[Relevant document: Second Report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2019-21, New Decade, New Approach Agreement, HC 160, and the Government response, HC 792.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
If you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, before I talk about the Bill I wish to congratulate our parliamentary colleague the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on becoming the leader of his political party. I look forward to working with him in the period ahead. I also hope, as I am sure all colleagues do, that he has a very enjoyable week, not just with the introduction to becoming leader-elect of his party, but with the very big family event, a wedding, with which we all wish him well.
The United Kingdom is a family of nations and a Union of people. We share cultural, social and economic ties that bring us together, and make us more prosperous and secure. This Government believe in upholding the constitutional integrity of this great nation. Our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter. In Northern Ireland, that means we need properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and in Westminster.
I will make a bit of progress, then I will give way to colleagues.
In this centenary year for Northern Ireland, today marks exactly 100 years since the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament, at Belfast city hall, by King George V and Queen Mary. This momentous occasion saw locally elected politicians for the first time, following the first Northern Ireland general election, so it is fitting that this Bill has its Second Reading today, of all days. The Bill will strengthen the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland and serve to build the people of Northern Ireland’s faith in their locally elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As this House knows, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were restored on 11 January 2020 when all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties came together under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) for their dedication and persistence, with others, in pursuing this deal, which was a great achievement after three years of impasse.
Prior to the restoration of the institutions, there had been no functioning Executive since January 2017. The absence of a devolved Government for such an extended period had a detrimental effect on the people of Northern Ireland. We saw the first strike in the 103-year history of the Royal College of Nursing over pay and staffing levels. There was ongoing action by teaching unions, and schools were not co-operating with the inspections in a dispute over teacher pay and workload. Essential infrastructure projects, including the York Street interchange and investment in waste water infrastructure, which was at capacity in many places across Northern Ireland, could not be progressed.
I think we can all agree that a pandemic with no Executive would have been unthinkable. I was pleased therefore to see the First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated last Thursday, following this Government’s intensive engagement with the party leaders. However, the events of last week also highlight how important it is for everyone to deliver on their commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is disappointing to see that a way forward has not yet been found to implement all of the parts in full, which is why the Government have, for example, promised to deliver the balanced culture package that was agreed in NDNA through Parliament if it has not been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive by the end of September. I wish to reiterate and be very clear that our strong preference and desire is for this to be delivered in the appropriate place by the devolved institutions.
I am sure that people back home will be amazed at the honeyed words of the Secretary of State. He talks about the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the importance of the devolved Administration and devolved institutions, and yet he has interfered, and has just announced that he is prepared to interfere once again, in the institutions in Northern Ireland in a way in which no Secretary of State would dare to do in Scotland or Wales. Does he not accept that, for the Unionist community, this continual interference in the institutions at Stormont at the behest of Sinn Féin is not an annoyance but something that enrages people?
I have to say that I do not recognise the principle on which the right hon. Gentleman outlines his point. The reality is that the UK Government are the Government of the United Kingdom. The UK Government are a co-guarantor of and signatory to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the parties themselves negotiated and agreed. For example, the parties agreed between themselves the cultural package, which has had a lot of attention in the past week. We have a duty to ensure that, for all the people of Northern Ireland, these things are delivered in a way that is set out and agreed by the parties. I would much rather see that delivered by the institution itself. That is why we have given time and space for the institution to be able to move things forward. It is also right that, on a range of issues, including women’s healthcare, women in Northern Ireland have access to the same good-quality healthcare as women across the United Kingdom. I make no apologies for making sure that we the United Kingdom Government are representing people across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He has referred to the position across the United Kingdom. Obviously, like him I am a strong Unionist, but there is one thing that I am concerned about. I heard this morning that the outgoing leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Mr Edwin Poots, has said in a number of media interviews that he has received assurances from the Secretary of State about changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. I know that that is now a story. Is the Secretary of State able to say anything to the House about whether that is true or not? Obviously, it will be of great interest to people not just across Northern Ireland but in constituencies such as mine, which have understandable problems with shipping goods across our United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are two points. First, at the end of last week some of Edwin Poots’s colleagues commented about an announcement. Actually, the announcement was not really an announcement; it just confirmed that we had requested from the European Union an extension to the grace period, particularly for chilled meats from 1 July. I said on the Floor of this House last week, and I am very happy to reconfirm it today, that, as the Prime Minister himself has outlined, we do have issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. Like others across this House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has, quite rightly, outlined an example of those challenges for consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland. We are not going to allow that to continue. We want to get this corrected so that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland can continue to function as a full and integral part of the United Kingdom.
As I said at this Dispatch Box just last Wednesday, and as the Prime Minister has said both publicly and at the Dispatch Box, we will do what we need to do to make sure that we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, and we will take nothing off the table in that regard. Obviously, we will wait to hear from the EU, and we want to work this through with it with regard to the request we made last week.
The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill will deliver elements of the New Decade, New Approach deal relating to the governance of the Executive and within the competence of this House. That includes reforms to sustainability of institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. The UK Government and this Parliament have a duty to ensure good and functional governance in Northern Ireland. Today, through this Bill, we discharge that duty by bringing forward measures that will help continue to enhance the public’s confidence in the Northern Ireland institutions through increased transparency and improved governance arrangements. Those measures will ensure that the institutions will be more sustainable, more resilient and for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
Let me turn briefly to the contents of the Bill. In short, we are legislating, first, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of new Northern Ireland Ministers, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, after an election; secondly, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after they cease to hold office—for instance, in the case of one of them resigning; thirdly, to provide, if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister cease to hold office, that other Northern Ireland Ministers remain in office for a maximum period of 48 weeks after the First Minister and Deputy First Minister ceased to hold office, or for 24 weeks following any subsequent election, whichever is the shortest, unless the Secretary of State triggers the sufficient representation provisions.
The Bill will implement reforms to the petition of concern mechanism in the Assembly, including a new 14-day consideration period before a valid petition can be confirmed; it will require petitioners to come from more than one Northern Ireland political party; prevent the mechanism from being used for matters that concern the conduct of a Member and for Second Reading votes on a Bill; and it will update the code of conduct for Northern Ireland Ministers in accordance with a request from the Northern Ireland Executive and in line with the New Decade, New Approach transparency and accountability recommendations.
The Secretary of State has rightly set out the scope of the Bill. May I press him on another matter that was referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement? He knows that the prosecutions of soldiers as part of the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland is of great concern. I shall not press him on the content of the legislation, because I know that work is under way, but may I press him a little on the timing? Many Members are eager for that work to proceed at pace so that we can resolve these issues, and many are keen for that to happen before the House rises for the summer. Is the Secretary of State able to give the House any indication today of the Government’s latest thinking on when they may be able to bring that legislation—if, indeed, it is separate legislation—before the House?
My right hon. Friend asks a fair question—that is part of New Decade, New Approach, so it is a fair point. I outlined, I think in February or March this year, my ambition to bring something before the House before the summer recess; I still have that ambition, but I should also say clearly that we are determined to do what we have always said we would do, which is to engage with our partners—not only the Irish Government but the parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups, because whatever we bring forward has to have victims absolutely at its heart. We have to deal with information recovery and truth and reconciliation, because whatever we bring forward has to work properly for the people of Northern Ireland, so it is right that we take the time to do that properly and methodically, which I am looking forward to doing. We will do that and we are still absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our manifesto pledge to the veterans community. I will touch on that a little more in a few moments.
Will the Secretary of State explain very carefully for some people in this House who do not seem to understand that, if an amnesty is given to anybody—for example, if an amnesty is given to soldiers who maybe committed murder on the streets of Derry, Belfast or anywhere else—an amnesty would have to be given to everyone, including IRA members, Ulster Volunteer Force members and Ulster Defence Association members?
As I said before, we want to ensure that we put forward a package that works for all of Northern Ireland and genuinely allows it a chance to move forward. One thing that we have heard consistently from civic society is a desire to move forward. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that whatever we do has to be balanced across the whole community. As I say, I will come back to that in separate legislation in due course—we are not dealing with legacy legislation today.
Just so that no one is misled by the previous intervention, will the Secretary of State confirm that no one has sought an amnesty for soldiers? All that has been asked for is that soldiers who have already had cases investigated—some up to three times—should not be trailed through the courts again for political reasons by those who are attempting to rewrite the history of the troubles.
As I say, we are not dealing with legacy today, so I will resist the urge to go too much into that, but I will say that the right hon. Gentleman is correct in the sense that we have been clear that we are committed to ending the cycle of re-investigations. We also have to accept that, as we have all seen recently, the current situation is not serving anybody. It cannot be right that, as we saw in the Ballymurphy case, it has taken 50 years for people to get information. Equally, it is inappropriate and wrong to see people go through a cycle of investigations. We have committed to end that and we will do that.
Let me turn to the specifics of the Bill before the House. Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the period of time available to appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after the resignation of either or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an Assembly election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only 14 days from the first meeting of the Assembly after an election, and seven days after the First Minister or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office. The Bill will extend the period for filling ministerial offices to a six-week period that is automatically renewed—unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community basis—for a maximum of three times, up to a total of 24 weeks.
It will not have lost anyone’s attention that we are discussing the extension of the sustainability mechanisms at a time when there is huge instability in the Assembly, when we have had First Minister resignations and changes and multiple seven-day cliff edges potentially emerging. Can the Secretary of State take this opportunity to stress that all parties in Northern Ireland should act responsibly in relation to the institutions, not make any threats to collapse them, and should work to deliver on the core issues of health, education and jobs, on which people urgently need action over the coming months?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Our focus, for all of us, as I have outlined over the last week or two, should be on making sure that we have stable institutions that can deliver on issues such as health, education and infrastructure, among other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. That is what I believe the people of Northern Ireland want to see, and it is why I was so pleased that, to be fair, the parties in Northern Ireland were able to resolve this issue within three days and have stability, with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister having been nominated.
By extending those periods, the Bill will allow more time for discussions between the parties and for the Secretary of State to facilitate a resolution before they come under an election duty. It also allows for Northern Ireland Ministers to remain in post after an election until the end of the period for appointing new Ministers. That change will again allow for greater continuity in decision making.
Under clause 2, Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly. It provides for up to a maximum of 24 weeks after an election or a maximum of 48 weeks since a functioning Executive was in place—whichever is the shorter—in which Ministers may continue to hold office, subject to those offices otherwise being filled or if a Minister is not returned as a Member of the Assembly. The measure will ensure that institutions become more sustainable and more resilient. Currently, the Secretary of State is required to propose a date for an Assembly election where the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself, or where the period for appointing Northern Ireland Ministers or a First Minister and Deputy First Minister expires without those offices being filled.
Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the first six weeks in the period for filling ministerial offices if the Secretary of State considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly.
Clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct that sets out expectations for the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland civil service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management. Those updates are in the reserved or excepted space and are unable to be progressed through the Assembly. The UK Government are bringing those changes forward at the request of the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the agreement of the Executive.
Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern mechanism to reduce its use and to return it to its intended purpose as set out under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—a safeguard to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the Northern Ireland institutions and are protected when the Assembly legislates, and to prevent one party from blocking measures or business. The mechanism, which was given effect in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, allows MLAs to lodge a petition against a matter that the Assembly is voting in, providing that they can gather at least 30 signatures.
A successful petition means that the relevant matter is to be passed on a cross-community basis rather than on a simple majority basis. The Bill will require the petitions to be signed and confirmed 14 days later by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties, which will prevent one party from being able to block measures or business that would otherwise have cross-community consensus. These specific changes and commitments from the Northern Ireland parties aim to reduce the use of the mechanism to the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort only, having exhausted every other available mechanism.
The Government are bringing forward those changes through Westminster legislation as they are excepted matters. Separate legislation seeking to make provision for legacy commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach deal—to go back to the comment made absolutely correctly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—will be introduced separately. This Bill will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. The provisions in the Bill seek to reform the sustainability of the institutions, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition of concern mechanism.
We will always be steadfast in maintaining the importance of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to progress the delivery of all the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal.
By introducing this Bill now, we are delivering on those promises, but it is ultimately up to the parties to come together. Both the Irish Government and the UK Government will continue to stand together and stand ready to support them, as we did in bringing about the package of measures under New Decade, New Approach. Until then, the Bill is a reminder that the UK Government will always uphold our responsibilities for political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.
I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his appointment as leader of the DUP and I also look forward to working with him. I thank the Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill and for the regular updates he and the Minister have provided to me and my office over the past few weeks.
The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and who believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland, but, as ever, that instability has been most keenly felt by the people of Northern Ireland. They need a stable, functioning Executive to meet the enormous health and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland—a third of the entire population languishing on health waiting lists; nearly 300 children without a post-primary place for next year’s term; and, of course, recovery from covid. For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, that must be the priority in the coming days and weeks. It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the Bill before the House today.
We welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly. Although we will suggest amendments to tighten up provisions in the Bill, the lessons from the past should offer a clear warning to all of us. Institutions are much easier to collapse than they are to get back up and running. Recent events could scarcely have provided a clearer example of why the provisions contained in the Bill are necessary.
Precisely because we support the provisions in the Bill, which were agreed through New Decade, New Approach more than 18 months ago by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), I want to make clear the mistake I believe the Secretary of State has made in leaving it until now for this crucial piece of legislation to be considered. It is simply not credible that this was the first moment that parliamentary time allowed for the Bill to be considered, and it is unclear why we are debating these measures only now, in the midst of political turmoil in Northern Ireland.
The instability we have seen in recent months, which the Bill in part attempts to address, has not emerged out of thin air. I fear the delay in bringing forward the Bill is symptomatic of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland.
Too often over the past decade, Northern Ireland has been an afterthought here. As the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have frequently behaved as though they have found themselves at the scene of an accident entirely beyond their control. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace allowed to stall.
