I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 23 October.
On 23 October, I published a report setting out the latest position on progress on Executive formation, transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry university, presumption of non-prosecution, troubles prosecution guidance and the abortion law review. This is the third report published on these issues in line with the Government’s obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
I was disappointed on Monday to have to extend the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. I extended the period because the parties have still not been able to reach an accommodation to get Stormont back up and running. Failure to extend the period would have meant removing from the Northern Ireland civil service what limited decision-making power it currently has. That would not be in Northern Ireland’s interest and it would have precipitated an early Assembly election.
While the political parties continue to be unable to reach an accommodation, public services in Northern Ireland continue to deteriorate, hospital waiting lists get longer and frustration continues to grow. I have been in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in the past few weeks for discussions with all five main political parties. That contact will continue over the coming weeks, as will my close working relationship with Simon Coveney, the Tanaiste, in line with the three-stranded approach.
The issues that remain between the parties are few in number and soluble in substance. It will take real commitment for the main parties to reach a compromise on those issues, but just this weekend, both the largest parties said that they wanted to restore the institutions as soon as possible. I say to the two major parties, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin: I stand ready to facilitate further talks if and when they are genuinely willing to move forward, but it is a compromise that they must be ready to reach themselves, and it cannot be imposed from this place.
Continued failure to restore the Executive will bring about extremely difficult choices about how to ensure effective governance in Northern Ireland. The Government will need to consider the appropriate next steps, including considering the duty that will be placed upon me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election.
A restored Executive and Assembly remain the best way forward for Northern Ireland, not least in the light of the UK’s impending exit from the EU. Northern Ireland needs Stormont up and running, a restored Executive and the political leadership that would bring, and I will continue to do my best to make that a reality.
Turning to abortion, I recognise that this is a sensitive and often divisive issue and that we will continue to hear representations from both sides of the debate as we move towards laying the regulations, but Parliament has spoken and the duty under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 has now come into effect, the Northern Ireland Executive having not been restored by 21 October. Immediate changes to the law have now resulted: sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 have been repealed and there is now a moratorium, meaning that all prosecutions and investigations that were under way will now be stopped. We have had confirmation that on 23 October the one live prosecution in Northern Ireland was dropped and that the woman is no longer facing criminal charges.
We will consult on the proposals for the new legal framework and the regulations, which are to be made by 31 March 2020. In the meantime, women seeking access to services in England can do so free of charge, with all costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed, accommodation, being paid for by the Government. Arrangements can be made by contacting a central bookings service, and we have made this number and the services provided known on gov.uk. We continue to engage with health professionals in Northern Ireland and will reach out to the widest possible range of stakeholders to hear their views on the consultation proposals over the coming days and weeks. We are also working with health professionals to ensure that the appropriate services can be established in line with the new legal framework. It is crucial that we get the legal framework right, and we are confident that service provision in Northern Ireland can meet the needs of women and girls.
On the presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland remains a major priority for the UK Government.
On the subject of abortion, it is interesting that the Secretary of State has not yet referred to something that has occurred since he last gave a report: the fact that the Assembly in Northern Ireland did actually meet. There was a petition, and Members did turn up, including all the Members for our party and those from other parties, seeking to do the business of the Assembly and to get a Speaker elected, but others, including Sinn Féin, were not prepared to take part and take responsibility for these decisions. First, why has he not referred to this development? Secondly, what does he think about parties that talk a lot about wanting to get devolution up and running but that, when there is a legally constituted meeting of the Assembly ready to do business, refuses to participate?
My right hon. Friend is right that the Assembly was reconstituted last Monday. I took some hope from the fact that people were speaking in the Assembly, but we needed it to run for longer than a day. I repeat what I said earlier: we need all parties to be present and standing ready to get the Executive up and running.
Last year, the Northern Ireland Office consulted extensively on the Stormont House agreement. This consultation ran from May to October 2018 and revealed wide support for the broad institutional framework of the Stormont House agreement and a consensus among the main parties in Northern Ireland that the UK Government should push ahead with legislation. At the same time, the consultation process revealed a number of areas of public concern about the detail of the proposals, including how the institutions interacted, how their independence could be preserved and the overall timeframe and costs.
I firmly believe that we must now move forward with broad consensus. It will be essential to demonstrate that any approach we take is fully capable of facilitating independent, effective investigations into troubles-related deaths and providing Northern Ireland with the best possible chance of moving forward beyond its troubled past.
The Secretary of State will be well aware—because, of course, he wrote it—of the statement in the foreword to the consultation paper on the victims payment scheme that
“as a society we have a moral duty”
—a moral duty—
“to acknowledge and recognise the unacceptable suffering of those seriously injured in the Troubles”.
Surely to goodness, the Secretary of State accepts that we as a society have a moral duty to acknowledge and recognise the unacceptable suffering of those seriously injured in the appalling Omagh bombing, which took place four months after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Will he make a commitment tonight, and agree and accept that those seriously injured in the Omagh bombing will qualify under the victims payment scheme? Please will he give a fair commitment tonight, and not put them through all the waiting for the consultation to be completed?
The consultation paper makes very clear that we have not set a timeframe. We have talked about the period of the troubles ending with the Good Friday agreement, but I am not prejudging the decision. Omagh is one atrocity, but there are many more, subsequent to the agreement, that we will have to consider as well. I want to hear from all victims. I want to hear from people who may not have been involved in a tragedy such as Omagh but whose victimhood may have resulted from their being in prison or being attacked, or as a result of a range of other experiences. I want to hear from all those people, and we will then reflect on what, if any, is the best timeframe for the payments.
The Secretary of State will know that there have been many detailed discussions about the legacy proposals, including discussions about dates. He will also know, from his time in his current role and also from briefing about events that preceded it, that—as far as I can recollect—all the political parties have been flexible about taking a compassionate approach. I do not think that this should be a controversial issue; I think that we should show compassion.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention. That is exactly the approach that the Government will take. We cannot be hard and fast. We must be inclusive. We must ensure that the payment scheme, for which many Members have campaigned on behalf of constituents throughout Northern Ireland, applies to all victims. We talked about the period of the troubles during the consultation, but I was also careful to ensure that we would not be restricted to that and that we would work with Opposition parties to bring about a better definition if we need to define a period that is acceptable to us all.
While we are on the subject of compassion, may I ask the Secretary of State to clarify the position in respect of the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill? There is a rumour that the Government do not plan to introduce it in the House of Commons in the immediate future. That may not be true, but it would be a retrograde step, and I should be grateful if the Secretary of State commented on the Bill’s progress.
