House of Commons
Wednesday 22 February 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill
I realise that many colleagues on the Benches diagonally opposite are somewhat preoccupied with the contest to become the leader of the Scottish National party and Scotland’s First Minister. In my view, this is a real opportunity for a new First Minister to reset the relationship with the United Kingdom Government, to work constructively with us and to make life better for the people of Scotland. We need a First Minister who puts Scotland’s interests above the nationalists’ interests. My offer to all those running in the contest is this: the United Kingdom Government stand ready to work with you, and that will be the real win for improving the lives of people in Scotland.
My assessment is that retained EU law reform will have a positive impact on Scotland by boosting the competitiveness of the economy while respecting devolution and maintaining high standards. Reform will ensure that regulations meet the needs of the United Kingdom, and will provide the opportunity for us to become the best regulated economy in the world, encouraging prosperity, business innovation and—
I thank the governor-general for that long-winded response.
According to a report by the Economics for the Environment Consultancy, lower standards just in chemical regulation, water pollution, air quality and the protection of habitats will cost the British Government £83 billion over the next three decades. Does the Secretary of State believe it is right for Scotland to face yet another billion-pound price tag for a Brexit that it did not vote for?
I do not recognise that analysis. We are respecting and raising environmental standards. Where matters are devolved we respect that, and the Scottish Government are able to deal with those matters under retained EU law as they see fit. Where there is overlap, we have frameworks and we will work together.
“What utter drivel” is, I think, the parliamentary terminology.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has warned not only that the Bill threatens economic harm, but that weakened safety standards on construction and other work sites risk the loss of life and limb. It states that that we might as well adopt the motto, “Saving time and costing lives”, for the Bill. How many Scottish workers’ lives does the Secretary of State believe are a worthwhile price to pay for the Brexit race to the bottom?
When it comes to utter drivel, it should not be a competition, but the hon. Member has taken it to a new height. What utter drivel that was! Workers’ rights are entirely protected; in fact, they are being enhanced by this Government, and they are not dependent on EU membership.
The negative impacts of Brexit are already visible, with food prices up 6% and a third of the companies that formerly exported to the EU giving up, owing to customs paperwork—and that includes companies in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that it is Brexit that is causing more red tape for businesses, and that diverging from EU standards further under this much-criticised Bill will further exacerbate trade friction between the UK and the continent?
No, because I believe that we have a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, and we are working out and ironing out the problems. We have been very successful in doing that, particularly for the fishing industry. We also have before us huge opportunities: not just the trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and others, but the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, which will cover almost half the world’s trade and will provide a huge opportunity for Scotland’s food and drink industry.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be ideal if the new First Minister put as much focus on the powers that the Scottish Government already have as on retained EU law? Was he as disappointed as I was to find that, once again, the Scottish Government were unable to take over the devolved powers on welfare that they were given in 2016, and that it now seems that those powers will not come into place until 2026—10 years after the Scotland Act 2016?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that he was in the Scotland Office when those powers were devolved in 2016. Some of them will not come into operation until 2026. That is because, while we want to work with the Scottish Government—we are working with them—and we hope we will deliver those programmes at the Scottish Government’s pace, the pace could be moved up if they spent more time focusing on the day job and less time on their obsession with separation.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs alone has identified more than 1,700 pieces of retained EU law, with the majority in devolved areas such as agriculture, forestry and fishing. What happens if the Scottish Government want to maintain some of the EU standards that the Secretary of State’s party wants to ditch? Does he think it would be right for UK Ministers to change regulations in devolved matters without consent? How does that respect devolution?
We are working constructively and collaboratively with the Scottish Government on those retained EU laws. Where we have agreement on a cross-UK piece of policy, we will legislate on behalf of the devolved Administrations. Where it is in a devolved area, we will respect that and allow the Scottish Government to do as they see fit. If they want to remain in line with EU regulations, they can. There is a retained EU law—REUL—working group for the Bill and their officials have been on that since March 2022. We are making good and steady progress.
Because of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2022, goods made in the rest of the UK cannot be kept out of Scotland, even if they do not meet future Scottish standards on quality, safety or environmental impact. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the combined effect of both pieces of legislation will drastically increase the degree of direct rule by Westminster and drive a coach and horses through devolution?
That is not true. We are respecting the devolved settlement. If we look at precision breeding and gene editing, for instance, the Scottish farming industry, the National Farmers Union of Scotland and all the other farming unions in the UK want to be part of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, but we have respected the Scottish Government saying that they do not want to be part of it. Their dogma desires them to carry on with the EU rules and we respect that. As regards the UK internal market, it is absolutely right that trade can continue seamlessly across the United Kingdom, because 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Allegations of Impropriety in Public Life
The UK is one of the most successful political and economic unions in the world. Our collective strength means that we are better able to tackle big problems such as the cost of living, lead the international response against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, grow our economy and deliver freeports in Scotland.
Last month, the then Tory party chairman was sacked when it was revealed that he had allegedly attempted to hide his multi-million pound tax settlement with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs after failing to properly declare income. That is not to mention partygate and various other scandals. Does the Secretary of State think that a Tory Government in Westminster who are mired in sleaze will strengthen or weaken our Union of the United Kingdom?
In Scotland and across the UK, Parliament is being dragged down by Tory and SNP sleaze and impropriety. In Holyrood, Committees have been ignored, processes have been run over roughshod, and the responsibility to be truly accountable to both Parliaments, the press and the public has been ignored by Ministers of both Governments. Does the Secretary of State not agree that we need a reformed and renewed constitution across the country that is fit for a democratised United Kingdom?
I did not catch all of that, but I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave earlier. There is a ministerial code that sets standards of behaviour for Ministers, and Ministers are personally responsible for how they conduct themselves. Ultimately, the Prime Minister is the judge and I think he is a man of integrity. I trust him to make the right decisions.
Controversial, expensive and barely afloat, the SNP Government in Scotland have wasted £500 million of taxpayers’ money on two ferries that do not work. Does my right hon. Friend agree there should be an urgent inquiry so that Scottish voters can have faith in the way that Holyrood uses their money?
I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on what they are doing to strengthen the Union, whether it is the £220,000 they are forking out to the former Prime Minister for his legal fees, the disgraceful financial arrangements around the chair of the BBC, the bullying allegations, the tax affairs or the Prime Minister’s second fixed penalty notice. The Prime Minister said he would fix Tory sleaze once and for all. How does the Secretary of State think he is getting on with that?
The Government are tackling geographic inequalities across the UK through their ambitious levelling-up agenda. We are investing almost £2.3 billion in levelling up across all parts of Scotland. Without the leadership of the UK Government, there would be no long-term investment in the Scotland-wide city region and growth deals, which are putting investment in the hands of local leaders, nor would there be investment in transformational local projects, such as a new ferry for Fair Isle or the restoration of Kilmarnock’s historic Palace Theatre, through the levelling-up fund.
The all-party parliamentary group on new towns, which I chair, has completed a report on the specific infrastructure needs of new towns such as my constituency of East Kilbride, which was built after the second world war. Many specific infrastructure and investment needs have been established, so will the Minister encourage new towns in Scotland, such as my constituency, to apply for levelling-up funding to address those important needs?
Yes, is the short answer. The Government’s levelling-up agenda is benefiting communities right across the UK, including new towns. It allows communities to address local needs in order to create jobs and boost economic growth. For example, the new town of Cumbernauld in North Lanarkshire successfully secured over £9 million in the first round of the levelling-up fund recently, which will enable transformational developments of the town centre. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady’s group to discuss how we might support new town investment.
It has been a momentous week in Scottish politics, and I am sure the whole House will want to wish Nicola Sturgeon all the best in whatever she does next in politics. I also pass our deepest sympathies on to everyone at Hibernian football club, who lost their owner, Ron Gordon, suddenly yesterday.
According to the Together Through This Crisis initiative, which is a coalition of charities, almost a quarter of people across the country regularly run out of money for essentials. At the same time, BP and Shell have made more than £1 billion a week in profits, while avoiding a proper windfall tax because of the loopholes the Prime Minister created in his scheme. Will the Minister listen to those charities, recognise the impact the cost of living crisis is having on working people and put in place a proper windfall tax to help them?
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the cost of living support provided by the Government is worth over £26 billion in 2023-24. As a compassionate Government, we have taken appropriate steps to support the most vulnerable households across the UK through additional cost of living payments, including £900 for households on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioner households and £150 for disabled people. When it comes to taxing energy companies, the Government have raised the rate of tax on companies such as BP and Shell to 75%, which we consider fair, given the current circumstances.
The Minister says he runs a compassionate Government. He should tell that to the parents who are going without food to feed their children. Scots are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis, which has been made worse by the state of Scottish public services. The NHS is on its knees while the Cabinet Secretary for Health is focusing on other things and Scottish local government is having its funding decimated again by the Finance Secretary, who is seemingly intent on offending every minority group in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that, in the midst of such a serious crisis, it is frankly absurd that failed Scottish Ministers are fighting among themselves for the top job, when too many Scots are worrying about how to pay their bills?
It does seem that the SNP has decided to provide the country with compelling drama now that “Happy Valley” has ended. However, there is a serious point here. While the SNP indulges in the most savage infighting since Labour’s Blair-Brown civil war, Scotland is crying out for attention to be given to things that really matter: the economy, the health service and the education system. The people’s priorities are the priorities of the United Kingdom Government. We can only hope that the new First Minister will move away from the SNP’s obsession with independence and focus on the things that really matter to the people of Scotland.
Cost of Living
Like many countries around the world, the UK faces the challenge of high inflation, which is why the Prime Minister has made tackling inflation a key immediate priority. As was outlined in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable households across the UK with £12 billion-worth of direct support in 2023-24. Alongside that, the energy price guarantee is saving a typical household in Scotland about £900 this winter.
The former viceroy made reference earlier to social security powers. The current deputy assistant junior viceroy will be aware that we have the best start grant in Scotland, whereas it was reported at the weekend that in England baby formula has been put behind the tills in Co-ops. Will the Minister outline what has gone wrong with the UK welfare state, when we have got to a stage where baby formula has to be put away because of fears of theft?
As the Chancellor set out in the autumn statement, we have taken the appropriate steps to help the most vulnerable households in Scotland and across the UK. I have set out already some of the payments being made to support households this winter. The Government continue to explore new ways of tackling poverty and helping to protect the most vulnerable, and we will continue to do so.
Scotland is a net energy exporter, but, as a consequence of being in the UK, people in energy-rich Scotland face electricity costs that are 30% higher than those in the Netherlands and Germany. Does the Secretary of State think it right that Scots face the highest bills in Europe while the UK Government allow energy companies to make billions in profit?
As I have set out during this session, the Government are putting in place tax arrangements to ensure that excessive profits made by BP, Shell and others are taxed at 75%. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s further analysis about the situation in Scotland; this Government have put in place measures to support households during this difficult winter period and we will continue to assess what other measures we can take to do so.
Strengthening the Union
The Government’s commitment to Scotland is best demonstrated by what we are doing on the ground. We are investing more than £2 billion to level up across Scotland and working with the Scottish Government to deliver growth deals and freeports in Scotland.
Scotland is a world leader in food and drink production, especially in higher-end products such as Scotch whisky and seafood—something I have been proud to promote in my role as one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys. As the UK Government continue to strike new trade agreements, what benefits will the removal of trade barriers have for Scotland?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important matter and for his efforts in this area. The latest statistics on exports of Scotch whisky and salmon underline how much demand there is for these premium products. The UK Government have an ambitious programme of free trade negotiations that will include India and the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. We will continue to build relationships with trading partners around the world.
The Secretary of State has Bladnoch distillery in his constituency, and I have Glenmorangie, Clynelish and Old Pulteney in mine. Is it not crazy that the proposed ban on advertising is going to damage distilleries in our constituencies and, more importantly, could impair employment in rural parts of Scotland? These are vital local jobs.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is just another example of how anti-business this Scottish Government are—the SNP and its coalition partners, the Greens. The deposit return scheme that is coming down the tracks is just another example of how anti-business they are.
Like many countries around the world, the UK has been buffeted by global economic headwinds driving high inflation and slowing growth, but we have taken decisive action to protect households and businesses. The Government know there is more to do, which is why the Prime Minister has pledged to halve inflation this year, deliver sustainable growth and start reducing debt.
We know that a stronger economy begins in the heart of our communities, but local authorities across Scotland have been forced to cut back on essential services and consider up to 7,000 job losses or hikes in council tax because of the impossible situation in which the Scottish Government have put them. Does the Secretary of State think that Scottish people should have to pay more for poor-quality services?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The Scottish Government have received a block grant settlement this year of £41.6 billion—the highest in real terms since devolution began. Their behaviour towards local authorities completely contrasts with that of the UK Government. We are working with Scottish councils, delivering funding directly to them to help them with the projects that matter the most to their people. I would say that that is real devolution, not SNP centralisation.
The Scottish Government’s delayed and botched deposit return scheme has turned into total chaos: businesses want to redesign it to make it work; the public do not know about it; and MSPs want it delayed again. The scheme has been a shambles from day one, with a former SNP Minister describing it as “the Titanic heading for an iceberg”. Does the Minister agree that this process needs urgent reform, and will he encourage his Cabinet colleagues to make sure that any UK-wide scheme learns from the pitfalls of the Scottish Government process?
