparent, no matter how difficult the conversation and the issues at hand may be.

I hope that all the House will agree that it is right to stick to the kinds of programme motions that we have all come to know and love. With that, I move this manuscript amendment.

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The point is that we should do things properly. It is an established principle in this House, and in this Parliament, that we normally have three Readings, including at Committee stage, on Report and with gaps in between, so that people can consider matters properly. The only time that we suspend that is for emergency legislation. In all honesty, I do not see why this is emergency legislation. By definition, it is only emergency legislation normally when there is no controversy; there is clearly substantial controversy here, which is why we should have a proper Business of the House motion to allow us to consider amendments that have not been tabled by Ministers.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said. His reference to a proper Business of the House motion is the view that he has volunteered, but I say this as much for the benefit of people attending to our proceedings and in the name of their intelligibility as for any other reason that it is precisely because I judged that this matter should be capable of amendment, even at the last minute, that I selected the manuscript amendment, so I know perfectly well how to operate in these matters. I am very glad that we are in agreement on that—[Interruption.] No, no, I appreciate that. The hon. Gentleman does not need to be touchy about it. I was merely claiming credit for selecting the amendment.

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I take the point that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has made in putting forward her manuscript amendment, but surely it is the case that when we are dealing with this type of procedure—emergency legislation that is fast tracked—this procedure is not normally included. The Speaker does not normally have this discretion in a fast-track motion procedure. As I understand it, it is not a question that the Government are trying to mislead anyone; they are just following what is the normal procedure for this type of legislation. Therefore, it is unfortunate that some are suggesting that, somehow, this is a fast move on the part of Government or anyone else. I note that, on previous occasions when Northern Ireland legislation has been dealt with by this procedure, we heard nothing from the Opposition; we heard nothing from the hon. Lady about the need for some of our amendments, for example, to be pushed to a vote. It is worth putting it on record that this is the normal procedure; it is the way that the House deals with fast-track legislation.

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I am not sure that I would in any sense put myself forward as the arbiter of normality; I am not sure that that is my role. I am simply the person who guarantees or underscores order. Nor is it really for me—I am not suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman says that it is—to offer my understanding of the Government’s interpretation of these matters. If the Secretary of State wishes to explain her reasoning, and give an exegesis, she is welcome to, but she is not under any obligation to do so.

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The motion is exactly the same as the programme motion tabled to the Budget Bill earlier this year. It is the standard programme motion used for this kind of emergency legislation. The Government are not at all trying to do anything underhand.

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This is, of course, a Business of the House motion, rather than a programme motion, but I think I know at what the Secretary of State is getting.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill:

Timetable

(1)(a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.

(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:

(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

(3)(a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

(4) If, following proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on Consideration of the Bill, a legislative grand committee withholds consent to the Bill or any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill, the House shall proceed to Reconsideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(5) If, following Reconsideration of the Bill—

(a) a legislative grand committee withholds consent to any Clause or Schedule of the Bill or any amendment made to the Bill (but does not withhold consent to the whole Bill),

(b) the Bill is amended to remove any provisions which are not agreed to by the House and the Legislative Grand Committee, and

(c) a Minister of the Crown indicates his or her intention to move a minor or technical amendment to the Bill,

the House shall proceed to consequential Consideration of the Bill without any Question being put.

(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—

(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(ba) the question on any amendment, new clause or new schedule selected by the chair or Speaker for separate decision;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded;

and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (17)(a) of this Order.

(7) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.

(9) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (6)(d) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(10)(a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(11) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.

Subsequent stages

(12)(a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(13) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (12) of this Order.

Reasons Committee

(14) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.

Miscellaneous

(15) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply so far as necessary for the purposes of this Order.

(16) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(17)(a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(18)(a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(19) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.

(20) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.

(21) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Second Reading

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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I inform the House that the noble Lord Caine, who will be well known to many Members of this House, cannot be with us because, sadly, his father passed away this morning. I am sure that we will all join together in sending our condolences to him and his family. We send him, and his mother in particular, our very best wishes. [Interruption.] Lord Caine.

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Jonathan.

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Yes, Jonathan to you, Mr Speaker, I am sure.

I begin by inviting the House to join me in remembering those who lost their lives in the horrific Shankill Road bombing, the Greysteel massacre and the series of attacks that followed. These atrocities took place 25 years ago, but their effects are still felt by those who lost loved ones and by the dozens of people injured. Those who lost their lives will never be forgotten. People from across the community in Northern Ireland suffered in those dark days, and we must not forget that suffering.

When the people of Northern Ireland voted, by a huge majority, in favour of the Belfast agreement, they voted for a shared future in which no one would have to experience the suffering and loss that took place during the troubles. None of us in this House should forget, or underestimate, what was lost before the Belfast agreement, or what has been achieved since.

The Government remain completely and unequivocally committed to the Belfast agreement, not just because of what it stands for, but for what it has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland. At the heart of that agreement is a devolved power-sharing executive Government, and restoring that Executive remains my top priority. Northern Ireland needs devolved government. It needs all the functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government. As Secretary of State, achieving this aim is my absolute priority.

The Bill delivers on a number of commitments that I set out in my last statement to the House on 6 September. It is an important step towards our goal of restoring the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly. It seeks to provide for a fixed period in which an Executive can be formed at any time. It provides the space and time for this Government to continue our engagement with the political parties in Northern Ireland, and with the Irish Government where appropriate, so that we can renew the talks process, with the shared aim of restoring devolved government at the earliest possibility. The Bill also provides the Northern Ireland Departments with the certainty and clarity they need to continue to deliver public services during this fixed period.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s purpose in bringing forward the Bill is limited to ensuring that administrative functions in Northern Ireland continue efficiently, and that it is not about deciding on key devolved policy issues, which are more properly decided on by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected, accountable representatives?

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My hon. Friend sums up very well the intent of the Bill. It will enable civil servants to continue to run public services; it will not make them law makers. They will not have the power to change policy decisions, but they will have the ability to continue to make decisions. That is why the Bill is a matter for urgent debate, and why it is emergency legislation. Without the Bill, there would be a danger of essential public services in Northern Ireland not being delivered. That is why the Government have brought it forward.

The Bill does not give civil servants any new powers; rather, it gives clarity on the exercise of their existing powers in the absence of Ministers. It will be underpinned by supporting guidance that provides a framework for decision making for Northern Ireland Departments when a judgment is being made on whether those existing powers should be used in the absence of Ministers.

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As the Secretary of State is well aware, the date of 26 March 2019 appears in clause 1. I am sure people are intrigued to know why that date—three days before we Brexit—was chosen.

An agreement would have to be reached by the Democratic Unionist party, whose Members are here, properly take their seats in Parliament, and work assiduously on behalf of their constituents, and Sinn Féin MPs, who absent themselves and do not take their seats. Will an agreement between Sinn Féin absentee MPs and the DUP have to be arrived at by 26 March next year?

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I will—[Interruption.] I am not having a good day, am I? [Interruption.] I thank the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound); he is such a gentleman, as I am sure we all agree. [Interruption.] Better still, he is ensuring that I do not waste any water.

The date in the Bill was chosen after consultation with all the main parties in Northern Ireland. It is not easy to determine the most appropriate date, but we have chosen the date that we believe gives the best chance for an Executive to be formed, and for meaningful talks to take place.

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That is very helpful indeed. In fact, it is very succinct, and leaves a lot to the imagination. Will the Secretary of State give just one past example of the DUP or Sinn Féin having met a deadline for political talks?

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I do not see this as a deadline as such; I see it as a date by which a decision will have to be taken on whether an election is called. The hon. Lady will be aware that the date is around the time when purdah starts for local elections. She will know very well that there are local elections in Northern Ireland next May. The date was chosen with that in mind, because clearly once a local election campaign starts, political parties focus on campaigning. She will know that we have had stable devolved government in Northern Ireland, but for most of the last 10 years, we have had a hiatus; that is far too long, and that is not right for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not what they deserve. I am trying to put in place, through the Bill, the best conditions to allow those talks to recommence, and to enable us to get an Executive in place. The date was chosen after consultation with all the main parties and the civil service of Northern Ireland.

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The Secretary of State has made several references in her speech so far to the political hiatus. Does she agree that the reason we do not have a functioning Executive and Assembly is that out of the five political parties in Northern Ireland eligible to be in the Executive, four—the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party—have all said that if the Secretary of State convenes a meeting of the Assembly for the purpose of appointing Ministers, they will be there and will appoint their Ministers immediately and without precondition, but one party, Sinn Fein, has declined to give such an undertaking? Should we not be honest with the House, and instead of blaming all of the political parties, put the focus where it belongs, on the people who do not take their seats here, who do not take their seats at Stormont and who are outside, looking in? They are the people denying Northern Ireland its proper democratic Government.

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I do not want to provide a running commentary on the talks I have had with parties since the talks broke down in February between the two main parties. What I would say is that I have heard a willingness from parties that they want to get back into Government. That is why I believe that the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is that we give those parties the chance to get back into devolved Government and provide the best conditions to enable that to happen—and the Bill is part of achieving that. It is important that we use this time and the powers in the Bill to ensure that public services continue to be run and there is no distraction from the parties coming back together and forming a Government.

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Does the Secretary of State accept that if an Assembly is to come back to Northern Ireland—and we all here support that—the structure of that Assembly has to be right, so that no one party can pull it down?

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I want to see a fully functioning, devolved Government as we have seen in the past, as that would be best for the people of Northern Ireland, and so that many of the decisions and the policies that right hon. and hon. Members will raise today can be taken in the right place, which is Stormont.

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Is cearta daonna iad cearta teanga agus tá cothrom na féinne tuilte ag lucht labhartha na Gaeilge.

Under the St Andrews agreement of 2006, the British Government pledged to introduce an Irish language Act based on the experiences of Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State uphold that commitment by introducing an Irish language Act if power-sharing institutions are not restored within six months?

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I assume that that intervention contained a translation. That is my working premise—

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I would be delighted to offer a translation if that would be sufficient.

