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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

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

Brandon Lewis Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 22nd June 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

If you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, before I talk about the Bill I wish to congratulate our parliamentary colleague the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on becoming the leader of his political party. I look forward to working with him in the period ahead. I also hope, as I am sure all colleagues do, that he has a very enjoyable week, not just with the introduction to becoming leader-elect of his party, but with the very big family event, a wedding, with which we all wish him well.

The United Kingdom is a family of nations and a Union of people. We share cultural, social and economic ties that bring us together, and make us more prosperous and secure. This Government believe in upholding the constitutional integrity of this great nation. Our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter. In Northern Ireland, that means we need properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and in Westminster.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I will make a bit of progress, then I will give way to colleagues.

In this centenary year for Northern Ireland, today marks exactly 100 years since the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament, at Belfast city hall, by King George V and Queen Mary. This momentous occasion saw locally elected politicians for the first time, following the first Northern Ireland general election, so it is fitting that this Bill has its Second Reading today, of all days. The Bill will strengthen the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland and serve to build the people of Northern Ireland’s faith in their locally elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As this House knows, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were restored on 11 January 2020 when all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties came together under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) for their dedication and persistence, with others, in pursuing this deal, which was a great achievement after three years of impasse.

Prior to the restoration of the institutions, there had been no functioning Executive since January 2017. The absence of a devolved Government for such an extended period had a detrimental effect on the people of Northern Ireland. We saw the first strike in the 103-year history of the Royal College of Nursing over pay and staffing levels. There was ongoing action by teaching unions, and schools were not co-operating with the inspections in a dispute over teacher pay and workload. Essential infrastructure projects, including the York Street interchange and investment in waste water infrastructure, which was at capacity in many places across Northern Ireland, could not be progressed.

I think we can all agree that a pandemic with no Executive would have been unthinkable. I was pleased therefore to see the First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated last Thursday, following this Government’s intensive engagement with the party leaders. However, the events of last week also highlight how important it is for everyone to deliver on their commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is disappointing to see that a way forward has not yet been found to implement all of the parts in full, which is why the Government have, for example, promised to deliver the balanced culture package that was agreed in NDNA through Parliament if it has not been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive by the end of September. I wish to reiterate and be very clear that our strong preference and desire is for this to be delivered in the appropriate place by the devolved institutions.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I am sure that people back home will be amazed at the honeyed words of the Secretary of State. He talks about the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the importance of the devolved Administration and devolved institutions, and yet he has interfered, and has just announced that he is prepared to interfere once again, in the institutions in Northern Ireland in a way in which no Secretary of State would dare to do in Scotland or Wales. Does he not accept that, for the Unionist community, this continual interference in the institutions at Stormont at the behest of Sinn Féin is not an annoyance but something that enrages people?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I have to say that I do not recognise the principle on which the right hon. Gentleman outlines his point. The reality is that the UK Government are the Government of the United Kingdom. The UK Government are a co-guarantor of and signatory to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the parties themselves negotiated and agreed. For example, the parties agreed between themselves the cultural package, which has had a lot of attention in the past week. We have a duty to ensure that, for all the people of Northern Ireland, these things are delivered in a way that is set out and agreed by the parties. I would much rather see that delivered by the institution itself. That is why we have given time and space for the institution to be able to move things forward. It is also right that, on a range of issues, including women’s healthcare, women in Northern Ireland have access to the same good-quality healthcare as women across the United Kingdom. I make no apologies for making sure that we the United Kingdom Government are representing people across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He has referred to the position across the United Kingdom. Obviously, like him I am a strong Unionist, but there is one thing that I am concerned about. I heard this morning that the outgoing leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Mr Edwin Poots, has said in a number of media interviews that he has received assurances from the Secretary of State about changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. I know that that is now a story. Is the Secretary of State able to say anything to the House about whether that is true or not? Obviously, it will be of great interest to people not just across Northern Ireland but in constituencies such as mine, which have understandable problems with shipping goods across our United Kingdom.

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are two points. First, at the end of last week some of Edwin Poots’s colleagues commented about an announcement. Actually, the announcement was not really an announcement; it just confirmed that we had requested from the European Union an extension to the grace period, particularly for chilled meats from 1 July. I said on the Floor of this House last week, and I am very happy to reconfirm it today, that, as the Prime Minister himself has outlined, we do have issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. Like others across this House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has, quite rightly, outlined an example of those challenges for consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland. We are not going to allow that to continue. We want to get this corrected so that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland can continue to function as a full and integral part of the United Kingdom.

As I said at this Dispatch Box just last Wednesday, and as the Prime Minister has said both publicly and at the Dispatch Box, we will do what we need to do to make sure that we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, and we will take nothing off the table in that regard. Obviously, we will wait to hear from the EU, and we want to work this through with it with regard to the request we made last week.

