Second Reading
Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Amendments, new clauses and new schedules for Committee of the whole House may now be tabled by Members at the Opposition side of the Table of the House. I understand that the Chairman of Ways and Means has indicated that she will make her provisional selection of all those amendments tabled soon after 2 pm. If any amendments are tabled and then selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means, an amendment paper for the Committee of the Whole House will be circulated as soon as possible.

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.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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Another year, and another Bill to postpone the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. It is worth noting that the last time we did this, something quite significant happened five days later, when the Windsor Framework negotiations were concluded, so let us live in a state of hope—tempered, as always, by experience.

I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill in such a timely fashion. We support it and I have met no one who thinks that holding elections now would help to resolve the difficulties that Northern Ireland’s politics are currently in. However, while we may be in agreement about the need for this Bill, I do not think we should let this moment pass without acknowledging that the Assembly elected 20 months ago has still not yet been able to meet. In any other democracy anywhere in the world, that would be a cause of anger, not to say uproar. The very essence of a democratic election is that the representative body should be able to meet and do its job. I would just observe that Northern Ireland surely cannot continue to be the only place where that does not happen.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the discussions that we have had. It is a pleasure to do business with him. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), said just under a year ago:

“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.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 238.]

I know that is a priority for the Secretary of State, because he has spent so much time negotiating with the Democratic Unionist party to try to find a way forward, and from the moment I took on this role I have tried to support him and the Government in that objective. With the negotiations, it appears, having effectively concluded, we have now come to the moment of decision.

I hope the DUP will return to government. I think the DUP should return to government. I say that for a host of reasons, but above all because the people of Northern Ireland need to have their Government back. The consequences of having no Government for almost two years this time around—and, of course, for almost three years when Sinn Féin walked out of the institutions—are very serious for the people of Northern Ireland. As we know, the Assembly cannot even elect a Speaker so it cannot meet, difficult decisions are not being taken, the public finances are in a parlous state, and when the floods struck last year and affected so many businesses and homes, there was no Government in Stormont for people to turn to for help—none.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Ind)
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When I was at home over Christmas, I took my uncle to the specialist cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital. It was a humbling experience to see the care and dedication provided by the staff in that world-leading facility, but the stresses and strains of a lack of funding and direction were clear. When institutions and systems fail, people suffer. This has to be the last time that legislation like this comes before the House. Let us get the institutions back up and running, or the Secretary of State, with the Irish Government, should find something else to sort it out.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I agree with my hon. Friend that this is the moment to get the institutions back up and running. I wish the person he referred to all the best in their treatment.

The civil servants are left to make decisions that ought to be made by elected representatives. In the case of public sector pay, for example, some workers have not had a pay rise for almost three years—that should hardly bear repetition—and no decisions have been taken because there is not enough money in the budget to do so. That is why there was such a large strike last week, and I see that further industrial action is likely coming towards us. Everyone, including the Government, now recognises that that is not a sustainable position.

The proof on the Government’s side is that, in announcing the financial package, they identified money for public sector pay, but it will not be released until such time as the Executive are restored. If I may be frank, I understand why the Secretary of State took that decision initially, but in relation to public sector pay, that moment has now passed. That is why I called on him last week to release that part of the budget package so that the disputes can be settled, workers can get their pay increases and public services can try to address the many challenges that they face.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Many public sector pay awards have been made—nearly 50 over the past year. The only reason the current one is not being made is that the Secretary of State is holding teachers, nurses and so on as pawns in the game that he is playing in his efforts to force us to make a decision that he wants us to make, but that we do not wish to make.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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The right hon. Gentleman links the pay question to his stance on the DUP’s difference of view on the Windsor framework and the protocol. I say to him in return that it is equally true that if the DUP were to go back into government, public sector workers would get their pay increase. That is why I said a moment ago that I hope very much that that will be the case.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Back home in the papers, with TV correspondents and in media statements, those in the unions say clearly that the problem does not lie with the politicians but—with respect—it lies with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has control of the moneys. He, in his own right, could settle the claims for those in education, healthcare and elsewhere. The moneys are there. The unions say, “Let the Secretary of State do it.” Has the shadow Secretary of State heard the same story that I have heard in the news and media?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I have indeed heard the unions making precisely that point. I have set out to the House that I understood why the Secretary of State took that approach initially, but I do not think that public sector workers should continue to be held hostage to the failure thus far. I hope that it will change soon in order to solve this problem, which is why I am calling on the Secretary of State to release the funds now.

We need to be honest about how we got to the deadlock that the Government, and indeed the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), as the leader of his party, have been grappling with. One of the many consequences of leaving the EU was that a decision had to be taken about what to do about trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Everyone agreed that the border had to remain open—there were not many things on which everyone agreed when it came to Brexit, but that was one of them—and everyone agreed that the EU needed to be sure that goods crossing that border complied with the rules of the single market. There was no escaping that. The Government decided that the answer would be the Northern Ireland protocol.

Before I occupied this role, I was one of many people who argued that the implementation of the protocol would not work in Northern Ireland as originally intended, including for reasons that many in the Unionist community had pointed out. In fairness to Maroš Šefčovič, he understood what the problems were and changed the EU’s approach. That is why I genuinely believe that the Windsor framework represents a significant step forward, and why Labour voted for it.

Of course, detailed implementation will need to be worked through—that is another reason the Executive need to return—but most businesses tell me that the green lane is working reasonably well. As I said last week—I make no apology for reinforcing this point today—the framework is here to stay and will continue to be implemented by whoever is in government in Westminster. With respect, anyone who thinks otherwise has simply got it wrong, not least because any hope of negotiating future arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland with the EU will depend on the Windsor framework being implemented. If the UK were to renege yet again on an international agreement that it has signed, which has happened before, no sanitary and phytosanitary agreement or anything else would be reached, because trust would once again have been destroyed—absolutely destroyed.

At the same time, of course, unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland continues to enjoy ready access to both the UK and EU markets, which is a huge opportunity for jobs and economic growth in the years ahead. Those are facts that nothing will change. What the Government have been doing, as we all understand, is negotiating on measures that they could take to reinforce Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has wisely and repeatedly said—and I support him in this—that any agreement has to be acceptable both to Unionists and to nationalists. That has shown great wisdom. In addition, there is now a financial offer on the table that I think provides a basis on which to go forward. After months of negotiation between the Government and the DUP, now is the moment to decide whether to restore the institutions.

On the detail of the Bill, of which there is not much, I have one question. In his press statement on 19 January, the Secretary of State said:

“I intend to introduce new legislation which will take a pragmatic, appropriate and limited approach to addressing the executive formation period and support Northern Ireland departments to manage the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances.”

I take it from those words that actually he was referring to another Bill that he thinks might be needed if the current negotiations fail. Can he confirm that that is the case? I am not asking for any further detail, but we all hope that the institutions return and that such a Bill will not prove necessary. Will he assure the House that, as and when there is an outcome either way, he will immediately make a statement to the House?

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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The right hon. Gentleman asks in his questions to the Secretary of State about plan Bs and alternatives, but does he agree that any alternative to restoration of the institutions is suboptimal and not the settled position of this House? All parties have as their primary policy on Northern Ireland governance the restoration of the institutions.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I agree 100% with the right hon. Gentleman. He anticipates a point that I am just about to make in my concluding remarks.

Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998. It is unrecognisable in so many ways, and for the better. In all of my meetings and visits, I have been so impressed and encouraged by the energy, enterprise and industry of those I have met, who are working hard to build a new and better future for the people of Northern Ireland. That really matters when we know, for example, that families in Northern Ireland have the lowest disposable incomes in the United Kingdom.

The longer there is no functional devolved Government, the harder it will be for those businesses to seize the opportunities that are available anyway, including because of access to the EU market. Businesses that are thinking of investing do not like uncertainty. They want stability—they want to know that a Government are in place—so the absence of a Government undermines the bright future that otherwise faces the people of Northern Ireland.

The basis of power sharing, which was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement—including devolved government—was essential to the making of progress. Of course, there have been bumps and difficulties along the way and periods of no Government, but a generation on from 1998, I simply want to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith): we cannot give up on devolved government. It is what we in this House believe in, and it is the responsibility that we all take on when we stand for elected office. We cannot have a system where any of us chooses to put down conditions and does not take part if those conditions are not met. That is not how a democracy works.

As I am fond of saying, we have to deal with the world as it is, as we seek to change it into the world we wish it to be. It cannot be, surely, that politicians from all parties and communities in Northern Ireland are somehow unable to come together to establish the Assembly, form an Executive and get on with the task of governing.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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I am very much enjoying the tone and the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. Of course, he is dancing between a majoritarian and a power-sharing arrangement in his comments, which are perhaps not quite as aligned as he might suggest.

This is not the first time that Stormont has been suspended. In the past, Sinn Féin refused to come back to the Assembly. As I understand it, that was due to concerns over the language, and the UK Government have taken steps in that regard in recent years. As such, would the right hon. Gentleman support the UK Government taking measures to address the current impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, as modified by the Windsor framework? Could he support alterations that might be helpful in restoring power sharing and alleviating the concerns of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I am grateful for that intervention. I believe strongly in Northern Ireland’s place as part of the internal market of the United Kingdom. Since I took up this position, I have repeatedly made it clear that I will support any measures that reinforce that place and make it clear, but that are also consistent with the international commitments that the Government have signed up to.

Can I just pick the hon. Gentleman up on what he said initially? I am not arguing at all for a majoritarian position. I believe in power sharing—I am as wedded as the Secretary of State to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. I am making a point about the responsibility of politicians to participate in that power-sharing arrangement, and I would make those remarks equally to those who have collapsed the institutions previously and the current cause of the collapse, because in the end it is not in the interests of Northern Ireland to not have a functioning Government. I would like to clarify that.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I will give way, and then I will finish.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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The right hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. The whole point of the agreement and of power sharing is that it is based on consent, so how can the Unionist community consent to lawmaking by the EU in which that community does not participate and has no influence?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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The right hon. Gentleman asks a very pertinent question, but that is a consequence of a course of action that I personally did not think was a terribly good idea and he thought was a good idea. The moment we left the European Union, everybody knew that there would be a problem that had to be addressed. To keep that open border, there were only two practical propositions. The first was proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister: she came up with a scheme to try to keep the whole of the UK within the arrangements of the single market, having announced that we were leaving the single market. That did not work out, so the second option was to do the same in respect of Northern Ireland. That is where we are, and the Government eventually negotiated the Windsor framework, which is an important step forward. These things are going to have to be worked through.

Really, what we are talking about is the operation of the green lane. Everybody agrees with the red lane: if goods are coming into Northern Ireland to then head off to the Republic, of course they should be checked, and that is what the red lane is for. We are debating the operation of the green lane. The question is whether it makes sense for there to be no power-sharing Government institutions—no Assembly and no Executive—in Northern Ireland because of a debate and an argument about the operation of the green lane. My very strong view is that that is not sufficient reason not to have a functioning Government.

I will conclude just by saying that the people of Northern Ireland have been waiting long enough, and now is the time for everyone to get back to work.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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I want to make a few remarks in support of my right hon. Friend the Minister who introduced this Bill. I think it is absolutely the right thing to be doing, and I pay tribute to the patient work over the past few months that he and the officials have done—those here in the Northern Ireland Office, in the Northern Ireland civil service and in the different political parties at Stormont.

There is a huge need for the institution of Stormont to be restored. Whether it is regarding public sector pay, which has already been mentioned, health waiting lists, creaking public services, charities and others relying on the public purse, or the limited offer of childcare in Northern Ireland, that institution needs to be back up and running. Divergence on medicines and other issues is also happening as a result of Stormont not sitting. The deal that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister put forward before Christmas is really good: it provides over £3 billion and will unlock many of the challenges currently facing Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his team seem to have negotiated a very good deal with the Government on issues around the Windsor framework. I hope that we will be able to see the results of that work in the coming days and weeks. I am sure some in his party will still have concerns. The deal will not be perfect, but it will be much better now that so much work has been done over the past few months to enable the DUP to go back into the Executive and make further arguments. For Unionism generally, being in the devolved Assembly is the key route to making the case for the Union—for the NHS, for the fact that being in the UK defence and security system is better for Northern Ireland, and for making sure that any remaining concerns on the post-Brexit arrangements are dealt with.

The Secretary of State has given an end date of 8 February for this Bill. My understanding is that the Government are supporting the final stages of the DUP negotiations. There is no bullying or any hard demands; there is just support for the work that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is doing with his party and the discussions he is having. There is a real hope that, in making the decision to get the institution back up and running and to go back into Stormont, if the DUP does so, the future for Northern Ireland, and for young people and generations to come, will be best served, with local Ministers making decisions in the best interests of this key part of our country.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I will begin, as is sadly becoming customary, by saying how much it is a matter of regret that we are back here discussing a postponement to elections. I am very firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and that for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland we wish to see the Assembly return in early course. Having said all that, however, we see no utility in or prospect of progress being made by holding an election at this point.

There were opportunities last year to reflect on the 25 years of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remember with great pleasure the special meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast. There were meetings across Stormont itself, and also at Belfast castle, at which those charged with the care of affairs and relationships between our islands and jurisdictions had the opportunity to benefit from the breadth of experience of those who were involved in the peace process, the Good Friday agreement and establishing devolution. As a temporary custodian of that role, I certainly found it incredibly valuable to have that transfusion of knowledge and experience. It was also a tremendous opportunity to reflect on how far all parts of the UK that have experienced devolution over that quarter of a century, particularly Northern Ireland, have advanced and progressed. It also brought into sharp focus how much is missed by Stormont sitting empty at present. I very much share the sentiment of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he speaks about hope being tempered by expectation.

I always very much enjoy the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, whether in a private capacity or in my role as the SNP spokesperson and, when I can, to engage with businesses, community groups and representatives of wider civic society. I have had much cause to be grateful to elected Members across various parties in Northern Ireland for the opportunities they have given me to do that, for the doors they have opened and for the insights I have gained. What I have observed from many of those visits is the sense of frustration at how politics is presently failing in Northern Ireland. I say politics rather than politicians deliberately, because it is a failure of politics across many strands that has brought us to this point.

We saw that bubble up most obviously with the recent strikes. In the debates we had in this place on the Northern Ireland budget, I highlighted the problems caused, and the potential solutions deferred, by civil servants having to cheesepare budgets within the confines of the ghosts of ministerial decisions past. I remember from my time in local government the frustration of council officers if we were unable to provide any clear political direction about what we wanted to happen. While it was always possible under different circumstances to set balanced budgets, how much better it was to be able to set them in the context of clear political leadership on the choices we wished to make within the resources at our disposal. That is certainly a consideration, because it is impossible to set the strategic budget directions that are needed in Northern Ireland right now in the absence of a working institution at Stormont.

