Debates between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon

There have been 20 exchanges between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon

1 Tue 14th January 2020 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
6 interactions (893 words)
2 Mon 28th October 2019 Northern Ireland: Devolved Government
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
3 interactions (351 words)
3 Mon 9th September 2019 Report Pursuant to Sections 3(1), 3(6), 3(7), 3(8), 3(9) and 3(10) the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (5,173 words)
4 Mon 22nd July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
6 interactions (1,208 words)
5 Wed 17th July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
8 interactions (3,614 words)
6 Mon 15th July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
8 interactions (1,363 words)
7 Mon 15th July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
6 interactions (851 words)
8 Thu 27th June 2019 Northern Ireland: Trauma Victims
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (288 words)
9 Thu 20th June 2019 Northern Ireland: Inter-party Talks
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (328 words)
10 Thu 13th June 2019 Northern Ireland: Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (358 words)
11 Mon 18th March 2019 Northern Ireland: Devolved Government
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (249 words)
12 Thu 24th January 2019 Northern Ireland: Devolved Government
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (277 words)
13 Tue 30th October 2018 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
9 interactions (1,687 words)
14 Mon 25th June 2018 Northern Ireland: Executive and Assembly
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (348 words)
15 Thu 7th June 2018 Northern Ireland: Supreme Court Ruling
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (929 words)
16 Wed 23rd May 2018 Northern Ireland: Devolved Institutions
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (323 words)
17 Wed 25th April 2018 European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Department for Exiting the European Union
2 interactions (698 words)
18 Wed 14th March 2018 European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Department for Exiting the European Union
2 interactions (1,459 words)
19 Thu 22nd February 2018 Northern Ireland: Devolved Government
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (38 words)
20 Tue 20th February 2018 Northern Ireland Update
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (2,230 words)

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard continued): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard continued): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Tuesday 14th January 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I thank the Minister, who is obviously trying to give some reassurance in his comments. He has said that it is the terms of the amendments—their wording—that cause some difficulties. However, I think he is conceding, and understands, the points and concerns raised, and why there is so little trust and a need for that reassurance in Northern Ireland. I apologise if he is going to come to this in a moment, but does it follow from what he is saying that he is therefore prepared to bring forward his own amendments that would give the certainty and reassurance required but deal with his concerns about the wording of these amendments?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The important thing here is twofold. First, we agree on the destination—on where we are trying to go. Secondly, what we just said is that the amendments as drafted, from our position, undermine what we set out in the initial clause. We have said that the initial clause now delivers what we believe is right for Northern Ireland, both in terms of the wider dialogue and the ongoing evolution regarding the joint committee. That is why I would not propose replacing them with our own government amendments, but rather recognise the vitality of the original clauses.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hain, because he has put in place a very clear recitation of where he is coming from and, as he said very clearly, I anticipate that this matter will be pressed to a vote next week.

Break in Debate

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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As always, the noble Lord brings an interesting perspective to this. I appreciate the fear that the Joint Committee may extend beyond its rails and somehow move into different areas. Within that Joint Committee is the United Kingdom itself, and the purpose there is to hold to account the United Kingdom as it seeks to engage directly with the wider EU. I note underlying that, however, the more important point: the question of reassurance. I hope that the words I can use will give some reassurance today. Equally, I think we will come back to this matter next week when the House will demand of me further reassurance. It is important that I am able to put clearly before this House, and as it echoes beyond this House into Northern Ireland, these reassurances: it has not been overlooked; the newly established Executive will have a strong voice in what goes on, going forward; and the business community can expect to be significantly engaged with each element of the question of unfettered access, to make sure that this is in no way an attempt by the Government to hoodwink either the people or the businesses of Northern Ireland.

If I may conclude, the important point is that I believe we are in common agreement that unfettered access is required. We have the assurance of the Prime Minister and we ultimately have—

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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Since the Minister said that he was concluding, can I ask him this? He said that he wants to give reassurance. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the point that we would rather not have disagreement between the two Houses. We would rather get the issue resolved, especially since I understand that in the other place they will have either no time for debate or so little time that it will move to a vote forthwith. Whether this House passes an amendment or not, we do not really have faith that this will be properly considered in the other place. It would be good to fully understand what the Minister is saying. Can he commit tonight to write to us with the details and place a copy in the Library, so that we can fully consider these matters before we come back? I urge him to think that the House is seeking reassurance from him because this matter has to be resolved. The consequences for the people of Northern Ireland if it is not resolved adequately are really very serious. Can he write by close of play on Thursday, so that we can fully debate it next week?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Yes, I am content to put in a letter the elements I have set out today, with the appropriate detail and clarity which I may have lacked in my explanation this evening, so that the Committee can see exactly what I seek to put on the record. I am occasionally guilty of being expansive—I know that my Chief Whip looks daggers at me occasionally—but I am happy to put that down in a letter in appropriate time, so that the Committee can consider it and make sure that there is no dubiety in what I seek to put forward. I am happy to give that commitment and I will ensure that it is there in good time.

Again, I bring myself back to the important point: I believe that we seek the same outcome, which is to secure Northern Ireland’s place within the family of nations that is the United Kingdom, and to ensure that there are no impediments to the trade within the Province of Northern Ireland as it seeks to trade within its important relationships with the rest of the UK. On that point, I am sorry that I am not able to give more positive support, but I will do all I can in the next few days to set out in writing the Government’s position.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 28th October 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My noble friend would, rightly, question my veracity if I said that Brexit had no influence in Northern Ireland. Right now, it is important to ensure that we are able to seek and deliver a withdrawal agreement that works for all parts of Northern Ireland. That will be the final test. However, I hope that the parties of Northern Ireland do not wait for that to happen but resolve to bring themselves into an Executive.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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I do not think that the Minister quite answered the question that was asked of him on that point. However, after this Question, we shall move on to the next business—the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill. If anything, it is a really poignant reminder of what is happening in Northern Ireland: how the people there are waiting for decisions to be made. I have previously raised the issue of the hyponatraemia inquiry. I commissioned it all those years ago when I was a Minister and we are still waiting to go through the recommendations.

Noble Lords will have noticed that at the moment the Prime Minister is spending a great deal of time talking about an election of Members of Parliament to Westminster. Can the Minister tell us how much time the Prime Minister has had left over to talk personally to the political parties in Northern Ireland? How much is he involved in trying to get Stormont and the institutions up and running again, or is he too busy focusing on a withdrawal Bill that is doing more damage than helping in getting those institutions up and running?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Regarding hyponatraemia, I will, as I have said before, commit to working to deliver against that—it is long overdue. As to the question of the commitment of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, he is absolutely committed, but right now the person taking the lead on that is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He has redoubled his efforts to bring the parties back to the table. That they have not done so remains a disappointment for him and for the people of Northern Ireland.

Report Pursuant to Sections 3(1), 3(6), 3(7), 3(8), 3(9) and 3(10) the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 9th September 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, what better way is there to get towards the end of the debate than with such an invitation? I gladly accept it.

We are grateful to the Minister for his introduction to this debate and to the earlier SI. He is always candid and honest with your Lordships’ House. We understand the frustration he feels in negotiations. We have perhaps not made as much progress as he would like. Speaking of frustration, it is worth placing on record that the only reason we are here is that there is no sitting Assembly and Executive to take the decisions we would all prefer they took. As my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lord Hain—former direct-rule Ministers in Northern Ireland—said, we are 100% committed and will work towards the end of getting the Assembly up and running and local Ministers in place.

I understand from the comments of our colleagues in the DUP that they share that objective, but if the other side of the community were represented here, they would probably lay the blame on the DUP in the same way that the DUP lays all the blame on Sinn Féin. It is only when both sides come together, saying that they need to work together and taking a step back to find the way forward, that we can get to the position we need to be in. It is wrong to apportion all the blame to one side or the other. That is certainly not the role of this House. We—and the Government—want to see discussions taking place that lead to genuine progress for the people of Northern Ireland.

The frustrations are also felt by the Civil Service, which is having to implement and act on decisions that it would rather Ministers were taking. They want ministerial guidance throughout their work. Talking to friends who work in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, it is a frustration for them that they have no Ministers to guide the work they do.

I take issue with just one comment the Minister made, which I rarely do, I have to say. He said he would be happy to update your Lordships’ House in the coming weeks. I am sure he would be happy to, but his Prime Minister is going to prevent him doing so when the House prorogues for five very long weeks later today.

It is right to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Caine, and what was a thoughtful speech that showed both his expertise and his commitment. I wish other advisers in government had the self-discipline he displayed, even though he described the frustrations he felt over the past few years at not being able to speak. I am pleased that he now can, and I hope we will hear more from him, not just on this issue, where he adds value, but on other issues; we will welcome the contribution he has to make.

What we have in these reports is a compilation of issues that have not been dealt with because of the absence of devolved government. There are issues that need urgent action. We have heard about a whole range tonight: out-of-date gambling legislation; lack of medical staff and problems in the health service; sustainable funding for higher education; through to those critical issues affecting victims. Of course, we have heard many other contributions on the issues relating to abortion. I would be very interested in the Minister’s response to the comments of my noble friend Lord Dubs—which he has made many times before—about a facilitator engaging in the discussions to help them along. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also raised this issue. I know the Minister does his best, but he will also know that I have been quite critical of the Government at this Dispatch Box for a number of years for not engaging more. I think we are in a better place than we were, but I think a facilitator would be very helpful.

I was the Victims Minister for about two years in Northern Ireland and I was deeply affected by those I spoke to and engaged with and the stories they had to tell me. It is all very well for us to sit here and talk, but the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, made the point that unless you have actually lived through that time it is very hard to understand the depth of the impact it has on individuals. The cost of failing to have an Assembly to deal with such issues constitutes a very high price for victims and their families; they are the ones who will pay for any further delays. I welcome the Minister’s comments tonight and I am sure my noble friend Lord Hain, who has pushed so very hard on the issue of pensions, with other noble Lords, will also welcome them. I hope the Minister will say a little more about the progress made; any timescales would be helpful.

On the question of victims, I was disappointed not to see in the reports an issue I have raised with the Minister before, and I am sure he anticipated my raising it: the hyponatraemia report I commissioned some 18 years ago. It took many years to finalise and the families whose children died still feel very aggrieved that the recommendations in the report have not been implemented because political decisions are required. It is worth reflecting on that as an example. In how many areas are the lives of ordinary members of the public in Northern Ireland impacted by the failure to have an Assembly? Although that was not mentioned, can he say something about it? Perhaps he could write to me, but I think we owe it to those families to say that we care about this issue and it will not be forgotten.

The key issue in all this is the gap in governance in Northern Ireland, in the face of what we regard as an irresponsible Prorogation. I will not be taking part in any Prorogation service this evening. Exit day is upcoming and as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and others have said, the risk of no deal to Northern Ireland will be felt acutely. My noble friend Lord Hain mentioned this as well: the impact of no deal on Northern Ireland would be huge and I hope that the Minister’s colleagues in the House of Commons will not help to facilitate that by supporting Boris Johnson in pursuing it.

