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Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Bill

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

Clause 1

Departmental Functions

I remind Members that in Committee, they should not address the Chair as “Deputy Speaker”. Please use our names. Madam Chair, Chair, and Madam Chairman or Mr Chairman are also acceptable.

I beg to move amendment 6, page 1, line 12, leave out “when an Executive is formed” and insert—

“when the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly has completed a formal meeting at which substantive business has been transacted”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 2, line 15, at end insert—

“such as providing advice in relation to the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council’s 2023 Report, Updated estimate of the relative need for public spending in Northern Ireland, and the precedent arising from the December 2016 Agreement between the Welsh Government and the United Kingdom Government on the Welsh Government’s fiscal framework”.

Amendment 7, page 2, line 21, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

Amendment 8, page 2, line 21, at end, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

“(aa) consulting the Equality Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council;

(ab) who else is to be consulted;”.

Amendment 9, page 2, line 24, leave out from “consultation” to end of line 27.

Amendment 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert—

“(4A) The Secretary of State must direct a Northern Ireland department to commission a report to provide an assessment of expenditure costs associated with communal divisions for the purpose of developing options for improving the sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland.”

This amendment would provide a report to make an updated assessment of the financial costs associated with a divided society and how they could be redirected to improve financial sustainability.

Amendment 3, page 2, line 28, at end insert—

“(4A) The Secretary of State must engage—

(a) with Northern Ireland departments to explore options to transform public services and the economy in order to identify options for improving the sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland;

(b) with the Treasury on options to provide an invest to save fund to support the transformation and sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland.”

This amendment would direct the Secretary of State to explore an invest-to-save transformation fund.

Amendment 4, page 2, line 28, at end insert—

“(4A) The Secretary of State must engage with Northern Ireland departments and the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council to produce a needs-based assessment of funding compared to the Barnett formula in order to address the financial sustainability of Northern Ireland, specifically considering changes in relative need arising from differences in population characteristics and socio-economic conditions between Northern Ireland and England, to prevent the funding premium from falling below relative need.”

This amendment would direct the Secretary of State to explore the prospect for a needs-based spending floor and percentage uplift in Barnett consequentials to reflect relative need in Northern Ireland.

Clause 2 stand part.

Amendment 11, in clause 3, page 3, line 20, after “2022” insert—

“during a period when the Assembly is not functioning”.

This amendment would limit the exemption from Assembly scrutiny of directions under this Bill to only periods when the Assembly is not functioning, rather than throughout the period when there is no Executive.

Clauses 3 to 7 stand part.

New clause 2—Assembly power to exercise accountability over section 5A directions

“(1) In a period where the Assembly is functioning but there is still no Executive, nothing in this Act will prevent a committee so mandated by the Assembly from seeking or taking evidence from relevant Northern Ireland departments or consultees named in any direction by the Secretary of State under section 5A of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 in respect of options which might be considered or developed on foot of such a direction.

(2) In such a period as described in subsection (1), a committee report adopted after a vote of the Assembly shall duly inform relevant departments and the Secretary of State in respect of relevant stated options for raising more public revenue in Northern Ireland or otherwise improving the sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland.”

I rise to speak to amendment 6 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), and to make brief comments on a couple of other amendments.

We absolutely echo and share the frustrations of others that we are doing yet another of these Bills in this place. I am struggling to think of a single such Bill—certainly in the three and a half years that we have been here—that was neither a cause nor an effect of Stormont dysfunction, which occupies rather too much time here and limits our potential. We understand the need for interim decision making, but the Bill risks going too far in bypassing Assembly scrutiny. Our amendments aim to address that by guarding against the potential use of graduated responses or the other fairly unedifying stunts that we have seen when the Assembly is being used as a political tool or weapon, and against the cynical use of such Bills to do things that damage public services in the name of reform, as a way to avoid responsibility and scrutiny.

The DUP’s new clause 1(3) instances the possibility of the Assembly functioning in some way alongside these new powers in the absence of an Executive. I want to be absolutely clear: there is, as others have said, no alternative in the here and now to devolution under the Good Friday institutions. People are ready to suspend their disbelief one more time and go back in to make that work, but a graduated response allowing these powers to be deployed to do all the grisly stuff through indirect rule, and turning it into some soap opera where everybody is hopping up and down and opposing the changes, will not be appropriate.

