House of Lords
Wednesday 10 July 2019
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.
Lord Speaker’s Statement
My Lords, as you may remember, in December 2018, we established an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the House of Lords, which was carried out by Naomi Ellenbogen QC. Today, the report has been published, and copies are now available in the Printed Paper Office and online. We thank Naomi Ellenbogen for her report and analysis and are grateful to all who contributed to her work.
I would like to make this short statement on behalf of the commission. We have already made important improvements, including introducing a Parliament-wide behaviour code and an independent complaints and grievance scheme, and we are appointing a new conduct committee to which lay members will be appointed shortly. But there is still a great deal of work to do. We will carefully consider Naomi Ellenbogen’s report to determine how we can effectively take the recommendations forward. The next commission meeting will take place on Wednesday 17 July.
Everyone deserves a workplace which has high standards of behaviour and mutual respect. Bullying and harassment have no place in the House of Lords. This report is an important step in ensuring that we, the commission and the House of Lords administration can work together to achieve that goal. It is because we are committed to this that we asked for this inquiry to be conducted. We are determined to address the issues the report highlights and to make the House of Lords better.
Companies: Parental Leave Practices
To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to issue their consultation on requiring transparency in publishing parental leave practices for companies with over 250 employees.
My Lords, this proposal was announced last October. The department has been engaging with business and those representing employees to gather their views on the proposal and how to make it work. A public consultation on the Government’s proposed measures will be published in due course.
I am grateful for that Answer and glad that the Government have finally announced that the public consultation will be this summer. I welcome the Government’s aspiration in the initial statement towards an inclusive economy. Does the Minister therefore agree that the requirement to publish parental leave policies would, as with the gender pay gap, shine a light on which companies are inclusive and help potential recruits to make good decisions about the best company for them, without inviting potential embarrassment and even rejection by having to ask about parental leave policies at the interview?
My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very fair point. The purpose of requiring employers to publish parental leave and pay policies is so that applicants can make an informed decision about whether to combine a job with caring for their families. At present, as she will be aware, applicants must ask prospective employers for details of parental leave and pay policies. Many people are reluctant to do this, which is why my right honourable friend made that announcement and why we are working towards this. As I said, we hope to publish the consultation soon.
My Lords, according to figures from the department for business for last year, some 285,000 couples are eligible every year for shared parental leave. However, the department’s figures outline that the take-up could be as low as 2%. Can the Minister outline his understanding of why there is such a low take-up and, probably more importantly, what the Government and his department will do to deal with it?
My Lords, again it is fair to say that the noble Lord is right to highlight that there has been a low take-up of shared parental leave. We will want to look at this to make sure that people can benefit from it. We will work on that, but I give him an assurance that that is what the department is doing.
My Lords, picking up on that point, research done this year at the University of Birmingham indicates that it is not just parents or potential parents who have low knowledge of shared parental leave; it is also the managers and HR departments within companies themselves. Will the Minister undertake to have an enhanced information campaign within businesses to improve uptake of shared parental leave?
I am more than happy to look at that because there is no point in introducing new measures to assist new employees if the employers, HR departments and others do not know about them. I am not aware of the research the noble Lord has highlighted but I am happy to look at it.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the financial arrangements and auditing of multi-academy trusts.
My Lords, the financial arrangements and auditing of academies is based on a clear framework and effective oversight, with robust intervention when needed. Trusts must comply with the Academies Financial Handbook, publish audited accounts and have independent internal scrutiny. In November 2018, the academies sector annual report and accounts showed that the vast majority of trusts are compliant with financial requirements; 98% of accounts were unqualified by their auditors and 95% had no regulatory issues.
I wonder how robust these procedures are. The Minister may recall that, a few months ago, the newspaper headlines were saying that an academy leader had established a love nest in his office and had spent £100,000, I think, on various gifts and pleasures. This went on for a number of years but was not picked up by any audit or inspection—it was a whistleblower who shone a light on what was happening. The Minister will also be aware of the large number of transactions by chief executives of academies to companies that they own or are owned by family members. For example, in 2016 £120 million was spent on contracts with companies owned by chief executives or their family members. Surely, we need systems that stop this happening, because this is money that should be spent on schools and their pupils.
My Lords, I am not familiar with the love-nest situation, but I assure the noble Lord that scrutiny of the sector is robust. From 1 April this year, we brought in a requirement that any related-party transaction in excess of £20,000 had to have pre-clearance with the ESFA, and all other RPTs needed to be disclosed. It is frustrating that I am often attacked about governance in the academies sector while there are also a lot of transgressions in the local authority sector. While researching this Question today, I discovered the 2009 case of a so-called super-head in a local authority school, who was knighted by the Labour Government, was then charged with false accounting and has recently lost his knighthood, been convicted and must repay some £1.5 million.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that mistakes have been made in allocating knighthoods by Governments of all persuasions. But would he not acknowledge that the greater transparency and probity in academies and schools today builds confidence and trust in the system as a whole, and that when he and I gave evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee a year or two ago we both agreed that there was insufficient capacity in the system to oversee the present structure? Will he not go back to the Secretary of State—while he is there—to insist that another look is taken at how we hold to account our academies and schools?
The noble Lord is right in saying that we appeared together several years ago at an Education Select Committee. A great deal of work has been done since then. Under my tenure, we have rewritten the academies handbook twice—the latest version was released in the past few weeks and includes the change relating to related-party transactions that I mentioned. We updated the academies account direction —the directions for auditors—in March. We have asked for additional scrutiny of new academy trusts to ensure that they have the correct governance structure. We have ensured that there is a scheme of financial delegation that maintains robust controls, that management accounts are shared with the board of trustees and issued regularly and that there is board oversight of capital expenditure and funding to ensure that it is used appropriately for capital purposes. I have written to all auditors in the sector on three occasions during my tenure to stress the importance of many of these issues. The conversation that the noble Lord and I had with the Select Committee a couple of years ago was absolutely right, but a huge amount has been done since then.
My Lords, surely it is essentially the task of the governing body of the school to see that it is run properly and to exercise a role similar to that of a non-executive director.
My noble friend is entirely correct. Again, we have done a lot to strengthen the quality of academy trust boards. We have organised a programme called Academy Ambassadors, finding more than 1,000 commercial individuals who have volunteered to join trusts over the past four years, bringing extra rigour and scrutiny. The regional schools commissioners have carried out 1,000 trust reviews in the last academic year, which also requires that non-exec members of the board attend those meetings.
My Lords, the rather blithe dismissal of concerns by the Minister runs counter to the Public Accounts Committee, which reported six months ago that financial controls in schools needed to be strengthened and that,
“the Department for Education’s … oversight and intervention needs to be more rigorous”
The fact is that the Government have virtually no powers to rein in those academy trusts that are acting in a cavalier manner with public funds. I know that the Minister wrote to several academies earlier this year asking them to justify excessive salaries; can he say whether the Harris Federation was one of them? I acknowledge the good results that that trust’s schools produce, but it is the third largest trust in England and it has 11 staff earning more than £150,000 a year. Yet the largest trust, United Learning, has just one. Does that not make the Minister curious?
I am afraid it does not, my Lords, because the Harris trust is delivering the most extraordinary level of education improvement in the country. If you take the cost of that senior management team and divide it by the number of pupils in that trust, you will see that it is extraordinarily good value.
My Lords, I declare my previous interests as chair of two academies, but I am very concerned that we are not monitoring the length of stay of chairs in certain academies. It becomes very difficult for them to manage some of the resources in relation to very competent and articulate principals. Is the Minister reviewing how long some governors have been in post?
I am not sure if the noble Baroness is worried about them being in post for too long or too short a period of time. Given that the programme has existed at scale for only about six years, perhaps she is worried about the short length of tenure. The department is fully geared up: all Companies House filings of retirements or new appointments to boards go through to the ESFA and where we see what we would call unusual actions—for example, a number of trustees retiring simultaneously—we will escalate that as a matter for review.
My Lords, is it the case that every academy in a multi-academy trust is audited? If not, why not? If so, what would the repercussions on the trust be if one of the academies failed the audit?
My Lords, an academy trust is a single legal entity, so the individual schools are part of that. But the noble Baroness is quite correct that there is a full external audit carried out on academy trusts every year. That is unlike local authority schools, where the average frequency of audit is about every four years, so I can assure her that the scrutiny is far higher than for local authority schools.
My Lords, what arrangements have the Minister’s department made to ensure that assessment of the financial arrangements and auditing of the Inspiration Trust are fully independent?
My Lords, for those who do not know, I was the founding chairman of the Inspiration Trust, so I am fairly familiar with it. When I took on this post, I agreed with both the ethics committee in the Cabinet Office and with the Department for Education that I would have no say in any decisions made about that trust. I resigned both as a trustee and as a member and have had nothing to do with any governance decisions from the department. The noble Lord shakes his head; I am afraid he is absolutely wrong. I have had no oversight of that trust since I became a government Minister.
My Lords, will the Minister return for a moment to the question of governance? What are the expectations of how academy trusts recruit governors? How widely do they look and what emphasis do they place, for example, on diversity and gender balance in their searches?
My Lords, the first priority is competence. We want good, strong people on these trusts who will challenge the senior leadership teams and also provide support and encouragement. Beyond that, diversity is extremely important, and we are very aware that we need to get more minority groups involved, but my first priority has been to ensure that we have strong people on the board.
Although there have been some disappointments, should we not pay tribute to the great success that has been obtained by so many of these trusts?
My Lords, my noble friend is entirely correct. A few dozen trusts have not performed as well as they should have on governance, but we have that in any large organisation—we now have over 1 million adults in the academies sector, and things go wrong. However, we have seen tremendous progress. We now have over half a million children in schools that were previously failing local authority schools and are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. According to last year’s Progress 8 scores, converter academies have outperformed their comparable local authority schools on every category and type of child—white, mixed, Asian, black, Chinese, SEND pupils and those in receipt of SEND support.
My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, which I presume relates to the length that people continue in post, could the Minister say—I am sure he wants to continue to improve governance—whether he has looked at the Cadbury principles and seen whether they could be applied in certain areas of trusts?
To reassure the noble Lord, an academy trust is scrutinised not only by the Department for Education; we are co-regulators with the Charity Commission and, when a person becomes a trustee of a trust, he or she is also a director, as in company legislation. We expect the highest levels of probity, and we act when that does not happen.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Storey’s initial Question implied, wrongdoing, abuse and mistakes are nearly always exposed by whistleblowers rather than by any official monitoring mechanism. From my work with the APPG on Whistleblowing, it is very evident that whistleblowers in this area rarely know to whom they can safely complain or report. Retaliation is exceedingly common. Would the Minister make some effort to look across this field and see whether there can be real improvements, because it is the whistleblowers who are helping keep the system clean?
The noble Baroness is correct that whistleblowers play an important part in the regulation of the system, but I assure her that that is not the whole story at all. We rely on the external audit reports that we receive from auditors and we issue financial notices to improve wherever we come across wrongdoing. However, I am happy to look into whistleblowing procedures to ensure that we are protecting their interests when they are used.
Commemoration: Victims of Religious Violence
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to recognise the newly designated United Nations Day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief on 22 August.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interests as outlined in the register.
My Lords, the Government are deeply concerned at both the scale and severity of acts of violence based on religion or belief. We very much welcome the newly established United Nations Day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief. The United Kingdom was proud to co-sponsor the resolution establishing this day. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will issue guidance to posts suggesting ways in which they may wish to mark 22 August, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon will attend a parliamentary event later this month to mark the day.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her Answer and recognise that, as the day has only recently been designated, it is quite tricky in relation to 22 August this year. However, next year is also the 400th anniversary of the embarkation of the “Mayflower” during the late summer of 1620, so would it not be appropriate for Her Majesty’s Government to use this anniversary of victims of religious intolerance fleeing England to devote resources to drawing attention to today’s victims of acts of violence against religion or belief on this newly designated day?
My Lords, my noble friend makes a most interesting suggestion that merits exploration. There is a symmetry in fact that nearly 400 years ago pilgrims left this country for the new world to practise their faith freely, and today we celebrate freedom of religion or belief proudly and with passion—not least because the newly designated United Nations Day of 22 August firmly places this issue on the global radar screen.
My Lords, it is a sad fact that tomorrow, 11 July, marks the day in 1995 when more than 8,500 men and young boys were massacred in Srebrenica. Will the Minister say what we are going to do tomorrow to commemorate those victims of such a terrible crime?
I thank the noble Lord, who refers to a tragic and deeply distressing incident from that past time. The United Nations designated day for commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief on 22 August of this year is one way, along with others, of remembering where such atrocities occurred. It is the case that, as I said earlier, the United Kingdom was one of the co-sponsors of the resolution establishing that day, and certainly we look forward to working with our global partners as we commemorate and remember these terrible acts of violence.
My Lords, has the Minister noted that the independent inquiry report, commissioned by the Foreign Secretary and published on Monday, stated that the persecution of 250 million people was,
“the most shocking abuse of human rights in the modern era”.
Will the Minister tell us whether special attention will be paid to the inquiry’s recommendation that a Foreign and Commonwealth Office review should take place of the way in which people are held to account and brought to justice for persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide?
First of all, in relation to the independent review, we are very grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for that hard-hitting report—and it is hard hitting—and for its ambitious recommendations. As the noble Lord will be aware, a number of the recommendations reach beyond the FCO and across government departments. I can reassure him that we are working across government to agree a formal, collective response as soon as possible.
My Lords, perhaps I may say that, on behalf of many of us, we welcome the Government’s support for this day, although we hugely grieve for the fact that such a day is necessary. One of the best ways that we will tackle continuing violence, based on religion or belief, in the long run will be through education. I wonder whether Her Majesty’s Government are planning or investing in the training of educators and religious leaders from countries where there are high levels of freedom of religion or belief violations, so that we can promote respect and peaceful coexistence. This would be a very profitable investment.
I thank the right reverend Prelate, who makes an extremely important point. To reassure him, the Government agree with his assessment. Indeed, education is key to our work on freedom of religion or belief. To illustrate: between 2016 and 2018, the FCO funded a programme run by Hardwired in which 56 teachers from Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco created and developed innovative educational curricula that promoted greater respect for the rights and freedoms of all people, especially those who think and believe differently from them. Over 1,000 schoolchildren took part in the programme. The right reverend Prelate is absolutely correct, and we will continue to look for further ways to promote respect through education.
My Lords, among the recommendations made specifically to the Foreign Office by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro in his report were that there should be a spreading of real understanding about the role of religion within the department—and indeed, in some other departments —and that overseas posts should not confine themselves to talking to the establishment religious leaders but should seek out those who are vulnerable because of their religious faith and make sure that they are communicating with them. Are those the sorts of things the Foreign Office will do?
That encapsulates the general concept of training, and the noble Lord is absolutely right that training is vital in how we address issues in these difficult and sensitive situations. The FCO has been extending training on the influence of faith in foreign policy, and we have commissioned the LSE Faith Centre to deliver a training course on religious literacy and we are introducing a series of regular seminars. We also invite other government departments, including DfID, to join this training.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they intend to take to ensure that universities properly investigate allegations of racism by students, lecturers and staff; and what role the Office for Students will have in any such investigations.
My Lords, the Government take all forms of racism extremely seriously and expect providers to act swiftly to investigate and address reports of racist incidents. The Government are working closely with Universities UK and the Office for Students to support work to address racism and other forms of harassment in higher education, including the implementation of UUK’s task force recommendations. The Government tasked the OFS to support this, and over £2 million has been invested in projects tackling hatred and harassment.
My Lords, universities have a responsibility to ensure that they provide a safe, inclusive learning requirement but fail in some cases to treat racism seriously. Twenty-five per cent of universities surveyed admitted that they lacked central records of racist complaints, some did not specifically record racist incidents, and just five said that staff who investigated complaints received specific anti-racism training. Does the Minister share my concern that without concerted action, the widened access a diverse intake brings is threatened, and that there are few mechanisms and fewer trained staff able to deal with racism at our universities?
My Lords, we are concerned, and there is no place in our society, including within higher education, for hatred or any form of harassment, discrimination or racism. Higher education providers have clear responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and should discharge their responsibilities fully and have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law to investigate and swiftly address incidents reported to them—by the way, this includes having enough resources, especially staff. The Office for Students was set up to champion students, and it is right that it works closely with universities to fund them to tackle this important issue.
Yesterday, the United States special envoy on global anti-Semitism came to this House. He told us that global anti-Semitism has risen, in part due to anti-Semitism taking place on campus. The Jewish Leadership Council, of which I am vice-president, met the Minister, Chris Skidmore, a short while ago, and he wrote to every vice-chancellor asking them to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. Despite that, Jewish students are still having to pay for security on campus. Has the Minister received a reply from the vice-chancellors, and what steps are being taken to ensure that all universities adopt this definition?
I am aware of the meeting and the letter which Minister Skidmore wrote—on 16 May, I believe. I can tell my noble friend that there have been some replies, so I believe that the message is getting through. However, I am the first to say that there is more work to be done. King’s College London has adopted the IHRA definition, but I believe that that happened before the letter was written. Just to complicate matters, we have to respect institutional autonomy as regards how higher education providers operate, although obviously government has a role.
My Lords, last week I was speaking at a sixth-form college where the students were almost entirely black and minority ethnic. They were thrilled when one of their bright girls got a place at Cambridge, and devastated when her father refused to allow her to go on the grounds that she must live at home and go to a local university. What more can be done to encourage ethnic minority communities not to discriminate against girls in this way, and to ensure that they have the opportunities that others have, both before they go to university and afterwards?
The noble Baroness raises an important point. It is important to encourage more females to go to university, when it is right for them, as well as BAME students. I know that a number of universities, including but not exclusively Oxford and Cambridge, are doing a lot of work to try to encourage and improve entries from this particular group, and the work is getting through.
My Lords, when I was a vice-chancellor, there were clear regulations about how to handle allegations of racial discrimination or abuse of some kind. One knew exactly what one had to do: procedures would be set up, which I myself would chair. Perhaps these serious allegations that my noble friend has alluded to arise from the fact that vice-chancellors may be turning their attentions to other managerial matters and not to their fundamental responsibility, which is the welfare and well-being of students and staff.
The noble Lord is right that the welfare of students has to be paramount, and the OfS is tasked with that. However, there is more to it than that; the House may note that the EHRC is conducting an inquiry into racial harassment in higher education, which we welcome. Minister Skidmore wrote to the EHRC on 7 January regarding its inquiry to set out the importance of our understanding of these issues and how they are addressed by providers. Therefore, we very much want to follow through and are on the front foot as regards trying to understand more where the problems are and address them.
Has the Minister seen the report on the research by Dr Katy Sian on the racism and the lack of career progress that black, Asian and minority ethnic academics are facing in universities? The figures are woeful, and demonstrate, as she puts it, ‘institutional racism’ rather than meritocracy. Does the Minister agree with the recommendation that there should be far more transparency in terms of an audit, a statutory requirement for universities to report on the ethnic make-up of their senior academic staff and the progress they intend to make to change that picture?
Indeed, that is what they are tasked to do, through changes we have made in the transparency requirements of the Higher Education and Research Act. There is more to it: £1.8 million has been given for 45 projects. They are looking not only at online harassment—£480,000 has been given for 11 projects to tackle religious harassment. There are a number of strands in progress to make sure we are doing the maximum possible in this area.
My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, will the Minister make inquiries to establish whether the guidance the noble Lord referred to is still in place and available to vice-chancellors and principals? It is clearly very important that, having been provided, it should be retained.
I will certainly check that, but I have no doubt that the guidance is there. The big question is whether we should be updating it. That will certainly come in the autumn, when the EHRC is due to report, so this is very much a work in progress.
Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill [HL]
A Bill to make it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services for Higher Education assessments.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Storey, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Universal Credit Fraud
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place on universal credit fraud. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, universal credit is now in all jobcentres, with around 2 million people claiming this benefit. In accordance with our approach to test and learn while rolling out universal credit, we have made several changes to the advances claimants may receive while they wait for their first payment. If they need it, people can now claim an advance from day one of their claim. They can apply in person, by phone or online—a facility we introduced in July 2018.
On Monday, the BBC published an article which described cases where fraudulent applications had been made to acquire advance payments. The figures quoted are unverified anecdotes.
Those who defraud the benefits system take taxpayers’ money from the poorest people in society. We have a dedicated team of investigators working on this issue, and are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that, where appropriate, perpetrators will be prosecuted; we have in fact already secured our first successful prosecution. We frequently raise awareness among front-line staff to be vigilant to fraud risks, and raise concerns where appropriate.
I would like to remind honourable Members, and their constituents, that DWP staff will never approach a claimant on social media, or in the street, to discuss their benefit claim. Claimants should never give out personal or financial information to a third party unless they are certain they work for the DWP, and have followed a password or security protocol. Anyone with concerns about their benefit claim should contact their local jobcentre directly”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. Claimants need these advances because they have to wait five weeks to get their universal credit in the first place, and that money must be repaid. Now the BBC tells us that tens of millions of pounds have been stolen in fraudulent advance claims. It saw DWP messages on an internal forum describing lots of suspicious claims, from a 19 year-old with six blind children to those inventing street names or people, where the landlord was called Harry Kane and the kids were Homer, Bart and Lisa.
In other cases, a genuine claimant has been conned into giving their details to someone who says that they can get them a government grant or payday loan. Instead, that person applies for universal credit in the claimant’s name, and they find out only when they are taken off their old benefits and put on to UC; the claimant then finds themselves worse off and may have to pay back a debt of £1,500 in the bargain.
Can the Minister tell us two things? First, assuming that the Government are not about to stop the rollout—which I think they should—where a legacy benefit claimant was scammed and a UC claim was made without their knowledge, will the DWP allow them to return to legacy benefits, especially if they are worse off? Secondly, eight leading banks have signed up to a new code to reimburse victims of fraud on a no-blame basis. Will the DWP do the same?
