House of Lords
Monday 15 July 2019
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
Free Television Licences
My Lords, the Government discussed funding with the BBC in 2015. We agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the concession would transfer to it in June 2020. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years so as gradually to introduce the cost to the BBC. The Government and the BBC agreed that this was a fair deal for the BBC. The future of the concession is therefore the responsibility of the BBC. The Government are clear that they are disappointed with its decision.
Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that, in effect, the BBC is victimising 5.5 million pensioners whose sole real leisure pursuit, unless they are really active, is to watch television and listen to radio? It is no source of help to them to be told that the poorest will be means-tested. Does my noble friend recollect in 1986 the Peacock report recommending that the BBC accept some advertising and sponsorship? Have the Government brought to the BBC’s attention the fact that £140 million of BBC income worldwide now comes from advertising and sponsorship? If that is good enough worldwide, why is it not good enough to be implemented at least to some extent in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, under the 2015 funding settlement it was agreed that responsibility would go to the BBC in return for an increase in its licence fee that was guaranteed and index-linked for five years. The director-general promoted that agreement and that is why we are disappointed with the BBC’s decision. As for the Peacock report, which as my noble friend said was 33 years ago, the funding model was considered then, but it was also considered again as part of the charter review. I am afraid to say to my noble friend that only 1.5% of those consulted agreed that having advertising on the BBC was a good idea.
My Lords, is not the real issue here whether we can believe the party opposite when it made a manifesto commitment to provide free television licences for those over 75 for the whole of the Parliament? The Minister has previously responded on this issue at great length and shared with the House his concern at being beaten up by this, but we are talking about the integrity and truthfulness of his party. What will he do about it? It is not a question of the figures; it is about what action can be taken. Last time, the excuse was that there was no legislation and it would take too long. We have a DCMS Bill in the House at the moment. What is wrong with tabling an amendment to that?
The DCMS Bill the noble Lord refers to deals with the operational delivery of the Commonwealth Games and has really nothing to do with the BBC at all. As for his question, I have replied to it: I said that everyone knew, when the manifesto was written, that the responsibility had been given to the BBC by Parliament. That is where it rests, because that is where Parliament put it, and that is why we are disappointed with its decision.
My Lords, we on these Benches agree that we must support our older citizens. However, does the Minister accept that the introduction of free TV licences for the over 25s; sorry, for the over 75s—that would be expensive—was government policy and should be paid for by the Government? The licence fee is not the Government’s to spend: it is not public money but the public’s money and should be used to invest in BBC programmes and BBC content. There is no point in a free licence if the BBC is so pared to the bone that there is nothing of quality to watch.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the BBC and, once upon a time, an executive there—in the good old days. However we got to where we are today on the issue of pensioners, we are where we are. Does my noble friend agree with me in praising the diligence with which the BBC has set about trying to solve the problem of meeting the expectation of help for pensioners while at the same time not impoverishing everyone else’s viewing by making swingeing cuts in programme budgets? The BBC has behaved impeccably and been meticulous in trying to respond to the problem.
My noble friend makes the point that we are where we are. This was debated by Parliament and agreed. I know that some people, some noble Lords included, did not agree with the decision to pass responsibility to the BBC in the Digital Economy Act; nevertheless, that was done and the BBC is living up to the responsibility it was given. Dealing with the change in the structure of fees is a very difficult job, and television is changing dramatically, so I sympathise with the BBC; it has a difficult job to do. Nevertheless, we gave it a lot of warning—this was agreed in 2015—and that is why we are disappointed with what it has decided.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of Age Scotland. This is not a matter for the BBC: it is a government responsibility. The Minister says that the Bill that my noble friend on the Front Bench referred to is not appropriate, but there is an appropriate Bill: I have a Private Member’s Bill, which has had its First Reading and will transfer responsibility back from the BBC to the Government. It will enable the Government to implement the promise that they made in their election manifesto. Will the Government support that Bill? If not, why not?
The noble Lord repeats his mantra that it is not the BBC’s responsibility. We decided in 2015, and the BBC agreed, that it would be its responsibility. After that, Parliament agreed in the Digital Economy Act that it would be the BBC’s responsibility.
My Lords, the Topol review, published earlier this year, outlines recommendations for preparing the health and care workforce, through education and training, to adopt new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. It is clear that the use of AI will not replace clinical staff but instead allow them to be more human. The use of new technologies will ensure that patients receive safer, more productive, more effective and more personalised care. The recommendations of the Topol review have informed the interim NHS people plan, which sets out how we prepare the workforce to build an NHS that is fit for the future.
My Lords, the success of any organisation is dependent on the people within it. I believe that the most precious asset that the NHS has is its human resource of dedicated staff, but in these days of sophisticated IT, and now artificial intelligence, can my noble friend tell the House what developments can be safely and securely harnessed by the NHS?
Tremendous innovations are being introduced, including in robotics and AI-based automation, particularly in diagnostics, which have the potential to transform how healthcare is delivered in the NHS, but the role of automation to carry out basic administrative and repetitive functions, and of robotics in surgical operations in particular, is due to increase over the next decade. The main purpose of this automation in health is not to replace staff with machines or to reduce the role played by humans in providing care but, rather, to enable staff to spend more time delivering personalised care. But it is also to improve the productivity of health services and systems so that we can ensure that the NHS becomes more sustainable in future.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, made a valid point about the need for human beings to be involved in the delivery of healthcare, but the use of AI and other technology is also very exciting, as is the fact that it features so largely in the long-term plan. Are the experiments in automation taking place across the country, where are they taking place, when will we see the results and who is delivering automated healthcare and AI? Is it the NHS or are private contractors being commissioned to do this work? I accept that the Minister may not be able to answer all those questions in detail, but if she cannot, I would appreciate a letter being placed in the Library.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: this is a very exciting area of ongoing work and a key part of the grand challenges which we put in place as part of the life sciences strategy, part of which is the AI and early diagnosis initiative, which aims to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases. NHSX’s work across government is to deliver that mission, creating an ecosystem of safe and effective development of AI and the regulatory infrastructure so patients and clinicians can be reassured that where it is introduced, it will be safe. There will be lots of research and development of those innovations. We are at an early stage of implementing them, but there are five centres of excellence across the country. I will be very happy to place a letter in the Library updating the House on progress with the AI mission and these exciting developments.
My Lords, while the delivery of automation and AI has much to commend it to the NHS, CyberMDX reported last week that anaesthetic machines can be hacked and controlled from afar, including silencing alarms that would alert anaesthetists to danger. Four months ago in Israel, a cybersecurity firm demonstrated that computer virus malware could add tumours to images of scans. What protections, such as digital signatures and encryption, does the NHS now put in place, following the malware alarm two years ago, to ensure that automation and digital services cannot be attacked by malevolent forces?
The noble Baroness is correct to say that patients and clinicians have a right to expect their data to be held securely. Since the WannaCry attack in May 2017, we have taken steps to ensure that NHS security measures are of the highest standard. This includes £60 million to improve cyber resilience in local infrastructure, support for NHS organisations to update their Windows operating systems, procuring a new cybersecurity operations centre, and boosting the national capability to prevent, detect and respond to cyberattacks. We are also committed to achieving much greater operational visibility across all NHS digital systems. This is one of the ways in which we can respond to attacks. Lastly, we expect the highest ethical standards from all data-driven systems and that is why we have introduced the code of conduct for data-driven health and care technology. That is how we will ensure that we have some of the best AI and data-driven technologies.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree with one of the key points made by Professor Topol that one of the benefits of artificial intelligence is the “gift of time”, as he has put it? In other words, patients can spend more time with their doctor if certain more routine things are automated. Will my noble friend make sure that that is one of the key aims of bringing automation into healthcare?
My noble friend is right. One of the key recommendations is that by automating routine analyses such as radiology, diagnoses and pathology and routinely bringing in AI to sequence bed management, we will reduce the burden on clinicians so that they are able to see more patients. The review makes specific recommendations to help the workforce become more digital ready, which means increasing capacity and capability, and building the right environment. That is exactly what we have embedded into the NHS people plan and all that we are working on through NHSX.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Robotic process automation—RPA—is an emerging software technology that can undertake repetitive tasks in place of human workers. Many industries are seeing the benefits of using this technology and thus releasing people to do more value-added work. I believe that it has been used in a small number of NHS trusts. Can the Minister say whether there are any plans to deploy this technology more widely across the health service?
The noble Lord is right to say that technologies such as this offer the most potential to reduce repetitive work and transform how our healthcare is delivered. This is what we are focusing on to ensure that we can give health and care staff the ability to spend more time delivering personalised care in medicine while also ensuring that we improve systems to make them more efficient and productive.
My Lords, we are delivering a world-leading plan to tackle childhood obesity. Later this summer, we will set out further action through a prevention Green Paper. In addition, the Chief Medical Officer is reviewing what more can be done to help us meet our ambition of halving childhood obesity by 2030. The review, due to report in September, will consider the approaches taken internationally, regionally and across the country, and will make a series of recommendations.
My noble friend will have seen coverage in the weekend’s press of food companies which are continuing to breach the government advice that a child should not be weaned until six months of age. They are also still failing to reformulate infant foods. For example, one portion of baby porridge contains 9.4 grams of sugar in a 24 gram portion. That of course leads to further childhood obesity, dental decay and addiction to sugar. Can my noble friend tell us what conversations and discussions the Government are having with food companies, in particular Heinz, Danone and Nestlé about reformulation and the age at which infants should be weaned?
My noble friend is a great champion on this subject and has been an expert in it for a long period. Through the prevention Green Paper, which is due to be published this summer, we are determined to look at a range of further options to tackle obesity. We have publicly committed to taking action on infant and baby food. She will know that we are making progress on the reformulation section of the obesity strategy. However, we have further to go, and I am grateful to her for her Question on this issue.
Is it possible to consider something very clever? Rather than accepting that the poorest among us are the ones who deal with obesity, why do we not give them a Waitrose lunch and dinner and subsidise it, and stop having to pay further upline in the NHS? Why do we not start thinking globally rather than just a bit at a time?
I thank the noble Lord for his question; I hope that we can occasionally think cleverly in government. He is absolutely right that obesity is strongly correlated with socioeconomic deprivation, and that is why chapter 2 of our plan tries to target those areas that are most affected by delivering a childhood obesity trailblazer programme, working with local authorities to address this. They have been provided with £100,000 in the first instance to try to improve the impact of the childhood obesity plan. We shall see how that goes, but I am very happy to pass on his suggestion.
My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly some time ago produced a report on childhood obesity. Does the Minister agree, dipping into that report, that we need not only a national strategy but—as demonstrated to the committee in Amsterdam—a local strategy, where the local authority can take the initiative, and there can be education and pregnant mothers can be helped to see their way through their own diets and therefore to help their children? Does she agree that we need a local strategy as well, and can the Government initiate that with local authorities?
The noble Lord is quite right that the national plan must be implemented locally. Public Health England works with local authorities to do that and has set up a number of tools, such as the Change4Life plan, which includes food scanners that have been downloaded several million times to help parents and families make better food choices. We have more to do on this, and we very much welcome proposals to do it. I know that the Amsterdam model has been particularly effective; indeed, my noble friend raised this with the previous Public Health Minister, and I am sure she will continue to raise the issue.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that activity is an important part of tackling obesity? We have had some wonderful examples of sporting success in women’s football, cricket, netball and other activities at the moment. What are we going to do to make sure that these examples of sporting success are fed down to children and made available on free-to-air when possible?
We should all be incredibly proud of the sporting achievements over this weekend; we should not hesitate to do whatever we can to promote them throughout our schools and make the most of the moment. The noble Lord is absolutely right that regular physical activity has been linked not only to improved physical health but to improved mental health and academic achievement. That is why the Chief Medical Officer has recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day. We know that only one in five achieve this; that is why the money from the sugar levy is going into schools activity. But we have more to do. We have announced the national plan and now need to implement that effectively, and I hope that the noble Lord will hold us up to the mark in delivering it.
My Lords, notwithstanding the importance of anti-obesity guidance in supporting the long-term health of the general population, is the Minister aware of the concerns of eating disorder specialists about its unintended consequences on those for whom “Eat less, exercise more” is not an appropriate message? Clinicians are reporting an increasing number of young people citing anti-obesity guidance to justify excessive behaviours in exercise and diet restriction. Does she agree that, while anti-obesity policy is vital, it needs to be sufficiently nuanced that it does not cause unintended collateral damage to these vulnerable groups?
I absolutely agree with my noble friend. Obesity is a crisis that will not only create misery for those who will then experience increased risk of tooth decay and of diseases such as cancers, diabetes and other severe illnesses, but it will also create significant unsustainability within our health service, which we are able to prevent. Since we know the tools that we have to prevent it, we should all be working together to make sure we do.
My Lords, we know—and the noble Lord, Lord Bird, made this point—that it is the poorest children who are obese. This is largely because their parents buy food which is high in fat, sugar and salt, because it is cheaper than fresh food. It may or may not be from Waitrose, but the noble Lord makes an important point there. I have two questions for the Minister. First, is it true that two-thirds of the deadlines of the plans that have been put forward for the obesity strategy have been missed? Secondly, what is the Government’s strategy for dealing with summer hunger—those children who will not get proper meals during the summer break?
The noble Baroness is quite right to raise inequalities. This is exactly why chapter 2 of our plan is focused on childhood obesity trailblazer programmes, where we have identified areas of highest deprivation to provide specific support to local authorities in those areas. We have also recognised this issue around school holidays: around 50,000 disadvantaged children will be offered free meals and activities over the upcoming summer holidays, funded by £9.1 million from the Department for Education. That follows a successful programme last summer, which saw improvement, with football play sessions and cooking classes for more than 18,000 children across the country. However, the noble Baroness is right to recognise that this is a real challenge that we need to address.
My Lords, progress includes improved enforcement powers for councils, with a near doubling of the maximum on-the-spot penalty, the launch of our ambitious Keep it, Bin it anti-litter campaign and continued delivery of the litter innovation fund. We were also pleased to support this year’s Great British Spring Clean, which mobilised over half a million people and involved over 175,000 young people. The litter strategy brings together communities, businesses, charities and schools to deliver real change.
Does my noble friend agree that it is a somewhat strange paradox that, at a time of growing and wide concern—quite rightly—about safeguarding the environment, there seems to be an increasing problem with litter all over the place? Without the fantastic work of street cleaners, we would realise how big a problem this really is. Will my noble friend say what more can be done to educate our schoolchildren about the problems of litter; the danger it causes to the environment, disfiguring it, and the health hazards it can cause?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why education and awareness are key elements of the litter strategy; we want every child to learn about the impacts of litter. Citizenship education is part of the statutory national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. There are also 19,200 schools in England which are registered eco-schools—that is around 79%, and this number is growing daily. The Great Big School Clean was central to the Great British Spring Clean. There is very much more to do, but we certainly need to work with the next generation to have a better environment.
My Lords, we have been waiting for the introduction of a bottle deposit scheme, which would play a significant part in reducing litter from plastic bottles and tin cans, for some time now. Given that the Government’s latest consultation on this issue was completed a couple of months ago, what is now stopping them from introducing this measure, which would have widespread popular support and do a great deal to tackle the litter problem?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that the deposit return scheme is a very important part of what we need to do. There clearly needs to be further work with business to ensure that the scheme runs satisfactorily when we implement it. The first consultation closed on 13 May. This is very important in terms of littering and of increasing recycling. These two things go together. I am as impatient as the noble Baroness to get this done as soon as possible.
