Debates between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen

There have been 36 exchanges between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen

1 Mon 20th January 2020 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,101 words)
2 Thu 16th January 2020 Northern Ireland Executive Formation
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,401 words)
3 Tue 7th January 2020 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (2,240 words)
4 Thu 31st October 2019 Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (328 words)
5 Thu 31st October 2019 Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) (No. 2) Regulations 2019
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (702 words)
6 Thu 31st October 2019 Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
6 interactions (1,484 words)
7 Mon 28th October 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (2,323 words)
8 Mon 28th October 2019 Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,752 words)
9 Thu 17th October 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,599 words)
10 Tue 1st October 2019 Irish Border: Checks and Customs Arrangements
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
3 interactions (524 words)
11 Mon 9th September 2019 Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) (No. 2) Regulations 2019
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,359 words)
12 Mon 15th July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (739 words)
13 Wed 10th July 2019 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,794 words)
14 Tue 4th June 2019 Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 (Extension of duration of non-jury trial provisions) Order 2019
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,203 words)
15 Mon 29th April 2019 Northern Ireland Update
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,203 words)
16 Wed 10th April 2019 Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,817 words)
17 Wed 3rd April 2019 Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,413 words)
18 Mon 25th March 2019 Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
Northern Ireland Office
4 interactions (952 words)
19 Tue 19th March 2019 Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,034 words)
20 Tue 12th March 2019 Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (2,037 words)
21 Tue 5th March 2019 Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Election Expenses) Order 2019
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (866 words)
22 Mon 18th February 2019 Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2019
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,890 words)
23 Thu 14th February 2019 Northern Ireland: Devolution
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (431 words)
24 Wed 28th November 2018 Mental Health (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2018
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (628 words)
25 Tue 30th October 2018 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (3,668 words)
26 Thu 11th October 2018 Good Friday Agreement: Impact of Brexit
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (2,401 words)
27 Thu 6th September 2018 Northern Ireland Executive: Update
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,204 words)
28 Wed 5th September 2018 Northern Ireland: Legacy of the Troubles
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (2,569 words)
29 Wed 18th July 2018 Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (4,884 words)
30 Mon 18th June 2018 European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Department for Exiting the European Union
2 interactions (940 words)
31 Wed 2nd May 2018 European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Scotland Office
2 interactions (827 words)
32 Tue 27th March 2018 Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (2,437 words)
33 Tue 13th March 2018 Northern Ireland Finances
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,379 words)
34 Tue 27th February 2018 Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (1,276 words)
35 Tue 14th November 2017 Northern Ireland Budget Bill
Northern Ireland Office
2 interactions (3,830 words)
36 Thu 2nd November 2017 Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland Office
3 interactions (498 words)

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report: 1st sitting: House of Lords)
(Report: 1st sitting: House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 20th January 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a very good debate, not least because this is the first time in decades that we have heard in this Chamber from both nationalist and unionist representatives in the House of Lords. It is also many years since they have agreed—and that is good. I am delighted to say that we will support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, because it sums up the position of unanimity in Northern Ireland. It sums up the point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that every single business organisation, commercial organisation, trade union and politician in Northern Ireland believes that the substance of these amendments is correct.

It is a matter of mere hours since the Northern Ireland Assembly—happily back again this week—this afternoon passed a Motion declining legislative consent to this Bill, largely because of the issues that we are now debating. That is very unfortunate. On the points made by noble Lords regarding the decision of the Prime Minister and the Government not to accept any amendments at all, I suspect that this has caused the Northern Ireland Assembly to do what it has done. I am sure that that is not the Minister’s view, but he has to do what he has to do. The Government have a majority of 80 and the power to do what they want; but whether they have the right to do that is quite another thing, certainly with regard to Northern Ireland.

However, should we find that the amendment is not agreed to, Annexe A to the New Decade, New Approach agreement published last week says that the British Government commits that

“we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensure that this legislation is in force for 1 January 2021. The government will engage in detail with a restored Executive on measures to protect and strengthen the UK internal market.”

So, we hope that the Government will revisit this. We will look at the strength of feeling in Northern Ireland. We will be able to look again in the course of the next nine months or more; indeed, when the trade deal is being negotiated, we will look very carefully at the implications for Northern Ireland as they have been outlined today.

Before concluding, I will make one final point in relation to the previous debate on devolution. We now have three functioning devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. I am not convinced that the Government have understood the significance of that change in the political landscape. Yes, of course we have to implement this Bill, because the people have agreed by referendum, and now by election, for it to happen. But, at the same time, the Government should do this in co-operation with the devolved Administrations and Parliaments.

There is no evidence that this is happening. Worse, if the Welsh Senedd, or Assembly, decides soon not to give legislative consent to this Bill, as is likely, then Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast will all have declined to support it. That is not good. It is not good for democracy or for our leaving of the European Union. So I look forward to some interesting comments from the Minister on how he can assuage the concerns that have been raised at this afternoon. This is one of the most important issues affecting Northern Ireland—its economic, commercial and business future. We all look forward to listening to him.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, noble Lords may be looking forward to hearing my response rather more than I am looking forward to giving it, if that helps. I will try to address some of the specific points raised but will also make some of the more generic points that I must make; that is something I need to be clear on.

I will start by saying where I believe we are in agreement. We do not want to see a hard border on the island of Ireland; we are in clear agreement on that. We also recognise that Northern Ireland is, and must remain, an integral part of the UK internal market. It is important to stress that this means that there shall be no impediments to the trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about fishermen, and gave the example of Northern Irish fishermen fishing in British waters, landing on the coast of England and then returning to Northern Ireland. There should be no tariffs at all at any one of those process stages; it is important for me to stress that. If the noble Baroness permits, I would be very happy to sit down with representatives of the fishermen of Northern Ireland to discuss this further. I will reach out to Alan McCulla of the ANIFPO body to try to make that happen. I should say “I or my successor,” depending on the outcome of the reshuffle.

It is important to recognise also that there is a new kid on the block; that is true. There is now an Assembly in Northern Ireland and an Executive. It will be important in the calendar year ahead that the voices there are heard loud and clear in the ongoing negotiations that will take place under the arrangements with the joint committee. That will be absolutely essential.

I am also very aware that the business bodies that have written have come together across almost every aspect of the wider economic sectors of Northern Ireland to write as one. It is important that we do not lose sight of what that means. The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked when we would be engaging with these bodies. To a large degree, we have been doing so under a different guise, because there were different elements pre last weekend. But it is now time to say that we need to turbocharge that dialogue. There needs to be a serious dialogue with everybody affected by this reality going forward. It should be not a one-off chat but a dialogue that recognises the evolving situation in the ongoing negotiations as they impact on Northern Ireland.

The important thing to stress in this instance is that our commitment as a Government to Northern Ireland’s place in the union is absolutely unwavering. As I said the last time that I addressed these matters, both the manifesto of my party, which was endorsed by the people, and the personal remarks of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, have given a very strong commitment that we shall ensure unfettered access in the calendar year ahead. It is important also—

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 16th January 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Northern Ireland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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With the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place:

“Mr Speaker, prior to Christmas the UK Government initiated a period of political talks to get Stormont back up and running in Northern Ireland. Following nine months of negotiation and nearly four weeks of intensive discussions over the Christmas period, last week the Tánaiste and I tabled a draft text to all parties and made that text available to the public. The document, entitled New Decade, New Approach, sets out what we assessed to be a fair and balanced deal based on all the discussions between ourselves and the parties and what the parties told us would represent the right deal for Northern Ireland.

I am delighted to tell the House that all five of Northern Ireland’s main parties accepted this deal as a basis to re-enter devolved government. Ministers have been appointed, an Executive have been formed and the Assembly is open for business. Devolution is restored in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister visited the Assembly and met with the Executive on Monday to mark the positive moment of restored devolved government.

I know the whole House will join with me in welcoming and celebrating the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and will join me in congratulating party leaders on their confident decision to make this happen. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my team and the UK Civil Service for the months of work to make this deal happen. I would also like to put on record the debt that I owe to my two predecessors: my right honourable friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands, Karen Bradley, and my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, James Brokenshire.

The Good Friday agreement, signed over 20 years ago, brought with it an unprecedented period of peace, prosperity and growth for Northern Ireland. That progress, however, always has and always will be underpinned by the institutions that it created. Now that those institutions have been restored to full working order, we can carry on with the important business of moving Northern Ireland forward and bringing the people of Northern Ireland together. The institutions for north/south and east/west co-operation can work again as intended.

The New Decade, New Approach deal sets out a range of commitments for the Executive, the UK Government and the Irish Government. It commits a new Executive to addressing the immediate challenges facing the health service, reforming the education and justice systems, growing the economy, promoting opportunity and tackling deprivation. The deal does not seek to restore the Executive for its own sake; it offers real reforms aimed at making it more sustainable and transparent, so that the institutions can begin to rebuild trust and confidence with the public. The deal also gives the Executive a seat at the table when we discuss the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU. It solves outstanding cases which have been causing real concern to families, so that all people of Northern Ireland are treated in the same way when bringing family members to this country, akin to Irish citizens in Great Britain.

Yesterday, the Government also announced that we will provide the restored Executive with a £2 billion financial package that will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and support delivery of the deal. The UK Government’s financial commitment represents the biggest injection of new money in a Northern Ireland talks deal in well over a decade. The funding has already allowed the Executive to pledge to deliver pay parity for nurses in Northern Ireland—the first such intervention in a devolved area—and it will continue to support the Executive to deliver on the priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.

Provided over five years, it will include a guarantee of at least £1 billion of Barnett-based funding to turbocharge infrastructure investment, alongside £1 billion of new resource and capital spending. This will include significant new funding of around £245 million of support for the transformation of public services, including transformation across health, education and justice, and a rapid injection of £550 million to put the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing, including £200 million over three years to help resolve the nurses pay dispute immediately and deliver pay parity.

Alongside this, the UK Government will ring-fence £45 million of capital and provide resource funding to deliver a Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, subject to executive approval. The UK Government will also provide £50 million over two years to support the rollout of ultra low emission public transport, and the agreement will also provide £140 million to address Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. The money will help to strengthen our union and will support the four key areas set out in New Decade, New Approach.

I hope the whole House will join me in welcoming this announcement. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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This is a great and considerable achievement, and I place on record the Opposition’s congratulations, in particular to the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, who has done a fabulous job. He has worked at this extremely hard and in great detail. He really is to be commended for the energy and commitment he has put into achieving this. I also congratulate the Tánaiste and Foreign Minister of Ireland, Simon Coveney. After all, the two Governments brokered this deal with the others whom we must congratulate: the political parties in Northern Ireland, together with the civil servants, headed by Sir Jonathan Stephens, and the others who have made this a reality.

I have personal experience of talks in Northern Ireland. They are never easy. Over the past three years, I and others have been taunting the Minister about the slowness of progress in Northern Ireland, but the Statement brings us great hope. As I said, I congratulate him and his Secretary of State on it.

Some questions arising from the Statement still need to be answered. On the financial settlement, the Minister will be aware that the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister have both written to the Prime Minister with some questions on the £2 billion that the Minister mentioned. He knows, of course, that £1 billion of that is a result of Barnett consequentials that would have come to Northern Ireland anyway. Of the remaining £1 billion, I think that £250 million was planned to come as a result of the deal between the DUP and the previous Government. Can the Minister tell us whether, in his view, all the commitments in the settlement will be dealt with by that £2 billion?

A rather novel institution is also being created: a joint board between the Northern Ireland Executive and the United Kingdom Government. I have not seen this at all in 20 years of devolution, where spending has been subject, if that is what the case is, to a board that represents the reserved powers of the Government here in Westminster and, in this case, in Belfast. Perhaps the Minister could elaborate on that.

We have of course been discussing Brexit in this House for some days. Only yesterday morning, we looked at the issue of Brexit and devolution. I am glad that there will now be a Northern Ireland Executive at the table dealing with the negotiations over our leaving the European Union. However, I hope that, bearing in mind that debate yesterday, that presence at the table will be meaningful and that the Government will actually listen to the Northern Ireland Executive, as I hope they will listen to the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government as well.

One of the central parts of this agreement, of course, is cultural and linguistic matters. I am sure that the Minister would agree, being a Scotsman, that the Scottish and Welsh Governments would be more than happy to help the new commissioners in their jobs to ensure that we deal with these issues.

One thing that really is pleasing in the agreement is that there is now a constitutional and legal mechanism, which I hope will be dealt with pretty quickly, that means an Assembly and Government cannot collapse in the same way they did three years ago. This mechanism will ensure a greater guarantee of stability for those institutions in Northern Ireland.

Despite the questions I posed to the Minister, I congratulate him and the Government on a really great breakthrough.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 7th January 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, the hour is late—perhaps too late to be discussing these grave and weighty matters. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, I hope that next week the Minister will be at that Dispatch Box making a Statement about the success of the all-party talks in Stormont.

All the contributions noble Lords have made this evening have centred on what effectively should be devolved issues: whether it is the state of the health service, which is grave; whether it is higher education in Derry/Londonderry, which my noble friend Lord Adonis referred to; whether it is education generally; or whether it is abortion or same-sex marriage, which could have been resolved by the Northern Ireland politicians had an Assembly been up and running. All these point to the fact that the most crucial issue facing not just Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom at the moment is what is going to happen in Belfast this week.

It has always been the case that something was going to stop it—a local government election, a European election, a general election, Brexit. Two of those things have happened. Brexit will happen, presumably by the end of this month, although my noble friend Lord Hain has rightly pointed out the complications and difficulties that will still face Northern Ireland even after the withdrawal Bill has been passed. Of course they are important issues, but the elections—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce—have followed a pattern over the last few months, starting with the European elections and then the general election. We now have two SDLP Members and one Alliance Member of the House of Commons. We have a change even in this House, with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, who made a very good maiden speech this afternoon. Things are changing, and my guess is that, were there to be an election as a result of no Assembly being formed, that trend would continue. I make no comment one way or the other as to whether that is a good thing; I simply say that I do not think it is like it used to be, where each election was an action replay of the election before it. No, things are changing in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the participants in the all-party talks in Belfast are talking about precisely that change.

I do not know what the stumbling-blocks are. I assume that they are what they have always been: the Irish language, the petition of concern and other issues. I have said many times before that, on the language issue, perhaps an independent commission looking into what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom—in Wales and Scotland, for example—could help matters in Northern Ireland. But none of these things is insurmountable, as they were not insurmountable 22 years ago when the Good Friday agreement was signed. With just under a week to go before the 13 January deadline, I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lord Hain that that deadline has to be adhered to. That is what George Mitchell did with the Good Friday agreement and the other deadlines that followed, because it concentrates not only the mind but the purpose of political parties in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the two Governments which are overseeing these matters.

It is an extremely important week. I think the Secretary of State has done well. He has brought them together in a way that had not happened over the previous months, and we wish him well in the next six days. Even if it means that they have to talk on the weekend before that deadline happens, all of us believe that it is vital we have an Assembly and an Executive up and running and that next time the Minister addresses us it will be with a Statement saying that that has happened.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, thank you for what I hope will be the final instalment of these debates. Again, it has been wide-ranging and thought-provoking. I will seek to answer each of the points raised, but let me quickly state that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will work through the weekend. I think he will be working through the night to try to bring together those parties for the final step that has to be taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, is correct to identify the issues that remain divisive, but other noble Lords this evening have pointed out the issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps they should outweigh the reality of what is faced with those other issues that need to be brought together. I will be very clear: the approaching deadline of 13 January is a meaningful deadline. If there is no agreement to form an Executive by the end of that day, there will have to be an election in Northern Ireland. That will bring with it the reality of purdah and various other elements but it will be the necessary step in moving this matter forward.

We have sought to extend the Executive formation period on a number of occasions, which we have discussed over the past few months. This is now the last step of the last stage, and the deadline has to be meaningful. It should crystallise thinking and ensure that for those who are casting an eye over their shoulder at the result of the last election, as they consider what will come next, it may be an issue which I hope they will use to sharpen their thinking in the last few days.

I will try to address each of the issues that were raised this evening as best I can. I will start with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the question of higher education provision in Derry/Londonderry. The issue at the heart of this is a decision taken by the Executive to cap the number of students. By doing so, they created a problem for provision in Northern Ireland, which is one of the principal reasons why so many students from Northern Ireland end up being educated in the rest of the United Kingdom. That decision needs to be addressed. I have looked with some care at Ulster University’s proposal for the Magee campus for the graduate school of medicine. To coin a phrase, I believe that it is oven-ready, and I believe that it could be moved forward in short order. However, it needs an Executive, or other powers, to move it forward. Again, I believe in endorsing the view that that is the only way to ensure the indigenous retention of medical practitioners; indeed, I will look at other academic disciplines as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, brings great experience to this issue. He is right to observe that the amendments proposed in the other place are cross-party and should be given due consideration either there or here when the Bill arrives. We need to be careful in looking at them and recognise where they have come from. It is important to do that very thing going forward.

On the wider issues of health and health provision, education and education provision, and social provision, as I have said before and as noble Lords have echoed this evening, the statistics in Northern Ireland are ghastly. They are dreadful. Nobody else would tolerate that; I am shocked that Northern Ireland does. It is only because of the absence of an Executive and an Assembly, where these things can be debated with the anger they richly deserve, that they have gone unaddressed for so long. That cannot go on. After the point when we have an election, whatever follows thereafter, this will need to be a priority for any incoming Executive or any responsible Government taking action in this area. That will require funding. It will require sensible administration. It will require action and it will require urgency. All those things will need to be delivered, I believe, in the first half of this year.

As to the more vexatious issues, let me start with the question of same-sex marriage. There will be two consultations, one concerned with the religious notions of the ceremony itself. Those consultations are beginning. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, asked whether the Secretary of State will meet with the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. The answer is yes, of course he will. He will meet with other religious leaders on that point because it is important that we ensure that the structures in place are cognisant of the uniqueness of Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland therefore needs to consider that. I hope that when this consultation opens, which I believe will be imminent—I am torn over using the word; you may interpret that as you wish—or very soon, such consultation will happen.

The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, also asked how children will be taught about this matter in school. That remains a devolved matter but we are in touch with the relevant department in Northern Ireland—the Department of Education—to ensure that guidance for schools is appropriate, adequate and measured. Again, that aspect is important. As I have said on this matter on a number of occasions in the past, there will be no compulsion on any individual to breach what they consider to be matters of their own conscience. That will be reflected in any guidance issued in schools and elsewhere, and is part of the ongoing dialogue.

It is important to recognise that these issues have now been broadly brought to rest. On the question of whether that should have been done in the manner that it was, I do not think that that was the ideal way of doing it either. However, as we have said about health and education and all the other issues, I am afraid that this situation is what happens when there is no functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. It is one of the consequences of that and we are living through it now.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, made an important point. At the moment, I cannot make any commitment in advance of the talks concluding on 13 January. I hope that they conclude positively and I hope that out of them will come the urgency of the mitigation measures mentioned by the noble Baroness. I have spoken of these matters personally with her and in this Chamber. I do not believe that they can be left unattended in the new period; progress will need to be made on them. I am afraid that I can give no further commitment on this matter but I commit to returning to the House in due course to provide a full update on it as events progress to the point where I can do so. I am also happy to meet in person on this matter in the interim period, should that prove useful.

On abortion, a number of specific issues were raised. I believe that when we have discussed these in the past, I have sought to answer them. I will try briefly to touch on some of them. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, asked what law would be cited to protect a woman who was the recipient of a noxious substance administered by an individual to try and bring about the termination of a pregnancy. Sections 23 and 24 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 apply not just in Northern Ireland but across the rest of the United Kingdom. There should be no instance in which this crime is left unpunished and again I stress that this would be a crime and would be punished.

On the availability and purchase of online abortion tablets and pills, it is an offence to sell these products but of course it is not an offence to buy them. I stress that these items can be bought at present. Under the previous regime, the greatest danger was that these pills would be taken by individuals who then could not seek recourse through the medical profession because they would themselves be guilty of a breach of the law. They were placed in the invidious position of taking substances which are unregulated over the internet, and would not then have recourse to medical practitioners to ensure that the consequences were dealt with in a safe environment. That is different now.

I turn to what has happened during this limbo period. It is important to stress again that there has been a slight uptake in the number of individuals who have come to England to undertake these activities. There has been no registered growth in illegal or back-street abortions in Northern Ireland, and attention has been paid to establish whether that is indeed the case. I believe that the rules I set out on the last occasion covered those matters. There is no free for all or Wild West situation in Northern Ireland. There are rules of law which govern both the practice and the administration of medical attention and so forth. I set those out in my previous statement and I will not repeat them at this moment.

I was very clear that the consultation is not about the issue of abortion in itself, but about the framework for the safe delivery of abortion as was agreed in law here. The consultation itself rightly asks specific questions regarding the nature of that framework and does not pose the fundamental questions which have been raised in the debate. It did not seek to do so and those who wish to augment their answers to the consultation were—

Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 31st October 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Northern Ireland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for this opportunity to do so. I agreed to come back on certain specific points. The first was the question of whether the Bill could be included in a wash-up. From speaking with parliamentary lawyers, I understand that the wash-up exists only between Sessions, not between Parliaments, so it would not be possible for the Bill to fit into that category. I understand that there are ongoing discussions at the other end about whether there will be opportunities to take this matter forward there. Unfortunately, I cannot give a commitment here on behalf of the other place but, as I said, I understand that those discussions are ongoing.

It is clear that there has been a very strong consensus—not just one based on the natural rhythm of the House but one that has been adapted to make that point crystal clear. We send that message to the other House with a degree of unanimity, which is perhaps rare in a number of areas, not least in the area of Northern Ireland. On that basis, I hope that it will be received in the same manner in which it has been received here and that the usual channels will reach what I believe to be the right conclusion. However, I cannot commit to that on their behalf, although I wish that I could.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I associate myself with my noble friend Lord Hain and indicate that the Opposition entirely agree with the Government on this Bill. It was, after all, a government Bill—the very first introduced in the House of Lords. We will do nothing at all to obstruct its passage either in this House or in the other place. To the contrary, we wish the Minister and his colleagues well in trying to get this legislation on to the statute book before the general election, because there are literally hundreds of people in Northern Ireland waiting on the Government’s decision on this matter.

Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) (No. 2) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 31st October 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, we, of course, support this statutory instrument and, again, we support it reluctantly. This is the fourth occasion this week that Northern Ireland business has been discussed in this Chamber; this and, indeed, the last item to be discussed this afternoon, are all about the fact that there is no Government in Northern Ireland.

Looking at Scotland and Wales, which have their devolved Governments and assemblies, it is difficult to imagine what outcry there would be in the United Kingdom if democracy were suddenly to disappear from Edinburgh and Cardiff as it has from Belfast. We obviously cannot carry on like this, yet there is a chance—a window of about three or four weeks in January—when all this could change. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has said, it is not really about this or that issue, but more about a lack of confidence and trust between parties in Northern Ireland, and possibly between parties in government.

I agree that the general election could concentrate minds; the issue could itself become an election issue. Whether we can resolve it is another matter, but it will be discussed. Nothing will happen in relation to talks, because of the election and because of Christmas. I just hope that the parties will get together once the Christmas holiday is over, perhaps in a different way with some fresh thinking. As we have argued persistently from this side of the Chamber—it has been argued elsewhere as well—perhaps this could happen with an independent interlocutor; perhaps with a different sort of process; perhaps with the involvement of Prime Ministers, whoever they might be come the end of the year.

Something different has to happen, because we do not want a Minister to come to that Dispatch Box in January and say, “No, it hasn’t worked again”, which would mean that we would have to extend by another three months until Easter. That just cannot carry on. All of us in this place hope and pray that there will be success in those talks. In the meantime, we support the Government.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, as I was listening to this short debate, I was reminded of a poem by Longfellow. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I read a part that seems appropriate:

“Labor with what zeal we will,

Something still remains undone,

Something uncompleted still

Waits the rising of the sun …

Waits, and will not go away;

Waits, and will not be gainsaid;

By the cares of yesterday

Each to-day is heavier made;

Till at length the burden seems

Greater than our strength can bear,

Heavy as the weight of dreams,

Pressing on us everywhere.

And we stand from day to day,

Like the dwarfs of times gone by,

Who, as Northern legends say,

On their shoulders held the sky”.

That is where we are, I am afraid, with dreams gone by. We are literally sitting here considering how to extend through a general election period, which will consume the oxygen in the room. We will then arrive at the other side with precious little time to move forward before 13 January when we will need, once again, to reconvene here and take these matters forward. It is dispiriting, but it is where we are. This legislation is necessary, I think we can all agree. But the reality remains that, during this period, something has to happen.

I note that a number of Lords have spoken about the notion of “minor”. The point is that one person’s minor issue is another’s major issue. If they were all minor issues, I do not doubt that we could have made great progress by now but, sadly, what for one person is massive is for another considerably different. There is a line from a Laurel and Hardy film:

“You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead”.

We can bring the people to the discussions, but we cannot always bring the outcome we want from it. I wish I was in a better position to give you positive statements on this, but I am not going to pretend any more. This needs to be done. We need to get an Executive re-formed. The alternatives are not worth considering. On that slightly downbeat and negative note, I commend the regulations to the House.

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 31st October 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, obviously, the Opposition will support the Bill, albeit reluctantly, because we know why it is in front of us and why it is being dealt with so swiftly. I regret that we have to do this—I think the whole House does—but without it, there would be no money and so we must pass it today, as the House of Commons did yesterday.

Members of your Lordships’ House raised a number of individual issues which I am sure the Minister will address in his wind-up speech. The mitigation of welfare reforms was raised extensively yesterday in the other place, as it has been by my noble friend Lady Lister in this House. We would be grateful for the Minister’s views on something that affects some 35,000 people in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Empey, both raised the issue of the RHI. We look forward to the Minister’s comment on that difficult issue. My noble friend Lord Hain raised the issue of progress on the historical institutional abuse Bill. We look forward to the Minister’s comments, and later this afternoon we will have a bit more detail on that.

One issue mentioned yesterday in the other place which has not been touched on today is that of Barnett consequentials. As the Minister knows, if, during the course of a year, the Government decide to spend money which they had not planned to spend, the devolved Administrations get a proportion of that and it is up to the Administrations themselves to decide how to distribute that money. As there are no Ministers, it cannot be distributed. What has happened to that money and what plans are there to deal with Barnett consequentials?

There is also the absence of proper scrutiny of billions of pounds worth of expenditure in Northern Ireland. We will have spent half an hour on it, and the other place spent about an hour. An hour and a half to deal with the expenditure of billions of pounds is not good enough. The reason for all this, as every Member who has spoken has said, is that there is no Assembly or Executive in Belfast. There were pleas of a sort today for direct rule. That would be an answer, but it would be an inadequate one because, as I have said many times in this Chamber, it is easy to get into direct rule but very difficult to get out of it.

What we have now is a halfway house: semi-direct rule via remote control from London, with no Ministers with direct control over the Northern Ireland Civil Service or decision-making, but a sort of control here in Westminster. That is not good enough and it cannot carry on. Northern Ireland is the only part of our country which is inadequately governed because of what has happened. In the next 10 or 15 minutes, we will consider the statutory instrument regarding further progress in the talks. We must accept the Bill: we have no option but to agree it, but, as I said in my introduction, we do so reluctantly.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I welcome the support from across the House for the Bill. However, I have no wish to be standing here moving it and I recognise that your Lordships have no wish to be sitting here listening to me doing so. I fully appreciate that this will not be possible again.

The Executive formation statutory instrument that we shall consider shortly hereafter reminds us that there is a period until 13 January for the formation of an Executive. If we are unable to do that, I think that this House and the other place will be very reluctant to extend the period further. That will bring us into new territory in terms of what needs to happen next. I should have thought that, at that stage, there will then be an election in Northern Ireland. A lot will depend on its outcome: if an Executive can be formed, we are out of a hole; if it cannot, we are in a hole. Noble Lords here recognise what direct rule would look like and why it is not a preference that we wish to explore. None the less, we are discussing a budget, and certain questions were asked regarding both the budget and more broadly. I will try to answer them in turn.

