I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to Sections 3(1), 3(6), 3(7), 3(8), 3(9) and 3(10) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - regarding Executive formation; transparency of political donations; higher education and a Derry university; presumption of non-prosecution; Troubles prosecution guidance; and abortion law review, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 4 September.
Mr Speaker, may I pay tribute to you following your statement earlier today on your tenure as Speaker of this House? Despite the odd moment of friction during my time as Government Chief Whip, I would like to add my voice to those who have underlined the strength and power of your service to both your constituents and this House, particularly the work you did to establish the new education centre.
On 4 September, I laid a number of reports before the House in line with my obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. Those reports underscore the vital importance of restoring the Northern Ireland Executive. This is my first priority because, without an Executive, the people of Northern Ireland have seen the quality of their public services decline and decisions kicked into the long grass. They deserve better. Since July, I have met public servants from a range of sectors who are doing an incredible job in the absence of support from their political leaders, but they cannot take the vital decisions needed on public services or make those crucial interventions in the economy.
I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene so early. May I just say that I am extremely disappointed and annoyed that the motion to discuss the historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland was not even moved this evening? By proroguing Parliament tonight, the Prime Minister has wilfully and deliberately deprived the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland of a 90-minute debate, sending out a clear signal that they do not even merit a 90-minute debate. It is appalling behaviour. I ask the Secretary of State to demand that the Prime Minister comes to Northern Ireland, sits in a meeting, looks the victims of historical institutional abuse in the face, and explains to them why he is so disrespectful and discourteous of the hurt and suffering that they have had to endure.
To be fair to the business managers tonight, there has been a major challenge with the number of unexpected and emergency debates, but I am now coming to the issue of HIA that the hon. Lady raises. In doing so, I apologise to the House for the change in business. It in no way diminishes how seriously I am progressing the issues or affects the commitments I have made.
I understand what the Secretary of State has said about the business managers. However, he cannot get away that easily from the business statement that was made in this House on Thursday. The first and second priorities on that list, as handed out to Members, were to do with the victims of historical institutional abuse, as the second priority was victims’ payments in relation to that matter. The matters to which the Secretary of State intends to speak this evening were fifth and sixth on the list that we were given. Why has he—as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has indicated—set aside these very important issues that we were promised from that Dispatch Box would be dealt with expeditiously when we came back in September?
Let me thank the Secretary of State for his very gracious personal remarks, which mean a great deal to me.
The victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have shown incredible courage and dignity through their engagement with the Hart inquiry and throughout their campaign for redress. I know that colleagues, as has been shown in the interventions I have just taken, will join me today in restating our collective determination to see progress made in delivering redress to those victims as soon as possible.
On 23 August, I had the honour of meeting representatives from the victims’ and survivors’ groups. These people’s lives have been blighted by unforgivable, horrendous acts, yet they have continued to engage patiently and respectfully with politicians and the legislative process. We can ask no more of victims. We can ask no more of the Hart inquiry. The inquiry has been undertaken. Officials have prepared the policy. The lawyers have prepared the draft law, and I have asked that this be included in the Queen’s Speech as a matter of urgent priority.
On Thursday in business questions—this is why it is disappointing that this is not being debated today—we heard that the Secretary of State committed not only that it would be in the Queen’s Speech but that the legislation would be brought forward to the end of the year. That is the most important thing—that the legislation actually comes forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The EF Act requires new laws in areas including same-sex marriage, opposite-sex civil partnerships, abortion, and victims’ payments. These are sensitive devolved issues, and this Government’s preference is that they are taken forward by a restored Executive. Again, I am sorry that we have not been able to discuss the important issue of victims’ payments in the motion that was not moved. Across these issues, this House has spoken, and these duties to legislate will come into effect if the Executive is not back up and running in the next few weeks. Despite the truncated debate today, I underscore my assurance to the House that I will continue to uphold the letter and the spirit of my obligations under the EF Act in full. I will update Parliament on these issues in the next Session, and indeed will say a bit more on abortion law in Northern Ireland later in my speech, but I now turn to each of the issues listed for debate today.
What can this House do to strengthen the Secretary of State’s elbow in discussion with the business managers as to what is going to be included in the Queen’s Speech? I associate myself with the remarks of other hon. Members with regard to the victims of historical abuse. May I urge him to take this message to the business managers? Many of those who suffered that horrible abuse were placed in that situation by the state. The state let them down then; the state now looks as though it is letting them down still further. That is not good enough and we will not put up with it.
I am confident that the business managers will look very favourably on such a Bill for the Queen’s Speech.
Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since January 2017. In that time, we have seen hospital waiting lists get longer, public services deteriorate, and frustration in Northern Ireland grow. The issue of Brexit has made the need for a reformed Executive ever more urgent. It is clear that Northern Ireland’s interests at this time are best served by a restored Executive in place and ready to take the necessary decisions.
The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), started the latest round of cross-party talks, following on from the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). I pay tribute to their tireless work. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for all that she did to drive for Stormont to be up and running during her time as Prime Minister. I am also in no doubt, from the work we have done together since he became Prime Minister, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is personally committed to the swift conclusion of these talks.
The same issues have been discussed in cross-party talks for over two years. Some aspects of those talks are very close to resolution, and I believe the parties could agree swiftly on a programme for government, on measures to increase transparency, and on the sustainability of the institutions—although gaps do remain between the two main parties on rights, culture and identity. However, both the UK and Irish Governments share the view that, notwithstanding the importance of these issues, these topics can be resolved in short order.
Political parties across the spectrum must now realise that the lack of political leadership has left public servants bearing the load for far too long. I have seen this at first hand when speaking to the principal at Ashfield Boys High School in east Belfast and to doctors and nurses at Musgrove Park Hospital, and in my many meetings with all those who serve so bravely in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There can be no more excuses: we simply have to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running. So the UK Government, working closely with the Irish Government in accordance with the three-stranded approach, will now intensify our efforts to put forward compromise solutions to the parties. I urge the parties to make the most of the days ahead and to work with me and the Tánaiste to do what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever the outcome of that process—whether I can update on positive or negative developments—I will publish a report on or before 9 October. If I have to report that those efforts were not successful, my next update to the House will set out the next steps to ensure adequate governance in Northern Ireland and the protection of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State has just made a commitment that he will, in the next Session or whenever it may be, come forward with a report. I say gently to the Secretary of State that I am disappointed. A number of motions have been struck off, and for quite understandable reasons, but there is a massive amount to discuss. However we go forward in the next few months, I ask the Secretary of State or whoever holds that position to consider how we in this House of Commons and this Chamber can more properly give Northern Ireland the time it deserves to discuss these matters of major importance. The people of Northern Ireland need to hear that message. We should be talking about this for much longer than we are this evening.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to the work he has done during his career for the citizens of Northern Ireland, but I would say that two SO24 debates today have given the business managers a major challenge.
