The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
It is a great pleasure to respond to such a well-informed debate and I pay tribute to all the Members who have taken time to speak this afternoon. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said, Members from across the House have spoken with real passion and experience.
I am very grateful for the support we have heard from all parties for the Second Reading of the Bill. I recognise that there are a number of issues that people will want to explore in Committee. I look forward to those debates and hope they can be as well informed as this debate has been.
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his election as leader of the DUP. I very much look forward to working with him in the months to come.
As we have heard, the Bill being debated today will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. We will reform the sustainability of the institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. These measures were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland upon restoring the Executive. It was a pleasure to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), the former Secretary of State, who did so much to reach that agreement.
We heard from a number of Members in today’s debate who played a crucial role in securing that deal. I pass on my congratulations to all of them for getting there. We have heard many passionate speeches from all sides, and from all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland, about the importance of devolution. It was the achievement of the deal to restore devolution.
We have made good progress on the delivery of the commitments that the UK Government made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which helped to bring that about. We will continue to support the delivery of those commitments. I draw the House’s attention to a few examples beyond the scope of the Bill, such as our support for the resolution of the nurses’ pay dispute by securing an advanced drawdown of funding; the release of £556 million of the £2 billion-worth of funding agreed in the deal; the revision of the immigration rules governing how people in Northern Ireland bring their family members to the UK, which took effect from August 2020; the appointment of a Veterans Commissioner in September 2020; the launch of the programme for the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, supported by £1 million from the shared history fund; the establishment of an independent fiscal council; and regulations to bring Union flag flying days in line with guidance for the rest of the UK.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to the Secretary of State’s meetings. He has been meeting regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Executive. There have also been two formal meetings including the Irish Government over that time. Those will continue.
I thank everybody for the contributions we have heard. I will not be able to respond to all of them because I have been asked to keep my remarks to a reasonably short period of time, but I did want to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Pontypridd made about so-called caretaker Ministers, a point that was also reflected on by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).
As part of NDNA, Ministers will remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity in decision making, but those Ministers will be required to act, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made very clear, within well-defined limits, including as set out in the ministerial code and in accordance with the requirement for an Executive Committee to consider any decisions that are significant, controversial and cross-cutting. The hon. Gentleman made the point well; in the case that the Executive Committee is not there, Ministers cannot go beyond their brief. As was also demonstrated by that exchange, there are important decisions that could be taken, which is a much better position than we saw during the period that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) described as a black hole in governance—during the absence of the devolved institutions. I am sure we can explore the point further in Committee, but there are clearly defined limits on the role of those Ministers.
On the issue of language, we heard many passionate points. This is not, as we all accept, part of the Bill before us today. The hon. Lady asked a fair question: why not, and why not now? I think there is a simple answer to that question, which we have heard a lot about in the debate today, and I think everyone actually agrees that this would be best dealt with in the devolved space. I have met both the Ulster Scots Agency and Conradh na Gaeilge in the last few weeks; apologies if my pronunciation is not right there. I have met some of the key bodies on both sides arguing for progress on the cultural issues, and what they are saying very clearly is that they want to see this delivered by the devolved institutions. We want to give the devolved institutions every chance to do that, and we do not therefore want to legislate on this issue at this time.