Touching on comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, both today and in the past, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked whether there has been an increase in funding for the health service. There has been an increase of 3.8% in that funding. However, as the noble Lord conceded, the reality is that that amount of money has not been adequate to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, which require more than a 3.8% increase in funding. Although we have put a further £17 million into an in-year monitoring exercise, that too is inadequate to address these significant problems. Only an incoming Executive, or government by other means, can truly address these issues. The shocking statistic presented yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and echoed again today by other noble Lords, is chilling to consider. That alone should be reason enough for the parties in Northern Ireland to give due consideration to expediting their ability to get that Executive back up and running—I hope that it is. None the less, this budget must go forward.

I want briefly to touch on the renewable heating incentive. In March, I made statements in the light of a heated but sensible debate in this place about the need for independent assessment of the hardship in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the subsequent and serious failures in developing a workable approach to RHI. I made a number of commitments then. I am reminded of the quotation from the Duke of Wellington when he chaired his first Cabinet meeting. He said that he gave them the orders and discovered that they wanted to discuss them. I said very clearly what I felt was appropriate for the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward with, but I cannot order the Northern Ireland Civil Service to move forward on that basis. A protracted discussion then ensued on how to move this issue forward. Steps have been taken, some of which I will rehearse now, but I commit to writing to my noble friend Lord Lexden and placing in the Library a full and detailed assessment of this issue by tomorrow. I will share that assessment, because noble Lords deserve it and should have had it before now.

Let me put on record where we are on this approach. The responsible department in Northern Ireland held a call for evidence between 17 June and 10 July to examine the issues that should be brought forward for discussion. It published the responses to the consultation on 10 October. It has appointed an independent energy consultant by the name of, I think, Andrew Buglass. His responsibility will be to develop relevant definitions of “hardship” and engage directly with the participants, so that each case will be examined to ensure that we have that information. We expect that that will be responded to before the end of the year.

I will put all this in a detailed response to my noble friend Lord Lexden, to make sure that he has the information. I put on record an apology for this not happening beforehand—he deserved it before now. I should have informed the House of the steps being taken before the debate, rather than doing so now. I hope that noble Lords will accept the apology in the manner in which it is given.

Break in Debate

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I do not doubt the resolve of this House in any manner, nor do I doubt the resolve of the cross-party approach to this matter. That was made very clear yesterday and in the exchanges thus far in this debate, and I expect it will be made clear in the debate to follow. On that basis, all I can say is that I will go away, find out more and bring back to noble Lords information that I hope will help everyone to appreciate what is going on.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen
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The Opposition is entirely behind my noble friend on this, but could the Minister look at the point that he made about the wash-up? As long as we pass the Bill later and First Reading is taken in the other place—nothing happens; it is simply received—it could go into the wash-up and be given Royal Assent. That is the specific thing that we are asking the Minister to do between now and 4.30 pm.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am happy to take on that commission from the noble Lord. I will report back on the question of the wash-up and provide any information that I have at that point.

Returning very briefly to the Bill before us, I beg to move.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 28th October 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I hope we can go on, but it is a rather gloomy situation. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, referred to stamina. When he and I first met to deal with these issues, I was 48 years of age. As I approach my 71st birthday, the definition of stamina completely changes.

I say to the House that a lot of very interesting points have been made today regarding issues other than the restoration. In particular, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, talked about legacy. Other noble Lords mentioned the university in Derry and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others raised the health service. In my remarks, I want to concentrate on the restoration of the institutions, because all of those other issues depend on this. The difficulty we now face—and there are always difficulties—is that Brexit still divides. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, made the point very well indeed. The issues of the backstop and Northern Ireland in relation to the negotiations with Europe were central to what has happened in the United Kingdom over the last three years. Had there been a restored Assembly and Executive, I am convinced that they would have worked together and resolved the issues about Northern Ireland. However, it did not happen, and there has been no Northern Ireland voice. That is the great tragedy of this.

Of course, the other issue is whether Parliament will be dissolved in the next week or so. In my experience, every single time these obstacles are raised—the council elections, the Assembly elections, the European elections, the general election—people say they hold up progress in Northern Ireland, but they did not in the past. There is no reason to suppose that they should do so now, but, to be perfectly honest, I wonder whether the obstacles become excuses. The difficulty we face is that the longer we do not have devolution, the more difficult it will be to establish it again. In the words of a number of Members of your Lordships’ House this evening, we drift towards direct rule. The imposition of direct rule, which might or might not be inevitable over the next few weeks or months, tragedy though it is, will make things infinitely more difficult to restore and we are back at square one.

I make no apology for repeating the points that I and others have made about how we think the talks can progress. We raise the issue of an independent chair or interlocutor in every single one of these debates. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has prayed in aid previous Prime Ministers. Others have mentioned a previous President of the United States, Bill Clinton. We could think of people such as Jonathan Powell, for example, who played a huge role in the Good Friday agreement. There are undoubtedly people out there who have sufficient weight and experience and who could be called upon to act as this independent person, so long as the parties agree of course—I understand that.

The talks have no structure or shape to them. It seems that we have to get back to a very tight structure and a proper plan, with an independent chair or interlocutor and a proper agenda on the table. I am not convinced we have, although there have been improvements in the last few months. I repeat that I think the present Secretary of State is doing his level best to try to ensure we get into a better situation, but it has been haphazard. It has been on and off. It has not been consistent or had the ring of proper talks about it. If we do not think or believe that these talks are serious, people in Northern Ireland will not believe that they are either.

Another crucial aspect of this is the role of those at the very top of government. Sir John Major and Tony Blair played an enormous role because they were there. They talked to people all the time, constantly, even in the locked rooms. There has been no evidence at all over the last three years of prime ministerial engagement from either Dublin or London. There has been a bit, but it does not amount to much. Frankly, you need that level of experience and gravitas to move people in Northern Ireland.

There is a role for Parliament, too. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, has consistently made the point that the St Andrews agreement indicates that this Parliament could put the Irish language Act on the statute book. Last Saturday, after Wales nearly defeated South Africa, I watched all of Arlene Foster’s speech. It was an interesting day on the television. I thought that it was very interesting that she was making an overture regarding a new culture Act—or language Act, if you like, because they would be part of each other. If that olive branch is there, people should grab it. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, is right: whatever we think about the abortion or equal marriage issues—they are very controversial and difficult, and I understand all that—in a sense this would take it off the table as regards obstacles that other parties put in the way of getting around the table to talk. A huge amount of experience, not just here in this Parliament but in Wales and Scotland, could be drawn on to deal with a language Act. A commission could even be set up before an Act is passed. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentarians to help out. The more we take off the table, the fewer excuses can be used not to establish the talks and therefore the institutions.

Ultimately, the issue is trust—it always was and always will be—but as co-guarantors, as a British Government with the Irish Government, and as a Parliament, including us in this House, we have to try to ensure that we help restore that trust. Otherwise, all the problems that your Lordships have mentioned will get worse. Worse than that, the progress that has been made over the past two decades in Northern Ireland could be put in serious jeopardy.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, these reports every fortnight give us an opportunity to touch on some of the bigger issues facing Northern Ireland. I will try to take on some of the specific issues raised today.

I will begin with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. She raised very important points. We must speak very clearly on this. I have been told by my officials that the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers does not prevent a senior officer of a Northern Ireland department exercising a function of the department during the period of forming an Executive if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so. If it is in the public interest to exercise that during the period, we must make sure that there is no diminution of that during that period. I will confirm that in writing to the noble Baroness.

A question was asked about whether these reports will continue. To be honest, I am not sure about that myself in terms of what is happening in the other place, but if we do indeed enter into purdah there will be no Parliament here to debate the reports, so the reporting function would be in abeyance. However, I would instruct my officials that we will continue to draft such reports so that they might be available for a continuing or incoming Government, regardless of what happens next. It is important that this information is still actively gathered together.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked about the founding of a university in Derry/Londonderry. The answer, in truth, is that it rests with the institution itself to put forward the case. To date, none has done so. If the university is indeed in such a position it should do just that and put together its case to initiate the proceedings, because nothing can happen until that has been completed. It is a matter of devolved authority but, none the less, the first step will necessarily be taking forward the examination of the business case for the initiation of the establishment of a university. If he were able to facilitate, I would be very happy to sit with the institution and discuss this further. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already sat and discussed with it. I am not privy to that conversation but, if it was not on that point, I am very happy to initiate and have that very clear discussion with that institution if we can.

I will touch on the larger question that rests here today on the formation of an Executive. I am always drawn to the remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, on these matters. As some noble Lords will be aware, I am also a fan of poetry from Ireland:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

… everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

Those noble Lords who know their Yeats will know the bit I missed out. I had to check the exact words, because I always remember the part I read out. The rest of it says:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”.

That is what it means if we get this wrong; the bit I left out is the problem. It is easy to talk about the other bits; it is the bit in the middle that causes us the problem. This is where it becomes very difficult, because I am running out of words to say that no stone shall be left unturned. I am out of clichés about what is going on in Northern Ireland and I want to stop using them.

It is critical that the parties in Northern Ireland come together. If they do not, then in the new year there will need to be an election. I do not know what the result will be. I have no crystal ball. My fear is that it will lead us to where we are now, and thereafter we will take that journey down the path down towards direct rule, spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said on more than one occasion, once we enter direct rule, we do not get out of it. I think that the truth is that the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for change, whether it be in health, education or welfare. They are crying out and no one is hearing them. It is a silent cry for change to come.

I cannot make the parties do more than they are doing. The question has been asked: what is the Prime Minister doing? The Prime Minister met the parties in July. However, there is no point in equivocating around the truth that we sit in the fog of Brexit. I make no excuses for that, and I make no explanations around that. That is where we are: becalmed in the fog of Brexit, waiting for the winds of change to pick up and take our vessel towards that promised land which will be change in Northern Ireland. Yet here we wait. We listen to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about the situation with health in Northern Ireland, and are reminded of exactly what it means to get this wrong. We cannot be becalmed and wait for this to pass. That is the shocking and sad thing about it.

I take a slight issue with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. There is a structure to the talks. We have brought in independent facilitators—although not an overarching, high-profile one—to bring the parties to that point from which we believe that the next step can be taken. If I could quantify it in a meaningful way, I would say that we are 95% there but, like jumping over a chasm, 95% does not get you to the other side. It is that magic 5% that needs to be met, and it rests in the areas with which I am sure noble Lords are very familiar: rights, culture and language, issues which can unite us. The poetry of language can bring us together, yet it can divide us strongly as well. This is the part that remains undone—that remains to be stitched together. If we can find that compromise and way forward on the language matter—it seems in some respects so close, and would be so joyous to get right for all of Northern Ireland—the issues that have been stacking up could be addressed one by one. The greatest danger for an incoming Executive just now is too much to do and too little time. What shall the priorities for Northern Ireland be? How shall we try to establish whether it should be welfare, education or whatever else? Some of these issues have been left waiting to be taken forward not just since the downfall of the last Executive, but for decades preceding it.

I could go on in this regard, but I will not. I do not think that would be useful at this time. I wish I could say that when I come back here, those parties will have found a way forward. However, I do not think that I am going to be doing that in a fortnight’s time, I am sad to say. There may be other reasons why I do not return here in two weeks’ time; I am afraid that I do not know about that either. However, I believe that these reports are invaluable. They have provided us with a platform on which to have this serious debate. I hope that they are heard and listened to in Northern Ireland. I hope that the parties recognise them for what they are: a cry for something to be done, for change to come, for something to be resolved and for the Northern—

Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 28th October 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, just under 20 years ago it fell upon me as the then Secretary of State for Wales to make a Statement in the other place on the north Wales child abuse inquiry, which had been chaired by another distinguished judge, Sir Ronald Waterhouse. It uncovered the worst example at that point of institutional abuse known in our country and eventually led to 72 recommendations, including the appointment of a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, which were then echoed in every other part of our nation.

Today, unhappily, we are considering very similar events. I, with many other Members of your Lordships’ House, pay tribute to the late Sir Anthony Hart, for the tremendously difficult job that he and his colleagues undertook. They oversaw and reported on a total abandonment of trust between adults and young people, and the destruction of innocence and, sometimes literally, of lives. It is a tribute to the then Executive and Assembly that they decided to set up this inquiry in the first place. There is an idea that the institutions in Northern Ireland were not working properly, but this alone indicates that they were. Together, they looked at a serious problem and decided to institute an inquiry upon it. It is not in front of us today, but part of Sir Anthony’s recommendations included a proper full public apology—I gave one on behalf of the people of Wales two decades ago, and, obviously, it should be done again—and the erection of a memorial somewhere on the estate in Stormont. That would be a truly proper recognition of the suffering of all youngsters over all those years.

Today, however, the House is charged specifically with agreeing to the appointment of a commissioner for survivors of institutional child abuse, the establishment of the historical institutional abuse redress board, and a proper system for compensation of the victims of abuse. Of course, the Opposition entirely, wholly and fully support the Government on this Bill, but I ask the Minister to consider some issues with regard to the detail. He might be able to do it now or at a later stage—but not too late, as we have indicated in this debate.

There should perhaps be a look at an immediate acknowledgement payment of £10,000 to those who meet the criteria, followed by a larger redress payment when full details have been clarified. Some have argued that there should not be an upper limit of £80,000, or £100,000 in the Australian case, because there may be some truly exceptional cases which require more, although I understand the constraints on the public purse. The Bill should allow applicants for compensation to request an oral hearing if they desire it—I hope the Government can consider that matter—and should require the redress board to have due regard to the advice that is given to it by the commissioner himself or herself. Finally, the criteria regarding the severity of abuse should take into account the duration of the stay in what were undoubtedly harsh environments.

I entirely agree with all the points your Lordships have made with regard to telescoping the Bill, because we live in unusual and difficult times. On the one hand, of course we need to raise the points I just mentioned and others by way of scrutiny—frankly, we have not had enough scrutiny of Bills in Parliament over the last number of weeks. However, I very much take the point that if we are on the edge of the dissolution of Parliament and a general election, we do not want the Bill to fall. Therefore, the Opposition will absolutely agree with anything the Government can do to ensure its swift passage in this place and in the other place.

The other reason, as a number of your Lordships have mentioned, is that some of the victims to which this applies are now old men and women—as old as me, because they go up to over 70. It is important to realise that, because of ill health and so on, we should deal with these matters as swiftly as possible, not simply because of the progress of the Bill but because some people might die before they can be compensated. We owe it to them and to society in Northern Ireland, as well as in the United Kingdom, to pass this admirable Bill. As I say, the Government have our full support.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, it was remiss of me not to pay tribute to Sir Anthony Hart at the outset of my remarks, and I should like to correct that now. Without his labours in this area, we would not be where we are. We all owe him and his memory a debt of gratitude.

We can move this forward quickly. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we do so, depending on what happens in the other place—perhaps even later today. It would be a useful legacy of this Parliament to deliver on historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland; that would be an inherently good thing to do.

Specific points were raised, and I shall address them at the outset. On the question of the role of the institutions themselves, and sometimes their wider sponsoring bodies, we need to look at how they will be involved. That was one of the elements of the original report, and we will not lose sight of it. The Executive Office will indeed look at it very carefully.

On the question of adequate resourcing, we cannot move this forward without certainty of resource. That is a commitment that we can give here. The money will be met through the Northern Ireland block grant, it will be a statutory obligation and it will be entirely adequate to take this matter forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, asked how much would be set aside for this. Although it is difficult to say without knowing the full number of victims who will come forward, current estimates of the cost are around £243 million, which will be found for this issue. But that cannot be a cap; it will depend on the number of individuals.

The noble Baroness asked a number of other questions which I shall take in turn. The five-year time limit was a direct recommendation of the Hart report—recommendation 90—and agreed by all parties in Northern Ireland. It is important to note, however, that there is no limit on for how long the redress board will function to process all the applications thereafter. However, she is right to point out that it is difficult to ensure that all victims can come forward. That is why one of the key roles and responsibilities of the incoming commissioner will be to use every resource at their disposal to ensure that they identify and promote opportunities for them to come forward. The commissioner must recognise that purpose. The noble Baroness’s more specific question about cohabitation is difficult because it touches on the wider question of family life. We have tried to ensure that the clauses as drafted broadly fit in line with other pieces of welfare legislation. We have tried to be straightforward—in simple terms, trying to ensure that we can do that which is expected under other legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked whether this will be adequately resourced. I should like to assure him that that is fully appreciated and understood. To do otherwise would be, frankly, remiss of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, raised a number of specific points and said that I might need longer to respond to them. I do not: I can respond to each of them right now, I believe. An immediate acknowledgement payment will be made. The individual themselves, if they are eligible, simply has to present their credentials and the money will be paid. Thereafter, a thorough investigation will necessarily take place, increased as appropriate, case by case. Yes, oral hearings will be possible, but not in every case—only where requested by the individuals. We would not want the process to be slowed down by the notion of automatic hearings, but we will in no way try to prevent them when necessary. Will the redress board listen and heed the commissioner? Yes, that is critical. That is the purpose of the commissioner; he must be able to express his views directly to the redress board.

On the wider question of the redress board touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, it is essential that the board is constituted in the most diverse and sensitive manner possible. For obvious reasons, this is a challenging area and we must ensure that the individuals have full confidence in the board’s composition, integrity and functionality.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, asked whether the duration of an individual’s stay in one of the institutions would be a factor. Yes, it will; it will not be the only factor, but it will be taken into account as the consideration goes forward. On the question of an upper limit, at present it is set at £80,000, which can be adjusted on the basis of inflation. This helps us to try to encapsulate the overall costs, but I appreciate his point and I do not doubt that this issue will be revisited at some point in the future. I hope that the noble Lord accepts these responses as being adequate for his purposes, but if not, I will be very happy to write to him to provide the full clarification that may be required before we meet again. I do not want there to be any suggestion that our ultimate progress will be interrupted.

Perhaps I may bring the debate to a relatively straightforward conclusion. I think that there is unanimity in the House on this matter and that I have given adequate responses to all the questions which have been asked. On that basis, I believe that we can move forward using the expedited procedures to try to ensure that we bring together all the elements for the series of stages as quickly as we can. I will be in touch with noble Lords through the usual channels to determine how that shall be so, but it will be done as quickly as humanly possible. For obvious reasons, I would like the matter to be taken care of before the entanglements of any impending or future election. It is right that this is done now, and now we must pass the completed Bill down to the other place as quickly as we can so that it, too, can act with the same expedition as this House.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019: Section 3(5)

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 17th October 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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More is the pity—of course a Speaker should be elected. We should have an Assembly and an Executive up and running in Belfast, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, whose experience in these matters is enormous, that it is not going to happen. However, this short debate is important to deal with the issues in the current Act—and to do so at the time we are debating it.

I have huge sympathy for noble Lords who have spoken about the issues that should be devolved, whether the sensitive issues of abortion and equal marriage, victims’ pensions or the university in Derry. These are all hugely important, of course, and people have different views on them, but I did not spend three years of my time chairing the talks on strand one of the Good Friday agreement, setting up the Assembly and Executive, not to agree with devolution. These things should be for the devolved Assembly and Executive, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, rightly said that is the only solution to this. It is a great pity that they have not been set up before today, because those issues would then be before the Assembly and Executive in Belfast—but it has not happened.

Looking at the events of the past 24 hours, I suppose one thing has changed with regard to how the Government deal with Northern Ireland. It was good to see the Taoiseach and Prime Minister in Cheshire and to hear that they talked on the telephone last night and that relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom are beginning to get better. But one of the tragedies of the past 1,000 days is that the British and Irish Governments could have come together more frequently, maybe delegated by the other 26 members of the European Union. I am convinced that had that happened, the two Governments would have been able to deal with the detail currently being dealt with and the talks would have been more serious than they were. The talks should have had an independent chair and involved all parties equally, and the two Prime Ministers should have bothered to go to Belfast more, because frankly it was farcical when they did. They made only day trips to Belfast, and you just cannot produce results like that. However, I hope they have learned how you can do things from the last week.

I make no comment on the deal other than this. If it eventually goes through, it is partly a result of the Irish and British Governments having actually started talking to each other properly. They are the co-guarantors of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. It is an international treaty lodged with the United Nations and should have been treated as such. We have had 1,000 wasted days with no shape, no structure and no form to the talks, but I am optimistic about the present Secretary of State. He is working extremely hard with his counterpart in Dublin and the political parties in Northern Ireland—which, at the end of the day, are of course key to all this.

I hope Sinn Féin decides that it will engage in proper discussions with the DUP on setting up the Assembly and Executive. I know the DUP plays a hugely important role in all these matters, but I remind your Lordships that it is only one side of the story. In all the arguments about consent we have listened and are currently listening to, both sides in Northern Ireland have to agree. The principle of consent—that you had to get them to agree—was the genius of the Good Friday agreement. I hope that is embedded in any deal.

There is some optimism about the restoration of the Assembly and Executive. If they are not restored, we will come back to this House time and again to deal with issues such as this, which should properly be matters for those elected in Northern Ireland. I still fear that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has been seriously dented by the events of the past two or three years. It is a matter of great sorrow to me personally but, much more significantly, of great sadness to the people of Northern Ireland, who, quite frankly, deserve better.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I begin where I think we need to begin. Everyone in this House are of the same view that we need to restore an Executive in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt about the importance of that, not just going forward, but for what could have been achieved, which we will never know. However, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working tirelessly, and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has recognised that. He has been straining every sinew to try to bring the two principal parties and all the other parties together. In response to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, we have made and will make every effort to bring the five parties together to move that forward.

The challenge, however, is that the obligations of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act fall on the shoulders of the United Kingdom Government early next week. While the Assembly may seek to convene—I do not doubt it will do so—and while I do not doubt that there may be a broader base of attendance than might have been expected, it is unlikely to be able to deliver on those issues that some noble Lords have wished it to do this evening for the reasons raised by my noble friend Lord Caine and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.

I say that with some regret because we all recognise the value of that. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, this is a time when we would have valued that information. But I do not believe that, unless we make some serious progress on Monday, we will face anything other than the reality that the United Kingdom Government will take forward their obligations. That is how the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act was formed. We did so recognising that, once we had taken on the obligation, we would see it through to its fulfilment. Whether that is deemed right or wrong, it is the law of the land and is exactly what we will do.

I shall take some of the points in reverse, as that may be easier. In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, about donations, the issue is that none of the parties has expressed any change in its view about backdating. The sister party of the Liberal Democrats here, the Alliance Party, has pushed strongest and most consistently for backdating, but other parties, notably the DUP and UUP, were keen for this to be a point going forward. Some of the other parties did not express a view on this, but none has changed its view. I am happy to write again to the noble Baroness with more details, but in the recognition that we need to bring this area to rest. I will write on that point.

My noble friend Lord Bates kindly brought the issue back to where we need to focus, for we are here today doing something that should be done elsewhere. As a number of noble Lords have observed, we have seen a deterioration of the situation in Northern Ireland, which is much to be regretted. The political vacuum that exists now will continue to be a problem. What we are doing here today is trying to address certain issues, in but a small moment in time. In truth, until an Executive is formed and the devolution situation works, we will not have adequate governance in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the deal spoken of by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, delivers for Northern Ireland. I hope that that happening will take away one of the principal obstacles to the parties coming back together. We should be under no illusion that Brexit has been a factor in the parties’ approach to the situation. It would be remiss of me not to point that out. I therefore hope that a deal will remove one of the stumbling blocks—not the only one—and allow those parties to return to government, but, at present, we look forward to that, rather than being certain that it will happen.

I now turn to the conspicuous and very serious issue that has been raised by a number of noble Lords. That is abortion. I state at the outset that I believe this matter should have been taken forward by a devolved Executive. I am happy to put that on record once again. It will not be so; it will be taken forward by us. We have debated this more than once, and I want to correct some of the statements that I believe have been made in error.

The five-month period we talked about is the most challenging aspect of this. At the outset, we need to recognise that abortions in Northern Ireland can take place only in a registered clinic. Some have said that this can simply be circumvented if there is but one NHS employee. That is not true. The clinic still has to be registered and the NHS employee taking part needs the permission of the NHS commissioners. That has to be done formally. Therefore, this is not carte blanche for people to create an opportunity in secret, whether in a front street, a middle street or a back street. It was not designed to be that and it will not be that.

Irish Border: Checks and Customs Arrangements

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 1st 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 The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Northern Ireland Office (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, and on behalf of my noble friend Lord Callanan of the Department for Exiting the European Union, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:

“Mr Speaker, we are committed to finding a solution to the North/South border which protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We can best meet these commitments if we explore solutions other than the backstop.

The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This was grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minorities. Removing control of the areas of commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body, over which the people of Northern Ireland have no control, risks undermining that balance. Any deal on Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole or just part—that is, Northern Ireland—being trapped in an arrangement where it is a rule taker.

The Government intend to set out more details on our position on an alternative to the backstop in the coming days. In the meantime, I can assure the House that under no circumstances will the UK place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border. Both sides have always been clear that the arrangements for the border must recognise the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland and, reflecting that, be creative and flexible.

The Prime Minister’s European Union sherpa, David Frost, is leading a cross-government team in these detailed negotiations with Taskforce 50. We have shared in written form a series of confidential technical non-papers, which reflect the ideas the United Kingdom has been putting forward. These papers are not the Government setting out our formal position. These meetings and our sharing of confidential technical non-papers show that we are serious about getting a deal, and one that must involve the removal of the backstop”.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, if there is an ounce of truth in the reports today that the Government’s technical non-paper, or indeed a real paper, dealing with the Irish border is suggesting physical infrastructure or indeed anything that currently does not exist at the border, does the Minister accept that that could compromise the Good Friday agreement, that it flies in the face of the joint declaration of 2017 and that it would break the law as outlined in Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018? Can he categorically tell the House that no such proposals have been considered?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with wisdom on this matter and brings great experience to the question. I can be categorical: there will be no infrastructure at the border. That is the policy of this Government; it continues to be that, and it will be that going forward. As for the technical non-papers, those are matters for discussion with the EU and it would be inappropriate just now to talk further on them, but this House will have ample opportunity in due course to examine them in the thorough and careful detail that I know it will take to do so.

Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) (No. 2) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 9th September 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a short debate and an important one. The Opposition will support the Government on the regulations, for obvious reasons, because appointments in Northern Ireland could not be made unless we did. But the Minister must be aware from the tone of the contributions made in the past hour that this debate is really about the restoration of the institutions in Northern Ireland.

In a sense this regulation is a precursor to direct rule, and we are drifting drearily and inexorably towards that. That would be calamitous. I was a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland for five years. I enjoyed being there, and I enjoyed doing the job—but it was quite improper that I was doing it. If we have direct rule it will mean an English, Welsh or Scottish Minister, or a combination of such Ministers, taking decisions in Belfast for people who live in Northern Ireland. That is wrong, in every democratic sense.

The Minister’s new boss is apparently on resignation watch, according to the newspapers this morning, on the basis that he is—quite rightly—troubled by the fact that if there is a no-deal Brexit there will be, as my noble friend Lord Hain has said, no proper Government in Northern Ireland to deal with the enormous problems that would result from the catastrophe of no deal. We cannot leave the government of Northern Ireland to civil servants in those circumstances.

