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Northern Ireland: Restoring Devolution

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on progress towards restoring devolution in the light of today’s extension of the period in which the legal duty to call an Assembly election is removed under section 2 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

The period for Executive formation under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 is due to expire at the end of today, Monday 21 October, so I have laid before Parliament a statutory instrument to extend the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. That has the effect of ensuring that Northern Ireland Departments can continue to make decisions in accordance with the Act in the absence of Executive Ministers. Colleagues should be clear that the Act only provides guidance to the Northern Ireland civil service and is no substitute for everyday political decision making.

In reflecting on hundreds of interactions I have had with public sector workers, voluntary workers and members of the public, I understand that this continued absence is a huge disappointment. This extension also delays the legal obligation on me to call an Assembly election, but does not prevent me from calling an Assembly election at any time. The political parties have not reached an agreement to get Stormont back up and running, but extending this legal deadline has no bearing on my continuing efforts to restore the Executive.

As a result, from tomorrow, in relation to abortion law in Northern Ireland, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 are repealed, and there will be, in addition, a moratorium on criminal prosecutions. A new legal framework for lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland will be put in place by 31 March 2020 in line with the 2018 UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women report. I will be consulting on the new framework very soon.

On same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, regulations are to be made no later than 13 January 2020. There are two key areas on which we will consult: how to allow for religious same-sex marriage ceremonies; and the issue of conversion from civil partnership to marriage and vice versa. So that we can tailor the regulations appropriately, there will be a short consultation on these two issues before we introduce religious same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. This will not detract from the regulations by 13 January 2020, providing for civil same-sex marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. The first civil same-sex marriages will take place in the week of Valentine’s day 2020.

We also intend to launch a public consultation on a scheme for payments to victims of troubles-related incidents in the coming days. I am also determined to ensure that the Government deliver on our commitments to broader legacy issues.

I cannot overstate the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland parties to find an accommodation and to ensure the future of the devolved institutions that form such an essential part of the peace process.

May I begin, Mr Speaker, by thanking you for granting this very important urgent question? Both the number and the importance of the issues that the Secretary of State has already raised with the House indicates how important it is that we have regular dialogue on Northern Ireland, but let me say to Government business managers that that has not been forthcoming at the level that we expect.

May I ask the Secretary of State a number of very specific questions? Brexit, according to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, may still result in our crashing out of Europe. Is the Secretary of State certain that he has, already in preparation, the necessary legislative changes to bring before this House in the event of that no-deal Brexit? Even if we have a Brexit deal, is the Secretary of State satisfied that the Northern Ireland civil service, under the legislation that exists, has the necessary authority to make the very difficult decisions that it, and indeed other agencies, may have to make as we move through that Brexit process?

In particular, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has the resources that it needs in the event of any form of civic disturbance? I do not want to emphasise what kind of disturbance there could be, but we may face a period of prolonged public unrest. Does the PSNI have the resources and the capacity to play that role? Will he also rule out any idea, as we have had in the past, of recommitting the Army to Northern Ireland?

The Secretary of State mentioned the important issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. If Stormont returns in the period between now and 13 January, will he work with Stormont to ensure that we have an acceptable solution? Given that post 1 April Stormont will have the capacity to alter any such law, will he ensure that Stormont and his Department work together to ensure that there is safe and legal abortion for the women of Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland, and that same-sex marriage can take place in Northern Ireland?

In the event that Stormont does not return, the Secretary of State needs to plan now for what will happen on 13 January. We know how quickly time goes by in the context of Northern Ireland. Just look at how quickly time has already gone by—1,000-plus days since Stormont met. The Secretary of State will face a difficult decision, and direct rule is a very unattractive proposition for many reasons. He may have to look at the election option to renew the mandate of a Stormont Assembly that has not met for so long. In any event, will he guarantee that he will work with the Irish Government in Dublin to ensure that strand two of the Good Friday agreement is respected?

There is unease across the Unionist community about the Prime Minister’s decision to change the terms under which consent is given by Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement was very clear about the need to take both communities together through any decision making around important constitutional issues for Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State accept the unease of the Unionist community? Does he also accept that he now has a duty to work hard to regain that trust—a trust that has frankly been betrayed by the decisions of Conservative MPs who once were Unionists and who have now abandoned their erstwhile friends?

