Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 View all Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2024 Debates Read Hansard Text Watch Debate
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

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

Bill considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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