We cannot set up civil servants to instigate and drive controversial issues only to get them out of the way before everyone goes back in. We absolutely need reform in public services, but we need it to be done with scrutiny, not just as a mask for austerity. It needs to be done in a way that builds public trust so that people say, “Yes, you may lose service A, but you will gain service B and C”. Amendment 6 would support and evidence some of those necessary reforms by designing in a role for the Fiscal Council—a body that we have been hugely supportive of—as well as for the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commissions as consultees. Those bodies are truly creatures of the Good Friday agreement. They are there for a reason and they should have a role in this as well, to give them a locus and so that, as I say, it is not used in a cynical way.

I want to address briefly the contradictions in the messaging we are getting about sustainable finances. There is, rightly, a serious public conversation going on about the sustainability of Stormont’s finances and structures. It is absolutely right to tackle the lack of responsibility-taking in our region, which in its century of existence has never enjoyed good governance. It is appropriate that we do that in a genuinely transformative way.

I also want to address the contradiction in what has been said about sustainable services in the light of the punishing and severe budget we face. What is more sustainable to invest in than children and young people, their health, education, future and resilience? The proposed cuts to the extended schools programme, Bright Start mental health support, pathway funds, education authority schools and youth services—alongside the loss of European social funding for Women’s Centre, which provides childcare and many other forms of family support—are the furthest thing from being sustainable. St Malachy’s youth club in the market area of my constituency does a mind-blowing array of interventions with young people, including homework support, citizenship, fitness, nutrition and lawfulness, making them good citizens and getting them ready for the world and the jobs out there. What is sustainable about its finances being cut by over a third, which will undermine all of its work with those young people? We have put off hard decisions for too long, but it is really important that this Bill is not used as a mask for the same austerity that we have had for over a decade, which does not change outcomes and limits the potential of our young people and of our economy, because they are its future.

I want to address a couple of other amendments. Amendment 1 is a vital intervention by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who has, crucially, been vigilant on the ticking timebomb of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which has the potential not only to deepen and widen the implications of any sea border for goods and for rights, but to dramatically undermine economic sectors and actors on this island. We have absolutely no interest in doing that, so I hope that the reports that there has been change of direction on that very damaging Bill—like others, we wish to hear about those reports in the appropriate place and to have the opportunity to scrutinise them—are correct.

Finally, I support amendment 4, tabled by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), which is prudent and sensible in addressing the cost of division. It is time to get on. There is endemic division in our schools and communities. It is time to get past pointing at it and to start the process of reform, transformation and giving people a feasible way to live shared and integrated lives.

I rise to speak to amendment 5, tabled by my party leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), our Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), and other colleagues. I hope that the Minister of State has considered it positively, and I look forward to hearing that the Secretary of State agrees with it. He will know that it does not any way undermine the substance of his Bill, but that it will be hugely important in assisting him in gathering information as part of his consultation exercise, as we navigate and chart our course through the myriad issues discussed this afternoon relating to dangers to public finances.

I do not think that anyone in the Chamber will disagree that I have probably said enough. The long and short of my aspiration is that the Minister of State, given all the pleasant support he has received from us to date, will look favourably on amendment 5.

I cannot promise to be quite as brief as my colleague, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), but I will try. Essentially, I want to speak to those amendments that stand in my name: amendments 2, 3 and 4, which are all focused on the issue of financial sustainability. We recognise the line that the Government have put into the Bill, and I seek to encourage the Minister to take it forward in a substantive way.

We are making three suggestions in that regard, the most significant of which relates to a potential financial package for Northern Ireland. Such a package needs to be on an invest-to-save basis, and directly linked to a very select number of areas: health, education, the economy, skills, infrastructure, and climate change mitigation would be our proposals in that regard. I acknowledge that we have to learn lessons from previous interventions from the Government through financial packages, and that the package will have to come with conditions. It will need to be linked to a very clear plan from an Executive about how reform will be taken forward—it would need to be over several years—but we do need to have transformation in Northern Ireland, as many people have acknowledged in this debate. Of course, before we can do transformation, we need to have a stabilisation of the finances, and we cannot do any of that in the context of a burning platform where we are in a spiral of cut after cut and decline after decline.