My Lords, I repeat that we take this issue incredibly seriously. First, there is no question of us stopping the rollout; we will not. It is already completed in that it is now in every jobcentre in the country. The termination of legacy benefits is triggered simply where a UC claim is made, not where it is treated as made. It is essential for a smooth transition from legacy benefits to universal credit that the trigger for the move is simple, and that legacy benefit overlap is avoided as far as possible or is otherwise accounted for. The chief goal is prompt and accurate payments of UC to claimants, and, where fraud is alleged, a fraud referral is raised so that the case can be investigated to assess the evidence to establish the facts and determine who was involved, including any third parties. In deciding whether the claim is valid, the consideration needs to factor in whether, or the extent to which, the claimant is involved in the claim.
We at the Department for Work and Pensions are doing all we can to take this matter extremely seriously. We are talking about crime and the money of the poorest being taken away and going to the wrong people. It is important to properly investigate every circumstance; we deal with this on a case-by-case basis.
My Lords, I read that less than 1% of claims are defrauded in this way. Is that correct?
It is entirely correct: 1% of all claims referred by staff are fraud claims. It is important to make it clear that we have trained our staff properly to investigate those claims when they are received, to make sure that the work coach can assess the claims and transfer them on to our fraud and investigation service.
My Lords, is it not very sad that certain claimants say that they are being penalised in cases of fraud? Can the Minister guarantee that this does not happen? Is it not the answer that, until the fraud is sorted out, loans must be made face to face with a JCP official? This matter would not then arise. Until it is sorted out, is that not the safest thing to do?
My Lords, where that is possibly the case, as the noble Baroness rightly said, it is important that we approach each and every case carefully on a case-by-case basis. Each case appears to be different. We do not intend to penalise people who have been duped by others; that is, those who have honestly received benefits incorrectly. We do all we can to support those people throughout the process, working closely with the CPS.
My Lords, when the Minister repeated the Statement, she referred to the BBC relying on “unverified anecdotes”. That sounds remarkably complacent—particularly given that, in her answer to her noble friend, she said that 1% was about right for the level of fraud. Will she give us her estimate if we cannot rely on the BBC’s figures?
My Lords, I am amazed if the noble Lord seeks to rely too heavily on the BBC. I am grateful that he is asking me, acting as a Minister for the department. To date we have received around 42,000 fraud referrals from staff relating to potentially fraudulent advance claims, and there have been around 4.4 million claims for universal credit; I say that because it is important to put this in context. As my noble friend said, this equates to less than 1% of claims taking out a fraudulent advance. We are unable to break this down to jobcentre level, but we know that the majority of those claims, 55%, are in the north-west. However, we are seeing an increase in the north-east, 14%, and the Midlands, 12%. This is entirely unacceptable, of course, so we are looking at the whole system at the moment to see what we can do to improve the situation.
Will my noble friend confirm that her department has prosecuted people for these offences and will continue to pursue fraudsters?
My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We have had one successful prosecution, and something like 1,420 other cases are live at the moment. I take this to heart, as this area is in my portfolio at the department. We are doing all we can to make sure that we up our game in taking on the whole issue of benefit fraud. Another key point is that universal credit is part of the process of reducing claimant fraud; unlike with the complex legacy system, where it was much more difficult for people to inform the DWP of changes of circumstances, people can now do that. They are in constant touch with their work coach. We also have real-time information. We know what people’s earnings are, so we are now far better able to tackle issues of fraud.
I ask the Minister for a bit of clarification. I do not pretend to understand all the ins and outs of this, but I see a lot of suffering, which now seems to be added to by crime. On the one hand, it is good to hear that it is less than 1%, but that would be no consolation for me if I was one of those people who now has to pay back for the fraud perpetrated against me by someone else. I am sorry if I did not understand the answer. I suppose I am asking the Minister to explain what help those victims will get in the terrible situation they find themselves in.
My Lords, of course we take this extremely seriously, as I say. We have to be extremely careful to ensure that victims are properly looked after and supported through the process, but also that those who have committed fraud have the full force of criminal justice thrown at them. This is crime. I look forward to the latest British attitudinal survey being published imminently, because the last survey showed that people on the whole felt that some crime was fine, as long as it was not a lot of crime. We have to confront this, look after those who need our support and use our brilliant fraud and investigation teams, working with the CPS, to make sure that those who have committed the crime are brought to justice.
My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate, I am a little confused. If there is a brilliant fraud and investigation team and the Minister is genuinely concerned, why did it take a BBC investigation to draw it to our attention?
My Lords, in the department we were already aware that there was an issue, and we have been working on this. We have a strong team of investigators—125 people dedicated to working out what we do about incidents relating to advances. It is very difficult. As for support—I return to the right reverend Prelate—we are taking every step we can to ensure that people have access to money with ease when they need it on their first day. When they come into a jobcentre, people are often in trouble—they need our help—so there is a balance to strike, allowing ease of access and ensuring that those people have the money they need but, at the same time, do not take advantage. That is very hard to get right, and that is what we are working to do what we can to improve, working with others across Whitehall to make sure that, with data, we are doing the right thing to reduce cross-welfare losses to fraud and error.
National Insurance Contributions (Termination Awards and Sporting Testimonials) Bill
Order of Commitment Discharged
That the order of commitment be discharged.
My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill, and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment, or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.
Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill [HL]
That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, I am pleased by noble Lords’ interest in the Bill and look forward to hearing the views of the House on this important matter.
This Government recognise the vital role that public lavatories play in our communities. Town centres, visitor attractions and local hubs all rely on good access to these facilities. People’s ability to work, shop or enjoy their leisure time depends on appropriate toilet facilities. This can be especially important for those with particular health needs, or for individuals, such as taxi or delivery drivers, who do not work in fixed locations. More widely, adequate lavatory provision contributes to public health and improves the local environment, particularly in terms of street cleanliness and disease control.
Given how vital these facilities are, it is understandable that there has been public concern about the reduction in available lavatories. Individual closures are often understandable where facilities are no longer suitable, however a reduction in overall coverage is an inconvenience for the public. The Government recognise this and we are therefore taking action to reduce the costs of those facilities most at risk. The Bill will support those who provide public lavatories and make it easier to keep them open. At Budget 2018, the Government responded to calls from local councils and the public, and committed to introduce 100% business rates relief for public lavatories. This will be a permanent measure and will apply to hereditaments—properties with their own rateable value used wholly or mainly as public lavatories, rather than those inside larger buildings. “Wholly or mainly”, in this context, refers to a situation where there may be some ancillary purpose such as baby-changing facilities in the lavatory, so that it would not be wholly a public lavatory.
We can all envisage stand-alone facilities of public lavatories in towns, cities and communities that we know. These would be where there is a separate rateable value attached, such as—as raised in discussions with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope—the lavatories in the subway at Westminster Tube station, which are separately assessed so they would qualify for this. More widely, the noble and learned Lord and I shared a memory of a case that concerned these public lavatories: The Mayor and Corporation of Westminster v London and North Western Railway Company, a 1905 decision in the House of Lords. It concerned the building of these lavatories, and the question of whether access from either side of Whitehall, providing a thoroughfare for individuals, was legitimate in this connection. The House of Lords, reversing the Court of Appeal decision, decided that it was legitimate.
This Bill will provide important financial assistance from central government to those who provide these facilities. I also commend the local authorities and town and parish councils up and down the country that work hard to provide public lavatories in their areas. I note that the Welsh Government wish to apply this measure in Wales; accordingly, a legislative consent Motion will apply from the Senedd, the Welsh Assembly, in this regard. I therefore extend those best wishes to community councils and local authorities in Wales.
I also pay tribute to the local authorities, associations and businesses that have launched local initiatives to provide further lavatory access to the public. The Community Toilet Scheme, originally devised by the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, is now widely used by many local authorities across the country. For example—this is only an example; it is applied quite widely—it includes schemes in Stockport, Kettering, Oxford, Poole and Amber Valley, among others. This enables local businesses to work with councils to widen lavatory access so that the public can use the facilities in shops, restaurants and so on without making a purchase. Often the local authority will provide a fee for this to the local businesses concerned, and that fee is variable. It is publicised in various ways.
The British Toilet Association runs a national campaign called Use Our Loos, which encourages businesses to join these community schemes and open their toilets to the public. Participating lavatories are shown on a map, called the Great British Public Toilet Map, so that visitors to an area always know where facilities are available. I tried this map before coming here today and it works incredibly well. You search for a particular town. For example, I searched Helston, where I was last week, and five public lavatories come up that people are able to visit. I also put in Saltaire—but more of that later, I suspect, when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, speaks on this subject.
According to the figures that Bradford metropolitan council has given me, 10 years ago it provided 49 public toilets; it now provides only seven. That is a huge reduction. I am aware that there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of closures of public toilets in other parts of the country, but the Government must have some overall figures showing just how large the reduction in public provision has been.
My Lords, I do not have the specific figures that the noble Lord refers to, but I can deal with the issue of how many are likely to be available under the scheme, which I am sure he will find helpful. I can tell him that a public lavatory in Saltaire came up on the map, but we can engage on that later. I can seek to get the figures that he is referring to but I do not have them to hand.
As I said, participating lavatories are shown on a map, called the Great British Public Toilet Map, so visitors to an area will always know where facilities are available. Obviously, tourist information centres will also have this information but I am keen to see whether there are other ways in which we can publicise the availability of lavatories in towns and communities. This is something that I am asking officials to look at.
For those with conditions or particular health concerns that sometimes mean that they require lavatories at short notice, the Can’t Wait card is now widely accepted by businesses, even when they do not offer public facilities. That seems appropriate, no matter how many public lavatories there are in a town. In that situation, you may need to go to somewhere much more to hand, and I am sure that noble Lords will join me in applauding that initiative.
Of course, for people with special access requirements, it is not just about having any facilities available but having the right facilities. There has been a cross-government drive to provide more Changing Places lavatories to help maintain the dignity of people with special lavatory requirements when they are away from home. The Department for Transport’s Inclusive Transport Strategy includes providing £2 million of funding to improve the provision of Changing Places toilets in motorway service areas, for example.
The Department of Health and Social Care has made £2 million available to install over 100 Changing Places toilets in NHS hospitals throughout England, and in 2015 the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provided funding for an online map of the UK that helps carers and disabled people find Changing Places toilets. Lastly in this connection, the MHCLG is also currently running a consultation on proposals for increasing the provision of Changing Places toilets in new and refurbished buildings. That consultation seeks views on a mandatory requirement for Changing Places toilets in building regulations and will close on 21 July 2019. There are now over 1,300 changing places facilities available, compared to 140 in 2007. That is a considerable success and I am sure that noble Lords will applaud it.
The Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill is only a short, four-clause Bill, but one that will provide important support for councils in England and Wales to keep these vital public facilities open.
The Welsh Government have worked with the UK Government to ensure that stand-alone public lavatories in Wales will also benefit from this measure. It is based on Part 8 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017.
We have had plans in the pipeline for some time. A measure to enable local authorities to give business rates relief to public toilets through the discretionary relief system was part of the Local Government Finance Bill in 2017. Though that Bill fell with the general election of that year and was not reintroduced, at the time there were significant concerns that a discretionary relief not fully funded by central government would not be widely used. The Government have responded with this new relief under the current Bill, which goes further than the previous measure because it will be mandatory. The full cost of the relief will be met by central government in England and by the Welsh Government in Wales.
I will give some idea of the cost of the measure, given that that was raised in passing by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. It will cost £6 million per annum in England and £450,000 per annum in Wales. As calculated at present, it will help to save 3,500 lavatories in England and 500 in Wales. This will extend to new lavatories built and separately assessed; they will attract the same relief under the same system.
In conclusion, the substance of the Bill has been called for by councils, health and disability charities and many members of the public. It is on a subject of wide and important public interest. The Government have also engaged with the British Toilet Association and the National Association of Local Councils on the rollout of this relief. This important, if unglamorous, measure will make a real difference to the lives of people up and down the country. The savings will be of vital assistance to councils where removing the additional costs of business rates could help to keep these facilities open. I commend the Bill to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I draw Members’ attention to my relevant interests in the register, as a councillor in Kirklees and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The provision of public loos is a little discussed but fundamental aspect of enabling all people to feel confident that they can go out, knowing that they will be able to access a clean and well-maintained public loo and not have to rely on going to a café, for instance.
A report from the Royal Society for Public Health in May of this year makes a very strong case for a review of the number of accessible public loos. The report investigated public loos and discovered the number that have been closed by local authorities as a consequence of the severe cuts to public funding; the potential health impact of a lack of public loos; and the fact that many people plan their days out according to the accessibility, or not, of public loos.
The report found that in 2018, there were no public toilets at all in 37 council areas that were funded and maintained by local authorities. BBC’s Reality Check also did a survey of local authorities and public loos last year. It discovered that the tourist county of Cornwall reduced its council-maintained loos from 247 to 14. Some of those were of course transferred to parish and town councils, but that is not an option available to every council. Reality Check also found that in virtually every council in England and Wales, public toilets had been closed. For example, 25% of Brighton’s public loos have been closed despite it being a major seaside resort. Where all stand-alone public loos have been closed and not transferred, councils have directed people to the availability of toilets in local publicly funded buildings such as libraries, town halls and market halls. However, the fact remains that there has been a stark reduction in the number of public toilets available.
As the Minister has said, people with medical conditions or physical disabilities—or indeed people of a certain age group—who need to go to the loo more often will plan their day’s shopping or visiting on the basis of the availability of public loos. According to the investigation recorded in the Royal Society for Public Health report, the knowledge of a lack of facilities deters as many as 20% of people from going out as often as they would like, and over half the public—56%, in fact—actually restrict fluid intake due to concern over the lack of toilets. The lack of provision of public toilets is a major but largely unrecognised issue that significantly restricts lives. It is therefore one that deserves even greater exposure than the narrow focus of this Bill.
We on this side welcome the Government’s proposal in the Bill to provide 100% business rate relief for stand-alone public loos, and I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that it is mandatory. The business rates currently payable on such premises can, and in some cases are, prohibitive compared to the other costs of provision, such as cleaning and maintenance. For instance, in my own town of Cleckheaton the business rates payable on the public loos in the market hall, because they are a stand-alone part of it and separately rated, is currently £5,100, which is no doubt as much or more than the cost of keeping them clean and maintained.
Unfortunately, the Bill is a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. As I said earlier, some councils now run no public loos at all. In my own council of Kirklees, there were 25 in 2010 but now there are none. Large parts of the area are not covered by parish councils, so in those parts the closure of all public loos means just that. There may be nowhere to spend a penny. Some major coffee chains are enabling individuals to use their facilities without buying anything; that is positive, but I am not sure they would welcome a coachload queuing through their premises.
I therefore have a suggestion for the Minister. Will the Government consider extending the 100% relief to include toilets that are accessible to the public and in a publicly funded building—for example, a library, town hall or market hall? One of the reasons for this suggestion is to provide a degree of equality of treatment in areas that are not parished and have no opportunity for another public organisation to take over the running of them. The other reason is fair access for people with disabilities. For example, Huddersfield town hall has a Changing Places facility, the only one in the town. Given the continuing squeeze on local government funding, a bit of relief—albeit business rates relief—would not come amiss. Any additional action that the Government can take to keep these essential facilities open will enhance the lives of all, but especially those who already have life-changing conditions, to whom as a society we should give especial attention and consideration.
The Bill gives welcome relief to local authorities and parish and town councils. Sadly, though, this is too little, too late. I hope the Minister can give me some comfort that relief can be extended to accessible public loos in publicly funded buildings. When he replies, perhaps he will bear in mind that the business rates to spend a penny in those public buildings could be offset by requiring Amazon and other online retailers to spend a much greater share of the billions of pennies spent by their customers and increasing the relatively miniscule business rates they pay in comparison to our humble, but essential, public loos.
My Lords, I am sure that the House is very grateful to the Minister for the helpful and encouraging way in which he introduced this debate. I am particularly grateful to him for reminding us about the public convenience which lies in the underpass at the southern end of Whitehall. It is of interest to lawyers, some of whom engage in legal tourism, discovering places that are mentioned in celebrated cases and spending their holidays going from one to the other. The Westminster convenience is very easy for those who study at London universities to reach, unlike some places much further afield.
The point that interests me, and which led me to contribute to this debate, relates to my past. I once practised in the valuation for rating field and was the editor of a textbook on the subject. The fact that interests me is that public lavatories appear in the valuation list at all—but, on reflection, there is no doubt that they should be on the list and that they are chargeable to non-domestic rates.
This is the result of two basic rules: first, that every hereditament or structure that is capable of separate occupation should be entered in the valuation list; and, secondly, that the annual value attached to it for rating purposes is in theory the rent that the hereditament might reasonably be expected to let for from year to year, assuming that the tenant undertakes to pay all the rates and bear the cost of repairs and other expenses necessary to maintain the structure in a state that commands that rent. Nowadays, in practice, that figure is determined by a formula which probably does not bear much relationship to actual rents—but it is the formula that determines the rates that are chargeable for the hereditament.
As the Minister mentioned, not all lavatories that are available for public use are in separate occupation. Those found in railway stations and airports, for example, and those in other publicly funded buildings, are part of a larger hereditament. The problem is that it is the larger hereditament which forms the entry in the list and is valued, with each part of it contributing to the total annual value. As I understand it, we are concerned with the relatively simple position of self-standing hereditaments, but I recognise the point that the noble Baroness raised about lavatories and changing facilities in larger buildings. That would require separate treatment and is not as easy to deal with as what is being dealt with in this case. That is not to say that it is not a very important point—but how one deals with it is a bigger problem.
We are concerned with the self-standing public lavatories that one might hope to find in a town centre, in a public park or in or near a children’s playground. I have to confess that I never encountered one in my valuation practice and they are not mentioned in my textbook—perhaps they should have been. Nor can I remember when I last visited one. However, I have no doubt that they exist and they certainly are rateable.
As the noble Baroness forcefully explained, there is a very real problem, because they are increasingly difficult to find. This is not just a matter of convenience but a health issue, particularly for people with special lavatory requirements or other health problems which mean that they simply cannot risk going to places where one might hope to find them if they know that there is no public convenience there within easy reach. So something needs to be done. Removing the burden of rates is undoubtedly one way of addressing the issue, as the cost of maintaining these premises is not immaterial. Therefore, like the noble Baroness, I entirely support the principle behind the Bill.
Exempting the subjects from rates altogether by this mandatory relief is quite a big step. I am reminded of a similar decision, taken during the depression of the 1920s, to introduce, under the Rating and Valuation (Apportionment) Act 1928, a system of rating relief to encourage investment in industrial and freight transport hereditaments. The relevant legislation provided that the annual value of these subjects was to be determined by dividing by two the figure on which the rates would be levyable if the Act had not been passed. That measure was designed to encourage people to invest in factories and workshops, and no doubt also to discourage them from closing them down, in order to increase opportunities for employment at a time of acute difficulty and depression.
It was a sensible system, but it lasted beyond its useful time and was abolished in the 1960s. Since then, I have sometimes wondered whether a system of de-rating might be introduced to help the occupiers of premises suffering from depression in hard times. In a way, what we are dealing with today is a very good example of that. Here we have subjects that are clearly suffering from the economic problems of keeping them open. The closures which the noble Baroness referred to are dramatic and disturbing. It is a subject which requires similar treatment. Here, the relief is even more generous than that given in 1928. It is not just 50% off but 100% off, which is most welcome.
My only concern is whether giving this mandatory relief will achieve the desired result. I hope it is not just a matter of closing the stable door. Of course, there is no way of knowing what the effect of the Bill will be until it is enacted, but it will certainly help. I hope that it will go as far as the noble Baroness and the Minister indicated. I agree that this Bill should receive a Second Reading, and I hope that it will pass into law as soon as possible.
My Lords, I thought I might start my brief intervention by flushing out the arguments, but a colleague poured cold water on that idea. Seriously, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this little Bill, although sadly it is too late to save many stand-alone public lavatories that have now been closed for several years.
My purpose in speaking was to call on the Government to encourage local authorities to use this new freedom to install better accessible lavatories, in particular, Changing Places lavatories for disabled people wherever possible. However, the Minister has comprehensively shot my fox. This facility has adequate space for a wheelchair or mobility scooter user and one or two carers, an adult-sized, height-adjustable changing bench, a ceiling tracking or mobile hoist and a centrally placed toilet with space around it. This means that the most severely disabled people can be confident when going out and about, knowing that there is a public lavatory they can use, which is certainly not the case now. An awful lot of disabled people are virtual prisoners in their own homes because of this. It will make all the difference to the lives of families with severely disabled children, who often have to use the floor of a conventional lavatory to change them.
We must not forget those with hidden disabilities who have problems with continence—we must mention them too. Let us hope the Bill will inspire councils all over the country to look again at their toilet provision and perhaps reopen facilities that have been closed for several years. It is all very well to rely on local restaurants and bars to fill the gap, but their toilets are often not accessible—as all public lavatories must be—and are often used as storage rooms. Will the Minister’s department conduct an audit of accessible public lavatories around the country? Perhaps he might encourage the Office for Disability Issues, newly relocated to the Cabinet Office, to undertake the survey. If the Government are really serious about getting far more disabled people into work—and I think they are—it would be a useful exercise to pursue this challenge.
My Lords, perhaps it would help to explain why I find myself far away from my professional expertise in foreign policy in talking about public toilets.
