Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Duncan of Springbank Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 15th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 190-I(Rev)(a)(Manuscript) Amendment for Committee, supplementary to the revised marshalled list (PDF) - (15 Jul 2019)
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.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan
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Is the Minister aware of what has happened with deadlines in the past in Northern Ireland, and that they quite simply do not work? Is he aware that the former chair of the talks, George Mitchell, said that there must be talking until they are ready to reach an agreement? That was the advice he gave to me when I was heading off as a peace envoy. We cannot set deadlines and expect peace to be made and talks and the Assembly to continue. Is the Minister aware of that?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am fully aware of that, but I am also aware of how long there has been no government in Northern Ireland, and that that cannot continue. It cannot continue because there are things that need to be done: not the issues being dealt with inside those rooms, but issues such as health, education, schools and agriculture—the list recited by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, during our last discussion on the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, said the same thing. We cannot allow this to continue. What we need now is good governance in Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for those parties, within the extension foreseen in the Bill, to deliver on that. If they cannot do so in that time there will be consequences, and we must address those sooner rather than later.

Lord Hain Portrait Lord Hain (Lab)
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I very much sympathise with the Minister’s sentiments and the logic of his arguments but, on the subject of focusing minds, may I ask him to consider that the Government have already docked Assembly Members’ salaries a bit? To be honest, I think that was water off a duck’s back. He should be willing to consider the funding that goes to parties in Stormont for their Assembly operations, together with their staffing allowances, which amounts to millions of pounds, and to say that if this continues, their staff will need to be given proper notice of the end of their service—and that that will be the consequence of failing to agree. That was something I did in 2006-07, and it did focus minds.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord again brings his experience to the debate. We cannot keep funding futility, however that manages to manifest itself. There will be consequences if we cannot move these matters forward, and they need to be felt by those who are affected directly inside those rooms. I will take away the noble Lord’s point and think it over.

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble
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My apologies for interrupting the Minister, but following on from what has just been said about salaries for people who are not doing what they should be doing, could that principle not be extended to the other end of the building? It would have a significant effect if it were, because for a certain party that does not send its Members to carry out their tasks in this building, that money is then diffused into the funding of that organisation as a whole. It would bring significant pressure to bear if we were to apply that principle to the other end of the building, and we would see quite significant movement as a result.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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The noble Lord takes me into even deeper waters—and we are only in the first half hour of what may well be a long day. I understand the point he makes, of course; I appreciate exactly what he is saying. But that may be a discussion for another time. If he will allow me, I shall return to the amendment in hand.

With some regret, I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I hope he will understand that I am asking him to withdraw the amendment, not because it is not necessary to have time, but because we need to balance out that time—the carrot—with the stick of a deadline. We need to make sure that we are making progress to allow for the necessary secondary steps—an election to take place and so forth—in good time. Otherwise we will reach ever more frequent deadlines and anniversaries relating to the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, which the people of Northern Ireland can, unfortunately, little bear.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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My Lords, I always listen carefully to what my noble friend says, but on this occasion I have to say that I believe he is making a mistake. The calendar is such that, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out, we are in the holiday season already in Northern Ireland, and we are about to enter a period of recess in this Parliament. We also have the looming Brexit date. Most importantly, elements have been injected into the Bill in the other place—we will be dealing with them later today—which create a much more difficult Bill and a much more difficult situation in Northern Ireland. These are highly sensitive and difficult issues. The very future of devolution as a concept is at stake. I believe that the dates that I suggest in my amendments would create a much more realistic timetable.

I am one of those who believe in the convention—it is certainly not a rule—that one does not normally vote in Committee in this House. In moving amendments I have always honoured that convention, and I will do so again today. However, I cannot promise that I will not return to this issue on Report in 48 hours’ time, when colleagues will have had the chance perhaps to reflect on the totality of today’s debate. I think they will then realise that a part of the United Kingdom that needs handling with acute sensitivity and that does not willingly respond to the deadline philosophy perhaps ought to be given a little more time. For the moment, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Goldsmith Portrait Lord Goldsmith (Lab)
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My Lords, I think it is fair to say that this has been a robust debate. Obviously, I support the amendment to which my name has been added and oppose Amendment 7A, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Forsyth, which would wreck that amendment.

I will deal with the arguments that have been raised against this amendment. I shall start with the first of them, which is that it is inappropriate in the context of Northern Ireland. I would have thought that the question of what parliamentary oversight and intervention are possible in relation to Northern Ireland is of the greatest importance. The Bill as it stands proposes, rightly, that reports will be published about the progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Should Parliament not be there to receive those reports, to debate them, to consider them and to make recommendations on them, that would be the consequence of stopping Parliament sitting during that period.

I note that David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said only the other day:

“We have lacked that ministerial voice in Whitehall that has championed the cause of Northern Ireland”.