My Lords, glass is a major problem when it litters our countryside—for humans, for fire risks and for wildlife. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned the deposit return scheme. Scotland has recently introduced a 20p deposit return scheme which includes glass. Will the Minister confirm that any scheme introduced in England would include all sizes and materials, including glass?
I had better check on that precisely for the noble Baroness. I will put a letter in the Library. The whole purpose of the deposit return scheme is to ensure that, in our ever more circular economy we need to recycle and reuse more, whether it is glass, plastic or aluminium. I will write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a much cleaner Britain ought to be a relatively easy political objective to achieve? Will he agree that one thing that is needed is more people picking up litter? As we are trying to keep people out of prison, a great deal more use could be made of community service orders to ensure that litter is picked up.
My Lords, we have a great dilemma. We can do all that we need to do and want to do, with many more people picking up litter—over half a million were doing so in the Great British Spring Clean—but roughly one in five people admits to dropping litter. The whole purpose of the education and awareness campaign is precisely to bear down on the fact that a lot of our fellow citizens do not think it is socially unacceptable to drop litter. For all sorts of reasons, we must tackle that because it is damaging to the environment and wildlife, and it looks dreadful.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, given that we have so many local authorities with different recycling schemes, we should have a national standard and a national plan for recycling? That way, maybe we will begin to drive up recycling rates, which are appallingly low in most local authority districts.
That is precisely why we are working on it. The noble Lord is right: we want to have a consistent, clear and easy to understand range of products—the widest range of products—that are recyclable. It all goes back to the need to enhance our environment, and that is part of that work.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the state of the verges on our major roads and motorways and on railway embankments is something that we should all be ashamed of, particularly when a lot of tourists use these routes? When I asked previously, I was told that health and safety stopped people from picking up litter on major roads. Is there any way that we can overcome this and ensure that our roadsides are kept clean?
I agree with the noble Countess that our roads are not a good advertisement. That is why we have been working with Highways England. Highways England has been working on 25 particular hot spots that are really bad—indeed, nearly 20,000 bags of litter were picked up in the Great British Spring Clean. We need to do more on that and more on working with the highways network and the railways. That is why I am pleased with the Keep it, Bin it campaign. It is all to do with working with many different bodies to ensure that the message gets about that it is not acceptable to drop litter.
Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee
Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee
European Union Committee
Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee
That Baroness McGregor-Smith be appointed a member of the Select Committee, in place of Lord Dobbs.
Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee
That Baroness Adams of Craigielea be appointed a member of the Select Committee, in place of Lord Morris of Aberavon.
European Union Committee
That Lord Lamont of Lerwick, Lord Morris of Aberavon and Lord Sharkey be appointed members of the Select Committee, in place of Lord Polak, Lord Soley and Baroness Falkner of Margravine.
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Clause 1: Extension of period for forming an Executive
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out “21 October 2019” and insert “13 January 2020”
My Lords, the amendments in this group all stand in my name but I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Trimble and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for adding their names to all but one of them. These are very simple amendments, which I trailed last week at Second Reading. All they do is alter dates in the Bill. They do not cause any impediment whatever if, miraculously—I think it would be miraculous—a Northern Ireland Executive were set up in the very near future. I think there is common agreement among those who follow the affairs of Northern Ireland closely that it is, sadly, very unlikely that any significant change will take place by the August date in the Bill. I regret that, just as I regret that for more than two and a half years now we have had no Northern Ireland Executive and no Assembly.
My noble friend who will respond to this debate knows full well my views on the desirability of summoning the Assembly, having its committees working and, above all, having an Executive, the absence of which has deprived the people of Northern Ireland of proper devolved government for more than two and a half years, but we must be realistic. Your Lordships’ House will be going into recess, as will the other place, at the end of next week. We come back briefly in September. By then a new Prime Minister will have been in office for some weeks, but nobody in this House or the other place imagines, much as we might regret it, that the new Prime Minister will have anything at the top of his agenda other than Brexit. All eyes will increasingly be focused not on a date in the middle of October but on a date at the end of October—31 October.
In these circumstances it seems sensible to avoid the constant coming back for a renewal, effectively, of a mandate. We have done this too often now. Therefore, in these amendments I am suggesting that we delete the October date, insert a fallback date of 13 January in its place, and that for a fallback date we have not 13 January but 10 April. I have put that date for a very deliberate reason. That will be the 22nd anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that might focus minds, particularly in Northern Ireland. It will also take off what some people might consider undue pressure.
I intervened on my noble friend’s wind-up speech last week and indicated that I was minded to table amendments to this effect. He responded very graciously. The amendments are now before us and I very much hope that the Committee will see them as non-controversial, giving more time to the parties and people of Northern Ireland to restore proper devolved government and taking away the ever-increasing threat of direct rule, which no one who cares about Northern Ireland and who was excited by what happened nearly 22 years ago wants to see happen. I trust that my noble friend will be able to give me a very satisfactory answer to these amendments. I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble Baroness for supporting them and I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack for the reasons that he gave in moving it. It is very wise to give more time for this. I notice that he is suggesting 13 January instead of 31 October, which gives a couple of extra months, but I rather like the idea of putting down 10 April and reminding people that it is the anniversary of the making of that agreement, which, when it was mooted, was agreed to by referenda with substantial majorities. The effect of that has not gone away. It is generally assumed in Northern Ireland that that agreement provides the basis for the local Administration.
Unfortunately, others are trying to undermine the agreement. Indeed, the worst of those trying to undermine the agreement—thankfully, at the moment it looks as though they will be unsuccessful—are the European Union, the Irish Government and our own Government. That is precisely what they are doing. I shall not go into great detail, although I can do so. I have been scribbling on this subject and something might emerge shortly, so I shall not start at this stage. We are not into a filibuster yet but, if the need comes, I am prepared to engage at some length on what I have just said. Putting in the date that reminds people of the agreement might, I hope, be an incentive to those who should be working to restore the Administration so that we have no further need of this legislation. We know that, because of the length of the hiatus in the institutions, the hope is not all that great, but it is worth reminding people of this and perhaps giving somebody’s conscience a prick ever so slightly on the subject.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement. I pay tribute to him for his tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland over so many years.
I am pleased to support the amendment to the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The final, real purpose of the Bill is to prevent an election to enable more time for the talks to take place. All these dates will do is to make further accommodation. The amendment is not inconsistent with the main purpose of the Bill.
I spoke at Second Reading, and since then thousands have told me of their concern. I will speak more of that later. If the Bill could pass to give effect to its original purpose, it would be better to extend the period because, apart from anything else, at present Northern Ireland is on holiday. For example, I was trying to call the Minister through the Northern Ireland Office this morning, but all the numbers seemed not to work. I could not get anyone, and my suspicion is that this is a public holiday in Northern Ireland and that is why I was unable to get him. That tells you something about rushing a Bill that will make such a profound constitutional change through your Lordships’ House this week. The talks seem to have been very difficult, but they are being conducted by the Government. They have been facilitated and enabled by the Government, and the Minister has told us how committed they are to these talks and the future creation of a Northern Ireland Executive, which would allow the Assembly to go back and give us a functioning Government. They are vital to our future. They are, in the context of Brexit, critical to the peace process and to the peace, stability and economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, I regret to tell the Committee that the Liberal Democrats cannot support these amendments. Northern Ireland has already been without an Assembly, a devolved Executive and effective decision-making for far too long. We are only reluctantly supporting 21 October, as I have said, and our hope is very much that the Bill will not be needed at all.
As we have heard, there have already been nine weeks of constructive talks. Now is not the time to take that pressure off Northern Ireland’s political parties—in fact, we must keep the pressure on. We want devolved government restored to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible, and these amendments are not the right way to go about things.
I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has just said—in contradiction to what Lord Cormack said. I would support his amendment if I believed there would be a benefit in going beyond 31 October to a date some time after Brexit. However, there is serious advantage in having a target date before the Brexit date. Many of us in this House think all sorts of complications may arise from 31 October, whatever format we leave the European Union in. A target date before then is therefore sensible.
As I said at Second Reading last week, it has been just over 1,000 days since the Dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in early 2017. It has been a lot longer since the last vote on same-sex marriage, in which a majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of introducing it. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I oppose this amendment.
As indeed does the Labour Party. I understand the rationale behind the amendments. We are in the holiday season—marching season. There is no Prime Minister, there could well be a new Secretary of State and Brexit looms over everything. It is not exactly the best time to try to come to an agreement. I understand the logic, but my fear—expressed by other Members of the Committee—is that there is a problem of drift.
The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, referred to the Good Friday agreement; he will remember when Senator Mitchell said that he was going home on 10 April. He had had enough and put down a deadline. It was ultimately because of that deadline that the political parties and Governments in Northern Ireland eventually came to a conclusion. If we take away a deadline, we take the pressure off the parties and the Government.
The parties obviously have a huge responsibility in trying to ensure a resolution. As I said at Second Reading, the issues that they have to resolve in Belfast at the moment pale into insignificance compared to those that had to be decided 22 years ago. There is nothing preventing this happening other than basic mistrust. I worry that the whole thing will inevitably drift towards direct rule if we keep on extending.
That is because we are not dealing with Brexit at the moment, but with Northern Ireland. Had we resolved the Northern Ireland situation over the past two years, we would possibly have resolved the backstop issue. Had we done that, Brexit could have been much easier. However, the Government have not been negotiating well on either issue.
I do not hold huge confidence in our new Prime Minister—assuming it will be Mr Johnson—or his interest in Northern Ireland. However, I hope that the Secretary of State, whoever that might be, will be able to concentrate on the issues in front of us. The Irish and British Governments are joint guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. They must therefore do an awful lot more over the coming weeks to ensure that these dates are met.
We have suggested, for example, that there should be an independent adjudicator or chairman such as George Mitchell, and all-party meetings—not just meetings of the two parties—to resolve these issues. Above all, there must be constant pressure on the two Governments, who must constantly be present, at the highest levels in Belfast to resolve this situation. There is always a reason why we cannot come to a conclusion in Northern Ireland—there always has been: elections for this, elections for that, marching season or whatever it might be. We cannot go on like this. Of course, the Bill as it stands means that we can go on to January, though I hope we will not have to do so. But Parliament is losing patience in all this.
Decisions must be made in Northern Ireland by Ministers of one sort or another. I would be utterly opposed to the reintroduction of direct rule. As a former direct rule Minister, I always felt that I should not be taking those decisions. But we cannot go on like this. That is why the Opposition will support the Government on this issue and not, I fear, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his noble friends.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said that Parliament is losing patience. It is more serious than that. The people of Northern Ireland are losing patience with this process. In our Bill today, we seek to give a little more time—to extend the deadline that falls in August to October, with the potential for an extension onward to January. In so doing, we recognise the value of a deadline; it is required to ensure a consequence for those at the table if there is a failure. The first step, if there is indeed a failure, will necessarily be an election in Northern Ireland and thereafter, that step that none of us here would wish to take: towards direct rule.
My noble friend Lord Cormack puts forward his amendment in the correct spirit, as he always does in these matters. In many ways, I welcome what he is trying to do: he is exactly trying, as we have tried for some time, to give space for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach the necessary steps and conclusions to form an Executive. But there comes a point when you cannot keep kicking that can down the road. The parties in Northern Ireland must recognise that there can no longer be an absent Government, or a situation in which we here are called upon to do the bare minimum to keep ticking over the Government and governance of Northern Ireland.
I believe these deadlines give enough time for those parties to come together—and they are close together—and to reach the resolution they require. If they fail to do that, we will have to act. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today travelled back to Northern Ireland to try to move these matters forward. There can be no let-up in the pressure or, indeed, the presence. I welcome the contributions of all noble Lords in this debate and previous debates to try to move these matters forward. Ultimately, this is a matter for Northern Ireland. While I understand the sentiment behind the amendment —to give that little bit more time and that safety valve, should it still be required—unfortunately, I do not on this occasion believe that that will deliver. Only a deadline will deliver, and I believe that deadline should be sooner rather than later. I recognise the landscape in which these deadlines fall; it is not where we wish to be.
Is the Minister aware of what has happened with deadlines in the past in Northern Ireland, and that they quite simply do not work? Is he aware that the former chair of the talks, George Mitchell, said that there must be talking until they are ready to reach an agreement? That was the advice he gave to me when I was heading off as a peace envoy. We cannot set deadlines and expect peace to be made and talks and the Assembly to continue. Is the Minister aware of that?
I am fully aware of that, but I am also aware of how long there has been no government in Northern Ireland, and that that cannot continue. It cannot continue because there are things that need to be done: not the issues being dealt with inside those rooms, but issues such as health, education, schools and agriculture—the list recited by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, during our last discussion on the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said the same thing. We cannot allow this to continue. What we need now is good governance in Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for those parties, within the extension foreseen in the Bill, to deliver on that. If they cannot do so in that time there will be consequences, and we must address those sooner rather than later.
I very much sympathise with the Minister’s sentiments and the logic of his arguments but, on the subject of focusing minds, may I ask him to consider that the Government have already docked Assembly Members’ salaries a bit? To be honest, I think that was water off a duck’s back. He should be willing to consider the funding that goes to parties in Stormont for their Assembly operations, together with their staffing allowances, which amounts to millions of pounds, and to say that if this continues, their staff will need to be given proper notice of the end of their service—and that that will be the consequence of failing to agree. That was something I did in 2006-07, and it did focus minds.
The noble Lord again brings his experience to the debate. We cannot keep funding futility, however that manages to manifest itself. There will be consequences if we cannot move these matters forward, and they need to be felt by those who are affected directly inside those rooms. I will take away the noble Lord’s point and think it over.
My apologies for interrupting the Minister, but following on from what has just been said about salaries for people who are not doing what they should be doing, could that principle not be extended to the other end of the building? It would have a significant effect if it were, because for a certain party that does not send its Members to carry out their tasks in this building, that money is then diffused into the funding of that organisation as a whole. It would bring significant pressure to bear if we were to apply that principle to the other end of the building, and we would see quite significant movement as a result.
The noble Lord takes me into even deeper waters—and we are only in the first half hour of what may well be a long day. I understand the point he makes, of course; I appreciate exactly what he is saying. But that may be a discussion for another time. If he will allow me, I shall return to the amendment in hand.
With some regret, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I hope he will understand that I am asking him to withdraw the amendment, not because it is not necessary to have time, but because we need to balance out that time—the carrot—with the stick of a deadline. We need to make sure that we are making progress to allow for the necessary secondary steps—an election to take place and so forth—in good time. Otherwise we will reach ever more frequent deadlines and anniversaries relating to the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, which the people of Northern Ireland can, unfortunately, little bear.
My Lords, I always listen carefully to what my noble friend says, but on this occasion I have to say that I believe he is making a mistake. The calendar is such that, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out, we are in the holiday season already in Northern Ireland, and we are about to enter a period of recess in this Parliament. We also have the looming Brexit date. Most importantly, elements have been injected into the Bill in the other place—we will be dealing with them later today—which create a much more difficult Bill and a much more difficult situation in Northern Ireland. These are highly sensitive and difficult issues. The very future of devolution as a concept is at stake. I believe that the dates that I suggest in my amendments would create a much more realistic timetable.