We have the Bengoa report as the template for health transformation. It will take investment to make it happen, but through investment we will have much better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland, and it will be on a more cost-effective basis. There is a real incentive for the Government to buy into this; if we do not invest, we will see waiting lists in Northern Ireland getting even longer. I would make the point that our waiting lists are already the longest in the UK, not by a small margin but by a very significant gap.

The same applies to education. We have a massive problem of educational under-attainment in Northern Ireland. That is a major drag on our economy, as well as a blight on some people’s long-term economic and life opportunities, and the education funding gap between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is widening ever further. The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker)—who was one of his predecessors in the Northern Ireland Office, and currently chairs the Education Committee—has particularly reinforced that point about the growing gap in funding.

We have to grow our economy, which means investment in skills, and also investing in the right skills. The Government themselves are being very clear about the need to tackle Northern Ireland’s disproportionate level of economic inactivity—again, as part of the wider mission across the UK. If we can address those issues, the productivity gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will narrow; if we do not, it will widen, with all the attendant consequences that will flow from that. We have to take full advantage of the opportunities we have, including dual market access, the potential trade mission, and the trade conference that the Government are doing. I understand the reluctance and scepticism around this issue, but frankly, I do not see any alternative if we are to break that vicious cycle.

I would use the analogy of a business that is struggling, where the business model is out of date and is not functioning. One of two things will happen: the business will die, or it will restructure. Often, if a business wants to restructure, it has to seek external finance to do so, but again, that finance will come with conditions around how that restructuring is taken forward. We have proposals in with the Government, and we welcome further engagement in that regard. I appreciate that such engagement is probably best done on a structured basis with the Northern Ireland parties; it should be done as quickly as possible, but there does need to be some sort of structure to that.

Amendment 2 relates to the costs of a divided society, which have already been mentioned by my colleague, the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). Our amendment seeks the commissioning of a revised, updated report from a Northern Ireland Department—importantly, as a prelude to action finally being taken in this area. There are some very significant costs arising from duplication and, indeed, distortion in Northern Ireland’s public expenditure profile, which is linked to the legacy of division and violence, and ongoing patterns in how services are provided. It is apparent in four particular ways. One is direct costs. For example, our policing costs and public order costs are higher than the rest of the UK. Secondly, we have some degree of parallel provision, done either implicitly or in some cases explicitly by Government, for different parts of the community. It is not just at Assembly level; it happens with councils, too. Education would be the most clear-cut example in that regard, but it is far from the only one.

Thirdly, there are contextual issues, such as the environment in which public agencies are operating. A clear example is the provision of housing in Northern Ireland, where trying to navigate around patterns of segregation makes it slightly more difficult—perhaps much more difficult—to provide new social housing. There are issues of territoriality of land for redevelopment. We need to get past that if we are to deliver housing more efficiently and effectively. Like elsewhere, there are real pressures on housing for people. Finally, there are opportunity costs from division and lack of political stability for tourism, inward investment and wider economic opportunities.

I reinforce that there have been a series of reports in this area already, notably by Deloitte in 2007 and the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre in 2016. We have had some recent commentary from Ulster University’s “Transforming Education” project, but the work is fundamentally now seven years out of date, and it needs to be re-done if we are to use it as a genuine platform to take forward further reform and transformation.

Finally, I reiterate the point that a number of people have made today about the need for a reassessment of the Barnett formula and how it works for Northern Ireland, with potentially a move to a much more needs-based assessment. The estimate for the shortfall in our finances, if I have my figures are correct, was £362 million for the outgoing financial year. That will rise to £485 million in this financial year. That is a significant element of the differential and the pressures that Northern Ireland Departments are facing.

I will not seek to push any of the amendments to a vote today, but I certainly would like to use this platform to encourage the Government to take seriously those three particular angles around financial sustainability. Work can be done now in preparing for a return to devolution in the near future, but time is not on our side if we are to make the best use of the scarce resources available to us.