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I thought it had been offered, but if it has not been, I hope that the hon. Lady will indulge not just me, but the House.

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Language rights are human rights and the Irish speakers of Ireland deserve fair play.

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The hon. Lady is right that the St Andrews agreement includes a political declaration to legislate for an Irish language Act, but it is also clear that once devolved Government restarted in Stormont in 2008, that power became a devolved power for Stormont to legislate on. I support the fact that we have statutory underpinning for many of our indigenous languages. For example, during the 2010-15 Parliament, the Cornish language was granted statutory underpinning, and S4C, which was legislated for by a Conservative Government in the 1980s, has delivered a status for the Welsh language that I am sure the hon. Lady appreciates and enjoys on a regular basis. The important point is that it is a devolved power, and I am sure that as the leader of Plaid Cymru in the House she would not want to see the House undermining the constitutional devolution arrangements that exist across the United Kingdom, or cherry-picking points that right hon. and hon. Members may feel strongly about—and I have great sympathy with much of the strength of feeling—as we have to respect those arrangements.

The Bill will also enable key public appointments to be made in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, including reconstituting the Northern Ireland Policing Board. To make it clear to right hon. and hon. Members, a properly constituted Northern Ireland Policing Board is essential for proper governance and accountability, and public trust in policing in Northern Ireland. That is why it is essential that we pass the Bill urgently.

I shall turn to the specifics of the Bill. First, the Bill extends the period provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for Northern Ireland Ministers to be appointed before the local elections next year. As the House is aware, because Ministers were not appointed by 29 June 2017, the 1998 Act requires a further election before an Executive can be formed. As I set out in my 6 September statement, an election at this time would not be helpful, nor would it increase the prospects of restoring the Executive. The provisions of clause 1 aim to create a period in which an Executive can be formed and talks can take place, by removing that current legal impediment to an Executive being formed for a defined period. Let me be clear about what that means: as things stand, if the parties were able to find agreement and form an Executive, the House would have to pass primary legislation to enable that to happen. During a recess or periods of intense parliamentary activity, we might be unable to find parliamentary time to allow an Executive to form. I do not think that that barrier or impediment to forming an Executive is one that right hon. and hon. Members would want to see, and the Bill will therefore enable an Executive to be formed without the need for primary legislation during the period covered by the Bill.

The Bill also contains a provision in clause 2 that this period may be extended once, for up to five months. That will remove the need for further primary legislation in the event that, for example, Northern Ireland parties have made progress towards a deal, but a short extension is judged necessary to finalise an agreement and form an Executive.

I want to be clear to the House—I will not wait until March to begin efforts to bring the parties together to work towards Executive formation. Following the passage of this legislation, I intend to meet party leaders to discuss the basis, process, and timing for a further phase of talks, and will at all times continue to stress the urgent need to restore devolution. I welcome all efforts to improve political dialogue between the parties in Northern Ireland, including those by church leaders, who I met earlier this month— following their meeting with the parties—to discuss how best to encourage meaningful political engagement towards the restoration of an Executive.

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I admire the stamina and diligence that the Secretary of State has demonstrated in trying to achieve the restoration of the Assembly since January last year. However, I am intrigued to learn whether the Northern Ireland Office has taken time to assess the unpopularity of the Assembly in Northern Ireland caused mainly, although not exclusively, because the 90 MLAs continue to receive their full salary while not doing a full job. When the Secretary of State announced in September that she would cut MLA salaries, she delayed the cut until November. Can she explain that three-month delay to the people of Northern Ireland who are outraged by MLAs continuing to receive a full salary?

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I know that the hon. Lady feels strongly about that matter and she has raised it in the House on several occasions. It is not a three-month delay: I made the statement on 6 September. She will understand that issues need to be dealt with, including notifying MLAs of my decision to cut their pay and changing the payroll arrangements. As I said in September, the November pay cheques were the earliest opportunity to cut the pay, so the pay cheques that will be delivered next week will include the pay cut. The next pay cut will be in January, if we have been unable to get the Assembly and Executive reconstituted by then.

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Although I fully understand and appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I appeal to her to understand that at the end of the day these are people with families. Yes, I understand the public ire at the lack of an Assembly, but most of the Assembly Members are not functioning there properly through no fault of their own. As I explained to the House, it is the actions of one political party in Northern Ireland and its army council—its illegal army council—that are holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom. It would be nice just for once to hear the hon. Lady call them out for that, instead of labelling in such a way all 90 Members of the Assembly, many of whom are innocent of the charge that they do not want to make progress in Northern Ireland or do their job fully. We treat them unfairly when we label them all in the same way without calling out the people who refuse to do their jobs and sit outside; the majority of Assembly Members want to work full time and do the full job. Of course, the House has taken the decision to cut their pay and we support that, but there are practical issues. They and their families need proper notification. When she makes these points, the hon. Lady should not just put the blame on everyone.

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Order. Before the Secretary of State responds, let me say this in good humour, if I may. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) are themselves so unfailingly courteous to colleagues and, indeed, to everybody, that it is really very difficult to get annoyed with them—and I am not. I hope, however, that they will take it in the right spirit if I say that in respect of both of their “interventions”, the erudition was equalled only by the length.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I could not have put it better myself.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) makes an important point, in that it is not the fault of Members of the Legislative Assembly that this is the situation. The MLAs I meet regularly want to get back to the Executive and the Assembly, and it is important we recognise that. I also want to put on record once again that I am of course not cutting the pay of any of the staff of MLAs. As we all know in this House, our staff work tirelessly for our constituents, as do the staff of MLAs. They are dealing with casework and constituency matters, and it is quite right that those staff should not be prejudiced against as a result of decisions taken by others.

During the period covered by the Bill, it will be necessary to provide Northern Ireland Departments with certainty about their decision-making powers. Clarity is needed on the decisions that they should or should not make. This follows a recent court ruling against a Northern Ireland Department’s decision to approve a major waste disposal and energy generation facility. The Bill clarifies that a senior officer of a Northern Ireland Department is not prevented from exercising departmental functions in the absence of Ministers during the period for forming an Executive, if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. The Bill also requires that I, as Secretary of State, should publish guidance about the exercise of departmental functions, as I will, of course. That includes principles that senior officers in Northern Ireland Departments may take into account when deciding whether or not to exercise a function, and they are required to have regard to that guidance.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her engagement on this issue. It will come as no surprise to her if I mention the transport hub, which is in my constituency but of regional significance for Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that the decision hoped for before Christmas is the type of decision that can be made under the terms of this Bill by a senior civil servant in the relevant Department?

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I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues and members of all the main parties across Northern Ireland who assisted in the development of the guidance. Clearly, as Secretary of State I am not able to say what decision a civil servant would make, but we have looked at the kind of decisions and how they might be made. Given that the example she has cited was approved in the Programme for Government before the Executive collapsed and that Ministers had indicated that they had wanted to see it happen, it is the kind of decision that a civil servant should be able to take on the basis of the guidance as issued.

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The Secretary of State is being very generous in giving way. From reading the Bill and listening to the Secretary of State’s answer, it is very unclear to me precisely which sort of decisions will or will not be enabled under this legislation. Can she give us an example of a decision that would not be allowed to be taken by civil servant?

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I was just about to say that I have published a draft copy of the guidance and placed it in the Library of the House so that hon. and right hon. Members can have a clear sense of what it seeks to do. The important point is that throughout my period as Secretary of State—I put on record how supportive the hon. Gentleman was when he was my opposite number of the need to make legislative changes on limited occasions in this House for the essential running of public services—when we in this House have taken decisions and passed legislation, we have been very clear that what we are not doing is changing policy. Policy and legislation cannot be changed by anything in this Bill. It is about allowing civil servants to make decisions that have been part of a policy that has previously been agreed. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the draft guidance in the Library, and says if he has any suggestions for how the guidance could be strengthened or improved to help civil servants.

I want to be clear: civil servants in Northern Ireland Departments have acted in an exemplary fashion. They have behaved without political cover and without an Executive or Ministers in a way that we should all commend. They have enabled public services in Northern Ireland to continue to be run, and the people of Northern Ireland are continuing to receive their public services. Significant reform is needed in many public services, but this is not about policy decisions on reform. It is about enabling those public services to continue, because the best way to change policy and law in Northern Ireland is for Ministers to be in Stormont making those decisions on behalf of the people who elected them.

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Can the Secretary of State say how many legal actions have been initiated in the few days since the contents of clause 3(4), on the retrospective empowerment of civil servants, were made known? I would be grateful for her confirmation or otherwise, but my understanding is that those legal actions that have been initiated will not fall within the scope of the retrospective action that she is seeking to take through clause 3.

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Perhaps it is best if I write to the Chair of the Select Committee with specific details, although I want to be clear that we have put in a specific reference to decisions taken since the Executive collapsed because we do not want those decisions that have already been taken to be challenged on the basis that once the Bill is in place there is more cover for civil servants. We want to ensure that the decisions that have already been taken are not undone.

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I had the privilege of visiting Lagan College, an integrated school in Belfast, and I would like to take this opportunity to convey to the Secretary of State people’s deep frustration that Stormont is not functioning and their deep frustration about how Stormont functions. Same-sex marriage is an example of a policy that Stormont voted in favour of but was then blocked by a petition of concern. As part of bringing the parties back around the table, is the petition of concern something that the Secretary of State will be encouraging them all to look at again?

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At the moment I need to get this legislation through, then I can bring the parties together. The hon. Lady is right that the petition of concern was discussed during the last talks process. What I cannot say is what will be discussed in the next talks process.

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on the question of decisions and what are believed to be non-controversial issues, senior civil servants were not making decisions on the back of the Buick ruling, and I want to ensure that those civil servants will be given the cover, under this legislation, to go ahead and deliver on issues that are not controversial, such as broadband, which needs to be delivered to rural areas.

