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Northern Ireland: Restoring Devolution

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on her attempts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland one year on from the collapse of the all-party talks in February 2018.

As the House is aware, this Government remain steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors. I am continuing to work tirelessly towards my absolute priority of restoring fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is a very sensitive matter that requires careful handling. I last updated the House at my Department’s oral questions on 30 January. I have no further update at this stage, but as soon as I have anything to add, I will of course come to the House at the earliest opportunity. I hope that will be soon.

It is two years since we saw the collapse of the Stormont Executive and Assembly. It is 12 months since the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach visited Belfast in the hope of seeing restoration of the power-sharing agreements, but sadly—we all regret this—that led to failure.

Since that time, there have been many calls for the Secretary of State to show significant effort in bringing the parties together to restore power-sharing. However, it would be very hard for anyone to claim that we have seen the sustained action that could have prevented the kind of drift that has envenomed the relationship between the political parties in Northern Ireland and between the communities, or the drift that has seen the failure of political decision making that has led to the consequences in, for example, the health service. We now have a health service that is not delivering the same standards, as it ought to be. We know it needs reform. People are having their health options let down, and ultimately people will die earlier.

As for schools, headteachers have made representations to the Secretary of State and, most certainly, to me about the failure of political decisions, which has an impact on children’s education. In policing and security, we are still upwards of 1,000 police officers short of the Patten recommendations, at a time when Brexit is causing real concerns about security on the Irish border.

But probably the biggest issue, beyond Brexit, where there has been no consistent voice across the communities of Northern Ireland has been reconciliation. Anybody who believes that reconciliation was achieved 20 years ago with the Good Friday agreement is simply wrong. The Good Friday agreement built new institutions that were needed to instil the belief that political change could deliver for the people of Northern Ireland rather than simply relying on the guns and the bomb. In the absence of those institutions, we saw the bomb in Derry. In the absence of those institutions, we see the paramilitaries still with a grip on organised crime in different parts of Northern Ireland. We need to see Stormont back. We need to see the North South Ministerial Council. We need to see the operation of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. All those Good Friday institutions are vital and fundamental.

The Secretary of State is now at a crossroads and this country is at a crossroads. We need to seize this time to put a sustained effort into making sure that we see the restoration of those institutions. Alternatively, this House will have to begin to make those decisions. The Secretary of State does not want that. I do not want that. I make her this offer: the Opposition will work with her consistently to see the restoration of those institutions. If she can begin that process of delivery, we will walk with her. We will do everything we can to support her. In that context, I look forward to a further update, in due course, to this House.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to see the restoration of the institutions that were agreed by the people of Northern Ireland, in a very brave way, in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and in subsequent agreements: St Andrews, Stormont House, Fresh Start and so on. We need to see those institutions back. There is nothing that the people of Northern Ireland deserve more than the politicians they elected locally making decisions on their behalf.

But I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on a few points. He talked about health reform. He is quite right: there is a need for reform of health, and that is why this Government put £100 million into the budget last year to ensure that work could start on reforming health services and health provision in Northern Ireland. This work needs to be done whether there is an Executive or not, and that money was put in by this Government.

The hon. Gentleman talked about policing. It is a great credit to the politicians in Northern Ireland that we have devolved policing and justice in Northern Ireland, given the difficulties, fragility and sensitivities in that area. This Government took steps to ensure that we could appoint members to the Policing Board so that there is proper governance of policing in Northern Ireland. We have also put in funding to ensure that the Chief Constable can recruit the police officers needed to deal specifically with concerns around Brexit.

The hon. Gentleman talked about reconciliation. I agree with him that reconciliation needs to continue. That is why this Government have consulted on how we progress the agreement that was reached at Stormont House in 2014 to set up new institutions to deal with the matters regarding legacy, which are of great concern to many Members of this House when they see their constituents directly affected.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I remind him that that body has met twice in the past 12 months. This Government will continue to observe all our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the incident in Derry/Londonderry a few weeks ago. I was in the city last week, and I met people who were directly affected, including the police officers. They did incredible work that night, working towards danger when others would run, and I pay great tribute to them. But they were very clear, as have been the Police Service of Northern Ireland and many others, that nobody should attribute anything that happened that evening in Derry/Londonderry to either the absence of institutions or Brexit. The only people responsible for what happened in Derry/Londonderry that night were the terrorists, and they are the ones we need to condemn.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reply. I think there is complete exasperation in this House—and, in fairness, in Dublin and in Washington, where, for years, the two main parties respectively worked incredibly closely together to get the agreement and to get the institutions established—that for two years now these institutions have not been working. As the shadow Secretary of State quite rightly said, sadly, outcomes are failing now in Northern Ireland. Health outcomes are falling behind. There are ambitious plans to improve health, but they need political direction. There comes a point when we are all responsible for the lives of citizens in Northern Ireland. I ask the Secretary of State, although very reluctantly, whether she has begun to consider taking powers back into this House, for what one would hope would be a brief period, to deliver public benefits. At the moment, we are stuck. We come here time and again. We know that the main party in opposition to this, Sinn Féin, is not co-operating. The lives of people in Northern Ireland are falling behind. This would be a big step, but I wonder, reluctantly, whether she is beginning to consider it.

