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Northern Ireland

Volume 648: debated on Wednesday 31 October 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the allocation of the savings accrued from the reduction in the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly. (907318)

My Department has no role in the allocation of any savings resulting from the reduction in MLA pay. The budget for the payment of salaries to MLAs is held by the Assembly Commission. Any savings would be returned to the central Consolidated Fund for redistribution within the Northern Ireland civil service, and their reallocation would be for that civil service to determine. I can also advise that the Secretary of State has today written to the Assembly Commission to bring the pay reduction into effect.

In their LGBT action plan, the Government allocated £4.5 million for an implementation fund that will be available to voluntary sector groups in England, but when I was in Northern Ireland recently, I met people in similar groups facing even greater challenges who have never received Government support from Stormont or Westminster. I have already asked the Secretary of State about that and I wrote to her on 7 September, and I have not had a reply. Will the Secretary of State consider supporting funding for these groups—if not from MLA pay, from another source?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman means from the allocation of the savings accrued, which renders it relevant to the question on the Order Paper?

Thank you for clarifying that, Mr Speaker; it is much appreciated. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will receive a response from the Secretary of State very soon.

Any unspent money or savings would be returned to the central Consolidated Fund, for redistribution within the Northern Ireland civil service, and it is for civil servants to allocate as they feel appropriate.

Does the Minister agree that the pay reduction seems a bit unfair, because the vast majority of MLAs actually want to do their job, and it is only a small percentage that are stopping the Assembly being reassembled?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the vast majority want to get on with doing their job; but we have to recognise that some of their duties have lessened, so we are making a reduction but recognising that they still have constituents to look after and are still voices within their communities.

I would be fascinated to know how much it has cost to pay the MLAs their full salary since the collapse of the Assembly and the Executive in January 2017. Is it £12 million, £13 million, £14 million? Does the Minister honestly believe that was money well spent, when our education budgets and our health budget in Northern Ireland are so overstretched?

I do not know what the precise sum is, but I fully appreciate and am happy to put on record the hon. Lady’s commitment to this issue, on which she has spoken regularly. When the talks collapsed, there was an element of good will and we hoped that the parties would return and form the Executive again. There has to be an element of good will, rather than instantly saying, “Right: we are making reductions.” We had that element of good will; we had to introduce legislation for the cuts, and we also had to have the review conducted by Trevor Reaney.

Last week, the Secretary of State said she wanted to see action on victims’ and survivors’ pensions. May I press the Minister, because legacy is a Northern Ireland Office responsibility? Will the Government pledge the considerable savings from MLA pay to those pensions and make good on the UK Government’s promise to the victims and survivors of the troubles?

As I said earlier, as far as any savings are concerned, the unspent money will be redistributed to the central Consolidated Fund for redistribution to the civil service, who can then reallocate. As far as legacy issues are concerned, the pension issue is actually a devolved matter.

Devolved Government

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, which we debated last week, has now been taken through both Houses. It provides for a period in which an Executive can be formed at any time, allowing for time and space for talks to take place without an election having to be called. I continue to engage with the main parties to discuss the implementation of the Bill and next steps towards the restoration of devolution, and I have called a meeting for that purpose tomorrow, in Belfast. I am also continuing to engage with the Irish Government, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I will be in Dublin on Friday for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Additionally, I am actively considering how and when external facilitation could play a constructive role in efforts to restore political dialogue. This will form part of my discussions with the parties. I am also extremely keen to support grassroots and civil society efforts to facilitate political dialogue following a productive meeting with Church leaders earlier this month.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. As Conservatives and as Scottish Conservatives, we respect devolution—[Interruption]—unlike others. How best can we ensure that the people of Northern Ireland continue to have the ultimate say on what laws are passed on their behalf?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend: as members of the Conservative and Unionist party, we know that devolution is the best way to strengthen our precious Union. That is why it is absolutely vital that decisions that are rightly devolved should be made by politicians elected by people in the nations and regions of our country, as appropriate under the devolution settlement.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have their devolved Administration restored so that their representatives can make crucial spending choices, such as on health and education?

My hon. Friend again makes an important point; we discussed it last week. The very best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is devolved Government—the people they elected representing them and making decisions on their behalf.

I welcome the legislation. How should it help to bring the Executive back together again in Northern Ireland?

The point of the legislation is that it provides the space and the time for the parties to come together and put the best conditions in place for those parties to come back around the table, do the right thing by the people who elected them, and form an Executive and get back into the Assembly.

