I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Three weeks ago, I stood at this Dispatch Box setting out my profound regret that the Northern Ireland Executive had not been restored by the legal deadline of 28 October. As I said then, I believe strongly that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning Assembly and Executive, where locally elected representatives can address issues that matter most to those who elect them. That has been denied to the people of Northern Ireland since February, and Northern Ireland has been without fully functioning devolved institutions for the bulk of this year. That is both unacceptable and a cause for alarm.
What the people of Northern Ireland would welcome is getting their devolved institutions up and running. They are worried that almost 187,000 people in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than a year for their first out-patient appointment; they are concerned that there is a higher share of working-age adults in Northern Ireland with no formal qualifications than anywhere else in the UK; and they are worried that a quarter of children in Northern Ireland are growing up in poverty.
There is also a legitimate and strong concern about the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol. This concern is felt very strongly indeed in the Unionist community. It is clear, though, that the Executive will not return overnight, and that a further election in the immediate term would be unlikely to produce a significantly different result.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way so quickly into his speech. He used the term “considerable alarm”. I wonder whether he is pondering what is taking place in the Hutch criminal trial in the courts in Dublin and the implications that the outcome of that trial could have for the operation of any political activity not only in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic of Ireland. Is that being factored in to the Secretary of State’s alarm?
The trial is certainly being watched assiduously by my officials and me. However, this Bill is about the restoration of the Executive in Northern Ireland—something that is very important indeed. Unfortunately, the time has come for the Government, and indeed for hon. and right hon. Members in this House, to take action in response to the governance gap that has emerged in Northern Ireland, and that is what this Bill seeks to do.
The Secretary of State outlines his disappointment that we do not have functioning devolution in Northern Ireland and I share that disappointment, but he knows acutely why the Government are not functioning in Northern Ireland. Instead of sharing his disappointment, can he tell us why, in the three weeks since the duty to call an election—or the past 10 months—there has been no fundamental, sincere or considered progress on resolving the Northern Ireland protocol?
I am afraid that it is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to say that. He and this Government are absolutely not commenting day-to-day about the talks between this Government and the European Commission. As both the Foreign Secretary and I have set out at the Dispatch Box, we will continue not to do that.
While there is probably never a good time to collapse Stormont, does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time of pressing problems occasioned by a cost of living crisis and with all the concerns that affect all communities and both traditions across Northern Ireland, now is most certainly not the time to be depriving Northern Ireland of its elected representatives who serve the good people who put them there?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for his point. Although I agree with him, I cannot put myself in the shoes of those who represent the different communities in Northern Ireland. I understand the views and the strongly held sentiment about the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol and the concern that there is within the Unionist community. That has been borne out by polls across the piece.
In Northern Ireland, 17% of people are in poverty, and 12% in absolute poverty; I understand what the Chair of the Select Committee is referring to when it comes to addressing that. The Government went through the legislation in this House to ensure that the money offered on the UK mainland is equal to that offered in Northern Ireland. If the Government move with some urgency to ensure that that happens—on energy prices and everything else—the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot operate today because of the Northern Ireland protocol should not in any way hold up help going to people who are very much in need.
But, unfortunately, it did. When Ministers were in place they were unable to help us with the money going through the system. Now, as per the responses to the urgent question and to the questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy earlier, there are unbelievable difficulties in the UK Government doing what the hon. Member and I both want to happen.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his generosity in taking interventions. He is quite right about the budgetary challenges facing the people in Northern Ireland at this time, with the economic structures and problems we are seeing, which is why it is so important that we see Stormont back up and running. We all know—this has been touched on already—why Stormont is not functioning, so does he agree that it is imperative that the European Union understands the strength of feelings in Northern Ireland, across communities but particularly in the Unionist community? Without my right hon. Friend commenting on the detailed negotiations, does he not agree that the European Union must show flexibility in allowing an agreement to be formed between it and the UK Government that will facilitate Stormont’s getting back up and running, especially with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement close upon us?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his wise words. I know, because I was present in some of the meetings, that he articulated those words directly to representatives of the European Commission when he was Secretary of State, and he is completely right in what he says.
I go back to the intervention by the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee and state that, while the cost of living is affecting everyone in Northern Ireland, it is exacerbated by the protocol and the costs that are being added on to every single basket of shopping bought in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that is well evidenced; that is why the protocol needs fixing.
I have separately set out in a written statement to this House how the Government intend to respond to the budgetary issues that have arisen in Northern Ireland. I do not intend to go into the detail of the budget now, but right hon. and hon. Members will see from the written statement just how difficult the fiscal situation in Northern Ireland is at present. The Government will be bringing forward a separate budget Bill in which more detail will be provided, and no doubt this House will want to consider that Bill particularly carefully.
Does the Secretary of State agree that New Decade, New Approach contains many commitments, such as funding the Northlands Addiction Treatment Centre, the Magee university expansion and the Brandywell stadium—all in my constituency—and that in this new context they should not be seen as controversial but should be able to get funded even though we do not have Ministers in the Executive?
I believe I have just laid a written ministerial statement to give an update on how the Government are delivering on the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach paper. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that all these things can happen simultaneously or separately and at different speeds, and have done, but there is also a fundamental issue, which was noted at that time, with the protocol. This Bill, though, is about creating the conditions in which key decisions in Northern Ireland can be taken, including on the implementation of the budget, rather than the content of the budget that I was describing before the intervention.
I will briefly summarise the overall intention of the Bill before running through its provisions. At the outset, though, I must say that I am grateful to those on the Opposition Benches—all of them—for their co-operation in moving this Bill forward. Specifically, though I know I should perhaps save this for Third Reading, I thank the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), for the constructive and cross-party fashion in which he and others on the Opposition Front Bench have approached this Bill, both in this place and the other place. I am also grateful to him for speaking to me on this important Bill over the weekend and for speaking to my hon. Friend the Minister of State yesterday evening.
The Bill broadly seeks to do three main things. It retrospectively extends the period of Executive formation for two six-week periods. That means, subject to the agreement of this House and the other place, that if an Executive is not formed within those timeframes, the election duty placed on me will kick in after the second extension of six weeks, on 20 January 2023.
I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the disjoint between the timetable he is setting out today for restoration of the Executive and the current pace of negotiations with the European Union. Does he not recognise the need for him to build in some further flexibility, to avoid a situation where he has to call an election at a time when the negotiations are coming to a conclusion and potentially inside that tunnel, given that an election may be very prejudicial to securing a stable outcome and to getting the necessary compromise so that Northern Ireland can move forward?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his message to me on the subject earlier. I completely understand the point he makes, but I am hopeful that we can do the work that needs to be done within the timeframe that we are setting down now.
Returning to the Bill, the second main thing it does is to clarify the decisions that civil servants in Northern Ireland Departments can take in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, so that decisions in crucial areas such as public sector spending and the maintenance of public services can continue to be taken in the absence of an Executive.
My right hon. Friend talked about the importance of public services; many of us in this House have been talking in particular about the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, which the Government made a very helpful statement on last month. Can he update the House on how those services are being put in place? Many want to ensure that the legislation we passed here about two years ago will lead to an improvement in provision for women in Northern Ireland.
It is now 1,134 days since this House passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and 973 days since the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 were laid to give effect to it. Women in Northern Ireland have been waiting patiently for safe, legal and local abortion services. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many more days he thinks it is acceptable to ask them to wait, now that he has the powers and the money to deliver those services? Would 90 days be enough, for example?
I thank both the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for their questions. I can give some clarity on this now, and later the Minister of State will be able to give a bit more detail. My officials have been working closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Health and I have instructed the permanent secretary to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland. I am also ensuring that the required funding is allocated for those services, and funding will be ring-fenced in the Northern Ireland budget, as set out by my written ministerial statement of last week.
That will mean that, in line with my statutory duty, health and social care trusts will have both the assurance of commissioned service and the guarantee of funding for that service, allowing them to recruit and plan for the full roll-out of services that this House decided women should have access to. The hon. Member for Walthamstow asked about dates. This is a service that is sometimes controversial, but also unbelievably important, and appropriate recruitment and training of staff needs to take place. Her amendment, which I know is a probing amendment, mentions 28 days, but I hope I can demonstrate to her that recruitment is already starting and training is going to start.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the period of 90 days. I would like to think that most services will be at least en route to being delivered by that point in time, but, if I may, I intend to write to those hon. Members who might be interested, maybe on a monthly basis, to give continual updates so that the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke can see what is happening and when.
The Secretary of State will be aware that since the introduction of the new legislation to Northern Ireland, more than 4,000 babies have been aborted in the womb. That is 4,000 lives lost—a stark difference from the 100,000 who are alive today because of the life-affirming laws that we have. He will be aware that 79% of people opposed that legislation. This is being forced on the people of Northern Ireland against their will, and yet he can find funding for it and not for other important things in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady and I have had this conversation before. I have a statutory duty to deliver that service and I will do so.
Lastly, the Bill provides for powers around the remuneration of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, meaning that I will be able to take action to amend their pay when they are unable to conduct the full range of the functions expected of them. The Bill also provides for a number of other measures, including on the regional rate and public appointments, that I will speak to shortly.
Taken together, the measures in the Bill will help to plug the governance gap that has emerged in Northern Ireland. We recognise that the Bill is a stopgap and is not intended to be a long-term solution to the issues that Northern Ireland faces; that is a matter for locally elected politicians.
I will now go through the clauses in turn to explain the Government’s rationale behind some of the policy choices we have made in this process. Clause 1 makes provision for an extension of the period for filling ministerial offices, as set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and amended by the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022—cannily nicknamed “MEPOC”. The clause retrospectively introduces a further six-week period during which an Executive can be formed. That means that the election duty previously placed on me from 28 October no longer applies and, through the Bill, would not apply again until 9 December 2022 at the earliest.
Clause 2 provides for a power to extend the Executive formation period by a further six weeks to 19 January 2023. That power is exercisable through a statutory instrument. I will just say a brief word about that, as I know that it is not necessarily conventional. The regulations made under clause 2 will not be subject to any parliamentary procedure— other than having to be laid after they are made—on the basis that the power is limited and exercisable only once. It is not a recurring power that allows me to extend the period for Executive formation indefinitely, but rather a very tightly drawn single further extension to a defined date.
All taken, the Government judge that this extension will afford political parties in Northern Ireland the time they need to get around the negotiating table, back to the Assembly and into the Executive. I have listened clearly and carefully to party leaders, who have all said publicly that now is not the time for a further Assembly election, and I have acted on those concerns. Right hon. and hon. Members with eagle eyes will note that the clause does not fully replicate previous legislation in that it does not provide for the extension or restoration of caretaker Ministers. The Government considered that, but we have come to the firm view that it would not have been appropriate to restore Ministers who left office on 28 October, even in a caretaker capacity. Instead, civil servants have been holding the tiller in Northern Ireland Departments since that date. They have done so admirably given the circumstances under which they have been working.
That brings me neatly to clauses 3 to 5, which clarify the decisions that Northern Ireland civil servants can take in the continued absence of an Executive. The Government have broadly mirrored the approach to these powers taken by the previous Administration but one in 2018, largely replicating the relevant provisions in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. We recognise that precedent is helpful both to Parliament and to decision-makers themselves. Northern Ireland civil servants will therefore be provided with the certainty to take a limited set of decisions when it is in the public interest to do so. That will enable them to address key issues facing Northern Ireland right now: a sustainable budget, the cost of living and—importantly—the delivery of public services.
Conservatives believe that work should pay and that those who choose not to work should not be as well off. We are now hearing that civil servants will have to discharge some ministerial functions. The Secretary of State mentioned that he will have the power to vary the pay of MLAs. It will stick in lots of people’s throats that, during a cost of living crisis, MLAs are receiving full wages for doing half a job. Will he look at that urgently?
I absolutely will. Indeed, depending on the passage of the Bill through this House and the other place, when the power falls to me, I intend to act on it rapidly. I am fully aware that it is a heartfelt plea from the people of Northern Ireland that their politicians should be active in the Assembly and working on these issues—people are quite cross that they are not.
Is the Secretary of State equally deeply angry about those abstentionist MPs from Northern Ireland who get allowances and run offices but do not take their seats in this House, and is he prepared to take immediate action and amend his own activities today by removing those allowances? Will he be consistent on that matter?
The hon. Gentleman will be talking about Sinn Féin Members of Parliament. I guess I would compare their take-home pay, allowances and everything with his—it would not be the same. I am just essentially taking the same principle and using it in a slightly different way.