The hon. Gentleman is posing questions about business management that I was qualified to answer a few months ago, but I am now in the hands of the business managers. I will say that today’s debate in the other place was extremely moving. The Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party and the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) have been hugely supportive of the Bill. We need to accelerate it and drive it forward, and I will continue to make strong representations, to my successor and to the Leader of the House.
Well, it is true that if there is a general election there is usually a wash-up period, but in all scenarios I will be making the case that we need to get the HIA Bill through. I am concerned that there are many very vulnerable victims who have been waiting a long time—many of them are over 70 and in ill health—so we need to get on with this. I will be working hard, and if other Members are able to assist me in making representations, I will appreciate it.
I am sure we will be able to come to the Secretary of State’s assistance in that matter. On this extremely important issue, which is a high priority for everyone in the House, is he making representations to the Prime Minister and others about the need to take powers in Northern Ireland more generally, because we are getting a report on a series of issues which during the passage of this Bill were picked out among a whole lot of other issues that were left untouched—the health service, education, investment, jobs, housing, the environment? All of those issues continue to sit in abeyance in the hands of civil servants. The Secretary of State has not so far mentioned the dreaded B-word: how long is he going to continue to wait before the Government actually take powers to deal with all these issues in the run-up to Brexit?
My right hon. Friend has raised the issue of Westminster’s powers consistently and has strongly represented these views. I believe that the best way to deliver for Northern Ireland is through the Assembly, and I am worried about the consequences that would flow, even though my opposite number has been very generous in offering to help, if needed, on this issue. This is not a good place for us to be; we have to focus on Stormont, and we have to focus on the Executive.
On the issue of legacy more broadly, my ministerial colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) will be beginning meetings with a range of partners, including victims and victims’ groups and members of the armed forces, to make quick and substantive progress on this issue. We are clear that for colleagues across the House, Northern Ireland political parties and, most importantly, the people of Northern Ireland, we must move forward on this issue with broad consensus but also with renewed pace.
Alongside the substantive updates on Executive formation and the abortion law review, reports were published on the transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry university, presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance. The section of the report on the transparency of political donations states that the regime in place for political donations and loans is specific to Northern Ireland. We recognise that the issue of retrospection is a sensitive one. While the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 allows for the publication of the historical record of donations and loans from 1 January 2014, we must remain cognisant of the fact that retrospective transparency must be weighed against possible risk to donors.
As we have previously made clear, the only Northern Ireland party that has written to the Government in favour of retrospection is the Alliance party. The Government have said that we will consult the Northern Ireland parties in due course about any future change to the nation’s legislation. For now, however, our focus remains on securing agreement to restore devolved Government for the people of Northern Ireland.
I am exceedingly grateful to the Secretary of State for taking a second intervention. Since the Prime Minister seems absolutely hellbent on having an early general election, will the Secretary of State take a few moments to explain how helpful, or not, an early general election would be to his efforts—his genuine efforts—to see the institutions of the Assembly and Executive functioning again in Northern Ireland? How helpful would an early general election be to those efforts?
I think it is best that I swerve that question. There are some extremely important issues in Northern Ireland that require immediate attention and I want to focus on them with colleagues over the coming days and weeks. Higher education is a devolved matter and any requirement to increase student numbers will require a decision from a restored Executive.
I asked the Secretary of State a straight question, and I really do expect a straight answer from this very honourable Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is not allowed to swerve the question; he has to answer it directly. He is accountable to the people of Northern Ireland; he is the Secretary of State. We need to know how unhelpful an early general election would be to his efforts to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland.
It is clear that a general election this side of Christmas is going to lead to an extension of the timetable beyond the end of January for any chance of Stormont to be back up and running. In the Secretary of State’s mind, at what point will stumps have to be drawn, when energies have been expended and best endeavours have been deployed but success has not been forthcoming? We cannot leave the good folk of Northern Ireland without political direction and new initiatives on health, education and welfare, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) said. Where are we going to be on that?
My hon. Friend makes the important point that the extension of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 comes to an end in the second week of January, so time is of the essence. We need to make the most of this time, and all I can say is that I will do whatever I can over the coming days and weeks to ensure that we get the Executive up and running and that we focus on that as our priority.
I understand that, and no one in the House will doubt my right hon. Friend’s sincerity in relation to that task or the good faith with which he approaches it. However, in the heat and battle of a general election campaign, there is no scope for those discussions to continue and, dare I say it, this could slightly prejudge the outcome. Were there to be a hung Parliament, or if the Labour party were to be in office, the whole thing would change again. Let us be frank: this early general election is not helpful to the timely restoration of Stormont.
I think I should move on with my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Similarly, the decision on Ulster University’s proposal for a medical school on its Magee campus is a devolved issue, and the merits of the business case will have to be weighed up against all others that aim to address the overriding need for more medical school places. On 17 October, I met a range of stakeholders in Derry/Londonderry, and I am personally committed to seeing what I can do to assist with this ambitious project, which has secured political consensus across the local area. This Government remain open to testing the eligibility of contributing inclusive future funds towards the capital costs of the medical school.
In addition to the matters highlighted in the report, I would like to draw the House’s attention to other matters on which the Government have a duty to legislate—namely, the creation of a scheme for victims’ payments and new laws to introduce same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships. As we discussed earlier, on 22 October the UK Government launched a public consultation on the legal framework for a troubles-related incident victims’ payments scheme, the consultation on which will run for five weeks. The UK Government would welcome comments from anyone with an interest or view, to inform the shape of legislation to be introduced by the end of January 2020. We must acknowledge and recognise the unacceptable suffering of those seriously injured in the troubles through no fault of their own, as part of wider efforts to support Northern Ireland in building its future by doing more to address its past.
The scheme is intended to provide acknowledgment to those who are living with serious disablement as a result of injury—both physical and psychological—in a troubles-related incident and to provide a measure of additional financial support. We are consulting on proposals for how such a scheme could be delivered. It is a core element of the Stormont House agreement’s proposals to help address the legacy of the troubles, and it is vital that we make progress across this and related matters. As I said earlier, we are not prejudging any element of the scheme; we are consulting to achieve broad consensus.
Following 21 October, a further duty in relation to providing for same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland has also come into effect. The Government will ensure that the necessary regulations are in place by 13 January 2020, so that civil marriage between couples of the same sex and civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples can take place in Northern Ireland. From that date, we expect that couples will be able to give notice of their intent to form a civil same-sex marriage or opposite-sex civil partnership to the General Register Office for Northern Ireland. Given the usual 28-day notice period, the first marriages should be able to take place in the week of Valentine’s day.
