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Northern Ireland

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 5 September 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will respond to the urgent question of which I have given prior notice?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive work over the summer on a range of issues, including those relating to Harland and Wolff. Secondly, may I remind Members that I have been held captive in the Whips Office for over three years and that this is therefore my first Dispatch Box appearance? I have to be honest and say that I am very grateful not to be the Government’s current Chief Whip.

As is my duty under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, I will publish a report on or before 9 October to update on progress. Throughout the period ahead, I will be doing everything I can to support and encourage talks to succeed. Democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland are best placed to take the decisions needed to support hospitals, schools and the police. I have seen the excellent work of civil servants in Northern Ireland over the last few weeks, but of course they cannot take the proactive decisions that are needed on public services or the economy in the run-up to 31 October. If we cannot secure the restoration of an Executive, we will pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his role and his appearance at the Dispatch Box. He will know that Northern Ireland is in a unique position in the United Kingdom: it has no devolved Government, nor does the Secretary of State or any member of the UK Government have powers to deliver the kind of transformation that is needed. I know from my conversations with senior members of the Northern Ireland civil service that they are frustrated by their inability to make the decisions—whether on health, education or the issues that we now face—that Northern Ireland so desperately needs.

In that context, we face the Prorogation of Parliament and the possibility—I accept it is a possibility—of a no-deal Brexit and a general election coming fast down the track. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 will expire some time in October, and I have a number of specific questions that I need to put to the Secretary of State about the good governance of Northern Ireland.

The first examines the question of Prorogation. We know that we face the possibility of Prorogation next week and that that provides enormous challenges in terms of governance. Yes, if we can see Stormont back in operation, that will achieve what we need, but does the Secretary of State accept that there are real dangers during a period of Prorogation, in terms of the governance of Northern Ireland? Will he tell the House precisely when he was consulted about Prorogation? What advice did he give to the Prime Minister and other members of the Government?

Turning to a no-deal Brexit, the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), told the House before the summer that in the circumstances that it “voted for no deal”, or in any case, if there were no deal, “we”—the Government—

“would have to start formal engagement with the Irish Government about…providing strengthened decision making in the event of that outcome. That would include the real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 391.]

The Foreign Secretary told the “Today” programme that direct rule would require legislation and made it quite clear that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would need to follow that up. Does the Secretary of State accept that some form of direct governance—of direct accountability—would be necessary in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Can he tell us what steps he is taking?

Finally, in any part of the United Kingdom we expect the security of our people to be paramount. There will be some real questions about making sure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources that it needs. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how he intends to make sure that the allocation of those resources ensures that the PSNI has the resource base and numbers that it needs? If this were your constituency, Mr Speaker, or Rochdale, Skipton and Ripon, Wales or Scotland, this situation would not be allowed to happen. I hope that the Secretary of State shares my view that this cannot be allowed to frustrate and put Northern Ireland in a position of discomfort, or worse.

The hon. Gentleman asks about dangers. I think I have been very honest with the House that powers are needed to ensure, not only in the current situation, where civil servants across Northern Ireland are making difficult decisions without political direction, but obviously in the run-up either to a deal or no deal, that the very tricky decisions can be made, and I am sure that those will have to be made at pace.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the legal advice on Prorogation. It was not something that I or my Department was involved in. That was a matter for the Attorney General. As Parliament is aware, the Cabinet was updated shortly before the decision was announced.

On what happens if the talks do not succeed in time, again, I have been clear that we need to have powers at the earliest opportunity because some of the challenges that will emerge will do so fairly soon, but we have to operate in the environment governed by the Good Friday agreement. On that point, certainly in the discussions that I am having with the Irish Foreign Secretary on the talks, the relationship is very positive.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the PSNI. As he will be aware, the PSNI has gained about £20 million of additional funding. However, when we look at how we direct funding and make those decisions, we see that, to ensure that a large and important part of our country is not left ungoverned at a difficult time, we do need powers to be in place.