I am one of those who believe in the convention—it is certainly not a rule—that one does not normally vote in Committee in this House. In moving amendments I have always honoured that convention, and I will do so again today. However, I cannot promise that I will not return to this issue on Report in 48 hours’ time, when colleagues will have had the chance perhaps to reflect on the totality of today’s debate. I think they will then realise that a part of the United Kingdom that needs handling with acute sensitivity and that does not willingly respond to the deadline philosophy perhaps ought to be given a little more time. For the moment, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Limited power to further extend period for Executive formation
Amendments 2 to 5 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Progress reports
6: Clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end insert “, which shall be considered by each House of Parliament in accordance with subsection (2A).”
My Lords, Clause 3 already provides for the publication of regular reports on progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland, and for those reports to be laid before Parliament—one by 4 September and another by 9 October, with further reports at intervals of no more than 14 days. Amendments 6 and 7, which have support from all parts of the House, require those reports to be debated in both Houses, pursuant to Motions to be moved within five calendar days of each report being laid. I hope that there will be as few of those reports as possible, because when they stop it will be because the Executive have finally been formed. I hope also that the debates that these amendments provide will help to keep up the pressure for that long-overdue development.
However, let there be no doubt about the main purpose of the amendments. They are defensive fortifications against the possibility—unlikely, no doubt, but pointedly not disavowed by the leading candidate—that the next Prime Minister will advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for the express purpose of achieving a no-deal Brexit to which Parliament is opposed. I am no enthusiast for procedural gambits—today of all days, we should be wary of anything that is not cricket—but to my mind these amendments are abundantly justified by the extraordinary gravity of what is apparently being contemplated.
This would not be a standard prorogation of Parliament. The purpose of the prorogation extending beyond 31 October would be to bring about an irreversible change not just to our trade relations but to our central political and economic alliance, without putting anything in its place. If the House of Commons were to give its democratic approval to such a momentous step, of course it must happen—nothing in these amendments would impede, or is intended to impede, that—but for Parliament to have its voice removed precisely because of its anticipated opposition would be astonishing, unconstitutional and without precedent in recent times.
I accept of course that prorogation has attracted controversy in the past. A technical use of it was made in 1948 to fulfil the requirement in the Parliament Act 1911 that a Parliament Bill be approved by the Commons in three successive Sessions. In that case, though, a clear majority of MPs desired the legislation to pass and were in favour of prorogation for that purpose. That episode pales into insignificance when compared to what it seems is now so casually contemplated: a direct assault on the sovereignty of Parliament itself, aimed at circumventing its will irrevocably on one of the central questions of our time.
My Lords, is the noble Lord right to describe what happened in 1948 as a technical matter? It was moved by a Labour Government to impose their nationalisation of British steel, which was opposed by this House, and to remove the ability of this House to delay the legislation. How can that be described as a technical matter?
What happened in 1948 was a prorogation to give effect to the provision of the Parliament Act 1911 that approval of the Commons was needed in three successive Sessions. The key distinction between that situation and what is proposed now is that it was a course that the House of Commons desired and was prepared to see go through.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the point he makes. However, getting hung up on an entirely different precedent from 1948 and suggesting that it might be in some way determinative of the position which we are now asked to contemplate is, I would suggest, too ludicrous to bear.
The noble Baroness makes another very good point. I refer to 1948 simply to say, first, that prorogation has been controversial in the past, and, secondly, that it pales into insignificance compared with what we are now asked to contemplate.
Those who contemplate prorogation not only are heedless of the sovereignty of Parliament but risk plunging the monarchy into the heart of an intense political dispute. We saw how this could happen in Canada in 2008, when the Governor General, as the representative of the Crown, was required to adjudicate on a request for prorogation that was widely seen to be politically motivated, and only granted it subject to an undertaking given by the Prime Minister. I appreciated the dry understatement of Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government when she said last week:
“A constitutional showdown between Parliament and the executive of the order of the Civil War is definitely something that the palace would prefer not to be dragged into”—
but she made a serious point.
If agreed, these amendments will serve two purposes: the sending of a political message and the sharpening of a legal challenge such as that already mooted by Sir John Major, should it be needed as a last resort. My noble friend Lord Pannick made a powerful case in the Times last month for the proposition that the courts, if invited, would come to the rescue of parliamentary sovereignty, as they did on the basis of the noble Lord’s submissions in the Miller case. Over 30 years, I have learned to bet against the noble Lord only rarely and I would not do so on this occasion. One who has done so is the legal academic Robert Craig, who recently suggested that the courts would decline to intervene because,
“there is no particular statutory provision that would be frustrated by prorogation”.
To the extent that there may be merit in that view—and I accept that absolute certainty in this area is difficult to achieve—that is all the more reason for supporting these amendments.
I regret that it has been necessary to table them in the context of this Bill, but they will put beyond doubt the resistance of Parliament to an undemocratic and profoundly discreditable device. I beg to move.
I am very grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her intervention. Perhaps I might revert to where I started.
I rise very briefly to support the amendment to which I was very happy to put my name, which was so clearly advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. As he said, its only purpose is to make it more difficult—impossible, I would like to think—for a Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament for an improper purpose: namely, to prevent the House of Commons from challenging, and perhaps overriding, the decisions of Ministers with regard to Brexit. The fact that in a parliamentary democracy we have to contemplate such a possibility is truly lamentable, especially when the party in office is the Conservative Party, which I have supported in and out of Parliament for 40 years, and my family has for much longer. But that is where Brexit and the personality of Mr Johnson have brought us.
Most Members of this House, not least those of us who have served in the House of Commons, know that such an action would subvert the foundations of parliamentary government. As the noble Lord reminded us, it would also involve the Monarchy in an intensely partisan controversy. We must take every proper and available step to frustrate that possibility. This amendment addresses that purpose, and it is in that spirit, and for that reason, that I commend it to your Lordships’ Committee.
My Lords, I invite the noble Lord, Lord True, to speak. All amendments are in the same group, and although the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said that the Amendment 7 had not been moved, it has been spoken to. If the noble Lord, Lord True, wishes to speak now, that would be appropriate.
I thank the noble Lord. I think it would be helpful for the House to hear the other side of the river speak, as it were—the minority that we are. I was not minded to take part in this Bill, though I am troubled by the high-handed intervention in Ulster affairs and other parts of the Bill by MPs in another place, and will be listening carefully to what my noble friends say later.
I tabled my amendment because I am concerned by the attempt to hijack a Northern Ireland Bill to—let us be blunt—stop the UK leaving the EU on 31 October or to weaken our negotiating position. It was a move instigated by my right honourable friends Mr Grieve and Sir Oliver Letwin. They were supported by the usual galère of referendum-deniers and pushed towards the line by the votes of more than 220 Labour MPs. Yes, Labour again: with 76% of the votes for Mr Grieve, Labour has been, since 2017, the single greatest political force obstructing Brexit.
This amendment does not touch the call for progress reports, but it prevents exaggerated machinery being added for repeated debates, which some have admitted is to stop Brexit on 31 October. Sir Oliver Letwin declared that these amendments would “prevent Prorogation”, and we have heard that argument today. But Mr Grieve freely admitted that his aim was to prevent Brexit on 31 October. Both rather arrogantly took it for granted that if they were defeated—as they were—your Lordships’ House would act as they instructed, and hey presto, here we are with Amendment 7. Your Lordships’ House is again invited to be the doormat for a defeated party in the other place.
The motive for all this is clear, whatever the pretence. One of the two men likely, though not certain, to become our next Prime Minister has said that he would honour the verdict of the referendum and take Britain out of the European Union on 31 October. The tablers of this amendment want to stop him. Some will tell us today, as we have heard already, “Oh, it is nothing to do with Brexit. It is all about protecting Parliament”—the very Parliament they wish to remain subjected to the superiority of EU law. Is it nothing to do with Brexit? I really do wonder.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, who spoke eloquently, states on his website that he is an EU law nerd and veteran of more than 150 cases before the ECJ. He argued that, even if Brexit were delayed, the British people did not need to be given the chance to vote in EU elections—“Do not let the people speak”. The noble Lord described as moving my noble friend Lord Hailsham’s words, which were that Brexit was an act of national self-harm that moved him to anger, shame and distress. We may safely conclude that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is not an enthusiast for Brexit.
My noble friend Lord Hailsham has always been open. From the outset, he declared his wish to frustrate Brexit, as did the noble Lord, Lord Newby. I do not know about other noble Lords, but I have never seen the name of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on an amendment to do with the EU and concluded that it might be about advancing our exit. This amendment is designed to do one thing: to make it harder to leave the EU on 31 October. If, in the light of 17.4 million votes in a referendum and the result of the European elections, your Lordships’ House wishes to align itself with that objective, so be it. Our names will all be counted in the Division lists. Perhaps the days of this House will then also be counted.
The smokescreen of this amendment, as we have heard, is all about stopping Parliament being prorogued, so Parliament can have a say. Make no mistake that my right honourable friend Boris Johnson—as has been made clear by my noble friend Lord Hailsham—is the target of this, as he is the target of a relentless campaign of personal vilification. Mr Johnson, it is said, wants to prorogue Parliament to “force” Britain out of the EU. Mr Johnson, of course, has said no such thing, but we have since had the spectacle of a former Prime Minister, himself responsible for the longest political Prorogation in modern times, threatening legal action against one of his successors to prevent him giving considered advice to the sovereign. Is it not extraordinary for a former Prime Minister to argue that the duty to advise the Crown should be taken away from the elected Prime Minister and given to unelected judges?
We are now told that, seven days before seeing the sovereign, a Prime Minister must send a letter to Mishcon de Reya, which I gather is a law firm. I count myself fortunate to have had no dealings with it and, after this, I intend none. Who elected it? We were told that what a Prime Minister advises a sovereign must be subject to judicial review. What next? Will the Supreme Court require and subpoena transcripts of the weekly Audience to find out the purport of the advice the Prime Minister is giving? Will the Prime Minister’s advice have to be accompanied by an explanatory note from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick?
I will come to Prorogation latter. It is reasonable to deploy an argument; it is also reasonable not to accept an imputed wish. Who can impute the purpose of a Prime Minister in advising on a Prorogation? I ask: will the Prime Minister’s advice have to be accompanied by an explanatory note from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick—who we understand has been retained in this matter—telling Her Majesty what she may lawfully hear and what is subject to JR by Mishcon de Reya?
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said she is all for this procedure. Has she, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith—who will be speaking on the matter from the Front Bench—told her leader that? Can you imagine the hail of judicial reviews that would rain down on the Government, led by Mr Corbyn, and the advice he might tender Her Majesty about the use of the prerogative? “Ma’am, you must invite comrade President Maduro on a state visit, grant an honorary knighthood to Raúl Castro or appoint an ambassador to Hamas”. Will Mishcon de Reya ask for a letter about that advice?
As—I feel I should state—the husband of a former partner in Mishcon de Reya, can I ask the noble Lord, with his distinguished record of parliamentary and public service, how he would like to limit the ambit of judicial review, which is the way in which citizens challenge administrative action that has been called into doubt?
Whether judicial review should be limited will be a matter for whichever judge the case is put before. My submission is that this is an inappropriate use. The irony when it comes to judicial review is that most JRs of Jeremy Corbyn would come from the Labour Party itself.
Amendment 7 is not a question of allowing Parliament to decide on Brexit. Parliament asked the people to decide the question; the people decided. Parliament voted to invoke Article 50. This Parliament, in this very Session, voted by overwhelming majorities to leave the EU. Parliament has set the law of the land that we should leave on 31 October. It is not a question of anyone stopping Parliament deciding; Parliament has already decided.
I am trying to follow my noble friend’s thoughts. Is he arguing in favour of an elected judiciary, or does he uphold the rule of law that we currently enjoy in this country? Does he not accept that, while a majority voted to leave the European Union, we have yet to decide by a majority the process by which we do so?
My Lords, I construe the statute law that lies before us and have expounded it to the Committee just now.
Amendment 7 is a final clutching at straws by hard-line remainers to obstruct, delay and prevent this country doing on 31 October what its people have asked. I submit that this House should have none of it.
On Prorogation, which Sir Oliver Letwin—and, it now seems, others—want to prevent, we have already endured in this pestilential, shameful Session, which has so damaged the image of Parliament and trust in politics, the longest parliamentary Session since the 1640s. What judge will now dictate when or why a Prime Minister may be permitted to advise Her Majesty to bring this wearisome Session to an end? I looked at the record. Until the change of the parliamentary year in 2010, and leaving out election years, Parliament was prorogued in October or November in 24 out of 24 years since 1979. There is nothing unusual about an autumn Prorogation; what is unusual is not having an autumn Prorogation. The prerogative power to end the Session was left untouched by the Prorogation Act 1867 and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Parliament could have limited or removed the power; it did not do so. It did not do so, because, until this desperate ploy by hard-line remainers, an October Prorogation was a normal part of parliamentary life. Allowing a new Government to have a new Session with a new gracious Speech and new legislation necessary for the times was a normal and healthy part of parliamentary life. Everyone, wherever they stand on Brexit, is surely agreed that, when it comes, there will have to be new legislation and time to consider it, which means a full and fresh parliamentary Session.
It would be a serious mistake for your Lordships’ House to be a party to continuing games in the House of Commons. Seven days’ notice to Mishcon de Reya before any advice is tendered to the sovereign so that lawyers may wrangle over it is not a wise form of government to implement in the 21st century; nor is trying to prevent the calling of a new parliamentary Session. I submit that this farrago should not be tacked on to a Northern Ireland Bill. The other place rejected it and this House should reject it, too.
My Lords, I very much look forward to serving with the noble Lord, Lord True, on your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, to which he has recently been appointed. He will bring, I think it is fair to say, a fresh perspective to our deliberations.
I am very sorry that the noble Lord does not appear to understand the constitutional impropriety of a Prime Minister advising Her Majesty that Parliament should be prorogued for the express purpose of preventing Parliament expressing its views and taking action to prevent a no-deal Brexit. It is the motive for which such advice would be given that distinguishes such advice, and such Prorogation, from the examples he gave. The point is a very simple one.
I also much regret that the noble Lord sees fit to deprecate citizens of this country taking legal action to challenge the legality of conduct of the Prime Minister—
Can I just finish the sentence? The noble Lord referred as a matter of criticism, as he sees it, to unelected judges deciding matters. Judges are deciding the law of the land: that is their job and their responsibility. I think it is shameful, if I may say so, that a Member of this House should deprecate that process and the rule of law on which we pride ourselves.
I am not referring to particular citizens; I am referring to the very clearly expressed statement, which I heard and I think other noble Lords heard, that it is inappropriate and wrong for “unelected judges”—those were his words—to decide on the law of the land. That is their job. We pride ourselves on the rule of law in this country, and that is a fundamental element of the rule of law. I say that not just because I have an interest in this matter: my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich referred to the fact that I have given advice to one particular citizen, Mrs Gina Miller, and I have given the legal advice that for a Prime Minister to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for the express purpose of preventing Parliament performing its constitutional responsibilities would be unlawful.