When the Minister and his Secretary of State go back to Belfast, can he not make it plain to the political parties in Northern Ireland that we are now in a situation totally different from the situation two months ago, and that urgency and intensity are necessary to bring about the restoration of the institutions, because of Brexit? Brexit dominates everything, and during the past three years the Brexit negotiations in Brussels and London have been skewered because there have not been parallel negotiations regarding Northern Ireland. It is my view that, had there really been a resolution of the problems in Northern Ireland, we could have dealt with the backstop in a very different way. If that had happened—if there had been an agreement in the Assembly and the Executive on what to do about Brexit—that would have helped towards the resolution of the whole Brexit crisis. But it was not to be.

There are, of course, those on the nationalist republican side in Northern Ireland who think that continuing chaos on Brexit and no deal would make a drift towards a united Ireland more likely. There are also those on the other side of the political community there who feel that, somehow or other, they become more British if we leave the European Union. I am not saying that those ideas are right or wrong; I am simply saying that they make the resolution of the problems there much more difficult.

As my noble friends Lord Hain and Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, have said, the talks have no shape: there is no structure. Every successful talks process in Northern Ireland has had a proper structure. But now there is none. Over the past six months we have begged the Government to find an independent arbiter or chair. We have begged them to ensure that all political parties sit round the same table to talk about the future of Northern Ireland. And of course, we have begged the Prime Ministers both of Ireland and of the United Kingdom to involve themselves much more intensely in the negotiations, as has happened historically over the last 30 years.

We are in a pretty awful mess—not just the mess of Brexit but the mess of what is how happening in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, and the new Secretary of State will be able to go back within days to Belfast and ensure, in their ministerial meetings, that there is a proper structure to the talks, to avoid the calamity that is on its way.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I have stood here many times and my words are often repeated back to me—and with each passing few months the words become less and less tenable. I said earlier that we need to be very clear that good governance must be at the heart of our ambition for Northern Ireland. I do not think it would be unfair to say that all the parties need to recognise that we are at the very stage when the opportunities for delay are falling away.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked when the parties had last met as a gathering of five. The answer is: in the first week of August. I take no pride in saying that. I do not think that that is much better than the date that the noble Lord suggested. Since then, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been conducting bilateral discussions in an attempt to restore that Executive. One would think, I suppose, that if we cannot restore it now, when such vital issues are at stake, if, against that backdrop, those parties cannot recognise that now more than ever their voices would have been valuable—might, indeed have been instrumental—we do begin to wonder whether those parties will ever find a way through to restore an Executive. And if those parties cannot restore that Executive, which is so needed, for the very issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, other means must be found.

Let me take up some of the points raised by noble Lords today. We are talking about appointments that are necessary, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked how they are pulled together. There is indeed a mix of appointments—both reappointments and new appointments. I can now tell your Lordships how they break down. A competition is due to be carried out for the chair of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company. Open competitions have been carried out to identify suitable candidates for appointment to the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, to the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, to the Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland, the Board of National Museums and the Historic Buildings Council. Competitions are due to be carried out to identify candidates for appointment to the Northern Ireland Drainage Council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Every effort is made to ensure that the people concerned are qualified individuals. I am aware that there may be some controversies about some of the earlier appointments; we may come on to that in our later discussions. I am aware that some remarks were made about the Drainage Council. In truth that is a vital body, because it looks after waterways, sea wall defences and so on. I cannot think of anything more important, as we consider climate change.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, asked again about the role of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I believe that if we do indeed find ourselves in the darker waters of direct rule, that will be a vital component. As for the involvement of the Irish Government with these appointments at present, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord McCrea, are correct: these are domestic matters and would not involve that external consultation. However, I recognise the point they are making, which is about finding the greatest consensus in the communities of Northern Ireland; I believe that is exactly where they are coming from.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has put forward a Bill to examine the NHS in Northern Ireland. He is right to raise that subject. Professor Deirdre Heenan has written a devasting report which is, for any noble Lord who takes the time to read it, very troubling, for obvious reasons. This is an area of fully devolved competence that is in a bad state of play. We have made every effort that we can within the constraints that we face, but at the same time we are limited in what we can do on this issue. I commend the noble Lord as he brings forward that Bill, and I hope that we are in a position to address it as a matter of some urgency.

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 Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 15th July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen
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That is because we are not dealing with Brexit at the moment, but with Northern Ireland. Had we resolved the Northern Ireland situation over the past two years, we would possibly have resolved the backstop issue. Had we done that, Brexit could have been much easier. However, the Government have not been negotiating well on either issue.

I do not hold huge confidence in our new Prime Minister—assuming it will be Mr Johnson—or his interest in Northern Ireland. However, I hope that the Secretary of State, whoever that might be, will be able to concentrate on the issues in front of us. The Irish and British Governments are joint guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. They must therefore do an awful lot more over the coming weeks to ensure that these dates are met.

We have suggested, for example, that there should be an independent adjudicator or chairman such as George Mitchell, and all-party meetings—not just meetings of the two parties—to resolve these issues. Above all, there must be constant pressure on the two Governments, who must constantly be present, at the highest levels in Belfast to resolve this situation. There is always a reason why we cannot come to a conclusion in Northern Ireland—there always has been: elections for this, elections for that, marching season or whatever it might be. We cannot go on like this. Of course, the Bill as it stands means that we can go on to January, though I hope we will not have to do so. But Parliament is losing patience in all this.

Decisions must be made in Northern Ireland by Ministers of one sort or another. I would be utterly opposed to the reintroduction of direct rule. As a former direct rule Minister, I always felt that I should not be taking those decisions. But we cannot go on like this. That is why the Opposition will support the Government on this issue and not, I fear, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his noble friends.

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, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said that Parliament is losing patience. It is more serious than that. The people of Northern Ireland are losing patience with this process. In our Bill today, we seek to give a little more time—to extend the deadline that falls in August to October, with the potential for an extension onward to January. In so doing, we recognise the value of a deadline; it is required to ensure a consequence for those at the table if there is a failure. The first step, if there is indeed a failure, will necessarily be an election in Northern Ireland and thereafter, that step that none of us here would wish to take: towards direct rule.

My noble friend Lord Cormack puts forward his amendment in the correct spirit, as he always does in these matters. In many ways, I welcome what he is trying to do: he is exactly trying, as we have tried for some time, to give space for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach the necessary steps and conclusions to form an Executive. But there comes a point when you cannot keep kicking that can down the road. The parties in Northern Ireland must recognise that there can no longer be an absent Government, or a situation in which we here are called upon to do the bare minimum to keep ticking over the Government and governance of Northern Ireland.

I believe these deadlines give enough time for those parties to come together—and they are close together—and to reach the resolution they require. If they fail to do that, we will have to act. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today travelled back to Northern Ireland to try to move these matters forward. There can be no let-up in the pressure or, indeed, the presence. I welcome the contributions of all noble Lords in this debate and previous debates to try to move these matters forward. Ultimately, this is a matter for Northern Ireland. While I understand the sentiment behind the amendment —to give that little bit more time and that safety valve, should it still be required—unfortunately, I do not on this occasion believe that that will deliver. Only a deadline will deliver, and I believe that deadline should be sooner rather than later. I recognise the landscape in which these deadlines fall; it is not where we wish to be.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 10th July 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen
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If Sinn Féin has the interests of Northern Ireland at heart, I will give a couple of examples of why it should come back. At the moment, outstanding issues in Northern Ireland include: compensation to victims of historical abuse; a strategy to deal with bovine TB; a decision to reduce the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals; university tuition fees; the mergers of schools and hospitals; the reform of adult social care; pay rises for National Health Service staff; and the cruise ship terminal in Belfast. Issue after issue after issue has already been discussed. If Sinn Féin does not agree with that, it has to be pointed out to it, and that is for the Government and the other parties to do. If equal marriage and, obviously, the Irish language are the only issues that Sinn Féin is concerned with—everyone knows that the problems surrounding those issues are huge—then better if it is all a sham. If, at the end of the day, they are saying, “We’ve got what we wanted because the British Parliament has given it to us so we’re not going to bother any more”, there is no hope at all for the future—none. We can have an Assembly and Executive formed in Northern Ireland only if there is agreement.

Before the noble Baroness intervened on me, I was going to mention the position of the Government. The amendments introduced yesterday were not government amendments but, with such a big majority, clearly lots of MPs from different parties voted for those things. The Government should now be in a position to go back to Northern Ireland, talk to the parties—quite rightly since, as we have seen here today, some of them are really aggrieved by what has happened—and explain that more and more of this will happen unless there is a devolved Assembly and Executive. That is difficult, of course. There will be Brexit, a new Prime Minister and probably a new Secretary of State. There are the holidays, and then there is the marching season—all things that prevent progress on these issues.

I tell your Lordships one thing: if I had given up in 1997 when we were dealing with the Good Friday agreement because I did not think there would be an agreement, we would not have had one. The same goes for the other agreements that eventually followed. If we had thrown our hands up in the air and said, “We give up. We’re not going to deal with this. We’ll never get it done because the divisions are so deep”, nothing would have happened. Yet we got that Good Friday agreement. The current situation is a dereliction of duty by the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, that have not taken their place in the Assembly. That is part of the Good Friday agreement, but they are going against it and breaking it by not being Members of the Assembly or the Executive, and that should be pointed out to them.

Who will do the pointing out? There will, I assume, be a new Secretary of State, but I think there should be a facilitator—a George Mitchell; a chairman, if you like—at this delicate time, particularly when the Government are in chaos because of Brexit and new Prime Ministers. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, was very valid: everyone has to be involved in these talks. Only when you can bounce ideas, resolutions and suggestions off different people will they work.

I am not happy that we are in a position where we may not see an Assembly over the next few months—far from it. I chaired strand 1 of the talks on setting up the Assembly; I had to deal with every single detail of it, month in, month out, because it was so significant to the success of the process. I am deeply disappointed and distressed that we are nearly three years in and do not have an Assembly. But beware: if we say, “We’re not going any further with these talks”, we will have direct rule. I think my noble friend Lord Dubs and I are the only direct-rulers, as it were, in the Chamber today. I did not like the role I took: I was a Member of Parliament for a Welsh constituency taking decisions on behalf of 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland. It was not right that it happened then and it will not be right if it happens again. If there is direct rule, though, what we saw yesterday in the House of Commons will be repeated time and again on all the other issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland.

This is in the hands of the Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland. I accept the point about Sinn Féin and the fact that it has got one of its demands, but at the same time it is in the hands of the parties and the Government to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Let us get an Assembly and Executive up and running in Belfast.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this has been a long and, I might add, challenging afternoon in many ways. I shall try as best I can to engage with each of the issues as they have been presented.

The first thing that I think we can all agree on is that devolution is needed now more than ever. It is self-evident that the absence of devolution is why we are sitting here today to try to resolve these matters. There is no doubt that, were these decisions being discussed in Northern Ireland, those in the chamber would immediately understand the issues. The media and the wider community would be involved, integral and essential. That is what devolution is meant to be. However, we do not have devolution.

Looking at some of the issues which have come to the fore in the debate, you cannot define Northern Ireland by two issues alone. Any attempt to do so is to miss the point of devolution. I listened to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and others who spoke about the communities themselves and what they need. I read the report of the professor from Northern Ireland and recognise the challenges in the health service, and I wonder why that issue is not front and centre in the discussions, with demands for amendments to be moved forward to sort it out. It is critical for Northern Ireland.

If the parties can use the time made available by this extension to return to not just the talks but the formation of the Executive, these decisions will not rest in our hands or the hands of the other place. They will rest in the hands of the democratically elected Members of the Assembly. Anything which can take that forward is important. The Bill itself is straightforward and remarkably simple at heart. It aims to ensure that there is adequate time available to the parties in Northern Ireland to continue those talks to resolution and complete the discussions to the point at which an Executive can be formed.

There is no point pretending that the landscape between now and Christmas is an easy one to cross. It is not. The next few weeks alone carry with them various points in the calendar which are of such importance to people in Northern Ireland. Changes will take place in my own party, which will no doubt have an impact—I cannot even tell you whether I will be the Minister taking these matters forward by the time we reach August, because I do not know. Then we face the reality of the findings of the RHI inquiry which will be presented. We recognise the challenges of Brexit and the approach to it. Each of these will make it more challenging, but that is not the point.

The parties need to come together because the issues are about more than just abortion, same-sex marriage or the other issues which emerged from yesterday’s debate in the other place. They are the bread-and-butter issues listed by various noble Lords, which have gone untended. The reality remains that, until an Executive is formed, they will remain where they are now: in a mad, limbo world where nothing which can and should be done in Northern Ireland is done. That is what we face.

As several noble Lords suggested, if we are unable to re-form the Executive, then what we saw in the other place yesterday will be the beginning of a wider, drip-by-drip intervention in Northern Ireland on issue after issue. Decisions will be taken not by the elected Members from Northern Ireland, although some will no doubt be present, but by the wider Parliament. They will do this on the basis of issues which may not be critical to Northern Ireland.

The remarks of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, reminded me that I am astounded by how many newly qualified experts there are on Northern Ireland; they seem to emerge with each passing debate. Their knowledge is vast and their experience great, but their residence time in Northern Ireland can be measured in minutes, sometimes even less. We hear time and again from people whose experience is, sadly, far too limited for the sorts of discussions we face. We need to find a way forward.

Turning to the notion of an Assembly, an Assembly can be reconvened now. That is not at issue; it could be done. The problem we face is that it must be able to secure a Presiding Officer and it needs to be an Assembly of the communities. It cannot be an Assembly reflecting the views of only one side, because that takes us back to where we began. If we hear the voice of only one side, we create a greater problem for ourselves.

On the talks, there have been a range of discussions about how we can move these matters forward. In truth, I believe there is positivity. I hope that the remarks of certain noble Lords today are not reflected in the negotiating room, but I recognise the challenges they represent.

There is the discussion about whether there should be a facilitator. It is important to stress that in putting together these talks, for the first time we have brought in six independent individuals to chair the individual strands, to try to bring this together. We have done the best we can to provide the right facilities to bring these talks to fruition. The rest will rest in the hands of the principal parties there. I believe that the distance between the two sides is remarkably small, and the things which unite the two sides, the bread and butter issues of Northern Ireland—

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 (Extension of duration of non-jury trial provisions) Order 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 4th June 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will join me in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, all the very best.

Recalling my first visit to Northern Ireland as a youngish shadow Minister 24 years ago, the situation was hugely different from what it is today. There were Diplock courts, of course, and juries before that had been severely intimidated by paramilitaries from both sides. Extreme sectarianism meant that that you were not guaranteed, in the proper sense of the word, a fair trial if that trial was to be held with a jury. As the Minister said, Northern Ireland is a very small place and it was even smaller, in population, in those days. We had to have these necessary evils: there had to be some system which meant that justice was fair and outside the realms of intimidation. It is also fair to say that between that time and 2007, when the Diplock courts went and the new system came in, we saw an enormous difference in Northern Ireland. The landscape changed considerably. Not least of this, of course, was that the nationalist and indeed the republican communities began to accept the criminal justice system and the police system, so that people from those communities sat on the Policing Board and involved themselves with the PSNI as well.

So there were huge changes. The Minister touched on the fact that in recent times—the last couple of years in fact—non-jury trials in Northern Ireland have become a tiny proportion of the whole. In 2016 there were only 12 non-jury trials out of 1,640. In 2017 it was nine out of 1,409. Those figures clearly indicate that there has been a huge shift in what happens in Northern Ireland. He is right, of course, to say that the security situation in Northern Ireland is still such that, at the end of the day, you cannot totally rule out a trial that would be unfair because of intimidation or extreme sectarianism. The points made by my noble friend Lord Reid and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, are very significant in terms of working out when we will actually see the complete end of non-jury trials in Northern Ireland.

Of course, in a general sense it is about security, and if the security situation improves to such an extent that they are unnecessary, then it will change by the next time we look at this legislation, in two years’ time. But we have to be a bit more scientific than that; as long as you have a system which is different from the rest of the United Kingdom—indeed, from the rest of Ireland—Parliament should be informed as to how and why it should continue, if it does. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how the oversight occurs and how this might eventually end.

The other issue is that, so long as there is political instability in Northern Ireland, the possibility of terrorist activity, which we have seen over the last couple of months and even in the last couple of weeks, fills the vacuum of political instability, albeit nothing like how it used to. But it is still there. In that context, I am sure the Minister can reassure the House that the talks in Northern Ireland are going well and that there is a possibility that the institutions might be brought back—bearing in mind that it is not long before the marching season and the holidays are upon us, which is always a reason why we cannot do things in Northern Ireland. The fact that there is political stability hopefully means at the end of the day that the dissident republican threat, if not evaporating, is certainly very much less and that, as a consequence, normalcy can come to Northern Ireland and all trials in Northern Ireland, where relevant, can be trials with a jury.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords for recognising the need for this extension and that it is not the choice or preference of the Government to pursue this route. Were we in different circumstances, we would not be countenancing non-jury trials in Northern Ireland. But circumstances are different and we need to be cognisant of what those differences mean for the fairness of the trials themselves.

I too wish the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, a speedy return to the Chamber. He made the important point that paramilitarism, with which we are so familiar, has evolved. It has now become a gangsterism. It has moved from just being men wearing uniforms to being a corrosive element in so many communities in Northern Ireland. Many of these communities are close knit, and intimidation can be exercised in the most insidious and secretive of ways. That is why we need to recognise that a trial must be fair. In those circumstances, we must recognise that intimidation, tampering or any of the other means by which juries or witnesses can be affected must be taken into account in the exercise of justice.

I do not doubt for a moment—here I return to the comments made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames—that the judiciary in Northern Ireland has borne a significant burden. Those here who have practised law, especially those who have served on various judicial Benches, will recognise what a challenge that is. To do so in Northern Ireland is to embrace a different world, where traditional family life is disrupted on a daily basis. The fact that it exercises justice in an impartial way is to its credit, and the fact that it is willing to do so under what are sometimes the most perverse and difficult of situations is a tribute to it. I join the noble and right reverend Lord in paying tribute to it for the work it does and the duty it displays in the service of its country.

It is important to touch upon two key aspects that have come through in this debate. First, while accepting that there will be an extension for two more years, by what criteria will we ever be able to establish when we have moved beyond this moment in time? This is important; when I spoke to my officials this morning, that was the very issue about which I too was concerned. It is not enough to say, “When things get better” or wave your arms and say, “We will know when it is time”. There needs to be a suite of very clear criteria.

I can set out certain criteria to your Lordships today. Clearly, the warning about security in Northern Ireland is critical. That is based upon a whole series of assessments conducted by various organisations and bodies in Northern Ireland. That is quite a delicate thing to establish, because it is very easy to use the word “severe” but very difficult to then quantify how you got there. Clearly, we need to move to a situation in which the exercise of justice can be undertaken without threat. That can be done only when we reduce the various gradations down from “severe” until we reach the “normalcy”—the very word used by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy—of everyday life in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Update

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 29th April 2019

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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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 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:

“Mr Speaker, with permission I wish to make a Statement about the political process in Northern Ireland. Last week I came to this House and delivered a Statement in the aftermath of the sickening attack that led to the death of Lyra McKee. The day after both the Prime Minister and I attended her funeral at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast along with political leaders from across Northern Ireland and Ireland.

It was, as many right honourable and honourable Members will be aware, an incredibly emotional and touching event where I heard moving and powerful testimonies from Lyra’s family and members of the community. That was a day to grieve and a day to reflect on a brilliant young life that was cut down by terrorism. All of us heard a clear message that day from inside the cathedral from the powerful testimony of Father Magill, from the streets of Creggan and Londonderry and from Northern Ireland’s political leaders: no more—no more violence, no more division and no more delay. Northern Ireland’s political leaders must come together now and work together to stand firm against those who oppose peace and the political process and work to build a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland and her tragic death cannot be in vain. All of us must take inspiration from what Lyra achieved in her life and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone. As Secretary of State, I have always made clear that my absolute priority is to see the restoration of all the political institutions established by the Belfast agreement. The Belfast agreement has formed the bedrock of peace and progress here since it was reached just over 21 years ago. It must be upheld and it must be defended from those who would seek to undermine it. Northern Ireland needs its political leaders to stand together and work with each other now more than ever. That is why in Belfast last Friday I called formal political talks to restore the Executive commencing on 7 May. Those talks will involve the UK Government, the five Northern Ireland political parties which are eligible to form an Executive and the Irish Government for matters on which they have responsibilities. They will be conducted in full accordance with the Belfast agreement and the well-established three-stranded approach to which this Government remain committed. There will also be a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 8 May.

There is much to do and many challenges ahead. It is incumbent on all of us to do all that we can to make these talks a success. Northern Ireland needs its Government back up and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. From now until the start of talks, my team and I will be working with the parties on an intensive period of preparation for those talks.

Both the UK and Irish Governments have been clear that we will do everything in our power to make these talks a success, but we cannot do it alone. No Government can impose an agreement from the outside. We need Northern Ireland’s political leadership to do everything they can to ensure that we emerge with an agreement to restore the Executive and build a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. We have a narrow window in which genuine progress can be made and we must act now.

I hope that all Members of this House will appreciate that, to give these talks the best chance of success, there is a responsibility on all of us to give the parties some time and some space to talk. While I will of course seek to keep the House updated, I will not provide a running commentary on negotiations. However, I will be doing everything I can to give these talks the best possible chance of success. I know that all of us in this House and in the other place want to see these talks succeed.

This week has been a difficult time for us all. The murder of Lyra McKee was an attack not just on Lyra or our police service; it was an attack on us all. Since that sickening attack in Derry, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown great leadership in standing up together to reject violence, but now it is time for us to go further. The best possible way of showing those who oppose peace and democracy that their efforts are futile is for all the political institutions of the Belfast agreement to be fully restored and functioning, as was intended by those who reached that historic agreement 21 years ago. The stability and safety provided by the agreement has allowed Northern Ireland to thrive. Northern Ireland is now a leading destination for inward investment, unemployment is at a record low and employment at an all-time high.

Northern Ireland needs a devolved Government to allow for local decision-making, to continue to strengthen the economy and to build a united and prosperous community. I will do all I can to make that happen. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, political vacuums in Northern Ireland are often filled with violence, and the wicked murderers of Lyra McKee used the absence of the political institutions in Northern Ireland to maintain that the Good Friday agreement was dead—that it had failed. However, the death of a courageous young journalist and the admonition in the cathedral of Father Magill have rightly reminded politicians that progress now has to be made.

Therefore, on these Benches we welcome the Minister’s Statement and we wish the two Governments—who are, after all, the guarantors of the Good Friday agreement—and all the political parties in Northern Ireland well. However, there has to be a fresh commitment and a fresh determination, and different ways of negotiating and talking. I believe that there has to be an independent chair of the proceedings, and all-party round-table meetings involving not one or two parties but all the parties engaged with the Assembly, and there must be, when the time comes, proper ministerial involvement by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. None of those things has happened over the last months but now they must.

There must be no more part-time negotiations, no more telephone calls, no more complacency and no more throwing your hands in the air and saying, “Oh well, the parties won’t agree”. I assure your Lordships that those of us who were there 21 years ago—there are a number in this Chamber—did not agree originally, but they did in the end. Therefore, for the sake of generations of young people in Northern Ireland to come, they have to agree again, and I hope that the Minister will take these points back to the Secretary of State. Despite what the Minister said about there being no running commentary on the negotiations, it is very important that Parliament is frequently kept up to date on them as they take place.

Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 10th April 2019

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much support this Motion. It is necessary and it means that we can move ahead over the next few months to try to get a resolution. It is not about a no-deal Brexit situation, but it is about Europe in many ways, because we could have resolved the issue of the backstop if there had been an Assembly and an Executive in place. I believe that the nationalist and unionist parties in Northern Ireland would, over a period of two years, have come to an agreement. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is central to the negotiations over the European Union and Brexit. Brexit has polarised opinion in Northern Ireland in the same way that it has done in Great Britain, except that there is a Northern Ireland tinge to it.

Sinn Féin and republicans believe that Brexit will enable a united Ireland. Only this week, the president of Sinn Féin said that she believed that we would see that united Ireland very quickly because of Brexit. The unionist community in Northern Ireland purports to speak on behalf of the whole of Northern Ireland, whereas 56% of the electorate of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The failed negotiations in Brussels, therefore, are intimately linked with the failed negotiations in Belfast.

The problems have been mentioned many times in this Chamber, and I will repeat them, because I hope that the Minister will engage the Secretary of State on the issues that are important by way of process over the next few months.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Taoiseach has been sufficiently engaged in trying to solve the situation in Northern Ireland. There is a mechanism: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was part of strand 3 of the talks leading up to the Good Friday agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said, the guarantors of the Belfast agreement are the two Governments. I suppose it is a matter of debate as to whether the Prime Minister’s involvement would be beneficial or not; the point is that she is the Prime Minister. We would not have seen progress in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years had not successive Prime Ministers, from John Major onwards, been intimately involved in negotiations. There is no evidence that that has occurred in the last couple of years. Insufficient time has been given to the negotiations, if we can call them that, over the last two years.

The other day I heard the Secretary of State giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee. I do not for one second deny her sincerity or purpose in wanting to resolve the issues of Northern Ireland. However, in answer to a question from Lady Hermon she said that she spent one day a week in Northern Ireland. You cannot make peace in a part-time way. We would never have got the agreements—Good Friday, St Andrews, or any of them—unless there had been much fuller engagement by the British Government. You cannot make peace by making telephone calls—you have to meet face to face and engage in round-table, all-party talks. There is no evidence that over the last two years the parties have faced each other to discuss the issues that confront them.

There has been no attempt to get an independent chair or facilitator, in my view; the Minister can tell us whether there has been. We need them because people, rightly or wrongly, believe that the DUP cannot be an independent arbitrator, because it has an agreement with the Government. I do not think that the Government deliberately set out to be partisan for one second, but it is a perception, so an independent chair or facilitator is essential. It seems that there has been no plan, structure, timetable or shape to the talks to set up the institutions in Belfast, which should have been concluded long ago.

It is not all the Government’s fault—obviously, the parties have to take their share of the blame. Sinn Féin, which was a signatory to the Good Friday agreement, is breaking it by not taking part in strand 1—by not taking their seats in the Assembly or having Ministers in the Executive. Obviously there was an issue with the DUP on the RHI scheme, which caused a collapse in confidence as well, but it is prepared to have no preconditions to go into talks, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said. However, important issues were dealt with and need to be dealt with. No—we are drifting towards direct rule as every week and month goes by, and if that occurred it would be a disaster.

As I have said many times—the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, touched on it today—Northern Ireland is the least democratic part of our country and of the European Union. No nationalist Members of Parliament, or, for that matter, Members of this House, take their seats; there is no Assembly or Executive to deal with the important issues of education, health and all the rest of it; and people have to rely on councillors, who are members of local authorities that have less power than their counterparts in Great Britain, as the only existing democratic institution in Northern Ireland, which is a disgrace. There has to be more intensity about the talks, more energy and commitment, and more evidence that the Government have an actual plan. I therefore hope that the Minister, who I know is very attached to his job and committed to bringing about devolution in Northern Ireland, can perhaps tell us what that plan is.

The Minister touched on one example: the two committees of MLAs which the Secretary of State will meet. That is a start. It does not go as far as the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about bringing the Assembly together—which is possible: I did it when I was a Minister in Northern Ireland and I am sure it could be done again. The absence of the Executive and the Assembly and the possible destruction of the Good Friday agreement because of it, is a hugely serious matter which, at the moment, is taking second place because of what is happening on Brexit. The collapse of those institutions is important not only to the future of Northern Ireland but to the future of the United Kingdom as well.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this has been a short debate but, as always, instructive and thought-provoking. I am reminded that 21 years ago to the very day, 19 unforgettable words were stated:

“I am pleased to announce that the two Governments and the political leaders of Northern Ireland have reached agreement”.

I would love to be standing here before you to say that very thing, but I cannot.