The outgoing Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told some truths on behalf of the Prime Minister this weekend. She commented that there is an absence of work going on under his leadership to actually try to get a deal. She estimated that 80% to 90% of government action is preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Surely, 80% to 90% of government action should be preparing for getting a deal and avoiding no deal. There is now immense time pressure, and it would be useful if the Prime Minister were to show his commitment to the future of Northern Ireland. That time could be more wisely used to avoid a damaging no-deal Brexit.

We have already heard today my noble friend Lord Murphy refer to the resignation watch that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is being placed under; such are his concerns about a no-deal Brexit for Northern Ireland—he feels it is so grave—that other members of the Government are concerned about him.

The thread that runs through these reports, and which has been raised today, is the need to restore devolved government. The reports talk about the need for renewed determination and “intensive engagement.” What does that intensive engagement actually look like? What engagement does the Minister expect to take place during Prorogation? If that is a hiatus in any discussions taking place, we are allowing Northern Ireland to hurtle towards an unmitigated disaster. Who will be involved? Can he say anything today about considerations for an external facilitator? I assure him that this side of the House will fully co-operate with him in helping to identify and support the role of such a facilitator.

I turn to a couple of other issues. One is the unanimous support of all Northern Ireland parties for compensation for victims of historical abuse. I welcome that support; a lot of work has been undertaken. We understand the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation at “the earliest possible opportunity”. Can the Minister confirm tonight that that means the legislation will be in the Queen’s Speech? There are five more weeks to work on it—quite a long time—and I hope he can confirm that, or at least say that it has not been ruled out, because it is very important.

There are a number of issues in respect of which Parliament set a deadline that action must be taken if an Executive were not in place by 21 October. These include victims’ payments, which the Minister has said something about, same-sex marriage and abortion provision. I must say I was slightly concerned when noble Lords said that there was no human rights deficit prior to this. Yes, there was, and it has been identified. I will not rehearse the long arguments we had in Committee and on Report, but the fact remains that in Northern Ireland a woman who has had an abortion, having been the victim of a violent rape, faces a greater penalty than the rapist. That can never be acceptable. We have to consider this; if that is not abuse of human rights, it is hard to identify what is. I know the Minister took those comments on board at the time but, in the light of Prorogation, we need an assurance from him that these issues are not on the back-burner and will be actively progressed. The fact that this House is not sitting does not mean that Ministers will not be doing the work they need to do to ensure that these issues are addressed.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, it has been, as is often the case, quite an odyssey this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has mentioned, in these debates you tend to mention not just anything but everything.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Caine, who gave his maiden speech this evening. I have been privileged to have his forthright advice on a number of occasions; he has always been very clear when I am wrong and when I am right. I have always appreciated his candour and I know the House will appreciate it as well. He has forgotten more about Northern Ireland than some of us will ever know, and we will all benefit from his wise words, careful counsel and forthright language. I know, from listening to his maiden speech, that his father would be immeasurably proud. I will respond directly to the point he raised on the legacy issue; he raises interesting points regarding how we might define them, and I will look at them with some great care. We need to do that, there is merit in doing so, and I will arrange a time to sit with him when we may raise a glass and talk further about that to see what resolution we can reach.

I will try my best in the time available to address all the issues as best I can, in sequential order. I will begin with the concept of victims’ pensions; the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has been assiduous on this matter. The clear issue must be that no payments will be made to anyone who is injured by their own hand. That is a cast-iron statement; I have made it before and will make it again. I am happy to emphasise that; this is not for terrorists to claim funds but for those who have been seriously injured to ensure that they are able to secure recompense for the remainder of their lives. I hope that that money does some good and that it arrives as quickly as possible. My team is working actively to meet the timescale. The noble Lord and others will be aware that we have to arrange a number of elements of this to make sure that it is fair and transparent. However, we will do so, and it will be done within the timescale—that is a necessary element.

I know that a number of noble Lords have been concerned about the definition of a victim; that is a broader question than the question before us on victims’ pensions. I do not want to be drawn too much on that; I know that in answering questions the victims’ commissioner herself has made reference to her original terms of reference, which are on a broader base than we are talking about here. However, the broader question of a victims’ definition needs to be addressed not just in Northern Ireland but across the United Kingdom, and with some haste, because it has been too long. I would like to see that moving forward as quickly as I can make it so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked a series of questions—I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, who has been helpful in all matters regarding Northern Ireland. They were primarily around the restoration of an Executive, and some of them touched on the questions raised at the very end by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on what happens during a period of Prorogation. Several things must happen. The first is that we are not on leave. The whole point of this is that the Secretary of State will now be doubling and trebling those efforts; he will have more time away from the other place to do that. At that point, there needs to be an intensification of that engagement. At present, we have been seeking to do so on the basis of a series of round-table discussions, each tasked with certain elements. Progress has been made, as I said before in my remarks in the earlier speech. Many of these are around issues of transparency and the coming together of some of the institutional elements. We are still stumbling—there is no point denying it—on the question of culture and identity as these parts fit together. I just cannot believe that we cannot solve that. That is why I believe that my right honourable friend in the other place will do everything he can during this period of Prorogation, and with the support of every Member of this House.

It is important again to recognise that moving this forward with intensity will require a greater effort from the other parties as well. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, was right to remind me that we have not had a five-party meeting since that period in August; we need to see that five-party gathering again, and there needs to be an intensification to deliver that. As I said on previous occasions today and in the past, there has never been a greater need than now to have the voice of Northern Ireland recognised throughout.

I will delve straight into the question of abortion, which a number of noble Lords raised. There are several things to put into context. If an Executive are restored, that will be a matter for that restored Executive. If that Executive are not restored, then on 22 October we will move into a period during which there will be the various elements necessary to deliver a new regime for abortion in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised a number of points on some detailed questions, which I noted down and which I will go through. Until we reach 22 October, we cannot publish any documents, because at present we have to assume that we can restore the Executive. After we have reached that point, all documents will be produced and lodged in the Library, and noble Lords will have access to those. There will be no attempt to try to cover them up—they will be entirely transparent.

Again, it is our intention to focus primarily on consultation with professional bodies to ensure that we are aware of the reservations and concerns as well as to ensure that we learn from their experience. That will not just be professional bodies in Northern Ireland but also those which have gone through the system elsewhere in Scotland, England and Wales. We will draw on that knowledge to ensure that we have that information available as we go forward. Of course, the consultation will continue only after we have reached that point. As I have said, a consultative paper will be launched. It will be clearly put out and it will be transparent.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised the Istanbul convention, and I want to address that head on. The UK Government have signed that convention but they have not yet ratified it. This means that it has not yet been incorporated into domestic law. This is consistent with the dual approach that the UK takes in relation to international law. Further domestic legislative changes are required in order to be fully compliant with the commitments in the convention ahead of the UK’s ratification. These include some measures which the Government have brought forward in the domestic abuse Bill, including extending extra-territorial jurisdiction for the criminal courts in relation to violent and sexual offences. Therefore, no part of the United Kingdom will be bound by the Istanbul convention until we have completed the ratification process.

On the question of what will happen during the period after 22 October, any cases which are in the courts will fall. I am thinking of one particular case where the mother purchased the appropriate pills; that case will lapse. I believe that it was to happen half way through November, but it will not be taken forward. On the question of the responsibility of doctors during the period, one of the greater challenges facing this country is the purchase of drugs online. It is easy to purchase them and it is difficult to monitor. I do not doubt that there are methods that we as a Government need to consider how to address. At the moment, doctors themselves will be bound by what I would hope will be their code of ethics. That code should help to ensure that this is not a free-for-all going forward, and nor should it be. Moreover, that code of ethics needs a sound base. We also have to recognise that there is a morality clause within this. Those who feel that they are unable to move forward in this regard will not be compelled to do so and we will consult on how that clause is to work in Northern Ireland. It will necessarily draw on the experience elsewhere in England, Wales and Scotland. There will be no compulsion on any individual to be put into a situation where their faith or any other beliefs are in contradiction with the acts which they are expected to perform.

The issue that we are going to face thereafter will be a more challenging one. The noble Baroness said that this undermines the devolution settlement. Much of what we are doing right now unfortunately does indeed clearly undermine the settlement. It can be realised only when the devolved Assembly is working and the Executive are functioning. Until that happens, everything we do here undermines the devolved settlement. That is a sad admission to make, but it is true.

Perhaps I may continue by turning to some of the other points raised in the debate. I am always pleased to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He raised the question of the responsiveness of those in Northern Ireland to child refugees. I think that we need to make some more progress on this, so I would suggest to the noble Lord that, if he will allow me, I will seek to broker meetings directly with those concerned in Northern Ireland and I will invite him to attend them. At present I cannot instruct that, but I will seek to reach out to the departments in Northern Ireland and, if I can, to local authorities as well. I want to get to the root of this issue. If there are individuals who are willing to participate, I want to know about that and I want to take this matter forward. If he will accept that, I think that we can make a little progress here.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised a number of issues on the Bill he took forward on human trafficking. It is an extraordinarily important Bill which has done good. He asked some very specific questions. Given the late hour, I hope that he will allow me to respond directly to those questions in writing and I will place the responses in the Library of the House so that all noble Lords can see them. I recognise the points he has made which are humanitarian in their endeavours and I want to make sure that I do not mislead the House in my responses to them. As I say, he will have a written reply as soon as my team can make that so.

I shall touch on a couple of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The first is his reference to the Magee campus. I hope that it will form a significant of the city deal. I believe that if we are in a situation where that can be delivered, I think that we can make some serious progress.

When looking at the question of historical institutional abuse, a matter raised by a number of noble Lords, I should say that we want to make progress by the end of the year. That is a commitment I made to the noble Baroness on the last occasion we talked about this issue. It seems like yesterday, but I imagine it must have been in July. I believe that we can make progress by the end of the year. While there are challenges tucked inside this issue and I do not want to mislead anyone about what they represent, but we will do all we can to move the matter forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked some questions in an area that I was less familiar with, which is that of gambling. He raised some very specific points. If the noble Lord will permit, I will write to him and lodge the answers to those questions in the House. We recognise—with the statistics that he quoted—that gambling in Northern Ireland being four times the English rate, three times the Scottish rate and twice the Welsh rate is extraordinary. I would like to get to the bottom of that and learn more. I may commission some research to find out if we can understand what on earth is going on in Northern Ireland. I commit to responding to each of the points that he raised during his intervention.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord McColl. He put forward the very specific question of whether officials have guidance on how to make decisions about extending support and whether I would be able to make copies of it available. As I previously advised, the provision was included in order to ensure a smooth transition for victims exiting DoJ-contracted support into longer-term arrangements. Therefore, it is exercised on a case-by-case basis, according to need. For example, we would continue to provide support to an individual under Section 18(9) where an appropriate exit plan is not in place. That is, for example, if accommodation had not been secured. In general, the support providers will work with potential victims from the point of referral into support to ensure that the appropriate arrangements are made for when they exit that support. This is why Section 18(9) has been used only in respect of a small number of cases where it has been identified as necessary and in the best interests of the victim to ensure the smooth transition to longer-term arrangements. I will be very happy to write to the noble Lord as well, confirming this information and expanding on it. I believe he deserves a fuller response than I have been able to give him this evening.

