24 October 2018
Shailesh Vara responds to debate on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Shailesh Vara responds to a debate on emergency legislation to enable civil servants to continue to run public services in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly.

5.50 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Shailesh Vara)

May I start on a rather sad note? I extend my condolences and sympathies to Lord Caine, who is known affectionately to all of us as Jonathan Caine. Jonathan is a friend of mine and I have known him for many years. I think all of us in the House would agree that, as far as Northern Ireland issues are concerned, Jonathan is the fount of all knowledge and the one we go to because he knows all the answers. At this difficult time, we extend our sympathies to him and his family.

The intention of the Bill is to create a time-bound period for intensive efforts to restart political dialogue, which might enable the Northern Ireland political parties to form an Executive at any time, as well as to support essential decision making during that period and to ensure that key public appointments can be made until an Executive are in place.

Bob Stewart

Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vara

I will give way this time, but I am mindful of my limited time.

Bob Stewart

The Secretary of State mentioned that she was going to get the parties together. Have Ministers seen one small glimmer of hope that Sinn Féin will actually come to the table and start helping everyone to govern in Northern Ireland?

Mr Vara

There have been occasions when Sinn Féin representatives have turned up at meetings. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will take it on board that the last time we had direct rule it was for five years, and the time before that it was for 25 years. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly to the people of Northern Ireland, that no stone is left unturned. We are bringing in this Bill to ensure that we can have some space and time during which to get those talks up and running again to try to get the Assembly functioning for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

We have heard from a number of speakers, and I wish to thank all of them. If at all possible given the time constraint, I wish to make brief comments about all the speeches. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), made a very thoughtful speech. May I say that we very much welcome his broad support for the measures we are introducing? He was critical of the time periods, but I would simply say that we must have the time periods we feel are necessary to try to get the flexibility we may need if the talks reach a particular stage. As I say, it is so important that we get a functioning Assembly. He also mentioned the case of Sarah Ewart. He will understand that there is a long-standing convention in the House that it is inappropriate to make comments about ongoing cases, and I hope he will take that on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) raised concerns about the guidance given to the Northern Ireland civil service. I say to him and to others that we very much welcome comments from people—especially those, like him, who are on the Select Committee, but also others—who wish to make a contribution.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) urged the Secretary of State to work night and day to try to get the Assembly up and running. I can assure him that that is precisely what she has been doing since the day she became Secretary of State, and I can also assure him that she will continue to do that. We welcome the support that he and his party are giving to this measure.

The Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), gave a very detailed speech, rightly highlighting the lack of decisions in Northern Ireland in the absence of Ministers and the impact that that is having on the ordinary citizen. That is why it is so important that we pass this Bill to allow the facility to try to get the Assembly up and running. Again, he made reference to the guidance given to the Northern Ireland civil service, and I say the same to him that I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) that we would welcome any comments that he may have.

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) gave a learned speech in which he praised, quite rightly, the civil service in Northern Ireland. May I add my praise to the wonderful work of David Sterling and his team—all the permanent secretaries and the thousands of civils servants who have worked to keep Northern Ireland going for the past 20 or so months? He rightly pointed out the transparency of decisions, and will have noted that that is provided for, which is important. He specifically asked about ongoing legislation in this Chamber. I can confirm to him that this Government will continue to take steps to introduce and extend legislation to Northern Ireland following careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. We have done so to date, balancing the public interest need with our respect of the devolution settlement and fully restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

The speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) clearly reflected his experience of Northern Ireland. He spoke of the need for determination to get the Assembly up and running again. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) gave a characteristically feisty speech. I have to say that, although there have been various comments and reservations about the Bill, I was somewhat disappointed that he could not bring himself to give broad support for what we are doing, but instead concentrated his entire speech on being critical. That is matter of regret for the whole House when we seek to get the best for the people of Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) gave a passionate speech full of feeling. She spoke about the importance of the Good Friday agreement. I agree with her entirely on that importance, and on the fact that we wish we were not in this place right now and that we were not having to pass this legislation, but, as has already been said, we are where we are.

The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) also made the point that this is not where we want to be, but we are here and therefore it is necessary to get this Bill through, and it is good to have the broad support of the House. She spoke of the need for ministerial decisions. We recognise that there should be ministerial decisions, as those decisions are vital to the people of Northern Ireland. That is why this Bill allows us the opportunity to try to get the parties to think again around that table and to get the Assembly running.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) gave a detailed speech. Again, I note his concerns and reservations, but, broadly, he agreed with the spirit of this Bill and that is welcome. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) rightly spoke about the issues that really are for a devolved Assembly to take. That is why, as I have said, it is important that the whole House is united in trying to get the parties to make sure that the Assembly is functioning.

The UK Government would have very much preferred it if the parties had reached an accommodation and formed an Executive by now. In the absence of such a development, action must be taken. This is to ensure that we can have the protection of the delivery of public services by giving the Northern Ireland civil service certainty to take decisions in the absence of an Executive and also to keep key bodies and offices functioning properly by ensuring that appointments can be made to them.

This really is an important Bill, and we introduce it with reluctance, but we are doing so with the best of intent to get the best for the people of Northern Ireland. I therefore urge that this Bill be read a second time.