I beg to move that the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the House will be aware, at the end of April, following the appalling killing of Lyra McKee, the Government announced a new set of political talks to restore all the political institutions established by the 1998 Belfast agreement. With the support of the Irish Government, and in accordance with the well-established three-strand approach, we established five working groups involving all five main Northern Ireland parties. Each of the groups has been led by independent facilitators who are all respected current and former senior Northern Ireland civil servants. Over the past nine weeks, over 150 meetings in a range of formats, including roundtable meetings with all five main parties, as well as the UK Government and the Irish Government, and bilateral meetings, have taken place. I want, in particular, to thank the five working group leads for their efforts in supporting this process and the parties for their constructive engagement to date.
There have been signs of an emerging consensus between parties on: programme for Government; the use of the petition of concern; and transparency. On the issues of identity and languages, and on the sustainability of the institutions, the parties have engaged actively. Here, too, there has been some agreement, but no overall consensus on these issues has yet been found. The two largest parties have, over recent days, been considering how an accommodation can be reached on the remaining and contentious issues. From the outset, the Northern Ireland parties have been clear that they want to see the institutions restored, but after nearly 10 weeks the people of Northern Ireland expect to see results. No one should be in any doubt that the fact that this has not yet happened is a huge disappointment.
While I continue to believe that an agreement is achievable, I also have a responsibility to prepare for all scenarios. Provisions allowing limited decision making to ensure the effective delivery of public services to continue in the absence of an Executive expire on 25 August. After that, the Northern Ireland civil service will revert to the restrictions applied to decision making by civil servants following the Buick High Court judgment, leaving Northern Ireland without sufficient powers to ensure good governance from 26 August, continuing indefinitely.
In a few weeks, Parliament will rise for summer recess and there will be no further opportunity to legislate before the existing provisions expire. The Bill will extend the period for devolved Government to be restored by two months, from 26 August to 21 October, with provisions that allow for a further extension of the Bill from 21 October to 13 January next year. A new deadline of 21 October creates the time and space that parties need to reach an agreement, and there is provision for a short extension with the consent of both Houses.
During this period, civil servants in Northern Ireland can continue to take decisions to protect public services, where they are satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so and with regard to the guidance that I issued in November last year. The Bill will also place a duty on me, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to publish a report to Parliament on or before 21 October, setting out what progress has been made towards the formation of an Executive—if that Executive has not already been formed. That will allow Parliament to have continued oversight in the steps that the Government are taking to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
Let me be clear: this legislation is only, and can only ever be, a contingency plan. Today, I mark 18 months in my role as Secretary of State and, in that time, I have stood here on numerous occasions to make clear my commitment to restoring devolution. The Bill does not change that and it does not—and cannot—remove the imperative for a restored Executive. Even with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, numerous decisions are going unmade—important decisions that are needed to improve the delivery of hospital care, reform the education system and improve major transport and infrastructure links. We need to see the Executive back now—not next week, not next month, not in October, but now. I will continue to work intensively with all five main Northern Ireland parties to make that ambition a reality and will continue to offer all the support that I can.
I absolutely echo the Secretary of State’s sentiment that we would like to see the Executive restored now, but if we are going to put this right and ensure that we do not have a repeat in future of what we have had over the past two years and more, that requires reform and a commitment to ensure that never again can one single party hold the entire population of Northern Ireland to ransom and leave them without a Government for such a lengthy period of time. We need to put that right.
I want to make sure that we not only restore the institutions, but do so in a sustainable way, because the people of Northern Ireland deserve to see Government. Not only is it 18 months since I took this job, but tomorrow, it will be two and a half years since the Executive collapsed. We can never again be allowed to go for that period of time without Government in Northern Ireland. I know the commitment that the right hon. Gentleman’s party has made to this, and the commitment of other parties, but let us be clear: the issues that caused the Executive to collapse and which have meant that we have not had an Executive for two and a half years remain, and we need to find a way to bridge that gap. I am bringing this Bill in with the utmost reluctance, but I am doing it to ensure that we have continuity of good governance arrangements in Northern Ireland. However, this is not and can never be a replacement for effective, devolved power-sharing, where locally elected politicians make decisions on behalf of the people who elected them. I know that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with that point—we have discussed it on a number of occasions—as does everyone in this House.
That is why it is clear that ultimately, agreement cannot be imposed by the UK Government, the Irish Government or anyone else. It requires the consent of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. Twenty-one years after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was reached, the need for all the institutions that it established to be fully functioning is there for all to see today in Northern Ireland.
We need to see the same spirit from Northern Ireland’s political leaders today that drove those who made that historic agreement 21 years ago, but while the parties continue to work towards securing an accommodation, the people of Northern Ireland should not have their services put at risk. Responsible government is about making provision for all scenarios, just in case those contingency plans are needed. I hope therefore that the House will support the Bill and will join me in urging all parties to come together.
How does the Secretary of State assess her duty to propose a date for an election? In the absence of these measures, would she have had to call an election in the very near future, or would she have had the power to name a date at some point in the future, rather than perhaps six or seven weeks after the existing powers had lapsed?
The role and duty of the Secretary of State to call an election is as set out in the St Andrews agreement and legislated for in this House. It is very clear that the Secretary of State has a duty to call an election, and there are timeframes set out for that. The Bill removes that duty, but it does not remove the discretion to call an election, if it is felt that it is the right thing to do.
I hope the Bill does not receive Royal Assent. That is a slightly odd thing for a Secretary of State to say, but I hope that the Executive will be restored before Royal Assent so that we have government in Northern Ireland and there is no need for the Bill. The Bill will ensure that all contingencies are covered. It does not preclude the Secretary of State from calling an election should they wish to, but it does mean we have the flexibility and discretion to give the talks the best chance of success. Ultimately, that is what the people of Northern Ireland want, and that is why we want an accommodation reached as soon as possible that restores the Executive immediately. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
I am also bound to remind the Secretary of State that it is 909 days today since Northern Ireland had proper governance. When the Secretary of State brought the original Bill before the House, 652 days had elapsed. I need to remind the House that this is not simply an absence of institutions; there is a vacuum of both politics and decision making that is unprecedented since the signing of the Good Friday agreement. It is unprecedented and very dangerous. It is dangerous for the credibility of the democratic institutions established under the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State referred quite rightly to the brutal murder of Lyra McKee as one of the triggers that brought the parties back to the talks process, but it should not take the brutal murder of a young woman to impel people—be they the Secretary of State or parties in the Northern Ireland—to do their duty. The absence of power sharing is also directly dangerous. For individuals and communities, the absence of those decision-making processes has meant things not being done, and as a result conditions are deteriorating for people across Northern Ireland.
The precedent in the past was very clear. The law is very clear. Where talks and elections have been unable to resolve a situation, succeeding Secretaries of State have brought in direct rule. This Secretary of State and her predecessor were not prepared to do that. I say to the Secretary of State, as she is entitled to say herself, that there has been a failure by the five parties—perhaps, more fairly, of the two parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin —to get round the table and make power sharing work over those 909 days, but she cannot absolve herself from her own responsibilities. Until the law was changed last October, there had been 651 days of drift, during which time decisions were not being made and there was simply no ambition to bring through that decision-making process. Serious decisions were not made because the Secretary of State and others shied away from the controversial decision-making process it involved.
The Secretary of State’s critics would say to her—and I do understand this—that one of the issues is the Prime Minister’s reliance on the votes of the Democratic Unionist party in the Chamber. A brutal and harsh reality is that if one of the parties in Northern Ireland has a very different status from the rest, that tips the balance. Another reality, however, is that this is not good legislation.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the only party in Northern Ireland that is out of step and, indeed, tips the balance in these circumstances is Sinn Féin, which has consistently refused to go back into Stormont although all the other parties would have gone back yesterday?
I am afraid not. Inevitably, it takes different parties to come together to form an agreement. While I understand the political imperative of the finger-pointing that takes place between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the reality is that neither party, in the end, was prepared to reach a position in which matters could be brought to a conclusion—although I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that in the spring of last year Northern Ireland was very close to an agreement, which was then frustrated. We can look back in the history books—and I shall read the right hon. Gentleman’s autobiography with great interest—to see how the blame is allocated, but what is certainly true is that people were very close to a deal at that time. So it does take more than one party to reach an agreement.
Let me now make a point about the adequacy of the Bill. What it certainly does is protect the Secretary of State from being subject to judicial review for being in breach of the duty to call an election if there is no legislative change or no Stormont Assembly, which was a real threat at one time, but I must disagree with the right hon. Lady’s observation that the Bill is about good governance. It is not about good governance; it is about a very marginal protection for Northern Ireland civil servants so that they can make decisions for the people of Northern Ireland. However, most of the decisions that really matter are not being made by the Northern Ireland civil service, and not simply because of Buick. It was the case long before Buick that they did not have the capacity to make those decisions without political cover. The Bill is not about good governance; it is about a very partial way of keeping things ticking over.
One of the odd aspects of this situation is the fact that the backdrop to the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive has been a period in which Brexit has been the biggest issue in United Kingdom politics, not simply in terms of the relationship between the UK and the European Union but, in particular, in terms of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland. During that period of the Brexit conversation, there has been no voice for the Northern Ireland Executive, no voice for the non-Westminster parties in Northern Ireland, and no voice for the people of Northern Ireland, who voted overwhelmingly—let me rephrase that; they voted significantly—in favour of remain. There has been no voice for the business community, no voice for agriculture, and no voice for the many people who have spoken to me, and to the Secretary of State, about the need for a Brexit settlement that will not be damaging and dangerous for the people and the economy of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has spoken about an extension until 21 October, and the hon. Gentleman has been talking about Brexit. During that period, the House might well be very preoccupied with the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, and debating the possibility of our crashing off the cliff. Is this timetable sensible for the consideration of complex issues in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend—has raised a very interesting point, and it is exactly the point that I was about to make myself. The two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative party—one of whom will, we assume, be the next Prime Minister of this country—are currently vying with each other to be the most no-deal Brexit candidate. That is very dangerous for Northern Ireland, and we know it would be disastrous for the whole of the United Kingdom economy. Those who read the article by Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, this morning will have seen a very well argued case for why the whole United Kingdom would suffer, but because she knows Northern Ireland she also makes the point that a no-deal Brexit would be massively dangerous for Northern Ireland.
The simple reality is that we know the following from many different sources. As the outgoing Chief Constable of the PSNI warned, the hard border across the island of Ireland which would inevitably follow a no-deal Brexit would become a potential target for the terrorists. A hard border, by making a target for terrorists, would lead certainly to members of the PSNI being put at risk and also potentially people more generally across Northern Ireland. Those are a serious warnings that we ought to take very seriously.
The Prime Minister said in an answer earlier this year that technical solutions effectively involving moving the border would still mean there is a border. Some involve equipment which could come under attack and some involve a degree of state surveillance that, frankly, I think would not be acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland. We have a very real situation here: a crash-out Brexit is massively threatening to the people of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland more generally.
The hon. Gentleman has expressed the view today and on many other occasions that a crash-out Brexit would be against the terms of the Belfast or Good Friday agreement and this would cause many problems for the people of Northern Ireland. Does he equally believe that any attempt to legislate individually or separately for matters that should be within the ambit only of the Northern Ireland Assembly would also be outside the spirit of the Good Friday agreement?
I do not accept that. In the end, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. In the absence of governance for Northern Ireland, it is inevitable that there will be consideration here in Westminster of what that means for the people and the institutions of Northern Ireland.
If that is what the shadow Secretary of State really does believe and he is not just being selective for his own interests, would he not then agree that, in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland and given that there are important decisions to be made about infrastructure, schools and hospitals, he should be calling on the Secretary of State to introduce direct rule?
I shall come on to exactly that point, but let me continue with this question of a hard border across the island of Ireland and the question of crashing out. The reality is that we know as well that there is not simply a threat around terrorism with that hard border, but there is also a massive threat to the economy of Northern Ireland and the movement of goods including agricultural goods and manufactured goods, which is why the business community and the farmers union in Northern Ireland are both absolutely consistent in their view that that would be massively damaging to the Northern Ireland economy.
But there is a separate issue that the Good Friday agreement involves, and it is very different in the Northern Ireland context from anywhere else in the United Kingdom: the whole question of identity. Identity matters in the Northern Irish context: identity and respect for people’s different identities is the heart and soul of the Good Friday agreement, and we simply cannot allow that to be damaged by crashing out of the European Union—a crash-out Brexit.
That is not a difficult question to answer. The European Union would insist on a border across the island of Ireland. There is no doubt about that. There can be no question of Northern Ireland acting as some kind of back door for smugglers. I am old enough to remember the days when gates were left open on the border and cattle would wander across, by morning and night. Those days have not entirely gone, and we know that smuggling still takes place between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the European Union would not allow the institutionalisation of any facility that made the smugglers’ lives easier.
My question is along similar lines. Let me just probe a little further. I once asked the Prime Minister this question nine times in a seven-minute session without getting a satisfactory answer. If there were to be this dreaded hard border, who would actually construct it? The British would not construct it, and the Irish Republic would not construct it. The shadow Secretary of State says that the EU would insist on it, so would the EU construct it? If so, how would it do so?
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. He says that he can remember the time when gates were left open and animals wandered across the border. He suggests that we would have to avoid that. I am intrigued by this. For the life of me, I cannot understand how he believes that the EU Commission, with all its powers, is going to be able to instruct cows not to wander across the border and not to find holes in hedges, gates that have been left open or lanes that have been left unpatrolled. Could he please tell us how this will work, because I am intrigued?
I am always very generous to the right hon. Gentleman, because his questions are always interesting, if erroneous. The integration of the economies of the UK—particularly Northern Ireland—and the Irish Republic is massively more sophisticated today than it was all those years back. Creating a smugglers charter would be very dangerous. We know—I say this advisedly—that there are already criminal gangs in Northern Ireland who make their money and control other people on the back of the capacity for the illegal transport of goods, services and people. We should treat this with great care.
I will now try to bring my remarks to a conclusion. I say to the Secretary of State, to the Democratic Unionist party, to Sinn Féin and to the other parties that the cost of no Assembly would be enormous in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Indeed, the cost of no Assembly has already been enormous for individuals in Northern Ireland. In particular, it has been big for the victims of historical institutional abuse, at least 30 of whom have died since Lord Justice Hart produced his report. Some of those victims will be in Westminster on Wednesday, and they deserve resolution of those issues. Those who are already deceased will never see that justice. Because of the dysfunctional education system Northern Ireland, we know that schoolchildren are being denied the quality of education that they need. That cannot be given back to them. But perhaps it is health that we ought to look at most closely.
In Northern Ireland questions last week, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) rightly raised the issue of growing cancer waiting lists. There is a simple equation with cancer: early detection means an increased chance of cure; late detection means an increased chance of death. The lack of reform in health is costing people’s lives. The lack of decision making as a result of no Assembly—because the Government would not move towards an insistence that the Executive should re-form, or towards direct rule—will now be costing lives.
That is exactly what we are debating here tonight. We will support this piece of legislation because it will be necessary to get us through the summer and to give the new Prime Minister, and possibly a new Northern Ireland Secretary, the chance to resolve the way forward. We can support this until October, but to go beyond October would be very dangerous.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. This gives me an opportunity to apologise to the House for being slightly late for the beginning of the debate. We are here today because the talks process has unfortunately not brought forward a functioning Assembly. As we have not had any Members of the Legislative Assembly working in a functioning Assembly for two and half years, will he please join me in calling on the Secretary of State to exercise her power to cut the salaries of the MLAs? It is absolutely outrageous to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland that, even though they do not have a functioning Assembly, it is still costing the taxpayer an absolute fortune.
I am bound to have sympathy with the hon. Lady’s comments. We know that the Secretary of State took those powers, but we are still waiting for them to be seen, and, as in other areas, we need to see action.
We will support the Bill tonight, but the Secretary of State told us in October last year that this was a temporary and undesirable measure that would be needed just once, possibly with an extension, and she has to recognise, as we come here again several months on to refill the bucket at the same well, that we are now running out of patience. The Government are running out of credibility and we do not believe that they have a strategy to move Northern Ireland onwards. We have to do better.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. If you will allow me this brief indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is an opportunity for me to thank Members from across the House for electing me to chair the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and to pay tribute and give thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for making it a contest. It is lovely to see my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes in her place today. I want to commend and put on record my thanks to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I also want to pay tribute to two hon. Members from the Opposition Benches: the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—a distinguished member of the Committee —and the terrier-like member of the shadow team, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), both of whom have announced in recent days that they will not be seeking re-election to this House at the next general election. No one can doubt their affection for Northern Ireland or their determination to progress these issues.
This Bill comes at a pressing time for two reasons, and the speeches from the Dispatch Boxes on both sides of the House illustrated them clearly. It would be remiss of me not to put on record what I am sure would be the uniform view of the Select Committee—namely, that it is unfortunate that we have to have another piece of emergency Northern Irish legislation. If we are to seek to deal with Northern Ireland and its politics as we deal with any other part of the United Kingdom, we need to try to remove the otherness of how we deliver the politics of Northern Ireland through emergency legislation. That will be of particular pertinence as we move through the progress of the Bill and deal with the amendments, about which I will have a word or two to say.
The thrust of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the raison d’être underpinning the Bill is clear and compelling. It was welcome to hear what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) said about the Opposition supporting the Bill because, at the end of the day, politics can intervene in all these debates and issues.
This Bill comes about by dint of necessity and is informed by two pressing issues. The first is clearly the lack of a functioning devolved Assembly serving the people of Northern Ireland. As has been made clear in interventions and from both Front Benches, that 909-day absence should be a badge of shame and despondency for everybody involved, but it should not be an excuse to give up hope. As we know, it took the taking of the life of a young woman—a young journalist with her future in front of her—to kick-start the talks and to provide the imperative to get them back up and running.
