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Grand Committee

Volume 824: debated on Monday 5 September 2022

Grand Committee

Monday 5 September 2022

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, forgive me. It may be entirely apparent to the Committee that we are missing an Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson at the moment. We have search parties out and I hope that our colleague will appear in due course. In the event that he does not, we will proceed. “In due course” means “in a minute”, by the way.

Sitting suspended.

Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022.

Relevant documents: 6th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the regulations before your Lordships today seek to align flag-flying days in Northern Ireland with the rest of our United Kingdom. As many noble Lords will be aware, the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, for the then Labour Government, provided that, on certain designated days, the union flag and in certain circumstances other flags must—I repeat, must—be flown on government buildings.

For the purposes of these regulations, a Northern Ireland government building is a building wholly or mainly occupied by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 2000 regulations also set out a number of “specified buildings” at which the union flag must be flown on the designated days in question. These buildings were chosen as they were the headquarters of Northern Ireland government departments. In 2002, the provisions were extended to court buildings in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will also recall that the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, which saw the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a period of almost three years, contained a UK government commitment to:

“Update the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 to bring the list of designated flag flying days from Northern Ireland government buildings and court-houses into line with the DCMS designated days, meaning the same designated days will be observed in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK”.

The updated 2022 list of designated flag-flying days was published by DCMS on 11 February this year, and it states that Her Majesty the Queen’s two birthdays and the birthday of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales are the only royal birthdays to be observed for the purposes of flag flying. The regulations before your Lordships today will ensure that flag flying in Northern Ireland is aligned with this updated DCMS guidance and the policy followed across the rest of the UK. Prior to publishing the list of designated days, DCMS consulted a wide range of interested parties, individuals and bodies. I can confirm that the updated designated days reflect very clearly the wishes of the palace; the Committee should take note of that.

I understand that some Members will be disappointed that the number of designated flag-flying days in Northern Ireland will be reduced as a consequence of these regulations. I stress that our approach to flag flying in Northern Ireland through regulations has consistently sought to reflect Northern Ireland’s clear constitutional status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, as well as the reality of different political aspirations and sensitivities that exist across society.

I also point out that, as designated days are a matter of law in Northern Ireland, revised regulations must be considered by the Assembly ahead of being approved by both Houses of Parliament here in Westminster. I can inform noble Lords that, ahead of the most recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly considered and approved these regulations on 15 March this year.

The 2000 flags order also requires that consideration be given by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Belfast agreement when making or amending flags regulations. I confirm that the Secretary of State is satisfied that these regulations are in accordance with the provisions of the Belfast agreement and that the regulations treat flags and emblems in a manner respectful of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.

The Government will continue to ensure that our approach to flag flying reflects the sovereignty of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland, our Belfast agreement commitments and the need for sensitivity. On that note, I look forward to contributions from noble Lords today but commend this largely technical instrument to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, I apologise for delaying the Committee for some minutes. I completely abandoned my toasted teacake to get here very quickly; I had mistaken the time.

The Minister is right that it is a technical change, of course, but it reflects the significance of flags in Northern Ireland. This was a cause of great bewilderment to me when I first went there so many years ago—25 or 30 years ago—including the fact that one saw the Palestinian and Israeli flags: the Israeli flag generally in loyalist areas and the Palestinian one generally in nationalist areas. It reflects identity, not as Palestinians and Israelis—those are political choices—but rather the identity of people as they see themselves.

The law is clear. The flags to be flown on public buildings are flown on them because those buildings are part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, if the rules change in Great Britain, they should change in Northern Ireland as well.

It is quite interesting to read the Assembly’s proceedings on this particular statutory instrument. It was, as always, an intriguing and interesting debate that reflected the wider view on flags in Northern Ireland.

On balance, the issue has been dealt with sensitively over the last two decades, but there have been some notable exceptions, such as over Belfast City Hall some years ago, which caused a great deal of fuss. You have to be very careful in what you do about flags. It is pretty clear that this particular change was initiated by the palace. Noble Lords will ask why for themselves—I think it is pretty self-evident—but the commemoration of the birthdays of all the royals has had to be abandoned on the flagpoles of Northern Ireland as a consequence of what I think this change resulted from. The essence of this is that what happens in Britain happens in Northern Ireland as long as it remains part of the United Kingdom. Even if it did not, it would still have to have sensitivity about flags. However, it is still part of the United Kingdom, so I support the statutory instrument.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said, flags are a highly sensitive issue in Northern Ireland that can provoke very strong reactions. However, I shall be very brief, as the Liberal Democrats, and indeed Alliance in Northern Ireland, broadly support these measures, which reduce the allocation of designated days and align them with the rest of the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said.