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It is precisely because of the uncertainty since the Buick judgment that we are bringing forward this legislation. I do not want to be bringing this Bill forward; I would much rather not be standing here at this Dispatch Box, taking the Bill through the House, because I would much rather that there were Ministers in Stormont making the decisions on behalf of their constituents; but there are not, and faced with the reality of the situation, I have to do what I consider to be best for the people of Northern Ireland, to ensure that their public services can continue, and that civil servants can continue to take the essential decisions in the public interest that they need to take.

It is vital that Members read the guidance alongside the legislative measures, as it clarifies the legal basis for the decisions.

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I just want to be clear in my mind about what the Secretary of State is saying. I understand she is saying that there will be no change in policy and decisions will be made by civil servants in the Departments without changing policy. What happens when, in the absence of an Assembly and an Executive, there is a challenge to the policy—perhaps for being in breach of our international obligations? What happens then to the policy? Who is responsible then for dealing with that?

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The hon. Lady introduced her ten-minute rule Bill yesterday, and I know she is a campaigner on a particular topic, which I suspect is what she is referring to. This Bill does not make civil servants lawmakers, so they will not be able to change the law—quite rightly. It also does not enable them to take new policy decisions, because it would be wrong to ask civil servants to do so. Civil servants across the United Kingdom act in an incredibly professional and independent way and they follow the decisions and the policy recommendations of Ministers, and it is right that they do that. The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that we need Ministers in Stormont, because Ministers in Stormont could quite rightly make those decisions. They could change the law, and they could make policy decisions on behalf of the people who elected them, and that is what the Bill is about—enabling us to have the best conditions and framework for talks to recommence, and for the parties to come back together and do the right thing by the constituents who elected them.

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As I understand it, the Bill before us allows vital everyday public services to continue. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could possibly give us some examples of the types of everyday public services that the Bill will help to continue. I suspect they include health, education and transport—things that we all use every day—and it would give greater clarity to everyone to hear those examples.

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I would strongly advise my hon. Friend to read the guidance, but she is right: the purpose of the Bill is to enable public services to continue to be delivered; and to enable decisions around infrastructure projects, where there has been clear ministerial direction in the past, to be taken, so that we can see continued economic growth. We have seen incredible economic growth in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. We have 60,000 more people in employment in Northern Ireland today than in 2010. I want to build on that. I do not want to see Northern Ireland go back. In the absence of an Executive, we are in great danger that Northern Ireland will come to a standstill. We cannot allow that to happen. However, the Bill is about the essential running of public services. It is not about policy decisions or changing the law. It is about enabling civil servants to carry on running those services.

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On enacting existing provisions, would the Secretary of State be able to explain something to me? The Londonderry airport, which is owned by a municipal authority, has got money for public service obligation expansions. It is owed £2.5 million from a previous Executive decision, which was not drawn down last year. Is that the sort of provision, which has already been made, that could be decided under this legislation, and the money paid over?

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It would not be right for me to answer definitively on any decision that a civil servant may make when this legislation receives Royal Assent, on the basis of the guidance, but the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the kind of decision that they may make. I have used Londonderry airport. It is a great airport, and it would be great to see more flights coming into it—and out, of course.

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I am a relative newcomer to this place—I have been here only eight years—but I have just been to the Library, the Table Office and the Vote Office, looking for a copy of the guidance that the Secretary of State says she has placed in the Library, and nobody has a copy of it. Would she clarify where it is?

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I have received a nod from the Box, which means that it is there, but we will check as to why it was not available for the hon. Gentleman, because he should see a copy of the guidance, given that I have said it is vital that Members read it. The hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench who has great dexterity when it comes to mopping up water—the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)—appears to have a copy, so I hope that copies will be available for others.

The guidance sets out a clear framework to support Northern Ireland Departments in making a judgment on whether those judgments should be made in the absence of Ministers. The Bill stipulates that I must have regard to representations from MLAs before publishing the guidance, which would of course also be the case, should there be any need to revise the guidance. I would welcome representations from MPs as well as MLAs on its content before I publish a final iteration, which I intend to do shortly after the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Those in the Northern Ireland civil service have a difficult task of weighing up which decisions they can take in the absence of Ministers, and I again pay tribute to their hard work and dedication. The combination of the Bill and the proposed guidance will provide a framework to inform their decision making. For example, it is advised that opportunities should be taken to work towards the 12 outcomes published in the 2018-19 outcomes delivery plan, based on the draft programme for government developed in conjunction with the political parties of the previous Executive.

The guidance takes as its starting point the fact that there are certain decisions that should not be taken in the absence of Ministers. Senior officers in Departments will then be obliged to consider whether there is a public interest in taking a decision rather than deferring it. The guidance does not, however, direct the Northern Ireland civil service to take decisions on the wide range of pressing decisions raised by various hon. Members in their amendments to the Bill. As I said earlier, the principle that established our interventions over the past year is that we will legislate when doing so is necessary to protect the delivery of public services and uphold public confidence.

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Before the Secretary of State moves on, could she please give some hope and encouragement to the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland? We know the recommendations of the Hart report, and we understand from David Sterling, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, that legislation was drafted by the summertime. If a departmental permanent secretary does not have the power to take forward the Hart proposals, will the Secretary of State please confirm today that legislation will be taken through this House, because the victims are ageing, some of them are dying, and the situation is morally indefensible?

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This is a matter that I know the hon. Lady feels very deeply about, and it is the subject of one of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chair of the Select Committee. The difficulty with the Hart recommendations, as the hon. Lady knows, is that they were laid after the Executive had collapsed, and that means we have no ministerial direction on which of the recommendations have cross-party support and which do not. Although, from my discussions with parties, it is clear that everybody wants some action to be taken, it is not clear that there is a consensus in favour of every recommendation. However, I am sure the hon. Lady will be relieved to know that the David Sterling has written to me to say that he would like to consult on the recommendations, and I have thanked him for the fact that he is going to do so, because that is something that he can do as a civil servant. Even if he cannot make the final decision on which of the recommendations should be accepted, he can consult on how those recommendations would be implemented, and I welcome that decision.

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Issues relating specifically to the victims of historical institutional abuse, for whom I think we all feel huge sympathy, have been outstanding for a considerable time. The Assembly collapsed only about a week before the report was due to be published, and that date was known to everyone, but may I suggest that there are other options? For example, we could consider the contributions from the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions that were mentioned in the report. Some work could be done to establish the number of victims who may be able to come forward to claim compensation and redress. It might be possible to consult on a specific scheme, and, rather than just consulting on the recommendations, use the coming weeks and months to make constructive progress in trying to secure justice and redress for the victims.

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The hon. Lady makes some interesting suggestions. This might be a topic on which we could engage a number of MLAs on a cross-party basis to try to identify where there may be consensus and where there may be recommendations, or other elements, that could be acted on.

The Hart report is an excellent document, and I pay tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who did a tremendous amount of work. It is right that those victims should receive the justice that is appropriate for them, because they have suffered in a way that they should not have suffered, and all of us in the House feel strongly about that. However, I return to a point that I made earlier. The constitutional settlement is clear, and we cannot cherry-pick the matters about which we feel strongly, on whatever grounds, as matters with which we deal in the House. We have to respect that constitutional arrangement because not to do so would undermine a devolution settlement throughout the United Kingdom, and that would not be the right thing to do.

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May I urge the Secretary of State please to agree to meet Judge Hart? She has rightly praised the integrity of his work, and the professionalism and dedication of his team. Will she also meet the victims of historical institutional abuse? She personally, as Secretary of State, needs to meet them, and to do so in a timely manner. Will she commit herself to meeting those victims, and also to meeting Judge Hart and hearing directly from him his suggestions about how we could implement his report?

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I have met victims of historical abuse and heard their testimony. As the hon. Lady will know, when I served as a Home Office Minister, the issue of child abuse in England and Wales was within my remit, and I met many of those victims.

I do not need to be convinced of the need to do this, but we need to proceed in a way that is right and appropriate and that respects the devolution settlement. I would like to see MLAs engaging and cross-party discussion on a number of matters. This might be an issue on which it would be appropriate for all parties to come together and begin to work so that we can get a dialogue started, so that parties can start to regain trust, and so that we have the best chance of seeing devolution restored and power sharing at Stormont. That is the key issue.

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The Northern Ireland civil service should be engaging with a range of policy decisions, some of which were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). I was surprised to learn from victims only last week that the NICS was engaging with them on a measure that would establish a commissioner for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse, and a redress board. I find it encouraging that the NICS is doing that, but I find it discouraging that there has been zero political engagement, political discussion or political direction on how best to make progress with these important matters.

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As I have said, I want to see political engagement and political discussion—I think that that is absolutely vital. We need politicians to re-engage—with civil society, with business and with others—and I am heartened by the initiatives that church leaders have taken to encourage them to do so. I want to see more of that, and I am working with those church leaders and other civic groups to that end. I will reflect on that in the context of the inquiry.

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My right hon. Friend is advancing a powerful defence of the reason she is not becoming involved in this particular case, namely the constitutional settlement. Does she not think that bolting on abortion legislation would have the same impact as someone else bolting on the matters that she has just been discussing, and that we really should not be using the Bill as a vehicle for such matters?

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As I said, a number of amendments dealing with several matters have been tabled, including one specifically about the Hart report of the historic institutional abuse inquiry. The Bill is not the vehicle for such measures. This is a Bill to enable civil servants to make the decisions that are necessary to enable public services to continue to be run. Officials will not make major policy decisions as a result of the Bill, but they will act in the public interest, and I think that that is very important.

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rose

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rose

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I will give way to the right hon. Member for East Antrim, but then I must make progress.

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Does the Secretary of State accept that while there may be some grandstanding today by Members who want to force into the Bill policies that they particularly want to be implemented in Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, the Bill will not enable any public official to pursue such policies, regardless of whether an amendment goes into the Bill, because the Bill is not designed to give the powers that would rest with politicians and public representatives to civil servants, and, indeed, it would be unfair to do so?

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The Bill will enable civil servants to act within the law as it stands today. It will not give them the ability to become lawmakers and to change the law. That is a very important point.