Nowhere is that more striking than in the Prime Minister’s actions. He was repeatedly warned of the consequences for the fragile peace process of his Brexit deal and he chose to ignore those warnings. There is a direct line from his dishonesty over the deal to the instability we see in the institutions today.
It would be foolish to assume that the provisions of the Bill alone can guarantee stability. They cannot. To do that, Ministers must address the effects of their own actions, which have shaken faith in Northern Ireland. Progress has stalled and instability has grown. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been treated as a crisis management tool rather than as the vehicle through which lives and communities can be transformed.
Although Labour supports the Bill, we believe there are several missed opportunities for the Government to refocus on delivering on the promise of peace, which they have allowed to stall. We will seek to bring amendments to push for the full implementation of the Government’s commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which, like the Bill, have been delayed for too long.
The same principle is true of the undelivered promises of the Good Friday agreement on a Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, women’s rights and giving communities a real say in decision making. They were the essence of the Good Friday agreement and the shared future that it imagined, but progress on them has been virtually non-existent over the past decade. We do not believe that the instability that we see can be separated from the failure to deliver on such commitments. Above all, the way to guarantee stability is to demonstrate that commitments made will be honoured and that Westminster is still prepared to step up and honour our side of the bargain.
We will further seek to tighten up the provisions on the caretaker institutions to prevent misuse and promote good governance. With that in mind, we have concerns about what might be described as some of the constructive ambiguities in the Bill and some of the unintended consequences that may follow. Our concerns fall into two categories: those relating to a caretaker Executive and those relating to the vetoes available within the Executive.
First, on the provisions allowing for a caretaker Administration following an Assembly election or the resignation of the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, the scope of statutory powers was recently significantly expanded. Although the Government talk about caretaker Ministers being able to operate only “within well-defined limits”, those limits are in no way outlined. That leaves open a broad statutory remit and does not provide the necessary safety catch to prevent caretaker Ministers from exercising powers not envisaged in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to that point or if we could address it in Committee.
Secondly, the Bill deals with the petition of concern and its use and misuse. We absolutely support this limited reform, which will return the mechanism to its original intention, but the Bill is silent on the other effective vetoes that have been used to block agenda items from reaching the Executive or to prevent discussion on cross-community issues of concern. If the petition of concern reform was intended to prevent it from being misused by a single party to block progress, it would be a mistake to allow other vetoes to persist that allow for much the same outcome.
Finally, we hope to see some movement from the Government on dual mandates to allow for greater flexibility, potentially on a short-term basis. I reiterate our support for the limited measures in the Bill, but I make it clear that this is only a start. There is much, much more work to do.
I welcome the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I particularly echo his welcome and congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his assuming the office of leader of the Democratic Unionist party at what we know is a very difficult time for the politics of Northern Ireland. I know that the House will wish him well as he begins that task.
I also welcome the fact—probably overlooked, but long called for by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—that this is not emergency legislation. It is nice to have a Northern Irish Bill being dealt with in normal parliamentary time. That is important, and I think that it says quite a lot about how we are dealing with these issues. It also provides an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Good Friday agreement is a process, not a monolithic event or structure that is beyond change or tampering. It was supposed to be an iterative, organic process; it is important that we remind ourselves of that.
It is sad, I suppose, but we need to remind this and future generations of the importance of peace and of the horror before the Good Friday agreement was brought into being. I hope that the Secretary of State, the Government and those who are serving in Stormont refocus as they move forward on ensuring that, within the prosperity agenda of the Good Friday agreement, peace is the bedrock and the widest possible delivery of the benefits of prosperity are felt throughout the communities of Northern Ireland.
I also welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in response to an intervention about legacy. I welcome his affirmation that he will take a victim-centric approach, and I was encouraged to hear him talk about the need to ensure that the Republic and those in the north are taken along in the process rather than having an impost made on them. I know that the timetable is tight and that there is a lot in his in-tray, but I encourage him to follow and adhere to the commitment that he made to me some months ago on the Floor of the House that we will see what he is proposing before the House rises for the summer recess and possibly have the opportunity to debate it.
Devolution, in its operation, is not a political equivalent of a Woolworths pick and mix. It will not and cannot work if those who are charged with its care and delivery duck difficult decisions and abdicate responsibilities. In part, this Bill is there to address that, as quite a lot of the New Decade, New Approach process is supposed to as well.
I echo those who have said—I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said this pretty clearly—that if there ever is a time to collapse the Executive, although I am never convinced that there is, now is most certainly not it. I say that not least because it would let down the people of Northern Ireland who were so badly harmed by a three-year interregnum and a pressing of the pause button on the delivery of public service reform and better services for those who rely on them. Now is not the time to embark on political blackmail—“Do this or we will”, or “Don’t do that and we won’t.” In reference to the pretty gruesome statement made by the Loyalist Communities Council at the tail end of last week, I also say that now is not the time for those who are unelected and who have never faced the tests and trials of the ballot box to start issuing ultimatums to those who do take up the baton of public service and try to deliver a better life for the communities of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Bill, I think. I say “I think” because we have here four six-week periods, and then another four six-week periods. These elongated timeframes are understandable, but I occasionally worry that we will just feed the beast of instability by putting in place longer and longer periods and opportunities for people to “play around”, which we would not see with regard to the operation of devolution in Cardiff or Edinburgh, and at some point we will have to wrestle with that. If we are to make devolution a normal thing in Northern Ireland that can deliver, we need to try to weed out and cut away all the props that allow people to pause and think and so on. None the less, we are where we are. We understand the tensions and we understand the history, which is why I shall support the Bill.
The changes to the petition of concern process are to be hugely welcomed, and that has been recognised across the House in speeches made by those on the two Front Benches. Again, that process was a good intention initially, but it got played. When a system gets played, and it does not look right and it does not smell right, then it needs to be changed, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on wrestling with that.
I share the Secretary of State’s hope that it will be a fully functioning and vibrant Stormont that can deliver the cultural package that everybody signed up to in New Decade, New Approach. If it does not or cannot, or if that becomes another insurmountable obstacle to the delivery of other issues, then the Government are absolutely right to take up the mantle and to legislate for it here in the House of Commons. I hope and pray that we do not have to and that it is dealt with by those charged to do so in a devolved environment, but if not, the Government are right to do it. If one of the by-products of that is taking off the table a nut that nobody was prepared to crack in Northern Ireland because one or another thought it was too difficult, that would be a good thing because it would remove another reason for somebody to take their ball home and not play.
This is an important Bill, but we should not just view it in isolation. There is a lot from which it flows, and there is a lot that flows from New Decade, New Approach, which is not addressed in this Bill. None the less, we know that the Secretary of State is up for the task. There are huge issues ahead. We have to deal in a proactive and sensible way with this protocol.
Let me close by making an observation to those on my party’s Front Bench. We are asking the parties that have signed up to New Decade, New Approach to adhere to it in full—not to cherry-pick or to do the things that are more pleasant or easier first, but to take it as an entire package and to deliver and implement it. Why can we make that legitimate demand of them? Because they signed up to it and they agreed to it. When the Government perhaps do not play as fixedly to that rule vis-à-vis the protocol, with some of the things that some Ministers have been saying, it should be of no surprise if those who want to try to wriggle off the commitment hook pray in aid some of those observations of Ministers as their defence and their cover.
I wish the Bill well. All of us are very conscious of the environment in which we are holding this debate and of what is going on across Northern Ireland, with so many big issues. Let us all, coming from different traditions, different strands of thought, different histories and different communities, recommit to the golden thread of motivation in political life, which is public service. We are here to serve the people who send us to this place, just as those who are elected to Stormont are there to serve the community of Northern Ireland. At this crucial moment, let nobody dodge that. Let us hope that we can all rise to the occasion and meet the needs and aspirations of the people we serve.
Let me begin by offering my congratulations and those of my party to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his elevation to be leader of the Democratic Unionist party.
This is a very important Bill in the sense that it is required to deliver on aspects of the New Decade, New Approach commitments. There are parts of that agreement that can and, I would argue, should be delivered by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly themselves. I am sure that other speakers will begin to go over that ground in more detail, but I do not intend to do so myself. I will seek to confine my remarks to the measures in the Bill that can only be implemented by this place.
Before I do, I would like to offer a perspective from Scotland. There has been much comment about devolution. The Chair of the Select Committee said that devolution is neither a pick and mix nor a picnic. The Prime Minister, who clearly regards himself as a success, has notoriously described devolution as a failure. I think that most people in Scotland, and indeed further afield, would feel that the Prime Minister has got these things the wrong way round altogether.
Nevertheless, as with all Governments, there have been times when devolved Administrations, including the Governments in Scotland, of whatever political stripe, have acquitted themselves well and times when they have not—times when people have been left wondering why some things were not being done or, in some cases, why they were being done at all. There have been occasions when Parliaments have failed to pass budgets or when Governments have unexpectedly found themselves in a minority on an issue, sometimes within the Parliament and sometimes outside it. Occasionally, in the early days of devolution, there were also crises on education policy, aspects of social policy and even matters of personality and who held office, which left the institution somewhat battered and exposed in the harsh glare of the media and, at times, in its public standing. While I do not pretend that there is any scale of comparability, I would hope, viewing the situation from Scotland, that we can look at the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland with some kind of insight into the politics that goes on.
Over that time, there were strong opinions, deeply felt and sometimes trenchantly expressed, within, between and beyond political parties, some of which, as I say, led people to question the value of the institutions themselves. However, across the piece, politicians did what they had to do, which was not to ignore differences or try to come together on a false consensus, but instead to talk, to listen, to understand, to take responsibility and ultimately to move forward and start finding the much-vaunted Scottish solutions to Scottish problems instead of always looking to this place to have them sorted out for us by Governments who, very often, we did not elect. It is important that politics continues, and sometimes in order for politics to continue, all that is required is to give politicians the political space they need to be able to have the discussions they need to have with colleagues, to negotiate inside and outside the parties and between the parties, and sometimes even to reflect more broadly on whether public opinion on some issues is really where it has always been assumed to be. Who takes the decisions, and where and why, is obviously hugely important, but it is still important that the decisions that need to be taken are taken.
It is telling that in the opening of the “New Decade, New Approach” document, so much space was taken up with bread-and-butter issues such as resolving the long-standing issues around the delivery of healthcare and healthcare entitlements, around reforms to the education system and around the need to press ahead with capital expenditure and infrastructure, all of which had backed up during the absence of self-government. So, while I hope I do not underestimate for a single moment the sensitivities involved in a climate of power sharing, or the importance of being in a position to match words with deeds, I believe that the Bill will enhance the transparency and accountability of the institutions and that it is significant for what it sets out to do.
Politics may abhor a vacuum, but there is no question but that trying to bring matters to a head too quickly in the face of short and sometimes artificial and meaningless deadlines can lead to problems all of their own. For that reason, I believe that allowing an extended period, as the Bill seeks to do, for the appointment of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, whether in the event of their ceasing to hold office or in the aftermath of an election, is an important step. Similarly, allowing Ministers to remain in office after an election to allow for some limited but necessary political direction to be provided over that period is an important mechanism for ensuring continued normalcy, not only to ensure the continuity of government but to assist the political process in the formation of new Governments. Similarly, while the petition of concern process has been an important consociational mechanism, the time is surely right to begin to narrow the scope of its potential usage while broadening the support required in order for it to be brought to bear. Also, I believe that an updating of the code of conduct for Ministers to enshrine the Nolan principles will be opportune.
As I have said, this is an important Bill. The people of Northern Ireland deserve stability and, with it, the ability to have decisions taken on their behalf by the Assembly that they elect and by the Executive who are there to govern on their behalf, and so long as these proposals enjoy the broad support of the people of Northern Ireland and the parties of Northern Ireland, they will have our support too.
I rise to support the Bill, and I would like to pay tribute to the MLAs and to the Northern Ireland Executive for the role that they have played during the coronavirus crisis. There were lots of reasons why I was delighted that the Executive and the Assembly got up and running last January, but that was before we knew about covid. To have had no Government during this period does not bear thinking about, and all my thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones across Northern Ireland as a result of these tragic 18 months.
It is worth pointing out that one of the exciting things in the restoration was the fact that all five parties engaged with it. Nichola Mallon, Conor Murphy, Robin Swann, Naomi Long, Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster and all the other members of the Executive got stuck in during this period, and that has been really important. I would also like to pay tribute to Diane Dodds, Peter Weir and Gordon Lyons, who left the previous Executive. Let us see whether they will be in for just a short period on the Back Benches; they—or one of them—could well be back very soon. I also join colleagues who have sent congratulations to Jeffrey Donaldson on his election as DUP leader. As well as dealing with the covid crisis, the Northern Ireland Executive have done positive work over the past 18 months on infrastructure, on city deals, on climate change and on getting the finances under control—the Fiscal Commission and the Fiscal Council have been set up—so although the last year has been very bumpy at times, much has been achieved by this group of people.
This Bill does not contain components of NDNA that have been in the media recently—namely, the cultural package and the protocol. While I understand there are parties here that want to propose amendments to the Bill to enact the cultural components of NDNA, it is in my view important that that should be the final resort. The cultural components of NDNA are clearly a matter for the Assembly. While I would support a vote here in extremis, I believe that, following the agreement between the two main parties and the Secretary of State last week, we should encourage the new Executive and the Assembly to enact those themselves.
Many hours and days were spent agreeing these and the other provisions of the NDNA agreement, and I would make two broad points. First, it is wrong for some to claim or to report that there is an Irish language Act in the NDNA agreement; there is not. Negotiators wanting an Irish language provision won important language provisions, but not the all-encompassing Act that was their initial goal. Much time was spent by negotiators on the other side of the argument who wanted to balance and to limit the scope of the provisions both in legislative terms and in practical terms, particularly for signage and public signs. I make no comment on the merits or otherwise of this, but there is no Irish language Act in the New Decade, New Approach agreement—rather a series of carefully nuanced cultural provisions to reflect and represent all communities in Northern Ireland.
