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Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

Second Reading (and remaining stages)

Moved by

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill is a fundamental part of the agreement reached last week after 10 weeks of intensive talks involving the Northern Ireland parties, the Secretary of State and the Irish Government. The talks resulted in an agreement called A Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan. As part of this agreement, the Government are committed to bringing forward this Bill, which will enable it to legislate for welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will be aware of much of the background to why this legislation is necessary, so I will not go into a great deal of detail now. In summary, while welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, it has in practice maintained parity with the rest of the United Kingdom. This parity principle has served Northern Ireland well. It means benefit claimants have been able to avail of the same rates of benefit as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, something that would not have been affordable if Northern Ireland had to support its own system.

However, over the past three years, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been unable to implement welfare reform legislation mirroring that of the Government’s Welfare Reform Act 2012. This has resulted in Northern Ireland’s welfare system being not just slightly different but fundamentally and structurally different from that in place in the rest of the United Kingdom. This difference is simply unsustainable. Once Great Britain moves entirely to the new system based around universal credit, Northern Ireland will no longer have access to the DWP computer systems on which it relies to assess and deliver people’s benefits. It would be left with no option but to devise, implement and maintain an entirely separate and more expensive system and meet the massive costs of the IT needed to support it. For a small devolved Administration, this would be prohibitive. Budgets for other departments would have to be cut very significantly to pay for it with an inevitable impact on front-line services and the capital spending available for crucial infrastructure, such as road improvements. This would undermine the credibility of the devolved institutions and would also do irreparable damage to the political relationships which are central to making them work.

This scenario was dangerously close to becoming a reality following the Assembly’s failure in May to pass its Welfare Reform Bill. On 26 May, the Bill passed its final stage with the backing of three of the then five parties in the Executive, but it was blocked by the other two parties using a device in the Assembly known as a petition of concern meaning that the legislation had to have cross-community support, which it failed to achieve. Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were once again faced with almost complete deadlock and, by early autumn, it looked increasingly likely that welfare reform would bring down the Executive itself.

This is the context in which the agreement was reached and in which the Government have agreed to bring forward this Bill. The Bill provides the Government with a power to legislate for welfare in Northern Ireland via an order in council. The power provided is a broad power, for a number of reasons. In providing a broad power, the Bill allows the Government to implement various Northern Ireland-specific flexibilities and top-ups. In doing so, the Government are demonstrating that their intention is not to impose Great Britain’s welfare system on Northern Ireland. Instead, we are proposing to use the power provided by this Bill to legislate for the Northern Ireland-tailored welfare system agreed by the Northern Ireland parties. The order in council that will follow this Bill, if passed, will make this clear. The second reason for opting for a broad power in this Bill is that it enables the Government to help implement other welfare reforms, including those contained in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill currently being considered by noble Lords.

It is important to stress three important considerations at this point. First, this Bill does not affect the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In other words, if the Assembly can agree to do so, it can continue to pass welfare legislation. The Bill therefore creates a situation in which welfare is both devolved—meaning that the Assembly can legislate for it—and effectively reserved, meaning the Government can legislate for it. Secondly, the legislative approach outlined in this Bill has arisen at the request of the Northern Ireland parties. The Assembly last week granted its consent, by an overwhelming majority of 70 votes to 22, to this Bill. Thirdly, I assure the House that the UK Government have no intention or desire to legislate on an ongoing basis for welfare in Northern Ireland. This is why Clause 3 time-limits the power so that an order cannot be made after 31 December 2016.

In closing, I shall comment briefly on the speed at which this Bill is being taken through both Houses. I fully accept that what we are asking the House to do today is exceptional. I agree that taking all stages of a Bill through the House in a single day is not ideal and I fully understand that a number of noble Lords have misgivings about it. The Government would very much prefer not to have to take this approach. I can assure the House that the Government are fast-tracking this legislation only because we view it to be absolutely necessary in this specific case; necessary to ensure that welfare reform is no longer an issue undermining the political process in Northern Ireland; necessary to implement the agreement that was reached at Stormont last Tuesday; and necessary to underpin the stability and survival of the power-sharing devolved institutions at Stormont.

