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House of Commons Hansard
07 October 2019
Volume 664

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I beg to move,

That the draft Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) (No. 2) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 11 July 2019, be approved.

May I say, Madam Deputy Speaker, what a pleasure it is to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) at the Dispatch Box? He was a superb Parliamentary Private Secretary and a superb Whip, and he is already showing that he is a natural at the Dispatch Box.

This statutory instrument will allow for certain critical appointments to be made under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. I am very glad that we have been able to bring it forward today. I know that Northern Ireland Members have been calling for it to be brought forward for some time.

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I should just like to put on the record my enormous gratitude to the Minister, a very fine Minister and a great addition to the Northern Ireland Office, for making sure that this very important statutory instrument has been brought before the House today. As he will know, because I have scolded about it, the unlawful prorogation of Parliament by the Prime Minister on Monday 9 September meant that this statutory instrument, which was due to be debated in this Chamber on 10 September, did not get addressed. I am therefore enormously grateful to the Minister for ensuring it is here today, earlier than anticipated. It had been thought that it might have been delayed even more to 21 October. Thank you to the Minister.

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. She raised it on a number of occasions and we have been very keen to bring this statutory instrument forward at the first opportunity.

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The Minister knows we are well known for looking forward rather than backwards, but the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is right that the statutory instrument had been scheduled for 21 October. I thank the Minister for all that he did to ensure the provisions were brought forward to this evening. As a former member of the Bar Library of Northern Ireland—I have raised this point with him—we will be able to proceed with Queen’s Counsel appointments in Northern Ireland, something the profession has been looking forward to for some time. Individuals have had a tap on the shoulder. This is an important step to progress their professional development and appoint them to the positions they rightly deserve.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has been forthright in pressing for this to be brought forward. I am glad we are able to do so today. He says that he is looking forward rather than backward. I want to set out some context in my opening remarks, so he will have to excuse me if I look briefly backward before focusing on what the statutory instrument achieves.

The Government are committed to the Belfast agreement. At its heart is a devolved power-sharing Executive Government, and restoring that Executive remains our priority. Northern Ireland needs the fully functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. That being said, in the absence of devolved Government, the UK Government continue to have a responsibility to ensure good governance and that public confidence is maintained in Northern Ireland.

In November of last year, primary legislation was brought forward, which among other measures addressed the need for urgent appointments to be made to a number of bodies. The initial phase of appointments under the Act enabled: the reconstitution of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which continues to fulfil its important functions, including the recent recruitment of a new chief constable; the replacement of the outgoing chair and board members of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland; and the appointment of a new police ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Under the 2018 Act, the Secretary of State also gave a commitment to make further appointments that may arise in the absence of an Executive. A statutory instrument was subsequently approved by the House in February 2019, which added six additional offices to the 2018 Act. As a result of that piece of legislation, critical public appointments were made in Northern Ireland, including that of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and appointments to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The Government maintain that it is important, while prioritising the restoration of the Executive, to ensure the maintenance of good governance and public confidence in Northern Ireland. The appointments made to date under the provisions of the 2018 Act have contributed to that.

This new statutory instrument specifies further critical offices to be added to the Act, allowing for appointments to be made that will continue to safeguard the quality and delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. In preparing this instrument, my officials have worked closely with the Northern Ireland civil service to identify those critical appointments that will arise between now and the end of the year. The instrument would add to the list in section 5 of the Act, thereby enabling the Secretary of State, as the relevant UK Minister, to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to the following offices: the board of the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the board of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland; the board of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, or Translink as it is formally known; the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland; the Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland; the board of National Museums Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Historic Buildings Council; and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Those are the bodies that the Northern Ireland civil service has put forward as the most critical at this time.

As has been raised, the instrument would enable the Lord Chancellor to make Queen’s Counsel appointments, a matter whose urgency has been raised a number of times in this House by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). These are important offices for which the exercise of appointment functions in the coming months is vital for the continued good governance of Northern Ireland. I commend the regulations to the House.

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I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. We welcome this statutory instrument, but not the basis on which it has had to be brought forward. Like the Government, we want to see our devolved institutions restored in Northern Ireland—and restored immediately. That is important for us because, as we know, a date is looming on the horizon—21 October—whereby certain laws will be enacted flowing from the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was approved by Parliament. Those measures will fundamentally change the law in Northern Ireland on abortion and marriage in a way that lacks public scrutiny, that has not allowed for consultation with the people of Northern Ireland, and that crucially, has not allowed the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to have their say on what kind of law we need in both those very important areas.

This is a real challenge. On our part, we want to be clear to the Government—and I want the Minister, if he will, to pass a message to the Secretary of State—that we believe that the Secretary of State should convene a meeting of the Assembly before 21 October, invite the political parties from Northern Ireland to come and nominate their Ministers to form an Executive, and allow the proper functioning of devolved Government once again in Northern Ireland. On our part, we in the Democratic Unionist party will respond positively to such an invitation. We will be at the Assembly. We will appoint Ministers to an Executive and get on with the job that the people of Northern Ireland elected us to do: to govern and deal with legislation that is relevant to Northern Ireland.