We do not, I am afraid, have the luxury of waiting for a restored Executive to take these key decisions. That is why it is right that we give civil servants the legal cover to keep things moving. To aid them in doing that, I will shortly publish draft guidance on taking decisions in the public interest and on the principles that should be taken into account in deciding whether or not to do so. Again, that mirrors the approach that was taken previously in 2018. Final guidance will be published after Royal Assent. We recognise, though, that this is not a long-term solution, and civil servants cannot be left to take decisions indefinitely. That is why these provisions will last for six months or until an Executive reforms—whichever is sooner.
Clauses 6 to 9 make provision for certain public appointments that would usually have to be made by, or require their approval of, Ministers. That largely mirrors provision made in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. This is another sensible step and will ensure that key appointments, which are necessary to maintain governance and public confidence in the institutions in Northern Ireland, can still be made.
Clause 10 will allow me to do something that has just been mentioned: take action when it comes to the pay of Members of the Assembly—or MLAs, as they are usually known. At a time when taxpayers’ money, and indeed taxpayers themselves, are under enormous strain, it is simply not acceptable that MLAs continue to draw a full salary while unable to conduct the full range of functions for which they were elected. The clause will therefore allow me to amend the pay of MLAs in this and any future periods of inactivity, drawing on sections 47 and 48 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Clearly, the vast majority of MLAs want Stormont up and running. They want to do 100% of their jobs seven days a week, rather than the 50% that they are able to do at the moment. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has robustly explored employment law—and if he has not, that he will do so—and that it would allow only for those who refuse to attend to have a pay cut? Those who wished to attend but could not because somebody was exercising their veto should not see their income reduced through no fault of their own.
Amid the interesting debate that is going on across my shoulder, I can honestly say to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), that I have sought and received lots of advice on that very issue. It is judged that, legally, I would be in a very safe place to do exactly as I am doing, but to differentiate would put us into a different place whereby I could be legally challenged or, potentially, legally challenged.
As many Members have said, the Secretary of State is being very generous with his time. He said that he would run the risk of being judicially reviewed. All Ministers of the Crown in this place run that risk. May I urge him to think again, because the risk would be worth it given the situation we are in?
I assure the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) that if he has his way, and believes that that will make any difference whatever to the principled stand that my party is taking based on the mandate we were given in the Assembly election, he is gravely mistaken.
I seem to be in the middle of an argument between two great gentlemen of this House, so I will just tactfully duck and continue with my contribution, because I know that people would like me to move on.
Any determination made by me once the provisions come into force will, I anticipate, take into account the independent analysis produced in the previous political impasse. Again, there is precedent for these powers—the Government took similar action in 2018 to deliver recommendations produced by that analysis.
However, there is an important difference that the House should note: I will retain the power to set MLA pay in future instances where the Assembly is unable to elect a Speaker and deputies following an election. The power would then snap back to the current arrangement when those roles are filled, the Assembly can conduct business and MLAs are fulfilling the full range of functions expected of them. That will mean the Government do not need to return to the House on this matter if the institutions cease to function in the future, which, of course, I hope will not be the case.
It is worth confirming to the House that all MLAs, from whatever party—even if some of those parties do not want to be part of the Executive—are working on their constituency work, which is difficult and particularly busy at the moment. We have the biggest and most diverse set of MLAs in the Assembly’s history, and it is worth speaking up for that group.
I thank my right hon. Friend, the former Secretary of State for doing exactly that. I am fully aware that MLAs, whatever their political stance or party, do good work in their constituencies, which is why the approach I have set out today is the one I hope to take. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, the Chair of the Select Committee, who has tabled a number of amendments on MLA pay that seek to strengthen provisions in the Bill. I know that he has spoken to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and I am sure there will be a bit more of this debate in Committee.
Finally, I draw the House’s attention to a few other provisions in the Bill. Clause 11 confers on me a power to set through regulations the regional domestic and non-domestic rate in Northern Ireland for the financial year ending 31 March 2024. Those rates must be set for every financial year. The regional rate is normally set by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance by way of affirmative order in the Northern Ireland Assembly and comprises rates charged to domestic and non-domestic properties in Northern Ireland. In the continued absence of an Assembly and Executive, this power is an insurance policy where there is continued stasis after a further election, and it will allow the UK Government to set these rates as required. Clauses 12 to 15 are minor and consequential.
No Northern Ireland Secretary would want to introduce a Bill of this nature. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, we should be celebrating the progress that Northern Ireland has made since that historic agreement, which is undeniably substantial. As I said in my statement to Parliament, this Government will always seek to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This Bill will help to do that, providing short-term cover to plug the governance gap in Northern Ireland, but it is not a long-term solution to the issues with which Northern Ireland is grappling. Those are for a newly reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to solve.
My right hon. Friend is right to introduce this Bill, which I am happy to support, but with the time that he is buying with the Bill, will he make sure that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is taken through the Lords rather more quickly than it is presently? That will give him strength in the negotiations with the European Union and then we can get the whole matter sorted properly.
In my former role as Government Chief Whip, this place having any sway over what happened at the other end of the building would have been a pleasurable occurrence. I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance, but I can assure him that a huge amount of work is going on in that area.
The people of Northern Ireland want their elected representatives to get round the table again and get back to power-sharing. I hope the measures in this Bill go some way to providing the space and time for that to happen, but if the Executive and Assembly are to return, it will require the determination, creativity and compromise of those who hold the keys. I know they are up to the task, but for now I commend this Bill to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill. I was clear when he introduced it that we would not oppose this legislation.
There is sufficient consensus in Northern Ireland and outside it that elections this winter will not help to break the political deadlock. In many ways, this emergency legislation is the least worst of the options open to the Secretary of State. I emphasise again that Northern Ireland is a valued part of the United Kingdom, and restoring power-sharing should be one of the top priorities of No. 10. The longer the Executive are collapsed, the hollower the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement next year will be. Power sharing is the essential and hard-won outcome of that agreement. It is incumbent on the UK Government and the European Union to engage with the concerns of the Unionist community that led to its withdrawal from the institutions. Equally, any solution that emerges must be acceptable to the nationalist community to allow power sharing to resume.
There is also a growing part of Northern Ireland’s population that identifies as neither nationalist nor Unionist. In May, the cross-community Alliance party achieved its best ever results in the Assembly election. Balancing these relationships is the nature of the UK Government’s role as the honest broker for Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland deserves. I was encouraged to hear that the Secretary of State made the decision to delay elections after, in his own words,
“engaging widely in Northern Ireland with the parties, with businesses, with community representatives and with members of the public. I have also spoken with other international interlocutors.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 278.]
The need to mark a new chapter in how the Government deal with Northern Ireland is profound, and I hope this marks that point.
To date, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland, which is perfectly illustrated by two Bills affecting Northern Ireland that are going through Parliament at this moment. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has as its central justification the lost consent of one community for the protocol. The second, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, not only has no consent of any community, but is actively opposed by all communities, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and every single victims group, yet the Government obstinately plough on. This Government care about the concerns of Northern Ireland when it suits their needs, but sadly overlook them when it does not. That is a recipe for dysfunction, and dysfunction is what has been delivered.
Labour will always take a constructive approach to Northern Ireland, and one way of trying to make progress would be for the Prime Minister to step in and use his great office. Tony Blair’s first visit outside of London as Prime Minister was to Belfast. He visited five times in his first year as Premier. He did it to show commitment to Northern Ireland. It is revealing that the current Prime Minister has not yet made the short trip himself since he came to power, but in that time has managed to go to Egypt and Indonesia.
He went to the conference in Blackpool.
The shadow—sorry, the soon to be shadow Minister intervenes to point out that the Prime Minister went to the conference in Blackpool, which he did, and we are very grateful for it. I hope that he will soon make time to go to Northern Ireland himself and perhaps use the power of his office to convene multi-party talks and get some progress over there. This matters, because it was a Conservative Prime Minister who personally championed, negotiated and signed the protocol into international treaty. It is not unreasonable to expect it to take a similar level of involvement to change it.
The Bill before us allows the Secretary of State to delay elections, but it does not explain how the Government will use the extra time they are buying themselves. The first deadline in the Bill for restoring the Executive is 8 December. That is next week. It is unclear how the Government have used the period from 28 October to 8 December to find solutions to restore the Executive. Sadly, I can go back even further and say that it is not clear how the Government have used the entire six months since the Assembly elections. For months the Executive have been collapsed, and there was no visit from the Tory Prime Minister and no multi-party talks in Downing Street. There was not even a statement to Parliament. I would like to think that, had the current Secretary of State been in place back then, he would have done so, because he has respected the House by giving multiple statements since, for which I am grateful. It is a shame that there was no such similar action in that period.
The most recent update on the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations came from the Foreign Secretary during his appearance at the European Scrutiny Committee on 15 November. He said:
“I do not want people to be defeatist, but I also do not want people to run away with the idea that we are just on the cusp of some amazing breakthrough”.
He went on to say that he wanted to “manage expectations.” The Bill gives the Northern Ireland Secretary the power to extend the deadline by a further six weeks to 19 January, but no further. It is not clear whether the Foreign Secretary is bluffing or the deadlines in the Bill are too short.
That matters, because over the next few months, the Government have built up hopes that a deal is imminent. The delegated powers memorandum says of the decision by the Secretary of State:
“Parliament will have an opportunity during the passage of the Bill to scrutinise fully his likely decision and the basis on which he will make it. Any decision he takes will necessarily have to be made very shortly afterwards.”
I hope that when he responds to the debate the Minister is crystal clear on this. He must explain what progress has been made to reach a negotiated solution on the protocol and on restoring the Executive.
Other powers that the Secretary of State gains through the Bill include the ability to make public appointments, cut Assembly Members’ pay and set regional rates. We have been assured that the clauses relating to those measures are all based on previous legislation. Public appointments and rate setting are necessary powers for practical reasons. I hope that Members all agree with the need for the appointment of a Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and of commissioners for the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission. Setting regional rates will provide businesses with certainty. It is also fine to cut Assembly Members’ pay, as that has been done before. Northern Ireland is suffering more from the cost of living crisis than any other part of the country, so I understand why residents would want that part of the Bill to be introduced.
I want to give the hon. Gentleman time to outline issues that have alarmed him. Does what has happened in the criminal courts in Dublin, including the Hutch criminal gang trial, create or provoke alarm in the Labour party? He will recall that, historically, whenever the IRA was involved in a major bank robbery, such as the Northern Bank robbery, and whenever its activists colluded with FARC guerrillas, that brought political institutions to a shuddering halt. Does he believe that the implications of what has been revealed in the Hutch criminal gang trial will have another shuddering impact on political activity?
The hon. Gentleman raises extremely serious issues, which relate to the Republic of Ireland and an ongoing trial. I watch that trial closely and await its outcome. I do not think that it would be appropriate at this point to comment on a trial that is under way, but I am grateful for his intervention.
Significantly, the Bill gives civil servants greater decision-making powers to allow public services to function. These decisions will be based on guidance issued by the Secretary of State. However, we should be aware that we are asking a lot of civil servants. Yesterday, Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, gave an interview in which she said:
“We are in a period of keeping the system running, compounded by a requirement to make savings. But equally we won’t be moving and addressing those big systemic issues. That is why it is so important that we get the Executive up and running.”
I want to pay tribute to civil servants, who will undoubtedly do their best in the challenging weeks that lie ahead, but the big systemic issues require political leadership and political decision making.
Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful Enniskillen, where I witnessed first hand some of those acute challenges. In the local hospital, I saw outstanding facilities that are going unused because of the struggle to recruit the clinicians needed to keep services going. I spoke to nurses whose pay deals have been agreed by Ministers but are blocked by the absence of an Executive. Once again, nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland has diverged from pay in other parts of the United Kingdom. Those nurses are essential in tackling the longest waiting lists in the UK. Those issues need to be resolved, and they need to be resolved quickly.
I also want to put on record my thanks to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, whose officers have had to deal with recent attempts on their lives by terrorists. It is worrying that in these times there has been a partial freeze on the recruitment of new officers due to the lack of a budget. Northern Ireland needs a restored Executive so that decisions in such crucial areas can be made locally, instead of here in Westminster. The Government must use the extra time that the Bill gives them to make concrete progress. After months of uncertainty and neglect, it is the very least that people of Northern Ireland deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle). May I begin by thanking Government Ministers, particularly my hon. Friend the Minister of State and his officials for many briefings and conversations that he has facilitated for the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and for me personally? That really is appreciated. There are rumours of a bromance breaking out between my hon. Friend and me, but it is nice that we are working together so closely.
Many, if not all, Members of Parliament—I would probably say all Members and everyone in the country at large—would wish the doing of politics to be normalised in Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the United Kingdom, yet here we are again, having to deal with pressing matters through the use of emergency legislation. That is a real sadness, and I contend that such a situation would not be tolerated in any other part of the UK. At some point, we have to try to find a focused way of trying to deliver normalised politics.