The noble Lord, Lord Hay, raised the issue of education and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised the matter of health. They both are in a sorry state in Northern Ireland. We know why that is and what has to be done to sort it out. There will, necessarily, be a Budget for Northern Ireland that will emerge soon after Prorogation but, as noble Lords will be aware, that is a trajectory budget based on the outgoing Executive and, frankly, it does no good in the areas that have been discussed. Therefore, I welcome the interventions and expect further discussion on this. We need to make sure that an incoming Executive are ready to take these matters forward. Should there not be an incoming Executive, responsible Ministers will take these education and health matters forward with the urgency I believe they require.

The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, as ever, raised interesting points. On the RHI assessment, I have it written down somewhere. The Department for the Economy has recently updated the NIAC on progress relating to the hardship unit, including on the call for evidence, which ran from 17 June to 10 July 2019. The DfE has stated that it will move to appoint the independent chair as soon as possible. I will be held to that, so we need to make sure we get a date against it. A report providing an update on progress on the establishment of an RHI hardship unit will be published on or before 21 October 2019, in line with the requirement of Section 3(17) of the EF Act. The person in the Box needs to develop bigger handwriting because that was quite tricky.

The other issue that we need to touch on is the question of the £10,000 to the individual who was offended by the picture of the Queen. I will not comment on the details, but I might have thought that that money—even at this late stage—could be given to charity. That would be no bad thing.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, often brings us back to the point. There is disillusionment in Northern Ireland and I fully understand that. I understand why and he will as well. Politicians have let people down, both here and in Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland are no longer trusting of us. That will be manifest in many different ways as the years come and none of them will be good. That is why we need to get to the stage of intense discussions, which I spoke of before, from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

We have to intensify these talks, but they require all participants to be willing to take that next step. If we are being honest, they will have do so against a backdrop of Brexit. Sometimes politicians have to step up to challenges. They cannot simply wait for somebody else to pick up the dustpan and brush to sweep it all up and then get involved. They need to do it now. We know what is coming. We know how difficult it will be for Northern Ireland. They have got to recognise what has to be done. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the point that all need to participate in that endeavour.

My noble friend Lord Hayward raised the question of same-sex marriage. I will write to him on that. I was very pleased to hear that he marched alongside the Taoiseach in Belfast. I saw the photographs—he sent plenty of them to me, so there was no surprise there. We will meet the deadline. In order to do so, we will basically learn the lessons from the implementation of similar legislation in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland, and we will make sure that the consultation is done correctly all the way through. As for its timing, clearly, as I said, we cannot begin until 22 October, the reason being that that is when we are committed to carrying it out. However, we will do so and will make sure that the consultation, such as it will be, with each of the bodies, including on the morality or conscience clauses, is made available to all in this House and lodged in the Library.

My noble friend asked what the individuals in Northern Ireland who are preparing to get wed should do. The answer is: get ready for Valentine’s Day, because that is when they can do it. I can think of no better time than Valentine’s Day. I hope that that satisfies my noble friend. I will of course write to him confirming each of those elements.

I am getting there. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is the last but by no means the least. I shall touch upon the hyponatraemia report. We need to get this sorted out, so I now make a commitment at the Dispatch Box that we will look at it again in greater detail to see what the problems are and whether we can move it forward. I suggest that at some point we sit on this matter over a cup of tea to see whether we can find a way forward. I think that that would be sensible and necessary.

The noble Baroness raised a number of points around the question of Prorogation. I can assure her that, as I said earlier, this is not a leave of absence. The Northern Ireland Office will be doubling or trebling its efforts to ensure that we can deliver that which we have committed to do. Importantly, we need to do so as transparently as possible, and I hope that the next series of reports that come along as part of the Bill will deliver on those items. I am not sure whether my right honourable friend is on resignation watch but I know that he will have a very busy time ahead, and I understand why.

As to the point about the external facilitator, as I said, the individual chairs of the break-out sessions are independent. We have not lost sight of that. I do not doubt that the fresh thinking that my right honourable friend brings to this will go some way towards exploring each of the elements that any potential solution is composed of.

As to whether the historical institutional abuse legislation will be in the Queen’s Speech, I bloody hope so, but I cannot commit to that. However, I can say that my right honourable friend has said that he will do all he can to ensure that it is there. I think that it should be there and that we should deliver against it.

I think that I have done it—we are now there. I thank noble Lords very much. I hope that these reports have been useful and that the next set will be as useful.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill

(Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 22nd July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I do not think that I am; I shall tell the noble Lord why. Patience is a great virtue, because I was about to come on to it.

The die is now cast. At 5 pm today, the ballot on who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the next Prime Minister will close. Neither candidate rules out no deal—that is a slightly separate issue. However, only one of them—the one most likely to win, Boris Johnson—has not ruled out shutting down Parliament in order for it not to take a view on crashing out of the EU. It may be that a no-deal Brexit is exactly what happens; I do not know—I am worried sick about it like most other people, but I do not know whether that will happen. But what I do know and firmly believe is that if any Prime Minister wants to take this country down that road they should stand at the Dispatch Box in front of their Parliament and say so as it happens.

Only Boris Johnson has not ruled out a no-deal Brexit. I find that deeply shocking. He is behaving more like a medieval monarch than a Prime Minister-in-waiting. King Boris might have a good ring to it, but he should remember Charles I.

As always, it is a matter for the House of Commons whether it accepts our amendments or not. Both Houses know that and respect that, yet this Government have always found it easiest, when the House of Lords disagrees with them, to dress it up as a disagreement between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We saw that on tax credits and the Strathclyde report. Let us be absolutely clear today what we, the House of Lords, did in passing that amendment last week. We gave the House of Commons an opportunity, if it so wished, to insert a no-Prorogation clause into the Bill for the interests of Northern Ireland and on Brexit. The MPs did not just welcome the principle that we put forward, they felt that they should go further, be more explicit, clearer and put it beyond any doubt that, even if in recess, adjourned or prorogued, Parliament must be recalled. I think the public would expect Parliament to be here.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said there was no debate in the House of Commons. I listened to that debate. It was obviously shorter, because it was on ping-pong and just on our amendments, but this was referred to on a number of occasions through the debate. There was strong support, as was evidenced in the vote. So we support the amendment from the House of Commons and we disagree with the Government in disagreeing with it.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their brevity today. Last week was quite an odyssey, so I am very grateful for that. I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who described this situation as being very much like Alice in Wonderland. It is not: it is like Through the Looking-Glass, and we have an interesting point to consider. A quote from Humpty Dumpty springs to mind:

“‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’. ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’”.

We now find ourselves in a debate that is no longer about Northern Ireland; we have departed from that considerably. Those who say that Northern Ireland is just as affected are, of course, quite right, but this Bill is about the talks in Northern Ireland: we should not lose sight of that.

What I am most concerned about are the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who says that the very fact we are discussing this in this way may have an impact upon the talks. There may be unintended consequences of words meaning what we choose them to mean here but being heard in Northern Ireland in quite a different way. The real risk we face today is that last week we passed an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, with some majority, to the House of Commons. What has come back to us is something significantly different: we have now moved beyond the idea of enabling the House of Commons to discuss these matters, to royal proclamations. We have gone beyond the notion of where we stand, to what we think we now ought to be able to control, and all this because we are anticipating what is in the mind of one of the candidates for the leadership of my party: that is all we are doing. Again, I come back to the point that this is about Northern Ireland’s talks process. We are here because we need extra time; because the talks have made progress but not enough progress. What we have done instead is conflate the talks in Northern Ireland, which have been challenging and have not gone at the pace I would have liked, with Brexit in all its manifest glory.

I am reminded of the law we are invoking today, dating back to 1797. The noble Lord, Lord West, is not in his place, but were he here he would remind us that in 1797 Great Britain won a great naval victory. Admiral Lord Duncan, a Member of this place at one time, secured a great victory at the Battle of Camperdown. Camperdown Park in Dundee takes its name from that noble battle. But 1797 is perhaps not a precedent we should be drawing upon just now: this Bill is primarily about restoring the talks in Northern Ireland. Instead we are attaching to it the desire of this place to frustrate the potential ambitions of one of the candidates in a leadership contest. I repeat, not in any way anticipating a call from either of the candidates, that it is important to stress that it would be presumptive of either of them to declare what they would do were they to be Prime Minister, because neither of them is Prime Minister. It is important that we keep focused, as we do today, on what the Bill is about.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My noble friend brings an important point to the discussion at this late stage.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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Would the Minister accept that it was completely within the remit of the House of Commons to vote that down if it had wished to do so?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Absolutely. Yet we find ourselves, once again, returning to where we began the journey—an Executive formation extension Bill, which now has a new bauble dangling upon it.

I have discovered in my two years in Northern Ireland how much I care about that place. This is an unfortunate hijacking of what we need to be able to ensure in Northern Ireland. But the will of this House will determine that. I believe that I have done all I can to suggest why we should indeed reject the amendment from the other place, but it will be for your Lordships to decide upon that matter. I commend this Motion to the House.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Wednesday 17th July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for the way he introduced this amendment and for addressing the comments made by the noble Lords from the DUP. I am sure the Minister will repeat the assurances he gave. All noble Lords are right; there has been a considerable shift over time in what society thinks about these issues. I do not think Northern Ireland is any different from any other part of the UK in that regard.

As a general point, in Monday’s debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, spoke of her recent marriage. As Members of this House from all three political parties, and quite possibly the Cross Benches, have done, she took advantage of the same-sex marriages Act that this House passed under the superb guidance of the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell—who could forget her descriptions of her relationship with George Clooney? Members of this House have taken advantage of that legislation and we congratulate them on their marriages.

I struggle with the idea that something that has been fundamental to my life—a marriage of 40 years—should not be available to colleagues who choose to love somebody of the same gender as them. I also struggle to understand why somebody who lives in Northern Ireland should be treated any differently from somebody who lives in any other part of the UK on their ability to marry and share their life with the person they love.

The amendment from the House of Commons was deficient in some ways, but the fundamental principle was that there should be equality in the law across the UK on or before 21 October 2019. What we have before us today gives effect to that. It was taken on a free vote in the House of Commons and it is a free vote, a conscience issue, in this House as well. It passed in the other place by a majority of 310. That is bigger than most majorities we get even in this House. In time-honoured way, what has fallen to your Lordships’ House is to tidy up the amendment that came to us, dealing with any technical deficiencies and the details and definitions. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, Conor McGinn in the other place, and others who have worked on this.

In the other place, the Minister’s colleague the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, John Penrose, confirmed that he sympathised with the amendment, but said it had deficiencies. I will come on to those. He voted in favour of it, with that statement that it was both politically and legally impractical. The changes required are those that bring it in line with current England and Wales legislation and deal with the practicalities of when it can be delivered.

Consequential policy issues arose. For example, the original amendment did not address issues such as pensions, the conversion of civil partnerships and gender recognition. The replacement clause picks up on those and prompts the Secretary of State to consider them when making regulations. As has been heard in your Lordships’ House tonight, the original clause did not address issues related to freedom of religion and religious expression, allowing religious institutions to opt in, rather than being compelled to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Government—I hope the Minister will confirm this; I expect him to—and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, have been very clear that any legislation relating to Northern Ireland will mirror the legislation already in place in England and Wales and will address the very concerns raised by the noble Lords, Lord McCrea and Lord Morrow. Extending the period in the legislation will give Ministers and their officials time for a little breathing space to engage with relevant stakeholders and get to grips with those issues. That is the right way forward.