The talks usually collapse at the end of week nine, or the start of week 10. I believe we are now in week 10. They cannot be allowed to collapse. If there is one thing that has heartened me over the last few weeks in my conversations with representatives of most of the parties involved in the process, and on both sides of the border, it is a clear and tangible determination to see those talks bear fruit. I do not detect that anybody is merely paying lip service to them or playing nice. People are now absolutely apprised of the political duty to make those talks successful and to get devolution back up on her feet.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern and that of many in this House and outside that, although many thought there would be change after the murder of Lyra McKee, dissident republican organisations were in Londonderry and other parts of Northern Ireland at the weekend showing their colours, strength and numbers? Does he not feel that strong action needs to be taken against those dissident republicans, who it seems have not changed their way?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The full weight of the law should be brought to bear on anybody, from any side of the debate, who occasions acts of terror, fear, the destabilisation of the economy or the disruption of civilian life in Northern Ireland. I do not care what colour they wear, what stripe they are or what faith motivates what they think they are doing; the full weight of the law will and must be brought to bear on them. I was very encouraged by the meeting I had, alongside members of the Select Committee, with the Garda Commissioner a week or so ago. I am seeing the incoming Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland this week, and I hope to hear from him, as we heard from the commissioner, an absolute determination to ensure cross-border co-operation in pursuing and bringing to justice anybody who occasions such acts, irrespective of who they are, where they are from or what their motivation is, to face the full brunt of the law. The ordinary people—the Mr and Mrs Smith of Northern Ireland—deserve that, and we cannot fight shy of it.
To respond further to the hon. Gentleman, this weekend —I shall be in Belfast for some of the weekend with the PSNI—should be a good opportunity for Unionists to demonstrate their passionate belief in the Union, and to do so in a responsible, peaceful way, acting as a beacon of what it is to be an engaged citizen in Northern Ireland. I hope that is an opportunity—I am fairly confident it will be—that those organising and taking part will take.
That is one of the backdrops against which this legislation has been introduced: the absence of devolution. The second, as highlighted by the shadow spokesman, is the timetabling of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. For those of us who are concerned about that and who have listened to and taken part in discussions with a variety of opinion—which for me ranges from the Justice Minister of the Republic to representatives of the National Farmers Union, with whom I was speaking this afternoon at an NFU summer reception that I sponsored—it is abundantly clear that it is in the interests of Northern Ireland and of the economy, peace and success of the island of Ireland for the UK to leave with a deal.
Some of the language has not, I suggest, given anybody who has an interest in, and affection for, Northern Ireland a vast amount of confidence. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) suggests that we should operate the border as we do between Westminster and Camden, it shows to me a rather woeful understanding of the history and the pressing problems. When the United States of America effectively says to the Taoiseach, “Go ahead and build your wall. I’m building one in Mexico and it’s gonna be great”—that word that the President always uses—that shows a worrying trend on this issue.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the language is very important. Does he agree that it is equally important for all of us, both in Northern Ireland and across the UK, to understand that this mythical concept of a hard border is not going to come about, not just because none of us wants it in the Republic, Northern Ireland, the UK or the EU, but because it would be physically impossible for anyone to build it?
I want to deal with that point, because it was raised by the hon. Gentleman’s deputy leader, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), with the shadow Secretary of State. While I wish that what the hon. Gentleman has said were true, I do not have his confidence. We neglect two things at our peril. For the first time—they would argue—in 800 years, the Republic of Ireland is part, and will continue to be part, of the big team that is the European Union. By dint of its membership, the Republic has, perfectly properly, subcontracted—for want of a better phrase—to the Commission the negotiations of the withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom Parliament. Therefore, any notion that representatives of the UK and Irish Governments would get together, come up with a plan, take it off to the Commission and say, “As far as we are concerned, this works,” is, I would suggest, for the birds. The Irish are just not going to play that game.
Because the Republic wishes to be an active, positive, proud member of the European Union, I do not think it is eccentric to suggest that, whatever it is that the European Union demands of the Republic in order to police, protect and patrol the only land border between their single market, of which we will no longer be a part, and ours, that would not be an eccentric proposition. Is it an easy proposition to deliver? Of course not. It would be damn difficult. But as we know, where there is a will, there is a way, and frankly some of the proposals that we are hearing for alternative arrangements are for the birds.
My hon. Friend is tremendously courteous. May I congratulate him on doing what the Prime Minister and the shadow Secretary of State did not do? He seems to have got very close to giving a straight answer to the question. The straight answer appears to be that, if the European Union decided that a hard, impermeable, fenced border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic needed to be built, the Irish Republic would accept its orders from Brussels and construct it. That seems to be the answer, does it not?
I will not go into the materials and whether it needs to be a physical gated fence but, in essence, my right hon. Friend is correct in his interpretation of what I said. The Republic will remain part of the European Union, and support for membership of the European Union is going up in the Republic. As has been pointed out by innumerable Republic politicians, favourable opinion polls rarely go down when an Irish politician sets their face against the will of an English or a British politician, and we need to be cognisant of that history.
The hon. Gentleman’s belief that the Irish Government would give in to any demand from the EU that disadvantages their own country is not founded on any fact. The EU has been trying to get the Irish Government to change their corporation tax for I do not know how long, and they have refused to do it.
If the EU were to decide to put a fence along the border, and if the Irish Government were to accept the EU’s decision, does the hon. Gentleman think the EU would be able to find the 50,000 troops to police that border? It took 50,000 troops and policemen to police the border during the troubles, and we still had the smuggling of guns, animals, cigarettes, alcohol and fuel—the lot. If they are going to seal our border, they need to think very carefully about how they do it.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely on the money, and I do not think anybody in this House should in any way undervalue the difficulties and challenges of sealing the border. By the same token, we have never quite appreciated, in this House or in this country, the very deep and passionate belief in the merits of the single market and the “communautaire spirit” that exists within the European Union. I am convinced that the Republic will do everything it believes to be necessary to maintain its credentials as an active and proud member of the European Union and to preserve the integrity of the Republic of Ireland. It is, as I say, not an easy task to deliver but, if pushed, it is a huge risk to presuppose that the cards will all fall in our favour at the witching hour, and I do not think we should be doing it at this time.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
The Republic of Ireland has never indicated that it has any intention of sealing the border, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Despite the fun being poked at the suggestion, any hardening of the border will do two things: it will embolden Sinn Féin to campaign even harder for a border poll to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland from being part of the United Kingdom to being part of a united Ireland; and, dangerously, it will embolden dissident republicans, whom the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. If there is any hardening of the border, any additional cameras or whatever, they will be emboldened to increase their violence, which is already unacceptable. It is lethal, and we do not want it to be renewed or encouraged in any way.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is from Swansea—I am a Cardiff boy—but nobody is perfect.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is right, because we will play with fire if a policy is pursued that adds an accelerant to the demand for a border poll. It saddens me to say it, but I am not convinced that we, as Unionists, would win that poll.
The hon. Gentleman may very well be convinced.
I am also certain that, even if we were to prevail and that precious Union were to be maintained, it would open yet again, and one could not refuse it, a request for a second independence referendum in Scotland. I am saddened to say it, but I do not want to wake up to find myself a subject of the United Kingdom of England and Wales.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not intend it, but does he realise that the comment he just made about a border poll and the likelihood of winning it is exactly the kind of language Sinn Féin want to hear? Of course, the trigger for a border poll in the Belfast agreement is a belief that the people of Northern Ireland have changed their mind on wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom. Is he saying that, in his short time as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, he has detected such a change, despite the fact that election results show a vast majority of people still believe that the Union is the right option?
As any of us who campaigned to remain part of the European Union will understand, it is rather risky to risk something as precious as our Union through a border poll. I hope this will give some comfort to the right hon. Gentleman: I did not say what I said about adding an accelerant to the narrative agitating for a border poll to give succour in any way, shape or form to those who require it. It will simply boil down to demographic mathematics to some extent.
I always think of Chamberlain’s extraordinary line about Czechoslovakia being a faraway country of which we know little, and the one thing we have to understand is that too many people in Great Britain view the politics of the island of Ireland, north or south of the border, as being distant, faraway, different and other. Most of us are bewildered by the lack of interest in and knowledge of the affairs of an important part of our United Kingdom.
We have to understand that those who wish to reunite the island of Ireland—I make it clear that I am not one of them—would point to the fact that the Republic is a modern, liberal, outward-looking European state. It is not the Republic of Ireland of 25, 30 or 40 years ago. The country has changed, and people’s perceptions of it have changed, too. I do not want to be part of anything that risks fragmenting and fracturing our United Kingdom. The ramifications of doing that would be enormous for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, and it would fundamentally undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is why I support the Bill brought forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: it dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, allowing civil servants to continue implementing existing policies while two important matters are, we hope, brought to a successful conclusion.
What are those two important policies? The first is a successful restoration of Stormont. We need a fully functioning devolved Assembly, in order to provide the plurality of views of Northern Irish society and give confidence to the Government of the Republic, the European Commission and Westminster that a stable, devolved Assembly is functioning in Belfast. The second key criterion is successfully landing a deal that works for the United Kingdom as a whole, the Republic of Ireland and the Commission. If we can get that right, in this shortening window of time—the timetable is reflected in the Bill—we are all off to the races; everybody will have had their piece of cake and will have got the result they need. But a no-deal exit, and no restoration of devolution, would be a bad recipe, made of unpalatable ingredients, to ask the residents and citizens of Northern Ireland to digest. I hope that this House will stand firm in supporting the Bill and setting its face against either of those outcomes, which would be deleterious to the people of Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the lecture—sorry, the contribution—of the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), whom I congratulate on his election to Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I found myself agreeing with much of his contribution, which is unusual, but it was good to see him trying to win friends and influence people on the Democratic Unionist party Benches so early in his reign.
There have been developments in the situation in Northern Ireland, both positive and tragic, since the last time we debated this extension, meaning that I have not simply dusted down my last contribution on the subject, although elements will remain familiar. The positive developments have of course, sadly, been driven by the shocking terrorist murder of Lyra McKee, whose loss is still felt deeply across Northern Ireland, but it would be remiss of me not to welcome the talks that have been ongoing since May. In wishing all parties involved well, I urge all of them to be open-minded and open to concession in order to bring about the restoration of not only the Assembly and devolved government, but democracy itself to the people of Northern Ireland, and to do that as quickly as humanly possible.
Nevertheless, I have to reiterate once again that we are extremely disappointed that it has come to this. We, of course, accept that in the circumstances, amid the ongoing legislative vacuum in Northern Ireland, this Bill is again necessary. On the subject of developments, we welcome the Government response, published on Friday, to the submissions to the legacy consultation. Dealing with the legacy of the conflict and meeting the needs of victims and survivors has remained one of the pieces missing from the peace process. It is vital that this issue be dealt with in a comprehensive and inclusive fashion; all sides and all victims must feel that their specific hurt has been addressed and that their needs have been met. There have been a number of consultations over the past decade, but what has been missing is the political will to implement the recommendations that have come from these various reports. The SNP has certainly supported the implementation of the legacy institutions that were agreed by the Governments and the Northern Irish parties in the Stormont House agreement in December 2014.
The SNP believes it is essential that devolved government finally returns to Northern Ireland. In the face of the threat of a no-deal Brexit, the political vacuum cannot be allowed to continue. The murder of Lyra McKee was a terrible reminder of the dangers that a political vacuum can cause in Northern Ireland. Politics must be seen to be working again.
The SNP also welcomes the continued attempts by the two Governments and the political parties to secure a return to local government in Northern Ireland, but it is important that the passing of this Bill is not seen as a sign that the ongoing talks can be delayed until the autumn. To be fair, the Secretary of State said that in her opening remarks. Put simply, the people of Northern Ireland have been waiting too long without a Government. Public services, already facing severe financial strain, have been doubly impacted by the absence of vital political decision making and direction. The Northern Ireland civil service must be commended for its efforts over the past two and a half years, but the limited powers afforded to departmental leads is no substitute for a functioning Government.
Particularly amid ongoing austerity, the absence of decision making is straining Northern Irish public services. Decisions are urgently required to provide direction and funding to those services. As we have heard time and again in this place, current conditions are placing particular pressures on health and education. Let me give one example of that. Figures released in June showed that some 87,500 patients were waiting to be admitted to hospitals in Northern Ireland, which is an increase of 8.5% on the figure for the same period last year. The Prime Minister can make any amount of desperate speeches about reforms to devolution, but it is intolerable to have budgets for Northern Ireland being passed in this place.
A no-deal Brexit would fundamentally undermine the political settlement achieved in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland in 1998. The outgoing Chief Constable, George Hamilton, and the Garda commissioner have confirmed that a no-deal Brexit would necessitate additional security along the border. In addition, the UK’s own economic analysis, released in November 2018, showed that GDP in Northern Ireland would take a hit of 9%. Sadly but unsurprisingly, both Tory leadership candidates have refused to rule out no deal, despite the stark warnings of what it would mean politically and economically in Northern Ireland.
It is a fundamental problem that Northern Ireland has been without a Government throughout the entire article 50 process. It is unacceptable that the region that will be most affected by Brexit has had no official input. The UK Government have consistently ignored the fact that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, just as those in Scotland did. The confidence and supply agreement between the Tories and the DUP has not just denied Scotland billions, but undermined the delicate balance of political relationships in Northern Ireland. Both the British and Irish Governments have been tasked with being co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. The criticism has been repeatedly made that the UK Government, constrained by the deal with the DUP in Westminster, have failed to apply political pressure in the talks when necessary for fear of the consequences to their slim majority in this House.
Let me put a scenario to the hon. Gentleman. Does he believe that if MSPs did not sit for two and a half years, the people of Scotland would be happy for them still to receive their salary, with just one cut having been made? Will the SNP therefore join me—I have called on the Labour party to do this—in calling on the Secretary of State to use her power to reduce the salaries of the Members of the Legislative Assembly? We have no functioning Assembly and no expectation of having one any day soon, and it is a disgrace that MLAs continue to receive their salaries. Will he endorse that view?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have sympathy with what she says about the MLAs’ salary situation, because it is imperative that they get to the table and get the Government back up and running, but this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland; SNP Members do not generally vote on or intervene in these issues.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said in the earlier part of his speech. He mentioned the pressure on finances for hospitals, and for our health and education services in Northern Ireland. Will he reflect on what he has just said? I would be more convinced that he was worried about those issues if he were to reflect on the fact that MLAs have received well over £12 million in salary since the Assembly collapsed in January 2017.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, and she is obviously and understandably passionate about the issue, but it is for the parties in Northern Ireland to get back to work and justify their salary. It is not for the SNP and its Members to justify that situation; it is for the MLAs and the parties in Northern Ireland to do that.
The confidence and supply deal has also undermined the devolved settlement by breaching the Barnett formula, and so denying the Scottish people a total of £3.4 billion thus far. If a new confidence and supply deal is struck with a new Prime Minister in the coming weeks, there simply must be a guarantee that any financial package will be subject to Barnett, and that Scotland will receive its fair share of central Government spending.
On the importance of restoring Stormont, I turn back to Brexit, which is wreaking havoc on every aspect of politics on these islands. Indeed, it has cost the Prime Minister her job and looks likely to lumber us with the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Despite the Conservatives’ hustings over in Northern Ireland, the complete ignorance shown by the would-be Prime Ministers has been shocking, as the hon. Member for North Dorset illustrated. No doubt that has been frustrating, to say the least, for the Secretary of State, particularly at this sensitive time.
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 Brexit has prolonged the impasse. The fate of Brexit is in many ways tied to the process in Northern Ireland, so it is vital that Northern Ireland’s voice be heard. As Members may have heard said from these Benches on the odd occasion, Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the EU, but it also bears repeating that 56% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Government have continued to ignore those voices, and now we all face a new Prime Minister seemingly hellbent on a hard Brexit and the economic vandalism that that will bring.
As we all know, Northern Ireland will be hit hardest by a disastrous no-deal scenario. All sectors state that that must be avoided at all costs. According to the Government’s own figures, crashing out would shrink the Northern Irish economy by 9%. Business leaders have warned that that would be the equivalent of another financial crisis. All this despite the fact that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain. Such massive economic damage could easily be avoided if the UK decided to revoke article 50 and keep the best possible deal for all parties, which is full EU membership. It is, of course, also open to the UK to pursue a policy of staying in the European single market and customs union; there would then be no need for new economic land or sea borders, and trade and relationships—business and personal—would continue to flourish between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and beyond.
To conclude, we will not oppose the Bill for all the reasons I have outlined. On the various amendments tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team and others for Committee tomorrow, it is a long-held principle that we on the SNP Benches do not vote on matters devolved to other parts of the UK that solely affect that country. We are not blind to the circumstances in Northern Ireland, but we intend to stick to that principle.
I have spoken to campaigners on the issues concerned, and have been open and honest with them. Whether or not we as individual Members of Parliament are sympathetic to their cause, we fundamentally believe that legislation must be made with the agreement of the people or their representatives. I recognise that that position may displease some, but these issues and many others highlight the real and urgent necessity for the talks to succeed quickly. We sincerely hope this is the last time that a Secretary of State has to come to the House to seek such an extension, and wish her and all the parties involved the very best as they try to restore the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).
I seem to be one of the few people in the Chamber who feels uncomfortable with the legislation. It is now two and a half years—a world record—since the Assembly last sat. Every week since then, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard about the impact that having no devolved Government is having on the ordinary lives of ordinary people in Northern Ireland, whichever community they are from. We have heard about Police Service of Northern Ireland funding; about the fact that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom without a cancer strategy; and about the suicide strategy. Suicides have doubled since the Good Friday agreement, yet the Protect Life 2 strategy is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere in Stormont, while young men in particular are taking their own lives.
We have heard about equal marriage and abortion. I think most people know my views on abortion, but the devolved Assembly must be the place to make such decisions. The absence of any decision making means that people who want to spend the rest of their lives together are not able to do so.
We have heard about air passenger duty, which may seem a minimal issue in comparison to some of these life-and-death decisions, but it is an area of co-operation under the Good Friday agreement. The Select Committee recently heard about the impact of air passenger duty on short-haul flights and the difference that is making to Northern Ireland’s economy compared with that of the Republic of Ireland, where there is no air passenger duty. That might seem a trivial example, but it is a massive issue for the economy of Northern Ireland.
On school reforms, we have heard from Sir Robert Salisbury himself about the imperative to reform schools, particularly rural ones, in Northern Ireland, but the civil servants there cannot make a decision because political judgments need to be made.