In the continuing absence of devolved Government, the Secretary of State will be aware that a further 1,044 neurology patients have been recalled following the further revision of the notes of Dr Michael Watt in the Belfast trust area. That brings the total number of patients recalled to 3,544. Has the Secretary of State spoken to the Health Department in Northern Ireland about this issue, and what can she say today to provide assurance and relieve the anxiety and worry that many of these people will obviously have at the present time?

My Department’s officials and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), speak regularly to the permanent secretary and other officials in the Department of Health. I also meet the permanent secretary to discuss various matters, including those we discussed in terms of the Bill last week, which, when it becomes an Act of Parliament, will give civil servants the ability to make decisions, as they rightly should. But that is not a substitute for devolved Government, and we need to have Ministers in place to make important decisions, because these are devolved matters that should be dealt with by devolved Ministers.

I hear what the Secretary of State says, but these are people living with real anxiety and real worries at the present time, and she has an opportunity to do something about it now. Rather than wait, can she not say something to these people that will provide them with real hope that the inquiry will proceed quickly and that action will be taken to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman, who as a constituency MP represents many people affected by this, cares deeply about this matter and wants to see action taken. I, too, want to see action taken, and I will be happy to discuss this with him separately in terms of what actually can be done under the devolution and constitutional arrangements in place.

If the Executive are not restored by the end of the year, will the Secretary of State use the powers she is about to get under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill to issue guidance to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a proper cancer strategy, since it is the only part of the UK that does not have one, and I am afraid that outcomes are reflecting that?

My hon. Friend, who served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and is Chair of the Select Committee, understands the devolution settlement and constitutional arrangements better than many people. He will know that it will be for Ministers to make the decision on the implementation of the cancer strategy, but clearly the guidance that accompanies the Bill will be issued after Royal Assent, and I would hope that civil servants will take the decisions that they can take within that guidance.

I think the House will want to recall that this is the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel massacre, and our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

The Secretary of State makes the point that devolved matters should be dealt with by the Assembly, and she will recognise that social security is a devolved matter. She probably cannot tell the House how many people will lose as they transfer to universal credit, but what she can do is give guidance to civil servants saying that the roll-out will stop in Northern Ireland until there is an Assembly competent to make that decision.

I join the hon. Gentleman in marking the 25th anniversary of the Greysteel attack. It was a horrific and totally unjustified attack that killed eight and wounded a further 19, and 25 years on, we must not forget the sacrifices that were made or the huge progress that Northern Ireland has made since the Belfast agreement was signed 20 years ago.

The hon. Gentleman asks about welfare in Northern Ireland. Again, I refer him to the constitutional and devolution settlements. He knows how they operate; the guidance will be issued and civil servants will make appropriate decisions.

Business Promotion

3. What recent steps she has taken to promote Northern Ireland businesses throughout the world. (907320)

Last month, I travelled to the United States where I promoted Northern Ireland to politicians, business leaders and academia. I set out, as I regularly do, the fact that Northern Ireland is a great place to invest and do business, with much to offer, including a diverse and talented workforce.

As we leave the European Union, we clearly need to promote all parts of the United Kingdom and their fantastic trade potential. How does the Secretary of State intend to harness Northern Ireland’s potential, building on the success of the “Great” campaign, of which Northern Ireland is clearly an important part?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Great Britain and Northern Ireland truly are great, and the “Great” campaign helps to promote exporters from across the whole UK. It is complemented by UK Export Finance, which has provided nearly £33 million of support for exporters in Northern Ireland, resulting in more than £46 million-worth of overseas sales.

For business to export and grow, it needs adequate support. What actions will the Secretary of State to take to ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses can benefit from some of the initiatives announced this week, including in relation to the high street?

The hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner for her constituents, and I know that she cares a great deal about ensuring that Northern Ireland is an economic success. I am sure she welcomes the £2 million that has been secured for in-year spending in Belfast to deal with the regeneration following the Primark fire earlier this year. The city deals also play an incredibly important part, but I repeat that devolved government is the way to give Northern Ireland the best opportunities and success, which is why we need to see Ministers in Stormont.

As the Secretary of State champions Northern Ireland’s businesses around the world, will she remind the European Union negotiators that, in the December joint report, they signed up to Northern Ireland businesses having unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom? She should remind them of this, because they seem to have forgotten.