I echo entirely the concerns of the shadow Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend’s commitment to Northern Ireland is not in question, but the impression coming out of some sections of the Government is that Northern Ireland could easily now be collateral damage, so may I ask him a specific question? He referred to the Attorney General’s legal advice on Prorogation, which he will have seen. Did it make specific reference to the unique and pressing needs of Northern Ireland and how they might be attenuated as the Prime Minister set out his strategy, and if not, why not?

It would obviously be inappropriate for me to discuss the details of that legal advice in the House, but suffice it to say that I have indicated that, to preserve the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland, we need to get Stormont up and running again or, failing that, ensure that powers are in place to protect those rights, jobs and the economy and the commitments made by the Irish and UK Governments on the Good Friday agreement.

The impact of no deal on the devolved nations has been well documented, with Northern Ireland at particular risk owing to the border. Reports that the Government are trying to row back from their 2017 joint report commitments are deeply concerning. Do the UK Government not see that this particular game of brinkmanship that the Prime Minister is playing could have catastrophic consequences for the people on Northern Ireland, and will the Secretary of State now commit to ensuring that no deal is taken off the table? Such moments press home more clearly than ever the need for Northern Ireland to have a functioning legislature, so what progress has been made over the summer to ensure that Stormont is reconvened at the earliest opportunity?

Finally, the Prime Minister said that he had not decided to prorogue Parliament, but we have now learned from evidence in Scotland’s Court of Session that, in reality, he had already signed off on Prorogation in his red box. Can the Secretary of State tell us why there is such a disconnect between the Prime Minister’s words and his actions?

On the question of deal versus no deal, my job is to lead the efforts for Northern Ireland to prepare for no deal, but I could not be clearer in my mind that a deal is in the best interests of Northern Ireland. As for the talks, we have issued the report outlining what occurred over the summer. These have been at a differing pace throughout the summer. There have been good talks. The issues are important, but not insolvable. I again pay tribute to Simon Coveney and officials for the work that has been done over the summer to get us to a point where we are not far from the finishing line, if the parties want to push forward.

I join the shadow Secretary of State in expressing concern about the impact that Prorogation may have on the people of Northern Ireland. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I welcome him to his new post and wish him every success—ensure that during Prorogation the Government will not stop working for those who need redress, and by that I mean the victims of historical institutional sexual abuse and those who were severely physically or psychologically disabled during the troubles through no fault of their own? They need redress and they need it urgently. Can he assure me that he will deliver that?

May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who did an exceptional job as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She will know of the trauma that victims have suffered. It is now three years since the Hart report was published, and the work that she did means that the Bill could now be presented at the earliest opportunity. I hope that we will get that into the Queen’s Speech and ensure that we solve the issue once and for all.

In the absence of a Stormont Government, and in view of the potential difficulties arising from no deal, will the Secretary of State clarify who will make decisions during that period and tell us what discussions he has had both with the political parties and the Irish Government about the implications of direct rule?

I strongly believe that getting the talks up and running, and getting Stormont up and running, is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and is the best route for decision making. Obviously, along with Cabinet colleagues, I am considering alternatives should that fail, but we have to try to get Stormont up and running.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his responsibilities. Does he agree that it would be frankly unconscionable for any Government to lead us into a no-deal Brexit in which the Northern Ireland civil service lacked the legal powers and authority to cope with those circumstances? Does this not point to the need for legislation to be introduced and enacted before the end of October?

I think it is vital that, first and foremost, we get the talks up and running. If that does not work, we must establish powers to ensure that we are making all the decisions in the best possible way for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to their posts. We look forward to working with them in the days and weeks ahead.

Let me reiterate our commitment to getting Stormont up and running as quickly as possible, although I welcome the concentration on the need for direct decision-making powers to be taken in the event that that is not possible. As the shadow Secretary of State said, it is extremely important that Northern Ireland is not left, uniquely, in the terrible position of having no one in charge during these critical days.