I have been very clear that no deal is not a good situation for the United Kingdom, particularly for Northern Ireland. Now that the Prime Minister has secured a deal, I hope that we can focus on getting it over the line.

I pay tribute to the Northern Ireland civil service. They have been the most dedicated civil servants, pushing forward across a range of areas without political decision making. They do have some powers and political decision guidance under the Act, but these are inadequate; we need to get Stormont back up and running to ensure that they have the political direction they need.

On the Police Service of Northern Ireland and security, the Government have additionally invested nearly £20 million and stand ready to continue to support the PSNI financially. I am obviously responsible for security, and this is a sensitive period with police officers under threat day in, day out, but I am comforted that the PSNI is well resourced and is doing an exceptional job. I will keep the situation monitored and keep in touch with the shadow Secretary of State in that regard. On the question of the Army, I do not see the need in any circumstance for the British Army to operate in the way in which the hon. Gentleman describes. The PSNI and our security services are fulfilling all the functions in an exceptional manner.

On abortion and same-sex marriage, there is clearly concern about how the Assembly can have an influence now that the law is changing. It can have an influence, but we need to be clear that, from tomorrow, the law will have changed across those two areas. Obviously we will hear the views of and work with the Assembly, but the law will change from tomorrow.

The consequences of Stormont not getting back up and running are too profound to consider; we have to get this institution back up and running. Powers from Westminster would involve working with Dublin and a whole range of issues that we should not be having to address. The men and women who worked so hard for peace in Northern Ireland need us to—and continue to remind us that we have to—get Stormont back up and running. I will be working, as I have been over the summer, with the Irish Government to get this crucial institution running again.

On the issue of consent, this protocol has been subject to huge debate over the past few days. We have to remember that one of the biggest criticisms of the last withdrawal agreement was the fact that it needed more say for Northern Ireland. It will have no impact on the petition of concern or on the day-to-day operation of the Assembly. This is an exceptional matter; it is a reserved matter. Consulting the Assembly, we will be doing everything we can to ensure that we make that clear. I have been speaking to members of the Unionist community across the weekend. We need to ensure that we now get this deal over the line for the United Kingdom and for Northern Ireland.

Order. We will continue with the exchanges on the urgent question in a moment. Nominations closed at 5 o’clock this afternoon for candidates for the post of Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. One nomination has been received. A ballot will therefore not be held. I congratulate, and I hope the House will join me in congratulating, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on his re-election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. The assiduity and public-spiritedness of the hon. Gentleman are renowned throughout the House. Thank you.

Four nominations were received for the post of Chair of the Treasury Committee, and a ballot will be held between 10 am and 1.30 pm on 23 October in Committee Room 15.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The people of Northern Ireland clearly want to see Stormont back up and running because they are seeing their health, their education and their welfare suffer. By making this extension, the Secretary of State has provided a window that could possibly see this House overcome the hurdle that seems insurmountable for the parties in Northern Ireland, and that is to legislate for the Irish Language Act, thereby taking it out of the debate between the principal parties in Northern Ireland and removing the hurdle that is the roadblock—I am sorry for mixing my metaphors—to getting Stormont back up and running.

The Irish Language Act is one of a number of issues that are being discussed in the talks process. I would say again that the most important and the best way to resolve these issues is through the Stormont talks. I will continue to work at pace with the Tánaiste to ensure that we encourage parties to come back together and get back into an Executive.

There are three statements to follow, so we do need to expedite progress. Gavin Newlands can lead us in that mission.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Stormont and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland have now been without a functioning Executive for over 1,000 days. The Government’s report on Executive formation stated:

“The UK Government, working closely with the Irish Government…will now intensify our efforts to put forward compromise solutions to the parties.”

There are no formal talks between the parties at the moment. I fully accept that the Government cannot bind the hands of the parties involved, but if there are no current talks, what exactly did the Government mean by intensifying their efforts, and when will fresh party talks take place?

The Government’s reckless Brexit policy and their agreement with the DUP have severely undermined the delicate balance of relationships that built and sustained the Good Friday agreement. Given the breakdown in the Government’s relationship with the DUP, does the Secretary of State envisage that this will have an impact on efforts to restore the Assembly and the Executive?