The issue of transparency of donations to Northern Ireland parties is one which this Government take very seriously. We are rightly proud that we were able to secure agreement of the Northern Ireland parties and bring forward legislation to open up all donations from July 2017 to full public scrutiny. I am aware that many would like to see that transparency go further and apply retrospectively to 2014. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 provides that greater transparency could be introduced from 2014 at some point in the future. However, greater transparency must be weighed against possible risks to donors. Retrospective transparency should not threaten intimidation to those who have donated.
I listened to what the Secretary of State had to say on political donations. In terms of what is in the report, he is absolutely right—that is the position—but the report misses the fundamental distinction and difference that needs to be resolved in Northern Ireland, which is that foreign donations are permissible. Northern Ireland remains the only part of the United Kingdom where foreign donations, corrupting our politics, are permissible. Will he take steps to close that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am aware that he and his party have strong views on this issue, and we are looking at all elements of this policy.
While many in this House have called for retrospection, we must not forget that the last time the parties in Northern Ireland were formally consulted on this, in 2017, there was only consensus for transparency going forward. The published data now available as a result of the legislation is a starting point for a review to consider what further transparency may be appropriate.
I will turn now to higher education. Northern Ireland has made great strides in higher education provision, with two world-renowned universities—Queen’s and Ulster University—attracting students from all over the globe. While the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has policy responsibility for higher education in Northern Ireland, universities are independent of government. As such, it is for a university, whether prospective or existing, to decide where to base any new campus.
No application has been made from any organisation to establish a university whose main campus is in Derry/Londonderry. The Government are aware that Ulster University is considering the development of a graduate medical school to be located in Derry/Londonderry, and that proposal features in Derry City and Strabane District Council’s economic regeneration plans for the region. Education is key to securing a prosperous future for Northern Ireland, and it is right that we focus on where the current skills gaps lie and how they can be met.
I had the great honour of visiting Derry recently. The University of Ulster has been dilly-dallying and delaying about the medical school at the Magee campus. The city needs that medical school, which will help immensely with not only its regeneration but the whole peace process. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give that Derry will get that medical school?
On my last visit to Derry/Londonderry, I spoke about the medical campus, and we are working to ensure that we do everything we can in the Northern Ireland Office to support it. Again, however, we need the Executive—Stormont—back up and running to make sure the money flows to that campus.
This Government are unequivocal in our admiration of the armed forces, who served with heroism and bravery to protect the people of Northern Ireland and whose sacrifice has ensured that terrorism would never succeed. The Government will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them. Providing better support for veterans is a major priority for this Government, and the creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is an example of the strength of our commitment.
I want to be clear: I absolutely recognise the sentiment and the principle underpinning these amendments, and I recognise the strength of feeling across the House on this matter. We have been clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is not working well, and this needs to change. As the Prime Minister said recently in this House, it is
across all Benches that it is simply
“not right that former soldiers should face unfair”—[Official Report, 25 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 1467]—
and repeated investigations, with no new evidence, many years after the events in question. Two very important further amendments have been submitted, and I want to address these in turn.
I apologise for intervening so soon after entering the Chamber, but as the Secretary of State has just referred to my amendment, I will take that liberty. Will he just acknowledge one thing? When the Defence Committee recommends a qualified statute of limitations, in the absence of compelling new evidence, on the question of the pursuit of people long after the events concerned, does he accept that that is not the same as an amnesty and should not be ruled out in the same way as people do rule out an amnesty?
I want to take care about prejudging the work that the Government have put in place, cross-Government. As my right hon. Friend is aware, the Prime Minister has set a new focus on this issue, and I am sure he will be inputting into that. I will be working, along with the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office, to move that issue forward.
I absolutely recognise the sentiment and the principle underpinning the amendments on legacy, and I recognise the strength of feeling across this House on this matter. We have been clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy is not working well, and we will move forward in the ways I have discussed. While we want to find a better way to address these issues, to do so through the presumption of non-prosecution would pose a range of challenges and may not provide a complete solution to the issues at play.
A presumption of non-prosecution in the absence of compelling new evidence is likely to need to be applied to everyone involved in troubles-related incidents, including former terrorists. However, implementing these provisions would not remove the obligations under domestic criminal law and international obligations under the European convention on human rights for independent investigations of serious allegations. With regards to troubles prosecution guidance, hon. Members will of course be aware that criminal investigations are carried out independently of the Government. Prosecutorial decisions and the guidance that underpins them are devolved matters in Northern Ireland.
I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State in mid-flow, and I know people want to get on. However, as someone who served over in Northern Ireland—and following the question from our right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), which he stepped around—may I repeat this back to him? Even though he is reiterating the issues about criminal prosecutions and other jurisdictions, the point still remains, as my right hon. Friend said—this is what people have been asking for—that we should not just bring somebody in on the basis of a trawl in the hope that something new will turn up. The issue is that having to have compelling evidence to pursue an individual is critical. That does not impact on any criminal activities or any effective future prosecutions, because they would face the same issue.
I think my right hon. Friend, who has spoken very persuasively on this issue for many years, makes some important points, but I return to the fact that the Government are looking at all these issues in our cross-Whitehall review.
In Northern Ireland, just as in England and Wales, prosecutorial decisions are made independently of Government. The Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland is not under the superintendence of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. The Director of Public Prosecutions has a consultative relationship with the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, but the former cannot be compelled by the latter. This feature of the relationship between these key figures is an important component of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland, and it is not within the UK Government’s powers to direct the Attorney General for Northern Ireland or the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Members will be aware that what is central in these cases is not how an individual came to have a weapon, but what they did with it, and it is for the courts, not the Government, to determine innocence and guilt.
Does the Secretary of State accept that in Northern Ireland we have an abnormal situation, as all state-related deaths have been referred to the criminal justice system for examination? That does not happen elsewhere in the United Kingdom, so in those exceptional and abnormal circumstances, we need to find a solution to support those who served this country on the front line in Northern Ireland during the dark days of the troubles.
I accept the hon. Lady’s point, but I return to the fact that the ways to achieve the sorts of things that she is discussing are much more complex.
The Government are committed to finding practical, sustainable and workable solutions to establish an improved system that works better for all and ensures that soldiers and former police officers who risk their lives to maintain peace and order and to keep others safe are treated fairly.
On abortion law, if an Executive is not formed by 21 October, the Government have a duty to make the necessary regulations. As I have set out, it is the Government’s preference that any questions of reform on these important, sensitive and devolved issues are considered in the right place by a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly. However, we recognise that a majority of MPs want to ensure that reform happens if we continue to see an absence of devolved government. From 22 October, the specific criminal law in Northern Ireland will fall away, and a criminal moratorium on prosecutions will come into place. I have instructed my Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government Equalities Office to develop an appropriate new legal framework that will be in operation by 31 March 2020 if that proves to be the case.
Does the Secretary of State realise that the legacy of what he has announced is complete and total legal chaos from 21 October to March next year? There will be no regulatory framework in place, and anything goes when it comes to the termination of the lives of innocent children. Is that the legacy that he wants? Is that the blood on the hands that he wants?
