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Northern Ireland

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 2 November 2017


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office
(Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place:

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the current political situation in Northern Ireland. As the House is aware, Northern Ireland has been without a properly functioning devolved Executive and Assembly for nine months. During this time, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, as the two largest parties in the Assembly, have been engaged in a series of discussions to restore inclusive, power-sharing government at Stormont. The latest phase of the discussions began in August and has run for the past nine weeks.

It is the responsibility of the parties to reach an agreement, and the Government have been working tirelessly to support this process. In addition, I have kept in regular contact with the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance, as well as with representatives of business and civil society.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also remained closely involved throughout the process and has held a number of discussions with the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein, as well as keeping in contact with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. In addition, the Irish Government have been actively involved in the process in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs. I would like, in particular, to acknowledge the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney.

Our efforts have been focused mainly on bridging a small number of differences between the two largest parties, particularly around language and culture, which have prevented a sustainable Executive being formed. While important progress has been made, the parties have not yet reached an agreement. Therefore, I am not in a position to bring before the House the legislation necessary for an Executive to be formed this week. The consequence of this is that it is now highly unlikely that an Executive could be in place within a timetable to be assured of passing a budget by the end of November, which is the point at which we and the Northern Ireland Civil Service assess that Northern Ireland will begin to run out of resources. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen and we would be shirking our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland were we to do so.

That is why the Government will take forward the necessary steps that would enable a budget Bill to be introduced in the House in order to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. This budget Bill would deal only with the current financial year. It would incorporate figures provided by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, reflecting its assessment of the outgoing priorities of the previous Executive. It would not set out any spending decisions by me or the Government. As my right honourable friend the leader has indicated, I would expect the budget Bill to be considered in this House shortly after the November Recess. Subject to parliamentary approval, this Bill would give the Northern Ireland Civil Service certainty to plan for the rest of this financial year by giving the necessary legal authority to spend to existing plans. I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my deep appreciation for the professionalism of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in maintaining public services during this very difficult time.

The Government’s strong desire would be for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland to take forward their own budget. So this step is one that I am now taking with the utmost reluctance and only in the absence of any other option.

I also want to be clear to the House that passing a budget in Westminster does not mark a move to direct rule any more than the passing of legislation by this House to set a regional rate did in April. Furthermore, it is important for me to emphasise that it is not an obstacle to continued political negotiations, and the Government will continue to work with the parties with that intent. Even now, however unlikely this may be, should the parties demonstrate that an Executive could be formed in the immediate future, I would clearly wish to proceed with legislation to allow that to happen on the condition that a means could be created to provide an expedited procedure on an exceptional basis to enable the budget to be passed by the end of November.

In addition to preparations for budget legislation, and in recognition of the strength of public concern, I will also reflect carefully on the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. This is a devolved matter and I cannot intervene without primary legislation in Westminster. As I recently told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in the continued absence of a functioning Assembly the status quo is not tenable. Therefore, I will be seeking independent advice on MLA pay and what steps may be taken to reflect the current circumstances.

I still hope that the parties can resolve their differences and that an Executive can be formed. We will continue to work with them and support them in their efforts. Together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and to the institutions that they establish. It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored; to see locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters such as health, education, transport and economic development. We are clear that Northern Ireland needs a properly functioning, inclusive, devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation, north-south and east-west. But ultimately the Government are responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland, and we will to do whatever is necessary to provide that. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, first of all I thank the Minister and the Government for making the Secretary of State’s Statement available to us. In the spirit of co-operation, we are very grateful for that. I echo the words of my honourable friend Owen Smith, with which I think the Minister will agree: it is profoundly disappointing that after 10 months of talks, two elections and countless and increasingly meaningless deadlines, the larger parties remain deadlocked, unable to agree an agenda for change and unwilling to show trust in one another.

Where we perhaps disagree—although disagree might be too strong a word—is on the assessment of what more could have been done and might still be done. My honourable friend Owen Smith has, as befits the House of Commons, robustly expressed comments on some of the Government’s efforts so far. I hope a more productive approach will be taken.

The time may have come to consider drafting in outside help for the Northern Ireland politicians and the Secretary of State, as has happened before, to try to break the deadlock. The Labour Party, in co-operation with the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, has a proud history of facilitating progress in Northern Ireland, and independent chairs for the talks were employed to great effect during that period. Will the Government consider doing likewise and bring in a fresh pair of eyes? Can the Minister tell us any more about the Government’s intentions now that this round of talks has failed?