The Government have confirmed that the imposition of direct rule is being considered. This is deeply disappointing. It is clear that devolved decisions are best made by the elected politicians of Northern Ireland. I urge them to get back round the table and to get back to work.

Since taking on this job, I have been meeting the parties almost on a weekly basis, but, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, this is an issue for the five parties. It is ultimately up to those parties to come together, and both the Irish Government and the British Government stand ready with ideas and thoughts in order to make that happen.

On the relationship between the Government and the DUP, my responsibilities are for all parties in Northern Ireland, but I have a good relationship with the DUP. I will continue to support the Union to the best of my ability, along with all Members of this House. On the issue of direct rule, I could not have been clearer that Stormont and local decision making is my priority and the best way, in my view, for Northern Ireland to move forward.

I totally sympathise with the Secretary of State and his predecessor, who have time and again come to this Chamber to say, “We want to see the institutions up and running,” which we all do. We see today, with the meeting breaking up in disarray in less than an hour, the task that faces him. At the same time, we see outcomes of public services in Northern Ireland falling behind the rest of UK. We in this Chamber have a responsibility to all citizens across the UK. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) rightly said that direct rule is the most unattractive option, but we have a responsibility to see good services delivered. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to prepare to take more power into his own hands, to ensure that the citizens of Northern Ireland get the services they deserve?

We are prepared for all eventualities. On the issue of the all-party talks, I genuinely believe that, whether it is Sinn Féin or the DUP, we are not too far away. We have to do everything we can to encourage parties to come together, in the best interests of Northern Ireland, to secure an Executive.

Looking at the number of colleagues wanting to participate, I think we should be able to move on by 5.40 pm, if people ask questions rather than give great speeches.

The Secretary of State has outlined a number of areas where action will be taken as a result of the Act, but on health, education, crime, policing, investment and all the rest of it, still the Government sit on their hands and allow no government for Northern Ireland. Is he now realising that, with Brexit coming, we must have powers in the hands of Ministers, whether in the Assembly or here? He cannot go on abdicating that decision. Today in Belfast, Assembly Members met, but Sinn Féin boycotted it. Given that the Prime Minister said on Saturday that “a simple majority” should apply in Northern Ireland as well, fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement, can the Secretary of State apply that principle to the formation of the Executive, because four parties out of five would set it up tomorrow?

Just to be clear on the Assembly, the petition of concern and the arrangements for the Assembly will not change under this scenario. I will say it again: we need Sinn Féin, the DUP and all parties to come together, because powers from here is not the solution to this issue.

The DUP is understandably very unhappy about the customs and single market arrangements in the agreement, so will the Government table a free trade agreement and get on with it, because that would help?

Given that the creation of a new border down the Irish sea will impact on services and businesses in Ireland, north Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom, what impact assessment of the outcome of that border has the Secretary of State asked the Executive to produce, to be shared with political parties?

On the issue of customs and the protocol, we will be doing everything to work with Northern Ireland businesses to ensure that we deliver on unfettered access as we push the Bill through the House of Commons. I spoke to Northern Ireland businesses today and will be engaging with them on an ongoing basis as we move forward with the protocol.

Given the absence of an Assembly and Executive, the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill has to be passed in this place, and it will have its Second Reading in the House of Lords next week. What will happen to that Bill should the Assembly be restored? Will we continue with it, so that the victims get the compensation they need as soon as possible?

I hope and expect that we will continue with that Bill to deliver for victims who have waited for far too long.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as revealed by the Brexit Secretary in an answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), under the new Brexit dispensation firms in Northern Ireland exporting to the rest of the UK will now be expected to fill in export forms, and could he tell us how that can be squared with the claim that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory?

As Northern Ireland Secretary, I will be fighting for the interests of businesses and ensuring that we minimise any disruption to their trade flows. Northern Ireland has a hugely successful business sector, and it will go from strength to strength with this deal.

Following up on the questions from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) and the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), my understanding is that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would like the Executive to be reformed and only Sinn Féin is holding out, at least for the reason my hon. Friend set out, if not for others. What does the Secretary of State think is going to change to enable Sinn Féin to be persuaded to restore the Executive? I listened carefully to what he said and I accept he is working incredibly hard, but I am still not clear about what is going to change to enable the Executive to be reformed and for Northern Ireland to be able to enjoy devolved government.