I fear—and I understand precisely why the Secretary of State and the Government have introduced the Bill, which has my full support—that we are falling into a trap. The functioning and delivery of devolution, and the changes that many people would like to see delivered to the protocol, are two distinct, divorced and separate workstreams. We should not stand idly by and allow their conflation in the minds of people across the country. In 2022, no party worthy of that name, against the pressing economic backdrop that we face, should ever have a right to veto or walk away at any time, as I said earlier, still less now. I listened to the intervention from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, about whether or not the reduction of pay was intended to drive, cajole or whip his party back to Stormont. I do not see it that way, but it is the clearest signal possible to members of the public that Parliament gets it and understands what full public service is. If people decide to exercise the veto which currently exists, clearly there should be an opportunity to deliver better value to the taxpayer by reducing the remuneration package. I have always been keen and hot on that, and I hope that the Secretary of State exercises that power under clause 10, which uses the word “may”. However, I very much hope that he does.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said in recent weeks about the process or impetus that could spur a review of the rubric on which we base the formulation and establishment of the Executive. I paraphrase, but he has said in terms that he would respond if there were overtures from the parties in Northern Ireland, from the grassroots up. That is probably the right approach, and I urge my right hon. Friend—he probably needs no urging—should those overtures be made, to respond positively to try to address them as quickly as possible.
Clause 10 says that the Secretary of State “may” make a determination; I think that he has to and that it should be done speedily. I know that many people wish that the law allowed him to differentiate between the MLAs who want to be in Stormont doing their job and those who have decided not to for reasons that are perfectly respectable. As we all know, however, any decisions that we take do and must have consequences.
The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee alludes to differentiating between MLAs who want to do their job and those who do not. Does he make the same differentiation between MPs who want to do their job and those who do not, but still get remunerated?
Yes, I do. At the end of the day, irrespective of which forum people are working in, that is taxpayers’ money. If one is prepared to do only a portion of the job, there should be implications for that. A teacher could not say, “I’m only going to teach boys called George or girls called Helen, and everybody else can go hang,” and expect the full package of remuneration and all the benefits. Likewise—again, I am grateful for the Minister of State’s briefing—I wish that clause 10(5) were not in the Bill, although I understand the complexities, because there should be knock-on implications for pensions as well. That needs to be looked at in due course.
This is a regrettable but understandable Bill. As the Secretary of State said, no Secretary of State would want to introduce this kind of legislation. Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—we say that so flippantly; it has been hard-baked into our DNA as if it has always been there. As well as providing a moment for celebration and looking to the future, that provides us with an opportunity to look to the past and what led to its creation. We must never take its benefits for granted. Is it perfect? No. Does it deliver the process that we had hoped for at the speed that we had intended? Of course not, but let us not take it for granted. Let us all put our shoulders to the wheel to make sure that, across the communities, we can celebrate the huge strides for peace that it presented.
As I said in response to the Secretary of State’s statement on 9 November, my party has made clear its view that the best place for Members of the Legislative Assembly to be, and where we believe that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland would expect them to be, is at work in Stormont holding a functioning Executive to account as they get on with overseeing the delivery of vital public services. As I also said, and still firmly believe, although it certainly does not serve the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland for an Executive not to be in place, it would also not serve their interests to hold another election at this point that would further embed already entrenched positions. We therefore welcome the Bill as a means of postponing an election that nobody wants and that would serve no purpose, and as a means of allowing the essential functions of Government to proceed in the interim, pending, we hope, the formation of an Executive.
Northern Ireland has, of course, been in the unfortunate position of both its Governments being paralysed by inaction in the last few months, albeit for different reasons. We hope that the Bill will allow for some long-overdue negotiations to take place about amending the terms on which the UK Government chose to leave the EU. We are all clear about why we are here, and that sits at the back of it, because that is what led the DUP to refuse to form an Administration based on the Northern Ireland protocol, which it considers to represent the undermining of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
We are clear, as other hon. Members have been in previous debates on the subject, that the protocol was not anybody’s favoured option. It was certainly not the Scottish National party’s preferred way; we saw considerable advantages in remaining aligned with the single market and the customs union, which would have meant that these problems simply did not arise. The protocol was, however, an unloved solution to protect the people of Northern Ireland from the consequences of the form of Brexit that was chosen by the UK Government in line with their negotiating objectives at the time.
Things froze at that point, but I was pleased to note at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford that some fruitful discussions appeared to happen behind the scenes that started to melt some of that ice. Some of the Minister of State’s public reflections and observations on how we have got to where we are have been particularly helpful in re-establishing a basis for discussions. We welcome that and wish the UK Government well in their attempts to renegotiate the protocol; we have never at any point criticised them for having that objective, but it is now time to get on and do it.
I certainly understand the desire to dock MLA salaries, but it seems to be little more than a gesture. It is not going to provide the motive force that puts anyone back to work, because we can all see the political issues at the back of this. It might be more productive if Ministers proposed an amendment to their own salaries if they are unable to negotiate a suitable agreement within the time they have now allowed themselves. [Interruption.] That seems to have started a discussion; I will let it rattle around and see where it ends up.
Our views on Brexit and the diminished position it has left not just Scotland but all parts of the UK in are unchanged, but any new settlement on the protocol cannot only be about Northern Ireland: a revised settlement will only be a better one if it resolves issues in trade both between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and between the UK and the European Union. In that regard, while supporting this Bill, we urge the UK Government to move at pace.
I support this proposed legislation. We had the bandages in New Decade, New Approach of keeping Ministers in place after the Executive fell, and we are now on to the elastoplast. It is worth stressing the limited nature of this Bill. There are very difficult choices that civil servants in Northern Ireland are not able to take. There are big challenges in all sorts of areas, including health, with long waiting lists; education, with hundreds of millions of pounds going in the wrong direction on the budget; foreign direct investment, where Northern Ireland has a great reputation but not having Ministers has an impact; and community groups and other organisations, which are desperate for political direction.
It is worth stressing to the House that there is the current period of not having an Executive, but there have also been other periods. One party is getting a lot of heat this time, but there were other parties involved in the past, and the implication in Northern Ireland when this happens is severe: if we did not have Westminster and instead just had civil servants in Whitehall taking the decisions, people in England, Wales and Scotland would be up in arms. So I want to emphasise that the implications of not having political decision making in Northern Ireland are very significant.
We have heard a lot about restoring the Executive. I was lucky enough to work with Northern Ireland parties in 2019-20 to restore the Executive then, and I took huge inspiration from the quality of politicians in Northern Ireland and the constructiveness and good will there at that time despite strong crosswinds. There are attempts to think about ways to run a negotiation to restore the Executive separately from the issue of the protocol, but that ship has sailed, because for one group and community in Northern Ireland fixing the protocol is key to the Executive getting back up and running. I have had strong views on how we have got here, on how previous Prime Ministers have handled this and on other routes that could have been taken, but the polling shows there is strong support for the Democratic Unionist party position among a big chunk of citizens in Northern Ireland.
We have heard that the new Prime Minister went to Blackpool, and I think he has developed new trust and new connections, and restored connections with Ireland, France and other European countries. In my view, however, we are now at a point where we really need to appeal to the EU to think again about how it is viewing this negotiation. There is some frustration—well, huge frustration—particularly about how the Conservative party has conducted these negotiations over the past couple of years, and I suspect that many of those complaints are correct, but we now need this.
We now need the EU to look back at what it did in Northern Ireland. It set up a taskforce, with multiple reports and multiple streams of investment. It invested in the Peace bridge in Derry, and it invested in the Peace Plus initiative. It had the widest set of co-ordinated activity in the European Commission on this particular vulnerable part of the EU. It thought very carefully and worked very hard to bring stability to Northern Ireland, and we now have one community that needs change to happen to get back to the restored settlement that is such a key part of the GFA.
My appeal to the EU is to think again about how it is going about this. Northern Ireland deals, in my experience, are not great on lots of legal detail, lots of bold paragraphs and lots of black and white. Instead, they are really based on compromise, fudge and flexibility. Whether it is two lanes, two approaches or different approaches to EU goods and NI goods, whether it is providing options to businesses in Northern Ireland about regulatory rules, or whether it is taking the European Court of Justice away from the very front of this deal to some distance in the background, all these things are achievable.
Those are all things on which the EU has recognised the uniqueness of Northern Ireland, with the very limited impact its trade and the risk at the border have on the single market. In this 25th year of the GFA, one community needs these changes to take place. We have a Prime Minister who is really trying to reset this relationship, and we now need to go for it. We now need to really encourage the EU to think about this differently and to work intensively at a political level to resolve this, because it is only through the resetting of the protocol situation that my colleagues in the DUP will come forward and restore the Executive. We can debate all we want whether that is good, and whether they are right or wrong, but that is the situation.
In any negotiation, one has to identify the realities, and the reality is that we need significant reform of the protocol at every level, with the EU leaning in on why that is so important. At a time of all this conflict across the broader European continent, it would be a tragedy should the EU not be flexible on the best possible success story in Northern Ireland. I realise this is a debate about Executive formation, but Executive formation in Northern Ireland comes from protocol renegotiation, and protocol renegotiation comes from the EU having some amnesia about its views on the Conservative party position on Brexit and moving forward in the best interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). We fondly recall his facilitation of the talks immediately after the general election in 2019 and the New Decade, New Approach agreement that opened the door for the restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, and we thank him for his continuing interest.
I recognise that the Secretary of State is mandated by legislation to bring forward the Bill, and I think that neither he nor I want to be in this position. Let me be clear that the Democratic Unionist party wants to be back in a functioning Executive. It wants to be dealing with the issues that matter to our constituents. Our MLAs stood for election in May, and they sought a mandate from the people of Northern Ireland. That mandate was clear. I sat in TV studios in Belfast, I sat in radio studios in Belfast and I was interviewed by the print media in Belfast and made it absolutely clear that we would not nominate Ministers to an Executive until decisive action had been taken to address the difficulties created by the Northern Ireland protocol. There was no ambiguity on the part of my party about where it stood and the mandate that it sought.
I say gently to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he may wish to punish us because we sought a mandate from the people for the stance that we are now taking, but I would like to see him, as Chair of the Committee, adopting a more conciliatory approach, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) did, which recognises the very serious concerns that Unionists have about the protocol. I am not prepared to nominate Ministers to an Executive where a Unionist Minister is required to implement a protocol that every day harms our place in the United Kingdom. It vexes me that the hon. Member for North Dorset does not get that. He does not understand it and has not sought to understand it. In my time as party leader, he and I have not had an honest conversation with each other about this issue. I would welcome the opportunity to explain to him why it is important to my party that it is resolved.
When I was elected leader of the DUP, I set out very clearly on 1 July 2021 the course of action that we would take. The Government published their Command Paper in July 2021. We welcomed the commitments that the Government gave in that Command Paper to address the real problems that the protocol has created. On the foot of that Command Paper, I outlined seven tests based on the commitments made by the Government of the United Kingdom—they were not tests that I had created—to address the problems with the protocol. That, again, was in July/August 2021.
In September last year, I again warned that if the Government and the EU were not able to agree on measures to resolve the problems created by the protocol, there would come a moment when it would no longer be tenable for my party to remain in an Executive. Why is that the case? In the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which was the basis on which devolution was restored, a number of commitments were made by all parties to that agreement. It is a fact that the one single remaining issue that has not been resolved, and which is a commitment by the UK Government in New Decade, New Approach, is restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. That commitment has not been delivered. That was made at the beginning of 2020 and we are now almost at the end of 2022, almost three years after we received that commitment from the Government, and it has not been delivered.
I welcome the publication of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. I believe that that Bill takes us in strides towards achieving the objective of restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, but it has not been delivered. The Bill is now sitting in the House of Lords, and we do not have a date for when Report will occur in the other place. We do not know what the timetable is for the Bill eventually gaining Royal Assent. It is and remains an outstanding commitment by the UK Government that has not been delivered, and that was the basis on which my party signed up to New Decade, New Approach.
Notwithstanding that, all the other main commitments are being delivered, including recently the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, which was a key commitment made by the UK Government—and, I accept, others—in that agreement. That has been delivered, notably before the proposed date of the Assembly election. The Secretary of State has now quite rightly extended that date, because an election at this stage will not solve the problem.
That is what we are looking for: a solution. That is what we need. I say—again, respectfully—to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that it would be good to hear him talk about solutions, rather than focusing on punishing people who have a real problem with the protocol and who have a mandate from the people who voted for them to take the stand that they are now taking.