I shall return that directness to the hon. Gentleman. If the parties get their act together, there can be a Northern Ireland solution to this issue. The challenge for the Government is that there was a free vote in the House that, under law, we need to respect.
As part of that, we have undertaken work to analyse the range of information and examples, both international and domestic, on these reform issues, because we have committed to consult carefully on this sensitive matter, and I shall update the House as soon as possible.
Does the Secretary of State accept that while it may be for the parties in Northern Ireland to try to get the Assembly up and running again, there is every incentive on those who pushed Members of Parliament to put through this draconian abortion legislation not to get the Assembly up and running before the law comes into force? He cannot run away and hide behind the statement, “It is up to the parties in Northern Ireland,” as one party that is essential to the setting up of the Administration does not want the responsibility of giving the opportunity to the Assembly to overturn the legislation.
I accept that these are highly emotive and sensitive issues. I accept that the House, having spoken, needs, wants and demands that we act. The consultation that my Department will put in place will be extremely sensitive to many of the issues that have been outlined tonight, but I return to the fact that I will do everything that I can in my power to get the Executive up and running because I strongly believe that for this issue and for many other issues that I have discussed tonight, getting Stormont up and running is the best way to address these matters.
I am very interested in the consultation that will take place. Will the Secretary of State confirm that organisations such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Nursing will be consulted as part of those deliberations?
They will be, but again I want and hope that we can get this issue addressed within Northern Ireland and by Northern Ireland political leaders.
I welcome the opportunity to open these issues up for debate in the House. The range of issues, largely on devolved matters, demonstrates how important it is to restore the Executive. That is why I will strive, over the coming days and weeks, to encourage the political parties to go back into the Executive and to start working for the people of Northern Ireland again as soon as possible.
I would like to begin by making the very obvious point to the Secretary of State that had he been consulted on the question of Prorogation, and had his advice, if he had been asked for advice, been accepted—that Prorogation was inappropriate precisely because of the volume of work on Northern Ireland that needs to be done in this House—then we would have made more time and space for debates on Northern Ireland across all the issues that the House will not be able to debate tonight. This is an important issue. In the end, he has been let down by others in his Government. I need to emphasise that point, because it will come up time and time again.
The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is absolutely right to make the point that we should have had a debate tonight on historical institutional abuse. The Secretary of State is also right. He has met victims of that abuse. He knows not only how strongly they feel, but how many of their lives were changed because of what happened to them all those years ago. This House and this society of ours owe them an obligation. The Secretary of State made it clear that he will push for early inclusion in a Queen’s Speech. However, we need a guarantee not only of that but of early movement by the Government—any Government—on this issue. That also applies to the issue of victims’ pensions—we need to see early action.
Like the Secretary of State, I need to race through a number of issues, and some I will have to leave for another day. On abortion, the Secretary of State is right. I say to Democratic Unionist party Members and, through the media, those who are unhappy with the present situation, that they have some capacity for resolution in their hands. If we can see Stormont up and running—if we can see an Executive and an Assembly up and running—then of course that is the remedy to people’s concerns about this legislation. It is important that people take that point away and do not simply shuffle off with the usual finger-pointing, saying “It’s them over there that are doing it”. People in this House have to take their responsibilities seriously as well.
Rather than the hon. Gentleman throwing out what he knows is a non-solution, given that Sinn Féin have been driving the pro-abortion agenda in Northern Ireland that has been taken up by Members of his own party, what has he done to try to persuade his friends in Sinn Féin to get back into the Assembly? He knows that as long as they remain in a position where they veto the formation of an Assembly, the solution that he says is in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland is not a solution at all.
I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that the members of his own party who are taking part in the negotiations have a duty on them. Yes, of course, that duty extends to representatives of Sinn Féin. I want all parties to get around the table. I will come on to that a bit later on, but he cannot avoid the responsibility that members of his own party have in getting Stormont up and running. For nearly three years, we have had the absence of Stormont—three years of people making excuses about the fault lying elsewhere—and it is now time that people accepted responsibility for their actions.
I have to ask the Secretary of State, or perhaps the Minister who responds to the debate, about abortion. The House has committed to offering safe and legal abortions to women in Northern Ireland. There needs to be confidence in the law, those we expect to operate it and the way that it works. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who has campaigned tirelessly on this issue, is important. Consultation is fundamental to all this, but again, Prorogation has dealt the Secretary of State a very difficult hand, because the House will return on 14 October, and on 22 October the legislation will come into effect. That means that the capacity for the House to make decisions to fill the legal gap that will exist between 21 October and 31 March is real. The consultation needs to take place now, and the House has to be ready to implement legislative change as soon as we are back, in the middle of October.
On veterans, the Secretary of State made some very important points—I know that he comes under pressure on this. If the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) is saying that we as a House are very clear that illegality by members of the armed forces, like any other member of society, like members of the IRA and like members of loyalist terror groups, will have the same outcome—that the law will be applied—that is really helpful, because we are then talking about how we move forward in a way that allows independence of investigation and of prosecution, which the Secretary of State referred to. In the end, it is important that the Stormont House bodies, which were agreed to by all parties in Northern Ireland, are allowed to operate, because victims who saw their loved ones killed and who were themselves victims of terror have rights in this, including the right to know that there is a proper investigation, whoever and whatever was the cause of their victimhood.
I did not intend to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, but as he raised that point, I will. The point that I, and I think many of my colleagues, are making is that those who have served and have left—some are in their seventies, and so on—face this unedifying process of suddenly being hauled back, not because there is compelling evidence, but in the hope that people may find something that was not available to them at the time. That is surely the key issue— a lack of natural justice—and it has to be stamped on.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman said. I simply say that it is a shame that proper investigation did not take place at the time. He will agree, as a former soldier, that he would not have countenanced illegality by those he worked with. Every decent soldier I know of would agree with that premise—that illegality was not what our armed forces were sent to undertake in Northern Ireland. I hear what he says; I am not sure that we are a long way apart on this issue.
Turning to the issue underlying all this, it is three years since the Stormont Assembly and the Stormont Executive were last working. We have seen the impact in areas as wide as health, education and the way in which the interface takes place—I know that the Secretary of State was agitated about the lack of powers that he had with respect to Harland and Wolff over the summer months, for example. We need to see change take place and Stormont back together. I pay tribute to his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), and him for the close working relationship that they have developed with the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney. It is important that there is a close working relationship between Dublin and London.
The single biggest threat to the United Kingdom at the moment is a no-deal Brexit, and the part of the United Kingdom facing the biggest threat is Northern Ireland, where the impact of a no-deal Brexit would be devastating, in a way that would go beyond the impact on my constituents and those of other Members in England, Scotland and Wales. The impact in Northern Ireland would not be simply economic, although the economic impact would be enormous. There would be an enormous impact on agriculture, on manufacturing, on services, and not simply on the social mores that have developed over the last 20 years, since the Good Friday agreement. There would be an enormous impact on the capacity to cross the border easily, and so on, and not simply on identity, which the Secretary of State referred to, though of course that is a fundamental issue.