Following concerns raised by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) about the timing of a consultation on conversions from civil partnerships to same-sex marriage and marriage to opposite-sex civil partnerships, we are exploring whether we can consult shortly with a view to delivering the regulations as closely as possible to the previously mentioned regulatory timetable. Regulations to enable religious same-sex marriage ceremonies and to provide appropriate religious protections will also follow shortly, allowing a period of consultation so that the regulations can be tailored appropriately to the particular needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you and the House for your patience with this speech. I hope that I have made clear my undiminished commitment to see Stormont back up and running again. Northern Ireland needs its own locally elected representatives making decisions on local issues and making Northern Ireland’s voice heard across the United Kingdom.
There is a large degree of agreement with much of what the Secretary of State has said, as he has already intimated. He was busy over the summer meeting individual party leaders, and it would be helpful to know when he expects all parties to come together for a plenary to take forward Executive formation, because there has not been one since last July. He may be able to come back to us on that.
On medical places provision, I also visited the campus at Derry/Londonderry. Developing medical training places locally is hugely important to help with the situation in Northern Ireland. It would be helpful for the House to understand where the real hold up is and to start working on an assessment to progress matters. There is a clear need and a political agreement on the ground to try to make that happen.
In the short time available, I will concentrate my comments on abortion law reform. The report contains a heading, “Provision of termination of pregnancy services after the interim period”, which I expected to outline how the new service would look after March, but it actually talks about—we hear this consistently from the Government—a medically based legal framework. I would like the Secretary of State to be able to explain exactly what that medically based legal framework is and why it is required.
This is already a highly regulated area of health service practice. In addition to the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, regulations apply in a number of areas. First, consent must be given by a woman or else a termination would be criminal—all medical procedures rely on the principle of consent. Secondly, England and Wales have the Care Quality Commission, and Northern Ireland has the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, which registers and inspects hospitals, GPs and independent providers. It has the power to suspend or cancel registrations, prosecute, set out special measures and undertake inspections of facilities.
Thirdly, clinicians are governed by their own professional standards. They have to ensure that they have fitness to practise, they have a duty of care, there are clear complaints and litigation processes, and both the General Medical Council and Nursing and Midwifery Council service standards must be adhered to.
Finally, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is responsible for developing clinically appropriate treatment regimes for all areas of medical care and controls on the sale and supply of medicine.
I am not a lawyer, but before entering this place I spent most of my professional career over the last 25 years in the NHS, planning, commissioning and monitoring healthcare services. I accept that there are issues to be clarified in the new regime, particularly around conscientious objection and ensuring that women, including doctors and nurses, who seek an abortion service are perhaps offered services away from home for the purposes of anonymity, which might be an issue, particularly in rural areas. I accept that, but the Secretary of State needs to be clear about what exactly he considers to be the legal gaps and to consider how, in the absence of an Executive, women in Northern Ireland can be assured that a high-quality medical service is being planned, how it will be delivered and how it will be monitored.
New healthcare services are introduced all the time across the UK. Indeed, in my professional experience, doctors are always complaining that managers stop them developing new services. The basic process for planning and introducing a new service is fairly straightforward. It has patients and the public at its core. There needs to be an assessment of need in the given population, a projection of the numbers requiring the service, with the case mix and the requirements for tiers of specialism. There needs to be an understanding of what the referral process is, and the planners need to look at the workforce and facilities requirements.
In England, we learned the lesson a long time ago that women should not be seen within a general obstetrics and gynaecology service, and the service for terminations is largely carried out by specialist providers. We need to know whether the Department of Health in Northern Ireland is undertaking that needs assessment. What is the estimation of numbers? What are the expected workforce and facilities requirements? How and where are women to access the service? What is the development of a referral process for women requiring either a medical or a surgical intervention?
Additionally, health is one of the six original core areas of north-south co-operation on the island of Ireland, as part of strand two of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Following the mapping exercise that recently took place as part of the Brexit process, a report was finally published in June, after some time of asking. We learn from that document that the exercise recognised that
“the size, population and geography of the island of Ireland mean that economies of scale for certain specialised services only exist at an all-island level or, for certain regions, on the basis of North-South cooperation. This means that, in a number of fields, in the absence of North-South cooperation, patients and health services would be directly affected. North-South cooperation and EU frameworks also support the continuity of care and of supply of health products, such as medicines and medical devices.”
This is an important area, so have the Government or health officials in Northern Ireland started talks with their Irish counterparts and counterparts in Britain about how women access highly specialised services?
In the last two years, as a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly’s committee D, chaired by Lord Dubs, I have participated in evidence-taking on abortion services across the jurisdictions of Britain and Ireland. We have taken evidence in Liverpool, London, Belfast and Dublin. I commend our report, which we have just produced, to the House. We considered a number of cross-jurisdictional issues, including the impact of changes to the law in Ireland, the cost of travel, the impact on women with low economic resources, and the treatment of foetal remains and the particularly traumatic and unpredictable process that women currently have to go through. There is a lack of specialised skills across all jurisdictions, particularly for women beyond 18 weeks, and an issue with the online availability of abortion pills.
These issues are testing health services across Britain and Ireland. We can learn lessons from each other, and we need co-operation. There is a need for designated centres across Britain and Ireland. We need an assurance that the Government are progressing and giving clear guidance to officials in the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Health on the work required to deliver this service.
In conclusion, it is not clear to us what additional legal requirements are needed or for what purpose. Will the Secretary of State say, either tonight on the record or by committing to bringing this forward in the next report, what legal gaps the Government think need to be filled? Will he confirm that the Northern Ireland Office and Department of Health are now planning the introduction of this new service along the lines I have outlined: by undertaking a needs assessment, an estimation of the demand and case mix, and through the provision of staff, facilities and a clear referral process for women to meet their health needs? Will he outline what discussions his officials will be having with their counterparts across Britain and in Ireland about access and referral pathways to specialised services? Will he commit to bringing back to this House, in this report, or by a ministerial statement, a clear account of how the devolved Department of Health is developing this service in a way that allows some public scrutiny for the women of Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), to whom I am grateful for stepping into the breach to cover me the last time this was discussed, called for compromise from all parties across Northern Ireland and an end to the “vacuum” at the “heart” of Northern Ireland politics. Two weeks on, we are still no closer to that vacuum being replaced with the fresh air that a restoration of the Assembly would provide, not just to the people of Northern Ireland, but to all the people of these isles, who have missed the views of a democratically elected body in the Brexit debate that should have had its voice heard. I mean no disrespect to Democratic Unionist party Members here tonight, but they represent only one strand of opinion on Northern Ireland’s position in Europe.
