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 Thursday 19 December.
I am taking this debate on behalf of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is currently in Belfast in talks with the Northern Ireland parties and working towards getting Stormont back up and running.
On 18 December, the Northern Ireland Office published on gov.uk a report setting out the latest position on progress on Executive formation, transparency of political donations, higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, and the abortion law review. The Northern Ireland Office has laid copies of that report in both Houses now that Parliament has returned. Copies of all the previous reports are available on gov.uk. It was the seventh and final report published on these issues in line with our obligations under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
It is this Government’s absolute priority to get Stormont back up and running before the 13 January deadline. Colleagues across the House understand the issues at stake here. Failure to restore the institutions will raise difficult and urgent decisions about the future governance of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State remains in Belfast today to facilitate talks. All five party leaders remain positively engaged in the process, and our assessment is that it remains possible but challenging for the parties to secure a political agreement before the deadline. We all recognise how closely the deadline is looming. If 13 January passes without agreement, the Secretary of State will fall under a legal obligation to call an Assembly election. I am hopeful that, as we have heard in previous debates of this nature, Members from all parties will join me in urging the parties to come to an accommodation so that a restored Assembly and Executive can get on with resolving the real challenges that continue to frustrate the daily lives of the people of Northern Ireland.
Turning to the abortion report, the Government are working towards the laying of regulations for a new legal framework for the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, as required by the 2019 Act. The new framework will be in force by 31 March 2020. Women and girls who are seeking access to services in the meantime can do so in England free of charge, with all costs of the procedure, including travel and, where needed, accommodation, paid for by the Government. Arrangements can be made by contacting the central booking service, and we have published the contact telephone number and the services provided on gov.uk.
The public consultation on the legal framework for the provision of such services closed on 16 December. During the consultation period, officials continued engaging with health professionals, individuals who have been affected by the law, civil society organisations, and women’s groups—including Doctors for Choice, Alliance for Choice, Here NI and the Women’s Resource and Development Agency—on the proposals set out in the consultation document. We are currently analysing the responses, having received good levels of engagement from many different viewpoints. As was made clear in earlier debates and, indeed, the foreword to the consultation, we were seeking views on the question of how the framework can best be delivered in Northern Ireland, not on whether the reform should be happening.
The Government’s response to the consultation will be published in due course. We are happy to continue discussions with interested parties as the regulations are taken forward in line with the requirement under section 9 of the Act that the recommendations of the 2018 UN CEDAW Report are implemented in respect of Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020. The Government will continue to abide by our legal obligations.
On the presumption of non-prosecution and troubles prosecution guidance, reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will always owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of the soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law and were themselves accountable to it. The Government are strongly opposed to our service personnel and veterans being subject to the threat of vexatious litigation in the form of repeated investigations and potential prosecution arising from historical military operations many years after the events in question.
The Government recognise the concerns that have been expressed about how the current system is operating in Northern Ireland and are committed to seeking the prompt implementation of the Stormont House agreement proposals on legacy in order to provide both reconciliation for victims and greater certainty for military veterans. Any legislation that improves the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Parliament and have the support of a restored Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working closely with ministerial colleagues, the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government to that end.
We take very seriously the issue of transparency of donations to Northern Ireland parties. Northern Ireland parties are now subject to the same reporting requirements as other parties across the UK. That is a significant step forward, but the question of retrospectively opening up records from 2014 remains genuinely difficult. At a time when threats to elected representatives are all too common, we must be very careful that anything we do should not lead to intimidation against members of the public who donated to parties. We will consult the Northern Ireland parties in due course on any future change to the legislation, but I hope the House will understand that for now our focus must remain on securing agreement to restore devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland.
On higher education and a Derry/Londonderry university, there has been no progress since the last report on the subject, which was laid on 4 December. No business case has been submitted, so we are not able to assess proposals. The Government have been clear on their commitment to turbo-charging the economy and levelling up all regions across the UK. The Derry and Strabane city deal and the inclusive future fund, which formed a £105 million economic package for the north-west, is further evidence of that commitment. We are aware of the support that exists for the extension of higher education provision in the north-west, and this is another example of a project in Northern Ireland facing barriers due to the lack of devolved government. Restoring the Executive would remove blockages and, with Executive approval, allow funding to be unlocked for expanding higher education provision in the north-west.
Turning to payments to victims of troubles-related incidents, in October the Government launched a public consultation on a scheme for regular payments to, or in respect of, individuals living with serious disablement caused by troubles-related incidents. The proposed scheme is intended to provide acknowledgment to those injured in troubles-related incidents through no fault of their own. The consultation closed on 26 November. Responses are being carefully considered and will inform final decisions regarding the scheme. The consultation proposed not to make payments to individuals with a criminal conviction directly related to the incident in which they sustained the injury. We will make regulations by the end of January, as specified in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. The scheme will then be open for applications no later than the end of May 2020. Victims injured through no fault of their own deserve this form of acknowledgment and measure of additional financial support, which is a core element of the Stormont House agreement proposals to help address the legacy of the troubles. It remains vital that we make progress on this and related matters.
The Government are also under a duty to make regulations to provide for same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships in Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020. On 23 December 2019 the Northern Ireland Office laid regulations before Parliament that mean that, from next week, on 13 January, same-sex civil marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships will be lawful in Northern Ireland. Couples will therefore be able to register their intent to enter into such a relationship, with a minimum 28-day notice period required. Therefore, as previously stated, we expect ceremonies will be able to take place during the week of Valentine’s Day.
There are still two key issues on which we will be seeking the views of the people of Northern Ireland before we legislate further, namely same-sex religious marriage, together with the appropriate protections, and the right to convert from a civil partnership to a marriage, and vice versa. We want to consult on both matters in order to ensure that the legislation takes proper account of the specific circumstances in Northern Ireland and provides adequate religious protections. The consultation will seek views from religious bodies and individuals on how religious same-sex marriage will be provided for in Northern Ireland, and how protections can best be achieved. We also want to get the right approach for conversion entitlements for Northern Ireland, given the different approaches taken across the rest of the UK. The Government hope to be able to launch a short consultation on those two issues from mid-January, and we will bring forward regulations as soon as we are able to do so in 2020.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity not only to discuss these important matters but, more importantly, to hear from Northern Ireland Members, and I recognise the sincere and deeply held views on some of the topics discussed. In conclusion, I reiterate the Government’s 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 UK.
May I congratulate the Minister on making a 20-minute speech in just over eight minutes? He has been on his feet all day. This is an important report and he has raised a number of important issues.