My right hon. Friend has enormous experience of matters in Northern Ireland. He did great work in Northern Ireland as both shadow Secretary of State and Secretary of State, and continues to take a keen interest. I share his exasperation that we have not been able to find a basis on which parties can come together. My priority is finding that basis, because there is no good long-term, sustainable way that decisions can be made for the people of Northern Ireland except locally elected politicians making them.

I do not doubt how difficult the Secretary of State’s job is, but she said that restoring devolution is her top priority, yet the last round of talks was over three months ago. Surely the damaging perception, if not the reality, is that implementing Brexit against the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and keeping her government partners, the Democratic Unionist party, is her actual priority. Why has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference not met more regularly, given the vacuum in Northern Ireland? Twice is not enough.

Appearing before the Brexit Committee this morning, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that he believed Stormont would now be up and running again if it was not for Brexit. Does the Secretary of State accept his experienced analysis? What role has the strained relations between the British and Irish Governments caused by Brexit had on efforts to restore the Executive? Does she believe that her exclusive relationship with a minority party in Northern Ireland has prevented an inclusive process to restore devolution? Lastly, what progress has been made on reform of the petition of concern in the Northern Ireland Assembly—a reform that has the potential to unlock the contentious issues that arose during previous talks?

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points. Although the last round of formal talks collapsed 12 months ago, I assure him that there are continued discussions with all parties to try to find a basis on which we can get people back in a room. But there is no point in my imposing a solution on the parties in Northern Ireland that they do not want to be part of, and there is no point in my demanding that people come to talks if there are no grounds to believe that they will be successful, because that would do a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. It is worth making the point that the BIIGC was established under strand 3 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it deals exclusively with east-west matters, but of course there are regular bilateral discussions between Ministers from the Irish and UK Governments on a number of matters; they are not exclusively held through the BIIGC. We also have the British-Irish Council, which meets twice a year and which representatives of the Scottish Government attend.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the petition of concern. That needs to be decided by politicians in Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter. It is not for Westminster to impose solutions on a devolved Administration because Westminster is not happy with the way that matters are being used in the devolved Administration. I am sure that he, as a member of the Scottish National party, would not wish to see this Parliament imposing solutions on Holyrood that we felt were right but with which he disagreed.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the Government’s confidence and supply arrangements with the Democratic Unionist party. I gently remind him that the institutions collapsed before the confidence and supply arrangements were in place. We are all working tirelessly to see those institutions restored.

The Secretary of State will share my dismay at the stalling of plans for the Tyrone to Cavan interconnector—a huge infrastructure project that will have a direct impact upon lives in Northern Ireland. How does she think the guidance she is able to issue under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 can be used to resolve that? If it cannot, is she prepared to determine the matter herself, since we cannot continue to kick this can down the road?

My hon. Friend gives an important example of why we need devolved government in Northern Ireland. He alluded to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act, which allows civil servants to make certain decisions but is no replacement for having Ministers in Stormont making those decisions. That is why I am determined to find a way to bring the parties back together, and I assure him and his Select Committee that I will update the House at the earliest opportunity.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the urgent question. It will be vital that decisions are taken by Ministers in some shape or form once we get Brexit over the line, because we cannot continue in the current scenario after that has happened; the decisions required will be too great. I remind the House that the reason that devolution is not up and running is not that all parties in Northern Ireland cannot agree—four out of the five parties in Northern Ireland would enter devolution tomorrow. Preconditions are being set by one party, which talks a lot about Brexit being an existential threat and yet boycotts this House, boycotts the Assembly and boycotts the Executive. We all see that as the major challenge. Health, education, police, justice and security are all far more vital than some of the preconditions being laid down by a minority party in Northern Ireland. The reality is that we need to get on with the job without preconditions, and therefore, along with all the other parties, I am up for any measures and discussions that can get that to happen.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I hope we can find a basis on which to get the parties together, talking about and agreeing a basis for government, because he is right; the people of Northern Ireland deserve that.

I know that it may be legally difficult for my right hon. Friend to authorise payments to the victims of historical institutional abuse, but who in the future would object if she were to do so?

I think my hon. and gallant Friend is referring to recommendations from the Hart review, which are currently being consulted on as a process that would need to happen irrespective of whether there are Ministers in Stormont. We are ensuring that work is continuing that would need to be done in any event, so that when Ministers are back in Stormont, they can take the decisions necessary to see redress for those victims.