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill will deliver elements of the New Decade, New Approach deal relating to the governance of the Executive and within the competence of this House. That includes reforms to sustainability of institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. The UK Government and this Parliament have a duty to ensure good and functional governance in Northern Ireland. Today, through this Bill, we discharge that duty by bringing forward measures that will help continue to enhance the public’s confidence in the Northern Ireland institutions through increased transparency and improved governance arrangements. Those measures will ensure that the institutions will be more sustainable, more resilient and for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

Let me turn briefly to the contents of the Bill. In short, we are legislating, first, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of new Northern Ireland Ministers, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, after an election; secondly, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after they cease to hold office—for instance, in the case of one of them resigning; thirdly, to provide, if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister cease to hold office, that other Northern Ireland Ministers remain in office for a maximum period of 48 weeks after the First Minister and Deputy First Minister ceased to hold office, or for 24 weeks following any subsequent election, whichever is the shortest, unless the Secretary of State triggers the sufficient representation provisions.

The Bill will implement reforms to the petition of concern mechanism in the Assembly, including a new 14-day consideration period before a valid petition can be confirmed; it will require petitioners to come from more than one Northern Ireland political party; prevent the mechanism from being used for matters that concern the conduct of a Member and for Second Reading votes on a Bill; and it will update the code of conduct for Northern Ireland Ministers in accordance with a request from the Northern Ireland Executive and in line with the New Decade, New Approach transparency and accountability recommendations.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Harper
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The Secretary of State has rightly set out the scope of the Bill. May I press him on another matter that was referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement? He knows that the prosecutions of soldiers as part of the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland is of great concern. I shall not press him on the content of the legislation, because I know that work is under way, but may I press him a little on the timing? Many Members are eager for that work to proceed at pace so that we can resolve these issues, and many are keen for that to happen before the House rises for the summer. Is the Secretary of State able to give the House any indication today of the Government’s latest thinking on when they may be able to bring that legislation—if, indeed, it is separate legislation—before the House?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My right hon. Friend asks a fair question—that is part of New Decade, New Approach, so it is a fair point. I outlined, I think in February or March this year, my ambition to bring something before the House before the summer recess; I still have that ambition, but I should also say clearly that we are determined to do what we have always said we would do, which is to engage with our partners—not only the Irish Government but the parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups, because whatever we bring forward has to have victims absolutely at its heart. We have to deal with information recovery and truth and reconciliation, because whatever we bring forward has to work properly for the people of Northern Ireland, so it is right that we take the time to do that properly and methodically, which I am looking forward to doing. We will do that and we are still absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our manifesto pledge to the veterans community. I will touch on that a little more in a few moments.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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Will the Secretary of State explain very carefully for some people in this House who do not seem to understand that, if an amnesty is given to anybody—for example, if an amnesty is given to soldiers who maybe committed murder on the streets of Derry, Belfast or anywhere else—an amnesty would have to be given to everyone, including IRA members, Ulster Volunteer Force members and Ulster Defence Association members?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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As I said before, we want to ensure that we put forward a package that works for all of Northern Ireland and genuinely allows it a chance to move forward. One thing that we have heard consistently from civic society is a desire to move forward. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that whatever we do has to be balanced across the whole community. As I say, I will come back to that in separate legislation in due course—we are not dealing with legacy legislation today.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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Just so that no one is misled by the previous intervention, will the Secretary of State confirm that no one has sought an amnesty for soldiers? All that has been asked for is that soldiers who have already had cases investigated—some up to three times—should not be trailed through the courts again for political reasons by those who are attempting to rewrite the history of the troubles.

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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As I say, we are not dealing with legacy today, so I will resist the urge to go too much into that, but I will say that the right hon. Gentleman is correct in the sense that we have been clear that we are committed to ending the cycle of re-investigations. We also have to accept that, as we have all seen recently, the current situation is not serving anybody. It cannot be right that, as we saw in the Ballymurphy case, it has taken 50 years for people to get information. Equally, it is inappropriate and wrong to see people go through a cycle of investigations. We have committed to end that and we will do that.

Let me turn to the specifics of the Bill before the House. Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the period of time available to appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after the resignation of either or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an Assembly election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only 14 days from the first meeting of the Assembly after an election, and seven days after the First Minister or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office. The Bill will extend the period for filling ministerial offices to a six-week period that is automatically renewed—unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community basis—for a maximum of three times, up to a total of 24 weeks.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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It will not have lost anyone’s attention that we are discussing the extension of the sustainability mechanisms at a time when there is huge instability in the Assembly, when we have had First Minister resignations and changes and multiple seven-day cliff edges potentially emerging. Can the Secretary of State take this opportunity to stress that all parties in Northern Ireland should act responsibly in relation to the institutions, not make any threats to collapse them, and should work to deliver on the core issues of health, education and jobs, on which people urgently need action over the coming months?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Our focus, for all of us, as I have outlined over the last week or two, should be on making sure that we have stable institutions that can deliver on issues such as health, education and infrastructure, among other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. That is what I believe the people of Northern Ireland want to see, and it is why I was so pleased that, to be fair, the parties in Northern Ireland were able to resolve this issue within three days and have stability, with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister having been nominated.

