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Derry Addiction Centre

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered delivering on New Decade, New Approach commitments to a Derry addiction centre.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will begin with a quote from a service user of the Northlands addiction centre in Derry, which has served the people of our city for almost 50 years. It reads:

“My mother on one side of me, crying her heart out, my elder sister on the other side with a Kleenex in one hand and her head in another. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know how to feel. I was numb. No tears, no emotions, just nothingness. All I could do was stare at a spot on the carpet and try not to look up and see the hurt and pain in my mum’s face.

That was over two years ago, and thankfully, I haven’t had to lift a drink since I came in here. Today though, I can feel, I can cry, and I can see what my mother and my sister meant all that time ago. I can see for myself the hurt and the pain and the despair my drinking was causing to my family and myself. Today, the difference is, I can do something about it. I am learning about myself and this horrible disease every day of the week, and for today anyway I didn’t drink, and for me as an alcoholic, that’s a miracle. The treatment in Northlands along with the help of AA since then has given me my life back; it’s given me a life!”

That is just one of many thousands of stories from people in the city of Derry and right across Northern Ireland who have been affected by the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction, and who have been helped by the wonderful volunteers and staff at the Northlands centre in Derry.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. I talked to him at the airport on Monday, and today as well. Unfortunately, what he is referring to in his constituency is replicated across Northern Ireland and in my own constituency, where there are addiction and drug issues, and where young people are committing suicide. I know that is replicated in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, so I commend him for securing the debate.

My understanding is that the Department of Health is holding the money up. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, through this debate and through the Minister, we might be able to ensure that the money that was promised can be allocated to the maiden city, and to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, to make things better for them? There seems to be a wee hold-up.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the impact of the disease of addiction is felt keenly right across our constituencies. Of course, it is important to say that the Northlands centre, which is referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, serves people from right across Northern Ireland. Every single constituency is affected by it.

Now that I see the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), in the Chamber, I might say a word about how we got to this point. For three long years, we did not have an Executive—it feels a bit like we are approaching that period again. During the long hours of torturous negotiation, there was a lot of publicity around a couple of issues, but some of us were focused on a lot more. We wanted to see an Executive back, but an Executive that actually worked on issues that matter to people.

Late one Friday night, the right hon. Gentleman and I had a long discussion about what it would take to get us back into the Executive if we had a successful negotiation. People will understand that, for me, one of those things was the expansion of the Magee university campus. Another was the Northlands centre, which, after many decades of work, has a strong proposal for a world-class addiction centre in Derry. True to his word, as always, the former Secretary of State got that commitment into the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I was very grateful for it, as were the people of Derry.

However, as we know in Northern Ireland, words on a page are not enough. What we need is money in a bank account and proper commitment. To be fair, we had that commitment from the previous Government in the form of New Decade, New Approach, and I have had support from the current Government. We now really need an Executive in Stormont to deliver that. Unfortunately, even when we had an Executive—and we had a Minister up until last Friday—we still could not get the money out.

There are a number of things that I would like this Government to commit to now. What we need is an understanding of what happens if we do not have an Executive. I think all of us in the Chamber want to see an Executive as soon as possible. I would love to see all parties commit to get into government urgently—to get round the table and do the job that we were all elected to do. However, I want the Minister to answer a number of questions for me in the event that that does not happen.

Are the British Government still committed to delivering on the Derry addiction centre aspect of NDNA? We hear an awful lot about all the commitments, but this is a very important commitment for many people. What is the impact of the political instability on this particular proposal, and how will this Government act if we do not have a functioning Executive? As much as we all will it and want it, if we do not get to the point of having a functioning Executive, will those people who rely on this world-class service, and those who do not even know that they are going to rely on it, be able to access it?

Last year and the year before, on average almost every day in Northern Ireland somebody died because of the way that they misused alcohol. Does the hon. Member agree that if that number of deaths were caused by any other issue, Government would absolutely be on top of it and we would have the Executive up and running and functioning? Does he agree that there is no excuse for the lack of clarity from Government?