There is nothing in the Secretary of State’s analysis with which I take issue, but the fact is that we find ourselves in the middle of a quite remarkable period of drift. Surely now is the time for us to take more proactive steps and bring in somebody from outside the political system in Northern Ireland—hopefully one who is respected in the way that Senator Mitchell was—to free up this logjam. It cannot be allowed to drift on like this.

I agree that we do not want to see anything drifting on, and I am determined to ensure that it does not. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that an independent mediator or chair may be appropriate. There is not a consensus across the parties in Northern Ireland that that would be helpful, but I am open to exploring whatever the right way to do this is, because I want to see devolution restored and Ministers in Stormont as soon as possible.

There is a party elected to this House that does not take its seats, and yet this institution does not collapse—it continues—but when the same thing happens in Northern Ireland, we allow the institutions to collapse. To follow on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), should we not look at the rules regarding the institutions? Should the Secretary of State not reluctantly set a deadline again for parties in Northern Ireland to take their seats, or perhaps get a group of experienced people in this place to come up with suggestions for how the rules might be changed, so that one party does not have a veto on the running of institutions in Northern Ireland?

I do not think it is any secret that sustainability of the Executive was one of the matters for discussion in the talks 12 months ago, and I am sure it will be a matter for discussion if we are able to find a way to get the parties back together. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has made proposals for a more sustainable Executive. My hon. Friend has great expertise, as former Chair of that Committee, and if he would like to make any suggestions, I am happy to take them to the parties.

I retain the title of the last direct rule Minister of Northern Ireland, and with respect to the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), I hope I can keep that title in perpetuity. In that role, I took hundreds of decisions every week on behalf of this House and the people of Northern Ireland, and now those decisions are being taken without scrutiny. Can the Secretary of State bring together all the interested parties to look at how we can inject greater local scrutiny, pending—I hope—the restoration of those institutions in due course?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience and knowledge of this matter. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act allows for transparency in decision making, but there is of course a constitutional issue when it comes to elected politicians scrutinising the decisions taken by unelected officials. Although I understand the desire to see more scrutiny, we must remember that when the institutions are restored—I hope sooner rather than later—those officials are going to have to return to taking direction from political masters, and having political masters who may have scrutinised their previous decisions is probably not a situation in which we want them to find themselves.

The Secretary of State will know that the duty on her to set an election date for further Assembly elections will shortly become live again. Does she plan to extend that date, or will she set a date for those elections to take place?

My hon. Friend is right that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act sets aside the requirement on the Secretary of State to call an election. That Act expires on 26 March, and we are considering the options.

The Policing Board did not function for many months, as the Secretary of State knows. She recently made political appointments from my party and other parties, including Sinn Féin. Everyone entered without preconditions, and now the Policing Board is functioning. We need to ensure that Stormont and the education and health services do likewise. We have problems. I have issues about fairness, equality and integrity, but I will not put them in front of those services functioning for the education and health of our people. If everyone does likewise, we can get Stormont up and running next week.

May I ask the Secretary of State if she really appreciates the deep sense of anger—continuing anger—among the general public in Northern Ireland that Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to receive their salaries with only minor reductions? The last time I asked the Secretary of State how much it has cost the taxpayer to pay MLAs their salaries since the collapse of the Assembly two years ago, in January 2017, unfortunately the Secretary of State was not able to tell me. However, I am confident she has done her homework since then, and will be able to tell this House and the public whether £12 million has been paid in salaries to MLAs when they have not been doing their full job.

I was able to furnish the hon. Lady with the figure that she requested through a written question, but I would like to make sure that I have the most up-to-date figure before giving her further information. It would perhaps be better for me to write to her, unless such a figure should appear in front of me in the next few moments. I do understand the anger. I do hear that anger—I hear that anger every day in Northern Ireland—and I know that people want to see their politicians back doing the job they were elected to do.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is public frustration with the inertia and inconsistency, which means that on issues A, B and C, she says the Government cannot act because they are devolved, but on issues X, Y and Z, she says that even though they are devolved Westminster has to act? What we need from the Government—from the two Governments, actually—is not passive commentary, but a concerted plan to get the institutions restored. In the meantime, she should take some decisions, and if she does, she will have my support.

I am well aware of the frustration and anger that there is in the general public with the situation we have. As Secretary of State, I have ensured that we do what we need to do to ensure good governance continues in Northern Ireland, but there are of course difficulties, constitutionally, with taking new policy decisions in this place that had not previously been agreed by Ministers in Stormont. I have been very clear that the actions that I have taken—setting a budget, or public appointments, such as to the Policing Board, which was mentioned earlier—were on the basis of continuing existing policies and ensuring that public services can continue to be delivered, but without creating new policy areas or deciding on new policy areas in the absence of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman made the point at the end of his question: the answer is to get Ministers back into Stormont, and I am determined that we will do that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the article published on “ConservativeHome” on 28 January by Lord Bew? He indicated that the backstop, which the Secretary of State supports, would undermine the Belfast agreement and that there is a better way out of the paralysis. Has the Secretary of State studied that article and looked at the better way out of the paralysis?