By extending those periods, the Bill will allow more time for discussions between the parties and for the Secretary of State to facilitate a resolution before they come under an election duty. It also allows for Northern Ireland Ministers to remain in post after an election until the end of the period for appointing new Ministers. That change will again allow for greater continuity in decision making.

Under clause 2, Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly. It provides for up to a maximum of 24 weeks after an election or a maximum of 48 weeks since a functioning Executive was in place—whichever is the shorter—in which Ministers may continue to hold office, subject to those offices otherwise being filled or if a Minister is not returned as a Member of the Assembly. The measure will ensure that institutions become more sustainable and more resilient. Currently, the Secretary of State is required to propose a date for an Assembly election where the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself, or where the period for appointing Northern Ireland Ministers or a First Minister and Deputy First Minister expires without those offices being filled.

Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the first six weeks in the period for filling ministerial offices if the Secretary of State considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly.

Clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct that sets out expectations for the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland civil service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management. Those updates are in the reserved or excepted space and are unable to be progressed through the Assembly. The UK Government are bringing those changes forward at the request of the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the agreement of the Executive.

Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern mechanism to reduce its use and to return it to its intended purpose as set out under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—a safeguard to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the Northern Ireland institutions and are protected when the Assembly legislates, and to prevent one party from blocking measures or business. The mechanism, which was given effect in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, allows MLAs to lodge a petition against a matter that the Assembly is voting in, providing that they can gather at least 30 signatures.

A successful petition means that the relevant matter is to be passed on a cross-community basis rather than on a simple majority basis. The Bill will require the petitions to be signed and confirmed 14 days later by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties, which will prevent one party from being able to block measures or business that would otherwise have cross-community consensus. These specific changes and commitments from the Northern Ireland parties aim to reduce the use of the mechanism to the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort only, having exhausted every other available mechanism.

The Government are bringing forward those changes through Westminster legislation as they are excepted matters. Separate legislation seeking to make provision for legacy commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach deal—to go back to the comment made absolutely correctly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—will be introduced separately. This Bill will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. The provisions in the Bill seek to reform the sustainability of the institutions, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition of concern mechanism.

We will always be steadfast in maintaining the importance of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to progress the delivery of all the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

By introducing this Bill now, we are delivering on those promises, but it is ultimately up to the parties to come together. Both the Irish Government and the UK Government will continue to stand together and stand ready to support them, as we did in bringing about the package of measures under New Decade, New Approach. Until then, the Bill is a reminder that the UK Government will always uphold our responsibilities for political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.

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

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Department: Northern Ireland Office

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

Brandon Lewis Excerpts
Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

In doing so, I acknowledge the hard work that has got us to this point. I pay tribute to former Secretaries of State for their role in supporting institutions in Northern Ireland during the most recent collapse. As this is the first time I have been at the Dispatch Box since the sad news, I pay particular tribute to James Brokenshire. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Absolutely; I appreciate the comments from across the House. Both as a friend I have known for just over two decades, and in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he showed truly admirable dedication to the people he represented, to colleagues and to friends, and dedication and commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

I also want to thank hon. Members from all political parties who participated in debating the merits of the Bill. In particular, I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for their diligent scrutiny efforts and broad support for the measures set out in this Bill, and for their comments today.

I also express my thanks to colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly, and to those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House, all of whom have contributed to and been part of the work that has led to today, and the negotiations on New Decade, New Approach.

I acknowledge the hard-working civil servants, here in Whitehall and in Belfast. Not only did they support the successful negotiation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but they have since helped the progress of the Bill and continually help to deliver on the fundamental commitments made by this Government within that deal—including, I have no doubt, some very late nights supporting my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who would have put in those hours of effort in the lead-up to the final agreement of this Bill. I say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved.

I reaffirm our view that our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter, as colleagues have mentioned today. For Northern Ireland, that means properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and Westminster, that allow Stormont to focus on the core issues that, as colleagues across parties have said today, must be focused on. To have one third of the population on a waiting list is not good enough for the Northern Ireland health service. Some 23 years since the Good Friday agreement, only to have approximately 7% of the population benefiting from integrated education is not good enough for the people of Northern Ireland, and we must move further on that together.

