Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Debate

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Department: Northern Ireland Office
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in this House, but particularly on issues to do with Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his new role and wish him well. He rightly came to see the No. 1 constituency in Northern Ireland, Strangford, before he had seen anywhere else. We are very pleased to have had the opportunity to have him there, and we wish him well in his role.

As always, the debate has been clear, and my party’s reasoning has been clearer. I am not enamoured with the form of government in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it can or does work, as has been demonstrated very clearly over the last couple of years. I absolutely believe in the right of this place to govern and legislate. However, as my colleagues have said, this is a matter that should be debated in the appropriate forum and not tagged on to this Bill. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee at Stormont is the mechanism to do that.

It grieves me that decisions were made in this place when they should have been made through the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I want to put that on the record. That leads me to an issue that I feel must be highlighted again: this Bill aims to secure a working Assembly with the best mechanism possible, yet it seems that this House interferes at will when public opinion calls for it. That must come to an end. It is time that this place gave the Northern Ireland Assembly the authority to make decisions.

During covid, despite discussion of an abortion Bill, this Government determined that they would bring in abortion in Northern Ireland in the most open way not just in the UK but in all of Europe. Along with colleagues, I strongly resented that, and I still resent it. We now face this Government acting on the NDNA deal, but only when it comes to the Irish language. With great respect to the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), for me this issue is as clear as a bell. The rest of the important provisions, such as health and education, on which there were goals and aims, have been left to trickle through, yet the Irish language is to be given priority by this place.

As my party’s health spokesperson, it concerns me greatly that across Northern Ireland, in a post-covid world, the waiting time for an urgent hip replacement is upwards of five years, for cataract surgery it is upwards of four years, and breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors is years down the line, with no date whatsoever. I have talked to some of my constituents back home who are fluent and interested Irish language speakers, and they tell me that they want to see priority given to issues such as health and education, to ensure that they are addressed first. I am not sure that the people of the Province believe that the Government should step in and fund these measures.

There are children out of education. There are many schools in my area that are awaiting refurbishment or rebuilding, and that cannot get the support they need in the form of classroom assistants. There is a big issue, too, with assessment for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. We get referrals every day of the week for those things. There is a generation of children who have had the option to learn music stripped from them, as budget slashing has meant a choice between culture or a teacher.

Those are real issues that impact every one of my constituents, whether they are Unionist or nationalist, whether they are in favour of the Irish language or against it. Those are the issues that people tell me clearly that they want to see addressed. I resent that priority has been given to one aspect of the NDNA over the life-changing aspects, and I urge the Minister to allow the Assembly to carry out its duties according to priority and not political machinations.

I understand the need to support the measures before us today, but I must put on the record my concerns about the prioritisation of some of the spending that the Government have looked towards. Clearly, we should be spending more on policing, because we need more police officers on the streets across Northern Ireland. We have a dearth of them at the moment. The training college is turning out as many as it can as quickly as it can, but the places of those who retire are still not being filled. Improvements need to be made in health, education and policing, and that is where I would like to see the focus.

At the same time, I urge the Government to do the right thing and allow the Assembly to prioritise need over wish and people over politics, and to make our own determination on Northern Ireland issues. I believe in devolution; I always have. I want the devolution that we have in Northern Ireland to achieve something. History has shown that direct rule is not beneficial for the people of the Province. I will therefore support the Bill, hoping against hope that Lord Frost will achieve what he sets out to achieve and ensure that Northern Ireland stops being a third country to the UK and is accepted as an integral part of it.

The next step will be asking the Government not to treat the Assembly as a local council with minor responsibilities, but to allow it to take tough decisions in a democratic manner. I believe that is the foundation of the Bill, and that is why I will support it, but I say to the Minister—I hope that he will respond—that there are priorities that need to be addressed first. I think we all realise that, and my constituents tell me that. Health, education, the economy and policing are where spending should be prioritised—not the Irish language.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his place? I thank his predecessor, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). He and I enjoyed a very cordial relationship, and I hope that the right hon. Member and I can continue in that fashion for the people of Northern Ireland.

I rise to speak to amendments 6 and 7 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland.

As ever, however, that instability has been felt most keenly by the people of Northern Ireland. It is clear that they need a stable, functioning Executive to meet the enormous health and economic challenges facing Northern Ireland. Indeed, as we have heard, a third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year, and of course recovery from covid remains ongoing.

For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, a stable, functioning Executive must be the priority in the coming days and weeks. We welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly. The lessons of the past should offer a clear warning to all of us. Institutions are much easier to collapse than they are to get back up and running. Recent events could scarcely have provided a clearer example of why the provisions contained in the Bill are necessary. It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the measures contained in the Bill, although we are deeply concerned that the Secretary of State has stalled on the legislation for so long that it will not now be in a position to be a useful tool in the difficult weeks and months ahead.

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Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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I am sure the hon. Lady appreciates, as I do, that Wales now has two language Acts and one language measure, and that they have been great sources of pleasure and a celebration of our culture, bringing people together. I am sure, like me, she would ask the Minister when the Irish language Act will be brought forward, because the end of the month is very fast approaching.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. She is right that the Welsh Language Act 1993 massively strengthened our culture in Wales and us as a country. I press the Minister on when we can expect that legislation to be forthcoming.