When it comes to public sector pay, the Secretary of State says that using part of the £3.3 billion cash allocation to settle claims ahead of Stormont being reconstituted is a political decision, and therefore not one that he is willing to make. I would just say as gently as I can that deciding not to act is taking a political decision in its own way: the decision not to act is also political. I would join the voices in previous debates—I am sure we will hear them later—urging the Secretary of State to reconsider his stance on that. Public sector workers in Northern Ireland, on whom the brunt of the pressures caused are falling, really do deserve the pay settlements that their counterparts elsewhere in these islands have been able to get.

I mention in passing that it was said that the absence of a functioning Stormont was the reason why the UK Government were unwilling to make progress on providing funding for levelling up. I had a wry chuckle about that given the UK Government’s disinclination to work with the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales. There seems to be a certain amount of cherry-picking in the excuses offered. Punishing the people of Northern Ireland to try to bring to bear some additional political leverage on politicians has not been a conspicuous success so far. Neither do I believe it is an appropriate lever to use where public sector pay is concerned.

As I say, this has been a failure of politics. The fundamental problem that has led us to where we are stems from Brexit and the manner in which successive Governments chose to take that forward—against the express wishes, lest we forget, of clear majorities both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Again, I allow myself a wry smile, because during debates about the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 we were told that we would apparently be creating a trade border with the rest of the UK. Yet only two years later we saw the UK Government themselves going hell for leather towards creating a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I remember very much enjoying causing consternation on the Government Benches by pointing out in a Backbench Business debate about the Northern Ireland protocol, perhaps a little indelicately, that if Scotland were once again independent and in the European Union, we would be able to enjoy free trade with Northern Ireland. Neither can currently enjoy that as part of the Union, based on the deals that have been put in place.

In closing, I am very clear what my preferences are for the constitutional future of these islands, but short of that, bringing the UK back into the single market and the customs union would make this problem go away. Accepting that that is not politically realistic, given the stance of the current Government and the aspiring Government, closer alignment, on sanitary and phytosanitary matters especially, would be of enormous benefit, not just to people in Northern Ireland but right across these islands, particularly my constituents—speaking selfishly—and for those involved in agriculture and the food trade. That closer alignment would be much better, because the closer we align, the less significant these issues become, and that would be manifestly in the interests of all of these islands, whatever constitutional future we choose in future.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I listened very carefully to his assertions about an independent Scotland being a member of the European Union. I am not sure that that assumption is actually the right one, bearing in mind the view of some member states of that Union, notably Spain. That provides a reality check on some of the loftier rhetoric of the SNP about its position in Europe and the world, should it choose to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I make that point, because the consequences of Brexit inevitably meant that an arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would always be difficult. I certainly bear the scars on my back, having been involved as a Law Officer throughout that process. Indeed, I helped to put together the Malthouse compromise—anybody remember that?—back in early 2018. I know DUP Members will remember that time very well, when we tried to work together to get somewhere that would satisfy everybody.

As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, we have to work in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The one way we can actually find out about the operation of the Windsor framework is for the Executive to be able to operate it and to see how the green lane works—and if there are operational problems, then let us deal with them. I am as anxious as anybody to make sure that businesses and individuals, and everybody who wants to trade in Northern Ireland or through Northern Ireland, are able to do so in as free and uninhibited a way as possible. I do not want to see Northern Ireland cast adrift from the rest of our United Kingdom in that way.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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The right hon. and learned Member makes reference to Northern Ireland being set adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom. Businesses in the United Kingdom are finding it difficult—bureaucratically difficult—to trade with Northern Ireland. As a consequence, the divergence of trade is continuing daily, and it is increasing. Everyone says, “Oh, the Republic of Ireland is booming”, but that is simply because its supply chain has changed. Goods are no longer coming through the UK, but straight from France. There is one point I want to find out about: what engagement has the British Government had with the EU on the changes that need to be made to the Windsor framework and the protocol in order for them to work?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will answer on any engagement that the UK Government have had with Brussels. He is right to cast it at that level, because it is a matter between that Government and the EU, bearing in mind the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the EU, and the fact that the EU has that competence to negotiate a treaty. However, it is barely a year since the Windsor framework was agreed and in reality, coming back to the world as it is, it would be wrong of us blithely to assume that somehow that can be reopened here and now. I am not saying that it can never be reopened—of course everything can be reopened, and there will be an opportunity in a few years to look at the whole trade agreement that we reached with the EU in the 2025-26 review period.

My point is that unless we see a functioning Executive with responsibility for the operational aspects of Windsor being able to identify and highlight the problems and to raise them with the UK Government, at an appropriate level, we will not move the process on in the way that I know right hon. and hon. Members want to happen, as do I.

As I have said many times, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which we debated long and hard when I was Lord Chancellor, contains some measures that have been helpful and are now on the statute book. However, putting aside the “notwithstanding” clause, more was intended to be done legislatively to help cement the place of Northern Ireland in our UK internal market. I think that we should legislate, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) very much agrees with me on that point. We want to see that happen, but we are here in January 2024. I note the shortness of the period that the Secretary of State seeks to extend in the Bill, and I think that is sensible and right. Tempting as it is to have longer periods—I will not call them blank cheques—I do not think that would be right. I wish the Secretary of State, and everybody in the negotiations, well in coming to a sensible and pragmatic solution that allows the Government of Northern Ireland to continue.

I will not repeat the points made by right hon. and hon. Members. I see in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair weekly, the inability of the institutions of Northern Ireland to plan ahead in a multi-year way, and to provide the level of public service that I know they want but which they cannot do, bearing in mind the constraints under which we have to operate. Unlike previous periods of direct rule, this time there would need to be legislative change on the Floor of the House for that to happen. It has been made clear by the leadership of both main parties that that is not the policy of the British Government.

That is the world as it is, I am afraid, not the world as some would like it to be. I certainly do not want a situation where there is again an imbalance in our UK constitution that will only lead to more tension being stoked in the communities of Northern Ireland, rather than less. It therefore seems to me that the most obvious way forward now has to be the restoration of the Executive.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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There has been much use of the phrase “the world as it is” in the debate, which I think is helpful because we must be pragmatic about this. Is it the intention of my right hon. and learned Friend’s Committee to look at Northern Ireland as it is now, including levels of inward investment, for example, or how business has responded to the 12 months in which the Windsor framework has been in place?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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We are in the process of preparing a report on the state of public services in Northern Ireland. We have taken a wealth of evidence, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who are active members of the Committee. They will have heard the same evidence we have heard. We are looking into the energy market and the move to net zero in Northern Ireland. That is a very important issue, bearing in mind hard-pressed bill payers, and the particular pressures that they are under given the way that energy is supplied. We are also looking at issues as varied as education right through to paramilitarism.