Thank you, Madam Chair. [Interruption.] Apologies, Dame Rosie, it is hard to remember all the different protocols, but I hope I can make up for it in making a short contribution. I put on record a number of concerns. I recognise that amendment 1, which we tabled to address the concerns directly, has not been selected, so let me speak in support of amendments 6 and 8 from my colleagues, as well as new clause 2. I think they all get at the same point, which is why it matters to have scrutiny.

Members in this Chamber who know of my interests in human rights in Northern Ireland might expect me to come at this issue from the question of what is happening with the delivery of abortion services in Northern Ireland. For several years now, that has been done by the Government, rather than the devolved Assembly overseeing it, because of the challenges within Northern Ireland. That powerfully makes the case, for example, for using the Fiscal Council or consulting the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which has been a diligent and doughty defender of the rights of women in Northern Ireland to equal access to abortion.

However, I want to talk about the points that my amendment raised about the use by this Government of the powers in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, knowing that right now something very different is happening to that legislation, which nobody is clear about, as the Government are yet again hiding from scrutiny on it. That is not a new concern when it comes to Northern Ireland, because for months now we have been asking the Government to come clean about how they intend to use the powers in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill in Northern Ireland. So far as I am aware, with today’s announcement there is no change to how that Bill approaches devolution, so let us be clear that it gives the Secretary of State, in proxy of the devolved Administration, the power to decide when the sunset clause that was in the legislation, which I think has now been removed, would kick in, and to replace, restate or revoke legislation. Those are serious powers over how thousands of regulations would be interpreted in Northern Ireland. In the absence of a sitting Assembly, those powers are falling to this Government and a Minister who cannot even be bothered to respect the issue, listen or engage with what is being said. That, again, tells us something about how seriously they take these powers. I digress, but I am sure that whatever I am saying about how he treats the employment rights of people in Northern Ireland is not as important as what he is talking to his Parliamentary Private Secretary about.

As ever with Northern Ireland and devolution, these are complicated issues. They are complicated in two different ways—first in the EU regulations that may or may not be at stake, and also in north-south co-operation, and the restrictions and requirements that are made in order to have convergence. Let me say a little, if I can, to resolve why those complications may happen, and therefore why amendments on the role of the Fiscal Council or the Human Rights Commission—or, indeed, about the ability to take evidence on, frankly, what the Government are doing on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland on this issue—matter.

This issue covers devolved competencies of things such as employment skills, pensions and child support, and environmental laws such as planning and equal opportunities. Northern Ireland Members will no doubt be as shocked as I was to discover that this Government were planning to delete, without any public consultation, people’s right to a basic protection that originally came through EU regulation, which was that if their company went bust, they would be entitled to at least 50% of their pension pot. Rules on pensions are devolved competencies, but the Government announced in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Committee that they will revoke at the end of this year the EU regulation holding businesses to account which makes sure that people have at least some basic protection. I do not know the status of that now, but it is a good example of the sort of legislation we would be talking about.

Obviously, Members who have huge experience of devolution would point out to me that when the UK left the European Union, the UK and the EU agreed the protocol—if I can dare to mention that word—which talked about maintaining the necessary conditions for north-south co-operation and protected the 1998 Good Friday agreement. In doing so, Northern Ireland stayed dynamically aligned over many of these areas of legislation, and the Minister may therefore say that this is not an issue to be concerned about and that it does not need this level of scrutiny, because these issues are covered by the protocol. However, Queen’s University Belfast is very clear that about 300 areas of EU regulation are not covered by the protocol, and therefore would be automatically deleted by the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. They would cover many of these issues, and there is also the issue about direct effect cases, which is where the judgment about protecting people’s pension pot comes from.

The 142 areas of co-operation identified in 2017 as being underpinned by EU policy frameworks and north-south co-operation are the areas up for grabs. Indeed, there is ongoing co-operation in 61 areas. Let me give some examples of the sorts of EU laws that we would be talking about. There is the single-use plastics directive, the regulation on clinical trials of medicinal products for human use, directives about medicines, directives about organisation in agricultural markets—I know that is a deep concern for many of my colleagues representing constituencies in Northern Ireland—and EU Acts on the regulation of energy and electricity markets. This is not small fry when we add it all together.