I thank the right hon. Member for giving way, and it is good to highlight that. Unfortunately, the media and many political pundits keep peddling this line, and very little has been done in relation to giving confidence to the Unionist community. In fact, many within the Unionist community believe that devolution is dead. Those who have driven around Northern Ireland will have seen the many banners hanging around lampposts telling us that devolution is dead and the Belfast agreement is null and void. The messages that have come forward from this Government in the last year and a half have not given any confidence to the Unionist community. I am glad to hear the right hon. Member making mention of the issue of no Irish language Act being included in NDNA.
We will keep checking back as to what actually happened during those talks with the right hon. Member, who committed an awful lot of time and did an awful lot of good work to ensure that we actually got devolution back. Can I just ask him, because we have had confirmation that Sinn Féin did not actually negotiate an Irish language Act, despite what the claims have been, to confirm to me that this legislation going through the House today was actually a demand of the DUP, so the DUP did get some stuff out of NDNA?
I would argue that all parties got a lot, and all parties negotiated hard, including the hon. Member’s own, and of course the DUP.
The second item that is not part of this Bill is the Northern Ireland protocol. I note that the Government have now asked for an extension of the grace period, and I am pleased to see that the EU response looks positive. I called last year for the Government to negotiate a grace period for the whole of 2021, and I believe now that they should cut a deal around the offer by the EU of a veterinary zone—a temporary veterinary zone. I would encourage a compromise on both sides to meet halfway and to ease the many practical complaints from Northern Ireland business. I am pleased that the rhetoric is easing, and I would encourage everyone to continue to dial it down.
Indeed, in the interests of dialling it down, as the right hon. Member quite rightly says, does he regret that he made a commitment to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in October 2019, when he made it clear that the protocol would be “light touch”? Does he agree now that that was not the case, and that in fact the heavy-handed approach of the protocol now, in the words of the new Economy Minister, concerns him because of the “commercial discrimination” that now appears to exist in Northern Ireland?
I strongly believe that the protocol can be light touch, but it does require significant amounts of practical working behind the scenes and not politicising every particular issue. I strongly believe that can happen, and I believe it will happen. I would urge both the EU and the UK Government to continue a positive, practical dialogue through the Joint Committee.
The Bill provides for a number of important and practical measures. It ensures more time to work through the creation of an Executive should there be Dissolution after an election. The 24 weeks for things to be worked out in a positive way is important, because we must avoid the three-year impasse that we have had before. The petition of concern provisions came from hard-fought negotiations by the Alliance, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, to ensure that both the major parties did not continue to abuse the veto mechanism, as had historically happened. Although provisions in the Bill do not go as far as those parties had hoped, they contain practical and positive improvements that make the petition of concern more difficult to abuse. The UK Government have also agreed in the overall agreement to review the usage of the petition of concern, and lay a report before Parliament every six months.
Finally, the Bill will ensure stricter adherence by Ministers to the Nolan principles and to higher standards in public life, following various scandals such as the renewable heat initiative scandal, and others, and address the misuse of public money and the need to maintain high standards in ministerial office.
We have heard reference to the significant tension in the politics of Northern Ireland over the past weeks and months regarding the protocol, language, leadership putsches and leadership contests. There have been burning buses, marches and demonstrations. The headlines of the past few months do not represent my experience of Northern Ireland. Whether as a result of what people have been through, its contested status, or the beauty of its land and the skills, capabilities and intelligence of its people, Northern Ireland is a unique part of the world. It is a great place to live, an exciting place to do business, and it is full of positivity and dynamism.
There has been much talk about a new Ireland, a united Ireland, and threats to the Union in recent weeks, but the high probability is that the Good Friday agreement will maintain the status quo for many years to come. Successive UK Governments have said that they will respect that agreement, and that the provisions in it, particularly those on the Executive and the Assembly that we are discussing, will have ongoing support from this House. As they have shown during this covid crisis, this Government will continue to do that for the foreseeable future.
If that is the case, the noise and headlines of the past few months risk leading many people down paths that will not come to pass, and missing the massive opportunities that the GFA hybrid situation provides, such as all-Ireland opportunities for infrastructure and climate change, east-west opportunities for work and progress on health and other issues, and huge opportunities to maximise Northern Ireland’s position coming out of the pandemic. It also risks missing the opportunities provided by the protocol, and not maximising the big opportunities of power sharing, and how that can deliver on the issues that matter most to the majority of Northern Ireland citizens, such as improving waiting lists, inward investment and jobs, education, coming out of the pandemic and enhancing incomes and life chances. There is the first Northern Ireland Youth Assembly in years, and a fantastic new head of the Northern Ireland civil service, whose obsession is innovation and how to make Northern Ireland more competitive globally, given its position on the cusp of the EU and UK, is about to take power at Stormont.
The UK Government cannot guarantee a Unionist First Minister for ever more, and they cannot change the fact that they signed an international agreement to exit the EU, which contains issues that need to be resolved. We in this House must be clear and honest about those facts. However, the Government can and will support the Assembly and Executive in supporting and developing this important and unique part of the UK, and in doing so they create the best possible protection of the Union. The Bill contains important technical amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to ensure that the best vehicle for doing that, the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, continues to prosper. It also reconfirms today that the Good Friday agreement remains the only show in town.
First, let me make it clear from the outset that the Democratic Unionist party will be supporting the Bill’s Second Reading. That is not because, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) seemed to suggest, the Bill is somehow or other a Unionist game and an exclusively Unionist demand. There are provisions in the Bill that seek to ensure that the Assembly cannot be torn down by those who want to see instability in Northern Ireland. Indeed, for three years they ensured that there was instability and no Assembly. We wanted those changes to ensure that that could not happen again, not for the benefit of the DUP or the Unionist community, but for the benefit of the whole of the community. I want to make that clear at the outset.
This is not a Unionist game. This is not a Unionist Bill. This is not a Unionist demand. This is an attempt by the parties in Northern Ireland, led by us in the negotiations, to ensure that we could not have three years without a Government in Northern Ireland. Incidentally, because the Government here in Westminster were afraid to take on Sinn Féin, they sat on their hands and refused to do anything to try to get a situation going in which devolution was restored in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, there is a certain irony. We had the Secretary of State standing here today, and we heard his honeyed words that the Bill is all about the Government’s commitment to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and that parties should not be making threats to bring down devolution. Yet, in the same breath, he described how, once again, he intends if necessary to cast devolution aside and take on the responsibilities of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to satisfy the threats of one party and one party alone: Sinn Féin.
Of course, the impasse and fears we had in Northern Ireland were because Sinn Féin was threatening not to appoint a Deputy First Minister if it did not get the cultural aspects of New Decade, New Approach delivered on the timetable it demanded. I must say that while my party has signed up to the cultural aspects, many people—including, I suspect, Sinn Féin voters in Northern Ireland—really are questioning why, at a time when we are coming out of covid, with hospital waiting lists at about 350,000, with lots of children in schools having missed out on their education and in need of catch-up and with unemployment having doubled as a result of the covid restrictions, the main concern, and the threat to devolution again, is, “If you do not do the cultural aspects of New Decade, New Approach and allocate resources, Assembly time and political capital to it, we will not allow devolution to be set up again.” Pathetically, the Secretary of State caved in to those threats again with the commitment he made to Sinn Féin that if it is not done in the Assembly by the end of September, he will take the devolution powers and do it in Westminster.
Either the Secretary of State wants parties in Northern Ireland to work together or he does not. Either he wants to try to take the poison out of the system in Northern Ireland or he does not. I can tell this House one thing: if this one-sided pandering to Sinn Féin—setting aside the devolved powers—continues, all he is doing is allowing Sinn Féin to come back time and again. this is the irony: this is a party that refuses to take its seats in this House and wants to see Northern Ireland divorced from the rest of the United Kingdom, but when it cannot get its own way, where is the first place that it goes scurrying to? A British Secretary of State, the British House of Commons—“Please do these things for us because we can’t persuade people in Northern Ireland to do them.”
I think the Secretary of State should think very carefully about the way he undermines devolution. The Bill is meant to be all about sustaining devolution—to try to make devolution stronger, to try to stop it being hijacked by any one party, to try to stop the disruption that we had in the past—and yet, at the same time as the Bill is going through, we have the Secretary of State once again giving the green light to a party that does not want to see stability in Northern Ireland, that does not really care whether there is stability in Northern Ireland, and that gives priority to its niche demands over the main concerns of people in Northern Ireland, whether they are Unionist or nationalist, which are to get money spent and time devoted to dealing with the essential, day-to-day issues.
I listened to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who endorsed this approach. I have to say, the kind of condescending, patronising attitude that we get from the Chair of the Select Committee does not go down very well in Northern Ireland—this kind of condescending attitude: “If the natives can’t get it together, then let’s do it here”. He was talking like some 19th-century colonial ruler. Of course, there are difficult situations and difficult decisions to be made in Northern Ireland. I served as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive for five years; I served as Finance Minister. None of the parties ever accused the DUP at that stage of being one-sided in the way in which it dealt with the finances across Departments. My own party actually complained more about not getting the money for certain things than some of the other parties did, because that is just the job, and if we do not have enough money, we cannot give everyone everything they ask for. But no one ever accused us of being biased. We worked our way through difficult issues including, during that period, the most difficult issue of the devolution of policing and justice. For any Member of this House to suggest that the natives cannot work their way through these things, so we have to take things over occasionally—all it does is ensure that those who wish to be intransigent will continue to be intransigent because they know that they have the safety valve of running to the Secretary of State’s door, and he will sort it all out for them rather than them sorting it out for themselves.
I know that this is not part of the Bill, but the Secretary of State mentioned it and he mentioned his intention in the House today. I give warning to him that if he wants to find a way of undermining devolution and of making it difficult for parties to work together, let him continue down this road of giving in to people because they threaten. Or, maybe it is because the Government fear that Sinn Féin has more of a threat than any other party in the Executive and therefore it has to be pandered to. This does not augur well for devolution.
Let me turn to the terms of the Bill itself and the period of up to 24 weeks for reflection and attempts to try and overcome the difficulties that there are. Sometimes there are issues that parties do not see eye to eye on, which they cannot agree on and which are important to them. There would be that 24-week period with Ministers in place, but I take the point made by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), about what powers those Ministers should have. That is a very fine balance. Do we have 24 weeks in which Ministers have full power without accountability? Do we have 24 weeks in which Ministers have no power other than to administer issues and therefore are not able to deal with serious issues that come up? I do not have an easy answer to that, but she posed an important question.
There may be occasions when that elongated period is necessary. If we are going to have it, we have to be very clear what Ministers can do during that time. If they are simply there as lame ducks, there is no point in having them, yet if they are able to do everything that they would normally be able to do with Assembly scrutiny, I think that there would be grave concerns about that. I hope that some of those issues will be teased out in Committee. I do not know whether it is easy to codify that or put it in the terms of the Bill, but certainly it is not an issue that can be ignored.
On the changes to the petition of concern, I note again what the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said. He said that the changes are necessary to stop the abuses of the petition of concern by the large parties. First, let me make something clear. The Belfast agreement did not put any limitations on the petition of concern. It can be used for whatever purpose. Incidentally, that was not drafted by Sinn Féin or the DUP. We were not the largest parties when the Good Friday agreement was negotiated. It was drafted in that form by the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party, who thought that they would be the ones who would be able to exercise the petition of concern. It is very significant that, now that Unionists no longer have a majority in the Assembly, those who clamoured for the petition of concern because they said it was necessary to protect minorities are the ones who wish to see it watered down.
There were not abuses of the petition of concern. Indeed, it was not even used all that often. When it was used, all parties used it, and the time that it was used and abused the most was by the SDLP when it came to welfare reform. I am sure we will get some lectures about the petition of concern when the SDLP speakers get up to speak, but all I can say about the changes is that, incidentally, no one party now would have 30 Members to exclusively put forward a petition of concern, and the petition of concern was one of the safety mechanisms in the agreement, for use when there were divisive issues and one bloc tried to impose those issues on others.
Incidentally—this is significant, again, as an example of the Government’s interference—there is nothing more divisive in Northern Ireland than the Northern Ireland protocol, yet the safety measures in the Belfast agreement for issues such as the protocol have been totally removed. They were totally removed when the protocol and the withdrawal agreement were brought here to the House of Commons. As a result, we now have the protocol being able to be pushed through without any real say by the people who are most affected by it, although, as Members have pointed out today, it is beginning to affect some of their constituents too, because they cannot even trade in Northern Ireland. It is another example of where, in order to attain certain objectives, the Government have cherry-picked parts of the safeguards built into the constitutional structure of Northern Ireland. What angers many people in Northern Ireland is that that seems to be done on issues that most affect the Unionist community. I am sure some of my colleagues will have something to say on some of those other issues.
We will be supporting the Bill tonight, but if the Government want to sustain devolution and see it prosper, it will require more than just this Bill. It will require them to show the same respect to devolution in Northern Ireland as they would show in Scotland and Wales. I guarantee that no Secretary of State for either Scotland or Wales would dare interfere in the devolved settlements in those two countries in the way in which this Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and this Government have done with devolution in Northern Ireland.
It has been a great pleasure to listen to the speeches so far, in particular the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). His remarks about the future, innovation and the opportunities for Northern Ireland struck a chord with me. They took me back a decade to when I visited Northern Ireland as the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform. I remember very clearly meeting youngsters at a local school and talking predominantly about the future. I was keen to understand how young people viewed the future. When we talk about Northern Ireland we spend a long time, for understandable reasons, talking about the past. I went away from that meeting incredibly optimistic, because they were very keen to focus on what united them and on the opportunities for the future. Those young people who were then in the sixth form will now be in their late 20s. They will be in careers, building businesses and building families. I was very optimistic about that and I echo what my right hon. Friend, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said about the opportunities for Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his successful election as the leader of the Democratic Unionist party at what, I suspect, will be a challenging time in Northern Ireland politics. I wish him all success in that role, and in the role he will play in ensuring the devolved institutions remain in being and are able to be successful in helping to govern what is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom.