We fully support the Government in bringing forward a budget, as it is the responsible thing to do. Public services in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, need investment and not cuts. We hope the Minister will tell the House how the Government intend to consult the parties in Northern Ireland on the priorities and, most importantly given the history of Northern Ireland, ensure that the funds are spent equitably.

There are reports in the press that the Government have had discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland to find ways to sustain and create a role for the Assembly, even under direct rule. Will the Minister enlarge on the thinking behind that? We do not believe that direct rule would be a good thing. It would be a profoundly damaging reversal in the peace process, and we cannot afford that. A shadow Assembly, scrutinising or advising Ministers and, crucially, sustaining the north-south and east-west institutions that are such vital components of the Good Friday agreement, might provide some mitigation. That is an idea we would be willing to explore and support the Government in as a means of sustaining the talks and finding a route back to devolution.

We hear what the Government are saying about MLAs’ pay. We understand the frustration and sometimes anger at the fact that payments are ongoing for MLAs and their staff in the current situation. It would be very easy to respond negatively to that. As we have found to our cost in the past, cutting politicians’ pay will always be popular. But we need this generation of Northern Irish politicians to talk, to work and to rebuild devolution. I know patience is wearing thin on the streets of Northern Ireland, but we hope the Government will resist steps that would diminish the engagement of negotiators and undermine the smaller parties in particular.

Finally, to echo my honourable friend Owen Smith, I want to give the Minister a foretaste of what direct rule would mean for the Government. Does he agree that this morning’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes shameful reading for any Government? It shows that more children will be driven into absolute poverty in Northern Ireland by universal credit and the two-child policy than in any other component nation of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister commit to considering using the forthcoming budget to undo that harm to the children of Northern Ireland?

I hope my comments are not taken as severe criticism. I repeat for the record that the Government have our full support in trying to reach a solution to the problems in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement today and welcome him to his new role. It is a deeply challenging time to be taking on these responsibilities and I wish him well in the weeks and month ahead.

We on these Benches cannot help but be deeply disappointed by the lack of progress in forming a new Executive. It is much to be regretted that we have now reached the stage where, once again, it has become necessary to legislate to put in place a budget for Northern Ireland. However, we recognise our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that public services can continue and agree that this is the responsible course of action at this time.

It has now been 10 months since the Executive collapsed and during this critical period Northern Ireland has been without an effective Government and without an effective voice. Northern Ireland is showing the strains of this political vacuum, with no one able to take the much-needed decisions to ensure effective public services and to build the shared society that we all want to see. This is all the more tragic at a time when strategic planning to grow the Northern Irish economy in the challenging months and years ahead is so deeply needed.

However, we take some comfort from the fact that the Secretary of State is not abandoning the talks process and that this Government and the Irish Government are continuing to work hard to restore the Executive. It is vital that the hard-won gains of recent decades are not discarded without exploring all of the options and alternatives. Northern Ireland and its political leaders have in the past overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to find the accord that became the Belfast Good Friday agreement, but this requires a degree of leadership, flexibility and a spirit of compromise that, sadly, seems all too absent at present.

We therefore urge the Secretary of State to keep in mind that there may be alternative ways to save devolution and provide for shared and sustainable government for Northern Ireland. For example, has the Minister considered intervening to provide reform of the petition of concern? This mechanism is now not being used for the purposes for which it was intended, and the mutual veto in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein seriously hampers free and open debate and decision-making. Secondly, to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has the Minister given active consideration to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Alderdice and others that the Assembly could continue even if the Executive Ministers are not in place? In that way, there would be an elected body with which the Northern Ireland Office Ministers and other Ministers could consult and ensure that a Northern Irish voice is heard during the Brexit negotiations, including possibly some level of effective representations on the joint ministerial committee which is dealing with Brexit matters.

We on these Benches continue to believe that power-sharing devolution is vital to local democracy and representative decision-making, facilitating reconciliation and providing a coherent regional voice in critical matters such as Brexit. We believe that it is possible to find creative solutions to the current impasse and urge all of those involved to redouble their efforts. The people of Northern Ireland deserve no less.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and welcome their support. At this time, it is important that we, as a House, are united in recognising that the best place for decisions for Northern Ireland are made in Northern Ireland. I can assure the House that that is the principal aim of the United Kingdom Government. We want to facilitate talks and hope that out of those talks will emerge a functioning, sustainable Executive which can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland In the short term, of course, our discussions are limited to the financial year and a budget, but the points that have been raised are none the less valid and I shall try to address them as best I can.