I will begin where the Minister began. I hope he will at least be able to help the House in response to some of my questions. Under the legislation that this House passed to provide safe and legal abortion for women in Northern Ireland, the UK Government are obliged to make provision for that service in Northern Ireland by 31 March. As the Minister told the House, the consultation on the matter has concluded. Will he guarantee that if the House has to discharge that legislative duty, the consultation will be brought to the House in time for us to examine the results before taking the necessary legislative steps? I hope we recognise that by that time, the Stormont Assembly may well be back in operation, and if the Assembly were to legislate contrary to the UK Government’s establishment of a process for safe and legal abortion, our efforts would have been futile. I ask for the establishment of the closest possible working relationship between the Westminster Government and a newly formed Executive in Stormont to ensure a smooth transition, so that we can deliver to the women of Northern Ireland what the House dictated: safe and legal abortion from 1 April.
The Minister spoke about the prosecution of those who perpetrated violence during the troubles. I quote from the report that is before the House tonight, in which the UK Government quite rightly say that they
“will continue to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues that provide better outcomes for victims and survivors”.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the potential for payment to victims of the troubles. That is right and proper. Many of those who suffered are no longer with us—some of them for obvious reasons, but some simply because of the passage of time—so they cannot avail themselves of any compensation, but a group of people depend on progress being made in this area. The Minister’s words will be welcome, but we need to see real progress.
Of course, outcomes for victims and survivors include, where appropriate, the prosecution of those who have perpetrated violence against them or their families; that is a legitimate demand. Although we want, as the Minister rightly said, to avoid vexatious prosecutions, let us be absolutely clear that we in this House are not turning our back on the rule of law. Those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, must still face the full force of the law. There can be no statute of limitations that provides an artificial form of protection, because that would be unacceptable to the House and the public and incompatible with our obligations under international law.
I move on briefly to an allied question—payments for victims of institutional abuse. The Minister may not be able to give me a full answer tonight, but it would be helpful to see what the process of payments for victims of such abuse will look like. The Opposition were very happy to work with the Government on the matter before Christmas. Generally speaking, I am against the overly rapid emergence of legislation, because it can cause problems later on, but we quite rightly conspired to insist that that legislation was put on the statute book before the House was dissolved for the general election.
We now need to know how that process is working out. Where are we up to with interim payments for victims of institutional abuse? Where are we with the creation of a redress board to develop a well-worked formula for those who suffered, some of them because of the incompetence of the statutory authorities and some, sadly, at the hands of those who were there to offer care?
One way or another, our society owes support to what is now an ageing population. Their numbers are decreasing day by day, and I hope the Minister can give us some satisfaction.
The Minister may not be totally apprised of the question of business rates, which has emerged in recent hours. The announced business rate revaluation seemingly results in severe increases in payments, particularly for certain parts of retail, small shops and the pub and hotel trade. There will ultimately be an obligation on a reformed Assembly to deal with this issue, but I would like the Minister to take on board the fact that this can have a detrimental impact.
Looking to our own constituencies, most Members know that a small shop, a pub or a hotel can be central to keeping our town centres and communities alive. It is important in my constituency and it is obviously important in Northern Ireland that we have some sense of proportion in any change to business rates.
One issue that the Minister did not mention is that of those born in Northern Ireland who identify as Irish and as Irish citizens, and therefore as European Union citizens, as exemplified by the DeSouza case. Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that it is now time that the report promised on the Floor of the House by the previous Prime Minister, and which many of us have asked for, is presented and put in the Library?
The hon. Member is absolutely right in his demand. The DeSouza case shames us as a society. We ought to resolve the issue not only for that particular couple—I have met them, of course—but more generally. This matters to those who consider themselves to be Irish. It is part of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and it is something to which every party in this House is committed. We ought to make sure that our obligations are translated into something of practical value to the DeSouza campaign. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
Health service pay in Northern Ireland has now reached crisis proportions. A hospital porter or cleaner in Northern Ireland, for example, is paid a wage of some £16,943, whereas their comparator in England and Wales is on £17,650, some £700 more—the pay is better again in Scotland. I could go through the situation for healthcare assistants and administrative workers, and it is the same for nurses and paramedics.
The Minister used senior nurses as a reference point. A senior nurse in Scotland, England and Wales is paid £30,401 a year, whereas a senior nurse in Northern Ireland is paid significantly less, £27,772, which cannot be acceptable. I know of nobody who accepts that there is justification for that position. None of the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly accepts that position, and the Opposition do not accept that position. This has to be resolved.
The Minister began by saying that the Secretary of State is in Belfast to try to make sure that the all-party talks come to fruition so that we see the Assembly restored, which is the conclusion we all want to see. If it happens, the Minister can say that the issue will be translated over to the Assembly, as is right and proper. However, I warn him that if the Assembly is not back up and running in a short time, and if we face the possibility of prolonged delay for an election, it will be incumbent upon the Westminster Government to look at the situation. Those nurses, administrative workers, hospital porters and cleaners should not have to wait for an indefinite amount of time in the future, particularly given that, almost uniquely, nurses have gone on strike because of the length of time they have faced this disparity of income and unfairness. It is always convenient for Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to say, “This really ought to be a devolved issue”, but this is not necessarily a devolved issue. Clearly, if the Assembly is back up and running, there is a strong argument that it should be resolved by the Assembly, as long as the resource base is there for it to make those pay increases. If the Assembly is not up and running, the legal basis exists for this to be delivered by Whitehall and the Westminster Government. I am happy to go through that with the Minister and the Secretary of State in due course. It is important that the signal is given now to people in the health service in Northern Ireland that their long struggle for fairness will shortly come to a conclusion.
I will conclude with one further remark. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Wales became a grandmother this morning. Her grandchild Jesse Kearney has an Irish father and a Welsh mother—a mother from Great Britain. I would like to believe that the Jesse Kearney generation will grow up in a world very different from the one we have at the moment. I hope they will grow up in one where we have a robust Stormont Assembly and system of governance in Northern Ireland, one that allows us to put the history we are talking about tonight, be it the history of violence or the legacy of abuse, so far in the past that a generation can grow up in hope, in a transformed society. That is what this House has to be about, and it is why we cannot have excuses from those on the Treasury Bench or from the parties in Stormont. We now have to see the Secretary of State’s genuine efforts, which I applaud, brought to a conclusion so that Northern Ireland can begin to move forward again with a properly working Assembly, which can begin to deliver the transformation it needs not simply for hospital workers, but for the people of Northern Ireland.