If we do not get this legislation on to the statute book and continue with the implementation of last week’s agreement, there will be a very serious risk that devolution will collapse, leading to a return to direct rule. A resumption of direct rule would inevitably mean many items of long and complex primary legislation being taken through by order, month after month. This would mean not only denying such legislation scrutiny in the Assembly but would also inevitably take up large amounts of parliamentary time. The Government’s approach may be unconventional, but it does have the cross-community support of a vast number of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives. This is a Bill which will help resolve the long-running, politically divisive stalemate over welfare reform. It is a crucial element of establishing and building upon the fresh start announced last week and it offers the only realistic prospect of resolving Northern Ireland’s welfare reform impasse. I beg to move.

My Lords, first I say a word of thanks to the Minister for his explication of things at the start of this Second Reading. I also offer him an element of sympathy: there are many people looking in from outside who, regarding his carriage of the Second Reading of the Scotland Bill for some seven hours and his then being condemned to the Irish legislation, would properly define that as cruel and unusual punishment. We should be informed by the Chief Whip what on earth the poor Minister has done to deserve this. We will, however, proceed with what is of course a matter of great seriousness and concern.

The Minister said some things about the speed with which all the stages of the Bill are—we hope—being carried through the House this evening and the context in which it is being brought here. I am sure all parliamentarians would like more time and consideration to deal with this matter, but we have to reflect that this time last year we were coming up to the Stormont House agreement. At that stage, we were not at all sure that there would be an agreement. It was, apparently, signed off before Christmas but it all began to unravel in the early part of the new year, after a Sinn Fein ard fheis. All of us can wholly understand the Government’s concern to make sure that this legislation gets through and is put in place before any similar mishap can occur.

Unfortunately, we might say that it is unusual for legislation in regard to Northern Ireland—and particularly in regard to the peace process—to be carried through in such an urgent fashion, but I am afraid that is not the history of things. It has regularly been the case that unusual arrangements have had to be made for the timing or speed of Northern Ireland legislation. Your Lordships’ House, and the other place too, has often felt that the legislation came somewhat pre-cooked, in terms of agreements reached with the Northern Ireland parties. That is not an entirely satisfactory situation, because they themselves do not always consider the consequences of their actions, and inaction, terribly well. It is therefore important that others can help them on it.

If we take, for example, the so-called A Fresh Start agreement of which this piece of legislation is a part, in truth it is much less satisfactory, appropriate and complete than the Stormont House agreement a year ago. In almost all aspects it is less satisfactory. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister, in their introduction to A Fresh Start, talk about it being,

“a far-reaching and comprehensive framework”.

The framework bit is right, but it is hard to be persuaded that it is “far-reaching and comprehensive”, since it almost completely excludes any substantial dealing with the past, and things such as flags, parades and strategies to deal with paramilitarism are very much a framework rather than evidenced delivery.

In fact, one has the sense, not just in this agreement but in the way in which the Assembly and Executive have operated, that while there may be a commitment to the institutional architecture of power-sharing there does not seem to be much commitment to the relational sharing of power, which is actually what the whole thing was about. In many ways we find this legislation coming before us as an admission of failure.

It is also a little puzzling why it has taken so long to get here. The noble Lord will know that, when the issue arose at the start, I advised him and his right honourable friend in the other place that the best solution was to take the matter back to Westminster. Why did I say that? First, I did not believe that Sinn Fein would bring down the whole edifice of devolution on the basis of this being taken back to Westminster. It would know that, if it was taken back to Westminster because devolution had collapsed, the Government would simply implement the matter in full, so it would have saved nothing but lost all the benefits of the devolved Administration and Assembly. I did not believe it was going to do that.