The history of Saltaire is very much built on public sanitation and improvement. Titus Salt was mayor of Bradford and one of a group of Liberals and Congregationalists very much concerned about public improvement in a town which, like others in West Yorkshire, had endemic typhoid and typhus in the 1830s and 1840s, and several cholera epidemics. He moved his entire works out to Airedale and built a model village with outside toilets and back alleys wide enough to be regularly emptied, which, in those days, was state of the art in public sanitation. So, Saltaire and sanitation are very closely linked together.
We are now, as the noble Lord will know, a world heritage site and a regular destination for busloads of tourists—either schoolchildren or the moderately elderly—and, as they get off the bus, the first thing they ask is: where are the toilets? The answer is: they are closed. They were closed last year by the city of Bradford and I do not entirely blame it, given the intense pressure on resources it has faced, but I recall the chief executive of Bradford Council saying to my wife a year ago, “The tourists will have to use the local shops”. Of course, we are heritage-listed, and these 19th-century shops did not originally have indoor toilets and have steps up to the front entrance. Those that have now installed indoor toilets have them either in the basement, down a steep staircase—in our house, the staircase down to the basement is very steep—or on the first floor, so they do not help visitors who may be disabled.
The Bill’s provisions would have helped by reducing the estimated costs of maintenance and keeping open our local toilets from around £12,000 to around £6,000 or £7,000, but we do not have a local town or parish council at the moment, so we do not have the resources to do it, unlike Bradford’s other two tourist destinations —Haworth and Ilkley—where the cost and burden has been transferred from the metropolitan council down to the local town or parish. Given how stuck the metropolitan council is for resources, it would say that there is a certain justice—the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, will no doubt agree—in that these are moderately more prosperous areas, so they can damn well do it themselves.
However, we are left with real difficulties. The Minister said in introducing the Bill that this promise was made four years ago and we have been waiting for it ever since. It was put off by the 2017 election, but at least now it is coming through. But behind this are much wider issues of public policy: the provision of public services and what public services ought to be provided; whether they ought to be provided by local or central government; the future of local government and the provision of public space and public services; and how local government resources will be sustained.
I am very conscious, from other work I have been doing on attacks on the Civil Service and the whole question of the public interest, that there are those on the right of the Conservative Party who are libertarians, free marketeers and followers of Ayn Rand. I was slightly unnerved the other month when I read that Sajid Javid regards Ayn Rand as the most important philosopher he has read. These are people who believe that government as such is something to be shrunk as far as possible; that private is better than public; and that the individual should be able to do what they want, while those who cannot cope should be left behind. I recognise that both Ministers on the Front Bench at present are not of that persuasion. Indeed, as good one-nation Conservatives they in turn will recognise, at least to themselves, that that is not at the moment the dominant strain within their own party.
There are questions behind this measure about the whole system of local taxation, and the balance between charity law and non-charitable activities provided as public services. I note that in both cases, the rating system and charity law go back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and still reflect in some ways the assumptions of that period. For example, I note that private hospitals are charities and thus have an 80% rate reduction, whereas the NHS pays a substantial amount in non-domestic rates. There is currently a case in the High Court in which NHS trusts could be relieved of some £2.35 billion, if they win the case.
I am also conscious that public libraries pay substantial rates; for example, my noble friend Lady Pinnock tells me that Cleckheaton library pays £50,000 a year in non-domestic rates. I note that independent schools receive 80% tax relief on this but that state schools pay full non-domestic rates, and that the Scottish Government have committed to removing relief for most independent schools from next year. A set of large issues lie behind this mouse of a Bill.
I note that it has become more complicated in recent years with the introduction of relief for public houses, which are entitled to a £1,000 discount on their business rates from 2017 to 2019, while local newspapers have been getting a £1,500 discount on their office space for three years since 2017. The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Act 2018 provides 100% business rates relief for five years on new fibre infrastructure. This is a mess and needs fundamental reform. If we had a Government who were not as exhausted and internally divided as this Government are, perhaps they would also be addressing that large question in the context of how we provide the resources for decent, democratic local government.
This is a mouse of a Bill and, as such, I give it a very small welcome. It tackles one small corner of a very important area of public policy, which includes: the provision and financing of public services; the sustaining of public space and decent government; the public provision of basic facilities for citizens of this country; and the future of local government. When it comes to Committee, we will certainly want to test the provision of public toilets in other public buildings and whether they should also be within the scope of the Bill. I mean those within libraries, market halls and the sort of places my noble friend spoke about. However, we note that this is a tightly drawn Bill and that it will not be entirely easy to amend. We recognise that some of these wider issues cannot be addressed in this context and that we will have to raise them in wider circles than this.
My Lords, first I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Secondly, I am very happy to support the principle behind this Bill, and the Bill itself, as far as it goes, although, like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I might want to explore options for improving it in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, set out what the Bill will achieve, and I will simply say that it clearly seeks to provide 100% mandatory business rate relief.
The closure of public toilets, over many years, is a matter of concern for the general population, particularly those with specific needs—they could be medical needs but are not exclusively so. The lives of an increasing number of people are affected by the state of Britain’s public toilets, such as people with disabilities, or their carers, the infirm, the elderly, or people with babies and young children. People of all ages—as I said earlier—are coping with a range of medical conditions and not finding adequate provision when they are out and about.
We need to be conscious of the ageing profile of our population. We travel more within the country than we used to. Furthermore, Britain welcomes many millions of tourists, and while that is something we want to increase, it adds further pressure on our existing facilities. These sometimes do not give the best impression, for example when you visit a tourist area and find the facilities are non-existent or in a not particularly good state. I was pleased with the progress that has been made—I think this was raised earlier—in making all the toilets at mainline stations free. That is not quite what we have yet but there has certainly been progress.
We should all be concerned about public health, hygiene and environmental standards in respect of toilet facilities. I agree very much with the British Toilets Association and its campaign to improve these essential facilities. If this measure helps—as I am sure it will—I very much welcome it.
Will the Minister, set out how this measure will increase the provision of facilities for women and for particular user groups such as wheelchair users, the elderly and people with young children and families who have medical conditions? The way in which the Bill is designed does not do that: there is a blanket exemption. Perhaps we should explore in Committee what we can do. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, made a powerful case highlighting the needs of disabled people. What problem would there be in saying that investing in more facilities for disabled people, young children and families, should attract double relief? What is the issue there? That would be a way of encouraging provision for disabled people, for example. These things need to be looked at in Committee.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, made a very good point about lavatories in libraries, town halls and other public sites. I accept the point about hereditaments, but we should explore whether we could do something in that regard, because these are important facilities. Another issue is better security provisions—ensuring that these facilities are safe and secure.
The noble Lord—again, as a sort of aside—referred to the Can’t Wait card. That is a very good initiative; it is disappointing to pass places with signs telling you that you are not welcome if you want to use the toilet, and that you need to go somewhere else. That is not a friendly way of operating.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I know the area a little—though not as well as he does—and the problem that he describes. I was in Stratford-upon-Avon at the weekend and I tried to find a public toilet. I found the sign indicating the public toilets but could not find them. In the end I went into the theatre and used the facilities there. I could not find the public toilets, yet the place is teeming with tourists; there are coaches and people going up and down the road. It seemed to me that people were operating on the basis that people will use the facilities at coffee-shops, pubs and restaurants. That did not seem to be a particularly good way to operate.
I support the Bill: I will certainly think about tabling some amendments in Committee, perhaps along the lines we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. We may be able to improve the Bill, narrow in scope as it is.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in the debate on this important Bill. I do not accept for a minute that it is a small, unimportant Bill. It is a short Bill, certainly, but I think it has significance, so I do not understand the reference to it being a mouse of a Bill. It will take a substantial amount of public spending to help keep public lavatories open.
Let me deal with the various points made by noble Lords who participated and who gave a warm welcome to the principle of the Bill. I say in passing that this goes further than the provision in the Bill of 2017 that fell with the general election, in that it is mandatory. Secondly, there was a promise by the Chancellor in the Budget Statement 2018 that we would do this in relation to self-standing public lavatories. The reason we have not gone beyond that is one of cost and resource. I am happy to engage with noble Lords before Committee to go through that. It is not just a question of the relief itself, but the fact that we have to assess all these different properties to assess what would be the stand-alone cost of the public lavatory, and that is a massive undertaking which would be costly and time-consuming. I am conscious of the fact that there may be some urgency in relation to this measure—not just doing it quickly because it is desirable, but in terms of the days in which we live and the desirability of getting this legislation through.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, very much for her general welcome. She mentioned Cornwall. I was in Cornwall last Thursday, Friday and Saturday and because I knew this was coming I had the opportunity to discuss it with people in museums, particularly in Helston. I remember stopping there to find six public lavatories in a fairly small town—admittedly with tourist visitors. Cornwall is not an incredibly wealthy area, yet they had six public lavatories. They welcomed this because it will help some, if not all, of the public lavatories, which I think would be separately accessed. So I do not quite recognise the picture the noble Baroness was painting of Cornwall. I was variously in Redruth, Truro, Falmouth, Helston and Saltash, where the provision seemed to me perfectly adequate and probably beyond adequate, so far as I could see. Certainly, all those communities are far smaller than Kirklees.
I am not totally familiar with the position in Huddersfield, but I believe there are shopping centres, where there is presumably provision of lavatories. They are valued, in so far as shopping centres are concerned. There are technical reasons for this, but the rate that attaches to the public lavatory is very low because it is factored in with the shops in the shopping centre. I assume that that is the case. I do not know the position at Huddersfield railway station, although it is not so long since I was there because it has one of the most marvellous facades in the country.
We have to recognise that we are living in a different world. For example, I referred to the ability to check on a mobile phone where the nearest lavatory is. I do not know whether the noble Lord tried this when he was finding difficulties in Stratford-upon-Avon, but it is well worth doing. Yes, I think we need to publicise it far more than we do, but it is a very easy way of finding the nearest lavatory, wherever one happens to be in the country. There are many more shopping centres than there used to be, and many more coffee bars. I am not saying that that is the sum total of where we need to be, but it is a changing world. That was not the world we were in even 10 years ago—certainly not 20 years ago. We need to recognise that circumstances change. As I say, the principal reasons we are not going further than we are—and this has an annual cost of £6 million—are the cost and resourcing, particularly in getting it done quickly.
I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, very much indeed for his contribution. His experience here, his knowledge of the complicated situation and of where we are, is welcome. I was very interested in the legal tourism possibilities, and noted down that the lavatories at Westminster could perhaps be a stop-off point between Sayers v Harlow Urban District Council, which I think was a case of false imprisonment in a public lavatory, and Hightrees House in Clapham, which had nothing to do with lavatories but was a significant case. Some very interesting possibilities of legal tourism open up which we could perhaps engage in on another occasion. The noble and learned Lord made the point about rail stations, airports, shopping centres and so on; the challenge of extending it is an economic one.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, a doughty campaigner for the rights of disabled people, for her contribution. I will very happily make officials available to talk through the consultation we are currently holding. I extend that offer to other noble Lords who may want come along and talk to officials; I hope that they will participate in our consultation on changing places and toilet provision. I note, as I said in opening, that this rating relief will of course allow the reopening of lavatories—or, indeed, the building of completely new lavatories if they are self-standing—to attract the rating relief. I know that some councils have closed the buildings where there are stand-alone lavatories, and they remain boarded up. That may well be a possibility. I can also think of councils up and down the country whose reason for closures has not necessarily been just about the cost. Often, as noble Lords will appreciate and agree, it has been about drug use and other factors. That also needs to be said.
Perhaps implicit in what noble Lords have said—in fairness, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who is always fair, said this too—is that this did not just happen overnight. I took down what he said; I think he said it has happened “over many years”. That is indeed true. This did not suddenly happen when we got a Conservative Government in 2015. I do not have figures, but, in so far as I have been able to get some figures about closures, this has been happening for a long time, so it does not stand up that this has been brought about by the suggestion of Gradgrinds in 2015. That is not remotely the case.
I will happily look at the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, of the audit of accessible facilities. I do not know how easy that will be to do, but, when we discuss this with officials, we can look at it if that would be helpful.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, very much indeed. He is always quite rightly fighting for his community and the legacy of Titus Salt. I think that Salts Mill and the Hockney Museum are free entry and open seven days a week, and that the lavatories there are essentially open to the public.
They are indeed. Maggie Silver, who manages the mill, tells me that she has more than doubled her orders for loo roll since the public toilets have closed. It is just possible for disabled people to get in there, and the question of access for disabled people is a very important part of this issue, as I hope we all agree.
I do, and I hope that was implicit in what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester. I thank the noble Lord for acknowledging that there is at least the possibility of use there. Again, I am very happy to talk about the position of Saltaire with him; I think there was a closure of a public lavatory in Saltaire in 2018, and I am happy to talk to him about that.
The noble Lord opened up the debate far wider than I had really prepared for; I think the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, introduced taxation for Amazon and the noble Lord extended it to libraries, independent schools and the legacy of the Conservative Party and so on. I have always been much more of a Disraeli man than a Gladstone man. I can certainly put that on record and am happy to associate with some of the one- nation traditions of Macmillan and Macleod, but that takes us a bit further than where we are with this Bill.
I do not agree with the noble Lord about this being a mouse of a Bill; I hope that local councils throughout the country recognise that it is a genuine, and relatively costly attempt to ensure that we help with those 3,500 lavatories that are separately assessed in England and indeed, the 500 that are separately assessed in Wales. That is what the Bill is intended to do. The question of going more broadly can be looked at, but not in the context of this Bill because the resources from the Valuation Office Agency are just not there to undertake the work in the required timescale. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that there is a degree of urgency, both in a personal sense for individuals around the country and in a political sense. I hope that that is helpful.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who is always very fair on these issues. He recognised the importance of travel and tourism, and he is absolutely right. He asked whether we could do something about the provision for women, perhaps recognising that there is more of a need and often more of a queue for women than for men. That is a fair point. These provisions will at least help across the board.
The Can’t Wait card, which I mentioned in opening, refers to people who have an urgent need, through disease or other difficulty, for ready access to facilities. That extends beyond the number of public lavatories that there are. In those circumstances, people need somewhere that is immediately on hand, and the provision of public lavatories may help with that. However, there may be an urgency when this scheme would be desirable in any event. That is something that we should be proud of.
The noble Lord also referred to disabled access and the changing places scheme. I am very happy to write to noble Lords with more details on where we are on that, and as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to have a separate meeting with officials.
I hope that that is helpful. I will write dealing with the points I missed, and specifically with the changing places points made by the noble Baroness. With that, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, I would like, first, to take this opportunity today to express my sadness at the death of Sir Anthony Hart, who was chair of the inquiry into historical institutional abuse. Sir Anthony was a dedicated public servant and highly respected High Court judge. My thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends at this difficult time.
At the end of April, the Secretary of State, with the support of the Tánaiste, set out a new approach to the Northern Ireland talks aimed at restoring all the political institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This has required addressing some challenging but important issues on which accommodation must be found if the political institutions are to be fully and sustainably restored. Talks have continued to be positive and constructive. There remain, however, a number of issues on which the parties have yet to reach agreement.
The two largest parties have over recent days been considering how an accommodation can be reached on these remaining issues. It is clear that more time is needed. We have therefore agreed that the parties continue to engage with each other in consideration of their positions before reconvening next week for further discussions. They need this additional time to secure agreement.
While the talks continue, the Government’s overriding responsibility remains to provide good governance in Northern Ireland and to ensure that civil servants have the power they need to maintain public services. The law allowing limited decision-making to ensure the effective delivery of public services to continue in the absence of an Executive expires on 25 August. After that, the Northern Ireland Civil Service will revert to the restrictions applied to decision-making by civil servants following the Buick High Court judgment, leaving Northern Ireland without the powers to ensure good governance.
That is why the Bill is essential: it will extend the period for devolved government to be restored by two months, from 26 August 2019 to 21 October, with provisions that allow for a further extension of that period to 13 January 2020. A new deadline of 21 October creates the time that parties need to get an agreement, and there is provision for a short extension with the consent of both Houses.
It will not have escaped your Lordships’ attention that the Commons made amendments to the Bill last night. Those amendments largely cover reporting requirements and requirements for debates on certain topics. However, your Lordships will be aware that, in addition to reporting requirements, the Bill was amended to oblige the Government to introduce regulations to provide for same-sex marriage and abortion. Those votes demonstrated the strength of feeling of the Members of Parliament. However, these are sensitive issues and careful consideration needs to be given to both the policy details and their implementation. Crucially, the amendments as drafted do not function properly, and so do not enable the Government to deliver on the instruction of Parliament.
I have just met Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy to discuss how best to take this forward and to ensure that the changes agreed by the Commons can be delivered. I know that a number of noble Lords have also been involved with these issues, and I will of course work with them as we go forward. I will come back to your Lordships on the changes we need to make to the Bill but in the meantime, I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I fully understand why there is a need for the Bill. I am slightly disconcerted by the Minister not explaining in his speech what the Government propose to do about the amendments passed in the Commons yesterday, particularly those in the names of Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn. Do the Government intend to leave the Bill as it is, to make technical modifications to the amendments but keep the spirit of them, or to try to reverse them? It would be helpful to know that, because I was all set to say, “Well done the Commons” and regard those issues as no longer necessary to talk about.
One of the issues that concerns me, and I do not believe that there is a recent example to the contrary, is decisions being made by civil servants—whom I do not disparage; I am sure they are acting as conscientiously and in as well-meaning a way as possible—without an atom of accountability by Ministers or Parliament, or any other form of accountability. I cannot think of an occasion in the last 200 years where that has been the case in this country. We have either had direct rule or devolved rule at Stormont, and in each case there was a measure of proper accountability.
When I was a member of Mo Mowlam’s ministerial team in Northern Ireland for nearly three years, I appreciated that there was clearly no accountability on my part to local people in Northern Ireland. That was why we were keen that devolution should happen. On the other hand, there was quite a measure of accountability in this House and in the House of Commons. Indeed, a number of former Secretaries of State were in this House, so there was a high level of scrutiny of the decisions made—and it was quite formidable having to deal with former Secretaries of State, who clearly knew their stuff pretty well. It seems that there is an enormous democratic deficit here, which is entirely unsatisfactory. I am sure that historians will find evidence in this respect from several hundred years ago, but not recently. This situation is fraught with danger. We have a lack of an Executive, and the potential for men who wish to disturb the situation to do so by using violence—I hope not, but it is possible—to achieve their ends.
Could we not find some sort of interim measure? After all, we have Members of the Legislative Assembly, who are there, looking after their constituents’ interests but not doing much else. Would it be possible to harness their skills, experience and local knowledge to keep the committees of the Assembly going and use them as a sounding board? They would not have authority to make decisions but would certainly be able to pronounce on decisions, or the lack of them, made by the board of civil servants. We could bring them back, and it would be a useful early step towards giving full powers back to Stormont. I cannot see any particular objection to that. I repeat: they would not have the authority to make decisions. The civil servants would not have to listen to them but of course, in a sensible world, they would, and would take account of local feeling. I urge the Government to think about that, because the danger is that if we do not resolve this issue, it will drag on for a long time.
I am going to take a moment to talk about two issues I would like to see on the agenda in Northern Ireland, but which this Bill is probably not capable of dealing with, at least in its present form. One is child refugees, which I know the Minister is aware of. I have talked to people in Northern Ireland, in Derry and in Belfast, and they have said that Northern Irish local authorities and health boards would be happy to take some of the child refugees that we committed to taking under legislation passed here some time ago. If there is a willingness on the part of people in Northern Ireland to take child refugees, there is no reason, in principle, why that should not happen. If local people are willing, there is no principle at stake that runs counter to anything the Assembly might be doing if it were restored. If the Assembly committees were operating, I would urge them, for example, to consider what they could do about child refugees.
As I understand it, the difficulty at the moment is that if one wishes to challenge decisions made by the civil servants, the only way to do it is by judicial review. That is costly, cumbersome, awkward and unsatisfactory. Yet, at the moment there is no method of doing anything about the decisions that are being made. If the Assembly committees were reinstated, at least, they might have some influence on the civil servants. I appreciate that the civil servants would still not be obliged to respond, but I think sensible public officials would listen and do so.
The other policy issue I am concerned about is integrated education. Integrated education in Northern Ireland, on a small scale, has been an enormous success story. Students who have come out of integrated schools, and their teachers, show a level of commitment and an approach to inclusiveness that is a positive step.
At the moment, nothing is happening and we are not moving forward. There are many other issues I could mention in addition to child refugees and integrated education. Can the Minister respond to the suggestion of restoring the Assembly committees and say something about the Government’s attitude to the amendments passed in the Commons yesterday?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill—although I think all of us are unhappy that there is a need for it to be here at all. I echo his tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who died earlier this week. We all recognise that he was a man of integrity and honour. Perhaps the best tribute we could pay him is to implement his recommendations as quickly as possible—and I know that others will raise this.
This piece of legislation is a holding measure for an intolerable situation. It is certainly no substitute for getting the application of the Good Friday agreement and power sharing back on the road. It is fundamentally unsustainable, which is why it has to be stepped and timetabled in the way it is. We all know—it has been repeated many times in this House—that there is a growing backlog of decisions and issues in Northern Ireland that are simply not being addressed, and cannot be addressed, because there is no legal framework for doing so. The Province is falling further and further behind, and public services are becoming increasingly inefficient, unreformed and stressed. In addition, we have Brexit coming down the track, and nowhere is more vulnerable to its impact than Northern Ireland; nowhere else in the UK would be so hard hit. The longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be for Northern Ireland to catch up and get to where it ought to be.
So, while we recognise that the Bill is necessary, it is difficult to know what its dynamic is in relation to the ongoing talks. I hear some people say that it puts pressure on for a solution, but others say that it takes that pressure off. We need to know which it does, because we desperately need a solution. People want to see progress. When the talks were restarted, many of us thought that there was a real window of opportunity for progress to be made. The longer that progress is not made, the more the window starts to close—if not slam. The only consolation is that it has not shut yet.