Although necessary, this legislation is just kicking the can down the road. The Select Committee heard from MLAs from various parties that there is unlikely to be an Assembly. We have to be realistic here: we can keep saying that we wish they would get back round the table, that we want them to get back round the table and that we want an Assembly, but the reality is that MLAs are saying to us that it is unlikely that there will be a functioning Assembly before the end of the year, so we are heading towards three years without an Assembly for the people of Northern Ireland, with no decisions being made.
What are we saying to the civil servants in Northern Ireland? We have heard about the Buick ruling. Every day, the civil service there is making difficult decisions that they could be challenged on in court. These civil servants did not go into their jobs to have to make political decisions in the absence of Ministers. With the can kicking we see with this legislation, we are enabling parties such as Sinn Féin to keep going round in circles and not to get back seriously to the table.
I fully agree with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about MLAs’ salaries. It was £9 million and it is now £12 million that has been spent on their salaries, although the Secretary of State has reduced their salaries quite significantly. They say they are doing constituency work, but while they are being paid a decent salary—probably more than the average man and woman in Northern Ireland—they have no incentive to get back round the table. There are MPs in Northern Ireland who can do that constituency casework, and there are now MEPs in Northern Ireland who can do that constituency casework. Until MLAs’ salaries are reduced significantly, if not completely, they have no incentive to get back round the table.
We are now starting to see cross-community marches throughout Northern Ireland. We had the “We deserve better” marches: 14 organised protests with thousands of people joining rallies to demand that their elected representatives get back to work and get back to running Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland absolutely deserve better.
In this place, we need to show leadership. We need to take hold of the situation and look at the various issues. For me, there are three options on the table for us here. I am not in favour of direct rule in any shape or form, but we have to look at some of the significant issues and, in the absence of an Assembly, ask the people of Northern Ireland which issues that matter to them they want legislation to be passed on first.
We passed some small-scale legislation on the renewable heat incentive, but because we had to do that in such a rushed, emergency way, we did not make a very good fist of it. We now see farmers in Northern Ireland being paid significantly less for their tariffs compared with competitors in the UK and southern Ireland.
On institutional abuse, David Sterling has begged for this place to pass legislation because, as we have heard, more than 30 people who were affected and abused have died waiting for compensation. People want justice and they want compensation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of historical institutional abuse. Does it concern her that there are people in this Chamber who are perhaps more concerned about other issues that divide people in Northern Ireland than about something like historical institutional abuse, which unites all the political parties? It is something that we could be doing together, united, rather than some of the issues in tomorrow’s amendments that are going to divide people very much.
I fully support what the hon. Lady says, because issues such as historical institutional abuse have cross-party support in Northern Ireland and in this place and would be quick and easy to deal with. That would bring justice to those people who suffered at the hands of institutions over many years.
I wholeheartedly agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). Other issues include the contaminated blood scandal, which is another issue on which there is cross-party support. It would not be controversial and could be done, but it is not being done; instead, people seem to want to pick at a particular crisis point that causes great anxiety and, indeed, great opposition across parties and across the community in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that some of the proposals and some of the amendments would result in really bad legislation on issues that people care passionately about?
I absolutely agree that it is important. We know from the emergency legislation on the renewable heat incentive that we passed in this place a few weeks ago that, when we rush through legislation and attach it to other pieces of legislation, it does not work out well. There is absolutely no scrutiny of what is happening in Northern Ireland. It is only the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that is doing any scrutiny at the moment, so this is a case not just of who is passing the legislation, but of what scrutiny is happening to ensure that that legislation is effective.
Although from my perspective—as someone who comes from an Irish nationalist Catholic community in the south of Ireland—it would break my heart to see direct rule imposed on Northern Ireland, we cannot in all honesty let the current situation go on. The history books tell us about the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland in the ‘60s when Catholic Irish communities fought for one man, one vote. We celebrated 100 years of women getting the vote, but the Catholic communities in Northern Ireland have only had a vote since the ‘60s. They have one man, one vote, but no representation in this place and now no representation in Stormont. I would prefer that we were passing legislation in this place on issues that unite people, such as those related to contaminated blood and historical abuse—issues that make a real difference and that have a real impact on people’s lives.
I have already touched on the suicide strategy. Death rates from suicides have doubled in the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement was signed. Establishing a strategy would make a real difference and save lives. There is no mental capacity legislation in Northern Ireland, and yet, a few months ago, we replaced the existing mental capacity legislation here with updated legislation to protect healthcare professionals, who make difficult choices for people who have lost the ability to make decisions, and to protect the most vulnerable patients who no longer have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. In Northern Ireland, if a person lacks capacity, there is no legislation to protect them or their loved one, and there is no legislation to protect the healthcare professionals looking after them.
Then there is the issue of public sector funding. Time and again, we hear about health funding and about education. Teachers had to fight tooth and nail and almost had to go on strike because no one could make a decision about giving them a pay rise. We hear about the PSNI from the chief constable, who, from one month to the next, does not know if he has the budget to pay the wages of the staff. Two and a half years on, that is no way to be running a country. We must show some leadership here. We cannot keep kicking the can down the road when we know that parties such as Sinn Féin are using this as an opportunity to score political points. They have no intention of getting back round the table.
Apart from this legislation, I have three options for the Minister. The first is that we start to pass laws in this place that have cross-party support in Northern Ireland and in this place that can make a real difference to people’s lives. The second option would be to have an election. The longer that we leave the situation as it is, the closer we get to when the natural elections would be held. It is now two and a half years—three years in January. If an Assembly suddenly got up and running, they would have only a year and a bit to make any policies and to come to any decisions, so let us look at that as an option. The third option, and we have touched on it before in this place, is the Assembly of the willing. There are parties across the community that are willing to get back round the table in Stormont, form an Assembly and an Executive and start running the country. We seem to manage fairly well in this place without members of Sinn Féin taking their seats. I am pretty sure that the same would be true in Stormont. When there are MLAs from across the community and from parties such as the Alliance party willing to take their seats and willing to make those decisions, we should get them working. The only people suffering at the moment are not those of us here in this place, but the people of Northern Ireland. Whether we are talking about abortion, on which everyone here knows my views, equal marriage, the renewable heat incentive or air passenger duty, it is the ordinary people in Northern Ireland who are suffering every day that ticks by without an Assembly.
The hon. Lady talks about Sinn Féin. Does she agree that, although its members do not take their seats here, we seem to do fairly well without them? The door is open for them to come in. In the absence of their doing so, when there has been much talk about, and reference to, other politicians who do not carry out their full range of duties and who are getting paid, we should remember that this House has a decision to make about the members of Sinn Féin who do not attend here and who claim hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. That does not seem to be raised half as much as other issues.
I do not want to attack any political party, but we do have to call out those Members, particularly when communities who fought civil rights movements in the ‘60s to get representation do not have representation in this place or in Stormont. We should call them out. If anyone else was not turning up at work, their wages would be stopped pretty quickly. If people want to make points of principle, fine, but do not take the money that goes with the job.
My very good and hon. Friend is talking absolute sense. It is about time that we imposed option one, which means, despite our not having direct rule, making some laws that will help the people in Northern Ireland. We should also impose option three, which is creating a Stormont of the willing and getting on with it. We have mucked around for two and a half years. That is a disgrace, and it is time that we showed some leadership. It is also about time that the Government showed some leadership on that, too.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
I do feel quite strongly on this matter. I would bet a lot of money—not that I am a betting person—that we will be back here in October, looking to extend things further, and then again in January. There are other political reasons why some parties do not want to get round the table, and their focus is not necessarily on the Assembly. My hon. Friend is quite right: we need to show leadership in this place for the good people of Northern Ireland. We are a United Kingdom, and it cannot be right that, week after week, we see in the Select Committee that Northern Ireland has been left further and further behind, whether it is in health, education, police and many other issues that we will be debating tomorrow.
I am starting to feel uncomfortable about voting for more can kicking and about allowing this process to go on much longer. The people from all communities of Northern Ireland deserve much, much better than this. If the politicians and the MLAs will not get round that table, we either start an Assembly of the willing with those who will do so, or we need to start making some decisions in this place.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). Her final statement, outlining the choices facing the Government, which was very pertinent and important. As she said, we cannot continue to remain in this situation, which I have described as limbo, where we have no decisions at all being made in part of the United Kingdom. In western Europe we are the only part of a modern advanced democracy where people who are entirely unelected and unaccountable wield enormous power. And that power is mainly used to do nothing, to stop things—they say that they can’t, that they won’t and that they have no remit, which is an appalling state of affairs in a modern democracy. The only people I suppose who have more power than the permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland are people like European Commissioners, probably equally unaccountable to many people as well. We are leaving the European Union to restore accountability, but in Northern Ireland we are passing legislation to increase and prolong the rule of permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland—with a few exceptions, of course.
There have been certain times when the Government have brought forward legislation to intervene—the Budget is the biggest example, but there are others. We remember that, as part of the Stormont House agreement, Sinn Féin members actually supported and were willing to have direct rule on the issue of welfare payments, because they did not want to put up their hands for welfare reform, changes and cuts in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and were quite happy to see it transferred to Westminster. We talk about their opposition, but to those Members who think that direct rule is such a terrible thing in Northern Ireland that nationalism would be outraged, I say that they should just remember that Sinn Féin actually encouraged it and wanted it to happen when it came to difficult decisions in Northern Ireland. Sometimes people actually find it very convenient to allow Westminster to take these decisions when it suits them, but, of course, it is an absolute constitutional outrage when it is a different type of decision to be made, and then all sorts of terrible consequences can emerge.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who is a good friend, for giving way. Is it not ironic that if Stormont was to be reconstituted without Sinn Féin and we started passing a few laws, Sinn Féin MLAs might suddenly want to come to the table and be part of it, because their electorates might say, “Get in there and speak for us, because you’re not speaking for us at the moment and that should happen”? In a way, doing something like this might actually encourage change.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is some merit in incentivising people to get in, take responsibility and get devolved government up and running, whether that is by a coalition of the willing, as it has been put in Northern Ireland, or by saying, “We’re going to get on and make some decisions here.” It might actually encourage people who are reluctant to get into the Assembly, and who claim that they are interested in equality, rights, health, education and all of that, but do not make it a priority. They do not even make Brexit a priority; they say that there are other issues that are more important to them. If those decisions were made, it might incentivise them to get in there and take their place round the Executive table.
It needs to be said—Members of my party have already said this—that the Democratic Unionist party and the other parties, apart from Sinn Féin, would form the Executive tomorrow without any preconditions. The position we find ourselves in is the direct result of conditions being imposed by one party. Of course we have to try to find an agreement to get the Executive up and running, and we are fully committed to the talks process currently under way in Northern Ireland. There are grounds for belief that we need to continue to work at that and to work our way through the issues, although we have also said that it would be far, far better to talk about the issues that are of concern to Sinn Féin, which are not by any means the big issues that there were in the past—they certainly do not compare with the outstanding challenges we face in health and education, jobs and investment, infrastructure, and all the issues that the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned, on which there is a large degree of consensus.
We are suggesting that we should get the Executive up and running to deal with all those issues and have the talks in parallel, alongside dealing with the issues that matter to all the people of Northern Ireland. That is the sensible way forward. Sadly, when that was suggested about a year and a half ago by our party leader, it was rejected within 20 minutes by Sinn Féin. That is an incredible position to adopt. If they really cared about equality and rights, health and education, and our children and older people, they would want to take the powers to deal with those issues. Instead, we are told that there are other issues that take precedence. I go around to the doors and talk to people. Our party has a good record of engagement with people on the doorsteps and out there among the communities. That is why, alone of the four major parties in Northern Ireland, our vote went up in both the council and the European elections, which is unique in this House—apart from for the Liberal Democrats, maybe, who sadly are not present for this debate. The fact of the matter is that our record was vindicated in those recent elections, although we want to see an Executive that is inclusive of everyone.
My right hon. Friend has given us a long list of issues that need to be addressed and that could be addressed if an Assembly was up and running. Despite the fact that the shadow Secretary of State has today tried to make excuses for Sinn Féin, does my right hon. Friend accept that their excuses are becoming increasingly thin and threadbare? Last week they could not even turn up to talks because they were preparing for 12 July, strangely enough. Here is a party that claims to be nationalist and republican, yet they could not turn up for talks in the preparation for 12 July.
I suppose it is a sign of the success of Orangefest that it is now so inclusive that even Sinn Féin is now taking time off to prepare for it. I do not think there is any reason why the talks should not continue over the summer—even, if necessary, in a different form. I do think there is any need to say that the talks should cease.
With the indulgence of the House, I want to mention a couple of issues that have been raised during the debate, one of which is Brexit. I am not going to dwell on it, because there will be plenty of opportunities to talk about Brexit in the coming days, but I accept that it is to our detriment that we do not have the Executive up and running. Indeed, we have made that point to Sinn Féin: if they are concerned about Brexit, which is such a major issue, why do they boycott the Executive, the Assembly and, indeed, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, to which they are elected? Those people say that they have no voice, but they have stripped themselves of their voice, although they are heard by the Government, who meet them and everybody else. But if they voluntarily say, “I’m not going to turn up and I am going to boycott things”, they can hardly blame everybody else.
We have heard that an Irish hard border is now inevitable in the event of no deal. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) on his elevation to the chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and I wish him well. We look forward to continuing our conversations and working with him. But I thought that his speech was somewhat depressing and that it placed more emphasis on the pessimistic side of Unionism, instead of talking it up and so on. I am not as pessimistic as he is on the outcome of a border poll, nor regarding the conditions in which a border poll would be called. I think that people have a better understanding of Northern Ireland than they did of Czechoslovakia in 1938, given the number of debates we have, the view of the Conservative and Unionist party, and our work with the Conservative party on these issues.
One issue that the Irish Government are now having to face up to, and one that they are not terribly comfortable about addressing, is the question put to them increasingly and very recently by the German and French Governments —that is, “In the event that there is a no deal, what will you do in Dublin to police or protect the single market?” Given that the Irish Government have been very clear that they will not impose any hard border—checks, controls and all the rest of it—in the island of Ireland, there is only one inevitable outcome; and there is a precedent for it, isn’t there? Nobody in the Brexit debate ever mentions the issue that has now actually been solved in the question of Brexit: the free movement of people.
We talk a lot about the free movement of animals, goods and services, but one of the biggest issues that people forecast might be a problem was the free movement of people on the island of Ireland. In fact, a lot of the documentaries and various TV programmes concentrated on how, years ago, people used to be stopped at checkpoints, were not allowed to come over the border to work, socialise and all the rest of it. But nobody is going to interfere with the common travel area. The common travel area—which, of course, predates European Union membership—works so successfully because there are no checks between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, but the checks are done at all points of entry into the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom.
The Irish Republic is, as the hon. Member for North Dorset has said, a modern and very Europhile country, which is part of the EU—and it is absolutely proper that it should be if that is what it wishes to be—but it has voluntarily agreed not to sign up to all the Schengen arrangements in order to protect the free movement of people on the island of Ireland. And yet we are told that, in order to protect the single market in terms of goods, services and all the rest of it, there will have to be a hard border in Ireland. Of course there does not have to be. As Members of my party have said over and over again, there is no desire or political will on the part of any party in the Irish Republic, here or in Europe to impose such a border, nor would it be physically possible. It cannot be done—so let us dismiss some of the notions out there.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to make her points in her speech, when I look forward to being able to interrogate her on some of them.
Somebody has said that this would be a smugglers charter—as if we do not have differential rates of VAT now. We have differential rates of excise duty and different immigration systems. This House may be surprised to know that, believe it or not, the Garda Siochana—the Irish police force—and the PSNI, the Northern Ireland police force, do stop cars and public transport either side of the border and check the occupants’ passports. They do carry out checks on the island of Ireland and have done so for many years. We recently passed laws in relation to countering terrorism that gave them more powers at the border. We have traffic cameras on the border. When travelling from Belfast to Dublin, there are police cameras and security cameras. So the idea that somehow the world is going to end in these circumstances is complete and utter nonsense.
No. I have already indicated my position to the hon. Lady. I look forward to hearing her speech—I am sure she will make one on a matter of such importance to the House.
Another issue that was raised was what might happen now in terms of elections. One of the options that the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned was that we could have an election. Under the law, that is the default position in due course. Of course, as I said, we have no concerns about another election in Northern Ireland. The position of the Democratic Unionist party is that we are not particularly convinced that that will actually advance things terribly. I do not think the results would be all that different. I was rather surprised by the Electoral Commission saying how outrageous it is that we are being denied the opportunity to have an election in Northern Ireland, since if we were to have an election when this legislation runs out, it would be the third Northern Ireland Assembly election in three years—and we have already had five elections since 2016. We had the Assembly election in 2016, another Assembly election in 2017, the UK-wide referendum in 2016, the general election in 2017, and the local government elections and European elections in 2019. It is not as though the people of Northern Ireland have not had the opportunity to express their views. During that time, the issues have been well explored and well debated, and people have had their say. We do not worry about an election—I am just wondering what on earth it would actually accomplish.
The way forward is to get the Assembly up and running or, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), seemed to indicate, to get on with taking decisions here. He talked about the position of the Northern Ireland parties, but it is sad, on this Bill, to see a breakdown in the normal cross-party, bipartisan approach on Northern Ireland. Labour has tabled amendments on a series of matters that are devolved in Northern Ireland, that are the preserve of the Assembly and the devolved space. We have the long list of issues that the hon. Member for Lewes raised, including historical institutional abuse, contaminated blood, justice, schools, health and the mental health and suicide strategy, but all that is left to one side.
Of the issues that it is now proposed to legislate on, I am quite easy about some of them in terms of their substance. However, Labour Members have been told, and understand, that this not only breaches the principle of devolution but is deeply unhelpful to the current talks process in Northern Ireland. That has the real danger—they are well aware of this but have proceeded nevertheless—of setting back the prospects of getting an agreement over the coming weeks. When the shadow Secretary of State is dishing out criticism to others and talking about failures of others, they really need to look at themselves and examine whether this is actually the most sensible approach, given that the purpose of this legislation is just to keep a stand-still position for another couple of months. Even though we believe that that is an entirely unsatisfactory position, at least it is better than having no powers at all and nothing happening in Northern Ireland.