We often refer to amendments passed in this House as a victory for common sense. With the majority of MLAs and Members of Parliament having backed the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, tidying up this amendment to address the points and concerns raised is not just a victory for common sense but a victory for love.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - -

My Lords, this is a historic moment. I am struck. Let me begin in an unusual way, with a quote from Sara Canning, the partner of Lyra McKee. She made a statement to Theresa May, saying that:

“I wanted her to know that Lyra and I had a right to be treated as equal citizens in our own country. Surely that’s not too much to ask?”

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hayward for tabling Amendment 11, and doing so in a manner which addresses the technical deficiencies in the initial amendment from the other place.

I have heard comments on a number of issues tonight. I do not make a habit of quoting scripture, but I will tonight; I think it is important to do so. I quote 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 7:

“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance”.

The majority by which the other place made its decision was quite significant—a majority that my party can now only dream of. It is a reminder that, had the Executive re-formed in the past, this matter would have been taken forward in Northern Ireland. That is the important part to stress, but we cannot overlook what has arrived from the other place.

I will touch on a number of the issues raised, because it is important to do them justice, but I will do this slightly the wrong way around. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, raised the issue of religious protection and religious freedom. He is right to do so, because there needs to be an understanding among all faith-based groups in Northern Ireland that they will not be compelled to act against their faith, their religion or even their opinion.

However, I come back to how we seek to move this forward. The question centred around the words “may” and “must”. I need to drill down into that to make sure this is fully understood. The words “may” and “must” are not about the protections or the fundamental realisation of them. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. That is not in doubt, not debated and not disputed, and will not be in any way eroded by anything we do here today—full stop. It is important to remember that all the legislation will comply with that and ensure we move that forward. Absolutely at the heart of this must be a belief in Northern Ireland that faith-based groups will not experience some sort of prejudice because they express their faith in fashions which do not recognise the situation today.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said only the other day, she would not wish to get married somewhere where she did not experience that love. Marriage is not a confrontation with other religions or an attempt to undermine them. Marriage is not an attempt to do any of those things at heart. It is, at heart, about love; that is the important thing we need to stress.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward for moving forward in this fashion. I commend his speech to the House; he has done most of the heavy lifting that I would have had to do. He has done justice to the task of addressing a number of technical deficiencies. It will be important to recognise how these will play out in Northern Ireland. This is an issue where we need to be as careful as we can be.

I need to stress that I do not have any concerns with Amendment 11 as now drafted. The dates in there will be a challenge—I put that front and centre—but we will meet those deadlines, by hook or by crook. I apologise to the officials who we will look to for this, but I am making that commitment. The reason the timelines are as they are is to recognise that this is not straightforward. When we looked at some of the aspects of same-sex marriage and civil partnership elsewhere in these islands, we recognised that they carried challenges to other pieces of legislation, which needed to be addressed. That is why we need a timeframe of nine months post Royal Assent. The amendment necessitates that we move faster than that. However, this is the truth of it, as we recognise some of the stumbles and challenges which have been experienced elsewhere in this kingdom and learn from them. It is important to draw on the experiences in Scotland, England and Wales, which should help us. Addressing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, I say that it is important to stress that we are looking at an opt-in process. One would not be compelled to act against one’s faith or strongly held beliefs.

I am aware that this provision will not be welcomed in every quarter of Northern Ireland, just as it was not welcomed in every quarter of Scotland, England or Wales, but, as other noble Lords have said, time has moved on. It is time to move this one on. A message is being sent to Northern Ireland. I wish this had been done in Stormont; it would have been stronger had it been done there. I would much rather not be standing here doing it, but it needs to be done. We are acting on a very clear instruction from the other place, having recognised that the instruction required certain adjustments, for which we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. On this basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will recognise that we are not seeking to undermine in any way the religious freedom or the conscience of anyone in Northern Ireland who holds a faith dear. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will not press his amendments, and that we can move forward with Amendment 11 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward.

Break in Debate

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and there is some distance between us; we do not agree. As I pointed out, this is a matter of conscience and we should all respect other people’s views. We have to do what we believe in our own conscience to be right.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I have a large number of pieces of paper. If you will forgive me, I will just assemble them into an order I can make sense of.

As it was at earlier stages, this has been an emotive and thought-provoking discussion. I spoke earlier to, I hope, help the debate to be informed. On choreography, I always welcome people giving me the questions beforehand, because it helps me work out the answers. It really is as simple as that; it is not collusion in any sense. It may well have been that I gave the noble Baroness answers she did not like, but the point was that I knew at the outset what the questions would be.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, began his contribution by asking why the length of consultation could not be the same for abortion as for same-sex marriage. There is a relatively simple explanation for that. On same-sex marriage, we have established precedent in England and Wales, and in Scotland, that can be built on in a straightforward manner. What we seek to do in Northern Ireland is quite different; there is no roll-across regime we can borrow from. As a consequence, the new elements of that will require a fuller consultation. We cannot equate the two consultations, because they seek to consult on quite distinct and different elements.

I welcome the thought-provoking contribution today from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She raised the issue of conscience. I know that a number of Peers have been concerned about the conscience element. As I did during previous discussions, I stress again that the conscience element must be at the heart of this. We cannot compel any practitioner to act beyond their own conscience. We must make sure that that is understood in the guidance that will be issued thereafter to all those involved in this process; that is absolutely critical.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised a number of issues. If she will allow me, I will do my best to do justice to them. The first, which I think I touched on the last time we discussed this, was the Sewel convention. The important thing to recognise is that under normal circumstances we shall use the Sewel convention, but I do not think there is any doubt that we are not in normal circumstances. The Sewel convention in this instance will not apply.

The question that I suspect my noble friend Lord Elton, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others will raise is that of what happens during that limbo period when we move away from where we are now but before we have brought into play the functioning abortion regime. It is important to stress that, although we are looking at the 1861 Act and the elements we shall remove from it, during this limbo period the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 will still apply. Section 25 will still apply; this makes it a criminal offence to destroy any life of a child capable of being born. That will apply during that limbo period, until we have got to the stage where we have the newly functioning regime.

Break in Debate

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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Amendment 16 actually proposes inserting a new clause, but that is slightly irrelevant. We have had a debate on Amendment 12 and are now looking at the requirement to consult MLAs. There is something slightly uncomfortable about this. I am certainly not opposed to consultation. I think that the best consultation that we could have on this issue would be more than consultation. I would want to see the Assembly up and running and making these decisions itself—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, made. It is not just a question of taking consultation on one issue in isolation; what is really important is the process of governance, where issues are weighed against each other, talked through and looked at in detail along with other information. I fully—100%—support local decision-making and the local responsibility that goes with it, but that is not what we are talking about here.

In some ways, we are almost talking about imposing a double lock on the Government. The amendment that they want to consult on—the new law, as it will be—requires the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive. Therefore, only in the absence of an Executive would the Government be able to bring forward regulations. However, it would seem somewhat strange to then say, “We haven’t got an Executive. The Government must take the decisions, but we’ll go and consult them anyway”. That seems almost like a double lock, preventing the Government taking any action at all while the Assembly is not sitting.

If that principle were imposed across the board, it would be very difficult for there to be any governance on any issue in Northern Ireland. It would be inappropriate to put the Government in that position when the Assembly has not sat for well over two years. Therefore, despite what I think are good intentions behind the amendment, I cannot give it any support.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - -

My Lords, in many respects this has been a longer extension of the earlier debate. I almost wish that someone had asked me a question at the beginning so that I could have stood up then. In fact, the MLAs will be consulted as part of the ongoing consultation envisaged with the stakeholders. However, the difference is that they will not get a lock on that, which would mean that only a majority could help us move forward. Therefore, the views of the MLAs will be taken and heard but they will not be a determining factor in arresting progress on this amendment. It is important to be aware of that as we make progress. It is also important, as I said when we discussed this issue a longer time ago, that the scope we are discussing is the scope we have received from the other place. The criticism of proceedings in the House of Commons, and those issues, are deemed out of order in the Companion. We have to accept that what has arrived here is something that we can act on and take forward, which we must do.

It is important to stress, throughout each of our discussions on this wider question, that the Government are not seeking to take forward an abortion amendment. We have received from the other place a clear statement, by a clear majority, on a conscience issue and a free vote. For good or ill, in response to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, the Prime Minister, in this instance, would be able to exercise her conscience in the same way as anybody else in that House. This is not the UK Government’s policy, nor is it the policy of my party, but responsibility rests with this Government to ensure that what we are able to do in moving this matter forward is safe, sound and secure. That responsibility rests with us, and that is what we have sought to do in engaging with all noble Lords throughout this process—to ensure that we are able to deliver on that.

The discussion has ranged more widely than the question of consulting with the MLAs. I do not wish to extend the debate significantly in this direction, given that one of noble Lords’ concerns has been the scope from the other place, but I will touch on a few elements. By any definition, we have to accept that the situation in Northern Ireland is dysfunctional. The devolution structures that have been put together are not working. One can argue that the structures are at fault, or that the problem rests elsewhere, but the problem we face now is that the outcome is the same no matter which you decide is responsible. The situation that we face is serious, and I do not think there is a single Member in the House tonight who would not wish to see these matters taken forward by an Assembly and an Executive in Northern Ireland. For reasons that are all too apparent, however, certain parties in Northern Ireland are not able to deliver against that instruction. That is a great shame, as we probably all agree. We all recognise that noble Lords sitting here at this late hour should not be taking these matters forward in this fashion, but we are doing so because of a failure and a fault in the system in Northern Ireland

As the people of Northern Ireland look at what we are doing here, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are sick and tired of all politicians, of all rank and measure. They are tired and weary now because they seem to be in a situation where politicians are all over them when it comes to an election, then—lo and behold —seem to disappear when it comes to the heavy lifting. They now see all politicians of all parties, of all ilk and all places, in exactly the same way. That is a terrible situation to be in, and we need to restore the confidence and trust of the people of Northern Ireland in the elected system. We need to get the Executive up and working, and get this moving forward, but that is not what we are able to do through this amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, has made a passionate speech this evening, and she has received a number of emails in response to a particular letter. I am sure we all have a large number of those in our inboxes now, but the number of emails needs to be judged against the population of Northern Ireland. The population is 1.871 million, and we need to recognise that the passion of those who have responded should be applauded, but it is not a means by which we can determine the view or the will of the people of Northern Ireland; nor should we consider it so. It is an important measure, but it is not in itself an adequate measure.