So to find that Parliament was not sitting just at the time when the issues with which this Bill is concerned were coming up would be a great tragedy. So it is very much an issue which Northern Ireland should be concerned about.

But of course it is broader than that. The debate has made that very clear. The argument that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, started with must be right. If what we are talking about is the possibility that Parliament will be banned from meeting and expressing views during the critical period when we are leaving the European Union—I accept of course that the Bill says what the date is, but it is open to Parliament to do something else if it chooses to do so—to say that Parliament should not be there at that stage is a constitutional impropriety and would be a great assault on our current constitution.

It is said, and it is argued by the opponents of this amendment, that it is there to frustrate the will of the people in relation to leaving. Well, it cannot do that. Nobody suggests that it can do that. As one of those who signed the amendment, I do not suggest that it does that. What it would do is make sure that Parliament was there at the time that decisions were being made so that we did not have a situation where at the time of one of the greatest decisions this country has made in recent times there was simply an Executive and no Parliament to oversee or control them. That would be the greatest assault on the constitutional traditions of which I am so proud, as are so many Members of this House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows, I admire his debating skills and his opinions, but he has not responded to the question put by my noble friend. I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet he may be able to give a clear answer on whether in fact this can all be brought to an end by a statement that there is no risk and that there will be no Prorogation. Unfortunately I expect that that is outside his power—and I see he is nodding. I suspected that was the case, and we all know why that is so. That would be an end to this debate. As it is, with that uncertainty as to whether Parliament will be allowed to sit during that critical period, we have to do something to allow an opinion to be expressed about that. The gambit would not be doing this; the gambit would be making sure that Parliament was not there at a time of crucial national emergency. That would be the constitutional gambit.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord True, on a speech that succeeded in insulting everybody in this House: the Liberal Democrats for not being the party that supported leaving, obviously my Front Bench and me—I fully expected that—his former leader, Sir John Major, for what he said, and others as well, including his current leader, as I have just been reminded. But be that as it may; he is entitled to do that and to take those views. But what he said in attacking the judiciary and the rule of law was completely off target. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on this. The judiciary is indeed unelected. I remember losing an important case in the House of Lords—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, may have been on the other side; he is nodding both enthusiastically and with a smile on his face, so I would guess that he enjoyed the victory—precisely because the House of Lords said in answer to my arguments, “No, we are not unelected. We are there to carry into effect the law, even though that is something that the Government do not want to happen at this particular time”.

Having had the privilege of serving in that role, I know what the rule of law means. You have to defend things in front of an independent and sometimes critical judiciary. Sometimes you persuade the judges and sometimes you do not. However, it is absolutely critical to our democracy that they remain and are not attacked in any way.

Where does that leave us? I was struck by the remark by the noble Lord, Lord True, that the judiciary were not elected, so should not have a say. Of course, the people who are elected are in the other place. We are talking about making sure that those in the elected place are there to express the views that their constituents—the people of this country—believe are right. That is what should happen. This debate can be put to an end by whoever becomes the leader of the Conservative Party in the coming days making it clear that that will not happen—but until then, I respectfully say that this Committee should take the step of following the House of Commons by saying, “We should pass this amendment to make sure that Parliament is there and doing its job when Brexit comes around”.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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My Lords, I expect that in years to come constitutional scholars will study this debate and explore many of the arguments. I suppose that it is my purpose to return us to what I hope is the principal purpose of the Bill to which this particular amendment has been appended. This Bill aims to ensure that we can restore an Executive in Northern Ireland in good time. This is a noble aim, with which I think we all agree.

We ought to start by recognising that Members in the other place have already debated and voted on these issues. Of course, the Government agree that Parliament must be kept apprised of progress towards restoring an Executive in Northern Ireland. The Government has already responded to the concerns here by agreeing to bring forward to 4 September the date by which a report will be made.

In many respects, the key issue here—which a number of noble Lords raised, for perfectly understandable reasons—is the need to keep focused on what we are trying to achieve through the reports we are discussing today. That is to ensure that Parliament is kept abreast of the ongoing aspects of the talks in Northern Ireland. However, I have stood here on many occasions and said that it would be inappropriate for me or my right honourable friend in the other place to give a running commentary. That is for one simple reason: we must give a clear and safe space in which those negotiations and talks can unfold. It is perhaps not enough for us to simply say, “Nothing to see here, move on”. We need to recognise that.

The votes were close in the other place, so some noble Lords might argue that we should give Members there an opportunity to think again. However, it is important to point out that the closest vote of all was on the addition of fortnightly reporting requirements, which the Government lost—although noble Lords are not proposing that the other place should be asked to think again on that one.

These amendments tabled by noble Lords are broadly very similar to those already rejected by the other place. They would require the initial progress report, as well as fortnightly ones thereafter, to be considered by Parliament and be subject to an approval Motion. However—again—in many respects, each element of this has nothing to do with the situation in Northern Ireland, which has necessitated the Bill in the first place.