I believe there is support for the extension: that it is seen as the least worst option of the three on the table. I think that around this House there is general acceptance that those five months may yet afford an opportunity for the parties to come together and for an Executive to be struck. I think it is accepted that that is the least worst option before us.

A number of other points were raised today, and let me address them as best I can. Noble Lords will recall that, in the past, my noble friend Lord Cormack and others spoke of bringing together the Assembly in some capacity and said that that could well have an influence on events. I also recall that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said more than once that, truthfully, had there been an Executive and a fully functioning Assembly, there would have been a change in the weather over Brexit. I agree: I think that is correct.

I said at our last gathering that we should find a way to discuss the notion of an Assembly in that capacity, and I will make sure that we continue that idea: that we find time to see how we can advance that and bring something comparable to discuss. I think there is merit in that. As is rightly pointed out, we see in Northern Ireland the least democratic part of the United Kingdom.

As to the question of a facilitator, the words I cited at the outset from George Mitchell are a reminder of what someone can do when they are able to bring the parties together. The role of a facilitator is under active consideration, and I believe that we will move forward on it in the coming weeks and months of the five-month extension.

Noble Lords are correct to point out that it is very difficult for the Government to appear entirely neutral when so many noises off suggest otherwise. Perception can in many cases be more challenging than the reality. We need to find a way to explore that to bring to bear an opportunity of trust restoration which can, one would hope, bring about the breakthrough that we all need.

In Northern Ireland, there are plenty of individuals at whom one could point fingers and say, “If only you had done more”. I suspect that everyone could do that, pointing in very different directions. The challenge before us today is: what can we do now to move things forward? Five months is a very short time. Five months would be a challenge at the best of times. Five months today, with all that is going on around us, not just in Northern Ireland but beyond, is a reminder of the challenges we face.

As we look at those challenges, we recognise what five months means. It is only a few weeks until we begin the marching season. We have the local government elections in Northern Ireland, which will place stresses on the body politic. We have Brexit, ever present, looming over us. Each of those challenges us to bring about the very thing that we all so clearly wish for—that all parties seem to wish for, yet cannot find the magic moment to come together to break through the wall that has separated them. That is a frustration.

A number of noble Lords made points about the Assembly. I will do all I can to see how we can move that matter forward. I believe that the time for a facilitator is fast approaching, and that we need to figure out how to make it so.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about unaccompanied asylum-seekers. I do not have the information to hand but, if he will allow me, I suggest that we sit down together and discuss that point when I have more information to hand. That would be useful and I would be happy to share the results with noble Lords after our meeting.

In listening to the debate, I am conscious of how many times I have stood here, trying my best to explain what appears to be inexplicable. None the less, we have to recognise that we are where we are.

Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 3rd April 2019

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is estimated that 3 million to 4 million people are currently watching BBC Parliament. I rather fancy that today their attention will be drawn to the other place, and that they will have to listen to our proceedings, as they generally do, at about 2 or 3 am. If those insomniacs—who occasionally include myself—switch on, they would I suppose be bewildered that we are discussing flags in the Chamber of the House of Lords while the whole world is collapsing around us because of what is happening on Brexit.

They would of course be mistaken, because flags are a hugely sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. The unfortunate author of the Explanatory Memorandum, which says that this is a “minor, technical change”, would have to listen to only the last hour in this Chamber to realise that it is a lot more than that. I recall thinking about a quarter of a century ago, when I first started going to Northern Ireland as a shadow Minister, that only the union flag and the Irish tricolour were flags of general interest and controversy in Northern Ireland. That was until I happened to see on one occasion the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag also flying in parts of Belfast. I had no idea what the relationship was, but apparently unionist or loyalist areas would fly the Israeli flag and nationalist or republican areas would fly the Palestinian flag.

It is a huge matter, and my noble friend Lord Mandelson, when he was Secretary of State, introduced—as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has told us—this important piece of legislation. I wonder—and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, referred to this also—whether sufficient consultation has occurred on this matter. Again, the Explanatory Memorandum says that:

“Consultation is not considered necessary”,

because this is a minor technical matter. It is necessary, because people have different views on flags. I am told by some that the last time the negotiators in Belfast talked about flags the discussions went on for 11 weeks just on that issue. Flags symbolise things in a very special way in Northern Ireland. They go to the heart of the issue of identity. They go to the heart of the problems that the other place is discussing today—the Northern Ireland/Ireland border and the issue of the backstop. All that is about identity, and flags symbolise it. It is an important issue.

These particular regulations of course refer to the union flag no longer flying on government buildings on the day commemorating the European Union. However, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and my noble friend Lord Touhig have eloquently told us that the flag is not simply that of the European Union—it is the flag of the Council of Europe as well, a much earlier institution. If we are trying to wipe the importance of Europe in the peace process from the public memory of Northern Ireland, we should remember that it brought much-needed funding through Objective 1 status and other schemes, and that the common membership of the European Union of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom meant that we were able to be successful over 20 years in that peace process. We have been reminded tonight that a majority of people in Northern Ireland—in any event 56%—voted to remain in the European Union. If we think that taking away the right to fly the flag on 8 May also takes away the public memory of the benefits of being Europeans, we are gravely mistaken. No—the Government should think again. We have been given some interesting ideas. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, tells us, quite rightly, that we ought to think in terms of the whole of the legislation affecting flags in Northern Ireland in a fresh way, which would include the Council of Europe flag being flown. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, told us the same thing.

Cannot the Minister therefore just withdraw this Motion for the time being? It does not matter about this year, because it is extremely likely that on 8 May we will still be members of the European Union. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive should be deciding these matters—I hope, please God, that by this time next year, those bodies will be up and running and will be able to discuss this. Rightly and properly, it is for them to decide what happens on public buildings in Northern Ireland, and how important Europe is to them.

Therefore, there should be a rethink. People should understand the significance of the symbolism of flags and should remember what Europe, both in the form of the Council of Europe and the European Union, has done to make peace in that part of the world.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I will take your Lordships back a little further, to 21 March 1943; I suspect that many noble Lords were not here then. Sir Winston Churchill gave a speech on the radio and talked about peering,

“through the mists of the future to the end of the war”.

He spoke of the need for there to be a great council of Europe and said that it would be “a stupendous business”. He recognised its value. He saw the future not as one where we marshalled armies across the continent but where we marshalled arguments across a debating chamber. He recognised the value that came from discussions and was instrumental in founding the Council of Europe—indeed, its building is named after him.

Since its foundation, the Council of Europe has continued its important role, and it has, sometimes to its own frustration, been confused from time to time with the European Union. I have spoken with a number of members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who are sometimes a little critical, saying, “No, no—we are different”. It is important to remember that they have different roles but common values, and the values of the Council of Europe and the European Union are important to us.

I spent several years as a member of the European Parliament, and, to be frank, I was always disappointed that on Europe Day it was hard to get anybody in the United Kingdom to notice. The fact that flags were flown on public buildings was not the reason why they noticed that there was a Europe Day to be celebrated at all. Noble Lords who have spoken of Europe Day as a symbol of peace and of recognition of what we have done and achieved are absolutely right—that is an important achievement. However, I am very conscious that we are now more aware of Europe Day because of where we are than we ever were during our membership either of the Council of Europe or of the European Union. That is a great sadness to me but it is a truth, and we need to reflect upon it carefully.

Across Europe, 9 May is an important day, because it is a recognition of what the EU has achieved. However, it is also important to recognise that this debate is not perhaps on its widest basis about Europe alone. It is, rather, about a situation in Northern Ireland, where, as we are fully aware, flags have made a difference and created a problem.

I will go through some of the issues which have been raised today. I will be able, I imagine, to critique them, to try to refute them and to do all those things, but that is not what matters today. What matters is perhaps the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and my noble friend Lord Deben: a recognition again that in Northern Ireland, and across the whole of the UK, there may be a need in the future for us to recognise how important is our membership of the Council of Europe. It may well be that we should have a wider discussion on that point, and that in this House and in the other place we will do that very thing. I would not be in any way averse to that being a proper discussion, but that is for a future time when I hope we can do that and recognise the achievements of the Council of Europe; to be frank, sometimes they are not given due recognition. I am aware that a number of Members of this place are members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and do sterling work. Therefore that point may come, but that is not what is before us this afternoon.

Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 25th March 2019

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Grand Committee

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I think I support the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, on the situation in Northern Ireland itself. I assume the Government consulted on this issue with the Northern Ireland parties—at least, I hope so. If they did not, or indeed if they did, it has to be seen in the context of a very sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, as the Minister and others will know.

Today we have a specific issue in front of us about the European flag. I suspect that this instrument is both spiteful and flawed. The noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Bruce, and my noble friend Lord Touhig have given powerful reasons why it is spiteful, but I do not think the Government have actually thought of the implications of the flag also being the flag of the Council of Europe. There is no indication in the literature we have or in the debate held in the other place. It seems to me that the Government believed this was entirely about the European Union and completely forgot the issue of the Council of Europe and the fact that there are in Europe two separate days to celebrate Europe. Clearly 9 May, the European Union day, will no longer be celebrated in the way it has in the past, but 5 May still would be. Both Ireland and the United Kingdom remain strong members of the Council of Europe.

The other issue affecting the position of Northern Ireland in Europe is equally sensitive Some 56% of the people of Northern Ireland wanted to remain. I was European Minister for two years in Northern Ireland. I actually went to the Council of Europe to explain the Good Friday agreement to all the members and they played a big role, as indeed did the EU itself, not just with the peace money; the support that came to Northern Ireland during that period was immense.

We cannot go back over the issues affecting why it is that we are leaving Europe and the effect on Northern Ireland save to say that while our being members of the EU meant that the border on the island of Ireland was blurred and there was constant contact between Irish and British officials and Ministers because of our joint membership of the same club. Europe has played an enormous part in changing the way that Northern Ireland has operated over the past 20 years, and indeed in the Good Friday agreement. We cannot suddenly wipe away all that history in a few seconds, but this particular instrument seems to be trying to do precisely that. Symbolically, it is trying to say: “The European Union, the Council of Europe and indeed everything European had nothing at all to do with the development of Northern Ireland over the last 20 or 30 years”, when the contrary is the case. That is why it is spiteful.

It seems to me that it is up to the local authorities and the other public bodies in Northern Ireland if they wish to fly the Council of Europe flag on Council of Europe Day. What is wrong with that? No, this is a nasty little statutory instrument. It ignores the past, it forgets about the Council of Europe, and it should really be consigned to a dustbin.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this is a more controversial issue than might have been anticipated by those who do not know Northern Ireland well or indeed the passions of noble Lords here gathered; I think that is important to recognise. I shall try to explain why we are where we are, and then the Committee must reflect upon whether that is adequate to address the issues I have raised.

The first issue to stress relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie about the notion of what the flag represents—indeed, being the shared flag of the Council of Europe. This is primarily about flying the union flag in Northern Ireland. If there are two flagpoles then the second flagpole may fly the additional EU flag at a lower level, but if there is only one then it will fly the union flag. It is important to stress again, and the noble Lord many wish to inquire further into this, how many government buildings in Northern Ireland have two flagpoles. The answer is precious few. We are talking here about the flying of the union flag in almost every case.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen
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Would that therefore mean that the union flag could not be flown on 5 May, which is Council of Europe Day, as opposed to 9 May, which is European Union Day?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord has pre-empted the question that I was about to answer, so I shall come straight on to that. Under this particular legislation, which of course follows on from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, we are able to adjust the legislation to remove 9 May from being a flag-flying day. If we wish to switch the day to 5 May, though, we are precluded from doing so under this legislation. That is not available to us under this legislation. Therefore, in order for us to move forward, we have to go back to the original regulation, the Act dating back to the year 2000. In order for us to make any changes to that Act, noble Lords will be aware that there is a three-part process that wholly involves the Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly is consulted, it reports to the Secretary of State and, on that basis, changes can be made. In the absence of an Assembly there can be no adjustment from 9 May to 5 May, or to any other day, in that regard.

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill

(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 19th March 2019

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I support the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Empey and Lord Rogan. I call them both my noble friends of over 20 years, despite the eccentric seating in place today.

This is a sorry business, all of it—a terrible mess. The whole situation in Northern Ireland for the last two years started with the collapse of this appallingly planned scheme. We cannot get away from that. Sir Patrick Coughlin is currently conducting an inquiry into the scheme, the courts are ready to pounce and the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee has been asked to look at it as well. The difficulties go back to the way the legislation first came to us. There should not have been a Bill that, on the one hand, decided the regional rate in Northern Ireland and, on the other, decided the details of the RHI.

Equally wrong was the length of time taken by the department in Northern Ireland to deal with its consultation process. As a result, apparently, all the details that we need to consider for the Bill did not arrive until January, even though it was known full well that the previous Bill put forward was sunsetted to end at the end of March. This meant there would be totally inadequate scrutiny of the Bill by Parliament. What is done is done, but it means that we are in a mess. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred quite rightly to the fact that some of the people who, in good faith and on the advice of the Government, went to their banks and decided to take out loans to deal with this issue are now in a terrible mess. What happens to them? The Government are in a dilemma—partly one of their own making, because of what I have just referred to with respect to process.

If we do not pass the Bill, there will be no regional rate in Northern Ireland and the scheme will collapse, so people who are currently benefiting from it, in whatever sense, will not have any money to deal with it. At the same time, in the other place, the Secretary of State welcomed the Select Committee on Northern Ireland looking at it. Perhaps she did not realise that, under the circumstances of the Bill, it would have just under two weeks to consider it, which of course is impossible.

The Government and the Minister in particular, who has been rightly praised by all sides of the House on this and other issues, have to come up with a solution that will satisfy my noble friends Lord Empey and Lord Rogan, and the rest of us, about what can be done. They to ensure that the rates are collected and that the scheme does not collapse but, at the same time, looks after the people who took part in this scheme in good faith. There may well be ways the department could look sympathetically at cases in Northern Ireland. There may also be a way, although I cannot see what it would be at the moment, for the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee’s recommendations to be taken into account after the legislation has been improved, unless further primary legislation could be brought before this House to amend the Bill we are considering—it may come to that.

A general point has to be made: so long as there is no devolution in Northern Ireland, with no Assembly or Executive, we cannot have Northern Ireland legislation coming to us in bits or as emergency legislation that denies proper scrutiny. The dilemma that all of us, and the Government in particular, are in today results from the fact that the business managers have not taken Northern Ireland legislation seriously. That has to change, until such time when the institutions are revived in Northern Ireland, which I hope will not be that long away.

These Benches will support a Division, if my noble friend Lord Empey calls one. I hope that can be avoided with what the Minister is about to tell us, because we want to ensure that the legislation goes ahead. However, we also want to ensure that the hundreds of people in Northern Ireland who are now in a sorry state because of this RHI can be dealt with in a proper, decent, humane manner.

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 will begin in a slightly eccentric way. I have to make a correction of one of my earlier statements. In the debate last week, I stated that,

“the scheme in Great Britain is a 20-year scheme, whereas that anticipated in Northern Ireland is a 15-year scheme”.—[Official Report, 12/3/19; col. 1009.]

Noble Lords will no doubt realise that I meant to say that the anticipated scheme in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland, is a 15-year scheme.

That was the easy bit. I will see what I can do to take us forward. Let me begin at the beginning. All the points made by noble Lords this evening on the amount of time and the manner in which scrutiny has been facilitated in this House have landed, and landed well. It is not acceptable that this House is treated like a rubber ball to be bounced gently into some sort of decision. I accept that. It should not happen. There needs to be proper scrutiny in this House and in the other place—now more than ever, in the absence of an Executive.

On combining the two elements of the Bill—namely, the regional rates and the heating incentive—there is no doubt that they do not fit comfortably together. There is also no doubt that, depending on your Lordships’ will this evening, the situation regarding the heating incentive will have an impact on the regional rates. These rates remain an important element of the overriding Northern Ireland budget. That combination was a mistake and I do not think we should ever find ourselves in a situation with two elements which clearly do not fit comfortably together. I need to reflect on that. There should be opportunities for this House to look at them separately and, where appropriate, give endorsement to that which it seeks to endorse, and criticism and understanding to that which requires further work.

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 12th March 2019

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. Where there is an absence of democratic government, particularly in Northern Ireland, that gap will be filled by the men of violence. That is an interesting point on which to start this final but one speech in your Lordships’ House.

There has been a theme throughout this evening’s short debate concerning the way in which we scrutinise legislation, particularly of this sort, in Parliament. It was a theme in the other place as well. I hope the Minister will take back to his boss that constantly relying on emergency legislation for Northern Ireland, when we know the timetable in front of us, really is not good enough. When we consider that the meetings that apparently were held with the political parties in Belfast were rather perfunctory, that adds to the difficulties we face.

Northern Ireland is now the least democratic part of the United Kingdom—possibly the least democratic part of the European Union. The local authorities will be elected in a few months’ time but they have very minor powers in comparison with their British counterparts. All other decisions regarding education, health, planning and the rest are now taken by a bureaucracy. I suspect that there is nowhere else in Europe where such huge decisions, involving billions of pounds, are taken by unelected administrators and civil servants. I do not envy them because whatever they do will be criticised. But it is not their job. In a democracy, such decisions should be taken by elected politicians, which has not been the case in Northern Ireland.

A number of your Lordships mentioned the possibility of the Assembly being used for deliberative purposes. Brexit would have been an ideal subject for the Assembly to discuss, as the budget would certainly have been. I might have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House that when I was Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland before an Executive was set up, I took the budget to the new Assembly that had only just been elected. All Members of that Assembly were able to question me about that budget. Such an arrangement would not have legal standing, other than the fact that the Members have been elected legally, but the Assembly would have a deliberative function. I am sure that two of its former Speakers who are here, the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Hay, would agree that the opportunity would be enormous and that the people of Northern Ireland would regard it as a first step, particularly given that Members of the Assembly are still being paid. It is a proposal worth considering.

The Opposition will not oppose these Bills. As regards the budget, a number of your Lordships have raised different issues. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the interest of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—we are all interested in this issue—in pensions for the victims of the Troubles, and the fact that a lot of those people are now old. Indeed, some have died. Around 500 would qualify. A tiny handful would be people about whom there may be controversy. We must not allow that vast majority to be affected by issues of definition of victim; rather, we must address the mental and physical problems that those people face.

The proposal regarding the rates is fair. It is on a level with those affecting my local authority in Wales. There is nothing outrageous about the amount but the point has been made by some Members here that we should consider those who still cannot afford the rates. Although non-domestic rates are smaller, in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, there are small towns in difficulty and where business rates are a burden. I ask the Minister whether the new small towns initiative will apply to Northern Ireland, by way of the Barnett formula.

A lot of Members rightly raised the RHI, and it is good that next week we will have an opportunity to look at it in detail. We await the results of the inquiry. There might be a judicial review of the issue, which the Northern Ireland Select Committee will deal with next week. Although some people benefited a lot from the RHI, everyone who applied did so in good faith. A lot of farmers and small business people in Northern Ireland will be affected adversely by the results of this legislation. It has to go through, otherwise nothing would come to them at all; but we should scrutinise this issue in greater detail. It was a scandal and I hope that we will be able to rescue some of the people who have been caught up in it. However, I still come back to the fact that none of this should be happening. There should be an Assembly, an Executive, north-south bodies and indeed the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The east-west aspect of the Good Friday agreement should be operating.

We are 312 hours from the first deadline for legislation—which this House approved, by the way, not long ago. I very much doubt that we shall achieve what we want by that time. The involvement of both Prime Ministers has been peripheral. The Government —to put it diplomatically—were less than energetic in this matter. I cannot see a plan ahead of us. There should be a plan for talks about talks, if nothing else, and there is none. There is no hope of it. We have had over two years without an Assembly or an Executive.

A few hours ago, the Government were defeated by 149 votes on an issue about Northern Ireland, effectively. The proper argument put in the other place was that the Good Friday agreement must not be affected by a hard border. The hard border would adversely affect everything that was agreed 20 years ago. Of course that is right. But here we are today in this Chamber discussing Northern Ireland and the restoration of the Assembly and Executive, and in reality this issue is as great a threat to the Good Friday agreement as that of the existence of a hard border, which has just resulted in a vast government defeat. The two are linked. Had an Assembly and Executive been functioning, a resolution of the backstop issue between both the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland might well have been possible. These abject failures in negotiations, in both Brussels and Belfast, have had tragic consequences not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of our country. The crisis we are currently in is partly about Northern Ireland and, frankly, the Government should do something about it.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, no matter how much homework I do before I come here, I am always confronted by new questions, so I will try as best I can to do justice to all of the questions that have been presented this evening. I also stress that the opportunity next week to examine in greater detail the renewable heat incentive will give us a further opportunity to discuss that issue.

I start on a positive note and I will try to weave my way through all of the other questions. A number of noble Lords mentioned the medical centre in Derry. Derry/Londonderry will secure significant funding through the city deal initiative. Noble Lords will be aware that the Belfast city deal has been set at around £350 million. There will be substantial funds going into Derry/Londonderry and into the medical centre. If it is able to secure the correct construction of its bid, that is exactly the sort of thing that the city deal should be able to move forward. I am not across the details, but I will be, and I will report back when I have more to say. It is a useful initiative to take forward.

The common theme from noble Lords this evening was to ask why we always seem to do this at the last moment and at short notice. It is important to place this in context. The Bills before us are, in a sense, a reconciliation of the moneys broadly spent in the financial year soon to close. The budget for that was set before and we are now reconciling it. It is happening now because we had to wait until the figures were available, and that happened only within the last month. That is why we are doing this today.

On the question of the rates, again, noble Lords were right to flag up that this could have been examined at a different time, but the two issues have been put together in this package. The heating initiative concept also falls into this debate because we face a time limit of the deadline by which we must introduce an adjustment to the scheme because of the grandfather clause that will bring it to an end.

The point noble Lords are making is different: if this is how we are doing things, why are there not more opportunities for further scrutiny by different parts of this House and others, either through committees or elsewhere? I am going to take that away from the discussion this evening because I agree. We should be looking at how to move that forward in a fashion that does not rely on the methods we have used thus far. I do not think they are adequate. When we are spending such sums of money, there should be thorough, careful and detailed scrutiny—not in one evening, not even spread over the two opportunities we have—to ensure that those who are tasked with examining these things are capable of doing so.

I will try to move forward on several of these smaller but important questions. I have had several meetings with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, about pensions. I recognise how important this is and that we need to move forward for the very reasons that a number of noble Lords have struck upon this evening, not least the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. These people are ageing and dying off. We are awaiting the information from the Victims Commissioner. We believe that it will come very soon and hope that we will be able to move forward on this initiative once we receive that. I will come back when I have more details and am in a better position to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, raised the wider question of the Hart inquiry. I wanted to get the exact wording, so forgive me if I read it out. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made it clear that, in the absence of an Executive, she will consider the next stages when she receives advice from the Northern Ireland Executive. We need to move this forward—I recognise how urgent and important it is—and we will do so when we have received that information. Even if there is no Executive, we will not let this settle. We need to make progress now.

I will touch on one of the other, bigger issues, the role of an Assembly, not necessarily as a generator of legislation but as a place where debate and discussion can take place. There is no impediment to the Assembly meeting. It would have to select and elect its own Speaker and its own Presiding Officer, but it could do so. One noble Lord flagged up one of the difficulties: to be an appropriate place for this discussion to take place, it would need to bring together all of those parties. I am aware of the challenge that that may represent. Perhaps noble Lords here gathered can do something to help. On a cross-party basis, they could write to each of the MLAs and ask if they would be willing to sit and meet in such an Assembly now.

There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has flagged up an important point. Just along the corridor in the other place, an extraordinary event has unfolded. It has centred on Northern Ireland, yet the voices of Northern Ireland have been remarkably quiet in this process. It is not just about flags outside but voices in here. Any small progress will be a step in the right direction.

Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Election Expenses) Order 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 5th March 2019

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and others have referred to the transparency of election donations. I hope that the Minister can give an answer—whether he sings it or says it.

One issue before us, in respect of local government in Northern Ireland, is on giving disabled people the opportunity to stand for election to local authorities— obviously, these Benches completely support the Government on that. The other issue concerns the exclusion of personal expenses from election expenses. Again, we very much support that. It brings the law into line with that in Great Britain.

The issue, though, begs a wider question—two questions, in fact. The first, regarding local government, concerns the fact, as I mentioned last week in the House, that we are in a strange position in Northern Ireland. Some years ago, Northern Ireland had the most sophisticated democratic system in Europe, as a result of the Good Friday agreement, with the Assembly, the Executive, the north-south bodies and all the other aspects of the agreement. Now, its local government is the least democratically run part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, of the European Union. Here in this Parliament there is no nationalist voice in this House or, of course, in the House of Commons. There is no Assembly and no Executive, so the only democratic institutions in Northern Ireland are the 11 local authorities. They will have elections fairly soon. Those elections, of course, will be keenly fought by all the parties in Northern Ireland, and my guess is that they will not be fought entirely on local issues either; they will be fought possibly on Brexit but certainly on politics of a wider nature in Northern Ireland. So the 11 local authorities, although they do not have the same powers as local authorities in Great Britain, have a hugely important role as a forum for political and democratic discussion in Northern Ireland.

It should not be like that, of course. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others about the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland is critical, and he is absolutely right to raise it every time Northern Irish business is debated in this Chamber. There will, of course, be an opportunity next week, when legislation comes before us regarding the budget and other issues in Northern Ireland, and I hope that that becomes a debate about where we are in the political situation at this moment. Frankly, it is a disgrace that we are in this position: to go well over two years without any Assembly or Executive in Northern Ireland is totally unacceptable. It is linked heavily with Brexit, and I am sure we will have an opportunity to debate that as soon as we can, but noble Lords ought to understand that at the end of May there are two deadlines: one deadline for Brexit and another for extending the role of the Assembly in order to have further negotiations. On 25 March, that deadline closes. In neither case, it seems to me, is anything happening at the moment.

So today is a mini-debate, perhaps, on this issue and I hope that next week will be a major one, but we welcome the order. It is important, but the fact that it has to be brought in this Parliament rather than in the Assembly in Belfast is a tragedy for us all.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords very much for their constructive engagement on this issue. I welcome the support from all sides of the House for the changes in the orders we are bringing forward today. I think they will extend opportunity across Northern Ireland and that that will be welcomed by all in Northern Ireland. It will bring Northern Ireland into alignment with the rest of the United Kingdom. As often happens in debates on Northern Ireland, we had a small amount on the issue on the Order Paper and then we segued quite quickly into a broader discussion. If noble Lords will allow me to pick up some of those pieces, I will do so.

The substantive point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is an important one. I gave some undertakings the last time I was at this Dispatch Box. I am always loath to hear my words quoted back to me, but she is absolutely correct. I had a note in my briefing that I felt, when I read it, was not adequate in response to her point, so I solicited further information from my assistants in the Box. They are telling me now that the issues we are talking about, these reforms, have not had a chance to go through a complex election. A complex election is coming in May. I give an undertaking that we shall revert to this issue after that point, when I hope we will be in a better position to move this forward. I appreciate that she would like the answer now, but if she will forgive me I will bring this back after that complex election, when I hope we will be in a position to take this matter forward. I appreciate that it is a complex issue—

Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 18th February 2019

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this debate has been short but important. This statutory instrument is not about Brexit. It is not a dry, uninteresting, bureaucratic instrument that needs to be passed on the nod—although of course we on this side will support it. But it is symbolic of what is wrong in Northern Ireland. Of course, the instrument is important; these ministerial appointments must be made, otherwise things in Northern Ireland will go wrong—so I repeat that we will support it.