I have of course read the article, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there are differences of opinion, legally, on that matter. The Attorney General set out the Government’s position—his view on that matter—in this Chamber a few weeks ago.

In the absence of the Assembly, will the Secretary of State set out what progress has been made in dealing with the breach of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the Victorian law that criminalises women seeking reproductive health care?

The hon. Lady has done considerable work and at length on this issue. She has brought forward private Members’ Bills and other matters; I know how strongly she feels about this. She will know that the amendment was passed to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act about the law regarding abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. I have already reported to Parliament on that situation, and I continue to monitor the situation.

Sinn Féin MPs attend this place and get their full wages, so will the Secretary of State at some stage look at that issue as well? There are many issues that could and should be processed because they have cross-community support—for example, in health and education. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is presently doing an inquiry on both those issues. There are indications in the press this week that more power could be devolved to the permanent secretaries of the Departments to enable them to make decisions when it comes to health and education. Has that been considered?

The hon. Gentleman made two points. First, on the pay and conditions for Members of this House, that is of course a matter for this House, not for the Government. On the decision-making power of civil servants, there is a very difficult balancing act—as I said on the question from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson)—to ensure that we allow civil servants the political cover to make decisions without actually making them accountable for those decisions to political masters. We believe we have struck that balance in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act, but we are coming to the end of that period, and I will continue to review the best way in which that can continue to be delivered.

What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the suggestion made by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to look at the role and powers of local councillors as a way to address at least some of the democratic deficit that exists while the Assembly is not sitting?

Both I and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have met NILGA, and it does have some very interesting ideas. However, the powers it is looking at and that it considers may be appropriate to be devolved to local authorities clearly rest with Stormont. They are Stormont’s powers, not our powers to devolve, and it would be a matter for politicians and Ministers in Stormont to make decisions about that. It is probably also worth saying that this Government continue to work with the local councils in Northern Ireland. The Chancellor has announced £350 million for a city deal for Belfast region, and we are working with Derry City and Strabane District Council for a Derry/Londonderry city deal, as well as with rural councils.

Due to Sinn Féin’s ongoing boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly—for two years now—we have lost the significant and important scrutiny and transparency of the budget process. The Secretary of State has indicated that she will set a budget. Will she outline to the House what she is intending to do to get transparency of that process and of both the decisions made by her and the recommendations and decisions taken by the senior civil service in Northern Ireland?

As I said earlier, it is quite right that, in the absence of Ministers in Stormont, a budget is set and properly set so that money can continue to be spent on public services. I followed a process last year that involved all the main parties and the Opposition to ensure that there was as much transparency as possible. It is a budget process, and without my having full Executive powers, there is clearly a limit to the amount I can do. However, I am determined that we will set the budget, and I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s party and others are involved.

One consequence of not having a functioning Executive is that there has been no political oversight of the scandal of Muckamore Abbey. I have raised this personally with the Secretary of State and written to her. She knows that we had a sanctuary for adults with learning difficulties, and that they were physically abused and assaulted by nursing staff. On Friday, the nurses had their suspensions overturned. Why? Appallingly, the Belfast Trust has not provided the evidence and the CCTV to the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

This is a scandal, but it has not had full consideration here and, without Stormont, it certainly will not receive it at home. The Secretary of State knows that, through the Inquiries Act 2005, she is the only person capable of calling a public inquiry. Without a Minister in Northern Ireland, she is the one person who can do it. I ask her to engage earnestly with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and with the families and those who need answers on the failure we have seen in caring for those who need such significant care.

The hon. Gentleman has, indeed, raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. It is truly shocking and the reports that we have all seen from victims are ones that nobody should have to read. He makes the point that Ministers in Stormont would be able to make decisions and deal with this matter. I will continue to consider the points he has made and to review the position.

Secretary of State, the outcome of the historical institutional abuse inquiry—the Hart inquiry—was to be tabled just prior to Sinn Féin pulling the rug out and bringing down the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is inevitable that people will pass away—indeed, people have passed away—in the interim. It is vital that we move ahead and get a decision across the table as to how we will recompense some of these individuals.

The Hart inquiry was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). As I said in response, David Sterling, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, has commenced a consultation, which is ongoing. That would be needed even if there were Ministers in Stormont. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the report was published after the Executive collapsed, and we have therefore had no reaction from Ministers to the recommendations. That makes life very difficult for all of us. We need to see Ministers in Stormont as soon as possible so that they can make the decisions when the consultation ends.