I rise to speak in this debate for several reasons. I applaud the fact that the Minister is here for this debate and the Secretary of State is not; that is not something we usually say, but given the task the Secretary of State is engaged with and his focus on it, it is welcome. I share the Minister’s hope that the talks conclude with a positive outcome and that prior to next Monday’s deadline an agreement will be reached to secure the Executive in Northern Ireland, as devolved government is unquestionably the right long-term solution for Northern Ireland. I listened carefully to what he said about the options available to the Secretary of State, but I think that the Government, this House and all the parties in Northern Ireland, more of which are now represented in this House than was the case prior to December’s election, collectively owe a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to make sure that that part of the United Kingdom is properly governed. I say to the Minister and to the parties in Northern Ireland that if by next Monday we do not see an ability to restore the Stormont Executive, I do not think, for reasons I will set out in a moment, that either option of kicking the can down the road by extending the deadline or having another Assembly election will be up to the task. I fear that we will be confronting a binary choice of getting the Assembly up and running or having, to some extent, Executive decisions taken by Ministers accountable to this House.
Let me just set out one area where I think that is necessary, and here I pick up from what the shadow Secretary of State said. I agree with what he said about the important health workforce issues in Northern Ireland. The fact that nurses there are on strike is incredibly regrettable, but worse is the performance of the health service.
Let us look at two particular factors. One is the length of time for which people are waiting for treatment. In the most recent set of statistics for England, 1,233 people were waiting more than a year for treatment—to see a consultant. I understand that in Northern Ireland—I do not think I need to elaborate on the difference in population sizes to many Members—the number of people waiting for more than a year to see a consultant is 103,000. That is more than a third of all the people waiting for health treatment. The cancer waiting times mean that a fifth of those people who receive a cancer diagnosis receive that diagnosis in the emergency department of a hospital. I do not know what the precise statistics are, but it seems likely that thousands of people are therefore dying unnecessarily because they are not receiving timely health treatment.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that the lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland—with Ministers accountable to the people of Northern Ireland and able to take the necessary decisions to reform the health service, implement pay awards, recruit the necessary staff and make sure that the health service is running efficiently—is leading directly to the unnecessary deaths of people in Northern Ireland. If we are unable to see the re-establishment of a Stormont Executive and Assembly next week, we cannot in good conscience allow the situation to continue if it means the early deaths of citizens of part of our own country.
Ministers and the Government are going to be faced with a very difficult decision. If we do not see a restored Executive and Assembly, it is not going to be a realistic option—unless we are literally on the cusp of an agreement—just to kick the can down the road again and extend the deadline or have elections. I have looked carefully at the result of the general election in Northern Ireland and how it compares to the result of the most recent Assembly election. When I look at the difference in performance of the relevant political parties, it does not seem to me that there is anything about an Assembly election taking place in the present political circumstances that would lead to an outcome that would enable the formation of an Executive after such an election, which cannot take place next week.
While the right hon. Gentleman is elaborating on that point, does he agree that, however much people might relish an election, if one were to be held in the current context, it is difficult to see that the exposition of the problems we have faced over the past three years would change to any degree either before, during or after such an election?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I have looked at the balance of opinion on the political parties and it seems to me that although the exact number of seats they have would differ, the broad order of ranking would not change. It also seems to me that there is a danger that an election would cause people to dig in further on the contentious issues—on which I shall not elaborate—that are preventing the coming together of the political parties to form an Executive and get the Assembly up and running. People would be less capable of the necessary compromises because parties would have staked out positions in an election campaign.
To the Minister and my valued colleagues from Northern Ireland, all I can say is that we are approaching a decision point at which, if the parties in Northern Ireland are unable to re-establish an Executive and an Assembly, I fear that the Government, at least in the short term, are going to have to come to the House with a proposition on the necessity of some level of direct rule by Westminster Ministers. I completely agree that that is not the right long-term solution for Northern Ireland but, for the reasons I have set out—even if for no reason other than the performance of the health service, which is close to falling over—we cannot in good conscience allow that situation to continue. The shadow Secretary of State set out some other relevant issues.
My second and final point is to ask the Minister whether he is able to furnish the House with any further details about progress on the legacy prosecution issues. I noticed in the report that, during the general election campaign, officials were continuing to work through options. I recognise from what he said earlier that what he can say is probably limited because obviously we would want to make progress only with the agreement of a re-established Executive and Assembly. Therefore, I accept that he will not be able to set out any details, but I was hoping that he could at least set out the progress that had been made in exploring the options. I would also like some hint of a timetable so that, if we were able to establish devolved Government again, we could learn how quickly the Government could make progress on bringing forward a scheme to resolve those legacy issues around prosecutions. Clearly, for those individuals who are directly affected—whether in live cases or in their worry about the future—some understanding of how quickly those issues can be brought to a conclusion would be welcomed.
Those are the two issues that I wanted to bring in front of the Minister and the House. I also wanted to set them out in front of colleagues from Northern Ireland, because we are approaching a very grave point where I fear that we may have to take decisions with some very significant consequences for the future.
People in Northern Ireland and further afield will be watching this closely with great hopes for progress. It seems that there is the potential for progress, but time is running very short. There is no doubt that people in Northern Ireland, as we have heard, have paid the price of an absence of devolved government. This is now the best and perhaps the final opportunity to restore these institutions, so it is critical that every effort is made to secure a deal.
That deal will not come without significant effort and without compromise from all of those involved. There is an indication that a joint paper will be published by the two Governments later in the week. The movements of the Secretary of State are welcome, because we need to be clear that the consequences of not securing a deal before 13 January could be much more profound than simply another Stormont election. We know that the Secretary of State previously suggested that, in the continued absence of a Government at Stormont and with Brexit requiring significant executive direction, a return to some form of direct rule will be required. We have heard from the Opposition spokesperson who has expressed similar thoughts. Any return of direct rule would undermine previous political and peace agreements, and that would be most regrettable.
The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to all the institutions of the Good Friday agreement and to making sure that their stability and the stability of the peace process is not undermined amidst the Brexit chaos. I am sure that the Minister knows that both the EU and the US Congress have said that there will not be a free trade agreement with the UK if Brexit in any way undermines the integrity of the peace process.
Just like in Scotland, the recent general election has again reinforced the Northern Ireland electorate’s choice to back parties that wish to retain EU membership. It is wrong and undemocratic that Brexit is being imposed on Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is absolutely crucial that the UK Government respect the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland and the pillars of the peace process. They must find ways to avoid interfering with the delicate balance of these relationships, which have been so hard won.
As part of a deal to restore Stormont, it has been widely speculated that Northern Ireland businesses would receive Brexit mitigation and, indeed, Northern Ireland business organisations have said that they will seek more than £100 million to mitigate the effects on the economy. We do not begrudge that financial help, but if there is to be a Brexit mitigation package for Northern Ireland, that is an admission of the costs to business and communities, so such a fund must also be replicated in Scotland.