Does the Secretary of State welcome the publication of remarks made by the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic yesterday, in which he indicated that in the event of no deal there would no checks or infrastructure on the border? We should build on that, because there is room for progress towards securing a deal, which we all want.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Thankfully, the EU negotiations are not my responsibility, but I do think that a deal is in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

Everyone in the House supports the Belfast agreement, and everyone in the House would like to see the institutions up and running again, but we cannot bludgeon one party into co-operating, and in the meantime outcomes are deteriorating for our fellow citizens. The Bengoa report was published in October 2016. While he is looking at this, will the Secretary of State also consider what powers he could take to benefit every citizen in Northern Ireland?

I know from visiting hospitals and schools that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. For too long, public servants have been having to make decisions that should have been made by politicians. I must be frank with the House. The powers that I have—the powers that are available for decision making—are extremely limited, and that is why it is a priority for us to get Stormont up and running.

Of course, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State—whom I warmly congratulate on his appointment, while also thanking his predecessor—will know from the very angry and concerned representations that I have already made to his office that I am extremely worried and annoyed that a statutory instrument which governs key appointments to a range of bodies in Northern Ireland—including appointments of QCs—has been put in jeopardy by Prorogation. I need a commitment, a guarantee, from the Secretary of State today that that statutory instrument will be debated in the House on Monday, or on Tuesday, but certainly before Prorogation. It affects people’s lives in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State has a responsibility to protect those lives.

It is clear from what my right hon. Friend is saying that if we have a no-deal Brexit and Stormont is not up and running, to protect the rights of Northern Ireland, we need to take powers; to take powers, we need to legislate; and to legislate, the House needs to be sitting. Is it not also clear that if the House does not pass that legislation by the end of October because it has been prorogued or dissolved, the rights of the people of Northern Ireland will be detrimentally affected?

Again, the priority has to be getting Stormont up and running. I have been honest and open to the House about the need for powers, and clearly my right hon. Friend is right that at the very heart of the need for those powers are the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland.

Is the Secretary of State sickened already by people talking up the dangers—almost cheerleading and willing on the problems instead of helping to find solutions? When will the Secretary of State be able to bring forward a report or a Bill on institutional historical abuse cases, which was promised before the recess?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are no circumstances, including a no-deal Brexit, under which the British Government would erect a hard border on the island of Ireland?

In the Sunday papers at the weekend, there were indications that dissident republicans are contacting experienced bomb makers in the IRA to make a spectacular big bomb. What is being done to prevent dissident republicans from making contact with the bomb makers, to ensure that those bombs never happen in Northern Ireland or anywhere in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The PSNI and the security services have done an exceptional job over the summer. I pay tribute to them and their families, because people are trying to kill them—that is on the increase and certainly was over the summer. I have decided to convene a weekly security meeting that includes the PSNI to make sure that in the coming weeks and months I am apprised on a regular basis and meeting those people who are leading these teams putting their lives on the line.

In congratulating the new Secretary of State, may I ask him what he plans to do about stopping the relentless hounding of Army and police veterans in respect of alleged historical crimes when most of the evidence has disappeared? What is he going to do about it?

As my hon. Friend will have seen from the report we laid yesterday and from the comments the Prime Minister has made, there has been a new cross-Government effort to ensure that we look at this issue. I know that he has raised this issue many times in this House, and I hope he welcomes the fact that the Government accept that the current situation is not working and that we need to relook at and revisit this area. I and a number of my right hon. Friends in the Cabinet are doing so and look forward to reporting to the House in due course.

Given the unique challenges that Prorogation or Dissolution present to the Northern Ireland Office, why was the Secretary of State not consulted by the Prime Minister or Dominic Cummings before the Prorogation plan was agreed?

The Cabinet was updated immediately before the decision; the hon. Gentleman will have to ask others about the first part of his question.

The Northern Ireland civil service was clear that a decision to extend the welfare mitigation package was needed this autumn or else it would have to start taking alternative measures to advise Northern Ireland recipients of them on what action they should take. Has the Secretary of State got a plan to extend the welfare mitigations in the near future?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in Northern Ireland last week. I continue to work with her and she is actively involved in looking at the issue of welfare not only in Great Britain but across Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the actions of the Labour party yesterday in forcing through the pro-EU anti-democratic surrender Bill will make it more difficult for the Government to reach an agreement with the EU and therefore produce a situation in which direct rule is likely? Will he give an assurance that he will not shy away from the decision that should, quite frankly, have been made a long time ago?