Yes. I have had legitimate concerns raised with me by businesses across Scotland and by stakeholder groups and I have urged the Scottish Government to pause the scheme. There is no doubt in my mind that the scheme is not just bad for businesses, but bad for stakeholders and consumers. Anecdotally, Aldi will sell 12 bottles of Scottish water for £1.59. Under this scheme, that will become £3.99. If that is not inflationary, if that is not adding to people’s cost of living, I do not know what is. Furthermore, we have not been asked for an exemption for this under the rules of the UK Internal Market Act 2020 by the Scottish Government—no request for an exemption has come. The exemption bar is very high indeed, otherwise what is the point of the UKIM?
The UK Government are fully committed to supporting Scotland to realise its significant renewable energy potential. Scotland has benefited greatly from the contracts for difference scheme, the Government’s main mechanism for supporting new low-carbon electricity generation projects in Great Britain. Indeed, Scotland has received 27% of all contracted projects to date.
I thank the Minister for his response. Scotland has huge potential for green investment, but all that is being put at risk by an exodus of capital, given what Joe Biden is doing with the Inflation Reduction Act 2022 in the US. What is the UK Government’s response to the Inflation Reduction Act so that we can secure investment in Scotland and in the rest of the UK?
I agree with the hon. Lady’s comments about Scotland’s potential in the renewable sector. I will allow my colleagues in the Treasury to respond to the point that she made about the US policy. In relation to other opportunities for Scotland, I am very keen to work in my role in the Scotland Office to develop that. If the hon. Lady wants to join me in doing that, I would be very happy to engage with her further.
Scottish Fishing Industry
This Government provide wide-ranging support to Scotland’s fishing industry. The processing and preserving of fish was recognised as an energy and trade intensive sector in the Government’s energy bill discount scheme, and almost half the £20 million already awarded through the UK seafood fund for infrastructure projects will be spent in Scotland.
I welcome the response of my hon. Friend. I also welcome the UK Government’s decision to include seafood processing in ongoing energy support beyond April. However, even before last year’s increases in energy costs, brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was already support for energy intensive industries to other food processors, such as pork, poultry and milled grain, but not fish. Will my hon. Friend agree to join me—ideally in my constituency of Banff and Buchan—to meet representatives of the seafood processing sector to discuss this shortfall?
May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in championing the seafood sector in Scotland? I look forward to visiting his constituency next month to chair the Scottish Seafood Industry Action Group where I will meet industry representatives. The UK Government’s energy intensive industries compensation scheme supports industries exposed to significant risk of carbon leakage and is targeted at the most electricity-intensive sectors that are competing in international markets. Any industries not included in this scheme can still benefit from the Government’s energy bill relief scheme and the energy bill discount scheme.
To progress the structure for fisheries in Scotland, surely we have to move on from devolved Scotland to independent Scotland? I am sure the Minister can see that in Ireland there is independent Ireland in the Republic, and devolved Ireland in Northern Ireland. Which does he think is delivering better economically and for fisheries in Ireland: the devolved version or the independent version? Across Europe and across the world, everybody knows the answer—does the Minister?
I am very confident that for all fishing communities across the United Kingdom it is this Government who are delivering best. I am clear that none of the fishing communities in Scotland wishes to go back into the common fisheries policy, which the SNP advocates.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation is available on parliamentlive.tv. I am also pleased to announce that, as part of our efforts to make our activities as accessible as possible, live subtitles are also now available on parliamentlive.tv for all proceedings in this Chamber.
I welcome some special guests who are observing our proceedings today, Madam President of the German Bundestag and the deputy Mayor of Kyiv and colleagues. You are most welcome.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am delighted that we are joined today by a delegation from Kyiv. This coming Friday there will be a national moment of reflection, which will give us the opportunity to pay tribute to the courage of the Ukrainian people and demonstrate our solidarity with Ukraine. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about the bravery of the Ukrainian people. Labour has asked his Government on three occasions to commit to a police response to every domestic abuse call. To date, no answer has been forthcoming. Can the Prime Minister provide a response today?
Just this week we announced new measures to tackle violence against women and girls. This is the Government that introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which is rolling out specialist advisers for those who suffer and putting in more funding to support victims. We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that women and girls are safe everywhere in our country.
My hon. Friend’s constituents and indeed the whole country can be proud of the welcome they have given to people from Ukraine over the last year. I can assure him we are committed to reducing the number of asylum seekers living in hotels at vast cost to taxpayers and considerable disruption to communities. I am grateful to the leadership of the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister in finding a sustainable solution; the Home Secretary will make a formal update in the coming weeks on progress in standing up alternative sites for accommodation.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments on Ukraine. I had the privilege last week of seeing first-hand the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people. We must continue to stand united in this House in support of Ukraine. The thoughts of the whole House, and I am sure the whole country, will also be with the family of Nicola Bulley at this very difficult time. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) to her first PMQs.
The Labour party is proud to be the party of the Good Friday agreement and peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We welcome attempts to make the protocol work more effectively. Does the Prime Minister agree that it has been poorly implemented, and that the basis for any deal must be removing unnecessary checks on goods?
Let me welcome the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) to her place, and associate myself with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Gentleman about Nicola Bulley’s family. Our thoughts are, of course, with them.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we are still in active discussions with the European Union, but he should know that I am a Conservative, a Brexiter and a Unionist, and any agreement that we reach needs to tick all three boxes. It needs to ensure sovereignty for Northern Ireland, it needs to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in our Union, and it needs to find practical solutions to the problems faced by people and businesses. I will be resolute in fighting for what is best for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
We all agree that the protocol can be improved, but there are trade-offs and we need to face up to them. The Prime Minister’s predecessor told businesses that there would be
“no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind”.
That was absolute nonsense and it destroyed trust. In the interests of restoring that trust, will the Prime Minister confirm that to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the deal he is negotiating is going to see Northern Ireland continue to follow some EU law?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is jumping ahead. We are still in intensive discussions with the European Union to ensure that we can find an agreement that meets the tests that I set. Those are sovereignty for Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland’s place in our precious Union; and to find practical solutions to the problems faced by people and businesses. I have spent time engaging and listening to those communities, businesses and political parties in Northern Ireland. I have a good understanding of what is required, and I will keep fighting until we get it.
The Prime Minister is biting his tongue, but at some point the irreconcilables on his Benches are going to twig, and they are going to come after him. The former trade Minister says there can be no role for the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister be honest with them, and tell them that is not going to happen?
Again, we need to keep going to secure an acceptable agreement. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about a deal that he has not even seen, that we are still negotiating and that is not finalised. It is his usual position when it comes to the European Union—give the EU a blank cheque and agree to anything it offers. It is not a strategy; that is surrender.
It is not my questions he is avoiding; it is Conservative Members’ questions he is avoiding. The Prime Minister’s predecessors wasted months pushing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. If implemented, it would tie us up in battles with the EU, the United States and others, at precisely the time we should be building common ground to boost our economy and show unity against Putin. The Prime Minister clearly wants a closer relationship with the EU, so can he confirm that if there is a deal he will pull the protocol Bill?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to put the EU first; I want to put Northern Ireland first. On these questions, he said he would respect the result of the referendum, and then he promised to back a second one. All the while he was constantly voting to frustrate Brexit. I know what the British people know: on this question, he cannot be trusted to stick up for Britain—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, the sound you hear is Conservative Members cheering the Prime Minister pulling the wool over their eyes. It is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement and the 30th anniversary of the Downing Street declaration. Tony Blair and John Major both recognised that politics in Northern Ireland is built on trust, not telling people what they want to hear, and on the need to take seriously the concerns of both communities—nationalists and Unionists. It is vital their voices are heard. Can the Prime Minister confirm that whatever deal he brings back, this House will get a vote on it?
Of course Parliament will express its view, but what is crucial here is that this is not about the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s desire to play political games with this situation in this House; it is about what is best for the people and communities of Northern Ireland, and that is what I will keep fighting for.
I take it from that that this House will get a vote, and I look forward to that vote in due course. Everyone knows that the basis of this deal has been agreed for weeks, but it is the same old story: the country has to wait while the Prime Minister plucks up the courage to take on the malcontents, the reckless and the wreckers on his own Benches. I am here to tell him that he does not need to worry about that, because we will put country before party and ensure that Labour votes to get it through. He should accept our offer and ignore the howls of indignation from those on his side who will never take yes for an answer. Why does he not just get on with it?
What I am doing is talking and listening to the people of Northern Ireland. That is the right thing to do—to make sure that we can respond to and resolve the concerns of the Unionist communities and businesses in Northern Ireland—and that is what I will keep doing.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his plans, and we have heard that tomorrow he is going to announce five missions, but we already know what they are. They are uncontrolled immigration, reckless spending, higher debt, softer sentences; and the fifth pledge, as we all know, is that he reserves the right to change his mind on the other four.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Russell family for their tireless and dignified campaigning on behalf of all families who have been bereaved in such tragic circumstances. Coroners already have statutory powers to require evidence to be given or produced for the purposes of their investigation, but the Government are listening carefully to the concerns of parliamentary colleagues and to bereaved families. The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology are leading those discussions to ensure that we have the right set of procedures in place.
Wholesale gas prices have fallen by 75% since their peak, yet in just a matter of weeks the British Government—the Westminster Government—intend to increase energy bills by a further £500. What would motivate a Prime Minister to do such a thing?
What we are doing is providing tens of billions of pounds of support for people with their energy bills, particularly the most vulnerable. What we are also doing—opposed by the SNP—is investing in producing more home-grown gas here in the UK and the North sea. I notice that one of the hon. Gentleman’s own Members of Parliament said this week that if the SNP were a pizza company, its products would be slow, wrong and costly. I say to him that it is time to focus on the issues that matter to the people of Scotland, and producing more energy is absolutely one of them.
I am not sure that implying that energy bills do not matter to the people of Scotland is a winning strategy for this Prime Minister. Let us get real: the fact that wholesale gas prices have fallen by 75% means a windfall to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of around £15 billion, so what they are saying is that they intend to raid the pockets of ordinary Scots while lining the pockets of Westminster. It is time to set aside any notion of an energy price increase, but instead to protect households and perhaps to reduce bills by £500. Does the Prime Minister not agree?
We are saving households across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, £900 on their energy bills as a result of our energy bills guarantee. In the coming years, we will spend £12 billion protecting particularly the most vulnerable families and pensioners across the United Kingdom. But the best way to reduce people’s bills is to halve inflation, as we have promised to do, and to produce more home-grown energy here in the United Kingdom. That is something that this Government support; maybe the hon. Gentleman could confirm whether the SNP supports it.
I thank my hon. Friend and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild), because I know that they are great supporters of this project. I know that over the last year or so the Queen Elizabeth Hospital has been allocated over £50 million to address the most immediate issues at the site. I also know that they have expressed their interest in being part of the new hospital programme—the Department of Health and Social Care is looking through all those bids. My hon. Friend will know that I cannot comment on specific bids, but the selected hospitals will be announced in due course.
I thank the Prime Minister for his efforts in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. It is unacceptable that Northern Ireland has been put in this place, with a protocol imposed upon us that harms our place in the United Kingdom. It must be replaced with arrangements that are acceptable and that restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. Does he accept how important the constitutional and democratic issues are in relation to getting a solution? Does he agree that it is unacceptable that EU laws are imposed on Northern Ireland with no democratic scrutiny or consent? Will he assure me that he will address those fundamental constitutional issues, not just by tweaking the protocol but by rewriting the legally binding treaty text?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and for the role that he has played in recent months in articulating Unionists’ concerns. I have heard him loud and clear when he says that he wants and needs those issues resolved so that he has a basis to work with others to restore power sharing, and I know that that is genuine. He raises the question of practical issues, and it is vital that those are addressed. But he also raises a vital question about the constitutional and legal framework in which those arrangements exist. I can assure him that I agree: addressing the democratic deficit is an essential part of the negotiations that remain ongoing with the European Union. Just as he has been consistent, so have I, and I can assure him that that is at the very heart of the issues that must be addressed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She is right: illegal crossings put people’s lives at risk, divert resources away from those in genuine need, and are unfair on those who migrate here legally. That is why one of our five pledges to the British people is to stop the boats. We are working at pace on the legislation—it is important that it works—and in the meantime, our deals with Albania and France are already yielding benefits. What I can tell her is that we want a system whereby if someone arrives in our country illegally, they will not be able to stay. Instead, they will be detained and removed to a country that they come from or to a safe third alternative. That is a system that the Home Secretary and I are working hard to put in place, and that is what our legislation will deliver.
I am pleased that the Government are in intensive talks with the Royal College of Nursing to find a way forward. As I have always said, we are keen to discuss the terms and conditions, and I am glad that those conversations are now happening. If the hon. Gentleman really cares about the impact on working people, perhaps he and his party should stand up to their union paymasters and back our minimum service laws.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and he is right about the importance of getting our regulatory framework right in order to drive growth and prosperity. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out an extensive review of retained EU law in five key growth areas, including life sciences, green industries and digital technology. The Government’s chief scientific adviser is also leading work to consider how the UK can better regulate emerging technologies to enable their rapid and safe introduction.
I am proud that we are investing record sums into the NHS under this Government, including record sums into NHS capital, which are going on not only upgrading almost 100 hospitals and developing 40 large-scale developments, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but investing in more scanners and more ambulances across the board so that we can deliver vital care to people. I am very pleased that the most recent statistics on urgent emergency care show considerable improvement from the challenges we faced in December, and we are now on a clear path to getting people the treatment they need in the time they need it.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to tackling illegal migration, particularly the issue of small boats. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the Government’s proposal to relocate approximately 500 single male asylum seekers to Beaconside in Stafford? Will he meet me urgently to discuss it, given the huge number of objections that I have received from constituents on the issue?