However, we are not here today to debate the law; we are here to address, as my noble friend Lord Anderson rightly said, what would be a constitutional outrage. I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend, which is a means by which this House can prevent such an appalling eventuality.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True, for taking up my invitation to speak before I did. Apart from enlivening proceedings, it has given me the chance to respond to some of the things he said. I congratulate him on having a very acute and astute understanding of the policies of the Liberal Democrats when it comes to Brexit. These are not exactly secret, but he got them to a T.
One thing, however, that I think the noble Lord was wrong about was the suggestion that because we want the people to decide on Brexit, and we would prefer it if they decided they did not want Brexit, we are saying—far from it—that there should be no vote in September in the Commons about a no-deal Brexit. I would welcome such a vote. This amendment, this procedural gambit, is necessary only because we believe it is reasonable to take precautions against the new Prime Minister preventing the Commons having a vote. The only reason for it is that everybody in your Lordships’ House knows that, if the Commons votes on a no-deal Brexit, it will vote it down. The only way you get that outcome is by some kind of chicanery: the chicanery of proroguing Parliament purely for that political purpose. We believe, as does the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the other signatories to the amendment, that that would be an improper use of Prorogation.
The noble Lord, Lord True, said that this Session has gone on far too long. Perhaps it has. I should be delighted to have Prorogation on 1 November, but Prorogation requires a Prime Minister with a plan and a Queen’s Speech with some substance. If the incoming Prime Minister has such a plan and such a speech by 1 November, the entire country will be delighted. We fear that there is nothing but vacuity where there should be a programme and that Prorogation will continue far beyond 31 October or 1 November because the Government do not know what to put in a Queen’s Speech.
It is extraordinary that your Lordships’ House is having to resort to a procedural gambit in order to try to prevent a Prime Minister subverting the constitution. That sort of thing happens in tinpot dictatorships. We go around the world saying, “Of course, it does not happen here because we are so much more grounded in constitutional principle. No, it could not happen here”. The truth is that the incoming Prime Minister has not ruled out such a thing. It would have been very easy for him to have said, “Of course, I would never contemplate such a step because I know that it would be a constitutional impropriety and shameful for our democracy”, but he has refused to say that. What are we expected to do? Just sit on our hands and trust in the good sense of the incoming Prime Minister? There may be some people in the Conservative Party prepared to do that, but it does not extend much beyond that.
That is why we have an amendment which is a procedural gambit in a Bill about Northern Ireland: because it is all we have. We have seen no other way to put something on the statute book to prevent the constitutional principles of this country being ripped up. It is of course unsatisfactory to do that, but it is because we are in an extremely unsatisfactory position. That is why we strongly support the amendment.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord True in his amendment and congratulate those noble Lords who have spoken against it and in support of Amendment 7—I note that quite a few of them are lawyers—on their honesty in admitting that this is some kind of trick or gambit to frustrate the will of the British people, who voted overwhelmingly for us to leave the European Union, and to frustrate the law and the decision taken by both Houses of Parliament. I know that there is a difficulty in the House of Commons in so far as three times as many Members of Parliament voted to remain as voted to leave, but the fact is that Parliament passed the legislation to require people to take that decision and the Government of the day gave an undertaking that that decision would be respected. I am happy to give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, the Government had a date to do that: 29 March. That date has been put back. To claim that the possible missing of the date of 31 October is a huge impropriety to people who voted to leave in the referendum rather overlooks what has been happening in recent months.
We have just heard speeches from the other side of the House against the amendment of my noble friend Lord Cormack, which sought to extend the deadline in respect of the Bill, that it would be foolish to do so because it would take off the pressure and would mean that we were kicking the can down the road. At the same time, it is perfectly clear that the mover of the amendment is passionately determined to prevent us leaving the European Union. That is what this amendment is about.
I wish to make a more general point about the Bill as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, welcomed the fact that my noble friend is to join the Constitution Committee, whose report on the Bill is extremely damning. I have never seen a bigger Christmas tree than this Bill—all sorts of things have been added. The Bill has been fast-tracked, which means that there is no opportunity to consider many of the important matters in detail. I do not blame the Government for that. The House of Commons has chosen to add a range of issues and the whole thing is going to be fast-tracked through this House. To my mind, when added to a device to try to frustrate the elected Government implementing what the people voted for in the referendum, that is deeply worrying.
I accept the result of the referendum, as my noble friend knows only too well, but the people did not vote to leave without a deal. The amendment would make sure that if the country leaves without a deal, it leaves without one but with parliamentary approval. That is the substance of the amendment.
I turn to the use of the phrase, “leaving without a deal”. Deals have already been made on citizenship, flying planes and access to ports. There is no deal. If my noble friend is saying that we must defend parliamentary democracy by voting for a deal in the form of the withdrawal agreement, which was overwhelmingly rejected, I think that he has got himself into something of a tangle. It is totally inappropriate for this amendment to be added to a fast-track Bill about Northern Ireland. The amendment would pursue some will-o’-the wisp notion that Parliament will somehow need to be prorogued so that we can leave the European Union on 31 October. Parliament has already voted overwhelmingly for us to do that and 31 October is the deadline which has been set by the European Union.
I give way to my noble friend. We have all the usual suspects in this debate.
The point that my noble friend is skirting around is that Parliament—both this House and the other place—has voted against leaving the EU without an agreed deal. That is why we are so disturbed that one of the potential leaders of the Conservative Party and the future Prime Minister has refused to rule out using what would be a parliamentary gambit to prorogue Parliament with the express purpose of frustrating the votes in both Houses which say that we should not leave without a deal, as that has been shown to be damaging to the economy in all the official publications.
Does my noble friend agree that there was an overwhelming majority to pass a law which states that we would move Article 50 and leave the European Union? Parliament may have voted on Motions on one thing or another, and it may vote on Motions between now and 31 October. However, if Parliament wishes to change the law, it needs to pass the necessary legislation. What I am objecting to is the undermining of our parliamentary procedures by amendments such as this. I object to people seeking to manipulate what Parliament has already decided. If we wish to change the law, we have to have a Bill that will be passed by both Houses. The law of the land says that we will leave on 31 October and all the people who are now raising this straw man of a prorogation of Parliament are to my mind ignoring the fact that Parliament has already determined by a huge majority on the vote on Article 50 that we will leave.
Does the noble Lord recognise that if we leave without a deal at the end of October, we will leave with no legal basis whatever on which to operate? We do not have a legal agreement. In order for no deal to be agreed, Parliament should have the right to vote for no deal.
I do not recognise that but I can understand why, as a member of the Liberal Party, the noble Lord continues to make that kind of argument, just as he and his party have sought to create unwarranted scare stories throughout the whole debate because they do not want us to leave the European Union. I am simply making the argument that a majority—17.3 million people—voted to leave the European Union and Parliament voted overwhelmingly to pass a law which moved Article 50 which means that we will be leaving on 31 October. That is the case unless the Government seek a further extension and, I think rather remotely, the European Union agrees to provide one. That is not going to happen.
All this stuff about prorogation is yet another example of people kicking up dust, wasting the time of this House and Parliament and diverting the Government from what they should be and are doing: making the necessary preparations so that we have in place a series of arrangements that will enable us to leave the European Union and to continue to build a prosperous nation, in line with what the British people voted for.
I do not know what has happened to it, but in the Royal Gallery there used to be a display cabinet containing a copy of Charles I’s death warrant. On it were the names of all the people who thought they were putting their names to the execution of Charles I. In fact, they were signing their own death warrants, because after the restoration every one of them was hunted down and executed. Sometimes the behaviour of your Lordships’ House, in seeking to frustrate the democratic wishes of the people, has a similarity. People in this country are tired of people who—
I am so sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but he may know that I voted to leave the EU—and, if asked again, I would do the same thing—but I did not vote to leave with no deal. There are thousands and thousands of people like me, so it is only right that Parliament gets another say on this. A no-deal option is not what a lot of us voted for.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for the support she has given to what the majority of people in this country wanted to see happen, but I point her to the opinion polls, which show that hers is a minority view. Most people in our country now want this matter finished, so that we can get on with attending to the biggest issues we face—whether social care, education, taxation or anything else—and that is what we should be getting on with.
I make one last point, which arises from what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said when he wrongly implied that my noble friend was attacking a particular individual; he mentioned Gina Miller. I pay tribute to Gina Miller; she has done a brilliant job. Had it not been for Gina Miller, we would not have been forced into passing the legislation that, by law, requires us to leave on 31 October. I say to the noble Lord moving this amendment: beware of Gina Miller and the law of unintended consequences. By seeking to frustrate the wishes of the people, you will put the reputation of Parliament and the standing of this House in jeopardy.
My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat—I see he already has—could he just explain why, if the matter is as straightforward as he puts it to us, it has been so difficult for his right honourable friend Mr Boris Johnson to make it clear that it does not require prorogation to achieve the outcome he is looking for—that we leave the European Union on 31 October? So far Mr Johnson has refused to make that clear. Can the noble Lord suggest why that might be?
Yes. I voted for Mr Johnson —I look forward to him becoming Prime Minister—because he seems to understand that the first rule of negotiation is not to make any concessions in advance of carrying out the negotiation. It is a foolish person who asks, “Will you make this or that concession?” and agrees to it along the way.
The very fact that this amendment is before us indicates that he is up against a Parliament in which some three to one in the House of Commons wish to reverse—or certainly voted against—the decision of the British people. I believe he will go into these negotiations from a position of strength, whereas I regret to say that his predecessor went in offering money before there was anything in return. The withdrawal agreement is an agreement to have a further negotiation about a whole range of things, including fishing, trade and other matters. We will be in good hands with Mr Johnson if he becomes leader of the Conservative Party. His approach to negotiations is entirely correct.
My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, I do not think he has answered my question. In the light of what he has just said, does he believe that the use of Prorogation to bring this matter to a close is part of the incoming Prime Minister’s armoury and should therefore be retained in that position? If he believes that, does he think the use of Prorogation in such circumstances appropriate?
I recall hearing complaints not so long ago from the Front Bench of the noble Baroness that this Parliament should have been prorogued earlier because not enough opposition days were being provided and it had gone on too long. When Parliament should be prorogued is a matter for the Executive of the day. This amendment and debate are a distraction from the main issue we should be concerned about; in the case of this Bill, Northern Ireland and our Brexit negotiations, putting in place the necessary preparations—
We should be dealing with the series of arrangements that will need to be made when we leave the European Union on 31 October. I still believe it entirely possible that those people in Europe—we now have a new, slightly odd gang there—faced with the reality of a Prime Minister who is determined for us to leave, will perhaps see common sense and we will be able to get a negotiation. It would be a foolish person indeed who answered the question of the noble Baroness in the context of the forces we face.
My noble friend has not addressed the very question asked by the noble Baroness: that is, what does he think about the motive behind this? If Mr Johnson is proposing to prorogue Parliament to prevent the House of Commons challenging the decision of Ministers, does he think that is right?
I do not think for a moment that he is, and I do not think that the House of Commons is able to challenge our leaving on 31 October unless it and this House pass the necessary legislation to do so. If this House is worried about the timetable and the opportunity to do so, that is a much bigger problem than the timetable for any Prorogation.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who is one of the most persuasive debaters in this House, as he was in the other place. However, I am concerned by what he said a moment or two ago. He seems to have forgotten that we do not have an executive form of government in this country. If it is Mr Johnson who becomes Prime Minister, that is what he becomes—Prime Minister, not president of the United Kingdom. The role of the Prime Minister is surely to face Parliament, the House of Commons in particular, persuade it if he can and serve it if he retains its confidence. If he loses its confidence, it becomes his duty to resign, which could happen more quickly than some, particularly Mr Johnson, think.
If I may respond to that point, what the noble Lord says is absolutely right, but the Prime Minister also has a duty to obey the law. The law is that we are leaving on 31 October. If Parliament does not like what the Prime Minister does, it can pass a Motion of no confidence, and then we will have a general election. If we end up with a general election in those circumstances, I am not sure the noble Lord will get what he wished for.
The noble Lord chided the number of lawyers taking part in this debate. I have certainly practised law, but, if I may say so, and with great respect, what he has just said shows how little he understands the law of which he has complained.
To turn back to the thread of what I was going to say, I have spent 34 of the past 36 years of my life as a Member of one and then the other of these two Houses of Parliament. I listened to the eloquence of my noble friend Lord Anderson with great attention. I must tell him that I am extremely reluctant to vote for his amendment because, as a parliamentarian of 34 years, I do not like to see the rules of the two Houses of one of the most distinguished Parliaments in the world used as part of a parlour game—as devices.
But then I listened to the noble Lord, Lord True, and, with great respect to him, I realised that the true democrats in this debate are the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Newby, and the noble Viscount Lord Hailsham, who tabled this amendment. My reluctance is overcome by my wishing, as they do, to sustain the law and sustain—I use that word advisedly because I am not ashamed of using it—the traditions and democratic role of this Parliament, including the role played by your Lordships’ House.
I fear that what is being advised to the Committee by the noble Lord, Lord True, and what appears to be in the mind of Boris Johnson, is to drive a carthorse through parliamentary procedure and simply leaves the debris as an acceptable part of what occurs. It shows that they do not understand the fundamental constitutional nature of the referendum and the process that followed it. It was not the duty of this Parliament simply to leave the European Union just like that. It was the responsibility of this Parliament, having been advised by the population in the referendum to attempt to leave the European Union in a way that did not destroy the economy or the political structure of this country. In my view, that requires the attention of Parliament to the very end, not the frustration of the law.
If I have to, I will reluctantly vote for the amendment, but it could all be resolved so simply. All Mr Johnson has to do is to pick up the telephone—with a witness or maybe several witnesses present, I hasten to add—and say to the noble Lord on the Front Bench, “I have been very badly misunderstood. I give a clear undertaking that I will not prorogue Parliament so as to frustrate the very purpose for which it exists”. Then I would not have to vote reluctantly for something that I do not really like.
My Lords, the critical issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, would not answer in my noble friend’s question, is whether he actually favours Prorogation. It is important that we get to the substance of the issue, which is very clear. Is it a responsible or legal act, in the view of the two Houses of Parliament, to ban Parliament from meeting to discuss the affairs of the nation in September and October? That has never happened before. The noble Lord, Lord True, said that there have been Prorogations in October. But there is a long-established convention to this effect. Prorogations are for a few days before the new Session of Parliament. The Library has produced a note that lists them all. They are of five days, six days or three days. In one case, it overlapped with the Whitsun Recess and was for 20 days. They have been of 12 days, seven days and three days—always for the purpose of preparing for a new Session of Parliament.
The noble Lord referred to the supposed controversy of 1948. There was no controversy in 1948. The two Prorogations to create the additional Session required by the Parliament Act 1911 lasted one day each. There was no controversy about the Prorogation. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, there was controversy about the nationalisation of iron and steel. That was because the Conservatives did not want it and Labour did. It had been in the Labour manifesto and Labour sought to implement it. But there was no controversy about the terms of the Parliament Act 1911.
The motive was to pass a new Parliament Act amending the Parliament Act 1911 under its own provisions. An absolutely legal procedure was followed. It was pursued on the instruction, no less, of a huge majority in the House of Commons because it followed the 1945 election.