Indeed. There are other views crossing communities in Northern Ireland. A new poll, published in The Sunday Times this weekend, found that 72% of people in Northern Ireland would now vote to remain in the European Union, which is significantly up from the 56% who originally voted to remain. I see the same figures on the doorstep in Scotland. As in Scotland, it is clear that as this Brexit debacle has gone on people have reinforced their view that the benefits of the European Union far outweigh the fantasy Brexit offered by the Tory party. I hope that the restoration of the Assembly will once again give a voice to all the disparate shades of opinion that have thus far been without that voice and, even at this late stage, give a platform for the complexity of opinion on Brexit to be given a voice through Stormont.
The hon. Gentleman talks about people having a voice, but of course seven elected Members of Parliament do not take their seats. It is not that anyone is stopping them or refusing them, so in his remarks perhaps he could reflect that point. Nobody is preventing anyone from having their say; they choose not to come.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but it has to be said that those Members are elected on that basis and it is not for us to second-guess the voters in Northern Ireland on that basis, regardless of our views on abstentionism itself.
Not at all.
I urge the Secretary of State to think carefully before implementing direct rule, and I welcome what he said earlier on that subject. To reintroduce even an element of direct rule would mean fast-tracking legislation through Parliament, which cannot be a sensible path to take when talking about institutions that took years of hard negotiation and compromise to set up. I hope that the Secretary of State is in constant contact with his counterparts in the Irish Government to ensure that both Governments, as joint signatories to the international treaties that underpin devolution in Northern Ireland, are focused on restoration.
Although Stormont has no voice when it comes to Brexit, Brexit is unfortunately helping to ensure that Stormont continues to have no voice, and it is without question endangering the stability that devolution is meant to underpin and be underpinned by. The Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is warning that a no-deal Brexit could open up opportunities for terrorist groups; and the Chief Constable himself states that loyalist paramilitary groups may seek to react to the instability caused by a Brexit deal that is seen to threaten the Union and, moreover, that his officers will not police any of the border crossings after Brexit. That is exactly what people have been warning of since the referendum campaign itself. They were ignored and dismissed at the time, yet here we are. I truly worry that, given the current power vacuum, those who seek to further their so-called cause and wreck lives and progress see Brexit as a jackpot. That cannot be allowed. Rather than playing reckless games in Downing Street, the Prime Minister should wake up to the reality of the damage that his Brexit extremism is causing. It is vital that the fragile peace in Northern Ireland is secured and maintained. It should never have been risked by this Tory Government in the first place.
A glance through today’s Belfast Telegraph shows just some of the issues that are being squeezed out: bedroom tax mitigation to expire next March; the impact of substance abuse on victims and their families; victims of historical abuse; people trafficking—all huge and substantial issues for any society to face, but with no debate, no solutions, no legislative action possible in response to any of them. That cannot be right or fair on the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for bringing forward the Northern Ireland Executive legislation and information for us tonight. I want to speak about the issue of abortion; there will be no surprise among people here that I am doing so.
In the past two weeks, the point has been made on a number of occasions that from 22 October there has been no legislation in Northern Ireland requiring that abortions must take place either in NHS hospitals or private clinics. The shadow Minister referred to that as well. Expert legal opinion from David Lock QC, the former Labour MP and leading lawyer in the field of NHS and health legislation, has pointed out that the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality, Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 regulates only certain types of premises, so does not ban any procedure from taking place outside such premises. David Lock QC points out that that means that if a doctor—or, indeed, someone without any formal qualifications—wanted to become an independent provider of abortions outside of a clinic, they would not be subject to any form of statutory prohibition or regulation at all.
In short, that means that back-street abortions were made legal in Northern Ireland on 22 October, with all the attendant health risks to women. I believe that that is extraordinary—indeed, it is unbelievable. Never before has the law been changed in any part of the United Kingdom with the effect of making back-street abortions legal.
My hon. Friend will recall that I made a number of these points a fortnight ago. During the passage of the report two weeks ago, the Under-Secretary of State undertook, on the Secretary of State’s behalf, to write to us and outline exactly what laws were in place to preclude some of the dangers that we highlighted, to respond to us in detail before the change in the law that occurred last Monday. Regrettably, that has not happened. Does my hon. Friend agree that having that information with clarity would be most useful in this debate?
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for raising that. He is absolutely right. The request was made and the Under-Secretary of State said that he would respond, but unfortunately that has not yet happened. That would have been immensely helpful for this debate tonight.
Even in England prior to 1967, back-street abortions were always illegal. Rather than acknowledging the point, however, the Northern Ireland Office has sought rather disingenuously to point to the Northern Ireland guidance as if it offered protection to pregnant women comparable to that of the law. The guidance, however, has no legal weight unless it is referring directly to statute, and for the most part it is merely saying what the NHS, which is under Government control, will do and making suggestions about what everyone else should do.
The suggestion that there is an appropriate substitute for the law is clearly not true and completely inappropriate, given the important matter at hand: women’s safety. While the Northern Ireland Office can encourage people to act in a particular way through guidance, it cannot require people to act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he has raised this issue before. Let me try to be helpful to the Secretary of State by referring to the guidance that he has issued about this very point. It is simply not the case that there are no regulations. In particular, abortion pills are a prescription-only medicine, the sale and supply of which are unlawful without a prescription, and that is not affected by any of the changes that came into law last week.
The suggestion that somehow there is no regulation of access to abortion medication is misplaced. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has that concern, but if he reads the regulations and looks at the existing medical regulations about abortifacients, he will find that regulation is in place. I hope that the Secretary of State, who probably has not got round to writing the letter to the hon. Gentleman, will find that a helpful intervention.
For the purpose of clarification, reference was made to the case in the courts recently. The case included the procurement of abortion pills. It was dropped because of the change in the law around decriminalisation. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong to say that access to these pills is not affected by the change? It clearly is impacted by the change.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and for the clarification. In his introduction, the Minister referred to the abortion pills as well.
If encouragement were sufficient, then we may as well do away with legislation and simply replace it with guidance, but we would not do that because it would not be responsible, especially when dealing with matters as important as the safety of women. The truth is that the Northern Ireland Office has failed the women of Northern Ireland. Quite apart from the wider concerns about respecting devolution and the fact that the Assembly voted against any change in the law as recently as February 2016—and that was a decision passed by the Assembly—the Northern Ireland Office did not need to support an amendment in another place removing abortion law regarding pregnancies up until the point just prior to when the baby is capable of being born alive, five months before making provision for a new law to take its place. This, I believe, was grossly irresponsible and completely unnecessary. Clearly, there must be no question of rushing the new legislation. It is right to take five months to consult on it and develop it. I welcome the fact that the Minister has referred to that and to the consultation with the Church groups. That is critical, and I appreciate his mentioning it.