First, I welcome my hon. Friend back to her place. I know that this issue concerns her and her constituents, which is why we must absolutely stop the boats and stem the tide of illegal migrants to relieve this pressure on our local communities. I will ensure that she meets the Home Secretary as soon as possible to discuss her concerns—hopefully we can arrange that meeting in the coming days.
The best way to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty is to make sure that they do not grow up in a workless household. That is why I am proud that, under the record of the Conservative Government, there are almost 1 million fewer children growing up in workless households and hundreds of thousands fewer children in poverty. That is because this Government are on the side of parents and will make sure that they have the jobs they need, because ultimately the best poverty strategy is to have everybody in work.
Mr Speaker, I have previously called out in this House the appalling level of service that my constituents and yours receive from train operator TransPennine. Last month, TransPennine had the largest number of cancellations of any service provider in the UK, but it turns out that even that figure was fiddled, because TransPennine had cancelled over 1,000 trains before 10.30 the night before so that they would not show up in the statistics. Does the Prime Minister agree that this practice is totally unacceptable, as is TransPennine’s level of service?
I agree with my right hon. Friend: the current service levels are unacceptable. The Rail North partnership, which is managing the contract, is working with the company on an improvement plan. The Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), is having weekly meetings with the Rail North partnership to monitor its progress, and although the TransPennine contract expires in May and we are working on a new contract, if Ministers conclude that the operator cannot be turned around, other decisions may have to be made.
The Government are committed to building 40 new hospitals as part of the new hospital programme. In the south-west, eight out of the 11 schemes do have full outline planning permission approved, and the remaining three schemes would not be expected to have planning permission at this stage, due to when they are due to be delivered. We are working with the trust to go through that process, so everything is on track, and we will bring those hospitals to the people in the south-west.
I am grateful for the £3 million that the Government have sent to Wolverhampton to trial the new Better Health app, which will support Wulfrunians to make better choices about their diet and fitness. Will the Prime Minister welcome this, and also celebrate our grassroots sports clubs in Wolverhampton, especially Wednesfield Aces cycle speedway club, which celebrated its diamond jubilee last year?
I join my hon. Friend in commending all her local sporting organisations for the job they do. She is absolutely right that prevention is better than cure, and ensuring that we can support people to live healthy, fulfilling lives is absolutely part of our plan. That is why we are investing in football pitches, tennis courts and youth facilities right up and down the country, and I am glad that my hon. Friend’s constituents are benefiting.
The facts are these: there are 2,200 more GPs in general practice today, there are 15,000 more doctors in the NHS, and there are 30,000 more nurses. That is because we are putting record funding in, backing the NHS and getting patients the care that they need.
I commend my right hon. Friend for grasping the nettle and seeking to negotiate an agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol. Does he share my frustration with the expressed views of people who are commenting on a deal that has yet to be reached, and does he agree that the best way to reduce or even end the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union is through treaty change itself, not through domestic legislation in this Parliament?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that we need to keep going, but he is also right that we need to find enduring solutions to the challenges faced by the people of Northern Ireland. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) mentioned earlier, it is absolutely right that we address the constitutional and legal framework of our arrangements and ensure that we can put in place new arrangements that secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman may not have seen that the Royal College of Nursing is now in talks with the Government about resolving the disputes, and I am grateful to it for entering those talks with a constructive attitude, and for calling off its strikes next week. I urge him and his colleagues to be on the side of working people—that is, to back our laws to introduce minimum safety levels across the NHS and transport, because that is the best way to demonstrate you are on the side of hard-working families.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. I share the same desire to stop the boats, for all the reasons we have discussed. He should rest assured that the Home Secretary and I are working intensely and as quickly as possible to bring forward that legislation, because I want what he wants: to ensure that those people who come here illegally will simply not be allowed to stay.
During recess, my community in Warrington was rocked by the murder of 16-year-old schoolgirl Brianna Ghey. What support will the Prime Minister offer to our community, and to our local schools, so that they can support Brianna’s classmates and her family as we try to heal from this appalling tragedy?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue, and express my sympathies to Brianna’s family and friends for what has happened. I know the hon. Lady will be playing her part in her local community in supporting them at this difficult time. I know that the Home Secretary is shortly due to visit the area, and she will be able to discuss with the hon. Lady what support can be provided for the community at this time, and she should know that she will have what she needs from the Government.
I cannot ask the Prime Minister to stop time or tide, but I might ask him to offset their effects, because in south Devon, the Slapton line is being eroded away, and I need him to help me lobby the Department for Transport and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see that we get the repairs done. Natural England is standing in the way and stopping us from doing what we need to do for this vital link. Will he support me?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic campaigner and advocate for his constituents. I know that this particular issue is causing frustration and concern in his community. He is absolutely right to raise it, and I will ensure that he gets the appropriate meetings he needs with the Ministers in question, so that we can work with him to try to find a resolution.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask whether it is still the convention, and the courtesy one might expect from a fellow parliamentarian, for them to contact a Member in advance if they are minded to mention their constituency in a question? I refer to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), who is no longer in his place; he talked about Eastbourne District General Hospital, and in fact repeated gossip and hearsay from social media that has already been successfully challenged by the hospital trust. The trust has powered from being in special measures and requiring improvement to being outstanding and good. It is working incredibly hard to deliver what has been described as once-in-a-generation funding. [Interruption.] His comments are most unfair.
Order. When I stand up, it is important that Members sit down. [Interruption.] Do not worry.
First, that is not a point of order. People can mention issues in other constituencies, such as those involving hospitals, because they usually cover a much greater geographical area than one constituency; they would not have to inform the Member. I do hope that the hon. Lady has informed the Member she named that she was about to raise this point of order. [Interruption.] No, there is nobody here. If we are going to play by the rules, we should all get the rules right before making a point of order. She has certainly put on record her concerns and views, but for the future, not telling the Member concerned is certainly not the way to do it.
Tyre Manufacture (Toxic Chemicals) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Barry Sheerman, supported by Rachael Maskell, Christine Jardine, Geraint Davies and Caroline Lucas, presented a Bill to set limits on the use of toxic chemicals in the manufacture of tyres; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 250).
Affordable Housing (Conversion of Commercial Property)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to enable local authorities to establish planning obligations relating to affordable housing in respect of the conversion of commercial property to residential use; and for connected purposes.
In my Chelmsford constituency, there is a shortage of affordable housing. Around 360 families are currently housed in temporary accommodation, and this is an all-time high. Locally, many new homes have been built. In the Chelmsford City Council area, around 1,000 new homes have been built in each of the last five years. When a new development of over a threshold of 11 homes is built, our local authority applies an affordable housing obligation of 35% of the housing. As a result, many hundreds of new affordable homes have been built each year in the Chelmsford area. In fact, across the country since 2010, Government-backed schemes have helped over 829,000 households to purchase a home. This is a massive achievement by successive Conservative-led Governments. Despite that, however, in areas such as Chelmsford, the demand for affordable homes is outstripping the number of new affordable homes being built.
New homes are also created when an office block, shop or other commercial property is converted into residential homes, such as flats, but these conversions follow the permitted development route, and there is no ability for the local authority to apply an affordable housing obligation. Entire office blocks can be converted into luxury flats without providing any affordable homes at all. The purpose of this Bill is to enable local authorities to apply an affordable housing obligation to conversions of commercial property to residential use. That would not be a top-down, blanket rule set by Whitehall. It would be up to each local authority to decide whether it wished to apply an affordable housing obligation to conversions in its area, and what percentage to use.
Some developers may argue that requiring them to make a proportion of the housing affordable could make the conversion of a building financially unviable, or lead to delays, but decisions would be subject to bespoke local negotiations on each individual property—negotiations between the local authority and the developers on a case-by-case basis—which would allow concerns to be resolved locally.
Looking back over the past few years, it is clear that giving this power to local authorities could make a substantial difference to meeting affordable housing needs. In the area covered by Chelmsford City Council, between March 2013 and March 2022, commercial-to-residential conversions resulting in 1,419 residential units were approved; and 1,292 of those units were above the affordable housing threshold. If Chelmsford City Council had been able to apply the same affordable housing percentages to commercial-to-residential conversions that it applies to new-build homes, it could have released 453 new affordable homes in our area alone.
This is not just a local issue. The Local Government Association has informed me that it estimates that there are almost 95,000 households in temporary accommodation across the country. It has repeatedly raised concerns about permitted development rights allowing developers to convert premises into houses without having to provide any affordable housing. It estimates that more than 20,000 affordable homes have been “lost” as a result of the inability to apply affordable housing obligations to office-to-residential conversions under permitted development since 2015. That is based on an assumption that councils could have applied a 25% affordable housing requirement on conversions in that time period.
Local councils are also concerned that pressures on affordable housing could continue to rise due to factors such as landlords moving out of private rental markets, and a rise in the cost of living. Furthermore, across the UK many households have warmly welcomed Ukrainian families into their homes. Many of those host-guest relationships remain extremely firm, but some of those families may need access to more affordable homes of their own. Looking forward, it is likely that we may see increases in conversions of commercial property, especially office blocks, to residential use. Since the pandemic, more people have been working from home, and commuter numbers have not risen back to pre-pandemic levels. Fewer commuters means fewer office workers, more empty offices, and more potential demand for office-to-residential conversions.
In advance of presenting this Bill, I spoke to the National Housing Federation. It told me that given the need for affordable housing, councils should be able to negotiate for affordable housing as part of office-to-residential conversions. It said:
“It is also vital that all homes delivered under permitted development rights are of decent quality, safe and connected to local amenities.”
In some parts of the country, there have been concerns that permitted development conversions have not always delivered decent-quality, safe homes. I agree that homes should be decent and safe, and those issues need to be addressed, but as a ten-minute rule Bill must be targeted in scope, this Bill will not specify qualitative standards. This targeted Bill will focus on enabling the local authority to apply a quantitative obligation. I recognise, however, that when a local authority is able to open up discussions on the quantity of social housing to be delivered, that is likely to enable it also to open up wider discussions with developers on other issues, such as quality.
There are debates about what constitutes “'affordable housing”, and what the optimal mix is of homes for rent versus homes to buy. For example, if Chelmsford City Council had applied the same ratios that it applied to new-build properties to the 453 notional affordable homes, that could have resulted in 325 more rental properties and 128 more shared-equity and first homes for buyers. My view is that residents benefit from the stability of owning their own home, and I would like to see more effort made locally to help renters transition to becoming homeowners, but that is a bigger debate, and in this targeted Bill, I do not intend to address the question of what the ideal blend of affordable homes would be. There are also concerns about the permitted development regime, including about the contributions made to local infrastructure, but again, for simplicity’s sake, I do not intend to deal with that in this targeted Bill.
Under the planning system that is being legislated for in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, it is intended that councils will be able to ensure that affordable housing is provided from office-to-residential conversions. That is because the infrastructure levy, which replaces section l06 negotiations, will also apply to permitted development. The Government have therefore already signalled their intention to make that change in the long run, but the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill may take many years to implement. The need for more affordable housing is urgent; we cannot wait, and neither can households in our constituencies. The Bill would therefore introduce an ability to apply the affordable housing obligation immediately, rather than our waiting for the full new regime under the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to roll out. I am happy to work with Ministers to put a drop-away or sunset clause into the Bill, so that the measures that it introduces fall away once the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is fully implemented.
To conclude, this targeted measure will enable local authorities to apply affordable housing obligations to conversions of commercial property to residential occupancy. Local authorities would be able to apply those obligations in the manner that best suits the needs in their area. The Bill has the potential to deliver many thousands of new affordable homes for people across the country in a quick and timely manner. I commend it to the House.
That Vicky Ford, Mr Mark Francois, Paul Holmes, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Andrew Jones, Wendy Morton, Angela Richardson, David Simmonds, Greg Smith, Kelly Tolhurst and Dan Carden present the Bill.
Vicky Ford accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 251).
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill (Allocation of Time)
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion five hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) the Speaker shall put the Question forthwith on any Instruction relating to the procedure for regulations under section 3(9A) of the Human Tissue Act 2004 which may be selected by the Speaker and moved by a Minister of the Crown, and the Speaker shall leave the Chair after any such Instruction has been disposed of.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chair shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chair or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(d) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other questions, other than the question on any motion described in paragraph (15)(a) of this Order.
(5) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chair or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(6) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chair or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chair shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(8) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(9) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order.
(10) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(13) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.
(14) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(15) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(16) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(17) (a) The start of any debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall be postponed until the conclusion of any proceedings on that day to which this Order applies.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings in respect of such a debate.
(18) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(19) (a) Any private business which has been set down for consideration at a time falling after the commencement of proceedings on this Order or on the Bill on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall, instead of being considered as provided by Standing Orders or by any Order of the House, be considered at the conclusion of the proceedings on the Bill on that day.
(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to the private business so far as necessary for the purpose of securing that the business may be considered for a period of three hours.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
More than a year has passed since the then First Minister of Northern Ireland resigned. Twelve months and one Assembly election later, people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved Government that they deserve. In the absence of those institutions, this Government have stepped in to protect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We have set a budget, delivered vital energy support funding and legislated to provide clarity on the decision-making powers of Northern Ireland civil servants to enable them to maintain public service provision. However, on each of those occasions, I have stood at this Despatch Box and expressed my deep disappointment that we still await the return of a functioning Assembly and Executive. I wish to restate that profound disappointment once again.
