British government will take steps over decision-making powers at 'earliest opportunity' if Stormont not restored before Brexit

Secretary of State Julian Smith. Picture by Mal McCann
By Richard Wheeler and Josh Thomas, PA Political Staff

THE UK Government will take steps over decision-making powers at the "earliest opportunity" if Stormont cannot be restored before an October 31 Brexit, MPs have heard.

Secretary of State Julian Smith indicated he was not consulted about plans to prorogue parliament before the cabinet was informed, as he appeared in the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour.

Fears were also raised by former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley about the impact prorogation may have on victims of institutional sexual abuse and people disabled in the Troubles.

Mr Smith told MPs: "Throughout the period ahead I will be doing everything I can to support and encourage talks to succeed.

"Democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland are best placed to take the decisions needed to support hospitals, schools and the police."

He praised the "excellent" work of civil servants but added: "They cannot, of course, take the proactive decisions that are needed on public services or the economy in the run-up to October 31.

"If we cannot secure the restoration of an executive we will pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity."

Read More: All-Ireland food zone could be set up after Brexit

Shadow secretary of state Tony Lloyd said the imminent prorogation of parliament poses "real dangers" in terms of Northern Ireland's governance, and asked when Mr Smith was consulted about the matter.

He added: "Does the Secretary of State accept that some form of direct governance, some form of direct accountability, would be necessary in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and can he tell us what steps he's taking?"

Mr Smith replied: "I think I've been very honest with the House - powers are needed, not only to ensure the current situation where civil servants across Northern Ireland are making difficult decisions without political direction, but obviously in the run-up to either a deal or no deal that the very tricky decisions can be made and I'm sure those will have to be made at pace."

On legal advice for prorogation, he said: "It's not something I or my department was involved in. That was a matter for the Attorney General."

Ministers were updated shortly before the decision was announced.

Ms Bradley asked Mr Smith to ensure that during prorogation "government does not stop working for those that need redress, and by that I mean victims of historical institutional sexual abuse and those that were severely physically and psychologically disabled in the Troubles through no fault of their own".

"They need redress, they need it urgently."

Commons Speaker John Bercow said the concern being expressed on both sides of the House "will have registered very firmly" with Mr Smith.

He said: "About this matter, more must be heard erelong. I think we need to be absolutely crystal clear on that point. Nothing can get in the way of the provision of proper information to this House on this matter."

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