As important as this measure is this evening, I say to the Government that it can only be of a temporary nature. It is not a substitute for local Ministers in Northern Ireland taking decisions and making appointments, and crucially, for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the legislature in these matters, to be attending to the business of making law in Northern Ireland that is relevant to Northern Ireland’s specific needs. That is the whole purpose of devolution.

We want to see a devolved Government restored before 21 October so that, through the Assembly, we can deal with legislation relating to the sensitive matters of abortion and marriage, rather than having a situation prevail whereby we have a vacuum in which the law on abortion is decriminalised, we have no statutory basis for abortion in Northern Ireland beyond that of legislation going back to the 1940s, and we have a regime that would allow for abortion for any reason up to 28 weeks. I do not believe that that would be acceptable in any part of the United Kingdom. We believe, therefore, that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be restored to examine this issue and same-sex marriage. We should have a debate among the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland about what is relevant and appropriate for Northern Ireland, having regard to what the people of Northern Ireland want. We want to see that happen. While this statutory instrument is a necessary step by the Government to fulfil certain responsibilities that currently cannot be fulfilled by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, it is no substitute for devolution.

I want to make a final point: if we cannot get the Assembly restored and if we get a deal on Brexit, as I hope we will, and the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, a multitude of decisions will need to be taken as a consequence, not least in Northern Ireland. In those circumstances and in the absence of a devolved Government, I say to the Government that they need to start planning for the reintroduction of direct rule for a period of time until we get those decisions made. We cannot continue with the current vacuum whereby some decisions are taken and others are not. That will not wash when it comes to the crucial ministerial decisions that flow from Brexit, from the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and that are particularly relevant to the needs of Northern Ireland. If the other political parties—in particular, Sinn Féin—are not prepared to take responsibility, form a Government and take these decisions, it will fall to this Parliament and the Government at Westminster to start taking more of them. That will be essential. It will not be optional, and when Brexit happens, we—this Parliament—will have to take on that responsibility if the political parties in Northern Ireland are not prepared to.

I say to Sinn Féin, who say that they will not accept direct rule, that they have an opportunity. The Secretary of State should take the opportunity, convene the Assembly, call the parties and see who is prepared to form a Government. If Sinn Féin does not want direct rule, there is one step it must and can take, and that is to join with the other parties in forming an Executive. Then we can deal with the issues and outstanding matters that need to be addressed in Northern Ireland. Whatever they may be, let’s deal with them. The people of Northern Ireland want a Government, and sooner they get it the better.

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I also thank the Minister for introducing the regulations today and for the appointments that clearly have to be made. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is right that it would be much better if it was the Northern Ireland Assembly making these decisions—no one in the House would say anything different—but that has not been possible, so the Government in Westminster need to make the decisions and put the regulations in place.

I am ever mindful that probably all my colleagues have at some time served in local government and that many government appointments are done through councils. In my case, it was Ards Borough Council, now Ards and North Down Borough Council. These are government appointments and their importance is clear. They enable departments to function and to turn the wheels. They do not take away the legislative power, which still lies with the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the importance of having locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland doing the real work, as my right hon. Friend said. That is everyone’s ultimate goal: to see the Assembly back in place and functioning as it should.

The importance of some of the things the Minister referred to is very clear. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), through the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and other Northern Ireland Members, often raise the importance of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and its appointees. To see that in place therefore is something we welcome right away. The Minister mentioned the police ombudsman and the probation board as well. There is a probation board next to my office in Newtownards, so I understand the work it does. We need someone in place to keep the wheels turning.

My constituency office is always getting issues with the Commissioner for Children and Young People. It is so important to have someone in place who can respond, in departmental ways, to the needs of victims and survivors. On there being a chair or vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, I read in the press Friday past that the executive had £110 million in reserves. My goodness! I find that quite incredible. Yet it is unable to deliver its maintenance. If having a chair or vice-chair enables the system to work better, let us get it together. As one who spent 26 years in local government, I am pleased to see that the Local Government Officers Superannuation Committee is also to have someone in place.

Just last Thursday, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) had the opportunity to meet the General Consumer Council and the retail Minister in Belfast. He and I and others understand the importance of having the consumer council in place—we write to it all the time—and we need to have a chair or vice-chair to make sure those things happen. On the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, education—again, how important. We are talking here about major issues—benefits, education, health—that are departmental responsibilities. We need someone in place to make things happen.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley mentioned a friend of ours who who sat on Ards Council with me many years ago. The council always appointed someone to the Drainage Council. Many people ask what it does. Well, Simpson Gibson, former councillor, a friend of ours, a member of our party, served on the council and used to tell me how important it was for the farmers and the rural community to have someone on it who understood their business and could get a response. Some people might not be able to say what the Drainage Council is, but I can tell the House that it plays an important role in the agrifood sector across Northern Ireland.