The restoration of the Executive, in line with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, remains my top priority. I will continue to do everything I can to make that happen and to help the Northern Ireland parties to work together to do so equally. It was on that basis that we legislated last autumn to extend the Executive formation period through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022. Since that period ended in January 2023, I have again been under a statutory duty to call an Assembly election, which would have to be held within 12 weeks—on or before 13 April.
I have spent time engaging with Northern Ireland political and community leaders, assessing the options available to me. I have also spoken to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), and I appreciate his advice and guidance. It remains my view that a further Assembly election at this time would be unwelcome and expensive and, crucially, it would bring us no closer to our objective of delivering fully functioning devolved institutions.
At this critical juncture, the best approach to facilitating the return of those institutions is built on flexibility, to allow time and space for negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol between the UK and EU to continue, and to promote collaboration by the parties in Northern Ireland to form a Government, not to compete in an unwelcome election. On that note, I will briefly summarise the overall intention of the Bill.
In order to concentrate the minds of those who hold the future of devolution in their hands, could I invite my right hon. Friend to confirm that joint authority and direct rule are not on his direct agenda, but that making sure that devolution works is front and centre?
I can confirm those points 100%.
This is a short Bill, and I propose to time my remarks accordingly. I will merely outline the Bill at this stage and save my discussion of the mechanics of its two clauses for Committee, which I hope will commence shortly. Having said that, I hope the House will permit me to pause and express my gratitude to Opposition Members and, indeed, everyone involved for their continued cross-party approach to delivering key legislation in Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Hove, for engaging thoughtfully with me on a number of occasions ahead of the Bill’s introduction.
The Bill will provide for a one-year retrospective extension to the Executive formation period from 19 January 2023, which means that, if the parties are unable to form an Executive on or before 18 January 2024, I will again fall under a duty to call for an Assembly election to take place within 12 weeks. However, as I said earlier, I believe flexibility is the order of the day if we are to play our part in encouraging and facilitating the return of the institutions.
The Chair of the Select Committee prompts me to reflect that I am one of the handful of people here who had an active part in the last period of direct rule, in about 2004 or 2005. It was just about the most inadequate procedure imaginable, which is a high bar to clear in this place. Ultimately, without a functioning Assembly, and without direct rule or joint authority, the people who lose out are not the politicians, but the people who rely on public services.
The right hon. Gentleman is completely right that the people of Northern Ireland end up suffering from not having functioning institutions working for them.
The Bill provides me, as Secretary of State, with the important ability to call an early election, provided that offices have not been filled. Taken together, these provisions represent a delicate balance. Eventually, if the political impasse in Northern Ireland continues, people in Northern Ireland will rightly expect to return to the polls to have their say. However, the prospect of forcing an election when it would be unwelcome or unhelpful runs contrary to our goal of providing the time and space we need for our negotiations with the European Union on the protocol to continue to develop, and for an Executive to form.
Members with a keen eye for detail will no doubt have noticed that, unless an early election is called, the extension provided for by the Bill will run past the date on which the decision-making provisions contained in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 lapse, namely, 5 June 2023. During the Act’s passage late last year, we were clear that the current governance arrangements were not a sustainable long-term solution. I am therefore keeping those arrangements under review, in the continued absence of fully functioning devolved institutions, but I sincerely hope that an Executive are in place before those arrangements expire.
In the meantime, the provisions of the 2022 Act and its accompanying guidance provide Northern Ireland civil servants with the clarity they need on how and when they should be taking decisions. The decisions they have been taking under the 2022 Act are being published to ensure complete transparency. I am truly grateful for the work of Northern Ireland civil servants in making use of those provisions to maintain public services in Northern Ireland, but, as I have said many times, the right people to take those decisions are locally elected politicians, who should be doing their jobs in an Executive. The current arrangement is not and can never be a substitute for fully functioning devolved institutions.
I know everyone in this House has been deeply moved by the courage shown by a very young man, Dáithí Mac Gabhann. He and his whole family have fought for the implementation of organ donation changes. I recently met Dáithí and his family, and I met them again this morning. I am incredibly moved by his story and by his family’s dedication to seeing this important change to the law on organ donations in Northern Ireland implemented as quickly as possible.
I am a bit of a stickler for how we do things in this place, and I would never want to go against “Erskine May,” but Dáithí and his family are with us in the Gallery today. I am sure hon. Members will wish to join me in welcoming him and commending the whole family for their valiant efforts. They should not need to be here today to see this change, as the Assembly could and should have convened to take this across the finish line.
As I said in my letter to the Northern Ireland parties, they continue to have it within their power to recall the Assembly and deal with secondary legislation such as the regulations in this case. That would only require Members of the Legislative Assembly to work together to elect a Speaker—not necessarily to nominate a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister—but I was disappointed that the opportunity to do that was not taken during the Assembly recall last Tuesday. However, I recognise this issue is exceptional both in its sheer importance and in the cross-party support it commands, both in Northern Ireland and in this House. On that basis, the Government spent a lot of time with the lawyers. We have been able to table important amendments to this Bill to facilitate those changes, to be taken forward in the Assembly in the continued absence of a Speaker.
It is commendable that Dáithí and his family are here, and it is wonderful that the Government are doing the right thing. This law will now be in place faster than if the Northern Ireland Assembly were sitting, which is one of the peculiarities of the politics in which we live. We should not make political points on this. It is right and proper that it has been done for children across the United Kingdom who need organ donations, for which I thank the Secretary of State .
I thank the Secretary of State for introducing this Bill, and I thank Dáithí’s family, who are in the Gallery. The Bill will make organ donation an opt-out law in Northern Ireland, just as it is on the UK mainland. That is what we want: equal laws across the whole United Kingdom. As a result of the good work and commitment of the Secretary of State and the Government, we will now have an equal law. We all support an opt out on organ transplants.
I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for taking this action. I commend him and all the politicians who got us here, but does he agree that the real thanks and praise should go to Dáithí and his family for their fantastic campaign? It has been an extraordinary campaign, and they all deserve great praise.
Indeed. When I spoke to Dáithí earlier, I asked him whether he fancied his chances of being elected to this House and trying to put us all straight. A bit of common sense would probably go a long way in our dealings, and he and his family have displayed it in huge quantities.
Dáithí also met Mr Speaker and is now the proud owner of a Speaker teddy bear. I could make so many jokes, but I would never be called again if I went down that route. I know that he and his father Máirtín enjoyed meeting Mr Speaker. This change goes to show what can be done in politics when everybody comes together.
I will save my remarks on the technical details of the amendments for Committee, which I hope will commence shortly.
I have spoken a decent amount about the Bill’s dates and timelines, so I will conclude my remarks by noting an anniversary of which hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House are keenly aware—the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Members throughout the House will doubtless join me in celebrating the progress that Northern Ireland has made since that historic agreement, which has served as an example of peacebuilding across the world. Looking back on the signing of the agreement, and the great strides that Northern Ireland has made since then, gives me a great deal of optimism, but I am also struck by the huge importance of delivering the functioning devolved institutions that the people of Northern Ireland endorsed by voting for it.
This Government will always seek to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and, as I said in my opening remarks, the restoration of the Executive therefore remains my top priority. The Bill will help to bring that about by avoiding an unwelcome election and providing space for the parties to work together to end the current impasse, but, of course, the Bill alone will not be enough to achieve that. We now need all Northern Ireland’s locally elected leaders to work together once again to make the most of the opportunity that it presents. I hope that they will take their cue from those who went before them and secured the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and display the co-operation, courage and leadership that are needed to deliver functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland.
The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a vice-chair, will meet for a session in Stormont in early March—led by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is not in the Chamber—bringing together people across the jurisdictions and across all parties, as happened before 1998. Those informal ties are very important, but it is also important that parliamentarians on all sides understand where we have come from and, crucially, look forward to where we are going. Will the Secretary of State endorse that aim, and encourage Members in all parts of the House to become more involved in cross-jurisdictional organisations so that we can understand each other and get ourselves out of the current impasse?
Yes, 100%. The fact that people have not been able to meet face to face and build those relationships over a period is probably one of the hangovers of covid. The hon. Lady is entirely correct, although there is a different group of people I would rather see sitting in Stormont at this time, and I very much hope that that will be the case in the not too distant future.
The Secretary of State is right to say that Northern Ireland will succeed when our local politicians work together. We have done so in the past, and we have overcome much greater difficulties than this in the past. However, this issue is not about us; it is about what has been imposed upon us. Does the Secretary of State recognise that while all of us in Northern Ireland, collectively, will serve our people, it has been the case for too long in London that the personalities may change but the playbook does not? Too many consider Northern Ireland politics to be but a game, although for us—for all of us, across communities—it is too important to be treated as a political game. I say that in the aspiration and hope that the Secretary of State recognises that what we have had for the past few years is not good enough, and that the determination to crack the protocol and the impositions that are plaguing all communities in Northern Ireland will resolve those issues.
I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I gently push back. I have yet to meet anyone in Government who thinks that the politics of Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland, are anything to do with a game. This Government take their responsibilities for every part of the Union, including and especially Northern Ireland, unbelievably seriously, and I hope we will be able to demonstrate that, with the hon. Gentleman, in the coming days and weeks.
I can give, on a personal level, the assurance that those of us who have been involved with Northern Ireland politics take it seriously. Some of us actually resigned from the Northern Ireland Office and sacrificed our ministerial careers because we cared passionately about Northern Ireland, and it is certainly not a game from the viewpoint of many of the Ministers who have served there—and most certainly not a game from the viewpoint of this Minister who resigned on principle.
The former Secretary of State has, in his own words, described the seriousness with which everyone takes Northern Ireland and its politics, and especially its people—and those people in Northern Ireland want their locally elected representatives to go back to work. So do I, and so, I believe, does everyone in the House, notwithstanding the tiny bit of work that we have to do with our European Union partners. This Bill will lay the groundwork for that to happen, and I therefore commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill. We do not oppose it, because we support the implementation of Dáithí’s law, and because it is still not clear what an election at this point would achieve other than hardening positions.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words about the engagement that has taken place between us, and, as I have said in the past, I am grateful for that engagement. I hope we shall have opportunities in the future to thank each other also for working together in the interests of Northern Ireland. I am grateful, in particular, for the fact that ideas that have been suggested during the engagement between us are reflected in the Bill, and I hope that that will prove to people throughout Northern Ireland that consensus is possible across what are sometimes wide divides in politics.
It would, of course, be better if this legislation were not needed. Northern Ireland is a valued part of the United Kingdom, and restoring the Stormont Assembly and Executive should be a priority for the Government. This is the sixth Northern Ireland Bill in the current parliamentary Session, which means that the Northern Ireland Office has been responsible for one in eight of the Government’s Bills introduced during this Session. Most of those Bills have been fast-tracked and have received one day of scrutiny. That does not serve Parliament well, and it certainly does not serve Northern Ireland well.
We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement this April. The Labour party is proud of its part in the peace process, and power sharing is an essential and hard-won outcome of that agreement. When people voted for and chose an end to violence, the institutions that were set up promised normality and prosperity. The vacuum caused by the absence of Stormont is having a profound effect on Northern Ireland, which I do not think we would accept in any other part of our country. Public sector workers are striking, but have no Ministers with whom to negotiate; civil servants are being asked to make impossible decisions about education cuts behind closed doors; and the health service has the worst waiting lists in the UK, with no clear plan to improve them. The backdrop to these issues is the fact that families in Northern Ireland have the lowest disposable incomes in the United Kingdom, and 44% of families have no savings at all.
Despite those challenges, however, there is a massive potential waiting to be unleashed. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of countless innovations, such as hydrogen buses and next generation light anti-tank weapons. The Labour party sees it as having a huge role to play in our country’s green transition, and on all my visits I am struck by the determination of people to get on with living life as it should be lived. However, the longer there is no functional devolved government, the harder it will be for these opportunities to be seized.
Dáithí’s law, which we will celebrate and debate today, is an example of what Stormont can achieve when it is sitting. Devolved government was functioning when Dáithí’s law was introduced in the Stormont Assembly in 2021, and the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Act (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 passed its final stage in February last year. That should have led to opt-out organ donation being in place across Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to Dáithí’s family, who I know are watching in the Gallery. I am pleased that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, made them so welcome, and I am also pleased that we as a House encourage the gurgling noises that we hear from a young family. Believe me, they are the nicest noises that intervene on us when we are speaking here, and we should not be offended by them in any way, because they are welcome today.
I must say to the shadow Secretary of State that that is a very unfortunate choice of words, but I will take them in the spirit in which they were intended. I intervene simply to make sure it is recorded in Hansard that when you, Madam Deputy Speaker, kindly referred to the family in the Gallery, Dáithí waved at you.
I am grateful for those gurgling noises, and the hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene any time he likes.
I pay tribute to everyone who worked on what was a positive campaign, which received support across the communities and parties. That is a real credit to Dáithí’s family. Despite the current divisions in Northern Ireland, all party leaders worked together to ask the Secretary of State to intervene in this case so that the law Stormont passed could be implemented. It is right that he has done so, and the Labour party supports the amendments that he has put forward. I hope that in the future the Assembly can pass more laws that have widespread support and make a difference to people’s lives across Northern Ireland. This is the reality of how high the stakes are for restoring Stormont.