The Good Friday and St Andrews agreements were milestones in establishing peace and a very different climate in Northern Ireland. It is important that nothing be allowed to jeopardise that, and a hard border, which there would be with no deal, would jeopardise it. We have seen in the Yellowhammer papers that people are concerned that we are drifting towards a no-deal Brexit. I note today the words of the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, making it clear that Ireland is not prepared to accept a promise in place of legal guarantees. The Taoiseach speaks for many on the Opposition Benches.
We have an odd situation. Parliament does not trust the Prime Minister, the Irish Government do not trust the Prime Minister, and the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) does not trust the Prime Minister on this issue. In that context, I say this to the Government: we are facing Prorogation and a period when our Parliament cannot act. The Secretary of State himself made it clear how important it was
“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.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 364.]
Of course, he is absolutely right. We will have to make decisions very quickly, and Prorogation makes that more difficult.
The shadow Secretary of State talks about the threat to the Good Friday agreement. Can I suggest to him that right now the biggest threat to that agreement and to the peace process is the fact that none of the political institutions in Northern Ireland are operating, and that the North South Ministerial Council is not operating and has not been operating for two years and nine months? Those who brought the institutions crashing down present the greater threat to the political institutions in Northern Ireland. It is all very well saying that we do not trust the Prime Minister. With all due respect, trust has broken down in Northern Ireland not because of the actions of any UK Prime Minister, but because one political party decided to take the ball and walk off the pitch, and will not get back on until it gets its way. That is where the threat comes from.
I have some difficult news for the right hon. Gentleman. The disillusionment in democratic institutions stretches across all communities in Northern Ireland, including in his constituency. I talk to those people. Those who want to see Stormont working are desperately worried that the politicians—all politicians from all backgrounds—are not making the necessary progress.
I will conclude, because other Members want to speak. I want to finish by putting some specific points to the Minister. Prorogation has made it difficult for this House to make the decisions it will have to make. We will come back here on 14 October, and between then and 31 October, if we have no deal, we will have 11 sitting days. Some of those will be taken up by the Queen’s Speech. The Secretary of State rightly promised the House regular updates. The first will take place before the House returns. We need those updates to be meaningful to reassure not simply this House but the people of Northern Ireland that there is a plan and a strategy to move this forward. We need to know—the Opposition will co-operate with the Government on this—that there is the capacity to make the legal decisions that will be necessary to move the situation forward, but they have to be the right decisions and there has to be dialogue across the Chamber and an exchange of information.
There also has to be—this is really important—a maintenance of the dialogue between Dublin and London, so that when we take action here we know there will be support from the Government in Dublin so that people from all communities can be reassured that a concerted effort is being made to bring this situation to an end.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the remarks that he has just made, which I think were very responsible. I hope not to have to come back to discuss these matters with him, but I want to put on record my thanks for his comments.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, because I am confident that he meant what he has said. I hope that, between us, we can see a move away from a no-deal Brexit, but in the event that that does not happen, we must ensure that we work together to avoid a catastrophe that would be disastrous not only for the economy but for the people and the future of Northern Ireland.
It was William Gladstone who, in his diary, noted one day that he had “felled a lime” and pacified Ireland.
I think that to many in this place, and indeed in the country, the delivery of the Good Friday agreement was “job done”: devolution had been delivered, and Northern Ireland could be allowed to get on with her own affairs. That is a very lazy attitude, and it worries me. Many Members were present last Thursday when the Secretary of State responded to the urgent question from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd). The Secretary of State will have heard the concerns that were expressed, and he has heard the concerns expressed today about the dropping, or the non-moving, of motions that were on the Order Paper on the grounds of shortage of time. It is the Treasury Bench that has curtailed the timetable through Prorogation, and I will return to that in a moment, but there is, I think, a growing sense, in the House and elsewhere, that No.10—not the ministerial team—seems to care little, and understand less, about Northern Ireland.
I think that that is a very harsh comment. I think that we are all working collectively, across parties, to try to support the people of Northern Ireland while they do not have an Executive.
My hon. Friend says that it is a harsh comment. She may have read reports in the newspapers today of a senior adviser at No. 10 effectively saying that as far as he is concerned Northern Ireland can fall into the—Members can insert the expletive—sea. That seems to me to suggest a rather lackadaisical approach to these affairs. If we were taking them seriously—and I only wish that my hon. Friend and fellow member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee were right—we would have taken far more time over them.
My hon. Friend knows, probably even better than I do, about the increasing complaints, in the Committee and elsewhere, about the ad hoc and emergency nature of legislation governing Northern Ireland. We know from reliable reports of the growing problems in the delivery of healthcare in Northern Ireland, the problems in education, and the need for urgent attention in the sphere of welfare. We are caught in the trap of no Assembly and the ability of civil servants, on an ad hoc basis, to deliver funds only in the context of pre-agreed political policies.
That is not serving the people of Northern Ireland—and that is before we face leaving the European Union without a deal. I do not comment on the merits or demerits of leaving without a deal, but civil servants will not be able to mitigate or address any pressing social or economic concerns that arise in Northern Ireland in the absence of the Assembly.
We are all very keen to see Stormont back up and running, but while Westminster continues to deliver on the socially progressive policies that Sinn Féin wishes to see, why on earth would Sinn Féin wish to see Stormont restored? It gets two goes for its money because it gets the policies it wants and is able to blame Westminster for effectively declaring direct rule by the back door. That is not a way to deal with fellow citizens, who I, as a Conservative and Unionist, believe to be ranked pari passu with me and my constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his passionate speech. Does he agree that, with the lack of a Government in Stormont, families in Northern Ireland are being disadvantaged because the children’s funeral fund is not available in Northern Ireland, despite the best efforts of local authorities? Parents in Northern Ireland still have to suffer the dreadful burden of covering the costs of their children’s funerals, unlike those in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention and pay tribute to the enormous amount of work she did on that important issue; she knows that she had my support in that endeavour. She points to another example of where, if we are to believe that “Conservative and Unionist”—Unionist is the key bit—is more than just a word on a badge or on the ballot paper we need to step up to the plate to demonstrate that we are serious. She draws proper attention to another issue where ordinary families in Northern Ireland are not able to rely on the support and the interventions of the state that others have. We have an active devolution settlement in Scotland and in Wales and the Westminster Parliament here; it is only Northern Ireland that, apart from a little bit of ad hoc direct rule, is subject to civil service managerial governance, because there is no political impetus.
I say very clearly to the two main protagonist parties, who have the fate of devolution for Northern Ireland in their hands, that if they do not step up to the plate pretty damn soon other parties will point to them and say, “You’ve tried them, they have failed, you now have to give us a chance.”