Our amendment would help to push forward progress on two key areas: a Bill of Rights and the re-establishment of a civic forum. On a Bill of Rights, we on the Labour Benches are well aware that it is a reserved responsibility for the Secretary of State. The tightly drafted nature of the Bill meant it was difficult to put responsibility on the Secretary of State himself. Nevertheless, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was first promised in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, but progress towards its development has repeatedly stalled. The establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights at Stormont earlier this year represents a fresh attempt to move things forward. A Bill was an essential and fundamental safeguard of the Good Friday agreement, and it is simply wrong that it has not been developed. Action is needed now.

We believe the Secretary of State should take action by responding to the forthcoming report of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons Committee on a Bill of Rights. The Secretary of State should request that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission provides advice on a Bill of Rights, further to its functions as set out in section 69(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Secretary of State would subsequently lay before Parliament legislation giving effect to that advice. It is time to act.

On a civic forum, we believe that that was an important feature of decision making envisaged under the Good Friday agreement. Done well, it would give communities a strong say in decision making. It would give a voice in a deliberative forum to groups not often considered, and could vastly improve decision making in the process. The Good Friday agreement was about a new participative politics. The argument the Women’s Coalition put forward for a civic forum was as an advisory second chamber designed to give the trade union movement and businesses, as well as the community and the women’s movement, a place in political policy making. The prize of that expertise and knowledge is a durable solution that keeps communities on board, one that I hope will be considered going forward.

Finally, I will turn to the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). On new clause 1, on the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, it is clear that that was not envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, but it is becoming an issue that must be dealt with through collective agreement. Polling shows, particularly among younger people, that identity is no longer binary. People identify as Irish, British and neither. It is far from inconceivable that the first and second-placed parties could come from neither Unionism nor nationalism. That raises important questions for the post-Belfast-Good Friday agreement and post-St Andrews power sharing mechanisms. I urge the Secretary of State not to put off serious consideration on this topic any longer. New clause 1, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down, raises questions that cannot be ignored and it is time for collective discussion.

On new clauses 2 and 4, we recognise the value and logic of a more consensual approach to electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement.

On new clause 3, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle and for Belfast South, the logic is again clear. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have exactly the same powers: each have an equal say in the affairs of Northern Ireland and each have a fundamental right for their position to be respected. Equality was the essence and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and that is reflected in the joint powers held by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. New clause 3 reflects that, and it is one the Secretary of State should take away and look at seriously. Whichever tradition is elected to the position of First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be respected. Failure to do so simply undermines the principles of the Good Friday agreement. We hope the Minister will seriously consider the proposals.

Conor Burns Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Conor Burns)
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It is a pleasure to be back at the Dispatch Box. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I might briefly beg the indulgence of the House. I was in my office on Sunday afternoon, having had a very busy period in my first weeks in the Northern Ireland Office. There were some letters on my desk that were addressed as personal. I opened one to find it was a letter congratulating me on returning to Government from our late colleague Sir David Amess. I would just like to place on record my tribute to David. I knew him well. We served together on the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See and had very many enjoyable trips to Rome. He had an irrepressible and irreverent sense of humour, and one was always cheered up by being in David’s company.

This has been a fascinating debate. It has been a debate, if I may say so, of two parts: the debate that makes reference to what is actually on the Order Paper and the amendments that have been tabled; and then there was the majority of the debate, which bore very little relationship to what is on the Order Paper or the amendments before the House. I will, in endeavouring to respond to various points, try to stick to the amendments and the Order Paper.

The Bill is deliberately limited in its scope. It is designed to implement the agreements reached under New Decade, New Approach. I make this point to all hon. Members who sit for Northern Ireland constituencies. Critically, those agreements were entered into by the parties in Northern Ireland. That is why we deliberately limited what we seek to do here. We are seeking to implement those commitments. We do not think it is the role of Her Majesty’s Government to innovate in this space when future changes, were they to be made, should be driven by the parties in Northern Ireland.

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Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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Labour helped to secure the precious Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it remains one of our proudest political legacies. We therefore welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive, the Assembly and the institutions, which collapsed following a political crisis and took three years to restart.

In Committee and on Report, we outlined at length our concerns about some of the flaws that we saw in the Bill and sought to correct. It is disappointing that those concerns have not been taken on board, particularly as they are likely to be tested sooner or later.

The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and who believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland. As ever, that instability has been most keenly felt by the people of Northern Ireland.

Power sharing is the scaffolding of peace. Without it, the Good Friday agreement is fundamentally undermined. It is integral to the trust that communities have in the post-Good Friday agreement landscape, and it underpins the devolution of the powers contained in it. We should not forget the evidence given by Jon Tonge, who reminded us that devolution of power remains overwhelmingly popular: he said that when voters have been asked “What is your preferred mode of governance?”,

“direct rule has never come above 15% as a preferred option. Devolved power sharing is overwhelmingly a preferred option that comes back from…surveys”.––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2021; c. 7, Q5.]