On the Bill, a lot of the press comment over the past week about the future of the institutions has been rather feverish. It is worth reflecting on something the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) said about the timetable. We are considering this proposed legislation in the normal way and I think that is a good thing. It is clear from the programme motion that the Bill will be considered in a Public Bill Committee until July. It will then come back on to the Floor of the House and make its way to the other place to be debated there. Looking at the commencement details, there is a further two-month period before it comes into force. It is therefore worth all the parties in Northern Ireland reflecting over the coming days and weeks that if anything were to happen to the institutions at the moment, the rules governing events are the current rules, which obviously have some very challenging timescales attached to them. It is worth all the parties reflecting that, as we debate the Bill, the rules in force at the moment will be those in force for a considerable period of time.
I support the measures in the Bill, but the Chairman of the Select Committee made a good point—I think it was also touched on by others, including the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson)—about time periods. Although I accept that the current time periods are very tight, there is a danger in extending them too far, whereby we lose the focus we get from the results of democratic elections. The danger is that we allow the results of elections not to be put into place, we do not concentrate people’s minds appropriately and we get drift and indecision; although it may be uncomfortable, we sometimes need deadlines and uncomfortable consequences to enable people to make what are often difficult decisions, to ensure that there are functioning institutions. Although I support what is in the Bill, it is worth our reflecting on whether we are perhaps going too far; it is worth bearing in mind that there is a balance to be struck.
I will briefly touch on what is not in the legislation—I trust I will not tempt you to intervene, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I think we are allowed to touch on this briefly on Second Reading. I wish to reflect on the exchanges I had with the Secretary of State and the exchange involving the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and the right hon. Member for East Antrim on the forthcoming legislation on legacy prosecutions. To make it absolutely clear to the hon. Member for Foyle, I certainly do not advocate an amnesty, and I do not believe those in my party who advocate for a better settlement and fairer treatment of veterans have ever argued for one. One important factor in the reputation of the British Army around the world is that our armed forces are bound by the rule of law and if they transgress it, they deserve to suffer the consequences. What we are talking about here is a situation where a due process has been undertaken and vexatious attempts are then made to prosecute people where there has been a proper investigation. This is about how we get that balance right—not through having an amnesty but reflecting that there have been some injustices. That is what we are trying to achieve, and I think the right hon. Member for East Antrim put that point well when he intervened. I will leave that there for now, because it is not covered in this Bill—it will come in separate legislation and I know the Government are considering carefully the right content, to reflect the points made by Members on both sides of the House.
The Secretary of State touched on the final couple of points that I want to make when he talked about where it was right for this House to legislate—the right hon. Member for East Antrim and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon also mentioned this—and where matters are properly devolved and the Assembly would be able to deal with them. I have had slight differences with the Government on this point in the past. For example, although I very much support same-sex marriage and voted for it in England, my view was that that was a devolved matter that the Northern Ireland institutions should have resolved. I know the former Secretary of State took great pleasure in putting it into force, but I did not agree that it was right for him or the Government to do so—it should have been for the devolved institutions to do so. I raise that because of the debate we had on the cultural aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the former Secretary of State touched on. I have been following the debate that has been taking place in Northern Ireland. The understanding that has been set out in the media—which of course is not necessarily completely representative of the facts—is that under the deal that appears to have precipitated the end of the former leader of the Democrat Unionist party, Mr Poots, there had been an agreement that if the cultural aspects of the deal were not dealt with in the Assembly, they would be legislated for here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon has said that his view is that they should be done locally. He is prepared, in extremis, to countenance their being done here. When the Minister of State winds up the debate, could he set out a little of the Government’s thinking about when the devolved aspects should be dealt with by the devolved institutions, and about what the Government’s tests are for when they should be legislated for here?
I would perhaps put it a little less loudly than the right hon. Member for East Antrim, but I broadly support his sentiments that if we have devolved matters, they should be ones for the devolved institutions. As in other parts of the United Kingdom where there are devolved governance mechanisms, we do not have to agree with the decisions of the devolved Administrations in order to accept that they are the right people to be making them. The test for me is not whether I agree with what the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government or the Northern Ireland Executive do; if a matter is devolved, the decision is for them, and it does not matter whether I, the Government or this House like it. The decision is for the institutions to take, and for them to justify to the people who elect them. That is the essence of democratic accountability.
There is an important point here: if those who were elected in Northern Ireland to govern Northern Ireland do not make those decisions and are not held accountable, we damage the entire drive to enable properly functioning democratic institutions. It will not be sustainable if every time something very difficult challenges the ability of those institutions to make decisions, somebody else sorts it out for them, for whatever reason. Whether it is for good motives or not, that will not be helpful in the long term. A little thinking about how the Government approach these matters would be helpful.
The final point, which the right hon. Member for East Antrim and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon touched on, is about the powers of Northern Ireland Ministers in the extended periods when they are able to remain in post but there is no functioning combination of a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister. I think that the Bill is still an improvement on where we are today because, as I understand it, when we were in the long period of having no functioning Government, officials were in the very difficult position of having to manage Departments. For rather obvious reasons, they are incredibly constrained in the decisions that they can take; they are not accountable to anybody, and regardless of their actual powers, they are very constrained in what they are able to do.
I am not clear from having read the Bill and the explanatory notes quite what the legislation envisages, for example about the extent of the powers in the 48-week period with Ministers taking decisions. However, I still think that even if they are having to take quite important or big decisions, they have the benefit of being accountable. They are able to appear before the Assembly and have questions asked of them; that provides better accountability, which is an improvement on having those decisions made by officials.
This point has now been raised on three occasions. It is probably worth reflecting for the benefit of the House—perhaps the Minister will pick up on it later—that during the negotiations that led to this provision, it was recognised and remains the case that no Minister can act on a significant cross-cutting issue without recourse to the Executive. That also applies if the issue is controversial. In those circumstances, the Executive will not be sitting, because there will not be a First Minister or a Deputy First Minister, so the Minister will have full competence in their range of departmental responsibilities—but should any issue be significant, cross-cutting or controversial and require recourse to the Executive, it should not proceed.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I had in mind what happened during the extensive period in which officials were having to manage these things, when really important issues built up in the national health service in Northern Ireland and there were important decisions to be made about pay, conditions and funding. My understanding, having looked into it, is that there were serious deteriorations in the quality of care provided. I do not think that that raises issues of the sort that the hon. Gentleman raises, but it is obviously helpful if Ministers can take decisions. Even if Ministers are taking decisions that may not have been envisaged when the legislation was set out, at least they have the benefit of being accountable, having to set out both in the Assembly and publicly what they have done and why they have done it and, at some point, being accountable at the ballot box. I think that is an improvement. If the Minister can, in winding up, say anything about the extent of those powers or decision taking that is not currently set out in either of the documents before us, that would be helpful to the House.
I hope that the Bill progresses to Committee after we have concluded our remarks.
It really is a new experience to be sitting in between the two wings of the DUP. If they need any help to bring themselves back together again, we have a bit of experience in that.
Before I continue, I will deal with some of the points made by the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). He talked about devolution, and I absolutely agree with him that this place should not be encroaching on the devolution settlement. Those are points that we made during the debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. There is not as much support coming from some quarters of this House to oppose what is very clearly a power grab in all the devolved spaces right across the different policy areas. There is not as much support coming from certain sections of this House for that.
One of the issues that had to be legislated for in this House that could not be legislated for in the Northern Ireland Assembly was marriage equality. In other words, two people who love each other could not get married just because politicians said so. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talks about politicians being unable to deal with things in a devolved context. I remember being the person who proposed the motion that got majority support for marriage equality in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That was the will of the House, and it was the will of the people, but we were blocked by the petition of concern that the right hon. Gentleman talks about. The petition of concern, despite what he might say, was there to protect minorities. It was abused time and again, including to stop people who loved each other getting married. So this is all connected.
The right hon. Member for East Antrim accused us of using the petition of concern on welfare reform. Absolutely we did, because welfare reform brought through by the Conservative party and supported, surprisingly, by some of the parties in Northern Ireland, was there to attack the most vulnerable in our communities—communities that have been let down and abused over many decades. The people who suffered the most as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland were being abused again by Governments. I would sign a petition of concern any day of the week to stop that.
The right hon. Member for East Antrim also talked about legacy. I get that it is not his or many other people’s intention to bring about an amnesty, but let me tell him this; we are talking to the British Government every day of the week about this. An amnesty is what you are going to get, because if you say to people, “In the early days of the troubles, your case was properly investigated”—well, it absolutely was not. That is why we are having to go through this process.
Who is going to come with me to see a Bloody Sunday family, or somebody who was shot by the IRA in any year during the conflict, to tell them that they are not entitled to go through the justice process like everybody else? Come with me and do that any day of the week—I will take you to those victims. If you follow what this British Government intend to do, you will be saying not just to veterans, but to IRA people, UVF people, everyone, that they are entitled to walk the streets free, and that the people who were murdered, and their family members who have been left behind, who have suffered the most and have been left out of this peace process, will just have to wait because once again, we are going to let them down.
That is the road that this British Government are on. It flies absolutely in the face of the New Decade, New Approach agreement; it flies in the face of the Stormont House agreement; and it flies in the face of common decency, but that is what you will be supporting. You will be supporting an amnesty for everybody if you support the intentions of this British Government.
On why we are here, I think it is important to remember. I really wish we did not have to be here putting in legislation to stop people walking out of government. It should never be the case that, in the 21st century, any political party should be threatening or walking out of government. We are here because Sinn Féin brought down the institutions for three years. It started with the renewable heat incentive scandal and has ended up with the Irish language and God knows what else. The reality is that we had three years of no Government. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) will know of the long, tortuous hours of negotiating and discussing and going through every one of these issues. I am not a massive fan of much of this Bill, but we will support it because we did not win the argument in the New Decade, New Approach discussions.
Will we all take the same approach—that whatever was agreed in the New Decade, New Approach negotiations should be implemented? That is not happening today. I note that DUP Members are saying that we should not be going over the heads of the devolved space and the Assembly and implementing things that were not agreed. But it was agreed—you have all accepted it.
The Irish language Act that I wanted did not come to pass as part of those negotiations. This Bill’s provisions for language and culture are nowhere near enough. People should be prepared and able to continue to argue for better support for the Irish language, but that is not what was delivered in that agreement. I have to accept that. However, when you are in government in Northern Ireland, you have to implement it. I do not want this place legislating at all in the devolved space, but if parties like the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot deliver in government, this is what is going to keep happening time and again. If you want to stop Westminster going over the heads of the devolved Government, do the things that you agreed to do in the first place, and then we will not be in this situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and I were prepared table amendments to the Bill to deal with the issues of language and culture. We would not have changed one single word that was agreed in the NDNA discussions—the legislation that was published at that time by the Government. Actually, I think that the Government have badly mishandled this last week and we have ended up on the brink of another collapse of our institutions.
I just want to pick the hon. Gentleman up on his last point. I take his point that the parties agreed on things in New Decade, New Approach, but he has just said that, if the parties in the Assembly cannot sort things out, things will get done here. That is exactly the problem. My argument would be that it is for the public in Northern Ireland to look at how the parties are dealing with commitments they have made and to then reach appropriate decisions at subsequent elections. If the decisions are just taken here, whatever we think about a particular issue, that would effectively let the parties in Northern Ireland off the hook on delivering on their commitments and promises, and it would not end up leading to a robust devolved institution. That is the argument that I would make, countering slightly the point the hon. Gentleman is making.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has a very optimistic view of how politics in Northern Ireland works. I have absolutely no interest in things being done here that should be done at home, but people have to live up to the things that they committed to and deliver them.
The reality is, though, that there are a lot of things in New Decade, New Approach. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon will know that I talked about this every single time we met during the negotiations. I am the representative for the city of Derry, and for 57 years we have been denied a full-scale university. It is in New Decade, New Approach. What are the Northern Ireland Executive doing about that? We had to fight like mad to get them to implement the support for the medical school at Magee. What are the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government, who will need to support this, doing about waiting lists? Again, that is in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. What are the Executive doing about making housing a stand-alone priority in the programme for government?
I very much welcome today’s elevation of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and I phoned him earlier to congratulate him. I was disappointed, though, to hear him say in his first statement as leader of the party that his No. 1 priority will be the protocol. Last week, we heard from Sinn Féin, whose No. 1 priority was the Irish language Act. I want to take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that the SDLP’s No. 1 priority is the 350,00 people languishing on waiting lists, in pain, today, because the Executive have not got round to dealing with that crisis. The waiting lists in Northern Ireland would make a third world country blush. Yet, last week, Sinn Féin threatened to bring down the very edifice of government over the Irish language Act—it is a very important issue, but not the most important issue that we should be dealing with today. This week, the DUP is threatening to bring down the very edifice of government on the protocol.
Would it not be better if we actually sat down together, worked these issues out, worked together, recommitted to the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, and, more importantly, the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and began to deal with the issues that are the real priorities of the people of Northern Ireland—nationalist, Unionist or other?
Will the hon. Member agree then that, since we already spend about £200 million on the Irish language, whether it is in relation to education, broadcasting, street names and a whole lot of other things in Northern Ireland, he would not give priority to further cultural issues when a huge amount of money is needed to deal with the waiting lists he described?