On that point, that mandate was created in May of this year—a very clear mandate for the DUP to be the largest Unionist party. Since then, the opinion polls in Northern Ireland have shown a greater mandate for our party, because more and more people of the Unionist tradition and across Northern Ireland see the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as the solution that will sort this matter out. If that does not happen, everyone in this House has to be aware that opinions are hardening, especially on the Unionist side, and they cannot be ignored.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon: although the Government have not yet been able to deliver on their commitment to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, the biggest culprit in all of this is the European Union. The European Union was formed and founded on the basis that developing consensus in Europe was preferable in order to avoid conflict—that was its original concept. Two terrible world wars had absolutely destroyed Europe, with millions of lives lost, and there was a genuine desire on the part of many European leaders to develop a basis for working and co-existing together through consensus to avoid conflict.
The principle of consensus is central to this discussion. Since 1972 and the collapse of the then Northern Ireland Government, every single Government in this House have made clear that power can only be devolved to institutions in Northern Ireland on the basis of power sharing—a cross-community consensus. I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly during the mandate from 1982 to 1986, and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) will recall that the SDLP refused to take their seats in that Assembly. They did so on the basis that they would not enter any devolved legislature in Northern Ireland unless an agreement had been established on the basis of power sharing. That has been the case ever since: it is accepted that in a divided society such as Northern Ireland, only a cross-community consensus offers the basis for stable government. After the Good Friday or Belfast agreement, we worked hard from 1998 until 2007 to create the conditions in which that stable, cross-community, consensus-style government could be delivered, and it was created. For 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, we had a stable devolved Government in Northern Ireland, which then collapsed in 2017 when Sinn Féin withdrew.
It concerns me when people talk about the need to normalise politics in Northern Ireland—what does that mean? Does it mean majority rule? Does it mean excluding one section of the community? That fundamentally will not work, and I say that as a Unionist, part of a tradition that held the majority in Northern Ireland for very many years. Now, as the hon. Member for North Dorset has reminded us, we have three groupings. There is no majority in Northern Ireland, in the sense that although support for the Union remains the position of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly that they vote for belong to three different political groupings: Unionist, nationalist, and other. However, the idea that an Executive can be created that excludes the largest grouping—the Unionists—simply does not wash.
If we are going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, we have to accept and recognise that the principle of consensus is the way forward. As the Secretary of State acknowledged, that consensus on the protocol does not exist. On Thursday, I think, the Supreme Court will rule on the case that has been brought in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. However, the High Court and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland have already ruled that the protocol supersedes article 6 of the Act of Union.
Article 6 gives the people of Northern Ireland the right to trade freely with the rest of this United Kingdom. It is the embodiment of the economic Union—this is not just a political Union, but an economic Union—and article 6 says to the citizens of Northern Ireland that they have the right to trade without barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom. As the High Court and the Court of Appeal have confirmed, the protocol creates barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It subjugates the Act of Union. For us as Unionists, that represents a fundamental change in our constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom, yet we are expected to suck it up and operate political institutions that implement that change—that impose barriers to trade in our country. We are simply meant to accept that that is the way it is, but I am sorry, that is not the way it is. My party will not be in a position where it implements measures that harm our place in the United Kingdom and create barriers to trade with the rest of our country. We will not do that, which is why the protocol needs to be resolved. It affects trade.
I understand that His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is proposing a pilot scheme, to be introduced in conjunction with Fujitsu, that would seek to digitise arrangements for checking the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In other words, it would digitise the Irish sea border. Let me absolutely clear: the digitisation of the Irish sea border does not remove it. Tinkering around the edges of the protocol will not resolve the problems that it creates. The EU needs to understand that.
Last week, the Prime Minister spoke with great clarity when he was challenged on a story that appeared in The Sunday Times stating that the UK Government were prepared to consider the Swiss model as a way forward for our trading relationship with the EU. The Prime Minister said that the UK will not be aligning with EU laws. When we met him that evening, I reminded him that not only is Northern Ireland aligned with EU laws, but we are subject to them. Our ability to trade with the rest of our country is subject to legislation over which we have no control and on which we have no say. More than 300 areas of law govern the way we trade with the rest of the United Kingdom and we have no say on them.
The right hon. Member referred to digitalisation and Fujitsu. I can recall, as I am sure he can, that many on the DUP Bench kept referring during the passage of various bits of legislation to the evolving nature of IT and digital as a way of providing that light, invisible touch to deliver something. The IT companies have caught up and are providing those solutions, or are certainly evolving them with HMRC, so I do not understand why a digital solution suddenly has to be taken off the table as unacceptable.
I am happy to offer clarity to the Chairman of the Select Committee. If the digitisation is used to check the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and into the European Union, then yes, anything that makes that a smooth operation and provides the EU with the data it needs to satisfy itself that the integrity of the single market is being protected is fine. But why do my constituents need digitisation for the movement of goods that they purchase at a Sainsbury’s supermarket at Sprucefield in my constituency? Sainsbury’s does not have any supermarkets in the Republic of Ireland; there is therefore no risk of those goods travelling into the Republic of Ireland. Why do we need digital technology to monitor the movement of goods from the Sainsbury’s depot in London to the Sainsbury’s store at Sprucefield?
I think we all take the point about Sainsbury’s, but may I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman that what he says sounds very much like a moving of the goalposts? When he and his party colleagues were advocating invisible, light digital solutions, I paid very keen attention. In all those debates and Select Committee sessions, his party colleagues’ voices were heard, so we all knew the DUP’s position, but I did not hear that distinction being made; it was about a digital solution for everything. It suggests to me that with a digital solution having been on the cusp of delivery, it is now not quite good enough and the goalposts are being moved still further.
I assure the hon. Member that our position has been absolutely consistent. We have said from day one—and this is why we voted against the protocol at the outset—that we do not believe that there should be regulatory barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland when they are remaining within the UK internal market.
I say to the Chairman of the Select Committee that the New Decade, New Approach agreement is very specific. It talks about restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. What does that mean? It means that there should not be regulatory barriers to trade on the movement of goods that travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and remain within the United Kingdom. The Democratic Unionist party has never, at any stage, advocated that there should be an Irish sea border on the movement of goods that remain within the UK internal market. That has never been our position.
I simply say to the hon. Member that, yes, I am all for using technology. I have consistently argued that technology can help us where goods are moving through Northern Ireland and into the Republic of Ireland, because that, in essence, is the problem—
Mr Deputy Speaker, the scope of the Bill is about the government of Northern Ireland. If the government of Northern Ireland cannot function because of the protocol, we need to identify the problems that the protocol is creating.
I say to the Secretary of State and the Government that I think the United Kingdom has been accommodating in its negotiating objectives, as have we. The UK Government and Unionists both accepted from the outset of the debate that there could not be a hard border on the island of Ireland. Let us really think about that for a moment. The United Kingdom accepted, and we accepted, that using the place where customs checks normally take place, which is on the international frontier, would be disruptive to the political process and to the co-operation required to operate the political institutions in Northern Ireland—and what did the European Union do? It pocketed that accommodation and drove for an Irish sea border that it knew full well would have the effect on the Unionist community that a hard border would have on the nationalist community. I say it again: I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon that the European Union has a responsibility to put right what was done wrong in relation to the protocol.
The right hon. Gentleman and I are both members of the EU-UK Parliamentary Assembly, which met recently to highlight our current problems. He and I may disagree on this, but it was the then British Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who actually proposed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as a solution to the problem that the Government had got themselves into, and I think we should be laying the blame squarely there.
The issue, as was said in the Parliamentary Assembly and as we all know, is problematic now, but the real problem for future trust is the future relationship. We have still not heard from the UK Government—from one voice in the Conservative party—what sort of realignments, changes and newfound freedoms they want, and that is going to create more problems on the island of Ireland, for all communities. It would be helpful if we could hear from the Government how they see the future relationship operating once we get through the current one. We are not that far apart at the moment, but the fear is that we will be very far apart in the not so distant future.
The hon. Lady has made an important point. Let me say at this stage that I applaud the Government for introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, because somebody had to do something. Somebody had to make the first move, and the Bill has at least brought the European Union to the point at which they are back at the negotiating table, and perhaps adopting a more realistic approach. However, we have yet to see that manifest itself in the form of agreement, and we need to see progress being made.
Why is progress important? Progress is important because coming down the track is a major piece of legislation which will, in my opinion, greatly exacerbate the current difficulty: the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Why will that exacerbate the problem? Because Northern Ireland will be excluded from large swathes of the Bill, as it is not possible to remove EU regulations in Northern Ireland that are linked to the protocol, the changes that will made to law in Great Britain will leave Northern Ireland further behind in terms of regulatory alignment within the UK internal market. This will greatly enhance the divide between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It will lead to regulatory divergence. Therefore time is of the essence, but time is also of the essence because the EU is coming forward with new regulations every week, and those regulations apply to Northern Ireland.
Let me give an important example. The EU is proposing a new regulation on human organs and tissues, which will apply to Northern Ireland but not to Great Britain. What does that mean? It means that unless Great Britain adopts the changes that will be brought about by this new regulation, when Northern Ireland patients are hoping for organ transplants or blood transfusions, special blood products or organs will have to be brought from Great Britain. That presents us with a major problem. Because there will no longer be regulatory alignment between the rules on organ transplants in Great Britain and those in Northern Ireland, there will no longer be regulatory alignment in respect of the use of blood products coming from Great Britain for use in the health service in Northern Ireland. This regulation is coming forward: it has already been the subject of scrutiny by the European Scrutiny Committee in this House.
That is just one small example of how further EU regulation will cause Northern Ireland to diverge further from Great Britain, and will present real and practical issues that are about not just trade, but the health and wellbeing of every single citizen in Northern Ireland.
Order. I will allow this intervention, but I think we have gone way beyond the Bill that is before us. There will be plenty of other opportunities to discuss the issues that you are raising today, Sir Jeffrey. I know that this is vitally important, but there will be many more such opportunities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU, on the issue of medicines, did show flexibility this year, and did start to move into the area that we were discussing earlier—the area of compromise and less hard facts? We need more of that in other areas. We should encourage the EU to use the principle that it applied to medicines in these other sectors, and to start to move in that direction.
I thank the former Secretary of State for making that point, and I agree with him. I think that the point he made in his speech— which I echo—is that what we need now, more than anything, is for the European Union to recognise that consensus in Northern Ireland is essential to restoring the political institutions.
In conclusion, the European Union has stated that the primary reason for the protocol is to protect the integrity of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the political institutions created by that agreement. That is what the European Union has said countless times, yet the reality is that the protocol is harming the agreement. It is harming the consensus that is necessary—nay, essential —to operate the political institutions created under the agreement. We are approaching the 25th anniversary, and a lot has been said about that in the House this afternoon. For the record, we want to see the political institutions restored well before the 25th anniversary. We want to be able to join with all our citizens in Northern Ireland to celebrate 25 years of a relative degree of peace.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way one last time. I just want to remind him of when he and I sat on the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly just a few weeks ago in Committee Room 14 and talked to the EU about moving forward. He made an impassioned plea, as did I, for the EU to take account of the needs of all the communities in Northern Ireland, and I certainly felt that that was listened to and respected. I feel optimistic about this, and I wonder if he shares that view.
I would like to be optimistic about the European Union changing its negotiating stance, but we have not seen it yet. We are looking for the evidence of it; we want to see it. That is now essential to break the logjam and open up the opportunity for the UK Government and the European Union to reach an agreement on this most pressing of issues. Therefore, we want to see this legislation have an endpoint. We want to see the political institutions restored in Northern Ireland, but let me be absolutely clear: that requires a solution on the protocol and it requires the European Union to accept that the protocol is not working. It is harming the consensus in Northern Ireland and it needs to be replaced by arrangements that respect the integrity of the UK and Northern Ireland’s place within it.
Although I am an English MP, I have a huge affection for the people of Northern Ireland. What happens there matters a lot to me because of the three years I spent soldiering in the place. Indeed, I am revisiting the Province this weekend, as Northern Ireland Members know, for the rather sad commemoration of the Ballykelly bombing, which occurred 40 years ago and for which I was the incident commander. Thankfully the bad old days of the past have gone now, and they must never return.
May I at this point commend to the House the continuing dedication, hard work and often gallantry of the Police Service of Northern Ireland? In the past I worked closely with its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary—especially the special branch—and I have nothing but the greatest of respect and admiration for the men and women who make up its ranks.
It is unfortunate that we have to have this Bill to try to get an Executive formed in Northern Ireland, but that is where we are. It is also essential that we get through this deadlock of democracy in Ulster. Everyone agrees on that, and the stumbling block to achieving that progress is the protocol. It is certainly stumped at the moment, and people and businesses are really hurting in Northern Ireland. The protocol directly costs people in Northern Ireland. It is totally unfair that my constituents in Beckenham do not have to pay as much money in the supermarket as people in Northern Ireland do because of the protocol.