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rose

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I give way one final time because I cannot resist the hon. Gentleman.

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How do I respond to that, Mr Speaker? I grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way one last time. My question is about also about Hart. This is not grandstanding; it is pursuing an issue about which many of us—including, I know, the Secretary of State herself—feel very strongly. Is she saying that there is no prospect of legislating in this place to deal with the Hart recommendations, and that that will be done only once the Executive have been restored?

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What I am saying is that the Bill does not enable that to be done. I am focusing on ensuring that the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament so that we can use the conditions that it puts in place to get the politicians back. The priority has to be a laser-like focus on getting politicians to agree to come back to restore power sharing at Stormont. That is what is best for the people of Northern Ireland.

Let me repeat that these measures do not set or change policy direction on devolved issues in Northern Ireland. That is rightly for the Executive and the Assembly, and our overriding priority is to see them up and running again. The NICS needs certainty about decision-making powers, and we should not be seeking to direct it on issues that clearly require ministerial decisions.

The various principles are set out in guidance rather than in the Bill, as Departments need a degree of flexibility and discretion to enable them to reach appropriate and necessary decisions, and to ensure the continued delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. That guidance, above all else, must be operable for Northern Ireland Departments if we are to provide the clarity and assurance that are needed to ensure that public services can continue to be delivered in the absence of Ministers. We have engaged closely with the NICS in developing the guidance, and the factual information provided by the NICS strongly informed the approach that we have taken to it.

The Government also recognise that, in the absence of an Executive, there will be some decisions that we should make, for instance in relation to the setting of departmental budget allocations for approval by Parliament to ensure that public services continue to function. As I have told the House before, we remain committed to making the decisions that are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland. Those are decisions, and actions, that cannot be undertaken without our intervention, particularly when legislation is needed, as it is for budgets and regional rates. When it comes to devolved decisions conferred on Northern Ireland Departments, however, the UK Government and Parliament should not be intervening directly. Therefore, while there is clearly a need to intervene to provide clarity, it is more appropriate for us to set out the framework for decisions to be made by Departments when it is in the public interest to do so, and that is what the Bill will do.

Finally, the Bill addresses the urgent need for key appointments to be made in Northern Ireland and in the UK in circumstances when those appointments require the involvement of Northern Ireland Ministers. Clauses 4 to 6 ensure that key posts can be filled while minimising the extent of UK Government intervention in what are, rightly, devolved matters. Clause 4 allows the relevant UK Minister to make specified appointments, exercising the appointments functions already conferred on Northern Ireland Ministers. As I set out in my written statement on 18 July, these posts are the most pressing appointments. They are essential for good governance and public confidence in Northern Ireland, and include appointments to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. These offices are stated on the face of the Bill to address the most urgently needed appointments while minimising the role of UK Ministers in these decisions that should be taken by Northern Ireland Ministers. The Bill takes this narrow approach rather than putting in place a blanket power with a long list of all possible appointments, or transferring these appointments from being ministerial responsibilities to being the responsibility of civil servants. Neither of those alternatives would have been appropriate.

It is important, however, that we provide for a situation in which other vital offices unexpectedly become vacant, or filling other existing vacancies becomes more urgent. For that reason, the Bill includes the provision to add to the list of offices, by means of a statutory instrument, to allow the relevant UK Minister to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to additional specified offices.

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All the appointments in the Bill are justice-based, and I completely take on board the point about those being the most pressing, but how does the Secretary of State plan to continue to monitor what other areas are pressing, because there are lots of roles in other areas that need to be filled, but that will not happen under the Bill?

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We would use the power only if appointments were urgent and necessary. I would consult the main Northern Ireland political parties before bringing forward regulations, as I did before I introduced this Bill. Essentially, we are allowing appointments to be made to bodies when either a failure to appoint would mean that the body becomes inquorate, or the role is required to command public respect and show full accountability.

A large proportion of appointment functions in Northern Ireland are conferred on Northern Ireland Departments. The provisions that I have already outlined dealing with Departments’ decision-making powers provide clarity that Northern Ireland Departments are able to exercise the appointment functions conferred on them during the period for Executive formation. They would not transfer to them any appointment functions currently conferred on Northern Ireland Ministers.

The lack of an Executive has also had an impact on appointments to UK-wide bodies, as a small number require Northern Ireland Ministers to be consulted on or to agree an appointment by a UK Minister. The most pressing example is the appointment by the Home Secretary of a new chair of the Disclosure and Barring Service. Similarly, there are appointments made jointly by UK and Northern Ireland Ministers. The Bill deals with such appointments by allowing them to be made without Northern Ireland Ministers, but it retains the Northern Ireland input by requiring the UK Minister to consult the relevant Northern Ireland Department. The changes represent a minimal intervention and a careful balance to ensure that the bodies and offices are able to operate as normal, but without UK Government intervention at a policy or operational level.

The powers given to UK Ministers under clauses 4 to 6 expire at the point that Northern Ireland Ministers are appointed and an Executive is formed. Responsibility for the appointment functions affected by the Bill would then, rightly, revert to the Northern Ireland Ministers.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government. Achieving that remains my absolute priority, and that is why the Bill aims to restore the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly, and sets out a fixed period in which I will work closely with Northern Ireland parties to encourage them to form an Executive. During this period, the UK Government will continue to deliver on their responsibilities for political stability and good governance. Northern Ireland has made huge progress in recent years, but we can achieve even more with a devolved Government who unlock all the potential that Northern Ireland has to offer. I am focusing on achieving that outcome—it is the outcome that we all want to see—and I commend the Bill to the House.

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May I begin by joining the Secretary of State in offering my condolences to the families of the victims of the Shankill bombing and, of course, to Lord Caine for his own loss?

From now on, there might well be less consensus on Northern Ireland, as it is very difficult to see how the Bill resolves the major issue Northern Ireland now faces. We operate on the basis of consensus, so we in the Opposition will not oppose the Bill’s passage through this House, but the Secretary of State is now straining the consensus that has existed on a bipartisan basis over the years, because the Bill is grossly inadequate for its purposes. We have now had 652 days of inactivity by herself and her predecessors in government. While I totally accept that she is perfectly able to say to others—particularly the leaders of the two major political parties in the Assembly—that they also share responsibility for that lack of action, real energy must be put into this; otherwise what this Bill will represent is simply an abject admission of failures of the past and a gross lack of ambition and hope for the future, and that cannot be acceptable.

There is a constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland. The public are now entitled to begin to lose faith in the political institutions established under the Good Friday agreement. The public lose faith when they see that those institutions fail to work, and there are many issues, which I will touch on later, where we must have concern about the impact on the lives of Northern Ireland’s citizens. This constitutional crisis is therefore also now developing into a human crisis, and that is the measure against which I say that this Bill is simply inadequate.

In the past, we had the political ambitions of John Major as Prime Minister, working with Albert Reynolds, and Tony Blair as Prime Minister, working with Bertie Ahern, and we had the ambitions of the David Trimbles of this world, alongside at that time John Hume, and later on of Dr Ian Paisley with Martin McGuinness, who were prepared to take risks, but so as well were Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers. David Cameron intervened during the Stormont House agreement process, to make sure the prime ministerial writ was there. We have not seen that level of activity from our Prime Minister. I accept that she is, rightly, preoccupied with Brexit, but Northern Ireland matters, and the constitutional situation of Northern Ireland also matters. We must establish that. That is why the Bill is so disappointing.

Let me address why the Bill has come before the House. It obviously has some merit, and we strongly support the need to appoint people to bodies such as the Policing Board. That is common sense and the right thing to do. The Secretary of State is right to say that we need to prioritise some important decisions and that decisions must be made here in Westminster where those decisions cannot be made in Belfast at Stormont. However, the simple fact is that there are many other areas of activity where we must see action, too.

One of the drivers in bringing this proposed legislation forward is the Secretary of State’s concern that she would be judicially reviewed because of the failure to call an election. Ironically, that refers back to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on the Hart inquiry. Victims of institutional abuse could not judicially review questions about Hart, so they took the judicial review about the timing of elections. It is ironic that the Secretary of State brings this proposed legislation forward but can say nothing helpful about the need for compensation for the victims of sexual and institutional abuse that Hart did so much to unearth. We can take those remedies, and I hope that the Secretary of State will think long and hard about why we cannot also see this as the kind of priority that would serve to achieve a consensus across the whole of Northern Ireland.

Equally, the Buick judgment has caused real uncertainty, but it has placed limitations on the capacity of civil servants. We need to be very certain that we are not doing more and returning to the position where we are asking civil servants to make politically controversial decisions that should only be taken by elected politicians, possibly and best of all, of course, in the Stormont Assembly; but if that does not happen, some of those decisions might have to come to the Secretary of State and this House for us to resolve.

This is particularly true in the light of the extraordinarily long period that the Secretary of State has outlined, with no certainty of any movement until March next year and a further five months if that fails. Frankly, it beggars belief that the Secretary of State should have to tell the House that a further five months could be necessary just in case we are close to an agreement at the end of March. That really challenges all our imaginations. It does not seem a reasonable justification of time to say that five more months would be needed to get us over a hurdle if we were almost there. We are all well aware of the interesting calendar that Northern Ireland presents, but we can and must do better than this.

We need to see energy from this Government in bringing together the five-party talks. The Secretary of State told the House on 6 September:

“I have made no decisions about the right way to get talks restarted”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 350.]

That was after 550 days of inaction. Another 60 days have gone by since then. Has she now given any thought to how to get those talks restarted? We need to see some urgency in relation to those talks. We need to see the leaders of the five political parties get round the same table. If they do not come forward—if that is the challenge posed by DUP Members—let us test that. Let us see who does not turn up for those multi-party talks.