If the hon. Gentleman has a discussion with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his right hon. Friend will inform him that the Democratic Unionist party has put suggestion after suggestion on the table. I personally have put forward a number of suggestions. Sinn Féin remains adamant that it is not going back into government despite many genuine attempts by my party to get back in and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
Order. We have a lot of things to do and a lot of Members want to speak. We also have a maiden speech that I want to get in, because if we do not do it tonight it will be lost.
I hear what the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) says, and I have much agreement with her, but at some point the patience of the population is going to run out about the “He said, she said, I will, he won’t” and so on. Somebody is going to have to knock heads together or make some progress, and I have every faith in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Ministers, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), to drive that forward—with the goodwill of the main parties, knowing full well that they are now in the last-chance saloon.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way as I want to finish; I have already taken too much time.
We have to find time—I urge those on the Front Bench to listen to this—to make sure that we legislate properly with full scrutiny for our fellow citizens of Northern Ireland: no more ad hoc, no more emergency legislation. If Northern Ireland is a normal part of the United Kingdom, just as my constituency is, it is about time we started treating it in that way, and I have confidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will do just that.
First, may I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, as I forgot to do so the other day? I greatly welcome him to his place; he has a tough job ahead of him.
May I also say that our thoughts tonight are very much with the police and the community in Derry facing petrol bombs? There have been appalling scenes, which nobody in the community or in this House wants to see.
We welcome the publication of this report, the central conclusion of which states:
“The UK Government, working closely with the Irish Government, will now intensify its efforts to put forward compromise solutions to the parties. If that does not succeed, then the Secretary of State’s next update to the House will set out next steps to ensure adequate governance in Northern Ireland and the protection of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.”
It states that the Government will now intensify their efforts, but there should be no opportunity to intensify those efforts. The Government should be acting at full capacity and beyond to ensure Stormont’s restoration. A return to direct rule would seriously undermine years of progress and successive political agreements, and the threat of direct rule risks undermining the talks on restoring the devolved Assembly. The reckless Brexit position taken by this Government is now the central instability preventing the return of power sharing. Only a restored Government in Stormont will be capable of delivering on the priorities and needs of the people of Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but I will not give way, because Mr Deputy Speaker has already made it clear that a number of speakers are waiting to speak—we have not heard from the Democratic Unionist party yet—and we have only about half an hour left for the debate. So, apologies, but I will not be taking interventions.
It was revealed last week that the Prime Minister did not even consult the new Secretary of State before his decision to prorogue Parliament. That decision will have significant consequences for implementing the Northern Ireland budget, which is key to delivering essential public services. The new Secretary of State has also strongly indicated that, in the continued absence of a Government at Stormont and with Brexit requiring significant Executive direction, a return to some form of direct rule will be required. This expectation was confirmed by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), who has advocated the return of some form of direct rule in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
This year marks 50 years since the beginning of the troubles, and it would be reckless beyond belief to undermine that progress with a return of direct control and decisions on Northern Ireland being taken in Westminster. This is particularly true given the current absence of any Irish nationalist voice in this Chamber. A return to direct rule would also undermine previous political and peace agreements made between the two Governments and the political parties. As part of the St Andrews agreement, which paved the way to restoring devolved government in 2007, it was agreed that the Northern Ireland Act 2000, which returned direct rule, would be repealed. Therefore, to suspend devolution and impose direct rule again will require new primary legislation. It is clear that, to protect the delicate balance of relationships that exists in Northern Ireland, the UK Government must fully consult and agree a joint strategy with the Irish Government before taking any steps that would further undermine stability. As joint guarantors of the peace agreements since the Good Friday agreement in 1998, this is their joint responsibility, and unilateral approaches must not be initiated.
On Brexit, the progress report fails even to mention the impact that Brexit has had on efforts to restore Stormont, yet it is blindingly obvious that the threat of Brexit and the disruption it has caused and will cause to the carefully crafted equilibrium in Northern Ireland is undermining efforts to restore a Government. That has been exacerbated by this Government’s pursuit of a devastating no-deal Brexit, as was confirmed only yesterday by the former Work and Pensions Secretary. Already, we are seeing that impact. The Northern Ireland economy
“has entered or is entering recession”,
according to a survey by Ulster Bank. It suggests that Brexit-related uncertainty underpinned the fall in private sector output in August and that this is just a taste of things to come.
A leaked document from the Department of Health has outlined the potentially devastating consequences of a no-deal Brexit on the NHS in Northern Ireland. Among the issues included in the list of “reasonable worst case” scenarios are shortages of vaccines and medication, including some cancer therapies; difficulties running the children’s heart surgery service; and more than 1,000 NHS employees being unable to get to work or quitting their jobs.
The Taoiseach revealed last week that checks would be required close to the border if a no-deal Brexit were to happen. Both the European Union and the American Congress have indicated that such a development would undermine the peace process, which they were major players in bringing about and supporting since the early ’90s. A leaked analysis and summary produced by the alternative arrangements groups established to figure out a replacement for the backstop protocol confirmed that at present there is no deliverable alternative available. Furthermore, the Taoiseach discussed the issue of a Northern Ireland-only backstop with the Prime Minister at their meeting this morning. If a differentiated deal can be reached that enables Northern Ireland in effect to remain in the single market and customs union, the same deal must be available for Scotland.
The Taoiseach did not miss and hit the wall in his exchange with the Prime Minister today. Most cutting was his promise to be the UK’s friend—its Athena—as it faced the Herculean challenge ahead. It is unclear whether the Prime Minister actually understood the reference that the Taoiseach was making, but it is clear that the lack of government and political direction is inevitably deepening the crisis in Northern Ireland’s public service budgets and their capacity to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. New Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that, amid a worsening crisis in education, Northern Ireland has seen an 11% real-terms cut per pupil in school spending since 2009, and the latest hospital waiting times reveal that 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant.
Only a functioning devolved Government are capable of tackling such crises. They cannot be left to a dysfunctional and uninterested UK Government. That prospect should and must give a renewed impetus to the parties involved in the talks to come to a compromise that rewards all the communities in Northern Ireland through the return of a local Government. Previous talks have overcome divisions much greater than the issues currently blocking progress, so coming to a quick and sustainable agreement in the time ahead must not be viewed as impossible.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is absolutely right that the best way to deal with the vast majority of the issues in these reports is through a re-established Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. He is also right that many of the provisions were not penned by this Government, so it is difficult to respond to them all in the way that the Members who tabled them might want. However, there is a particular urgency around dealing with the issues regarding access to abortion. I gently remind the Secretary of State of the report published by my Women and Equalities Committee in April, which made wide-ranging recommendations after having spoken to many people on the ground in Northern Ireland, many political parties and many organisations. Opposition Members are absolutely right to say that there is a huge cross-section of views on the issue in Northern Ireland, which is why it would be better for them to be dealt with locally.