In the intervening period, however, rather than pretending that guidance provides the same protection as the law, the Government should now urgently reintroduce sections 58 and 59 until the new law is ready to take over. The opinion of the people of Northern Ireland in relation to the law on abortion is clear. The majority of people from all sections, of all genders and of all ages are against this liberalisation and change in Northern Ireland, and this House does not respect that and does not take that into consideration.
I want to quickly speak about historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and survivor groups. This morning, I met some of the people from one of those groups—the HIA survival group, which set up a trust, the Survivors (North West). Some of them made representations at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I met them today in my office. I wish to comment on one issue alone within the historical institutional abuse case and it is to do with the length of time in an institution. What has been agreed, which would be contrary to the opinion of the Rosetta Trust and Survivors (North West), is that there should not be a fixed payment for each year that an individual spent in an institution. Redress awards are to be assessed on an individual basis, taking account of the incidents, the duration and the severity of abuse.
Some of the people I spoke to this morning were in Rubane House in my constituency, where physical and sexual abuse took place. They were very traumatised by what happened to them. They welcome the fact that there will be a one-off payment of £10,000. That is good news, but they are concerned about the redress award system. They feel that there should be a payment for every one of those years retrospectively, but that does not seem to be included in this process. I ask the Secretary of State to look at that again.
The reason I say that is that those people who came to see me today are greatly traumatised by what has happened. They are severely traumatised, and suffer from memories and nightmares of the abuse that took place against them physically and sexually. When it comes to what they feel is appropriate and should happen, it is not about the money; it is about the recognition of years of abuse. The compensation should be retrospective for every year the victims were abused. If those people had the opportunity for legal redress, the cost for each individual would be between £35,000 and £40,000. The point is that making retrospective compensation payments would probably be a cheaper option, but it would address the victims’ issues.
I will conclude now because others wish to speak. The two issues that I have discussed today are really important: first, the clear impression and opinion of people across Northern Ireland is that the changes liberalising abortion are wrong and should not be imposed on Northern Ireland; and secondly, that compensation for survivors of HIA, including those in the Survivors (North West) group, should be retrospective with a payment for every year they were abused.
I rise, as the Secretary of State might expect, to ask him another series of questions about the changes in the law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland, which he knows I feel very strongly about. This Act compelled the Secretary of State to act—from start to finish. A week ago, 50% of what the Act asked the Secretary of State to do came into law, which was to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It has been mentioned already that there was a court case outstanding, and it is worth starting there and talking about the difference made by that 50% of the Act coming into law.
The case involved the mother of a then 15-year-old girl, who was in an abusive relationship. The mother bought her daughter abortion pills online to help her, but when she took her to the doctor was reported to the police under the legal duty to report. It is about removing that legal duty to report; it is not that people who continue to supply abortion pills and are not medically qualified will evade prosecution. It is worth reading into the record the words of that mother, who went into court the day after the legislation came into effect and saw the case against her, which had been hanging over her for so long, abandoned. She said:
“For the first time in six years I can go back to being the mother I was, without the weight of this hanging over me…every day…I am so thankful that the change in the law will allow other women and girls to deal with matters like this privately in their own family circle.”
She said that she could finally move on with her life.
We can debate all the technicalities of these issues, but fundamentally last week something of a magnitude beyond any of our individual comprehensions changed for so many people in Northern Ireland when that Bill became law—in that 50% repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act. And, yes, I think this place should welcome that, not least because the case of the mother I just spoke about shows the human impact of that piece of legislation from the 1800s hanging over the lives of women in Northern Ireland.
I am here this evening to ask the Secretary of State about his duty to finish the other 50% of this legislation, and to ask him what happens now. I share the concern that we need to clarify the regulations. I understand that there is scepticism from some about the existing regulations, and I pay tribute to the shadow Minister, who did a fantastic job of setting out all the existing regulations—and therefore the confidence that many people should have that this is not some free-for-all in Northern Ireland that has happened in the last week—but there is a case for clarifying what the regulations are. That case is being made not least by the doctors who have been writing to the Secretary of State asking for that clarification because, as of last Tuesday, they can prescribe abortion pills.
I think we would all recognise that had this place passed the 1967 legislation for abortion access in England and Wales by saying, “Well, we’re going to say that you can continue to have a back-street abortion, but you won’t be prosecuted if you go to A&E”, none of us would have accepted that as a reasonable position. And yet, at this point in time—because it is not clear how doctors in Northern Ireland can prescribe abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland who wish to use them—we are risking saying to women, “Continue buying them online and not being clear about which providers are safe, but at least now you won’t be prosecuted”, as the mother I described had to deal with for many years.
I would really welcome clarification from the Secretary of State about what he is doing with regard to the doctors who are writing to him asking him where they get the prescriptions from and how they make sure they can give safe advice. To be honest, asking women to travel is not a solution. In the past week, the only message we have been able to give to women in Northern Ireland who now wish to access their right to a safe, legal and local abortion is that they have to travel. If they have family commitments, if they are in abusive relationships or if they do not have the relevant travel documentation, that is not a solution for them.
The hon. Lady said that the only advice to some would be to order these pills online. It is very important to outline that the medical advice is absolutely clear that it can be dangerous to take these types of pills without medical supervision. The case that she referred to was a case of abortion pills being procured by a mother for her child where there were complications resulting in her having to present. So, yes, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady: there needs to be guidance in relation to this but we must also be responsible and say very clearly that we should not recommend the route of buying these types of pills online because people do not know what they are going to get.
I completely agree. What I am saying, therefore, is that the Secretary of State now has a responsibility to the women and girls in Northern Ireland who wish to be able to access this right to make sure that there is clarity about where they can get abortion pills prescribed by a medical professional. These changes were never about removing the medical component of abortion, but simply about recognising that it should be a medical rather than a criminal matter.
The Secretary of State will know from the letters that I have been writing to his Department that I am concerned that there has not been clarity for women and girls in Northern Ireland about their rights and how to access those rights in the past week. There needs to be more public information about how to access an abortion, alongside the work to make sure that they can access a safe abortion. He will know of the long-standing concerns that many of us have about the concept of public consultation. While he talks about both sides of the debate, he himself has been clear that what is up for debate is not whether abortion is available in Northern Ireland but how it happens. Many of us consider that to be a purely medical question. Indeed, the legislation required the Secretary of State to do this in line with the CEDAW––convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—principles.