Secondly, all through the period of the Assembly, right from early times, unionists were coming to me with a great deal of frustration about legislation in this area. They would say, and the noble Lord has indicated this, “We are expected to deal with this so-called devolved matter, but we know perfectly well we have no real freedom in what we do because maintaining parity with the rest of the United Kingdom is critical”. Indeed, those who have a long memory—and in Northern Ireland quite a few people do—recall that the first Stormont Parliament was unable to sustain itself financially, unable to use the devolved powers it had to sustain itself, and came to the UK Government and said, “Please take these matters back from us because we cannot survive financially”. Unionists frequently said to me, “It would be far better for the matter to be taken back, because we debate things and have to agree to things we do not like and do not agree with, because we have no power to make any difference”. I never thought there would be an enormous problem in taking this back, and it would have been better if it could have been taken back at an earlier stage when there could have been proper debate and discussion and fewer financial problems created for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

While this comes to us, albeit belatedly and with not very much time, many other issues are not coming to us at all. Perhaps the most notable and distressing is the whole question of the legacy of the past and the impact that failure to reach agreement on this has had on victims. On Monday in Belfast, I spoke at a conference, which continued for a couple of days, looking at post-traumatic stress disorder and the impact on individuals and groups of people in the community because of the Troubles in the past. There was a great sense of anger, from victims and from those working with them and dealing with them, that any agreements that they thought had been reached a year ago seemed to have fallen to pieces. Although both Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, in their comments in the foreword to A Fresh Start, point out that they are going to continue to discuss and try to reach understandings and agreements, there is a sense of betrayal on the part of victims and people who have worked with them that we are now back further than ever.

Can the Minister indicate whether he seriously believes that progress is going to be made on this, or is it the case that those outside the political process—outside the Government, the Assembly and the Executive—are going to have to find a way of taking responsibility for addressing these issues? Repeatedly, there has been disappointment, and there does not really seem to be much evidence on the hard issues that created the failure that much progress is going to be made over the next number of months.

As the Minister will probably realise, I also look with some scepticism at the monitoring device that is being proposed. I expressed some scepticism about the one that was proposed on the last occasion when we addressed this matter in the House, and I have every reason to believe that I was right, because it produced more problems than it resolved. It is not clear to me how what is proposed in the terms of reference for the upcoming monitoring commission will resolve any problems. It has much less power than the Independent Monitoring Commission, on which I sat. It has power only to produce a few proposals for the Executive, which will then fall into disagreement about how they should be implemented. That does not seem a satisfactory arrangement at all.

There is financial support, which one is glad to see. However, problems remain for the Police Service of Northern Ireland in dealing with the many issues of the past. Without sufficient resources, dealing with the legacy of the past will take away from the normal policing of the here and now.

Isolating this Bill from the rest of the issues, at best we will get it through quickly so that these matters can be addressed for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that, frankly, the matter will continue to be dealt with in this Parliament. I know that there is a sunset clause that will end this legislation in 2016, but I see very little likelihood that there will be agreement by the parties to accept the real responsibility, which ought to be theirs, of dealing with social security matters. We may well have to deal with these things in the future but, if that is the only cost of reaching agreement and continuing with devolution, frankly, it will be a small price to pay.

Although the noble Lord talked about the legislative load that would come to us if devolution were to collapse, that is the least important thing. If devolution were to collapse, it would mean that the whole peace process collapsed, and the implications of that would be absolutely enormous. If the cost of keeping the show on the road is that we continue to address welfare questions through a follow-up to this legislation, I say to the noble Lord that it will be a small price to pay for the continuation of the other, more important parts. However, if the cost is a refusal to address the needs of the victims and the legacy of the past, that will gnaw away at devolution and at the credibility of the devolved institutions.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill, which I regard as one of the most important components of the Stormont fresh start agreement. Welfare undoubtedly represented the most intractable problem which arose during the process of trying to achieve the successful implementation of the Stormont House agreement of 23 December 2014. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who put short-term political considerations aside and worked tirelessly on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland to bring about agreement on this very issue. In particular, the unwavering commitment of my party leader, Peter Robinson, deserves the highest praise, and there is no doubt that his impending retirement represents a significant loss for the whole community.