The point of the amendment I tabled and of the questions we have been asking the Government is how, in the absence of Stormont to scrutinise, these devolved competencies may be used, given the potential impact of changing these regulations in undermining the Windsor framework and therefore changing the alignment on which many of these deals have been done. Those are not my words, but concerns raised by the European Union. The fact is that the Government have consistently tried to avoid even answering the question. They have suggested that the Stormont brake would apply, but it does not, because this is about existing legislation—not new legislation, but existing legislation. People currently have the right to have their pension pot protected, but we still do not know quite what will happen to that pension pot protection at the end of this year for anybody in the United Kingdom. However, certainly in Northern Ireland, where the competency of the devolved authority would be expected to be a part of it, the lack of clarity about how the Government are proceeding on this is deeply troubling, especially when we are entering into another process of having to bring in these interim arrangements, so there is even less scrutiny of how they are using those powers.

I have asked through freedom of information requests for information about the kinds of meetings the Government are having, because they have told us in answer to a written question:

“UK Government Officials have been proactively engaging with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Civil Service on the progress of the Bill”.

What that means in layman’s terms is that some decisions must have been made about how to use those competencies, and we know that these interim arrangements will exactly cover the period during which those decisions are being made. Now, add into the chaos the announcement that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will be changed and we have a recipe for people in Northern Ireland with nobody having an eye on the ball when it comes to their basic rights, because the Government will not be clear or be scrutinised about those conversations and which devolved competences they may use to amend those rights.

I hope that the Minister can understand why many of us have concerns about the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—not least about it destabilising the Windsor agreement by removing those levels of alignment—and think that the principle of accountability and scrutiny matters. For many years, he told us that Brexit was about taking back control, but time and again we have seen that the Government do not mean taking back control to democratic institutions; they do not mean taking back control to Parliament. After all, as far as I am aware, nothing in the new retained EU law Bill proposals would change that fundamental transfer of power from the Executive back to Parliament. Therefore, even if the sunset clause has gone, those powers would still be for the UK Government, not for the UK Parliament; the UK Parliament where Northern Ireland Members would be part of conversations and could even have a say on statutory instruments and various regulations—what little say there would be. This is solely about Ministers using their ministerial powers on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, with no accountability at all, and without even being honest about having the powers and the areas that will be affected. Removing the sunset clause does nothing to the fundamental challenge, especially if we are continuing to bring in legislation, which we absolutely need, to keep the Northern Ireland civil service functioning.

In simple terms, these amendments speak to the simple question: what is the Minister doing on behalf of the Northern Ireland people when it comes to their basic rights? The Bill also covers things such as people’s employment rights and whether people in Northern Ireland will still be entitled to maternity leave, environmental protections and consumer compensation—everyday rights that people across the United Kingdom have particularly relied on. However, in Northern Ireland, the question of alignment and changing alignment takes on an added complexity and added damage. It could undermine the Windsor agreement, and it could mean that people in Northern Ireland have fewer rights than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Above all, if we continue to be unable to get Stormont back up and running, that could mean Government Ministers in back rooms with civil servants making decisions without any accountability to elected representatives in Northern Ireland or any commitment to any accountability.

I hope that the Minister will at least accept that there is a problem because the powers will be operational now—during the passage of the Bill. I hope that he will commit to coming back to the House and talking to representatives from Northern Ireland—if no one else—about how they are using and interpreting their devolved competences when it comes to retained EU law, as it sounds like the retained EU law Bill will continue on.

The Minister said that his comments about Northern Ireland having a special relationship with the European Union were a slip of the tongue. Well, some of us want all of the United Kingdom to have a special relationship with the European Union so that, now that we have left the European Union, we can all trade and still have those opportunities. But if changes are not to be made in Northern Ireland, why should they be made in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The retained EU law Bill is a power grab—Members in Northern Ireland know how much the Government enjoy that—and, at every single opportunity, those of us who are the true patriots and the true democrats need to wrest it back and challenge the Government on how they will exercise it. The amendments would do exactly that. I hope that the Minister will look on them with kindness.