A week ago, the Secretary of State’s junior Minister—I am sorry, but I am not quite sure of his role—said that the consultation would be published on the following day. We are now a week on. We do not have any of the details of that consultation—what the Government believe they should consult on that meant that any consultation would be in line with the CEDAW principles and would not undermine what this House decided, which is that women in Northern Ireland should be able to access an abortion equally. The Secretary of State talks about consulting the widest range of stakeholders, but he will understand the concern that many of us have about bringing non-medical professionals into the provision of medical services, and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) has highlighted, the importance of having proper medical engagement.
Let us be honest about this: there is no way a member of a Church community would have the same medical standing as, say, doctors or the royal colleges with regard to the specifics of how a medical procedure is provided. It is absolutely imperative that we have the details of what the Secretary of State thinks he is going to consult on and how he squares that with the CEDAW requirements, so that we can be confident that he is not opening a hornets’ nest when it comes to providing the other 50% of this legislation.
It is very important that we put to bed any suggestion that anything has changed in the time limits through what happened last week. The 1945 Act, which the shadow Minister mentioned, is still in place. That is very clear about not changing the viability provisions. People talk about abortions at five months, but that is not what is being talked about in Northern Ireland at all. If anything, modern medicine changes the concept of what viability is to perhaps something that people would consider to be even lower. But there is an issue when it comes to fatal foetal abnormalities and the Bourne judgment. Again, the CEDAW judgment called our attention to how that is interpreted in Northern Ireland, with the concern about how the concepts of the preservation of the life of the mother and of long-term damage were being interpreted. It is vital that the Government address this so that we can be sure that women in Northern Ireland are not being treated differently with regard to preservation of life from women in England and Wales.
We know that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical guidelines apply, but can the Secretary of State confirm that those will be used to deal with these sorts of issues? While the vast majority of abortions happen before 10 weeks, there are some very sad cases that involve late-term abortions, often for very good medical and health reasons. It is vital, in separating out these two issues and ensuring that people in Northern Ireland have confidence about what this legislation has done and the regulations that the Government will bring in, that those issues are addressed. We know that whether people can access a safe, legal abortion has no impact on the rate of abortion, but we also know that keeping people safe starts with ensuring that they are not criminalised for wanting to make a basic human right choice—to have control over their own body.
I urge the Secretary of State to address those issues. In this interim period, many women in Northern Ireland will need our help and support; I have been contacted by women who are not clear about how to access these services. They have seen that their human rights are finally being upheld, and now they need the Secretary of State to finish the job—which he alone can do, because the legislation was clear that it ultimately rests with him to protect their human rights—that the House asked him to do in July and that came to fruition last Monday.
I was encouraged to see that the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) takes such an interest in Northern Ireland matters, but then I realised that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have an Adjournment debate this evening, which is perhaps why he is here.
I do not want to rehearse arguments from a fortnight ago. The recurring nature of these reports means that important issues for Northern Ireland get aired quite often in this House, and there is no need for me to repeat my speech of two weeks ago, but I want to re-emphasise one point to the Secretary of State. Having sought and received an assurance that we would get written confirmation of the questions asked, I think it is discourteous that we have not had substantive replies to those questions and that they were not available for us to share more publicly with those who take an interest in the legislative change around termination and want to be satisfied with the legislative framework in Northern Ireland. Given that the law changed last Monday, the very least we would have expected was a response between the debate and then. I leave that point with the Secretary of State. I do not expect him to have full answers this evening, though he may surprise me; if he does, they would be most welcome.
The second issue that I raised a fortnight ago was the phraseology used in the report around progress on dealing with legacy prosecutions and what the Government are doing in that regard. Today’s report does not say it, but two weeks ago the report said that there had been no further progress on that issue. I highlighted the fact that the Prime Minister had given a commitment to legislate on those matters in response to questions during debate on the Humble Address. That, to my mind, is substantive change. That is an important aspect that should have featured in these reports, but yet again it does not.
I am grateful that the Secretary of State is here tonight, since he was unable to be with us a fortnight ago. He has, in fairness to him, been engaged thoughtfully and continually in issues in Northern Ireland, but I wish to raise with him my disappointment yet again at the content of this report. He knows full well that, when the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill was passing through the House in July, myriad amendments were tabled at various stages, and all of them sought to ensure that reports would be brought forward. Section 3(18) of the Act says that, by 21 October, prior to the publication of this report, the Secretary of State must bring forward a report on the progress of libel reform. Section 3(19) says that, by 21 October, the Secretary of State must bring forward a report on the progress made on implementing the Protect Life 2 strategy in Northern Ireland—a strategy that aims to equip our social services and health sector to tackle suicide, by providing the infrastructure, scaffolding and support for individuals who find themselves in the depths of despair—yet that does not feature in the report we are debating tonight, contrary to the provisions of the legislation.
We were to receive a report on the hardship unit that was recommended as part of the renewable heat initiative. That is in the legislation and it was due for 21 October, yet it is not here. What is the point of putting down amendments and amending the legislation to require reports if they are not before us and they are not available to us? Subsection (20) states that a report is to be published by 21 October, to be laid before us so that we can discuss it, on the demands for elective care in Northern Ireland and the impact for children on waiting lists. Where is it? It is not here.
I apologise in advance if I have fundamentally misunderstood the phraseology in the Act, but to my mind it is quite clear: reports are to be brought forward by the Secretary of State by 21 October on this range of issues—suicide prevention, libel reform, hardship and the RHI, elective care demand and so on—yet they do not feature. We can come back every fortnight and have the same debate about terminations, as important as that is. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), our leader, highlighted that there are many Northern Ireland issues that do not get attention in this place, but here we have a legislative requirement to bring forward reports and there is nothing—nothing. I think it is a dereliction of duty.
The Secretary of State has heard from the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) about the consultation on a victims’ pension. I do not think anyone who has a heart could fail to have been moved this evening by Claire Monteith, a victim—she lost her brother and her mother was severely injured in the Omagh bomb—who quite rightly makes the point that her grief, which is associated with an atrocity that came four months after the Belfast agreement was signed, should not preclude her or her family from those provisions. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the comments that he made. He is not going to prejudge the consultation—the consultation is framed as it is—but I think he knows, and would personally and privately accept, that when the consultation responses are considered, this is something on which there will be movement.
I have a couple of questions for the Secretary of State, which perhaps unfairly arise out of the emergency business statement we had earlier this evening. The Leader of the House said that 9 December cannot be fixed as the election date because there is a need to bring forward a Northern Ireland budget Bill. We do not have much time. I am not aware of the engagement that would ordinarily be necessary in advance of bringing forward a Northern Ireland budget Bill, but the House could be rising at the end of this week. We could be dissolved next week, yet there is an indication from the Leader of the House that a budget Bill will need to be passed.