I will touch briefly on the changes made to the Bill yesterday in the Commons, to which the Minister referred. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I welcome the Commons addressing the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage; I know that our sister party in Northern Ireland welcomed that completely. I note the Minister’s points. I also echo the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in saying that we need to know that the Government intend to make this work, not block it. Importantly, this would not need to happen if the Assembly were up and running.
Similarly, we support the amendments put forward by Dominic Grieve. Again, they should not be necessary, but, with our likely Prime Minister saying that he is prepared to prorogue Parliament in order to crash out, which would have serious consequences for Northern Ireland, it seems legitimate for Dominic Grieve to have moved them and for the Commons to have supported them to ensure, effectively, that that cannot happen without parliamentary consent.
I know that the Minister recognises the importance of the clauses in the Bill on pensions for the victims and survivors of the Troubles and on the implementation of the inquiry into historical institutional abuse. Of course, all the Bill does is provide for reporting on these issues, but I hope that simply having those provisions in the Bill, along with some degree of pressure, will lead to more than just a report back. The fact that the report was necessary should help us to achieve real progress. Otherwise, it will be another depressing example of simply moving things on and not taking action.
It is abundantly clear to any observer or attender of the Province that vital issues are simply not being addressed. We do not have what we hope to see: a vibrant, progressive and shared society. Most of us saw how much Northern Ireland blossomed after the Good Friday agreement, but it is almost as if those blossoms have now bloomed and are threatening to fall off the tree.
The Minister can be in no doubt that the Liberal Democrats are a party of devolution; we and our predecessors have been that for more than 100 years. We want to see a functioning, thriving devolved Administration and Assembly in Northern Ireland. That is the best solution for Northern Ireland. The longer the impasse continues, the more dangerous it becomes. The hard-line nationalists and hard-line unionists—I must say, they are becoming increasingly aligned with the English nationalists who are strangling the Conservative Party—are digging into their trenches. It is the people of Northern Ireland who suffer, because the lack of an Executive means that services decay and urgent issues go unaddressed.
So, with some temerity, I say this to the unionists: you cannot stand for the defence of the United Kingdom but ignore the social changes enshrined in law in the rest of the UK and deny them to the same groups in Northern Ireland. That is not consistent unionism. To the nationalists, I say this: you cannot rail against mainland interference in Northern Ireland while there is no means of taking decisions in the Province. To both groups, I say that politicians who do nothing do not deserve to be there. There has been a shift in voting habits in the Province, which points to a growing yearning for some degree of common sense and constructive engagement; I suggest that the two polarised parties ignore that to their cost and to the cost of the people of Northern Ireland.
With the potential devastation of Brexit coming down the track and a desperate need for day-to-day government in the Province, kicking the can down the road does not lead to easier solutions—as we on the mainland are discovering only too well—but gives birth to more extreme ones. The best way for the parties in Northern Ireland to kill this Bill or to make it moribund if it becomes an Act, is to get the Assembly up and running and face up to their responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland. It is really time that they stopped blaming each other, shirking their responsibilities and letting down the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, at the outset I too pay my respects and condolences on the death of Sir Anthony Hart; I do so on behalf of my colleagues and my party. He was a man of integrity; we regret his passing and pass our condolences to his family.
We should be debating a very simple Bill today—but not any more. This was not a Bill about policy; it was supposed to be an administrative Bill. Its original scope was very narrow; it just extended the period for forming an Executive. I regret deeply that the period requires extending, and my party strongly believes that devolution is the way forward. We believe that it serves Northern Ireland well and that the people of Northern Ireland should make these decisions. Extending the period was all the Bill was about, as the Minister in the other place said. I listened carefully to what the Minister said and was struck by the words he used. He said the Bill was intended to give more time for the parties to find an agreement. Today I serve notice on this House, with no pleasure, that it will take a lot more time with this Bill in place. This effectively pushes devolution far down the road. As a matter of fact, none of us can see it happening. That is the regrettable result of what we are faced with today.
It is extremely difficult for me to convey the distress in Northern Ireland this morning following the changes made to this Bill on abortion and same-sex marriage in the other place yesterday. Even if you support changes in those two areas and are a fanatical fan of them, the manner in which many Members of the other place who do not represent Northern Ireland—I suspect many have never been there in their lives and have no plans ever to go there—took it upon themselves to try to change the law in these two areas is wholly, totally and utterly unacceptable. Whatever one thinks of these matters, they are colossal issues in Northern Ireland. Do not underestimate them or the impact that this will have.
If the Westminster Parliament wanted to change the law in these two areas, there should have been a three-month public consultation with the people of Northern Ireland on them, then time to analyse and reflect on responses. I was struck by the previous debate on public toilets. I see that it is to have a consultation period—but not this issue, which affects the people of Northern Ireland. No consultation: ram it right through; they are second-class citizens; it will do them all right. That is the attitude.
Instead, we find ourselves in a situation in which, this time last week, the people of Northern Ireland had no clue that there would be an attempt to change the law on these two highly sensitive devolved matters, or even that there was an appropriate legislative vehicle. The earliest anyone could have known was on Thursday morning, when the new Clauses 1 and 10 were published. However, both amendments fell outside the scope of the Bill. The British have until now adopted a rules-based approach to lawmaking, but that is now dead—discarded. It was clear that neither could be selected, yet at lunchtime yesterday both were selected within a few hours—and both were passed. All but one Northern Ireland MP voted against new Clause 1 and 100% of Northern Ireland MPs voted against new Clause 10, but it was steamrollered through. The message was: pay no regard to the voice from Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland may not be some people’s favourite place, but even I have had my breath taken away by the total contempt with which we have been treated by so many Members of another place. This contempt is particularly pronounced in relation to abortion, on which the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted by a clear majority—with no ambiguity at all—not to change abortion law in any way as recently as 2016, on a cross-party basis. It was not one section of the community voting one way; it was right across the political and religious divide. I would not treat my enemies with such cavalier disregard. The Assembly voted decisively against any change by 59% to 40%. You may well say, and I suspect some are saying it to themselves, that Parliament is sovereign, and can do what it likes. That is right, but until now, just because Parliament could do something did not necessarily mean that it did it. All things might be lawful, but all things are not expedient.
There are rules and conventions that have, until this point, meant that the union has treated its constituent parts and people with a measure of respect, but not in this case. They evaporated in another place yesterday. The other place might have lost its sense of constitutional propriety and decency yesterday but, happily, Parliament contains another Chamber. I do not believe that we, in this House, can allow the Bill to pass in its current state. It will cause immense problems, and I do not exaggerate when I say that. The longer we take over this journey, the more every Member of this House will realise what I am saying and see the accuracy of it as the weeks, months and years pass by.
There are many things that need to be done in Northern Ireland, but these two were selected. While I am critical of the Bill, there are some good things in it, but that would not make me vote for it. This House has a duty to all the people of Northern Ireland to think carefully before it decides to go down this road. The Northern Ireland Assembly was going quite well at one stage but, alas, Sinn Féin decided, “We’ve had enough”, and that it was pulling out and going away. Then it learned that there was another way to get its demands: you stay out, demand, and the type of government we have in Northern Ireland—they insist that there must be a majority of the majority, and a majority of the minority, which decide whether things move or not—effectively have a lock on everything. When Sinn Féin pulled out, it laid down one definitive red line. It was pure nonsense, of course. It was the RHI: Sinn Féin said that we needed a public inquiry into the scandal of RHI. It got it. That report is now sitting and ready to be published, but then it said, “Wait a moment, there’s a few other things we need”. Then Sinn Féin got those, but said, “There’s a few other things we need”. Then, when it gets those, it will say, “There are other things we need here”.
We know how Sinn Féin works. We know how it boycotts everything until its demands are met. Noble Lords might feel that by passing the Bill they are doing Northern Ireland a great service, but let me very clear: this is a great disservice to the people of Northern Ireland. When I talk about the people, I am not talking about the unionists or the nationalists; I am talking about the people of Northern Ireland collectively. There are no issues more sensitive than these, and they are being forced on the people of Northern Ireland.
I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, say that members of his party are campaigners for and believers in devolution. I was a Minister there for a while and I feel that devolution was doing a good job. It was not perfect—it had its imperfections and there were problems and difficulties—but in the main it was delivering. If you want to see devolution continue in Northern Ireland, as I do, this is just not the way to do it.
A recent ComRes poll in October 2018—not that long ago—showed that 64% of people in Northern Ireland do not think that Westminster should decide about abortion there. That figure rises to 66% of women and then rises further to 72% of 18 to 32 year- olds. Are they not worth listening to? Should they not be considered? I think they should, and it will do a grave disservice to the people of Northern Ireland if the Bill goes through.
I said that many things need to be done in Northern Ireland. If the Secretary of State wants to be constructive and take things forward there, that is fine—I understand it and we would applaud her for doing it, but she has decided not to do that. On 25 April 2017, an industrial strategy was introduced. However, no action was taken because there was no Executive or Minister to move it forward. There was a small business rates relief report on the 2016 consultation, but no further action was taken on that because there was no Minister or Secretary of State to take it forward. The annual cash flow of small businesses was disrupted due to no action in setting the regional rates, with no Minister and no Executive.
The apprenticeship levy consultation closed on 23 December 2016 but is still waiting for action. That is not important to the Government. Northern Ireland’s strategy on apprenticeships was not fully implemented before the Executive collapsed—it is sitting gathering dust. Better Regulation: An Action Plan for Reform has not been progressed. The gender pay gap reporting requirement, a power contained in the employment Act, is not moving forward. The licensing and registration of clubs and the entertainment licence legislation are not going anywhere. Action on building a prosperous and united community is not going anywhere, nor is the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol. The Hunter review on tourism is not moving, and the tourism strategy, tourism VAT and air passenger duty are not going anywhere either. Work on the Kilkeel Harbour development, and the York Street interchange, a massive infrastructure project needed to keep our city going, are not going anywhere.
Those are important issues but they are not for the Secretary of State or the Government. That is regrettable. If the Secretary of State and the Government, as well as the Lib Dems, are very keen on devolution, here is an opportunity to show it, but I suspect that they are not. Why do I say that? I do not say it out of rancour; I say it because experience has taught me different. This continual pandering to one element bent on holding up progress in Northern Ireland just has to stop. We will not make progress, and to pick the two most divisive issues in Northern Ireland and say, “This is the way to move things forward”, will prove a big disappointment for noble Lords. This will set things back immeasurably. We now have a situation where we cannot go anywhere because of what is happening.
Some might say, “If these two big issues, which were big red lines for Sinn Féin, were put out of the way, that would move things forward”. No—it means that we cannot move anything now until 21 October. What would entice Sinn Féin now to come into any discussions? Absolutely nothing—it cannot move. As the Minister said, there were difficulties, but I believe those difficulties could and would have been resolved. They will not be resolved now, because of the action of the Bill. I strongly exhort this House not to adopt the Bill, because it is not progress. It is a retrograde step and one that Parliament will regret. The people of Northern Ireland will be grossly upset and will fail to understand why these two issues take priority over our economy and every other issue.
My Lords, this is a Bill that we have seen many times before and we understand the reasons for it.
I am sorry; I intended to start by paying tribute to Sir Anthony Hart, who I knew well in my university days. He made a very significant contribution to the law in Northern Ireland and I would like to join those who have offered condolences to his family.
The Minister was quite brief in opening this debate, and I can understand why. Like the rest of us, he is not really clear about what has happened or what is likely to happen. We are in a very unusual situation. Unfortunately, this House and the other place have been going steadily downhill for the last year or two. We now see the sort of shenanigans that are going to be introduced here, the way they were in the other place. We can expect Amendment 14—the one that the Government won—to be reintroduced here. It will be interesting to see what the approach will be in this House. I would not like to predict what the situation will be.
I understand a lot of the chagrin that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, feels about this matter. However, he was sailing close at some points to blaming the Government for this shambles, when it was not the Government’s fault. They tried to prevent some of the amendments that were tabled and were successful in some areas. We do not know what the Government are going to do next week; I am sure that the Minister cannot give us an answer at the moment. However, we see that the processes in this House are being hijacked, partly by the clique in the Commons which is trying to prevent us leaving the European Union. That is not something of which they should be proud. There are also other issues which have been mentioned with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage. Those are delicate matters. I have found myself taking a particular position with regard to same-sex marriage, which was forced upon me when my elder daughter got married to her girlfriend. I cannot change that, and I cannot now go around saying that I am opposed to it because I acquiesced to it. There we are.
With regard to abortion, I find it rather curious. I know that there are strong feelings on that issue as well. People say the law this and the law that, and various campaigns are trying to urge Parliament to extend legislation to Northern Ireland, but I find that people are not looking closely at what the law is. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland is partly on statute but most of it flows from common law, from the Bourne case of 1939. People say that abortion is banned in Northern Ireland. It is not; abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. I see heads shaking on the other side of the Chamber but they are wrongly shaken. I think there is only one situation that is not covered. There is a gap with regard to foetal abnormality, and I think that is the only point where the law in Northern Ireland diverges from the law here.
I mentioned the Bourne case. I decided that I would go and look at it again because it has been many years since I have read it. In 1939, a 14 year-old girl who had been raped by five soldiers and became pregnant afterwards was obviously distraught about her situation. She found a surgeon in a London hospital who was prepared to conduct an abortion, and then the legal system came into effect. The legal decision that flows from that—it actually flows from Section 59 of the 1861 Act—is the beginning of the law on abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The judge’s interpretation of that, having regard also to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, was that a person who procures an abortion in good faith for the purpose of preserving the life of the woman is not guilty of an offence. When we talk about preserving the life of the woman, the key part of the judgment states that,
“those words ought to be construed in a reasonable sense, and, if the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequence of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck … the doctor who, under those circumstances and in that honest belief, operates, is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother”.
That is the law in Northern Ireland. It is also the guts of the Abortion Act 1967. The key passage in the provisions in that Act, setting out the circumstances where abortion can be carried out, is,
“and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman”.
Those are virtually the same terms as in the Bourne case. Those who want a campaign to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland are talking only about whether the law is going to be enshrined in legislation or enshrined in case law; the substance is the same. So there is no necessity for what the Commons did yesterday, and what they did has not advanced the case that some persons obviously want to advance. As I heard from behind me, the way that the Commons behaved is going to make it more difficult to deal with the situation.
I have dealt with two of the matters for which the proceedings have been hijacked. The other, of course, comes back to Amendment 14, as I mentioned, which purports to be something that is going to block a no-deal departure from the EU. We do not know what is going to happen. Amendment 14 was not actually carried last night but the elements around that amendment are there. Indeed, Dominic Grieve said in last night’s debate that without Amendment 14 he thinks he can still achieve the same objective, but we will see as and when that happens.
I want to say something about this no deal business. I do not know whether people have a good, clear, evidence-based reason to support the contention that leaving the European Union on WTO terms is a disaster. I do not see any evidence for that at all. We will see when the time comes. I think that a few days after we leave the European Union there will be a lot of red faces in this building, but I will leave it at that.
There may be something beneficial in all this. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to when Sinn Féin pulled the plug on the Northern Ireland Assembly. At that time, one of the factors in its mind was that it thought it could exploit Brexit in order to get an electoral boost in southern Ireland. It has not worked. A very encouraging, little-known fact is that Sinn Féin lost half its seats in the local elections in the south just a short time ago. In the opinion polls, it is going down sharply. The Irish Taoiseach also thought he could gain politically from causing an issue over Brexit, but the situation is not looking so good. Consequentially, getting Brexit finished, and finished quickly, will help people to focus on other serious issues and there will be a better chance of restoring the Assembly in that context. We should hope for that to come quickly and smoothly and then we can all settle down to do some serious work.
My Lords, last month I asked an Oral Question which focused on the implementation of the recommendations in Sir Anthony Hart’s report. I join colleagues in conveying my condolences. In that exchange, I quoted the number of victims who had perished since his report was issued and who had not received justice—and now Sir Anthony himself has been added to that list. I see that in the House of Commons reference was made to this and reports required to do something about it. I have to say to the Government that leaving this any longer is entirely unjustifiable, on a humanitarian basis apart from anything else.
As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, pointed out, this legislation is not what we were expecting. Indeed, at this stage, it is not entirely clear what we will be dealing with in Committee, because the Government have decisions to make. It is normally the case that in this House we do not divide at Second Reading, and I fully accept that, but the piece of legislation we are debating could be very different when we come back to it next week, so we will have to keep an open mind. However, I doubt that there are many people here who are hugely surprised that we are having this debate all over again. Officials at the Northern Ireland Office, the Minister’s department, remind me a bit of the Bourbons; they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Some of us have harped on for years about the way they conduct negotiations—or, until recently, do not conduct negotiations.
They started reasonably well last month; they had a structure, they had meetings, including regular leaders’ meetings and an agenda-setting meeting, and they established groups. That was all going quite well. But towards the end of the month, they reverted to the old practice of abandoning those meetings and leaving it up to two parties to do all the business, with the Government ringing around the rest of us to see if we knew what was happening. That is the wrong approach. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, knows that perfectly well, because he, along with the rest of us, was part of it. You need a structure and you need people to show their political positions in front of everybody else, otherwise you will never get the openness and transparency necessary to deliver a deal. We have been there and done that, yet we make the same mistake again and again.
We now have a most peculiar situation: the law of unintended consequences. If the decision of the other place is implemented into the legislation, Sinn Féin, by accepting a deal over the Northern Ireland Executive, will at the same time eliminate the opportunity for legislation on same-sex marriage. That is the perverse position that we are in, and most people will find that hard to get their head around. Some Members are looking at me sceptically. Rightly or wrongly, Sinn Féin has campaigned with this as one of its red lines—calling it equality, as if Sinn Féin would know anything about equality and human rights. The irony is that if Sinn Féin goes into the Executive before 21 October, and the DUP retains its current position, it will not have it—it will have prevented it. This is the codology we have created as a result of ill thought through processes.
The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, also said that it came as a huge shock to him that a simple administrative Bill had been changed in the other place. I do not know where he has been, but they tried to do that the last time it was there, and it was obvious that it would happen again. We know what people have said in the other place and what their views are. They are entitled to hold them, there is no secret about it and it was inevitable that that would happen.
The strange thing is that I do not accept that the renewable heat incentive scheme—which ostensibly brought down the Executive—was Sinn Féin’s main reason for bringing it down. But I have to point out to the noble Lord, and to others, that it was the utter hopelessness and incompetence of that Administration that led to the position—and, sadly, if the then First Minister had stepped aside, as her predecessor had done, for a few weeks, and handled it much better, we would not be having this debate today. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the here and now, not what we would like.
The talks that have been taking place are not dealing with all the show-stopping issues. Legacy—dealing with the past—is not even on the table. We are not allowed even to mention it. It is not being addressed in these talks. That creates huge issues. The Northern Ireland Executive will have to create and introduce the superstructure of bodies to hound people for the next decade, called the Historical Investigations Unit. But those things are not even being discussed. For some reason they are being sidelined. Neither is what supposedly brought down the Executive: the RHI. That is not mentioned. Some hope that they can get it put together before the report comes out. I do not know. But how we prepare for that is not being discussed. These hugely divisive issues—the issue that brought down the Executive, and legacy issues—are not even on the table.
So I say to the Secretary of State: I do not know how you blinker yourself. The lesson we learned is that it should be open, everything should be on the table, people know where they stand, there is a structure and you go through the issues. If we had our time again, we probably could have done more loose-end tidying up on a whole range of issues that we did not have the time or capacity for. But we are leaving out of this process huge issues that have the potential to bring Bills such as this back to the House again and again.
Whatever one hears, there is a school of thought among some people that perhaps some parties might be happy that Westminster does the dirty work and gets it all out of the way—“We will have a sham fight, and we will do this and we will do that”. I do not know whether that is true or not, but we will soon find out. My point is that we are missing a whole range of things.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. I have no doubt that abortion and same-sex marriage are huge issues that need careful consideration. However, a news report came out today which noble Lords might find disconcerting. I have raised on a number of occasions the issue of health in Northern Ireland. I have issued the statistics about the waiting lists, which are the worst in the country. The report says:
“The shocking extent of Northern Ireland’s waiting list crisis has been laid bare in a report that warns patients are 3,000 times more likely to wait over a year for treatment than their counterparts in England. One in 16 people here is on waiting lists for 12 months or more, compared to one in 48,524 in England. The stark figure, which has been branded a scandal, is detailed in a study published today by the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank”.
That is not an organisation that one dismisses. The news report continues:
“Co-authored by Ulster University’s Professor Deirdre Heenan, the report”,
points out the ongoing crisis at Stormont and,
“Professor Heenan said 120,000 people … are currently waiting for more than a year for treatment”.
How bad does it have to get before we do something about it? I have raised this issue before, and I have to say to the Minister that I certainly will table an amendment that deals with how we handle it. This is a matter of life and death, day after day. You cannot have statistics such as that without there being a consequence. Given our small population, these percentages are absolutely outrageous. I have drawn the issue to the attention of the House before, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
The Minister’s department has got itself into a rut for years. It cannot think beyond keeping Sinn Féin and other people happy: “We mustn’t upset the Irish; we mustn’t upset Sinn Féin; we mustn’t upset the DUP”—or whoever it happens to be. Folks, you have to get out of that way of thinking. You will never sort this out if you are at their mercy. Everyone has to be treated equally by the Government, and parties need to be aware that they are not in the position to strangle Parliament and the Government, preventing them moving Northern Ireland forward in a particular direction just because it does not suit them. We have got ourselves into that mentality and it needs changing. I point out these statistics because I feel that they are so important.