On the Windsor framework, I sound a bit like Zhou Enlai, in that in some respects it is still “too early to say” precisely what its effects are. There is no doubt that, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said—I am sure he will intervene again—there is already evidence of excessive bureaucracy and problems that are real for businesses on the ground.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan
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Because Northern Ireland sits under EU rules and laws, the carbon tax offset for energy costs is twice what it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, simply because we are having to take on board European law as opposed to what is passed in this House.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The hon. Gentleman is right to point out some of the facts about the situation we find ourselves in. I will not labour the point, but I am afraid that the consequences of Brexit were always going to be complex and difficult for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the particular importance of the border and the clash, if you like, between the irresistible force of the logic of a single market that wishes to police its border rigidly, and the immovable object of the fact that the border has a particular status and sensitivity that means that to make it excessively hard creates other problems and issues that we are all familiar with. That, I am afraid, is the difficulty that we all have to wrestle with. I know that this place sometimes risks sounding rather portentous and nannyish in the way it talks about Northern Ireland, and we have to be careful about that. But in resisting that approach it is logically correct to say that the best way to cure this issue is for the institutions of Stormont to function, and to function well.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend have a message to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland regarding why they should put up with EU laws that they do not influence, and why they should put up with border controls when they are trading within our own country?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The message I would give is simply that we still need a functioning Executive to work out and bring to account, with proper scrutiny, issues with the framework, so that at a Stormont level it can be understood and debated in far more detail than with the time and capacity we have in this House. That work should be done thoroughly by the institutions of Stormont, so that this place, and the Government in particular, are even better informed about what they need to do to correct some of the problems that have been thrown up by the anomalous position that Northern Ireland finds itself in. That is where we now stand. We have to get on with exercising those institutions in order to solve some of the problems that right hon. and hon. Members quite rightly raise.

Before I finish, I will simply say this: I commend the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for his forbearance, his patience, and the way he is approaching these issues. It is not an easy position for anybody to be in. All of us will have to make compromises in our political life—goodness knows that is something I have had to wrestle with. On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, I say simply that he goes with all the good will and support that I can muster on behalf of the Committee. I hope that 2024 will be a moment not of more pause and political vacuum, but a moment when responsibility can be taken up, the reins of government can be held firmly by my friends in the DUP, and we see the progress for the people of Northern Ireland that I know everybody wants.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for his comments, and I wish him well in his ongoing and important work as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

I say to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is no longer in his place, that we recognise the pressures on our public services at this time, and we want to get to a place where we see our political institutions restored on a sustainable basis. As the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), reminded us, that must be on a basis that Unionists and nationalists can support, because that principle of cross-community consensus is at the heart of the Belfast and successor agreements. It is the key principle that enables those institutions to operate in what remains a divided society in Northern Ireland.

To be absolutely clear, the Democratic Unionist party supports devolution. We support the concept of the people of Northern Ireland being able to elect their representatives and to have good government delivered through the institutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are clear that our objective is twofold: to address the issues and problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement of 2019-20; and to provide the basis for the restoration of our political institutions.

We are approaching the two-year mark since my party took the decision to withdraw the First Minister, which then precipitated a process that ultimately resulted in the institutions not being able to function. That was not a decision we took lightly. For months in advance, I and my party made it clear that we wanted to see a negotiating process under way between the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union to address the very real problems created by the protocol. Sadly, those pleas were ignored and there was no process. In fact, we were told variously by Irish Government Ministers, EU representatives and so on that the protocol would not be renegotiated.

I stand today and recognise that, as a result of the actions that my party took, the EU was brought back to the table, there were negotiations, changes have been made and further change will come. I watch the political discourse back home in Northern Ireland and I listen to the commentary of some who share our concerns about the protocol and its impact on Northern Ireland, but who are talking up that some deal has been done—clearly, they think they know the detail—and that it falls short of what they need or require.

My party can stand on its record of the change we have delivered and will deliver. I say to those who point the finger at us, “What have you delivered? What has the Traditional Unionist Voice party delivered by way of change to the protocol?” Absolutely nothing—not a single thing—yet TUV members put up posters in the dark of the night, before any deal has been done, talking about a sell-out. What have they sold? What have they delivered for the people of Northern Ireland? What has been their contribution to securing the change that we need to restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market?

We read lots of other pearls of wisdom on social media about what is needed and required. We hear all kinds of speculation from commentators about what has been agreed, despite the fact that they have not seen the detail. There is undoubtedly an attempt to orchestrate opposition to a deal and agreement that are not yet concluded. The very fact that we are here today in the House of Commons extending legislation reflects the reality that no agreement has yet been reached. If it had, we would not be here.

There are some, though, who are putting it about for their own narrow purposes that certain things have been agreed, the deal is all there and they know what it is. They are entitled to their view—everyone is entitled to their perspective—but they should wait until an agreement is reached before they make their final verdict and assess the progress that has been made before they reach their conclusion. I suspect what is going on is not about that.

The truth is that there are some—a tiny minority, but there are some—who do not want Stormont back or an Assembly in Northern Ireland. They would rather have imperfect direct rule than an imperfect Stormont. That is what they say, yet they are the same people who constantly berate the Government of the United Kingdom and this Parliament for selling them out. They constantly point the finger at the United Kingdom Government and say, “You have sold us short. You have betrayed us. You have let us down,” yet they want to hand all the power back to that Government. That is not the view of the vast majority of Unionists or people in Northern Ireland, and we understand that, which is why we are committed to getting a solution, moving things forward, making progress and resolving the issues that have harmed Northern Ireland—our economy, our businesses and, yes, our place in the United Kingdom.

I am a proud Unionist. I am proud to be part of this United Kingdom. I am proud to have served my country in this Parliament for almost 27 years. I am proud of the service that I have given, unlike some others, to my country, when I put on the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment to protect everyone in the community from terrorism and violence, yet today, because of the stirring up that is going on, I was threatened by those who never put on a uniform and who have not served our country. I checked out one of the people who threatened me on the register, and they did not vote at the last election. They cannot even come out to vote for our future in the Union, never mind doing anything about it, yet they are threatening me, and people like me who are working day and night to try to find solutions and to move Northern Ireland forward on a basis that the vast majority of people can support.

I say this to those who stir up and threaten: the Provisional IRA attacked me in the past, and it did not deflect me from the task that I and my colleagues have to do our jobs and get the best we can for Northern Ireland, and I will not be deflected now. I will continue on the course. I will continue to engage with the Government until we get the progress needed to enable us to take a decision about whether the deal is sufficient to restore the political institutions.

Let us not forget that when we took the decision to come out of the institutions, it was about the protocol and restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. It is about ensuring that goods flow freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland when they are staying within the United Kingdom. It is about ensuring that our place in the economic and political Union is respected and protected in law. That is important, and that is what we are striving to achieve, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is valued, respected and protected, and that our right to trade within our own country is respected and protected.

That is what we are aiming to achieve, but I make no apology for us also aiming to strengthen our ties across this United Kingdom. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has altered the way in which we govern in this nation. Brexit—our decision to leave the European Union—has altered things, which is why, as part of what we are proposing, we want to see a more joined-up, cohesive approach across the Union, working together on economic issues, trade issues, education and health. We are working to make progress on that.

I want to talk about something else, which I found quite insulting: when the Secretary of State convened talks at Hillsborough to discuss the funding of our public services in Northern Ireland. I did not ask him to do that. I am very clear that for me this is not about the money; this is about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. When we have made the progress that I hope we will make, we will sit down with the Government and finalise arrangements in relation to the future sustainability of our political institutions and the funding of our public services.

I want to echo comments made by other colleagues in the House. Our public services are only as effective as the people who work in them. During the covid pandemic, we saw our healthcare workers—our doctors, our nurses, our ancillary staff and our care workers—on the frontline working hard, taking risks and putting themselves on the line. In education, our teachers are investing in the future of our young people, and many others work across our public services in Northern Ireland. They deserve their pay rise. They have earned their pay rise. It is essential to the delivery of our public services that they get their pay rise.