Will the right hon. Gentleman outline where he saw these price differentials? Through my work, I spend half the week in London and half the week in Belfast, and I am not seeing it. I do not think the evidence provided by the retailers is bearing out that assertion. Can he give evidence of the price distortions he says the protocol is causing?
I will not respond to the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). I have not been to Northern Ireland recently, but I will be there at the weekend and I will buy something in the supermarket. I have been reprimanded by Mr Deputy Speaker, and I always take a reprimand from the Chair with seriousness.
Northern Ireland must develop and regain its devolved institutions and local decision making, and I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—he is sitting on the Front Bench and paying great attention to everything I say, as he always does—is bending over backwards to try to sort out this problem. There is no doubt about that.
Nobody benefits from the current situation, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s continuing discussion and co-operation with the Irish Government on matters of mutual concern. However, I am somewhat worried by some suggestions that, if an Executive cannot be formed, there could be some form of joint authority over the island of Ireland. That must not even be considered. It is utterly unacceptable and would be a direct attack on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We cannot have that.
Obviously, we all hope that an agreement on changes to the protocol can be agreed in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about docking the pay of MLAs because they are apparently not fulfilling all their duties of representation. I accept that, in principle, they might not be doing all their job, but every one of them—DUP included—wants to go back to work. However, I will support the Secretary of State if he decides to take that form of action.
I presume that, unless an Executive is formed by 19 January, new elections in the Province will be inevitable. To stop this, we need the problems of the protocol to be sorted by then. We really have to fix it, because my friends in Northern Ireland do not deserve to go through all this.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I sit down, having been reprimanded.
It is a privilege to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to follow my esteemed colleague and friend, the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
In speaking to the Bill, I will limit my remarks to a small number of areas. The first is the matter of MLAs’ pay, which has been alluded to not only in the Chamber but more widely as a significant contributor to the moving of the Bill. The Secretary of State helpfully introduced the Bill last week. I shall quote from what he told us:
“It is also unacceptable that Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) should continue to receive full remuneration from the public purse when they are not fulfilling their Assembly duties”.
That is the justification for that portion of the Bill.
I presume that if I were to ask the Secretary of State—which I may well—whether his Government are acting with a very even hand in relation to all aspects in Northern Ireland, and whether he wants to ensure that what he applies to one community is applied equally to the other, I would not see him in any way diverting from that. Indeed, I can almost see him nodding in acclamation: that the Government want to treat everyone equally, and that that has been the sum and substance of what he and previous Secretaries of State have said on previous occasions.
If this Government are treating everyone equally in respect of the potential to reduce MLAs’ salaries—on the basis of what the Secretary of State has said in introducing the Bill about it being unacceptable that they should continue to receive full remuneration from the public purse when they are not fulfilling their duties—I trust that he has had some level of conversation with the Leader of the House on the almost reprehensible nature of the fact that there are MPs who do not fulfil their duties in this House. Having done some research and received answers to parliamentary questions I have tabled about representation moneys, I know that they receive funding of not thousands, not tens of thousands, not even hundreds of thousands, but millions of pounds. In the past 10 years, those who do not fulfil their duties as Members of Parliament in this Parliament have received £10 million—ten million pounds—so I trust that, in conjunction with this Bill, the Northern Ireland Office has had conversations with the Leader of the House about wanting to treat everyone equally. I am sure that those conversations have taken place and that they have been along the lines of, “We’re going to introduce this Bill to ensure that MLAs don’t get the full remuneration from the public purse, but you’re going to have to introduce something similar in this House, so that Sinn Féin MPs or anyone else who doesn’t fulfil their duties also don’t receive remuneration from the public purse.”
I am well aware of that. The remuneration I am talking about does not include salaries, but it does include all other expenses, including representation moneys, and the total amount in the last 10 years was in excess of £10 million—for not performing their public duties. That is not the responsibility of the Secretary of State, but it is the responsibility of the Leader of the House.
Is the hon. Member’s point that he would like the salaries of his party colleagues’ staff stopped as well? That seems to be the logical extension of what he is saying. I think we are all agreed that abstentionists should not receive a salary, but if he is saying that the issue is that there are office costs and other remuneration, is he proposing that they are taken away from MLAs?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I think she knows full well that that is not what I am suggesting. I was quoting the exact reference from the Secretary of State in introducing the Bill: “full remuneration from the public purse”. That should apply equally to Sinn Féin’s allowances and representation money. Action should be taken on that. It has been requested and sought for many years. I will leave it there and hope that the Leader of the House will introduce such a change. It would be entirely unacceptable if she were not do so.
We have discussed this Bill on many occasions and also the need to get back into Stormont, which all of us share. My party is a devolutionist party. I have served for many years in various capacities under the devolutionary settlement of Stormont, so I want to see Members back doing their jobs. However, it is a mistake to keep referring to a variety of problems and say that they could be solved if Ministers were back at their desks. Ministers were at their desks when hospital waiting times got worse. The A6 dual carriageway in my constituency is almost finished, but it has been almost finished for a year, and that has been mostly under devolution. Unfortunately, the road remains unfinished. I hope that no one will suggest that we should get back into devolved Government so that the roads can be finished. I hope that no one will suggest that we should get back into Government because the waiting times in various hospitals are getting worse. They were getting worse under devolution. Yes, I want to see devolution work, but let us not create straw men for others to knock down.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the £670 million hole in the budget occurred when the Executive were sitting and that, this time last year, the Sinn Féin Minister could not get agreement from any party—not one party—in the Assembly to his budget?
Not only is my right hon. Friend right, but the Secretary of State alluded to that. He was extremely critical of the overspend that the devolved Government had achieved. I just think that we should be more circumspect when we talk about getting back into devolved Government. We come back to the point that my good friend the right hon. Member for Beckenham made just before I rose to speak, which was that there is one issue that prevents devolved Government from returning—with all their faults, which must be remedied—and that is the protocol.
Again, I hope that the Secretary of State, the Minister of State or anyone else will not use the other straw man, which is preventing the return of a hard border, because everyone knows that that will not happen. It was never going to happen. It was raised to pressure our Government; that is the reason that it was raised. That is why Leo Varadkar, when he was Taoiseach, threw down the front page of The Irish Times, which showed a border post ablaze in the 1970s, and said to Messrs Macron and Merkel that we cannot go back to that. Our Government took fright and would have agreed to anything rather than this false assertion that violence would return.
A hard border is not on the equation. It will not be implemented. Everyone accepts that that is the case. The Government have to deal with the one thing that prevents us from getting devolved Government back up and running—the one thing that has introduced the Bill that we are discussing today—and that is the protocol. Sort out the protocol and we will get back into government.
I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate, but I am disappointed that it is on another Bill that is a manifestation of political failure. It is the latest in the diet of political failure that the people in Northern Ireland have been fed, and attention is rightly on the current abeyance of the institutions. However, the truth is that the stewardship of the Good Friday institutions has been abused for the past decade by partisan positioning. The people who pay the price, time and again, are those who are waiting for health treatment for want of reform of health and for want of workforce planning, the children who are sitting in an inadequate school estate because of delayed development decisions, and the people sitting in the cold and getting sick because of it, waiting for cost of living support payments that reached other regions many months ago.
We should be in absolutely no doubt that, despite the nihilist anti-devolution rhetoric that we have just heard, the responsibility to govern and the refusal of it does have a measurable impact on public services. Nobody is saying that the parties in charge over the past decade have done a particularly good job of running those services, but it is absolutely the case that having no Ministers degrades decision making. We should be in no doubt, either, that the normalisation of crisis politics is wearing people in Northern Ireland down, entrenching division and making our society even sicker.
Anybody listening to the speeches from DUP Members will have had a mind-bending experience. I am going to stick to the scope of the Bill, but I want to clarify that nobody is dismissing the hurt that many ordinary Unionists feel about Brexit and the protocol; that is why many of us advocated exhaustively for better solutions, which were dismissed, while DUP Members were gleefully all about their selfies with the European Research Group. However, we are being honest with people about the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly does not have a role in that negotiation.
In the debate about restoring the institutions, people are frustrated at the idea that the DUP is the victim in all this, when the people I, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and many others represent are the people who have been Brexited against our will. Are we tearing everything down? Are we punishing the health service? No—we are turning up for work every day to try to find solutions.
We have heard it demonstrated today that no solutions are going to be acceptable. Perhaps I imagined the years of debate about blockchain and all the other technical solutions to Brexit that were put forward, including by the DUP, but we know there is no bottom line that is going to be met. Instead, we have the promulgation of a “them’uns did it” narrative that the protocol is somehow a creation of Irish people, nationalists and foreigners in the EU, rather than a proposal by the UK Government to get themselves off the hook of the original Brexit trilemma and the fact that we cannot reconcile a hard Brexit with the geography we have. In all the debate I have heard over the last six years, including today, I have yet to hear a solution to that.
The Good Friday agreement is about solutions. That agreement and the institutions it created were supposed to give life to the aspirations of everybody in Northern Ireland, regardless of their community background or their view on the constitutional issue. Instead of people being able to see opportunity in politics and opportunity in public service, they just see dysfunction, an Assembly not sitting and—with respect—a UK Government who are not interested.
People in Northern Ireland know that our future is not fixed. They know the experience we are having right now does not have to be the experience that we have forever, and people are beginning to look clearly at their options. They see the Stormont dysfunction and the merry-go-round here, and they can see a very clear contrast with the Government in the rest of the island of Ireland, who are stable and delivering a budgetary surplus that can mean investment in public services.
The Social Democratic and Labour party has always been clear about our desire to create a new Ireland on the basis of consent, and we have rejected the scorched-earth approach of others that would see a new Ireland rooted through dislocation and disarray, but the hard truth is that those creating chaos in our institutions are absolutely scorching the earth. They are driving more people every day to think about a new paradigm in which they can enjoy good governance, run their businesses and raise their families.
Our primary political objective will always be meeting the needs of people in the here and now. That is why we support the provisions in this Bill—reluctantly, because we know it is required to keep the show on the road, and it does just that and no more.
We acknowledge the need to postpone an election. Elections are supposed to put power in the hands of the people, but the reality is that an election, had it been run next month, or in March or May, if the veto was not removed and the blockage was not removed, would do no such thing. It would not put the people in the driving seat and it would further disrespect the mandate that those people expressed six months ago.
We acknowledge the need to give clarity about interim political decisions, but—I appreciate that the Secretary of State understands this—it is no substitute for democratically accountable Ministers. We are not over the last governance black hole that caused much of the degradation in public services that we are currently experiencing.
However, the SDLP is equally clear that DUP intransigence cannot be rewarded by either direct rule or indirect rule. In the absence of an executive, even with the mitigations in this Bill, the Conservative party would be in the driving seat on major decisions. That does not reflect the will of the people as expressed either this past May or in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement. That agreement was about creating devolved institutions that reflect the views of people who are Unionist, people who are nationalist and people who are neither.
Plan A for the SDLP is a devolved Executive as chosen by the people in May. But we have tabled new proposals that would give a formal consultative role to the Irish Government and a role to the First Ministers-designate, who should be chosen from the two largest traditions—[Interruption.] People can call that what they will, but we are very clear that if strands 1 and 2 are deliberately paralysed, strand 3 and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference should be consciously operated. Parties should know that that will be the recourse and the consequence of their choice to hold strands 1 and 2 of the Good Friday agreement to ransom. The institutions of government rely on Unionists, nationalists and others working together in our substantial common interest, and that principle should be hardwired into any governance decisions—even those that are operating only temporarily.
We acknowledge the injustice of MLAs who are not fully at work continuing to receive a full and decent salary at a time when so many are struggling, and when those with trade unions are losing pay because they are striking to improve terms and conditions and the public services that they deliver. We regret the collective punishment and untargeted scope of this approach.
As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) outlined, there are many decent and talented people in all the parties, including the many who have stepped forward for election for the first time this year. I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people of all political backgrounds to go into politics. It is difficult enough to attract talent—many of us now on these Benches had our pay cut last time the Assembly was in abeyance—but it is harder when you say, “These are the terms and conditions. This is the abuse you’ll get on social media. These are the hours you’ll keep. And by the way, for a few months every year, you’ll struggle to pay your mortgage and childcare bills because of the intransigence of others.” We have tabled an amendment that would direct that tactic at those who are creating the problem and who refuse to allow even the nomination of a Speaker.
We have also proposed by amendment a means of electing First Ministers and a Speaker. That would move us away from the culture of veto and the focus on binary designation, neither of which have, in recent years, proven healthy for discourse or decision making, unfortunately. That reflects our desire to evolve and reform the institutions without jeopardising the fundamental principles of power sharing and mutual respect. There is absolutely no attempt by the SDLP to move away from those principles, which have been at the core of our party and everything we do for the last five decades and more. But if that is only ever expressed by veto and by blocking the people of Northern Ireland from having a decent life—if that is the only tactic that people appear to be prepared to use—we will absolutely look for solutions.
