|Tue 27th March 2018||
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
|17 interactions (5,627 words)|
Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Duncan of SpringbankMain Page: Lord Duncan of Springbank (Conservative - Life peer)
Department Debates - View all Lord Duncan of Springbank's debates with the Northern Ireland Office
My Lords, I, along with other noble Lords, was proud to be a member of a Government who devoted so much time and effort over a decade to help Northern Ireland move from the horror of its violent past towards a better future. The devolved institutions set up in 2007, after a settlement that I helped negotiate, have not functioned for the past 15 months, and there appears to be little prospect of a change in that position. I have heard nothing from the Government to suggest that they have a clue what to do. Former serving Ministers in Northern Ireland such as myself and my noble friends Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Lord Reid, Lord Mandelson, Lady Smith of Basildon, Lord Browne, Lord Rooker and Lord Dubs, feel passionately about the way that the enormous peace progress made has gone so badly into reverse.
It gives me absolutely no satisfaction to say that I really do not think this Government get Northern Ireland. I make no criticism of the Minister or the arguments he has made, or of the Secretary of State—they are both new Ministers and I wish them all the best. But I observe—as I have said before, as has my noble friend Lord Murphy—that the Prime Minister’s approach, which is a kind of fly-in, fly-out diplomacy of insufficient in-depth detailed negotiation and relationship-building with all the parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, was never going to work. You cannot achieve success in an impasse such as the one we face with this kind of approach. I urge the Government—No. 10 in particular—to reconsider this.
The measures in these Bills should never have had to come to us in the first place. They represent direct rule in all but name. But I do not think we can simply nod them through as a matter of process without addressing some of the implications of the current political impasse. The people of Northern Ireland are left in limbo, facing, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has pointed out so graphically, a serious crisis in the National Health Service, probably worse than in any other part of the UK. Last week I had the privilege to meet a group of remarkable people for whom that limbo is particularly cruel. They were members of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, and I will briefly recount two of their stories.
Jennifer was 21 in 1972 when she and her sister, who was shopping for a wedding dress, went into a Belfast city centre cafe for a coffee. A no-warning IRA bomb tore both Jennifer’s legs off. Her sister lost both legs and an arm. Noble Lords from Northern Ireland will recall the horror of the Abercorn bomb. Peter was 26 when he was shot by a loyalist gang in 1979 in a case of mistaken identity. Because of the configuration of the flat where Peter lived, the ambulance crew could not manoeuvre a stretcher around the stairs. They brought Peter down in a body bag. His father Herbert arrived at the scene and thought that his son was dead. “Oh my poor Peter” were his last words. He had a heart attack and died as Peter was carried to the ambulance. Peter is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair.
There are many more similarly harrowing stories. It is estimated that around 500 people in Northern Ireland are classified as severely physically injured as a direct result of the Troubles, with injuries that are at the very top of the scale: bilateral amputees, paraplegic, those blinded. All the injuries are life-changing and permanent. Because of their injuries most have been unable to work to build up occupational pensions and today have to survive on benefits. The levels of compensation paid through the adversarial criminal injuries compensation scheme were wholly inadequate and there was no disability discrimination legislation in the early days to protect them. Frankly, these people were not expected to live beyond a few years. But they have and the passage of time has compounded their problems as many suffer increasing physical distress as a result of deteriorating health and chronic pain.
They are campaigning for a special pension of the type that is in place in most other countries that have suffered from conflicts similar to that in Northern Ireland. All they want is some semblance of financial security and independence as they grow into old age in the most difficult circumstances. I find their argument compelling. The pension has been costed by independent consultants at around only £3 million to £5 million per annum—a figure which will reduce year on year as the majority of the severely injured are moving into old age. I appeal to the Government to provide this money now. It is a small amount to rectify a big injustice.
All the Northern Ireland parties are on record as saying that they support the idea of a pension for severely injured people such as those who come to see them and argue their case. But saying they support it is about as far as it has gone because their support for the severely injured is not unconditional. Of the 500 severely injured, there are 10 or so who were injured by their own hand; for example, planting a bomb that exploded prematurely. Of the 10, six are loyalist and four republican. It is no surprise that the DUP and Sinn Féin are split. The DUP says there can be no pension for those injured by their own hand. Sinn Féin insists that they cannot support a pension that excludes them as this would be tantamount to accepting a hierarchy of victims.