The Bill is a focused Bill. It will deliver necessary and well overdue reforms to strengthen the sustainability of institutions in Northern Ireland, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition-of-concern mechanism. These measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has outlined, were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland when the Executive were restored, and it would be remiss of us to begin to tweak and change the details here in Westminster without further agreement from the parties. I am confident that those in the Executive and the Assembly will continue to work in the same good faith in which the measures were negotiated, as we in Parliament will; I will come back in a few moments to comments made on that point.

For those reasons, the House should support the Bill’s Third Reading. UK Governments of all colours and types have worked to maintain peace and encourage political stability in Northern Ireland over the decades. I am grateful to the Opposition for welcoming the Bill and the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

The Government accept, however, that this is just one piece of the jigsaw. The positive difference that a restored Executive have made to the people of Northern Ireland is clear to see, despite the great challenges that we have all had as a result of covid-19—particularly as the Executive were restored just days before the covid pressure came upon us all. The past 18 months have demonstrated that a power-sharing Executive can work together under the hardest of circumstances to find compromise and act in the shared interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. The Bill can only empower their capability in that respect.

The Government have listened to and are grateful for all contributions made by Members of this House. I appreciate that it is frustrating for some Members that we have been unable to accept non-Government amendments, despite the great intentions behind them, some of which have been outlined today. That is because many go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, although I note the comment from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) that we are now two years on and that there are some things in New Decade, New Approach that, as time moves on and we learn more, we need to look at.

But my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon is right: we need to focus on delivering what was agreed. As co-guarantors of New Decade, New Approach, we have a duty to ensure that, for all people in Northern Ireland, the measures are delivered as they were agreed upon by the main parties.

Members of this Chamber have expressed eagerness for the delivery of further commitments made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement and will be glad to hear that we have made good progress. For example, we have appointed the Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner; introduced legislation to further enshrine the armed forces covenant in law; published reports on the use of the petition-of-concern mechanism in the Assembly; contributed to the creation of a new Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, which I agree we want to see developed further; and supplemented the new deal for Northern Ireland’s £400 million fund to promote Northern Ireland as a cyber security hub, to name just a few things.

There is more to come. We have made commitments to ensure that areas that were committed to be delivered within the mandate for Stormont will be delivered; a cultural package is part of that, and we will do that. We are proud of the progress made thus far. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that New Decade, New Approach is delivered in full. I reassure hon. Members that further progress will be made in due course.

Both for the Executive and for us, covid has meant decisions being made, and pressure being put on legislative time, on decisions and on work done—we all understand that. As we move out of covid, we want to move quickly and get things done, and I hope that the Executive will be doing the same.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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May I go back to the cultural package? I think the House’s understanding is very clear as to how my right hon. Friend envisages dealing with the matter. However, is he able to say a little more, not so much about what it might be called as about when we might actually see it, if indeed this place needs to see it—or is it his expectation that Stormont will deliver it?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlights an important point. It is still technically possible for the Executive to start a procedure that would allow the package to be delivered within the mandate, which has always been the intent, the focus and the desire for those involved in New Decade, New Approach. As I have said, we are very clear that, if it becomes clear that the Executive are unable to do that, or are not moving it forward, we will bring forward legislation to deliver the cultural package as set out in NDNA—no more, but no less. We will do that; I will not go further than that at the moment.

The purpose of the Bill is to implement what was agreed by all parties in the New Decade, New Approach deal. During the passage of the Bill, including this afternoon, there has been sensible, interesting and well-argued debate on the wider institutions and options in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing discussions continue among the Northern Ireland parties and to engaging on these matters with them and with colleagues here, as well as to following discussions in the other place, as the hon. Member for North Down rightly outlined.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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Could the Secretary of State go slightly further and give an assurance that, if the House of Lords considers potential further reforms, and if soundings from the Northern Ireland political parties show consensus in relation to them, the Government will be open-minded about legislating—either in the Bill, which may be the most obvious opportunity, or in other legislation—to put them into effect, particularly ahead of the next Assembly election?

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Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I am always open-minded about listening to ideas and options, particularly for things that come together on which there is agreement between the parties. As others, including my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, have said, the important point is about New Decade, New Approach: the issues that we have dealt with in the Bill were agreed, negotiated and discussed among all the parties in Northern Ireland. We need to see those discussions continuing. If there are things on which all parties agree and on which Westminster is required to legislate, I am very open-minded about looking at them, but there needs to be a discussion that has support in Northern Ireland widely and across the Executive.

We will continue to work closely with the Opposition, the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland to deliver on the wider promises of our New Decade, New Approach agreement and its commitments for the people of Northern Ireland, including ensuring that we are levelling up as we build back better across the whole United Kingdom. We are resolute—I will continue to be personally resolute and determined—in promoting Northern Ireland’s place in the world, its opportunity and its integral place in and importance to the United Kingdom. In doing so, we will ensure that, with New Decade, New Approach and its commitments, we deliver for all people in Northern Ireland, through New Decade, New Approach and beyond. I commend the Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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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
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.