There is a contradiction at the heart of this Bill and the Government’s strategy for restoring the Executive. When the previous Act—the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022—was passed last year, I said that the timetable for a restored Executive was extremely short. I warned that it seemed unlikely that enough progress would have been made on the protocol negotiations for the Executive to be restored before the deadline. The Secretary of State told me that he was an optimist. We have the opposite situation with this Bill. It sets an extremely long deadline, which I support, of potentially a year for restoring the Executive as the protocol negotiations hopefully reach their end point. It is important that the Secretary of State is clear that he still has the power to call elections at any point during this period. I do not want to be pessimistic about this, but it is hard to see such a long extension as an endorsement.
Since the Prime Minister took office, the Government have followed a plan for restoring devolution by finding a negotiated solution to the protocol. That is correct. It is to be welcomed that the concerns of Unionists have been listened to and that the EU is showing more flexibility over what is possible. I cannot help but wish that the same respect had been shown to the Democratic Unionist party when it was expressing protocol concerns from within the Executive and Assembly. Had that happened, I do not believe that we would be here today.
In these late stages, I urge both the UK and the EU to strain every sinew to find a comprise that will be acceptable to all communities. As the Secretary of State knows, Labour stands ready to support such a deal. However, despite all the recent front pages and 15-minute meetings, the shape of the deal is still largely unknown to Members of Parliament. There is even confusion about whether it will be voted on in this House. I know that the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been deeply involved in these talks, so I hope they can confirm that a deal will be put before the House for a vote so that Members who represent Northern Ireland can have their say on it.
The path that the Government have not chosen to follow is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Yesterday, the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland)—who was in his place just a short while ago—wrote an article in which he said:
“The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has outlived its political usefulness and no longer has any legal justification”.
The Labour party has always said that that Bill would take a wrecking ball to our international reputation as a country that follows the rule of law. The Government would benefit, too, by being open about the fact that their legal advice might well have changed in recent days and weeks. Ultimately, a negotiated solution will be the only lasting solution.
It would also help the negotiations if the Government were more consistent in their defence of the Good Friday agreement on other fronts. This very week, we have had the spectacle of the Justice Secretary claiming that the Government were considering leaving the European convention on human rights in the morning, and the Attorney General confirming in the afternoon that doing so would break the Good Friday agreement. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will confirm that the Government remain committed to all parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Problems are piling up in Northern Ireland. This Bill does not solve all of them, but it stalls and buys more time. There are 39 key decisions that require Executive approval currently on hold. All of them are important in their own ways. People in Northern Ireland deserve such decisions to be taken locally. The Government will need to keep the next King’s Speech very light and prepare for an even higher number of Bills concerning Northern Ireland in the next Parliament if we do not get this right.
It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State. I agree with much of what he said, and I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. Given the amount of Northern Irish legislation that we have had to deal with in recent months, it should come as no surprise that the Secretary of State sought the longest extension time he possibly could. I am not entirely sure whether he wanted that or whether the Leader of the House and the business managers said, “You can have one more go at this and don’t bother coming back again.” I think there is probably quite a lot of truth in that.
The Secretary of State is right to have gone long, regrettable though that is. The stakes are incredibly high, as we know. We are all familiar with the phrase “last chance saloon”. It has been applied on so many occasions to so many issues, particularly with regard to the politics of Northern Ireland, but we should be cognisant that this feels like a very important time in the negotiations on the protocol, and we await the outcome with interest. The Government are right not to give a daily running commentary and five-minute bulletins. These are big issues that need to be resolved calmly and amicably, and in the new spirit of trust and mutual respect. Therefore, it is a question of getting it right rather than getting it done by a particular time.
This is important, because if we get it right and a situation is alighted upon that can command near-universal support—ideally universal support—in this place and elsewhere, that will lead on to addressing all those points that we hear about weekly in the Select Committee, where the shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State have set out the problems relating to health, education, housing, infrastructure and the post-covid rebuilding of the economy. Those issues require real-time intervention by local politicians representing their communities and making the changes that people want. This could take one, two or three weeks. It will take as long as it needs to take in order to get it right.
All of us, irrespective of what side of the debate we come from, have been seized this week of the importance and seriousness of the time in which we are operating, of the need to get this right and of the urgency required to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, for which there is a pent-up appetite in all parties. Nobody wants to be sitting metaphorically twiddling their thumbs; they want to be discharging the jobs to which they were elected. I think it was Dave Allen who used to say, “May your God go with you,” and now is the time, whichever God we believe in, if any, to pray that we are moving towards a solution that works across the piece and that can lead to an enduring settlement, in terms of wider UK-EU relations and how the protocol operates, and to ensure that a space can be carved out so that that deeper taproot of devolution, such as we see operating in Scotland and in Wales, can really take root and flourish in Northern Ireland.
Does the Chairman of the Select Committee agree that in this sensitive period, when we are hopefully at the end of the negotiations, we all have a responsibility to be careful and to allow the negotiations to conclude, hopefully successfully? Does he also agree that in the Western Health and Social Care Trust, some people are waiting for eight years to see a consultant, and that that situation can no longer stand? We need a Government as soon as possible to deal with that crisis.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That takes me neatly on to the proposal tabled by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which broadly mirrors that tabled on a cross-party basis by the Northern Ireland parties represented in this place. The public are not really that interested in process.
I met Dáithí and his parents yesterday—I echo everything that has been said about him, because he is an inspirational and joyful young man—and through their quiet persistence they have made a case that can unify all political parties and those of no political persuasion, and shown that the changes we are making are the right thing to do. That speaks to the point referenced by the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Hove (Peter Kyle), among others: that most people in Northern Ireland just want a better life. They want better housing, a better economy, better health outcomes and better education. For many, the processes by which those things are delivered are a moot point; they just want to see that step change and that improvement in their lives.
Nobody who has met the family over the last few days will have come away without a bit of a lump in their throat, because the family’s story is compelling and moving. There is also a simplicity to it, because what we are doing is such an obvious thing to do, but the hurdles of politics got in the way and prevented it from happening. Something almost as natural as drawing breath has been put on hold because of processes that the vast majority of people do not fully comprehend and do not see as particularly relevant to them. As I say, people just want to see changes, and this family’s story, which has led to the Government’s proposal, shows what a power for good we can be when we all put our shoulders to the wheel and face in the same direction.
I do not know about anybody else, but when I go on school visits in my constituency, I am often asked, “What’s the difference between you all?”. We talk about philosophy, principle and world view, but the one thing that unites us—the Government’s proposal throws a sharp light on this—is that none of us entered this place, or a district council chamber, Stormont, the Senedd or Holyrood, to make our communities worse off, to make people less happy or to make them less prosperous. We are all motivated to try to make things a little better for our communities in the time—however long it happens to be—that we have the honour to represent them in whichever elected forum we happen to serve. I hope that that spirit of hope and optimism, which is writ large in the Government’s proposals, is not restricted to them and to the cross-party working on them, because this is also about recognising the good that can be achieved by this place and other forums for our people.
I conclude with a point that is relevant to us all. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, is currently taking evidence about the devastating impact of paramilitaries. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and other Members will have heard it all. It is a hangover that nobody can quite understand and that everybody involved in the Good Friday agreement rather expected to have disappeared. We are also starting an inquiry on the Good Friday agreement itself, and there is something that worries me. The Secretary of State talked about leadership, and it is not just about leadership in Northern Ireland—this place needs to see leadership as well. We need a clear direction to be set—a path, a clarion call—and then the troops will follow. If there is no route map and no direction, we will be left slightly rudderless, which will allow all sorts of competing corks to bob around in the water, crashing into each other and causing more harm than good.
We have heard evidence from those closely involved in the run-up to and the delivery of the Good Friday agreement, and my worry is whether it could have been delivered if social media had been around. Social media can occasionally curtail political bravery, courage and leadership. People read those who follow them and those they follow, creating a self-perpetuating, self-endorsing echo chamber with a similarity of world view, where the more strident voice gets heard because, in that echo chamber, only stridency stands out. All of us will be being buffeted by social media over the protocol and other issues: “If you do this, you’re a traitor,” “If you do that, you’re a Lundy,” “If you do this, you’re not a Unionist,” “If you do that, you’re not a nationalist,” or, “If you do something else, you can’t be a Conservative.” It is all nonsense. We are all public servants, and the Bill is about trying to get that back up and running. I wish all the parties well, and the people of Northern Ireland wish them well, so let us make the progress we need.
I think we all know why we are here yet again: the continued refusal of some to resume their seats in the Assembly and the continued impasse caused by Conservatives placing Brexit at a higher, more prized level than what they call their precious Union. It should go without saying that Northern Ireland is always governed better when it is governed locally and that the best place for MLAs is back at work in a fully functioning Assembly that is holding to account a fully functioning Executive that are getting on with tackling the many problems that exist in Northern Ireland today. The SNP will support an extension again, because at this point we do not see a great deal of point in driving voters in Northern Ireland to the polls until the politics have moved on somewhat.
It will come as an enormous relief to all concerned that I do not intend to speak in the later stages of the Bill’s proceedings, but I hope you will permit me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some remarks about Dáithí’s law, as others have done, and to pay my own tribute to his family for the thoroughly inspirational campaign they have conducted. Although the amendments to the Bill may be a less than perfect way of introducing that law, they at least get Northern Ireland where it needs to be. I agree wholeheartedly with the Secretary of State that this process should not become the norm in the absence of an Executive that can pass legislation, but on this occasion the ends very much justify the means, and we can very much justify looking the other way.
Dáithí’s law will bring renewed hope to many, and I very much hope he gets the outcome we all earnestly hope for, because so much hope and such positive outcomes can be brought to people in Northern Ireland. When Dáithí gets the outcome he deserves, as I am sure he will, it will allow him to lead a long and happy life, and I hope that that heart will be able to hold all the love that his mummy, his daddy and his family can possibly give him.
I echo all right hon. and hon. Members’ tributes to young Dáithí and his family, including his father, Máirtín, who is here with him. I had the pleasure of meeting them both at Lisburn in my constituency, and the case they brought was absolutely compelling. I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to bring forward the amendments to the Bill. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I, the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) and other colleagues—in fact, all the sitting Members of the House from Northern Ireland—signed a cross-party proposal similar to the one brought forward by the Government. However, we are more than willing to support the Government’s proposal to ensure that enabling legislation is put in place to allow the Secretary of State to lay regulations implementing the necessary provisions, including the definitions of prescribed organs that are covered by the deemed consent. We very much support moving forward in that way.
I note the Secretary of State’s comments about the Assembly and the Executive. I am clear that we want to get a functioning Executive and Assembly up and running as soon as possible. He will know that when I took the decision last February to withdraw the First Minister from the Executive, I felt it was a measured response to the inactivity and failure of the EU to engage with the Government meaningfully to bring forward proposals that would address the concerns of Unionists. That enabled Ministers to remain in their Departments right up until the end of October, when, under the legislation, they could no longer remain in office. I understand why the Secretary of State has brought forward this Bill to extend the period for holding an election. Let me be clear that Democratic Unionist party Members do not fear going to the people; if and when an election is called, we will take our case to them. I noted the Secretary of State’s comment that he wants to create the space within which progress can be made—in that spirit, so do we. We are engaging with the Government on the vital matters that now need to be resolved to enable an agreement to be reached with the EU, one that we expect will result in fundamental change.
We are talking about change that will, first and foremost, respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. That is not just a requirement on the part of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, but one of the fundamental principles at the heart of the Belfast agreement signed in 1998. Section 1 of that agreement deals specifically with respecting the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, and we need to see that fully restored. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, it is important that we are dealing with not only the trading issues that are the consequence of the protocol and its imposition, but the democratic and constitutional issues that flow from the protocol—the democratic deficit and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
Let me ask about the space that, we hope, has been created to make progress. In the past, whatever the whys and wherefores, where a substantial segment of the community in Northern Ireland was prepared to resist, oppose and declare that they did not like the way politics worked in Northern Ireland, an accommodation had to be found to try to ensure that a new regime accommodated that view. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we try to make progress in that space today, Unionists have to be afforded exactly the same position, whereby we reach an accommodation where both major blocs and everyone else buys into the process on which we build for the future?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. He rightly says that at the heart of this is the need to take Northern Ireland forward on the basis of a cross-community consensus and that that consensus was broken down by the protocol, because not a single Unionist Member of the Assembly supports it. Therefore, we did not have a basis for moving Northern Ireland forward. That is important because the Executive and Assembly have important roles to play in the implementation of the protocol. I had Ministers, members of my party, who were in Departments and being required by the protocol to implement key elements that they felt were harmful to Northern Ireland. That was simply not a sustainable position. I do not want to be in the place again where I have to appoint Ministers at Stormont to Departments where they are required to implement measures that harm Northern Ireland’s ability to trade within the UK.
For us, the way to resolve the issues and move us forward lies in restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the UK. Let me be clear that, as we have said from the outset, we are not looking to erect a hard border on the island of Ireland. I am not looking to create barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; I do not want that for dairy farmers in Lagan Valley, beef farmers or whoever is wanting to continue with the arrangements that are there to facilitate cross-border trade. Coca-Cola is based in Lisburn in my constituency, and the Secretary of State visited recently. Some 80% of the products it produces in Lisburn are sold in the Republic of Ireland. I do not want Coca-Cola to have difficulty in trading both within Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Equally, I do not want the businesses in my constituency that have been impacted by the protocol to be inhibited in their ability to trade with the rest of the UK. The protocol inhibits that and that is the difficulty it creates.