I agree it is disappointing that an agreement has not been reached, but that has not been for want of effort from the United Kingdom Government, the Prime Minister, the Irish Government and the Taoiseach, who have each committed to trying to deliver an outcome that will work for the communities of Northern Ireland.

As we look at the budgets, it is important to recognise that they are not budgets of the United Kingdom: they are budgets and budget elements which have been determined by the Northern Ireland Civil Service based upon the priorities of the outgoing Executive. There has been no attempt or means used to try to influence or change that by the United Kingdom Government. Clearly it will not work in the long term, for obvious reasons, and that is why it remains our principal priority to return and deliver a functioning Executive.

On the issue of payment for Members of the Assembly, it is important to stress two things. As many will know, the Members have a constituency role as well and that cannot be lost sight of. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has committed that this issue will be carefully examined, and he will not commit to any particular outcome until he has received that careful consideration. No decision has been taken and we want to make sure that any decision that is taken works.

On the issue of involving the smaller parties, it is right that we should emphasise that this is not simply a discussion among the majorities; it must also involve all of those who are part of the widest community in Northern Ireland. The settlement that we need to see and deliver will involve all. This will done on the basis of consent, which is important.

As to the notion of joint ministerial committees, wearing my other hat as a Minister in the Scotland Office, I have sat in on meetings where the Civil Service of Northern Ireland has participated. I can assure the House, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State emphasised, that it is remarkably able and has defended and articulated the views and needs of Northern Ireland very well indeed. However, we must ensure there is a point at which those views are articulated by the elected Members of the Assembly, and that must be done as quickly as we can make it so. Again it is important to stress that we are working against a backdrop of Brexit at a time when those voices are more critical than ever, and that must be delivered in order to ensure that.

On the wider point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, about universal credit, bringing people into work is an important first step towards ensuring that they are in a better place. However, going forward, I would prefer to see a situation in Northern Ireland where decisions are taken by those elected in Northern Ireland.

I will leave it there. There are other elements which I may be able to pick up on in a written response if that is considered appropriate.

To what extent does my noble friend believe that Sinn Fein wants to come to an agreement and form a new power-sharing Executive? If it does, can he list to the House what concessions it has made in the discussions?

I thank my noble friend for his comments. He will appreciate that the discussions have been challenging. They represent two sides trying to reach an accommodation over remarkably challenging elements. The principal areas for discussion where there has been a failure to find common purpose have been around the wider cultural area and the language question. That remains, as yet, unresolved.

It would be inappropriate to interject at this point and iterate exactly what has not been secured during those discussions, particularly because the discussions are ongoing. I emphasise that. Although it looks at the moment that we are now at an end point. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that these talks are ongoing. I certainly hope—as I am sure everyone in this House hopes—that the talks are able to deliver an outcome and that in due course a budget will be developed by the appropriate authorities inside Northern Ireland.

Matters cannot go on as they are. Something dramatic and imaginative must happen. I beg the Minister once more to talk to the Prime Minister to ask her and the Taoiseach personally to go to Northern Ireland and take charge of these negotiations. When I was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the only time we had real breakthroughs was when we had the heads of Government there.

My noble friend Lord McAvoy mentioned the issue of the Assembly being set up in some sort of shadow form. That worked in the past. It brings all the parties together, makes a difference in the way the talks happen and involves all the smaller parties. We need change—otherwise we will drift into direct rule, which would be a total disaster for the people of the Northern Ireland.

I thank the noble Lord, who brings much experience to these discussions.

It is important to stress that everything is on the table going forward. No one is trying to preclude any particular outcome, whether it be in regard to the individuals participating, how often they participate or what they do when they are around the table. I include within that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and others.

The key question now will be not to rule anything out. We have moved through a nine-month period in which we have not secured the outcome we wish to see. It is important to stress that I do not believe anyone around the table wants this outcome either. So the next step will need to be an accommodation between the parties at the table.