All these points are entirely spurious. The issue that the Committee needs to address is whether it is acceptable for Parliament to be banned by the Government from meeting in October when there are urgent affairs of state to be debated; namely, Britain’s membership of the European Union and what policies will be pursued in that regard. I am absolutely amazed that any parliamentarians think it appropriate to ban Parliament from meeting as a way of overriding what might be the will of Parliament if it does meet.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, a very skilled debater, refused repeatedly to answer my noble friend’s question because he did not want to be on the record as saying that he favours banning Parliament from meeting. He then said that there was a danger that, if we were allowed to meet, we might seek to override decisions that Parliament had taken in the past. We might, for example, seek to change the law so that it is not possible to leave with no deal on 31 October. This notion that it is somehow wrong for Parliament to frustrate Parliament is one of the most novel conceptions I have ever met with. The idea that Parliament can frustrate Parliament is complete nonsense. If Parliament chooses to change the law, its decision is every bit as valid as previous decisions of Parliament in respect of Brexit.
The arguments being put forward are entirely spurious. I do not think the noble Lord himself agrees with the suspension of Parliament in October. He has an opportunity to rise and say that he does. He is very noticeably not rising to say that. Let me put words into his mouth: I do not think he agrees with his own proposition. Let us be clear. He does not agree that Parliament should be banned from meeting in October. He is too much of a parliamentarian himself, having been a Member of both Houses, to subscribe to that part of the Charles I proposition.
The noble Lord is talking nonsense. I do not believe that Prorogation is an issue. He is quite right when he says that Parliament can change the law, but I do not believe there is either a majority or the time to change the law before 31 October. In doing so, many people would lose their seats, just as he failed to win his in the recent election because of his position.
That is a very silly debating point if I may say so. The key issue is that he said that he did not think Parliament meeting in September and October was a concern. In that case, what on earth are we arguing about anyway? The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is seeking to establish in law that Parliament must meet in September and October. If the noble Lord agrees with that, why on earth are we having this argument in the first place?
The only other point that needs to be made—Boris Johnson is clearly considering this, otherwise these stories would not be running and we would not be in this situation—is that it would be a grave constitutional crisis if a Government were to ban Parliament from meeting for two months, for the whole of September and October. That is what would be involved. There is no modern precedent for that happening and no precedent in the past century for Parliament not meeting in October.
I think my noble friend is referring to 1974. I have looked that up. Parliament met at the end of October 1974, having had the election. There is no precedent for Parliament not meeting in October. There is no precedent in Britain for a controversial use—a use that would not be generally accepted by most parliamentarians—of the prerogative of Prorogation since 1831, when William IV prorogued Parliament at the request of Earl Grey to prevent the frustration of a Dissolution, which was so radically different a case from the one we have today that it is not comparable. The only case that I can see in any of the Dominions that corresponds to the situation we face now is from Canada in 2008. The then Canadian Prime Minister advised the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. All I can say, having looked at the circumstances of that case, is that it was bitterly controversial. The Governor General thought long and hard about whether to accede to the advice of the Prime Minister. It was immediately after a general election, when the circumstances were very different. If Boris Johnson is thinking of dragging Her Majesty into a controversy as deep as would be involved in banning Parliament from meeting in October, he will be doing a massive disservice not only to Parliament but to all our institutions of state. I hope he does not go there.
My Lords, I think it is fair to say that this has been a robust debate. Obviously, I support the amendment to which my name has been added and oppose Amendment 7A, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Forsyth, which would wreck that amendment.
I will deal with the arguments that have been raised against this amendment. I shall start with the first of them, which is that it is inappropriate in the context of Northern Ireland. I would have thought that the question of what parliamentary oversight and intervention are possible in relation to Northern Ireland is of the greatest importance. The Bill as it stands proposes, rightly, that reports will be published about the progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Should Parliament not be there to receive those reports, to debate them, to consider them and to make recommendations on them, that would be the consequence of stopping Parliament sitting during that period.
I note that David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said only the other day:
“We have lacked that ministerial voice in Whitehall that has championed the cause of Northern Ireland”.
So to find that Parliament was not sitting just at the time when the issues with which this Bill is concerned were coming up would be a great tragedy. So it is very much an issue which Northern Ireland should be concerned about.
But of course it is broader than that. The debate has made that very clear. The argument that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, started with must be right. If what we are talking about is the possibility that Parliament will be banned from meeting and expressing views during the critical period when we are leaving the European Union—I accept of course that the Bill says what the date is, but it is open to Parliament to do something else if it chooses to do so—to say that Parliament should not be there at that stage is a constitutional impropriety and would be a great assault on our current constitution.
It is said, and it is argued by the opponents of this amendment, that it is there to frustrate the will of the people in relation to leaving. Well, it cannot do that. Nobody suggests that it can do that. As one of those who signed the amendment, I do not suggest that it does that. What it would do is make sure that Parliament was there at the time that decisions were being made so that we did not have a situation where at the time of one of the greatest decisions this country has made in recent times there was simply an Executive and no Parliament to oversee or control them. That would be the greatest assault on the constitutional traditions of which I am so proud, as are so many Members of this House.
As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows, I admire his debating skills and his opinions, but he has not responded to the question put by my noble friend. I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet he may be able to give a clear answer on whether in fact this can all be brought to an end by a statement that there is no risk and that there will be no Prorogation. Unfortunately I expect that that is outside his power—and I see he is nodding. I suspected that was the case, and we all know why that is so. That would be an end to this debate. As it is, with that uncertainty as to whether Parliament will be allowed to sit during that critical period, we have to do something to allow an opinion to be expressed about that. The gambit would not be doing this; the gambit would be making sure that Parliament was not there at a time of crucial national emergency. That would be the constitutional gambit.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord True, on a speech that succeeded in insulting everybody in this House: the Liberal Democrats for not being the party that supported leaving, obviously my Front Bench and me—I fully expected that—his former leader, Sir John Major, for what he said, and others as well, including his current leader, as I have just been reminded. But be that as it may; he is entitled to do that and to take those views. But what he said in attacking the judiciary and the rule of law was completely off target. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on this. The judiciary is indeed unelected. I remember losing an important case in the House of Lords—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, may have been on the other side; he is nodding both enthusiastically and with a smile on his face, so I would guess that he enjoyed the victory—precisely because the House of Lords said in answer to my arguments, “No, we are not unelected. We are there to carry into effect the law, even though that is something that the Government do not want to happen at this particular time”.
Having had the privilege of serving in that role, I know what the rule of law means. You have to defend things in front of an independent and sometimes critical judiciary. Sometimes you persuade the judges and sometimes you do not. However, it is absolutely critical to our democracy that they remain and are not attacked in any way.
Where does that leave us? I was struck by the remark by the noble Lord, Lord True, that the judiciary were not elected, so should not have a say. Of course, the people who are elected are in the other place. We are talking about making sure that those in the elected place are there to express the views that their constituents—the people of this country—believe are right. That is what should happen. This debate can be put to an end by whoever becomes the leader of the Conservative Party in the coming days making it clear that that will not happen—but until then, I respectfully say that this Committee should take the step of following the House of Commons by saying, “We should pass this amendment to make sure that Parliament is there and doing its job when Brexit comes around”.
My Lords, I expect that in years to come constitutional scholars will study this debate and explore many of the arguments. I suppose that it is my purpose to return us to what I hope is the principal purpose of the Bill to which this particular amendment has been appended. This Bill aims to ensure that we can restore an Executive in Northern Ireland in good time. This is a noble aim, with which I think we all agree.
We ought to start by recognising that Members in the other place have already debated and voted on these issues. Of course, the Government agree that Parliament must be kept apprised of progress towards restoring an Executive in Northern Ireland. The Government has already responded to the concerns here by agreeing to bring forward to 4 September the date by which a report will be made.
In many respects, the key issue here—which a number of noble Lords raised, for perfectly understandable reasons—is the need to keep focused on what we are trying to achieve through the reports we are discussing today. That is to ensure that Parliament is kept abreast of the ongoing aspects of the talks in Northern Ireland. However, I have stood here on many occasions and said that it would be inappropriate for me or my right honourable friend in the other place to give a running commentary. That is for one simple reason: we must give a clear and safe space in which those negotiations and talks can unfold. It is perhaps not enough for us to simply say, “Nothing to see here, move on”. We need to recognise that.
The votes were close in the other place, so some noble Lords might argue that we should give Members there an opportunity to think again. However, it is important to point out that the closest vote of all was on the addition of fortnightly reporting requirements, which the Government lost—although noble Lords are not proposing that the other place should be asked to think again on that one.
These amendments tabled by noble Lords are broadly very similar to those already rejected by the other place. They would require the initial progress report, as well as fortnightly ones thereafter, to be considered by Parliament and be subject to an approval Motion. However—again—in many respects, each element of this has nothing to do with the situation in Northern Ireland, which has necessitated the Bill in the first place.
As we speak to one another and the people of Northern Ireland, it is important that we recognise that this Bill serves a principal and singular purpose, which is to ensure that we give an Executive the appropriate space to reform.
I thank the Minister for giving way. If the Bill serves a principal and single purpose, why are the other clauses being admitted to it and why are the Government supporting them? It seems to me that this contradicts the position that the Minister has just articulated.
The noble Baroness raised those points before. I say once again that the question of scope is not for this House; it was a question determined by the other place. On that point, it was not the Government or Opposition who won or lost; it was the will of the other place taken in a vote of conscience. There was no government Whip whatever in the other place. Those majorities were singular and significant; we as a Government heard them and must respond.
On the issues that we are discussing here, the majorities were not significant or singular; indeed, they were remarkably anything but. I stress, as I say these things now, that we need to recognise that which is germane to the issues in Northern Ireland and that which is a vehicle for another purpose—perhaps a Brexit purpose, divorced and distant from the thing we are here to discuss. I do not doubt that noble Lords will seek to find by other means a way to ensure that the future leader of this country, whoever that individual may be, is held to account by both the other place and this place. That is right and proper, but there are other means by which it can be done; this is not the right vehicle by which to do it.
It would be easy to answer that in a simple way, but I suspect that tucked inside the question is a matter for greater constitutional scholars than I. I stand before noble Lords not, I am afraid, as a lawyer but as a humble geologist. I therefore feel ill-equipped to answer a question of that august nature.
In returning to the point before us, I say that this is not the right way to achieve these ends. The other place has spoken on these matters. It has spoken in a voice which we have heard on other issues and should hear today. I would ask that these amendments should not be pressed. I do not believe that they give comfort to the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland, and nor do they progress the important aspects for which those talks have been set up.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and noble Lords, and for the support that these amendments attracted. I hope it is now clear that it is not the purpose of this amendment to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union on or before 31 October; it would not be apt, and it is not intended, to do that. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True, for his research and I am delighted to have him as a social media follower, but my views on the wisdom or otherwise of Brexit are no more to the point of this amendment than are his.
I listened carefully to everything that was said and it still seems inescapable that, if there are any fetters at all on the absolute power of the Government in this matter, those fetters must be in the courts, in Parliament or, as a last resort, in the person of the monarch. I did not detect any enthusiasm from those who spoke against the amendments for any of those options. I found myself wondering what checks or balances on the authority of the Executive they were minded to acknowledge —but there we are. In short, I am undeterred by what I have heard. It may be—it is very likely—that I will come back to this on Wednesday. But, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendment 7 not moved.
Amendment 7A not moved.
8: Clause 3, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) The report under subsection (1) must include a report on progress made towards preparing legislation to provide for transparency of political donations and loans from 1 January 2014.”
My Lords, Amendments 8 and 22 are Liberal Democrat amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond. They are important, and I hope the House will give them serious consideration and support. Indeed, I hope that the Minister may even be able to accept them.
Amendment 8 would provide that the progress reports must include:
“a report on progress made towards preparing legislation to provide for transparency of political donations and loans from 1 January 2014”.
Amendment 22 contains a new clause to ensure that, if an Executive has not been formed by 21 October, the Government must, within three months of the progress report being laid, introduce regulations to backdate the transparency of political donations and loans to 1 January 2014.
Let us look at the political and historical context. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for greater transparency of donations and loans to political parties. It was widely supported, and it imposes restrictions on the sources of donations, especially to prohibit foreign and anonymous donations to political parties, and to make registered parties subject to reporting requirements in respect of donations above a certain value. Political parties in the rest of the UK are, rightly, bound by those provisions, and they have been widely quoted and enforced—to some people’s discomfort, I have to say.
Many noble Lords in the Chamber this afternoon will know that, by cross-party agreement, political parties in Northern Ireland were excluded from those provisions and therefore have not been required to reveal the sources of their funding. I think that people understood at the time that there were good reasons for that, because of concerns that the security of donors would be at risk if their names were made public. But I also think that people would acknowledge that the political and security context has changed significantly in recent years, so that exemption could not be expected to continue indefinitely—especially because, as I shall explain, concerns have been raised about it.
During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, the Government agreed to an amendment from Naomi Long—then MP for East Belfast and now leader of the Alliance Party and a Northern Ireland Member of the European Parliament—to ensure that the greater transparency that applied to the rest of the United Kingdom should be extended to Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to Naomi Long, who has worked tirelessly to try to bring that equivalent transparency to Northern Ireland.
The provision ensured that, at a point when the Secretary of State determines, any donation of £7,500 from a single source to a political party from January 2014—that is the significant date—could be subject to publication. The political parties in Northern Ireland and their donors have therefore known that donations received from 1 January 2014 could eventually be published and scrutinised. That is important: this is not something about which they should express any surprise.
However, when the order was eventually produced last year, it provided for transparency of political donations and loans only from July 2017. At the time, we on these Benches tabled a regret Motion simply asking why that was the case, given what was in the 2014 Act. This is important because, during the period 2014 to 2017, there were two general elections and a referendum. The Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland has collected the relevant data: it has the information, but without our amendment it is unable to release it.
Noble Lords will be aware that it came to light that, during the referendum campaign, a very significant donation of £425,000 was given to one party in Northern Ireland. In the context of the highly charged debate on Brexit, people should be able to know all the details of that significant donation, not least—I guess this information is known—given the reports that the donation was not actually spent in Northern Ireland but was spent elsewhere in the UK and indeed potentially perverted the outcome of the referendum. This is therefore not just a matter of concern regarding transparency for the people of Northern Ireland; it is about Northern Ireland being used as a vehicle to undermine the transparency of the law in the rest of the UK. It has to be acknowledged that that is not a situation that should be allowed to continue.
The rules are in place to shine a light on the process. This comes at a time when, sadly, I suggest, trust and confidence in political parties have never been lower and mistrust over who is funding which political parties for what purpose has never been a matter of more public concern—and, it appears, legitimate public concern. Transparency should be the foundation, the bedrock, on which the trust that voters can have in the democratic process should be built. We have had accusations of foreign interference in elections and referendums, not only here but in other parts of the world. We have seen, for example, revelations in Italy of huge amounts of money being sought from Russia to fund a major political party.
People are therefore entitled to ask for a justification and explanation for why the Government chose the date of 2017 rather than 2014, which they had indicated they were minded to accept and for which the data has been collected. When he responded to the debate on our Motion, the Minister stated:
“Right now, we are not ruling out the re-examination of the period that precedes 1 July 2017. Indeed, the draft order will allow consideration of it, once we have had an opportunity both to bed in the transparency order and to examine the details reflected therein. We will not rule anything in or out on that point. I stress that. It is important that we recognise it”.—[Official Report, 27/2/18; col. 623.]