The hon. Member is absolutely right; one person every single week dies from alcohol-related disease in Northern Ireland. If we add in drug-related deaths, we are talking about 10 deaths a week. Imagine the outcry if that was happening in full public view; we would be rushing to deal with the issue at every level of Government. Frankly, there is no excuse any more for anybody to stand in the way of this commitment.

New Decade, New Approach was an international agreement, signed off by two Governments and supported by five political parties. Some of us actually went into government on the basis of this and other commitments. Everybody in the Chamber knows about the cost of living crisis and the time it takes to access the health service. We should all know about the impact of drug addiction and alcoholism in our communities. We should be rushing to get this money out the door and spent.

Northlands has a very proud record. I want to put on record just how grateful the people of our city, and the people of Northern Ireland, are to all the staff and volunteers at Northlands, as well as all the people who put their money in the boxes to support that wonderful service. Over the past five years alone there have been 1,186 weeks of treatment for hundreds of people attending the six-week residential programme at Northlands, and 12,886 non-residential counselling slots have been used. On average, over 35% of people for whom the data is available in that period are in recovery, with an average of under 10% in relapse management.

Will the hon. Member talk a little more about the team behind Northlands? I recall from my time as Secretary of State that it is not a commercial or money-making enterprise; it is local people who understand the specific issues with addictions in Derry and are passionate about those priorities. They are deeply impressive, and I think it would be useful for the Minister to hear a bit more about the people behind Northlands.

I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s intervention and I want to put on record my gratitude to him for getting the commitment in writing in the agreement. He went to meet the people behind the Northlands centre—people like Denis Bradley and many others, who over many years gave of their time, expertise and love for the people of our city and the people who have been struggling with this disease. The House would not believe the number of people who are very grateful for the work they have done.

It is also important to say that in our city and in other parts of Northern Ireland, we are faced with another problem: the grip of paramilitarism. Paramilitaries use drug addiction and abuse to coercively control communities in a way that needs to be tackled. In my view, the best way to tackle it—because we have tried everything else—is to deal with the root cause, which is addiction. Organisations such as the Northlands centre do that in a way that needs huge support. What better way to do that than to get this money into that organisation’s bank account and to get this project delivered?

Before I finish, I ask again: will the Government continue to be committed to funding this service? What will happen if we do not see an Executive formed as a matter of urgency? Will this Government step in if we do not get a Health Minister at Stormont? I hope that we do, and I assume the Minister is going to talk about the need for an Executive. He has no bigger supporter in that call than me, but if we do not get an Executive, what are this Government going to do? Of course, it was this Government who committed to getting this money to Northlands and getting the project up and running. I am grateful to the Minister for being here, but I will be even more grateful if we can get this money spent, as has been committed to.

It is a real pleasure to reply to this debate, Mr Gray, and I am genuinely very pleased that the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) has secured it; in this, we can make common cause. I am also pleased to see the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), in the Chamber today. I pay tribute to all the work he did to get the New Decade, New Approach agreement in place.

The Government welcome this opportunity to make it clear that we are committed to supporting the Derry/Londonderry addiction centre and providing it with £1 million from unique circumstances funding under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. The hon. Gentleman particularly mentioned Northlands. I will come back to that, but I know it is a very valued service, and it seems to me a very sensible approach to use Northlands to deliver what is required.

Health is, of course, a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. The issue of a lack of clarity came up, but we are absolutely clear that health is a devolved matter, and we would like it to be governed, and governed well, in Northern Ireland. It is therefore for the relevant Northern Ireland Executive Department—in this case, the Department of Health—to formulate its proposals on how to use the allocated £1 million of unique circumstances funding to support those experiencing addition in Northern Ireland.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I am personally very committed to this issue, as I know the hon. Member for Foyle and other Members present are. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an inner-city challenge with the Centre for Social Justice, which saw me spend three days and two nights in rehab with some very serious ex-offenders, including people convicted of murder. It felt like a much longer time. I went through with them, in their counselling sessions, what it means for them to be addicted and how they had come to be in the circumstances they were in. I was particularly moved by the service user’s account that the hon. Gentleman shared.