Sinn Féin, like other parties, has been engaging very positively with me, and I have had good conversations with its senior leaders. As this House makes a positive decision on Brexit in the coming days, I think that is a significant change, and it could be the catalyst for further movement on these talks.

I cannot emphasise enough to the Secretary of State how important the principle of consent is to Unionists. The idea that a decision of the momentous nature of the one we will be expected to take in four years’ time does not reflect adequately the principle of consent, as expressed in the Belfast agreement, has serious implications for our ability to support the restoration of devolution without that safeguard. I say with all seriousness to the Secretary of State that if this issue is not addressed, it goes well beyond this Brexit deal.

I say again to my colleagues and friends in the DUP and to Unionists across this House and in Northern Ireland that this protocol is for a reserved matter; it is not for the Assembly. The Belfast agreement is extremely clear that there will be matters that are not subject to the consent mechanisms in the Assembly. The Government will continue to work to ensure that this protocol, as the Bill goes through Parliament, is executed in a way that is reassuring to all Members and all parts of the Northern Ireland community. But remember that the issue with the backstop was a lack of consent. This consent mechanism is intended to deal with that, but it has no effect on the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Given that service personnel, their families and service veterans are losing out under the terms of the armed forces covenant not being fully applied in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State give consideration to the recommendation made in a recent report by the Defence Committee that the Northern Ireland civil service should appoint someone directly to sit on the veterans board that administers the covenant?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that report and for his Committee’s thinking in this area. I am giving consideration to that report and how we can execute parts of that report in a positive manner to ensure that we deliver for the armed forces who served in Northern Ireland.

The creation of a customs border down the Irish sea and the necessary declarations that we now hear will be necessary as a consequence is something about which Ruth Davidson and the Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Scotland warned last year. They said then, and it is true now, that it will undermine the Union. Why is the Secretary of State disregarding his right hon. Friend’s advice?

I am not disregarding the advice of anybody, but this is a deal that protects the border. This was a key priority for me as Secretary of State. It protects the peace process. I think the economy of Northern Ireland will benefit from this deal. We are delivering on Brexit, but protecting the economy and protecting the peace process. This mechanism, I say again, has no bearing on the Assembly, and I would work over the implementation period with colleagues across Government to minimise any problems for Northern Ireland businesses in exporting and selling into Great Britain.

We are supposed to live in a democracy, yet seven of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland do not have any representation in the House of Commons. As we have heard, the Assembly has not functioned for nearly three years. It is time to end the prospect of one party being able to bring down the whole institution, so will the Secretary of State consider introducing legislation that stops that happening again?

I have no plans to change the constitution, basis and set-up of the Assembly. However, I think that the lack of representation here—there are seven or eight constituencies unrepresented—is not a good thing. As I have said, we need to get Stormont up and running—1,000 days is far too long.

The Secretary of State should be an expert on the protocol, so may I ask him a simple question? A friend who gardens in Northern Ireland wants to buy 2 lb of organic garlic from a supplier in England. When the supplier sees the Northern Ireland address will they be obligated to add the EU tariff—currently 10%—and how would my friend prove that he is not moving it to the EU, in the Republic, and how would he reclaim the tariff? The agreement says that the default assumption is that it is going to the EU, which is an important point. That is what people are talking about in Northern Ireland today—not restoring devolution.

As the hon. Lady knows, the Joint Committee in the new protocol will look at all those matters. I expect them to be looked at over the coming months as we go through the implementation period.

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that if the Act is extended by statutory instrument, that will not be a good outcome for the people of Northern Ireland?

As members of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont continue to be unable to fulfil their full responsibilities, what consideration has the Secretary of State given to cutting their salaries yet again? The fact that they receive a salary, albeit reduced, has caused immense annoyance, and continues to do so, across Northern Ireland, and has cost millions of pounds, so does the Secretary of State intend to cut those salaries?

I plan to review all elements relating to the Assembly if we are unable to move things forward over the coming days.