Indeed, as part of the Prime Minister’s deal, Northern Ireland firms will already have access to the European single market, which is denied to Scottish businesses, and that risks placing them at a major competitive disadvantage. If we reflect briefly on the last Parliament, the UK Government failed to ensure that the funds handed to the DUP were subject to the Barnett formula, which again meant that Scotland’s budget was denied more than £3 billion.
This debate will be of interest to viewers in Northern Ireland in particular. As has been discussed, some of those viewers may well be nurses, who perhaps would usually be on shift, but today are on strike. That strike of nurses in Northern Ireland today is absolutely testament to the need for decisions to be made locally. People in other places might be unaware of the strike, or they might be unaware of the unprecedented nature of the strike, which is in protest against pay and staffing levels that the nurses say are unsafe. There is no doubt at all that the lack of government and political direction is deepening the crisis in Northern Ireland’s public services and their capacity to deliver for people. For example, the latest hospital waiting time figures show that nearly 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant; that represents a sixth of the whole population. On average, there is a four-year wait for knee and hip operations.
These issues are incredibly serious, and only a functioning and devolved Government are capable of tackling them. It cannot be left to a dysfunctional and disinterested UK Government to do so. That prospect in itself must give renewed impetus to all the parties involved in the talks to do everything they can to ensure that they come to a compromise, so that everyone in Northern Ireland can be rewarded through the return of their own Government. Previous talks have overcome divisions much more significant than the issues currently blocking progress, so we know that this can be done, and it really must.
Pages 9 and 10 of the report we are considering address the Northern Ireland Office’s consultation on new abortion regulations for Northern Ireland. In addressing this subject, it is important to remember that abortion is a devolved policy competence in Northern Ireland and has been for almost 100 years. In 2016, the democratically-elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a straightforward, cross-community majority not to change its abortion law in any way. In this context, the Government were absolutely right—as the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), stated on a number of occasions in this place when abortion in Northern Ireland was raised—that this is a devolved matter for a restored Northern Ireland Assembly to consider. However, that was—sadly, in my view, as I stated at the time—ignored by the 2017-19 Parliament, which went ahead and passed the provision that the Government are now required to introduce by 31 March this year: a new legal framework for abortion law for Northern Ireland, under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
To that end, the Government very promptly launched a consultation in November. Having looked at the consultation and the questions that it asked, I was deeply concerned by its width and breadth. It was much wider than section 9 strictly requires, raising concerns in my mind about possible changes to abortion law in Northern Ireland going much further than section 9 anticipated. I urge Ministers not to take this course of action when the final regulations are published, and I will now go into some detail on the matter.
The consultation made references to clinicians not being involved in abortion procedures on the grounds of conscience—something that has been respected, certainly here, for over 50 years. I know that a number of clinicians in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned their right to conscientiously object to engagement in abortion treatment procedures may not be given the same respect that it has here. There were also references in the consultation questionnaires to “exclusion zones”—the subject of a consultation here not long ago, in response to which, after consideration, the then Home Secretary decided to take no action.
Section 9(4) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act says:
“The Secretary of State must by regulations make whatever other changes to the law of Northern Ireland appear to”
“to be necessary or appropriate for the purpose of”
implementing paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW—convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—report. The CEDAW report—I will not go into the debate that we had on more than one occasion in this place about the authority of that report—requires abortion to be legalised on three grounds. It says that Northern Ireland law should be amended to provide abortion on expanded grounds in “at least” these three circumstances: “rape and incest”;
“severe fetal impairment, including fatal fetal abnormality”;
“threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health.”
However, having read the consultation and, as I say, considered the very wide questions that have been raised within it, I am deeply concerned that the abortion framework that may be proposed by the Northern Ireland Office might go far beyond those three circumstances. For example, it may allow for access to abortion on request for any reason up to 12 weeks’ gestation, and then up to 24 weeks, on the basis of the standard in the rest of Great Britain under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967. That standard, which goes wider than the CEDAW report proposes, is
“that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”.
Speaking as someone who has for a number of years engaged on this subject as chair of the all-party pro-life group—although I realise that we are currently in a situation where all the all-party groups have to be reinstated—I know that that standard has effectively led to abortion on request. I am not aware of a single case in the past 10 years where a woman who has requested abortion in England and Wales has been denied one for failing to reach that standard. The CEDAW report does not require it to be introduced in Northern Ireland; nor, as I say, does it make reference to the conscience clause or exclusion zones.
May I urge the Minister to consider that it is possible for the Northern Ireland Office to adopt a much more restrictive standard than the one proposed in the consultation document, while fulfilling the requirements of section 9? If the Government are to act consistently with their many-times-stated commitment to respect devolution, I would have thought it made sense for them to introduce a new regulatory framework that departs from previous Northern Ireland abortion regulations only to the degree that the 2017-19 Parliament insisted on, but no further.
Of course, I recognise that the use of the words “at least” in the CEDAW report does not prevent the Government from going further, but I suggest to the Minister that the words “necessary or appropriate” in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 do so. I urge him to consider that as well as, obviously, the spirit of devolution and the fact that when that Act was voted on just a few months ago, every single member of the 2017-19 Parliament who represented a Northern Ireland constituency in Westminster voted against it. Law change has been imposed on Northern Ireland by a coalition of MPs representing seats in England, Scotland and Wales. I think that is inappropriate and wrong, and I said so at the time. Indeed, I said that I felt that the whole clause was out of scope—but I appreciate that you were not in the Chair at the time, Mr Speaker.
In closing, I want to ask one or two specific questions of the Minister. The Government have reported, as he mentioned in his opening remarks, that the consultation document has been produced after discussion with a range of stakeholders. Yesterday, in the other place, Lord Duncan of Springbank said:
“Discussions with interested parties will continue as the regulations are taken forward”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 January 2020; Vol. 801, c. 152.]
I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to me to let me know which stakeholders were involved prior to publication of the consultation document, whether there were any others apart from those he mentioned in his opening remarks and who are the interested parties who will be in discussions with the Government on the regulations.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is making a very good speech. I have been chair of the disability all-party parliamentary group for the last two parliamentary terms, and I have been contacted by the Don’t Screen Us Out community, who are particularly concerned about the scope of the regulations and the impact on families with Down’s syndrome children. I hope that the Minister will comment on whether there has been consultation with that group, because, as I am sure the hon. Lady would agree, that would be very helpful.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that really important point. Because I am so concerned about a number of issues relating to these proposals, and I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to respond to our specific points today, I wonder whether he would be willing to meet me, the hon. Lady and other concerned colleagues about the potential extent of these changes. I also hope that he will reflect on the appropriateness of bringing forward proposals that do not undermine devolution any more than section 9 requires.