As the Minister pointed out, the Bill gives Parliament power to legislate for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and it confers on the Secretary of State and the relevant Northern Ireland departments powers to make further provision by regulation and order. The passage of this Bill into law will at last bring to an end a period of financial instability, during which the Treasury has been forced to impose financial restrictions on Northern Ireland departments because of the failure of the Executive to reach agreement on welfare issues. Indeed, instead of facing fines of some £2 million a week, the Executive will now have a stable and sustainable budget, which is clearly a prerequisite for successful devolved government in Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that all those involved will build on this agreement by working together to achieve the resolution of the outstanding contentious issues, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.

It is expected that the Bill will facilitate the extension of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 to Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Executive will retain the power to compensate some groups and, in particular, working families who may suffer a loss of benefits as a result. The agreement to increase efforts to tackle fraud and error in benefit payments should also, I believe, prove beneficial. The provision that the Executive can retain 50% of any money saved should provide an effective incentive.

It is important that the Bill is passed this evening so that the Order in Council containing regulation-making powers and measures to implement welfare reform may become law as soon as possible. I welcome the provision in Clause 3(3) that no Order in Council may be made under the Bill after 31 December 2016. But does the Minister agree that it might be reasonable to review the position after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May 2016?

Welfare reform has been blocked for almost four years by some parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Passing the Bill tonight will bring to an end an impasse, thus allowing the fresh start agreement to be implemented. This will allow the people of Northern Ireland to benefit from a welfare reform package that will meet their needs. I hope that we can all look forward to a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. I support the Bill and trust that other noble Lords will take the same view.

My Lords, I want to take this opportunity to speak on Northern Ireland matters because, over the last few years, I have been so frustrated by the lack of action in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It does not appear to have achieved anything positive recently. The Stormont House agreement was, at the time, excellent for what it was. But in my opinion this agreement is far less good, and we should not pretend anything different.

I personally do not wish to see direct rule again. I was on the Front Benches during direct rule before and it was not much fun, I can tell you. Equally, A Fresh Start does not, I am afraid, answer any of the difficult questions facing the Assembly today. The constitution needs to be changed—in fact, it must be changed—by its own Assembly Members to allow a coalition between two and more parties to govern. An active form of opposition is very necessary to maintain pressure on the Executive and to ensure that A Fresh Start, as well as the previous agreements, is being adhered to and driven forwards.

In the agreement, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister said:

“We are profoundly aware that the leadership challenge is to build hope and confidence throughout our community so that we can all rise above narrow sectional interests to play a bigger part in creating a truly reconciled and regenerated community”.

That statement has been signed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and, my God, I wish them well. They go on to say that:

“The essence of this Agreement, the vision which must inspire our leadership, is our shared belief that the civic values of respect, mutuality, fairness and justice must take precedence over those narrow values that too often manifest in division”.

And have not we seen them for so long and so often? If this agreement is to work, this final comment is vital.

There are some failings in this new agreement, as have been mentioned a little already. First of all, as far as I can see, the disagreements over budget have not been solved. No reform there will suddenly allow the budget to be agreed to; I do not see it.

Dealing with the past is very important to the people of Northern Ireland. There are very many families out there which have lost loved ones and do not know where the bodies are, what happened to them and why. That must not stop the search for the past; that history must continue. When I was working with Owen Paterson when he was Secretary of State, one of the key things that we were trying to do quietly behind the scenes was to make it all happen.

Then we come to the cantankerous business of flags and parades. These things really get under people’s skin during the seasons when they appear, particularly in the summer. I see nothing in this agreement that is going to solve that. It says that a commission is going to be set up. We have had a Parades Commission for years. Why do we need another one? Nobody took any notice of it. It did not obey the rules or the laws. Let us not get carried away by this new agreement. What I am saying is, “So what’s new?”.