I appreciate the idea that involvement at the highest possible level is the answer. However, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. What we have to determine is how to deliver the outcome we all desperately want—which is to set up a sustainable Northern Ireland Executive. The noble Lord is right: we should not rule anything out. At the moment we are doing the best we can to keep all options open and to take those talks to the next stage.

That is a good question and an important one. Right now, the voice of Northern Ireland is being drawn from a number of sources. We would prefer to have an Executive who could be the principal for that, but at the moment stakeholders inside Northern Ireland are articulating a number of views, and that is absolutely critical. Through the joint ministerial committees we are seeing again the civil servants drawing those voices in to make sure they are absolutely at the heart of the discussion. I would like to emphasise again to the people of Northern Ireland that they are not being overlooked and they are not being silenced. Their Civil Service is performing a valuable function in ensuring that not just one single view but a diversity of views are being heard. The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of the border question, because that is where a number of the biggest challenges of Brexit will be experienced. We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to any of those communities and stakeholders in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement which, regrettable though it is, is essential. Today, Northern Ireland finds itself without an Executive and an Assembly. This is due entirely to the intransigence and the declaration of red lines laid down by Sinn Fein. Someone has already queried whether its representatives are really sincere, and I suspect that they are not. The message that they want to get out across the world is: “Northern Ireland is an unstable society and ungovernable”.

One thing that must not happen today is instability, because that brings many problems with it. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will not allow a drift situation to develop, that a budget will be struck, and that in the event of there not being an arrangement at Stormont, direct Ministers will be appointed to create stability and progress? The issues for the people of Northern Ireland are simple: good government, housing, policing services, health services and education. Those are the issues that the people of Northern Ireland wish to see addressed.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. The things that people are most concerned about are the elements of good government through a sound and stable economy, housing, education and the wider welfare question. It is the ambition of this Government to deliver a strong, stable and sustainable Executive who can address those self-same points. As a former Member of the European Parliament, I have always believed in the notion of subsidiarity: we should deliver those things as closely to the people they affect as we possibly can. I believe that we can do that in the Executive.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, made a strong point when talking about the people of Northern Ireland and the indomitable and unsurpassable efforts they have made to move forward. I believe that right now they are watching all of us to make sure that we are hearing their points. I hope that the self-same voices are being heard around the table. It is absolutely critical that the two principal groups at that table should find a way of securing common ground because it is on that common ground that firm foundations will be laid for the ongoing good governance of Northern Ireland. Only by having good governance can we actually hope to deliver the things which I know are dear to the noble Lord’s heart, which is the welfare of the common people. I believe that that must also be at the heart of our ambitions as a Government.

My Lords, it is at times of deadlock like this that we again have cause to regret the passing of the late Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness, but we are where we are. I believe that the Secretary of State had no option but to do what he has done, and correctly to say that it is a regrettable necessity rather than a desirable option. It was also wise of the Minister and the Secretary of State to point out that this is for one year only. An assessment of the decisions on the distribution of the funds will be made on the basis of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, it does not mean that there is no role for the Government in the oversight of this. Nothing would be worse than if there were a maldistribution of those resources, ignoring equality of opportunity to all the communities in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister assure us that although they will not be making the decisions, they will not be blind to the effect of those decisions for the future?

The noble Lord, Lord Reid, makes a very important point. The budget for the financial year coming up has been set on the foundations of the previous outgoing Executive and on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. At the heart of that must be a recognition of balance and fairness for all the people of Northern Ireland. There can be no point at which there is maladministration, misdirection or anything of that sort. The heart of our ambition, if we are called upon to move the budget forward, is to secure a fair and equitable settlement for all the people. In that way, when they see what is going on they will recognise that that is a proper outcome. But again I would emphasise that the future rests in the hands of those who are sitting at the table now. When they are able to determine a common ground for the next stable Administration to be formed, they can begin to grapple with the very challenging issues which I know exist in Northern Ireland across a whole range of areas. We cannot simply roll over that which emerged from the previous outgoing Administration because it will not work in the long term. We can move forward on that basis for the financial year ahead, but we cannot do so for ever.

My Lords, in which specific areas has progress been made during the interminable hours of talks at Stormont? What are the specific reasons which make the Government believe that agreement can be reached, given that the five parties which qualify for seats in the new Executive have not been round the same table since June? Is this not a five-party process, not a two-party affair, as the Government keep repeating? My noble friend Lord Empey, who is unable to be with us today, has asked me to draw that last point in particular to the attention of the House.