The Secretary of State has already been asked about having an independent chair, which has worked in the past. It is difficult to find an independent chair who would be acceptable to all the parties, but it is not impossible. It was not impossible in the past, and it should not be now. If taking that step could begin to unlock this logjam, we must look at taking it. I have also said to her on a number of occasions that we need to re-institutionalise the use of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which has fallen into disrepute. It is part of the Good Friday institutions, and it has not disappeared. It has not in any sense been abolished. It met once in London, but I understand that the agenda was so slimmed down that it had little merit other than to reintroduce Ministers from either side of the Irish sea to one another. We have to do better than that. We have to get the next meeting in Dublin tabled, with an agenda that will be helpful in moving us all forward.

We need to see a change of gear and a change in energy, because this matters enormously in regard to the sorts of things that will not be done. People have already asked the Secretary of State about matters that they hold dear in their constituencies, such as the airport in Londonderry, the York Street interchange, the dualling of the A5 and the A6, and the introduction of proper broadband connections across Northern Ireland. Those are important issues, and I agree with her that they could be delivered through the capacity of the Northern Ireland civil service under the Bill. However, there are issues that go beyond that capacity and that the civil service would struggle to address. I want to talk about a number of those issues, because they are massively important. I also want to quote the Secretary of State again. She said that, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly,

“the UK Government will always deliver on their responsibilities for political stability and good governance in the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 757.]

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and we are now entitled to see this Government beginning to deliver on those issues.

I want to raise some topical issues. A court judgment in Belfast today involves a woman whom I have met, Sarah Ewart. That judgment allows her to take forward her case that the decision to refuse her an abortion in Northern Ireland was outwith the law. I congratulate Sarah on her bravery in taking her case forward. If she were to win it, where would the remedy lie? The Minister of State is a lawyer, and I hope that he will tell us the answer to that question when he responds to the debate. We know that if Sarah has to fight her case all the way through to the Supreme Court, as has happened in a previous case, the chances are that the Supreme Court will make the identical judgment and say that its judgment is binding because it relates to a named individual. In those circumstances, the Supreme Court will make it absolutely clear that the remedy lies not in Stormont but here in Westminster, because the judgment is about the conformity of the United Kingdom, not just Northern Ireland, with the European convention on human rights. Ministers over here have to think about this, because it is an important human issue.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) has tabled a helpful amendment relating to the Hart inquiry, and I hope that the House will reach a point at which this issue can be resolved. I repeat to the Minister the pleas that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the hon. Member for North Down and others about ageing victims. I have met some of the victims, and they are no longer young people. Some of those affected have now passed away over the passage of time, so we have to bring the question of institutional abuse to a conclusion. We have to do what we can to implement the Hart judgment, and we cannot wait until August next year or beyond if the Secretary of State’s ambitions do not come to fruition.

We must also look at what the Secretary of State can do here at Westminster. Again, she needs to show some urgency in trying to resolve the kinds of things that have held up the agenda in Northern Ireland in the past. For example, why is the historical enquiries unit not being set up? There is also the question of pensions for victims of the troubles. These are the kinds of things that can be, and should be, done here. The consultation has taken place, and we need to see definitive action now. We need to see a road map of how the Secretary of State will put urgency into these different processes.

The Secretary of State has said that the Bill deals with important issues, and that is true, but there are still issues of enormous importance that will not be affected by the legislation. There are things that the civil servants will not be able to resolve, but they will still affect the lives of the people living in different parts of Northern Ireland. One issue that I have raised before in the House is the benefits system. The Stormont Assembly was able to provide some mitigation against the impact of Government cuts to welfare spending. Ironically, those cuts are affecting my own constituency and those of Ministers here in England, but the protections afforded to people in Northern Ireland through Stormont are already beginning to expire, and they will have done so by next March. Nothing in the Bill will allow those mitigations to continue, even though they were consensually built in by the Stormont Assembly. That kind of decision needs to be made.

On a different level, we have heard today that coaching is now being cut back. That includes the coaching of young people through the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Football Association. This might seem small in the bigger scheme of things, but these small things make a material difference to people’s way of life. We also know that Harland and Wolff is looking for decisions about training programmes. Such programmes would enable the company not to import welders from the Baltic states because it would have the capacity to train people from the Belfast constituencies. That would make a huge difference to individual lifestyles there.

I also want to touch on the crucial question of the Northern Ireland health service, which is now in a very bad state. We know that it no longer has the ability to hit the targets that it has established for itself. For example, the target of seeing most people within nine weeks and none over 15 weeks is now being massively breached. There are people with spinal conditions who have waited more than 155 weeks to be seen in Northern Ireland, and that is simply unacceptable. There is a story of a young girl who needs a spinal correction to allow her to lead a normal life. She cannot wait 155 weeks for that kind of treatment and nor should she have to, so we need a real review of what the health service is doing. Looking at waiting lists across the piece, 1,500 people in England wait for over a year, but the figure for Northern Ireland is 64,000. I almost cannot find the right word to describe that situation. It is so grossly unfair as to challenge all our imaginations, and we simply cannot say that it is okay to wait for reform.

Turning to cancer care, several of us are wearing Macmillan Cancer Support badges today because we know the importance of cancer treatment. In Northern Ireland, the cancer targets that were established in 2009 have never been met and people are waiting months to be seen. We know that any delay in the first exchanges with doctors can delay treatment and that delayed treatment causes death. I therefore have to say to the Secretary of State that the failure to deal with health reform in Northern Ireland is causing premature deaths among the people of Northern Ireland, and that problem is just as important as seeing people on the Northern Ireland Policing Board—important though that is.

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we would all like to see action on those important issues. He has listed actions for probably about half the Northern Ireland Departments, but what solution should the Government adopt? Yes, we would all like to see the Assembly administered, but if we cannot get that, is he suggesting that we should have direct rule so that we can take such decisions, or does he have some creative solution?

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In the past, previous Northern Ireland Secretaries have taken specific action from Westminster—not direct rule, but specific action—in areas of great urgency, such as social care. Looking for specific actions now would show not only that we are taking this constitutional crisis seriously, but that we are taking the human crisis seriously, too. I think that matters, and I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect long and hard on that. We have a few days between now and this Bill going through its stages in the House of Lords, so I hope that the Secretary of State can reflect in that time on what can be done—what ought to be done—to begin to consider some of the issues being raised.

Labour strongly supports the need to appoint people into the right official positions. That is certainly one of the reasons why the Bill has to go through the House today—I hope that no hon. Member would want to see it delayed—but we are worried about the operation of the new powers for civil servants. It must be made clear that they are not politicians and have no mandate to make new decisions. The Secretary of State said that at the Dispatch Box, and I respect her intentions and do not doubt that she meant what she said, but the letter of the law gives enormous power to civil servants, so we need transparency around their decision making and clear and binding guidance to ensure that there can be no excessive action.

In the end, the responsibility for the things that I have discussed—health in particular—should be with the Stormont Assembly and the Executive, but if that cannot happen, it will have to come to this House. I have spoken to the Secretary of State in private about this, but I do not think that I will be breaching her confidence to say that my worry lies with the length of time that is built into the Bill. When the original discussions took place across this Chamber some months back, we were talking about a fairly limited operation, but that has now expanded enormously, with the first knife coming at the end of March and the second in August. That is an awful long time. We have already had 650 days of no change, and we face half as much again if we reach that August deadline. That is not acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland; it is not acceptable constitutionally; and it is certainly not acceptable for the people who need better from this Government.

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I am grateful to be called in this important debate and am happy to support this Bill. The measures within represent a sensible compromise, but this is like trying to find the least bad of all the really bad options. We would all agree that by far the best situation would be to have an Assembly and to have Ministers of the Executive in place taking such decisions, but that is not the situation that we are in, and it is not one, based on the dates set in this Bill, that I suspect we are going to see in the next six, eight or even 10 months. The question now is about what we should do here for the people of Northern Ireland to try to get important decisions taken to deliver public services as best as they can be delivered, to try to improve the economy in Northern Ireland, and to try to improve the lives of ordinary people.

There are no easy options here, and the most extreme would probably be to appoint direct rule Ministers from this Parliament to take such decisions. That would lead to sensitivities in the relationship with the Irish Republic and the nationalist community, which is sadly not represented in this House—at least not by any nationalist MPs. That is a radical decision that the Government are not keen to take. However, we could have been pursuing other possibilities to try to get a bit nearer to a situation in which we could take some of the decisions that need to be taken. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published a report that discussed how we could at least have a shadow Assembly or allow the committees to meet just to get some local engagement and local scrutiny to allow some decisions to be taken from here that have some level of accountability in Northern Ireland.

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The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting suggestions as to how there could be some democratic accountability even in the absence of a functioning Executive. However, just as Sinn Féin has blocked the formation of the Assembly and the introduction of direct rule, it has also made it clear that it would not even accept that level of accountability. That is where the real problem lies. Sinn Féin—the boycotters—have been pandered to for far too long.

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I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and do not pretend that any of the solutions are easy. Such issues were tested by the Select Committee, but it would have at least been worth trying to see whether we could have some sort of cross-community committees or assemblies. Even if Sinn Fein boycotted them, hopefully the other parties in the Assembly would have been willing to attend. There is a real prize here. There are decisions that need to be taken that would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland, but they will not be taken, even with the powers we are discussing here. If we could have found a compromise that got at least some of those things moving forward, it would not in any way have been a perfect solution, but it would have been better than what we have here.

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The hon. Gentleman is making some constructive suggestions, some of which have been made by some of us before. We have an education crisis at the moment, and many schools deplore the current funding position. Does he agree that if MLAs from across the divide in Northern Ireland were to convene in Stormont to discuss a way forward and to make representations to the permanent secretary, they may find that they have much in common and may eventually say, “Why aren’t we back in here taking the decisions, rather than letting one party block everyone else from doing things?”?

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That was roughly what I was alluding to in my response to the previous intervention. If we can find some way of having cross-community meetings and engagement and some sort of agreement that can then allow a decision to be taken here, that would be real progress. However, there would still need to be some Minister in this Parliament to take such decisions with the cover of that level of consent or agreement from Northern Ireland, but the Bill does not provide for that.