On continued paramilitary activity, Her Majesty’s Government are to provide £25 million over five years and, more importantly, £160 million over five years to support further the PSNI.

Earlier today I heard it said that the Northern Ireland economy was doing well, but in my part of the world it is not. Michelin has closed down its factories in Ballymena, withdrawing over the next three years. Gallaher tobacco is also pulling out. What is so great about our economy when two of our major employers are pulling out?

To counter that, perhaps, we are told in this agreement that, as of 2018, there will be a reduction in corporation tax. The major companies in Northern Ireland will be paying only 12.5% corporation tax, against 20% in the rest of the United Kingdom. That should help to entice new companies and new businesses into the Province.

Lastly, one of the most important matters is to improve the financial base of the economy. We have to create jobs for young people, and to ensure that the less well-off half of the population have available to them a much higher standard of education than they have today. Certainly in some areas, Northern Ireland’s education is the best in the world. Our grammar schools and universities are great, but many families do not reach those standards. Some are living in houses where there is third-generation unemployment, with parents and grandparents who have never been to school and cannot read or write. That still exists, and we have to get rid of it. Let us hope that we can actually move forward. I do not feel very excited by this agreement but I am prepared to support it.

My Lords, first, I wish the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr Robinson, very well in his retirement, which I hope will be long, and I thank him for the legacy that he has left to Northern Ireland. I also thank the Secretary of State very much for her patience—in Northern Ireland, you need patience on many issues—and I thank Charles Flanagan TD, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin. Those two people worked extremely hard to get to where we are on this agreement. I welcome the fact that we have the Bill before the House this evening.

This has been a challenging time for all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and especially for the people of Northern Ireland. After 10 weeks of talks, a way forward was agreed on many issues. It was not easy for some of the political parties in Northern Ireland to come to that agreement. However, as other noble Lords said, they failed to break the deadlock over the legacy issues and, of course, the past. One issue that continually comes up to knock the political process in Northern Ireland is the past. As some noble Lords have said, we have long memories in Northern Ireland.

The agreement secures sustainability, especially for the Northern Ireland budget. There is an urgency to this legislation: Northern Ireland continues to lose money back to the Treasury until this Bill is passed. It is £2 million a week, as my noble friend Lord Browne said, which is a huge drain on the resources of the Northern Ireland Executive. Over the last four years there have been attempts to resolve the welfare question, which has contributed to the political crisis in Northern Ireland, especially in the Executive’s finances. However, I believe that financial sustainability of the Executive is crucial for the success of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and that requires implementation of welfare reform. It certainly looked likely that this very issue would bring down devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland could not continue to lose money every week because it did not implement welfare changes.

As the Minister said, the Bill does not of course affect the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is very important that that is put on the record. The Assembly can still agree to pass welfare legislation. The Government here at Westminster can legislate for it as well. It is important that that is put on the record, too. I know that the noble Lord’s plan to ask Westminster to do what Stormont failed to do and pass a welfare reform Bill for Northern Ireland is controversial in Northern Ireland, and here as well, but time is running out for the Assembly. We cannot afford to waste any more time on this issue. The alternative was to allow devolution to fall, with possible direct rule from London. At one point I remember talking to people back home who said, even within the corridors of the Northern Ireland Assembly, that that was a very strong possibility. There was a serious worry that direct rule would be coming from London. The stalemate that existed had not only financial costs but a credibility cost for the institutions in Northern Ireland. Their credibility was totally and absolutely called into question.

As I said, the last few months in Northern Ireland have been very difficult but it is time to implement the agreement. The document A Fresh Start is a milestone in the history of Northern Ireland. We should not be too negative about what we have achieved in Northern Ireland over the last 20 to 25 years. All our politicians have travelled a huge journey. Some are still travelling that journey and we should give them the support that they need at this minute in time to implement this agreement.