As we speak to one another and the people of Northern Ireland, it is important that we recognise that this Bill serves a principal and singular purpose, which is to ensure that we give an Executive the appropriate space to reform.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O’Loan
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I thank the Minister for giving way. If the Bill serves a principal and single purpose, why are the other clauses being admitted to it and why are the Government supporting them? It seems to me that this contradicts the position that the Minister has just articulated.

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

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

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

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

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is always right that the Government should be accountable to Parliament and not the other way around, and that Parliament should never be the creature of government?

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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It would be easy to answer that in a simple way, but I suspect that tucked inside the question is a matter for greater constitutional scholars than I. I stand before noble Lords not, I am afraid, as a lawyer but as a humble geologist. I therefore feel ill-equipped to answer a question of that august nature.

In returning to the point before us, I say that this is not the right way to achieve these ends. The other place has spoken on these matters. It has spoken in a voice which we have heard on other issues and should hear today. I would ask that these amendments should not be pressed. I do not believe that they give comfort to the ongoing talks in Northern Ireland, and nor do they progress the important aspects for which those talks have been set up.

Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and noble Lords, and for the support that these amendments attracted. I hope it is now clear that it is not the purpose of this amendment to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union on or before 31 October; it would not be apt, and it is not intended, to do that. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True, for his research and I am delighted to have him as a social media follower, but my views on the wisdom or otherwise of Brexit are no more to the point of this amendment than are his.

I listened carefully to everything that was said and it still seems inescapable that, if there are any fetters at all on the absolute power of the Government in this matter, those fetters must be in the courts, in Parliament or, as a last resort, in the person of the monarch. I did not detect any enthusiasm from those who spoke against the amendments for any of those options. I found myself wondering what checks or balances on the authority of the Executive they were minded to acknowledge —but there we are. In short, I am undeterred by what I have heard. It may be—it is very likely—that I will come back to this on Wednesday. But, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB)
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The Minister referred to the constitutional argument, and he is the greatest living expert on the Sewel convention, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The noble Lord implied —or perhaps was explicit—that, if we passed this Bill, we would be in breach of the Sewel convention. In my recollection, the Sewel convention says that we will not normally legislate without the approval or consent of the devolved Assembly. This situation, where we do not have an Executive and an Assembly, seems completely abnormal. Therefore, I cannot see how we could be in breach of the Sewel convention. I would be very grateful if the Minister, as the expert, could give a ruling.

Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait Lord Duncan of Springbank
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I am loath to use the term “ruling” on this one, if I may be frank. I understand the noble Lord to be correct; the Sewel convention allows for not acting under normal circumstances, but by any definition the situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in today is not normal. However, I would not like that to carry with it the weight of greater minds than I. I may have to put a very formal note to your Lordships later to confirm that, just in case I am in any way in error.

On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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My Lords, this has been a long and, at times, a difficult debate. When I introduced the amendments, with the support of my noble friend Lord Trimble—who has had to go to another engagement —and, in the case of the abortion amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, I said that this was an extremely sensitive and delicate subject, and the Leader of the Opposition the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to that. I think that every word that has been uttered has at least underlined that I was correct on that.

The only thing I regret is that some people, perhaps because they felt hurt, have reacted in a slightly unfair way. Noble Lords must remember that my noble friend Lord Trimble, who supported both these amendments, is a man who perhaps has done more than any other individual in Northern Ireland to bring about the Good Friday agreement and serve his part of our great United Kingdom and his country with diligence and honour, and he is the last man who would be insensitive in these issues. Indeed, at Second Reading, he referred in a slightly jocular way to his own family experience of a daughter marrying another woman. When I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, I had a great deal to do with the noble Baroness, Lady O’ Loan, who was then the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. She is a great public servant, and it was an honour to deal with her. I met nobody at any stage in Northern Ireland who was more fair, more dispassionate or more concerned about the fate of those who had suffered in the Troubles. She was even-handed, almost to a fault. I was sad when I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said. It would be sad to believe that anyone who has spoken in this debate has done so with anything other than a passionate sincerity and belief.

When I introduced the two amendments, I began by saying that I was doing so for one reason only. It is nothing to do with my views on either of these subjects but because I have a very passionate view about Northern Ireland and the need to restore devolution. It was because of that that I tabled these amendments, which have received some support and some opposition. I am grateful to those who supported and I completely understand the deep feelings of those who have opposed them but, I repeat, the only reason I introduced these amendments is that I see devolution slipping away. I made the point at Second Reading that I see that we are moving inexorably towards direct rule, and I deeply regret that. I hope that, when those in Northern Ireland read this debate, they will realise—to quote again a current catchphrase—it is time for them to take back control. We need a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. I hope that what has been said collectively in this debate, from all sides of the argument, will convince people in all parties in Northern Ireland that they will be guilty of a dereliction of duty if they do not take back control.