I will make two short points. First, the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland told my Committee directly and in public that doctors are not currently able to fulfil their duty of care to patients in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Not all abortions are connected with fatal foetal abnormality, but we are expecting women in some situations to continue pregnancies when they know that their babies are going to die. I would not want that for any member of my family, for any of my constituents, or for any other resident in the United Kingdom, so that has to change. It cannot be acceptable to the UK Government that a chief medical officer is saying that doctors are unable to fulfil their duty of care. The law has to change, even if just for this particular issue, and, in line with the amendment from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) at previous stages of this Bill, a broader amendment would be preferable.
Secondly, this is not just about the legal framework. Abortion has been readily available in Northern Ireland for just a handful of people in recent years, so there has been a significant loss of professional expertise and services on the ground. If the law is to be changed in March next year, as is currently outlined in statute, significant work must be done at all levels of the health service in Northern Ireland to ensure that it can deliver on what will be a coherent law at that stage. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not allow anything else to happen.
Finally, how will the Secretary of State ensure scrutiny of those who will be developing the services necessary to implement the law as it will stand in March of next year or as it will stand when a Northern Ireland Executive come into place? Of course, if an Executive are in place, the Assembly can scrutinise matters, but if one is not, will my right hon. Friend please think carefully about how to ensure that things work properly? Perhaps the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee here in Westminster could do that scrutiny, or perhaps he could set up a panel of interested parties, but that is not something that he can leave hanging.
I will be brief because I know many Members want to get in, although there are many things I could say. I agree with what has been said about the curtailing of this debate. Some of these issues are extremely important, but nothing is more important than the victims of violence and historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland. It is madness that we have ended up in a situation where other matters are being debated and these are not. It is just wrong, and the Government should look to themselves for how this has come about. People have talked about putting responsibility on to others, and it is easy to blame the Standing Order No. 24 debates, but the Government had choices to make and, unfortunately, these are the choices they made.
A volume of work needs to be done to address these issues in Northern Ireland, and powers need to be taken. People have complained about the impact of Prorogation. Quite frankly, this House has had months, if not nearly three years, to take responsibility and do something about some of these issues.
Democratic Unionist Members have been raising the need for decisions to be made across a range of issues in Northern Ireland, and, as the Secretary of State knows from his previous job, we have constantly pressed for decisions to be made on health, education, infrastructure, housing, investment and the other crucial issues we are debating tonight. We have constantly asked for this House and its Members to take responsibility and treat the people of Northern Ireland properly in the absence of devolved government.
It was a deliberate part of both Government and Opposition policy that the decision was taken—these are important matters to people in Northern Ireland—not to take any powers and not to make the necessary moves. People talk about who should take responsibility, but it is a bit late now, in the teeth of Prorogation, to complain about lack of time. People had plenty of time before now to do something about these matters, but they decided not to.
In time, when we come to the issue of necessary powers being taken in the event of the Assembly not being restored, I make it very clear to the Secretary of State—he knows this—that the institutions in Northern Ireland and the operation of devolved government are a strand 1 issue for Her Majesty’s Government and the parties in Northern Ireland, and we fully expect that the three-strand approach will be respected.
When the shadow Secretary of State talks about dialogue between the Government, the parties and Dublin, let us be very clear that, on the issue of the powers here if the Assembly is not restored, this is a matter under strand 1 for the Government and the parties in Northern Ireland exclusively. Strands 2 and 3 are different, but strand 1 is very clear. That was agreed and has been the case for the past number of decades.
Of course we want to get Stormont up and running, and we are fully committed to it. As the Secretary of State noted, Arlene Foster proposed more than 18 months ago to get the Assembly up and running to deal with these important matters, without prejudice to the issues that Sinn Féin elevated after agreeing a programme for government that did not include some of the issues that now prevent the restoration of Stormont. She offered to restore the Assembly on a time-limited basis to deal with some of these pressing issues, and it was rejected by Sinn Féin almost within half an hour. It was not even given proper consideration.
We want the Assembly to be restored but, as some of my hon. and right hon. Friends have pointed out, the incentives for getting it done have been completely switched. People on the Sinn Féin side are very content to sit back and wait until the deadline runs out, because that will achieve some of their objectives.
Some people in this House, when it comes to Brexit and Northern Ireland, simply do not know how to negotiate. They actually hand over the incentive for the other side to sit tight, and then they complain about the consequences to the Members who actually take their seats here. The fact that Sinn Féin are not here tonight is a demonstration of one of the problems we face in Northern Ireland. They boycott this place, they boycott the Executive and they boycott the Assembly, and then we are told it is all the fault of one party or the other parties, and all the rest of it.
We will continue to work with the Secretary of State in the coming days and weeks—he knows this—to try to get the Assembly up and running but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) indicated, we have made proposal after proposal, and they have been rejected. We will continue to work at it, however, because we know the importance of restoring the Assembly and the Executive, especially in the run-up to Brexit. Again, we will continue to work with Her Majesty’s Government on that issue, to achieve a deal—to achieve an outcome where people can be satisfied that the objective of leaving the European Union in a sensible way that works for the whole of the United Kingdom is achieved, and so we do not undermine the economic integrity or constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
People talk about respect for the Belfast agreement, but that works two ways. Not only does it work in terms of a north-south border, but we must not implement an east-west border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I am very glad that the Government have recognised, as reflected in a letter to Donald Tusk that the Prime Minister sent in August, that not only is the backstop anti-democratic, in the sense that laws will be made for Northern Ireland over which Stormont, even if restored, would have no say, and no one here would have any say—Northern Ireland would be obliged to accept whatever was handed down in law by the European Commission or the European Council through appropriate procedure—but it is contrary to the basis of the Belfast agreement. That basis is the consent of both communities that while we respect the institutions north-south, we cannot undermine the position that Unionists adhere to, which is that we have a single market within the United Kingdom where most of our trade is done. We simply ask for a fair and balanced deal.
I wish to bring my remarks to a close earlier than I otherwise might have, because of the shortage of time. However, I want to say something to the Secretary of State. He is aware of the demonstrations and the silent, dignified marches and walks that took place in Belfast on Friday and Saturday, when tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets to demonstrate their concern about the way in which this House has undermined the devolution settlement when it comes to abortion by having this imposed without any proper consultation whatsoever. They remain concerned about how the consultation may be carried out and they simply want their rights to be respected.
In closing, may I urge the Secretary of State to continue to work with us, the Belfast MPs, particularly on the future of the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He has talked about the lack of powers in Northern Ireland, but there are powers at a UK level that can be used to ensure the future of this great historic shipyard and the fantastic workers there. I pay tribute to the work that has been by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) in that regard.
Finally, I wish to talk about the Northern Ireland Hospice, in my own constituency, which is an excellent and fantastic institution that we in the Democratic Unionist party and in Northern Ireland were happy to ensure was able to be rebuilt, through the Northern Ireland Executive, with £2.1 million given to that, as well as another cocktail of funding. We want to see that rescued from its current predicament, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned it in this speech. We want to see the Secretary of State work with us; perhaps he would meet me to discuss what can be done to take that forward. However rushed and short this debate tonight, I hope he will take on board the strength of feeling that exists on these Benches on these issues.