This is an important issue. On Monday, my right hon. Friend, along with a number of Members from across the House, was able to attend the “Taste of Northern Ireland” event held in the Jubilee Room. Producers and food providers from all across Northern Ireland represented their trade there. One message that came out clearly from that was that trade in agrifoods is our biggest industry and it is being undermined by the regulations coming through from the EU. Those regulations must be shifted, and I am sure he welcomed the Prime Minister’s comments today that the regulations have to be part of this solution, if there is to be one.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He has many farmers and some of the largest agrifood businesses in his constituency, and I know that some of his local farmers have had problems. They cannot bring seed potatoes from Scotland and that is having an impact on the potato sector in Northern Ireland. Some of his local farmers will have experienced difficulties when taking cattle to Scotland for sale and having to bring some of them back because they have not been sold at market; they face six weeks’ quarantine in part of the UK, in Scotland, before they can bring those cattle back to Northern Ireland. That is ridiculous, and those are the kinds of practical issues that we need to resolve.
These are indeed serious problems. I also went to that fantastic event on Monday. Many of the people I spoke to there had started their businesses in the past three to five years, since Brexit. The demand for Irish produce in Northern Ireland, across the island and internationally—it is being sold into Fortnum & Mason, and Harrods—is inspirational, and it is thriving. It is important that we celebrate those successes and the opportunities that some of us believe can come from the arrangements on offer from the EU and the negotiations that we want the Prime Minister to conclude. There is huge opportunity here and many of us want to see that for the people and the industries in Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her continuous interest in Northern Ireland, which I know comes with family connections. She is right to say that we can walk into some of the largest stores in London and find butter from Dromara in my constituency and meat from Moira in my constituency. We are so proud that we make up 3% of the UK’s population and yet we feed almost one in five of the UK through our agrifood produce, which is of the highest quality. Of course, we want to preserve and protect it. We do see the opportunity to expand and grow our business and economy, and we welcome new businesses that are starting up. However, we also need to resolve the difficulties in trade and the barriers that have been erected as a result of the protocol. We believe they are unnecessary, both in terms of protecting the single market of the EU and being harmful to protecting the internal market of the UK.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s earlier comment that we are not talking here about tinkering around the edges. As I said in my party conference speech last year, this is about not just trade across the Irish sea but the application of EU law and how it inhibits our ability to trade within the UK. Fundamentally, that is what needs to be addressed. There is no need for EU law to apply on goods that are not leaving the internal market of the UK. We look to the Government now to bring forward a solution that addresses that issue, but it must go further than that.
On numerous occasions, I have referenced what we call the “democratic deficit”, by which I mean the fact that in Northern Ireland laws apply over which we have no say and on which we have no input. That is simply not acceptable. The Belfast agreement talks about the political and economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland. I would argue strongly that the protocol undermines our political and economic rights—specifically, our rights to legislate for the people who elect us. Although I understand the frustration that the Secretary of State mentioned in his speech about the non-functioning of the Executive, I want to be clear that, if the Executive are to function again, it cannot be on the basis that we are law takers.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have had a very similar view on the democratic deficit point, because we are both democrats. When the Committee went to Brussels 24 months ago, or thereabouts, the EU was very alert to that issue as well and pointed us in the direction of Norway to see how it deals with these matters—I am not saying that we should overlay that template. Does he see any merit in the way that the EU and the Government of Norway deal with the issue, with the rules applying, although Norway is not a member of the European Union, as a way of ensuring that Norwegian voices are heard? In the same way, the EU would want Northern Irish voices to be heard. Is there anything within that model that he thinks might work or help?
I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for that point. Of course, Norway is a sovereign country; Northern Ireland is not. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and it is the Government of the United Kingdom who are the sovereign authority in these matters. We need to look at this not just at the level of our democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, but in relation to the mechanisms for the Government of the United Kingdom to intervene in circumstances where the UK’s internal market, and Northern Ireland’s place within it, is threatened by EU laws—whether they be changes to existing laws or new laws that are introduced. We cannot have a situation where, in respect of our trade across the Irish border, EU laws that apply to that trade impact on our ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom. We certainly cannot have the situation that has arisen with the protocol, where article 6 of the Acts of Union, which govern the economic union of the United Kingdom and our place in it, is impliedly repealed by this House. That must be avoided in the future. In any arrangements, we need to have a safeguard that protects article 6 of the Acts of Union—our right to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom without barriers being put in our way.
As I draw my remarks to a close, may I say that the reason we are here is that the protocol has undermined the cross-community consensus that is necessary, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referenced in his comments, to ensure that we have stable, functioning institutions in Northern Ireland. We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, so let us not also lose sight of the successor agreements. We know that at St Andrew’s, at Hillsborough and at Stormont we have had to make changes that improve the way that Northern Ireland is governed. I have heard in recent days clarion calls to look again at the way in which our institutions operate and the principles at the heart of the agreement.
Let me put down a very clear marker on behalf of my party and, I believe, on behalf of Unionism generally: if the road that some want to take on reform is exclusion; if the road that some want to take on reform is majority rule; if the road that some want to take abandons the principle of cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland, that will not be acceptable to my party now or at any stage in the future. It is those principles that are essential to ensure that there is cross-community support for our political institutions in Northern Ireland. I say to the Government that, while we will look at what change can be made to improve the governance of Northern Ireland, we will not countenance the abandonment of that cross-community consensus that is at the heart of our institutions. In that respect, I welcome the comments made by the shadow Secretary of State that that is also the position of the Labour party. I recognise, too, the contributions that Tony Blair and others made to bringing the agreement together and the very delicate balances at the heart of that agreement. They must be protected as we go forward.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that, within the timeframe that this Bill creates between now and next January for an election, we will see an outcome on negotiations and legislation that will bring fundamental change that will respect and restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market, that will ensure that we are not in a situation where we are rule takers from the EU and where EU law affects our ability to trade within the United Kingdom. That is not acceptable. Where we trade within our own country, the rules that apply should be those of the United Kingdom. Where we trade with the European Union, the rules that apply should be those of the European Union. That is clear. The protocol does not deliver that, and we need a solution that does.
May I remind Members that if they intervene during a speech, they should stay for the entirety of that speech, in case something they have said is referred back to. Sadly, those who are guilty of this have probably left the Chamber, but we can remind them when they return.
It is right, of course, that we are not having an election. The Secretary of State is correct to more comprehensively push that back, because it would be pointless to miss a series of little deadlines. Ultimately, an election without either a change in the context or a change in the rules would not put power in the hands of the people and would therefore be pointless.
This is a delicate time, a sensitive time, in relation to the negotiations. Hopefully, it is also a time of possibility—a possibility that we can find a deal and an outcome with which most reasonable people can live. We have all said many words in this Chamber and outside of it about the parameters of that, so I will not dwell on it this afternoon.
Clearly, the hope and the goal is to get back into Stormont as soon as possible to get on with the things that people desperately need us to progress on—in care, climate, housing and jobs. Without doubt, health is the most acute and burning issue, in terms of the need that is out there and the corrosive impact of stop-start government and what that has done to our health service over the past number of years. This has not been an overnight problem and there will not be an overnight solution. In the absence of an Assembly, we do not have health transformation; we are having ad hoc bits and pieces of collapse, which are not cost effective and not what clinicians would wish them to be, and they are not building confidence in communities about what is ahead for public health provision.
We can look at any number of examples of services in different geographical areas, but no more so than in the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, where services are falling over and having to be closed without any sense of the compensatory provision that people would wish to see. People are seeing loss of services without any gain and without the improvements in health provision and outcomes that are possible if we do this properly with a locally accountable Minister and an engaged Health Committee.
I do not want to labour this point, but it is very clear that the stalemate is eroding public services. It is eroding belief in politics and it is giving comfort to some of the anti-democratic forces still skulking in the background who have not really come to terms with the agreement and with the will of most people in our society to move forward and to get on with solving our problems and creating our shared future.
This Bill, like a few that we have seen recently, is a bit of a sticking plaster on failure, but some real good is coming out of it today—thank goodness—in the progress of Dáithí’s law. I want to speak to Dáithí:
“Tá tú i do chodladh anois. Maith thú. Cinnte, tá sibh tuirseach i ndiaidh an taisteal. Duit féin, do do mhamaí, do dhaidí agus, anois, do dheirfiúr bheag, ba chomhair daoibh a bheith an-bróidiúil as an bhfeachtas a throid sibh, as an misneach a léirigh sibh, agus as an mbua mór a bhain sibh amach le chéile. Agus a Dhaithí, ár laoch, iarraim ar Dhia go mbeidh dea-scéal agus croí nua agat go luath.”
To Dáithí, to your family, to your mum and dad, and now to your wee brother: You should be so proud of all that you have achieved together—the huge progress that you have made. You have been a hero to so many people and we all just hope that you get good news and a new heart soon, and we are all with you.
It is important that we say well done to that lovely family for all that they have achieved, and to so many people who have progressed the issue over the years. I pay tribute to Jo-Anne Dobson, an Ulster Unionist MLA, who advanced the issue substantially in a previous Assembly, bringing the issue to public attention and making it a political reality. She loosened the lid.
The hon. Lady rightly refers to Jo-Anne Dobson, who has been through this situation—she had a young son, Mark, who had a transplant, without which he would not be here today. The hon. Lady looks to history, and the history is right, and she has expressed it in a very kind fashion.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to others, including Fearghal McKinney, who is here from the British Heart Foundation and has worked on this issue for many years and with his colleagues has helped to get all the ducks in a row to allow the family to have the reach they need and the regulations in place. I also pay tribute to Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan from my own parish of St Brigid’s. Joe Brolly’s act of decency and humanity a few years ago in giving his kidney to a relative stranger opened many people’s eyes; it stopped us in our tracks and underlined how meaningful and how important for life organ donation is.
I hope all those people, particularly Dáithí and his family, who brought the issue to this point, take some pride in and encouragement from their achievement, and I hope it will encourage and remind all of us in elected life that we can do good things when we work together. There are many things we need to do, and hopefully these couple of weeks can see progress and allow us collectively to get on with making many other necessary and positive changes.
I will say at the outset that the Bill going through the House today is an illustration and example of the futility of trying to use political blackmail to move my party from its principled opposition to legislation and to an agreement that is designed to take us out of the United Kingdom. I say to the Secretary of State that, to protect his own credibility in Northern Ireland, he had far better not listen to the anti-Unionist voices in the Northern Ireland Office, but use his political antennae to know what is the right thing to do.
This Bill illustrates that on four occasions the attempt to blackmail my party back into the Assembly by the threat of an election did not work, because the issues at stake are far too important simply to cave in to the threat of an election in which we might or might not have damage done to us, or to go back into an institution where, as Unionists, we would have been required to collaborate with an arrangement that was designed to, and will—as we have absolutely no doubt and as we have warned time and again—separate us from the country to which we belong. I hope the Secretary of State learns that lesson. We are not moving on an issue of principle.
The Secretary of State said in his remarks that he is disappointed that the Executive has not been re-formed. He should not be surprised. He and I campaigned to leave the European Union. We did so because we believed it was important that, as a country, we had the ability to make choices about the laws we had, the direction we took and the partnerships we made on trade, to do the best for the citizens of our own country. Yet, as a result of the protocol, Northern Ireland—and he knows it—has not gained the benefits that he and I campaigned for and that those who voted for Brexit wished to have. We are still left within the embrace of Brussels because of the imposition of EU law.
That fundamental problem is at the heart of the action we have taken. I have heard many hon. Members say today, as we will hear time and again, that this must be done to protect the Good Friday agreement. The fact of the matter, now clearly illustrated, is that the protocol and the Good Friday agreement cannot sit side by side. Indeed, one of the authors of the Good Friday agreement, the late Lord Trimble, made it quite clear that in order to keep the protocol intact, the Government would have to rip up the Good Friday agreement—and that, in effect, is what has happened. The leader of our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has made that quite clear.
The consent principle of the Good Friday agreement has been removed. Even the voting mechanisms that are allowed to make decisions about whether the protocol applies have had to be manipulated and changed, and the provision in the Good Friday agreement for cross-community support on that particular issue had to be removed. The Good Friday agreement and the protocol cannot sit in place side by side. One of the two goes. That is why, as a party, we have said there must be changes to the protocol.
Why is this Bill necessary? The Secretary of State made it clear that he did not believe that an election would change anything. Why would an election not change anything? It is because he knows in his heart, even if the officials who advise him do not know it, the suppressed anger within the Unionist community at being pushed out of a country that many Unionists died, during a terrorist campaign, to remain part of. Thousands of them refused to be intimidated by threat of violence to vote in the way Sinn Féin and the IRA wanted. He knows that that anger and that determination have not changed.
All the talk about the impact of the Assembly’s not working on the day-to-day lives of people has to be measured against whether the Assembly was functioning to deal with those issues anyway. No, it was not: we had a black hole in our budget during the time the Assembly was sitting. Some of the increases in waiting lists in the health service occurred while the Assembly was working, and many of the other problems have not emerged since February last year; they are long-term problems that were not dealt with even when the Assembly was working.
Even with some of the decisions that people would like to see made, the majority of the Unionist population now realise what is at stake, and they would not find it acceptable for their Unionist representatives to go back into an Assembly even under the threat of calling an election. We have had a lot of different threats. We were told that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill could not progress in this House unless we got a Speaker. We were told the electricity payments could not happen unless Stormont did them. All those threats have been made in the past. I must tell the Secretary of State that this problem is not going away, and this party is not going to collaborate in an Assembly where we are expected to implement that very protocol until there are changes made.