The injured group, who are unfairly drawn into this toxic debate, argue that it is not for them to say who should or should not qualify. What they do insist is that it is unjust, unfair and immoral for politicians to say that because they cannot agree about 10 people the other 490 must get nothing. I totally agree with them, and I hope the Minister will respond positively. The injured group, all of whom have been injured through no fault of their own, regard their plight as being as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the legacy issues are not devolved entirely. But the Government refuse to accept that they are part of the legacy for which they have responsibility. If the devolved institutions are, for whatever reason, unable to deliver on this—and of course, suspended, they are unable to deliver on this; and tragically, we are unlikely to see those institutions in place for some considerable time—the Government at Westminster surely must step in now, because it would be shameful if the people who have suffered so much through no fault of their own were told that nothing can be done because of political buck-passing.
On 20 February, in the other place, the Secretary of State said that she recognised the Government’s responsibilities to,
“provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/2/18; col. 33.]
I agree, and I appeal to her and to the Minister to act now. They have the power to do so. It is a very small amount; it would not be noticed on the overall allocation for Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Whitehall budget. It would not be noticed at all. I have met men and women in the WAVE trauma group who by any definition have “suffered most”, in the Secretary of State’s phrase. Unless both this Parliament and the Government accept that responsibility and act immediately to provide pensions for these 490 people, it will be to our eternal shame.
Break in Debate
My Lords, it has been a fascinating if short debate. It has been a timely one, too, because this is the last occasion we will debate this issue in either House of Parliament before we celebrate or commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement in two or three weeks’ time. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members of your Lordships’ House who played a huge part in that agreement. The noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Trimble, Lord Empey and Lord Bew, and others brought that enormous triumph to fruition just two decades ago. Of course, these three Bills are the result of the institutions which the Good Friday agreement set up collapsing. That is the tragedy and reality of today’s proceedings. We should not have these Bills because there should be a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive.
With regard to the Bill on the budget, my friend in the other place, who until recently was the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith—I deeply regret his departure from that job because he knew a great deal about Northern Ireland and had a lot of experience—as well as my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the pensions of victims of the Troubles. The opportunity for the Government to deal with this matter is before us. I know there is controversy on this point, but if controversy surrounds just 10 victims as opposed to 490 who are not subject to controversy, I see no reason why we cannot park the argument about the 10 and carry on giving compensation to the nearly 500 remaining victims. After all, as my noble friend Lord Hain said in his very moving speech, that number will inevitably reduce as the months and years go by.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart, and the compensation for victims of historical abuse in Northern Ireland. There seems to be no reason at all why the Government cannot under these powers ensure that compensation is paid to those people who have suffered abuse in the decades gone by.
With regard to the rates, obviously we have to agree with the increase—I put them up myself when I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland a long time ago. It is not a very nice thing to do to the people of Northern Ireland but it is essential to ensure that services are maintained. I agree that we should support the Government on that Bill and, indeed, on the RHI issue. I hope that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, with regard to that matter will be taken up by the Minister in his reply.
With regard to the pay for MLAs, obviously we agree with the Government’s intentions and with the indication in Trevor Reaney’s report that there should be a 27% reduction in their pay. It should not affect their constituency offices or their staff but of course it will be welcomed by public opinion in Northern Ireland. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that we have to take great care that we do not dismiss an entire political class that has arisen over the past 20 years. If we took away their pay completely we might have to start all over again, and I do not think that is a very good idea. In a sense, it is an admission of failure to have to reduce the pay of MLAs. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for some years, although I reduced the pay of MLAs, I never stopped it. I was criticised for not stopping it but it was important to ensure that the political class that had grown up in Northern Ireland was maintained.
Of course, the answer to all this is the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Hay, both talked of the importance of that. I do not underestimate the difficulties in bringing the Assembly and the Executive back. After all, it has to do with trust and confidence on both sides. That is not always easy. Obviously, the sticking point is the Irish language but there are other issues as well. Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in those negotiations over 20 years ago will remember the issues that we were discussing then—police, the release of prisoners, the issue of consent, the Assembly, the Executive, human rights, equality, criminal justice, the change of the Irish constitution, and so on—but we managed it. It took us a long time to do it but we managed it, so it does not seem a huge issue to be overcome.