There are other reports coming on pensions. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is not in his place, has been pushing this issue in the House and I strongly support him. I have some more work to do on this, but there remains an issue. As I understand the proposals, some terrorists could qualify for these pensions under the current arrangements. That depends on the definition. Of course, in criminal injuries legislation, we exclude from compensation people who were responsible for damage, but I am not convinced that that is the case here, so we have some work to do on that. If I am wrong, the Minister can correct me.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who is an experienced former Northern Ireland Minister, mentioned interim measures, as did the noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord Trimble, Lord Alderdice, and others. At this stage, I do not think that the Republican movement has any intention of participating in that sort of process. They are wrong, but it also depends on whether there is determination on the part of our own Government to do something about it and to put it to people. Threatening the Government before they do something is one thing, but when you are confronted with something—those matters should be explored. I do not know whether the model that the noble Lord and others put forward is the right one. I want to see the whole show on the road, not bits of it, but we cannot go on as we are. As the noble Lord pointed out, this is one part of our country which has no accountability. By the time the measures in the Bill end, we could be entering our fourth year with no accountability and no democratic oversight. That is unacceptable to this House and a stain on our national position.
Clearly, there is a lot more to see, and we will see what emerges over the next few days and how the Government intend to respond to some of these issues. But if other people are raising social issues, pensions and so on, health and the life-and-death decisions being taken—or not being taken—is an entirely appropriate issue that is just as legitimate to put before this House as any other. It is my intention to do so next week.
My Lords, I rise to debate an issue affected by the amendment brought forward in the Commons yesterday by Conor McGinn. I think it is widely recognised in this Chamber that I have been working with Conor McGinn on changing the law on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. I will continue to do so and will refer back to that in a moment.
I share the regret expressed by a number of noble Lords, on all sides of the House, that this legislation is necessary. We have now been running for some two-and-a-bit years without any form of effective governance in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was absolutely right to list that positive litany of issues that have not been dealt with. Having said that, Northern Ireland continues to move on—it moves forward and changes.
I referred in a previous debate to my own relatives from Northern Ireland, with whom I was this weekend. Some of them have moved to Northern Ireland for the first time in their lives and are thoroughly enjoying it. They find Belfast a vibrant, positive city; those who have lived there previously are overwhelmingly positive about the changes they have witnessed there over their lifetime. I shall take pleasure in being in Belfast next month and, possibly to the satisfaction of a number of Peers who have already spoken or may be speaking, at Ravenhill later in the year with members of my family cheering on Ulster against some opponents, whoever they may happen to be. I know where my heart lies: with the view that we should not have to deal with this legislation. But the reality is that we are, and we have to deal with something as this cannot go on forever.
I will not go over many of the points that I raised during debate on the Private Member’s Bill, or the amendments I have pursued to other Bills since I first introduced a Private Member’s Bill in March last year, in common with Conor McGinn. I have spoken on five different occasions on the subject and it is therefore self-evident that I welcome the vote that took place. However, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised a particular point, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to not being sure where people have been. On 1 March, when I withdrew an amendment to another piece of legislation, I made it absolutely clear that I would be seeking another vehicle to move the amendment introducing same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. That is the phrase I used, and this is another vehicle. An amendment was debated in the Commons—for which there was a substantial majority; one might even describe it as massive—that included a section on the deferment of implementation. When I originally introduced our Private Member’s Bill it had no clause acknowledging that there might be the opportunity for some form of decision-making in Northern Ireland, so I introduced a period during which, if a Government returned to Northern Ireland, they would have the opportunity to confirm that decision—or not.
Time has, however, moved on. I withdrew that amendment on 1 March, and it is now some four months, or 120 days. It is worth noting that at the date in the amendment, 21 October, it will be 1,008 days—I apologise if I am one or two days out—since there has been an effective form of government in Northern Ireland. I repeat the question I have asked on other occasions: how much longer should people wait? When I introduced the Private Member’s Bill on 27 March 2017, there were people listening in the Gallery who were waiting to get married in Northern Ireland. Why should they be denied a right that applies to people in other parts of this country? I do not believe that should be so.
With regard to our workings, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to the possibility of consultation. I listened at length to yesterday’s debate in the other place. This, however, is the first time that we have discussed consultation. On all the other occasions I have been told no, no, no—it is the responsibility of Northern Ireland. There has to come a point when, sadly—sadly because it is not right that we should be legislating in this place—we have a duty to tackle some of Northern Ireland’s issues.
We can discuss in detail the form of amendments that I hope will be brought forward on Monday. I want, however, to raise a particular point with the Minister. I know that there was a different Minister when we debated previous amendments or Private Members’ Bills. In the other place, the responsible Minister, John Penrose, said yesterday on same-sex marriage, that,
“there are many policy questions to be worked through that have not yet been properly considered for the Northern Ireland-specific context, which might require a different response from the one in England, Wales or Scotland … they should bear in mind that it may need substantial further work before it can achieve its intended effect”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/19; col. 222.]
I understand that point, but when I withdrew the amendment on 1 March I did so because I had been told that the amendments were not available to the other pieces of legislation. I would like—not necessarily this afternoon but when we get to amendments on Monday—an indication of how much progress the relevant government departments have made in preparation since Conor McGinn and I introduced our Private Member’s Bill, and particularly since 1 March, when I indicated that the sole reason I was withdrawing the amendment was that we were told that it would, in effect, stop the rest of the private Member’s legislation, to which my amendment was attached.
Just as we cannot go on waiting for an Executive, we cannot go on waiting for a Government to say, “We need more time to draft and redraft bits of legislation” that I recognise are relevant to any change to same-sex marriage legislation. I shall not delay the House further; my views are well known. I disagree with some in this House. I think this House overwhelmingly shares my view that it is about time that same-sex marriage operated in Northern Ireland in much the same way it does in England, Wales and Scotland. I hope to pursue the matter further on Monday, when amendments are discussed.
My Lords, I support the Bill, but I have to say—I have said similar things on previous occasions—with a heavy heart. There is a sentence that is very worrying in the report of our own Constitution Committee:
“The Bill effectively perpetuates the stasis in Northern Ireland governance”.
It is an accurate sentence, but one that should give us all deep cause for concern—I know it does the Minister. However, there is no alternative to the Bill: I think we need to say that we need extra time and it is an attempt to gain extra time for talks on devolution, but there are other things to say.
In the other place, there were two significant amendments—Conor McGinn’s and Stella Creasy’s—and I want to indicate my support for those. I am of the view that, historically speaking, the broad tendency of the union has been to provide a better social and economic life for the people of Northern Ireland and a more broadly liberal life than would otherwise be the case. I am absolutely certain that in the not trivial matter of standards of living of ordinary people, working-class people in particular, the union has delivered massively throughout the last century. I have no doubt about that, or that the broad approach and the underlying positive operation of the union tends to be broadly progressive. I find it very hard, if we believe that, then to say, “Oh, I am not happy with what happened in the House of Commons in these two amendments”.
I realise the difficulties, and the Minister has left us in some doubt—I understand why—as to exactly what is going to happen, but I think something significant happened with those two amendments. However, I also want to say something else, particularly in response to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. I agree with him that the tone of much that was said on this subject in the Commons yesterday was unfortunate. I think it was Palmerston who talked about the English public in a fit of morality being a not particularly pleasant sight, and that is even true of the British liberal public in a fit of morality.
I think people should stop and remember something, and in this case I refer to the record of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. For example, because of the stronger, if you like, Christian—one might say Christian conservative —impulse in its politics, Northern Ireland has led the way on human trafficking as an issue, very much in response to the work that the noble Lord put in in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If you talk about laws on prostitution, which is a fundamental question if we are talking about the status of women in our society, again you can argue very clearly that Northern Ireland has led the way. This is because of the stronger Christian impulse in the polity, if you like, and some of those Christians are going to be offended by what the Commons did yesterday.
I do not think that the absolute certainty of moral tone was appropriate. I believe it was the right thing to do—I have no doubt about that—but there was a certain priggishness and a dismissal of the attitude of the elected Members, which made those of us who actually supported the amendments very queasy as we watched that debate yesterday. It will produce a reaction in Northern Ireland that will not be helpful to the return of devolution. However, I still think that the other place did the right thing.
I want to encourage the Minister in his discussions. I am reluctant to mention the Good Friday agreement because it is so often exploited—most recently by Michel Barnier, who famously told the Irish Government, in a well-reported incident, to use it against Her Majesty’s Government in their negotiations. It is not an agreement that he understood, and in fact the Good Friday agreement is fundamentally incompatible in many respects with the clear negotiating objectives that the EU had at that point. So I am very reluctant to invoke the Good Friday agreement, but the time when that multiparty agreement was voted in—not signed—was a period of direct rule. The agreement says that Her Majesty’s Government have responsibility in the period, before an Assembly is set up and running, not just for making sure that the economy functions well and with stability but for measures of “social inclusion”. What we are talking about here, and what happened in the Commons yesterday, are essentially measures of social inclusion. I advise the Minister to look back—reluctant though I am to invoke the agreement, which has recently been so misused in the debate—at that passage on what the UK Government should do when preparing for the hoped-for return of devolution.
Also discussed yesterday by Dr Lewis and others were the very interesting issues of legacy—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was quite right to say that it is a vital issue—and the statute of limitations. Later on today, my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames will support, as I do, the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who cannot be in his place this afternoon, supporting the WAVE Trauma Centre and the victims in that respect. I indicate my support for my noble and right reverend friend and the noble Lord, Lord Hain.
We must start chipping away at the way in which the past keeps a firm grip on Northern Ireland. We have got to move this forward. I was a friend, as many in this House were, of Maurice Hayes, a very distinguished public servant in Northern Ireland. In one of his last speeches in which he addressed this issue, I remember he said, “We are in a situation now where we have to say to the people of Northern Ireland, with respect to the way in which there is an endless grievance culture endlessly replayed, ‘Lift up your bed and walk’, as Christ said to Lazarus, and we have to start saying this quite soon”. There has to be a break.
However, it is not just the people of Northern Ireland who need a break in mentality. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the Northern Ireland Office needs one too. Here I am sympathetic. It is totally natural for the NIO to be focused, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, on the return of devolution. Most of the energy now is hope, hope, hope—will they do a deal or not? They will not do a deal in short order. Nothing that was said in the other place by people who are obviously participating in the talks would give you the slightest hope that they were going to do a deal in short order. I personally believe that Stormont will return within the year, but I am also pretty sure that the Minister will be back again soon asking for more time. We now need to break with this desperate asking for more time; we need to accept the fact that we are moving into active, interventionist direct rule. That is what is happening.
We need to be honest about that and then think about what we might do on these questions of legacy and all the other things that plague us from the past. Indeed, let us talk about the Irish language. It may be that the parties cannot put together a deal on that. On the other hand, in the St Andrews agreement the responsibility clearly lies—or you could argue it does—with the United Kingdom Government. The language around the St Andrews agreement on that points towards producing a moderate “Irish Language Act”, one that a large section of the community could live with.
The Minister, who has worked so well on so many of these issues, instead of stumbling along and coming back here in a few months’ time to say, “Oh dear, we have got the same thing. Give me another few months, and then in a few months’ time another few months”, should recognise that this has gone on too long. We need to start trying to clear away some of the clutter, which will make it easier in the end; if the parties cannot clear it away, we need to start doing so in this House, but not in a way that is one-sided. That is where the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is quite right. You cannot do it on the basis of, “Let’s look at what is bothering Sinn Féin”. A range of issues are bothering both sections of the community. We need to start clearing away the clutter in an even-handed way.
In that respect, I urge a break in the way that the NIO thinks about things. I remind noble Lords of the ghastly sentence I began with—that this “perpetuates the stasis”. I know the Minister is far more ambitious than that, but to come back another three months from now perpetuating the stasis is not a policy.
My Lords, I hope not to sound too priggish, but I warmly welcome Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill, both of which, as we know, were added by MPs in free votes yesterday.
When it comes to individuals’ rights, Northern Ireland has, sadly, been years behind the rest of the UK and Ireland. Yesterday, the women of Northern Ireland, who have been ignored and abandoned by successive Governments, have finally been listened to by this Parliament. For over 50 years, women in Northern Ireland who have become pregnant through rape, were expecting a child with a fatal foetal abnormality or were unable to continue their pregnancy and sought to have an abortion have had limited choices, which have only added to their distress and suffering. It is absolutely unacceptable that, last year, over 1,000 women had to leave Northern Ireland—leave their home—to seek an abortion in England, Wales or Scotland. That cannot be right. I may be the only woman speaking in this debate defending those precious rights.
We know that stopping people accessing abortion legally does not stop abortion. But it does mean that those abortions are more likely to be unsafe. An Amnesty International poll found that 65% of people in Northern Ireland thought that abortion should not be a crime. We have to be able to trust women too, whether they are fleeing abuse, domestic violence, know that their baby cannot live, have concerns for their own health, have family reasons, or do not wish to be pregnant. We have to trust women to make the right choice for themselves, whatever the circumstances. This is about equality and about human rights.
I also very much welcome Clause 8, to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland if an Executive has not been reformed by 21 October. The legislation to introduce same-sex marriage to England and Wales was piloted by my noble friend Lady Featherstone, and I am delighted that MPs have now voted for equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Yesterday was a truly historic day. People across our isles deserve equality, and the votes in the Commons are a momentous step towards making that happen. Fifty-five of 90 Assembly Members elected in March 2017 have publicly declared that they would vote to introduce marriage equality, and that is across the political spectrum. A Sky Data poll last year recorded 76% support with only 18% opposed.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those who have fought over the years for equality of rights for everyone in our society. This is the result of a lot of hard work from campaigners, politicians and the community. I say to those who do not want Northern Ireland to go off in a different direction from the rest of the UK, “You cannot have it both ways”. If we are all part of one glorious and indivisible union, women in Northern Ireland cannot be denied dominion over their own bodies, and same-sex couples cannot be denied the rights afforded to those in the rest of the UK. In an article in the Belfast Telegraph on 26 October 2018, Fionola Meredith commented on Arlene Foster’s remarks to the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier:
“I am a unionist, I believe in the union of the United Kingdom, all four elements of the United Kingdom”.
Fionola Meredith points out:
“Under no circumstances, the DUP insists, must Northern Ireland be treated any differently to the rest of the UK. We are all as one, for ever and ever, equal constituent parts of the same precious union”.
This does not change the fact that we need the Assembly back as soon as possible. A huge range of issues need to be addressed, as we have already heard, including health, education and infrastructure. But, thanks to the amendments that are now in the Bill, Northern Ireland is moving a bit closer to the modern, diverse and welcoming society that we all want to see.
My Lords, if any subject ever deserved sensitive consideration in your Lordships’ House, it is the Bill that is before us tonight. In his very interesting speech, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said: “We should be debating a simple Bill”. He is wrong, because we should not be debating a Bill at all. The tragedy behind tonight’s Bill is the failure of politicians in Northern Ireland, on both sides, to come together to agree and to put devolution back into practice. We are debating this Bill tonight only because they failed to do that. I do not seek to apportion blame to this, that or the other group, but that is a sober fact.
Following from that, I was taken by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bew—I am always taken by his speeches, because he speaks so thoughtfully and considerately. He talked about the actuality of direct rule. The fact of the matter is, we have before us tonight a simple Bill that has become a Christmas tree Bill, to quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. Various baubles have been hung on it, and the danger is that, if too many baubles are hung on this particular Bill, the tree will fall over and we will be back, whether we like it or not, with direct rule. I know that there are some in Northern Ireland who would favour that, but most in your Lordships’ House would not.
I look back, because I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, at the time when the power-sharing Executive was formed. I talked with the late Ian Paisley—Lord Bannside, as we knew him in your Lordships’ House—and Martin McGuinness. An extraordinary chemistry brought them together, creating something unprecedented, not only in our country but in Europe, where those who had been sworn enemies came together. It was a political tragedy that it fell apart. We must be extremely careful in the way we handle this Bill if we want to avoid toppling over into direct rule.
I make no value judgment on the issues on which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, just spoke on, but it was moving to hear her talk about the union. I passionately believe in the union, but we have a union that has devolved government within it. If we destroy that, deliberately, or inadvertently, the union has been fatally wounded, and we have to be extremely careful that that does not happen.
I believe that this Bill is unrealistic in one thing—the timing. There is no one in your Lordships’ House, particularly those with a deep knowledge of Northern Ireland—many with a deeper knowledge than I have—who believe for a moment that all will be smooth sailing on 21 October; it will not. Provisions are built into the Bill for an extension to the middle of January. It would be a far more honest and sensible Bill if the January date was on the face of it, with a provision to extend to April. I say “extend to April”, because then we will be approaching yet another anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. We will have also passed the three-year mark without an Assembly or an Executive in Northern Ireland.
We have to recognise two things in particular. One is that many people’s minds are concentrated on 31 October, rather than 21 October. So much depends on 31 October, particularly in Northern Ireland, that we are being utterly unrealistic by including the October date. I also think that when that date has come and gone, there has to be a real determination to ensure that the next anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, which will be the 22nd, is marked by a return of the Assembly and the Executive. The phrase “take back control”, has been bandied around repeatedly in another context of the last four or five years, both before and after the European referendum. It is very important, however, that the people of Northern Ireland are able to take back control, and to have their own Executive and Assembly.
I have urged the Assembly to assemble many times in recent months in your Lordships’ House, and I apologise if I am boring my noble friend Lord Duncan by repeating it. I believe he has done a marvellous job. Tonight, we have had a repetition of the suggestion that the committees should meet, even though they would not have Executive authority—a trial run, if you like. I want to see that sort of real progress, and it is crucial that we see it in Northern Ireland.
If we go beyond the next anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, the chances of it ever being resurrected diminish by the month. I do not think that anyone in your Lordships’ House, whatever their view on the issues in yesterday’s amendments, want to see that happen. I appreciate that there comes a time when we might have to have direct rule, although I do not want it. I also think it is very important that on issues as sensitive as same-sex marriage and abortion, we must give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to make decisions through their Assembly. That is crucial. If we do not do so—if we grab control on these issues through the Bill—we will not help progress towards the restoration of devolution. I urge noble Lords to bear that in mind when we come to debate the Bill in Committee on Monday next week.
I want to touch on two other things. The first is the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Hain, will table, assuming that Second Reading is achieved tonight, concerning pensions for those who have been badly scarred by the Troubles. I am sorry that the noble Lord cannot be with us now but he will be with us on Monday, God willing, to move his amendments. He will have my support; I have agreed to put my name to his major amendment. This is one issue where it is legitimate for the United Kingdom Parliament here at Westminster to take control because these people are dying by the day, the week, the month, the year; already, hundreds will not benefit because they are no more. There are others whose physical and mental condition is such that they desperately need the help that my noble friend Lord Duncan has readily acknowledged and worked very hard to achieve. The sooner we get this through, the better.
The other issue I want to touch on is the so-called Grieve amendment. I know that many people feel that it took advantage of this particular Bill but we are all parliamentarians. I am a remainer, as were 56% of the people of Northern Ireland, but one who accepts that Brexit will happen and who would have supported the Prime Minister’s deal. However, I would—indeed, could—never support in any circumstances the Executive snatching control from the legislature. In our system, the Executive are accountable to the legislature. No Prime Minister, be his gloss ever so new, has any right to usurp the position of Parliament. That is why I support the amendment moved yesterday and will do anything I can to persuade the Government and whichever Prime Minister we have of the utterly self-destructive folly of seeking to usurp Parliament. This week, an interesting series on the Civil War is running on the television. I have always been a student of it but, over the past three years, I have begun to understand its emotions. We must bring that to an end and go forward as a united nation and a United Kingdom, but we will not do that if any Executive seek to take advantage of Parliament.
We have a fascinating time before us. We are very concerned about this particular part of the United Kingdom; more than anything, I believe in the United Kingdom. Nothing we do in this place should deliberately or inadvertently threaten the survival of the United Kingdom. If we do not handle this Bill sensibly and sensitively, there is a real danger that we will set back the cause of devolution within the United Kingdom, in that part of our country I grew to love as I went week after week and month after month during the five years of the last Parliament I was part of in the other place. Let us take this one forward soberly, sensibly and in a balanced way.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has reminded us of his own deep commitment to devolution, and it is one that I share. In his remarks responding to the Minister earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. I do not think it is either supportive of devolution or a way to fill that deficit to introduce measures that trample on those deeply held sensitivities that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, just described. In fact, it will have the opposite result.
If we are being sensitive, one might at least ask why amendments were tabled in another place yesterday that do not even do the job they set out to do. The Minister told us at the outset that they will now have to be recast to be incorporated in a way that would be competent to do the things that the movers of those amendments sought to do. For me, this points towards the stampeding through Parliament of measures that are ill thought through and have not been constructed to achieve their purpose. So we should tread cautiously and carefully on every single ground. I cannot believe that any of these things, which are outside the original scope of this Bill, should have been included.
The stated purpose of the Bill, as introduced in another place, was to put back the date by which an election must take place and to require the Secretary of State to report on progress made in establishing a Northern Ireland Executive. With this in mind, and having visited Stormont, I will begin by saying that I believe the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it was functioning, really enriched our politics. Indeed, I do not believe the functioning Assembly was always given the credit it was due. In this respect, I strongly support what my noble friend Lord Bew said earlier.
Consider, for example, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. That piece of legislation was Northern Ireland’s equivalent to England and Wales’s Modern Slavery Act, but it gained Royal Assent before the Modern Slavery Bill completed its passage through Parliament. Indeed, some of the precedents it set informed our own debate on the Modern Slavery Bill. I also observe that some academic studies that have compared and contrasted the two pieces of legislation have concluded that the Northern Ireland legislation is, in some respects, rather better.