I will keep my comments brief as I do not want to repeat what was said on Second Reading. Labour does not oppose the Bill as it is a necessary step to ensuring that governance in Northern Ireland can continue in the absence of a functioning Executive. The amendments show a clear indication from the Northern Ireland parties that improving Northern Ireland’s financial stability is a priority. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council’s recent work was highlighted a number of times. The Secretary of State mentioned during Northern Ireland questions that he had been in conversation with the Fiscal Council. It would be great to hear his assessment of its report and how he intends to proceed with that information.

Continued engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, as well as with bodies such as the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, is paramount to best representing the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that such engagement from the Secretary of State and the Minister will continue.

I very much appreciate the contribution everyone has made. Everybody who has spoken in today’s debate is very much seized of the issues and very well informed. They have made their points with great force.

The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) raises the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, so I will turn first to amendments 4 and 5 on relative need and needs-based spending. Provisions in the Bill already allow the UK Government to work with the Northern Ireland civil service on fiscal sustainability for the benefit of people across Northern Ireland, so neither amendment is strictly needed. I do not think it would be right for me to commit the Secretary of State to a particular piece of advice or consultation, but we have of course heard the debate—I listened extremely closely to it—and we are all fully committed to the sustainability of the finances, and to treating people justly and fairly.

The Minister knows that the DUP tabled amendment 5 and there is a decision to be taken on whether to press it, or amendment 4 tabled by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), to a Division. If the Minister does not wish to commit the Secretary of State to accepting our amendment or to commissioning advice on the basis of the work of the Fiscal Council, it would be very useful if he would at least commit the Secretary of State to engaging with me and colleagues on this issue, so that when advice is commissioned and he is consulting, we can incorporate this as part of the advice he seeks.

Yes, of course. We would be delighted to engage with the hon. Gentleman. We have already said, in relation to commissioning advice and the draft guidance, that we are very happy to engage with Members of all parties, and I am grateful to him for that intervention.

On amendment 6, on the Executive Committee, we believe—with apologies—that it would be unworkable. The decision-making provisions apply only to functions exercised in the absence of Ministers, so once Ministers have been appointed, they can no longer have any practical effect.

Is the Minister aware—I cannot remember which year it was, because there have been so many crises —of the in-out Ministers stunt? I think it was conducted in mid to late 2015. Ministers resigned on a rotating basis over a period of months, so Ministers were in place but there was not a functioning Executive. It is that kind of carry on we are trying to guard against.

I confess freely that the hon. Lady has me at a disadvantage. I am grateful to her for that point and I shall certainly ask my officials to brief me on that matter.

Yes, and I confess that my mind boggles that such a thing should have happened. Equally, I recognise that, standing here right now, I am not aware of the full circumstances. I certainly hear what the hon. Lady says, but even so I hope she will understand that right now I cannot accept the amendment.

Turning to amendments 7, 8 and 9 on specific consultees, we believe that this would be unnecessarily restrictive. Requiring the Secretary of State to direct the Department to consult the specified bodies listed in the amendment is not necessary. The consultee lists for the Northern Ireland Departments are well known and recognised, so we do not wish to pick out the three bodies over any others because it would beg the question, why not include them all? In particular, picking up on the Fiscal Council, the Secretary of State has already confirmed, I think through me, that he is engaged with the Fiscal Council. He is happy to commit to the Committee that he will ensure that it, and all the bodies listed in the amendment, will be consulted on budget sustainability. We therefore ask the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) not to press the amendment to a Division.

On amendment 11, on scrutiny and the scrutiny of Ministers, the approach in the Bill to the power of the Northern Ireland Assembly to call for witnesses and documents is consistent with previous circumstances where the UK Government have taken certain powers to give direction to Northern Ireland Departments. If UK Government Ministers give Northern Ireland Departments a direction, it is right and proper that the line of accountability comes here to Parliament, where UK Government Ministers are accountable. It is not appropriate for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be able to hold UK Government Ministers to account in that way.