Given that these regulations once again reduce rather than add to the number of designated days, could the Minister say whether further consideration has been given to adding to the number of days through commemorating the Battle of the Somme? As the Minister will know, when these regulations were debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly in March this year, my Alliance colleague, Andrew Muir, suggested making the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme a designated day. He then followed up with a letter to DCMS. This was strongly supported in Belfast City Hall, where earlier this year the birthday of Prince Andrew was substituted with the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme as a designated flag day.

As noble Lords will know, it is estimated that at least 3,500 lives were lost from across the island of Ireland during the Battle of the Somme from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. Can the Minister update us on whether further consideration has been given to this matter?

In seeking to support the Government today, it is vital to continue to stress the importance of respect, and of respecting how people feel about a flag and its symbolism, even if one does not entirely personally share or understand those sentiments.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for providing us with an overview of the legislation. Like my noble friend Lord Murphy and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I agree with and do not resile from the regulations. We can all have our own interpretation as to why they have been proposed.

There is a broader political point here, which my noble friend and the noble Baroness referred to, about the nature of flags in Northern Ireland. They are highly sensitive and mark out territory. Over the last few months, having had occasion to be at home permanently for some six and a half weeks, I have seen flags of all descriptions, representing two identities, in tatters on poles. If people had respect for their own identity and that of others, they would not allow that to happen. It does not necessarily happen solely with flags—it also happens with flagstones and kerbs—and it leaves the area environmentally in a pretty poor state.

We need to look to fulfil the ambition of the Good Friday agreement in respect of flags and identity through building the second process of the agreement, the healing and reconciliation process. I say to the Minister: with a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet this week, will the Government work with the Northern Ireland Executive—if we had one—to ensure that we do have one, and to ensure that we have all the institutions of government of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 up and running? Will they also work with the district councils to ensure that there is parity of esteem, respect for political difference and respect for all flags, and that this is done in a more sensitive, more appreciative way that reflects all the identities that have to be reflected?

Generally, Northern Ireland is a changing area, as is the island of Ireland. No longer can you talk of one and the other. Other nationalities have come to live there and their identities also have to be respected. The Good Friday agreement provided for that under the equality and human rights provisions. What respect and judgments have the Government given to that?

Finally, what proposals will be made for all-party talks involving both Governments to get the institutions up and running and to resolve the difficulties around the protocol and any other impediments to political institutions? The most important thing for people is having a functioning Government and dealing with the cost of living and the cost of doing business crises. Energy and food prices are immediate to people and are perhaps more important than flags at this moment.

My Lords, I had not planned to participate, but I give my full-throated support to what the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, suggested. Not only is the Somme important in the iconography and history of the 36th (Ulster) Division, but it is often forgotten that more southern Irish Catholics died in British uniform during the Somme offensive than participated in the Easter Rising. That fact was for a long time brushed under the carpet. One of the more welcome signs of the approximation of the Governments in these islands is that those volunteers—they were all volunteers in Ireland—were eventually brought in and recognised, albeit long after the event.

It is a grisly memorial and a rather awful thing that we remember—the whole history of the world cannot contain a more horrible word, as one German veteran said. Yet it is something we all have in common in these islands, including me. I have a great-uncle whose name is carved on the rather skeletal memorial at Thiepval. Here is a suggestion with cross-community support and broad support in this House and in another place. It is something that I hope my noble friend the Minister will consider taking forward.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate on the instrument before us. I shall respond to one or two of the points raised.

I am very grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, managed to abandon his toasted teacake and get here in time to participate. I hope he can return to it, or a warmed-up version, at some point later this afternoon. He mentioned that the issue of flags is very sensitive, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. Of course, we all know why that is the case. I commend the initiative of the Labour Government back in 2000 in grappling with this issue, which was seen as rather too difficult for the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly to resolve. As a consequence of their actions and those taken subsequently by this Government, we are in a much better place when it comes to the flying of flags from government buildings and there is a wide degree of consensus.