If the DUP continues to be abstentionist in the new year, post any EU-UK deal, and given that an Assembly election while those are still the conditions will not put power in the hands of people, we will explore reform with more urgency—
You are doing a great job yourself.
We began that work by tabling amendments to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 to introduce an alternative election of First Ministers—[Interruption.] We do that work despite the chuntering from a sedentary position of people who just say no, who just nag from the sidelines, who are blocking good governance, and who, day by day, move more people towards considering and exploring a new Ireland—[Interruption.] Those on the DUP Bench below me have no interest in making Northern Ireland work, have derided and mocked people like me for wanting to do so, and have shown that they are unwilling or unable to do that. Those who vote for that party to protect the Union should really take a strong look at the strategic direction that is being provided and the value that they are being given for their vote.
Order. I am going to be less generous than I was earlier. As far as the protocol is concerned, the points have been well heard. Members’ remarks are going much wider than what is in the legislation before us. Can we have a bit of focus, please? There is plenty of meat here.
I appreciate that, Mr Deputy Speaker, and my focus is exclusively on the restoration of the Executive and restoring government to the people of Northern Ireland. I am outlining the efforts that we made last year with the MEPOC Act to introduce or reintroduce mechanisms that would move us away from veto and confrontation, which have become the political culture.
We sought to equalise the titles of First Minister to clarify the joint nature of that office and to end campaigning that is only ever built on dominating other communities. We also attempted to introduce a change that would allow for the election of First Ministers based on the votes of two thirds of Assembly Members, including broad-based, not majority rule. It is worth saying that had that been voted for last July and extended to the election of the Speaker, we would be back in the Assembly now.
Solutions do exist, and we will engage with any solutions that are serious about ending the deadlock while retaining the core principles that we adhere to of common endeavour and mutual respect. The way that things are being operated at the moment and the tactics of the DUP are destroying trust in devolution, and the DUP is profiting from prioritising victory and veto in a system designed for partnership. As John Hume said many times, “If you ask for all or nothing, you will get nothing.” [Interruption.] DUP Members may think they are being smart by chatting over me, as they do. They reject anybody whose views are not identical to their own, and they will see in the long term where they get. As long as this fiasco continues, the Social Democratic and Labour party will continue to speak up for people who are just trying to get through their days, live their lives, raise their families and run their businesses. We will support the necessary provisions in the Bill that help them do that.
I take no pleasure in seeing this legislation before the House today, as it sadly represents failure between the Government and the EU to protect the cornerstone of the political institutions in Northern Ireland and the fundamental principle of cross-community consent. It represents a failure to the Unionist people of Northern Ireland and businesses in Northern Ireland, and it continues to put at risk the great Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Today, I want to make it as clear as I can that Unionism does not consent to the protocol or the institutions operating in a business-as-usual manner. Today, Unionism feels aggrieved by the sheer disregard for its concerns. Never before have I experienced such a groundswell of support for our position to hold the line, not give in and take a stand—all phrases we have heard so often from the people we represent. Let us not forget the words of the very author of the Belfast agreement, the late David Trimble, who said:
“Make no mistake about it, the protocol does not safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. It demolishes its central premise by removing the assurance that democratic consent is needed to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland.”
The protocol poses an existential threat to the Belfast agreement and the St Andrews agreement. Despite the time and space afforded by my party leader for the Government and EU to face up to the stark reality and find a new way forward, nothing was done. We had months of minimal action and tinkering around in the hope that the DUP would quietly let it slide. Well, the DUP can be accused of many things, but not of backing down and letting things slide. When we see the economic and constitutional damage the protocol is having on the people of Northern Ireland, we will not let it slide and we will continue to take our stand for the people who are impacted.
Our commitment to devolution throughout that window of opportunity was clear. While we urged people to face up to the political reality, others looked away.
Does my hon. Friend think it important that those who want full implementation of the protocol take cognisance of a recent report from this House and the House of Lords, which claims that that would halt east-west trade within 48 hours? Is it not the case that the reason why Unionists are staying out is that this protocol damages everybody’s livelihoods in Northern Ireland?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend’s point is so well made. The takeaway from that is that it is the industry leads who are saying that the protocol will grind east-west trade to a halt within 48 hours, and that is a stark reality.
Last week I hosted the Minister of State on a visit to my constituency, and I thank him for that visit. He met Wilson’s Country potatoes. Wilson’s is a leading potato brand, but it faces ongoing difficulty arising from the protocol, because Scottish seed potatoes, needed to grow crops of certain varieties that the market demands, are banned from entering Northern Ireland.
Order. I gently ask the hon. Lady to return to the legislation that we are considering. We understand why we are here discussing it, and that has been dealt with very well by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, but I do not think that we need every Member to stand up and cover exactly the same area. The protocol will be debated again in the Chamber, I am absolutely certain, but let us not have lengthy speeches on it today.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for bringing us back to the Bill. The fact remains that we would not need it if the protocol was resolved.
Moving on to MLAs’ pay, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, seems determined to punish MLAs for his party’s failures. His party gave us the protocol, and in doing so undermined the fundamental building blocks of the institutions and the Union which they claimed to cherish. His party failed to act when the DUP offered time and space to find a replacement and avoid the position in which we find ourselves. Does he accept any responsibility?
Let me be absolutely clear: DUP MLAs will embrace any pay cut that the hon. Member for North Dorset, or anyone else for that matter, imposes on them, whenever it comes. That will not change their stance or the stance of the DUP. As someone who was in the Assembly when pay was cut last time, I can assure the House that we are in politics because of our conviction, not for the pay that we receive.
Our refusal to enter the institutions has the support of our community, which will allow us to return to them only on the basis of respect for our constitutional position and the restoration of the integrity of the UK. The Minister of State knows that, because he heard the message loud and clear in Hillhall when he visited my constituency and the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) last week.
Today, Members are exercised about the pace and severity of a pay cut. They ought to be exercised about the reality that should a new way forward not emerge soon, there will be no MLAs, no Ministers, no Stormont and no devolution. Furthermore, should those who now seek to exclude Unionism from the institutions under the guise of reform continue to undermine the agreements they claim to cherish, restoring those institutions will be increasingly difficult. It is telling that the same voices fell silent for years when Sinn Féin refused to enter the institutions. Indeed, rather than demand their exclusion, Alliance and Social Democratic and Labour party representatives stood at protests shoulder to shoulder with those blocking government. The double standards, and the desire to exclude Unionism from the institutions, are not lost on my community.
Does the Member acknowledge that only three or four days ago I stood shoulder to shoulder, so to speak, with a member of her party when addressing provision by the education authority? Does she acknowledge that working with members of other parties on different issues is not the same as endorsing their entire policy platform? She made an accusation again about my party withholding government. Is she going to keep repeating that falsehood, or does she acknowledge that cross-party working does not mean that we buy into the entire manifestoes and approaches of other parties?
We will have an opportunity to read Hansard and the Member’s contribution today, so we will be able to see that there is a clear ignoring of Unionist views and a clear sidelining of Unionism and the many people on whom the protocol continues to impact.
The onus is on the Government and the EU to bring about the conditions whereby power sharing can be restored. Should a new agreement be found that meets the seven tests that my party has outlined, we will not be found wanting in returning to office. The ball is in the court of the Secretary of State.
I cannot say that I welcome the legislation, but I recognise that it is sadly necessary. It is shameful and disgraceful that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are currently not in place. We continue to maintain that they should be established forthwith.
We are facing twin governance and financial crises in Northern Ireland, and huge damage has been done to our economy and public services through delayed or missed decision making. That comes at a time when there is immense pressure on Northern Ireland’s public finances. I have made the point that mistakes were made in the past and the roof was not mended when the sun was shining and we had better opportunities, so difficult decisions are now required. Indeed, our health service in particular is going through tremendous difficulties. Necessary reforms to our public sector are being delayed, which means that the budget crisis gets ever tighter as we try to balance the books on an ever-declining, burning platform.
I will touch on the key areas of the Bill, mindful of your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. First, I will touch on the revised deadline for the formation of an Executive and, by implication, the resumption of the duty on the Secretary of State to call an election within 12 weeks if those deadlines are not met. The Secretary of State took the right decision to defer an election after 28 October and to seek further flexibility. In the current climate, an election would have been counterproductive and would have made the task of restoration and the wider negotiations with the European Union more difficult.
My difficulty lies with the revised dates. I appreciate that the Government have to try to move the process along and put in place some kind of deadline to get people over the line, but there is a disconnect between the timescale that the Northern Ireland Office is setting out and the reality of the pace of negotiations with the European Union. Evidently, we have seen a change in the mood music over the past few weeks, which is extremely welcome, but we have not yet seen real progress in the substance of those negotiations. I earnestly wish that we reach a conclusion as quickly as possible, which will require flexibility from the UK and, may I say, the European Union. The UK Government need to take a view on exactly where they will land on these issues; I will refrain from going into the detail of those discussions, given the nature of the Bill.
The shadow Secretary of State has already alluded to the fact that the first deadline in the legislation of 8 December is next Thursday, which may in practice be only a couple of days after the Bill gets Royal Assent. What seemed to be a reasonable deadline a few weeks ago is now, I suspect, fairly meaningless, so we are focused on the second deadline of 19 January, which I note is essentially only seven weeks away. In theory, that is ample time for the negotiations with the European Union to reach a conclusion, but based on the rate of progress that we have seen in recent weeks and months, we need to be realistic that that may not be the case.
We could therefore be in a situation where the Secretary of State has a restored duty to call an election after 19 January. At that stage, perhaps progress will have finally been made in the negotiations or we might be in or about to enter the metaphorical tunnel of those negotiations. In that context, I venture that the prospect or actuality of an Assembly election would be at best counterproductive and at worst extremely damaging. The talks could grind to a halt because of that potential election, or a certain political party or others could harden their red lines about those negotiations, which would make compromise, or the acceptance of a compromise deal, more difficult.
Obviously we need strong leadership from all quarters to ensure that we can get something workable over the line. I suggest to the Secretary of State that this Bill is too inflexibly framed. I appreciate the need to focus minds, but if after 19 January it is manifestly not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, the negotiations or the wider public interest to have an election, the only recourse available will be the Secretary of State’s coming back to Parliament seeking a further Bill. I imagine it would go down like a lead balloon if we were in that situation. I urge the Secretary of State to take the time between now and consideration of this Bill in the other place to reflect on the way forward—to keep us focused on the job in hand but to give that bit of flexibility if it proves necessary.
Secondly, I want to talk about the guidance. I welcome the publication of the draft guidance today, but the Bill is at best a stopgap in terms of governance. We have a major hole in that regard. What we have before us is neither tenable nor sustainable beyond the shortest possible periods. There are many difficult, pressing, urgent decisions that need to be taken, and it is right that civil servants are reluctant to take significant decisions that are normally left to be taken at the political level. There are particular difficulties in taking budget decisions: it is one thing keeping a budget ticking over on a care and maintenance basis, but if the books need to be balanced in a tighter budget situation, any decision to cut something is inherently political and will be subject to some degree of challenge. The civil servants are placed in an unenviable situation, but a balance must be struck between recognising that reluctance while at least enabling critical things to be taken forward.
We must have some further discussion on the guidance. I understand it could be clarified in due course, but what type of consultations will happen over a short period of time to get the draft guidance turned into final guidance whenever this Bill receives Royal Assent? I also seek an assurance that the guidance will be flexible enough to enable—rather than direct—civil servants to implement any pay body recommendations, because that is clearly a pressing issue for many public sector workers in Northern Ireland, who perhaps at this stage have not received what has been made available in Great Britain, never mind the legitimate concerns around additional pay that many are making.
On MLA pay, I declare a previous interest in that I was an MLA whose pay was deducted under a previous Assembly. It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do, and I recognise that cutting MLA pay is the right thing to do today. I say slightly flippantly that it should be directed primarily at those who are blocking restoration of the Executive, but I appreciate that is difficult to do. I recognise the remarks from Members of other parties that this might not in itself force a change of minds, but as the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), recognised, there is major disquiet at MLAs receiving their full salary in the current environment, and that must be recognised inside this Parliament. Most MLAs recognise that; certainly my party colleagues do so. Notwithstanding the fact that they cannot perform their full job description as set out, they are working extensively every week to act on behalf of their constituents, to make representations and work with other groups in Northern Ireland. But they are also massively frustrated.