Given the social problems that our country faces—indeed, that all countries face—with drugs, we need to get alongside people where they are and lift them up. It is too easy for people to see the tremendous consequences of addictions on our society and rush to condemn, but people in the grip of an addiction need treatment and sympathy. That is one of the things I saw when I was with those people in that centre. Indeed, I have stayed in touch with one of them, and I was in touch with him last night when preparing for this debate. He has completely rebuilt his life, become a good father and got into work. It is an amazing thing to see.

In thanking the staff of Northlands, and all staff across the UK who deal with addictions, including in Wycombe, I particularly want to acknowledge the point that the hon. Member for Foyle made about the countless people who are grateful. That needs to be understood by everyone. Genuinely, countless people are affected by addictions, because the consequences that spread out as people suffer under addictions are enormous and almost impossible to see. Those consequences spread and spread, generationally as well as geographically, so it is really important that we understand addictions and deal with them. As such, I am personally committed that this money needs to get into Northlands and to deliver against NDNA.

I stress that the Government stand ready to provide the funding once we have received and approved the Northern Ireland Executive Department of Health’s proposals for the Derry/Londonderry addiction centre. As I said earlier, Northlands seems a particularly sensible way to proceed. The Northern Ireland Office continues to engage with counterparts in the Executive to make that happen.

We do not have an Executive, and we are moving towards declaring an election, as is our legal duty. We fervently hope that a functioning Executive will be in place as soon as possible. Our officials have been advised by the Northern Ireland Department of Health that, at this stage, it is too early to state what impact, if any, the absence of an Executive will have on the delivery of its proposals. However, NIO officials will keep that aspect under review with the Department of Health.

The hon. Member for Foyle asked four specific questions. First, what happens if we do not have an Executive? We will have a response plan, and we will take the steps necessary to ensure that public services continue. However, as he knows, we do not wish for direct rule any more than he does; we wish to have a functioning, stable and high-quality devolved Government. We have to proceed with great caution. I know that he will not expect me today to pre-empt announcements that we will make in due course.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked whether we are still committed. I think I have made it absolutely clear that, personally and as a Government, we are absolutely committed. Thirdly, he raised the impact of instability, which is very real and very much felt in people’s lives. I absolutely appreciate the strength of feeling and the real concern of Unionists, in particular my friends in the Democratic Unionist party. I am a proud Unionist and a proud Brexiteer, and I very much regret that we have the problems we have with the protocol, which are keenly felt by the DUP.

Let me take this moment to put it on the record that everyone needs to understand that we will be challenged to deliver a devolved Government until the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol is resolved. That, I am afraid, puts things firmly in the hands of the European Union. Until it is willing to negotiate on the basis of regard for the legitimate interests of Unionism—a point I have tried to make clearly, but respectfully so—we will not be able to satisfy the DUP or many Conservative MPs that we have made progress. If we cannot satisfy the DUP, it clearly has the power and the opportunity to prevent a devolved Government from being formed. I wish to be respectful about that, just as I have been respectful—I think famously—to the EU and Ireland about their legitimate interests.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of instability specifically in relation to the addiction centre. Here we see the impact of political instability, which causes real harm to real lives, not just for those who are addicted, but for their family and the many people who suffer the consequences of addiction.

Fourthly, the hon. Gentleman asked what we will do. We will of course proceed to govern as best we can in the absence of devolved institutions, within the bounds of not wishing to institute direct rule. We will announce our response plan in due course. I hope that we will be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman. As he has raised the issue, I will certainly make it my priority to investigate what is happening with the centre.

This debate is an excellent example of democracy working. We have so many things before us at this time, but this debate secured by the hon. Member for Foyle on behalf of those he represents has raised the matter up my priority list. Working with my officials, I will try to ensure that we drive it forward.