The noble Lord is right to remind the Committee of the difficulties that can arise, and I am well aware of what happened in Belfast from late 2012 well into 2013 with the decision on the flying of the union flag. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked whether we had worked with councils. We have, of course, but, as she is aware, flag flying from council buildings is not covered by the regulations but is a matter for district councils themselves. I will reflect on her suggestion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the possibility of making 1 July, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a designated day, and I have a great deal of sympathy with what she said. My noble friend Lord Hannan was very supportive. I have visited the Somme battlefield probably 11 or 12 times in the course of the past 12 years. I was there for the centenary in 2016, at the Lutyens memorial to the missing and the Ulster tower, and later in September that year. As my noble friend reminded us—it should never be forgotten—the contribution of the 36th (Ulster) Division on 1 July was heroic, as was the contribution of the 16th (Irish) Division in September 1916 at Guillemont and Ginchy. For those who have never visited, it is always a very moving occasion.

My noble friend talked about the number of southern Irishmen who gave their lives. When I was there last July, I managed to locate the inscription of a former Member of the other place, Tom Kettle, the MP for East Tyrone, whose name is one of the 72,000 on the Lutyens memorial. I think something like four out of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded at the Somme went to members of the 36th (Ulster) Division, so I am aware of its importance and resonance across Northern Ireland and the wider island of Ireland. In response to that specific request, I am very happy to take it up with DCMS, which I know regularly consults on the designated days. My personal view is that it is a very worthwhile suggestion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, asked about executive formation and so on. Of course, I am not yet in a position to second-guess what steps the new Prime Minister might take from tomorrow, and we are in a slight state of flux over the next 24 hours, but I am confident that the new Prime Minister and whoever might be the Secretary of State, whether it continues to be the current holder or it is a new appointment, will remain very committed to working as a matter of urgency to deal with problems around the protocol but also the impasse preventing the re-establishment and reformation of a Northern Ireland Executive.

None of us wishes to be in this situation. We all want to see the institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement fully functioning and up and running. On these occasions I always look to the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, who played such a key role in the negotiations, particularly on strand 1 of that agreement, back in 1998. It is my personal commitment and the Government’s that we wish to see devolved power-sharing government and the institutions that flow from that. We should never forget that strands 2 and 3 of the agreement do not function properly without strand 1. To get all the strands of that interlocking agreement back up and running will remain an absolute priority for Her Majesty’s Government.

The noble Baroness talked about parity of esteem in flag flying. These regulations deal only with the flying of flags from government buildings and, as I said in my opening remarks, they reflect the clear constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The agreement contains provisions on parity of esteem, but it is always sensible to remember that it never created a hybrid state; Northern Ireland is either part of the United Kingdom or part of a united Ireland, and I am very happy to say that it continues to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is always the need for sensitivity when it comes to such issues, and I hope that I reflected that in my opening comments.

This is a technical change that reflects the updated list published earlier this year by DCMS after consultation with the palace. It keeps Northern Ireland fully aligned with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Motion agreed.

Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 (Consequential Amendments) Order 2022.

My Lords, I hope to be even shorter with this piece of legislation. The Health and Social Care (Northern Ireland) Act was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year and received Royal Assent on 7 February 2022. The Act provided for the dissolution of the regional Health and Social Care Board and the transfer of its functions to the five Northern Ireland health and social care trusts.

A number of UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament Acts reference the now dissolved regional Health and Social Care Board, where amending those references would be outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Secondary legislation is therefore required to make consequential amendments to update references to the regional Health and Social Care Board so that the

“Northern Ireland Department of Health or health and social care trusts”

are referenced instead. This technical order seeks to update these references.

Although the order is primarily for administrative purposes, I would like to give a bit of background on the Health and Social Care (Northern Ireland) Act. All noble Lords will be aware that health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. The primary purpose of the Act was to implement recommendations made following a number of independent reviews and reports that had been commissioned over a number of years, from Donaldson to Bengoa, which found the current health system to be “overly bureaucratic and complex”. Those recommendations included the dissolution of the regional Health and Social Care Board and the transfer of its functions to the five Northern Ireland health and social care trusts.

As I said, the Act to give effect to this received Royal Assent on 7 February 2022, after which the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Robin Swann, requested that my department take forward secondary legislation to make consequential amendments to UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament Acts where the regional Health and Social Care Board is referenced.

Since then, officials have worked closely with colleagues across a range of UK government departments and with legal colleagues to identify the list of Acts where the now dissolved board is referenced, of which there are a total of 25. Twenty-three of those are UK Parliament Acts and two are Scottish Parliament Acts.

As I said, the order before your Lordships simply seeks to update references to the now dissolved body. There are no policy implications whatever; it is just a technical updating which the Government are taking forward. I beg to move.