What kind of changes could avoid legislation such as this having to be made again? I think that is very clear. Some people have presented this as some kind of trade problem, saying, “If only you could do away with the trade issues and have trade flowing freely, the issue would go away.”, but it is much more fundamental than that. The trade issue only occurs because there is a different law applying and a different lawmaking body in Northern Ireland from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
We are not subject to British law anymore—we are not subject to laws made by institutions set up in the United Kingdom. We are subject to laws made in Brussels. Those laws are imposed on us; we have no say on them, and if they are detrimental to our country, we cannot change them. If we try to not implement them—if we try to ignore them—there is a foreign court that will drag us into the dock to make sure that we do.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only about the laws? A raft of regulations is coming upon Northern Ireland daily and impacting on our principles and the practical issue of how we do business. For example, at the end of this week, regulations that affect the organic seal on eggs will put our egg industry effectively out of business. Those regulations will cut off our market here in Great Britain. We will not be able to market those eggs in GB, because a regulation from Europe says our organic egg products must be produced in a particular way that appeals only to the European market, where we do not have any sales.
Would the right hon. Gentleman mind saying what he thinks the specific impact will be on the dairy industry, and the many producers that sell about a third of their milk to the Republic of Ireland? What would be the environmental impact of having to dispose of a third of the milk produced in Northern Ireland? Where would that be sold if we did not have our privileged access to the single market?
The hon. Member should think about the issue the other way around. What would be the impact on the food industry in the Irish Republic if the EU and the Irish were so bold and so stupid as to cut off a third of the milk that they need to make cheese, butter and everything else in the factories there? There are always ways of working around these issues. There is an idea that, somehow or other, if we do not conform to EU law, we cannot trade with the EU. America does not conform to EU law; it does not have EU laws imposed on it. China does not have EU laws imposed on it, but it can trade freely, and its trade with the EU is worth billions. Of course there are ways of addressing the issue.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would recognise that the difference between Northern Ireland and China or the United States when it comes to access to the European Union is that Northern Ireland currently has unfettered access to the European Union market for goods, whereas neither China nor the United States does. They have access, of course, but not on the same trade terms.
The cost of that is fettered access to trade with GB, our biggest trading partner. When I look at the balance, the choice I would make, as a representative of Northern Ireland’s consumers and businesses, is to have unfettered access to, and supply of goods from, GB. I would rather have that than have to pay the cost of fettered trade with GB simply to have unfettered access to the Irish Republic, when we know that there are other ways around the issue of trading with the Irish Republic.
Does the right hon. Member recognise that of all the goods coming from other countries into the EU, an average of only about 1.3% are physically checked? How could it be right for there to be checks on a greater proportion of the goods moving within the United Kingdom? That cannot be right.
The hon. Member is right, and that illustrates just how much trade with GB is fettered in order to get unfettered access for a small amount of produce in the Irish Republic. Nearly 50% of the border checks for the EU were done for goods coming through Northern Ireland, even though we account for 0.4% of trade with the EU. That is the price being paid. Leaving aside the political and constitutional issues, there are huge economic issues from that unfairness.
The Secretary of State cannot and should not be surprised or disappointed that, as a Unionist party, we refuse to take our part in an Executive who would require by law—the courts have ruled on this—that our Ministers administer and impose that kind of arrangement on the people of Northern Ireland. That is not to mention the unknown future: there is a whole raft of EU law that we cannot even see—it is over the horizon at moment—that will cause us to diverge further from GB. That will make us a colony of Brussels—that is how it has been described—and will damage our economic, political and constitutional relationships with the UK. The Secretary of State cannot expect that of us.
That brings me to the point that I want to make: how do we get out of this situation? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has mentioned, we welcome any changes that have been made. We have not seen the detail of them—nobody has—so it is really hard to assess exactly the extent of the changes on trade, checks, VAT and state aid, and what exactly they mean. Until we see them in writing, we are certainly not going to take the word of those who brief us. Even if their intentions are honest, everyone will have their own interpretation of those things. We need to see the changes to measure them.
A central question needs to be addressed; if it is not, there cannot and will not be a positive response from my party. What do we do about the 300 areas of law—not 300 laws, but 300 areas of law—to which Northern Ireland is currently subject that are being determined in Brussels? Do they come back to the devolved Assembly? There are three parties represented in the Chamber today, and some of them have already said that we should go with the deal, even though they have not seen it. We have not turned the deal down because we have not seen it in its entirety; we have simply given guidelines on what we expect to see in it.
I say this to all the parties here who send representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly: what kind of public representative wants to be, and would support being, part of an Assembly that has no say over a whole raft of the laws that impact on businesses and consumers in their constituency? What kind of representative would accept sitting and working in an Assembly, and perhaps acting as Minister, if it meant implementing laws that they did not initiate and cannot amend, but have to implement, even if those are detrimental to their constituents? That is the democratic deficit, and it affects not just Unionists, but every party and every public representative that sits in the Assembly. That issue has to be addressed.
The only way to address the issue is to ensure that when laws are made for Northern Ireland, they are made either in this place, if they are on retained issues, or in Stormont, if they are on devolved issues. That is the ultimate test. Once that happens, we will not need to worry about trade barriers and everything else, because we will have a seamless market within the United Kingdom. I hope we get that outcome, because I support devolution. In fact, I was a member of the Executive at a time when they worked at their best; I am not taking any credit for that. I can think of legislation that I took through the Assembly that has been copied in other legislatures across the United Kingdom. The Executive were innovative, and able to respond to local issues. I can see the value of devolution, but it can work only if it is based on the principle of consent from both sides of the community—especially in a divided society such as Northern Ireland.
I take issue with the shadow Secretary of State’s questioning whether there is any need for the protocol Bill. I believe that in these negotiations, the EU has to understand that there is an alternative. Not to proceed with the protocol Bill would be wrong, because there must be a fall-back position if the negotiations do not succeed.
It seems that all the wrong choices have been made. For a couple of years now, the EU has wanted access to important commercial data, and before we have even made an agreement with the EU, we have surrendered and said that we will make that data available. The EU has been complaining about there being no physical border posts, and what have we done ahead of reaching any agreement? We have agreed that, since Stormont will not do it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take responsibility for building those border posts, which are quite extensive. When I look at the size of the post in my constituency, I wonder whether everything will go through the green lane, because we have a massive 10-acre site, which DEFRA intends to develop with a huge building that would do Dover proud, for dealing with east-west trade. Those kinds of signal do not help us to reach a solution and agreement with the EU.
We wish the Government well. We think that their approach to these negotiations, as I have tried to illustrate, will not make it easy for them to get the concessions required from the EU. They have an alternative, whether that is the dual regulation alternative in the Northern Ireland protocol, or the mutual enforcement proposals that my party has put forward. The one thing I would say is that this requires radical change, not tinkering. What we have seen so far appears to be tinkering.
I rise to support the Bill, and to confirm to the Secretary of State that he is doing the right thing in moving the election timetable; as things stand, that is probably the Bill’s sole purpose, even though the debate has ranged far and wide. That said, I welcome it as a potential vehicle, and appreciate that there are procedures to go through to enable Dáithí’s law to come into full effect. I join colleagues in paying tribute to Dáithí and his family for their campaign, and thanking the British Heart Foundation for its kind support. I also place on the record our collective thanks to House officials, who have worked very creatively over the past few days to facilitate this provision, and of course to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for your engagement with this issue. I am sure the teddy bear will be greatly cherished for a long time.
I think it fair to say that an election will not achieve much in the short to medium term; if anything, it could be counterproductive, especially given that we are at a delicate stage in the negotiating process. Of course, there is a mandate from May last year, which is still unfulfilled, and there are a lot of restless MLAs who are unable to do their full job. We talk about how there is a democratic deficit around EU law, but I cannot avoid making the point that by far the biggest democratic deficit is the failure to have an Assembly in Northern Ireland that can take control of devolved issues. At the moment, we have issues that are stuck, and while civil servants are doing their best to fill the gap, it is not a tenable situation. If some quarters put as much effort into addressing that as is put into creating an artificial battle over EU law, we would be in a much better place.
I respect the fact that we are at a delicate stage in the process. The intention is that if we get a deal that has cross-party buy-in, we will see the restoration of the institutions in the very near future. If we do not see that happening, we have to avoid a political vacuum being created. People will say that this Bill creates space, but space can be a positive or a negative thing, and it can also be a vacuum. If there is no restoration in the near future, we need to address reform of the institutions and, in particular, the situation whereby parties can veto power-sharing, never mind decisions that cut across communities and create difficulties. Power-sharing has been vetoed in the past and is being vetoed today, and that is not a tenable situation.
This is not about excluding any party; it is about a situation where, if a party is determined to exclude itself, that will not bring the whole show down or prevent other parties, which are willing to govern, from proceeding. However, my preference is for all parties that have a mandate to work together in Northern Ireland for the collective good of our society.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that intervention because it enables me to reinforce my point. My party has been seeking reform of the institutions since the passage of the Good Friday agreement. We have been consistent in highlighting that the particular form of coalition Government that applies is too rigid and has the potential for deadlock. I have to say that that is something the DUP also consistently pursued over those years, until fairly recently. With reference to the period in which Sinn Féin brought the institutions down, I encourage the right hon. Member to go on our website and look through the succession of conference speeches by our party leader, Naomi Long, in which she regularly called out the blockages in the system and called for reform of the institutions. My party has been extremely consistent on this point.
I do not want to spend too much time talking about the protocol, because that is not why we are here today, but obviously it is the backdrop or context for our discussion of the Bill and there are a few points it is important to reinforce. First, most people and businesses in Northern Ireland want to see an outcome, and they are pragmatic about the protocol; they understand why it exists and that it needs a measure of reform to work more effectively. In essence, they want to maximise the opportunities that come from it while addressing its deficiencies. That is where most people are in their headspace.
It is worth stressing, particularly in this Chamber and throughout Great Britain, that Unionism represented by the DUP is only one part of the equation of Northern Ireland society. Obviously, the DUP has an important view, which has to be taken into account, but it is far from being the majority viewpoint in Northern Ireland. It is important that commentators and others take a balanced view on what is being said in Northern Ireland and the interests being advanced by the people of Northern Ireland. For me and, I think, some others, the key test of the way forward is essentially that we preserve market access, both to the wider European Union market and to the UK economy as a whole. That is the key test for most pragmatic people and businesses.
I hate to come back to this point, but article 6 of the protocol states that there should be unfettered access to the UK internal market. Twice so far in this debate I have raised the matter of organic eggs produced in Northern Ireland. Our market is the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland, yet as of Friday this week, because of EU regulations applying to Northern Ireland, our farmers cannot sell eggs to the rest of the United Kingdom. How is that helping the hon. Member’s case?
My first response is that I did not advocate Brexit. The protocol will never be a clean solution to these issues. There is no perfect outcome when a single market is broken up in the way that has happened. This is about managing and mitigating the fallout.
The hon. Gentleman may well be pleased to know that I recognise his point about eggs. I have written to a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to advocate for ongoing flexibility on that. For some agricultural products, Great Britain is our main market, but for others—particularly milk and the wider dairy sector—the Republic of Ireland and beyond is the key market. There are a lot of subtleties there that we have to work through.
There is frustration at the moment about the fact that we are almost in danger of re-treading a lot of old arguments that I hoped had been put to bed, but which seem to be resurfacing. With reference to Brexit and Northern Ireland, there are essentially only three choices available to policy makers. The first is to go for a soft Brexit, minimising diversions between the European Union and the UK or Great Britain, and that would ease tensions particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. The second is to go for a hard border on the island of Ireland, which, for various reasons, is politically and economically unviable. The third is to have some form of special arrangement for Northern Ireland—we could call it a “protocol”, or we could call it something else. That involves Northern Ireland being treated differently in certain respects, which is not new; it has been part and parcel of the Northern Ireland’s entire history from the early 1920s.
People get exercised about the Acts of Union being breached, but no such arguments were made in 1920, 1949 or even in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement. In practice, a single-party Unionist Government in Belfast were more than happy to diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom whenever that was viewed as in their interests. That is before we even get to the current iteration of devolution.
I will focus in particular on the democratic deficit. As I have already said, that was not an issue prior to Brexit, when the UK had full representation at all levels of the European Union. Our biggest democratic deficit by far is the failure to have an Assembly or an Executive alongside the other institutions of the Good Friday agreement. Looking ahead, we need to drill down and see what is most important in terms of addressing the democratic deficit. I recognise that there is an issue, as did the European Union in its October 2021 non-paper.
The key issue is ensuring that Northern Ireland officials, businesses, civic organisations and political voices are able to get in at ground zero whenever a new EU law that may become applicable to Northern Ireland is being designed. As I am sure everyone in the Chamber will appreciate, the most important time to try to influence a law is before the final decision is taken, rather than while it is being ratified through the various structures, when it becomes much more difficult to change the course of action. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), made reference to Norway. Places such as Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and even Switzerland, which are outside the European Union but are part of the single market or within its orbit, direct most of their lobbying energy at Brussels. We do not at present have that route directly in Northern Ireland, and that is what I want to see addressed when we talk about a democratic deficit.
