All 2 contributions to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, before I move to the Bill, this is the first opportunity I have had at the Dispatch Box to welcome my noble friend Lord Empey back to his place and to pass on formally my commiserations on the loss that he suffered at the end of last year. I also wish the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, a speedy recovery from the bout of Covid from which she is currently suffering.

As many in this House will be aware, I am an unashamed and unapologetic unionist who believes that the best future for Northern Ireland lies within a strong and prosperous United Kingdom. Over my 35 years of involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland, defending, protecting and strengthening the union has been at the forefront of everything I have sought to do, while always recognising the legitimate interests and aspirations of nationalism. That, of course, will never change. It was for these reasons—to raise up a new Northern Ireland that works for the whole community and to strengthen the union in so doing—that I supported the agreement reached on 10 April 1998. That agreement has been the bedrock of all the progress we have seen over the past 26 years. The commitment of His Majesty’s Government to the agreement, including devolution and power sharing, remains unwavering.

The focus of this Government has always been on facilitating the return of the devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast agreement in all its parts. We want to see locally elected representatives taking local decisions, accountable through the Assembly to the people they serve. That is what this short Bill is intended to help achieve.

This House is well known for, and rightly prides itself on, its ability to scrutinise line by line detailed, complex and lengthy legislation. This Bill does not fit into any of those categories: it has a sole purpose and one main clause. The legislation will retrospectively extend the Executive formation period set out in the 2022 Act from 18 January to 8 February this year. This short extension will create the legal means to enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to sit and re-establish the Executive, which, as the law stands, expired on 18 January.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shortly before Christmas, worth around £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered immediately to begin working to address the needs of local people and realise Northern Ireland’s potential. Our firm desire is that this Bill will help to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved government to the people of Northern Ireland, which, in my view, is the soundest and surest foundation for the future of the union.

On that note, I hope that, for the very last time, I commend a Bill of this nature to the House.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, as always, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate this afternoon and into this evening.

I, like a number of noble Lords, listened to the speech of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the other place this afternoon. It was a powerful contribution from the leader of the DUP, and I supported much of what he said, particularly in respect of those who—as my noble friend Lord Empey said—have tried to frustrate progress in Northern Ireland over many years and have delivered nothing. I was also moved by his comments about the threats and intimidation that he has received. I know I speak for all Members of this House when we pass on our support for him and wish him well. It was one of the Mitchell principles back in the 1990s that politicians in Northern Ireland should pursue their objectives exclusively by peaceful and democratic means. That is as sound a principle today as it was then and should be for the future.

With the leave of the House, I will try to respond to a number of the points that have been made. Inevitably, a number of speeches this afternoon strayed outside the scope of the Bill. Perhaps that was inevitable, given it has only one main clause and one main purpose, which is to move a date.

I am pleased that, at least, there appears to be broad agreement on the substance of the Bill, and I am particularly grateful to the opposition parties for agreeing to its expedited passage through this House and the other place. Our priority must be the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, and this is the issue on which we are completely focused. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on that.

We all want to see progress within the next fortnight. As was said during the debate in the other place this afternoon, there is no deal at the moment. We hope there will be one within the space of time that this legislation provides. I say in response to a number of noble Lords who were looking for more detail that should there be a deal it will be brought before Parliament, and both Houses will have the opportunity to carefully scrutinise the details or, as my Democratic Unionist Party colleagues normally put it, the fine print. We are not there yet, and the House contains enough seasoned negotiators in Northern Ireland politics to recognise that it would be unwise, even if I were able, to go into detail at this stage about any discussions that might be taking place. In response to my noble friend Lord Empey on the rationale for the Bill, suffice it to say that we believe the next fortnight provides an optimum period for the possibility of reaching an agreement. That is where we are focused.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that we will continue to prepare for all eventualities, and will update the House if it has not proven possible to restore the Executive by the date which is set out in the legislation, 8 February. She asked whether we would bring forward more substantial legislation. We are currently looking at all eventualities, but if new legislation comes forward, Parliament will have the opportunity to examine it carefully.

The noble Baroness mentioned the possibility of further reform, and my noble friend also touched on reforms to the institutions. The approach of the Government to this has been consistent over a number of years, and we will always look at sensible suggestions for reform. I agree with those who suggested that the Belfast agreement was never intended to be set in tablets of stone. It has already evolved, and there were changes. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, refers to the Belfast agreement as amended by St Andrews, as there were significant changes in the St Andrews agreement, and changes in the Stormont House agreement, and so on. The test for any reforms has to be that they will command widespread support and consent across the community, and they must be consistent with the underlying and enduring principles of the Belfast agreement.