I ask the Secretary of State this: he is not a business manager any more, but does he know when the budget Bill will be introduced? Can he give us an assurance that a budget Bill for Northern Ireland passed this week or in the early part of next week will contain the provisions that he knows are required on co-ownership housing? He knows there is a legislative fix sitting ready and waiting to go on the Office for National Statistics definitions of who can avail themselves of financial transactions capital. Co-Ownership housing in Northern Ireland has been categorised as a private organisation. In every other part of the United Kingdom, there has been a legislative fix with ONS guidelines to say that people can still avail themselves of FTC. This fix should have been done a year ago and it should have done by a Northern Ireland Assembly, yet it has not been done. The outworking of that is that affordable housing and support for people who want to get on the property ladder do not exist—they will go. So can he commit that he will include provisions that will amend the situation in relation to co-ownership housing?
The Act that we are discussing tonight says that the Secretary of State is mandated to bring forward proposals to deal with welfare mitigation. That was agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly three years ago to remove the worst vestiges of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, recognising that we do not have a housing stock that would allow for the bedroom tax—we simply do not have one and two-bedroom properties for those in larger homes to move into. We have an impending welfare crisis in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State is mandated by the Act to bring forward a report on 6 December, but he and his two junior Ministers voted today for an election. When are we going to have clarity around welfare mitigation? The Secretary of State needs to know that 34,000 households in Northern Ireland will be directly impacted by a failure to extend mitigation. We are talking about £12.50 a week or £50 a month. Some 1,500 people in Northern Ireland will lose their protective cap for benefits. Those families are going to lose £47 per week on average, and up to £100 per week, if there is not a fix for welfare reform. The additional resource for advice services will go as well. Given that the Secretary of State was keen to vote for an election and knows he is under a duty to bring forward a clear plan as to how we will extend welfare mitigation in Northern Ireland, will he include that as part of his budget Bill?
Finally—there is one more speaker to come, and we want to give the Secretary of State plenty of time to respond—the Secretary of State mentioned last Monday that he had extended the provisions under the EFEF Act. However, he knows he cannot do that singularly. He knows he is under a legislative requirement to seek a positive affirmative resolution for that within 28 days. If this House dissolves and he has not sought that positive affirmative resolution from this House to extend the provisions of the Act, they will fall during an election campaign. Will the Secretary of State therefore indicate when he intends to seek that positive affirmative resolution from the House so that he can extend those powers? Will he do so as part of the Northern Ireland budget Bill?
May I first add my support for the many issues that my colleagues have discussed today? In particular, I want to focus in my short remarks on a number of policy issues that should be being dealt with by the Northern Ireland Executive but that, sadly, are not.
Of course, there are many important issues in the overall reports, and we have heard some detailed discussion of them. In previous debates, I have gone into some of the detail of those issues, but I want to focus tonight on paragraph 3(1), which is on Executive formation, and to spend a little time outlining the impact of the lack of that Executive formation on my constituency, but also across Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), my party leader here at Westminster, articulated earlier the many issues that are suffering due to the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly and because the Northern Ireland Government have not been re-formed. The update in the report is very short because, since we last considered these reports, there is still no Northern Ireland Executive.
I was elected to represent the wonderful constituency of Belfast South just in the 2017 election, and it has been an incredible privilege to do so. In many ways, Belfast South is a thriving constituency. We have some of the best schools in Northern Ireland. We have some of the highest employment rates in not just Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom. We have some of the lowest unemployment rates. At the last count, we had over 19,000 registered businesses. We have an incredibly diverse constituency, with many wonderful institutions, including the Lyric, many arts institutions, the Ulster Museum, Queen’s University and Stranmillis College, to name just a few. Relative to many other constituencies, mine is doing very well, and I am incredibly proud to represent it.
Like all constituencies, however, we still have challenges. The constituents I represent still have very real needs across a whole range of public services from health, education and infrastructure to worrying about bills and worrying about their businesses. I want to touch briefly on some of those issues, because they are the type of everyday issues that are not being articulated in Northern Ireland because of the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly. They are not being articulated in this place either, because of the nature of the debates. Debates on those issues tend not to include or extend to devolved issues, but they are the issues that are impacting on a day-to-day basis. I know that and my hon. Friends know that, because we listen to our constituents and we know the serious concerns they have. We know the serious detrimental impact those issues are having on their lives. I know that the Secretary of State and his team have been out and about as well, talking to constituents right across Northern Ireland.
I want to touch first on education. Education in Northern Ireland is under huge pressure. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee took some evidence from a number of schools and headteachers. I went out and talked to schools—nursery schools, primary schools and post-primary schools—across my constituency. They are doing an incredible job at a very difficult time. We know that their budgets are under huge pressure. That is why the Democratic Unionist party, in the confidence and supply arrangement, secured additional money for education. We wanted to make sure that those additional funds went into much needed public services, not for one part of the community but for people right across the community. We knew that schools would be under pressure. We knew there were further projected cuts for schools, and we wanted to do everything we could to help every child in Northern Ireland succeed. It is my party that stood on that platform. No matter where a child comes from, or what their background or financial circumstances are, the DUP wants every child in Northern Ireland to succeed. We recognise that succeeding in education is the gateway to a much better life for people, their families and their grandchildren.
The other area under huge pressure in Northern Ireland on education is special educational needs. There have been a number of debates in this place about autism services and mental health needs, yet for Northern Ireland we have been starved of that debate because of the inability to get the Northern Ireland Executive back up and going. In Northern Ireland, we have some of the highest levels of mental health needs and that is also the case within schools. I speak to parents day in, day out. They are under huge pressure to try to get much needed help and support for their children. They know that their children need everything from getting a diagnosis to getting a statement to trying to get educational support for that child. The Education Authority needs more resources, both financial and in terms of professionals. Parents need more support in their fight to get what their child needs and schools need more resources to provide that support. These are the types of issues that are not being talked about in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist party is committed to a fundamental review of special educational needs to ensure proper resources go into special educational needs for every child across all communities in Northern Ireland.
Some 60% of the pupils who go to Clifton Special School, in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), come from my constituency of Strangford. The issue is not just about resources for parents and pupils, but upgrading such schools so they can cope with the new workload. Disabled children have very complex needs, both educational and health. That is the predicament facing schools such as Clifton House in Bangor.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In my own constituency, we have a number of fantastic schools on the frontline, including Fleming Fulton, Glenveagh and Harberton. They are three fantastic schools in my constituency which do a huge amount of work. Other schools are also dealing with complex needs. I have reached out and spoken to them, and I understand the pressures they are under.