In saying all this, I am of course aware that the person who introduced this Bill and steered it all the way through the Assembly, as a private Member, is a Member of your Lordships’ House: the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, from whom we heard earlier. That was no mean feat. Of course, it did not become law just because of DUP votes; he worked with parties across the Assembly and gained support for the Bill. I think I am right in saying that Sinn Féin supported it, too. I hope that the Minister recognises that important accomplishments have been made by the Assembly—the fruit of something that enjoyed cross-party, cross-community support. We want more of that, and we can do that only by treading with great care.
I mention this to underline what a huge tragedy it is that the Assembly is suspended. As someone who does not live in Northern Ireland, I wonder whether things might be in a better place today if we had spent more time affirming the Assembly’s considerable accomplishments and less time criticising its politicians. For instance, I cannot understand why a mediator with stature—perhaps someone of the stature of Senator George Mitchell—has not been asked to spend time in Northern Ireland until they are able to find what the parameters of a new agreement might be. This is not an original idea; it has been canvassed in your Lordships’ House from all parts of the Chamber on a number of occasions, and it is about time that we did it.
I, along with many others, have supported and worked for the achievements of the Assembly, and the principles of devolution, for over four decades, during which some 3,600 people died and 48,000 people were injured. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, achieved more than many of us, and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who spoke earlier on, has been properly lauded in many places, not least as a Nobel laureate, for his work in the Northern Ireland peace process and its accomplishments. We must not risk all of those achievements, and we need to consider the ways in which those achievements have been undermined, in some ways, as a result of the way the Bill was changed during the debate in the other place yesterday.
Conversely, while there have been a huge number of challenges facing Northern Ireland, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to some of those priorities earlier on, conversely, we have a Bill onto which two controversial issues have been placed. Amendments were selected which change the law on matters that were not in the scope of the Bill. If the other place dispenses with the rule about scope, its procedures will become less rules based and more power based, and our politics will be impoverished as a result. Going forward, there seems to be no reason to bother with rules about scope, with any amendment being able to be tabled, regardless of the scope of the Bill. That impoverishes the integrity of this Bill, but it also creates a real headache for the Government in the future, as they must now be ready to contemplate out-of-scope amendments to any Bill that comes forward.
One of the amendments selected yesterday, even though it changes the law in Northern Ireland, was new Clause 10, which requires the creation of regulations to implement the recommendation of a United Nations committee which proposes the decriminalisation of abortion. Regardless of what one thinks about abortion, there is no human right to abortion. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has 30 articles, none of which suggests that there is a human right to abortion. This is a highly contested question which I will explore in a moment.
We have always treated Northern Ireland not as having to be in uniformity but as being different and having different cultural values. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland, with its distinct traditions and identity, is something about which many people in Northern Ireland hold a very different view from the views of the English metropolitan classes. This was recognised in the 1967 Act by excluding Northern Ireland from its provisions, and Westminster has not sought to legislate in this area since the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. As recently as 2016, moreover, the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted not to change its abortion law in any way.
This law is as important to the people of Northern Ireland now as it has been in the past. Last year, after speaking in Belfast and Lisbon, I was privileged to meet a cross-community delegation of women from Northern Ireland, who came to Westminster with a simple message: “Don’t meddle with our law”. In making their case, they highlighted the seminal Both Lives Matter report, which found that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would not have been had they embraced the 1967 Act with the rest of us—an Act which has led, incidentally, to the ending of 9 million lives in Great Britain. That is one every three minutes, 600 every working day. To describe that law as progressive, as has been done from some quarters of your Lordships’ House today, is at the very minimum a contested question. Is it progressive to take the lives of 600 unborn babies every day?
When that report was published, complaints were made about the 100,000 figure, including to the Advertising Standards Authority. To be clear: after a five-month investigation involving health economists, the ASA ruled that 100,000 was a reasonable claim. In that context, we should not wonder that people in Northern Ireland hold their law in high regard, prizing it as a progressive, life-affirming statute of which many of them are proud. Those women who came to Westminster highlighted the ComRes poll that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to earlier, which shows that 64% of people in Northern Ireland are opposed to Westminster intervening to change its law, rising to 66% of women and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds. We should tread with care.
One might have assumed that anyone wishing to adjust the law would begin, as a matter of due process, with a public consultation with the people of Northern Ireland. No such consultation has taken place. I note in particular that there is no provision in the Bill to consult each of the individual Members of the Assembly, all duly elected, to establish whether they would be in a majority for changing the law on abortion.
Indeed, the first that anyone in Northern Ireland or anywhere else knew about new Clause 10 was last Thursday morning, when it was published on the Parliament website. Given the rules-based nature of our politics, it was expected not to be selected because it changes the law in relation to a matter that falls outside the scope of the Bill. When Members in another place sought advice from the clerks, they were told that it was out of scope. Thus, despite the knowledge that the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted in 2016 by a clear majority not to change its law on abortion in any way—a fact that means that of all the UK jurisdictions Northern Ireland abortion law enjoys the most recent democratic sanction within the UK—and despite the fact that there was no public consultation and no warning, yesterday the other place voted to change the law.
To make matters even worse, 100% of those voting to change its laws represented constituencies from outside Northern Ireland and 100% of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament who were present voted against it. How can the British Parliament treat part of the United Kingdom with such utter contempt?
The unseemly haste with which this is being driven through both Houses—this pell-mell rush—feels more appropriate to the sort of emergency powers legislation that blighted Northern Ireland for so long. I was simply amazed to hear it suggested in the Commons that this is being done in the name of unionism. To me, it feels more like ideology-driven colonialism of the worst kind. It is about uniformity, not unionism. I find it hard to conceive of any actions less likely to uphold the union. Since yesterday, I have been contacted by people in Northern Ireland who are resolutely appalled by the way they feel they have been treated.
Yesterday, the House of Commons abandoned something very important by deciding to proceed into this contested territory. This should be a matter for the people of Northern Ireland. It is in all our interests to see the devolved structures restored there; it is not in any of our interests to interfere in the way that we are being invited to do in this Bill as it currently stands.
My Lords, it is interesting to note that the consternation felt in Northern Ireland is given some support by the Select Committee on the Constitution, which has today issued a report expressing its very serious concerns about the fast-tracking of Northern Ireland legislation and the negative impact that this has had on the resulting law. The report says at paragraph 9:
“We reiterate our concern about the routine nature of fast-tracking legislation relating to Northern Ireland. It is constitutionally unacceptable save for exceptional and urgent circumstances. Given this will be the fourth (and potentially fifth) extension of the period for forming an Executive, and the lack of progress in the cross-party talks, it can hardly be argued that the need for this legislation was not foreseeable and that it could not have been introduced earlier and proceeded with less haste”.
Paragraph 10 states:
“In our 2009 report, Fast-track legislation: constitutional implications and safeguards, we recommended that, for legislation subject to fast-tracking, the Government should set out its justification for fast-tracking in the explanatory notes to the bill. In our recent report on the Legislative Process, we noted that the Government had observed this recommendation in respect of most recent bills that have been fast-tracked. We regret that no such justification has been provided in the explanatory notes to this Bill”.
I might add that those constitutional due process concerns have been greatly compounded by dispensing with the rule about scope in the other place yesterday. That means that the amendments that now constitute Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill were ruled out of scope by the clerks. That in itself is hugely concerning because it means that we undermine our rules-based approach to law-making. However, the immediate implications of the jettisoning of scope feed back into, and massively compound, the problems of fast-tracking. They mean that two huge, highly controversial social issues have been added to the Bill, massively widening its remit, but without changing the fact that the Bill is still being introduced via the shoddy first-tracking procedure. It is bad enough to subject us to fast-tracking. To compound the problems by also jettisoning scope is to make the problem of fast-tracking far more serious and to treat Northern Ireland with total contempt.
To regain any sense of the problems with this, one must have some appreciation of the enormity of these issues. Abortion is a sensitive issue in England and Wales, but it is much more sensitive in Northern Ireland, where our distinctive approach to this issue is an important part of our history and identity. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, remarked, 100,000 people are alive today who would not be had we embraced the 1967 Act. Not only that, it is a matter on which the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly expressed a view very recently, in 2016, when it chose not to amend our law in any way.
It is naturally disappointing that we are debating legislation that should have been debated in a Northern Ireland Assembly. Bills require scrutiny, analysis and examination. This fast-tracking process does not permit the level of accountability that one should expect. At this time, the people of Northern Ireland are receiving only the bare minimum of governance. None of us wants to be in the current situation, with no local decision-makers. At this crucial time, when the current political talks between all the Northern Ireland parties are taking place, it is only right that the possible date of an Assembly election be extended. That would, I hope, allow time for an agreement to be reached.
There has been no shortage of elections in Northern Ireland in the past three years: to be precise, there have been five. There was an Assembly election in 2016, followed by another in 2017. We all know about the UK referendum in 2016 and the General Election in 2017. The electorate in Northern Ireland have had ample opportunity to express their views and to air the issues that relate to everyday lives. The clear message received by canvassers on doorsteps throughout the Province was that there was an overwhelming desire to see a functioning Assembly return. MLAs were elected to serve the people. Unfortunately, they have been prevented from carrying out their legislative function by the action of one political party—namely, Sinn Féin. None of us wants to be in this situation. The electorate cannot go on being punished because of the political stalemate. The people of Northern Ireland know the issues that need to be addressed and that impact on their daily lives and those of their families. They want to get on with their lives, just as the rest of the people in the United Kingdom do.
As it stands, the legislation continues to present many challenges to the senior civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have been tasked with taking decisions in their departments for a considerable period. Though we must commend their hard work and dedication, it is true that, in many instances, vital decisions are being put on hold or are simply not being made at all, because of the threat of court action. There is a limited scope at present for key decision-making.
We have heard that there are specific long-standing decisions in a wide range of areas such as housing and education, with school resources shortages and issues regarding school allocations. Long-standing decisions are also needed on infrastructure projects. We have a general practitioner shortage in Northern Ireland. People are living in pain and are on long hospital waiting lists. Decisions still need to be made on the budget and, on health, transformation projects to tackle long waiting lists. Victims of terrorism are still awaiting decisions. Many victims do not have work-related pensions because of their appalling injuries, nor do they have access to work. To obtain the support they richly deserve, legislation needs to be brought forward.
My noble friend Lord Morrow outlined many of the decisions and projects that have been held up in Northern Ireland and cannot proceed. I make no apology for adding to his list. For example, the next phase of the 2021-22 school enhancement programme is delayed. The School Shared Education Campuses programme—something that we all want in Northern Ireland; we want the communities to work together—is now funded from the capital pot in the department but now has affordable risk-procurement since suspension. School building schemes, 10 currently at design or feasibility stage, are not being pursued. Tender prices are increasing and projects stalling as, due to the fall in the pound, prices have now become much higher than the original estimates. We have a crisis in housing—a housing shortfall. What can we do? Addressing the shortfall in new-build homes requires policy intervention.
I turn to the environment and energy—very important, the environment, these days. We have environmental NGOs, difficult-to-plan organisational budgets and work programmes. We have the Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017, the consultation on the draft version of which closed on 9 February 2017. The closure of the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation scheme in April 2017 has left a policy gap. On renewable energy development, the Minister ordered research to be conducted but was unable to translate this work into new policies. I could go on and on. I will add some examples from the public sector. On public sector pay, there is delay in making awards. The Community Relations Council requires an annual business plan, but it has not been approved. Would the citizens of any other region in the UK tolerate such inaction for such a long time?
I turn to the new Clauses 9 and 10 on abortion and same-sex marriage. Regardless of our views—there is a wide divergence of views right across this House—we can surely agree that these issues deserve proper attention and debate and, in the first instance, should be decided by a Northern Ireland Executive. There is a risk that these poorly drawn-up amendments will create a dangerous precedent for interference that could have wider consequences for constitutional arrangements. If these two devolved matters can be resolved here in Westminster, why can the other 69 outstanding priority issues vital to the enhancement of the daily lives of the people in Northern Ireland not be treated in the same way? Indeed, are we about to witness the potential dismantling of the Northern Ireland devolution settlement? If we take this path, which may indeed prove popular with some, any hope of a successful outcome to the Stormont talks may be dealt a fatal blow.
The people of Northern Ireland want to see devolved government working and they deserve accountable local decision-making. My party, the DUP, entered the talks in good faith and will continue to work hard in the interests of all sections of society in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, it is right that tribute be paid today to the late Anthony Hart. I have the advantage over other Members of the House, in so far as I was rector of the parish that the Hart family attended in their later stages, so I feel quite deeply about the memory of Anthony Hart. As both sides of the House have done, I pay tribute to the work he did in his inquiry into the devastating results of institutional violence against young people. His recent death removes from Northern Ireland a man of infinite worth and I am glad it is possible to make that tribute in this House today.
Yesterday, I ventured into the Gallery of the House of Commons to spend what I thought would be an interesting couple of hours listening to the debate concerning my homeland. I listened to voices from every segment of the United Kingdom expressing their heartfelt views on the ills of my homeland. I listened to those whose expertise I did not doubt, but I did not hear genuine in-depth understanding of the sensitivities of what was happening in each case. That remark could easily be interpreted with a comment such as, “Well, he would say that anyway. These people from Northern Ireland are always on the defensive. They always carry this painful expression of not being treated well and not being understood”.
As I listened to that debate, I heard Ulster voices and their urgent need to say, “Hold on. You’re treading on very thin ice”. But I stopped listening to those voices, because my memory took over. My memory was of those countless homes in which I had to minister to families bereft of loved ones through the Troubles, and of those numerous gravesides by which I stood to commit the earthly remains of Ulster people to the earth of their country. I said to myself that I was listening there after the cessation of violence, after the Good Friday agreement and after the collapse of the Executive and the endless attempts to re-establish our local government scene.
As I left the Commons last night, I began to wonder what this Bill really says to the mother of Parliaments, the Parliament that has influence and power and is an exceptional example-maker for the Province of Northern Ireland, a part of our United Kingdom. As I left, another memory came to me. It was of a windswept, snowy hillside where, with General de Chastelain, formerly of the Canadian Army, and other observers, I watched the destruction of ammunition and rifles—instruments of death. I said to myself, “What was I listening to in the Commons this afternoon?”. I was listening to a debate on a Bill that I could understand was essential to keep the beacon of hope going in these talks, and to maintain efforts. This Bill set out and began its journey to achieve that, but I asked myself what is happening when two social issues of infinite importance are being swept along under its heading, when the original intention had nothing to do with them.
Abortion and same-sex marriage deserve the deepest possible examination, sincerely entered into, and not in a rushed, pressurised way. Because of the failure of Northern Ireland’s Executive, we will sweep those issues along, which is doing a disservice to those who are sincerely asking us to consider them; a disservice to such fundamental elements of human understanding and life. It is not a question of, “I am against abortion; I am against same-sex marriage”. That has nothing to do with the discussion. The discussion is: “Those are principles of such importance and uniqueness to human understanding that they deserve proper attention and time”, but what is happening? It is happening for Northern Ireland, after the years of suffering, the years of disunity, the years of suspicion, the years in which gradually the two great religions have come together so closely, forged by the Troubles and by the suffering we have seen. Here is the introduction of something so utterly divisive in the eyes of the ordinary people—Protestant, Roman Catholic, Unionist, Nationalist, it does not matter, for we are discussing human relationships and they ought to take priority.
There is a technical issue that I would like to refer to, and perhaps the long-suffering Minister can give a thought to this. The reference in Erskine May to parliamentary procedure has something to say about the purpose of a Bill and the inclusion in it of matters which at first sight—and even at greater sight—seem to be totally removed from that purpose. May I suggest to the Minister that, irrespective of this legislation, research be done into our legislative procedure whereby we introduce matters that are not seen as the real pith and substance of the original legislation? I suggest to the Minister that we would all benefit from that.
We have heard much again today about the need to legislate in Northern Ireland—so much that we could repeat it in our sleep—but I want to add two elements to the list. The first is that which will be covered by an amendment proposed by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, concerning those who are carrying, on their bodies, in their minds and spiritually, the results of the Troubles. That requires our urgent concern, because what is happening? They are dying out, and their cry for justice and support is dying with them. I urge this House, when the opportunity comes later during consideration of this Bill, to give that element as serious and sympathetic consideration as your Lordships can manage.
The second point I want to emphasise, and with which I will end, is that one of the real dangers in Northern Ireland is the stilting of reinvigoration in many of our areas which suffered most because of the Troubles. I have spent a lot of time recently with my colleagues working with former paramilitaries. In many cases, I have seen evidence—and believe me, I can be as cynical as any of your Lordships—of what they have achieved in their areas by simply saying, “That’s history; that’s over. We want to rebuild our area”. I have one particular organisation in mind. Why is it not succeeding in what it believes is the way forward? It is because it is told by civil servants, “This is too difficult a mountain for you to climb. You have to fulfil this requirement, you have to fulfil that requirement and, until you do, there is nothing we can do to really help you in your progress towards reconciliation”. I feel deeply about that because, particularly in loyalist areas—with which, believe me, I am well acquainted—there is a real chance of moving forward, irrespective of the Stormont impasse. If only we could get the incentive and the vision to go alongside the people who say, “That’s in the past. In God’s name, help us now to rebuild”.
I understand the reason for the Bill and I commend the Minister for his efforts to explain it to us. But I beg you, trembling, understanding and remembering the past: tread softly, for you tread on many graves.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and in particular that quote, which I recall from WB Yeats. It is a profound moment to recognise that many noble Lords who have taken part in this debate have devoted their lives to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and I pay tribute to them.
I first visited Stormont as a young Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Security Minister in the Northern Ireland Office 25 years ago. I returned in April and took my seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Before noble Lords get a little confused, I was sitting alongside my wife and a number of Japanese tourists, because we were on a public tour of the parliament buildings in Stormont. We were told about this amazing building there and about the significance of six—the six counties, the six pillars, the 60 steps and the six chandeliers. We were told about the 365-foot façade of the building—one foot for every day of the year. It was an incredible tour, until the tragedy dawned upon you that this was not a museum; this was a place of work. It was a functional pillar—an essential pillar—of life in Northern Ireland, which had fallen into disuse.
I was in Belfast because I had stepped down as a Minister, as I am wont to do every now and again, so that I could go on a walk. This time, the reason for the walk was, to be frank, that I was despairing at the toxic nature of the debate surrounding Brexit in this country. I could not cope with the hostility, anger and intolerance, and I wanted to go out in search of some common ground. I set off from Belfast, with my wife, to walk to Brussels in search of common ground—and probably a couple of ferries on the way. We found the ferries but did not find a great deal of common ground; none the less, we went.
We chose to start our walk on Good Friday. Why? Because to me, that is the high-water mark of what is possible in peace and reconciliation. It shows that it is possible for people with centuries of distance—of grievance and reasons to be offended or to hate—to sit down, come together and agree with one another. That was what that Good Friday was, and it is an honour to share this debate with so many who were party to that historic agreement. Before I could set off from Belfast on Good Friday morning, however, I woke to the news of the murder of Lyra McKee, the young journalist—29 years old—who was shot in Londonderry. That was a stark reminder of the fragility of peace there. It was a reminder that peace is not permanent and that we have to be vigilant and fight for it literally every day.
It is welcome that, almost two-and-a-half years after the Assembly had stopped meeting, the parties got together as a result of that shooting. The Taoiseach, the Prime Minister and the five party leaders came together and they agreed, and announced on 7 May, a programme for moving forward. But I cannot help recalling the words of Father Magill in the cathedral at Belfast, when he asked at Lyra McKee’s funeral: why, in the name of God, did it take the death of a brilliant 29 year-old woman to bring them all together under one roof? The talks involving the UK Government started after Lyra’s funeral. We are told that there have been 150 meetings since, and that the progress is encouraging. Yet 83 days after the murder of Lyra McKee, and the pledge and commitment made after it, public tours are still taking place in the Stormont Parliament every day at 11 am and 2 pm. This is a tragedy because, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, that Assembly was an excellent one. It was not a failing Assembly but an effective one and it is deeply missed.
Is that a reason to despair? I believe not because, when I went off on my walk, I walked down from Belfast along the Lagan valley—there is the most beautiful footpath there—and at the end of the second day, I arrived in the great city of Newry. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, will know that city well for straddling the great counties of Down and Armagh. I arrived in the town at the end of 20 miles, looking for a rest; at my age, I get a little tired. I was struck to see outside the town hall a large and growing gathering of people, and I was drawn towards it. When I arrived, I realised that it was a crowd—it probably numbered 700 or 800, or perhaps 1,000—who were there as a vigil for Lyra McKee. The significance of that will not be lost because, while I do not know the exact politics of that area and ought to be very careful about presuming it, I assume that there was a strong nationalist community present there. That was certainly my feeling from the conversations that I had.
As we waited after the vigil had taken place—an impeccable vigil—outside the town hall, we waited in a long, orderly line for some two hours to sign a book of condolences. During that two hours, I had the opportunity to have conversations with people around and behind me, and I was struck by the absolute resolve in those communities that they were not going back to the days of violence—that this murder had not happened in their name. They completely rejected it, in the same way that those amazingly courageous ladies in Creggan had confronted the organisations and painted red hands on the wall murals and said, “This is not in our name” and “We are not going back”. That strength—that passion—should give us the confidence to believe that, whatever the Members of the Assembly might say about their irreconcilable differences, there is a will among the people that it should not be so—that they should be represented and have the institutions that can guarantee peace.
Back on my tour, as we were being led out of the Assembly room, I noticed that on my left and right there were two framed quotations from two great literary figures of the island of Ireland: the poet Seamus Heaney and CS Lewis. I was drawn to those quotations. Seamus Heaney’s was:
“Believe that a further shore is reachable from here”.
On the other wall, CS Lewis’s quotation was this:
“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind”.