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He gave a fantastic oration earlier on in support of devolution and the Good Friday agreement. It was fantastic to hear him talking about the Good Friday agreement in such glowing terms. I was 14 or 15 when that was signed. Maybe my memory is not quite serving me right, but I just cannot remember how exactly the DUP voted on the issue of the Good Friday agreement. But if he has now become a convert to the Good Friday agreement and all things power sharing, I welcome him on to the pitch. I am delighted to see it.
The point about the Irish language issue, and all the cultural issues—remember, it was not just the Irish language that was dealt with in the NDNA agreement—is that you can do two things at once; you can do many things at once when you are in government. I would go much further, by the way: I believe absolutely that the language and cultural legislation needs to happen and has to happen as quickly as possible. Do I think we should be threatening the very edifice of government and power sharing over that issue? No, I do not. Equally, do I think we should be threatening the very edifice of government and devolution and power sharing and the Good Friday agreement institutions over the protocol? No, I do not.
That is the problem. We have two parties in control in Northern Ireland—in charge for the last 14 or so years—that are absolutely and totally obsessed with themselves and their own self-interest, with nowhere near enough effort put into dealing with the problems and crises that are evolving, in our collapsing health service and in our education system, which is in real trouble. Why do we not focus our efforts on that, instead of constantly having culture wars and constantly dragging ourselves to the brink of collapse? I will tell hon. Members why: because it suits those two political parties and the system we have created and the bastardisation of the Good Friday agreement that happened at St Andrews to keep having this culture war: “Let’s build both sides up against each other; let’s build the walls higher and higher.”
Why not break down some of the walls? Why do we not realise that the people’s priorities are the health service, access to decent education and a job for the young people? When I walk around the city of Derry, it is a city that has been starved of investment for many a decade, and a city that still does not have—this was in New Decade, New Approach, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon will know, as I helped write some of the words in that document—the full-scale university that it desperately needs. Derry needs that university to stem the tide of our young people leaving—hundreds of them every year, never coming back.
They are the issues we should deal with. They are not Unionist priorities. They are not nationalist priorities. They are priorities for every single one of our citizens. For God’s sake, can we not start dealing with those, instead of bringing ourselves to the brink of collapse every single time?
The Secretary of State made reference to the fact that this Bill coincidentally—or perhaps by design—coincides with the 100th anniversary of the official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament. It is worth my referring to the words of King George V at the official opening, when he appealed to those listening to do their utmost
“to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.”
If we perhaps leave aside some of the historical context, it is none the less worth noting how relevant those words are to the situation in which we in Northern Ireland find ourselves today. We need to be very conscious that if things go wrong and people push and push and push, we could see a situation in which Northern Ireland and the future of power sharing and devolution are in real trouble.
There is a certain irony, particularly in respect of the sustainability aspects of the legislation, that this debate is happening at a time when, under the outgoing rules on the seven-day window, there is so much turmoil in Northern Ireland, some parties are playing fast and loose with those rules and putting demands on the table, and, if things go wrong, we could potentially see Northern Ireland going for an early election. An election would see the fall of a lot of legislation that is currently in works, including an important justice Bill, and would further delay the urgent reforms that are required for our health and education systems and the process of job creation. Elections are, of course, always important for democratic renewal, but it is none the less important that politicians fulfil their mandates and do the job they are required to do on behalf of the people.
I will certainly support the Bill today. It is about putting into practice some of the governance aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement that fall to Westminster, and there may well be some aspects on which we can go further and perhaps clarify some ambiguities that were left in that agreement. I mean no disrespect to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who did an absolutely marvellous job in his leadership on negotiating the agreement, but there are things that could be clarified. In some areas of the agreement, we could go further in building on the reforms that are offered.
It is important to recognise that, ultimately, rules can take us only so far in terms of any structures. Any society has to work on the basis of trust, conventions and respect among the various political actors—those norms of democracy. In the context of Northern Ireland in particular, that relates to partnership and power sharing. At times, we see trust and mutual respect pushed to the very limits. The boundaries of what is necessary to maintain the integrity of devolution are frequently being breached. We cannot see that as sustainable.
Two particular aspects are currently focusing minds: the first relates to the protocol and the second to the language and cultural package. First, on the protocol, it is important that we remind ourselves why the protocol is here: it is the outworking of Brexit and, in particular, the decisions on the very nature of Brexit that were taken by the Government and, indeed, this Parliament. The protocol is a response to decisions taken elsewhere.
At times, the current situation is seen very much through the lens of Unionist discontent with the situation. However, it is important to bear in mind that there is a wider community in Northern Ireland and most people in Northern Ireland recognise why the protocol is there. They do not see it as a breach of the Good Friday agreement or of the constitutional settlement—the principle of consent is written in stone in respect of the various withdrawal agreement documents—and they want to see a situation in which the problems are resolved and we end up with genuine political stability and, indeed, stability for businesses in terms of investment. That means not scrapping the protocol or taking us to or over brink, but finding practical solutions.
I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon make reference to doing even a temporary veterinary agreement. That is of fundamental importance in addressing the checks across the Irish sea. If such an agreement were implemented, we could see the removal of 80% of those checks. If all parties in Northern Ireland pushed in that direction, I think the UK Government would listen a lot more in that regard. The Government need to be very conscious of the choices they make—whether they want to pursue a very pure Brexit or to be pragmatic—for the sake of Northern Ireland and stability.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the commercial impact of the protocol. As his party has Members in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has he no concerns that, as a result of the protocol, many of the things that are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and many of the laws and regulations that were made in the Northern Ireland Assembly will and can no longer be made there, but will be made in Brussels?
When we were part of the European Union, certain laws were made in Brussels, but, of course, we had democratic representation at the time. This is all about the pooling of sovereignty, which means that we gain much greater benefits through being part of a much bigger enterprise. While the right hon. Gentleman is perhaps correct to point to the fact that there is now that democratic deficit, there are things that can be done in terms of what happens to the UK representation through, for example, the Joint Consultative Working Group. The European Union is also being innovative in trying to find space for voices from Northern Ireland to address some of these issues. None the less, it is far from perfect, which is one of the many reasons why we were opposed to Brexit in the first place.
The language and culture aspects of the current situation were very much part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is fair to say that the language and culture issues were the most fundamental and, indeed, intractable part of what was almost a three-year interregnum of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is natural that there is a focus on getting those issues delivered in a timely way. Indeed, the document itself refers to its happening within 100 days. In theory, if it were not for covid, the Assembly would have acted by now.
I appreciate that comments have been made about this issue being something for the Northern Ireland Assembly to sort out and for democratic politicians to work through, but there are two things to say in response to that. First, it has not happened. I very much wish that it had happened in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it has not. If need be, Westminster may have to intervene to address it. Secondly, this is not an ordinary democratic issue that comes along from time to time that politicians have to address. All five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are back in office due to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. If we find a situation in which we do not honour the agreements that we make around the integrity of devolution, then devolution will collapse. That is the reality, and that is why this is seen in that very particular light.
There are those who point to a much sadder situation where, time after time, we are seeing agreements made and breached. In particular, aspects in relation to rights on equality do not seem to move through the Northern Ireland Assembly for one reason or another. That is a source not just of frustration for many, but of despair for those who depend on those rights. That moves beyond simply issues around the culture and language aspects and into areas around marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights, on which the Minister of State is working very keenly.
I want to focus on the three different sections of the Bill. The first is the sustainability of the institutions. Again, rather than having just seven days following the collapse of the institutions, it may well be necessary to have a little more breathing space, but that does bring a downside, which some Members have very ably drawn out today. There are also some wider issues around sustainability, which is how the institutions evolve to meet the needs of an evolving society.
Northern Ireland is a very diverse society, but if we go back to 1998, there was this working assumption that the world was divided into two camps—the Unionist camp and the nationalist camp—and there were a small number of people in between who were either “others” or “neithers”. They were perhaps a slightly awkward group that could be put to one side because they were not that many, but, over time, that centre ground bloc, or those who were designated as “others”, has grown dramatically in the Assembly. Indeed, after the next Assembly election, who knows, they could represent more than 20% of the Members of the Assembly.
In that context, the nature of designations becomes ever more untenable. They are fundamentally anti-democratic; they are about dividing Northern Ireland and sending out a message that Northern Ireland is fundamentally divided and will be so perpetually, which is not how many people, particularly young people, wish to see the future of their society. It is entirely possible to have power-sharing in different ways, through weighted majorities and so on, where we do not need the system of designations.
The same applies to how we form Governments in Northern Ireland through what was a mandatory coalition, with the built-in vetoes that caused so much damage. There are other ways in which power-sharing can be done with different models of associational democracy. The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) referred to an associational model. It is important that the Government are conscious that in the very near future some of the fundamental rules of the Assembly, particularly the assumption that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will always be a Unionist or a nationalist, may come under pressure through electoral demographic change and we could see a major crisis of legitimacy of the institutions. It is important that the Government act ahead of that rather than in response to yet another crisis that may emerge.
The ministerial code has perhaps not had the same amount of attention in this debate as other matters. It is very welcome that we strengthen the standard to which Ministers are required to keep in Northern Ireland. In doing so, however, it is worth referencing that what is proposed on paper for Northern Ireland now goes further than what is the norm for the UK Government in their operations. Obviously in recent months there has been a lot of controversy in Whitehall over the ministerial code and how it is enforced. That rather prompts the question: if it is good enough for Northern Ireland to have a strengthened ministerial code with independent enforcement and oversight, then why not Whitehall as well? In Northern Ireland the ministerial code is frequently breached by Ministers from a number of parties on a regular basis, so simply having an improved code on paper does not always mean that we see an improvement in practice.
On petitions of concern, there has been a long-standing demand for reform from my party and indeed many others. There have been particular frustrations over recent years where petitions of concern have been used, and indeed abused, to block the delivery of rights and equality issues in Northern Ireland. In effect, it gives a party that previously had over 30 seats the ability to have the net equivalent of 55 or 56 seats and to block anything that it does not like. That is not democratic. It moves us away from the original intent in the Good Friday agreement: the petition of concern was to protect the vital interests of different sections of the community, not to enable rights that cut across the entire community to be blocked. I welcome what has been negotiated in New Decade, New Approach, which will hopefully be placed into law, although I am still slightly sceptical as to whether it goes far enough. We may need to revise and review it in future if it proves not to be workable. None the less, it is good to see it on paper.
Alongside that, it is worth stressing that the petition of concern in the Assembly is only one feature of the vetoes. There are also the hidden vetoes that operate inside the Northern Ireland Executive: not only the vetoes tabled by the Executive, where a number of Ministers can block an issue; but because the two largest parties control the agenda of the Executive and either party can prevent an issue from even coming to the Executive table. Those areas also need to be addressed if we are to have a proper functioning democracy.
My final point is about legacy. I will hopefully come back to this if and when a Bill is produced by the Government in due course. While it is welcome that the Government are being faithful to the governance aspects of New Decade, New Approach, it is worth stressing that in terms of legacy they are not. The chapter on legacy in New Decade, New Approach refers directly to Stormont House; in fact, that is its actual title. It could not be more clear that the intention in that document is to deliver the previous agreement that was made between the UK and Irish Governments and a number of the other parties back in 2014.
However, we have seen a major U-turn away from the principles of Stormont House and, indeed, the content of Stormont House. I concur with what other Members have said, including particularly the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), in that what we are likely to see is a de facto amnesty. We cannot do what Parliament wants to do in relation to members and veterans of the armed forces, and not do the same in relation to those people who were involved in terrorist organisations. It has to be uniform, and the Government know that is the legal advice they have been given.
It is worth stressing that what may be coming down the tracks on legacy does not have the support, at least in public, of any political party in Northern Ireland, it does not have the support of any of the victims groups right across the community and it is something that may well be imposed over the heads of those in Northern Ireland. Right around the world, whenever we see different forms of transitional justice, even those that may well have a statute of limitations or indeed an amnesty, they are part of a wider peace agreement and they have legitimacy whenever parties across the political spectrum buy into them. That is not the case with what may be happening in Northern Ireland. That point stands apart from the fact that what may well be coming from the Government is not likely to comply with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, and what is proposed will eventually be struck down in the courts. We will wait and see what emerges, but for today I am happy to support the Second Reading of this Bill.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and indeed, before him, the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). It is at moments when the House has to debate matters relating to Northern Ireland and to Northern Ireland alone that the somewhat asymmetric nature of the Union that makes up the United Kingdom is most apparent. I think it assists the House enormously that we are able to hear now a variety—a multiplicity—of views coming from Northern Ireland. I thank those hon. Members, and indeed all hon. Members from Northern Ireland who have made their contribution to this debate today.
I also place on record my congratulations and the congratulations of my party to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on assuming the leadership of his party. He does so at a difficult and challenging time, and I am sure that he has the good wishes of all parts of the House in taking on the task that he has undertaken.
My party, like those represented by everybody else who has spoken today, will support the measures in this Bill. I think it is perhaps worth reflecting parenthetically that, in a debate that has generated a fair amount of disagreement, the one thing in respect of which there has been universal agreement is that we all support the Bill. That just makes me wonder whether the measures in the Bill are the equal of the political situation that it purports to deal with.
I think the political context is important here. Let us not ignore the fact that much of the political instability to which others have referred is a consequence of the Brexit deal that was done by the Prime Minister and of the Northern Ireland protocol. I suggest that the Prime Minister and his party have for the most part, with a few honourable exceptions such as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), been careless in the custody of their duties under the Good Friday agreement. I have always felt that they never really understood the genuinely fragile nature of the peace that was created by the Good Friday agreement, and that it becomes acute at a moment like this as a consequence. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Down just said, the most obvious and sensible thing that could be done at the moment is the negotiation of a temporary veterinary agreement in relation to Northern Ireland. It would, I think, be something not that difficult to construct, but for reasons of dogma as much as anything else, the Government seem incapable of doing that.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you and I were both in this House in 2003 when it was necessary to cancel elections to the then Northern Ireland Assembly. That was a difficult and painful time. It led to the suspension of the Assembly and to business and legislation relating to Northern Ireland being conducted directly from this Parliament. It was a disgrace. I remember whole Bills going through in Committee Rooms upstairs in 90 minutes for all stages. The idea that there was any democratic scrutiny or accountability as part of that process is nonsensical. Therefore, at the very least, I welcome the fact that we are managing not to return to that. However, as I look around the Chamber, there are not many hon. Members who were here in 2003, so I remind them of what it was like under direct rule when the Assembly collapsed previously. It would not be in their constituents’ best interests to return to that.