My Lords, I rise briefly in the gap. I hoped fervently that this debate, which is important for the people of Northern Ireland, would be surrounded by the agreement of the leading parties in Northern Ireland on the contentious issue that has already been mentioned tonight: how we deal with the past. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, quite rightly reminded the House of the vital nature of this divisive issue. As one of your Lordships’ House who probably sees more than others in my day-to-day work the desperate plight of the victims who are the inheritors of this—the living examples of the legacy of the past—I am disappointed that it was not possible for us to approach this debate with news that there had been agreement on how to tackle this legacy.

As a co-chairman of the Consultative Group on the Past, who has struggled to get recognition for groups of victims and has had to listen to their complaints and grievances almost daily, I hope that the swift passing of this Bill and the increased amounts it will make available will make it possible for this legacy to be tackled at last. I say to the Minister that perhaps the situation is not as bleak as it seems. If, as is being suggested, the papers that were presented during the discussions leading up to the Stormont agreement were published, we might see a greater consensus between the parties as to how the legacy can be tackled. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to do what they can to encourage the publication of those papers, for I believe the victims and the people of Northern Ireland deserve nothing less. I wish this Bill well and I emphasise again that we cannot forgot the crying needs of the victims.

My Lords, I am pleased that welfare reform in Northern Ireland is at last being addressed and is moving forward. However, I deeply regret that it is happening in Westminster rather than Stormont, where it should rightly be legislated for. Nevertheless, it will allow a log-jam created by the intransigence of Sinn Fein/IRA to be broken. It will, I hope, permit the Northern Ireland Executive to move forward and at last provide opportunities for that devolved Administration to begin to address bread-and-butter issues, which, for far too long, have not been properly addressed in Stormont. Those are issues such as how we attract more overseas investment, how we help home-grown businesses to develop and expand, how we rebalance our economy with a greater private sector and more manufacturing jobs, how we better educate our young people and thus create an even higher skilled workforce, and how we provide an improved health service and healthcare—and, in doing so, reduce the lamentable waiting list. These matters should be addressed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, as should the whole matter of welfare reform. Why has welfare reform been given back to the sovereign Parliament in Westminster to legislate for? Is it because Sinn Fein/IRA could not be seen to weaken their stance on austerity, or is it, as the Member for North Antrim stated in another place, that the Northern Ireland Assembly is dysfunctional, unworkable and incapable of making decisions? It is here that these matters are being discussed and I regret that we have to legislate for what should have been a devolved matter.

We are where we are but let it clearly be noted that, yes, the Northern Ireland citizens are getting a better and fairer welfare package than the rest of the citizens of Great Britain, but these extra benefits are not being funded by the United Kingdom Exchequer; they are coming out of the Northern Ireland block grant. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr Ben Wallace, stated in another place, while,

“those flexibilities may turn out to suit the people of Northern Ireland … The UK Government will not fund on top of the existing UK roll-out”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/11/15; cols. 1104-05.]

It is clear that around £600 million will have to come out of the budgets of other Northern Ireland departments to finance this now-agreed welfare reform package. Who will bear this cost? Will it be, as I mentioned earlier, areas that desperately need improvement? Will it be education, the economy or health? It is regrettable that due to this rushed legislation these matters and other important issues could not be debated fully and clarified.

Much time and money have been wasted by the intransigence of Sinn Fein/IRA but I am glad that it has now done a complete U-turn and allowed this process to begin. I would much have preferred it if we could have achieved this in our own devolved Assembly, but that was not to be. So tonight let us collectively move forward and help all the people of Northern Ireland to have a fairer, better and, I hope, more prosperous and settled future.

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the Minister, who has carried quite a heavy burden tonight. Quite a few of us have been here for the same length of time, but not carrying the same burden. He has stuck to his guns, sometimes even under pressure from the Privy Council Bench—on his own side, not from this side. I also pay tribute to all our colleagues from Northern Ireland who have spoken. To be here at this time of night shows their commitment to what they have been saying and to Northern Ireland, which is commendable and appreciated by all of us.