I am pretty torn about what I would have had as my priority for this Bill. We want decisions to be taken, but we are so far from when the Executive last met that it is unlikely that most of the decisions that we want to have taken will have had any clear steer from the Executive. We therefore need some level of political decision making here when we cannot rely on previous guidance, and we would all want such things to be done by Ministers with some level of accountability and some public scrutiny, not behind closed doors.

My other concern about the Bill is whether Parliament has gone too far. We are now giving huge power to civil servants, and huge power to the Secretary of State to issue guidance that those civil servants have to follow. We are in danger of allowing a situation that we would never normally allow in England. We would all be up in arms if the Government introduced such a Bill for our constituents in the rest of the UK, saying, “We don’t really want to have Parliament scrutinising and deciding all these things. We are going to give the Secretary of State far more power to issue directions to the civil service to take really important decisions.” We would say it was completely unacceptable and undemocratic, that it weakened Parliament and that there was no public scrutiny or public accountability. We would never agree to it.

With this Bill, in effect, we have been forced to find a compromise between those two extremes of wanting decisions but not wanting to have too much power in the hands of civil servants. We have found a compromise: the Secretary of State has to issue certain guidance and the civil servants have to have regard to it. We all know what “have regard to” means. It means that civil servants have to do it unless there is very good reason not to do it.

I am probably in the same place as the Government, and I reluctantly accept that the only way to balance those competing objectives is to have this halfway fudge of advancing a little further, of pushing at the boundaries of what civil servants can decide. We get there by having guidance from an elected Secretary of State. She can encourage, advise and guide civil servants to do certain things, giving some cover from court cases. That is about as far as we can get without appointing direct rule Ministers.

Parliament should be careful to make sure the Bill contains all the protections we want to see. We may or may not have much time to debate the amendments in Committee, but some of the amendments would be helpful, because there is nothing in the Bill, for example, to stop the Secretary of State revising the perfectly reasonable and sensible draft guidance she has published to stick in some important decisions she would like to see taken. At no point in the next six, eight or 10 months —however long this period lasts—would any of us, including the Secretary of State, want to be in a situation where difficult, conflicting, controversial decisions are directed through such guidance because there is no other way of making them.

None of us would like to see hospitals being closed in Northern Ireland through guidance issued by a Secretary of State with no public scrutiny. Such things could be done through guidance, and those decisions could arguably be in the public interest if civil servants felt they were consistent with the best delivery of health services. We could see all manner of difficult things being done, consistent with this Bill, that we would not normally allow.

It would be a constructive step forward if there were a provision saying that, if the Secretary of State wanted to change the guidance she had already published, the new guidance had to be published in draft so it could be scrutinised by the Select Committee to make sure it contained nothing to which this House would not have agreed in advance of this Bill.

The Bill does not say what happens at the end of March or August, whatever period we end up with. Are we saying that this really is the last chance and that, if an Executive cannot be formed by the end of March or August, there has to be an election? We have stretched the wording of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, on the Secretary of State’s duty to propose an election date, for some 350 days. If we get beyond the period for which we are legislating, we cannot stretch it any further. There would have to be an election pretty much forthwith to give the people of Northern Ireland a chance to choose one or more different parties that may be more constructive in their discussions.

I would have liked the Bill to make clear the intentions of this Government and this House. The Northern Ireland Act was agreed between the parties and legislated for by this House, and the consequence of an Executive not being formed is that an election date should be proposed. We do not yet have an election date, which is the right call. An election probably would not have made any great difference over the past few months, as the same two parties would have been put back in the same position, but surely we cannot let this continue forever.

If we get to the end of March or August, is it the Government’s policy that there would then be an election and, as everyone probably thought was the case, we revert back to keep trying elections until something else happens? What happens if that still fails? Would we say, “After the election there will be a period for talks, and if you cannot form an Executive by the deadline, it has to be direct rule”? Is that the Government’s plan, or do they plan to limp through until the end of March or August and revert to the position we have been in for the past 350 days?

We are trying to give certainty to the civil service and to the people of Northern Ireland about the position. It would be good to have some certainty on the consequences if no deal can be reached.

My final comments are on appointments. It has to be right that we cannot have important bodies in Northern Ireland and elsewhere not meeting and not functioning because we have not been able to appoint people to them. It makes sense to find a way to make consensual appointments with which all sides of the debate are happy, but those decisions are meant to be taken on a cross-community and cross-party basis in Northern Ireland, and they now have to be taken—I accept with consultation—by the Secretary of State in Westminster. Allowing some form of public scrutiny on the most senior proposed appointments would be helpful in giving confidence that the right people for those jobs are being appointed. Allowing pre-appointment hearings by the Select Committee for key appointments would be a positive step in showing the people of Northern Ireland that the right people are being entrusted with those important functions.

There are ways to improve the Bill but, in the current situation, it is a sensible compromise and it is the best way to achieve the competing objectives. I happily support Second Reading.

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I echo the comments of both Front Benchers on the Shankill bombing. I was 13 at the time, but I remember the incident vividly. I particularly remember the children who were killed, one of whom was also 13, which is one reason why it sticks out. My thoughts and the thoughts of my colleagues are with all those affected by the bombing and the associated attacks that followed.

I reiterate once again that we are extremely disappointed that it has come to this. We accept, rather reluctantly, that the Bill has become necessary amid the current legislative vacuum in Northern Ireland. I have just attended my first British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I found it an extremely useful, enjoyable and sociable event. I met new people from across the UK and the Crown dependencies to discuss the important issues we face together.

Brexit, as would be imagined, was the main topic of conversation. That being said, some of the conversations about Stormont and the restoration of the Executive were rather frustrating. Many people seem to accept that meaningful talks will not resume until after Brexit, which is ultimately why we are debating this Bill today and why we reluctantly support it. However, on behalf of the SNP, I urge the Secretary of State and all parties to get back round the table with a sense of purpose and urgency. Given the importance of the European Union to the Good Friday agreement, it is imperative that Northern Ireland’s collective voice, the voice of its elected Assembly, is heard on Brexit.

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Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, apart from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), we do not hear the voice of the majority of people in Northern Ireland on Brexit in this Chamber? The majority of people in Northern Ireland—now the overwhelming majority, according to new polling—voted for us to stay in the European Union. Does it trouble the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), like it troubles me, that we never hear their voice?

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I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. Sinn Féin’s decision not to use their voice is a matter for them. However, only last week the Prime Minister turned down a request to meet the four major parties that advocated a vote to remain in the European Union—Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party and the Greens.

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On the parties getting round the table to try to reach agreement, does the hon. Gentleman agree that what the people of Northern Ireland and the people in this House need to hear from each and every one of the parties is two words: “We’re ready”?

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From the conversations I had in the past couple of days at BIPA, I can say that some have that desire to get back to the table. That came from all parties I spoke to—people from either community and from none. That is what I heard, but I also heard resignation that it might not happen.

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It is important that we make the record clear: just as among Conservative and Labour voters there is division, so one cannot say that it is Sinn Féin that represents remainers. Many Unionists voted to remain, and no doubt many republicans voted to leave. The point is that their voice is not being heard in this Chamber.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making that point, as I had not intended to portray it. I have spoken to several Unionists who voted remain, so she makes a valid point.

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I am going to make some progress, and then I will come back to the right hon. Members.

The people of Northern Ireland have spent too long in limbo. As we have heard from both Front Benchers, key decisions have to be made and functionality must be restored. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. The Scottish National party, like most Members of this House, firmly believes that new talks must be established immediately to restore the Executive and Assembly. The Secretary of State has to come off the bench on this and be much more proactive, not in legislative terms—we see that today—but in leadership. Along with Irish Government counterparts, she should be working night and day to initiate a new round of inclusive talks. With the UK Government totally distracted by Brexit and internal party infighting, I say again that an independent mediator could and, if no early progress is made, should be brought in, so that progress can be made for the sake of good governance in Northern Ireland.

Nothing must be done to undermine the Good Friday agreement, so this piece of legislation must be temporary. Given the five-month extension the Government have built into the Bill, and from conversations I have had with Members from all communities, it seems to me that there is consensus that Stormont may not get back up and running until September, following the council elections and the marching season. That is almost another full year from now, and for me and many other Members of this House that is a matter of real regret.

There is also general consensus, on all sides, that this Bill has, sadly, become necessary, but there are also concerns that having to legislate at all is potentially a slippery slope and a situation that must not be allowed to drift or be extended beyond what is absolutely necessary; a political vacuum must not become the new normal in Northern Ireland. I am relieved that the Government have conceded that their Henry VIII powers in clause 4 were not justifiable, and have heeded the concerns of the House of Lords report and tabled amendments so that the affirmative procedure is used instead.

Amid ongoing austerity, the absence of decision making is straining Northern Irish public services. Decisions are urgently required to provide direction and funding to vital services. As we have heard, current conditions are placing particular pressures on health and education, which are among the most important services a Government can deliver. The collapse of the Executive and the subsequent failure to deal with the situation has also placed great stress on the civil service in Northern Ireland. Direct rule can never be countenanced, but as the shambolic Brexit process is a central reason for the ongoing crisis, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure talks progress swiftly. The chaos within the UK Government must not be used as an excuse for the lacklustre attempts since February to re-establish political institutions in Northern Ireland. After all, this is not just about public services and appointments; it is about protecting and maintaining the peace process.

I do not want to be accused of scaremongering or of attaching more significance to this than it warrants, but yesterday the first report of the Independent Reporting Commission was published and, although there were clearly parts we can all welcome, the commission is clearly concerned about the impact of the ongoing political impasse. The report praises all those in the public, voluntary and community sectors who are working to tackle paramilitarism, but it says that the absence of political leadership has been a significant impediment to that task. It also notes that in the absence of an Assembly, new powers, such as unexplained wealth orders, cannot be introduced, and that any change in the current regime for managing paramilitary prisoners cannot be considered in the absence of a Justice Minister. I sincerely hope that in reading that report the Secretary of State has been given a renewed sense of urgency on talks.