Much of the debate focused on the reasons why devolved government is not currently in place in Northern Ireland, and the principal one is the DUP’s current opposition to the provisions of the Windsor Framework. If noble Lords will forgive me, and in the interests of time, I do not intend to have a lengthy debate about the Windsor Framework, which has been debated in this House on many occasions. Suffice to say, the Government are well aware of the concerns of the Democratic Unionist Party—it would be strange if we were not given the number of times they have been expressed. We are looking at what we can do to clarify any outstanding points there might be, recognising that the substantive negotiations came to an end shortly before Christmas. We are, and always have been, willing to clarify certain points that might arise.

Another key theme of this afternoon was the union. I set out my own rock-solid support for the union at the beginning of my opening speech. I will part company slightly with some of my colleagues behind me in respect of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. There are two constitutional outcomes provided for in the 1998 agreement, which are reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998: Northern Ireland is either part of the United Kingdom, or part of a united Ireland. I am very sure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of this United Kingdom, something I wish never to see change.

The noble Baroness, Lady Foster—she is my friend—referred to the concept of the all-Ireland economy. I entirely agree with her, and the Government have made it clear, that there are two economies on the island of Ireland. One of those, the Northern Ireland economy, is an integral part of the world’s sixth-largest economy, from which Northern Ireland gains considerable strength and security. We should never forget that fact.

I hear what has been said about public sector pay; there appears to be unanimity among most of the parties in the House on this issue. I see the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, confirming that from his sedentary position. Let me reiterate, as I did at the outset, that the £3.3 billion package is very much on the table for an incoming Administration in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster, mentioned money for tackling current pressures. She will be aware that the issue of the block grant is, rightly, one for negotiation between His Majesty’s Treasury and an incoming Northern Ireland Executive, but I will take back her comments and may write to her in more detail on that subject.

In conclusion, I hope shortly to be in a position where we have the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland and no longer need to have these rather novel pieces of legislation. I agree with my noble friend that it is very unsatisfactory. All I would say is that it is certainly not the first time we have introduced novel and expedited legislation in Northern Ireland. I look forward to a time when any Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with in a proper and considered way while most of the decisions are taken, rightly, in the Assembly, by local politicians in that Assembly answerable to their electorate. On that note, I very much hope that we can make some progress in the next two weeks, before 8 February, as set out in the legislation.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a very short and, I would like to think, perfectly formed Bill. I thank all those who have helped to expedite this simple but important piece of legislation to this point. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my focus has always been on facilitating the return of devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its strands. This Bill is no different, and hopefully plays a part in that.

The UK Government believe in the agreement. We believe in devolution. We believe in localism. We strongly believe in power sharing. That is why I am today legislating to extend retrospectively the Executive formation period to 8 February 2024. The people of Northern Ireland deserve locally elected decision makers and want them to address the issues that matter to them. This very short extension provided for by the legislation will create the legal means to allow the Assembly to sit and get the Executive up and running as soon as possible.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package that I announced before Christmas, worth more than £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered to immediately begin working to address the needs of local people and unleash Northern Ireland’s full and amazing potential. This Bill to helps to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved governance to the citizens of Northern Ireland. On that note, I conclude my remarks for now and commend the Bill to the House.

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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to close this Second Reading debate. At the beginning, I spoke for a whole two minutes, because I wanted to hear what everybody had to say. I was hoping it would not go on quite as—[Interruption.] Quite as well as it did, but some important speeches were made, which I will come to in a moment. Clause 1 states:

“In section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, for “18 January 2024” substitute “8 February 2024”.

It provides for a short extension in time. Clause 2 deals with the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill. My two-minute speech was simply about keeping within scope, but we have managed to touch on Scottish independence, public sector pay, leaving the European Union, the Malthouse compromise, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs agenda and reform of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, all within two hours. I shall learn yet another lesson about Northern Ireland debates on the Floor of this House, and just say what I think all the time at the very beginning.

A number of excellent interventions were made in the debate. I will talk about the speeches we heard, but the interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) were all interesting and important. I wish to put on record for the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) that the whole House wishes his uncle well; the hon. Gentleman is not in his place, but it is important that we recognise that we are all human in this business.

I thank all those who made speeches in the debate: the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn); my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith); the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland); the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), who gave a fantastic speech and I associate myself with many of the comments he made; the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson); the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who made a characteristically passionate speech—I really appreciate the way in which he put his words and what he said—and, of course, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

The stand-out contribution came from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and I thank him profusely for the conversations we have had over the course of the past weeks and months. I know that he really does want to get the best deal for Northern Ireland that works for both the nationalist and the Unionist communities, that is based on consent and that means that he can find the conditions to restore the institutions. I know that he and his party believe in devolution. He listed the number of things that he has managed to achieve during his leadership of his party, and he should be and can be rightly proud of what he has already achieved in that space.

The fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been threatened for doing the job he should be doing is a disgrace—it is extraordinary. Unfortunately, everyone in this place has to come across such things. The people making these threats are cowards and idiots, and I know that they will not deter him. I have noticed in my time as Secretary of State that the number of followers someone has on Twitter, or X, does not necessarily equate to the number of brain cells they might have or the amount of common sense or decency they display as a human being. Those characteristics are personal and ones that someone can display as a human being. Unfortunately, some people choose to have a different persona when they are on social media and when they are emailing some really stupid things. I promise him that I shall work with him and use whatever power I have to make sure that he does not feel insecure in going about his business properly, because no parliamentarian should feel that. As I said, I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

When we gathered to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement last year, we noted that the hard-won gains of the peace process should be honoured by the restoration of the devolved institutions. There is broad agreement on the main substance of this Bill: that our priority must be to continue to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. I was asked about this by the shadow Front-Bench team, so let me say that that is the immediate issue on which I am completely concentrated.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central asked what other legislation there might be. There could be future legislation, but I do not want to be in that place. He asked me to make a statement if things move, in order to keep the House updated. I absolutely guarantee that I will do so, should things move forward. Of course, he would expect me to be prepared for all eventualities, and I will update the House on my plans if it does not prove possible to restore the Executive by the new deadline. But I really do hope that those plans will not be needed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about public sector pay, and a number of other Members mentioned it. The Government recognise the vital work that public sector workers carry out and they should be fairly paid in recognition of that work. However, the UK Government do not have the authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland. I recognise that the uncertainty on pay awards is causing pressure on Northern Ireland finances, which is why the Government put a fair and generous financial package on the table, offering a new Executive a non-repayable injection of help to restore the Executive and manage that pressure.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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This is not intended to spoil the mood, but the trade unions would be quite upset if we did not take the opportunity to say that they are not asking the Northern Ireland Office to negotiate their pay; they will negotiate with their employers, as is right in the normal course of events. They are asking that the money that was secured and agreed in December be released to their employers, so that they can get on and have the negotiations.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but that is a complete package that is available for a restored Executive.

I promised at the beginning of this debate to be as brief as possible. I know that we have more work to do in this Parliament on different subjects, but I hope shortly to be in a position where I can return to this Dispatch Box celebrating the return of a wonderful institution of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Practically speaking, this step—to secure Royal Assent on this legislation—is the first step along that route.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.

I wish to place on the record my sincere thanks to everyone involved in the Bill’s passage through the House for their support for its expedited passage. I particularly thank the Front Benchers of all parties for their collaborative and constructive engagement.

On Second Reading, a whole host of issues concerning Northern Ireland had a reasonable outing. I would like to think that the tone of the debate we have had over the course of the past two hours will be reflected in the positive tone we can take in our negotiations and talks over the next few hours and days, or however long it may be, so that we can get to the wonderful place that I believe we all want to get to.

I reiterate my comments about the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his words. I have really enjoyed working with him, listening to him and understanding the points he makes when he represents Unionism so powerfully, as he does. I know it is vital to him that we get this right. Occasionally, some of our conversations have been repetitive, but they all have a point.

I hope he would acknowledge that I have a deep and fundamental understanding of the issues that he and his party have been outlining during the past few days, weeks and months, and I would like to think that those issues are being reflected in the conversations we are having now. I do not think anybody in the House does not want to see Stormont returned, the Assembly sitting, the Executive up and running, and Ministers making the choices that the people who elected them would like to see.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I am mindful that the Secretary of State introduced his comments by talking about the good will that we have heard in the exchanges between Members as we try to find a way forward. Will he use some of that good will to ensure that the £600 million needed to address the pay agreement with the medical sector and teachers is found from the £3.3 billion that he has? He must build upon that good will, make that gesture and ensure that the unions have the pay increase they seek, on which there is consensus from all parties on the Opposition Benches. Will he use that good will, build upon it and make that gesture today?

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Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contributions, but I have said all I am going to say on that matter for today.

It has been nearly two years since the institutions have been up and running, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Like the hon. Gentleman, I meet people from across Northern Ireland, those from both communities and those who are new to Northern Ireland, who have chosen to work and live there. They all want to see their institutions up and running, and that is important for democracy too. We all need to see the results of an election that was fairly fought delivered, because we are all democrats in this place. I prefer to win elections, rather than lose them—I very much hope I manage to maintain my lucky streak that I have had since I started to represent my seat of Daventry. Democracy is vital to our system, as is ensuring that every voter feels heard through the ballot box.

I place on the record my thanks to those who have engaged in the debate. I also place on the record my appreciation to the House authorities and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for their continued expert advice. Right hon. and hon. Members involved in the debate know that there could have been a different piece of legislation laid today, and that is probably where we were progressing to, so the slight course correction that we have made involved a huge amount of help from the people behind the scenes who make this place function so well. I put on the record my thanks to them.

I thank my colleagues and officials in the Government Whips Office for helping us progress in a smooth fashion. As ever, I am grateful to them for everything they do. As a former Government Chief Whip, I understand their pain.

I conclude by repeating what I said on Second Reading. People in Northern Ireland rightly expect and deserve to see locally elected decision makers address the issues that matter to them. I agree with them, and I genuinely believe the House does too.