As the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Select Committee, said, this is not emergency legislation. Of course, in the technical, parliamentary sense of the term, it is not, but I suggest that it is still urgent. He also said that the Good Friday agreement was a process, and he was correct in that as well. However, as somebody who has observed and participated in the conduct of Northern Ireland business in this House for some time, I think that it is a process that we might have hoped would bring us further and faster than it has done. It established a framework for the people of Northern Ireland to deal with problems for themselves through politics rather than through violence. Although it sounds modest to say that now, it was a significant achievement. The process started actually under Margaret Thatcher and went through the Governments of John Major and Tony Blair.
In the course of the debate, many people, including the right hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), have reflected on the different ways in which devolution works, and unfavourable comparisons have been made about its operation in Scotland and Wales compared to Northern Ireland. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was part of the process that saw the set-up of the Scottish Parliament. The Liberal Democrats were an active participant, along with the Labour party, the local authorities, Churches and other parts of civic Scotland, in the constitutional convention that constructed the blueprint for the Scottish Parliament. Those were the roots of devolution in Scotland, and we did that out of a concern that Scottish institutions and Scots law would be better protected and promoted through a devolved Parliament.
Devolution in Scotland and Wales was the product not of a peace process but of an aspiration to make democracy work better and make democratic politics work better for Scotland and Northern Ireland. To suggest now that a comparison can be made is, I am afraid, misleading. It is rooted in a misunderstanding of the process that has brought us to this point. An understanding of the process that brought us to devolution is important, because that reminds us of the consequences should we allow devolution—the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland—to fail.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Down spoke about designations and the difficulties now with the model of government set up under the Good Friday agreement. He is absolutely right. So much in that agreement created institutions that were never intended to be as enduring as they have been. The purpose of power sharing was to provide an environment in which the communities could work together eventually to achieve what we in the rest of the UK would regard as normal politics, where it would not be necessary to have an Executive constituted in the way that they are, where, in effect, everybody is in government and nobody is in opposition. That is why the one tiny point of disagreement I have with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon is when he says we should be seeking to maintain the status quo. The status quo was never meant to be maintained, and I do not believe that in the long term it is sustainable as a democratic exercise. We need to be more ambitious than that, and for those in this House there must come a point when we decide whether we help the progress towards normal democratic politics in Northern Ireland by continuing to “help out” or whether eventually we will have to say that that is a problem for the Northern Ireland institutions themselves to resolve. For today, on Second Reading, this Bill has my support, but I want it to be clearly understood that in as much as it does sustain a status quo, it can do that only to create stability to ensure further progress. Otherwise, it is always going to be a waste of time.
The New Decade, New Approach agreement certainly paved the way for the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2020, and this was welcomed by everyone. It is therefore ironic that the backdrop to today’s Second Reading debate is a decision of this Government to threaten to usurp the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the exercise of its newly restored powers, not to prioritise the promises and pledges on health, the economy and education but to prioritise a cultural package. Mention has already been made of this, but I need to reiterate that the three-year long crisis and absence of devolution in Northern Ireland was precipitated by Sinn Féin’s refusal to share power unless and until its demands were met. In doing so, it held to ransom not just the other political parties in Northern Ireland but every person on the health service waiting lists, as they spiralled out of control.
Somewhere along the line, the fact that the sustainability provisions in this Bill are actually needed as a direct result of the behaviour of Sinn Féin would seem to have been forgotten. A former Member of this House for the Foyle constituency used to say, “What gets rewarded gets repeated”, and that is never more true than today. Last week, Sinn Féin played the same old trick again and, surprise, surprise, was richly rewarded by this Government. That is the message that will have been heard loud and clear across Northern Ireland. The precedent has been set. If Sinn Féin was prepared to use such tactics to speed up the delivery of a cultural package, many in my community would ask why Unionists would not adopt the same approach when the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the UK is at stake, under the guise of the protocol.
At its heart, this Bill is about the sustainability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, yet the delay in introducing this legislation has contributed to the lack of political stability in the Province. Had the Government introduced this legislation sooner, they might have avoided the ransom politics of Sinn Féin, who were prepared to hold the political institutions hostage over the timing of a cultural package set out in NDNA. Having spent three years working to secure the return of powers at Stormont, Sinn Féin wasted no time in giving back control to Westminster, not because the DUP refused to implement the cultural aspects of NDNA, but because it would not do so ahead of other priorities within that agreement. As a Unionist, I suppose the fact that Sinn Féin has changed its message from “Brits out” to “Brits in” should be regarded as progress. However, the fact that the Government are prepared to pass legislation without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly on matters that are entirely within the devolved arena at the behest of a party that does not even take its seats in this House is beyond parody.
The last time the Government breached the Sewel convention, with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage, they did so under the cover of the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, much to my frustration and despair. Today, no such pretence or pretext exists. Instead, a new exception to the Sewel convention has been created. In the light of this background, the fact that elements of this Bill will not achieve the desired objectives seems almost irrelevant. Let us take just one example. When the First Minister or Deputy First Minister resigns, as happened last week, there can now be a period of up to 24 weeks to replace them without the need for a fresh election, but there are no arrangements in place to allow the institutions to function credibly during this period. In the absence of a First Minister or Deputy First Minister, no Executive can meet and Ministers are unable to take significant or controversial decisions. That is not a sustainable way to do business, and I hope that those arrangements can be looked at again in light of recent experience.
My party signed up to New Decade, New Approach in its entirety, not because we welcomed every dot and comma but because we believe in devolution and we believed that the agreement was a pathway forward for the devolved institutions. It was by no means a deal without fault, but with waiting lists spiralling out of control, with the challenges posed by Brexit, with the need to address educational underachievement, with welfare reform mitigations coming to an end and with so many other issues pressing on people’s lives, we engaged with other parties to stop the harm that Sinn Féin’s boycott was doing to ordinary people in Northern Ireland.
However, NDNA is about more than the cultural provisions on which there is considerable focus. It also deals with the reform of public services, policing resources, infrastructure investment and so much more, yet on much of this there has been no progress and nothing said. The voices on these Benches from within the Government and the Opposition that are so exercised by the Irish language question are silent on the worst waiting lists in the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Bill is designed to address the sustainability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, yet in the final analysis the Assembly will be sustainable only if the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland is respected. My party is prepared to lend its support to the Bill tonight, but I have very real concerns that the Bill is too little, too late. Through their actions in recent days, the Government have damaged the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland in a way that they would never countenance doing in Scotland or Wales. The real challenge for this Government in the coming weeks will be to address their commitments in New Decade, New Approach in relation to the UK’s internal market. I trust that, in that endeavour, we can count on those in this House who supported the Government’s approach to the culture package to display the same enthusiasm in that regard.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). I guess I also need to reflect on the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). He made two points, and I substantially agree with the first, which was about the range of voices from Northern Ireland in this debate and the positive aspect that that brings to our deliberations in this House. I say that acutely knowing that I am following a colleague of mine and that people will be thinking, “For goodness’ sake, we’ve just had six minutes of that, and now we’re going to get another 15 or 20 from the big lad.” I promise I will try to give an alternative reflection.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is right, and I too believe that the 2017 to 2019 Parliament was greatly inhibited by the curtailed voices. There was no range of voices from Northern Ireland save for that of Sylvia Hermon, the former hon. Member for North Down. That is not to say that I agree with everything that is said or with other contributions, but I think this House benefits from a range of reflections. I also make the point, since there are now a range of voices from Northern Ireland in Parliament, that it is still important that the other parties engage with us. It would be a shame for anyone to think that they now have a buddy or a mate in Parliament, so there is no need to broaden their own horizons; that would similarly be a foolhardy mistake. I look forward to continued engagement with the right hon. Gentleman.
The fact that there is widespread critical agreement on the progress of the Bill through Second Reading highlights the point that it is probably not that significant an advancement. Its provisions take us so far and make some changes, but they are not significant in and of themselves. It is appropriate, however, that there are advancements to New Decade, New Approach, and in a legislative sense it is appropriate that those aspects are before us today.
It is right that we reflect that this is non-emergency legislation. That is nice for me as a Member of Parliament who has been here for six years and seen hugely significant issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland rushed through this Chamber in a three or four-hour process of Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading. None of that is appropriate. It is important to recognise how this is progressing and is intended to progress over the months to come.
We benefited not only from the contribution that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) made earlier, but from his time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I remember the engagement that we had at Stormont House on the discussions about New Decade, New Approach, and the personal determination that he had at the time to make sure that politics worked; I sometimes feel that that is lacking now. I hear time and again from community voices, sectoral support, business and public servants in Northern Ireland, all of which still have good contact with the right hon. Member and still hugely value the contribution that he made to our society in Northern Ireland. That energy and drive was predicated on Northern Ireland people working for Northern Ireland people on supporting devolution in Northern Ireland, on making it work no matter how difficult or intractable the problems appeared, on highlighting, recognising and dealing with the continual difficulties in our society, and on supporting us collectively across the political spectrum to deal with those issues in Northern Ireland.
That is why I think that the commitment made last week was so retrograde. We know that there are challenges—they have been reflected in this debate—but do not turn around and give the impression that “If you just can’t do it, we’ll do it for you.” I said to the Minister of State two weeks ago, “Do not make the commitment that you will legislate on any aspect of NDNA without political consent, because the political party that you are going to do it for still needs to work with other political parties in Northern Ireland.”
The only way that devolution will be successful in our Province—the only way that we will continue on the pathway from troubles to peace—is if we work with one another, trust one another and build a relationship based on shared values and a shared outlook on how we grow as a society. If the British Government, the Irish Government or the American Government step in at every turn and say, “Come on, now, I’ll hold your hand and take you down this certain path, because that’s where you want to go,” it will not work.
The short-term gain of what was agreed last week is futile and fundamentally injurious to devolution in Northern Ireland. I say at this stage—it is not part of the Bill, but it is intrinsic to all that has gone before—that the Government need to recognise that continuing along the path that they have outlined would be hugely detrimental to progress in Northern Ireland. I say that with no joy—none whatever.
The protocol was mentioned. It is a hugely symbolic and genuinely difficult issue affecting all strands and strata of our society. We hear voices at one side saying, “It’s all a disaster and it’s all been imposed upon us,” and we hear others saying, “Well, you brought it upon yourselves.” None of that actually matters at the end of the day for the ordinary consumer, the ordinary businessman or the ordinary member of our community who is striving for the best but sees the barriers ahead of them.
I heard the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood)—I am glad that he is back in the Chamber as he gets a mention—say that he was surprised that the protocol featured in the statements made today; “Why not the priority of the health service?” We first need to recognise the difficulties. We need to highlight the problems and work to resolve them. But make no mistake about it: there was a suggestion that a focus on veterinary agreement would be significant in relation to the protocol; it is but one aspect.
We recognise the challenges in the health service. How do we deal with the challenges in the health service if we do not deal with the grace period on medicines that is going to expire? Was it not the European Union, three months ago, that sought to trigger article 16 to prevent the export of vaccines to Northern Ireland? It was. We saw cancer drugs get approval by our UK medical agency in the last month, but the European medical agency had not yet quite made the approval, so those cancer drugs were not being made available in Northern Ireland, a part of this country—a constitutionally integral part of this country, enshrined under the Good Friday agreement that we all seek to protect.
Let us not suggest that veterinary issues alone will solve the protocol. They will deal with the significant impediment of barriers for food and animal products, but they will not deal with the totality of it.
I appreciate what the hon. Member says about medicines. It is important that we have a resolution in that regard, and I believe that some very good work is being done by both the European Commission and, let me say, the UK Government in that regard. But on the veterinary agreement, although I appreciate that it is only one part of the equation, would his party join all other parties in Northern Ireland in making a common call to the Government in that very particular respect? I appreciate that it does not address all the issues, but surely, if all five parties were to make a common pitch on that one topic, it would make a huge difference, and I would expect the Government to listen to that.
I understand why the hon. Member puts forward that proposition, but he is falling into the same trap. That alone will not solve it. If we go collectively as five parties and say, “Sort out veterinary,” the Government will, but does that solve all the problems impacting Northern Ireland on the protocol? No, it does not. Does it solve the medicines issue? No, it does not.
There was a clamour months ago about steel, and a resolution was found for the importation of steel into Northern Ireland, with a Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs fix. Did it do anything for aluminium? No, it did not. Does that impact aerospace, the largest private employer in my constituency and a huge employer in the hon. Member’s constituency—something we recognise that, despite the problems last year with coronavirus, had £1.4 billion-worth of economic benefit to Northern Ireland and still employs 6,500 people? Is that on the table for resolution? I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, of my disappointment and anger when I got a message back from the Northern Ireland Office indicating, “Well, actually, the letter was sent to Mr Šefčovič, and it’s not going to be added to the agenda.” There has been little change since.
That is before we touch on the constitutional aspects and before we touch on the democratic deficit associated with the protocol. I am not saying that we should not collaborate on veterinary checks, but let us not go down the rabbit hole of focusing solely on one singular issue when the issues are many, deep and broad and they need to be resolved.
