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United Kingdom Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board

Volume 802: debated on Monday 16 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the United Kingdom Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board, announced on 15 January, will publish reports on its work; and if so, how frequently.

My Lords, the UK Government/Northern Ireland Executive joint board will regularly review UK government funding provided under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, and the implementation of all agreements. The terms of reference and reporting arrangements will be agreed between the Secretary of State and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at the first joint board. There will be quarterly implementation review meetings, and updates on the implementation of the agreement will be published alongside these meetings.

My Lords, the union with Northern Ireland badly need strengthening. Is it the Government’s view that the new board will help to achieve that? Are the Government confident that their substantial extra spending can be overseen by the new board? Will it undo the damage that was inflicted upon the public services, particularly the health service, in Northern Ireland during the long period of the Assembly suspension?

I would also like to raise a point about the renewable heat incentive scheme, which has been in the news the last few days. Will the Government honour in full the undertaking, given in this House on 19 March last year by my noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank, to help to mitigate the hardship that has been inflicted on many of those who entered the scheme in good faith when it was started and who have been adversely affected, often greatly so, by the subsequent changes made to the scheme?

My noble friend is right: after three years of no Assembly, there is much work to be done. The UK Government will work with the restored Executive in fora such as the joint board to continue making Northern Ireland a great place to live, work and do business. I believe that this is one of the best ways in which we can strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the union. On his point on spending, the Government have provided the Executive with a substantial financial package, with necessary checks and balances, to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. This includes boosting infrastructure and transforming public services. On RHI, very briefly, we will be looking very carefully at the 44 recommendations from Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report.

My Lords, given that I trained and worked as a doctor in Northern Ireland, the Minister will not be surprised that I turn to two of the health issues mentioned in the Statement of 15 January, particularly given the parlous state of the health service and the crisis of Covid-19. First, by what date does the Minister expect the first tranche of medical students to start medical training in the new postgraduate faculty in Derry? Secondly, have the problems of pay for nurses been resolved, two months on from 15 January? We desperately need the nurses.

The noble Lord makes some very good points. It is critical that we do whatever we can to support the health service in Northern Ireland and that the Executive take the issues forward. There is some £245 million to support the transformation of public services, which includes health, and the rapid injection, which he will know about, of £550 million to resolve the nurses’ pay dispute. These are just two of the measures that are happening immediately.

My Lords, I would like to return to the issue of the nurses’ pay. I welcome the fact that the Government have made the money available, but we really and truly need to know when it is going to be paid to the nurses, particularly at this time when it is so vital that we keep up morale in the health service.

The noble Baroness is right. I do not have a precise date, but I know that the joint board, which is going to be meeting imminently, will be discussing this very important factor, along with other important issues. As I say, I do not have a date for that, but it will happen soon.

My Lords, to stay with the issue of health, I am not 100% clear on this particular question, so perhaps the Minister can tell me. Is the joint board purely for discussions on the delivery of the Stormont deal, or is it an opportunity for a new mechanism in UK/Northern Ireland co-operation? If so, there is an opportunity here. The Northern Ireland Executive were talking to the Irish Government last week to co-ordinate responses on Covid-19. I do not know what meetings there have been between UK Ministers and members of the Northern Ireland Executive, but there seems to be an opportunity to use this body as a way of co-ordinating responses, particularly given the differences that there are—schools are one example; health is another. Can the Minister say something about what meetings have taken place?

As I said earlier, the members of the joint board, which is made up of the Secretary of State, the Deputy Minister and the First Minister, are in touch. They have yet to meet, but they will meet very soon. On the health issues and Covid-19, the CMOs are in direct touch. There is a very good link between the CMO in this country and those of the devolved Administrations to discuss matters relating to that very important point.

My Lords, will this joint board be able to take a look at the vexatious prosecution of former public servants—police officers and Army soldiers—who were sent to Northern Ireland to do their duty to protect the people of the United Kingdom and are now being pursued unnecessarily through the courts, often some 40 years later?

My noble friend is right, and I know he takes an interest in these matters. There is broad agreement that the current approach to legacy issues in Northern Ireland is not working well for anybody. That is why this Government are committed to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that provides certainty for veterans and justice for victims. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working very closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and other Whitehall departments to develop proposals.

My Lords, I echo the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Lexden about the joint UK Government-Northern Ireland Executive board, the establishment of which I very strongly support. My noble friend the Minister will be aware that, following the Stormont House agreement and the fresh start agreement in 2015, we established an implementation group which regularly provided updates on progress. Does my noble friend agree that, in the interest of accountability and transparency, which was very much highlighted by the RHI report only last week, the 2015 precedent would be a useful one to follow?

Yes, indeed. I can reassure my noble friend that, as well as the joint board, there is an implementation group. These review meetings are particularly important because they include the Northern Ireland Executive party leaders. There will be quarterly meetings and an implementation programme and timetable will be agreed. The UK and Irish Governments will be involved as appropriate, in accordance with the three-strand approach.