Finally, I want to talk about what will happen if this Bill fails, and indeed if there is no outcome from negotiations with the EU or we have an outcome that most common-sense people would accept but is none the less rejected by some Northern Ireland parties, and we therefore have continued blockage. As I have said, I do not believe the current stopgap approach to governance is sustainable. Decisions should be taken by locally elected people in Northern Ireland on behalf of their constituents. If we are in the situation of defaulting to direct rule, that is problematic in many respects. As there has been some talk of joint authority being an alternative, I want to take this opportunity just to make it very clear that for my party, joint authority is outside the context of the Good Friday agreement and outside the principle of consent. None the less, if we are to talk about direct rule, that would have to have an Irish dimension of some description, and that has been understood going back to the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985.
That is basically what we are looking into, but short of that, we should be looking at reform of the institutions. I am not going to go into the detail of that, except to reiterate my party’s very strong commitment to allow those parties in Northern Ireland that wish to govern to do so. That is by far the next best alternative to the current arrangements. I would prefer that to be done on an inclusive basis, but the point is that some parties have the opportunity to take up places in government, and it is they who are self-excluding.
When did the Alliance party have this Damascus road experience? For three years when Sinn Féin was holding up progress and holding up the Assembly in Northern Ireland, I never heard once that the Alliance party believed that the Assembly and its structures should be changed to facilitate that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his intervention because it gives me the opportunity to reiterate that my party has consistently advocated reform of the Assembly structures. It has been in our party manifestos going back to 1999. In particular, in the period between 2017 and 2020, my party made numerous comments publicly on the need for reform. I will gladly forward copies of speeches made by my party leader to party conferences to the right hon. Member so that he can read them with a great deal of interest.
Far be it from me to get involved in this conversation between the Alliance party and the DUP, but would the hon. Member like to tell us his understanding of what the DUP’s position actually is on mandatory coalition, because as far as I am concerned, it seems to be a new convert to the principle?
We can look at this in two different ways—what happened before 1972, and what happened in the 1970s and 1980s through to what happened during the talks. I would stress that, if we read the DUP manifestos up to the point of its current walk-out, we can see that it was actually a fan of reform of the institutions and moving away from mandatory coalition. It was a principle for the DUP then, but that is no longer the case. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) famously went on “Question Time” during the last impasse and lambasted the situation in which a party with about 25% of the vote was able to frustrate the institutions. I think I will leave it there.
I rise to make what I hope is, in comparison, a relatively brief speech, but I have some questions about how this Bill will work. I hope that will meet your requirements, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I think it is important that we ask these questions and that we centre in this debate the people of Northern Ireland. We have already talked a lot about the institutions, the challenges with the protocol and, indeed, Brexit, as well as about who needs to be flexible—this Government, the European Union—but I think it is absolutely key to talk about the public in Northern Ireland and how they are affected by this legislation. I say that as somebody who has now lobbied five separate Secretaries of State about Executive formation legislation.
Members who were here before 2019 will remember the last incarnation of this legislation, which led to the situation in which we finally had legal abortion in Northern Ireland. It is with the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and how this Bill will affect that in mind that I want to ask these questions. As I said earlier, it has now been 1,134 days since we passed that legislation, and this House took a decision that we wanted to support access at local level that is safe and legal for women in Northern Ireland. We agreed subsequently, in the abortion regulations in 2020—it is 973 days since they were passed—that there should be a service on request up to 12 weeks and that beyond that, up to 24 weeks, two medical professionals could certify that a woman should have an abortion if there was a greater risk of mental harm or physical harm if she did not, which is very similar to England and Wales.
I raised that because one thing to remember in all of these debates is that decriminalisation and legalisation do not mean deregulation. Indeed, the legislation that we have seen flowing from the 2019 Act absolutely sets out how access to abortion should be provided. The challenge for many of us, though, is that during all that time, that has not happened. Time and again, we have seen the 2 million women in Northern Ireland denied that right. Abortion might be legal, but it is not accessible. Indeed, in July this year we heard that a woman in Belfast who had suffered from pre-term premature rupture of membranes was told that she had to travel to Liverpool. We have seen many more not able to access pills.
The reason we have been given for that through the last three years is basically a stand-off between the Northern Ireland Health Department and the UK Government, with the Government upholding the human rights of women in Northern Ireland set out in the 2019 Act. In the last three years, women in Northern Ireland have directly suffered because the previous incarnation of the Bill had not been delivered. All of us in the House recognise that it is one thing to win an argument—it might be another thing to win an amendment—but delivery and implementation are where change happens.
The hon. Member has won the argument, and I can tell her that we are making enormous progress towards delivering abortion. The Government can confirm that services will be commissioned in Northern Ireland before the Bill passes through the other place.
I thank the Minister for that confirmation. I hope he will join me in paying tribute to all those women in Northern Ireland who have continued to work on the issue, championing their sisters and neighbours—those who need these services—through the political dysfunction and patriarchal discrimination that has led to a situation where we might have decided that something was legal through a previous incarnation of the Bill, but it was not accessible.
I join the hon. Member in paying tribute to those people who have campaigned on this issue. They have been right to raise the disparity of rights. If we believe in the United Kingdom, there ought to be that equality of rights. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister said, because it is frustrating that the House can pass laws that do not get enacted in such a way. It will be an important step for Parliament to take to ensure that that law is respected across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he was frustrated by it. That is why I am speaking today. We have seen the frustration, and for three years women in Northern Ireland have seen multiple letters traded between Departments but little change. It is worth reflecting that even during the pandemic, women from Northern Ireland were still travelling to England and Wales, with 161 doing so in 2021 compared with 371 in 2020.
It is welcome to hear what Ministers have to say. We helped to give those women a voice in 2019, and through the Bill we want to see those women given delivery in 2022. I have some specific questions that I hope the Minister will be able to address. The Government have powers in the Bill to direct commissioning. We recognise that public services need to continue. Those services include healthcare and—let us be clear—abortion is healthcare. Those who have sought to threaten that have not protected devolution; they have simply harmed women, and in particular women from refugee and minority community backgrounds who have been the least able to take advantage of an ability to travel in the United Kingdom.
Previous Ministers have told me that, even under those powers, one of the operational actions is for women to continue to travel. I hope the Minister will recognise that that is not a satisfactory response, particularly when dealing with incredibly tragic cases in which, frankly, travelling creates a health risk. Will he set out how that will be dealt with? I recognise that there is a challenge with staffing and that we are asking Ministers to move quickly, although some of us might reflect that, in three years, it is not unrealistic to have asked for priority to be given to training and recruitment, because the direction of travel that I was told was coming by previous Secretaries of State should have been translated across. Will he set out how the Government will ensure that the service will be properly staffed not just in one or two locations but across Northern Ireland? We know that there are travel difficulties within Northern Ireland, so it is not enough to say to women, “The service that you might need does exist, but it is in a particular location.” We absolutely want to see those services start, but ultimately, when we talk about a safe, legal and local service, it really does need to be local, just as we seek similar provision for our constituents here in England, Wales and Scotland.
Another issue we have seen, which I hope this funding can help address, is that there are very clear reports that some are using the online nature of seeking guidance about where services are to cause harm. What I mean is that some people are using advertising, particularly on things like Google, to encourage women to go to services that are not about abortion, but are trying to deter women from having an abortion. One of the critical issues is how women will know how to access these services. Ministers have said that they hope that services will be available on the ground within the next 90 days, particularly services for between 10 weeks and 12 weeks. We know that access to pills is patchy, but access to medical procedures is non-existent. If women are seeking information about those services and how to access them, under this legislation, what powers will the Government have and what action will they take to make sure that those women are getting information about the right services—the actual abortion services—if they make that choice?
Finally, I want to make a plea to the Minister: there is still a stigma, as I know he understands. Contrary to what might have been said in this place, there is very clear evidence that the mood of people in Northern Ireland has shifted on this issue, as the mood of the people in Ireland shifted following the “repeal the eighth” campaign. There is widespread support for the provision of these new services and frustration at the delay that has taken place, but if those services are to survive, we need to address the stigma about working to support women who wish to have an abortion, and also having an abortion. I hope Ministers will talk about what they will do while we wait to see whether the Executive can be reformed, but also about what they will do to tackle that stigma, so that we can get the staffing and ensure that when a woman in Northern Ireland exercises her human right to choose to have an abortion, she does not face any further barriers.
As we have said, making laws—whether in this place or in devolved Administrations—requires more than just passing a Bill. It requires implementation and delivery, and the past three years have been a story of not delivering—of not meeting the promise that we made to those women in Northern Ireland. In passing this legislation today, and delivering on the work that has been done and the promise of that previous legislation, we have to show our homework, and that homework is both logistical and cultural. I hope Ministers recognise where these questions are coming from. They will have my support in working this through, and I welcome the words of the Secretary of State when he talks about this being an important provision. However, it is necessary to seek detail now, because we have had five different Secretaries of State, so many different letters and so little progress. The women in Northern Ireland who need this service deserve to be heard.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is always a pleasure to speak in the House, but this is a subject matter that we hoped we would not have to address or bring before the House. However, because we are where we are, we feel it is important to do so. My party has tabled amendments, which I believe demonstrate our concerns; we will do what we can to address those concerns, and also to show support for our community. I respect the fact that there are Members present from different parties and with different opinions. It is no secret that we differ on many things, but there is an understanding that we do what we can to represent our constituents, so I am very pleased and proud to be able to stand here and speak for my Ulster Scots, Unionist community of Strangford.
I will speak to some of the DUP amendments, particularly amendment 13. First, I want to make it clear that we in the DUP recognise the need for what we have in front of us today. It is not what we want, but we are where we are, and we have to recognise that. We believe in the right to take a stand for the political good, and unfortunately, the fundamental issue of the Northern Ireland protocol remains. The allowance for negotiations is also welcome, which is part of why the deadline will be extended by another six weeks, but it is important to remember that time is no object in this debate. The route to a resolution will come through an understanding of our conditions in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Bill in front of us is the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation Etc) Bill. We are here today because we do not have an Executive, and we do not have an Executive because of the protocol. We can talk until we are blue in the face—or until the cows come home, as we say in my neck of the woods—about the need to restore the Executive, but if Executive formation really is our purpose, we are wasting our time unless we address the issue that stands in the way of Executive formation.
In addressing the challenge of Executive formation—to which the Bill’s title refers—it is vital that we recognise that the imperative for finding a solution arises from the fact that the current arrangements cause the UK Government to violate international law, a situation that must be terminated as quickly as possible.
I will move straight on, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Clauses 3 to 5 permit the exercise of Northern Ireland departmental powers by senior civil servants under guidance published by the Secretary of State. Our amendment 13 reinforces the importance of accountability to the people of Northern Ireland. Elected representatives have the power to legislate and make laws for Northern Ireland, and to be scrutinised and held very much accountable. The proposal sets out the framework relating to the choice to do something, why it was done and how it could be done. At the same time, it allows people to be liable to answer questions from MLAs and MPs. As policymakers, we are all subject to the same scrutiny and accountability measures. If legislation cannot be made in the Northern Ireland Assembly, those who are asked to do it are responsible for ensuring that there is robust and transparent reasoning.
The Northern Ireland Executive would be functioning were it not for the Northern Ireland protocol. The current arrangements are a clear violation of international law. Articles 1 and 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol are subject to the Good Friday agreement. It is important to remind ourselves of that, because we are all looking forward, for different reasons, to a future time. The GFA commits the state parties to uphold the right of the people of Northern Ireland
“to pursue democratically national and political aspirations”.
Articles 3 to 19 of the protocol are subject to the GFA and article 2 places an explicit obligation on the UK Government not to allow the impacts of the protocol to diminish the rights under the GFA. It is important to reiterate those things. I understand that everyone in the House is fully committed to maintaining the GFA.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is due to be on Report in the House of Lords, and I urge that all is done to secure its smooth passage. Many comments have been made about the DUP’s decision not to nominate a Speaker during the period when we have had no Assembly, yet no consideration has been given to cross-community support for this Bill. The Unionist community, which we in this House and in this party represent, are very clear about where we stand on these issues. There is no community support for this. Residents from other constituencies have contacted me to thank our party for standing up against the Northern Ireland protocol. This is not a Unionist issue, but one that impacts the Northern Ireland economy and its place in the United Kingdom. It restricts our local businesses from having free-flowing trade and, most importantly, it subjects our constituents to red tape and undermines their right to trade with their United Kingdom neighbours.
As the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke at some length on this issue, for the record, the Government did a consultation in Northern Ireland, and 79% of the people who responded from Northern Ireland were against any changes in the abortion law in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland were asked for their opinion and when the Government got their opinion, they ignored it. She does not care, of course, about the opinion of 79% of the people in Northern Ireland, but we already knew that. Opposition Members will know of our opposition to amendment 11, which was not selected. We are here to represent and speak for the 79% of people who objected to that.