They were from different traditions, different schools and different times, but they spoke of one thing in common: a relentless expression of hope. That is what we have to cling on to at these times—the hope that, whatever is raised against us, people can rediscover the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, restore the functioning Assembly and Executive, and help to build peace in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who spoke to us with a degree of hope.
I am afraid that when I looked at the Second Reading of this Bill, which came to us from the Commons on Monday, I was less than impressed, because I could not see anything that would alleviate the administrative problems that the voters of Northern Ireland have had to endure during 30 months of Assembly inactivity. Because of what happened yesterday in Committee in the other place, amendments have been stuck on to the Bill here and there that take us beyond propriety. We have had amendments relating to abortion and marriage imposed in a manner that is arrogant and dictatorial, to the extent that we in this place are being asked to act beyond any reasonable authority and to provide fundamental adjustments to our way of life beyond our accountable responsibility.
We simply must not undermine the rights which still attach to the failed Assembly—unless we go the whole hog and suspend the current but unworkable devolved arrangement and restore direct rule, so that any fundamental changes we are clearly seen to have are ongoing and continuous, and there is a relationship to the Government of the United Kingdom. The people of Northern Ireland are not stray animals to be tossed titbits, whether good or bad.
We have seen the incompetence of the Northern Ireland Office, but surely it cannot be our role to cover day-to-day affairs with some patchwork quilt of mere opportunism and convenience. Even though we may have run out of patience with our costly and ineffective Assembly, there can be no room for careless indecision. Let us fully and properly assume our responsibilities in a manner where we here will be fully answerable for as long as things in Northern Ireland remain static. Let us, if we need to, restore proper, legitimate direct rule. We cannot go on using half-measures. Let us have one thing or t’other. We should not seek to accommodate, in this last-minute arrangement, an administration by civil servants who have failed us and who hide the facts from those of us who, back in 1998, bent over backwards to establish the Belfast agreement. Just look at the responses they provide to parliamentary Questions—I use the word “responses” because they certainly do not provide answers.
I certainly will not vote in favour of this Bill; nor should anyone who values his or her integrity. Only the Northern Ireland officials could have dreamed this up. Why? The Northern Ireland Office is largely those same incompetents who oversaw the RHI scheme, which persuaded businesses, not least hard-working farmers, to invest huge capital sums and then changed the terms on which they had initially been persuaded to invest. They are those who have seen accessibility to our health service grossly diminished, not least for the very young and the very old. They have created a situation where our very schools are on the verge of financial collapse. They have allowed those who suffered from gross child sexual abuse to drift on towards their demise without progressing their compensation claims.
On the subject of the NIO and integrity, it has come to my attention that around £10,000 was paid in compensation to a civil servant who was offended at having to walk past portraits of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. This individual, who had worked in the NIO for between 15 and 20 years, claimed that under human rights legislation it was unfair to him to have to work where he was offended by portraits. The portraits were removed and the offended party, a Mr Lee Hegarty, was consulted on what should replace them. He suggested that the portraits of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh should be replaced with photographs of, at best, the Queen meeting people during engagements in Northern Ireland.
One such photograph features Her Majesty the Queen shaking hands with the former Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. I do not mind that; what I mind is that the case brought by the complainant was settled secretly and that the sum of £10,000 was handed over, presumably for hurt feelings and distress. This settlement was signed off by the then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers MP, on the recommendation, I am informed, of her Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens. I have been told to look at the annual accounts to find out where the money came from—but it is not to be found. That should concern us.
Later, in 2018, said Lee Hegarty secured a promotion and is now secretary and accounting officer of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. This quite scandalous episode has since been shrouded in secrecy. Repeated attempts to find out about this shameful case through freedom of information have been rebuffed. Nevertheless, while that civil servant could be paid £10,000 under very questionable circumstances and then promoted, victims of historical abuse have been shamefully left out in the cold when it comes to their justifiable claims for compensation.
This is scandalous. It is an indictment of the Northern Ireland Office and of this Government. We have lost all sense of reality when a portrait of Her Majesty can cause offence to a civil servant but we do not bat an eyelid when we deny closure and justice to unfortunate people who have been abused in the most outrageous manner imaginable. I urge the Northern Ireland Office not only to restore the original portraits of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh but to expedite payment of the comparatively paltry compensation due to the people who are more deserving than this opportunistic civil servant who, surely, must now be compromised in his position in the Parades Commission because of his bigoted stance over the Royal Family.
That is background, and I hope it is understood. I will conclude here. There is much more that could be said, but I am concerned by the multitude of pitfalls already, if noble Lords will excuse the mixed metaphor, in the pipeline. I have sought to illustrate this and will leave it there. This Bill creates more problems than it can ever solve. Decency, if not protocol, should see it rejected.
It is with a very heavy heart that I speak to noble Lords today. First, I would like to join those who have paid tribute to Sir Anthony Hart for his superb work, and to express my sympathy to his family. We have lost a very distinguished public servant in Northern Ireland.
Being without a Government for two and a half years has been quite difficult for us. We are stuck. The consequences for our economy, which is now in decline, are well known. Our health service is struggling. Our education service, as noble Lords have pointed out, requires significant development and our past has not been dealt with in a coherent and constructive way. That is all well known.
There seems to be little evidence that the current negotiations will produce an Executive. We do not know what is being discussed at these purported negotiations; the signals are profoundly depressing. The Secretary of State told us yesterday that they have had 150 meetings, but they could not have the one that worked it out together.
There are hundreds of issues on which the parties could unite for the common good, and there is urgent need for actions that could benefit our whole community and would not be contentious. Such actions would begin to heal some of the harm done in the past two and a half years, when so much trust has been eroded in our democracy. Sinn Féin continues publicly to support the deeply anti-democratic campaign of murder by the Provisional IRA. It is deeply resented, not just by Unionism. In private conversations we are receiving no assurances of any kind. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said that nothing is coming.
What happened yesterday in the other place was reminiscent of colonial days. The people of Northern Ireland are being denied the right the law accords them to make their own decisions in devolved matters. Through the amendments introduced yesterday, the other place has driven a coach and horses through the Good Friday agreement, which I would remind noble Lords is an international treaty binding on the United Kingdom. In addition, by doing this, the other place has given effect to the demands of Sinn Féin and taken a decision against the DUP. Others are saying that the DUP is very happy about this because it will not have to deal with those two issues. I have not heard noble Lords here or colleagues elsewhere express that view.
In imposing a deadline of 21 October for the negotiations to succeed, in the absence of which the Government will have to act in accordance with this Bill, the other place has taken away from the people of Northern Ireland their right to make their own decisions about matters which in law are devolved to them. They have acted in a partisan manner.
It is not that devolved powers have been withdrawn from Northern Ireland; they will exist in parallel with this Bill. In continuing to present this Bill—of course, the Government could withdraw it—the Government have made it much more unlikely that Sinn Féin will come to the table with open hearts and willing minds. It does not need to do so. It can just sit and wait until the Members of the other place do the work for it. As a consequence of the other place passing these amendments, Sinn Féin does not have to engage in democracy to achieve its ends; it can just say, “We refused to engage and look what happens”.
In 1967, the Parliament of Northern Ireland voted against embracing the Abortion Act. In 2016, the Northern Ireland Assembly, as noble Lords have heard today, voted by a clear majority not to change our abortion law in any way. The Government have consistently given assurances to the people of Northern Ireland that the devolution provisions will be respected. On 30 October last, I pointed out that in June of that year, the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, gave me an assurance that the intention of the Government and the NIO,
“is to restore a power-sharing agreement and arrangement in Northern Ireland so that it will be up to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected officials to decide on abortion policy”.—[Official Report, 6/6/18; col. 1312.]
In October 2018, the Minister said:
“As someone who comes from part of the kingdom which has a fully functioning devolved Government, I stress again that these decisions must be taken by the devolved Administration in the north of Ireland. There is no point in pretending we can usurp democracy in that fashion, simply because devolution is not to our liking. Devolution must function even when it is not as we would like to see it, but rather, how it must be”.—[Official Report, 30/10/18; col. 1278.]
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, until last week we did not know what would be in the amendment. We had intimations that it might be coming, but the first we saw of the Creasy amendment was on Thursday morning last. Within hours, it had been passed by the House of Commons. The expectation was that the Speaker would do the right thing and exclude it because it was outside the scope of the Bill. The transparent inappropriateness of this was further underlined by the fact that—entirely consistent with the vote by the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016—100% of our MPs voted against the provision. It was imposed on us by more than 300 MPs who have neither consulted us nor represent us.
If we meddle in the affairs of Northern Ireland in this heedless way; if we do not object to the House of Commons introducing clauses which have nothing to do with the Bill before the House; if we accept that the Government have lost control of Parliament; if Parliament allows one person—the Speaker of the other place—to make his own decisions about what can and cannot become law, without having regard to international treaty obligations such as those which derive from the Good Friday agreement, human rights law and even the domestic law of the United Kingdom, we are surrendering our democracy and our much cherished constitution. For Northern Ireland, with 17 MPs in a Chamber of 600-plus, there is no democracy now. Devolution has gone, in effect, on those occasions on which Parliament decides it wishes to act against it.
The Select Committee on the constitution of your Lordships’ House, in a paper published just nine days ago, entitled The Legislative Process: the Passage of Bills through Parliament, stated at paragraph 39:
“We regret that legislation relating to Northern Ireland has regularly been fast-tracked. This has become common not just for bills which might be required to address urgent or unforeseen problems, but for routine and predictable matters such as budgetary measures. The political stalemate in Northern Ireland has led to an absence of a functioning Executive and a democratic deficit. Fast-tracking bills relating to Northern Ireland reduces further the scrutiny these measures should receive. Routinely fast-tracking in this way is unacceptable, unsustainable and should only be used for urgent matters”.
I have no doubt that the ultimate purpose of these amendments is to change Northern Ireland and UK law by decriminalising abortion. I know that many of your Lordships will have a different view on abortion from me, and I accept that, but that is not actually the point today. Clause 9 would mean that abortion would cease to be subject to any penalty in all circumstances. That means that any baby, at any stage of gestation, right up to birth, could be aborted without penalty. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, there is no human right to kill unborn babies.
I believe, as do hundreds and thousands of others, that human life exists from the moment of conception and that it should be protected at all times. Even those who are pro-choice are now beginning to accept that abortion is about killing babies. If you are three or five months pregnant and you go for a scan, the radiographer does not say to you, “That’s your foetus” or “That’s your embryo”. They say to you, “That’s your baby”. When I lost my baby, as the consequence of a bomb explosion, the doctor who stood at the end of my bed did not say to me, “Your pregnancy is over”. He said to me, “Your baby is dead”.
I will say a word to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. I reassure her that neither I nor hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland feel oppressed, down- rodden or deprived of equality—far from it. We think that our law brings freedom to mothers and their children, and we seek to support them. I spoke in Oxford just a couple of weeks ago on freedom of conscience, and at the end of it, a woman came up to me. She said that she had recently carried a baby who had Down’s syndrome, and at each of her prenatal visits, the doctor had said to her, “You know it would be much easier—you could have an abortion. You should have an abortion”. It was a constant message, right through her pregnancy—a time when women are most vulnerable.
Let us be very clear. Clause 9 would change the law in England and Wales. The Member for Walthamstow said in the other place in June last year:
“We would like to repeal sections 58 and 59 of OAPA”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/6/18; col. 207.]
Those are the penalty provisions of the Offences against the Person Act. This clause will override not just the expressed will of the last democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly but the deliberations of this Parliament.
I do not believe that those who voted as they did in the other place yesterday really intended to abolish any penalty for unlawful abortion in the UK, yet that would be the effect. If we decriminalise abortion—that is what this amendment seeks to do—we will make abortion available up to birth. I do not know how many of your Lordships have known the beauty and the terror of the moment of birth: the moment when a new soul, a beautiful little baby, comes into the world. It is a moment of absolute wonder. I accept that there are occasions when women do not want to carry their babies to term, but we need to be very clear that abortion is not a painless, clean, medical process. A baby will be killed in the womb through medication, have poison injected into its heart so that it is born dead, or it might just be born alive, as are an average of 30 babies each year in England and Wales, and left to die. In that brave new world, there will be fewer and fewer children with disabilities, as they do not merit the right to life. According to the Bill before your Lordships’ House, children with disabilities will be given no protection. Yet we know that while children may be born with disabilities, that is not the sum total of the reality of their existence; they deserve more than to be defined by their disability.
In England and Wales, we abort children because they are the wrong sex—we have proof of it—and because they have conditions like club feet and cleft palates, which are eminently curable. In effect, we have abortion on demand up to 24 weeks, and we will have abortion to birth. What sort of civilisation would countenance the killing of defenceless, unborn babies in the place where they should be safest: the mother’s womb? What sort of civilisation does this right up to the moment a baby is born?
Reverting to parliamentary procedure, there has been no White Paper, no Green Paper, no consideration of the impact of the provision, no consultation, no explanatory memorandum from the Member for Walthamstow, no consideration of conflicting current legislative measures. There has been no provision even for this to be done with the proper parliamentary procedure through both Houses of Parliament, rather than a Statutory Instrument subject only to negative resolution, which is all that would be required—the least accountable form of legislation. There will be no discussion in either Chamber of where medical science is in relation to the life of the unborn child, and no consideration of the pain which we know unborn babies suffer when they are aborted. There has been no thought of what we are saying as a people when we force this measure through at the behest of an unelected, unknown committee, operating under a complaints procedure contained in a protocol to a convention.
The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stated that states have a margin of appreciation in these matters: we have the right not to do this and we should not do it. Yet, this is what the other place has determined will dictate our future law, not proper parliamentary process, not even decisions influenced by the finest legal minds in the country making decisions in our Supreme Court, with the protections afforded by our resolute application of the rule of law. It is profoundly and fundamentally wrong that we should agree to consent to the disposal of human life before birth by means of a measure that was designed only to extend the period for forming an Executive in Northern Ireland until 21 October, and to grant powers to the Secretary of State to extend the period to 13 January 2020. We must reject this in Committee; if we do not, Northern Ireland will have had abortion foisted on it at a time of political crisis by the Parliament of a country that has some responsibility for what has happened to it in the past. There are those who are seeking to inflict on us more troubles. We have seen the bombing attempts. Last night, we saw the problems at bonfires as we approach 12 July—environmental problems that nevertheless resulted in rather more serious problems. Many of us still live in fear, and it is not an irrational fear. We have huge problems, with marginalised, impoverished and deprived people living in bleak conditions, where the rule of the terrorists still operates. Let us be under no illusion: the rule of the terrorists still operates in Northern Ireland.
It seems to me that despite the best efforts of the Minister and all those concerned, the Government have stood by and done very little for the past two and a half years. It will be worse if we acquiesce in this travesty of a Bill, containing a clause imposing abortion on demand on a people who have repeatedly said they do not want it.
My Lords, it is a privilege and I am humbled to follow the amazing speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I certainly concur with many of her remarks.
From the outset, let me state that my party, my noble friends in this House and I genuinely want to see devolution restored, but what happened yesterday has made that practically impossible. In a few weeks, a new Prime Minister will be announced and Parliament will rise for the Summer Recess. I therefore accepted the very short Bill being proposed; indeed, it is only a few clauses long. It would simply extend two dates and was worthy of support from across the House. That extension period was to extend the time for the devolved Government to be restored by two months, to 21 October, with provisions for a further extension to 13 January next year.
However, it is right to ask why the devolved Administration in Stormont is not functioning. Sinn Féin stated that it brought down the Executive at Stormont because of the RHI situation, but we now know that that was only an opportune smokescreen; the Deputy First Minister was seriously ill at that time so it made a political decision to take advantage of the situation for narrow electoral purposes. Indeed, as far as Sinn Féin is concerned, RHI is no longer an impediment to the restoration of Stormont, even though we do not have the report. Rather, legislation on the Irish language, same-sex marriage and abortion have taken the stage and are Sinn Féin’s red-line demands. We all know that, over the years, Sinn Féin has had an insatiable lust and desire for demands and concessions because, in the past, successive Governments have yielded to republicanism under the threat of the bomb and the bullet. Sadly, neither the Government nor the Opposition have had the guts to call out Sinn Féin over its intransigence. Instead, they have endeavoured to spread the blame across all parties—as we have heard from Members of your Lordships’ House today—even though other parties, including the DUP, were willing to enter the Executive to deal with the pressing issues of health, education, jobs, investment and infrastructure.
Then, of course, there are the many issues surrounding Brexit and its implications for Northern Ireland. Rather than condemning the activity and intransigence of Sinn Féin, Westminster continues to fill its coffers with finances running into tens of thousands of pounds even though Sinn Féin never appears in the other House to represent its constituents. I live in a constituency where there has been no effective representation since 1997 because the absentee MP has not attended Parliament; this is of course overlooked. What has the other House done in return? Yesterday, it delivered Sinn Féin’s demands without its MPs ever attending. So, they do not need to attend because they can be sure that their demands and red lines will be delivered for them, as they have been and continue to be. It is totally unfair and unacceptable that, for two and a half years, the people of Northern Ireland have been left without decisions being made by their elected representatives or by Westminster on the issues that have an impact on their daily lives, such as childcare, special educational demands, the needs of the elderly, youth services, poverty, the lack of social housing or the long list of patients waiting for hospital appointments—basic services that ought to be delivered. I appreciate that making hard decisions on many of these issues is never easy but that is what political leadership is supposed to be all about. That is what politicians are expected to do.
I have listened to some of the comments made today. I know that the Minister said that the reason for the Bill was so that “good governance” in Northern Ireland can continue. There is no good governance in Northern Ireland. My noble friends have mentioned a list of issues that are waiting to be dealt with but the Secretary of State will not take any measures to allow the other House and this House to make progress and allow civil servants to carry on making the major decisions that have an impact on their lives. Indeed, they are not only impacting on their lives—some of those decisions are causing their deaths, because they are waiting for operations they cannot get because no action is able to be taken on some of these issues. People are allowed to die because of that inactivity.
I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who said that there is an enormous democratic deficit. I wholeheartedly agree, but is he suggesting that what happened in the other place yesterday has helped us remove that enormous democratic deficit? I say the very opposite has happened, and the price will be paid because of that. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is not with us at present, suggested that it is not the Government’s fault that many of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, have not been dealt with, but I say to the Government that action needs to be taken. So many of the issues impacting on our community are moved forward, but the Secretary of State has been unwilling to do anything to move them forward. Waiting for devolution—that is the excuse.
I was astounded that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, suggested that Sinn Féin be excused for bringing down the Executive. He talks about issues that were not being discussed. His party—that is, what is left of it in the Province—is at the table. If they are not being discussed, why not? Those issues ought to be on the table. I genuinely feel that the excuse given is once again not only Sinn Féin, but that Sinn Féin has to be equalled with the Democratic Unionist Party. I am fed up listening to that. The Democratic Unionist Party is willing to go into Stormont, form the Executive and take these issues forward. It is one party alone, but no one is willing to call it out because it does not suit the political intelligentsia to do so. Whether it is this House or others failing in their duty to call it out, it is about time it was called out.
I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and I certainly agree with many of the things he said, but I say to him that to advise the Government to give Sinn Féin the Irish language Act—the last red line it has talked about—is, in actual fact, to put your two fingers in the eyes of the unionist community and poke their eyes out completely. It is not simply a language Act; Sinn Féin has weaponised it as something greater, and therefore that boil has to be lanced if we are to move forward on this.
I have listened with care to what Members are saying in this place. Indeed, the Northern Ireland committee in the other place identified numerous issues left in abeyance without decisions being made, even though some have to do with the greatest basic civil and human right: the right to life. The Secretary of State claimed that the Bill, as originally presented, was essential to give time for the talks process to continue and hopefully conclude with success. However, I suggest that those in the other House who yesterday hijacked the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill have placed a major obstacle in the pathway to success.
Anyone who cared about or followed the volatile situation in the Province would have known that Sinn Féin had put down the red lines for negotiations—namely, as I have said, same-sex marriage, abortion rights and the Irish language Act. The two matters voted through the House of Commons yesterday and now presented to your Lordships’ House deal with two major, contentious social issues. Same-sex marriage and abortion were the prerogative of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ought to have been left to any devolved Administration to decide, but those in the other place who deliberately piggybacked on a simple piece of Northern Ireland legislation did so not caring for the long-term consequences for the Province. Yes, it is true, as we have been told, that it was passed by large majorities— 383 votes to 73 and 332 to 99—but those who attended the debate will know that the House was empty for most of the occasion until the votes were called.
The people were not moved in the way they voted by the power of the speeches or the eloquence of the debate: rather, it was by their own reasoning or, indeed, perhaps prejudice, irrespective of the consequences. I know that many in the other place—and I was there for 25 years—went home last night believing, “That’s that over, a job well done”. I cannot fully express the horror and shock felt by members of the community in Northern Ireland when they heard the news last evening. No one had any knowledge that a piece of legislation regarding the simple extension of dates to permit the possibility of political progress in Northern Ireland would produce such major social change for the community, without reference to them in any shape or form. The community is disgusted that it has been treated with utter contempt and has been deliberately punished for the failure of Sinn Féin to allow political progress, and the Secretary of State’s unwillingness to bring forward urgent legislation to permit decisions to be taken.
I appreciate that we are living in uncertain times, and it seems that individual representatives in the other place are seeking to stop the desired will of the majority, expressed in the referendum on Brexit, even if it means bringing down their own Government. However, those who use this legislation to command and force major social change on the whole of Northern Ireland have little or no respect for the community. Had they proposed that a report be brought forward on these issues, after appropriate and detailed consultation with the Northern Ireland community, one could have understood—but they went for the overkill.