The amendment before us now broadly says that the MLAs must be consulted and their response to the consultation will determine what happens next. We cannot accept the amendment, but I stress that the MLAs will be consulted, and I can go further by ensuring that MLAs receive an update on each of the aspects that noble Lords will be updated on as a consequence of the earlier amendments from the other place. If your Lordships are so minded, we can ensure that MLAs receive exactly the same information that comes from the reports we have commissioned, or are about to commission, to ensure that they are fully abreast and aware of all of these aspects. We will do all we can to engage directly with the MLAs to ensure that they are fully aware of each step. I have no problem with committing to do that now, but I cannot have a lock placed on progress on this matter. That would place the Government in the invidious position of having been, both from the other place and through our own vote this evening, in a clear position, but then having to say that they must await the views of MLAs. We cannot have that, I am afraid; it would not be appropriate. I therefore ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 15th July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, in some ways the debate strayed further than the amendment itself. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. His explanation of what he was seeking to do with the amendment before the Committee was very helpful. When the same-sex marriage legislation went through this House, there was a lot of debate about some of the issues that noble Lords from the DUP have addressed. It was made clear that that legislation is permissive. It is not compulsory: it is permissive.

I disagreed when the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, spoke about the fundamental building blocks of society. People in a committed, loving relationship should have the same opportunities as everyone, whether same-sex couples or couples of different genders, to be able to celebrate and demonstrate that commitment to each other as being a long-term, permanent commitment, and not be ostracised for doing so.

Having said that, I think the points about this being similar to the legislation in England and Wales were entirely well made, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, the only part I have some concerns about is the educational institution. I was recently fortunate enough to meet the head teacher of Anderton Park School in Birmingham and was deeply impressed by her dignity and her commitment to her pupils. I would hate to think that we would be getting into a position where other head teachers who are trying to do their best for their pupils, trying to instil in them tolerance and a commitment to understanding society as it is, would face such difficulties as she and her staff have had to in very difficult circumstances.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister says but I would imagine that any legislation he is discussing with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and Conor McGinn from the other place would be along the lines of the legislation that we have here in GB.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - -

My Lords, this has been a thought-provoking discussion. I am often guided by my own beliefs and I recognise Ecclesiastes chapter 4, verses 9 to 10:

“Two are better than one … for if they fall, one will lift up the other”.

I am heartened by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, because I do not doubt that he will be working closely with Conor McGinn from the other place to ensure that what comes to this House carries with it the exact protections and care that we have seen in England and Wales and in Scotland. There are elements which need to be recognised in terms of the wider question of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and I hope to see those protections coming through in an emerging amendment. As I said, the amendment from the other place has certain deficiencies and we hope to see those improved through the work which I do not doubt the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, among others, will help move forward.

It is important, again, that we balance rights, obligations and protections throughout, not least in schools, and we must make sure that we are teaching the reality of what is going on. We need to make sure that pupils understand the wider question of relationships before they ever engage in sex education. I draw a distinction between relationships and sexual elements; I think they need to be seen in that context. It is important to remember that these issues have been addressed previously in different parts of the United Kingdom. These are not new issues. The concerns of particular bodies are not new and on each occasion I believe that the different authorities, whether in Scotland or in England and Wales, have learned from the challenges and have ensured that the protections which they have put together are adequate to address the concerns raised by noble Lords.

I appreciate the concerns which noble Lords have expressed. They are right to recognise that there is throughout Northern Ireland and elsewhere a particular constituency which sees the faith-based approach to marriage as an integral part of it. I do not doubt the validity of that or the importance of recognising why that must be accepted and trusted, but at the same time the wider context needs to be considered. I hope the amendment we see coming forward addresses these issues. On that basis, we hope that this amendment can be withdrawn. My final point is: congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, I rise very briefly to endorse and thank my noble friend Lord Hain and his supporters for bringing this forward. As he mentioned, of all the posts I ever had in government, my role as a victims Minister in Northern Ireland was the one that stayed with me and affected me the most. The euphemistically named Troubles left a legacy of not just physical pain but mental pain and anguish that affects later generations and both sides of the community, as we have heard. A lot of people were caught up in things that they knew nothing about. I remember talking to one man about his experiences. Every year, a paper would print a photograph of a bus that had been wrecked in a bombing. His father had died on that bus, yet nobody thought of the pain it caused him to see that photograph printed on the anniversary year after year.

This is not just about the financial need people are in. It also gives recognition to those victims and survivors who will receive a pension and those who will not but who recognise how important it is that the suffering and trauma experienced by victims over many years has been recognised. This is also about health. Many have not undertaken the employment they could have done, which had a financial knock-on effect. This is long overdue. I am sure there is more that can be done over time for those who have survived, but I think this is a really important step. I am encouraged that we are all anticipating a very positive response from the Minister.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I believe I can give that positive response. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has given a great deal of leadership. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House have worked very hard on this matter, as have members of my team in the Northern Ireland Office. The noble Lord and I discussed earlier some technical improvements that need to be made, which I believe we can make tomorrow. The noble Lord has also raised the question of a money resolution and a consolidated fund. I believe we can address that.

I was privileged to meet a number of the survivors from the WAVE Trauma group. I recognise what they have been through. I thank the noble Lords here who have given that commitment to ensure that their voices have not been lost or forgotten. Every day we lose from here on in is one day too many. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hain, will withdraw his amendment.

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I think we can make some progress this evening. I thank the noble Baroness for tabling her amendment. There is urgency. The last time the matter was discussed I said that the Government stood ready to move this through Westminster with a degree of urgency. The issue now, of course, is that Sir Anthony Hart’s recommendations have been considered by the parties, which have reached a consensus—but it differs from the original proposals in the Hart recommendations, so there needs to be some redrafting. We anticipate the redraft coming towards the Government in the next couple of weeks.

The route that the noble Baroness has chosen is one that might introduce a delay, and I do not think we need to do that. If she is willing, I will commit, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, to the Government introducing primary legislation on historical institutional abuse before the end of the year—which I believe would satisfy her requirements. On that basis, I ask her to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. On that basis, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 15th July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness raised those points before. I say once again that the question of scope is not for this House; it was a question determined by the other place. On that point, it was not the Government or Opposition who won or lost; it was the will of the other place taken in a vote of conscience. There was no government Whip whatever in the other place. Those majorities were singular and significant; we as a Government heard them and must respond.

On the issues that we are discussing here, the majorities were not significant or singular; indeed, they were remarkably anything but. I stress, as I say these things now, that we need to recognise that which is germane to the issues in Northern Ireland and that which is a vehicle for another purpose—perhaps a Brexit purpose, divorced and distant from the thing we are here to discuss. I do not doubt that noble Lords will seek to find by other means a way to ensure that the future leader of this country, whoever that individual may be, is held to account by both the other place and this place. That is right and proper, but there are other means by which it can be done; this is not the right vehicle by which to do it.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I thank the Minister for giving way. I am intrigued by his argument that there are other ways in which this could be done. Will he expand and tell us what they are?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness almost got me on that one, but she will not be surprised to know that I, too, will not be drawn on those matters. It is important, as we circle back to where we began—

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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I think the noble Baroness misunderstood. I agree that Northern Ireland should sort it out, but a victim of violent rape who becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion faces a harsher penalty than her attacker. That seems quite wrong.

The House of Commons has voted on two issues, with substantial majorities. On Wednesday, we will have an opportunity to look at how the Government have responded to Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy; the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, will be bringing it here. We look forward to seeing what will happen. This debate has highlighted how sensitive this is, and that there are intransigent different points of view which I think cannot meet. We must do what we believe is right.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this debate has stirred a great many emotions. We have heard very powerful speeches from all sides of the House. To ensure that there is no confusion, I will be very specific, and, if you will forgive me, I will break precedent and read what I have to say; it will be easier for me.

Abortion is a sensitive issue. There are strongly held views on all sides of the debate, in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Many of those views have been expressed during this debate and during the passage of the Bill in the other place.

We must recognise the clear will of the other place. That House sought a commitment that the Government would legislate in these matters. The Government respect the views expressed in the other place. Those views were expressed on a free vote, which is a matter of conscience. I stress that the amendments which have come from the other place are procedurally correct, and we must recognise them for what they are. My honourable friend in the other place, John Penrose, the Minister, very clearly set out the challenges represented by the devolution settlement before these votes took place. In doing so, he was careful to ensure that the other place was fully informed.

As I made clear at Second Reading, there are technical problems with the drafting of this clause which need to be resolved. On an issue as important as abortion, which relates to the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland, it is not enough to express the desire for change. The Government must ensure that the drafting of the Bill is effective and can, in practical terms, deliver the change that the Members in the other place want to see. Discussion is ongoing, with the support of the Government, to try to deliver a clause that works. Discussions have taken place with the two Members of Parliament who moved the amendments. I hope that, when we come back to consider these on Report, we will have amendments which are fit for purpose.

I appreciate that there have been a number of views on this issue, not least those that have touched upon the question of devolution itself within a constitutional framework, and not least those that have touched upon the moral questions underpinning abortion. It is right that the Government take no view on these matters; these are matters of conscience, and each individual noble Lord must look to themselves on these matters. We hope that we can make progress on these matters at the next stage. On that basis, and rather than for me to do a full round—

Northern Ireland: Trauma Victims

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 27th June 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord brings to our attention something quite shocking to contemplate. It is important that the Government recognise that we should do something about this. I shall inquire further into how we will progress it and report back to the noble Lord and to the House as a whole.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very sympathetic response, but it does not yet do the job. I understand his point; like him, I am a former Victims Minister in Northern Ireland and met many of those who have day-to-day problems in coping with life. This would make a difference and offer recognition for the suffering they have experienced. If the issues raised by the commissioner are relatively minor—transfer of benefits from those who have already died while waiting for a pension is a relatively minor issue, which could be resolved in Committee—will the Minister agree to urgent talks across the House to see how we can resolve these issues? There is determination on all sides, which I accept the Minister shares, to move this along as quickly as possible. It is all very well saying that it is urgent, but this has been going on for some time.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness raises an important point. We have begun those cross-party discussions already; the noble Lord, Lord Hain, has been instrumental in bringing together a number of individuals from across the House. The minor issues can be resolved in a very straightforward way, but some are not quite as minor as we would like and will need a bit of time to get right. I hope we can make serious progress and deliver for the victims; that is the important thing not to lose sight of.

Northern Ireland: Inter-party Talks

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 20th June 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord is right to raise the sad death of Lyra McKee. I think that has added momentum and impetus to the current talks and it would be a betrayal of all she stood for if we do not finally secure a restored Executive. I can assure the noble Lord that the Prime Minister has taken an active interest and even last night was in direct contact with the Taoiseach to discuss these matters and give, as best we can, a favourable momentum to the ongoing talks.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for referring to the Prime Minister. I have to say that this week has not been an encouraging one for the NIO. It started with the NIO trying to hold an event that all MLAs refused to attend. It moved on to rumours that vital talks are to be paused over the summer, and at the last count we had four possible Conservative Prime Ministers who all think that no deal is an acceptable outcome, given the implications for Northern Ireland. It is essential that the Government engage better, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in his Question. The Minister told us that the Prime Minister had a conversation with the Taoiseach last night. How many times has the current Prime Minister met with all the Northern Ireland political parties? Will the Minister commit to doing everything he can to ensure that the next Prime Minister meets every party from Northern Ireland as soon as possible after he enters No. 10?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Baroness raises several points. The important thing to stress is that the resolution of this issue rests not in London but in Belfast between those parties. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have sought, by their various offices, to engage directly with that. As to the future Prime Minister, I do not know whether he will ask my advice, but I will be very happy to give it to him.