Given that I may have very limited time to respond in detail at the end of the debate, I want to say that I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) to discuss these matters further.
I thank the Minister for that.
Lord Duncan said yesterday in the other place:
“There has been no registered growth in illegal or back-street abortions in Northern Ireland”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 January 2020; Vol. 801, c. 172]—
since the current law was repealed in October. Can the Minister confirm how the Government know this and that doctors are not carrying out abortions, since there is no requirement for them to notify the Government or the Northern Ireland Department of what they might or might not be doing at the present time?
We now come to a maiden speech from Carla Lockhart.
I thank the Minister for his update. I count it an honour and a privilege to stand in this place today—the mother of all Parliaments—to make my maiden speech as the first ever female MP to represent the good people of the Upper Bann constituency.
I want to begin by thanking all those constituents who voted for me on 12 December. They have placed their trust in me, and I want to say thank you to them. I will be a champion for them, and I will not let them down. I promise to be a strong and articulate voice for all within my constituency. I am an unapologetic Unionist, but I commit to working hard and delivering for all the people in Upper Bann.
I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Mr David Simpson. David was a strong advocate for Upper Bann and, indeed, Northern Ireland. He served with distinction in this House for over 14 years. I wish David and his family well in his retirement from this place.
I started my political career at the age of 21 as a local councillor representing Lurgan and progressed to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016. My passion for politics and the Union started when I was much younger. I had the privilege of growing up right in the very heart of Ulster in a working-class family, and I am proud of the roots and the grounding that I have. Growing up near the border with the Republic of Ireland and knowing many families who had loved ones murdered, I was always very aware of the troubles in Northern Ireland and why we had such a love for the Union and our British way of life.
My early influencers were two men who served in this House with honour and integrity over many years: the late Lord Bannside and the right hon. Peter Robinson, the former MP for Belfast East—someone who has been a constant source of encouragement to me. I have a long way to go before I can even get close to the level of impact that they made in this House. Both defended the Union and stood up for Northern Ireland with every fibre of their body, and in that same vein I too will do just that.
It is with regret that I do not sit on these Benches with the former DUP Member for Belfast South and my party’s deputy leader, the former Member for Belfast North, the right hon. Nigel Dodds. He is an extremely capable orator and someone who contributed greatly to this House. It is unfortunate that Belfast North has now no representation on these Benches.
It is no secret that Northern Ireland has had its difficulties in the past, but I am proud of our wee country. It is the best place on earth, with Upper Bann being at its very heart. Lurgan, Portadown, Banbridge, Craigavon and the surrounding villages have their own unique offering, be it tourism, commerce or hospitality. The people are what make it a special place, and if any hon. Members have not visited my constituency they are more than welcome to come and see that it is a great place in which to live, work and do business.
I have always longed to make a difference in society and make it a brighter, better place for future generations. Northern Ireland suffered greatly at the hands of terrorism, and we do not want to return to those days. We want a peaceful, prosperous society and one that is moving forward. We have moved on from those dark days in Northern Ireland. We want to see investment, improved healthcare provision, a better education system and improved infrastructure.
To that end, I will endeavour to use this position to achieve just that. I want to see changes to our special educational needs provision, and I want to tackle the escalating mental health crisis that exists within our society. Our suicide figures are still among the highest within the United Kingdom. This needs to be tackled urgently, and I along with colleagues will work with the Secretary of State.
I now move to the motion at hand, and particularly the report concerning abortion. I feel it is imperative that I speak on this to attempt again to highlight the anger, disappointment and frustration concerning the change in abortion laws that have been foisted upon the people of Northern Ireland. These changes came in the most roughshod way, with complete contempt for the devolved Administration and the views of the people of Northern Ireland. I want today to make the point to this House, on behalf of the many thousands of people across Northern Ireland who take a pro-life stance, that we want to repeal section 9 with immediate effect and allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate, discuss and evidence-gather on this emotive issue.
The Secretary of State has not intervened to assist our crumbling healthcare system, to reward our healthcare workers fairly or to avert the mental health crisis we are facing. He has not done that because he has said that these, in his own words, are “devolved issues”. Abortion was and should be a devolved matter, yet this House has imposed on Northern Ireland the most extreme measures of abortion anywhere across Europe.
Northern Ireland has been a country that has always supported life-affirming laws. Back in 1967, our politicians said no to the Abortion Act, and according to research conducted by Both Lives Matter, 100,000 more people are alive today. England and Wales back then did support the Act, and as a result over 8 million babies have been aborted—three every minute, 23 every hour or 561 every day, with only a small percentage of them being aborted on the grounds of sexual crime or fatal foetal abnormality.
Great credence has been given to the CEDAW report, and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned the three instances. However, we believe that the abortion framework that looks likely to be proposed by the Northern Ireland Office will go far beyond allowing abortion on these grounds. It is my understanding that no consultation will take place on the legislative text of the regulations. With regard to abortion, it is well known that the detail of the text is crucial. The ask on that is that at least we as parliamentarians are consulted before the specific text is laid, and I welcome the Minister’s commitment to meet those Members who are concerned in that regard.
In Northern Ireland, abortion on request for any reason will be legalised to the point at which a baby is
“capable of being born alive”.
This includes on the grounds of disability. I implore my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister to accede to the request to have section 9 repealed as part of the ongoing negotiations. The DUP is a pro-life party, but this actually crosses traditional boundaries and there is widespread cross-community support across Northern Ireland. We have an evolving political landscape, and I say let the people of Northern Ireland have their say on this matter.
On this, Mr Speaker, I will bring my remarks to a close. I want a society in Northern Ireland that values life, and I want to see services that will help women choose life. We want to see a perinatal palliative care centre, a maternal mental health unit and better childcare services, and that is my ask of this Government. Help us create a culture of choosing life, as opposed to killing an innocent little baby that does not have the voice to say, “No, mummy!” It is incomprehensible that the Government, knowing that abortion was a devolved matter, have published consultation proposals to introduce changes that go far beyond what has actually been required by Parliament. If the Government want to maintain any commitment to devolution, I would implore them to rethink their coach-and-horses approach to a life-and-death piece of legislation.
Order. We have about five more speakers, so we must divvy up the time. We are going to finish at about 9.30, and ideally the Minister would like about five minutes to reply.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on a fluid, cogent and passionate maiden speech. The attention that all quarters of the House gave to her remarks indicated the interest with which she was heard. She spoke with great passion about the issues on which she wishes to campaign in this place, with great warmth about her constituency and in tribute to her predecessor and my friend David Simpson, and with clarity and confidence about what motivates and drives her Unionism. On all those points she is to be congratulated, and I wish her much happiness in her years of service in this place.