Government and democracy in Northern Ireland have collapsed because of the absence of the institutions of the Assembly and the Executive. There is no representation of nationalism in either Chamber in Parliament. The Assembly does not meet and has not done so for more than two years. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said some months ago, that means that the only people operating in Northern Ireland are members of local authorities, which have very limited powers. So Northern Ireland is the least democratic part of our United Kingdom—which is ironic given that 21 years ago we spent a great deal of time building up the Good Friday agreement to make Northern Ireland the most sophisticated democratic part of not only the United Kingdom but probably the world. That has also meant that decisions on important issues such as health and education are being made by civil servants. In effect, institutionalised bureaucracy is running Northern Ireland at the moment. It is a terrible state of affairs.

Worse, the absence of these institutions threatens the Good Friday agreement considerably. Over the past few months, we have argued that Brexit is a major threat to the agreement—which I believe it is—but this is a major threat, too, because central to that agreement was the establishment of the Assembly, the Executive and the north-south ministerial bodies. They were all agreed on in a very sophisticated peace process, but they have been gone for two years now.

One of the Brexit issues affecting this—a point which I think the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was hinting at—is that, had there been an Assembly or an Executive, it is likely that those bodies would have resolved the issue of the backstop, because nationalists and unionists would have come together to try to work things out. That is the purpose of the arrangements in Northern Ireland. What has occurred there is a tragedy. Every Member who has spoken in the debate echoes those sentiments and the need for the Government to change tack and become much more urgent in trying to restore those institutions.

Of course this is happening against the backdrop of the current Brexit negotiations. I cannot imagine the Prime Minister or the Taoiseach going to Belfast in the next few weeks when all these other things are happening. Incidentally, they could have gone there more frequently in the past; both Governments are to blame for the fact that they have not done so. Once again, Members of your Lordships’ House have referred to the need for an independent chair or facilitator, such as George Mitchell, and to the fact that proper all-party talks should take place, with every party represented there and a proper structure. Based on what we are seeing at the moment, there is even a case for taking the parties away somewhere like they did in the past, when they took parties to various parts of the United Kingdom and locked them up in rooms for weeks on end until they came to an agreement. These things can happen—it has been done before—but there seems to be no urgency in all this, even though there is a deadline, as there is for Brexit. Nothing is happening.

It is worth reminding the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin—which is not represented in Parliament even its members were elected to it—that by not having these institutions, they are breaking the provisions of the Good Friday agreement, which people in the north and south of Ireland voted on. I hope that in a few moments’ time, the Minister will tell your Lordships’ House that we will make those ministerial appointments and also give us an indication of a change of direction, a greater sense of urgency and more structured talks to ensure that we make progress in Northern Ireland. If it does not happen, this drift will end in direct rule—and when you are in direct rule, it is the devil’s job to get out of it.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, as with other debates on Northern Ireland, this is one of two halves. I will focus on the first half, which concerns the instrument itself and some elements of it, and then move on to the wider issues which have been raised.

My noble friend Lord Lexden asked a number of questions to which I will attempt to provide answers. The first thing to emphasise is that the appointments have been identified by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The principal criterion for that identification was obviously timing. My noble friend is absolutely right to say that this should have been brought before the House earlier, but we have to bring all the measures together. I accept my noble friend’s first point and apologise to him: they should have come forward earlier.

The second point concerns when the broad functioning elements of the boards become, if you like, out of kilter with the membership. There needs to be a recognition of the balance of the members on the individual boards themselves. A number of the appointed chairs and vice-chairs have reached the end of their terms, which in itself creates the need to move forward. Some have indicated their intention to accept an extension, and that is the likely outcome. However, again, the key aspect has been identified by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, not by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. It is our intention to do so only as far as the legislation allows, in order to move the situation forward in that regard, following the detailed advice we have received. There may be other information I can provide and if so I will make sure that it is conveyed to my noble friend directly and shared more widely. I have no desire to keep secrets on this issue.

My noble friend is also correct to say that there will be others unless we resolve this matter. In answer to the question, “Which others?”, it will be all the others, frankly, unless we can get this moving. Every appointment will be done in this way until we actually have a functioning Executive. I am not trying to exaggerate the case or make it seem worse than it is, but that is the reality of where we are. Until there is an Executive, this legislation will allow us to move forward with each appointment that is required. While it is true to say that we may think that some are more important than others, all of them are important to the good functioning of governance in Northern Ireland, be it those I have iterated today or those that will be need to be iterated in the future, should we not make progress on an Executive. Perhaps that is a rather dispiriting answer, but it is the correct one.

Before I turn to the broader elements, I should say that I welcome the support of the House for the instrument, which is a necessary one and will help in the functioning of these bodies. I was anticipating a broad discussion, so perhaps I may say this. On Friday of last week all the parties gathered together in Northern Ireland. It was the first time that that had happened in more than a year and it was an attempt to move things forward in a fashion which would ultimately lead to the creation of a sustainable Executive. Noble Lords may have read about the outcome of that meeting. It was not wholly supported by the Sinn Féin party, which has made its points very clear in the newspapers, which your Lordships are more than at liberty to read. I was saddened to read those reports but they are a matter of public awareness. That is not good and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

The Northern Ireland Office had hoped that, using this, we would be able to see the steps which could be taken to bring about the very things that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has put to us. He mentioned the notion of an independent facilitator. Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I do not like the term either, but I accept that it is one we are using at the moment. I also recognise the need to think outside the traditional, such as, “Let us always meet in the same office space”; rather, we should be thinking of new places. I had hoped that out of these gatherings a clear timetable would emerge to bring about those very things, and to be able to stand before noble Lords today repeating a Statement from the other place on what we all hoped would happen. We did not make the progress we had hoped for, and for that I am sad and sorry. That does not mean that we stop or that this is the end of the journey, but it has not led to the breakthrough I hoped to see. That is a simple statement of fact.

None the less, we cannot in good conscience fail to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. He is correct to say that noble Lords will be seeing a bit more of me over the next few weeks, I am afraid, because I will be bringing forward further legislation. Not the least will be the Northern Ireland Budget, and I do not doubt that the noble Lord will make the points that need to be made on the health service, the wider education service and so on.

You might recall that this time last year, when I spoke of that Budget, I said it was getting ever more difficult to plot the trajectory from the point of the outgoing Executive and their spending ambitions to where we are now. It is getting considerably harder. Last year I said that that would be the last time I would make that point, and events have made a liar of me: it was not the last time. I hope the one coming will be the last time, but the noble Lord rightly raises his eyebrows, and I take that on board. There is also the issue of the five-month extension window, anticipated in the Act of last year, within which we can look at delivering the Executive. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, is quite correct that that will necessarily have to be brought forward in the next few weeks as well. He is right to flag these things up.

I struggle to find new ways to tell noble Lords the same thing. I do not wish to sound complacent as I do so, but finding new ways to say this is proving difficult. Ultimately, the only way we will be able to move this forward is for the parties themselves to recognise the need for progress. Until that happens, the Government themselves will be unable to create the “eureka” moment. It is not wholly in their gift.

Northern Ireland: Devolution

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 14th February 2019

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber

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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 in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“As the House is aware, the Government remain steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors. I am continuing to work tirelessly towards my absolute priority of restoring fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is a very sensitive matter that requires careful handling.

I last updated the House at my department’s Oral Questions on 30 January. I have no further update at this stage, but as soon as I have anything to add, I will of course come to the House at the earliest opportunity. I hope that will be soon”.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, the failure to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland is a catastrophe. It is catastrophic for the people of Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations, the Good Friday agreement and Brexit. Had the Assembly and the Executive been restored, between them they could have dealt with the backstop issue. I ask the Minister, and hope he answers positively: is there a plan to deal with the restoration of those institutions in the coming months—a plan that would involve the Irish Government, of course, through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; a plan that might well ask for an independent chair for the talks, such as George Mitchell; and a plan that also involves all the political parties coming together round the table in Stormont to try to resolve these issues? If we drift any longer, we will jeopardise both the peace and the political processes in Northern Ireland.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord makes valid points, as would be expected from someone of his experience. He is correct to use the word “catastrophe” in his description of the situation in Northern Ireland. The voices of that Province have been silenced during this important time, not least in the Brexit process but elsewhere as well. He asked the important question of whether there is a plan. Yes, there is. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been working to bring together all parties, representing all parts of the community. As we have said in the past, we have not taken off the table any suggestion of an independent chair to facilitate what I hope will be ongoing discussions. During that period which we have opened up to deliver a functioning Executive—which, noble Lords will recall, closes on 23 March—we hope to make progress.

Mental Health (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2018

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 28th November 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, on the issues surrounding the current position in Northern Ireland. We obviously support the Government in this change to put right the legislative anomaly that has led to the SI. The problem, of course, is that there is no Assembly or Executive in Northern Ireland to deal with these matters. I am glad the Government consulted extensively with the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and the Health and Social Care Trust, as well as other professionals.

Of course, at the end of the day, this should not be before us at all. It is a matter for people in Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. I know that, at the moment, with the chaos surrounding Brexit and everything else—which is likely to last until Christmas, if not beyond—the chances of reviving the Northern Ireland institutions are pretty slim. However, it does not mean the Northern Ireland Office, the Minister and his boss cannot be active; they can. They can at least deal with talks about talks, and look at how those talks are arranged—the all-party talks, for example, or the possibility of an independent mediator. These points are made constantly by Members of your Lordships' House and in the other place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, talked about urgency—or the lack of it. It seems to all of us observing the situation in Northern Ireland that Brexit has added to this lack of urgency, so I hope the Minister can tell us that efforts to get those institutions up and running have not completely gone to sleep. The sooner they are, obviously, the better.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I begin by thanking the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for recognising that the order is a simple correction which is needed and timely. I could stop there, but I will not: I will address the more serious points raised concerning where we are in Northern Ireland.

Your Lordships will be aware that we have brought legislation before this House and the other place to provide an opportunity for the parties to come together and move towards securing an Executive. The first period is five months, with a five-month extension if we make enough progress in the first period. I can assure you that my noble friends, and my right honourable friends in the other place, have been active on these matters, not just in the early stages of looking at the architecture but regarding the independent mediator. I believe that these matters will be part of the ongoing solution.

Your Lordships will be aware that the battlefield is crowded with other issues, but we cannot lose sight of the reality we face in Northern Ireland. I repeat: frankly, I would much rather not be standing here doing this, and I am sure noble Lords would much rather not listen to me, either. None the less, we must secure progress because, as all would accept, this is a lost opportunity cost for the people of Northern Ireland. Their voices have been silenced in a way they do not deserve. There needs to be progress and a change in Northern Ireland. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are working now to bring that about in the first five months, hopefully without requiring an extension into that second period. That is the Government’s hope; I am sure it would be supported by everyone in this House, who know the consequences of failure in this regard. We do not wish to find ourselves tumbling down the steps into direct rule.

On that basis, returning briefly to the reason we are here, I thank your Lordships for your support, which I hope will be given, and I commend this order to the House.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 30th October 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, particularly because of the important role that he played 20 years ago at the time of the Good Friday agreement.

The Opposition will not of course oppose the Bill. It is very important in clarifying the position of civil servants and allowing important and urgent decisions to be made, but it imposes on them quite a considerable personal burden. The shorter the time they have that burden, the better, because they are not elected. At the same time, the law will now clarify the position regarding planning application issues in Northern Ireland. It is important too that public appointments are made, because until now hugely significant appointments for the people of Northern Ireland have been frozen. That is obviously a part of the Bill that we very much support.

However, the thrust of the Bill is about the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly in Belfast. Although I say that we do not oppose the Government, we are not very happy about the situation with the current negotiations, or lack of them, which would lead to the restoration of the Assembly and Executive. It seems to me that there has been little urgency over the last months. It also seems that, by putting a final 10-month limit on the talks, we are in a sense accepting the principle of delay. That lack of urgency and the lack of an incentive to ensure that we have an Assembly and Executive up and running much more quickly than is envisaged by the terms of this Bill are disappointing.

Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made the point that, because local government is so limited in its powers in Northern Ireland, not only what a regional government do but what local government in England, Wales and Scotland do as well is without democratic accountability, and as a consequence huge strain is put on the Good Friday agreement and the agreements that followed it. It is not just about an Assembly and an Executive; it is about the north-south arrangements too, because they fall if the Assembly falls. The whole point of getting the two communities together over all those years was that you would balance on the one hand the importance of the north-south institutions, which are extremely important to the nationalists, and on the other hand the importance of devolution in Northern Ireland, as well as east-west relations—the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has not met properly until recently. All these strands of the agreement went together. You could not pick and choose the ones that you liked; you had to accept them all. That is the problem today in Northern Ireland in getting those institutions up and running.

Sinn Féin makes a great deal of the fact that it believes that the principles of the Good Friday agreement, particularly with regard to equality and human rights, are not being carried out in Northern Ireland. However, the agreement has also been breached by the Assembly not meeting. If Sinn Féin does not go into the Assembly and causes it not to function, that breaches the agreement too, and that is an important part of the negotiations that will follow this legislation.

The DUP should acknowledge that the RHI scheme caused much scandal in Northern Ireland. It should also acknowledge that the issues that Sinn Féin is complaining about, particularly with regard to the Irish language, can be resolved. If 20 years ago the whole apparatus and structure of the agreement that we all admire had depended on one single issue—the Irish language—it would not have happened. Far more significant issues than that had to be resolved at the time, but there are other ways in which you can restore the Assembly and still deal with the Irish language. Why can there not be an independent commission to make recommendations on the language? Why cannot people from Northern Ireland go to Wales and Scotland to see how the language legislation operates there? There are ways and means that can be examined but they have not been examined over the last months and years and they urgently need to be dealt with. The trouble is that you cannot legislate for trust—it is built up over years.

In Northern Ireland there is always a reason why you should not establish the Assembly at this time or that time. People say, “Oh, we can’t do it because of Brexit”, or “Ah, it’s not Brexit at all; it’s the general election in the Republic that will stop it”. And if it is not that, perhaps the local government elections in Northern Ireland will be a barrier. If we had listened to those sorts of arguments over 20 years, nothing would have been done in Northern Ireland, because there are always obstacles in front of us. There has to be a greater sense of urgency, and these obstacles, important though they are, have to be seen as part of the bigger picture.

I am glad that at the beginning of this rather long but interesting debate the Minister indicated that there are to be talks about talks, as they are not talking about talks at the moment. When they do talk about talks, perhaps they should think about a more imaginative way of holding them. They should be much more intense. They should be proper all-party talks, structured in the way that we have seen in the past—not the odd meeting in a party office here and there but proper talks around the table with everybody involved. There should also be an independent chair or mediator. That has been talked about for months now but there has been no movement on it. We would not have had what we did unless it had been for George Mitchell and his colleagues, and there are people who can be called upon to do that job.

Frankly, the two Prime Ministers and the two Governments have to do a lot more in getting people involved in the talks. The Minister will know that when talks were held in the past, the Prime Ministers from Dublin and London spent day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out working to bring the parties together. In my view, there is no evidence that the two Prime Ministers, in dealing with what is, after all, an international treaty between our two countries, are dealing with it as they could. I know that they have the problems of Brexit, which will overshadow things, but that is intertwined with the restoration. There are two sets of negotiations that affect Northern Ireland—one on Brexit and the border and the other on the restoration of the institutions—and both are getting nowhere. There has to be a greater intensity in the weeks ahead.

There is another way. Time after time we have had what you might call “away weeks” in which the parties are brought together—at St Andrews, for example, which worked, and at Leeds Castle, which did not—but I have seen no evidence of new thinking on this. I hope that the Bill will herald new thinking, new imagination and new ideas about how to bring this matter to an end. Otherwise, we will drift inexorably towards direct rule.

We have said it many times: if you establish direct rule, it is a devil of a job to get out of it again. I was a direct rule Minister for five years in total. I did not like it, and I have said that to your Lordships before. I did not want to take decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. It is for the people elected in Northern Ireland to do that job. However, with issues such as Clause 4 and so on, the longer this goes on, the greater the chance that this Parliament and this Government will have to take decisions for the people of Northern Ireland, and that would be a disaster for the people of Northern Ireland. It is not an ordinary Assembly like the ones in Edinburgh or Cardiff; it is different. It is an integral part of the peace process as well as the political process. We cannot go back to where we were. The only way is forward, and that, I hope, will start after this Bill is enacted.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, to use the term “wide-ranging” for today’s debate would be an understatement. I shall try to do justice, as best I can, to each of the points that have been raised. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I miss any points, as that will not be deliberate, and there will be an opportunity to pick them up later.

I begin with the obvious statement that it is now 22 months since there has been a functioning Executive. If we are successful and secure the passage of the Bill today, and it takes the full five plus five months, it will be 32 months since there has been a functioning Executive. That is an extraordinary period of time without functioning government, and I am drawn in particular to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, who reminds us that while much is going on in Northern Ireland, much is now stuck in limbo. Whether it be corporation tax, questions of the north-south interconnector, the implementation of the Harper report, even the functioning of the joint ministerial committees, all are stuck in limbo, all are a loss for the people of Northern Ireland and this is a negative, not a positive. We cannot lose sight of that reality.

Of the three parts of the Bill, the first is designed to address this very issue. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, paints a very clear picture: “What on earth are you going to do differently now? Otherwise, you run the risk of simply repeating that which has gone before”. So we do need to be moving forward, and on the question of an independent mediator, we are exploring that. There needs to be change, and that is one example. In terms of how we configure the meetings, their frequency and intensity, whether it be home or away, or however we seek to do it, there needs to be a new momentum. This is now—I have said this before—the last point at which we can move this forward. It is not an easy thing to stand here; I listened with a wry smile when the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said I have an ability to say nothing with great conviction. That would be quite a talent, but I hope I can give a little bit more of something rather than nothing today.

The issue we are facing now is that we need—several noble Lords mentioned this—something which is not mechanical. I have spoken often about this agreement as being like an engine or a machine that involves engineers and mechanics. There is also a spirit inside it, and that spirit of co-operation needs to be there. I noted that one noble Lord said, “You cannot legislate for trust”. You cannot legislate for spirit either, but without it, you cannot get the engine working. That is the most telling thing of all.

The Government continue to invest in Northern Ireland. There are ambitious projects going forward. Yesterday’s Budget was a revelation regarding where we can see money going forward—both into the Belfast city deal and the Derry/Londonderry deal. To the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I say, get Armagh to write to me now as they need to be part of the widest possible deal. The whole mosaic of Northern Ireland should be captured inside the city deal framework.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the £320 million released under the Budget for co-operation within education is available now and will be spent in the time available. It is absolutely right that it should be so, but there is no point in pretending that this is a substitute for local decisions made by locally elected individuals. There must be a functioning and sustainable Executive who can carry with them the trust and certainty the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

The noble Lord, Lord Eames, reminds us that we have a near unique society which has gone through the Troubles in the widest and darkest possible sense, and that there are wounds to be healed. Those wounds cannot simply be healed by putting money into the Province—that is not where they come from. It is about a trust and belief that the institutions of Northern Ireland can function and deliver the outcomes the people deserve. Without that, there is almost no purpose in having the Executive at all.

There are three parts to the Bill before us. The first, although difficult to realise, is straightforward in one sense: it is creating a window of opportunity for those negotiations. The second is a challenge, and there is no point pretending otherwise: how do we ensure that the civil servants are able to function in such a way that they have confidence in taking decisions? One of the questions asked by a number of noble Lords is: what is the urgency for this Bill to go through so quickly? One of the answers is that there is now a backlog of decisions in Northern Ireland, which have not been taken because civil servants do not have the confidence to take them. Those are not decisions that usurp the authority of Ministers. It is the quotidian, daily functioning decisions that must be taken to ensure good governance inside the Province. That is why we are issuing clear guidance—this is not an attempt to do direct rule lite. We have lodged the guidance in the Library, and noble Lords can read it and see where it is coming from.

We are ensuring that all those decisions taken by civil servants are fully transparent and are recorded and lodged each month, so we can see exactly what they are and understand what they are trying to do. Let us be frank about it: it will not allow civil servants to take bold, grand decisions which do not rest upon a solid foundation. We cannot ask those civil servants to display that level of courage. It is not appropriate to do so. That must rest with an elected Executive. A whole range of questions that we are all too familiar with will require that level of activity. I say to the people of Northern Ireland that the great shame right now is that this will not help those decisions to be taken. It will help the daily decisions to be taken with some confidence, but the bigger decisions await the arrival of a functioning Executive. That in itself is a serious challenge.

I have no desire to be critical of the Northern Ireland Civil Service; it is doing an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances. I note the circumstance that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, has raised once again, but the wider question of where that Civil Service stands is to be broadly applauded.

On the third part of the Bill, we have been very careful not to try to give a blanket power to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to create appointments without due recourse to the affirmative procedure, which allows full scrutiny. We have tried to put on the face of the Bill only those appointments which are urgent and pressing and need to be made now. However, there are now other means whereby, in extremis and emergency, we can move forward under that approach.

Those are the three component parts of the Bill, but there is another part, which arrived in the other place. That was not at the behest of the UK Government, who did not seek that amendment. However, it was put forward, there was a vote, and that amendment has now come to us. It has not come through some illegitimate means, but through a proper means. One can debate what it is intended to achieve—and sometimes the interpretation granted by the media is a little unhelpful—so let me be as clear as I can be. I listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The clause in question does not confer new powers within the established procedure. It does not allow, in the guidance which will be issued, the civil servants to upset, ignore or run in contravention to the law.

I note the useful and important comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about how guidance can be used in a sensible way to understand the law as it is today. As someone who comes from part of the kingdom which has a fully functioning devolved Government, I stress again that these decisions must be taken by the devolved Administration in the north of Ireland. There is no point in pretending we can usurp democracy in that fashion, simply because devolution is not to our liking. Devolution must function even when it is not as we would like to see it, but rather, how it must be.

Let me also be clear that it is not the desire of the Government to push this to a vote in any sense at all, but rather to recognise that which is here with us today. The guidance itself will not in any way seek to undermine the functionality or reality of the law. It is important we understand what it will do. It is not our desire to move into an issue of conscience—this must rest with the individual Peers gathered in this House today, should it come to a vote.

We come to a very simple point, raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay: irrespective of what emerges from the Supreme Court decision, which I do not doubt will emerge very soon, there will be a simple question of what that ruling means for the law. Ultimately, that new law will have to be made by the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, fully recognising all aspects of the community and that all individual voices need to be heard. It is not for us today to do that.

I turn briefly to the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Hayward. I am not unsympathetic to the point he makes about being able to send a message. Sometimes a message does indeed need to be sent, and sometimes it needs to be received too. I am not unsympathetic to that, but it is slightly different from what we must do here as a functioning legislature in that regard. I hope that will help us move that forward.

There are some other elements that we need to touch on very briefly. The question of the petition of concern has been raised. We are not averse to this being re-examined, resting broadly upon the principle of full engagement with all parties to ensure we can move it forward into a new but none the less fully supportive form. We would not be averse to that; how to achieve it is certainly something we can think about.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who again raised some very interesting points that I would like to discuss with him further so that we might have an opportunity to fully explore some of those aspects. If he will forgive me, I would like to have that meeting afterwards. I will happily produce a note of that meeting so that it can be shared with all. I am not trying to keep secrets from the rest of your Lordships here gathered.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that I am very much aware of the questions that arise in Clause 3(7) regarding the functioning of the advice and guidance. It is not the ambition or intention to undermine or erode any aspect of the functioning of the human rights legislation as it applies to Northern Ireland. I am happy to give that categorical assurance right now, on the record.

I am also aware, as I look across the Benches, of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I am conscious that we will not seek to eliminate the salaries of MLAs, who have a very real and serious function. They will be adjusted, as per earlier discussions that we have been party to, but it is not the ambition to remove them, nor to eliminate the salaries that rest on the assistants of those individuals. That will also be a very important part. If he will forgive me I will write to him directly on the question of fostering refugees because I do not have the answer at my fingertips.

I am aware of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and I understand exactly where he is coming from. That is why I said earlier that this matter must be addressed by the people of Northern Ireland.

On the comments made by my noble friend Lord Trimble, I await with interest his amendment to understand what he intends. On the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, I hope that I have given some measure of comfort on the question of mediation, and that we will be able to move forward. The question of a wider mechanism might well rest on something similar that is in the mind of my noble friend Lord Trimble. Let us see what emerges. We are not averse to looking at new methods to try to move these issues forward.

I could go on, but given the hour and that this is not the last time your Lordships will hear from me today, I will close. I say again that we hope that this can move forward in a sensible way and that we do not divide the House. If there are any issues that noble Lords wish to raise with me between Second Reading and Committee stage, I will be available for any discussions they might like to have. On that basis, I beg to move.

Good Friday Agreement: Impact of Brexit

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 11th October 2018

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He, like the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, myself and my noble friend Lord Dubs, who successfully opened this debate, were all members of the class of 10 April 1998—as of course was the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames.

It has been a fascinating but difficult debate, because these are difficult issues set against the background of a number of things. First, we are now obliged by law, by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, to consider these matters in the question of how we deal with Brexit. We decided that only weeks ago. Secondly, it is against the background of the current uncertainty about how we deal with the Brexit negotiations—central to which, of course, is the position of the Democratic Unionist Party. Thirdly, it is against the background of 56%—a clear majority—of the people of Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union.

Can the agreement actually survive Brexit? Of course it can. I have not the slightest doubt that the Good Friday agreement is as robust as it has always been. It has been challenged, but it will survive. The basic principles that underlie it of consent, parity of esteem and the other issues that we discussed during the lead-up to the Good Friday agreement have not changed. After all, people in the north and south of the island of Ireland voted for it and I have absolute confidence that, were there to be another referendum on the terms of the Good Friday agreement, north and south would vote for it again. The biggest threat is not Brexit but the fact that the institutions of Northern Ireland are not up and running. There is no Assembly. There are no north-south bodies and everything else that goes with that. That is the real threat to the Good Friday agreement.

Also—and this is important to understand because a number of noble Lords have raised it—there are strains that are having an impact on the Good Friday agreement as a result of Brexit. Of course there are. Community relations have been strained because of it. There is no question but that some nationalists and republicans believe that Brexit gives an opportunity for a border poll to achieve a united Ireland much more quickly than anybody would have thought, and there are some unionists, although by no means all, who see it as a way of securing the union and strengthening their Britishness. The border is inevitably an aspect of strain on the Good Friday agreement. It is also obviously an issue in itself, otherwise we would not as be stuck as we are at the moment trying to resolve it.

I was in Ireland last week and I travelled for the first time on the train between Dublin and Belfast—a packed train, incidentally, with not a seat available on it. As you come up to and cross the border, you do not know you are doing it. The only way I found out that we were actually in Northern Ireland was by asking my travelling companion about the number plates on the cars—and even that does not always give you the answer. It is a seamless border and there is no question but that over the past 20 years what had been a border rooted very much in security at the time when the Good Friday agreement was being signed has now gone. The border is blurred. The borders between people in the north and the south and between the peoples of the north of Ireland have been blurred—so that is without question an issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, raised an interesting point: the impact of Brexit on the Republic of Ireland will be greater than on any other country of the European Union—and in many ways greater than the impact on Northern Ireland itself. Over the past months and years we have seen the obvious technical and legal insistence by the Irish Government to be part of the 27 in the negotiations. Because Ireland knows a lot more about what happens on the island of Ireland than the European Union, there should have been more bilateral discussions between the Irish Government and the British Government. I do not have the slightest doubt on that. When we made the agreement in 1998, we were all members of the European Union; it was the backcloth to what we were doing. Right through the agreement in strands 1, 2 and 3, reference is made to the European Union and our common membership; we were in the same club. Because of that, it was much easier to make the agreement.

While I was in Ireland, both north and south, last week, I looked at the issue of security, which I am not sure has been given sufficient attention in our negotiations over the past months. The police forces on both sides of the border are deeply troubled by the possibility that any sort of border apparatus or establishments might be set up which could then be targets for attack by dissident republicans. There is no question at all but that that is a huge issue. Putting that apparatus back up would create a huge security problem, as would the absence of the European arrest warrant and the fact that we would no longer be members jointly of Europol and Eurojust. All of those things will make it more difficult to catch criminals who flee to either side of the border. These are issues that ought to be considered and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about them.