I turn back to Brexit, as it is wreaking havoc on every aspect of politics in these islands. The broader instability caused by Brexit is a central reason why it has proven so difficult to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. There are many reasons why the Executive and the Assembly collapsed, but it is Brexit, the elephant in the room, that is prolonging the concerning political vacuum. I remind colleagues across the House that March is quickly approaching and we still have no confirmation of plans to extend the period for withdrawal. The threat of a new border becomes closer by the minute.

Northern Ireland is the central conversation in the Brexit talks, so it is vital that its voice is heard. As we have heard so eloquently, in June 2016 Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the European Union, as 62% of Scots did. The Government continue to try to ignore Scotland—will they also ignore the people of Northern Ireland? If the UK Government plough on with a no deal hard Brexit, they will wreak further havoc on the businesses, public services and entire economies of all within the UK. That is nothing short of economic vandalism of the highest order.

As we have seen from reports, Northern Ireland will be hit hardest by a disastrous no deal scenario. This month, business leaders in Northern Ireland have warned that a no deal must be avoided at all costs. According to the Government’s own figures, crashing out would shrink the Northern Irish economy by 12%. The Director of CBI Northern Ireland has warned that this would be the equivalent of another financial crisis. This would be a dramatic hit to GDP inflicted upon the people of Northern Ireland despite their vote to remain.

We in the SNP want to see stability, and strong and inclusive economic growth in Northern Ireland. We want to see Northern Ireland grow, so that public services, businesses, families and individuals can prosper. After all, not only is a prosperous Northern Ireland good for all who live there, but it is in the interests of Scotland, and indeed of England, Wales and our friends across the European Union. The twin threats of a new border and massive economic damage can be easily removed if the UK pursues a policy of staying within the European single market and customs union; there would be no need for new economic borders across land or at sea. Trade and relationships, business or personal, would continue to flourish between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and beyond.

In a blatant attempt to wreck any agreed backstop in Northern Ireland, the European Research Group cynically tabled reckless amendments to this legislation. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) subsequently withdrew them on Monday, saying that it would not be in the “public interest” to attach them to emergency programming. Perhaps for the first time I find myself in agreement with him and his ERG colleagues, but I would go further and suggest to him that his group and its entirely regressive aims are not in the public interest, and the less we hear from them, the better.

I remind Members that in December last year the UK Government agreed the need for a backstop in the first phase of negotiations with the EU, so they must stay true to their word.

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I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I wanted to make a point about the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe. He withdrew those amendments because he recognised the necessity of this Bill for the people of Northern Ireland. I thank him for having done so, because it has meant that the people of Northern Ireland, who need their public services to continue to be delivered, will be able to have that, as this Bill will not now be affected by amendments that would have served to wreck it.

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I appreciate the intervention from the Secretary of State, whom I am sure had to urge the hon. Member for Wycombe to withdraw the amendments for that reason. The simple fact is that they should never have been tabled in the first place. In order to protect the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland must achieve a special relationship with the EU. The SNP will never support wrecking amendments designed to undermine the backstop and, thus, undermine the Good Friday agreement. Just last week, the First Minister of Scotland said:

“we fully support the Good Friday Agreement and the maintenance of an invisible border. And so the Scottish Government will do nothing to stand in the way of Northern Ireland achieving a special relationship to the EU, if that is what is required.”

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Like the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), a majority of my constituents voted for Brexit. They do have a voice here, and I am that voice.

On the backstop, the hon. Gentleman spoke a lot about the need for economic growth in Northern Ireland, and prosperity is a key part of the peace process, so does he understand our concern that the backstop, which would create a border in the Irish sea and a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and its single biggest market—a market that produces more business for us than the European Union states and the rest of the world combine—would not be a good idea for the benefit of our economy?

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I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is clear to most people in this Chamber that the answer is for all UK countries to remain in the single market and customs union, which would take away the need for any border in the Irish sea. I should add that my constituents voted two to one to remain, and they certainly have a voice in this Chamber, too.

Many Members from different parties will agree that the best option across the UK is, as I just said, continued membership of the customs union and single market, which would resolve the need for any economic borders or increased regulation. This policy, which the Scottish National party has proposed for a long time, would also act to protect jobs and livelihoods in Northern Ireland, as well as in Scotland and right across the UK. It is the only political and economic position and policy that makes sense and is achievable.

The UK must give Northern Ireland and the restoration of its Assembly the attention that it deserves and requires. The delays in the establishment of effective talks can no longer be accepted. The Government must get round the table and help to restore the Northern Irish Executive and Assembly to full functionality. The institutions of the Good Friday agreement must be championed and restored by all in this House.

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I have now to announce the result of the Division deferred from yesterday. In respect of the question relating to electricity and gas, the Ayes were 304 and the Noes were 203, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

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It is a pleasure to speak in this Second Reading debate. May I start by expressing my admiration of and gratitude for the Secretary of State’s energy and perspicacity in trying to achieve a settlement in Northern Ireland? Whatever regrets we have about the situation in which we find ourselves, we are all united in our admiration for the energy that the Secretary of State has applied to this process. I sympathise with her, because in the actions she is taking she is trying to sail between Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, she must do nothing that would impede the restoration of proper democracy and the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland; on the other, she must do what she knows to be best for the people of Northern Ireland. I shall comment largely on my perception of Northern Ireland lagging well behind where it should be, and increasingly so. I shall express in unequivocal terms my fears about what that might mean in 10 months’ time, if we are no further on.

On Monday, I had the great pleasure of visiting Belfast with members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. For the first time—to my very great shame—I visited the Royal Victoria Hospital, where I talked to deeply committed and dedicated professionals who are right at the top of their game and who work there doing their very best for the population of Northern Ireland. I must say to the Secretary of State that I came away deeply depressed, because it is clear that Northern Ireland is not getting what it deserves. In comparison with the population of the rest of the United Kingdom, it is lagging significantly behind on key healthcare indicators. We heard that morning from service users, particularly in the fields of mental health and cancer care—key healthcare areas. Were their experiences to be replicated in our constituencies, we would be very upset indeed. The reasons are complicated, but we are left to conclude that the absence for nearly two years now of Ministers capable of taking decisions is a significant part of the piece.

We are now to complicate another 10 months of potential delay, with no clear solution following that. We could call another election but, as has been alluded to already, without good will on the part of both the principal parties in this matter, it is likely as not that we would get pretty much the same outcome. I have detected no particular enthusiasm or appetite for an Irish language Act, which is the biggest roadblock to the process. I get a lot of people asking, “Why don’t I have the same healthcare expectations as people over the other side of the Irish sea?”, but I do not get angst expressed to me about the inclusion of an Irish language Act. It is self-evident that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland simply want to get on with their lives. They want to have expectations across a range of public sector functions that at least approximate those that exist in Great Britain. It is a failure for all involved if they do not achieve that sort of approximation. We have a devolved settlement, so there will always be difference—of course there will—and I guess we should celebrate that, but the people of the United Kingdom have a legitimate expectation that, broadly speaking, outcomes will be similar right across the piece. That is not the case in Northern Ireland, and it is getting worse. We have to work out a way to deal with that.

I welcome the Bill, but it should have been introduced to the House well before now—incidentally, that would have given us more time to consider it—because I am afraid that the situation we are currently in was predictable. We have simply lost time. In so far as it is a straightforward, simple Bill that will achieve the outcomes that the Government want, I very much welcome it, although I would have gone much further. The need to go much further is in the guidance. I hope the Secretary of State has some sense from the House that we are likely to support her in the development of the guidance in the months ahead.

I assume that the guidance is the same as that which was given in draft form to the helpful Northern Ireland Office officials who briefed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee a few days ago. Getting hold of a copy today was quite difficult, but if it is more or less the same, I have been through it and must say that it is cast in extremely anodyne terms. It refers to decisions made by the Executive who have now folded, and to the draft programme for government and its 12 exciting outcomes, which are of course not outcomes at all but aspirations cast in the most anodyne terms imaginable.

In the weeks and months ahead, the Secretary of State will be faced more and more with Northern Ireland slipping backwards compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, unless some fairly significant policy decisions are made. I do not know the extent to which, on the basis of this Bill, it is safe for the Northern Ireland civil service to make some of those decisions, because some of them are really quite complicated, but they need to be made if we are to see key public services restored to the level at which they should be.

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Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern not only about the policies that the civil servants will not implement—indeed, the Bill would not give them the powers to implement them anyhow—but that civil servants may even avoid the day-to-day functions of government, because the Bill does not instruct them to do anything? It simply says that it does not prevent them from doing anything. Given the inertia, caution, procrastination and lack of decision making that we have seen so far in the Northern Ireland civil service, there is no guarantee that any decisions will be made, even with the Bill.

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With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he is a little harsh on the Northern Ireland civil service, because of course civil servants will act as civil servants always do. They are not politicians, they do not do policy and they are acutely aware, all the time, of legal challenge. I take my hat off to David Sterling and his people for doing what they have managed to do since January or March 2017, but the fact is that key decisions have to be made. We have already heard about the distinction between policy and decision making; some of the decisions are policy, but some are simply nuts-and-bolts decision making. I fear that there will come a point when the line will be crossed, and the Secretary of State may very well come back here to seek further guidance from this House on what she can legitimately do to prevent the backsliding to which I have referred and hopefully start making progress on some of these key public service areas.

Reading through the guidance, I am heartened because it seems to give the Secretary of State really quite a lot of scope. She will have heard—and, I suspect, will continue to hear in the balance of this debate—a great deal of support from across the House for her being pretty proactive in issuing guidance to the civil service so that it can do what is necessary to advance the day-to-day living experience of the people of Northern Ireland. In particular, I note the enjoinder in the guidance that “particular weight” must be given to the avoidance of

“serious detriment to the public interest, public health and wellbeing”.