Northern Ireland: Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 13th June 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord makes an important point. This is about victims and redress. The issue we face is that the original draft diverges significantly from the consensus reached by the political parties. This will therefore take time to redraft. That is what is being taken forward right now in Northern Ireland by the authorities. Once that is done, it will return to us and we will take it through both Houses as expeditiously as possible.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, this all sounds a little delaying. I trust the noble Lord’s judgment implicitly on this, but it is over two years since the inquiry report. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that this delay comes at a very high price for the people of Northern Ireland and the survivors of abuse. Obviously, the preferred option would be a devolved Administration, but I put on record again, because this is not the only example like this, that the Government are not doing enough to ensure the devolved institutions are up and running. I have said that perhaps if the noble Lord was Secretary of State we might see greater progress, which we would welcome. The political parties all blame each other for it not happening. Meanwhile, we have cases such as this where people are dying and struggling through lack of action. There is a moral duty to act. The noble Lord said that work is ongoing. Can he give a commitment to bring back that legislation to this House in this parliamentary Session before any Prorogation, whenever that might be?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The challenge we face is that, had the political parties in reaching their consensus broadly affirmed the Hart report and all its elements, we could have been taking it forward right now. Unfortunately, there were 13 substantive areas of change that the political parties wished to take forward. These require some time. I cannot give the commitment the noble Baroness would like to hear, but I can say that once we work through those things with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland we will take it forward as quickly as this House and the other place will allow.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 11 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, the Government have not ruled out using an external facilitator. Indeed, they are actively considering that point. However, it is important to stress that circumstances at this moment may also be a factor affecting that role just now.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, while the Prime Minister is repeatedly failing to get her Brexit deal through Parliament, she has shown less determination in trying to secure the return of a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. Today, we are hearing rumours of a last-minute “Stormont lock”, and other negotiations, to try to win the backing of the DUP for the Prime Minister’s deal. I have two questions. First, if there is a “Stormont lock”, given that there is no functioning Executive or Assembly, would it be the DUP or the unelected civil servants making decisions that would affect the whole of the United Kingdom? Secondly, what assurances can the Minister give to convince this House that the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland and the UK constitution is being driven by something more encouraging than political expediency and the short-term goals of Mrs May and No. 10?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am unaware of any Stormont lock and cannot comment upon that. On the question of where we stand as a country, the constitution must be respected, as must devolution. That is why we have sought to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland by every means possible over the past period. Without it, direct rule from here would be a terrible retrograde step.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 24th January 2019

(2 years, 1 month ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord is correct: nothing is off the table. Unfortunately, we cannot take direct rule off the table, much as I would like to do so. It has to be there because, if we cannot secure an Executive, it will be one of the inevitable outcomes of this terrible process.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, as a former direct rule Minister, I do not commend it to the noble Lord or any Member of your Lordships’ House as an ideal way forward, but Northern Ireland has now been two years without a Government and there is no end in sight. The Prime Minister meets only the DUP, the Secretary of State’s meeting with all parties in November was described as a box-ticking exercise and there is huge concern and frustration in Northern Ireland. Like others on these Benches, my noble friend Lord Dubs made a very positive suggestion for a way forward. The Minister said that there is active consideration of having an independent arbiter, as we had in the past, to bring all parties together, chair those talks and have a sense of momentum that something is going to happen. How long can that be under active consideration? Should something not be done now?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The time of active consideration is drawing to a close. We now need to move forward on this matter. A facilitator will be an aspect we need to take forward. We are now talking about a matter of weeks to try to achieve this. I welcome the comments from the noble Lord behind me, because we need to have everyone in that room. This is now the time, but we are talking about weeks.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Tuesday 30th October 2018

(2 years, 4 months ago)

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Bruce, in their Amendment 13A. I spent two and a half years as Victims Minister in Northern Ireland. As we heard from other noble Lords, there is great understanding in this House of the suffering that many have endured. Indeed, the Eames-Bradley report—written by two great men—really brought home to many what was required for the needs of victims, though it was unpalatable and difficult for some.

The victims whom my noble friend Lord Hain spoke about are ageing—they are getting older. Their conditions are getting worse and their circumstances more difficult. One of the things that struck me as both Victims Minister and Health Minister was how, in so many cases, the help that the health service was able to provide was inadequate to meet the needs of those who required support, particularly in cases of mental health. When you spoke to the group of people we are talking about—I do not know whether other noble Lords felt the same—and heard their stories and about the impact of what had happened on their lives, you would be very conscious that you could turn around and take the story with you, but they were living with what they told you and the consequences would never leave them.

We understand the limitations of the Bill and what can be done within it. We understand the problems caused by there being no Executive or Assembly, but this is an occasion when, I hope, the Government could take some action to right a wrong and address an injustice. They could take a step in the right direction to see what support can be given. I congratulate noble Lords on bringing this forward, and I hope that the Minister—who I know is giving considerable thought to this—can give a positive response this evening.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am struck, as I gaze around the Chamber, by how many people are wearing poppies. And I am struck again by the poetry:

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”.

But of course we are talking about people who will be wearied by the passage of years and who will be condemned to live through that period—victims of a great iniquity done to them. I have spoken of the situation a number of times now with the noble Lord, Lord Hain. I will preface my remarks by saying that it is our hope that we will secure an Executive who can take this matter forward. Were I to stop with that answer, it would be inadequate, so I will not stop there but carry on.

The important issue here is that we have commissioned from the Victims Commissioner a thorough report into all aspects of this serious issue. We have asked her to expand her remit to look at not just physical but mental anguish and I am able to say today that the Secretary of State will write to the Victims Commissioner, asking her to include a date from which payments shall be made. This is not a future point but rather some point where we can be very clear going forward.

As I said, it is our hope that an Executive will take this matter forward. However, if, despite our best efforts, that Executive have not been restored by the time updated advice on a pension issue has been provided by the Victims Commissioner, the Northern Ireland Office will consider how the matter can be progressed. That is not to put it into the long grass or put it away, but to recognise that it must be progressed.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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No, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, has already written to me and I am happy with the letter he sent. I want to confirm that the letter to the Department of Health in which the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, will seek at six-monthly intervals to get an update, which the Minister has said the Department of Health will respond to, will be a letter from a Minister, not an official.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I was having a bit of a breather, but I am very happy to confirm that. It is important that we do this—absolutely essential.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I understand and appreciate the time that he has invested in this. He has been very generous with his time and his views. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, I had not expected to be on so soon. Many of us in the Labour Party have some form on debating Clause 4. I am nothing if not consistent: I want to keep Clause 4. It is worth reminding ourselves what Clause 4, which was voted into the Bill by a cross-party majority of almost 100 in the House of Commons, says. It came on the back of a decision by the Supreme Court in June that Northern Ireland abortion law was “untenable and intrinsically disproportionate” in relation to rape and incest, which are criminal matters, and fatal foetal abnormality. The House of Commons looked at this issue within the confines and context of the Bill and also at gay marriage, which is possible in the rest of the UK as a result of a law passed in your Lordships’ House.

Noble Lords have rightly said that Clause 4 does not change the law but states that, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive to scrutinise the impact of laws on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and, specifically, their incompatibility with the UK’s human rights obligations, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required to provide clear guidance to Northern Ireland civil servants on the operation of these laws, and to update the House each quarter on how she plans to address the laws’ impact on the UK’s human rights obligations. This is exactly what has been agreed by the House of Commons by a large majority.

I understand why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, have brought forward this amendment. It recognises that the existing law may contravene the European Convention on Human Rights but then says that the Secretary of State can do nothing about it. That does not seem to be a position which your Lordships’ House would want to be in. Like my noble friend Lord Cashman, I understand the sentiments and principles behind the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis. We think alike on these issues. I struggle with the concept of issuing guidance to civil servants not to enforce legislation. Guidance is not the way to do it, and that is why the House of Common has taken the approach that it has.

All noble Lords understand that these issues evoke emotional responses. They are difficult, personal issues, which is why this is a matter of conscience and there is a free vote in both Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons sought a way forward which is both proportionate and within the terms of this legislation. As I said once before within my own party: I urge your Lordships’ House to protect Clause 4.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this has been a thought-provoking, considered contribution to the debate this evening. At the outset, I draw the attention of the Committee back to the functioning and purpose of the Bill itself. The Bill is designed to ensure an opportunity to re-establish a functioning Executive. That is the ambition behind the Bill and its subsequent elements. A functioning Executive would go a long way to addressing the issues which have been raised this evening. We can be fairly clear that this matter most correctly rests with an Assembly in Northern Ireland.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has put forward an amendment and has graciously said that he will not put it to a vote. However, his contribution has allowed an open opportunity to explore each of the elements within the wider debate. The noble and learned Lord has been clear about the constitutionality of the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. However, the purpose behind them is understood. He too was seeking to send a message with his amendments this evening. He has done that; we have heard the message.

I also listened very carefully to the impassioned remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin; everyone here will have been moved by them and recognised the passion with which they were given. The Government have no intention of undermining or diminishing the position of persons with disabilities. That was never an attempt or an endeavour. This Bill and any guidance it puts forward would not influence Northern Ireland departments to act in any way which is not compliant with Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which includes provisions to ensure equality between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. I recognise, however, exactly the points the noble Lord made, and they are perhaps for us all to reflect upon this evening. This is, as a number of noble Lords have made plain, a matter of conscience, and I have no doubt that many this evening will be considering these elements as they listen to the ongoing remarks.

I am also taken by the ideas put forth by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. Two things become clear to me. Public opinion is a curious thing. Sometimes we think that we know what it is, and sometimes we are wrong, but I think he is absolutely correct that there has been an evolution in public opinion within Northern Ireland. Exactly what it is and how it can be determined can be captured in snapshots of opinion polls, which are like the blink of an eye. Sometimes they change, and it is very hard to pin them down. I cannot make any commitment regarding his novel idea of referendums, but I would like to discuss that further. If he is amenable, I would like to sit down in the future to explore that very thing. However, it is of course not for this particular Bill to move that matter forward.

Northern Ireland: Executive and Assembly

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 8 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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Yes, that is quite extraordinary. It is the beginning, not the end, of a journey. I shall be joining Arlene Foster in meeting them in Belfast on Thursday evening.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister is always an emollient voice on these issues, but we are in a serious situation. The courts have already made a judgment that civil servants exceeded their authority in decisions made. We have had the hyponatraemia case, which was a public inquiry that I set up in 2004. It did not report until 2018, and we do not know how many, if any, of the inquiry’s 96 recommendations—following the deaths of five children—will ever be implemented, because it has not been considered by elected representatives. We have the issue of abortion for victims of sex crimes and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and we have Brexit talks where there is no one from the Northern Ireland Executive representing Northern Ireland, although we have someone from the Scottish Executive and someone from Wales. How much longer can this be allowed to go on? More importantly, how many other cases and examples are there where Northern Ireland is suffering and not functioning because of a lack of elected representatives taking the positions they were elected to perform?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
- Hansard - -

I can be very frank and say that Northern Ireland will be suffering in the absence of an Executive; of that there can be no doubt. It is not for me to try to work out what is happening in the Province of Northern Ireland; it is for the elected representatives, who listen to the voices of Northern Ireland, to move forward. The issues raised by the noble Baroness are absolutely correct: there needs to be a voice for the political communities of Northern Ireland inside Brexit. The Government do all we can to reach out to all those elected parties, but there is no functioning Executive. Until we have that, we cannot make the progress required for the people of Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness asks how long we can go on. The reality is: not much longer.