This week the House gave a Second Reading to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will have an effect on the common travel area. There is no question about that. It could mean, for example, that trains are stopped in Portadown and Newry and people’s passports checked in a way that they are not at the moment. There may be good reasons for that from a security point of view, but it is an aspect of our leaving the European Union that, again, has an impact on the very old common travel area. The idea that somehow we cannot treat Ireland differently from the rest of the European Union is negated by the fact that we do have a common travel area between our two countries and we treat the situation in a unique way that we do not elsewhere.

My noble friend Lord Dubs raised the issue of citizenship. One of the most significant aspects of the agreement is that in Northern Ireland you are able to be Irish, British, both or, I suppose, neither if you so wish. Under the new dispensation, if you are an Irish citizen holding an Irish passport but you come from Northern Ireland, presumably you are a citizen of the European Union and therefore you will be allowed all the privileges that that citizenship gives you, whether it be free movement to other countries, access to health services in France and other European nations or whatever. That of course puts the British citizen at a disadvantage who does not have European Union citizenship. That is another issue which will have to be grasped over the next few months.

Strands 2 and 3 in particular of the agreement, covering north-south and east-west, will inevitably be affected by our leaving the European Union. The north-south bodies rely heavily on European money. What will happen when the money disappears? Will the Government guarantee its replacement so that what those bodies do, reliant as they are on EU money, can continue? Also, as has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, because of Brexit, relations between the Irish Government and the British Government are not as good as they have been. We have to ensure that those relations are dealt with and improved as the months go by.

There seem to be two problems. We are facing two major negotiations in Northern Ireland at the moment, one on Brexit and the other on the restoration of the institutions. We have no Northern Ireland Ministers having an impact on these negotiations, which is tragic. I hope that the institutions will be restored as soon as is humanly possible. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are now in intensive talks with the parties in Northern Ireland. They have to talk about Brexit and its impact on all the matters that have been discussed in this debate—but, most significantly, they have to ensure that over the next few months we return to the restoration of those institutions so that we can have up and running a proper Assembly and Government in Belfast which will themselves be able to deal with the issues that your Lordships have dealt with in this debate.

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 always come to the Dispatch Box with a prepared speech, but I always find, during the first half of the debate, that while that preparation may have been broadly useful, it is not necessarily instructive. I find myself again paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for calling for this debate at this time. Perhaps now more than ever, this is the critical aspect of the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU.

Let me try to find a way to begin the journey into the discussions we have had. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is an historical document; it is history, and as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has reminded us, we cannot rewrite that history. There is a quote from Seamus Heaney that is helpful here:

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way”.

That is where I believe we are right now. There is no doubt that, in this House, support for the Good Friday agreement is solid and sure. I am always seeking out synonyms for “steadfast” and “unwavering”, so I will add “abiding”, “unfaltering” and “resolute”, to the vocabulary I used the last time we discussed these issues. The key thing about the Good Friday agreement is that it brought about change for the good. Many noble Lords in this House were the mechanics who were instrumental to ensuring that that change could be put into writing. That in itself is an extraordinary thing.

There has been a peace dividend from the agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, reminded us, anyone who has spent time in Belfast of late can cast their eyes towards the horizon and look at the cranes and gantries being used to build a new Belfast. I stood on one of the upper floors of Ulster University looking at the extraordinary investment being made in the future of the young people not just of Northern Ireland, and not even just of Europe, but across the globe as the university recruits the brightest and the best into Northern Ireland. That is an extraordinary thing.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has been paying attention. It is indeed my first anniversary in the job. As many noble Lords will be aware, the traditional gift for an anniversary of one year is paper, and I can think of no greater paper than the White Paper which has been put forward by the Government—I gently segued that in there. But in modern parlance, the gift now being given is not paper; it is a clock. Who could think of a more telling metaphor right now than the clock as it ticks its way towards that point next March when we will reach the end of our current relationship with the EU and begin to forge a new relationship with the EU?

There has been talk in the debate of the backstop position. The backstop position, mentioned in the joint report published in December last year, has been parsed, examined and marshalled in different ways. Let me stress at the outset that the first and most important aspect of the backstop position is that it should never need to be used. The backstop is there to provide a safety net for the discussions, during which we can forge that new relationship with the EU and, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, reminded us, importantly, with Ireland itself.

I concur wholeheartedly with the noble Lord’s view that the bilateral discussion between Ireland and the UK should have been more significant. Whatever way one wishes to look at this, the EU 27 will be able to negotiate strongly together, but the island of Ireland itself is at the heart of this: it is where the rubber meets the road; it is where the border is a counter between the EU and between the UK. Those discussions should have been prioritised alongside the others. They should certainly have been there.

As we consider that we are in the middle of negotiations—actually, we are not in the middle anymore, let us be frank; we are probably past the final furlong post and now in the home stretch—noble Lords will be aware of the elements of the current Chequers arrangement. That seeks to find a means to secure a common rulebook for agri-food produce and manufactured goods—again, this is the bulk of the trade which crosses the land border and, indeed, the sea border between Ireland and the UK.

Now the position which the Prime Minister has adopted has been published and is available, and the question is: what emerges then from those negotiations with the EU? There have been various different noises, all from various comments being passed, but the clear thing right now is that an agreement is in everyone’s interest. As a number of noble Lords today have pointed out, we would suffer and struggle through a bad or no-deal Brexit—there is no question of that. Ireland, too, would be at the sharpest point of its experience. It too would suffer and struggle through that particular process.

Indeed, that is why the backstop position is there: to ensure that, should we not in this particular moment be able to secure the appropriate relationship, the UK as a whole—not divided up across any internal borders—remains within the customs union until such time as we can secure the appropriate, developed, sensible relationship between the EU 27 and ourselves. Let us hope we do not need that backstop, because, at the present moment—

Northern Ireland Executive: Update

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 6th September 2018

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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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 would like to repeat a Statement delivered by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Northern Ireland needs devolved government. It needs all the functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. As significant decisions are taken at this critical time, Northern Ireland’s voice must be heard. With new powers coming back from Brussels and flowing to Stormont, Northern Ireland needs an Executive in place to use those powers to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. As relationships evolve, a functioning North/South Ministerial Council is vital to ensure that Northern Ireland makes the most of its unique position within the UK and in relation to Ireland.

Other critical strategic decisions also need to be taken for Northern Ireland—on, for example, investment, reform of public services and future budgets. Critical cross-cutting programmes such as addressing social deprivation and tackling paramilitarism are stalling, following 19 months without devolved government. As this impasse continues, public services and businesses are suffering. The people of Northern Ireland are suffering. Local decision-making is urgently needed to address this.

The only sustainable way forward lies in stable, fully functioning and inclusive devolved government. So, with determination and realism, we must set a clear goal of restoring a devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly. In the absence of an Executive, I have kept under review my duty to set a date for a fresh election. I have not believed, and do not now believe, that holding an election during this time of significant change and political uncertainty would be helpful or increase the prospects of restoring the Executive, but I am aware of the current legislative position.

In order to ensure certainty and clarity on this issue, I therefore intend to introduce primary legislation in October to provide for a limited and prescribed period in which there will be no legal requirement to set a date for a further election. Importantly, during that period an Executive may be formed at any point without the requirement for further legislation. This will provide a further opportunity to re-establish political dialogue, with the aim of restoring the Executive as soon as possible.

While Assembly Members continue to perform valuable constituency functions, it is clear that during any such interim period they will not be performing the full range of their legislative functions. So, in parallel, I will take the steps necessary to reduce Assembly Members’ salaries in line with the recommendations made by Trevor Reaney. The reduction will take effect in two stages, commencing in November. It would not reduce the allowance for staff as I do not think that MLAs’ staff should suffer because of the politicians’ failure to form an Executive. I commend the key role that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has played, during the period in which there has been no Executive, in ensuring the continuity of public services in Northern Ireland.

Following the recent decision of the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in the Buick case, I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services. So the legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable Northern Ireland’s departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services. I intend to consult parties in Northern Ireland over how that might best be done.

I will also bring forward legislation that will enable key public appointments to be made in Northern Ireland, as I set out in my Written Statement on 18 July. At the same time, I am conscious that this is no substitute for the return of elected Ministers taking decisions in the Executive and being accountable to the Assembly. I therefore also intend to use the next few weeks to engage in further discussions with the parties and the Irish Government, in accordance with the three-stranded approach, with the intention of establishing a basis for moving into more formal political dialogue that leads to a restoration of the institutions. These discussions will also seek views from the parties on when and how external facilitation could play a constructive role in the next round of talks.

No agreement can ever be imposed from outside Northern Ireland. It must be reached by those closest to the issues, those who have been elected to represent the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland want to see a restoration of their political institutions, and that is what the Government are committed to achieving. This Statement represents a clear way forward and a plan for Northern Ireland, and I commend it to the House”.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, obviously we welcome the Statement by the Minister indicating that there is going to be a fresh attempt to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. I remind the House that those in Northern Ireland who resist being part of a devolved Executive and Assembly go against the fundamental principles of the Good Friday agreement. The people of Northern Ireland voted in favour of the establishment of these institutions, as indeed did the people of the Republic, so it is very important that they are set up, as well as for many other reasons.

I accept the point the Minister made about the salaries of MLAs. It is not easy to do because we want to ensure that there is a class of politicians in Northern Ireland that can continue governing when devolution returns. He is responding to the mood of the House and of the people of Northern Ireland. I agree too that elections at this stage would be pointless because presumably, they would not change the electoral arithmetic an awful lot. What is needed is an impetus to ensure that the parties in Northern Ireland want to set up the institutions.

A day or two ago I mentioned some of the ideas that the Minister could take up. One is that the talks—which should be intensive, formal, with a timetable and a deadline and which might even go somewhere outside Northern Ireland—ought to involve all the parties, not just two. Of course, the DUP and Sinn Féin are the most important because of the electoral arithmetic but other parties should be properly involved in these talks.

The Minister said that external facilitation means somebody coming in from outside and chairing the talks, like George Mitchell or Richard Haass—at least, I think that was what he said. This is very important because it gives people confidence and it is a fresh approach. The two Prime Ministers also ought to be involved in intensive negotiations at a certain stage, using the gravity of their offices to ensure that there is an arrangement for bringing back the institutions.

Without the institutions, this will drift into direct rule. A descent into direct rule is in nobody’s interests, least of all the people of Northern Ireland. I wish the Government well in their endeavours. The Opposition will do anything they can to assist them.

Northern Ireland: Legacy of the Troubles

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 5th September 2018

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I of course pay tribute to the Armed Forces and all their work over 30 years. I also understand the feelings of victims across the board in this matter but, after spending seven years of my public life as either a Minister, shadow Minister or Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, I have now come to the conclusion, like the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and my noble friend Lord Hain, that we must draw a line. The issue is how we do it, when it is done, where it is done and, of course, whether it can be accepted right across the community in Northern Ireland—which it must be for it to be effective.

This debate has been important in highlighting this issue. The matter now rests with the Government. They have decided that they want a consultation process on the legacy of the past, and I hope that what has been said in this important debate will be taken into account by the Minister and Secretary of State in dealing with what now is the most difficult issue facing people and their political leaders in Northern Ireland.

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, this has been an important and I must begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for bringing it before us this evening. Let me stress that the Government are consulting and the consultation will be extended until 5 October. Let me also say that legacy is a constant companion to all those who have lived in Northern Ireland and indeed to all those who have served there. We can be under no illusion: they will carry that legacy until the day they die.

There are currently many organisations in the Province of Northern Ireland responsible for investigating historical legacy issues, each constituted under slightly different arrangements and each with slightly different approaches. The reality is that, as the noble Lord stressed, there appears to be a very clear skewing of those investigations towards those who have served inside the military and the police services. This widespread view has been echoed tonight. There is no doubt that it is a tragedy that those who served with honour in Northern Ireland, who sought to uphold the rule of law, have found themselves in their retirement years struggling with a legacy that they are unable to respond to and are unclear about when it will end. At the moment, inquests into the Troubles seem primarily focused on former soldiers and police officers. That is under the current arrangements.

The reason that we are consulting today and have brought forward an indication of how we might move this in a different direction is that the current arrangements do not work. It is the current arrangements that have brought us to the situation that we find ourselves in, and that is why we need to think afresh. There needs to be a different approach. We cannot have a situation in which the state, which necessarily records the actions of all those who perform a service for that state, is therefore more likely to be pursued than those who belonged to paramilitary organisations which—as many noble Lords have pointed out—simply did not keep records. We need to recognise that reality. We cannot those who have served this nation being prosecuted simply because it is easier to prosecute them. Justice must be served, but justice must be blind.

I am also aware that in this consultation, as raised by a number of noble Lords, we have focused only on fatalities. It is of course right to strengthen the point that the number of those who were injured is an order of magnitude greater. I would welcome—in fact, I would strongly urge—those who hold that view to make it very clear to the Government that injuries also need to be considered in the wider approach as we seek to bring this consultation towards a conclusion.

It is important to remember certain aspects that we have not touched on as much this evening, such as that the police ombudsman, by its nature, will investigate only those who are former police officers and, by its nature, 100% of the investigations will necessarily affect only the police services. That is why, in looking at the new institutions that should emerge from this consultation, we need to see how we can address the very issues with which we are so familiar and have heard so much about this evening.

There is no easy answer. If reconciliation were achievable by simply asserting it, we would have made greater progress. But that cannot be done. The question then of a statute of limitations, or indeed of an amnesty, is a challenge that we must confront foursquare. The issue is: shall we now draw that line and say that, before a particular date, all shall therefore be left behind, whereas after that date we shall act? It is not the policy of the Government to move forward with an amnesty but, as has been pointed out, an amnesty could not apply only to one side; it must apply equally to all. Again, I would welcome from noble Lords strong representations to the Government on this, so that we may hear very clearly those points being made; we would therefore need to understand where the will of the House rests on this issue. Importantly, we cannot overlook the reality of what the Troubles meant for those who lived through them and experienced those tragic circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Bew, reminds us, to some extent, nothing that we can do could ever truly satisfy those who have been bereaved and those who have experienced the trauma and tragedy of events. I do not believe, if I am honest, that anything that can be achieved from this particular consultation could deliver that satisfaction.

I am aware from listening to a number of contributions this evening, not least from my noble friend Lord King, of the cost of these investigations, what that money represents as a loss, in truth, to the wider Province of Northern Ireland, and how that money could perhaps have been spent on other aspects. Again, as we look at the responses to the consultation, we must hear that, if indeed that is a view that is expressed very strongly.

It is necessary, as we begin to consider what will emerge from the consultation, to see whether we can secure what I hope will be a consensus in moving forward. I suspect the challenge will be that that consensus will be absent. It will call therefore on the Government to lead, to determine what that policy that we will move forward with needs to be. We have, as noble Lords will be aware, adopted the Stormont House agreement, which was hard-fought. It sought to draw on the knowledge and experience of a wide breadth of participants in public life in Northern Ireland. It also sought, again, to explore the views of a wider constituency beyond that. It is upon that Stormont House agreement that we seek to make progress through this consultation.

It has taken too long. Of that there is no doubt. We should have been making progress on this matter when the momentum was with us and the wind was in our sails, but that has not been the case. It would be too easy for me to say, as I have said on so many occasions, “If only we had a devolved Executive. They could just sort it all out”. Unfortunately, this is a bigger challenge than just saying, “We must wait for that Executive to be in formation”. That is why, in putting forward this consultation, and ultimately depending on what emerges from it, we seek to determine a course of action that can bring about each of the elements that we, I believe, all wish to see. Among them is the wish that justice be done; that those who serve with honour do not continue to be persecuted and prosecuted over a lengthy period, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned this evening; and that those who have served their country, be it in the police service or in the Armed Forces, are able to experience a retirement without threat or fear of continued persecution through this process.

The Stormont House agreement gives us a foundation on which we can work, but it will not solve all the problems. We must ensure that those institutions that are developed are able to deliver almost the impossible, which is to satisfy those who have lived through the Troubles, to address those who would seek justice, and to address those who believe that justice simply cannot be served. We must also make sure that those who serve in the military, those who have served in the military and those who might serve will not be victims of an ongoing persecution that will continue long after they have resigned their commission or retired from the services.

We are asked, as a Government, to do a great deal. In formulating a new Historical Investigations Unit and in seeking to recognise that thus far the previous incarnation of that entity has sought to gather the low-hanging fruit, we need to recognise that it is only fair and proper that the future activities of such an institution address each fairly, that justice be served blindly and that we do not simply cast our eyes to the horizon and say, “This will never end”. It will continue for as long as it must continue. In limiting it to five years, we recognise the challenge that that represents, but we also recognise the near impossibility of delivering within that. None the less, there must come that time when a line is drawn. The line will be drawn either by the Government or in due course by the passing on of all those who have experienced tragedy or have been in the Troubles.

I do not believe the Government can easily answer those questions, but they must try. They must do so irrespective of whether a new Executive are formed, because the time is slowly but surely trickling through the hourglass. As well as the Historical Investigations Unit, the Government have put forward three other institutions for consideration. One is a commission on information retrieval, which will be an independent institution established by agreement between the UK Government and the Irish Government to enable victims and survivors in the UK and Ireland to seek and privately receive information about the Troubles-related deaths of their relatives. That will be an important step forward. Another is an oral history archive—again, independent—enabling people from all backgrounds to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles. The third is an implementation and reconciliation group, again an independent institution to promote reconciliation and to review and assess the implementation of the aforementioned institutions to deal with the past. Those are anticipated within the overall consultation. However, I stress again that the key, beating heart of this is the belief in the fairness and transparency of the actions, and that this too will come to an end—because it must. We do not wish to see hundreds of millions of pounds spent trying to achieve the impossible. None the less, we wish to see a move forward that gives satisfaction to those who have lived through the Troubles in whatever capacity they themselves did.

I therefore say to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, that the current system does not work. It has been a prosecutorial system which has sought to gather the low-hanging fruit, and that has been intrinsically unfair. There have been a number of difficulties in trying to prosecute and pursue those guilty of terrorist atrocities. Just because it is hard does not mean that it should not be pursued with the utmost rigour. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done. It would be patently unfair for the perception of skewing to manifest itself in any way as a reality.

I know noble Lords will be offered an opportunity to revisit this as the consultation itself concludes, but before we get to that stage it is critical that the views that noble Lords express, which represent a large constituency of various interests, are part of the consideration of that consultation. We must make sure that what emerges from that consultation works, because the current arrangements do not. We must make sure that there is confidence in those arrangements—that there is fairness, honesty and integrity and, ultimately, that justice is served by them. Perhaps hardest of all, we must also recognise that this consultation and the institutions it may yet deliver will not themselves salve the wounds of those who were harmed or hurt in the tragedies. None the less, they may serve as a final attempt to address the concerns expressed by those pursuing justice, as they have done over the years.

It will not be an easy outcome. The Government are fully aware of how difficult it will be to satisfy each of the constituent elements, some of whom have spoken this evening. However, two things must stand above all else. First, the British Armed Forces served with honour in Northern Ireland. There have been occasions, as inevitably there will be in any comparable situation, where difficulties will have arisen, and they need to be pursued to the fullness of justice. But equally, justice cannot focus only on the state actors, which is why we must move forward on both.

On the notion of an amnesty, which many of Lords have spoken of—again, I strongly urge noble Lords to make those points clearly in the consultation itself—it is not the policy of my party or of the Government to believe that we are in a situation where we can overlook those crimes of the past. We believe that they must be pursued to the fullness of justice: that is what we ultimately wish to do. We must also recognise, however, that old men forget and that, with the passage of time, it becomes ever more difficult to find the truth and gather the evidence, and ever more trying to bring yourself into a situation in which you can secure that which I believe all would wish to see: justice done and justice served.

A number of noble Lords have stressed how important it is that this be a sensible solution, and that we should not simply believe that by casting further hard-fought money into a procedure we can achieve the ultimate ambition of salving the wounds of all who grieve. We cannot do that. But we must be in a position where the Government have been seen to do their job, which is to recognise that those in Northern Ireland who seek justice are in a position to believe that justice has been done. We must also be in a situation in which those who have served the state in Northern Ireland do not find themselves enjoying, one would hope, their twilight years while always finding themselves pursued to the point of ill health.

It would be easy for me to simply say, “It’s a consultation—let’s wait and see”. But the reality remains that we must act and must do so on the basis of consensus, which we hope we shall draw ultimately from this consultation. This has been a worthy debate, which has made me think very carefully about many different aspects of it, so I thank your Lordships very much.

Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee negatived (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 18th July 2018

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been an interesting, short and fascinating debate. I add my tribute to my noble friend Lady Blood, who is due to retire in the next week. I have known her for just over 21 years. She played an enormous role in the Good Friday agreement as a leading member of the Women’s Coalition, but since then as well. I know no one who is less prejudiced than May Blood and I wish her well. I know she will continue her good work in Northern Ireland even though she might not take a regular part in your Lordships’ proceedings. We will miss her.

Similarly, I add my tribute to David Ford. I have known him for over 20 years. He has been a great servant of the people of Northern Ireland and a great Minister. He introduced the changes in security and became the first homegrown Minister responsible for security in Northern Ireland. Again, I am quite convinced that David will play his part still, even though he might formally be retired.

I understand and accept that the Bill is necessary, but I do not welcome it. The Minister said that it is short and technical, and indeed it is—it is both those things. But it is also a monumental symbol of failure because, at the end of the day, this has to go through, but it is effectively going through because events have proved to have failed in Northern Ireland. It is a failure that civil servants have had to take big decisions affecting people’s lives for nearly two years in Northern Ireland. Even their decisions are now suspect because of a court case. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that there should be an appeal because if they cannot take decisions because of the law then no one will and, frankly, that is crazy.

If noble Lords read Hansard for the debate on the Bill in the other place, they will see that every single Member of Parliament—all, of course, on the unionist side in the House of Commons—referred to individual services in their constituencies and on a wider scale in Northern Ireland now being affected by the absence of an Executive and an Assembly: the health service, education service, planning, the environment, roads, highways and so forth. It is also, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said, quite obvious that there is now no nationalist voice in either Chamber of the British Parliament, mainly because members of Sinn Féin decided not to take their seats in the House of Commons. It does not mean that there are not literally hundreds of thousands of Catholic and nationalist people who should be represented in our British Parliament but are not. Anything that we and the Government do must be predicated on the basis that both the nationalist and the unionist communities will be comfortable with it.

I noticed in the papers the other day that Derry City and Strabane Council was concerned about the future of its airport. It meant that the chief executive of the local authority had to write to the Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to see if he could come up with a decision—I do not think he will—on the future of that airport. I had to take a decision on it myself when I was Secretary of State. It is hugely important to that part of Ireland, including the Republic of Ireland, which borders County Derry. Things are becoming intolerable.

One of the difficulties we have is that, in all these 18 months—and presumably in the months that lie ahead—there has been no accountability for the decisions that have been taken. There is no imagination to try to work out what sort of accountability there could be in the absence of devolution. Any Member of Parliament in the House of Commons or the House of Lords cannot table a Question about the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland, which is wrong. MPs and Members of this place should be able to do that. The Northern Ireland Select Committee could take a wider role in the absence of devolution. There is a case—the Alliance Party has made a good case, as has the Select Committee—that there is a role for Members of the legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland to meet at least to question Ministers on the budget and other issues that affect people in Northern Ireland. When I was Secretary of State with responsibility for finance in Northern Ireland there was no Executive, but I went to Stormont and was questioned for two days about the budget. Why can that not happen?

However, it is all inadequate because the only answer, inevitably, is the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement—the Executive and the Assembly. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, was absolutely right. We have not seen any new ideas. Nothing has changed over the last year as to how we can try to tackle this situation. I repeat some of the things that have been suggested and some of the things I have suggested over the last year.

The Prime Minister is engaged on other matters. I can understand the pressures she is under and the pressures that the Taoiseach is under. However, all the negotiations that led to success in Northern Ireland had the detailed involvement of two Prime Ministers in trying to persuade political parties to come to a deal. No proper attempt has been made by either Prime Minister to do anything thing like the Prime Ministers in the past, including John Major and Tony Blair, did to move the situation. That should happen despite Brexit.

All the parties should meet in a proper round-table forum. I know that there has been a problem and the two main parties are reluctant to do that, but there would not have been a Good Friday agreement or a St Andrews agreement if all the parties had not met together, irrespective of their size. They can talk about significant issues relevant to the parties within their own community. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, mentioned the Alliance Party and gave us a list of possible things we could do to look at these matters. Why can they not be discussed in a proper forum of all parties? It has not been held.

Going into a couple of rooms in Stormont House and talking to the different parties for half an hour is not all-party talks. They have to be proper round-table talks and they have to go on and on. You cannot make peace and political process part-time. It has to be a full-time thing—that is what we have discovered in Northern Ireland. We have taught the world how peace processes can operate—in the Philippines and elsewhere. Of course, there should be the possibility of an independent chair. It has been dismissed for some reason; I have no idea why. We should be able to have another George Mitchell. No one will be quite as good as him but there must be a person somewhere in the world who is able to take on the task, if it is agreed by the parties, of course.

There have been occasions when parties have been taken elsewhere. Sometimes it works; sometimes it does not. It failed in Leeds Castle. I was there. It succeeded in St Andrews. I was not there. Perhaps there is a correlation between the two—I do not know. It is worth a try. The problem, of course, is trust—or lack of it. The political parties in Northern Ireland currently do not trust each other, but it was always thus. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House have said, “Look at the issues we had to deal with 20 years ago, or since”. They are hugely more significant than an Irish language Act and other issues that are now deadlocking the process. I think there is a role for this Parliament, possibly in taking on issues such as the Irish language Act. Perhaps there should be a commission on it and then this Parliament could take it through.

Perhaps this Parliament could deal with the legacy issues that the Minister has asked the people of Northern Ireland to look at. We can help out. It is right that the two Governments meet together. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is part of the Good Friday agreement. It is not—nor should it be—joint authority, but it gives opportunities for the two Governments, who are guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, to try to break a deadlock. No one is suggesting for one second that the Irish Government should suddenly take part in chairing the negotiations on strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement—the institutions. I chaired them for two years and would not allow any Irish Minister in; it was not their business. The business of the Irish Ministers was, together with the British Ministers, to try to persuade the political parties that they had to come to a deal—not to interfere with the internal affairs of the United Kingdom: that was for British Ministers alone—and talk about ways of breaking that deadlock.

I was a direct ruler for five years. I did not care for it much. In fact, the less pleasant parts of the media there called me “Direct Ruler Murphy” from time to time. I did not care to be doing it, but it had to be done. Somebody had to take a decision as a politician. I was a Welsh Member of Parliament taking decisions about issues of grave importance in Northern Ireland. I do not want direct rule. No one wants it because, once you get it, you cannot get out of it easily.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to health and to welfare. There is a slight difference because although welfare was technically part of the Northern Ireland budget, it was still effectively following the British model while the health service is totally devolved. These things are worth looking at. There is a possibility that you can bring in very limited direct rule, by bringing in a sunset clause that says you can have direct rule for six, seven or eight months and bring down the deadline. Let that be the deadline for the end of the talks. However, we must have new thinking because there is so much at stake. The Good Friday agreement itself is at stake. Every party that decides not to take part in the institutions of the Good Friday agreement is ignoring that agreement.