In response to the point made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) a few moments ago, I will reflect briefly on one example, which I mention as an exemplar more widely explicable to the whole piece. At the Royal Victoria Hospital on Monday, we heard from a group of cardiologists—people who are leaders in their field—how the inability to share data with the rest of the United Kingdom was proving to be an impediment because there was a failure of a particular decision that had to be made by a Minister. That has clear implications for healthcare in Northern Ireland, because if Northern Ireland cannot compare and contrast its performance and what it is doing with other parts of a similar healthcare service, it cannot really make improvements. That is just a small example of the kind of thing that we are talking about today which I hope will be covered in the guidance. I urge the Minister to ensure that the guidance that she issues is much more specific than that laid out in the framework published today. I think that she will end up having to issue really quite a lot of guidance, and I urge her very strongly indeed to push the limits as far as she possibly can.

I was particularly taken with the remarks of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who speaks for the Opposition. It is actually quite rare in this place that there is much in the way of consensus. Mercifully, reaching it tends to be easier in matters to do with Northern Ireland than in most public policy areas. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks, which I very much welcome, were exceptionally positive in regard to our sense that the Secretary of State really will have to issue guidance that is as prescriptive as possible, within the scope of the Bill, in order to move things along in Northern Ireland. That is the sense that I got from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

I do not wish to go on too much longer, but I want to mention another point. In the Brexit context—there is always a risk that a debate like this will be overtaken by the issue of the moment—a great deal is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment that is of a unique nature. I have mentioned healthcare, but much of the economy in Northern Ireland is pretty unusual and has a uniqueness that needs to be reflected by those who are currently dealing with Brexit. Of course, it is a perfect storm in a sense, because not only is there a uniqueness regarding the various sectors; there is also a lack of an Executive—of a body advocating specifically for Northern Ireland. Now, the Government will say, “Well, it’s for us to negotiate in Brussels”, which is perfectly true, but we know full well that Scotland and Wales are separately making their points to our interlocutors in Brussels. That is not the case for Northern Ireland.

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In relation to Brexit and the Secretary of State’s guidance following this legislation, would it not be helpful for the Secretary of State to look back at the letter signed—if my memory serves me correctly—on 13 August 2016, just months after the referendum, by both the then First Minister Arlene Foster and the then Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness? Would not that be helpful in showing the priorities that the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister felt were relevant in the Brexit negotiations?

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I usually agree with the hon. Lady and I agree with her on that point. Of course, the general principle in these matters is that one relies on what has gone on before—the decisions of the Executive and so on. It would certainly be in that tradition and spirit to rely on the remarks of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at that time, as a starter for 10.

The issue I have is exemplified by the farming and growing sector in Northern Ireland, which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) will remember we have debated at some length in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There are particular facets of Northern Ireland quite apart from the border that need to be considered in the context of Brexit. It is important for provision to be made to ensure that that happens. I am not clear that it has happened to the extent to which I would like, and I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on that.

I also ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the Select Committee’s report, “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland—dealing with the deficit”, which we published in May, and which made some helpful suggestions on how she might consult with the public and various bodies in the absence of an Executive. If this goes on and on, and she is led more and more to issue guidance and consider policy, it is helpful—particularly in the context of the Good Friday agreement, but in any event—to ensure that she has consulted as widely as possible.

If I feel a little disappointment about this Bill—a very concise piece of legislation, on which I congratulate the Secretary of State—it is because it has not really reflected in any meaningful sense the recommendations made in the Select Committee report, which is now just months old. I think that is a mistake, because some of the suggestions are pretty unobjectionable and would have helped matters along, particularly measures such as civic forums, which have been tried before quite successfully and which could give the Secretary of State the sort of confidence that she was doing things that had the support of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. That is in no way to try to subvert the institutions set up by the GFA or to suggest that they are not going to be restored, but in the interregnum it is important to get some sense of what people want. Those sorts of innovative bodies are a possible solution in the context of Northern Ireland.

We all hope that the Executive will be restored sooner rather than later—I think that the Secretary of State is as confident as she possibly can be that this will all happen within the next 10 months—but Northern Ireland is a unique and special place, and sadly we cannot necessarily guarantee that that will be the case. We therefore need—this has been mentioned previously—some idea about what will then happen.

We have to work on the assumption that a further general election will result in nothing new. Sometimes when we throw the cards up in the air, they fall down in a way that may surprise and delight us—or otherwise—but our working assumption has to be that such a thing will not change very much, which is presumably why the Secretary of State has not called an election up to this point. We will then have to decide what to do. Although I welcome the Bill, we cannot continue to kick the can down the road. One way or another, sadly by force of circumstance, the Secretary of State may again have to start making some of the difficult, crunchy decisions that have been made in this place since 1998.

One thing is for sure: it is simply not acceptable for the people of Northern Ireland to continue to sustain the sub-optimal public services about which my Committee has heard evidence, despite all the hard work of those on the ground and all the effort to try to stop up the gap indefinitely. I sympathise with the Secretary of State in her dilemma and absolutely support her intention to get the Executive back up and running, but I sound a cautionary note and ask her to start thinking: what on earth do we do in 10 months’ time, when we are back in the same place?

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chairman of the Northern Affairs Committee. In his response to the Bill, he was, as always, considered and thoughtful. He highlighted the lack of ambition that we would ultimately like to see for good governance and for democratic decision making in Northern Ireland.

At the commencement of these proceedings, the Secretary of State made an announcement of condolences to the noble Lord Caine. May I take this opportunity, personally and on behalf of my party colleagues, to extend our condolences to the noble Lord Caine and to his mother following such a bereavement?

There has been a lot of talk so far about the Bill, and there is at least one level of consensus: it is what it is. It is not ambitious. It does not deliver good governance in Northern Ireland. It does not compel decision making in Northern Ireland. It provides no legislative vehicle for issues that require legislation in Northern Ireland. We understand and accept the position that the Secretary of State finds herself in—the constitutional barrier that she is wrestling with—but she knows that we are of the view that this place should be taking a much more interventionist approach towards the affairs of Northern Ireland and that, in that sense, the Bill is an opportunity missed.

I do, however, want to convey my appreciation to the officials from the Northern Ireland Office who have engaged directly with me and with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) in our consideration of this Bill. I spent much more time with them than I had planned to, and I think they spent much more time with me than they wished to. I think it fair to say that, while we are where we are, it is not ultimately where they or we would wish to be in terms of how we see this Bill.

But one thing is certain: we should not be here. We should not be yet again considering how we deliver for Northern Ireland in this Chamber—it should be happening at Stormont. Although we have thus far today considered this issue only lightly, Sinn Féin Members need to end their boycott of good governance, of democracy and of participation at Stormont and here at Westminster. They refuse to allow the re-formation of an Executive; they refuse to see a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and they refuse to take their seats in this House. They have shown no sign that they recognise the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland. They show no sign that they are impacted by the lack of decisions being taken in Northern Ireland. They show no sign that they are concerned about people on ever-increasing waiting lists and ever-increasing housing lists, or about the extension of our mitigation on universal credit and welfare reform that needs to be renewed next year. They show no sign of concern whatsoever.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not fair that those Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who do want to address those issues on behalf of their constituents are being punished by the Sinn Féin lock-out at Stormont? Until it is grasped by the Northern Ireland Office and by the Secretary of State that the responsibility lies at the door of only one party, and unless either the system for establishing the Executive of Northern Ireland is changed or it is made quite clear that sanctions will be imposed, this situation will continue, because there is no penalty on Sinn Féin.

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The majority of the 90 Assembly Members who have been elected to serve their constituents put themselves forward because they believe in public service, not stagnation. They are not like a puerile child participating in a game, not liking the rules, recognising they are not scoring goals, picking up the ball and walking off the pitch.

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Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), in the discussions on the Bill with the Northern Ireland Office, we put forward a modest proposal that, to give some democratic accountability to this mechanism in Northern Ireland, the Assembly Members, on their reduced pay, should have a role in scrutinising the Departments that will exercise the decisions that fall subject to the Bill. The Northern Ireland Office told us that it was not possible to do this because Sinn Féin was unlikely to take part in such scrutiny mechanisms. Sinn Féin has a veto over even the most modest of proposals. How long are this Government going to allow Sinn Féin to veto democratic progress in Northern Ireland?

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That is an incredibly fair point to make, and I intend to address it later on. There has been a dereliction of duty. The opportunity to serve the people is not being taken by one party and one party alone. As it holds out for its purely partisan and narrow agenda, everyone else in Northern Ireland suffers.

No one should be under any illusion about our approach to these issues. In October last year, Arlene Foster, our party leader, indicated that she would seek the establishment of the Executive immediately and that if the Assembly created did not deal satisfactorily with the outstanding issues that had been raised as a stumbling block for progress, it should be brought down again in six months. She said, “Put me to the test.” She said, “Let us maturely and rationally reflect on the outstanding issues that you have; you can consider the outstanding issues that we have, and if we can’t resolve them, then bring it down—but at least try.” Before Arlene Foster sat down from making that speech, Sinn Féin had ruled it out. It had ruled out a restoration of the Executive, where Brexit and every public service that was of interest to the people of Northern Ireland could be considered.

As I reflect on these matters, standing here again to debate a Northern Ireland Bill that should not be necessary, I am reminded that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), said in September 2017 that nine months without a Government to steer policy had left the country with “no political direction” and left critical public service reform wanting. He continued:

“In the continuing absence of devolution, the UK government retains ultimate responsibility for good governance and political stability in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and we will not shirk from the necessary measures to deliver that.”

That was only 13 months ago, yet here we are. He famously talked of a “glide path” to direct rule. Frustratingly, this is a never-ending holding pattern. It is not in the interests of democracy and not in the interests of good government.

The Bill has been described—kindly—as a “limited measure”. It has been described by my constituency predecessor as

“a sticking plaster on a broken leg”.

It has been described as a poor substitute for democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland making decisions that affect the people they serve. It is through that prism that we have to consider the Bill.

The Bill does not provide certainty. It contains no certainty on decisions. It does not provide compellability. There is no compulsion on civil servants to make decisions that impact the people of Northern Ireland—decisions that need movement—but on key policy areas, there is no compulsion to do so. There is no progress on the 200-plus decisions that have lain in abeyance among the range of Departments since the suspension of the Assembly.

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