It will not be quite so short and uncontroversial next week—I suspect the Minister will have a few more hours on his feet than today—but on this one he is absolutely right. It is something we support.

It reminds us that there is of course an Assembly, which passed these changes some time ago. It also reminds us that this is an attempt to ensure that the health service in Northern Ireland is more efficient than it was. From a very good point of view, it shows the rest of the United Kingdom that health and social services go together. This operates well in Northern Ireland—it always has—and I am not quite sure why we do not take a leaf from the Northern Ireland book. It is something we admire.

What we cannot admire is the fact that there are no Ministers in Northern Ireland running the show, so far as health is concerned. We all know that there is a serious problem with waiting lists in Northern Ireland at both primary and secondary healthcare levels. There are huge difficulties in staffing, finance and so on. The problem is that there is no political authority in Northern Ireland to deal with these huge issues.

In a day we will have a new Prime Minister, and we might have a new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope that we do not have a new Minister for Northern Ireland in the Lords and that the Minister retains his position, because he knows a huge amount about the issues and the place, but there has to be even greater impetus. I know we have the protocol Bill and the legacy Bill coming up—these are all difficult issues to address—but, at the end of the day, unless we have a functioning Government in Northern Ireland only one other thing can happen. Ultimately, it will have to be direct rule. It would be a complete disaster if that had to happen, but you cannot leave civil servants running the show in Northern Ireland any longer, particularly with regard to health, so there is an impetus for the new Government and new Prime Minister, and possibly new Secretary of State, to resolve the impasse in Northern Ireland. We all know why it is there—I will not go into any of that—but I am sure that all Members in this Committee, particularly those from Northern Ireland, understand the significance and importance of having a Minister of Health who can operate as other Ministers can in a liberal parliamentary democracy.

I am sure that our belief, right across the House, is the same: let us restore the institutions, have Ministers and have an Assembly that is running, as in Scotland and Wales. Let us resolve those problems by proper, deep negotiation.

My Lords, I will intervene from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench on this one. I could see the alarm in the Minister’s eyes that a Westminster health and care spokesperson might try to intervene on an order to do with Northern Ireland health and care. I assure him that it is as technical as his contribution at the beginning. We have no problem at all with the statutory instrument in front of us today.

I want to make one point, which I hope the Minister will take back. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, may be aware that the Health and Care Act is the first real attempt by a Government in this country to combine health and social care, so Westminster, on behalf of England, is finally getting its act together and combining the two—which, whatever opposition we had to elements of it, we certainly welcomed. In March, during its passage through your Lordships’ House, a number of amendments were ruled out of order because they referred to some of the UK-wide legislation that the Minister referred to in his opening. We were told that an agreement had been struck by the Government with all three devolved nations, which had already taken their legislation through, and therefore that amendments we wished to lay could not be laid.

They were very minor and technical, so I will not go into them here. However, if we are going to talk about the importance of devolved responsibilities and try to mend some of the complex technical issues around legislation that crosses into UK-wide legislation, those working on Bills, certainly in your Lordships’ House, need to know at a much earlier stage where those discussions need to be had. It would have helped the transition of the Health and Care Bill, which was enacted on 28 April—some two months after the Act we are discussing was enacted—because there were things we would have liked to change and would have raised much earlier, had we been aware that there were issues.

My Lords, I support this very technical order. Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I make a plea yet again for negotiation between all parties and both Governments to get the institutions up and working to look at the areas where there are problems or impediments, including in the protocol, and any other issues.

The most important thing that the people of Northern Ireland require is a functional Government who are delivering for all of us on health and social care, the economy, infrastructure and job creation. In relation to this, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. There are chronic waiting lists in Northern Ireland for specific disciplines. There are also waiting lists to get on to waiting lists, which can cause such consternation for individuals who are ill. That has been the situation for quite some time.

I do not disagree with the assimilation of the Health and Social Care Board into the Department of Health and the five health trusts. As a former MP I had experience of dealing with the Health and Social Care Board and the health trusts. I could never fully understand or appreciate the difference in their workload, because the health and social care board commissioned the services and acted as the prescriber of what services were required. Notwithstanding that, that is a job better done by the Department of Health.

In relation to that, maybe the Minister would have talked to the current caretaker Minister, Minister Swann, who served as Health Minister for the last nearly three years, about what savings are projected from the assimilation of the Health and Social Care Board into the department and trusts. Will those savings be ploughed back into the delivery arm of the trusts so that people can access services in the medical and clinical areas to which they are entitled?