We have to focus on getting a deal for Northern Ireland. That is my priority in supporting the Prime Minister, and that is his priority. Let us get Stormont up and running. That will solve many of the issues that we are concerned about today.

My apologies to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). If I had seen him earlier, I would have called him earlier, but it is a pleasure to call him now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. It is a privilege to serve in office and I wish him all success with his role. He highlighted in his written statement yesterday the need to intensify negotiations with the parties. That is the way to avoid legislation being needed. Perhaps he could set out what form he expects that to take.

As I mentioned earlier, we have been having good discussions over the summer. I met the Irish Foreign Minister last Friday and we will be meeting again this Friday. I hope to push forward, with him, on working with the parties to get into a position where we have the best possible opportunity to get Stormont up and running.

We heard from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) yesterday about the Prime Minister’s failure, to date, to meet the Taoiseach, so what engagement on Prorogation has there been with the Irish Government in their capacity as co-guarantors under the Good Friday agreement?

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. I am pleased to see that he is committed to legislation for victims of institutional abuse being in the Queen’s Speech. Can he commit to that legislation coming to this place before the end of year?

If we prorogue and then move to Dissolution and Stormont is still not sitting, what will happen to the provisions of the Northern Irish Bill that repeal sections 58 and59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 after 22 October?

Just this week, Northern Ireland has received over £400 million extra in the spending review. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Northern Ireland will get far better value for that money in all areas of spending by having the Assembly up and running?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the £400 million, but we need a political decision making body, the Executive, to ensure that it is directed in the best interests of Northern Ireland citizens.

The Secretary of State’s former boss instigated a review into the Home Office forcing British identity on those who identify as Irish, such as Emma de Souza back in February. Can the Secretary of State advise the House whether his new boss has binned that review? If not, why not, and when will he publish it?

It is vital that this House continues to respect the dual citizenship components that the hon. Gentleman talks about and ensures that they are preserved. The review is taking place, and I have made strong representations. The Government are fully committed to the Good Friday agreement obligations.

The Prime Minister says that a hard border can be avoided by the use of existing technology, so can the Secretary of State explain what technology can check passports, visas and customs arrangements for goods without so much as a camera at the border?

The Government are fully committed, as are the Irish Government, to the common travel area in all deal and no-deal scenarios.

As the hon. Gentleman’s point of order appertains to the matters of which we have just treated, I will take it if it is brief.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State was very candid in his admission that he was not consulted about Prorogation. Important decisions have to be made about Northern Ireland’s governance over this period. Can we have a clear statement, perhaps from the Prime Minister, that there will be time, either before Prorogation or at a convenient time for this House, to give the Secretary of State the power to do the things that Northern Ireland needs?

He does not wish to respond. Okay. The point of order has been heard. It is not a matter for adjudication by the Chair, but I want to say to the Secretary of State that the concern that has been expressed on this matter on both sides of the House, including by a number of former Northern Ireland Secretaries, will have registered very firmly with the right hon. Gentleman, and more must be heard about this matter ere long. We need to be absolutely crystal clear on that point. Nothing can get in the way of the provision of proper information to the House on this matter, as the Chair of the Select Committee and many others have emphasised. No one should think that that can be averted. It cannot be, and it will not be.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Several Members have taken to naming a senior public official of civil service rank from time to time—not only during this urgent question, but in debates. Perhaps you can correct me, but I was under the impression that to name a public servant in that way is out of order, wrong and should be avoided. Is that the case? What are the rules regarding naming and trying to shame public officials in this way?

Courteous reference is the guiding principle. The notion that no public servant can be referred to is not correct. It is an interesting concept on the part of the hon. Gentleman, but there is no track record on that matter.

We come now to the statement by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in respect of which there is, again, a premium upon brevity.