Northern Ireland: Supreme Court Ruling

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 7th June 2018

(2 years, 8 months ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat the response to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place:

“I thank the honourable Member for Walthamstow for this Question and want to pay tribute and recognise all the honourable Members who contributed to the debate on these issues in this House on Tuesday. I recognise the strength of feeling and the personal stories that lie behind this issue, many of which we heard on Tuesday. This is the case regardless of where people’s views lie. As I have said in this House before, abortion is an extremely sensitive issue and there are many strongly held views across all sides of the debate for reform right across the UK, including in Northern Ireland.

Members will be aware that this morning the Supreme Court issued its judgment in this case. The Government are carefully considering the full judgment and its implications. No formal declaration has been made by the court and the appeal has been dismissed, but the analysis and comments of the court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and politicians in Northern Ireland. While the court made no formal declaration, a majority of judges stated their view that the laws of abortion in Northern Ireland are incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to respect for private and family life in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. This is clearly a complex area of law and an extremely sensitive subject that raises a number of different issues to consider. The judgment, at over 140 pages in length, will need further consideration.

I am continuing to engage with parties in Northern Ireland, where these issues are understandably being raised and discussed. It is therefore important for all of us, including the people of Northern Ireland, to consider the judgment and to approach ongoing debate on this issue with due care and sensitivity. My urgent priority is to continue to engage with the parties in Northern Ireland to re-establish devolved government in Northern Ireland so that decisions can be taken there”.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response today. The case today was in effect dismissed on a technicality because the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an organisation, not an affected individual, but we are all too familiar with the individual cases and the individual women who have faced restriction under the current law, in extremely distressing circumstances in some of the cases that we have heard about, which has been harrowing for them and their families.

As the Minister said, a majority of judges found that the laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are incompatible with Article 8 of the convention. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, stated:

“Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the Convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible”.

There is some urgency now to ensure that the law is fit for purpose, as well as to debate the wider issues around decriminalisation and the accessibility of services across the UK. The ideal scenario, and I know the Minister agrees with this, would be for a devolved Assembly to take hold of this moment and debate changes to the law at Stormont. However, there is no functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. In the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly, will the Government set out a clear timetable saying that if local parties are not prepared to come back to an Assembly then Westminster will have an obligation to act, on the moral and legal basis that UK law must be compatible with our convention obligations?

The wider issue here is that this case vividly highlights the importance of having a functioning devolved Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland. Could the Minister please update the House on the Government’s most recent actions to bring this about? I do not at all underestimate his commitment, but we need to know what actions are being taken rather than hearing warm words such as “the Government want” and “it is a priority”.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank the noble Baroness. I wish I could give more than warm words at this time. We have to consider the judgment very carefully; it is 140 pages long and came out only this morning. However, the early analysis suggests that the technicality that the noble Baroness and I have both touched upon will in due course be addressed by another case, and that technicality will be eliminated.

The issue is therefore how this matter shall be addressed in Northern Ireland. Clearly, as I have said on a number of occasions on a number of matters, we would prefer a devolved Administration—a devolved Executive—to take these issues forward. None the less, the last time that the Assembly in Northern Ireland debated this issue on a cross-party basis—on each occasion regarding each of the elements that were part of the judgment today: the fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest—the Assembly itself did not endorse progress on these matters. It is important that the issue is addressed with some urgency but also with some care, because there are a number of wide implications that we must take on board. That is why at this stage we will consider the judgment very carefully to ensure that we understand exactly what it is saying, so that we can appreciate how to take the next steps.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Institutions

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Wednesday 23rd May 2018

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has engaged directly with the Taoiseach and others, but we need to think afresh and, as we progress in the next few months, we will need to visit a number of past experiences and try our best to navigate a much more challenging way forward. Nothing is off the table.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, the key question was that asked by my noble friend Lady Blood and alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Empey: this court case and its decision basically says that the Civil Service was wrong to take a decision of such significance that it should have been taken to Ministers. With no Ministers in place now for more than 16 months, that calls into question any decisions on these issues taken by civil servants in Northern Ireland. I respect the Minister enormously; he says it is a top priority—the single most important issue for the Government— but he has to listen to my noble friend Lord Hain. The Government must get round the table and, if necessary, lock the doors until they come out with an agreement.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am sure there will be a lot of agreement to lock some people in certain rooms; there is no question of that. But the reality we must face is a simple one right now. That judgment is significant. In the past, the Government have sought to plot a trajectory from the policies and decisions taken by the previous Executive and not to stray beyond them. That cannot go on for much longer—the point of movement is too great—so there is now a necessity to find a way of restoring good governance to Northern Ireland. A number of options are available. The preferred option, the sensible option, the right option, is to ensure that there is an Executive that works in the interests of Northern Ireland, rather than people like me trying to work it out backwards.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

(Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Wednesday 25th April 2018

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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My Lords, there is little I can add that is new to this debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws for raising these issues and I hope the Minister will make use of his customary courtesy to the House. When he responded at Second Reading and in Committee on these issues, there was a sense that he understands the concerns that were raised then, and indeed the issues raised today. When he spoke on 14 March, he was clear that there will be no impediment at the land border to the movement of people—no checks and no profiling, full stop. That was the first time that the Government had given that degree of clarity—I think my noble friend Lady Kennedy would recognise that—or sought to emphasise that. This is important, and the Minister will understand the great concerns being raised. We still have no clarity on the border issue. This House has already expressed a view on the customs union and I am sure that, as we debate Northern Ireland issues later on Report, we will deal with those further.

I hope that the Minister is able to address the concerns that have been raised about the common travel area and movement of people. He has a sense of deftness and understands these issues, so if he can address them today we would be grateful.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, for introducing this topic and other noble Lords for their contributions. I had a very pleasant cup of tea with the noble Baroness yesterday and I was pleased to learn that she hails from the Kennedys of Fermanagh, which was an interesting discovery. But it was not just a pleasant cup of tea; it was more important than that. We touched on what I believe are some of the key elements that have motivated these amendments, and they are, at heart, necessary to confront. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, somewhat surprisingly, reminded me that I was indeed apparently the first person to give clarity on this issue, but I am very happy to reinforce the clear statement that there can be no racial profiling at a border, whether it be routine, quixotic or even accidental. That cannot be the policy or the direction; there cannot be even a hint of that going on at the border. I am hopeful that those further words might again give some contentment in that regard.

If I may turn to the amendment itself, the December joint report, at paragraph 54, confirms that the UK and Ireland can continue, as now, to work together on the movement of people. Building on this, the relevant chapter of the Commission’s draft withdrawal treaty text is green, confirming the policy is agreed. The key thing here is that the common travel area with Ireland is protected after the UK has left the EU. It is important to emphasise that this agreement is not just what we would like to see happen but actually what we have agreed so far. As a number of noble Lords will have noticed thus far, getting agreement is not always as straightforward as we would like. The Government are committed to turning the relevant chapter of the withdrawal treaty into legally binding text, so we will be doing that. This means that in the future, as now, the UK will not operate routine immigration controls on journeys within the common travel area. There will be no checks whatever for journeys across the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, nor between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As I said earlier, this includes any aspect of what those checks might look like or be interpreted to look like. That is not what will be happening.

To touch on some of the elements raised, I think it is important again—and I will commit to writing to the noble Baroness—to set out the elements of the withdrawal agreement treaty and how they protect the common travel area. I will place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House so that all can read it and see exactly what we are stating.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Wednesday 14th March 2018

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I hope it has been helpful for the Minister.

I made a comment at Second Reading that in preparing for Brexit we should look at the detail—that the fine print was too important to be left to those who had no doubt—and I expressed the hope that Ministers would recognise the expertise in your Lordships’ House. Indeed, Members in the other House said exactly the same.

At Second Reading, the response of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, expressed optimism in that regard. If ever there was a time to listen to the expertise in your Lordships’ House, it has been tonight in this debate. We have heard from a former Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, with his vast experience of Northern Ireland, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who made a powerful speech. We heard from my own colleagues, including my noble friends Lord Browne—he and I were Ministers together—and Lord Dubs. I feel somewhat nervous seeing my two former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland sitting together, watching over me and looking at my back.

Noble Lords have raised pertinent issues tonight that go to the heart of what Brexit is about. The Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement was hard fought and hard won and no one in the House should doubt the importance of how well it has served us. We have had a long debate and issues have been raised tonight purely through people’s knowledge and their concern for what could happen if there is a hard border. I appreciate the points made by the Government about the protection of the Good Friday agreement. I welcome to his place the Minister who is responding tonight but at Second Reading the response of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, did not refer once to Northern Ireland although the issue was raised several times. Clearly that was an error, a mistake, because there were a great deal of issues which had to be talked about. However, I am sure the Minister will understand the frustration at the lack of detail from the Government on what happens next.

The point was made earlier that these amendments should not be necessary. My noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton said that we were holding the Government to account for the solemn commitment they have made and to do what they have promised to do. The Government and the noble Lord at the Dispatch Box have been clear on Northern Ireland: they support frictionless trade, they want a soft border and they support the Good Friday agreement. The noble Lord has been clear that that is the Government’s objective. What has never been clear, and has led to the debate tonight, is how that is to happen.

We heard from my noble friend Lord Hain, when he opened the debate, that there is over 300 miles of border. My noble friend Lady Kennedy said that 30,000 commuters cross the border daily—including for schools and hospital visits—over 400 commercial vehicles cross each month, and 40% of container movements to the Republic of Ireland go through Northern Ireland. There is a huge issue to address and a commitment is required—not, “We want this to happen” or “We believe this will happen”; it has to be an explanation of how we can make it happen.

My noble friend Lord Browne and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to paragraphs 49 and 50 of the joint report produced in December, which are quite clear about why there should be no hard border, but that contradicts government commitments. The Prime Minister has referred several times to her red lines—no single market and no customs union—yet here we are talking about full regulatory alignment. The two are contradictory and that is why some of these concerns have arisen.

Most of the points have been covered in the debate and there is little of great substance that I can add, but I would like to make two points. I do not know if the Minister is aware of the follow-up letter to Karen Bradley signed by noble Lord, Lord Boswell, chairman of the House of Lords European Union Committee, on UK-Irish relations. In paragraph 52 the noble Lord accepts that,

“a degree of constructive ambiguity can be helpful during negotiations”.

He understands that, but he goes on to indicate that we need clarification from the Government of their understanding of what is involved in that December agreement. The European Union has come forward but we have not seen what the Government’s understanding is of how it will work. What does “full regulatory alignment” mean? I think I understand what it means, but the Government seem to believe something different.