I remind your Lordships’ House that in a way these three Bills are drifting towards real direct rule. I do not believe the Government want that. I do not believe that anybody in this Chamber actually wants direct rule. It certainly is not the answer. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the importance of having local people taking local decisions. Certainly, when I was a direct rule Minister for five years, I did not think I was the right person to be taking decisions on hospitals, schools and roads when I represented a Welsh constituency in the House of Commons. It was not right that I should be doing all those things; nor is it right now that civil servants, for all their effectiveness and knowledge, are taking decisions about the lives of people in Northern Ireland; nor should British Ministers be doing it.
The other problem is that when we have direct rule, politicians become supplicants. They do not take decisions, they ask for things. Sometimes it is easy to have direct rule—not to take the difficult and nasty decisions on closing a hospital or building a school somewhere or whatever it might be. Those are harsh, difficult decisions and sometimes it is easier to be the supplicant rather than the decision-maker.
It will be disastrous in the long term if there is direct rule. I just want to repeat some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lord Hain said about trying to ensure that none of this happens. The involvement of the Prime Minister is vital. As we look back on how we achieved the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago, it was because two Prime Ministers were negotiating these issues day by day and through the night, over a period not of months but of years. Perhaps we need an independent referee. In two weeks’ time Senator Mitchell will be in Belfast commemorating that anniversary—perhaps we need another Senator Mitchell.
It is important that all the parties in Northern Ireland should be involved in transparent talks, not just the two big parties—they are the most important ones, of course, but there are other parties in Northern Ireland and often issues can be raised and challenged in all-party meetings. You would have to involve the Irish Government as far as you could, constitutionally. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, touched on, we should not let Brexit distract us from the importance of ensuring that we restore our institutions in Northern Ireland.
The problem is that over two decades people have become a little complacent. They have taken things for granted. They forget what it was like 25 or 30 years ago in Northern Ireland. A whole generation has grown up not knowing the Troubles. You would have to be in your 40s in Northern Ireland to understand what it was like before we signed the Good Friday agreement, and then you were only a child.
I return finally to the fact that we are commemorating that agreement signed 20 years ago, which should be the spur to local politicians, the Government, the Irish Government and all of us in Parliament to ensure that we restore those institutions as quickly as we possibly can.
I am grateful to the Minister for his positive response. May I ask him to reflect before we meet—and I am grateful for that invitation—on the fact that we do not know how long it will take to restore the Executive? This Government and this Parliament have responsibility ultimately for legacy matters. There is no reason why the small cost could not be proceeded to at least rectify one injustice while the wider question of the legacy issues is addressed.
Before the Minister sits down, I draw his attention to one thing that he and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said: perhaps it would be a good idea to have a second-generation George Mitchell. We do not want another George Mitchell. Much as we loved him, much as we worked under him and much as we sought to achieve an agreement, that agreement was voted on north and south. I have nothing more to concede as an Ulster Unionist, and I hope noble Lords will remember that.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I ask him to reflect on the Judge Hart inquiry. If I picked up him correctly, he indicated that this would await the return of an Executive. I point out to him that every solitary MLA I am aware of supports the implementation of that inquiry. Other parties represented here can say no if they disagree. Every party supports it. Some of the material in the report is very harrowing. One lady started off in the system at four years old. She is now 87. How much more do we have to put these people through? I therefore ask the Minister to discuss with his colleagues and reflect on that.
Secondly, on the RHI scheme, although I appreciate that this is a renewal, it was originally based on no substantive information. I suggest that the Minister again consult his colleagues and ensure that a proper working party is established to alleviate this, because people are losing their livelihoods as a result of this botched scheme.
Just before the Minister gets to his feet, I should like to say that I broadly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said. There is no doubt that all the political parties in Northern Ireland want this issue resolved. The issue I raised earlier was that the institutions that carried out the abuse should be made to pay for some of that abuse and repent for all of it. I do not think there is an issue in resolving this, but it would be totally wrong if only taxpayers’ money was used to resolve it.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.