Moving on to health, in one respect we have been fortunate in Northern Ireland in that before Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly, the Bengoa report, which talked about transformation, was agreed to, so we have a policy framework. However, let me be absolutely clear: these types of issues and pressures are not being articulated because there is no forum for this in Northern Ireland. Health-related matters do not fall to councils. There is no Northern Ireland Executive and this is a fully devolved matter, so it is rarely spoken about in detail in this forum, but we need health transformation in Northern Ireland.
We recognise that the current system is not fit for purpose. The Democratic Unionist party is absolutely committed to that transformation in a way that protects frontline services. We want to, and will, stand up for healthcare workers to ensure that they get proper remuneration for their hard work. Nurses, doctors, cleaners and the other staff in hospitals, including the administrative staff and consultants, are all working under huge pressure, and I pay tribute to them and the incredible work that they do in a system that is no longer fit for purpose, puts huge pressure on them and prevents them from getting the remuneration that they really deserve and that people really want to give.
We recognise that as the transformation is undertaken, we also need the additional resources to sort out things such as waiting lists. All Democratic Unionist party Members know how many constituents come in to see us who are sitting on waiting lists that are growing and growing, week by week, month by month. We want to get that investment in parallel with the much needed transformation, so that the money does not just go on transformation when people on the frontline are suffering. We need to reduce GP waiting times and get more GPs into the practices to help them to support our constituents.
I want to touch briefly on the business community. Businesses are rightly concerned about the proposal in relation to Brexit, but I do not want to talk about Brexit in any great detail today, because there will be plenty of other opportunities—and there have been opportunities—to do that. However, many of the issues for the business community in Northern Ireland are the same as those that businesses face across the United Kingdom. I have absolutely fantastic commercial areas in my constituency—everything from the Lisburn Road to Stranmillis Road, to Ormeau Road, to Finaghy Road, and there are many others across my constituency. They are fantastic areas with many small businesses where the business owners and staff are working incredibly hard under difficult circumstances. Our business rates are too high. Our businesses are struggling and they very much need this reform. I welcome the fact that there is a consultation out, but the Democratic Unionist party wants to do something fundamental to support the very many small businesses that are trying to make our economy work and make Northern Ireland thrive.
Our high streets are suffering. There was an announcement on the high streets fund across England and Wales, but we do not have that in Northern Ireland. I wrote to the head of the civil service asking him to use that money because Northern Ireland got a Barnett consequential. It got money from that announcement. Is it going to our high streets? No, but the Democratic Unionist party would absolutely prioritise supporting our high streets and those businesses and trying to make the very hearts of our communities, towns, villages and cities work.
I briefly want to mention the environment. I will not go into a huge amount of detail, but many people in Northern Ireland are really interested in this issue. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is aware of this, but Northern Ireland has one of the lowest levels of woodland cover of any region in the United Kingdom. We have on average 6% or 7% woodland cover. The average across the United Kingdom is 13%, and across the European Union, it is 38%, so Northern Ireland has the lowest percentage of woodland cover by far across the British Isles, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union.
I will conclude with a plea, because I genuinely feel that this needs to be addressed. I have put a proposal on the table: to mark the 100 years of Northern Ireland, I am proposing the creation of a project to increase significantly the amount of woodland cover. One way that we could do this is by planting a tree for every person alive across Northern Ireland and the border counties—approximately 2 million trees. That would bring our woodland cover up from about 7% to about 12% or 13%, which would be the UK average. That project could happen and has happened elsewhere. There are other big initiatives across the United Kingdom, and I ask the Secretary of State to give serious consideration to supporting that proposal.
I will not detain the House for long, given the late hour. The hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) made a series of important points. I will read the report she referred to and would like to discuss further with her the important issue of ensuring that the service provision, pathways and operation of this reform are done in the correct and best manner. I look forward to having further discussions about this.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) raised several issues, including security. Northern Ireland’s threat level remains at severe, but both the PSNI and the security services continue to play an important role and work extremely hard to protect all citizens in Northern Ireland. He and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) also raised the issue of welfare, and I am looking at that. It is a devolved matter, but I will obviously be looking at it carefully.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised a number of issues about the change to abortion law. Obviously, the repeal of criminal offences relates specifically to the procuring of abortion. It does not repeal other relevant criminal laws that exist to protect individuals. Medical procedures are carefully regulated and have to be carried out in regulated premises with appropriate care and oversight. I know how strongly he feels about this, and I would like to continue discussing it with him and others in the House over the coming months of consultation.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about the HIA and specifically the Rosetta group of victims of child sex abuse. I spoke to that group this evening, and they reiterated the point and said they had met him this morning. I hope to be able to provide confirmation that we will be dealing with the issues he raised as we bring in the Bill.
The hon. Member for Belfast East spoke of a missing letter. I can assure him that that letter was signed today. It has not been received by his office, but I will ensure that it is on its way. I am confident that it is. I apologise for the speed of that letter.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who has worked extremely hard on this policy, is right to raise the fact that we have now moved into the shaping phase for the regulations. We are launching the consultation and she is right that we are a few days later than we had hoped, but we will be producing that over the next few days. We are reflecting on the advice from royal colleges and many others, and I would appreciate the opportunity, once we have launched the consultation, of discussing with her how we address the issues she raised about provision and ensuring access to services.
The hon. Member for Belfast East raised the issue of additional reports. Those are in the House of Commons Library. I would be happy to accompany him so that we can read those reports shortly. He also raised the issue of the budget Bill. I have been fighting for more time for that Bill. We need to get that done. It provides the funding and vital services for Northern Ireland. Whatever the next few days hold, we have to get that Bill through. In all circumstances, election or otherwise, we will have to push through the affirmative statutory instrument attached to this extension.
The Secretary of State will have to push that through in very quick order. Can he confirm that when he brings forward a budget Bill it will include that legislative fix he knows so well—that of co-ownership —and will he give us some further details about what he plans to do on welfare mitigation?
I will be updating the House in respect of the first point. Welfare is a devolved matter, but I realise that it is important to Northern Ireland, and over the coming days and weeks I will be working with, and talking to, the Northern Ireland civil service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) raised a range of issues, including education and the Bengoa reforms. If we put more money into the health service, we will have to drive those reforms forward. She also talked about business. I met members of the Orange Order on Saturday, and met representatives of other business organisations today. I will do whatever I can to ensure that Northern Ireland—as well as Yorkshire!—continues to be the best place in Britain in which to do business. Northern Ireland is now covered with city deals. We must drive those through as well as looking at town deals, which were also raised. As for woodlands, I am encouraged by that proposal, and look forward to working with my DUP colleague. I hope that there will not be too many trees in the House over the coming days, but we hope to add more to Northern Ireland in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 23 October.