In advance of reaching an agreement on the outstanding issues—whenever that might be; I believe we are moving towards finalising them—I hope that the Secretary of State will transfer the funding for 2023-24 that the Treasury has committed to and enable our public sector workers to have the pay rise that they deserve. I urge the Government to do that; we do not want to see politics played with them. I note that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland has today come out with yet another statement calling on the Secretary of State to act. I echo those comments. Those people deserve the pay rise. I hope the Secretary of State will reflect on that.

In conclusion, some have said that they hope this is the last time we have this type of legislation, but that requires us to reach agreement. It requires us to resolve and finalise the outstanding issues so that we can move forward. We can assess the progress that has been made and we can take decisions around the restoration of our political institutions if that is the way we are to go. But I am clear, and my colleagues are clear, that this is not about any price. We have fought hard and will continue to fight hard to get the outcomes we need for everyone in Northern Ireland, to restore the cross-community consensus that is essential for the proper functioning of our devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. We will work at that.

I simply say to my fellow Unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, that the notion that a Unionism that turns in on itself is a Unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland, to make Northern Ireland work and to secure the Union for the future, is not the way to go. We will provide the leadership that is required—because that is what is necessary to make Northern Ireland work—to ensure that our place in the Union is valued, respected and protected in law and in practice, to remove the barriers to trade so that we can trade in both directions with the rest of the United Kingdom, and to ensure that our Union is stronger and that Northern Ireland’s place within it is both respected and protected. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

We will assess the outcome against our seven tests, which we have set out clearly, determine the progress made and make our decisions based on these matters. We will do so rationally and clearly, recognising that we are the custodians of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. On our shoulders rests a huge responsibility. We will not shirk that responsibility, and we will not be found wanting in continuing to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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This will probably not do the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) many favours, but I congratulate him on the tone of his speech. I found it to be encouraging in that respect. Obviously, Northern Ireland is currently in an incredibly difficult place. In terms of the overall situation we find ourselves in, it is fair to say that there is disappointment, anger, frustration and indeed bewilderment that we do not have functioning institutions. That view is shared by the vast majority people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, by businesses and civic society organisations.

When the January 2024 date was set in the previous Bill, it was so far off into the future that it seemed inconceivable that the institutions would not have been restored by that point, but here we are. It is in a sense bizarre to see a piece of primary legislation going through this Parliament essentially to extend and facilitate a negotiation by two weeks. Decisions could have been taken at any stage in the previous year—indeed, in the previous weeks and days—to avoid this situation.

On the surface, this is a simple Bill, but beneath it lies a much bigger story. This may well be a pragmatic extension in the hope and expectation of a breakthrough, and I sincerely hope that that happens, but the people of Northern Ireland have been patient—overly patient in many respects—about bringing matters to a conclusion. There will always be a degree of scepticism until we see a positive outcome. For others, however, the Bill amounts to kicking the can down the road for another couple of weeks and potentially deferring the much bigger decisions that will have to be taken in the event that we do not see the speedy resumption of devolution.

One aspect of the situation we find ourselves in is the story of Brexit, which was alluded to by both the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). It is about how the DUP backed a hard Brexit and did not reconcile that with the implications for Northern Ireland in terms of the special arrangements that had to be put in place. There is no perfect solution to the challenges that Brexit poses to Northern Ireland. The Windsor framework offers perhaps the best approach to putting a square peg into a round hole, short of a wider reassessment of the UK’s overall relationship with the European Union, but I must stress that whatever residual issues exist with the Windsor framework—I fully accept that businesses have frustrations with certain aspects of what they see; the same applies for consumers in some respects—they all pale into insignificance compared with the absence of functioning institutions and the ability to take decisions on health, education, our economy and protecting our environment.

As the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), said, we are also seeing real consequences in the wider trust and confidence in politics itself in Northern Ireland. Politics is not working, and that is a dangerous place to find ourselves in. It is not simply that issues are being parked for the eventual resumption of the Assembly to pick up where we left off. Every day the impasse goes on, more and more damage is being done to Northern Ireland’s public services and we are losing economic opportunities.

I do not want to get into too much politics today—there has been a lot of that—but nevertheless I have a responsibility to say that there are other options we can consider. The DUP has been allowed to essentially hold the process to ransom with impunity over the past 12 months, in terms of blocking the Executive. I understand the point about cross-community confidence in any Executive, but blocking the functioning of the Executive goes against 75% of the people of Northern Ireland. There is a world of difference between checks and balances on individual decision making with the institutions, and a party pulling them down and stopping them from functioning and having no Government at all. The fact that we have to legislate for direct rule—if that is where we end up; I stress again that I hope we do not find ourselves in that situation—shows that previous legislators did not envisage a situation where the Assembly would not be functioning.

The space for negotiations around the Windsor framework is narrow. We have to be realistic. The Windsor framework is an agreement between the UK and the European Union, and there will be consequences from unpicking it unilaterally. Equally, we cannot unpick the Good Friday agreement, so the space is narrow and centres around implementation. I want to again stress from the Alliance party’s point of view that we would be open-minded on any solution that comes forward. For us, the key element is that Northern Ireland maintains dual market access to both the UK internal market and the wider European market. Outside that red line, we are open-minded. If checks across the Irish sea can be reduced or limited in some cases, we are all for that. None of us wants to see them, but at the same time we recognise that due to the fact that Northern Ireland has special arrangements, and there is a good reason for them, some degree of checks across the Irish sea might be needed. Northern Ireland has always had special arrangements throughout its entire history, right back to the foundation of the state in the early 1920s, and they were accepted with pragmatism for very good reasons. I urge that that is the case today.

On the financial package the Secretary of State referred to, I again put on record my and my party’s thanks to him and his wider team in the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury for putting it together. It is a bigger financial package than we have seen in previous breakdowns of devolution. At the same time, however, I have to say that the glass is somewhat half full. It will buy some time for a restored Executive, perhaps a couple of years of stabilisation, but there is still a much bigger conversation that we have to have in conjunction, potentially, with the next spending review on a proper fiscal floor for Northern Ireland. I appreciate that there are reasons why the current Government cannot go down that particular avenue, in terms of their wider spending commitments and the Prime Minister’s five pledges, but it is important to stress the point that that wider discussion still needs to take place.

I join colleagues from Northern Ireland in stressing that we would like to see the Secretary of State moving ahead with the public sector pay issue, which has no leverage whatever in the negotiations. The money is there and it should be released. Equally, while we all might wish to dump on the Secretary of State and put pressure on him—he is a player in this regard—frankly, that release would be quicker and smoother if DUP colleagues returned to the Executive tomorrow, next week or whenever. There are two ways we can address the rightful claims of public sector workers: through the action of the Secretary of State or a speedy resumption of devolution.

In the event that we do not see an outcome in the next couple of weeks, we must look at alternatives. Perhaps that is a debate for another day, but there are two directions of travel. For me and my party, reform is the key way forward. The Good Friday agreement was never meant to be set in stone. It was always envisaged that it would evolve with circumstances and changing demographics. Indeed, many of the architects of the agreement—people no less than Senator George Mitchell himself—recognised that review and evolution would be important. Reform is important to facilitate restoration, or, if we get restoration, to learn the lessons of the instability, lack of cohesion and unfairness of the past 25 years and prevent a further collapse from happening. But the principles of the agreement, the structures, and the set of relationships across these islands remain sound.