By contrast, the sign-off of EU law is a secondary issue. In practice, once those laws are developed, it is in our interests to go along with them to preserve dual market access. However, I have concerns about the tenor of the democratic deficit emerging from this deal. If we end up in a situation in which there is a lack of certainty about Northern Ireland’s ongoing compliance with the aspects of EU law relevant to us gaining access to the single market, that will have a detrimental impact on the certainty of Northern Ireland’s existing businesses that they can trade with the EU. That huge issue may well deter investors from coming to Northern Ireland. There is the danger of a big asterisk beside Northern Ireland, meaning that, although we have access to the single market, it will say between brackets that it is subject to whatever mechanism is used to try to cover up this non-existent issue. That very process creates uncertainty for businesses.
I do not want to see a situation whereby, in trying to fix one particular problem in the current stand-off, we end up perhaps inadvertently creating a wider problem that acts to the detriment of our current and future businesses and the future prosperity of Northern Ireland. People talk about the “sweet spot” of Northern Ireland’s dual market access, but that will only come to fruition if we do several things. We need to promote it politically and through our investment agency, but we must not create any uncertainty in that regime beyond what we currently have.
That also applies to the European Court of Justice, for example. Whenever people talk about the European Court of Justice coming in and imposing things on Northern Ireland, I say the opposite: the Court is a means to an end. If we are abiding by a certain aspect of EU law, the Court comes as part of it. If we want to put various layers in between, that is fine—nobody will object to that particular point. But the converse is that there may well be a situation in which there is uncertainty about the access of Northern Ireland businesses to parts of the single market, and in which we are wrongly blocked from access in investment decisions, procurement opportunities or things along those lines. In that context, the European Court of Justice becomes our potential ally, opening up those doors that have been wrongly shut in the face of Northern Ireland businesses. Again, it is important that we do not inadvertently throw that out and miss the wider point of what is in the best economic interests of Northern Ireland.
I will conclude on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It is appropriate that the protocol Bill is parked or drifts away—or however that may happen. I trust that the Secretary of State, who has been at the coalface, will appreciate this point more than most. Progress has been made over the past number of months because, under this Government, trust has been rebuilt with the European Union. We saw that with the breakthroughs on data sharing and, just before Christmas, on longer grace periods for veterinary medicines. But we cannot build trust and, at the same time, retain the tool to break that same trust. That is not going to close this deal.
I wish the Government well over the coming hours and days—but hopefully not weeks—in concluding a deal, but that deal has to be one that works in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just those from a Unionist background, and that works for the future economy and prosperity of our region.
I welcome the amendment to address organ donation. This moment would not have happened without the courage of a little boy, who has been mentioned so often in the debate. We really commend Dáithí, his parents Máirtín and Seph, and his little brother for their determination and tenacity in bringing about real change in Northern Ireland. It is wonderful.
We all have ideas and ideology and want to bring about change and make our mark on society, but that little boy of six really has done, and I think that is absolutely amazing. It should inspire us all to go that extra mile to stretch ourselves and do the right thing. I also pay tribute to Fearghal, who I know has played a key role in supporting the family and helping them on this journey. Navigating the legislation and being in the right place at the right time is not easy, and I commend him for it.
As a mum myself, I wish Dáithí all the best for his future medical support and care. When I looked at him yesterday, I could not help but be moved. I thought, “Here is a little boy who is fighting for everyone else, yet he needs us to fight for him.” He has such an amazing mum and dad, who have done so much for him in his short life by pushing this issue. We wish him well as he goes for his surgery in the not-too-distant future. I assure him of our thoughts and prayers for that journey.
I also pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Jo-Anne Dobson, who has already been mentioned. She has been very much at the fore of this debate. She brought the matter to the Assembly a long number of years ago when she was an MLA. She brought it because it was personal to her as well. She, too, must be commended, because she gave the gift of life to her son, Mark, when she donated her kidney to help to save him. I commend Jo-Anne for her efforts; I know that she would be proud of Dáithí today and all that he has achieved.
My colleagues and I want to see devolution. We want devolution that delivers on issues such as health, education and public services—devolution that works. We are frustrated that we find ourselves debating this legislation in the House today. It should not be needed, but sadly it is necessary, because ultimately the Government have not acted or been able to resolve the long-running issue of the Northern Ireland protocol. That issue alone is the bar to the restoration of the devolved institutions.
Over recent days, there has been a great deal of speculation about progress and reaching a new agreement. Let me be clear: the DUP stands ready to restore the Executive, but that can happen only on the basis that the principle of cross-community consent for such a restoration is in place. Members who pour out affection and commitment to the Belfast agreement cannot escape the fact that Unionism consent for power sharing does not currently exist, and that is the test for any deal that may or may not emerge over the coming days.
My colleagues who were elected as MLAs in May stood on that platform and received a mandate for their stance, and we will not betray that trust—there will be no fudge. My party has set out its tests on which any agreement will be judged. The Government know those tests well, and it is this party and the Unionist community from which we hold a mandate that will assess any agreement against those tests. This place is known throughout the world as a beacon of democracy—as a nation, we stand with those whose democracy, even today, is undermined by threats from tyrants or dictators—but we the people of Northern Ireland, because of the Northern Ireland protocol, face the erosion of democracy at the behest of the EU.
It is pertinent to make the point that:
“My visceral objection is to unaccountable power…we ought not to live our lives under unaccountable power. Power has no legitimacy other than that given to it by the people by voting.”
Those are not my words or those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but those of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) when explaining his opposition to the EU. The democratic deficit foisted on Northern Ireland by the protocol comes through a power that is “unaccountable” to the people of Northern Ireland and that has “no legitimacy” in the terms described by the Minister, because not one person in Northern Ireland, to whom the rules would pertain, has voted for them.
I trust that that interview by Church Times reflects the Minister’s principles about an acceptable outcome to the negotiations and that he has not had a road to Damascus conversion from defender of democracy to someone who bows down to unaccountable EU power in the corner of the UK that I am honoured to call home. That point must be addressed, as must the totally unacceptable economic impact of the protocol.
On the Damascus road experience, a number of people, parties and organisations in Northern Ireland seem to have been enlightened that the protocol, as it was presented, is definitely not working. Those are the same people who wanted it to be fully and rigorously implemented, but they have now had that Damascus road experience and say it needs major rework.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend.
The protocol costs a significant amount annually. Some £350 million a year is spent on the trader support service, which is £18,000 an hour—let us think how that could be utilised to make things better in Northern Ireland. The protocol is damaging a wide range of small family businesses and larger industries in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) eloquently highlighted the issue around organic eggs. Such issues have a daily impact on our business.
Again, there is an issue around seed potatoes that Wilson’s Country in my constituency has been at the fore of fighting, because it cannot bring seed potatoes from Scotland. That would be unacceptable anywhere else in the UK, so the Government should not accept it for the people of Northern Ireland. It beggars belief that the Government have stood by while trade has reorientated from within the UK. It serves no benefit to the UK; that diversion of trade must be addressed fully in any new agreement.
The Government know well what must be done, and they know the prize. The NIO prioritised a whopping £600,000 of taxpayers’ money to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, yet the longer it takes to reach an agreement on the protocol that respects the fundamentals of the Belfast agreement, the more air is escaping from the party balloons. Although the Bill extends the period in which an Executive must be formed following an election by 52 weeks, my hope is that this new deadline is never met, and that we have our Executive back sooner rather than later. To do so, however, the EU will have to stretch itself. If it does, it will unlock the prize of devolution; if it does not, it will be responsible for the demise of our political process and the Belfast agreement. Time will tell.
First, I join other hon. Members in congratulating Dáithí on the law that will forever bear his name. It has been a remarkable campaign for an extremely good cause. Secondly, I say to the Secretary of State that I support the Bill, because it is a sensible response to a problem that has gone on for far too long. It is never desirable to postpone elections, but in this case I think it is necessary.
As the debate has unfolded, we have been reminded that if it were not for the row over the protocol, we would not be sitting here debating the Bill. The Bill is a symptom of the mess that we have got ourselves into—one in which rather too many people have said, “We are not moving.” We will solve this issue only if those people are prepared to move in the interests of finding a way forward.
We all know that leaving the European Union was always going to create a problem for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and just about everyone I have ever spoken to has agreed that that could not be dealt with on the border—there could be no checks, infrastructure or anything else. Something therefore had to be done to address that, while recognising that the European Union needs to be able to ensure that goods coming into its jurisdiction meet its rules. That is perfectly reasonable and we would expect no less for the United Kingdom.
In fairness to the Government, they acknowledged that from the start, rather than saying, “Well, it’s the EU’s problem, not ours, and there’s nothing that we need to do.” As a result, they came up with the Northern Ireland protocol, as we must remember. I do not want to dwell on the ebbs and flows of the rather sorry tale of what has transpired since, which I do not think reflects particularly well on the Government or, in the interest of balance, on the EU Commission.
At the beginning, the EU Commission appeared to advance the argument that what happened in the Irish sea should be treated like any other third-country border of the European Union—that was where it started from. In other words, every single thing would have to be checked, and nothing that did not conform to the rules of the single market would be allowed to make it across the Irish sea into Northern Ireland.
Very early on, the EU came to realise that that was not going to work. The best example of that is medicines, where under full application of the rules, the EU would have said, “Unless your medicines for NHS patients in Northern Ireland have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, they are not getting on the ferry, or on the plane.” It did not take very long for the Commission to work out that that would be an absurd position to adopt, and as a result, it changed EU law. That solved the problem, but it also established a really important principle: the EU can be flexible where it wants to be flexible. That should give us all encouragement in trying to sort this out.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a review into the medicine Roaccutane, which is under an EU licence, has not been published because of issues with the Northern Ireland protocol? Since then, there have been 81 adverse health effects, including one suicide. It has been specifically said that that delay is due to the Northern Ireland protocol and the issues with the licensing arrangements. Roaccutane is licensed across the EU, and unfortunately the publication of the report has been held up, with 81 adverse health events as a result.
I am sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says. That is news to me—I do not know anything about it. No doubt, those with responsibility for trying to find a solution will have heard what my hon. Friend has said, and will see what more can be done to address the issue.
At the heart of the argument has been this really quite simple, but very complex, question: “How do you identify a good that is moving into Northern Ireland and is going to stay in Northern Ireland, and how do you identify a good that is moving into Northern Ireland on its way to the Republic?” That is why the concept of goods at risk was at the heart of the Northern Ireland protocol, but it was never defined in its application. The negotiation since, between the Government and the Commission, has all been about what that concept means in practice.
Eventually, the EU and the UK both developed their proposals—again, with slightly different names—for what we now refer to as red and green lanes. When I saw that the Commission had proposed that and the Government had also proposed it, it did not seem to me that there was a huge amount of difference between the two concepts, and to judge by the reporting—we are all slightly in the dark, because we have not seen any text—some agreement may well have been reached, which would allow goods that are coming into Northern Ireland and staying there to not be checked on a routine basis. I hope very much that that is an accurate reflection of what has been happening, because it provides the basis for a settlement.
Why does this matter so much? First of all, let us be frank: our relations with the European Union have been in a pretty bad place for far too long, and as the economic consequences of leaving the European Union are becoming more and more evident, that ruptured relationship stands in the way of trying to address some of the problems that arise from our exit from the European Union. To respond to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart)—it is a pleasure to follow her, because she set out her views very clearly indeed—many small businesses in Great Britain will describe the problems that they now face, and many have given up exporting to the European Union because we have left the European Union. It is not just small businesses in Northern Ireland that are facing problems. We cannot address those problems until the Northern Ireland protocol is solved. That is why sorting this out is so urgent.
As was said by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), we want Northern Ireland to take advantage of the fantastic opportunity it has: my constituents do not have access to the single market, but his constituents do. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised a point about the democratic deficit, which I will come to, because he raises a very fair issue. The difference is that in Britain, we are largely subject to exactly the same laws because of EU retained law, but we in GB do not have the opportunity to export to the single market. Northern Ireland is subject to exactly the same laws, but does have that opportunity, which puts Northern Ireland businesses in a very advantageous position compared with businesses in my constituency. That is why, on my last visit to Northern Ireland, the businesses I spoke to said that they were really quite keen on that benefit that the protocol gives them. We need to get this solved.
Secondly, the fact that the Executive and the Assembly are not working is something that we should all be worried about. The EU now better understands the consequences of that than it perhaps realised at the beginning. We need both to be restored as quickly as possible.
My third point is a plea against absolutism in addressing this problem, and I cite the role of the European Court of Justice as an example of that potential risk. Of course, if there is any argument about what EU single market law means, the only body to which any person can reasonably go to try to find the answer is the Court of Justice of the European Union, because they are the EU’s rules, not ours. However, that is not the same as saying that any such ruling will absolutely determine the outcome of a disagreement or dispute about the implementation of the protocol within the wider dispute resolution mechanism. The example of medicines, which I gave earlier, is a really good illustration of that: a full application of EU law would have prevented medicines turning up in Northern Ireland, but in the end, a way forward was found. The willingness of the EU to delay the application of the rules to veterinary medicines, which I very much welcome, is another example of the flexibility that the EU has come to recognise it needs to apply.
To address the point that the right hon. Member for East Antrim made, I hope that consulting the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly on new single market rules and how they might apply in Northern Ireland will be another part of an agreement, if one can be reached.
Given the examples of flexibility, change and evolution that the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted, does he agree with me, and with a growing body of opinion, that the legal justification—forget anything else—for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has completely disappeared? Renegotiation is going on, and flexibility is being demonstrated. If the threshold for article 16 to be triggered has not been reached, it would be a complete and utter waste of time to introduce legislation in this place that is not required