What we have here, at long last, are appointments to the positions of chair, vice-chair and members, to enable this skeletal business to move forward. It is not ideal—it would be better if the Northern Ireland Assembly did this by means of legislation—but let us get it done. Let us put the first stages of the mechanics of responsibility for Departments in place, and then bring accountability, and help those Departments to work.

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I welcome the Minister to what I believe is one of his first outings on the Front Bench. I understand that he has other territorial responsibilities. We are not unfamiliar with double-jobbing in Northern Ireland, but I think that if anyone can do it, he can, and he is very welcome.

It is not usually the convention for the Opposition to speak last, but on this occasion I felt it was appropriate. I thought that we should hear the Northern Irish voices first, and I thank the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—but how much better would it be if those Northern Irish voices were resonating in the halls of Stormont rather than in this building. This is a bittersweet occasion. On the one hand, thank heavens, we have finally got round to making these appointments, particularly the Queen’s Counsel appointments, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East. On the other hand, I feel shame for our politics in this United Kingdom that we in this House are having to consider matters that are so utterly and totally the business of Northern Ireland.

We heard about many of the positions that have finally been filled, but others were not mentioned, including the

“Member of the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland”.

Why are we here, in this Chamber, discussing an appointment to the Drainage Council of Northern Ireland? No doubt it is an important position—unbelievably important—and I am sure that they have been flooded with applications for the post—[Interruption.] I am sorry. I understand that there was a leak earlier on; I do apologise. In all honesty, why on earth are we discussing these matters in the House? I think that it is so inappropriate and so wrong, in so many ways, but it has to be done.

I want to ask a couple of small questions. We were provided with a rather interesting explanatory note, and the impact assessment contains something rather unusual:

“There is no, or no significant, impact on the public sector.”

I am not sure what that means. Is there an impact on the public sector, or is there not an impact on the public sector? If there is no impact, there is no need to mention it. If there is an impact, why say that there is no impact?

I do not want to become involved in dancing on the head of a pin, but I think that we should look at the issue of consultation. The explanatory memorandum tells us that the Northern Ireland Office and the Minister have consulted with political parties in Northern Ireland, but there is no mention of civil society. I think that civil society should have been involved in the consultation, because that would have addressed the impact on the public sector. I should be very interested to know whether it was the case.

However, the main point—the most significant point—of all this is quite simple. While the Opposition support the statutory instrument, as we have supported all previous ministerial appointments legislation, we need to know from the Government what they are doing about the pace and intensity of talks to restore devolution. We would like to hear from the Minister what is happening. Will he outline the ongoing talks process, and will the Secretary of State, at some stage, make a statement?

We should not be undertaking this business here. It is Northern Irish business, which should be settled in Northern Ireland. I do not want to get into the blame game. “The Blame Game” is, as I am sure the House will agree, an excellent television programme on BBC One Northern Ireland, featuring Tim McGarry, Neil Delamere, Colin Murphy and Jake O’Kane; but in this context, the issue is not whose fault it is. The fact remains that we in this House are having to deal with this business tonight, which we should not be doing. It is not fair on the House, but, above all, it is to the shame of our politics, and it is not fair on the people of Northern Ireland. However, let me repeat that we support the statutory instrument.

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I thank the House for what has been a sensible and consensual debate on this statutory instrument. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who described the debate as bittersweet. I think that we all recognise that concern. It is somewhat bittersweet to be welcomed by him to the Dispatch Box after three years, although perhaps people were fed up with hearing from me as a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union and are pleased to hear from me in a new capacity.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said that he welcomed the instrument but not the basis of it. I absolutely recognise that. I think that we would all rather that these appointments were made by a properly constituted Executive and supported by a properly constituted Assembly. These are important offices, as we have heard from Northern Irish Members. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) neatly illustrated when he talked about people turning the wheels, these are offices that are necessary for the functioning of government. The other place has already approved this statutory instrument. So long as this House approves the motion today, we can get on with making these important appointments.

The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) asked about the process of consultation. All these appointments are ones that have been recommended by the Northern Ireland civil service, which will of course engage in appropriate consultation. I can also reassure him that the Commissioner for Public Appointments will continue to regulate all these appointments, which will ensure an important check.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from locally elected, accountable devolved Government. Achieving that and delivering a positive outcome from the talks remains our absolute priority. Northern Ireland has made huge progress in recent years. While the UK Government will do all that is necessary to ensure that good governance and public confidence is maintained in Northern Ireland, we can achieve even more with a devolved Government and legislature that unlocks all the potential that Northern Ireland has to offer. We remain focused on achieving that outcome. As we have heard again today, it is an outcome that we all want to see. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.