A number of colleagues have referenced the deteriorating situation in the arenas of the public policy delivery of health, of welfare and of education and, as the hon. Lady referenced, the intolerably high level of suicides in Northern Ireland. I do not think anybody would suggest that the restitution of Stormont would solve all those problems at the stroke of a pen, but certainly I think all of us should be motivated in this place by the idea that local decisions taken by locally accountable politicians are in the best interests of those we serve, and therefore the imperative underlined by my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I must thank for updating the House, to reventilate on the crucial, pressing and urgent need to get Stormont back up and running is right. It is perhaps tempting fate to suggest that some of the rumours coming from the discussions in which my right hon Friend the Secretary of State is taking part indicate some cause for hope, but let us in our night prayers this evening pray that we do see some success and the restitution of Stormont.
I want to turn, albeit very briefly, to the argument, or conundrum, deployed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I understand entirely that if the talks fail the default position will be a tendency to say, “Enough with deadlines; we can’t have any more deadlines, we now have to cut to the chase.” The easiest chase to cut to is of course direct rule, either officially or unofficially, to try to address the pressing issues.
While I understand the ease, and for some indeed the desirability, of that, it would in my judgment be a retrograde step. The devolution genie in this kingdom is very firmly out of the bottle and it would be both undesirable and possibly impossible to put that genie back.
I also think it would be the easiest thing to do for the politicians of Northern Ireland, where in essence it would effectively put the imperative to try to find some workable solutions and accommodations to overcome the historical tensions on the back burner—there would be no need for that because decisions would be taken in this place. That would not, in my assessment, just lead to a maintenance of the status quo; it would actually be a very significant step backwards to decades and years of acrimony, bitterness and the blame game.
I therefore suggest that if the talks ultimately fail—let us all repeat that we pray they will not—the default position will have to be fresh elections. They may very well throw up broadly similar results to previous elections, but we are in incredibly interesting times electorally, as last month’s general election illustrated. The stark and indeed startling fact that for the first time in its history Northern Ireland elected, albeit by a slim margin, a majority of non-Unionist representatives to this place shows that things can change, and change very rapidly.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about her determination to serve her community. I know that that determination will be shared by all her colleagues from Northern Ireland, whether they are from the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party and, while they do not take their seats, Sinn Féin. I think the challenge from the electorate to all the political parties who hold true in their repetition of that motivation will effectively be, “Put your money where your mouth is. If that is what motivates you in public service, you will have to find a way to resolve whatever the outstanding hurdle is without defaulting to the easy get-out-of-jail-free option of direct rule.”
New elections may very well produce a continuance of the stalemate, but they could also act as the engine to break the logjam. While wishing the talks success, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to resolve not to do the easy thing in those circumstances and to trigger fresh elections and say to the electorate, “You are concerned about deteriorating standards in education, health and welfare, high levels of suicide, and other areas of public life. This is now your opportunity to force your politicians to find a way of dealing with them through restoring Stormont. If they can’t, you may very well start to choose new politicians.”
A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman referred to the outcome of the general election in Northern Ireland and to the number of pro-Union and anti-Union people returned to the House. Does he accept that when I was first elected 18 years ago the combined percentage of people voting for united Ireland candidates came to 42% and that in December last month it was 39%? The vote for united Ireland parties has gone down in those 18 years. He has just spoken about what might happen after an election to the Assembly, but will he outline how he thinks the problems would change, whatever the make-up of those dealing with the problems?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. One can argue percentages till the cows come home, but in terms of bums on seats, as it were—or, in the case of Sinn Féin, non-bums on seats, if that is the right phrase to use—the figure speaks for itself. That should give us all cause for concern. It should also motivate those of us who share a strong belief in the importance of the maintenance of the Union and the unity of the United Kingdom to redouble our efforts, strengthen our arguments and make ever-more attractive the reasons to maintain the Union. That is as applicable in Northern Ireland as it is in Scotland, because as Unionists we face the twin challenge of trying to persuade a growing sceptical population that there is relevance to Unionism today and to its continuing. We cannot just walk through a fog of presuming that the status quo, almost of itself, will continue.
On what the hon. Gentleman asked, I think that last month the electorate, remainers and leavers alike, decided that they wanted an end to the impasse, throwing up some very peculiar and—as far as Government Members are concerned—very welcome results. When the electorate has had enough, they will pick up the stubby pencil at the ballot box and almost use it as a sword, as they use the ballot paper as a shield, to reassert what they want.
This point is possibly unpalatable to many: if politicians are prepared to not allow the restitution of devolution, because they seek to argue over points that for many in Northern Ireland will seem irrelevant or not as pressing as dealing with health, education and welfare, there is the risk that those electors will turn to politicians who are less hog-tied by those traditions and seek to break the impasse by having a new set of faces around the table. It may result in exactly the same sort of result, but if these talks fail we should default to fresh elections and not just write the electoral process off, as though it was just another way of staying the hand of the inevitable—the return to direct rule, the inevitability of which we should resist at all costs.
Order. Three Members are still seeking to speak, plus the Minister, so please do the maths and be considerate.
May I say how pleased I was to hear the maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart)? I think we can look forward to some exceptional contributions from her in the House over the next period of time.
Pages 9 to 11 of the report deal with the abortion consultation that ran between 4 November and 16 December. The way in which the consultation was conducted was hugely problematic. I appreciate that some of the issues with the consultation were not the fault of the Northern Ireland Office, but I understand that it was placed in a deeply invidious position by Parliament in the timelines that were set out. Conducting only a six-week consultation during a general election campaign on an issue of this sensitivity was simply inappropriate.
The consultation document had all the hallmarks of being rushed out or at least incomplete. Major gaps existed in it; just a few examples will suffice to show some of the issues. No clarity was given in the document on who will be performing abortions in Northern Ireland under the new regulatory framework. Will it be private providers, such as Marie Stopes or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, or the national health service? The document at no point discussed which body will inspect abortion providers operating in Northern Ireland. That is a hugely important question, yet no details were provided.
The regulatory framework in the document is without question the biggest problem with it. Despite the consistent claims of the Northern Ireland Office and Ministers over the years that abortion is a devolved issue, and about the importance of respecting the people of Northern Ireland, the consultation document adopted an expansive interpretation of section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in the proposals. Instead of adopting a cautious approach, as they should have, taking into consideration the way in which the law was passed—without consultation and with the known strong opposition in Northern Ireland to it; all Northern Ireland MPs who took their seats in Parliament at the time voted against the measure, and the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted as recently as 2016 not to change the law in any way—the Northern Ireland Office went far beyond what was strictly required by section 9 of the Act. That point has been well made by a number of eminent lawyers and has caused huge concern in Northern Ireland.