People in Northern Ireland are emerging from one of the most profound health crises that it has ever faced. A third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year’s term and people are recovering from the deepest recession on record. In that scenario, it is unthinkable not to have a functioning Executive. For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, that must be the priority in the coming days and weeks.

It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the Bill, but our broader concern relates to the time it has taken to bring the Bill to this stage. We strongly urge the Government to look at how they can fast-track the remainder of its passage. It has now been 22 months since they agreed to implement this legislation to preserve power sharing, and we fear that they are sleepwalking towards a political crisis.

It is also disgraceful that the Secretary of State previously said that we would expect a cultural package and an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021—

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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Just to be very clear—the hon. Lady should look back at the record—we have always said that we will deliver a cultural package. There has never been discussion of an Irish language Act; that is not what is in NDNA. It is a cultural package. It is important that the Opposition get their facts right.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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The House was promised the commissioning of an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021. That is where we are now, and it is nowhere to be seen. The Secretary of State’s refusal to give a date is a disgrace, and a betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland.

This legislation has simply come too late to address the current political instability in Northern Ireland. Given the political crisis there, and the ongoing warnings about the collapse of the Executive, Labour pushed for amendments to ensure that it was implemented without delay. As it stands, even if it were passed before Christmas there would still be a months-long commencement clause, leaving it highly unlikely to be in force to prevent instability in the coming months. We would like to hear a firm commitment from the Secretary of State to fast-tracking it through the House of Lords, and a clear timetable for it being enacted. We cannot wait months when we may have weeks. Will the Secretary of State address that? If so, we will work with him to ensure that the Bill is on the statute book within weeks.

The instability that the Bill in part attempts to address has not emerged out of thin air, and I fear that the delay in bringing it forward is symptomatic of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland. Too often over the past decade, Northern Ireland has been an afterthought here. As the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have frequently behaved as though they had found themselves at the scene of an accident entirely beyond their control. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace has been allowed to stall.

It would be foolish to assume that the provisions of the Bill alone can guarantee stability; they cannot. To do that, Ministers must address the effects of their own actions, which have shaken faith in Northern Ireland. Progress has stalled and instability has grown. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been treated as a crisis management tool, rather than as the vehicle through which lives and communities can be transformed.

Although Labour supports the Bill, we believe that there are several missed opportunities for the Government to refocus on delivering on the promise of peace, which they have allowed to stall. A Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, women’s rights and giving communities a real say in decision making were the essence of the Good Friday agreement and the shared future that it imagined, but progress on them has been virtually non-existent over the past decade. We do not believe that the instability we see can be separated from the failure to deliver on such commitments. Above all, the way to guarantee stability is to demonstrate that commitments made will be honoured, and that Westminster is still prepared to step up and honour our side of the bargain.

I reiterate our support for the limited measures in the Bill and ask the Secretary of State to speed up the timetable as a matter of urgency, but I wish to make it clear that this is only a start: there is much, much more work to be done.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, Richard Thomson.

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Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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With the leave of the House, I shall briefly sum up. I again thank all colleagues in the House. We have seen throughout today’s discussions, both on Report and on Third Reading, a good, wide range of subjects covered. To build on the point made by the Minister of State, some of those points were about the Bill, which relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal, and I want to touch on them.

As was welcomed when we started deliberations on the Bill, it is the first Bill relating to Northern Ireland that the House has had a chance to consider without operating under emergency processes for some time. As we have seen, we have had a chance to have a good, wide discussion about the issues in the Bill. That is a good thing and has allowed people the opportunity to air and talk about issues that go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. As I said earlier, I look forward to continuing those discussions and seeing whether we can find some agreement across all the parties in the Executive to move things forward together.

I say gently to those colleagues who have raised issues as things to be amended today—I make this point to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones)—that when we talk about making sure that we work through consensus and move things forward together in Northern Ireland, that means having all the parties come to an agreement, not just rushing into doing things today. It is right that we have these discussions.

On the package and questions raised by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), and others, it is disappointing to see the Opposition, in a well-informed debate that has been good and well-mannered in large part, looking to play politics around these issues. Let us be clear that the cultural package will include a new office for identity and cultural expression, to promote cultural pluralism and inclusion across all identities and cultures, alongside commissioners to protect and enhance the Irish language and develop the language, arts and literature with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland. We have already been making progress on those things. When the hon. Member for Pontypridd speaks at the Dispatch Box, she may want to make sure that she has done some research. To help her out, I suggest that she looks back to the written ministerial statement from 21 June, because our position is still as per that statement and we will still be seeking to deliver that, as we promised we would, if the Executive themselves cannot take it forward.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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No—the hon. Lady spoke earlier.

We have already delivered £2 million-worth of a funding package announced earlier this year, including for Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish language broadcast fund and the Ulster-Scots broadcast fund. We will continue to deliver on that, stand by our word and make sure that the cultural package is delivered within the mandate, but this Bill relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal and I look forward to seeing its progress continue in the weeks and months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.