As a number of noble Lords have said, in Northern Ireland, more than in any other part of the United Kingdom, when there is instability and uncertainty, where there is a vacuum, violence will fill it. We have seen that in the last couple of weeks, from both sides, loyalists and dissident republicans. That would not happen if we did not have an Assembly in Cardiff or a Parliament in Scotland. It happens, though, if we do not have an Assembly in Northern Ireland. We cannot take any more risks. We cannot drift any more. We must come to a conclusion. I know we cannot do it in the next few weeks. There is Recess; it is summer. However, there is no reason in this wide world why, when September comes, Parliament starts again and politicians return from their holidays, there cannot be a renewed, proper effort to restore devolution and restore those institutions. In the absence of restoration, I cannot believe what is in front of the people of Northern Ireland.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I echo the tributes paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. She grabbed hold of me in my first week in the Northern Ireland Office—I do not mean that figuratively; I mean quite literally—took me aside and explained some issues about education, which she was most passionate about. She will be missed here but I do not doubt that her voice will continue to be heard. I also pay tribute to David Ford. He fulfilled an extraordinary role in the Assembly and did good work. His voice also must continue to be heard in the counsels where his experience can be drawn on. I suspect both have long careers ahead of them where they may yet give great service to Northern Ireland.

It is not often that I get my own words repeated back to me but, again, it is a sign that I have been doing this for quite some time that my words are now being interpreted. It is in itself quite a pleasure. I am never quite sure if I did indeed say certain things but I will take them on board.

This was an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate. I think the best way I can address it is like building a jigsaw. I will start with the outside square edges and then try to build into the centre. I will begin with a very categorical statement. It is a rhetorical question. How many more times can I do this? The reality is not many. The budget that rests in Northern Ireland, and which we are moving forward today, is based on the priorities set by the outgoing Administration. However, we are moving further and further away from that particular piece of certainty. It is like pulling apart a piece of toffee. It is still holding together but it is getting more and more tenuous and it will break. We cannot extend it too far.

Some have said that nothing has changed, but actually a lot has. The people of Northern Ireland are growing weary of the situation there. Their priorities are not being acted on. We are having to interpret them—often within legally challenged constraints, with more constraints yet to come—and we are trying our best to deliver against objectives that are becoming more and more difficult to maintain and to deliver at the very time when there are greater challenges ahead.

I will come on to speak about the money within the budget, but I want to stress one other thing. It might seem an odd thing to say in the middle of a debate about the budget, but money is not everything. Money is not the whole answer to this dilemma. The reality remains that we need full scrutiny and a situation where the Civil Service is not exposed to legal challenge, where it is given the support of democratically elected politicians. We also need the nuances that are brought in when we have to interpret how money should be spent, rather than historically gazing over our shoulder at how it was once spent and how we might be able to continue to spend it.

I echo the words of many noble Lords today who said that they speak with some regret. There should be no doubt that I too speak with some regret: I have no desire to be taking forward a budget for Northern Ireland. That responsibility rests more naturally and sensibly elsewhere. I shall try to address some of the more fundamental points raised by a number of noble Lords. It is appropriate, in this week of all weeks, as we recall the violence of the past few days, to consider exactly what a struggle we are witnessing inside Northern Ireland. Many noble Lords have said today that if there is a vacuum, violence will fill it: we are seeing evidence of that again already.

I emphasise that the Government have spent a considerable sum of money. Since 2010, almost £250 million has been invested in additional security services in Northern Ireland. Since 2015, £25 million has been invested through the fresh start agreement. Would it not be great if the money did not have to be spent on those things? Think of what we could do with a quarter of a billion pounds. Yet, sensibly and necessarily, that money has been made available and will continue to be made available. On the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, about the wider legacy issue and pensions, which I know is a matter dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who is of course not in his place today, we have referred this to the Victims Commissioner. We are looking for further guidance on this point, but we cannot lose time: we need to be able to move forward, so once we are in receipt of information from the Victims Commissioner we shall take that on board and move forward with it.

When we talk about the importance of re-establishing an Executive, these are matters that rest more comfortably in the devolved sphere, but in the absence of that, we cannot allow this simply to drift. I know that the word “drift” has been used by a number of noble Lords today: we cannot allow that drift to continue. In the past I have used the phrase “thinking outside the box”. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, condemned me by saying that it is not a box but a sarcophagus. From the papers over the last few days, I recall that a great, black sarcophagus has been found in the depths of Alexandria and there is a great fear of what will happen when it is opened. Will it be like some kind of Pandora’s box, when all the horrors of humanity pour forth? As I said a moment ago, I cannot keep doing this; we are at stage where change is coming. The question is what form that change will take.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, put forward a number of issues, not least of which is whether there can be an independent chairman. I note that his noble friend Lord Hain has already referred a name to me in that regard. I emphasise, as I did in the past, that we cannot set aside any of these issues. A number of noble Lords asked about the evolution in Northern Ireland: what can happen next? Noble Lords will know that there are broadly three options: we are at that tripartite road. We can continue to try, as best we can, to string out that piece of toffee, hoping it does not snap in the middle: that is one option. I am the living embodiment of that today. The other options are, of course, to move towards an election, and that is certainly on the table—my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not in any way ruled that out. The final option, of course, is direct rule. Some today have said that this budget itself represents a form of direct rule. In truth, it represents a necessary and essential step to preserve good government in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will be aware that we have reached a critical stage: the previous budget Bill allowed us to allocate funds—45%. We will reach the point over the summer where we will have spent those funds, and we therefore need to move forward to ensure full allocation of the total amount of money. That will be a critical reality check for the civil servants in Northern Ireland. Of those three routes, one will have to be taken: the question is when and how it will unfold. The greatest hope of all is the magic option: that each of the parties will come back together again and be able to broker a deal that will address all these issues. I note, as a slightly ironic comment, that the last time all the parties were gathered together in Belfast was at the PinkNews awards only a few weeks ago: that, in itself, is a reminder of how far many of those parties have come over the last short period.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and many others, spoke of the importance of the court cases that are coming up, and the question of an appeal. That is being strongly and actively considered by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which will have to move that forward. It is being actively considered by ourselves. As many noble Lords noted today, if we are found in any way not to be able to act in this regard, we will be in a very difficult position indeed. That is also true in regard to the RHI case: that would place even greater constraint upon us. We cannot be in a situation where good governance can be delivered neither by an absent Executive, nor by the UK Government in our current formation, so we will need to make progress to deliver, and to be cognisant of the realities of what those court cases will mean.

The noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Murphy of Torfaen, asked about the role of the Prime Minister. I can state today that the Prime Minister will be spending the next few days in Northern Ireland. I can also confirm that she has spent much time speaking with the parties. The point I make to noble Lords is that it is not just a question of what happens inside that room, and drawing the people into the room; it is how the individuals in the room communicate with their supporters outside the room. There is a bigger test here that we need to be able to wrestle and bring to the ground.

On the question of the supply and confidence money, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was quite right to stress that it does not rest in one single community; it is for all communities. Of the £1 billion total which has been set aside, £430 million will have been spent as we progress this budget Bill. Some £20 million was spent in the last period; that leaves £410 million. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, was quite right to stress that much of that money will rest inside the health spend and the education spend: that is additional spending that would not be in Northern Ireland but for the supply and confidence fund. Importantly, £10 million of that is for mental health issues. It is also important to stress that, as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s commitment to funding for the NHS, there will be a significant Barnett consequential uplift in Northern Ireland—a figure, I imagine, of around £760 million, if my maths is correct, during the period 2023-24. That is jam tomorrow, not jam today, but it represents a significant investment of money which I hope will be available for health in Northern Ireland.

On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the Government have made funds available for the accommodation and housing of refugees and refugee children in Northern Ireland. If the noble Lord will allow, I will write to him in greater detail, to make sure he has all the information he is looking for. I am also very cognisant of the importance of integrated education. It is important for me to stress that that is, of course, a devolved matter and one which I hope will be able to be progressed. I suspect that if the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, is taking some time off from here, she may well wrestle some of these issues to the ground in Northern Ireland—she will be welcome there, I hope. We are supportive of the idea of an integrated educational approach in Northern Ireland, cognisant of the devolution settlement itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, continues to ask me challenging questions, to which I do not always have appropriate answers. To take up some of his points, we cannot right now place upon the shoulders of civil servants the pressures they have had to withstand—the two impending court cases and appeals stand testimony to that—and we must therefore move forward with a new way of thinking. I am conscious, as he rightly points out, that civil servants are conservative—with a small C—and that is why we end up with very cautious spending, rather than the spending that elected representatives might be willing to embrace. I am conscious that we need to make sure that we are in a position where the realities of the challenges in Northern Ireland are dealt with.

I was struck by the note raised in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Bew: the demographic time-bomb which many of the home nations are wrestling with is not actually the same challenge in Northern Ireland. I would be fascinated to understand more about that. I am going to do my own investigations to understand more about exactly how that will work in practice. In so recognising, it therefore means that the solutions to the challenges of Northern Ireland cannot be taken from a textbook. They need to be tailored to the situation that we witness.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, took us again into the back story that brings us to the point we have reached. It is a reminder that many of the challenges that we face today have a lengthier pedigree. Importantly, the noble Lord stresses the value to the communities of Northern Ireland of this additional supply and confidence money. We need to make sure, however, that that money can be spent. There will come points when we cannot, by our current methodology, create funding proprieties to spend all of the money. It simply will not be deliverable under our current arrangements so, although the £1 billion will remain an important sum of money, unless we can make some serious progress, it will remain at least partially underspent.

As to where the money that has not yet been spent is, I do not think it rests in a big bank account somewhere, but it might do. The reality is that it is money that is fully available to the communities of Northern Ireland, which will be spent delivering the very good work that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, stressed throughout his speech. It is important to remember that that money can indeed do good things. Making sure that we can spend it will be the ultimate test.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, raised a number of technical points about how we could move things forward. I admire the points that were being raised and I recognise that, if we could do them, we would make some progress. I fear that the first step in that process is a challenging one—how we get from where we are to delivering against them. We need to be in a situation soon, however, where a lot of these issues are addressed, I would hope, by an incoming, re-established, sustainable Executive. We need to be conscious that this is a necessary step.

The spending of monies will continue to be scrutinised, as it has been before, by the various bodies that are responsible for auditing in Northern Ireland. Those figures and reports are made public and I will ensure that, when they are published, a note of that publication is registered with your Lordships to make sure that they are fully aware of them.

I note with some curiosity the question of libel law reform from the noble Lord, Lord Bew. I would like to learn more of that, so I am going to invert tradition and ask him to write to me, so that I can learn more about what he had in mind. He was also correct in stressing the importance of how information can be used and misused. He was absolutely correct when he was talking about the checks around the Irish border. We need to be clear that we are not talking about a borderless border; there are still realities that interface between Northern Ireland and Ireland itself—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, would say, the Republic of Ireland—depending on how they touch together. The purpose of the British-Irish Council is to deal with east-west issues. That is its principal purpose and what it should continue to do, within the context of the Good Friday agreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, carefully raised the issue of abortion and wider abortion services. He also gave me an opportunity to write to him, and I will take him up on that kind offer. That is more appropriate, so that I can be absolutely clear what the answers are and make sure that I am not short-changing him in any way. I note again that the figures quoted are serious contributions to Northern Ireland financially, and that they stem from the passing of this particular budget Bill.

I conclude with the remarks of “Direct Ruler Murphy”, or the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. I like it as a term although I recognise exactly what it means. I hope there is a recognition that we are not going to shirk responsibilities. We have not been successful in delivering what needs to be delivered. There is enough blame to rest upon a number of shoulders, and we do not claim ownership rights over all of it. We will, however, need to make progress. I am not invoking the sarcophagus of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, but rather the needful elements that we must embrace; in the next few months each of the issues raised by the noble Lord will have to be seriously considered. We cannot continue to move forward on the basis that we have established so far. It is now without the underpinnings to give it the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland or, indeed, wider democratic confidence itself.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Monday 18th June 2018

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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You can please some of the people some of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. Like my noble friend Lord Hain, I should like to have seen more reference in the amendment to the customs union that has to be in some way adopted to ensure that there is no very hard border. I also agree, however, with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: the fact that this amendment is before us at all is an indicator of the work of the Government, the Minister and his ministerial colleagues, including the Member for Worcester, who has been dealing with this. The Bill now refers to the Good Friday agreement, north-south ministerial bodies and the need to avoid a physical border with all its trappings. I am sure that in the months ahead the Minister will be able to find some answer to my noble friend Lord Hain in the Trade Bill that will come before us—it is a hugely important issue—but I very much take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. He, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and I were at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in County Sligo last week meeting Members of Parliament not just from Ireland and the United Kingdom but from the devolved institutions, and there was unanimous agreement that Brexit is dominating British-Irish relations. No other country in the European Union will be affected like Ireland, and it is very important that we acknowledge that in Parliament as well as in government.

The other point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is also vital. The Government must concentrate their efforts on restoring the institutions in Belfast. Only this week, the Government announced extra money for the National Health Service. The Barnett consequentials of that for Wales and Scotland will be decided by Ministers and Parliaments. Who will decide where that extra money—hundreds of millions of pounds—will go in Northern Ireland when there is no Executive? More significantly in the context of this debate, there is no political voice from Northern Ireland in the negotiations dealing with these important issues. I am sure the Minister will have this uppermost in his mind in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, we accept that this amendment is not everything we wanted, but it is a lot of it, and I hope that the Commons will accept it when it goes back to them. There is absolute recognition that, 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, we must not allow Brexit to interfere with all the good work that has resulted from that agreement in 1998.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, as ever on this issue, we have brought forward some of the key aspects that are important to our relations in Northern Ireland. I shall touch briefly on some of the points raised. A number of noble Lords stressed that there is a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are different jurisdictions for taxation and various other aspects, but we have to recognise that we have made great progress in how that border is viewed and must recognise it going forward. We cannot create further infrastructure on that border.

I bring my points directly to those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who was disappointed that there was not enough of the specificity and designation that he felt needed to be there. In truth, when we talk about checks and controls we are not trying to be ambiguous; we are trying to capture all those aspects. When I spoke in one of the previous debates in your Lordships’ House, I addressed issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, about the checks that will not happen on that border. There will be no profile and no quixotic behaviour. We need to recognise that the border as is must remain as is. We shall not impose on the border, through either infrastructure or unintentional non-tariff barriers, any restriction that impedes the movement of people or indeed, we hope, of trade and goods. That will of course be developed and resolved in the Bills that come after; there will be opportunities in both the Trade Bill and the withdrawal implementation Bill to address these matters still further.

It is important to reflect on the points raised by my noble friend Lord Cormack at the beginning. This may not be where the razzmatazz of the afternoon is but what we have done here is bring together all sides of the House, I hope, in putting into the Bill that which was not there before: recognition of the vital importance of the Belfast agreement and recognition of north/south co-operation are now in the Bill because of the activities of this House and the other place. There will of course be opportunities to develop those aspects.

There will be challenges, I do not doubt, and it is right to reflect that the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland is a detriment to the people of Northern Ireland at this critical moment. There are not only the Barnett consequentials on health but many other examples where, too often, we are calling on civil servants to do the job of Ministers. That cannot go on. Equally, there are times right now when the voices of the communities in Northern Ireland would be an asset to our engagement on the wider Brexit question but they are missing.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said we should have more pith. Well, I am not going to take the pith any longer. I am going to conclude my remarks and say: I beg to move.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

(Report: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Wednesday 2nd May 2018

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Scotland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen
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No, no; I do not think for one second that this amendment refers to or is about joint authority. What it is about is the recognition that both the British Government and the Irish Government are joint guarantors in international law of the Good Friday agreement. That is what it is about. Also, the agreement itself set up the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which meets from time to time in order to deal with matters of common concern.

To return to the amendment, it rejects a hard border. The word “hard” has been debated by a number of speakers. The Government themselves have attached the description to what they do not want. The Government do not want a hard border, the Opposition do not want a hard border, the European Union does not want one, the Government of Ireland do not and nor do any of the parties in Northern Ireland. None of them wants a hard border, and all this is doing is putting into the Bill what everybody actually wants.

The amendment protects the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which as it happens I steered through the Commons 20 years ago. That set up the Assembly and the Executive and dealt with rights and equality. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, asked: should we not have the Good Friday agreement in the amendment rather than the 1998 Act? Of course, the 1998 Act incorporated a great deal of the agreement and was based on the principle of the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

The other issue is that of the north/south arrangements. There is no question, in my view, that those are extremely important and need to be protected as a vital part of the agreement, and they actually deal with millions of pounds of European funding for cross-border projects. All the amendment is about is a guarantee that the integrity of the Good Friday agreement is enshrined in law and put into the Bill.

The actual, real threat to the agreement in Northern Ireland is the fact that there is no Assembly or Executive there. The institutions should be restored. Their absence is the real threat to the Good Friday agreement and one that I hope the Government will work intensely over the next weeks and months to resolve. As parliamentarians in both Houses, we need to protect one of the most successful peace processes of modern times, and I believe that the amendment goes a long way towards doing that.

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 had a five-page speaking note when I arrived here. I have now written more than 10 pages myself. I am not sure my speaking note will do the debate justice so I will set it aside.

I will try to capture the key elements of this discussion. I will turn, as I often do in matters concerning Ireland and Northern Ireland, to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, who reminded us that we have heard the same words used many times about the Good Friday agreement, to the extent that earlier today we almost had to use a thesaurus to find a replacement for “steadfast” because we have said it so many times. As it happens, the word in the note is “unwavering”, if you are looking for a description of our support for the Good Friday agreement. But the noble and right reverend Lord is correct: we must give comfort and certainty to the people of Northern Ireland that they will not be abandoned, sacrificed, left behind, have their rights trimmed to suit a separate agenda or find themselves in a situation where what they thought they had they do not have at all. I had the pleasure of having a cup of tea yesterday with the noble and right reverend Lord and he spoke about what he called the Ballymena spade—where they call a spade a spade. We need to be clear that there can be no border down the middle of the Irish Sea. We simply cannot create a division between one part of our country and another.

Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the EU, has said that there needs to be some adjustment to particular rights and proprieties, that there needs to be some acceptance that we cannot have these things, and that some of the red lines themselves, as the Foreign Minister of Ireland has said, may need to be adjusted in the light of peace and prosperity. But they cannot be, that is the point. So if I was to give a message to Michel Barnier, it would be: “Ecoutez les deux communautés”—you must listen to the two communities in Northern Ireland. You cannot listen to only one of them. Both are integral to what we will be able to achieve on the island of Ireland, and any suggestion otherwise is fallacious and unhelpful. In truth, it risks creating greater uncertainty for this particular negotiation. I would advocate great caution on behalf of Michel Barnier in this regard.

Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 27th March 2018

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a fascinating if short debate. It has been a timely one, too, because this is the last occasion we will debate this issue in either House of Parliament before we celebrate or commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement in two or three weeks’ time. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members of your Lordships’ House who played a huge part in that agreement. The noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Trimble, Lord Empey and Lord Bew, and others brought that enormous triumph to fruition just two decades ago. Of course, these three Bills are the result of the institutions which the Good Friday agreement set up collapsing. That is the tragedy and reality of today’s proceedings. We should not have these Bills because there should be a functioning Assembly and a functioning Executive.

With regard to the Bill on the budget, my friend in the other place, who until recently was the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith—I deeply regret his departure from that job because he knew a great deal about Northern Ireland and had a lot of experience—as well as my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the pensions of victims of the Troubles. The opportunity for the Government to deal with this matter is before us. I know there is controversy on this point, but if controversy surrounds just 10 victims as opposed to 490 who are not subject to controversy, I see no reason why we cannot park the argument about the 10 and carry on giving compensation to the nearly 500 remaining victims. After all, as my noble friend Lord Hain said in his very moving speech, that number will inevitably reduce as the months and years go by.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart, and the compensation for victims of historical abuse in Northern Ireland. There seems to be no reason at all why the Government cannot under these powers ensure that compensation is paid to those people who have suffered abuse in the decades gone by.

With regard to the rates, obviously we have to agree with the increase—I put them up myself when I was the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland a long time ago. It is not a very nice thing to do to the people of Northern Ireland but it is essential to ensure that services are maintained. I agree that we should support the Government on that Bill and, indeed, on the RHI issue. I hope that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, with regard to that matter will be taken up by the Minister in his reply.

With regard to the pay for MLAs, obviously we agree with the Government’s intentions and with the indication in Trevor Reaney’s report that there should be a 27% reduction in their pay. It should not affect their constituency offices or their staff but of course it will be welcomed by public opinion in Northern Ireland. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that we have to take great care that we do not dismiss an entire political class that has arisen over the past 20 years. If we took away their pay completely we might have to start all over again, and I do not think that is a very good idea. In a sense, it is an admission of failure to have to reduce the pay of MLAs. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for some years, although I reduced the pay of MLAs, I never stopped it. I was criticised for not stopping it but it was important to ensure that the political class that had grown up in Northern Ireland was maintained.

Of course, the answer to all this is the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Hay, both talked of the importance of that. I do not underestimate the difficulties in bringing the Assembly and the Executive back. After all, it has to do with trust and confidence on both sides. That is not always easy. Obviously, the sticking point is the Irish language but there are other issues as well. Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in those negotiations over 20 years ago will remember the issues that we were discussing then—police, the release of prisoners, the issue of consent, the Assembly, the Executive, human rights, equality, criminal justice, the change of the Irish constitution, and so on—but we managed it. It took us a long time to do it but we managed it, so it does not seem a huge issue to be overcome.

I remind your Lordships’ House that in a way these three Bills are drifting towards real direct rule. I do not believe the Government want that. I do not believe that anybody in this Chamber actually wants direct rule. It certainly is not the answer. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to the importance of having local people taking local decisions. Certainly, when I was a direct rule Minister for five years, I did not think I was the right person to be taking decisions on hospitals, schools and roads when I represented a Welsh constituency in the House of Commons. It was not right that I should be doing all those things; nor is it right now that civil servants, for all their effectiveness and knowledge, are taking decisions about the lives of people in Northern Ireland; nor should British Ministers be doing it.

The other problem is that when we have direct rule, politicians become supplicants. They do not take decisions, they ask for things. Sometimes it is easy to have direct rule—not to take the difficult and nasty decisions on closing a hospital or building a school somewhere or whatever it might be. Those are harsh, difficult decisions and sometimes it is easier to be the supplicant rather than the decision-maker.

It will be disastrous in the long term if there is direct rule. I just want to repeat some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lord Hain said about trying to ensure that none of this happens. The involvement of the Prime Minister is vital. As we look back on how we achieved the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago, it was because two Prime Ministers were negotiating these issues day by day and through the night, over a period not of months but of years. Perhaps we need an independent referee. In two weeks’ time Senator Mitchell will be in Belfast commemorating that anniversary—perhaps we need another Senator Mitchell.

It is important that all the parties in Northern Ireland should be involved in transparent talks, not just the two big parties—they are the most important ones, of course, but there are other parties in Northern Ireland and often issues can be raised and challenged in all-party meetings. You would have to involve the Irish Government as far as you could, constitutionally. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, touched on, we should not let Brexit distract us from the importance of ensuring that we restore our institutions in Northern Ireland.

The problem is that over two decades people have become a little complacent. They have taken things for granted. They forget what it was like 25 or 30 years ago in Northern Ireland. A whole generation has grown up not knowing the Troubles. You would have to be in your 40s in Northern Ireland to understand what it was like before we signed the Good Friday agreement, and then you were only a child.

I return finally to the fact that we are commemorating that agreement signed 20 years ago, which should be the spur to local politicians, the Government, the Irish Government and all of us in Parliament to ensure that we restore those institutions as quickly as we possibly can.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, this has been a very wide-ranging discussion, as it always is when we confront the serious issues we encounter in Northern Ireland. I am struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hay of Ballyore, who spoke of the Belfast city deal and the Derry/Longdonderry city deal. Would it not be great if that was all we were talking about today: the UK Government’s contribution to a deal determined by an Executive in Northern Ireland which was about jobs, growth, employment and prospects? Would that not be something that we could celebrate?

However, we are not doing that, and more is the pity. I do not detect any dispute among noble Lords today that we must take forward these three Bills. I recognise that we are doing so in an expedited manner, and for that I apologise on behalf of the Government, but that is what we must do today. I am conscious that a number of the issues that have been raised today are about future spend, and it is important to stress that the Bills before us here today are, in effect, about regularising the 2017-18 spend, the spend that we are currently engaged in delivering. A separate Bill will be brought before another place and this House with regard to specific provisions of future spend inside Northern Ireland. That will be an opportunity again to touch upon a number of these issues as we go forward.

Before I delve into the budget itself, it is important to talk a little about future talks and the future status as a number of noble Lords have raised those matters—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for doing so. We are in a period of reflection. That is sometimes used euphemistically, but it means to look inside and ask yourself what is going on and what should be going on. This period will be short, I hope. It is also important to stress that during the talks progress was made. We did not get to the other side of the chasm, but we made substantial progress, and it is on that basis that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continues to emphasise that she is of the view that we will find the means of bringing about an agreement upon which we can build and which will, I hope, supersede all that we do here today.

As we consider the various elements that might help us move forward—the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, has raised a number of these points—we welcome Senator George Mitchell to our shores. We pay tribute to the service he rendered our country in helping bring about that agreement in the past. As I have said on more than one occasion, we are not ruling out an independent referee, to use that term. If I may be frank, I would welcome noble Lords’ thoughts in that regard. Nothing can be ruled out. We need to be conscious of that.

It is important for me to emphasise that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been very active in this regard, and I do not doubt that she will continue to be active. Indeed, as we mark and celebrate the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—the Prime Minister will be in Belfast taking part in those celebrations, marking that important moment and meeting participants at that time.

The core point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, was the notion of what model we can look at to see this afresh. Part of the challenge for anyone who listened to or read of the outcomes of the two recent conferences of the two principal parties in Northern Ireland is that it is clear that there is no alternative model ready to be pulled off the shelf. I am sad to say that, but it is a simple statement of fact. If there was, I believe we would have done so already. That does not mean that it cannot be found, but it certainly means that we have not yet found it. It is sad, but I must reflect upon that point.

If I may touch upon the Bills themselves, I am struck again by some of the very useful remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey—they always are useful. I will not go into the details of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which I suspect are well known in our House, but it remains our overriding priority to see devolution restored—I cannot, frankly, say that often enough—so that a new Executive can take decisions on a range of strategic issues and respond directly to Sir Anthony’s report. For anyone who has read it and recognised what it contains, it makes challenging reading. Of that there is no doubt. The courage and dignity of those who have taken part in that particular inquiry are to be commended. I acknowledge the frustration so many feel about the lack of progress, particularly in the absence of an Executive to consider that particular report. But I welcome the preparatory work being taken forward by the Executive office to enable action to be taken swiftly once an Executive is restored.

As to the matter of the wider question of legacy, we do have a very clear duty to survivors and victims to bring forward proposals to address the legacy of the past. There is broad agreement among victims and survivors that the legacy institutions, as they are currently set up, are not working. That is a sad admission in itself. We continue to seek the implementation of the legacy institutions in the Stormont House agreement as the best way to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors. We believe that the institutions have the potential to provide better outcomes. We believe that very strongly. The proposed Stormont House legacy institutions would be under legal obligation to be balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable. The next phase is to consult publicly on the details of how the new institutions will work in practice. A public consultation will provide everyone with an interest the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues. The Government want to begin that consultation soon with the aim of building support and confidence in the new legacy institutions from across the community. We are obliged to move forward so that the victims and survivors are able to see progress—not just hope that it will occur in due course. We continue to support reforms of the legacy inquest system to provide the best way to address this. We are also committed to provide £150 million—

Northern Ireland Finances

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 13th March 2018

(2 years, 11 months 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 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 would like to make a Statement about Northern Ireland finances. Last week, I laid a Written Statement in which I explained that the pressures on public services meant that it was imperative for the Government to take steps to provide clarity to enable planning in Northern Ireland for 2018-19.