Yet so far there has been no further consideration of this matter. In a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on 12 February this year, the Minister said:
“The Government has no plans in place to legislate to facilitate the publication of pre-2017 data. We are committed to undertaking an operational review to consider all aspects of the operation of the donation and loans systems in Northern Ireland, to review whether there might be a case for further reforms”.
If the Minister is indeed committed to such a review, when will it take place? I suggest that, if he were minded to accept Amendment 8, he would have the opportunity to conduct such a review. Is he able to accept it, given that at the time of the legislation in 2014 the Government indicated that the data would be collected and that people should be aware that that data could be applied?
We are committed to ensuring that there is proper transparency and accountability for political donations and loans in Northern Ireland. We think that if we do not do so then it will undermine our entire democratic system, and we are not prepared to let that happen. I repeat that we on these Benches regard this as a crucial issue for the integrity of the political system both in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK. It cannot be acceptable that a law is allowed to sustain in Northern Ireland that allows Northern Ireland to be used as a vehicle for donations that would be neither clear nor acknowledged and could infiltrate the rest of the UK and completely undermine the legislation that applies to the whole of the UK. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend on this amendment. When we were discussing this issue on 27 February last year, we made it clear that we wanted any loans and donations to be published as from 1 January 2014, not at the later date of 2017, as we have already heard. We were very pleased to support the Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018 with that one proviso. It made clear that, for the first time, the Electoral Commission would be allowed to publish information about loans and donations dating back to July 2017. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 allowed that, and we have still not been given a satisfactory explanation as to why the Government held back from it.
Why did we ask for this? As we have heard, conveniently during that three-year period there were two general elections and the EU referendum campaign. We know that, during that referendum campaign, £425,000 were given to a party in Northern Ireland. I think we should name that party—it was the DUP. We have had no indication from it about whether that money was spent in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
We need to know what all political parties receive in loans and donations to avert that very real fear of money laundering—of parties receiving moneys that are in any way illegal. Our amendment simply seeks to introduce this new clause to provide for regulations to ensure transparency in political donations and loans from 1 January 2014, if the Executive has not been formed by 21 October this year.
My Lords, the proverbial visitor from outer space might have been somewhat surprised a short time ago when we were discussing the previous set of amendments about what piece of legislation we were debating. It is the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. I was so pleased to see a packed Chamber and all these people taking such a keen interest in Northern Ireland, but they have deserted us all of a sudden. The great, the good and the not so good have gone. It just shows how fickle fortune is in the political arena.
On a more serious note, I think that there is merit in this amendment. At the end of the day, since the 2014 date, donors have known that their details might potentially be released. I accept that it would not have been fair to release the names of donors who donated before that date because they would not have known at that stage that their names might end up in the public domain. There is a perfectly solid and reasonable case for that. Subsequent to that, people have known. I therefore see no reason why 2017 was called into account when 2014 was the kick-off date for this process. That is not an unreasonable thing to suggest and therefore I am supportive of it.
I would like to make a serious point about the proceedings relating to the previous amendment. I am sure that, when we talk about Prorogation, the people on the streets of Belfast talk of little else. They will be bemused that we have been caught up in this firefight which is not strictly speaking relevant to this legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is not in his place at the moment, but he was more than right when he called this a Christmas tree Bill last week. In fact, Christmas implies celebration and something to look forward to, so maybe that is not the right phrase for it; it is a jumble, a mess and a sorry piece of legislation, with all these things included. Then we find ourselves getting involved in a national debate on a totally different matter. Her Majesty’s Government will have to look at this. I must say to colleagues in the other place as well that I know things can be drawn too tightly, but we have gone to the other extreme with this legislation. However, I would be more than content to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.
My Lords, I firmly believe that there should be full openness and transparency regarding donations and loans to all the political parties in Northern Ireland, just as there is in the rest of the United Kingdom. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Secretary of State sought the view of all the Northern Ireland political parties on this matter in January 2017. As I emphasised in February 2018, there was clear support for full transparency. However, only one party—the Alliance Party—took the rather unusual position that the implementation of the new rules should be backdated to January 2014.
I acknowledge that the earlier date was referred to in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, but in my view retrospective legislation is acceptable only in exceptional circumstances. It is not fair to reveal the identities of those who made donations assuming that the law at the time would always apply. It is strange that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is intent on reopening issues that have been fully considered in the House and elsewhere, rather than concentrating on providing an effective framework for the future. The treatment of foreign donations to Northern Ireland political parties, for example, is an important and unresolved issue. The Electoral Commission is in full receipt of all the facts regarding donations before 2014, so although I support full transparency, I believe that the date of 2014 is a fair way to treat this.
There is something which is right about the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce: the whole of the United Kingdom should have similar regulations regarding transparency of donations and loans. The Committee will be aware that for decades this was virtually impossible in Northern Ireland, because people would be intimidated and worse if their donations to various political parties were made public and they were identified as possible targets. That was an obvious reason why the law in Northern Ireland was not the same as it was in the rest of the United Kingdom. Happily, the world has changed. There should be regulations which are common to all parts of our country.
There is an issue about people who were unaware when they gave donations that their names would be revealed; would they have given them if they had known that? We must take this into account, but we must not allow Northern Ireland to be used as a back-door conduit for donations simply because the law and regulations in Northern Ireland are different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, raises an important matter through Amendment 8, one that I know your Lordships take a keen interest in. As he pointed out, the donations and loans order that came into force last year provided complete transparency for donations and loans made to Northern Ireland parties from July 2017. At that point, we said that we would look again at the regime in due course to see if further changes should be made. Our feet have certainly been kept to the fire. I was very impressed with what has happened in and out of the Chamber, as outlined by the noble Lord.
I can confirm that the Government are happy to report to Parliament on the progress that we have made on the issue of donations made to political parties in Northern Ireland from 2014. The Government have no concerns in accepting the noble Lord’s amendment today, and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, indicates that this is not unreasonable to the people that he has been in touch with. I have also noted the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont.
Amendment 22, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, would insert a new clause into the Bill compelling regulations to be made on this issue. I know that this is a matter of concern to the Committee, as I have said. We have debated more than once how we might make progress on this complex issue.
During consideration of the transparency of donations and loans order last year, we made it clear that we intend to work with the Electoral Commission and Northern Ireland parties to establish whether further changes are required to the existing regime. However, we have made no commitment to legislate further on this matter. As always, on this issue it is important to move forward on the basis of consensus in Northern Ireland, and we will be consulting the parties. It is not appropriate to commit to making legislation on this issue before consulting the Northern Ireland parties.
We intend to look at the Northern Ireland donations regime as a whole. I realise that these are difficult and sensitive issues and I repeat that we look to move forward with consensus in Northern Ireland. But we cannot accept the noble Lord’s Amendment 22, and I urge him not to move it.
I am grateful to the Minister for accepting Amendment 8, which, as I said, does exactly what it says on the tin: it enables the Government to bring forward reports about the implementation of the regulations back to 2014, and does not prevent the Government introducing regulations at a later date. I understand that the Minister is unwilling to accept Amendment 22 and would like to reserve my position on that, but I welcome his acceptance of Amendment 8, which takes us a step further down the road. We would be much happier if we knew that all the data was going to be published, but we accept that there has to be a process and consultation.
Amendment 8 agreed.
9: Clause 3, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) The report under subsection (1) must include a report on the improvement of higher education provision in Northern Ireland and the establishment of a university whose principal campus is in Derry/Londonderry.”
My Lords, a few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that the great and the good had fled the Chamber. I leave him to speak for the great but, as far as the good are concerned, there is no purer good in society than education, including higher education. The issue I bring before the House is the state of higher education in Northern Ireland. It is in a very unsatisfactory condition. This would not normally be a matter that detains this House, because the Northern Ireland Assembly would be sitting and the Executive would be coming forward with proposals, but it is now two and a half years since the Executive met. Two and a half years is a large part of the time that pupils are educated for. Two and a half cohorts of students had the opportunity, or lack of it, to go to university, so I make no apology for raising the issue in this House. Each year that we delay dealing with higher education provision in Northern Ireland is a year that many thousands of young people are denied the opportunities they should have. It is right that, in the absence of an Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, Parliament directs its attention to this issue.
The issue is simple. There is an inadequate number of higher education places in Northern Ireland. This is a long-standing issue, but it has been getting progressively worse as education participation has risen across the United Kingdom. There are 50% more undergraduate places per capita in England than there are in Northern Ireland, and one-third of all students who have a Northern Ireland residence are studying outside Northern Ireland at the moment.
I have had the pleasure of going to Northern Ireland a great deal recently and talking to young people. Apart from Brexit, which I have mostly been going to discuss, the issue they raise with me all the time is inadequate university provision. There are not enough university places and people are put off going to university because they are unable to go locally. Most people, particularly the most able students, feel they need to leave Northern Ireland to get a higher education.
This general problem is in crisis in Derry, because there is no university with a dedicated campus there. There is one campus of the University of Ulster, the Magee campus, which has a historic mission and has existed in Derry for a century and a half. But it has a tiny number of places and is not being expanded as it should. I have gone through towns and cities of a comparable size across the United Kingdom, and not detected one anywhere with fewer higher education places than Derry. It is true that some other towns and cities of a comparable size in England, Scotland and Wales do not have a dedicated university, but even where they do not, they have campuses of other universities which provide far more places than in the case of Derry.
I was initially surprised by this because I am not versed in the history of Northern Ireland, but as I got into it, a very sorry story was revealed. In the 1960s, the Lockwood commission was engaged in deeply controversial issues as to where the second university in Northern Ireland beyond Queen’s University Belfast should be located. I am afraid that it was a straightforwardly sectarian division of opinion. One part of the community wanted—
I was a Minister in Northern Ireland during the period. The committee was headed by Lockwood, who was an English academic. He produced a report on a second university for Northern Ireland; he recommended not Londonderry but Coleraine. Runner-up to Coleraine was the city of Armagh. It was not a sectarian decision; it was made by an impartial English academic. It is slanderous to suggest that he was sectarian.
My Lords, the statement just made by the noble Lord would be deeply contested within Northern Ireland. One has only to look at the literature and the debate there. I respect the noble Lord’s point of view, but it is deeply contested.
As the noble Lord said, the decision was taken to locate the second university instead in Coleraine, a small town. The decision of the Lockwood committee was to close the Magee campus, but the then Northern Ireland Government thought that it would be a step too far. There was a modest increase in the number of places at the Magee campus, but no major new departments were located there—on the contrary, there was a reduction in their number. This has been a long-running issue since.
When I went to Derry, the business community and young people said to me that the single decision which would do more than anything to boost the economic and social life of that city would be the location of a dedicated university, for which there is masses of space, alongside an expansion of the number of places in the city by the University of Ulster.
These decisions are simply not being taken, but it is worse than that: the decision on the table to locate in Derry medical places at the University of Ulster has now been entirely stalled by the absence of an Executive and an Assembly. There are no medical places in Northern Ireland outside Queen’s University Belfast. The great city of Derry has no capacity to train doctors or medical staff to degree level, because there is no provision at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster.
The story becomes worse than that when one delves into the situation. A decision has been taken to expand the University of Ulster, which has campuses across Northern Ireland, but the greater part of the expansion is taking place not in Derry but in Belfast, with a hugely expensive relocation of the Jordanstown campus to the city centre—it is costing more than £200 million.
I raise these issues which are not being debated and discussed in Northern Ireland because there is no Assembly and no Executive. They are of huge concern.
My Lords, I declare an interest: I taught in the University of Ulster. I hesitate to interrupt, but one reason for the Jordanstown campus being relocated to Belfast is that the building infrastructure is not capable of being sustained and is not safe.
There may be very good reasons for such decisions being taken, my Lords, but that does affect the fact that there is no increase in the number of places in Derry. The focus of the University of Ulster is not in Derry. Its headquarters are in Coleraine. The big expansion in which it is engaged is in Belfast. Belfast is the only place in Northern Ireland that has an adequate number of higher education places. This issue is being systematically unaddressed.
As I have said, in the normal course of events, this matter should be addressed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly; it is not. It is tragic for Northern Ireland that it is not. Each year where it fails to be addressed means that more young people have opportunities denied to them. It is therefore essential that this Parliament addresses the issue, particularly in the context of the economic and social situation in the city of Derry, which I think most noble Lords would agree is deplorable at the moment.
Derry has the highest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland and the lowest employment rate. Indeed, it has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the United Kingdom. When I met leaders of the business community in Derry, they said that the single decision that could do more than anything to boost job creation, confidence and the location of new businesses in Derry would be the building of a dedicated university in that city. So I think it is right that we address this issue. For as long as there is no Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, this is going to be a burning issue of concern in Northern Ireland.
I look forward to the Minister’s assurance on two points if direct rule is going to continue for any length of time—and despite the assurances given earlier today, it looks perfectly possible that it may continue for some substantial period. First, will the Government unblock the decision about the creation of medical places in the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry? Could that not be taken forward next year? What is stopping that decision? Secondly, if direct rule continues beyond September, as appears likely, will the Government give an assurance that they will look at the expansion of university places in Northern Ireland as an issue of urgency, so that more young people do not have opportunities denied to them? I beg to move.
My Lords, I was the Minister responsible for further and higher education for some three and a half years and I had to deal with what is now Ulster University at some length. I visited Londonderry on a number of occasions. The Magee College was formerly sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Ultimately, it became a campus of the University of Ulster, as it was then called. Various pressure groups were formed, including one called U for D—University for Derry—a group of local businesspeople and others who were trying to promote a more substantial campus on the site. The university authorities talked to my department and we looked at sites and various options. However, a whole range of other factors has to be taken into account.
Northern Ireland has had the highest participation rates in university education by people from disadvantaged backgrounds—in excess of 41%, the highest in the United Kingdom. However, we must remember that a very significant number of students are not able to obtain their education, simply because of the curricular availability in two universities in one Province, and a number of people will inevitably move to other locations for higher education. That is not necessarily a bad thing: people need to broaden their horizons and they cannot all be kept locally. I believe it is important to bear that in mind, but for a population of our size to have multiple universities covering the spectrum that is needed in the current circumstances is a very big ask.
The other thing to remember is that the council and authorities of the university came to me with their own plans. I went to visit the Jordanstown campus and as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said, it was absolutely clear from all the professional advice we received that the buildings were in such a condition that it was not economically feasible to modernise them. They were built in the 1960s, they were out of date and the reports were very clear that it was not possible or economically feasible to rebuild or modify them on that site. Consequently, the university decided that it wanted to push itself into the Belfast region: we are talking about a distance of eight or nine miles further towards the city centre of Belfast. My department supported it in doing that, but it was its decision, not ours—it was not forced. The council of the university and the vice-chancellor said, “This is what we want you to do for us”. We gave them the first tranche of money to start the work on their campus in York Street in Belfast, which is now in an advanced stage of construction.
To deal with the particular issue in Londonderry, there is substance to what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, says. I strongly support, as I know my colleagues in the Assembly do, the proposal for medical students to be taught up there, because there is a shortage of medical staff throughout the health system in Northern Ireland. I have referred to it many times in this Chamber and we will be doing so later, so I totally support it.