I note with interest amendments 1 to 4 from the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) on MLA pay. I reiterate that we cannot stress enough that the notion that we might be moved back into government for monetary reasons is grossly misjudged. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), the leader of our party and of our DUP group here, clearly said that we will not be bullied.
The hon. Gentleman gives us his opinion. My opinion is clearly very different: we will not be persuaded, bullied or coerced—whichever way people want to put it—into something. As far as we are concerned, we have an objective that we want to achieve and a mandate from Northern Ireland, and we will deliver on our mandate.
Can my hon. Friend explain how removing the salaries of some MLAs will suddenly make the Assembly work, when under the terms of the Belfast agreement, which the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) obviously supports, we cannot have a working Assembly unless Unionists are part of it? I fail to understand the logic of that position. Does my hon. Friend understand it?
In the Unionist community that we represent, people are clearly not persuaded by the actions that have been taken. As their elected representatives in this House, we feel very strongly about the matter, and so do their representatives back home.
The existential threat to Northern Ireland is the root of the entire issue. The problem that other parties have is that the DUP is taking a principled stand against an issue that has proven detrimental to Northern Ireland. It should not be an issue that sends Northern Ireland back into the past and divide Stormont down the middle. The DUP has remained strong and certain on the protocol, and there are no plans to dodge the issue of MLA salaries.
Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to reflect on the points that Front Benchers on both sides of the House have made about the Dublin criminal trial? Does he agree that if the current crisis were not going on, the trial would be an equally huge and significant crisis for the body politic not only of Northern Ireland, but of the Republic of Ireland? The Government really need to prepare themselves for the tsunami when the verdict eventually comes.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for reminding us of that important factor, which cannot be ignored. The leader of Sinn Féin across all Ireland, north and south, is a Member for her political party down south and has jurisdiction through her party in Northern Ireland as well, so what happens in Dublin will clearly have an impact on Northern Ireland. I therefore believe, like my hon. Friend and others, that we cannot ignore the issue in this House. That is the point that I think he was making, and I concur totally.
The DUP was proud to table new clause 7, but it was not selected for debate. It would have changed the date of the local government elections in 2023 to take into consideration the King’s coronation celebrations. Because Northern Ireland elections are conducted under proportional representation, counting takes significantly longer than is normal in other parts of the United Kingdom.
May I put it on the record that my party agrees with the DUP on the issue? There may well be some degree of consensus on a pragmatic reform to take into account the need to respect the coronation and respect the elections in Northern Ireland. I hope that that gives the Northern Ireland Office a hint.
Well, we have a consensus! I am pleased to hear that the hon. Member and his party concur with our opinion, so I hope that when the Minister of State replies to the debate he will give us a positive answer. It is important because if 4 May remains election day, the results will extend into coronation day. That is the very nature of what will happen back home, so it must be changed to ensure the public participation of candidates, the electoral office staff, who are an important part of it all, and the party supporters attending count centres. I urge the Government to take our proposal into immediate consideration for the sake of the celebration of the King’s coronation, and I thank the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) for his support.
The amendments that the DUP has tabled are for the greater good of Northern Ireland and our economic and constitutional position within this great United Kingdom. We hope that the Government will listen to us. They must be assured of our stealth and determination in regard to the damaging effect that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is having on Northern Ireland.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the debate so far. It was only a few weeks ago that I was standing in this Chamber to close the debate on the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill; I shared my regrets that the Bill was being debated in this Chamber and not in Stormont. Hopefully today’s Bill will be a significant factor in the return to a functioning legislature in Stormont, but it would be remiss of me not to share again my disappointment that this House has been forced to act as a result of the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.
The restoration of the Executive is not simply about a restoration of process. The lack of an Executive has a very real impact on people’s lives in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has outlined, the delay in the commissioning of abortion services has meant that women are still being forced to cross the border to access essential services, long after they should have been able to access them in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless work in raising the issue, and to the Minister for his words of commitment to addressing it by the time the Bill has passed through Parliament.
As Members have pointed out, Northern Ireland has longer NHS waiting times than any other UK region. Many will be aware of the particularly troubling figures relating to specialist women’s healthcare, with no trusts meeting the in-patient treatment targets for gynaecology. Owing to the lack of political leadership and power to reform the system, a significant proportion of women who suffer from life-changing illnesses such as endometriosis are having to pay for private healthcare, taking out loans and borrowing from friends and family so that they can simply live their lives without pain every day.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of real-life examples of the detrimental impact that the lack of an Executive is having on the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) correctly described the Bill as an elastoplast—just a big plaster. While I welcome it, its words must be backed up by action from the Government, and I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that the restoration of the Executive at Stormont is at the top of the Cabinet’s agenda. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said at the beginning of the debate, now is the time for the Prime Minister to show his commitment to the restoration of power sharing by visiting Northern Ireland, bringing together parties from across the political spectrum, and to take a lead in negotiations on the protocol. Belfast is not Blackpool, and he really does need to be there.
As the cost of living crisis deepens, the need for political leadership at Stormont becomes more urgent. We must have a commitment from the Government that they will use the additional time offered by the Bill well, and they must provide a clear plan for how they will work to restore the Executive.
My goodness, what an excellent debate this has been.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) told us why we are here. “We are here because we do not have an Executive,” he said, “and we do not have an Executive because of the protocol.” With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chairman of the Select Committee, I think it must be said, on the basis of realistic observation of the factors at work, that the hon. Gentleman is right: that is indeed why we are here.
The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), said that the Bill was the “least worst” option, and I agree with him. As has been said several times, this is not a position in which we would want to find ourselves today. I think that Members in all parts of the House and all parties represented here, including the Democratic Unionist party, have made it clear that they are devolutionists and would like the Executive to be back in power; but I will return to the protocol in a moment. The Bill is a responsible—if hugely regrettable—piece of legislation, but we wish we did not have to do this.
I will try to deal with as many of the points that have been made as possible, conscious that I will be dealing with the amendments themselves in Committee. The Labour Front Benchers asked how we would use this time, but I was extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Hove for referring to the need to engage with the concerns of Unionism. Let me also record my thanks to Minister Byrne, from the Republic of Ireland, who tweeted about the need to recognise those legitimate concerns—although we need to do that in a way that is acceptable to nationalism, and I was grateful to the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), for referring to a move I had made in that direction. We need to have the humility to recognise the interests of our negotiating partners, and to say, as DUP speakers have said today, “Yes, we are willing to use our law to defend their interests.”
Since I have led myself on to this territory, I will just say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) made an exceptionally powerful speech, which I hope will be heard in the European Union. However, I also hope it will be heard together with the exceptional speech made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), the leader of the DUP. I think that anyone listening to his speech and appreciating that it was made in earnest—and, of course in good faith—will understand what forces at work here will allow us to restore the Executive in Northern Ireland, and restore it in a way that can endure and carry us through the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We all want to be there celebrating that agreement—I am pleased to see Members opposite nodding—with the institutions up and running. I think that all parties to the protocol, having listened to the speeches that have been made, can see very clearly those forces that are at work.
Members on the Labour Front Bench have asked us how we will use this time well. It is very clear how we need to use this time. We need to use it to persuade the European Union, and indeed ourselves, to work with great political resolve to deliver change on the protocol. This extension provides space for that further progress, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to work with our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to that end. It has always been our preference to resolve issues through talks. The Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič are speaking regularly and UK Government officials are having technical talks with the EU.
Can the Minister update us on how the talks on veterinary medicines are going? Will we have a solution on that before 16 December? Can he also outline whether any more of my constituents will be receiving VAT notices from the Republic of Ireland for goods on which VAT has already been paid in His Majesty’s territories here?
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point with great clarity and force, but I think he encourages me to stray a little too far from the Bill on this occasion. If I recall correctly, I have replied to him on the question of veterinary medicines—whether through a parliamentary answer or a letter, I forget. I think I have signed off a reply, but I will check.
Officials are continuing to hold technical talks, but the reality is that there is still some distance between us, even though some of our technical solutions are relatively close. I say to Members on the Labour Front Bench that we need to continue to show resolve. Anyone watching this debate will see that a great degree of consensus has broken out on all sides. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, the Chairman of the Select Committee, referred to our bromance, and although I have to tell him that he is not actually my type, people might like to observe the good will that exists in all parts of the House. We all want to get the protocol resolved so that we no longer have to talk about it, get the Executive up and running and move on to providing the good government that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
Before moving on to other contributions, I want to join Labour Members in thanking the PSNI, particularly in the difficult circumstances it has recently faced.
With great respect to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I do not think that his visiting Belfast and holding multi-party talks will be a silver bullet. We can see plainly what the obstacle is to the formation of the Executive, and we need to focus our efforts on the European Union. I should just say that the Prime Minister’s attendance at the British-Irish Council in Blackpool was the first such attendance by a Prime Minister since 2007, and I am grateful that he had the opportunity to meet the Taoiseach.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, made a point about the normalisation of politics, which elicited an interesting response from the leader of the DUP, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. We have to be extremely clear that we are always going to uphold all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and the right hon. Gentleman set out clearly that that involves the consent of all communities. During my short experience of being in Northern Ireland, I have heard from the public there—and from a number of Members here, including the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna)—that people are clearly in the market for normal political government that concentrates on public services, and that there is a desperate need for that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee for making that point.
The role of the Irish Government was brought up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I want to be absolutely clear that we are not considering joint authority, nor will we. We have kept the Irish Government apprised of our plans to maintain public services in Northern Ireland in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers. The Irish Government share our commitment to devolution and the Good Friday agreement. We are pleased that we have begun to transform our friendship and relationship with Ireland, and we will continue to do so.
A number of Members, and particularly the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), raised the position that officials will find themselves in. We recognise that civil servants should not ideally be put in a position where they need to take political decisions themselves, but we simply cannot bring forward this further extension without taking measures to ensure that some decisions can be taken in the meantime. We believe that the Bill provides Northern Ireland’s civil servants with the clarity they require in order to take the limited but necessary decisions to maintain the delivery of public services during this period.
I want to raise an important amendment that was tabled but not selected for consideration in Committee, on the Grenfell remediation scheme for non-aluminium composite material cladding. The money was distributed and then reallocated in Northern Ireland because the scheme was not in place. There are ongoing discussions with Whitehall. This is a public safety issue and, given that there was a fire in Belfast’s Obel Tower just two days ago, it needs urgent attention. Can we remove party politics and, if we are not going to get traction with this Bill, at least have a commitment from the Minister and the Secretary of State that they will turn their urgent attention to this?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government care very much about this issue, as he does. This is a good moment to say the Bill is absolutely not taking powers for this Government to direct what happens in Northern Ireland on any particular policy, which is a good reason to come on to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), whom I congratulate on her victory in providing abortion in Northern Ireland. Before the Bill completes its passage through the other House, we will have commissioned services in Northern Ireland, but the Bill does not give Ministers of this Government the power to direct what is delivered by the Northern Ireland Department of Health, which will find that it is compelled to commission abortion services, but many of the questions she raises will be properly decided in Northern Ireland. That still relies on the Executive reforming to get the work done. We will commission services and, of course, the Secretary of State and I will continue to take a close interest in how those commitments are carried through and delivered.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) raised the issue of Sinn Féin MPs, and he talked about a figure of £10 million, which I do not recognise, so I would be grateful if he provided a breakdown so that I can consider what he said. Sinn Féin MPs are not paid salaries, because they do not take their seats. If we were to treat MLAs similarly, we would presumably reduce their salaries to zero, which is not our intent. We will have an evidence base when the Secretary of State makes his determination, and that evidence base is not likely to recommend the complete removal of salaries. We have chosen, for good, technical reasons, not to connect our measures to pensions. Of course, other measures, such as allowances, will continue.
I accept what the Minister says about Sinn Féin MPs not getting salaries but, if there is to be a reduction, we cannot reduce something that is not given. The only thing they get is representative moneys and allowances. No attempt at all has been made to cut those moneys and allowances for not doing their job, despite repeated attempts to raise it with successive Leaders of the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with great passion, and I think we agree with one another that it is not a good thing to have abstentionist MPs, although I have to say I have met Sinn Féin MPs a number of times in London and found them to be very constructive—to a much greater extent than I expected. They do not draw any pay, and we do not anticipate reducing the pay of MLAs to zero, nor do we anticipate taking away their allowances. Members of the public watching this debate will see that we are behaving reasonably in relation to MLAs.
I thank everyone who has participated in this debate. We are absolutely determined to do what is necessary to restore the Executive in Northern Ireland, which is going to mean reaching a negotiated conclusion on the protocol, and I look forward to doing so.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).