I have a few words to say about addiction, which is a complex and multifaceted issue that affects the whole of our society. It takes a terrible toll on family and friends. It is therefore vital that people in Northern Ireland and indeed across the UK are able to access the right addiction and support services at the right time. As I said, it is a devolved matter, but the Government are committed to providing the additional funding. That commitment reflects the Government’s strong desire to see improved health outcomes for everyone across Northern Ireland.

The Government’s commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement include making £40 million available for a range of projects focused on addressing Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. The unique circumstances projects are aimed at supporting community and reconciliation initiatives to remove barriers, to bring the people of Northern Ireland together, and to build a safer and more secure society in Northern Ireland.

One of the projects identified was the Derry/Londonderry addiction centre. The Government are steadfastly committed to providing £1 million in funding as a non-Barnett addition to the Northern Ireland Executive’s block grant. We of course continue to urge all those involved to form an Executive to deliver the proposals but, as I said, I appreciate why that has not proven possible so far. Funding for unique circumstances projects is an important component of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and the Government remain focused on ensuring the investment of this funding for the benefit of the local community.

It may help to say a little more about the context of New Decade, New Approach. The agreement was reached between the UK Government, the Irish Government and Northern Ireland parties in January 2020, and it enabled the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive after a three-year hiatus. Again, I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, for his leading role in that work. The agreement contains commitments for the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to fulfil. This Government have delivered over half of their commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement and we will continue to implement the remainder of the agreement to support a stronger, more prosperous and inclusive Northern Ireland in which everyone can participate and thrive.

The agreement was accompanied by a £2 billion financial package, consisting of £1 billion of additional funding and a £1 billion Barnett-based investment guarantee. It is the largest deal from a Northern Ireland talks process to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. The UK Government have now honoured the £1 billion Barnett-based investment guarantee, as set out in NDNA. The investment guarantee was that the Executive would get a capital department expenditure limit Barnett consequential of at least £1 billion over a five-year period, from 2021 to 2024-25. That has been honoured as, based on the spending review 2021 settlement, the Northern Ireland Executive will receive over £1 billion by 2024-25 in additional CDEL Barnett consequentials.

We expect that £769 million from the £1 billion financial package in the agreement will have been spent by the end of the current financial year. The release of funding has been tied to the delivery of reform and transformation of Northern Ireland’s public services, which I will now discuss in a little more detail.

The agreement reflected the unique challenges faced by Northern Ireland. The aims of the financial package were to provide immediate support to the health service and to address budget pressures, to enable investment to transform public services, to turbocharge infrastructure delivery in Northern Ireland, and to address Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. The Government’s substantial package played a vital role in supporting the incoming Northern Ireland Executive and in promoting economic growth. Of course, we are deeply disappointed at the continuing lack of a fully functioning Executive, but we will continue to press forward to serve the people of Northern Ireland.

The £769 million spent so far has been used to bring to an end the nurses’ pay dispute in January 2020, with £200 million used over three years to deliver pay parity with nursing counterparts in England and Wales; to provide a one-off funding settlement to the Northern Ireland Executive of £350 million in 2021-22 to relieve budgetary pressures and deliver effective public services in Northern Ireland; and to drive the transformation of public services by providing £142 million to support the Northern Ireland Executive in its transformation programme. The Executive have so far directed the transformation funding towards improving health outcomes. The NDNA transformation projects are embedded in the Northern Ireland Department of Health’s rebuild framework, “Building Better, Delivering Together,” which progresses health and social care system rebuilding work in Northern Ireland.

The funding has supported the Northern Ireland Executive in delivering a fleet of low-carbon buses for Belfast and the north-west, with £50 million invested in low-carbon transport. Government funding under NDNA means that 100 zero-emission buses have been produced by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland. The funding also led to the opening of the Northern Ireland graduate medical school in Derry/Londonderry to students in September 2021. So far, we have invested £11.5 million, with another £48.5 million to be invested, to deliver a brand-new facility and investment for the north-west of Northern Ireland. The training of more doctors will also help address the shortage of medical professionals in Northern Ireland in the long term.

