Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Lord Eames Excerpts
Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 17th July 2019

(4 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Earl of Listowel Portrait The Earl of Listowel (CB)
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My Lords, I welcome Amendment 7, as tabled by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, as a trustee of the mental health service for adolescents which is the Brent Centre for Young People in north London, as noted in my entry in the register of interests. That centre’s work has been in progress for 50 years; originally, it dealt principally with young people at risk of taking their own lives. The clinicians there tell me that they have never had a young person take their life while under treatment in that centre. They have described to me how when a young person meets a clinician who immediately understands where they are coming from and their concerns, it is immediately effective in assuaging the fears of the young person.

What I am trying to say is that where appropriate services are available, they can be very effective. It troubles me very much to hear that this strategy, developed in Northern Ireland, has been on the shelf for two and a half years because of the vacuum of power. I warmly welcome my noble friend’s efforts to highlight these points today. I hope that the Minister may have something comforting to say on the matter of young men, in particular, taking their lives in Northern Ireland because there has been insufficient action to address their needs.

Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames (CB)
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My Lords, not for the first time the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has put his finger on urgent issues to do with Northern Ireland. I congratulate him on his persistence in that approach. Today he has once more alerted the Committee to an urgent need that can be traced back to the fact that we have no local administration. The extra strain of business and of making decisions passed on to our Civil Service has been a consequence.

I want to speak particularly about the amendment to address the rising suicide rate in Northern Ireland. This is one more example of the legacy of our past, of what we have been through; it has cast its shadow not on that generation but on the new generation. I have had personal, recent experience of the rector of a parish coming to me, even in my retirement, to seek advice for the son of one of those involved in our Troubles. The son had only recently learned of some of the actions and involvement of his father, and this preyed on his mind so much, even in middle age, that he saw no alternative but to end his life. That is an exceptional case, I accept, but it does something to illustrate that this issue is not just for now: it is a legacy reaching back to us from the past.

The report to which the noble Lord referred is gathering dust. Lives are being threatened. Thank God that in some cases prevention intervenes, but if this Bill produces nothing other than a new recognition of human need—nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with “us and them” and all the usual phrases we have in Northern Ireland—then the opportunity could be seized to put pressure on those avenues that can directly relate to the human need, which is a legacy issue and an overlap. There is a crying need at the moment in Northern Ireland to address prevention of the taking of human life and I urge the Committee to remember that.

Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie (LD)
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My Lords, I support these amendments, which I hope the Government will be able to accept—I think they have indicated that they will, as they are asking for reports. This is valuable work that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is recommending, covering what I regard as the people’s priorities in Northern Ireland. The reality right now is that these issues are adversely affecting people in a whole range of services across the Province, as he rightly says. I respectfully and slightly diffidently suggest that these are probably the issues that exercise people day to day, more than some of the issues that apparently divide the parties in the talks. Those who are in talks should look at these issues and the consequences of their not being able to establish an Assembly to address them, because I think that is what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want their Assembly to do.

As I said on Monday, in one sense it is easy to ask for reports and easy, perhaps, for the Government to agree to reports, but I underwrite what I said on Monday: if those reports are going to happen, can they be considered and produced with a view to being the basis of policy action, rather than just a statement of events? That at least will have made use of the time that has been lost, so that if, as I hope, we have an Executive and Assembly in place, they will have some meat that they can start to action sooner rather than later. If the worst happened—even direct rule—there would not be a hiatus before we got to grips with things. The situation has gone on for so long that the consequences are becoming more serious every day. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, says, we are talking about lives being lost. The longer it goes on, the harder and more costly it will be and the longer it will take for Northern Ireland to catch up.

My plea to the Minister, which I hope he will take positively, is that this not be just a gesture of good will —that there is a real, practical determination to ensure that, if reports are produced, they are valuable and help to implement policy decisions sooner rather than later in the event of the Assembly being established, or of Parliament or the Government recognising that action needs to be taken even in the absence of an Assembly.

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Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern
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I sincerely hope that that will not happen: that is the reason we have put it on the basis of the majority being in favour of the change. If we were to ask them and they were against it, that would be a real slap in the face for devolution. I have enough confidence in the Government’s consultations, and I believe the result would be so reasonable, that I expect the majority of the already elected Members of the Assembly to support this. Otherwise, it creates quite a difficult situation so far as devolution is concerned. We still have devolution—devolution to Northern Ireland is there at the present moment, it has not been withdrawn—so I think it is right to acknowledge and hope that the result of the negotiations and the regulation will be acceptable to the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
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My Lords, throughout this evening, in all our debates and the important decisions that have been taken according to our custom and the way we work, there has been, like in a theatre, a backcloth to everything we have done. I believe that even at this late stage, referring to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, we need to put on record what has been clearly exposed tonight: that we have been rushing through matters of supreme importance to the country from which I come. Our representatives feel very deeply that the questions being asked tonight, although they cover very important issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, were not what we were really questioning. What we were really questioning tonight was the theory of devolution, which from its infancy was geared to give us, within the United Kingdom, the local relevance and integrity that we hoped would emerge. So, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, at this late stage, I suggest to the long-suffering Minister that he take back that which I refer to as the tapestry, which in fact surrounds everything we have experienced in the Chamber today. What is being asked about devolution, and how can we correct it?

Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, turning back to look at the Bill, one should remember what its purpose is. It was to put provisions in place to enable an Executive to be formed. Under existing legislation, there is a period of time in which that has to happen. It is then a question of prolonging that time. Essentially, the Bill was providing more time for this.

There was no surprise about that. This is the fourth or fifth time that there has been a need to provide legislation. People knew that this was going to come and, from the way in which the talks are taking place between the parties in Northern Ireland, they would have had a fair idea of the likelihood of carrying this legislation. There was nothing urgent about it. Nothing surprising had to be done. There was the possibility of putting the legislation into motion at an earlier stage. If someone then came along and tried to hang additional things on it, there would be time to consider them properly.

We have not had the chance to do that. When one considers the matters that have been looked at today, and compares that to what would have happened if, instead of being a Bill relating to Northern Ireland, it was a Bill relating to Scotland or England, would it have been handled with the same speed, without looking carefully at what the problems might be? There was no serious concentration. We had a Committee stage, but it did not function as a normal Committee, as we can see by the limited number of things that were mentioned.

It was not proper legislation and there was no justification for handling it in that way. With more time, we might have had better debates and been able to tease out some of the things that were causing even the Minister difficulty to work out. Noble Lords will notice that what I am saying has been said repeatedly by Committees of this House: this procedure is flawed and ought not to be followed again. I wonder if there will be any change or if we will just plough on, hoping that an Assembly or Executive are formed and scrambling at the last minute to put them together.

In the course of this debate, noble Lords have referred to devolution and their desire to see it restored in Northern Ireland. If devolution does function again, it would mean that our 90 Assembly Members would be able to return to Stormont to discuss and debate things and consider what they are doing. However, they cannot do that as things stand. Assembly Members themselves cannot form the Administration. Legislation would need to be enacted if Westminster wanted immediately to bring the Assembly into existence for some limited purpose. Some of us have suggested doing that, but I have not seen any willingness on the part of the Government to encourage the Assembly to function even on limited matters.

A very limited consultation is suggested here. It says that the Secretary of State must,

“consult individually members of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

That is set out in a very bare way. Nobody has talked about the details of the consultation or how thorough it would be. It simply refers to speaking to Members of the Assembly and to considering and reporting on their views. That is a very small step to take in finding things out. I do not know what the outcome will be. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke vigorously earlier about the changes of views that he has detected. If that is the case, no doubt it would be reflected in the views that Assembly Members would give to the Secretary of State if she phoned them up and asked them what they think. It would be an easy step to take and it might help to restore some of those Members’ self-respect. People do not appreciate just how traumatic their situation is: they were elected to serve in an Assembly but are unable to do so, and they have nothing else besides general activities to turn their hand to because they have no way of influencing the powers that be.

This is a modest measure to try to get a degree of consultation. Of course, the Minister spoke earlier about consultations on particular matters being conducted over several months. In that timescale, he could easily get in touch with the 90 Assembly Members, see what their views are and let us know. That would be a good step forward, coming as it does at the end of the evening.

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Lord Bruce of Bennachie Portrait Lord Bruce of Bennachie
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My Lords, as a signatory to this amendment, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hain, on the work he has done on this and on taking this opportunity to bring it to a conclusion—and, I hope, by negotiation with the Minister to have a clause that will be acceptable.

I want to back up what he has asked the Minister to say on the record about the “no fault of their own” determination. A ministerial statement on it would be enormously valuable and I know that the Minister understands that. I think it would unite the House. This is one amendment where everybody has recognised that we have waited far too long and that these people, many of whom have died, and their dependants really need this. This is one situation where perhaps one thing that nobody wanted to happen—namely, this legislation—has nevertheless opened a window to do another which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, should have been done a long time ago.

Lord Eames Portrait Lord Eames
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My Lords, my name is also on this amendment. I could keep the House sitting for hours to tell your Lordships of people I know who have suffered terrible injuries to mind, body and spirit. I simply want to back up the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and hope that the Minister will give the assurances we have asked for.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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My Lords, as the fourth name on the amendment I pay my tribute not just to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who has led this campaign with real, dogged determination, but to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. We have worked together with other colleagues and we all are extremely grateful to the Minister, who has met us on a number of occasions. He has listened carefully and, far more importantly, acted.

It is crucial that in every piece of literature distributed, and in every announcement made, those words,

“through no fault of their own”,

are emphasised time and again. So long as that is done, I am confident that we will maintain the unanimity we have so far enjoyed. We have had two long and quite difficult days. There is no one who is happy about the suspension of devolution or about the hurried manner in which we have to deal with this legislation. But there has been one bright, shining light: this amendment and the Minister’s response. We should all be extremely grateful and thank him most warmly.