Ministers will understand that I am disappointed that we have been unable to discuss the reports on human trafficking and gambling this evening, given that they were reviewed as a result of amendments that I tabled to the original Bill. I would therefore appreciate an assurance from Ministers that these things will be debated in this House at the earliest possible date.
Turning to the abortion law review, I was surprised at its brevity, given that it represents a seismic change to the law in Northern Ireland, one that, as we have heard, led to tens of thousands of people marching on Stormont and in central Belfast in recent days. It is my fervent hope that any change to the law on abortion, a sensitive devolved issue, as the Secretary of State has said, could be taken forward by a restored Northern Ireland Executive. However, if that does not happen, and we have to be realistic about this, and an Executive are not reformed by 21 October, the people of Northern Ireland will find themselves in a situation where the provision of abortion, from conception up until the point of viability, which could be as far as 28 weeks, will take place in a complete legal vacuum from 22 October, with no guarantee that anything will be put in place until 31 March 2020. That is unacceptable. It means five months when there will, in effect, be no law regulating abortion at all in Northern Ireland—as I say, these are abortions taking place from conception until just before a baby is capable of being born alive. I said that we should not rush through this legislation when it was originally debated and now we see the results.
This country has all manner of statutory checks to protect women, including the need for clinics to be vetted and registered, none of which will exist in Northern Ireland. How is that good for the health of women in Northern Ireland? I have heard it suggested that the bodies of the relevant health professions will self-police in the interim, but that is simply unacceptable.
I believe that this House has failed the people of Northern Ireland in this Act. The Bill was rushed through, in dereliction of our duty to review legislation. We spent only 17 minutes debating the actual text of clause 9 when it returned from the Lords, which places on Northern Ireland a more permissive abortion regime than obtains in this country. It is unacceptable that there should be a five-month period during which abortions can take place in a legal vacuum, which is something I suspect most hon. Members were completely unaware of until tonight. I believe it is absurd to remove a law five months before we are required to put a new law in its place.
Does the hon. Lady share my view that if we had had the Abortion Act 1967 in Northern Ireland, 100,000 children would not be alive today? What we have in Northern Ireland is the acceptable thing to have, and the people of Northern Ireland are saying that they do not want to see that change—some 60% say that they want no change whatsoever.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.
I have a few questions for the Minister. First, could he give more detail on the five bullet points on page 25 of the review, which give inadequate information on some really key issues, such as the scoping of how best to deliver the regulations? One line on that is insufficient, given that we are only 40 days away from 22 October, and on a matter of such gravity.
Secondly, given the uncertainty over the new framework, how is the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland going to be protected during the five-month period? Thirdly, will the lack of regulation from 22 October mean that Northern Ireland is not compliant with the Istanbul convention’s requirement for an offence of forced abortion? This is serious. The whole point made by those in the Opposition who brought this measure forward was that there were human rights concerns. This is a human rights concern.
Fourthly, can the Minister confirm whether, as a matter of law during this interim period—I do not say that it is likely—it might be possible for abortions to take place up to 28 weeks in Northern Ireland? Fifthly, although the report mentions clarity for the medical professions, can he say how the Government will engage with them? Finally, will he be seeking advice from the Attorney General of Northern Ireland, as he will be from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission?
Order. We will now hear a maiden speech. I remind Members that no interventions are allowed.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech. Today’s debate on Northern Ireland is an appropriate one, reminding us how important our democracy is and our role as Members in defending the rights of our citizens.
Hon. Members will know the circumstances of my election, but I want to place on the record that my predecessor, Fiona Onasanya, made a great difference to the lives of many of my constituents through her hard work.
Just as my predecessor was a black woman when there are too few here, I know that my working-class background is all too unusual too. In researching for this speech, I found that since 1918 Peterborough has had six Conservative MPs. Between them they had five peerages and three knighthoods: there were three barons, two baronets, a marquess, a viscount, an earl and a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George—like our football team, they could simply be known as The Posh. One of my predecessors also achieved an Olympic gold medal, inspiring a famous scene from the film “Chariots of Fire”. I suspect that my chances of achieving that are about as good as my chances of receiving any of those other titles. I do hope that anyone growing up in Peterborough today can look at me and my predecessor and know that, whatever their gender or class, race or religion, they deserve the opportunity to succeed, because we are a diverse city and our representation should be so, too. That word is important to me; it is our duty to represent and to understand the lives of our constituents and to change them for the better. That is politics at its best.
It was back in 1790 that Parliament legislated for an Improvement Commission for Peterborough, responsible for paving, cleaning and lighting the streets. Now we are centuries on, yet, after a decade of austerity, we face similar challenges. Research from the Library shows that, in the decades since 2010, our city has lost more than a third of its Government funding. Austerity has gone further and faster than ever before. Even the Thatcher Governments never dared to cut the police, yet now residents tell me of cases where crimes are not investigated, so short of numbers are the local police.
As a Member of this House, it is my job to make the law, but what use are those laws if they are not enforced? I campaigned on local issues, but these are national issues too. How can any of us rest easy knowing that there are families without homes, children without food and services without proper funding? Even working people are forced to use food banks or survive on zero-hours contracts. I represented working people as a trade unionist, and I intend to do so again here, because, despite the damage that austerity has done, Peterborough remains a city that I am proud to represent.
We have a rich history: a Norman cathedral with the finest medieval painted ceiling in Europe. Part of our international links go back to the Romans, who settled the Nene Valley in the first century, to the Saxons who settled Meadow Homestead, to the monks who built the abbey and to the Danes who arrived to plunder it and later settled themselves. Over centuries, we have made and traded products from bricks to wool, built a cathedral and buried Mary Queen of Scots and Catherine of Aragon. We then became a new town with new industries.
I worked in a travel agency—another trade that gave the city many of its jobs. Now we have a mix of the agricultural, the industrial and the new services of our time. A Labour Government built social housing for the people on a grand scale and ensured that houses were available at a reasonable price. The Peterborough Development Corporation planned for the health and welfare of local people who benefited from community schools, the country park at Ferry Meadows and a public library. We need to rediscover our country’s ability to make things and to make things work, because, beyond our history, geography or industry, it is above all the people of Peterborough who will be my great passion.
Of all the speeches I researched, I was struck by Keir Hardie’s in 1901 in which he said that
“the true test of progress is not the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, but the elevation of the people as a whole.”
I, too, promise to work for the people as a whole, and I will do everything in my power to succeed.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Lisa Forbes). It is never an easy thing to give a maiden speech, particularly in an atmosphere such as the one that we have this evening. I offer her my heartiest congratulations. She skilfully held the attention of the House and whatever the result of the vote later on this evening, I think we probably all wish her well for the future.