I will try to curtail my remarks out of—I will not admit to compassion; that would ruin my reputation—some consideration for our colleagues who have been here all night. We will not be opposing the Bill this evening. As I have said before, we fully support the need for this and the Government bringing it forward. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said quite rightly that it is not a new situation to be dealing with legislation such as this. We have been here before and we recognise the necessity of it.

It is important to acknowledge how difficult it has been in Northern Ireland over the past few months because it is in that context that we are debating this piece of legislation. It has appeared at times throughout the year, culminating in the past 11 weeks, that the talks were going nowhere. I understand the despair that people were feeling. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said, it is to the huge disappointment of all of us that collectively we have not managed to do anything about the legacy of the past. Notwithstanding that failure to come to a conclusion on how to deal with the past, the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, very generously mentioned all those involved in coming to this agreement, including the Irish Government and Members of Parliament, and that is also appreciated.

It has been said before that without an agreement there was the real risk of the collapse of devolution or indeed the return to direct rule, either of which would have been unthinkable. However, that has been avoided and that is why we believe that this agreement is significant and why we are lending our justified support to the Government. As part of the agreement, a consent Motion was agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow us to legislate for welfare reform at Westminster—a measure designed to ensure that the reform can take place as soon as possible without further financial penalties to allow stability to return and normal government arrangements to proceed.

It is never ideal when Parliament is asked to agree fast-tracked legislation—that has been made clear on all sides of the House—but it can be necessary. In this case in particular, expediting this legislation is the right thing to do. The agreement reached has also allowed other very significant measures, aside from welfare reform, to be adopted and other money released for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. This includes additional funding to the PSNI to combat the continuing terrorist threat; money and increased efforts to tackle paramilitarism and cross-border crime; and funds for community initiatives such as bringing down the peace walls.

The Bill will enable the Secretary of State to reform the welfare system. We still disagree with much of the present Government’s welfare reform and will continue to speak out against it. However, we accept that the agreement allows Northern Ireland certain welcome exemptions and the ability to mitigate the impact of these cuts. This certainly demonstrates that the Government’s welfare cuts, and indeed their austerity programme in general, are as much a problem for Northern Ireland as they are for any other part of the UK.

As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned, this agreement ensures stability and means the Northern Ireland budget can function properly, but of course we believe, as the noble Lord believes, that jobs, growth, prosperity et cetera represent a better way to manage the economy than cuts. Crucially, what is needed alongside any welfare reform is a focus on a programme for jobs and growth. The Government must now engage in rigorous work with the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland businesses to give such a programme greater urgency. Reforming welfare is about more than cutting benefits, it is about training, skills, opportunity, and tackling low aspiration and educational underachievement. That has to be recognised, and new programmes are needed.

I turn very briefly to the specifics of the Bill. If the Minister does not have the information to hand, I am more than happy to accept a letter. First, can he clarify the timetable and process for the Orders in Council which will follow this paving legislation? Secondly, what scope is there for consultation with respect to these orders? In the Assembly, the Minister for Social Development talked of agreement in principle to introduce the changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland at Westminster. Does this mean amendment is possible? Thirdly, can the Minister detail which welfare parts of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill this legislative process actually covers? Finally, this legislation falls at the end of 2016—will the Minister confirm why this date was chosen?

We will not be opposing this legislation as we are of the view that the dangers of an agreement not being reached were huge, with potential restoration of direct rule. This has been averted. Northern Ireland political institutions are stabilised, notwithstanding the continuing debate, so let us ensure that the UK Government work with the Irish Government and all the parties and that we continue to support the building of not only a peaceful Northern Ireland but one of prosperity, fairness and opportunity for all.