On the issue of MLAs’ pay, I am all for docking the pay of those who do not want to work. Of course, those who do want to work are being held back by those who do not. I would like to see a bit more concentration and attention on the millions—tens of millions—of pounds that have been given to Sinn Féin without any accountability. Without having to put in any receipts or being subject to the same parliamentary procedures as the rest of us, it is getting the equivalent of Short money to spend on political campaigning. There is not a word about that. It is as though it does not matter. The reality is that these people take their seats and get their money but do not do their job in this Chamber. On the issues about elected representatives not turning up and not being able to do the job, these people do it voluntarily. Most MLAs are prevented from doing their work by the actions of Sinn Féin ironically. So we need to have a little bit of balance in all this.
I say to the House that we will support this Bill as it goes forward. We do not believe that it is right to introduce amendments that interfere with the devolved space. We are looking at amendments that would apply UK-wide and would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Very, very soon the Government will have to recognise that they cannot go on with this current position. It has been described as kicking the can down the road. We can call it what we like, but we have to get decision making back into a proper shape for whatever happens over Brexit. We have to do it for the sake of our health service and getting the waiting lists under control, for our schools, which are suffering a resources crisis, for people with mental health problems, for the suicide strategy and the Bengoa report—all these massive issues. We need to give the police the proper powers that they have in the rest of the United Kingdom to tackle unexplained wealth—and gangs. We in Northern Ireland need the power to do that more, perhaps, than other parts of the United Kingdom, given the continued existence of paramilitaries and their insidious influence in communities.
We are probably now nearing the end game in relation to this limbo land. If we do have direct rule, it will then of course be open to Members of this House to legislate across the board, but what I object to is the selective choosing of areas on which to legislate while ignoring the vast range of issues about which people are so concerned.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) —we agree on so many subjects. In my brief contribution, I will pick up on one particular theme that he raised.
I am sure that all hon. Members will regret that we are here today to debate this Bill, which extends, yet again, the time for forming an Executive in Northern Ireland. We had all hoped, when we debated a similar Bill last autumn, that the Executive and Assembly would be back in place by now. I hope that the Secretary of State will therefore give us an update on, as she said last year, the
“clear goal of restoring the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 347.]
As that has not happened, this Bill is being brought forward with the stated—and limited—intent of safeguarding the continued delivery of public services, achieved by clarifying the powers of the Northern Ireland civil service to take certain decisions in the absence of Ministers.
Like last year, numerous amendments have been tabled to the Bill to raise important points about policy in the Province. The wide-ranging scope of the amendments reinforces the need for the Assembly to be back up and running as soon as possible but, as I said last year, this short Bill should not be about deciding on key devolved policy issues, which are more properly decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected accountable representatives. This Bill is very narrow in scope and that narrow scope should be respected. It is not a Bill that should be used to upset the devolution position. Will the Minister comment on that when he concludes? As the House of Commons explanatory notes say,
“It is simply a series of measures to continue to manage the current period without Northern Ireland Ministers.”
Is the hon. Lady aware of the briefing passed out this evening by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which indicates that the amendments tabled to the Bill are about usurping the powers placed in Northern Ireland and bringing them back here? It goes on to say that one amendment would force an oral statement to be made in the House of Commons that would normally be made in the Assembly.
I shall comment briefly on that and, if necessary, in more detail in Committee.
This House has agreed that many areas of law and policy should be devolved to the different countries that make up the United Kingdom. Devolution means we accept that we have differing policies in different jurisdictions, and how money is spent can differ between them. There are amendments tabled to the Bill that seek to allow Westminster to materially alter some sensitive areas of the law. I hope the Government will continue to argue that those are matters for Northern Ireland, as has consistently been the Government’s line to date. Will the Minister confirm that? In the debate in the other place on last year’s Bill, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said:
“the only statutory authority with authority to alter the statutes and statutory instruments is the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland and Ministers of that Assembly. There is no power whatsoever in the United Kingdom Parliament to interfere with that while it is devolved.”
That is the position we should uphold.
I am especially concerned about the amendments tabled to the Bill that seek to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. I will speak further to those amendments should they be selected for debate in Committee, although I sincerely hope they will not be, as they are out of scope. As Lord Mackay also said in that debate,
“The position is that abortion has been made a devolved subject.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 October 2018; Vol. 793, c. 1233.]
I hope that the Members who tabled those amendments will consider withdrawing them before Committee tomorrow.
It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour from the north-west of England, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I do not intend to detain the House for long, not because I do not have a lot to say, but because I hope that I will get the chance to say it tomorrow if my amendment is selected and I am lucky enough to catch the Chair’s eye.
Today, two friends and colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)—announced that they will not be standing at the next election. I hope we have the chance to pay further tributes to them, but given that we are discussing Northern Ireland business, I will do so now. For many years, they have both shown passion for and commitment to Northern Ireland and raised issues about it consistently in the House. On a personal level, ever since my very early years of political activism in the Labour party, they have both strongly supported me and given me very wise counsel—often conflicting counsel, but wise none the less. I have retained a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North rejecting me for a job in his office as his parliamentary assistant, but he was kind enough to say that it was because I was over-qualified for the job.
I am afraid that I have to adopt a somewhat more negative tone when talking about the Government’s approach to this business. I commend the Leader of the House for making good on his promise that we would get more time to debate these issues, but quite frankly, as they say in my erstwhile part of the world—South Armagh—the Government were trying to pull a stroke, and they got caught. They were trying to force this legislation through the House in a matter of hours, to avoid any debate or discussion on the numerous issues listed by the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), and particularly to avoid the possibility of amendments on what Democratic Unionist party Members understandably say are more contentious issues, but which none the less are being debated and discussed widely among the community in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have received dozens and dozens of emails from constituents and those who are not constituents urging the House to respect the devolution settlement. Since it was the Labour party, led by Tony Blair as Prime Minister, which led to the successful conclusion of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and put in place the devolution settlement, how do the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues feel that this House is showing respect for the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland by tabling their amendments?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If she will allow me, I will come back to that later in my remarks.
I want to, perhaps unusually, issue a defence of politicians in Northern Ireland. In particular, we should recognise the commitment that has been shown by Members in this place—I know that the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) have been involved in the talks—to meet their responsibilities here, but also to be intensively involved in negotiations in Belfast.
I know lots of politicians in Northern Ireland who represent the many different political parties there. I am yet to meet one who does not want to do a good job. I am yet to meet one who does not care about the people they represent. When people say, “They should just get on with it and come to an agreement,” it reminds me of people in my constituency who say to me, “We should just get on with Brexit.” Actually, what they want is for us to get on with their version of Brexit, and that is similar to the negotiations in Northern Ireland.
I understand that people are frustrated; that is one reason why I tabled the amendment. But to say, “Just get on with it” does not take into account the fact that what politicians in Northern Ireland are trying to find agreement and a common way forward on are issues that have been intrinsic to the terrible conflict we had and, indeed, over many centuries of Irish history. They are not easy to resolve. Of course, compromise will need to be found, but 20 years on from the Good Friday agreement, these are essentially the most difficult issues that we are left to deal with.
I want to be clear about my interpretation of the Bill’s scope. I hope that this is not an arbitrary change of date. The Secretary of State presumably has given some thought to the period of extension and why it is needed. The Bill is not just about standing still. It gives the Government the power to introduce regulations by statutory instrument. It is an acknowledgment and an admission of failure by both Governments and the political parties to find an agreement. However difficult it might be to do that, as I have acknowledged, there has not been much sign of progress since the Assembly collapsed in January 2017. There is a huge democratic deficit in the representation of people in Northern Ireland in what was their devolved legislative lawmaking body, because quite simply, laws are not being made. We have heard about the myriad issues affected by that.
I have tabled an amendment on the extension of equal marriage to Northern Ireland, to bring it into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and, indeed, the rest of the island of Ireland. People in my constituency who love each other and who happen to be of the same sex can get married. If people in Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Cork and Galway can do so, why should people not be able to in Belfast? It is a simple contention, and one that the Secretary of State knows I have made many times before.
I hope that the Government will acknowledge that I try to be circumspect in my interventions in Northern Ireland and the degree to which I speak on it and make my views known because I have always been clear that I am an MP from Northern Ireland, but not an MP for Northern Ireland. I am not a proxy for any person there and I cannot claim to have a mandate to represent any person there. However, I hope that the House accepts that I do care deeply about the place I still call home and that, when making interventions or pronouncements on issues affecting it, I do so because I want to be as helpful as possible.
That is why I am disappointed at the attitude of the Government on this particular issue. I and the Love Equality campaign have tried to be generous and patient, and we have not received an awful lot of reciprocity. There is no tangible progress to which we can point. We also need to say very clearly when we are talking about devolution and respect for the devolution settlement that the Assembly has not met since January 2017. The Government have not functioned since 2017, so when we are talking about devolution in Northern Ireland, are we talking about a concept, rather than a reality?
The fundamental point about my amendment, to answer specifically the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), is that it does several things. First, it respects the ongoing talks process. It invokes, in fact, the date set by the Secretary of State as the next deadline for progress on restoring the Assembly as the date by which to have taken some action on this issue. So it is a challenge to politicians in Northern Ireland—whether they are passionate about being the ones to introduce same-sex marriage themselves or equally passionate about opposing the introduction of same-sex marriage—to get the Assembly back up and running. That is the first thing.
The second thing is that we would then legislate for same-sex marriage here if the Assembly is not back up and running by October 2019 because, as I have contended and challenged, LGBT people in Northern Ireland should not have to wait any longer for their rights, and this is an issue about rights. However, were the devolved institutions to be restored, which is something I know we all want to see, the power would revert to the Assembly, so if it so chose, it could simply change the law. I hope this would not be an interim step—in truth, I think it would be inconceivable that the Assembly would seek to overturn it if it were introduced here. None the less, that is the fundamental point. So it is my strong view that the amendment is respectful of devolution and that it is in scope of the provisions of the Bill, which are directly about the formation of the Executive.
My hon. Friend has my wholehearted support on this Bill, not least as a proud devolutionist. I represent Wales and I am proud of our devolution settlement. We all want to see the devolved Administration functioning again in Northern Ireland. The very patient, calm and constructive way in which he has constructed the amendment and the way he has set it out is exactly the way to go forward. Does he agree that, fundamentally, this is about listening to those people whose rights are currently being denied in Northern Ireland? They have spoken to many of us, and I speak to many of them on a regular basis. They have seen the Assembly actually vote in favour of equal marriage and, indeed, all the polls show that they want to see this happen, so we need to have that deadline and we need to see progress for them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As he says, he is a proud devolutionist, and I think that colleagues from Scotland and Wales would find it inconceivable, in the event that the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly did not sit or their respective Governments were not taking decisions, that we would not discuss or debate these things in Westminster.
Regardless of how the hon. Gentleman tries to twist and turn on the issue, the one thing he cannot deny is that the amendment and the path he has taken actually does impinge on the devolution settlement because it interferes with an issue that is the prerogative of the Northern Ireland Assembly, whether or not it is sitting. But if he has decided that it is justifiable to do this, can he tell us why it is not justifiable to overturn the devolution settlement altogether and deal with issues—schools, hospitals, transport, infrastructure—that affect far more people than the issue he is talking about? If he is prepared to interfere with the devolution settlement, why is he not prepared to interfere with it to help the majority of people—huge numbers of people—across Northern Ireland by having intervention by the Government?
The first point is that this is an issue about rights, not about policy. The second point is that I think, and hope, I have made it clear that I certainly do not want to impinge on the devolution settlement because the power will be retained by Stormont when an Executive and Assembly are functioning. I think there is quite a significant distinction between an Assembly and Executive that exist in the ether or as a concept, and an Executive and Assembly that are meeting, taking decisions and doing work on an issue that affects quite a lot of people in Northern Ireland. There is overwhelming public support for addressing the issue.
Having said that I was not going to speak for long, I realise that I have now spoken for longer than I intended. I just wanted to be clear about my motivation for tabling the amendment and the thought that has been given to it so that it respects the devolved settlement. It also respects the need for decisions to be made about important issues in Northern Ireland. Most of all, however, what my amendment does is respect equal rights for all people in the UK and Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). We have possibly set a precedent in the House, in that he and I are both from south Armagh; I moved to Belfast South, the constituency I represent, when I was 18. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on many things, but we do agree on some. I have been contacted by many scores of people from across my constituency who feel as strongly as he does on these matters.
Like the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I have been contacted by hundreds of people, by email and letter, who have said very clearly that they want these matters to be dealt with in the devolved Assembly. I was elected to this House just two years ago, and it is a matter of considerable sorrow to me that throughout those two years, we have not had a Northern Ireland Assembly. Like some other hon. Members from across the House who have spoken, I am a strong devolutionist; I believe firmly that the laws and policies that impact most on people’s lives should be made as close as possible to the people, and that means that decisions on the many issues that are devolved should be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We have been two and a half years with no Government in Northern Ireland. I have stood up many times in this House and indicated my sorrow at that. I welcome such measures as the Bill as necessities—they have to be brought forward—but I do so in sorrow, because we do not want to be here. It is not desirable to have this type of legislation passed by this House, or, as we have made clear, to have direct rule. It is not sustainable, fair or right that decisions that impact fundamentally on people’s everyday lives in Northern Ireland continue to be made not in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State outlined the process that is under way. For some listening to this debate, it may have sounded a little as though the Bill has guillotined the process—as though this was the end of the process, and as though there is now a further extension until October. I do not believe that to be the case. The DUP has entered into the talks process in good faith, and we will continue to work hard, because we want to get Stormont back up and working. That is the objective with which we entered into these talks, and that is our aim.
I say to everybody across the House that we are very clear that whatever agreement comes out of the process must be fair and sensible. When we look back over the decades in Northern Ireland, we see that the only type of agreement that has ever worked is one that has commanded broad consensus and agreement across the communities. That is what we are trying to achieve. One thing we will not accept is a bad deal for the people of Northern Ireland.
It is not the case—I challenge the shadow Secretary of State on this—that everybody is to blame. Almost all parties in Northern Ireland are willing to go back to work, to form an Executive, to govern, and to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. One thing is stopping that: Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly and refuses to go back until it gets a stand-alone Irish language Act. That is the barrier, and one party put it up; we need to be very clear about that. That is not sustainable, and we are working incredibly hard in the talks process to address the issues of sustainability. It is completely unfair for any single party to be able to throw a tantrum over a particular issue and say, “I’m not going back into the Government. Nobody in Northern Ireland will have things decided on health, education, childcare, infrastructure or the economy until we get exactly what we want.” That cannot be allowed to continue. Sinn Féin needs to stop the silliness and get back into Government.
If, for the convenience of the people of Northern Ireland, we were to give in, does my hon. Friend accept that in future months, when another impasse was reached, or when Sinn Féin wanted something else, it could use exactly the same tactic and bring the Assembly down? The Assembly would continually be held to ransom by people who have no conscience when it comes to hurting the population.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree. I have worked very closely with Government over the past 10 years and more of devolution—since 2007—and we have had to get through some very difficult and challenging issues, including bad behaviour by a number of parties, one of which was Sinn Féin, and what it was implicated in. We tried to keep the show on the road and the institutions going. It was not the DUP that collapsed those institutions. We were, and still are, prepared to sit down and talk.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has outlined our reasonable proposition, which is, “Get back into Government now and we will set the parameters to ensure that you have confidence that we will genuinely and in good faith engage with the issues that you want to talk about. If you feel that we are not doing that, we are prepared to put in place, at this stage, a mechanism that would allow you to collapse the Assembly.” There are no risks for them in getting back into the Assembly under that arrangement. My party leader had barely sat down after making his speech before Sinn Féin issued a press release rejecting that completely. If it wants change, there is a way to get that that actually delivers for the people of Northern Ireland. People are angry and frustrated, because they want basic services to be delivered by the people they elected to deliver them.
During these types of debates, a small number of issues are repeatedly discussed that I know are incredibly important to people. Day in, day out, a number of issues are continually raised in my constituency surgery, and I know it is the same for my right hon. and hon. Friends. Before I touch on them, I want to make it absolutely clear that we need to be realistic. I hear people across Northern Ireland saying all the time, “If only there was an Assembly, I wouldn’t be sitting on this waiting list,” and “If only there was an Assembly, I would have this or that, and the Government would be doing this or that.” I am not naive. I do not believe that all those issues will suddenly disappear if the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored in the morning; of course Governments will still have constraints.
We need to be very careful about the expectation we give people. However, if the Assembly is restored, people will be there to make the decisions; the people of Northern Ireland can approach their elected representatives and make their case; policies can be scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Committees; and we can develop policy. Importantly, this Bill does not provide the capability to make a range of required legislative proposals; it does not allow civil servants to do that.
Before I go into a little detail about some of those policy areas, I want to pay tribute to the many civil servants operating under incredibly difficult circumstances. I say that with a little bit of a smile because my husband is a senior civil servant in one of the most challenging departments, the Department of Health. It is fair to say that I would not like to be in that situation. It is a very difficult set of circumstances. The Department of Health is in a slightly better situation—ironically, it may seem—because the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed the Bengoa recommendations and a transformation plan prior to the collapse of the Assembly, so my husband has been able to make decisions under the terms of that policy. He has been able to carry out consultations, some of which are controversial, and the findings will have to be considered. However, there are many things that he cannot do, and it is the same right across our civil service. I pay tribute to the incredible work that civil servants have done in very difficult circumstances that they should never have found themselves in.
I want to touch briefly on education. Recently, I started special autism clinics and surgeries right across my constituency, because so many people who come through my door face challenges on special educational needs and autism in particular—everything from trying to get their child statemented, to being on the school waiting list for up to a year or two before they can get their child seen. Parents know the help that their child needs, but they cannot get it at the moment. We need a fundamental review of special educational needs and autism services across our education system. The system is not just creaking; it is breaking, and it is children who are suffering.
I challenge the hon. Member for St Helens North: what about the human rights of a child who is waiting for an autism assessment, but cannot get it for years because there is no Government to carry out the fundamental review? Those are rights, too.