To conclude, I think it was the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who made the point that all the parties in Northern Ireland are committed to devolution. Reform of the agreement keeps devolution alive. If we end up with the presumed default of going for direct rule, we move outside the Good Friday agreement. It might be the pragmatic solution in the circumstances, because Northern Ireland must be governed and public services have to be funded, but none the less we must recognise that that is a big step away from devolution. Reform is consistent with the agreement; direct rule is not.

However—this is an important point to stress to those people who are again opposing a deal and the way forward—in the event that we do not get restoration and we end up with direct rule, that direct rule must have an Irish dimension to it. That Irish dimension will be consultative and build on existing structures within the agreement. We have to recognise that direct rule, in a divided and diverse Northern Ireland, will be controversial. We have to recognise that in our governance and put in place mechanisms that balance it out. That is the reality. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who is muttering from a sedentary position—I am happy to take an intervention from him on this point—that the principle of consent remains in place. However, the principle of an Irish dimension has been established for quite some time, going back to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Of course, the Good Friday agreement acted to take much of that away, but that is the direction of travel. Those people who are arguing against progress in Northern Ireland and saying that we have a cover blanket of direct rule to fall back on, need to think very carefully about what they are calling for. What I am setting out is not what I want to see, and it is definitely not what they want to see, but that is the trajectory they will find themselves on if we do not see the speedy restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and I have not agreed on much recently—in fact, he kind of drives me crazy—and we do not agree on much of what we have debated today or over the past couple of years, but I strongly believe that he comes at this from a position of strong belief. He comes at it in an attempt to represent his constituents. He comes at it from a good place. It is a different place from me and we want to end up in a different place—and I might argue that he is helping us along in that regard—but I say this very clearly: those people who have threatened him today could not lace his boots, and every single democrat in this House or elsewhere should stand in solidarity with any of us who are being attacked like that. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I think we are in a more hopeful place today than we have been. Last week, I was expecting to debate a much wider piece of legislation that would have seen us going in a different direction. If today’s Bill symbolises that we are getting closer, at least, to a resolution, we must welcome that and give it space. Nobody is more frustrated at the slowness of the process than I am. Nobody has expressed frustration more than I have about how we got into this situation. It is nearly two years since we had a Government in Northern Ireland; before that, we had covid, which was a very strange time, and before that we had three and a half years, after Sinn Féin brought the Government down, of having no Government. People in Northern Ireland now feel that the default setting is to have no Government. That is not good enough. Any of us in this place who believes in devolution and put their shoulder to the wheel around this peace process, should ensure that, very soon, we have democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland dealing with these issues.

I find the state of our health service embarrassing. According to figures that I saw the other day on dementia diagnoses, some people in the western part of Northern Ireland are waiting nearly six years for a diagnosis. In what modern democracy should that be seen as acceptable? We are very lucky that people are not out on the streets in uproar over such figures. The public sector is tied together with a string, and our health service is at the point, if not beyond the point, of collapse.

That is not the fault of the people who have been asked to go into the tough places and do the tough work for very little pay. We proposed an amendment—and we understand that the scope of the Bill is very narrow— calling on the Secretary of State to pay those workers. Last week 175,000 people were on picket lines across Northern Ireland, in the cold and the snow. I think people will know that my preference is for the DUP to return to government as soon as possible, so that we have democratically elected politicians making these decisions and we can get the money into those people’s pockets, but I am furious that ordinary workers have been used as a political pawn because of our political failure. That is absolutely unacceptable.

Those people need their pay rise today. They are the people holding this thing together. They are the people whom we have asked to go and do the tough things for very little reward, and there is no longer any excuse for that money not to be paid. If there is a technical reason for it, I will come back tomorrow and we can debate a Budget Bill if the Secretary of State wishes, so that we can get money into those people’s pockets, but I do not believe there is any technical reason why they cannot be paid.

We have talked about solutions, and a great many have been proposed. The hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) talked about reform, and we are up for that conversation. In fact, I think that our amendment would have got the Assembly back up and running, if we used a different mechanism for electing a Speaker as at least a first step, although we also understand that we must have properly reformed institutions in Stormont. I strongly believe, however, that the best time to have that conversation is when we have a Government and an Executive in Stormont, because I fear that otherwise we would end up in a five-year negotiation about what reform would look like, and all the while we would still not have a Government in Stormont and locally elected people dealing with people’s concerns.

Some of us who are in the Chamber today have been through many long negotiations. I know that it is possible to go into a negotiation wanting to fix one little thing, and five years later not to have fixed it and to have done three or four other things that nobody asked for in the first place. We need to be cautious about that, and we need to be committed to reform. However, the first thing that must happen is that those who are elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland, and the person who is elected to be the First Minister, should be in place and allowed to do the job that they were elected to do. Then we will be able to have a proper discussion about how we should reform our institutions. A blind man on a galloping horse could tell you that we must reform those institutions, because they simply are not working.

Let me make one plea today to all the other political parties, and I will make this commitment myself. If we do get Stormont up and running, the next time a particular political party has a major disagreement, can we have a discussion about it, and can we all commit ourselves not to pulling the institutions down? The edifice of government should not be the first thing that goes when we have a difficult decision to make. I think that that would take us a long way.

I am glad that we have arrived at this point. I think that it tells us something about the direction of travel. The history of our place should remind us all that at some point we must take on our own dissidents wherever they may reside—in our own party, in our own community, or on social media. They need to be taken on because the representatives of a broad swathe of opinion—whether nationalist, Unionist or “not interested”—want ordinary people to be looked after. They want their health service to be properly resourced, they want their schools to function properly, and they want their public sector workers to be paid properly. The broad population want a Government in Stormont, and they want it now.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Order. Before I proceed, let me remind hon. Members that the Second Reading debate must end at 3.23 pm. I assume they will want to hear the Front Benchers wind it up. I am not going to impose a time limit; it is up to hon. Members whether they choose to hear the Front Benchers or not.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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Without encroaching on the advice that you have just given, Mr Deputy Speaker, am I right to assume that there are three Back Benchers still waiting to speak? If that is the case, I think we can pass the time well between us.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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As things stand, yes, but one hon. Member left the Chamber and came back in, and another who indicated that she wished to speak has left the Chamber but is entitled to come back in because she heard the opening speeches, as did one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues. All I am saying is that I urge brevity. I know that that is difficult, but speeches are currently running for more than 10 minutes, and that is too long.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I certainly do not take those comments personally, because it is a trait among those of us who are of Ulster-Scots lineage that we sometimes add a few extra words or phrases.

I am proud to speak in this debate. Let me first acknowledge the constructive tone adopted by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). He was right to say that should we find ourselves in circumstances like this in the future, we should talk. If I were not willing to follow the constructive tone of the debate, I would gently remind him that at the time when we tried to have those conversations, some were chiding us, encouraging us to take the action that we did and mocking us for not doing so; but I will leave it there.

I am also proud to follow the remarks of my party leader and the leader of Unionism, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who very carefully, clearly and thoughtfully articulated not just where we have been or where we are today, but the aspiration that we have outlined for a number of years. We have been to the electorate, and we have highlighted the difficulties and the deficits within the arrangements foisted on us, but the challenge for us all is to recognise that the prize for restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, for reducing the constitutional harm and for removing the democratic deficit, is the ability to return to a place where Northern Ireland functions as well as it has in the past: a place where people in Northern Ireland are confident of their position within this United Kingdom irrespective of their constitutional outlook, and a place where people in Northern Ireland can recognise that it is through their elected representatives directly and locally that they can shape their own future. It does not matter what passport they hold; they live in Northern Ireland and can benefit from, and do benefit from, a relationship that has spanned centuries on these islands.