The letter also refers to technology. The Government have said several times that they can deal with the border issue by using technology. There are grave doubts about that, as we have heard from other noble Lords in this debate. The letter from the EU Committee reminds the Secretary of State that,

“there is a need for realism … There is also a distinction between identifying solutions that are theoretically possible and applying them to a 300-mile border with hundreds of formal and informal crossings”—

a situation similar to that between Sweden and Norway—

“and the existence of which is politically divisive. Any physical infrastructure at the border would be politically contentious and, in the view of the PSNI, a security risk”.

In our long debate today we have not talked about the security issues, but the Minister who is to respond has to understand that unless he can provide a solution to how there will not be a hard border in Northern Ireland, there remains a security risk to those who fought the hardest to secure peace, a point made very powerfully by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.

Finally, the ideological position on Brexit must be put to one side. In the Mansion House speech made by the Prime Minister just a couple of weeks ago, she showed that she is prepared to take what I suppose is a pragmatic eraser to some of those red lines and smudge them a bit—make them slightly pink—as she has done on the agencies. The time has come when I hope the noble Lord can give the Committee some confidence that the Government understand why these concerns have been raised. It is not good enough simply to say that this is what the Government want; they have to show the intent of how it can be achieved.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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There is a lot to be going on with this evening. I thank all noble Lords for their wide-ranging contributions. I hope that I will be able to do justice to the amendments before us, but let me begin by making a few general observations. We have in this Chamber tonight a number of the architects of the Belfast agreement. The word “architect” is often used. Architects create edifices which we may gaze at, but in truth the noble Lords present in this Chamber were not so much architects as mechanics. They created an engine that needs to be maintained and taken care of. It cannot be left alone in perpetuity; it requires tender loving care on every occasion. That is why a number of the points which have been raised go back to the Belfast agreement.

Let me be frank: the Belfast agreement remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom Government’s policy as they approach Brexit. Further, the Belfast agreement is enshrined in international law, so it has a basis that is broader than simply membership of the EU. A number of noble Lords have made the point that it is our membership of the EU which was a factor in the agreement, and I do not think that that logic can be faulted. Equally, however, a great responsibility now rests with each of the partners as we address the reality of Brexit. That responsibility rests equally with the Government of Ireland, the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union. That is why when we look at the joint report which was published in December, we see that at its heart is a recognition of each of the elements that we have talked about in this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, talked about the response of the EU to that report going forward. If I were being very frank, I would express a degree of disappointment in that for one simple reason. Of the three options that were set out in that joint report, the EU lawyers and negotiators have chosen to take forward only one into the text that we are confronting today. I believe that that is unhelpful.

Northern Ireland: Devolved Government

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Thursday 22nd February 2018

(3 years ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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In response to my noble friend I will happily say that the Belfast agreement is an imperative, essential element of the Government’s policy, and I have no desire for that celebration to fall without an Executive.

Northern Ireland Update

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Baroness Smith of Basildon
Tuesday 20th February 2018

(3 years ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office and Scotland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission I should like to make a Statement about the current political situation in Northern Ireland. Over recent weeks, there have been talks involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, to see if there is a basis for re-establishing the Executive. The UK Government have facilitated and supported these intensive negotiations. We have been in close touch with all the parties, and responded to requests for advice and support.

The Irish Government have also been involved in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the contribution made by the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his team. In addition, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been consistently and closely involved, speaking to party leaders and visiting Belfast last Monday. I have continued to give her up-to-date reports as the talks have progressed.

The aim of those talks has been very clear: to bring about the re-establishment of inclusive, devolved government at Stormont, which Northern Ireland has effectively been without for over 13 months. In so doing, we have been able to build on the progress made by my predecessor, my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who I warmly welcome back to this House today”.

I share that welcome. The Statement continues:

“In the Government’s view both the DUP and Sinn Féin participated in discussions seriously and in good faith, and we believe that progress towards reaching agreement on all the key substantive issues has been made. It became possible in the light of this progress to identify a basis for a possible agreement to allow an Executive to be formed, embracing how the parties ensured the Executive was sustainable and how they reached a balanced and fair accommodation on the difficult issues of language and culture and how this was reflected in a package of legislation. Many other issues were addressed too, if not always resolved. Unfortunately, however, by last Wednesday it had become clear that the current phase of talks had reached a conclusion, without such an agreement being finalised and endorsed by both parties. As I said then, it is important for everyone to reflect on the circumstances which have led to this and their positions, both now and in the future.

What is important today is for me to give some direction as to next steps. First, as our manifesto at the last election set out, this Government believe in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement. We want to see local politicians taking decisions over local matters accountable to a local Assembly. We need devolved government to help deliver a stronger economy, to build a stronger society and to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard as we leave the European Union. In addition we want to see all of the other institutions of the agreement operating in the way that was intended.

I cannot reiterate too strongly that devolved government is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland because it ensures that their interests and concerns are fairly and equitably represented. It is also in the best interests of maintaining and strengthening the union, to which this Government remain fully committed, consistent with the principle of consent. So we will continue to explore with the parties whether the basis for a political agreement still exists, and, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, we stand ready to bring forward the necessary legislation that would enable an Executive to be formed at the earliest opportunity. That is this Government’s clear hope and desire, and something that I believe is shared widely across the House.

Secondly, however, things in Northern Ireland cannot simply remain in a state of limbo. A number of challenging decisions will have to be taken. Ultimately, the Government have a responsibility to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of public services. In particular, as the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has made clear, there needs to be certainty and clarity about a budget for Northern Ireland for the next year as soon as possible. I intend to take steps to provide clarity on the budget and I will update the House as soon as I am in a position to do so. This is clearly not where I want to be, but in the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, I will have no other choice.

Over the longer term, the Government will not shirk our responsibilities to take whatever steps are necessary to provide certainty and stability for the people of Northern Ireland while maintaining our commitment to govern with rigorous impartiality in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. But we will do that only once we are sure that all other viable options designed to restore devolved government have been properly considered, including my current statutory obligation to call an Assembly election.

In the absence of devolution it is also right that we consider the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. At the end of last year, my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup received recommendations on this from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk to the Assembly. The Government will need to decide shortly on the next steps. I acknowledge the public concern that while a number of Assembly Members continue to carry out constituency and representative functions, current salaries are being maintained while the Assembly is not meeting.

On the issue of addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, the Government have manifesto commitments to consult on the implementation of the bodies set out in the 2014 Stormont House agreement and to support the reform of inquests. I would much prefer to do this in the context of an agreement that sees the restoration of a devolved Executive, but I am conscious of the Government’s responsibilities to make progress in this area to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who suffered most during the Troubles. We will continue to proceed toward a full consultation as soon as possible so that everyone can have their say.

As the House will recognise, this April marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Belfast agreement. That agreement, along with its successors, has been fundamental in helping Northern Ireland to move forward from its violent past to a brighter, more secure future, and this Government’s support for the agreements remains steadfast. There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has taken huge strides forward in the past 20 years. In my short time as Northern Ireland Secretary, I have seen a place full of wonderful talent and huge potential, yet any commemorations this year will look decidedly hollow if Northern Ireland still has no functioning Government of its own. So everyone needs to continue striving to see devolved government restored and to build a Northern Ireland fit for the future. That remains the clear focus and determination of this Government”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating today’s Statement, and I say at the outset that we understand and appreciate all the effort required to seek the agreement needed to re-establish the political institutions. The UK Government, the Irish Government and all the political parties have worked hard to try to rebuild trust and deliver a deal. Although this round of talks has ended in failure, I commend all of them for their efforts. But on listening to the Statement, I have a sense of déjà vu and it is hard to understand where, despite all this effort, progress has been made.

I took the opportunity to reread a Statement made last July by the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire; I am pleased to see that he is back in Parliament today. Both Statements, from July and from today, say that progress has been made. Both say that gaps still exist on key issues, but before we were told that they were few in number. We had more information in the last Statement back in July on where progress had been made. Both Statements say that the Government remain optimistic and that a deal is achievable.

Is the Minister to say anything more about where progress has been made this time? When the Prime Minister visited Belfast she said that there was a deal on the table. That was corroborated by the Irish Government and Sinn Féin, but it was then disputed by the DUP. To provide reassurance that progress has been made in the last 13 months, the details of where there was agreement and where gaps remain should be published. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that he will encourage the Secretary of State to commit to providing that detail for the people of Northern Ireland and for Parliament? Only then can there be a real understanding of why the talks have failed so far. Such transparency may offer greater support for those who really want to see the institutions re-established.

I will give the noble Lord a personal example. At the end of last month, on 31 January, the report of the inquiry into deaths related to hyponatraemia was published, 14 years after I set it up as a direct rule Minister, following the deaths of young children. That report makes difficult reading into why those children died. It also makes a number of significant and very important recommendations for action. Some of those recommendations may have been taken forward already and others can be put in place by the relevant authorities, but others need the involvement of locally elected politicians in both the Assembly and ministerial roles, which Northern Ireland has been without for the last 13 months. I use that example because I have a personal connection to it, but it is not the only issue on which Northern Ireland needs its locally elected representatives to step up to the plate. They have a duty to those who elect them. Surely local people have a right to know what the areas of agreement are and the areas of disagreement that remain. They can then raise these issues with the decision-makers and negotiators.

Disappointingly, in the other place the Secretary of State said that this was a matter not for the Government but for the political parties. I put it to the Government that this is a matter which they should discuss with the political parties and, if they refuse to agree to publication, the reasons should be made public. Transparency is now essential.

Some in Northern Ireland are looking to the Government to make difficult decisions and have even encouraged direct rule. Direct rule is far harder to remove than it is to set up. I was told in 2002 by my noble friend Lord Reid that I was going to be a direct rule Minister for around three months. I was then in post for two and a half years and direct rule lasted for three and a half.

Many of us have been alarmed by those who have used this situation to oppose power-sharing and the Belfast agreement. That is a dangerous and reckless approach. The efforts of those from all political parties, here and in Northern Ireland, over time ended a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives. As a former Victims Minister in Northern Ireland, I met with many more who had had their lives changed for ever through injuries and loss. I trust that when a former Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland makes such comments, he is not in any way at all acting with the agreement or even the acquiescence of the Government. I welcome the comments in the Statement about the Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Government fully support the Good Friday agreement as the only viable long-term option for peaceful governance for Northern Ireland, and that the Government believe that its unique form of power-sharing is indispensable?

We have heard the Secretary of State say that she intends to introduce legislation here at Westminster to directly set a budget for Northern Ireland. The Minister confirmed that. They have our support in doing so, though it is deeply unsatisfactory to have unaccountable civil servants taking decisions about schools and hospitals, and the example I gave of the inquiry. However, we acknowledge that resources must be allocated for services to be delivered. Obviously full-scale direct rule for Northern Ireland would regressive.

Political problems are nothing new to Northern Ireland, but the current impasse that has left the people of Northern Ireland without a Government for almost 400 days is a profound crisis. The Government have a clear duty to resolve it, and to preserve the Good Friday agreement and the principle of power-sharing.

Many in your Lordships’ House, and many here today, have been involved in Northern Ireland and retained an affection and an interest. I am sure that we all want the Government to continue to seek resolution and we will support them on legislation where necessary. However, we will hold them to account to preserve the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.