I thank my noble friend. It will not surprise him to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has already spoken to me at some length on a number of these issues, and he made the self-same points. I have taken those on board. With regard to the specifics, I hope that I will be forgiven for repeating myself. The very fact that the parties are still at the table is in itself a measure of some of the success. We have not seen a walking away from the table. The fact is that we are still able to see common ground going forward. We may not be able to occupy that common ground, but at least where it lies has been identified. Again I would hope, as we pass another potential milestone in so far as we are setting a budget, that those round the table will recognise what that means. The milestone is important to all of the parties involved for obvious reasons. I am afraid that I cannot give my noble friend the specifics and I hope that he will forgive me. In truth, they rest inside that room at the moment. However, noble Lords should be assured that progress has been made; that is why they are still at the table.

My Lords, perhaps I may raise two specific issues. The first concerns the spending in the budget. The Minister has said quite rightly that the main thrust of budget spending will be that which was determined by the Executive some time ago. However, there is quite a nest egg of extra money which the DUP got as part of the coalition agreement. How will that money be spent? Who will make the decision? While we are considering that one, perhaps I may make a plea that integrated education in Northern Ireland should not be forgotten. That is because it is a key element of policy for bringing the communities together, and one about which my noble friend Lady Blood has been passionate for many years.

My second question is this. If the Executive is not to be restored, will the Government ensure that elected Members of Stormont will continue to represent Northern Ireland on international bodies such as, for example, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, so that the voice of Northern Ireland goes on being heard even if the Executive is not functioning?

I thank the noble Lord for those comments. He is absolutely right to point out that the voice of Northern Ireland cannot be extinguished because we have not yet been able to secure a settled basis for an Executive. The important thing will be for the UK Government to commit themselves to delivering an Executive, and that is the absolute core of our ambition right now. It is also the core of the ambition of those who are sitting round the table right now discussing these elements. On the question of education, I believe that that is a question best resolved by those in Northern Ireland in a functioning Executive. That is why I shall come back again to the earlier point I made, which is that we cannot overlook the importance of subsidiarity in determining the outcome of that question.

As regards the DUP supply and confidence support element, that has no part in the proposed Bill which will move forward as we look at the budget; it will be entirely separate. What we are looking at right now is the ongoing budget for the Executive based on what was determined by the previous Executive—although as has rightly been pointed out, it was some time ago—along with the involvement of the Northern Ireland Civil Service determining exactly what the points need to be in order to offer support going forward. However, as I said, this cannot go on for ever. The noble Lord is right: the further we get from that point in the past at which the outgoing Administration determined priorities, the more we will be overtaken by events and overtaken by time. We need to get to the stage where there is an Executive who are able to deliver against the priorities of Northern Ireland now. That should be at the heart of the discussions which I believe are ongoing even as we speak.

With the leave of the House, may I have a second go? I followed what the Minister said about spending, but there is a lot of money sloshing about—money that the DUP got as a result of joining the coalition. Who will decide how that will be spent? From what the Minister said, no decision will be made about that. Surely, a decision could be made about that right now?

I would argue that that decision must rest with the Northern Ireland Executive. It is not in any way for the UK Government to determine what the spend should be in that particular area. That is why I come back to the point and stress that the milestone we are talking about right now is ensuring that the budget that has been determined moves forward, to stop a situation occurring in November where the resources run out. That is the critical element. It must be the Northern Ireland Executive who determine the priorities that will arrive through the money from the supply and confidence relationship. In the interests of all communities, that must be how it goes forward.

Will the Minister explain whether the £1 billion extra going to Northern Ireland is excluded from this budget consideration?

Since we are allowed a second go, with the leave of the House, I reiterate my agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. To knock heads together—if I can put it rather less delicately than the noble Lord did—you need serious leadership from the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, or whomsoever. At the moment, however, heads are obviously not being sufficiently knocked together.

I thank my noble friend for his comments. I am not quite clear on how many heads have been knocked together at this point.

They may well be not enough, but I can assure you that the Prime Minister is intimately involved in the process and the negotiations are not over yet. That is why we can say they are ongoing. I would rather they were ongoing toward a resolution that I could bring back here and explain to you at some length, but I cannot do that yet, as much as I would like to. It may be that the knocking together of heads will be part of the ongoing process, but I suspect that that is not necessarily the best way of moving forward.