When my noble friend comes to reply, could he give the Committee an impression of whether the problems with the health service in Northern Ireland, although very considerable, have deepened yet further during this unfortunate period, which strengthens the reasons why we want devolution back?

I am incredibly grateful to noble Lords for their contributions on what I rightly described as a very technical piece of secondary legislation. The main theme of contributions was the current problems in the health service in Northern Ireland and the need for a properly functioning Executive and Assembly to address them. I think we all agree on that. I reiterate what I said on the previous regulations: the Government and the Northern Ireland Office are fully committed, and I am personally committed, to doing whatever we can do ensure that those institutions are back up and running as quickly as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, was not entirely accurate when he said that there were no Ministers in place at the moment. He will know, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, acknowledged, that as a result of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act, which we passed earlier this year, there is provision for Ministers to stay in place for up to 28 weeks after an election.

I realised after I said it that I had dropped a clanger, but the point I was trying to make, which I am sure the Minister will come to, is that they are not Ministers in the sense of being completely accountable in the way that an ordinary Minister would be in any other legislature. Although they have limited powers, which they undoubtedly exercise as well as they can, it is not the same as if they were Ministers in a functioning Assembly and Executive.

The noble Lord is absolutely correct to point that out. It is 24 weeks; I said 28 because the current deadline is 28 October. Although Ministers can stay in place, they are very limited as to what they can do—they cannot take decisions that would require executive agreement because there is no functioning Executive and they cannot take decisions that would be cross-cutting with other departments—but it is a preferable situation to the one we had when the Assembly was last down, when just civil servants were running the show. I am all too well aware of the limitations. For that reason, noble Lords are absolutely right to set out once again the urgency of restoring a properly functioning Executive and Assembly in which Ministers are fully accountable to the Assembly and, through the Assembly, to their respective electorates within Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, again underlined with her questions on certain aspects of the legislation the importance of getting the Assembly back. Although her questions were directed at me they really should be directed by MLAs to the Health Minister. I am very happy to look into the matter for her, but it is essentially a devolved one on which further elucidation would be gained through Health Minister’s Questions in the Assembly rather than in a House of Lords Grand Committee.

I asked the question because we as a House of Lords are being asked to approve an order that would enable a change in in English, Welsh and Scottish legislation to reflect the dissolution of the Health and Social Care Board. In view of that, would the question not be quite prescient? I also thank him for going to ask the current Minister for that information on the projected savings and whether they will be ploughed back into the service.

As I said to the noble Baroness, I am perfectly happy to do so. I appreciate that no MLA is able to stand up in the Assembly and ask those questions at the moment, so I am happy to look into the matter and come back to her.

I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to her place. She correctly identified my look of alarm at the fact that a Westminster health spokeswoman had come into a debate on Northern Ireland matters. She will be aware that I played no role whatever in the passing of the health and social care Act, so I must confess to a certain degree of ignorance of some of the matters she raised. Again, I am happy to look into them for her.

I was making a generic point for Ministers to take away that, where these things emerge, I suspect it would be useful if there were some wider discussions, at least with the Front-Benchers involved with the relevant Bills. It is somewhat frustrating three-quarters of the way through a Bill to suddenly be told that amendments cannot happen, but I am absolutely not asking the noble Lord to deal with that on its own. We respect devolved authority and think it is really important, but we all have to learn how to work together. In this Bill, for once, it was the Westminster side that was left out until after other things had happened.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Like her and many others in this Committee, I am a strong supporter of devolution across the United Kingdom and wish to see it function smoothly, efficiently and harmoniously across all parts of our country. I am very happy to have a look at what she suggested.

My noble friend Lord Lexden asked again about the problems in the health service. On the measures that might be necessary, I talked about the limitations on Ministers in the current scenario we face. Without straying into devolved policy areas, there are probably some quite radical measures and actions that need to be taken to deal with the situation that would be cross-cutting in the Executive, would require executive approval and would need to be quite bold, but which simply cannot happen within the current constraints, without a properly functioning Executive.

My noble friend is absolutely right: things are in a pretty poor state in Northern Ireland and this just underlines the need for the devolved Government to be back up and running as soon as possible. Although I do not necessarily share the reasons, I completely understand why the institutions are not up and running. That is why, without wishing to stray too much into other policy areas, the Government—including under the new Prime Minister, I am sure—are committed to resolving the issues which are preventing the establishment of the devolved Government that we all wish to see up and running. On that note, I commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.32 pm.