I shall conclude on this, Mr Deputy Speaker. There are challenges in society in Northern Ireland. There have been concerns around the stability of our institutions in Northern Ireland and the opportunity for progress. Although I recognise them all, I will not lose my passion for progress in Northern Ireland—for all of us, irrespective of our differences, working together in Northern Ireland. It costs me nothing to say I believe and agree that commitments that were entered into shall and will be honoured, but we cannot ignore the huge and damaging impact that the protocol has brought to society in Northern Ireland and the unease that abounds throughout my community and many others, and we have to buckle down and deliver, and solve it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). We served together as Belfast city councillors and his voice and his views are always worth hearing. I believe that if they were the values and views projected by his party we would be in a much better position. While not seeking to put him on the spot, I think that was a very important point to make about the fact that if we, as five parties, went to the Government—if I am hearing him correctly—and spoke about how much a veterinary agreement would solve many of the problems facing us in Northern Ireland, he believes the Government would listen. I hope that that is the case, because he, like me, will know that there is progress to be made and fixes to be done on medicines. He will know that there is not a person in Northern Ireland who has been denied cancer drugs as a result of Brexit or anything else, but that constructive spirit would take us very far indeed and I would like to endorse the proposal.
January 2020, before covid and Brexit, might feel like a completely different place and time politically, but the politics of the past fortnight have been a reminder of the culture of crisis, stand-off, side deal and repeat that dogged devolution and the operation of the Good Friday institutions, and preceded the 2017 to 2020 collapse and the New Decade, New Approach deal that followed it. That came after three years in which Northern Ireland was a governance black hole. While the whole world was talking about the Good Friday agreement, its institutions were lying empty. Because of that, the agreement spans very many issues, including waiting lists, support for victims of the troubles, third-level education and childcare. Those were the preoccupations of the SDLP during the negotiations and I think they better reflect the preoccupations of the electorate as well.
It is worth reminding Members that it was not the deep desire of the power parties that restored Stormont, but the message sent by the electorate in December 2019—my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) were elected in that election—and the message sent by striking healthcare workers. Credit for getting power back to the Good Friday institutions goes to them, along with, it must be said, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who by all accounts and all regards is the best Northern Ireland Secretary we have had in a generation. His commitment was matched by the then Tánaiste Simon Coveney. They, and particularly the healthcare workers and the striking nurses in Northern Ireland, deserve credit. They and other people voted for a break in the stalemate, but they expect and need a lot more than just the absence of stalemate. They want delivery on all the policy commitments in New Decade, New Approach and in terms of change to the governing culture.
There is no doubt that covid has been an immense drain on political and legislative time, and there is no doubt that Brexit has been a drain on good will and political energy, but neither of those explains or excuses the paralysis that has beset many of the commitments in New Decade, New Approach. Culture and language fall into that category. They are not, in fact, among the most complex and challenging issues. The New Decade, New Approach commitment endorses a three-dimensional legislative compact that was drawn up by the Office of the Legislative Counsel in Northern Ireland, so it was not one-sided or maximalist. It means that many of those who for many years and in good faith campaigned strongly and honourably for an Irish language Act will see that the legislative guarantees are not as free-standing or as far-reaching as they wished to see.
That should have meant that those who opposed the Act would be encouraged to recognise that its nature, balance and thrust were not in one direction and not out of proportion in terms of purported cost or unwanted impact on anybody. Edwin Poots himself, as he was departing, said that one of Unionism’s faults is that it plays up the wins of others and plays down its own achievements. This is a very good example of that. This was an opportunity for the DUP to agree to a balanced package and I regret that it seems to be rejecting it. The Assembly has passed other legislation since its resumption last January, so there is no reason it could not pass this “Blue Peter” “Here’s one we made earlier” Bill. The only reason it has not passed it is resistance and reluctance. The former First Minister Arlene Foster waited until her resignation statement to commend the package, but that was a proportionate perspective that could have been used, in partnership with her fellow First Minister, to bring forward the Bill that would have been a significant part of an honourable legacy for her, a meaningful gesture towards a shared future and a signal that the DUP is willing and able to share power.
Like the hon. Member for North Down, the King George V speech has caught my attention today as well. There is a lot in it that is worth quoting. I am not usually given to quoting monarchs, but perhaps some of my DUP colleagues will take it more from a former king than they will from their neighbours. As well as the points that the hon. Member outlined, he talked about a Parliament for Northern Ireland being
“an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community”.
He talked about
“moderation, with fairness and due regard to every faith and interest”
and about bringing forward
“a new era of peace, contentment, and good will”
“sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”
I say, 100 years on: please can we have another crack at doing that? The words ring very true.
If the issue is the UK Government legislating over your head on the Irish language, the opportunity still exists to send a signal to your neighbours that you are prepared to do it on their behalf. Withholding legislation on language as a worn-down bargaining chip is not a basis for meaningful sharing—neither, though, is Sinn Féin’s tactic of withholding the whole of devolution to achieve it. Sinn Féin criticised the DUP for withholding its nomination and the DUP criticised Sinn Féin the week before for withholding its nomination, with each party righteously condemning the mirror-image tactic from the other and each instalment draining away belief and faith in power sharing among the general population.
Over recent weeks, against the backdrop of no movement on bringing forward these legislative terms, the SDLP, as an honourable party to New Decade, New Approach, explored with the Secretary of State whether those pre-published legislative terms could be included by amendment to this Bill, which is, of course, a vehicle for advancing those aspects. Although he rested the onus us to design the relevant amendments that might be scoped, we established that the Government were not opposed in principle or practice to Westminster legislating for that, on the basis that it had been signed off by all five parties. We are grateful for the assistance of Clerks and drafters in navigating those possibilities.
We had proposed to table specifically and faithfully the legislative drafts that were agreed by all those parties and drafted by the Office of the Legislative Counsel—no more and no less were we going to do—and, in draft format, those amendments run to only 23 pages, so they would be even fewer in Bill form. Now that the Government have declared in public what they had agreed in private, the obvious question occurs: why not now with the means available to us with this Bill? There is a real argument, we believe, that it would be better to incorporate this package into this miscellaneous approach to New Decade, New Approach rather than leaving it until October when other factors might be at play. We have seen slippiness and slipperiness when it comes to previous commitments. As others have outlined, we are grossly overdue legislation relating to victims and New Decade, New Approach, so we do not and cannot have blind faith in how the Government will discharge that commitment, or what concession or other factor they will read into it in the autumn. We hope that the people of Northern Ireland and the Gaeilgeoirs of Northern Ireland do not look back in a few months on this as a missed opportunity.
This tale of the last few weeks of bad faith and foot dragging are the last 14 years of stop-start governance in microcosm. For all that the letter and spirit of the agreement are used as an amulet for people for or against Brexit, the spirit of power sharing and working the common ground, and of building trust through mutual endeavour, are quite absent from the Assembly. Watching that daily in the media drains away those feelings in the public. We are now very far off the vision that in 1998 created infrastructure and architecture to manage differences and to be able to realise a better future in Northern Ireland.
There are other issues on which we will table amendments, and we will not resile from New Decade, New Approach, but we will put forward ways that would strengthen the provisions in that and correct some of the divergence from the concepts of the Good Friday agreement—on, for example, restoring the joint nature of the First Minister’s office, which has been distorted by St Andrews. That was a centrepiece of strand 1, and although we hear a lot of waxing about parallel consent, that was the part of the Good Friday agreement that spoke about parallel consent and about the Assembly collectively nominating the First Ministers who would then be accountable to it. That foundation that would embed those concepts in the Assembly as an act of leadership from the top down was stripped out by the DUP and Sinn Féin at St Andrews.
Similar corrections to the petitions of concern are sensible and valid. It was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle outlined, a mechanism designed to protect minorities, but instead it is used to thwart them. In fact, it is now thought of as a byword for veto, and that extends to the vetoholic tendencies of the DUP in the Executive and other corruptions of the agreement inserted at St Andrews. The three-Minister provision is causing absolute logjam in the Executive office and prevents Ministers from bringing forward progressive and productive legislation because they know that it will be thwarted at the Executive.
There are a number of other good points to be made and discussed around the issue of designation, which runs the risk, when it is wielded as it is by the larger parties, of locking in and embedding some of the sectarianism that the Good Friday agreement was designed to phase out. We look forward to discussing some of those issues.
Stability and sustainability ultimately will not come from rules and procedures; they will come from people believing, understanding and accepting that sharing power with their neighbours is the right thing to do, and not just sharing that power because the law tells them that they cannot make decisions without it. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) made a number of good points about how devolution is not just about preventing conflict, because if we look at Scotland and Wales, it is of course about local power being in local hands, and about people being able to realise opportunities that those elected close to the ground will understand.
The hon. Member for Belfast East about spoke about common grounds and shared values. They are what we all want; they unite people of all backgrounds in south Belfast and in Northern Ireland as a whole, but they are currently absent from the top the Assembly. They would be displayed if the DUP were willing to advance all the aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, and if they were, legislation would not be required from this House.
I want to give the perspective of those in the Unionist community who are very disillusioned and have great concerns, which I will express at some length in the time that I have been allocated.
As a Northern Ireland MP, a Unionist and a resident of Northern Ireland, I must express my great concern about the work and movement of this House, not in the Bill, which has been introduced in an appropriate manner and by the correct mechanism, but on Northern Ireland issues, which the Minister has not deigned to lay before Members of the House or indeed answer to in the House. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply to what I and other Members have said from all perspectives across the House, however.
It is very fitting that the Bill is before the House because the fractious state of emotions in Northern Ireland could well see an election called shortly. Indeed, it could be called before the Bill has managed to make its way through the due process. I am not saying that that will happen or that I want that to happen, but it could happen because of where we are. I have often taken due process for granted, but it is absolutely missed when it is not in place.
I was beyond shocked last Thursday to hear that a deal had been done—it was promoted as such on TV—with Sinn Féin to deliver on the Irish language aspect of the New Decade, New Approach deal, especially when so many life-changing aspects have been left behind. The Bill brings in aspects of the new deal, yet I do not see the Irish language aspect anywhere, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said. It really does make me angry and annoyed whenever we look at these things. Perhaps when the Minister replies he can explain why there is an intention to bring proposals before this House, perhaps by September this year, if there is not some sort of arrangement or deal, yet promises have been made and I, as the representative for Strangford, have no idea what they contain. Why is it that we should be made aware of this via the TV news at a half past seven on a Thursday morning? Why are these deals done behind backs?
To be frank, the irony of this Bill coming before us today, after the backroom dealings of last week, is not lost. The Bill has been brought in, ostensibly, to firm up democracy—a process by which we are all here in the House and in which we all believe, and to create a path forward—yet the actions of last week, in tandem with the Northern Ireland protocol, have angered and upset people and made them question the very fact of their being as British as those in Finchley. Are we as British as those in Staffordshire, London and elsewhere?
The protocol has left the people of Northern Ireland shaken in the ties that bind to this place. There is a feeling of anything goes for one community: “Have your thousand-strong funeral, your two-tier policing and your Irish language brought in by stealth—sure, you have your cake and then you can have my cake as well.” That is how some people feel. The anger is palatable and can be cut with a knife in Northern Ireland at this time. It really concerns me to see the republicans making a quick call to have the Irish language circumnavigate the process of devolution, when they refuse to come here and take their seats in this place to bring such a measure forward democratically, if they felt they could do that. It would be laughable were it not so serious and were tensions in my community not at boiling point at this moment in time.
I will never condone the actions of some who burn buses and destroy property, but I absolutely understand the frustration behind that—frustration inflamed by the Secretary of State just last week, when he annoyed many people to an extent that I am not quite sure he understands. There are those who will never burn a bus or step out of line, and I thank God for those people. Everyone in this House and on this side of the Chamber would be among those people, but there are many others who will never resort to that either. There are those who have signed the petitions against the protocol and lawfully waited to see the democratic process at work, and those who have contacted my office and other offices with issues to do with keeping their businesses afloat—they do it all appropriately and according to the legislation, following it religiously—then see the background dealings and threats and wonder why they continue to do the right thing only to be done over again. Some of the strongest Unionists I know have told me that they question why it is that they cling to their Britishness when their Government are content to step in for things that are important to the republicans but avoid the things that have mattered over the years for us.
I have great concerns. During the last collapse of Stormont, I came to this House repeatedly, and I am probably one of those who have spoken more on the Northern Ireland protocol over the last period of time than most other MPs. I have repeatedly asked the Government to step in and act for education, for our health service and for our veterans, yet the answer is always the same: “We cannot overstep the democratic process.” Well, they can if it suits them, but not if we ask for some things that are really important. One constituent suggested to me—indeed, it has been suggested by many constituents—that not overstepping the democratic process is only the case if the normal person is asking: representatives of unapologetic terrorism can have every whim satisfied and looked after. I find myself unable to dispute that assertion from my constituent and many others.
The action taken by the Government to go above the Assembly to implement any form—any form—of Irish language measure will of course mean that every aspect of the New Decade, New Approach agreement must be administered and wholly funded by the Government. It is not simply about the electoral forms presented today and on which the Minister will speak shortly. How much funding has been sourced to implement the other aspects of the deal? Others have referred to health, as will I, because I am my party’s health spokesperson in this place and I am well aware of the precarious position of the health sector in Northern Ireland. Some 300,000 people are on the list waiting for their examinations and surgical operations. People are waiting for knee replacements, for hip replacements, for their tonsils to be removed, for cataracts—the whole thing is enormous. People are waiting to settle the ongoing pay dispute for our nurses.
When I see and hear about the Irish language, I just ask myself, “What’s the priority?” I ask my constituents what the priority is, and even some of those of a different political persuasion from me in relation to Unionism say, “The most important thing is health, education, policing, roads.” They want to see the money spent on those things, not spent on an Irish language that only 5% of the people of the Province actually speak.
We need to introduce a new action plan on waiting times and deliver the reforms on health and social care set out in the Bengoa report. I become intensely frustrated when I see the numbers of people who come to me and my office with issues about getting operations. Today a guy told me that he has been waiting a number of years for an operation on his knee, and some of those waiting for cancer operations have unfortunately not been able to have their operation because they are no longer here. When I see the waiting lists, and the need for such operations, I think that is where we should be spending the money.