Children in Northern Ireland still have statements, whereas children in the rest of the United Kingdom have education, health and care plans. The hon. Lady is quite right to say that the system is not working for children in Northern Ireland with special educational needs.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That issue is under discussion. In the talks process, we are talking about a whole range of policies that could go into a programme for government, and one of those must be the reform of educational provision, particularly for those with special educational needs. I have been fighting very hard for that, and I think there is consensus across all the parties, but we need the Northern Ireland Assembly back to get that in place.
I speak to many teachers and, in particular, headteachers. Their budgets are under incredible pressure. I know that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has taken evidence on the issue, but it needs to be resolved. Schools are crying out for financial help. That is the type of issue that DUP Members of the Legislative Assembly, and MLAs right across Northern Ireland, want to talk about.
Often in Northern Ireland, particularly at this time of year, politicians get criticised for talking about flags and bonfires. I and the vast majority of people I know agree that those issues need to be addressed, but what we want to talk about and focus on is education, public services, affordable childcare and tackling health issues. At the moment, we are prevented from doing so meaningfully, because those issues are, on the whole, devolved and there is no Northern Ireland Assembly.
We do not have 30 hours’ free childcare in Northern Ireland. Just before the collapse of the Assembly, work was under way to introduce a comprehensive affordable childcare programme, but that does not help parents in Northern Ireland at the moment who cannot access the same support, tailored for Northern Ireland, that people get across the rest of the United Kingdom. These urgent issues are impacting on hard-working families, whose household budgets are really feeling the pressure.
On health, we have a GP crisis. I was not feeling that well last week and phoned up my GP. I was told that the waiting time for an appointment was two weeks. Frankly, I felt that by then I would hopefully be feeling okay. There is a GP crisis across Northern Ireland; we do not have enough of them, practices are under huge pressure, and waiting lists are growing. It is the same across the entire health service. We need decisions made on the budget, and health transformation that will fundamentally tackle our huge waiting lists. People come to my constituency surgeries and my constituency office with letters saying that it will be two or three years before they can access a pain clinic and get some help.
I want to challenge the idea that those issues do not relate to rights. These are fundamental rights. What about the person on a cancer waiting list? What about their fundamental right to life when, because there is no Northern Ireland Assembly, they are sitting on a waiting list and could well die before they get the intervention they require? This is rights denied—rights to basic public services. That is wrong, and it must be addressed. There is a party denying rights in Northern Ireland across health, education and fundamental support for ordinary human beings, and that party is Sinn Féin.
The hon. Lady is making a really good speech. What pressure is building up in Sinn Féin MLA areas? All the problems she outlines must be replicated there, so what pressure are Sinn Féin MLAs facing from their own constituents? It must be just as powerful as what is happening in South Belfast.
I thank the hon. Member for that contribution. I do not see what happens in Sinn Féin constituency offices, but I can only imagine that the issues of health, education, poverty and the need for basic public services are the same right across the community. It does not matter if you are Protestant, Catholic, nationalist, Unionist, new incomer or ethnic minority—the needs are the same. Everybody is suffering from Sinn Féin’s decision to continue to refuse to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to be restored. I hope that they are hearing the message loud and clear: come to the table, come to a sensible and fair agreement, and get Stormont back up and working for the people of Northern Ireland.
There are a couple of other issues I want to touch on. I do not want to speak for too long, so I will go through them very quickly. There are some key pressure points. All political parties have heard representations in relation to the social security mitigation package. We put in place a number of mitigations in terms of welfare reform. The Northern Ireland Assembly agreed that the NIA budget would pay for that. If a decision is not made, upwards of 40,000 people will have bills coming through their doors or much-needed help withdrawn. The package requires legislation, and so, under the terms of the Bill, cannot be implemented by the permanent secretaries. If the legislation is not passed by September, 40,000-plus people will be considerably worse off. This is a real issue that will impact on real people in need.
I was very much involved in setting up the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry. I sat on the project board, along with Sinn Féin, when we worked on the legislation. I sat on the project board with Sinn Féin whenever we looked at implementation. We looked at inquiries across the world and one of the things we decided to do was put a date in the legislation for the inquiry to report. We did that because we did not want the inquiry to roll forward for years and years. We built in flexibility so that the chair of the inquiry could come back and request more time, but we knew, right from the passing of the initial legislation, the date the inquiry was due to report. I sat on the project board with Sinn Féin while we liaised throughout the duration of that inquiry. I think it was about two weeks before the report was due—the chairman of the inquiry had made it clear to all members of the project board, including Sinn Féin, that the report was on time—when Sinn Féin chose to collapse the Assembly.
There were two big outstanding issues: the budget for Northern Ireland and the HIA report. Before Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly, I made the case to Sinn Féin. I said to the then Finance Minister, “Look, there are these two issues. You can choose to collapse the Assembly, we can’t stop you from doing that, but what is the necessity about time? We can take these two weeks and pass a budget to support public services. We can wait for the HIA inquiry to report.” It decided not to.
We have now moved on. This is not about the politics; we want and need those victims to get support. This issue requires legislation and that is being held up because there is no Northern Ireland Assembly.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about Sinn Féin refusing to bring forward a budget before collapsing the Assembly. The reason for that was that it could not face up to the hard decisions required to bring forward a budget. Is that not another reason why Sinn Féin is resisting going into the Assembly at the moment? It does not want to bring forward a budget. It would much prefer somebody else to do the hard lifting, rather than take the hard decisions that politicians have to take.
I believe that the last Sinn Féin Finance Minister—I think it was perhaps the first Sinn Féin Finance Minister of our devolved Government—has the rather dubious title of being the Finance Minister who did not bring forward a budget, which was his core duty. Yes, of course there are difficult decisions to be made in a budget. There are serious questions to ask as to why he did not hit the deadline and did not bring forward those proposals.
There are many other issues I could reference. We do not have the high street fund in Northern Ireland. That money comes into our budget as what is referred to as a non-ring-fenced or unhypothecated Barnett consequential. We cannot force permanent secretaries to dedicate the money for that cause or for other projects for our economy such as the Streets Ahead programme.
I want briefly to mention the victims’ pension issue, which is associated with legacy. Over the course of the past week, I met the Victims’ Commissioner and many victims who were horrendously injured during the troubles. Those victims are now getting older and have particular issues with their finances. They do not have work-related pensions, because they did not have access to the workplace. They need this help and support. Again, that requires legislation and it has not been brought forward. There are many, many victims across Northern Ireland who require additional support.
I want to pay tribute to Bea Wharton, who was buried today. She was the last remaining mother of the Kingsmills victims. She was an incredibly strong and passionate woman who fought right up until her last breath to try to get justice for her son and the other victims of that terrible, terrible sectarian atrocity. I want to pay tribute to her and her family at this very difficult time. She was in her early 90s when she passed away. She fought every day of her life for justice, but justice was denied. Victims and survivors need that support.
The DUP cares passionately about Northern Ireland and the future of Northern Ireland. We want Northern Ireland to thrive. We want our young people to have an incredible future, with good jobs and a strong economy where people are happy and healthy. The best way to do that is to get back to work. Sinn Féin can do that tomorrow morning. Drop the silliness, get back to work and let us talk about these issues, while we deliver basic public services for the people of Northern Ireland. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want. That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
I have spoken only on rare occasions about Northern Ireland since ceasing to be shadow Secretary of State in 2015. That is not because I do not care or feel indifferent to a place and people that I grew to have a great deal of affection for. It is partially because I believe that it is right to allow one’s successors the space to shape their positions, but if I am honest, it is also because of my sheer exasperation with the failure of Northern Ireland’s politicians to show leadership.
The silent majority of people across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland has had enough of the blame game and name-calling. They want their politicians to do the job that they are elected to do and are paid for: to reconstitute the Executive and the Assembly. That would be the responsible thing for politicians to do in any democracy, but in a society emerging from conflict, the stakes are perpetually higher. In a vacuum, the extremists, rejectionists and terrorists exploit instability at every opportunity. I did not use the term “post-conflict”, because that is not appropriate in a society that is not only still nursing the traumatic wounds of its past, but held back by a decade of austerity.
So why are we here again seeking neither to reconstitute the Executive and Assembly nor to impose direct rule? Frankly, it is because neither of the two largest parties are willing to make the compromises that are so essential in any power-sharing system—a commitment to brave and uncomfortable compromises, which existed not so long ago on all sides, to deliver an end to bloody conflict and create a peace process that, for all its imperfections, has stood the test of time.
Brexit is inevitably a major obstacle to progress when Sinn Féin and the DUP hold such polar opposite views. As an ardent campaigner to remain, I believe that the result of the referendum must be respected and implemented. I also believe that leaving with no deal would be a massive risk to the economy of the United Kingdom, but I believe, too, that—as some hon. Members have said—the south of Ireland would be the biggest losers from such an outcome. I say gently to some of my friends in the DUP that the people of Northern Ireland in no way gave them a mandate to become fully paid-up members of the European Research Group.
If we are to see progress, it is also important to recognise that other issues that pre-date Brexit are salient to the current stalemate. Brexit is not the only reason why we have this stalemate. As hon. Members have said, and I know this from first-hand experience, Sinn Féin is unwilling to make any of the difficult budgetary decisions required of all political leaders in any society dealing with finite resources. It wants to be purist and free to pursue its political ambitions in the south. This means opposing all cuts. If it was part of the leadership in Northern Ireland, it would have to make difficult choices. This could be used against it in the south. Nobody should underestimate the power of that reason in terms of Sinn Féin’s current position.
I am sad to say that the DUP, despite its domination of the Unionist vote, is unwilling to make compromises on some issues that would undoubtedly upset its base.
I know that when the hon. Gentleman was the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he earnestly engaged with and sincerely considered the views of all parties in Northern Ireland, and he dealt with us all very honourably. However, if he has been listening to the course of this debate, does he not recognise that in August 2017, we did compromise? We said then, “Set up the institutions and we will legislate for the Irish language,” yet it was rebuffed in 26 minutes. I am disappointed to hear that he has not factored that into his speech, but he cannot claim that we were not prepared to compromise, nor are we still today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, for his very kind remarks about my period as shadow Secretary of State. Of course, I accept that during this long journey of stalemate, there has been a willingness to make some compromises, but it really does not ring true to say that the reason that we are in this position today is exclusively the responsibility of one party or the other. That is simply factually untrue. If he allows me to continue with my speech, I will cite some other reasons why we have been unable to make progress.
This is a crucial message to the DUP: good leadership may be the ability to motivate core supporters, but there is a difference between good and great leadership. Great leadership is a willingness to sometimes say difficult things to one’s own supporters. That is the case throughout history, and in fact, the DUP and other political parties in Northern Ireland in the past have been willing to do so.
The hon. Gentleman will remember very well his visit to my constituency and particularly to the community groups in Newtownards. He will also recall that they were very much opposed to the Irish language becoming a political tool in the process. When it comes to reflecting that public opinion in Strangford and elsewhere, I do so every day because that is what my constituents tell me. We should not ignore our constituents or try to push them in a way that they do not want to go.
I have massive respect for the hon. Gentleman —we agree on so many things—but there are occasions when politicians and leaders need to say to their followers and their base, “Actually, we need to do things differently in the pursuit of a bigger cause.” I accept that if the gap grows to such an extent between a politician and the people who support them, it will inevitably lead to the demise of that politician, so it is a difficult calibration to achieve in any dynamic in terms of political relationships. However, all the great changes that have been made through political history have required, at one time or another, politicians to say difficult things to their supporters, particularly in cases of conflict, war, terrorism and a lack of stability. I do not think that the Irish language Act even featured in the conversations I had when I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, because, as others have said, that is not the burning issue of the day for any section of the population in Northern Ireland, to be frank. The issues are: jobs, education, health or opportunities. It is wrong to say that the Irish language Act is the be-all and end-all for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, let alone the other community.
We have be honest about the position in Northern Ireland and look at the facts. Nationalist people and nationalist parties do want the Irish language Act. The Unionist people we represent do not see it as the burning issue. The hon. Gentleman is right: health, education, roads and jobs are the key issues, but the nationalist parties see that as their key issue and their No. 1 priority.
I do not personally believe that that is a burning issue compared with other issues in the nationalist community either, if we are honest about the discussions that we have with them. I was not going to mention this in my speech, but I will say it to the hon. Gentleman: when I was the shadow Secretary of State, I was very proud to have commissioned the Heenan-Anderson commission. Deirdre Heenan and Colin Anderson did a serious piece of work on tackling social injustice and inequality in Northern Ireland—the breeding ground of sectarianism and division. If Northern Ireland does not tackle the lack of social justice and the lack of equality, it will be the breeding ground for the alienated and disenfranchised younger generation. This was not a party political or ideological document. It is sad that no political party has seized on that document—which did not just identify the scale of the problem, but came up with some very practical, tangible solutions—and sought to engage with Deirdre Heenan, Colin Anderson and all the stakeholders in business and civil society who participated in that process to see whether some of its recommendations can be implemented.
Let me move on with my speech—I was recounting some of the factors that have caused the current stalemate. One that I do not think is mentioned often enough is the fact that the UK and Irish Governments have struggled to fulfil their honest broker role since 2010. Tory-led Governments in the UK have needed DUP support to govern, informally in the coalition period and subsequently openly in the form of a confidence and supply arrangement. This has had an impact not just on Brexit but on the willingness of the Westminster Government to apply any serious pressure on the DUP to compromise.
By the way, this is a very important point: I do not condemn the Government or the DUP for the relationship that they have developed. How could I, because this is precisely the relationship that the Labour party would have sought with the DUP had the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) emerged as the leader of the largest party in the 2015 general election? I know that better than anybody else because I was leading the work that would have made that possible. It is therefore somewhat hypocritical of Opposition Members when they criticise either the Government or the DUP for the nature of their relationship. Let us be clear about history: in 2015, the Labour party would have done exactly the same had the political conditions existed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his candour on the secondary point. Any party wanting to be in government would try to make such arrangements. We have to be fair to the Government though. They have not tried to use their position to get gains out of our support for the confidence and supply arrangement. In fact, it was steadfastly opposed—there has at times been a brick wall between our party and the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office on issues that we wish we could have influence over. It is only fair and proper that that be on the record. The Secretary of State has kept herself completely away from those arrangements.
To my mind, it is extraordinary that the Prime Minister failed to avoid alienating the DUP in the position she adopted on Brexit. I would have thought it would be her top priority in the discussions. What clearly happened was a trust issue as much as a substance issue, in that things were said in private about the Government’s position on Brexit and the opposite in public.
On the specific issue the hon. Gentleman raised, I am sorry but I do not withdraw my contention that since 2010 the fact that the Government have been dependent on the DUP to govern, unofficially between 2010 and 2015 and officially since then, has understandably made that Government, at a prime ministerial level and possibly at a Secretary of State level, unwilling to exercise the kind of pressure for compromise that was exercised in the past. That is just a statement of fact. The progress in Northern Ireland was largely a consequence of the honest broker role that the Government in the south and the Government in Westminster played during that period, and the change in that dynamic here has undoubtedly had an impact.
A change in dynamic has made a difference in the south as well. In the south, Sinn Féin is now a serious political challenger to the two leading parties. This inevitably changes the nature of the relationship and inhibits the trust between the Government in the south and Sinn Féin that has been so important to progress in the past. It is not credible to deny that those massive changes in political dynamic have had an impact on the ability to get the parties to compromise.
I have enough problems expressing opinions on the state of politics in the UK without intruding on private grief in the south of Ireland. I am not really qualified to judge. I would say this to the hon. Gentleman though. There is no doubt that a massive factor in Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to participate in government in Northern Ireland is its unwillingness to make tough and difficult decisions because in the south of Ireland it wants to give the impression that such decisions are not required. If it participated in government in the north of Ireland, it would have to be part of making such difficult decisions.
The hon. Gentleman is making some excellent points. Does he agree that with the prospect of a general election looming in southern Ireland, Sinn Féin will not get back round the Assembly table until after that election, because it would affect its electoral chances? We are making concessions for it here and holding out hope of it getting back round the table, but the southern Ireland scenario is affecting its behaviour.
The hon. Lady is probably absolutely right. It is realpolitik. If Sinn Féin is consistent in how it has behaved over several years now, it will not make any move to help reconstitute the Executive and the Assembly until the election in the south of Ireland is done and dusted. The hon. Lady makes a fair point.
I want to raise a final factor that I think has changed the dynamic. It will be uncomfortable for some, and some will not agree, but it is a factor that should not be underestimated. I had the benefit of working with some of the individuals concerned. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, however people might have disagreed with them, in their roles as First and Deputy First Ministers were leaders of calibre and pragmatism. I do not believe that such leadership exists at the present time.
I now want to turn to issues that are inevitably divisive and that other Members have touched upon.
They cannot be put on hold forever. Equal marriage and abortion generate strong feelings in all societies, but this is especially the case where religion has played such a central role in a sectarian divide. I do not support those in the House who want to use the current political stalemate to impose solutions from Westminster, but courageous leadership from the Government would mean using this period to allow the people of Northern Ireland to make their voices heard on these issues. The Government should bring forward legislation to hold one referendum covering abortion and equal marriage, and they should be consistent. As with Brexit, they should commit to introducing the necessary legislation if the people of Northern Ireland chose to vote for change.
I understand those who argue that these issues are about fundamental human rights and therefore should not be subject to a referendum, and I also understand why people may be a little cautious about referendums on anything in the present climate, but there is currently no other credible way forward or one that can achieve a solution in the foreseeable future on these issues, which are so divisive. I believe in universal human rights, including the right to religious freedom, but I also believe—this is very important—that societies scarred by conflict require very delicate handling. Wading into these issues as though Northern Ireland is simply like anywhere else misses an important point about societies emerging from conflict.
I would make two points. First, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Bury and mine in St Helens who are gay did not have to win a referendum to be able to marry the person they love. Secondly, I gave a lot of thought to my amendment on same-sex marriage and to the sensitivities in Northern Ireland. I do not claim to be an expert in any way, shape or form, but I have considered the matter very carefully.
I do not dispute the fact that the hon. Gentleman, in every intervention he has made on Northern Ireland over a very long period—it is his home, not mine—has sought to be sensitive. A referendum is not the ideal solution, but to those who believe in gay marriage and believe that the rules on abortion need to be changed and brought into line with those in the rest of the UK, I would say that that will not be achieved by these amendments, given the parliamentary arithmetic. My solution provides an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough that cannot be achieved otherwise, given this perpetual debate and stalemate around the Executive and Assembly and given the parliamentary maths.