There are funding constraints, as is always the case. I also point out that it is not simply about higher education. We have rebuilt the further education estate throughout Northern Ireland—it has been a herculean task. That was ongoing, and we must remember that not everything can be confined to higher education: we have apprenticeships, and a whole range of other areas to cover. If we had more money, I suppose that we could do more things, but we must remember that we cannot determine precisely where a student will go. We kept our fees suppressed, not at the £9,000 level that they are in England; they are probably approaching £4,000 at the moment. That was a deliberate decision to try to make higher education more attainable and affordable.
I support the fundamental point that the noble Lord makes about doing more up there to broaden the range of courses that can be taken. I did support it, I think that there is widespread support in the Northern Ireland Assembly for putting the medical students up to Londonderry, and I would support it. He must remember that there is a supply and demand issue here. The number of students who could be generated in the immediate vicinity of the city of Londonderry is limited, and not all students want to go to university in their own backyard. Young people want to explore, go further and see different things.
We must also analyse potential demand. That is a primary job of the university. It must determine where it is getting its students from. It was made very clear to us what it wanted to do. It said: we want to rebuild our Jordanstown campus and put it in the centre of Belfast. Will you support us or not? It was not a question of Londonderry versus Belfast—that option was not open. It had made its decision. I believe that it should now proceed to support the opening of the medical facility in Londonderry. I would support that—it makes sense, it gives the city a bit of a push—but we must bear in mind that decisions on these matters were taken by the university itself, not by the Government.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Empey, in their support for the proposed medical school in Derry, which appears to have complete cross-party support. If the Northern Ireland Assembly were up and running, from everything I have heard and seen, it would be progressing as of now. It is the lack of an Assembly that is the block. When I raised this previously, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, said that the Londonderry city deal might contribute to it, but the question is whether that is completed or whether an element of government ministerial input is still required to enable full delivery to take place.
This is just another example—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, probably has a list as long as both his arms—of where problems arise. As I said, I have visited the Magee campus. It was an interesting visit given all the things they are doing there, including impressive work on artificial intelligence. As far as the university is concerned, the building is available, it is anxious to move forward and it is frustrated not because of a lack of support—or even, in principle, because of a lack of money—but because of exactly the reason we are stuck here: the lack of decision-making capacity in Northern Ireland.
Can the Minister tell us anything encouraging as to whether steps can be taken that do not immediately depend on the re-establishment of the Assembly or, alternatively, add another bit of pressure to re-establish the Assembly?
I greatly appreciate what the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, have said in respect of the medical school, but does he accept that the issue goes much wider than that? The number of university places in Derry has declined since 2014 from 4,658 to 4,313. That is the lowest figure by far in any of the 15 towns and cities across the island of Ireland that have higher education provision. Does he agree that there is no reason whatever why Derry should be so disadvantaged in the provision of higher education places?
I defer to the noble Lord on the figures and I accept that there is an issue in this. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about balancing supply and demand, but, having represented a Scottish constituency for decades, I have to say that we are in part the beneficiaries of that lack of places because Scotland is a popular destination for medical students from Northern Ireland. Because of the mismatch, when students from Northern Ireland come to Scotland to study medicine, they tend to stay, which does not help the supply of doctors for Northern Ireland. We have an advantage in Scotland in that we have four, or possibly five, medical schools, if you count the undergraduate school at St Andrews, and we train some 20% of the UK’s doctors. It does not always have to be a balance of local students; you can attract students from elsewhere. Indeed, surely the essence of what we are trying to do in Northern Ireland is to make it the kind of place that people want to come to and stay, along with somewhere for which local people can see a future.
I agree with the basic point being made, but my main point in intervening was because of my direct engagement on the issue of the Magee campus. I am looking at the work being done across the piece and the frustration of the university. It has something that it can go ahead with, which would achieve the targets. I think we are talking about 80 to 100 medical students, which were the numbers given to me. In that context, anything the Minister can say that would give the people of Londonderry a more positive sense that this could go forward would be welcome.
I understand that point. Of course the city of Derry would be enhanced by a larger university presence. There are two very fine universities in Northern Ireland—Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster—so all that my noble friend Lord Adonis, has said is absolutely right. We would support him in his amendment to ensure that a report is produced on progress with university provision in that part of Northern Ireland.
However, this Bill is about restoring the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland, and that is the only way properly to ensure that these improvements are made. I fear that there is a tendency—noble Lords will see it in the Bill—towards creeping direct parliamentary rule coming into our proceedings. It is not that the Government are providing Ministers for Northern Ireland, rather that Parliament is asking for report after report on all the different issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland. Later, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will raise a number of hugely important issues that call for reports on matters that are for the Assembly and the Executive. Ultimately, the answer for those in the city of Derry who want these things to happen is to talk to those politicians who can bring the Assembly and the Executive together in Northern Ireland. There is a Sinn Féin MP in the city of Derry—for Foyle. Perhaps he or she—I do not recall who it is because they do not attend the House of Commons—should be approached, as should the Members of the Assembly to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running. You can then deal with the issues affecting higher education and so on; that is the key to all of this.
We could talk for ever in this House and the other place about reports and what we would like to see, but ultimately, in the absence of direct rule—
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Having worked in Northern Ireland, he will realise that 90 miles takes you from one side to the other. It is a comparatively small place. If we are to have a medical school, what on earth has happened to the medical school at Queen’s University? Other universities used to be jealous of it. Since hospital services tend to be centred on Belfast—we have seen the recent example with tests for breast cancer—how can we justify setting up another medical school? I have nothing against the city of Derry, but how can we justify setting up another a mere 90 miles away when medical care is, by and large, centred in Belfast?
It would not be for me or anyone else in the House to determine that. It would be a matter for the Ministers responsible for higher education and health to determine. Of course, the noble Lord is right to refer to the medical school at Queen’s University, Belfast. In my home village of Abersychan in south Wales, three of our family doctors were educated at Queen’s, and fine doctors they were too. But of course, Northern Ireland exported them, as it exported other people, and they did not come back. The issue is not whether people should or should not be educated at Queen’s, but whether there should be better higher education provision in the city of Derry, including medical studies. That is a matter for the Assembly and the Executive. As soon as they are up and running, they can make those decisions, but it is not for us to make them; it is for the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland so to do.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has raised important issues and I am grateful to him for doing so. I appreciate having again a short debate with him on higher education matters, here on a very specific issue. I recall from previous debates that the noble Lord has visited Northern Ireland, so it acts as a bit of a link when he raises these matters today.
Higher education, and indeed education services as a whole in Northern Ireland, have been raised in various debates in the House over the past two years. It is clear that education is an important area that needs strategic decisions on future reform. That is vital to ensuring that all children and young people in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential. On the issue of establishing a university in Derry, I am aware that the city and the wider north-west has a pool of talent to be nurtured, and I know of the excellent University of Ulster Magee campus in Derry city centre. I am also aware, as I believe are a number of noble Lords, of plans potentially to establish a medical school in Derry, as mentioned today. I am keeping a close eye on the progress of this proposal in the context of delivering the Government’s commitment to a Derry and Strabane city deal. However, while I know that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, knows this, measures to improve higher education, such as to invest in a new medical school or university anywhere in Northern Ireland, are devolved matters. It is this Government’s fervent hope that Northern Ireland’s political leaders can see their way to agreeing to restore the devolved institutions so that locally accountable leaders can take the strategic policy decisions needed to make progress. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has spoken eloquently on these points. Perhaps I may reassure the Committee that the Secretary of State is making every effort to ensure that the ongoing talks process is a success.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made a point about there being not enough university places in Northern Ireland, a point of which I think the Committee has taken full note. I am grateful for the views put forward about the situation on the ground by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. That has been helpful to the Committee. Higher education provision is crucial to ensuring that we have the skills for the future and opportunities for our young people. They should have the choice to study at universities across to UK.
As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out, there are two universities in Northern Ireland: Queen’s and Ulster. Ulster University has several campuses, including the Magee campus where a range of courses are offered, including in professions such as law and accountancy. As mentioned, Queen’s University runs a medical school, and discussions on a medical school at Magee are ongoing.
Decisions on places are a matter for the government department in Northern Ireland. As this is a devolved matter, I will not purport to be able to significantly enlighten the Committee on the substance of the important issue that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has raised. But in light of its importance—here I am for once on the same side of the fence as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I am happy to accept the amendment and to commit to reporting on progress on the issue.
My Lords, that is an extremely constructive response on the part of the Minister, and I welcome it. It is a significant step forward and gives us the opportunity, on the basis of a good, factual account of the situation, to debate the future in autumn in the event that there is not an Assembly and Executive. If there is, that report will no doubt be useful for them too. However, may I just clarify a point of some significance? In the event that there is not an Executive or Assembly in the autumn, under this Bill and the continuation of these powers do the Government have the power to proceed with the establishment of the medical campus in Derry on their own account?
Amendment 9 agreed.
10: Clause 3, page 2, line 38, leave out from “Parliament” to end of line 40 and insert “offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established by 10 April 2020.”
My Lords, Amendment 10 and Amendment 18, which immediately follows it in the grouping, stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Trimble and, in the case of Amendment 10, that of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.
When we debated the Second Reading of this Bill last week, I made the point that we are now entering extremely sensitive, delicate territory. I quoted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, when I said that in the House of Commons this had,
“become a Christmas tree Bill”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1843.]
Two particularly large baubles were hung on it last week when those votes returned significant majorities on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. I completely understand why those amendments were passed in another place, but if we are really concerned about devolution and have a real regard for the sensitivities of these issues and the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland, we have to tread exceptionally carefully here. That is why these two amendments stand on the Order Paper this evening.
Nothing should be done in the field of abortion unless there has been extensive consultation with Northern Ireland—if, sadly, no Executive has been recreated and no Assembly is sitting—because these are devolved matters. As we were reminded forcefully and cogently when we debated Second Reading, as recently as in 2016 the then Northern Ireland Assembly made its views on abortion very plain. If we really want to see—and I certainly do—devolution and power-sharing restored in Northern Ireland, it would be rash of the Westminster Parliament at this stage, when my noble friend has assured us that he is confident that the talks are going well and the parties close together, to make a precipitate move on this subject. That is the last thing we want to do.
This amendment provides for consultation in Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established by 10 April next year. I have chosen that date, as I chose it in earlier amendments today, because that is the 22nd anniversary of power-sharing. My noble friend, replying to my earlier amendments, in effect said he wanted to hold their hands to the fire and keep the pressure on. There is no better way of keeping pressure than using that date, the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement and the establishment of a power-sharing Executive that followed some years later.
I really urge caution and sensitivity, as I do on same-sex marriage, where Amendment 18, standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Trimble, says:
“Regulations under this section must be introduced if no Executive has been established by 10 April”—
again, that same date: the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. I know there are those who feel very strongly that we should leap to the support of the amendments tabled last week in another place; I understand. My own personal views are highly irrelevant, but the personal views I hold on devolution are, I believe, entirely relevant. The moving speech last week by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, must have made everybody realise just what a sensitive subject abortion is in Northern Ireland. We know that there are also those who feel in a similar way about same-sex marriage.
What will happen at the end of the day if direct rule has to be imposed? I easily guess we would then fall in line with what our colleagues in another place said, but I believe passionately that, if we move too precipitately, we endanger the very thing we are all protesting that we want to safeguard: namely, devolution. On that basis, and with those strong feelings, I commend these amendments to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
My Lords, looking at Amendment 10, the key thing I see is,
“offering a consultation with the people of Northern Ireland if no Executive has been established”,
by the date mentioned. It is really indefensible that we sit here acquiescing in the continued non-existence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I understand why my noble friend has put this amendment forward. I am slightly uncomfortable that the amendment is a bit passive—
“if no Executive has been established”.
One should really do more than just say, “We will do this if it happens, but we don’t appear to be doing much else to keep things going”. I know there is a talks process under way from time to time, and sometimes I hear people saying that they are very close and that things are going well. I very much hope that that is the case, but we have been here before and had negotiations that were getting very close—then some gentlemen whom we rarely see or hear anything from send their messages in and the landscape shifts considerably.
In an earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, referred to the fact that this is not just a matter of interest to Her Majesty’s Government but that another Government are involved. That brings back to mind the agreement we made nearly 22 years ago. That agreement had two elements to it: the multi-party talks, which happily came to a positive conclusion, and the agreement between Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government, which finds expression in legislation passed by this House. In that very short agreement, which I think had only two or three clauses, the first clause—the important one—contained a solemn undertaking by Her Majesty’s Government and the Irish Government to support the product of the multi-party talks; in other words, to support the steps we took towards the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to support the Assembly itself.
I draw the attention of Her Majesty’s Government to the fact that they have an obligation to support the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think they are discharging that obligation. It is true that you have to proceed via agreement with the parties, but one must go further than saying, “We’ll leave it up to the parties”. That is not supporting it.
Since this unhappy situation came about, a number of Members of this House have made proposals from time to time about what could be done. I did that several times myself until I started wondering what the point was of trying to work up something that gives another way forward if there is no sign of any support coming from the sources from which it should come. Unfortunately, where there is an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to support an Assembly—and, by extension, to support those trying to bring it about, even though that means going a roundabout route and applying pressure to various parties—there should really be more consideration from them about their obligation and how and when they will implement it.
Amendment 18 says that regulations,
“must be introduced if no Executive has been established”.
I know it is a bit premature to try to work out at this stage what the form of those regulations would be, but, if there is a legal obligation on the Government to introduce some regulations at that point, that is to be welcomed, as it might help accelerate the rather anaemic processes that are going on at the moment.
These are suggestions to think about, but I bring the Committee’s attention back to the fact that that agreement was made on the basis that there would be good faith from the Government in implementing it. They responded by making a solemn undertaking. I now invite them to fulfil it.
My Lords, I cannot endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, too strongly. He is absolutely right. Consultation is essential if Northern Ireland is to have any sense that there was integrity in the intentions of the Government in what they have done in the past.
As I have told noble Lords, over the weekend I received 15,000 signatories to my letter to the Prime Minister; I keep getting texts, and the number seems to be rising by a thousand an hour. There is another side to this that I do not think noble Lords are aware of. Given that Northern Ireland voted not to leave the European Union, if we move towards Brexit and we simultaneously move to direct rule, many of the unionists in Northern Ireland—my noble colleagues may contradict me—would reject that. They will want a Northern Ireland Assembly; we are capable of governing ourselves in these devolved matters.
I know from what is written that the nationalist people of Northern Ireland would reject it utterly. For them, it would be the end of the Good Friday agreement; it would be the end of support from the British Government for the institutions of the Good Friday agreement; it would imperil our peace process. Equally, it would create a construct within which the reunification of Ireland would become rapidly more likely. If Northern Ireland is not allowed to govern itself and space is not made for the talks which need to take place, direct rule, which has been a very bad thing for Northern Ireland, will inevitably follow.
I say to noble Lords with a heavy heart that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, said on Wednesday, they are walking on very sacred ground as they contemplate these issues. It is not just about abortion; it is about the whole devolved settlement, the integrity of government and the future peace and prosperity of all four parts of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to speak about Amendment 18A, a manuscript amendment standing in my name which forms part of this group. The sole purpose was to ensure that Parliament is sitting between 22 October and 31 October this year. The reason for that was articulated in the previous debate promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson: to prevent an improper Prorogation of Parliament, for the reasons the noble Lord discussed. It has been grouped with these amendments. I have absolutely no intention of standing in the way of regulations to permit same-sex marriage. That is not my purpose. It was a procedural amendment, and your Lordships will doubtless be pleased to know that I do not intend to repeat the arguments I made in the previous debate or in any way to seek to bring forward for your Lordships’ active consideration Amendment 18A, because that matter was resolved in the second debate this Committee has had today.