Reflecting on the recent debate on same-sex marriage, I remember being told—and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, is here—that another way would be found to bring this legislation in. So in my heart I believe that much of this has been choreographed, and the Government are happy to comply. I ask the Minister a simple question: were any Northern Ireland officials assisting in the drafting of the clauses that were presented to Parliament? Conor McGinn, who moved the same-sex clause, said that the DUP should see it as “an incentive” to get Stormont restored, so that this part of the legislation never comes into effect. One might ask: how naive can some politicians be?
The noble Lord asked a question directed effectively at myself and in relation to Conor McGinn as well, although he put the question to the Minister. Perhaps I may clarify one specific matter that he referred to. At no stage have I, and almost certainly not Conor McGinn either, had discussions with any government department or any Minister to conspire to introduce such a clause.
I acknowledge the noble Lord’s response, but Conor McGinn did make a statement, and it is a naive statement. What incentive is there for Sinn Féin to allow the Executive and the Assembly to be restored before 21 October? It made these two red lines, and its comrades in Westminster have produced the goods. Why would it want, and allow, Stormont to return, to possibly see one or both of these pieces of legislation fail? It is clear that the incentive is not in the hands of the DUP but has been handed by Parliament to Sinn Féin to block progress, to keep the process going until after 21 October, and, in the meantime, to try to get unionists to give Sinn Féin its final demand, the Irish language Act.
This legislation has driven a coach and horses through the principle of devolution and overrides it. It is a major step towards the end of power sharing for a long period of time. What do we need devolved government for, when all Sinn Féin has to do when it is not getting its way is to appeal to its friends in Westminster, who will capitulate to republican demands as usual? One might say, “What is new?”—for that has been done for so many years. No unionist could contemplate agreeing to Sinn Féin’s final demand, or it will be viewed as lying down and letting republicanism walk all over you. For those who suggest that we should tack on some little crumb for the Ulster Scots, I say, “Please don’t insult me”.
Unionist representatives, through this legislation, are being blackmailed. They are being held to ransom by those who suggest that we should capitulate and let republicans have their final demand, and maybe Sinn Féin will allow the Executive and the Assembly to get back before 21 October. This, in my opinion, is a dark day for our Province. The issue of same-sex marriage has been brought forward without consultation or consideration of how to protect those who disagree. At least when the redefinition of marriage took place in the rest of the UK, it was done after a period of consultation and consideration.
I do not think it is possible to overstate the significance of the damage done by the other place. The complete lack of understanding shown by Members there for Northern Ireland is astounding. Rather than feeling valued members of the union today, many feel that they have been held beneath contempt. In all my years in Parliament, I have never witnessed anything like this.
I have been contacted by many people from Northern Ireland who are not only concerned about other issues but deeply grieved about the manner in which the other place treated Northern Ireland yesterday. It would be interesting to know in which other jurisdictions in the world such a major change—for example, in abortion law—has been made in this way, without warning or prior consultation with the people. As has been said, a ComRes poll suggested that 64% of people in Northern Ireland oppose Westminster trying to change the law, with 66% of women and 72% of 18 to 32 year-olds being against it—yet it is being forced on Northern Ireland. Is that democracy? It is enough to make one weep. To add insult to injury, this monumental change has been introduced with total disregard for Northern Ireland.
Just a few days ago I remember preaching a sermon—
This is a very long speech.
My Lords, I apologise to the House but I think it is time that the noble Lord brought his speech to an end.
Yes, I am bringing my comments to a conclusion. My sermon concerned the consequences of choices. I suggest to this House that we have the power to make choices but we do not have the power to decide the consequences. With every choice, there is a consequence. I say to this House that if it passes this legislation and forces it on the people of Northern Ireland, there will be no need for an Assembly, and the unionist people of Northern Ireland should not be blamed for going down the road of direct rule.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. I sit here very much as a part-time politician but I come as a member of the Northern Ireland community for more days of the week than I am here.
We have heard political and legal arguments about why certain things might or might not happen, and we have heard excellent speeches from my noble friend Lord Bew and my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames, coming from the heart of the people. Some of the statistics that we have heard to justify the situation that we are arguing about have come from both sides of the House—and from the Lib Dems and from these Benches. They concern the people in Northern Ireland who do not want things dealt with here, particularly the issues that the Government seem to agree should be allowed to be tagged on to this Bill.
Statistics can be used to suit any situation but I fear we are ignoring another statistic, which is that 100% of people in Northern Ireland want a restoration of our devolved Parliament, and 100% of the normal people in Northern Ireland are totally and absolutely frustrated by our political parties not getting together. We should forget who is to blame. The people around us at home are fed up to the teeth with the politicians whom they elected to our Assembly being, for whatever reason, incapable of sorting something out for us. One may disagree with minor parts of the speeches by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames and my noble friend Lord Bew, but that was a plea from the people of Northern Ireland: although you are no longer Assembly Members, go back home and get your parties to agree. Get there, talk and produce a legitimate Government for us in Northern Ireland. If you do not, you cannot blame the Government here if they have to take measures in lieu of all of you.
I thought that the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, were significant and came at an appropriate time, almost at the end of the debate. I know that there are very strong views on the amendments that came before the House of Commons yesterday, and which passed with large majorities. I have my personal views on those issues, but the point is that none of this would have been necessary had an Assembly been up and running. The legislation before us even tells us that if an Assembly is up and running by 21 October, it could still take the decision.
I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others, about perverse incentives—so that people say, “We can pocket this and then deal with other issues”. I understand all that. It is in the hands of politicians in Northern Ireland, though, to decide on abortion, same-sex marriage and other matters, if they decide to come to an agreement before the time in the first part of the Bill, which I support this evening. It is the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill: that is what it is about.
What troubles me is that there is an inconsistency in some of the arguments tonight about how the decision made by the other place—before us on Monday, in Committee—will somehow disrupt the whole talks process; that it will delay the formation of an Executive and an Assembly. But that is perverse, too. If we look at the Bill, obviously there are things that have caught the imagination of the media and others: abortion and same-sex marriage. However, in my 32 years as a parliamentarian I have never seen a Bill that has references to reports and debates in the way that this one has. It talks about issue after issue after issue—all of them significant. These include dealing with Troubles-related incidents, the Attorney-General, legacy cases, problems affecting gambling, issues affecting pensions—which the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others have mentioned, and which I hope the Government will support on Monday—and the institutional abuse of children. There is also the tragic death of Sir Anthony Hart. But if we go through the Bill, those are all issues that should be devolved—every one of them. Yet, frankly, Parliament is losing patience. That is what is happening. I am not losing patience; I never did when I was in Northern Ireland.
Incidentally, on the issue of abortion, I always argued that that should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I never took a decision on it when I was Secretary of State. I could have but I did not. But we have come to a stage where people are getting fed up: it will be nearly three years, by the time this Bill is enacted. This should now be an incentive to political parties in Northern Ireland and to the Government. The Government have not achieved the best on this issue, in the past few months.
I just want to ask the noble Lord a question. Can he explain why Sinn Féin should come back to the negotiating table, when it got what it asked for? Why should it come back? There is no reason whatever.
If Sinn Féin has the interests of Northern Ireland at heart, I will give a couple of examples of why it should come back. At the moment, outstanding issues in Northern Ireland include: compensation to victims of historical abuse; a strategy to deal with bovine TB; a decision to reduce the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals; university tuition fees; the mergers of schools and hospitals; the reform of adult social care; pay rises for National Health Service staff; and the cruise ship terminal in Belfast. Issue after issue after issue has already been discussed. If Sinn Féin does not agree with that, it has to be pointed out to it, and that is for the Government and the other parties to do. If equal marriage and, obviously, the Irish language are the only issues that Sinn Féin is concerned with—everyone knows that the problems surrounding those issues are huge—then better if it is all a sham. If, at the end of the day, they are saying, “We’ve got what we wanted because the British Parliament has given it to us so we’re not going to bother any more”, there is no hope at all for the future—none. We can have an Assembly and Executive formed in Northern Ireland only if there is agreement.
Before the noble Baroness intervened on me, I was going to mention the position of the Government. The amendments introduced yesterday were not government amendments but, with such a big majority, clearly lots of MPs from different parties voted for those things. The Government should now be in a position to go back to Northern Ireland, talk to the parties—quite rightly since, as we have seen here today, some of them are really aggrieved by what has happened—and explain that more and more of this will happen unless there is a devolved Assembly and Executive. That is difficult, of course. There will be Brexit, a new Prime Minister and probably a new Secretary of State. There are the holidays, and then there is the marching season—all things that prevent progress on these issues.
I tell your Lordships one thing: if I had given up in 1997 when we were dealing with the Good Friday agreement because I did not think there would be an agreement, we would not have had one. The same goes for the other agreements that eventually followed. If we had thrown our hands up in the air and said, “We give up. We’re not going to deal with this. We’ll never get it done because the divisions are so deep”, nothing would have happened. Yet we got that Good Friday agreement. The current situation is a dereliction of duty by the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, that have not taken their place in the Assembly. That is part of the Good Friday agreement, but they are going against it and breaking it by not being Members of the Assembly or the Executive, and that should be pointed out to them.
Who will do the pointing out? There will, I assume, be a new Secretary of State, but I think there should be a facilitator—a George Mitchell; a chairman, if you like—at this delicate time, particularly when the Government are in chaos because of Brexit and new Prime Ministers. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was very valid: everyone has to be involved in these talks. Only when you can bounce ideas, resolutions and suggestions off different people will they work.
I am not happy that we are in a position where we may not see an Assembly over the next few months—far from it. I chaired strand 1 of the talks on setting up the Assembly; I had to deal with every single detail of it, month in, month out, because it was so significant to the success of the process. I am deeply disappointed and distressed that we are nearly three years in and do not have an Assembly. But beware: if we say, “We’re not going any further with these talks”, we will have direct rule. I think my noble friend Lord Dubs and I are the only direct-rulers, as it were, in the Chamber today. I did not like the role I took: I was a Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency taking decisions on behalf of 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland. It was not right that it happened then and it will not be right if it happens again. If there is direct rule, though, what we saw yesterday in the House of Commons will be repeated time and again on all the other issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland.
This is in the hands of the Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland. I accept the point about Sinn Féin and the fact that it has got one of its demands, but at the same time it is in the hands of the parties and the Government to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Let us get an Assembly and Executive up and running in Belfast.
My Lords, this has been a long and, I might add, challenging afternoon in many ways. I shall try as best I can to engage with each of the issues as they have been presented.
The first thing that I think we can all agree on is that devolution is needed now more than ever. It is self-evident that the absence of devolution is why we are sitting here today to try to resolve these matters. There is no doubt that, were these decisions being discussed in Northern Ireland, those in the chamber would immediately understand the issues. The media and the wider community would be involved, integral and essential. That is what devolution is meant to be. However, we do not have devolution.
Looking at some of the issues which have come to the fore in the debate, you cannot define Northern Ireland by two issues alone. Any attempt to do so is to miss the point of devolution. I listened to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and others who spoke about the communities themselves and what they need. I read the report of the professor from Northern Ireland and recognise the challenges in the health service, and I wonder why that issue is not front and centre in the discussions, with demands for amendments to be moved forward to sort it out. It is critical for Northern Ireland.
If the parties can use the time made available by this extension to return to not just the talks but the formation of the Executive, these decisions will not rest in our hands or the hands of the other place. They will rest in the hands of the democratically elected Members of the Assembly. Anything which can take that forward is important. The Bill itself is straightforward and remarkably simple at heart. It aims to ensure that there is adequate time available to the parties in Northern Ireland to continue those talks to resolution and complete the discussions to the point at which an Executive can be formed.
There is no point pretending that the landscape between now and Christmas is an easy one to cross. It is not. The next few weeks alone carry with them various points in the calendar which are of such importance to people in Northern Ireland. Changes will take place in my own party, which will no doubt have an impact—I cannot even tell you whether I will be the Minister taking these matters forward by the time we reach August, because I do not know. Then we face the reality of the findings of the RHI inquiry which will be presented. We recognise the challenges of Brexit and the approach to it. Each of these will make it more challenging, but that is not the point.
The parties need to come together because the issues are about more than just abortion, same-sex marriage or the other issues which emerged from yesterday’s debate in the other place. They are the bread-and-butter issues listed by various noble Lords, which have gone untended. The reality remains that, until an Executive is formed, they will remain where they are now: in a mad, limbo world where nothing which can and should be done in Northern Ireland is done. That is what we face.
As several noble Lords suggested, if we are unable to re-form the Executive, then what we saw in the other place yesterday will be the beginning of a wider, drip-by-drip intervention in Northern Ireland on issue after issue. Decisions will be taken not by the elected Members from Northern Ireland, although some will no doubt be present, but by the wider Parliament. They will do this on the basis of issues which may not be critical to Northern Ireland.
The remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded me that I am astounded by how many newly qualified experts there are on Northern Ireland; they seem to emerge with each passing debate. Their knowledge is vast and their experience great, but their residence time in Northern Ireland can be measured in minutes, sometimes even less. We hear time and again from people whose experience is, sadly, far too limited for the sorts of discussions we face. We need to find a way forward.
Turning to the notion of an Assembly, an Assembly can be reconvened now. That is not at issue; it could be done. The problem we face is that it must be able to secure a Presiding Officer and it needs to be an Assembly of the communities. It cannot be an Assembly reflecting the views of only one side, because that takes us back to where we began. If we hear the voice of only one side, we create a greater problem for ourselves.
On the talks, there have been a range of discussions about how we can move these matters forward. In truth, I believe there is positivity. I hope that the remarks of certain noble Lords today are not reflected in the negotiating room, but I recognise the challenges they represent.
There is the discussion about whether there should be a facilitator. It is important to stress that in putting together these talks, for the first time we have brought in six independent individuals to chair the individual strands, to try to bring this together. We have done the best we can to provide the right facilities to bring these talks to fruition. The rest will rest in the hands of the principal parties there. I believe that the distance between the two sides is remarkably small, and the things which unite the two sides, the bread and butter issues of Northern Ireland—
I am grateful and will try not to delay the Minister’s response. He talked about five facilitators. Were those Northern Ireland civil servants?
No, they were not. They were drawn from a wide background of experience and knowledge to try to facilitate those talks.
Who were they?
We can provide that information in a Written Answer. That would be helpful to the House. I will lodge it in the Library and write to the noble Lord so that he has that information.
The Minister has just told us that there are very few issues still dividing the parties. Since we are effectively being threatened in this Parliament tonight, can he tell us what those issues are?
I do not think anything I have said this evening should be interpreted as a threat—not in the slightest. What I am trying to ensure is understood is that these are perennial issues which we are fully aware of. An Irish language Act and a culture Act, and how these might fit together, remain challenging issues which need to be resolved. There are other, smaller issues, but these can be addressed and achieved in the right safe space in Northern Ireland. That is the ultimate ambition. It must be done by those parties in Northern Ireland.
Going back to the earlier point, there are five facilitators, not six, and they represent current and retired civil servants, but I will provide the details. I am grateful for that very helpful clarification.
The important thing to stress is that the Bill itself is, at its heart, simple. Its ambition is sensitive and straightforward. However, we are actively considering both abortion and same-sex marriage, and how we can take this matter forward, reflecting, as we are, the significant majorities, voices and views of the other place. It is important that I touch upon the issues that have come from the other place, because they have dominated much of the discussion. We need to ensure that those amendments—
I require clarity on this. Is it correct—or did I misunderstand the Minister’s initial statement—that he has been having meetings with the honourable Members from the other place, Creasy and McGinn, and trying to facilitate amendments to this Northern Ireland Bill about abortion and same-sex marriage?
That is what I was about to say. Just before I came into this debate today, I was part of a wider meeting with the two Members of Parliament, together with some representatives from the Labour Party. I am going to be very correct by reading out exactly what has happened, so that there is no dubiety about what I am about to say:
“We are actively considering how we can take this matter forward, reflecting as we are upon the wider considerations from the other House, to ensure the amendments are workable, recognising the clear message which we have received from the other place. We need to ensure that we do not end up with defective laws, which would not serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.
We have heard, we will reflect upon that and we will act in accordance with that to ensure that we can deliver what has been passed to us by the other place.
Before the Minister leaves that point, can I return to the point I made in my remarks? If legislation of this kind is being produced in Parliament, surely due process requires that there should be adequate scrutiny before amendments are made before the House of Commons or the House of Lords to be incorporated into legislation? Also, if these amendments, which were known about only as recently as last Thursday, are defective, why is it now the Government’s job to sort that out, when these were not government proposals in the first place?
The thing to note is that these have now been voted on by the other place in a significant number. The majority is there. They will move forward in this way. We in this House cannot look to the other place and seek to undermine or strip out these particular parts; that would be a mistake of some significance.
I apologise for intervening, but is not a way forward to extend the dates in this Bill so that, instead of having 21 October, we have 13 January, and instead of having 13 January, we have 10 April? If we have a more realistic timetable, is it not then possible that we can enable the Assembly to come together, the Executive to be formed and, therefore, enable this House and the other place not to impose their will upon Northern Ireland?
My noble friend, as always, provides a very sensitive approach. I have a suspicion that there will be a number of amendments tabled over the course of the next few days, which may well, indeed, reflect the very point my noble friend raises. I suspect we will know more when we are able to see what they are. That will provide us with the perfect opportunity then to try to address these things as best as we can in moving it forward.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but the Public Bill Office told me this afternoon that a Marshalled List will be produced tomorrow. Many of us will leave tomorrow afternoon, so we will have only tomorrow morning to draft amendments, and we will not know how these current arrangements in the clauses will be handled by the Government. There is the opportunity for a separate list of amendments to be produced on Friday, but there is a remarkably short time in which we can do this.
I certainly do not wish to curtail the ability of the Members in this regard, but noble Lords can lodge amendments just now. The Government have to actively engage to try to establish how they can move these matters forward. As I said at the outset, the challenge we face is that the amendments which have arrived with us have certain technical deficiencies.
I do not want to be difficult, and I thank the Minister for giving way. If I want to table an amendment, draft it on the basis of the Bill before us and then something different is produced, my amendment will be pointless. What about the report of the Constitution Committee, which said that law relating to Northern Ireland should not be dealt with in this rushed way, and that it is totally unacceptable?
The noble Baroness has raised this point before, but I say again that we have received from the other place a very clear instruction and we will have to move forward within the constraints of the time available to us. I do not doubt that noble Lords will table amendments, and they will be part of a reconciled list at the time when we are having these discussions. We will seek to move them forward in a manner appropriate to this House, as we would do with any of these matters. That is our ambition. It is not our—
The other House has voted upon these clauses and sent them to this House. That is what the majority was based upon: the clauses that were voted on in the other House. Why is this House, therefore, deciding to make changes, not knowing what the other House thinks about the changes we are about to make?
To be frank, it is almost the sole purpose of this House to take those matters which come from the other place to ensure they can be revised in a manner which is appropriate, particularly in light of legal realities. That is our responsibility, and we would be derelict were we not to do that, if we were aware of deficiencies in the law. That is our role.
I am conscious, as I try to draw these remarks to a close, that some other things need to be mentioned. I am aware of the issue of the victims’ pensions—the noble Lord, Lord Hain, is of course not in his place. We have been working together to establish how we can make some progress on this. A noble Lord asked: can it be so—that there is a prospect of terrorists themselves receiving benefits through this? The answer is no. If the harm came by their own hand, they would be precluded from any attempt to provide a pension, for very clear and obvious reasons.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about refugees in Northern Ireland. We have had a meeting on this very point and I am looking again to the noble Lord to work with me on this matter. The challenge we experienced at the time was that the number of suitable recipient families, as judged by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, was not adequate for the purpose; the noble Lord may recall that discussion. I am very happy to continue that dialogue to see how we can make some progress and will be happy to commit again to meet with the noble Lord to do that very thing if he is amenable to it.
I appreciate that the notion of historical abuse, raised by the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Empey, remains a very important issue, and it is important. They will be aware, as I have said before, that the challenge we face is that if the Hart recommendations had simply been left as they were, we could have moved forward. However, those recommendations were then passed on to the parties in Northern Ireland, which have had engagement with and made some fairly significant changes to the initial recommendations. It will take time for those to progress towards a legislative basis upon which progress could be made. I would hope that it can be expedited but I am not clear about the timescale. It is not being delayed; it is now simply a question of it being drafted in the appropriate way to reflect the parties in Northern Ireland.
I am aware of the legacy issues and I note that in raising this matter the noble Lord, Lord Empey, suggested that they had not been front and centre in the talks that have gone on thus far. It is a challenging issue and the Government recognise their responsibility in this area. They would be derelict if they were in any way to abandon these issues. We will need to find a resolution as we progress in some way. Whether they form part of the discussions and talks remains to be seen.
I do not believe that I can bring to a satisfactory conclusion the nature of today’s debate. It is not in my gift or the gift of any us. We now have a number of serious issues before us and shall on Monday have ample opportunity, I hope, to engage directly with the amendments as they are presented to facilitate the proper debate that we in this House can deliver. Out of that will emerge, I hope, a wider consideration and appreciation of the reality which we face. Out if it will emerge the next stage, which will take place on the Wednesday of the following week as well. I hope through those stages to be available to your Lordships if there is a need for discussion. I remain open to that discussion in all fashions, so if noble Lords need to reach out I am happy to work with them. I note again to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, that I am happy to sit down at an appropriate time and engage directly with this.
My noble friend just referred to the week after next. I thought that we were having Report next week.
Yes, that is an old Scottish failing of mine—getting the weeks in the wrong order. To be clear, it is next week. It will be Monday and then Wednesday of next week; I do not want there to be any confusion about those dates.
While I appreciate that my words will not be supported by all, I hope that noble Lords recognise that we are trying to engage diligently with these matters and take them forward in a way which reflects the will of the other place and the realities that we face here in our job as a revising Chamber: to try to make improvements as best we can. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 8.32 pm.