I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman’s position, but in his defence a referendum would at least refer the issue back to the people of Northern Ireland. It would be perceived as immensely arrogant were the House to dictate to the people of Northern Ireland on subjects that we have already acknowledged across the House are extremely sensitive.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. This should constitutionally be a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. We should not disregard the history of Northern Ireland or the nature of the sensitivities and the fragility that prevail. Too many people refer to Northern Ireland as a post-conflict society. That means ticking boxes saying, “It’s resolved, it’s all sorted, Northern Ireland has moved on”. Anybody who lives in Northern Ireland or cares about it knows that that is not the case. The hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) understands that better than anyone. When we consider these issues, we have to take account of those realities.
I understand that my solution will not be supported by many. Campaigners will say, “We believe in universal human rights, and anything other than that is a dilution of our principles.” However, in the current climate, given the parliamentary maths and the stalemate over the Assembly and the Executive, there will no gay marriage or changes in the abortion law in Northern Ireland. That is a fact. We can table as many amendments as we want in this place, but that is the reality, as is the position of the current Government. I therefore suggest that the Government they take a brave and courageous step, and, in respect of these sensitive issues, give serious consideration to the option of a referendum. As part of that, they would have to commit themselves to legislation to enact the outcome of the referendum, if it required legislative change.
I will support the Government tonight because I believe this to be the least worst solution, but there needs to be a wake-up call for the leading parties in Northern Ireland. They think that the regrettable failure of leadership can go on for ever because they dominate the vote in their respective communities—that is the political reality of Northern Ireland—but around the world, the certainties of elites and establishments are being shattered. We are seeing Brexit in our own country, and we saw Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Those are two examples of the crumbling of elites and establishments who thought that they were in the ascendancy.
If the current leaders continue to fail in their duty to run Northern Ireland, they may wake up one morning to find that the silent majority of Unionists and nationalists has been raised in support of credible alternatives. That may be hard to believe, but never say never in the context of the current turbulence around the world. Northern Ireland should and can have a great future, but its people are being let down by its leaders. Victims of violence and institutional abuse are being given neither justice nor closure, and too many young people are being left behind because austerity means that too many of the promises of the peace process have not been delivered.
Let me point out to the Secretary of State that as a consequence of austerity, the investment that Northern Ireland should have had following the peace process has not been delivered to the level at which it should have been delivered, despite some of the deals that have been done with, specifically, the Democratic Unionist party. Overall, the people running Northern Ireland have not received the peace dividend that they were promised because of austerity, and that needs to be taken into account in future budgetary decisions about Northern Ireland.
It is sad that politics is sharpening the sectarian divide when it should be healing and weakening the divides of the past. The silent majority in Northern Ireland deserve better. It is time that politicians on all sides did their duty, and put the people of Northern Ireland first.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis). When I intervened on him, I reflected on his tenure as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and spoke warmly about him and, despite his speech, I meant it. I have to say, however, that a number of contributions this evening have been jaundiced and negative about the political situation in Northern Ireland, have been warped politically, have not taken account of contributions in the House, have not taken account of commitments made publicly, and have not taken account of the rational, sincere and at times politically difficult and contentious positions that we adopt to resolve issues at home in Northern Ireland.
In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) referred to times throughout the last 10 years when we did everything to sustain government in Northern Ireland. I had been in the House for about three months when the IRA shot dead a constituent of mine, Kevin McGuigan, who lived in Short Strand. He was killed by an organisation which we are told does not exist and does not hold on to arms—an organisation that had been, to that day, inextricably linked to Sinn Féin.
There was a huge crisis in Northern Ireland, and the Ulster Unionist party walked out of government having decided that enough was enough. However, we knew that, should we do the same thing and should the Assembly fall, it would be incredibly difficult to put it together again, so we bought time. We went through a very unedifying process of rolling resignations to keep the institutions alive, while at the same time seeking from, and gaining from, the Chief Constable security assessments that gave us the courage and faith to continue.
We could easily have walked away. We could easily have thrown our constituents, and the entire society of Northern Ireland, into an abyss. But we did not do it because we believe in devolution, we believe in power sharing and we believe that, no matter how difficult it may become and how diametrically opposed we may be to our neighbours in Northern Ireland, there is value in the existence of democratically electable institutions in Northern Ireland and huge merit in the existence of an engaged political class—a forum in which people can present their issues and seek resolutions.
We all recognise that, in politics, we must turn up here day after day. We do not get everything that we want, but we must try, we must present positive arguments and we must champion causes in our communities. That is why I found it depressing to hear the hon. Member for Bury South say that there was a failure of leadership. There are politicians in this place who are not prepared to tell their own people what they need to hear, but my colleagues and I put ourselves in difficult situations every day doing just that, and I have to say that representatives of the other side of the community put themselves in dangerous situations every day doing just that. From a position of leadership, we are saying what is right—recognising the political parameters in which we operate and recognising the positions that we hold, but doing just that.
When 1,800 tyres were removed from a bonfire yesterday in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South, we could easily have hidden from those who thought that it was a good idea to burn tyres and pollute our community. We could easily have stood back and said, “These are all very difficult issues and we cannot resolve them.” But we do not do that in these circumstances because it is important not to. We stand up to those who threaten violence in our communities against our communities. We stand up to those who sell drugs in our communities and destroy our communities. We are not afraid to take positions of leadership when that is required. And—as I mentioned in an intervention that was quickly dismissed—we are not afraid of compromise either. That is not a dirty word. It is not wrong to recognise that other people have an aspiration that is different from one’s own.
However, we cannot set aside competing aspirations either. We should not be here this evening, but the thrust of this debate and the reason for the Bill is the fact that we are faced with a political situation in which one party, whether we in this Chamber like it or not, has decided that if it does not get what it wants, it will pick up the ball and walk off the pitch.
It was encouraging to hear the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) talk about a coalition of the willing. One of the key strands of the talks in which we have been engaging is the sustainability of the institutions. She mentioned that there was some muttering of “That is not power sharing” from the Benches in front of me. Who says that it is not power sharing? Why can we not have a coalition of the willing across the community divide—across the sectarian divide—which recognises that people come from different traditions, but want to share things?
We do not have power sharing at the moment. We have a refusal to share power and, when one party does it, the entire society of Northern Ireland suffers. That is not right. That is not sustainable government. That is not a basis for progress. I have to say that if, over the forthcoming days, weeks or months, we end up with a talks process that has not produced a change in the way in which the system operates, and has not told the public at large that this cannot happen again and never again can institutions be brought down at the behest of one party because it does not get what it wants, that talks process will have failed.
Similarly, I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about amendments that may or may not be selected tomorrow, but, just as I would be critical of the contribution by the hon. Member for Bury South—he is not alone in this—I also have critical comments to make of the shadow Secretary of State. I am sorry to say that. I am sorry to reflect this evening that, over the course of 21 years of a peace process in this country, the Government and the loyal Opposition have always stepped in tune, have always walked together, have recognised sometimes that decisions are being made that do not suit or are not quite palatable, but recognised that that is in the best interests of society in Northern Ireland, yet over the course of this Bill what we see are amendments that are purely partisan.
If this was about rights, there are more than one or two issues. If it was about progress, there are other issues to be progressed. But I do find it a little rich when we are engaged in trying to restore devolution in Northern Ireland that we have politicians in this Chamber who think it is their duty to cherry-pick, to virtue-signal and to pluck out a couple of issues here and there that they wish to progress, to the exclusion of all others. It does not need to be repeated ad nauseam because my colleagues have mentioned the litany of issues that we need to see progressed in Northern Ireland, yet they do not feature. If it is about coercion, which is what the hon. Member for Bury South was getting to, to encourage us to get back into talks, I think it is counterproductive. If it is about changing the rationale of other parties in Northern Ireland, those who tabled these amendments should not have been so selective. Is there one amendment being proposed by that side of the Opposition Benches that is going to cause difficulty for Sinn Féin or nationalism? There is not one. This is partisan and regressive. It turns back the tide of 21 years of constructive contributions from both Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition.
I do not suggest that Northern Ireland politics are easy or that everyone should agree with my view. I started my speech in that vein but, if we respect devolution and if we want to see the institutions up and running and take decisions on the issues that we can, the only people who are preventing progress on the issue of same-sex marriage are Sinn Féin. They could have the Stormont Assembly restored tomorrow. They could have its first plenary session—not to put anyone under pressure during their holidays—on 1 September and the first thing they could pass is a motion on same-sex marriage. But they are not facilitating, agreeing or permitting a restoration of those institutions. They say it is a political request that they have and they say it is an aspiration, but they are doing nothing to deliver it. And the same can be said on the issue of the Irish language. We are criticised for not compromising, but we committed to legislate for the Irish language and yet still were rebuffed.
The hon. Gentleman knows I have a great deal of respect and affection for him. I am sure he would want to clarify that he is not suggesting for a moment that any of the amendments proposed by me or colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench are at the behest of Sinn Féin. On same-sex marriage, I have worked very closely with the Love Equality coalition and with representatives from all political parties, including, I might add, his own.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me assuage the hon. Gentleman’s concerns—although in the context of this exchange, I am not sure “affection” was the appropriate word, but I will take it in the spirit in which it was offered. I know the hon. Gentleman’s sincerity on the amendment he is putting forward and I also know the sincerity of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on the issue that she put forward. I did not mention either of them when I was making my remarks. It was the Front Bench that I was focusing on and its amendments. I am not going to frustrate anybody’s ability to table an amendment in this place. It is not my position to do so.
I engage with Love Equality. I got castigated for accepting a petition from them. They know my position and I know their position. I see no difficulty whatsoever in engaging positively and constructively. I get criticised for doing the things that I think are important, from a position of leadership, yet I still think it is the right thing to do. The same is true of my constituent, Sarah Ewart, who I am sure will get mentioned. She is the most lovely lady who has had a most horrendous time. She is seeking a political answer to an issue that has dogged her personally for the last number of years, with no success. I think that she believes and hopes that she will get an answer through the courts in September. I think she believes that it is appropriate that such issues are dealt with locally. But I am not going to frustrate the political aspirations of others. They can put them forward but, if they respect devolution, if they believe that what I and my colleagues are engaged in in the talks has a purpose, and if they want to put us to the test, let us do it. But do not cherry-pick on a partisan basis.
I want to make just two brief points. I should not be here discussing this this evening. I should be in my constituency—albeit knowing we have parliamentary duties—dealing with some of the contentious issues that are being raised around bonfires and community tension. I mentioned the removal of tyres from a bonfire last night in Belfast South. I was pleased to see voluntary action this evening by some of the bonfires in east Belfast to remove tyres and pollutants from our community. These are sensitive issues. At the same time, I will have people criticising me and wanting to drag me through the streets to say I do not stand up for the right to celebrate our culture, and from the other side of the coin I will have people saying that I do not do enough, I do not challenge and I do not control. But I will always stand up for the interests of people in my constituency.
It is awfully kind of the hon. Gentleman to give way; I am extremely grateful to him. May I take him back to his constituent, Sarah Ewart, who is a most remarkable and very courageous lady? What will happen when the Supreme Court rules in the autumn? It has already indicated and Lord Kerr, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, made obiter remarks last year in the case taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is deeply unsatisfactory. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of Sarah Ewart, will not the United Kingdom Government and this House have an obligation to bring our legislation in Northern Ireland into line with our human rights obligations?
Of course, if there is a finding of incompatibility, a declaration will be issued to that effect and the requirement will lie on the United Kingdom Government to consider that declaration of incompatibility; that is a statement of fact.
I, like the four speakers before me, stood up and said I was not going to speak for long and I have no intention of speaking for much longer because there are contributions to be made tomorrow on the specifics of whatever amendments are selected. But I want to draw the Minister’s mind back to the engagements that we had during the passage of the rates and budget Bill and to raise an issue that will not feature; it is not politically sexy or attractive. It is not an issue that people spend a lot of time thinking of. But I have raised it continually: the re-designation of housing associations and co-ownership.
One small, discrete issue that has a huge, meaningful impact on communities in Northern Ireland is that, because of the lack of Stormont, we have not reclassified our housing associations and the co-ownership scheme in Northern Ireland cannot avail itself of financial transaction capital. It cannot avail itself of the funds necessary to continue. The Minister made a commitment that the Government would legislate to rectify this small anomaly but, if that does not happen prior to the recess, 11% of all first-time purchasers who could avail themselves of co-ownership support will be unable to do so, and those who are starting life or at the lower end of the social spectrum will not have access to the finance required for their own home, unlike in the past when we have had £127 million of property purchases. I ask the Minister to give some assurance that a resolution will be found on this small but discrete issue. It is something that would not ordinarily trouble Parliament. It should have been resolved long ago and it will come to a head in the next number of weeks. The commitment was there. I would like to see progress on this.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) in paying tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound); the latter is sitting on the Front Bench. I have known him a very long time. I shall always be incredibly grateful for his support and enthusiasm in teaching me the power of the woggle, the necker and small children to effect great change in this country. He will be missed by many in this House, because he is a great friend of scouting.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) for setting out so clearly and emotively the passion that people feel at this time, and for talking about it from a constituency perspective. Sometimes in this place people forget just how powerfully we feel, because of how we spend our lives. I hate it when people talk about politicians being out of touch, because we do nothing but be in touch, whatever political party we represent. We live, breathe and feel the frustrations of our constituents, and we are all here tonight because we feel their frustration that this piece of legislation was put forward six months ago as a temporary stopgap in the hope that progress could somehow be made. It was suggested that it was a necessary evil.
I am pleased that the Government have recognised that they should not try to suggest that this new piece of legislation is just a narrow, small change in the date, when what it is doing is extending those quite substantial powers to make legislation and change the law in Northern Ireland that were given six months ago on what was presumed to be a temporary basis. The Bill requires scrutiny; I particularly contest its powers around statutory instruments, which we know have been controversial in other areas of policy. Indeed, many of us have already sat on Statutory Instrument Committees about making direct change in Northern Ireland. We need to scrutinise not just the date, but the use of those statutory instrument powers. I am also conscious that the civil servants have said that they feel uncomfortable about the position they have been put in, and about the fact that this legislation has been pushed through Parliament as an emergency measure, when, as people have said, we are now looking at three years without any change in the situation in Stormont.
I have been working on the Back Benches with colleagues in every other party—except the DUP at the moment—on these issues because we recognise that there are two sides of the coin. This relates particularly to the amendments that I want to support tomorrow. The human rights issues that they raise go to section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which charged this place with the responsibility to uphold our international obligations, even when there was an Assembly in Northern Ireland. It is important for those of us who are proud of devolution, of being able to give power to people, and of ensuring that they can exercise it, that we recognise the check and balance that this place provides in that process. Section 26 speaks precisely to that when it comes to human rights.
There is a specific definition of human rights. It is not about a single policy area; it is about a set of rules and obligations that we as the United Kingdom have signed up to for generations, and now find that we particularly need to uphold. This relates to a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, and to a person’s right to choose to marry who they love and have that recognised. Human rights speak to basic freedoms—not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom to be who we are without feeling that that makes us second-class citizens. These are core freedoms that each of us has come into this place to uphold. They are issues on which we need to work together.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman and I are on different sides of this, but if he will forgive me, I will come to the international obligations that we as a country have signed up to that I believe are relevant in considering this Bill. This Bill allows for action in the absence of an Assembly, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility to comply with international obligations.
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will make a little progress and then happily take an intervention from him.
For me, there is a simple point. This weekend, many of us will have proudly celebrated Pride. We will have seen the rainbow flag and talked about the importance of standing up for the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people across the world. We have seen persecution in Chechnya, and in Europe under the Orbán legislation, and we have stood up and said that we as a nation want to be a beacon. We have even said that we should kick countries out of the Commonwealth that do not uphold gay rights. There was an outcry in this country when people saw legislation introduced in Alabama under which doctors are prosecuted for performing abortions, while Georgia is saying that no woman can have an abortion later than six weeks, by which time most women do not even realise that they might be pregnant.
There is a simple rule for those of us who have been consistent—as I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) would recognise that many of us have been—whether we have fought the global gag rule, or stood up for the importance of international development investment in maternity healthcare. We cannot argue that we are beacons of human rights around the world if we do not get our own house in order. We are told consistently by the international agencies that we have signed up to that we have a problem in Northern Ireland—in particular, that we are treating women there as second-class citizens. This Bill speaks to what we do in the absence of an Assembly that is able to fulfil those international obligations. If those obligations do not mean anything, what does this place do, when sometimes it has to speak for those whose voices cannot be heard?
I was at the Council of Europe two weeks ago, when the Government were boasting about being about to ratify the Istanbul convention on violence against women, but the legislation that the Government have introduced to try to do that will not even cover Northern Ireland. The Bill before us will not deal with the gap, so women in Northern Ireland will not have protection from stalking. They do not have coercive control legislation, and will not get the support of the domestic violence commissioners, yet the Istanbul convention is a piece of international legislation that we have signed up to and committed to. We have said that it speaks to our support for human rights.
On abortion in Northern Ireland, in the years since we had an Assembly, we have been directly criticised by the United Nations. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has explicitly said that the UK cannot invoke its internal arrangements to justify its failure to revise the Northern Ireland laws that violate the convention by denying women in Northern Ireland the same rights as women in my constituency of Walthamstow or the Minister’s constituency: the right to have a safe, legal and local abortion.
Now that the hon. Lady has made progress, let me deal with the two points that she has raised that I want to contradict. First, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said, it is highly debatable whether abortion falls into the category of rights that she has described. Indeed, people such as Professor Mark Hill, QC, contradict that view. Secondly, in any case, as she will know, the legislation that underpinned devolution in 1998 largely devolves matters of international obligation to the Northern Ireland people, so if even she thinks this is a right, it is a right that should be decided upon by the people to whom we have devolved power, else devolution means nothing.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I gently suggest that he goes back and reads section 26 of the 1998 Act, which explicitly does not do what he says it does. It explicitly says—[Interruption.] With respect, I listened to him; I hope he will listen to me, because this is the debate that we need to have about this legislation. I have listened to him—[Interruption.]