On amendment 2, on communal divisions, the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) makes his points extremely well. He knows—I think I have illustrated it—that I feel his pain on this issue, but we already have, for the purpose of pursuing fiscal sustainability, the ability to take advice and pursue consultations. I certainly look forward to further conversations with him and to taking his advice on where we should look in relation to communal divisions. I will be glad to meet him to consider that issue further. On his amendment 3, on transformation, the Secretary of State would have the powers under the Bill to commission advice and go for consultations to achieve budget sustainability through transformation. I hope that the hon. Member will accept that the amendment is not strictly necessary, but once again, I hear him and he makes his point very well and with great force.

On the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, I hope the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will accept that it is not the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office to take it through the House, but I listened carefully to what she said about its impact on Northern Ireland. I am conscious that her amendment was not selected, so I hope that she will not mind if I do not go any further.

The Bill explicitly gives the Minister, in the absence of Stormont, the powers to use the devolved competences. Is he saying that he has not looked into those powers at all, or is he not prepared to talk about how he is exercising them?

As on the face of the Bill, we will be able to seek advice from officials in the Northern Ireland Departments and require consultations, but we will have no powers to implement any of the measures on which we have taken advice. We are clear that devolution is the best way to govern Northern Ireland, as we have said many times.

With that, I am grateful to everyone who has participated in the Committee.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That Bill be now read the Third time.

It is not an especially happy occasion. As the House has fleshed out, we see before us the many difficult decisions that lie ahead. But it is a necessary occasion, as we have all agreed.

I want to place on record my thanks to everyone involved in the Bill’s passage through the House for their support of its expedited passage. I particularly thank the Front Benchers of all parties for their collaborative and constructive engagement on the legislation, recognising the importance of getting it on the statute books to avoid a governance gap from 5 June. I place on record my appreciation to the House authorities, particularly the Clerks who, as ever, have guided us in an expert fashion. I thank the excellent Diggory Bailey in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for the expert fashion in which he and colleagues drafted the Bill. I thank my colleagues and officials in the Government Whips office for helping us progress in a smooth fashion, and in particular on this occasion for not putting me under undue time pressure. I am most grateful to them, as always.

I conclude by repeating what I said at Second Reading. People in Northern Ireland rightfully expect to see these decisions taken in Stormont not Westminster, and I agree with them. I think the House does, too.

I rise briefly to express my gratitude to the Minister for seeing the Bill so deftly through all its stages today, and also to share his thanks to those who made it happen and those who have spoken today.

The Minister has repeated numerous times today a sentiment that we all share, which is in fact shared by all the Northern Ireland parties and leaders themselves: namely, the desire for Stormont to be up and running again. I would just remind him, when he points to and urges members of Northern Ireland parties, that he is a Minister in the UK Government, and the UK Government have some skin in the game. They have some agency when it comes to the functioning relationships within Northern Ireland—those core relationships between the Irish Government, all the Irish parties and the UK Government.

For such a matter to come up so late in the debate is just one of those things, but I think that I have a good track record on renewing the relationship with Ireland and with the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have agency, and I am determined, as is the Secretary of State, to work with everyone as expeditiously as possible to make a success of restoring the Executive.

On numerous occasions today the Minister has urged the Northern Ireland parties to get back in. It is my job to hold his feet to the fire as well, and to point out that he, as a UK Government Minister, has skin in the game on this one. It was, of course, some of the actions of the UK Government that led to some of the challenges that are faced in Northern Ireland, which proves that what happens here in Westminster—the decisions taken in Downing Street and in Whitehall—has a profound impact over there. So rather than always looking to those parties to sort out the problems that have sometimes been created through decisions taken over there, the Minister must be a very active participant in that process.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that while the Minister may say that he has built bridges with the EU and the Irish Government, he has built a bonfire on the bridge with the Unionists?

My job, at times like this, is not to take the opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman has put before me, but to stand to one side and allow this conversation to unfold between his party and the Government. Clearly there is some healing to do in that relationship—a relationship that has at times been so close that it has led to the two parties serving in the same Government, and to his party supporting the Government—but at present there is dysfunction there, which I accept and acknowledge and view from afar, while trying as hard as I can on behalf of the Labour party to do everything possible to ensure that we can build strong relationships that can heal the divides and get Northern Ireland going again.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.