I regularly remind many people about this. Paragraph 49 of the protocol is one that many focus on, but paragraph 50 of the joint report is equally valid. It deals with unfettered access to the markets of Great Britain and the United Kingdom and the fact that there should be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. These are incredibly important for ensuring the economic success of Northern Ireland.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I should like to echo the comments made by both Front Benchers about the Greysteel massacre. Our thoughts are very much with those who were involved. Is the Secretary of State aware of recent comments made in Northern Ireland by the CBI president John Allan, when he said that business would always prefer a backstop to a no-deal Brexit? He added that the backstop could be an opportunity to open up frictionless trade between the EU and UK markets. Given that widely shared opinion, why is her supposedly pro-business Government seeking to undermine the backstop and therefore undermine business in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Greysteel massacre, but I have to correct him on his second point. This Government are completely committed to all the commitments that we made in the joint report before Christmas. We are looking at how to put a backstop into legal text to ensure that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom is respected and that there is no border on the island of Ireland.

Police: Border Funding

4. Whether the Government have plans to provide additional funding to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to police any potential border in the island of Ireland. (907321)

5. Whether the Government have plans to provide additional funding to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to police any potential border in the island of Ireland. (907322)

We have said categorically that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and patrols at the border. We are committed to a future partnership on security, policing and justice with the EU, including Ireland, that will allow the Police Service of Northern Ireland to continue to tackle national security threats and serious and organised crime. The PSNI has submitted its case for additional resources, and that bid is currently being considered.

The European arrest warrant is key to cross-border policing. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it will be retained post Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the use of the arrest warrant is very important in Northern Ireland, and we have been clear that we need to have access to the same instrument or an equivalent for that to continue. I was a Minister in the Home Office when we were debating the 2014 opt-outs and opt-ins, and at that time I was determined that we would retain access to the European arrest warrant.

With more than 250 crossing points between Northern Ireland and Ireland, does the Secretary of State not agree that policing such a border would need a massive injection of cash and that the technological solutions for patrolling the border will not work and in fact do not exist?

The Government’s proposals for a facilitated customs arrangement are clear that there is no need for any border checks on the island of Ireland, and that is what our proposals are determined to achieve.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the review of police funding will consider Northern Ireland’s needs to ensure that every citizen is safe in that part of our country?

This Government have never shied away from the need to ensure proper funding for policing in Northern Ireland. Together with our security services, the PSNI does incredible work to keep us all safe. However, the threat level remains severe, which is why it is vital to ensure that proper funding for the PSNI continues.

The funding application now rests with the Treasury, so will the Secretary of State ensure that it is treated quickly? Will she also assure us that recruitment to the PSNI will not be blocked as a result of Sinn Féin’s closing down of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

I speak regularly with the Chief Constable, the assistant chief constable and others, and I am as committed as the hon. Gentleman to ensuring that the PSNI has the funding it needs. The bid is going through the proper processes, as it rightly should, and I am determined to ensure that the PSNI can continue to recruit as necessary.

Mr Speaker, you can scarce imagine how unbounded my joy was when I heard that austerity was over, or at least coming to an end. In view of that, will the Secretary of State confirm the lifting of the pay cap affecting the PSNI and the countless other public sector workers who feel, with some justification, that they have been abandoned by this Government?

I hope that I do not require the hon. Gentleman’s services again in mopping up water, which he so ably did for me last week. Many of his questions will be dealt with through the police funding settlement and the spending review next year, and the Minister for Policing and the Chancellor will quite rightly be making those announcements.

I think we can agree that the hon. Gentleman’s thespian skills are superior to his mopping up skills.

The Executive and Legislative Assembly

6. What recent steps her Department has taken to seek the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Legislative Assembly. (907323)

13. What recent discussions she has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on the re-establishment of a Northern Irish Executive. (907330)

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill provides for a period in which an Executive can be formed at any time without an election having to be called. I have remained in contact with the Northern Ireland parties during the passage of the Bill and will discuss its implementation and next steps in a roundtable meeting with them tomorrow.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Reporting Commission concluded last week that key factors in bringing paramilitarism to an end were political leadership and the re-establishment of political structures in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree? If so, can she explain the absence of formal talks between the political parties since February?

As I said earlier, the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland would be if the politicians whom they elected come together to form an Executive, get back into the Assembly and make decisions on their behalf. As a member of this Government, I support devolution across the whole United Kingdom, and I want to see it operating properly.