I will be very brief as I know that others need to get in. Very quickly, I would like to restate the fact that every single Member of this Chamber supports the Belfast agreement, which was the result of a long peace process. We would love to see the institutions up and running, but we should never forget that that peace process and that Belfast agreement could never have come about without the conditions created by the extraordinary professionalism, skill and courage of the hundreds of thousands who served in the British armed forces, the British security services and the RUC.
I will touch very briefly on the question of the prosecutions of veterans, which was mentioned by the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State. I have been going to Northern Ireland for many years and continue to go there regularly, and I have not yet met a single member of the security forces or armed forces who would like to see an amnesty. They put their lives on the line 24 hours a day to maintain the rule of law in order to ensure that those who believed in pursuing their political aims through peaceful and legal means prevailed, and they do not want an amnesty; they do not want to be on the same level as those terrorists who had an absolutely hideous refusal to respect the rule of law and who pursued their aims by violent criminal acts.
May I therefore ask the Secretary of State and, above all, the shadow Secretary of State: first, not to change any laws, but to ensure that no further prosecutions can come about unless there is categorically new evidence, because it is wrong to pursue these old veterans time and again when there is no new evidence; and secondly—a very key question—to guarantee, by working together, that the framework requires a senior lawyer to guarantee that there will be a fair trial?
It feels somewhat absurd that there is so much to say today regarding the reports, but so little time in which to say it. It is deeply frustrating because the people and representatives of Northern Ireland have so many things that they need to air and discuss, and that is being denied. We are currently in a situation of political turmoil across the United Kingdom, but that turmoil and turbulence is even worse in Northern Ireland due to the fact that there are no Northern Ireland institutions.
I want briefly to reiterate the offer that the Democratic Unionist party has made to Sinn Féin. Because of the exceptional circumstances that we find ourselves in, that offer is to go back into government immediately, not just with blind faith, but by agreement that we will enter into government and discuss the issues that we are currently discussing in this talks process and cannot get resolution on; and that, by agreement, if there is no resolution, then the institutions will fall. That offer is there to Sinn Féin, and we ask all political parties to urge them to take it.
There is no risk in the offer for Sinn Féin. We could get back into government, get on with talking about these issues and deal with the historical institutional abuse payments, the much-needed funds for severely injured victims, health, education and the real policies having an impact on people across Northern Ireland every day. That is the offer and I believe that it is an absolutely reasonable one. I ask Sinn Féin to consider it seriously, and everybody in this House and beyond to urge them to take it up. We live in exceptional times; we should be doing something exceptional to try to resolve the situation.
All Members in this Chamber would like to see the Stormont Assembly restored, but we tabled these self-executing clauses because we recognised that the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland should not be abandoned in the face of political indecision. It now falls on us to hold the Secretary of State to account for how he is enacting the provisions. We are 35 days away from the possibility that these clauses will become law, so will he give us some more detail? In particular, he talks about consultation. Can he confirm whether there is going to be public involvement in that consultation? It is really important for this House to be clear that, just as we would not ask non-medical professionals to consult on how to conduct a vasectomy, we should not do so when it comes to an abortion.
We also need to understand the Secretary of State’s timeline. I agree with the concerns raised across the House about the interim period, and about what will happen when we decriminalise sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 on 22 October if the Assembly is not reconstituted. I note that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 will remain in place, so the idea that there will not be any regulation at all simply is not true. We must deal with fact, not scaremongering, in this debate. But still, can he confirm that he is talking to the royal colleges—the actual medical experts? He says in the report that there is a cross-departmental Government body. Who is on that body and what is their remit? He talks about talking to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, but it is the Equality and Human Rights Commission that would have any jurisdiction in terms of that consultation, so when has he spoken to it?
With 35 days to go, what is the Secretary of State’s message to women in Northern Ireland who will need an abortion on 22 October, whether because they have a fatal foetal abnormality, are a victim of rape or incest, or simply do not want to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy? How will he make these reports CEDAW-compliant? His own report says that there is not a clear path. Will he tell us a bit more about how he is going to set that out and what international models he is looking at? Above all, can he give us the confidence tonight that when he is managing this interim process, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is facing a prosecution because she got abortion pills for her daughter who was in an abusive relationship will not face prosecution from 22 October? If we do one thing in this House this evening that is constructive, let us take the stress and pressure off that family.
The Government said that they wanted more time. That is why they amended this clause in the House of Lords. Everybody here has talked about the importance of dealing with that interim period. It will not be dealt with by law; it will dealt with by regulation. So will the Secretary of State set out precisely what regulations he is looking at now so that when we get to that 35-day period we can shorten it and give everybody here comfort that the human rights of the women of Northern Ireland will continue to be upheld?
I would like to speak briefly about the abortion component of the report. I am still aghast at what section 9 of the Executive Formation Act proposes. In Northern Ireland we have developed the different approach to abortion that robust statistical research suggests means that about 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would not be had we embraced the Abortion Act 1967. One hundred thousand lives is a lot of people. In this context, it is no great surprise that our approach has clearly helped.
The democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly considered this matter as recently as 2016 and voted not to change the law in any way. It is no surprise that on 9 July every Northern Irish Member who takes their seat in Westminster voted against an attempt to overturn our law. However, what is particularly shocking, and what is brought out clearly in the report before us today, is something I do not think, with great respect, dawned on most Members of this House when we asked to consider what was then the entirely new clause 9 on 18 July —that it was not present in the provision we debated on 9 July. What is now section 9 does not just overturn our legal tradition; quite astonishingly, it does not require anything to be put in place for five whole months. That goes against what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said.
If the Northern Ireland Assembly is not restored by 21 October, then on 22 October all our law governing will disappear until the point at which a child is deemed incapable of being born alive. I want to put it on record that 60% of those surveyed in a national opinion poll in Northern Ireland said that they did not want any change. I am asking the House today not to make this change against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. We had a rally at Stormont where almost 30,000 people walked to retain the rights of the unborn baby in the womb. That has to be preserved.
It is a matter of profound regret that the Secretary of State has not been able tonight to introduce legislation to this House, as promised, on the institutional historical sex abuse cases. In a letter that he sent to members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee no later than 6 September, he indicated that he would be seeking to make swift progress. If this is swift progress, I would hate to see slow progress. Members of Survivors Together have already responded that this is an appalling disgrace, and other victims’ groups have indicated how disappointed they are. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) quite rightly said that she wanted to have detail about issues to do with abortion legislation. It is right and proper that the House gets the detail and that Members see for themselves the stark reality that comes into play from the end of October this year. I would like to ask the Secretary of State, who will be performing abortions in Northern Ireland? Under what rules will they be performed?
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).
Question agreed to.
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to Sections 3(1), 3(6), 3(7), 3(8), 3(9) and 3(10) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - regarding Executive formation; transparency of political donations; higher education and a Derry university; presumption of non-prosecution; Troubles prosecution guidance; and abortion law review, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 4 September.
Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 21 May 2019 (Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Iain Stewart.)
Question agreed to.