David Scoffield, QC, stated, in his expert legal opinion, that
“the question posed to me is essentially whether, if the…Secretary of State…determined to do no more than necessary to comply with his strict legal obligations under the 2019 Act, the proposals set out in the consultation go beyond this...I consider it to be relatively simple to conclude that the answer to this question is ‘yes’.”
He further stated:
“In my view it would be quite possible for the…Secretary of State…if he wished to take a conservative approach…for instance, on the basis of concerns that he should go no further to legislate on devolved matters than the UK Parliament has strictly required in the absence of a legislative consent motion from the Northern Ireland Assembly—to broaden the availability of abortion in Northern Ireland to a lesser extent than appears to be envisaged in the consultation proposals…to comply with the CEDAW recommendations.”
“the proposal…goes well beyond the requirement in paragraph 85(a) …of the…report. Whilst the approach on which consultation responses have been invited would enable a woman or girl who had become pregnant through rape (or incest) to access an abortion up to the appropriate gestation period, it would also provide access to abortion for many others who would not have such access if the availability was confined to cases covered by paragraph 85(b)”.
Let us make no mistake: the radical proposals in the Northern Ireland Office consultation constitute a clear political choice on the part of the NIO to undermine devolution to a greater extent than the 2017 to 2019 Parliament required. There is no requirement to import into Northern Ireland ground C of the Abortion Act 1967, which would effectively lead to abortion on request for any reason between 12 or 14 weeks’ and 22 or 24 weeks’ gestation.
I sincerely hope that the Northern Ireland Office will consider the consultation responses and rethink its proposals. I understand that it is legally obligated to introduce a new regulatory framework, but it is not required to introduce these proposed radical changes. Up until the point when the other place voted for the amendment that became section 9, the Government were entirely consistent in their respect for devolution and the fact that abortion was a devolved matter for the Assembly, but let us be clear that certainly since 4 November, when the consultation was published, the main actor within the British constitution has been not Parliament, but the British Government, in wilfully and unnecessarily proposing an abortion regime that departed far more radically from what we had experienced until last October than what Parliament required.
The people of Northern Ireland do not want us to do this. Some 20,000 people— rich and poor, Protestant and Catholic, young and old—stood together at Stormont, rising above political opinion, religious divide and any other consideration, to beg this place not to do this awful thing. Yes, protect women, yes, find a better way, but abortion on demand taking place every two minutes night and day, as on the mainland, is not what we need in Northern Ireland. Some 100,000 people live today because of the legislation in Northern Ireland. We do not have to introduce this radical change, which is the difference between life in death, in this way. The Minister has time to rethink. I ask that he take this opportunity to do so and allow the voices of people in Northern Ireland to be heard, their wishes to be acknowledged and the right of life to be respected.
In closing, I want quickly to mention same-sex marriage. I pose this question to the Minister because I attended the Christian Institute meeting in Belfast four or five weeks ago. It was very clear and sent me some information in a letter:
“As things stand there is no protection”—
“and the NIO and Secretary of State”—
and the Minister of State
“must change this—not simply for Christian denominations but for our Jewish and Muslim friends who have the same deeply held beliefs. We are never in a place to bully people or belittle them but in a country which cherishes our freedoms and acknowledges that the foundation of this country is the word of God—the protection of those Christians to say that they will hold to biblical truth…must be enshrined within the law.”
The good news for Northern Ireland and the integrity of the British constitution is that the proposals in the abortion consultation were only proposals. The British Government do not need to discharge their responsibilities under section 9 and introduce these specific proposals. I therefore call on the Minister and the Government to step back from the brink and introduce only the legislative changes that section 9 actually requires. Decency and honesty require them to do so.
I have spoken this evening to the Taoiseach and the Secretary of State about this very sensitive period in the negotiations, but as many other Members have already said, the time is well past. Tomorrow we will have been without a Government for three years. The people we represent have not had a Government for three years. Let that sink in. Look at the consequences for our health service. Our health services are at breaking point. Our school budgets are at breaking point. Our nurses, for the first time, are on strike right now. They have been used as a political pawn in this process, because of our failure to deliver for them and the people they look after every single day of the week on our behalf.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State. No matter what happens in our talks process, take the nurses and the healthcare workers out of this and provide them with the pay they work for, deserve and are entitled to. They should not have to strike one more day to get their full entitlement, which they absolutely and totally deserve.
This has gone on for far too long. I for one, as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, have already committed myself to compromise on behalf of the people whom we represent. Other parties now need to step up and get ready to compromise, because the deadline is Monday, and the deadline should stay Monday. We cannot drag this out any longer, because the people whom we represent screamed very loudly at the last election. They are fed up, and what do they want? What are they saying to us? They are saying, “Get back to work.” Compromise is not a dirty word. We have learned that through many difficult negotiations, through many years of coming together and bringing our communities together. We cannot lose that progress. We cannot go backwards. It is up to us to sort the problem out.
Let me say one more thing. There is nothing called direct rule any more. That is gone. It is outlawed. We cannot go back to the days of rule from this place over the people of Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement, and every agreement since states that devolution is how we do our business now. If we cannot have devolution—although we should not countenance that—people need to understand that the automatic response is not direct rule, because the nationalist population will not accept it, the Irish Government will not accept it, and the St Andrews agreement has ruled it out as an option.
So what must we do? We must recognise that a voice in governance must be given to both sides of our community, to all the minorities; and we are all minorities in Northern Ireland now. If we do not compromise, the next step will be not rule from London, but some form of joint rule from London and Dublin. People need to recognise that when we are talking tough in these negotiations.
It is time to bury the hatchet, because the issues that are at stake in these negotiations, important though they are—and I have strong views on all of them—are not as important as people dying on waiting lists, they are not as important as nurses not being paid properly, and they are not as important as our schools not being able to fund the education services that we need to give to our young people.
I will try to be brief, given the pressures of time. Let me first refer to the main focus of the debate, Executive formation and, hopefully, the successful return of devolution, and say that I hope that this is the last time we shall have a debate on the Executive formation Act. There is only one way forward for the governing of Northern Ireland—through sharing. That reflects the complex nature of our society, and the need to ensure that all traditions and identities are represented in our governance. While I would not go as far as my colleague the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), who talked of joint rule, any notion of direct rule or direct responsibility from London must take on board some form of Irish dimension, and it is difficult to get that balance right. If the Irish dimension is too strong it will annoy Unionists, and if it is too weak it will annoy nationalists. That is why the careful balance in the Good Friday agreement is so important.