On education, the Executive should urgently resolve the current teachers’ industrial dispute, and address resourcing pressures in schools. A number of schools have contacted me about their funding and the money available for maintenance, and every school must have access to a sustainable core budget to deliver quality education. The Executive should establish an expert group and propose an action plan to address links between persistent educational under-achievement and socio-economic background, including the longstanding issues facing working-class Protestant boys. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East and I know a number of young Protestant boys who have under-achieved.
Today in the press the Chair of the Education Committee referred to under-achievement by young white boys and men on the mainland. We have had that in Northern Ireland for a while, but what is being done to address it? It is a massive issue for my constituents, and when it comes to spending money, we should spend it on those things, not on something that is unnecessary at this time. The Executive should also deliver a new special educational needs framework to support young people with special needs to achieve their full potential. We must consider the mental health of our children and look at these massive issues.
On security, the Executive need to increase police numbers to 7,500. Ask my constituents what they want to spend the money on. Should we spend it on the Irish language, or on recruiting new police officers to protect those in their homes, stop antisocial behaviour, and have a more obvious platform. This is the tip of the iceberg, and I would welcome hearing from the Secretary of State how such measures will be implemented. How much funding outside the Barnett consequentials has been set aside to deliver on the things that are important to people—health and education—as opposed to those things important to the Sinn Féin agenda, to the detriment of health and education?
This deal was published in January 2020, and we have spent the last 18 months being battered by coronavirus and decimated by the Northern Ireland protocol. It frustrates me greatly, and there is the threat of worse to come under full implementation of the protocol. The person on the street is praying that their business will see it through so that they can keep their job and staff. People are concerned about whether their loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer can be treated quickly, or they are waiting four years—or longer—for knee surgery. Parents wonder whether they can get a funded nursery place for their child in their town, yet it seems that the republican agenda comes before life and before quality of life. Hon. Members will understand the frustration I am expressing on behalf of my constituents, who have told me how angry they are.
To do anything less than implement all the agreement is tantamount to the Government admitting that they are yet again bowing the knee to the republican agenda against the process of democracy. I am a democrat and I have always believed in the democratic process. I want to see it working. When the democratic process works, it calms people, and they see it can work. If it does not work, people say, “Well then, something else will have to work.” To go against that democratic process is abhorrent to every right thinking person in the Province, and it should also be abhorrent in this place. If the Minister of State, and others, can appreciate my annoyance and the abhorrence felt by me and those I represent, we will have made a step in the right direction.
Yet again we have been strong-armed by the thirst for a new historical narrative, and a new attack from Sinn Féin’s never-ending litany of ways to take from the British Government without improving the quality of life of even one person in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many of its supporters would like issues such as health, education, policing and roads to be prioritised.
It is up to the Assembly democratically to outline the form of any language changes, not this House. This is a sensitive issue and, as with the issues of abortion and the Northern Ireland protocol, our democracy has again been overruled. Whether there is a vote today is not the issue. The voice of the people of Strangford matters, and I hope I have expressed it on their behalf today. They have elected me to do a job, and I want to ensure that their viewpoint is heard in the Chamber. Those people, of all persuasions, matter to me. Their right to devolution matters to me. They have a right to see their taxes pay for more operations, smaller classes in education, greater help for special needs, and an adequate, fully funded and numerically strong police force. All of those things matter to them a lot more than whether a sign is in a language that they do or do not understand and have little desire to understand.
This House did the people of the Province a disservice last week when this was announced. There is time to correct it, to do the right thing and to remind the people of the Province why we are better off together, instead of making all of those who have treasured their British identity all their lives wonder why they have treasured it and whether the blood of their loved ones was shed in vain.
I place on record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his appointment as the leader of his party. I also thank the Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s debate, adding their rich and in many cases first-hand experiences of previous political difficulties in Northern Ireland, to enhance and improve the legislation as it stands. That point has already been far more eloquently delivered by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson).
Today we have heard from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), about the benefits of using this Bill to strengthen the ministerial code and the promotion of the Nolan principles of public life. If I may echo the words of the hon. Member for North Down, this House and the Government could benefit from such a provision, given the issues we have seen over previous weeks.
We have also heard the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), the right hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) make passionate cases for the benefits of devolution. This is an area extremely close to my heart, as an MP from a devolved nation. I believe that it was the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who stated that devolution should not be treated like a Woolworths pick‘n’mix, and I wholeheartedly agree.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has outlined, as well as delivering devolution, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement remains one of Labour’s proudest achievements in office. We have made it clear that we welcome these attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive, the Assembly and the institutions and decision making within it. The provisions in the Bill are a sensible and necessary evolution of the post-Belfast/Good Friday agreement landscape and should promote greater stability and good governance. It is for that reason that we will support the Bill as it makes its way through the House.
However, as we have heard this afternoon, it is unfortunate that due to the prolonged delay in introducing this legislation, many months after the agreement was signed, its crucial provisions will now be utterly redundant in the current political crisis. The unfortunate lack of urgency from Ministers means that the provisions of the Bill are highly unlikely to come into force until winter. Will the Minister therefore explain why the commencement provision is for two months after the legislation receives Royal Assent, and not immediately?
While ensuring necessary scrutiny, the Opposition will do what we can to ensure that the important provisions of the Bill are in place as quickly as possible. The current situation clearly demands it. Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley has made clear, we will, working with colleagues from Northern Ireland and across the House, seek to tighten up the provisions of the Bill.
On the caretaker Executive, we will seek to bring much greater clarity to the powers that Ministers are entitled to exercise during a caretaker period; to probe what constitutes a caretaker Executive with sufficient cross-community support; to guarantee the sustainability of decision making; and to ensure the proper consideration of equality duties and good governance. On the petition of concern, while we welcome amendments in and for themselves, we also encourage Ministers to look at the other effective vetoes, which are being used in much the same way as the petition of concern. Without careful scrutiny, there is a danger that much-needed reform of the petition of concern will simply displace veto activity elsewhere without addressing the problem itself.
Speaking more broadly, what is not in the Bill is as significant as what is in it. Twenty-three years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, progress has undoubtedly stalled over the past decade. The unmet promise of the Good Friday agreement, including the Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, and a civic forum to give citizens a proper say in the functioning of the Government, has been held back for far too long.
Take the Bill of Rights, for instance—a Westminster responsibility. Decades on from the Good Friday agreement, it has still not been implemented. Does the Secretary of State agree that if provisions designed to underpin the rights of all communities are not delivered, confidence in the agreement itself is diminished? Does the failure to bring that forward in this Bill not represent a real missed opportunity to properly bolster the Good Friday agreement?
The same can, of course, be said of the Civic Forum, which was established under the Good Friday agreement and was supposed to give communities a real stake and a say in decisions made about them. Given the real need for communities to see the Assembly working for them, do Ministers back its reintroduction?
Furthermore, the New Decade, New Approach agreement was agreed 18 months ago, yet the Government have held just one meeting on its implementation and many of the commitments remain unmet. Is it not time that the Government delivered on the promises made and demonstrated clearly to communities in Northern Ireland that the deal to restart power sharing is working for them?
Labour look forward to offering the careful scrutiny this Bill demands as it passes through both Houses of Parliament. Although we support the technical provisions within the Bill, we believe that, with ambition and vision, the Bill could and should go much further and do much more to secure the foundation of the Good Friday agreement and build on its promise.
It is a great pleasure to respond to such a well-informed debate and I pay tribute to all the Members who have taken time to speak this afternoon. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said, Members from across the House have spoken with real passion and experience.
I am very grateful for the support we have heard from all parties for the Second Reading of the Bill. I recognise that there are a number of issues that people will want to explore in Committee. I look forward to those debates and hope they can be as well informed as this debate has been.
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his election as leader of the DUP. I very much look forward to working with him in the months to come.
As we have heard, the Bill being debated today will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. We will reform the sustainability of the institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. These measures were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland upon restoring the Executive. It was a pleasure to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), the former Secretary of State, who did so much to reach that agreement.
We heard from a number of Members in today’s debate who played a crucial role in securing that deal. I pass on my congratulations to all of them for getting there. We have heard many passionate speeches from all sides, and from all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland, about the importance of devolution. It was the achievement of the deal to restore devolution.
We have made good progress on the delivery of the commitments that the UK Government made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which helped to bring that about. We will continue to support the delivery of those commitments. I draw the House’s attention to a few examples beyond the scope of the Bill, such as our support for the resolution of the nurses’ pay dispute by securing an advanced drawdown of funding; the release of £556 million of the £2 billion-worth of funding agreed in the deal; the revision of the immigration rules governing how people in Northern Ireland bring their family members to the UK, which took effect from August 2020; the appointment of a Veterans Commissioner in September 2020; the launch of the programme for the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, supported by £1 million from the shared history fund; the establishment of an independent fiscal council; and regulations to bring Union flag flying days in line with guidance for the rest of the UK.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to the Secretary of State’s meetings. He has been meeting regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Executive. There have also been two formal meetings including the Irish Government over that time. Those will continue.
I thank everybody for the contributions we have heard. I will not be able to respond to all of them because I have been asked to keep my remarks to a reasonably short period of time, but I did want to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Pontypridd made about so-called caretaker Ministers, a point that was also reflected on by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).
As part of NDNA, Ministers will remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity in decision making, but those Ministers will be required to act, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made very clear, within well-defined limits, including as set out in the ministerial code and in accordance with the requirement for an Executive Committee to consider any decisions that are significant, controversial and cross-cutting. The hon. Gentleman made the point well; in the case that the Executive Committee is not there, Ministers cannot go beyond their brief. As was also demonstrated by that exchange, there are important decisions that could be taken, which is a much better position than we saw during the period that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) described as a black hole in governance—during the absence of the devolved institutions. I am sure we can explore the point further in Committee, but there are clearly defined limits on the role of those Ministers.
On the issue of language, we heard many passionate points. This is not, as we all accept, part of the Bill before us today. The hon. Lady asked a fair question: why not, and why not now? I think there is a simple answer to that question, which we have heard a lot about in the debate today, and I think everyone actually agrees that this would be best dealt with in the devolved space. I have met both the Ulster Scots Agency and Conradh na Gaeilge in the last few weeks; apologies if my pronunciation is not right there. I have met some of the key bodies on both sides arguing for progress on the cultural issues, and what they are saying very clearly is that they want to see this delivered by the devolved institutions. We want to give the devolved institutions every chance to do that, and we do not therefore want to legislate on this issue at this time.
I appreciate what the Minister says, and of course this would be better done in the Assembly, but I do not know where he has been, because I have heard very clearly today that the DUP will not support it going through the Assembly on a quick timeframe, so why not now—why wait?
I have made the point that we want to give every opportunity for that to happen. The Secretary of State has also made this clear, and he did so in a written ministerial statement. I accept the frustration and the anger that the hon. Gentleman expresses on behalf of many of his constituents, but there was a clear written ministerial statement that set out the approach we are taking, and if there is not progress by September, then we have agreed that this House would step in.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean asked a crucial question on this point, and I think it is a very important one about where we do this. The answer should be that we never want to be doing it and we never want to have to do it. The Government believe in empowering and supporting the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland and across the UK. That is why we are bringing forward this Bill to strengthen the stability of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. We do not take lightly any decision to intervene in legislation for Northern Ireland, and would only ever do so on devolved issues as a last resort. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is incumbent on us to support the Executive and the Assembly to legislate for themselves. However, I am sure he would also agree that, as co-guarantors of the NDNA agreement, it is incumbent on us to deliver the package it promises, if necessary, to ensure that can be delivered. The point of the intervention was to get the devolved institutions restored and to get Ministers nominated so that we could have an Executive in place.
I have a list the length of my arm of other issues contained in the New Decade, New Approach document that are not being delivered on. Why does the Minister feel that these cultural issues are a greater priority than dealing with the reforms in the health service and dealing with the waiting list of 350,000 in the health service? Why is he not stepping in to deal with that as a priority, rather than these cultural issues?
Actually, I very much welcome the fact that the Health Minister has set out the approach to dealing with those issues. As I have said, we have already provided some of the up-front funding to unblock some of the health issues that Northern Ireland was facing in the absence of the Executive, but of course there is more to do on that front.
The hon. Gentleman, from whom I will take an intervention—he is always a very courteous intervener—has made the point very powerfully about the priorities of his constituents on these issues. These are all devolved issues that we want an Assembly and an Executive in place to deliver on.
The Minister is most generous in giving way, and I thank him for that. Does he accept that 100% of the people of Northern Ireland want the health issue sorted out, 100% of the people of Northern Ireland want education sorted out, 100% of the people want police recruited and in place, 100% of the people want the roads issue sorted out as well, and only 5% of those in Northern Ireland actually speak the Irish language? Put it in order of priority. The priorities are health, education and policing, not the Irish language.
I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but I think the issue is that these were the areas agreed in NDNA. They were hard-fought, and they were negotiated, as we have heard, very strenuously between the parties. No one got precisely what they wanted, but at the end of the day these were the compromises that were agreed and we need to move forward with them. It is crucial that the Executive are in place to deliver on those issues.
This Bill will help to deliver greater stability and transparency to governance in Northern Ireland.
I will have to press on, I am afraid. I am under instructions, which my right hon. Friend will understand, from the Whips to get on.
We are looking forward to talking further about the NDNA agreement with the Irish Government during the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference later this week. I do want to commend this Bill to the House, and I do want to thank those from all sides of this House for the profound case we have heard for having strong devolved institutions in place. That is what all of us want to get on with, and this Bill will help to take that forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions Of Concern) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 8 July 2021.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Scott Mann.)
Question agreed to.