Post Brexit, the Northern Ireland Assembly will have to make some incredibly serious and important decisions about Northern Ireland’s future. Do the kind of shambolic scenes that we saw at the Assembly this morning suggest that the institution is up to that task? If not, and if it is not restored, is the Secretary of State happy that he and his Department have all the powers necessary to take Northern Ireland through the transition and into the immediate period after we have left the EU?

As I said earlier, the parties and individuals who will play a part in the Assembly and the Executive when they are up and running again are of extremely high quality. There is every opportunity for us to get this up and running and for it to go from strength to strength. That is so much more in the interests of Northern Ireland than taking or restoring powers from here.

It is rare these days that a decision made by the House provokes joy and hope, but it will today among thousands of people in Northern Ireland who love each other, are in a same-sex relationship and will finally be able to marry the person they love. However, they will be concerned to hear that, despite the will of the House to introduce equal marriage in Northern Ireland, not in any segmented form, those who are in a civil partnership may be forced to delay their conversion to full, equal marriage. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will not be the case and that, as of 13 January, all couples in Northern Ireland who love each other will be able to get married?

As I said at the start of my statement, we will be consulting on religious same-sex marriage and on the conversion of civil partnerships to marriages, but all other same-sex marriages will be delivered as per the regulations. The first such marriages will take place in the week of Valentine’s Day.

My right hon. Friend, along with every Member who has spoken today, has expressed concern about the current situation, but after 1,000 days we seem to be in just as bad a situation as ever. What exactly is it that gives him confidence that we are about to find a resolution and that devolution will be restored to Stormont in the near future?

Having been Government Chief Whip during most of the Brexit period, perhaps 1,000 days does not seem quite as bad to me as it does to others. However, it is an awfully long time and we do need to ensure that we now encourage the parties to get back to the Executive. The Tanaiste and I stand ready and plan to work with the parties over the coming days.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that he will bring forward new legislation on abortion in Northern Ireland promptly, and can he say a little more about the process that he will adopt in doing so?

We will bring forward a consultation in the coming days. As I have said, decriminalisation and the moratorium on criminal cases will take effect from tomorrow. We will be delivering in the new year on the law that has now changed.

As the Secretary of State will know, the Assembly tried to meet today, when some 33-plus Members tried to initiate a debate to stop the abortion legislation going forward. Unfortunately, Government acquiescence to the legislation ensured that it went through this place. Does he not understand the anger that people in Northern Ireland feel about the abortion changes, and will he bring in changes for the Department of Health, which will have a deficit of £20 million this year, to ensure that it can do what it needs to do in the year ahead?

I understand the huge sensitivities around this issue, but there was a free vote in this House and the law was clear that if the Assembly and the Executive were not up and running by today, the law relating to same-sex marriage and abortion would change. We have now reached that point. With regard to funding for abortions, the Government will continue to pay for travel to England during this period, and we will ensure, as part of the consultation and the changes, that the health service in Northern Ireland has every resource it requires.

While we urge a speedy resolution to the impasse in Northern Ireland and the restoration of devolution, does the Secretary of State welcome the levelling up of fundamental human rights across all parts of the United Kingdom, and does he agree that the sort of illiberal grandstanding that we have heard today was most unwelcome and counterproductive?

Again, these are sensitive issues—free vote issues—but the law has changed and the Government will now follow through and deliver on it.

These responses are calamitous. For the Secretary of State to hold up a copy of the Belfast agreement, yet not to have apprised himself of paragraph 12 of strand two or paragraph 5(b) of strand one, which outline further expansion of north-south arrangements, subject to the Assembly’s consent, and paragraph 5(b), which indicates how that consent is to operate, is an outrage. He told the BBC last Thursday that no party would have a veto, but Sinn Féin operated its veto on the restoration of the institutions today, as it has done for the past 1,000 days, and the EU will have a veto in the Joint Committee. Can he answer the question that he was asked earlier: will Northern Ireland goods require customs declarations for what is supposed to be unfettered access to the rest of their own country?

On the first point, I say again to my hon. Friend that there is no change to the constitution of the Assembly. This is a reserved matter and we will do everything we can to assuage many of the concerns that have been raised. On the issue of checks and forms, unfettered access is a key part of the protocol, and I will be working to ensure that we deliver on that, in the interests of Northern Ireland business, over the coming weeks.