My Lords, at Second Reading on 10 July in this House, the Minister opening the debate said,
“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”,
as we have heard,
“sensitive issues and careful consideration needs to be given to both the policy details and their implementation”.
He was absolutely right to stress that. He went on to say:
“Crucially, the amendments as drafted do not function properly, and so do not enable the Government to deliver on the instruction of Parliament”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1824.]
Although time has been short for any discussions with the mover of this amendment in the other place, he promised to work with her to try to find a way through this difficulty. Is he now able to tell us how that conversation has progressed?
Also during that debate, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, supported the amendments made in the other place and, in a typically thoughtful and carefully worded speech, said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 10/7/19; col. 1839.]
Devolution is not an obstacle to the UK Parliament legislating on this matter. Parliament is sovereign here. The devolved bodies required to take a decision on these matters are not in place—that is a tragedy on which we all agree. This was raised in the Northern Ireland High Court, where the legality of the current situation was queried in two recent judicial review claims. Those who claim that abortion is a devolved matter fail to take into account the current circumstances in Northern Ireland, which mean that the devolved bodies required to take a decision on this matter are not in place. I reiterate that the UK Parliament is sovereign and has the ultimate responsibility to protect human rights across all countries of the UK, whether devolved Governments are in place or not.
Under Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, matters of national importance usually remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament and are known as excepted matters, which under paragraph 2(3)(c) include,
“observing and implementing international obligations, obligations under the Human Rights Convention and obligations under EU law”.
It is therefore clearly a matter for the UK Parliament and not a devolved matter on the face of the devolution settlement. The UK Parliament has an obligation to act under international and domestic law to ensure access to free, safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, from time to time we have to distinguish between what is utterly true, which is that Parliament is sovereign, and the particular circumstances in which that sovereignty is actually exercised. I am in the position of having been a passionate supporter—contrary to the views of the church of which I am an active member—of same-sex marriage. I do not think that anyone can suggest that I am holding things up because of my views on this. I happen to take a different view from the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, on abortion—perhaps that puts me into a rather special circumstance on this particular issue.
But I want to say to the noble Baroness that it is very difficult for any of us to get inside the minds of many people in the north of Ireland. That is a fact. We face a wholly different community from the communities to which most of us belong. That is true of people of all denominations, as a matter of fact. It is not an easy place to be. The difficulty that we have had of re-establishing devolved rule only shows how hard it all is. I have to say to my noble friend that many of us would like to see more signs of activity from the Government and the Secretary of State. I would like to feel that this was being pressed in a more active way than seems to be true—but perhaps it is being pressed and we do not know, so I do not want to carry that criticism too far.
But I beg people not to think that it is merely a matter of asserting the sovereignty of this Parliament to put through two changes in which they passionately believe—I passionately believe in one and passionately do not believe in the other. It is not just a matter of asserting our sovereignty. That is not how every community in the north of Ireland will see it. It will be seen as us deciding what we think is good for the Province.
Now I find that attractive because I very often want my opinions to be carried through more widely than they are. But we have already stretched the connection between us and the north of Ireland to breaking point over Brexit. I do not want to get into the nonsense that we have actually tried to carry through on Brexit when we ignored the problems of Ireland while going on about Brexit. We have already stretched that connection and are now suggesting that we stretch it even further. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, so remarkably put it, we are moving into a position in which false moves from us will change the whole nature of Northern Ireland.
There are those who want that and would see it as a benefit. But anyone here who cares about the unity of the United Kingdom should look very carefully at putting their perfectly reasonable personal views in front of the right of the Province to make up its own mind. After all, we specifically gave a series of things to Scotland, Wales and Ireland for people there to make up their own minds about.
I would say that we live in a democracy in which we have devolved these decisions, and they must prove that to the politicians elected for the north of Ireland. If there are no such politicians, the least we can do is to have full consultation in order that they will feel that they have been properly involved. The noble Baroness is saying that we can say to the people of Northern Ireland, “You cannot even be consulted. We are going to take the view of these royal colleges—great though they are—and enforce them on you”. That is not the way to win battles. What happened in the south when people voted, surprisingly many thought, on both these issues is that they had the argument. They had the discussion locally and made the decision locally, and it will therefore stick. It changed people’s attitudes in a way that I was enthusiastic about on one side and on the other side not.
We cannot go around saying on the one hand that we believe in devolution and then when it is convenient, because people take a different view from us, we take the opportunity to enforce something. We have to win the argument—not in London, nor even in Edinburgh and Cardiff, but in Belfast. We have to win it in Derry and in the north of Ireland. I hope that the noble Baroness will go and seek to win it. I may try to persuade people to take the opposite view on one of the issues, but at least we would be talking to the people for whom we are legislating and to whom we gave devolved power. Of all parties who should be on this side, the Liberal Democrats, who have been prime movers on devolution, should think to themselves that devolution means taking the good with the bad. They should recognise that it means that people make up their own minds, whether we like it or not.
The noble Lord questioned me about statistics, more or less, and the number of people in Northern Ireland. It is some time since 2016 when the Government decided that they did not want to change the law. But statistics from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2018, just last year, found that 82% of the population polled agreed that abortion should be a matter for medical regulation and not criminal law, and 89% agreed that a woman should never go to prison for having an abortion. Those are significant statistics.
Of all the parties in the country quoting public opinion polls, I should have thought that the Liberal Democrats should be particularly careful. I am not prepared to take public opinion polls—although I would point out to her that nearly 70% of the women of Northern Ireland and more than 65% of all people in Northern Ireland say that this should not be something that the United Kingdom Parliament decides.
So we can all bandy polls, but 2016 is a much more recent democratic decision than the democratic decisions that we have made. We are simply suggesting that, in order for the people of Northern Ireland not to feel that we are dictating to them in areas that are specifically their own, we should have proper discussion and proper concern for their views—and if that is not a Liberal view, I cannot think what is.
Before the noble Lord sits down, he is an extremely reasonable person, but surely he is missing the fundamental issue: for how long can people be denied fundamental rights simply because there is not an Assembly sitting in Northern Ireland? Of course, we agree with him about the virtues of devolution, but for how long can people be denied those rights simply because it is not sitting? It is two and a half years so far and the clock is ticking. Most reasonable people would think we are reaching the point where Parliament has to intervene if the devolved institutions are not there and working.
I say to the noble Lord: that is in fact what is in the amendment. It enables that consideration to be done; it enables that conciliation to be done in the sense of giving people the chance to say what they think. There is a date on it and I remind him that I said in my own speech, as elegantly and delicately as I could, to the Government that I was not sure that the kind of oomph that we ought to have behind the attempts at the restoration of normalcy in Northern Ireland was there and I hoped that it would no longer look as if it was lacking. So I am not sure that we are very far removed. We are talking about making a decision but with the full respect of the people of Northern Ireland, either through their devolved Assembly or, if they do not have a devolved Assembly, through a form of discussion and understanding which means that people feel it is their decision and not ours.
My Lords, coming from near the border with the Republic of Ireland to listen to the debate today on Northern Ireland, I found the first hour very interesting but alarming—interesting because I am a former Member of the European Parliament and I am interested in Brexit and the debate for and against it, but it certainly was quite irrelevant to the situation in Northern Ireland and the Bill before us.
I have been encouraged by the atmosphere in the Committee in the last hour. It compares admirably with what existed in another place a few weeks earlier, when only a handful of people attended the debate on this Bill but then hundreds came to impose their will on the people of Northern Ireland without consultation. Setting a time limit for the introduction of issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion or whatever—and these are not the issues for debate; the debate is the future of the system of government in Northern Ireland—plays into the hands of some of the extremes that exist in Northern Ireland’s political life. There are unionists who believe in direct rule and who will be delighted to see this Parliament impose a decision on Northern Ireland, and most nationalists are delighted to see direct rule being imposed because they will say, “There are the English, once again imposing their will on the people of Northern Ireland”. So I find myself in agreement with a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has just said and I was certainly encouraged by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy—who, almost more than anyone else, needs to be thanked for the Belfast agreement which I have before me today.
This is the basis for the future in Northern Ireland—Catholics and Protestants and people of no religion working together, unionists and nationalists working together. There has been a recognition in the Committee this past hour of the importance of devolution and people working together in Northern Ireland. That was not clear in the other place last week. I hope, therefore, that we will not set a time limit for the introduction of issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion but instead will support the Belfast agreement and the right of the people of Northern Ireland to work together and reach their own decisions.
My Lords, I approach this discussion from the unique position that I held until retirement as the earthly leader of the Anglican Church in the whole of Ireland, which of course included the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland. When your Lordships recognise the dates for which I was privileged to hold that position, you will understand that most of those years linked to and were absorbed by the Troubles. Therefore, as I listen to a debate of this nature about politics and dates and, interwoven with that, personal attitudes to such sensitive issues as marriage of same-sex individuals and the extremely sensitive issue of abortion, my mind centres not on the legal principles involved or the dates on which this House or the devolved Administration made decisions but on the ordinary people I know in Northern Ireland, who are, above all else at this stage, totally frustrated by the lack of a local Administration, by the lack not just of elected people making decisions in their own country but of a sense of purpose and with it a sense of hope. If anything has deteriorated since the Good Friday agreement, it is the eradication of genuine hope that things can get better and remain better. When I approach issues which I recognise are sensitive and on which each of us has our own individual attitude, I look again at the frustration I just mentioned.
There is a wealth of suggestions of what will bring the local parties together. Virtually every month we are given a different interpretation of the state of those talks. It is not easy for the Minister to continue to reassure us that progress is being made, because people in Northern Ireland say, “We have been here before; we have heard this, it has been explained to us, and where are we now? Nothing is happening”. Into that morass fit sensitive issues such as the two that are now dominating this discussion and, with respect to your Lordships who do not have very detailed knowledge of what life in Northern Ireland is or what makes its people tick, who want to make decisions which will have the sense of being imposed, who explain to us constantly, “We do not want direct rule; we want the people of Northern Ireland to feel an identity of their own”, to this I say, “Hear, hear. We want that”, but when we look at the situation as it is, it is again one of total frustration.
What can usefully be suggested? I believe the suggestion stems from much we have heard in this debate. The word is “recognition”—of sensitivity, of the limits of sensitivity and the horizons of sensitivity, but recognition that sensitivity is something deeply personal in human relations and in human ambition, and nowhere more so is that evident than in such cases as same-sex marriage and abortion.
There is so much in the amendment before us that turns from giving an identity to the people who matter most—the people of Northern Ireland—that they are being considered, and that their needs, wants, views and hopes are not being discussed in the face of the truth of devolution. Even though to our eyes devolution is not working at the moment, that is no reason for any of us to say that it is not worth giving it a chance.
My plea at this juncture in our discussion is to recognise, as I said at Second Reading, because of the history that has brought this little part of the United Kingdom to where it is now, the need to be sensitive and to understand what we are talking about, because we walk on many graves.
My Lords, it is always instructive to listen to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and his text—sensitivity—is one that I hear very much. I want to take this opportunity to do the thing that this House does best: to speak on behalf of those whose voices are not heard or cannot be heard or who are often drowned out.
I could not be in my place last week, but I listened subsequently to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I have listened to her on many occasions, and she does, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, make a compelling personal case for her beliefs and experiences. In this House, we do not hear from the 1,000 women a year who leave Northern Ireland to come to the mainland to receive the treatment to which they are entitled as citizens of the United Kingdom. We never hear from them. We never hear from the poor women of Northern Ireland who do not come because they cannot afford it or cannot get the time to come over. We do not hear from any of those people. When we talk about matters to do with devolution and the constitutional settlement, I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames: yes, listen to the people of Northern Ireland, but listen to the people of Northern Ireland whose voices are drowned out and are not being heard.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, who made a very compelling speech, has been the most unlikely of allies to me at times. I say this to him: those of us who are on my side of the argument on the issue on which we do not agree do not wake up of a morning and decide that we are going to get up and talk about Northern Ireland without bothering to go to talk to the people of Northern Ireland—the men and women whose lives are directly affected. All the proposals which have come forward on same-sex marriage and on overturning the abortion law have come after not just the odd conversation but many years of working with communities in Northern Ireland to change the law. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, was right about frustration. There is absolute and utter frustration in Northern Ireland and a loss of hope that they too might enjoy the same human rights as the rest of us. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said there is no right to abortion. No, there is not, but there are some human rights to which each and every one of us is entitled and which women, in particular in Northern Ireland, have been consistently denied.
This is not a rushed measure to overrule constitutional niceties. It is a long and considered attempt to give all the people of Northern Ireland the equal rights and dignity to which all citizens of the United Kingdom are entitled. I suggest to the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Cormack, that we have waited years for that to happen. To kick it down the road now will be seen, not least in Northern Ireland by those who are losing hope in their political institutions, as yet another reason that we have failed them. I believe that in this Parliament we have a right to say that after all this time, the time has come.
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly on this subject. As some noble Lords know, I was a GP and a family planning doctor and I saw hundreds of women who suddenly found that they were pregnant and did not want to be. I have been at the sharp end of the despair, misery and fear, and often the lack of sympathy from families and partners. I have experienced this. I have seen this despair. If a country has a law that permits abortion, it does not make women have abortions; it just gives them the right to choose whether they continue with the pregnancy. If the law is there, and it is a good law, they can have the abortion so early that they can carry on with their lives.
It is not for the rest of the community to decide what happens to these women. It is for them. I wish people would realise this. It is a very personal decision. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, it is a human right for a woman to have control over her body, and if she does not want to be pregnant after she becomes pregnant accidentally, she has a right to end that pregnancy. It is her body and she has control over that body—or should have.
Noble Lords have talked about more consultation in Northern Ireland. I have been in touch with doctors in this field in Northern Ireland for years, and the women of Northern Ireland are crying out—not all of them—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, they are coming over here and spending huge amounts of money to get an abortion over here. I plead with noble Lords to have some human kindness and sympathy and to allow women to decide this for themselves by extending the rule to Northern Ireland.
There is one point that I hope the Minister will clarify. We ratified CEDAW—the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women—in 1986. If we have done so, that is a UK matter, not a devolved matter. It is not to be passed down to the people of Northern Ireland—or Scotland, for that matter, but Scotland has already dealt with this issue—but is for the United Kingdom, and if people in Northern Ireland want still to belong to the United Kingdom, they have to accept that there are some things that the United Kingdom is committed to, and this is one of them. Women have the right to have an abortion. Not to allow them to have an abortion is a form of extreme violence to some women. If you have seen the lengths that women will go to to have an illegal abortion—
I am the father of four children and the grandfather of seven and I know the value of human life in terms of babies in the womb. I cannot imagine that the noble Baroness can neglect that particular aspect of life. Can she explain that to me?
I am also a mother of three children and a grandmother of seven, so I am well aware of the value of human life, and so are very many of my patients. We are surely not going to have the whole debate about where life does or does not begin, and where souls enter foetuses—please do not let us have that debate again. All I am saying is that, whatever the situation, we are talking about a woman’s body. The foetus is dependent on the woman’s body and cannot live alone, and if a woman does not want that to happen, she has the right to choose. That is all I am saying.