My right hon. Friend referred to custodians of the future. I remind Members that our place in politics is to protect and promote our place within this United Kingdom. That is our first and foremost principle. To those who have raised questions in the last number of days, and who will no doubt continue in the next number of days to raise questions or sow discord, let me say this: the Democratic Unionist party is united in the task that is before us.

We highlighted the pitfalls and the dangers of what was proposed to us back in 2019, at a time when others dismissed and demeaned our position. When we asked for change and indicated the consequences that the proposals could have for power-sharing arrangements in devolution, we were dismissed. We were set aside. Yet through our actions, when changes were delivered in the Windsor framework, what we had been told were mythical unicorns suddenly became something that, while being far from rigorous implementation, constituted changes that recognised the problems and brought solutions. The very same people who had ridiculed and dismissed us turned round and said, “Of course all this is sensible and pragmatic, and we should move forward.”

When faced with the choice between religious observance of that which was agreed with the European Union and the importance of devolution, sadly there are those within Northern Ireland political society who chose religious observance of the EU. They lost sight of the prize of power sharing in Northern Ireland, where communities with different aspirations could work collectively together. That is where we find ourselves.

The Secretary of State and I have engaged on this, as he has with a number of colleagues over a considerable period of time, and I commend him for a number of things, including for delivering a speech that had fewer words than are in the Bill before us today. That was a remarkable achievement. But he did not have many choices that were workable, other than to present the Bill today. Of course, he could have brought forward legislation that addressed a budget for next year. He could have brought forward legislation that assumed powers from Stormont to here in Westminster. He could have brought forward legislation that set a regional rate of around 15%. I think it is fair in the context of this debate to recognise that he still may need to bring forward such legislation. While others speculate about the intentions of this short Bill—I have my own views on it and what it should have been—I think it is a recognition that there is still work to be done and that there is a commitment to do that work.

I cannot say where this will end. I know where I think it should end. I cannot say what the ultimate outcome will be, but what I see and hear and read in the papers at home bears no resemblance to reality. My party is at one in our position. We have stood together through worse times than this. Anybody who thinks they are going to come at one member of our party over the coming days and weeks comes at us all, and they do so for their nefarious ends, not for our collective future. The choices will become stark, but let us make a choice on the basis of where we are, not where others who do not wish anything to work think it is. That is the challenge for us, for the people of Northern Ireland and for the people we represent.

In standing in the position that I do today, with nine years as an elected representative in this House and 14 years as an elected representative and as someone who has lived in Northern Ireland benefiting longer from periods of peace than seeing troubled times, I can say that nothing will shake our resolve to get this right. I say that with only this in mind: the Secretary of State has taken the choice available to him today in proceeding with this Bill, and it does not end today. It cannot end today, and our commitment for the future needs to be emboldened further still.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I am not too sure why we have the Bill in this form today, with the suggestion that we could have further legislation on 8 February. I suppose the generous interpretation is that the Government still recognise that a lot of work needs to be done to deal with the concerns of the Unionist population. The other interpretation is that this is an attempt to put short-term pressure on my party to come to an agreement on the basis of terms that are unacceptable.

I know that the Government are intent on trying to put the failure of their negotiations with the EU behind them because they have so much internal division with their own party about how they have failed to deliver on the promises of Brexit, but cementing this agreement into the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not good for a Government who claimed that they wanted to take back sovereignty, and it is not acceptable to Unionists in Northern Ireland who have gone through terrorist campaigns, and shown resolve in terrorist campaigns, in order to stay within the United Kingdom.

We have had all kinds of pressure put on us. We have had threats. We have even heard more of those threats today, such as, “If you don’t go down the route of getting a resolution here, we will have to re-examine the Belfast agreement. We will maybe have to take away the safeguards that were put in place.” With Unionists now not being the dominant parties in the Assembly, it is easy for those who said safeguards for minorities were important in the agreement to dismiss them now. I listened to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and it is little wonder that many people in North Down regard him now as a Sinn Féin cuckoo in the constituency nest, because he talks and argues so much as though he were coming from a Sinn Féin position, rather than from the position of a constituency that is predominantly Unionist.

We have had the threats, including that there might be a change in the agreement that would take away the consensus, or that we might have direct rule that involves the Irish Republic, even though there is no provision for that in the Good Friday agreement. Of course, the Secretary of State has sought to say this at times—or through surrogates. I notice that the hon. Member for North Down echoed the words of the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in threatening that there could be big change that would be detrimental to the Union if we did not come to an agreement quickly.

We have had the bribes, and of course we have also had the bullying: “If you don’t go back into the Assembly, people will not get their pay rise.” I have to say to the Secretary of State that it does not become the current Government to use the workers in Northern Ireland as pawns in trying to push us into a situation. He well knows that this is unnecessary, because nearly 50 public sector pay agreements have been awarded in the last year. However, because there is now an opportunity to use public sector pay agreements, they are being used to exert pressure.

As far as we are concerned, and as our leader has made clear, we want to see devolution restored. In fact, devolution stopped only because the Government refused to listen. Furthermore, not only did they refuse to listen but they expected Unionists to stay in positions in Northern Ireland where they would have had to implement the very thing that we believe is destructive to our economy and will destroy the Union as well. That was an act of last resort. Nevertheless, the Government must be aware that the economic impact of the border in the Irish sea must be removed. The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said today that the red lane was only for goods moving into the Republic and that that surely showed the integrity of the UK internal market. That is not true. There are many businesses in Northern Ireland that will have to use the red lane until they show where their goods have gone.

I spoke to a businessman this morning in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who told me that he had a consignment of goods come in this week with 151 individual items for which he had to identify the country of origin, change the product codes and provide weights and a whole range of other information. He is a small businessman. He sent me a message he had received from a major supplier in Manchester, where he bought 10% of his goods, who had finally said to him, “I can’t trade with you anymore. It is not worth my while, given the amount of paperwork.” He operates in Newtownards and none of his goods sell in the Irish Republic, yet he is subject to all this. Now he has to look for new supply chains, and it has been pointed out here many times before that the Irish Government are not behind the door in exploiting that. In fact, he told me that officials from the trade body in the Irish Republic ring him up on a regular basis and ask why does not buy from such and such a supplier in the Republic. It is no wonder that we have already seen a 15% trade diversion as a result of this.

This is hurting us economically. In the long term, it is hurting us constitutionally, too, with the application of EU law in Northern Ireland. We have seen it in the last week on animal safety standards, which cannot apply in Northern Ireland even though the law was passed by this House. Regulations on illegal immigration cannot apply in Northern Ireland, and there is a danger of having to introduce passport controls if Northern Ireland becomes a magnet for illegal immigration. We now have Bills being passed by Parliament that extend to Northern Ireland but cannot apply to Northern Ireland, and we cannot tolerate that.