The 1998 Act explicitly says that the Westminster Parliament retains responsibility for upholding those international obligations.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the concept of abortion as a human right. I understand that he has quoted a QC, but again I would point him to those international bodies, including the Vienna convention, that say that we cannot absolve ourselves of those international obligations through our internal arrangements, and the UN Committee against Torture, which just this month said that the situation in Northern Ireland was
“likely to result in severe pain and suffering, such as when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, when the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk and in cases of fatal fetal impairment.”
We are being explicitly challenged on human rights, and there are grounds in the Istanbul convention—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Above all else, this Bill is about how we help to ensure that people in Northern Ireland do not have the current gap. We need to say that those international obligations are equally our responsibility.
The right hon. Gentleman might disagree about those obligations, but he cannot deny that, right now, there is a gap on this very issue. That is why it is right that we have introduced proposals to try to address the gap, so that people in Northern Ireland are not put at a disadvantage. He shakes his head again. Perhaps he will listen to our Supreme Court, which has found that the situation in Northern Ireland is incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights with respect to fatal foetal abnormalities and to women who become pregnant due to rape or incest. It said the law in Northern Ireland is “untenable” and needs “radical reconsideration”, as it treats women like “vehicles.”
The courts are looking to this Parliament, because the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 was passed by Westminster, so it needs to be dealt with by Westminster, which would need to enable the people of Northern Ireland, if the Assembly were back up and running, to craft their own laws on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Either we take responsibility for the impact of UK-wide legislation crafted in this place, and for the international human rights obligations that we as a Parliament have sworn to protect, or we say that it is okay to treat some of our people as second-class citizens and not give them the services we give to others.
I think I raised this point in our previous debate. There is no barrier to the law changing in Northern Ireland. There has been some confusion on the idea that the law needs to change here to enable that to happen. It does not. Criminal law is fully devolved, so that can happen in Northern Ireland.
Let us be very clear. The reason why a woman in Northern Ireland who is raped, becomes pregnant and then seeks a termination faces a longer prison sentence than her attacker is because of the 1861 Act. It is because of that Act that, in November 2018, a mother faced a jail sentence because she sought abortion pills online to try to help her 15-year-old daughter, who was in an abusive relationship. This legislation is affecting the lives of UK citizens.
When these issues are not being dealt with due to the lack of an Assembly, and when the Government, who have sworn to fulfil these international obligations, are saying that we will just have a big exclusionary gap when it comes to Northern Ireland, what do we do as parliamentarians? We all swore to uphold the Good Friday agreement and joint equivalency.
Thousands of citizens in Northern Ireland have emailed their MPs in support of change. Thousands of citizens in Northern Ireland have said, “Please don’t make us wait anymore,” just as thousands have said they want the right to love whom they love, to marry them and to have that recognised. We know people want change, and we know that, in 2016, 70% of people in Northern Ireland said that no woman should ever go to prison for having an abortion, but that is the situation we are in. We know that 65% of adults in Northern Ireland—
Order. The hon. Lady has indicated that she is coming to the end of her speech, so do not continually ask her to give way; she is clearly not going to, and she is quite right to say so. Although there is quite a lot of time, we do have other speakers to fit in.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We also know that 66% of the public in Northern Ireland think that Westminster should reform the law in the absence of a devolved Government. This Bill deals with that absence and the unlikelihood of our ever getting an Assembly set up in the current situation. DUP Members have very clearly set out many of the frustrations that might be preventing that, but above all, that does not mean that the voices and rights—particularly human rights—of the people of Northern Ireland should play second fiddle to political frustrations.
If we have learned anything in this place, it is that when we put politics ahead of people, we all lose out. I am also talking about our ability to listen to the voices of women such as Sarah Ewart, who are looking for change—women who tell us that they could not go through another pregnancy because their last one nearly killed them in childbirth. We ask that every woman has the choice to not be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. Women do not want to face prosecution because they stood up for their children.
Last year, 1,000 women travelled to England and Wales to get an abortion, but many more cannot travel; they might be in abusive relationships, they might have childcare issues or they might not be able to afford it. We have to remember that there is no right at all here, not even in instances of rape or fatal foetal abnormality. Current laws force women in Northern Ireland to carry a baby they know will not live. That cannot be a human right. That is torture, and we cannot keep waiting for the Assembly to deal with it. We do not expect citizens in England and Wales to go through a referendum on this; we cannot put that extra layer on the people of Northern Ireland in order for them to get their human rights.
If we take this course on the right not to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy, or the right to love whom we love, what other human rights will we sacrifice for political expediency? The right to life and liberty? The right to be free from slavery and torture? Freedom of opinion and expression? It is a slippery slope to start saying that the human rights obligations that we have signed up to do not matter when we write legislation. The amendments tomorrow and the ruse of those statutory instruments are crucial, and that is because of the words of Lyra McKee’s partner, Sara Canning, who said to the Prime Minister at Lyra’s funeral:
“I wanted her to know that Lyra and I had a right to be treated as equal citizens in our own country. Surely that’s not too much to ask?”
We can pass legislation about the powers of politics and the powers of this place, but fundamentally the power of this place cannot be to deny the basic human rights of our citizens. The people who live in Northern Ireland deserve the same human rights as the people who live in England and Wales. Either we are champions of human rights or we do not deserve to call ourselves parliamentarians.
I promise to be brief, as a number of Members have done, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope we can get some points across. I am very disappointed that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for whom I have a great deal of respect, even though we disagree passionately on this issue, did not want to give way and engage in a debate on some issues, because there are important facts that need to be put on the record. First, it is important to say that no woman has gone to jail in Northern Ireland on the issue that the hon. Lady so passionately raised—it has not happened. It does not happen. Lots of things are on the statute but do not happen. Women are not regularly taken off to jail and imprisoned on these issues in Northern Ireland. It might happen in other parts of the world but it has not happened in Northern Ireland.
The last time the Assembly debated the important and sensitive matter of abortion and abortion rights was in 2016, when 59 of the Members present—an overwhelming majority—did not want to change the legislation in the way that the hon. Lady has argued for and 40 Members did. A considerable difference in opinion existed but a clear majority were against the points that the hon. Lady passionately made and is rightly entitled to hold. Those points are not, however, supported across the community in Northern Ireland.
The one point I did raise with the hon. Lady, directly, in an intervention, was: is the right to terminate an unborn life a European convention right? Terminating the life of an unborn child is not a right, according to the European convention on human rights. People can wave other conventions, decrees and subsections of meetings that have occurred around the world involving other conventions and other groups, but the totem—the one we are all signed up to and the one that will stay in place after we leave the EU—the European convention on human rights, does not uphold this “right” or see the termination of the unborn life as a right.
The hon. Gentleman will know that our Supreme Court has determined that there is no general right to abortion, and in international law states are given considerable leeway about how they treat such matters. I could not reconcile any of that with a speech from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I appreciate her passion, but passion is no substitute for sense.
The other point I wish to make is about what my constituents in Northern Ireland want. What do the people of Northern Ireland want? It is right and proper to say that the Labour party fought valiantly up to 2003 to get in place an agreement to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly would take crucial, key and tough decisions. I must say, there were times when we disagreed with how the Labour party went about it, but ultimately Labour signed off on agreements that allowed for that to happen. I am disappointed that those on the Labour Front Bench have now decided that on certain issues they can have a pick-and-mix approach to what the Assembly should or should not do.
Labour party Front Benchers should be steadfast, at one with and—if it is not too pointed to say this week, as we go into the marching season—in step with the Conservative party and the Government of the day when it comes to making sure that we do not break the established convention, which is that on these issues there is agreement that the Assembly in Northern Ireland should take decisions. The Labour party should not encourage otherwise or diverge from that by saying, “Well, on certain things that are contentious, or that we really like, or on which we are under pressure from our Back Benchers, we will support the notion that Parliament should legislate separately.”
There is a long list of priorities—it has been read out by other Members—many of which would be higher up list for the ordinary folk of Northern Ireland than some of the matters that people will raise tonight and tomorrow. We have to make sure that we have a consistent approach. We could say that we are going to have devolution and put all the energy and passion into that. The hon. Member for Walthamstow should put the same passion she has shown on this issue into encouraging the parties in Northern Ireland to get around the table, to get on with making that agreement and to bring governance back to the Assembly in Northern Ireland, because were that to happen, perhaps some of the pithy matters that have been put on the agenda in this House would be properly discussed and debated, and laws would be either upheld or altered and changed as the case may be—as the Assembly would want.
Let me go back to the question of what my constituents want. In a recent ComRes survey, 64% of the general population of Northern Ireland agreed that changing the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is an issue that should be reserved to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. That 64% is an overwhelming number of people who want the Assembly to take decisions on that matter. That is why I say again that the imperative should be that we encourage the parties, including my own party, to get on with resolving the outstanding issues.
Sixty-six per cent. of women in Northern Ireland, irrespective of social, cultural or political background, want the Assembly to make laws on these issues. They do not want this place to make those laws. More importantly, as other Members have remarked, they do not want this place to rush into making legislative decisions on Northern Ireland on a hop, skip and a prayer approach, which results in really bad law. They want really good decisions to be made and good law to be put in place. They do not want decisions that are rushed and that leave us with bad law, especially on the sensitive issue of the termination of human life.
What happens if, with a fair wind, good leadership and courageous decision making, we actually get the Assembly up and running again? The hon. Gentleman has given the statistics for those in Northern Ireland who are in favour of allowing the Assembly to deal with sensitive issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Will he explain to the House—it would be very interesting, particularly in advance of tomorrow’s debate—what the DUP’s policy will be on reforming abortion legislation in Northern Ireland to make sure that the 1,000 women who are forced to leave their own home country to go to England or Scotland for an abortion will have some of their rights delivered in Northern Ireland? What is the DUP’s policy on that if the Assembly is up and running?
As my cousin knows, I will always give way to her on other matters in these important debates, but seeing the look of consternation on the face of Mr Deputy Speaker, I fear that if I were to go into a separate analysis of our policy and how we would implement it and put in place a common assembly sometime in the future, he may call me to order. I would happily debate that point with the hon. Lady if she were to raise it at a later stage. I would do so even if she were to bring forward an Adjournment debate on the subject. I look forward to debating that issue.
The point that I did leave out in the hope that my colleague, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), was going to intervene on me was this issue of bad law. I know that no one in this House—whether it is the hon. Member for Walthamstow or any other Member—wants to put in place bad laws, but sometimes the consequences of actions that we take lead to very bad laws. It may not be the intention, but it can ultimately be the impact. Certainly, the intention of some of the amendments that have been tabled would, in my view, really compromise matters relating to the sensitive issue of abortion rights. For example, they could lead to sex selection abortions in Northern Ireland, and they could lead to a massive increase in the number of abortions of disabled life. We could see problems arise where there is no proper management or scrutiny of where abortions take place. All these issues have been flagged up by a number of groups that have been looking at the problems that would arise if a quick solution were found, which does not exist, to a very difficult set of circumstances that pertain in Northern Ireland. We need to tread cautiously on this issue and not just think about brushing away some pieces of law and some protections that we have, because suddenly everything will be open to change, and that could be very detrimental indeed. The changes could also have an impact in England and Wales: if we were to create a set of circumstances where the laws in Northern Ireland would be so open to abortion, basically anything could go. We would then have a set of circumstances in which Northern Ireland would be well out of kilter on this issue with the Republic of Ireland where I understand that abortion will be limited to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. We would have a situation where it could be right up to the point of birth in Northern Ireland. That would be absolutely terrible and something that is clearly not the desire or the intention.
I appreciate that we are veering into matters that should probably should be debated in detail tomorrow. As it currently stands, the Abortion Act 1967 bears no resemblance to what is actually happening with abortion today in the United Kingdom. It is really down to demand, and that was never the intention of the 1967 Act, according to those who were involved—I am talking about David Steel and others who brought the Act forward in the first place.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
Let me turn now to some of the other points that have been raised in the debate. I am glad that the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), is still in his place. First, let me congratulate him on his assumption of that role. I have, so far, enjoyed his chairmanship of the Committee and we are getting into some really meaty stuff. He has been excellent in terms of encouraging the Committee to get out reports. I think that we have published two reports under his chairmanship already. That is, of course, very good. [Interruption.] He may as well take the bouquets now, because brick bats might come at any point.
However, I was very disappointed with the Chairman of the Select Committee’s analysis of the border poll issue. I do not believe that we are anywhere near the point that Northern Ireland should either have a border poll or that the opinion is so close in Northern Ireland that it would deserve a border poll. Indeed once again, the Belfast agreement lays out the terms and conditions for having a border poll: the Government must have tangible evidence to show that the overwhelming weight of opinion is that a border poll would be successful. That is not the case; it is nowhere near the case. Even the analysis of the most difficult elections that Northern Ireland has been through shows that that is not the case, but there is a majority across both sections of the community to retain the link with the United Kingdom. To give way on that or to concede that point only encourages people who have the worst interests at heart for Northern Ireland and not the best interests. I certainly encourage the Chairman of the Select Committee to review his position on that, and to consider whether he can analyse that situation differently and see from the evidence that there is not a wind of change in that direction. Yes, there is lots of talk about it, but it is from people who do not really care about the Union, never have cared and really have not changed. Gerry Adams has now been put in charge of the border poll issue; he did not have much success in the past 30 years in achieving any of his big goals and he will not have much success in achieving that goal either.
Those are the points that I want to leave before the House tonight. I look forward to the debate continuing and, indeed, to tomorrow’s debate.
I did not expect to be called ahead of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), but thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. There are a great many issues to speak on, some of which we will come to tomorrow. I hope to have the opportunity and more time to comment on them then.
To say that I am disheartened to be living through this déjà vu is a massive understatement. I will put it in the words of one of my constituents, who spoke to me only than this morning: “I’m absolutely gutted.” Those are the words of that gentleman. I am gutted for my constituents, who are good, hard-working men and women with families, whose day-to-day lives have been stymied because Sinn Féin refuses to be democratic and to put its demand list to the democratically elected Assembly.
We need to put the blame where the blame is—not with the democratic parties that are not holding up the process. My constituents see restrictions in secondary school places for their children and the threat of closure of one post-primary, non-selective school in a town of 30,000 in Newtownards, and they see no Minister to appeal to for common sense to enable that process to be stopped. They see waiting lists shooting through the roof—appointments for routine surgeries, with people sitting for two years in agony awaiting hip replacements. They see their children waiting for ear, nose and throat appointments for tonsil problems after nine months of pain. They see massive projects with shovel-ready funding in place that are not able begin because a senior civil servant fears overstepping his or her position. New builds are on hold. Primary and secondary school budgets are short of the moneys needed to keep them going. Principals from my constituency have expressed concern over their budgets for the coming year. The issue of special needs is also a critical factor, which we have discussed in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, as hon. Members here who are on that Committee will know.
The one thing in this process that is clear to me is that when it comes to health, it does not matter if you are a nationalist or Unionist. Health issues affect everyone. When it comes to education issues, it does not matter whether you are a nationalist or a Unionist; they hurt you the same whoever you are. Potholes are not exclusive to the Unionist area or the nationalist area—they are everywhere. When it comes budgets and agreeing a way forward, those are things we clearly could do.
Benefits are now one of the biggest issues in my office, taking up some 25% to 30% of my office casework. That is a massive contribution. A working Northern Ireland Assembly could address the critical benefit issues of our constituents. Would it not be better if the Northern Ireland Assembly was in place, at least to be able to use some of the block budget, as we have in the past, to help to allay some of the fears on benefit issues?
The first food bank in the whole of Northern Ireland, a Trussell Trust food bank, was in Newtownards in my constituency. Is it not better that we slow down the rate at which people are referred to food banks? Poverty levels, especially among children, are at their highest for many years; we need an Assembly that can work, and that can only happen if we have a process that enables it to happen.
In the smaller realm of things, we have warm home schemes with budgets allocated, but as yet the previous scheme has continued. My constituents in their 80s who are sitting with their old boilers that lose as much oil as is used, damaging the environment and damaging their lungs, are being told, “Yes, you’re suitable, but, oh wait, we can’t do the new scheme just yet because—guess what?—we haven’t got a Minister in place, we haven’t got a Department, and we haven’t got the extra moneys that are allocated and necessary.” Again, the whole process builds up. There are also the roads budgets. Only last Thursday the Transport Committee talked about the potholes programme. Then there are all the tarmacking schemes for new roads across the whole constituency. I have said before and I say it again—Members will be surprised if I do not—that the bypass for Ballynahinch continues to be a big issue for my constituency and the people I look after.
We are coming towards 12 July, and in my constituency we are very pleased to have a good bonfire strategy. Working through Ards and North Down Borough Council, we have managed to ensure that tyres are not put on the bonfires in my constituency, so we do not have the problem that is found in other areas. We have the opportunity of Orangefest, the traditional 12 July parade being held in Holywood, in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), where both communities are able to enjoy all the culture, history and tradition. We are very fortunate in my constituency of Strangford and her constituency of North Down to have good community relations, and long may that continue. I am a member of Kircubbin Volunteers Loyal Orange Lodge, and over the past number of years I have been there I have seen the two communities coming together. They all come out on the 12th day to enjoy the parades.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who is no longer here, pointed the finger at some of the political parties. I was disappointed with that, because the Democratic Unionist party has made special efforts, through Dr Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, to move the political process forward. We have all gone on a road of change in our lives politically in terms of what we wanted in the past and what we were prepared to achieve. The political process in the Northern Ireland Assembly happened because politicians in the Democratic Unionist party—and, to be fair, politicians in Sinn Féin—felt at the time that the Northern Ireland Assembly was the way forward. It is good that that happened.
The elephant in the room is the fact that Sinn Féin just does not give a damn about the Northern Ireland Executive. A year and a half ago, we were talking about making moves very fast towards having direct rule, and each time we have pushed and pushed and pushed. It is actually in Sinn Féin’s interest to continue to procrastinate and to destroy the Northern Ireland Executive. We finally have to recognise that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—he is absolutely right. The Sinn Féin of today is a very different body from back then. It was in a process where it wanted a political regional assembly to move forward; today, the obstacles and obstructions that it puts down are very clear.