It is appropriate to finish by echoing some of the tributes that have been paid to Peter Robinson for his service to Northern Ireland. I have mentioned previously that Peter and I were on the Northern Ireland Select Committee together, and we became and are good friends. He has travelled a long and at times rocky road, and became absolutely essential to the peace that we have in Northern Ireland at the moment.

My Lords, I begin by thanking speakers from all sides of the House for their helpful, constructive and supportive contributions to this debate and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, for his generous words. I echo what several noble Lords have said about Peter Robinson. It is always useful to hear views from across the spectrum and I shall try, in my closing remarks, to address as many of the points raised as I can.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked why we had not moved more quickly. The Government were keen not to absolve the Northern Ireland parties of the responsibility that devolution brings, and the Secretary of State was clear throughout that legislation in this Parliament was a last resort. We were also very mindful of the need, were we to legislate in this Parliament, to get legislative consent from the Assembly. The noble Lord also mentioned the issues around legacy. It is very regrettable that consensus on all aspects could not be reached. The Government have worked hard to build consensus with the Northern Ireland parties over many weeks of intensive discussion, and the Government remain committed to continuing to work to build consensus on legacy issues. That is very much for the reasons about which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke so powerfully, with his focus on finding closure for victims. I was very much encouraged by his message of hope.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, also mentioned a body to monitor paramilitary activity. The establishment of a monitoring body to assess the impact of paramilitary activity on local communities is a crucial part of the final agreement between the Northern Ireland parties. The new body will measure the impact of paramilitary activity on local communities, as well as monitoring the delivery of the strategy to be developed by the Executive to bring an end to all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

Turning to what the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, asked on the review of the sunset date after the Assembly elections, the Government’s strong view is that it is essential that the sunset clause runs until 31 December 2016. An earlier end date would mean that the necessary structural changes to the Northern Ireland welfare system could not take place. In other words, there has to be sufficient time to undertake other reforms such as those provided for by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. This was a point accepted in the agreement reached last week and confirmed by the legislative consent motion passed by the Assembly last Wednesday.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised a number of issues about the Fresh Start agreement and I very much agree with what he is saying about the future in Northern Ireland, which is really about getting a strong economy in Northern Ireland. He talked about the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive and said that securing the implementation of welfare reform legislation is absolutely critical to putting those finances on a more secure footing. It is not a free lunch and included in the Fresh Start agreement is enhancing the fiscal responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive through additional financial controls to limit the Executive’s potential to set unrealistic budgets in future. Key to that is a new, independent fiscal council for Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Hay, talked about the cost of not implementing welfare reform, and he was right to highlight that failure to implement welfare reform is costing the Executive around £2 million a week. That is the difference between what the Treasury is prepared to fund up to parity with Great Britain and the cost of continuing to run the old, unreformed welfare system. The Northern Ireland Executive estimates that the cost to their budget next year will rise to more than £200 million and to more than £500 million by the end of this Parliament. That is clearly unaffordable, and these figures do not even take into account the cost of IT.

In terms of some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, I am very happy to write to him. We have taken this broad power because, when the 2012 welfare reform measures were first introduced, Northern Ireland’s Department for Social Development agreed certain administrative flexibilities with the Department for Work and Pensions. These included, for example, a slightly different sanctions regime and the ability for welfare payments to be made to claimants on a fortnightly rather than a monthly basis. Clearly, as I have said already, we have chosen a date that makes it possible to implement other 2015 reforms that are still in train.

I hope that answers most of the points. If I have not answered all the points then I am of course very happy to write to the noble Lord.

Bill read a second time.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until a time to be advertised on the annunciators. It may be helpful if I add that the House will adjourn for at least 10 minutes to allow Members to inform the Public Bill Office if they wish to table amendments. If there are no amendments, the House will resume in 10 minutes’ time to take the remaining stages of the Bill. If there are amendments, there will be a longer adjournment to allow the amendments to be tabled, printed and distributed.

Sitting suspended.

Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.

House adjourned at 11.16 pm.