I do not want to see elections in Northern Ireland. We must ensure that devolution is restored as quickly as possible. However, in the event that we do not see talks resolved and a proper outcome, we cannot simply carry on with what we have been doing for the past three years. That is not tenable. Something has to give in the system.
Finally, let me say something about the two social issues that have been raised. While the Northern Ireland parties have presented a united front today in relation to some aspects of Brexit, I fear that it will break down at this point. I want to put on record that while my party has a conscience position on the issue of abortion, like most parties in the House, I personally was content that the House legislated on abortion reform last July. As a then Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I was not all offended, because we had not sat for the best part of three years, and even before that, efforts at reform had stalled. Biology does not change when we cross the Irish sea. Women are women, and basic reproductive rights must be recognised as fundamental issues of human rights.
It is also important to bear in mind the rulings of both the UK Supreme Court and the High Court in Belfast. The position has been established, and the guidelines can now be put through either in a restored Northern Ireland Assembly or here in the Houses of Parliament. That is the choice, but reform must take place, and I believe that a majority in Northern Ireland support it.
That is also the case with regard to equal marriage—same-sex marriage—and I think that the model in the rest of the UK is readily transferable to Northern Ireland, with only a few minor tweaks here and there. No one is arguing that the Churches should not be given some sort of opt-out in terms of respect for their doctrines. The issues is how far that should go. We need to be mindful of people’s rights as human beings in employment and other aspects, and not go down a much more extreme form of constraint with this important set of reforms. It is important that we take them over the line in a restored Assembly. If we do not, this House of Parliament should do what is important to recognise people’s rights in Northern Ireland, but fundamentally, we must get the Assembly restored over the coming days.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on her excellent and powerful maiden speech and on making a clear and pronounced contribution to this House on her first outing. I am sure we will hear a great deal more from her in the months to come.
We have had a debate in which there has again been the consensus that we all want to see. We all want to see the devolved institutions restored and the agreements respected and seen through. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who spoke for the Scottish National party, and to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), for their support for that position.
As ever in these debates, we have heard a wide range of opinions. In the previous debate, I was getting beaten up very heavily by pro-choice colleagues on the Opposition Benches. On this occasion, perhaps the voice was slightly louder from the pro-life people, who I am happy to meet to try to address their concerns further, to ensure that we take this forward in the best possible way and in a way that is respectful of the concerns in the community in Northern Ireland and more widely. We have to recognise that we are under a legal duty under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, and we will be continuing to work to put in place the regulations by 31 March, providing access to abortion consistent with the CEDAW report.
The hon. Member for Rochdale asked what we could do if the Executive were restored. If that were to happen before 31 March, we would welcome discussions on the regulations that will be made, and questions on implementation, which of course will be taken forward by the Northern Ireland Department of Health. As these are devolved matters, any reform after March 2020 can of course be considered by the Executive and the Assembly, subject to such legislation complying with convention rights and the usual Assembly procedures. This is yet another of those issues where, if we want the concerns and views of people in Northern Ireland to be properly heard, we must ensure that the institutions are in place.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the legacy system, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). I cannot give them specific dates at the moment, but I am happy to come back to them on that when I can. We want to work rapidly on this issue, and we are clear that the current system for dealing with the past has not been working well and needs to be reformed. We will continue to work with partners to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues, to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors and to give veterans the protections that they deserve.
The hon. Member for Rochdale also asked about the historical institutional abuse. I am grateful for his support and that of the Opposition, as well as the support from across the House, in getting that legislation through before the election. It was important that we did so, and I know that he moved heaven and earth to ensure that we could do it, as did my Secretary of State. The Northern Ireland civil service has now established a project board, and work continues at pace to deliver the scheme. The head of the Northern Ireland civil service met the victims and survivors groups on 17 December and set out the timetable for redress. The application process for the redress appeals is open from the end of March 2020. I hope that provides some update on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of business rates. Having been a territorial Minister in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, whenever I travel I hear concerns about business rates—as indeed I do in my own constituency. These are fundamentally devolved matters that need to be dealt with by the devolved Administration. He mentioned that there had been a recent valuation, and that there were concerns about that. I absolutely recognise that, and the best place for those concerns to be addressed and taken up is in the Northern Irish Assembly. That is yet another factor that means we want to get the Assembly back up and running.
On nurses’ pay, I have complete sympathy for what people are saying about how unacceptable it is that people should have to be out on strike. It was the decision of the previous Northern Ireland Executive to diverge from parity with England and Wales on health workers’ pay, but the UK Government stand ready to support a deal that will help to resolve the pay dispute. Once again, if we can get an Executive in place, we will work with them to ensure that that can be done, and that the urgent issues to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean alluded regarding the health situation in Northern Ireland are addressed.
As to my right hon. Friend’s further point about the legacy system, we will look at legislation at the earliest opportunity. It is clear that legislation to improve the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Government and have the support of the Northern Ireland Executive, which once again comes back to how critical it is that we get an Executive.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) rightly spoke about the urgency and importance of talks to restore the institutions and pillars of the peace process, which everyone in this House is united in supporting. She was also rightly clear about the devolved nature of health in Northern Ireland, which is one of the reasons why we want to continue to lean into the talks and get devolution back up and running.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made a passionate speech, speaking with her usual knowledge of this issue. She urged us not to go as far as the consultation suggests, but it is a consultation and a listening process, and we will engage with the responses before we come out with any formal Government response. I am happy to meet her to see how we can take on board her concerns, and I will write to her about any further people who have been involved in the consultation beyond those that I mentioned. Part of the reason why I mentioned those groups in my speech was because the Secretary of State talked in our previous debate about meeting Church groups, and we had objections from some Opposition Members that we were talking to Church groups but not necessarily women’s groups, so I wanted to put some of those groups on the record. She will recognise that it is important that we have also engaged with the royal colleges and medical professionals on those issues.
Returning to the fantastic maiden speech by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, she was clear about the strength of her community and her constituency’s attractiveness to tourists. I look forward to visiting, and I certainly hope to be able to make many more visits when I am in Northern Ireland in the near future.
We heard concerns from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean about what could happen on 13 January if we do not deliver a successful outcome to the talks. It is clear that none of the options is attractive. We want to ensure that we can get the Executive back up and running and get an Assembly sitting in Northern Ireland to deal with such issues. That is why I share the hopes of many in the House that this is the last debate we will need on the 2019 Act.
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 Thursday 19 December.