With everything that is in me I echo the cries of my constituents. This is simply not good enough, and the Secretary of State must understand that. Last week we lost one of our politics’ brightest stars to the private sector—my colleague Simon Hamilton. I warned about this during the previous extension debates. I said that we would lose those with mortgages and young families who love their country but have bills to pay and lives to live. They need job security like anyone else. They need to have fulfilment in their job like anyone else. We are in danger of losing more people like Simon, in other parties as well, who are invested in seeing their children live, grow and work in a prosperous Northern Ireland. That is not because Northern Ireland is hopeless, because it is not, but because they are being prevented from doing what they want to do and should be doing. Simon Hamilton was a visionary politician. He was also my election agent in the past three elections, and I thank him for that. He had a vision for Northern Ireland and wanted to be part of the process. Unfortunately, the fact that we are not moving forward has made him take this decision.
I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) has said: we need a political process, and no longer can one party hold back others. We need to look at a different method. If five parties want to be involved in a democratic political process and a way forward, we should do that. No more can one party—Sinn Féin—hold up the process, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said.
MLAs are maligned as lazy and self-seeking by some in this House and those who perhaps do not understand exactly what they do, yet they are desperate to do their jobs properly. They are prevented from doing so by self-serving Sinn Féin, who could not break this nation with bombs, who could not domination through their machination regarding the voting system and procedure, and who have instead decided to cripple it from within. I mean no disrespect, but that crippling was described to me as being aided and abetted by this Government—it has not been dealt with by a Government who have had their eyes on Brexit, as they must—at the expense of my constituents.
Many Members have referred to the hard border. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said that there is no need for a hard border. The EU has said that there is no need for a hard border. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has said that there is no need for a hard border. When all those players say that there is no need for a hard border, we must ask ourselves why we would pursue that. My father came from Castlefinn in Donegal, and my mother came from Clady, outside Strabane. That did not stop my mother and father crossing the border and meeting each other. I would not be here today if they had not met—that is a fact of life. The border never stopped people crossing it to meet and get together.
We want to see Northern Ireland move forward, and this Bill does not do that. It keeps us treading water. The problem is that we are fast losing all energy and are beginning to drown, not because the funding or the ability is not there, but because the tough decisions are not being taken. They are not being taken by the people who need to take them, but are afraid of taking the wrong one. We need action, not to continue as we are.
Tomorrow we will consider the amendments, if they are selected, on abortion and same-sex marriage. I will go into more detail tomorrow if I get the opportunity, but as of 7 o’clock tonight, I have had 443 emails from my constituents—31 of those were in favour of change, and the other 412 were not. I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy): listen clearly to what happens in my constituency. I will go into more detail tomorrow about all the issues in relation to abortion and same-sex marriage.
I will support this Bill. I have no option, unless I wish to see NHS staff not receiving their wages, no schools open in September and our civil service grinding to a halt. While there are few options, the Secretary of State and the Minister are not optionless and must create their options. They must introduce legislation to say that those who are elected must take their seats with no preconditions and be emphatic instead of inactive. The Secretary of State must do her job and make these decisions for Northern Ireland.
Our country is drowning. The Secretary of State and the Minister must be the lifeguards, stop patrolling around the edges and dive in to do something to save my constituents in Strangford and people across Northern Ireland. I support the Bill, and I ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to do their job and support the good, hard-working, decent people of Northern Ireland, instead of those who are hellbent on destruction.
Having sat through the debate, I think it is quite clear that nobody really wants this Bill. It is a contingency Bill. We all hope that the discussions and meetings will bear fruit and that the Assembly and Executive will be up and running. We all want that to happen, and it is quite clear from what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that tough decisions are not being taken at the moment.
There have been compelling speeches from Members across the House—including the hon. Members for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—about all the important issues that need to be addressed, such as health and education. I was struck by the speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who spoke about same-sex marriage, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who made a compelling case for a woman’s right to choose.
I want to refer to my experience on the recent prelegislative scrutiny Committee of this House and the other place on the Domestic Abuse Bill. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, that Bill was brought forward by the Prime Minister to make sure that we can not only sign but ratify the Istanbul convention on domestic abuse. That Bill is really important, and the one thing the Committee was concerned about was that there is no provision for Northern Ireland. As has already been said, issues of coercive control and stalking are not covered in Northern Irish law, as I understand it, and on that basis we would not be able to ratify the Istanbul convention.
The reason I am talking about that is that one of the recommendations from the cross-party prelegislative scrutiny Committee was that we ought to legislate for that in this place, but do so on the basis of a sunset clause for when the Assembly is up and running again, so it can then decide how it wishes to legislate for Northern Ireland. We felt so strongly about it that we thought that was the sensible approach to take.
I have borrowed from the approach of that particular Committee to table an amendment—I hope it might be selected tomorrow—saying that just as, under clause 3, the Secretary of State will provide a report on progress in bringing the Assembly back together, she could also put together a report on how this House, or the Westminster Parliament, could deal with the breach of human rights—women’s human rights—in Northern Ireland.
We know the Supreme Court is going to find such a breach in the next few months. We are absolutely clear from what was said in Sarah Ewart’s case earlier this year that there is going to be a finding of incompatibility. As we know—one of the DUP Members admitted it—that means it will fall to this place, the Westminster Parliament, to remedy that situation.
My amendment, which I hope we may be able to debate tomorrow, is to get the Secretary of State to do the work now—prepare, plan, talk to the parties—on how we can remedy the breaches of women’s human rights in relation to the legal framework on abortion, while also recognising the devolution settlement by saying, if Westminster has to take some action, that there will be a sunset clause for when the Assembly is up and running again, just as with the Domestic Abuse Bill proposal made by the Committee I spoke about earlier.
This is an opportunity to move forward and be practical about preparing for the inevitable, which is the Supreme Court decision that is coming down the tracks. Whether people like it or not, we are going to have to face this, so let us get the preparation and the planning done now, and also recognise devolution by having such a sunset clause. This is obviously a matter for tomorrow, and I think it is a practical way forward.
Lyra Catherine McKee has been mentioned two or three times during this debate. When we discuss Northern Ireland business, I sometimes think back to that incredibly, immensely emotional day in St Anne’s cathedral on 24 April, when Members from both Front Benches were present and we heard that extraordinarily moving homily. I like to think that Lyra Catherine McKee, who represents the best and the brightest of young Northern Ireland but is no longer with us, is listening and looking down on us, and I hope we have not disappointed her tonight.
The rather unfortunate statement is frequently made, and it is a slightly obsequious convention for people to say, “This has been a great debate”, but tonight we have heard some extremely fine speeches. We have heard excellent speeches right across the board on some extremely wide-ranging and difficult subjects, and I will come on to them in a moment.
It would be appropriate, as this is the first debate we have had on the Floor of the House since the death of Ivan Cooper from Claudy, who was well known and very widely respected throughout Northern Ireland, to say that the House should note his passing with sadness. We should also show our respect for the former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, who has now retired.
I was slightly embarrassed by the encomiums pressed on me by Members on both sides of the House. I have come to the conclusion that nothing succeeds in politics like dying or, if you cannot quite manage that, resigning. It is not often that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I are locked together—or paired, as it were—but the fact that we are both leaving is probably more of a matter of regret for me for her than for her for me. But never mind that. I am extremely grateful for the comments made, and in the meantime I hope to be around for a short while yet.
We have heard an extraordinarily wide range of speeches. Rather than go through all of them individually—you will doubtless be greatly relieved to hear that, Mr Speaker—I will just say that there was not a dud among them. We have heard from the hon. Members for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Lewes (Maria Caulfield). The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) made the extraordinary statement that Sinn Féin backed out of a meeting because of its preparations for 12 July. I assume that the republicans and nationalists I know tend to make preparations for 12 July by booking an Airbnb in Letterkenny, but I am not entirely sure what happened on this occasion.
We have also heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), the hon. Members for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), for Bury South (Mr Lewis) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), which is Clem Attlee’s old constituency. For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, may I say that woggles, neckerchiefs and various other things to which my hon. Friend referred are, in fact, scouting terms and the reference to young lads was purely coincidental? My hon. Friend was a senior officer of the Scout Association when I chaired the all-party parliamentary scout group, along with Bob Russell, lately of this parish.
We have also heard from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), and it would not have been a Northern Ireland debate without hearing at length from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We were also delighted to hear a very perceptive speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).
Of all the speeches we have heard tonight—this may be otiose because I am not the first person to have said it—the speech made by the hon. Member for Belfast South was extraordinary. It was one of the most remarkable speeches I have heard. She has made great speeches in this House before, but I have to say that she encapsulated the frustration, agony and annoyance that we all feel in this House, when she spoke so vividly, strongly and emotionally about her constituents’ needs, which, after all, is what we are here for. She expressed that frustration and her inability to achieve what she and they want. It was an extraordinary speech and I have no doubt that it will be referred to many times in many places.
A dark cloak has been spread over everything we have spoken about tonight, and that is the dark cloak of a hard Brexit. Bearing in mind the particular focus and locus of this debate, we have perhaps discussed rather more than we should have the possible arrangements on the border. It is only necessary to say that I do not think that anyone in this House seriously suggests that a 300-mile border from Donegal to Dundalk, with 298 crossing points, can somehow be managed by some technological solution and a fantasy frontier with cameras up poles. When people talk about the border between Sweden and Norway, I often point out that there are more crossing points between Monaghan and Fermanagh than there are on the whole of the Norway-Sweden border. The point is that, if we are going to have a hard Brexit, God forbid, there has to be some sort of customs arrangement. I do not think that we need to get into discussions about the common travel area and Schengen; there has to be some sort of a customs union. That may not be popular in every single corner of the House, but it is at least logical.
The other point of sadness that has come over our deliberations today is the fact that we as a House are admitting failure and that we cannot somehow manage this process and encourage, support and bring back the Executive and the devolved Assembly.
It is salutary to listen to tonight’s speakers and realise the depth of talent that exists in the political classes in Northern Ireland. There is no shortage of talent, energy, vision or absolute determination to serve their people well and for the best, but we need to move forward so that that energy can flourish and flower and produce the goods for the people of Northern Ireland, because God knows they really need it.
This has been an expedient debate. We know what it is all about. None of us wants to be here. It is a slightly St Augustine one: make me pure, but not just at this moment in time. We very much hope that we will not come back here, but we have to wish the Secretary of State and the Minister of State a fair following wind. We know what they are trying to do and we on the Labour Benches—although I have to say the 12 July marching analogy was slightly lost on me—will be walking in quickstep together, if not in lockstep.
In conclusion, there is one very serious danger that has not been touched on so far: if we continue to extend the existing arrangements, there is a real possibility of an erosion of belief in the devolved institutions. People will lose patience in devolution. If we cannot come up with the goods, they will lose faith, they will lose hope and they will lose trust in the devolved Assemblies and the devolved institutions. We cannot allow that to happen to this great idea and this logic, which I think every one of us in this House approves of and supports: the idea of devolution and devolving, wherever possible, decisions to the lowest possible level; it is subsidiarity. All decisions should be made at the lowest level. I hope that everybody agrees with that. The problem is that people are losing their faith and their trust. Above all, they are losing their hope. We have to restore that faith.
Tonight, we take an unwelcome step. It is a step that none of us wants to take, but it has to be done. Please, please let this be one of the last occasions when we have to come to this House to seek an extension. Please, one day, may we all be there in Stormont for the reconvening of the Assembly and have the most enjoyable time. If I am still a Member of this House, I will enjoy that as my swansong. If I am not a Member of this House, I am going to crash your party anyway.
Amen to that, Mr Speaker. I think that is the only way to follow that one. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound). It is perhaps not his swansong—in theory, he has another couple of years before the end of this Parliament, should we run to full term—but he has been a wonderful adornment and one of the funniest Members of Parliament for a long time. We also heard tributes to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). She is a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and was temporary Chair while my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) was being selected and elevated to his place. Incidentally, it is good to see him, in his first legislative outing in that place, making a contribution today. But it will be sad to see the hon. Member for Ealing North go. We can see from his comments today why it will be sad.
This is a very short Bill. It is only three or four clauses long. It is a very simple extension of two dates and that is all it does. That has not stopped us from going on at quite some length about Brexit, hard borders, or not, in Northern Ireland and all sorts of other related matters, but at its heart it does something very simple indeed. It just extends the existing Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 by two dates: an initial period and then, at Parliament’s discretion, a potential further short extension.
It is good to know that speaker after speaker and party after party has expressed their support for the Bill. I would like to put on record the Government’s thanks to everybody, right the way across the aisle, for their support. It does matter, particularly when it comes to Northern Ireland, that we have cross-party support and, ideally, cross-community support. That support, however, is not unqualified or open-ended. As the hon. Member for Ealing North and many other Members have said, this is, frankly, wearing thin. We have been here before, and there is both frustration and a great deal of concern about the missed opportunities in all sorts of areas in Northern Ireland, including on health, education, suicide prevention and even potholes. These things are not being done and decisions are not being taken. As many different Members said, this cannot continue for very much longer. In fact, I think the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) described it as the endgame and he was absolutely right.
The Minister just used the phrase “wearing thin”. I assure him and the Secretary of State that what is wearing thin is the patience of the people in Northern Ireland with the fact that we do not have a functioning Assembly, and adding to that and intensifying the annoyance is that MLAs continue to be paid. Will the Minister therefore commit this evening that, if the Assembly is not functioning again when we get to these dates in the Bill, the Secretary of State will use her powers to cut MLAs’ salaries?
I agree absolutely with the first half of the hon. Lady’s sentence. The sense of frustration and concern is not confined to Members on both sides of the Chamber this afternoon and evening, although that has been palpable; it extends right across all communities in Northern Ireland and she is absolutely right to make that point.
On the pay of MLAs, I gently remind the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already cut MLAs’ pay not once, but twice. They are now down 27.5% from their initial level. That does not mean that further cuts might not be possible. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who is in her place, will have heard what the hon. Lady said and will consider it carefully. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Lady any stronger a commitment than that, but she has made her point.
The concern and frustration that I mentioned were palpable from speaker after speaker during the debate. Again, this point was made by the hon. Member for Ealing North: that frustration and concern are twinned with a fear of the erosion of faith in the Stormont Assembly and the Stormont Executive, and in devolved government and democracy in Northern Ireland. Underlying everything that we have been saying is a worry that, if the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland are not working effectively, a peaceful opportunity to give vent to and give effect to differences of opinion and to make collective decisions in Northern Ireland is lost. If those opportunities are lost, that lends help and gives succour and energy to those who say, “Well, democracy is not the answer in Northern Ireland, but other forms of expression are.” We all know where that can lead and where that has led in Northern Ireland’s tragic history, and we do not want to go there again, so it is very good to hear people saying that on both sides of the Chamber.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. At the moment, the talks are still ongoing. There is still breath and life left in the negotiating room. Again, it is worth while recording that everybody here, in different ways and at different points during this debate, has made the point that they want those talks to succeed. This is not just confined to one side of the talks or the other. Everybody is still in the room and it is absolutely essential that, while there is still hope and breath left in those talks, they must continue, because the alternative is far, far worse. That is the only legitimate reason for any kind of extension to the EFEF Act: there is still a glimmer of hope that this can be done.
It would give nobody greater pleasure than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for this Bill to be one that never needed to come into force. As she mentioned in her opening remarks, she will be delighted if this Bill never needed Royal Assent because it was unnecessary, because the talks had succeeded and because devolved Government had been reinstated in Northern Ireland. With the possible exception of the hon. Member for Ealing North, who has promised to crash the party if it happens, nobody would be happier at the success of the talks than the Secretary of State, who has basically been locked in a series of meeting rooms in and around Stormont for the last several months, seeing very little of her family, in an attempt to get the thing to work. I am sure we all wish her well.
There were two main types of contribution to this debate. One was from colleagues prefiguring amendments they have tabled for tomorrow that they hope to catch your eye on and debate, Mr Speaker. They included my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Members for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). All of them, often from very different sides of the same issue, want to make sure that broader issues around the governance of Northern Ireland can be raised and debated tomorrow, in an attempt to move forward issues dear to their hearts.
The second type of contribution was much broader and more numerous. It came from people who said it was not wrong but it was sad that the Bill had to be used as a vehicle for these kinds of issues because it would be far better if Northern Ireland were being properly served by a Stormont Assembly, which could deal with the issues in the amendments to be discussed tomorrow in Committee and with many of the other issues raised, in many cases by Northern Ireland Members themselves, but by others as well, and which are much broader than the cultural issues—if I can put it like that. They are concerned with health, education, potholes, and everything else—the more mundane but absolutely essential warp and weft of government and of keeping the good governance of Northern Ireland up to date. Because decisions have only been taken in a very limited way under the existing powers and the EFEF Act, that has meant that Northern Ireland’s public services have gently but steadily become more and more out of date. As a result, in many cases those services have become less efficient than they would otherwise be if they had been kept up to date, more expensive and less productive in the way they are delivered.
That was the broader thrust of many other people’s contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), a member of the Select Committee, gave a tour d’horizon with three options that we must all consider. I will happily pick them up with her when I have a bit more time to discuss with her how we can take them forward. We also heard from the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), the right hon. Member for Belfast North, plus a whole slew of other Northern Ireland colleagues, including the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and on and on.
The one thing I can promise is that this is not being rushed. We have two full days of debate—today and tomorrow—and then three days in the Lords, so there will be plenty of opportunity to debate this in more depth.
I think I heard the Minister say the hon. Member for Belfast East goes on and on, but he knows the issue I want to raise. It is specific and discrete and concerns co-ownership. The Bill is ready and I understand that it rests with the Treasury. Has he got good news?
I did not say that the hon. Member for Belfast East went on and on, and nor would I ever do so. He is right to remind me of the pledge I was able to make from this Dispatch Box a month and a half to two months ago. I am afraid that I do not have a date for the introduction of the Bill for him, but he is right to say that the Bill has moved forward dramatically and is now in the necessary format for Westminster introduction. We do not have a date yet, but he is also right that the Treasury has a strong interest in moving this forward because it is to its financial advantage to get this change done, and where the Treasury wishes to lean is always a good place for any Minister to begin.
With that, I draw my remarks to a close. We have an entire day of this tomorrow when we can debate the amendments prefigured during this debate. Again, I thank all sides and all concerned for their broad support in principle for the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.