With great reluctance, and in spite of my strong preference for a new Executive to set a budget, I set out in this Statement the resource and capital allocations which I considered to be the most balanced and appropriate settlement for Northern Ireland departments. I did this following intensive engagement with the Northern Ireland Civil Service—NICS—and consultation with all of the main Northern Ireland parties.

In the continued absence of an Executive, I have an obligation to take these and any other measures that are necessary to keep Northern Ireland functioning. But I will only take such measures where they are essential and limited in nature, and are part of a clear and consistent approach by the Government. This approach is based on a number of principles. First, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement. All that we do will be with the purpose of protecting and fulfilling the agreement. But, secondly, we will take those decisions which are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland, consistent always with restoring the Executive and local decision-making at the earliest possible opportunity. Thirdly, we will continue to implement our obligations under the agreement and its successors where possible, always working for the good of the community as a whole. Finally, we will continue to work with all the Northern Ireland parties, and with the Irish Government as appropriate, to remove the barriers to restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.

The principles at the core of the agreement and the political institutions it establishes continue to have our full and unreserved support. That means that we will uphold the principle of consent, consistent with this Government’s support for Northern Ireland’s place within the union and with maintaining the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. We believe in devolution and the imperative for local decision-making by local politicians. We support power-sharing on a cross-community basis, based on mutual respect and recognition. We will continue to support and facilitate north/south co-operation, including as we leave the EU, while always preserving the economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the Irish Government in full accordance with the three-stranded approach. We will continue to act fairly and govern in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

The necessary steps, which I have taken and will continue to take, are consistent with all of these commitments. In addition to the steps I set out last week, there are several associated measures required to further secure public finances which I will be taking forward. As well as cutting costs, securing efficiencies and beginning to take the steps to transform public services, it is right to look at how income can be increased to protect the public services on which the people of Northern Ireland depend. I will therefore introduce legislation to set a regional rate, which will increase domestic rates by 3% above inflation. This will make an important contribution to sustainable finances in the long run, with the additional funding addressing urgent pressures in health and education. I also intend to act to extend the cost-capping of the current renewable heat incentive scheme in Northern Ireland, which the Assembly had put in place over a year ago. It would not be acceptable to put finances at risk by simply allowing that cap to lapse. I therefore propose to extend it for a further year from 1 April, the minimal possible step to protect the public purse. I will also confirm the final spending totals for the Northern Ireland departments for the 2017-18 financial year in legislation to set supplementary estimates.

I also believe that the time is right to address the ongoing public concern about MLA pay in the absence of a functioning Assembly. I thank Trevor Reaney, who was instructed by my predecessor to produce an independent view and recommended a 27.5% reduction to MLA pay. I will seek to introduce legislation to take a power to vary MLA pay. Further to that, I am minded to reduce pay in line with the Reaney review recommendation, but I would welcome full and final representations from the Northern Ireland parties before I make a final decision.

These measures—which I take reluctantly, but which are necessary in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly—will deliver the stability and the decisions to enable forward planning for the financial year ahead. But I am clear that they cannot provide the local input and fundamental decisions which are needed to secure a more sustainable future for Northern Ireland. My powers as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are limited. The scope of this House to pass legislation on the devolved issues which matter for Northern Ireland is limited. This rightly reflects the devolution settlement which is in place and to which this Government are committed. But it does mean that, in the continuing absence of an Executive, there are fundamental decisions in Northern Ireland which cannot be taken, scrutinised and implemented as they should be.

This has been the situation for 14 months already and, in the continued absence of an Executive, it would be irresponsible for us not to consider how we might provide for different arrangements until such time as the devolved institutions are back up and running. Alongside this I also continue to keep under review my statutory obligation to call an Assembly election.

I would welcome the views and proposals of the Northern Ireland parties and others on how such arrangements—providing for local decision-making and scrutiny on a cross-community basis—might be achieved in the continued absence of an Executive; and how any such arrangements might work alongside the other institutions of the agreement. Let me be clear that this in no way affects my commitment to the Belfast agreement, nor my commitment to continue to work to remove the barriers to the restoration of devolution. As the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement approaches, I am clearer than ever that Northern Ireland needs strong political leadership from a locally elected and accountable devolved Government. That remains my firm goal. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement, and agree with him on the need to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, especially as it is about four weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement. The commitment of the Government to the underlying principles of that agreement is very much to be welcomed.

I understand the need to set a budget and agree that it is wholly inadequate for civil servants, however good—and, indeed, they are all good—to decide the spending priorities in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell us a little bit more about the consultation process that has occurred with the political parties and others in Northern Ireland, specifically on the regional rate and on the allocation of resources to the different departments in Northern Ireland? In particular, will he tell us about the consultation on the Bengoa proposals on the health service in Northern Ireland, and where we are on that important matter?

The Minister raised the difficult—perhaps even controversial—issue of the salaries of Members of the Legislative Assembly. Does he envisage a time limit on the consultation with the political parties in Northern Ireland? During the course of his Statement, he mentioned that there would be a need for legislation to implement parts of the budget and to vary the salaries of the MLAs. Can he give the House an indication of when such legislation might be before us? Lastly, does he accept that this budget-setting exercise is not a road to direct rule, and that robust and meaningful talks on setting up the institutions in Northern Ireland will begin very shortly?

Transparency of Donations and Loans etc. (Northern Ireland Political Parties) Order 2018

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 27th February 2018

(2 years, 12 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a fascinating if rather short debate on an important subject. I recall that about 21 years ago, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland visited me in my ministerial office with a suitcase. In the suitcase were about 300 to 400 fraudulent ballot papers. I suddenly realised that things were a bit different in Northern Ireland from my constituency in south Wales. They were of course impersonated ballot papers and I often wondered whether they resulted from intimidation. It is quite possible that they did. The reason why the transparency laws in Northern Ireland have not always coincided with those in the rest of the United Kingdom is precisely because of intimidation. For example, if people wanted to donate to this or that party and it was made public, they could well face intimidation. That was wrong and therefore it inevitably took some time for it to change over the last two decades.

I certainly welcome the order; it is a step in the right direction to normalcy in Northern Ireland. But I see the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made with regard to the donation by a particular body—I think it was in Scotland—to the DUP with regard to the European Union referendum. I understand that a lot of that money was used in Northern Ireland and in London; but it did not do much good, because in both those places people voted to remain in overwhelming numbers. Nevertheless, that rather bizarre and controversial donation is an important issue. It was aired very widely in the debate in the other place by my honourable friend Owen Smith and others, and of course it has been aired here. So the idea that the donation has somehow or other not been debated is wrong; it is being debated today and has been debated in the House of Commons as well.

But—and this is an important but—the Electoral Commission has indicated in response to this legislation, which of course it supports, that the Government should bring in another order that would reflect on the situation and go back to 2014. The Minister has rightly told the House that when the political parties were asked about whether the provision should be retrospective, with the exception of the Alliance party they said, “No, it should not be”. They had reasons for that, which again probably relate to intimidation and such factors—but there is a case for the Government to take seriously the Electoral Commission’s recommendation and consult again the political parties in Northern Ireland as to whether it should be backdated. That should not mean that the order should be held up; it should not.

I also take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, with regard to donations from Irish citizens and various bodies on the island of Ireland. This reflects the different situation in Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom—of course it does. There are obviously people in Northern Ireland who regard themselves as Irish and not British, and people who regard themselves as British and not Irish. Donations from Irish citizens and bodies to political parties in Northern Ireland therefore are and have been acceptable, but they have to lie properly alongside Parliament’s view that foreign donations in general should not be allowed. But I do not think you can disallow Irish citizens—as long as, again, there is an element of transparency in all this.

I hope that we will agree to the order going through, but I also ask the Minister to reflect on the commission’s recommendation on retrospection. This is part of the journey towards reconciliation and the establishment of the institutions in Northern Ireland. This is set against the background of where we are at the moment—which is, frankly, disastrous. We do not want direct rule in Northern Ireland; we want the restitution of the Assembly and of the Executive. This order helps towards that.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I thank your Lordships for their wide-ranging contributions to the discussion this afternoon. I begin by thanking noble Lords for the support for the order before us, which will establish transparency from 1 July 2017. I believe we all welcome that particular feature—we can agree on that part.

I will address the question of backdating head-on. When the then Secretary of State consulted the political parties in Northern Ireland, he asked them when they wished the order to commence. In response, the parties themselves were quite explicit. The Alliance Party, as we have heard, wished to see the order backdated to 1 January. The DUP and the UUP both explicitly wanted it to be a forward order from the point at which it was agreed in 2017. The SDLP and Sinn Fein did not address this specific question in their responses. It is important also to stress that since that consultation, we have received no further update from those main political parties on the backdating question. I put that as a matter of record.

On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, many of these questions cannot have been germane to the decisions of last year, for one very simple reason. Although the Electoral Commission was gathering the data at the point, it was not able—indeed, it would have been illegal—to release that data to the United Kingdom Government, whichever party held office. It could not therefore have been part of those ongoing discussions. We have heard at least one noble Lord today make reference to the details of that donation, and that is now a matter of public record. But it is a matter of public record as a consequence of other elements, not of its registration during the electoral gathering of data. It is important to stress that. That is why many of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, fall at that point.

It is important again to recognise that we have an opportunity here in looking at establishing transparency. Right now, we are not ruling out the re-examination of the period that precedes 1 July 2017. Indeed, the draft order will allow consideration of it, once we have had an opportunity both to bed in the transparency order and to examine the details reflected therein. We will not rule anything in or out on that point. I stress that. It is important that we recognise it.

It is also important to recognise that the data has been gathered from that period in 2014—the data exists. Those who believe that it will be for ever concealed need fear nothing; there is nothing to be seen here and we can move along. In truth, that data will remain there. If it is determined that we should examine that in greater detail going forward, there is an opportunity for us to revisit this item. We should not lose sight of that fact.

As for the donations and loans that come into Northern Ireland from outside, from the southern part of the island of Ireland, I assure both the noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Bew, that there will be full transparency of those donations and loans. There must be—there can be nothing but that. That is why, again in relation to Irish citizens, the prescribed condition is that at the time of making a donation to a Northern Ireland recipient, the individual must be eligible to obtain one of the following documents: an Irish passport, a certificate of nationality or a certificate of naturalisation. There will be a full gathering of all the data of moneys coming into the electoral process in Northern Ireland. It is important that we recognise what that means.

Northern Ireland Budget Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
(Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords)
Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Tuesday 14th November 2017

(3 years, 3 months 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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As noble Lords will know, it is now nine months since there has been a properly functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. Yet despite this Government’s efforts over the last 11 weeks, the parties have not yet reached an agreement that would enable a sustainable Executive to form. In bringing the parties together for this most recent phase of the political talks, we have sought to help the DUP and Sinn Fein to bridge the gap on a small number of outstanding matters, including language and culture. In doing so, we have worked closely with the Irish Government in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. We remain prepared to bring forward legislation that would allow an Executive to be formed should the parties reach an agreement.

I share my right honourable friend the Secretary of State’s strong preference to see a restored Executive in Northern Ireland taking forward its own Budget. The Bill before us is one that we are taking forward with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available. We have been clear that the passage of legislation to set a Budget should not be a barrier to negotiations continuing, but the ongoing lack of agreement has had tangible consequences for people and public services in Northern Ireland. Without an Executive there has been no Budget, and without a Budget civil servants have been without political direction to take decisions on spending and public services in Northern Ireland.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which has demonstrated the utmost professionalism in protecting and preserving public services throughout these difficult times, but the powers it has been exercising have their limits. Under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and Section 7 of the Government Resources and Accounts (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, they may issue cash and resources equal to only 95% of the totals authorised in the last financial year. These powers do not allow departments to use accruing resources, meaning that the resources available to departments are in reality significantly less than 95% of the previous year’s provision.

Noble Lords will recall that in Written Statements by my predecessors, the noble Lords, Lord Dunlop and Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, in April and July, the Government set out an indicative Budget position and a set of departmental allocations based on the advice of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The 19 July Statement said:

“The exercise of S59 powers cannot be sustained indefinitely”,

and warned that although we had not then reached that critical point, it was approaching. Those resource limits, in the absence of a Budget, are now fast approaching. Without further action there are manifest risks that the Northern Ireland Civil Service would simply begin to run out of resources by the end of this month. That would mean no funding available for public services, with all of the negative impacts that would accompany such a cliff edge. No Government could simply stand by and allow that to happen. That is why we need the Bill.

To be clear, this is a measure we have deferred for as long as possible. We wanted to see the parties reach an agreement and take a Budget through themselves. In the absence of agreement, the Bill is necessary to keep public services running in Northern Ireland and, while it is a government Bill, it is not a UK government Budget. It does not reflect the priorities or spending decisions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or any other UK government Minister. Rather, it sets out the departmental allocations and ambits that have been recommended by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which, in turn, has sought as far as is possible to reflect the priorities of the previous Executive, albeit updated to reflect the changed circumstances as far as has been required. In short, it is the Budget that a returning Executive—had one been formed—would have been presented with. Taken as a whole, it represents a necessary measure, taken at the latest possible point, to secure public finances in Northern Ireland.

We should be absolutely clear that passing this Budget in Westminster does not mean a move to direct rule, any more than did this Parliament legislating to set a regional rate in April. Once the Budget is passed, the detailed decisions on how it is spent will be made by the Northern Ireland Civil Service. If the parties come together to form an Executive in the weeks ahead—as I am sure all noble Lords hope will be the case—those decisions would fall to them. Nothing we are doing today precludes talks from continuing and an agreement being reached.

I now turn briefly to the contents of this short but rather technical Bill. In short, it authorises Northern Ireland departments and certain other bodies to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2018. Clause 1 authorises the issue of £16.17 billion out of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. The allocation levels for each Northern Ireland department and the other bodies in receipt of these funds are set out in Schedule 1, which also states the purposes for which these funds are to be used.

Clause 2 permits some temporary borrowing powers for cash management purposes. Clause 3 authorises the use of resources amounting to £18 billion in the year ending 31 March 2018 by the Northern Ireland departments and other bodies listed in Clause 3(2). These figures and those in Clause 1 supersede the allocations of cash and resources made by the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance up to the end of this month, under the powers I have already mentioned. Similarly to Clause 1, the breakdown between these departments and bodies and the purposes for the authorised use of resources under Clause 3 are set out in the Bill, in the first two columns of Schedule 2.

Clause 4 sets limits on the accruing resources, including both operating and non-operating accruing resources, in the current financial year. These sums relate to those which have already been voted by Parliament via Main Estimates, together with revenue generated locally within Northern Ireland. There is no new money in the Bill: there is simply the explicit authority to spend in full the monies that have already been allocated.

Ordinarily, the Bill would have been taken through the Assembly. As such, in Clause 5, a series of adaptations ensure that—once approved by both Houses in Westminster—the Bill will be treated as such, enabling Northern Ireland public finances to continue to function notwithstanding the absence of an Executive. Clause 6 repeals previous Assembly Budget Acts, relating to the financial years 2013-14 and 2014-15 respectively, which are no longer operative. Such repeals are regularly included in Assembly Budget Bills.

Alongside the introduction of the Bill in the other place yesterday, a set of estimates for the departments and bodies covered by the Budget Bill was laid before the House as a Command Paper. These estimates, which have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, set out the breakdown of the resource allocation in greater detail. As noble Lords may note, this is a different process from that which we might ordinarily see for estimates at Westminster, where the estimates document precedes the formal Budget legislation and is separately approved. That would also be the case at the Assembly. But in these unusual circumstances, the Bill provides that the laying of the Command Paper takes the place of an estimates document laid and approved before the Assembly, again to enable public finances to flow smoothly.

To aid the understanding of these Main Estimates and how the spending will break down, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has published a Budget briefing paper, which was published on the Department of Finance website on Monday morning. It is important to note that the Northern Ireland political parties have also been briefed on this Budget position.

As those clauses demonstrate, this is clearly an unusual Bill to be taken through the UK Parliament, marking as it does an approval by Parliament of spending in the devolved sphere. While being proportionate, the UK Government want to ensure that in the absence of an Assembly there can be appropriate scrutiny by Parliament of how the money it has voted is subsequently spent. In addition to the provision in the Bill for scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Audit Office of the Northern Ireland departments, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be writing to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland asking for a copy of each of the NIAO audit and value for money reports produced after the Bill gains Royal Assent, which will contain the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s view on any shortcomings and his recommendations for improvement. The Secretary of State will ask the Northern Ireland Civil Service to make its responses to those reports available to him. Copies of these reports and correspondence will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses to allow scrutiny by all interested Members and committees.

I have already noted that the Bill deals solely with moneys already voted for by Parliament or raised within Northern Ireland. Those figures do not, though, secure the financial picture for the long term, where real challenges remain. There is a health service in significant need of transformation; there are further steps to take to build the truly connected infrastructure that can boost growth and prosperity throughout Northern Ireland; and there is a need to continue to deal with the legacy of the past. It was in recognition of those unique circumstances that the UK Government were prepared to make additional financial support available earlier this year, following the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP. That agreement made it clear that we wanted to see that money made available to a restored Executive, which would decide on a cross-community basis how best to use the funding for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances cannot simply be ignored in the meantime, especially given the pressures that we have seen in the continued absence of an Executive. So in addition to the Bill, this Government will commit to making available the £50 million in the agreement for addressing immediate health and education pressures in this financial year. Those sums are not contained in the Bill, because they have not yet been voted by Parliament. If the Northern Ireland Administration confirm their wish to access them, they will be subject to the full authorisation of the UK Parliament, as with all sums discharged from the UK Consolidated Fund, via the estimates process in the new year. From there they will be transferred, along with other sums forming part of the Northern Ireland block grant, into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

In the absence of an Executive, it would be for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which is bound by a range of equality and propriety duties, to make the decisions as to whether and how to take account of this funding for the benefit of the whole community. We want to see a restored Executive back in place and deciding on how the additional financial support can best be used for the benefit—I stress again—of the whole community. That remains the case now, as much as it ever was. We believe in devolution. We want to see locally elected politicians taking the strategic decisions about the future direction of their local areas.

In this context, I know the disappointment so many feel that despite the election more than eight months ago, there remains no functioning Assembly in which all those elected may serve. The Government understand the concerns that many have that full salaries continue to be paid to Assembly Members, despite this impasse, but we also recognise that many of those elected have been desperate to serve since March and have continued to provide valuable constituency functions in the meantime. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State told the House of Commons yesterday that he is seeking independent advice on the subject from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mr Reaney has agreed to provide an independent assessment of the case for action and the steps he would consider appropriate. He will report to the Secretary of State by 15 December and his advice will help inform the best way to proceed.

I very much hope that his work will not be needed. That is because I still hope that the parties can resolve their differences and an Executive can be formed—an Executive that will come together and take the strategic decisions needed on health transformation, educational reform and building world-class infrastructure to deliver a better future in Northern Ireland. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and want to see. We will continue to work with the parties and support them in their efforts to reach a resolution for, together with the Irish Government, we remain steadfast in our commitment to the 1998 Belfast agreement and its successors, and to the institutions they established.

It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored and locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland on key local matters. Northern Ireland and its people need a properly functioning and inclusive devolved Government, along with effective structures for co-operation—north-south and east-west. At the same time, the Government are ultimately responsible for good governance in Northern Ireland and we will do whatever is necessary to provide that. The Bill is a reminder of the underlying obligation that we will continue to uphold and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be able to take part in this very important debate on a very small Bill. First, however, I welcome the Minister to his position. I think that this is the first speech he has made in the Chamber regarding Northern Ireland, and I think he did a great job of it, bearing in mind the circumstances in which it was delivered.

I shall touch on the issues affecting security in Northern Ireland that occurred over the weekend. It was particularly unfortunate that it occurred in Omagh, which has seen such terrible devastation in the past, and was so reminiscent of what occurred in Enniskillen. It shows that if there is no progress politically in Northern Ireland, vacuums are created that can sometimes be filled by men and women of violence.

Of course I support the Bill; we cannot do anything else. There has to be a Budget in Northern Ireland. I was for two years the Finance Minister in Northern Ireland and I understand the issues. We have to pay for public services, so I doubt whether there is anybody in this Chamber who would disagree with the fact that the Bill is necessary.

I think that there is an issue of accountability. This is a Westminster Parliament and a United Kingdom Government bringing in a Bill on a Budget for Northern Ireland without any political involvement from elected politicians in Northern Ireland so far as the Assembly is concerned. In his wind-up, will the Minister address the issues of accountability? He has mentioned the auditors and the Comptroller and Auditor-General, but they are not politicians. They are civil servants who have to draw up and then check their own budgets, in a sense, even though they are from a different department. If this continues for any length of time, there may be a role for, say, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland in the other place to look at the Budget or for Parliamentary Questions to be tabled in both Houses. I will be grateful for the Minister’s views on that.

I want to touch very briefly on the Secretary of State’s role in all this. He has done a very good job. He has been extremely committed, very sincere and very hard-working and has done his level best to try to bring, particularly, the two main parties in Northern Ireland together. No one can fault him on doing that, but I think that all would agree that today is a major turning point in events in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom for those of us who are interested in and committed to the future of Northern Ireland. It may not be de jure direct rule, but it may be de facto direct rule and that we are almost drifting towards direct rule and the end of devolution. That is a stark warning to everybody involved in Northern Ireland and to the political parties, particularly the two main parties. To be fair to the DUP, it has always supported devolution. It has been a devolutionist party. It wants devolution to occur in Northern Ireland, but it ought perhaps to look again at the issues, for example with regard to the Irish language Act.

I understand the issues—I come from an English-speaking part of Wales. Roughly 25% of the population of Wales speaks Welsh, but not in my area. Ironically, it was a Conservative Government who brought in the Welsh Language Act, and there were difficulties. But I hope that the DUP negotiators and those who have been involved in these matters can look towards another part of the United Kingdom with regard to how we deal with language issues and see that the union has not fallen apart because there was a Welsh Language Act in Wales.

So far as Sinn Fein is concerned, of course it is right to worry about parity of esteem for both sides in the community, but one has to ask whether it is worth dismantling the whole apparatus of government—the Executive, the Assembly and everything that goes with it—when you can have talks with the Government in parallel? Why on earth should we not have an Assembly and an Executive in Belfast who deal with health, education and all the other issues, but at the same time have parallel talks rather than bringing it all down?

Of course the other irony in this is that Sinn Fein—like other parties in Northern Ireland, but particularly Sinn Fein—has argued for the last 20 years or so that the Good Friday agreement is something by which all should abide. The Good Friday agreement includes the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. I chaired the strand 1 talks, and it was an integral part of the whole agreement. When the people of Ireland, north and south, voted on that agreement, they voted on the establishment of an Executive and an Assembly. The sooner and the quicker those are up, the better. The Government need to perhaps have another look at the way in which they deal with the negotiations in the coming weeks, negotiations which I am sure will continue. My honourable friend Owen Smith, the shadow Secretary in the other place, has touched on some of the issues, and I would like to touch on just one or two before I conclude.

The first has been mentioned many times—I mentioned it to the Minister last week. There is a case for the Heads of Government—the Prime Minister and, where appropriate, the Taoiseach in Ireland—to involve themselves more directly in trying to solve this problem. Quite frankly, telephone calls are not good enough. Given the weight of the positions of Prime Ministers, actually going to Belfast, getting the parties together and talking to them would be hugely symbolic and hugely positive. It might not work—sometimes it did not. In Leeds Castle, that approach did not work. But with the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement and other agreements, it did. However, it simply has not been tried. That should be looked at really seriously from a Heads of Government point of view.

There should also be round-table, all-party talks in Northern Ireland. Yes, of course the DUP and Sinn Fein are the two biggest parties. Yes, of course they should be talking to each other all the time. But there are other parties in Northern Ireland too. There is a point to bringing them all together, because they can interact with each other, give ideas to each other and embarrass each other. They can get round a table and try to resolve these things. Again, could the Minister liaise with his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to try to achieve that?

There is also a case—it might take legislation but it would be worth it—for the Assembly itself actually to meet and deliberate. When I was Finance Minister, in 1999 I think it was, I went to the Assembly and presented the Budget. For a whole afternoon, Members of the Assembly from all parties were able to question me about the contents of that Budget. Why can they not do that on this occasion? Bringing together Members of the Assembly in Stormont means that they are again coming face to face and might be able to come up with a resolution of the issues that divide them.

Direct rule, if it comes back, will not be a solution but a tragedy. It is so very easy for it to return, but so very difficult then to restore devolved government. I was five years as a direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, and although I thoroughly enjoyed it and appreciated the political role that I had, I was always embarrassed at being a direct rule Minister. I was a Member of Parliament for a Welsh valley constituency: not one person in Northern Ireland had voted for me, but I had to take decisions on health, schools, roads and local government. It is wrong. Those decisions should be taken by people in Northern Ireland elected by people in Northern Ireland, particularly given that in the House of Commons there are 650 Members of Parliament, but only 17 come from Northern Ireland, and not one nationalist voice is heard in that Chamber. That cannot be right when it comes to bringing the Government to account for what they do for Northern Ireland. I do not think direct rule is an answer.

Nor should this Bill be an excuse to give up. The issues that we had to consider 20 years ago—prisoner releases, the police, the courts, the establishment of institutions, relations between the north and south of Ireland, and many others—were resolved by talking. There is no reason in this wide world why we cannot do that again.

Overhanging all this mess is the business of Brexit and the fact that in only the past week or so, the European Union has again raised the issue of the border: a huge issue for everybody, north and south—and for all of us in the United Kingdom and in Europe generally. There is no voice from Northern Ireland. There is no Minister, not one person elected from Northern Ireland, who is addressing these issues. The sooner that is done, the better.

Northern Ireland

Debate between Lord Duncan of Springbank and Lord Murphy of Torfaen
Thursday 2nd November 2017

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office
Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank my noble friend for his comments. He will appreciate that the discussions have been challenging. They represent two sides trying to reach an accommodation over remarkably challenging elements. The principal areas for discussion where there has been a failure to find common purpose have been around the wider cultural area and the language question. That remains, as yet, unresolved.

It would be inappropriate to interject at this point and iterate exactly what has not been secured during those discussions, particularly because the discussions are ongoing. I emphasise that. Although it looks at the moment that we are now at an end point. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that these talks are ongoing. I certainly hope—as I am sure everyone in this House hopes—that the talks are able to deliver an outcome and that in due course a budget will be developed by the appropriate authorities inside Northern Ireland.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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Matters cannot go on as they are. Something dramatic and imaginative must happen. I beg the Minister once more to talk to the Prime Minister to ask her and the Taoiseach personally to go to Northern Ireland and take charge of these negotiations. When I was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the only time we had real breakthroughs was when we had the heads of Government there.

My noble friend Lord McAvoy mentioned the issue of the Assembly being set up in some sort of shadow form. That worked in the past. It brings all the parties together, makes a difference in the way the talks happen and involves all the smaller parties. We need change—otherwise we will drift into direct rule, which would be a total disaster for the people of the Northern Ireland.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I thank the noble Lord, who brings much experience to these discussions.

It is important to stress that everything is on the table going forward. No one is trying to preclude any particular outcome, whether it be in regard to the individuals participating, how often they participate or what they do when they are around the table. I include within that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and others.

The key question now will be not to rule anything out. We have moved through a nine-month period in which we have not secured the outcome we wish to see. It is important to stress that I do not believe anyone around the table wants this outcome either. So the next step will need to be an accommodation between the parties at the table.

I appreciate the idea that involvement at the highest possible level is the answer. However, sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. What we have to determine is how to deliver the outcome we all desperately want—which is to set up a sustainable Northern Ireland Executive. The noble Lord is right: we should not rule anything out. At the moment we are doing the best we can to keep all options open and to take those talks to the next stage.