Does the first report of the Independent Reporting Commission not illustrate that the political parties of Northern Ireland must choose one of two sides at this point? They are either on the side of getting the Executive back up and running, or else they are on the side of growing paramilitarism and all the attendant dangers that that brings.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Independent Reporting Commission’s first report is clear that the decisions that would benefit everybody in Northern Ireland must be made by Ministers. We have passed a Bill that will enable civil servants to make decisions to allow the continued running of public services, but they are clearly no substitute for elected politicians and Ministers in Stormont.

Political Parties: Loans and Donations

7. If she will make it her policy to publish information on loans and donations given to Northern Ireland political parties since 2014. (907324)

The publication by the Electoral Commission of donations and loans data for the Northern Ireland parties from 1 July 2017 is a positive step that should be welcomed by the whole House. The decision to publish data from July 2017 was taken on the basis of consultation and broad support from the majority of political parties in Northern Ireland.

How can it be right that the very party that would come under investigation if donations dating back to 2014 were published essentially gets a veto? We know that the leave campaign is now under investigation for donations during the referendum. Surely Northern Ireland deserves that kind of transparency, too. Why are this Government ignoring the recommendations of the Electoral Commission?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady seeks to make political capital out of this. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), wrote to all the political parties in January 2017 regarding transparency and a date. With the exception of one party, they all agreed on the way forward. As for any other issues, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) cannot accept the broad view of the majority of parties in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree that the loophole that allows millions of pounds of donations, including money from America, to be channelled to Sinn Féin through the Irish Republic drives a coach and horses through the UK’s financing rules that seek to prevent foreign influence on elections in the UK? This loophole needs to be closed for Northern Ireland to be brought in line with the rest of the UK.

I appreciate that this is a long-standing issue and a matter of concern. What I will say is that we have just introduced measures for transparency. It is important that we have some data as we move forward. Then, as with many other things, there is no reason why there cannot be a review. When that review takes place, there will be consultation with the Northern Ireland parties and the Electoral Commission.

IRA and INLA Victims

10. What steps she has taken to seek closure for victims of the Irish Republican Army and Irish National Liberation Army activity during the troubles. (907327)

I have been deeply moved by the personal stories of pain and suffering endured by the families of the victims and survivors of the troubles. That is why we have consulted on how we best move forward and address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be heard, and over 17,000 responses have been received. It is right that we take the time to consider those responses carefully. We will set out how we intend to move forward in due course.

I met the Home Secretary yesterday on behalf of Airey Neave’s family to discuss his brutal murder on these very premises almost 40 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland join me in saying that the victims of the IRA and the INLA on mainland Britain also deserve information and closure on the troubles?

My right hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for the family of Airey Neave, some of whom live in his constituency. We have spoken about the issue, and he will know that this matter is dealt with by the Home Office, as are all terrorist atrocities in Great Britain. I will work with him to get that closure.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The victims of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army in Northern Ireland deserve recognition. What discussions has she had with the police to set aside money for those investigations to take place?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Today the Police Service of Northern Ireland, through its legacy investigations unit, is investigating far too many troubles-related crimes, and proportionately more killings relating to the military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. That is not right, and that is why we want to change the system. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I would like there to be an appropriate hush for the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray).

Legacy Consultation

The legacy consultation ran for 21 weeks and, during that time, representatives from the Northern Ireland Office engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, victims’ and survivors’ groups, political parties, community groups and others.

The witch hunt against our brave veterans is unacceptable. My constituent, who lives opposite the surgery where I used to work, has reportedly refused much-needed medical treatment so that he can get to court. Many will not forgive us, and nor should they, if he is lost due to disease once this case continues. When will the Government stop consulting and bring an end to these ridiculous cases?

We all owe a vast debt of gratitude for the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law during the troubles in Northern Ireland. The current system under which my hon. Friend’s constituent is being investigated is not working well for anyone, which is why we consulted on how we can improve it as quickly as possible. We are reviewing the thousands of responses received and we will set out in due course how we intend to respond.

Does the Secretary of State accept that someone must cut the Gordian knot that is preventing us from ensuring that our armed forces veterans are not persecuted and pursued in the courts decades after they have faithfully served us?

My right hon. Friend has done significant work in this area, and I agree with him that the current system is simply not working for anyone and we need to change it. I look forward to working with him to find a way of changing the system that works for people.