Unless those issues are dealt with, and as the Secretary of State well knows, how could any Unionist be expected to accept that trade within our country continues to be disrupted? It will hurt businesses and, in the long term, our constitutional arrangements, causing divergence between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) indicated that he is prepared to work to resolve that challenge, and he has indicated that he takes personal abuse for working at it—that is the position in which politicians now find themselves in Northern Ireland. We did not create this problem. The Government created this problem, and courageous people such as my right hon. Friend should not be hung out to dry because the Government are not prepared to take on their masters in the EU.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call Jim Shannon. I would be grateful if he tried to confine his remarks to five minutes.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I will certainly do my best, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Over the past few days I have received correspondence, emails and text messages from the people I represent and, as Unionists, they are all concerned about where we are with the protocol. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned my constituent in Ards, who sent me a text message this morning outlining the concerning amount of bureaucracy he went through for each of the 300 items he ordered from a wholesaler in Manchester.

What is the point of the protocol? Many constituents tell me that the point is to press the DUP to give up and go back in; the point is to strong-arm the Unionist people by withholding the necessary money—the Secretary of State will not use his power to allocate it. The Secretary of State knows that I have the greatest respect for him, and I always try to be courteous, but I can understand why some constituents believe that, because they see the Government legislating for something as non-urgent as relationships and sex education in schools, yet they will not give a pay rise to public sector workers. The unions want it, the £3.3 billion is there and the £600 million necessary for the wage increases is there. I suggest that the Secretary of State allocates the money immediately.

The mindset of the Northern Ireland people is perhaps not understood. As a people who were bombed and attacked by IRA nationalists for 30 years, we are not easily pressured or cowed. When it comes to protecting that for which my family and many other families shed their blood, we will not be blackmailed. My constituents want me to make it clear that all those who gave their life for Queen and country, as it was then, or King and country, as it is now, died for freedom, liberty and democracy.

I am given to understand that progress has been made, which I welcome. We want to see constructive progress, but I understand that we are not there yet. We are perhaps far from it, but there has been progress. My constituents are concerned about how this has been handled. Instead of being anxious to hear about how far things have moved and what has been achieved, the result of the seeming blackmail is distrust.

There is a feeling that the DUP has done its best for the nation, and I believe we are heading towards something that, constitutionally and practically, would prevent our children from having to fill in reams of unnecessary paperwork and allow them to operate in the UK as normal. Under the Windsor framework, our shopkeepers continue to have to sign off Trader Support Service declarations for goods from the UK, yet there is no paperwork when they purchase goods from the Republic.

Members will understand why we are a little less British in Northern Ireland than they are in Wales, Scotland or England. The presumption should be that Northern Ireland is UK-focused. We want to be UK-focused, and we want to continue buying from where we bought things in the past. Our traders, including those who trade with shops in Newtownards and Bangor, are paying accountants and spending money and man hours on something that need not be done.

One ridiculous example among many is pet treats that are deemed not to be safe to sell in Northern Ireland. They were safe before the Northern Ireland protocol and are still safe at the other end of the ferry journey in Scotland. We are working towards something that allows the health service to secure the same medications as NHS England, and that enables vets to access anything they need for their animals without additional costs or paperwork. This would reaffirm our place within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and stop reunification through the back door. These are the things that the DUP, ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been working towards.

The undoubted changes that have been secured will not easily be trusted by the Unionist people, not because the DUP has attempted to pull the wool over people’s eyes but because the Unionist people, whom we support and who support us, believe the media hype, and the actions of this Government appear to underline that hype.

The Secretary of State is aware that we in the DUP will not be blackmailed, and that we have continued to negotiate and secure further changes is testament to the fact that we will not accept just any deal. We will only accept the right deal. I fervently hope that the next few weeks bring about the last complex changes required for the good of the Unionist people and, indeed, of people throughout the Province, no matter what their political persuasion.

There should be no doubt that, should we fail to negotiate the correct deal, we will not be afraid to face our electorate. I look forward to seeing the deal and how the words on the page will affect life in Northern Ireland. Although I support a two-week extension and understand the reasons for it, I ask the Government to get the messaging right. Instead of seeming to work against us, they should work with us to find a solution and to get this right for every person of every colour and creed in Northern Ireland. We want a restored Assembly, but it must be the right deal. The Conservative and Unionist party’s Northern Ireland protocol has to be addressed. The power to make the necessary change lies at the feet of the Secretary of State and with the Government. We will do our best to bring about change and to find a deal, but we cannot, will not and must not ignore the voice of Unionism.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. We are united in wanting the best for the people of Northern Ireland. In particular, we heard a very powerful speech from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), and no one who heard it could be in any doubt about his determination to fight hard for Unionism. The whole House will be sorry to hear that he has been threatened. Anyone trying to bully him clearly does not know him.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State outlined, Labour supports this Bill and supports the ongoing efforts to restore the Executive as soon as possible. In the short amount of extra time afforded by this legislation, the restoration of power sharing and devolved government must be the Government’s absolute priority. While I commend the important work that civil servants are doing to keep the mechanics of the state functioning, the truth is that communities across Northern Ireland need the Executive and the Members of the Legislative Assembly to be back in their rightful place, taking the important decisions that are so desperately needed for the effective delivery of public services, health, education and to protect the environment.

On my visits to Northern Ireland, I have met many inspiring community groups that are struggling because of cuts and because of the cost of living crisis. Although all of these groups are making an enormous difference within and across their communities, they have all told me that the one thing that would make the biggest difference to their work, and for people who are suffering from the cost of living crisis, is a restored and functioning Executive.

Just last week we saw the biggest industrial action in Northern Ireland’s recent history, with an estimated 150,000 public sector workers joining the strike. There is clear and obvious widespread dissatisfaction with the impact and consequences of the current political situation in Northern Ireland. Given that the Government are legislating only to push the deadline back by 15 days, it is vital that we see quick progress and that the limited time available is not squandered. As the shadow Secretary of State has said, whatever happens, the money for public sector pay, which the Secretary of State has made clear is available, should be released, so that workers in Northern Ireland finally get the pay increase they deserve. The current situation must not be allowed to become the accepted norm. A failure to restore devolved government could cause and is causing damage that could take years to undo.

Labour will support this Bill. I urge the Secretary of State to do all he can to ensure that an agreement is reached and to keep the House informed at every stage.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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With the leave of the House, I call Chris Heaton-Harris.

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]

Nigel Evans Portrait The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I remind Members that, in Committee, the Chair should not be addressed as “Deputy Speaker.” Please use our names when addressing the Chair, although “Mr Chairman” and “Madam Chairman” are also acceptable.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Nigel Evans Portrait The Second Deputy Chairman
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It will stand on the record that my contribution was longer than anybody else’s during this Committee stage.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

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?

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.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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Now I can see the relief on the faces of the Government Whips. I will keep my remarks extremely short.

Once again, I thank the Secretary of State for being punctilious, in the proper sense of the word, in his dealings with me and in keeping me informed about what he has planned. I echo his thanks to civil servants, although I should think in civil service careers this is probably the easiest Bill to draft because that one line cannot have taken terribly long.

I join the praise for the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for the speech he made and the passion he showed, and his willingness to set out the argument that has united all parts of the House, namely that it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland to have their Government back. In whatever further conversations they are due to have in the next few days, I wish him and the Secretary of State every success in bringing the situation to a conclusion. In the end, the people who will feel the benefit of an agreement are the people of Northern Ireland.

We criticise the Government, but we look to them when we want things to be done—when we want them to help us to deal with problems or to advance the interests of society. That is why the people of Northern Ireland have the same right as everyone else to see their Government in place. Let me refer back to the comments that I made at the start of Second Reading: I bring my contribution to the passage of the Bill to a close in, I think, a slightly better state of hope than when it began. I wish all those involved every success.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.