Turning to the unique circumstances money, the Government have committed £140 million to address Northern Ireland’s unique history. That consists of £100 million for legacy implementation and £40 million for those unique circumstances. The £40 million in Government funding has been reserved for the themes set out on page 53 of NDNA, in annex A.

The funding is to be deployed in areas including mental health, which I am sure will matter to everyone here; tackling paramilitarism; and tackling deprivation and improving opportunity—of course, one of the major factors leading to deprivation is addiction. The funding is also to be deployed on a culture and community fund; support for marking the 2021 centenary and related projects; support for languages and broadcasting; support for the armed forces and veterans; a fund to promote the competitiveness of Northern Ireland’s economy; additional funding to support the Derry/Londonderry addiction centre; and the UK contribution to the international fund for Ireland.

As I run through those commitments, I think the whole House will appreciate the extraordinary work led by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, with all the relevant parties, to deliver so much for Northern Ireland. What we now need to do is press forward.

The five parties reached the NDNA agreement, leading to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2020. The funding allocations were later agreed by the previous Secretary of State with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Good progress continues to be made, and funding has been approved across a range of projects, including on tackling paramilitarism, support for veterans, the Veterans Commissioner, NIO centenary projects, and so on.

On tackling paramilitarism, the Government’s funding has helped to support the Executive’s Communities in Transition project, which is designed to support and empower those communities that have been most impacted by paramilitarism, criminality and ongoing coercive control. Many Members present will appreciate the interaction between drugs and paramilitarism; I do not wish to get into that in great detail, but the two subjects are closely related. By tackling paramilitarism and criminality, we will help to deal with the problem of addictions.

The Government’s commitment to veterans under the agreement resulted in the appointment of Mr Danny Kinahan as the first Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner in September 2020. As with the release of all Government funding, we undertake robust assessments and business case approvals before funding is provided.

Despite the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, the Government continue to deliver on their NDNA funding commitments. That includes releasing the remaining £276 million of funding, including £103 million to drive public service transformation; £48.5 million to help fund the graduate medical school at the Magee campus in Derry/Londonderry; £100 million to address the unique history of Northern Ireland, including legacy; and £24.5 million of the £40 million reserved for the 13 themes referred to on page 53 of NDNA, in annex A.

The Government’s financial package was accompanied by stringent financial conditions to deliver a greater level of accountability for public spending, and to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive build sustainable public services for people in Northern Ireland. Members will know that that is extremely important at the moment. It included the creation of the independent Northern Ireland Fiscal Council in 2021. That body is an important component in delivering greater accountability for public spending, and it is already playing a valuable role in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 to implement the institutional reforms agreed in NDNA. These reforms have included enabling Northern Ireland Executive Ministers to continue in office for a defined period to allow time for Executive formation—although I lament that in this case that has not worked—reforming the petition of concern mechanism used in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and updating the ministerial code of conduct with regard to the expectations and behaviour of Ministers.

The Government’s priority continues to be a return to a fully functioning and stable devolved Government as soon as possible, and to ensure the necessary delivery of public services for the people of Northern Ireland. We regret that the parties failed to elect a Speaker and form an Executive before the 28 October deadline. In line with his legal obligation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will soon confirm the date of the next Northern Ireland Assembly election, as required by law. Following that election, and regardless of the result, the Northern Ireland parties really do need to come together to restore the devolved institutions and lead the people of Northern Ireland through the challenging times ahead. I think we all appreciate the significance of that to people in Northern Ireland; the hon. Member for Foyle made very clear the real impact on people of not having an Executive to deliver.

The significance of NDNA in this context cannot be forgotten. The agreement shows how collaborative working and compromise can create the right conditions for stability—

Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman, but I must now suspend the sitting until half-past 2 this afternoon.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.