Northern Ireland news

Westminster urged to take action on 'rudderless' north

Labour's Stephen Pound tries to squeeze spilt water back into Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley's glass, after she knocked it over while addressing MPs in the Commons yesterday PICTURE: PA
Jennifer McKiernan, Elizabeth Arnold and Harriet Line

WESTMINSTER needs to take action on some Northern Irish affairs in the absence of an administration, MPs have heard.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley moved emergency legislation aiming to bring a measure of stability to Northern Ireland's rudderless public services.

But there were calls during the Commons debate for her to go further, with shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd highlighting the issue of waiting times as a "crisis".

Mr Lloyd said there was a desperate need to act on waiting times longer than a year.

"The Northern Ireland health service is in a very bad state," he said.

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"The number of people waiting more than a year in England is 1,500 people but in Northern Ireland the number of people waiting more than a year is 64,000.

"I can almost not find the right word to describe that, because it is so grossly unfair as to challenge all our imaginations.

"You simply cannot say it's OK to wait to see reform."

The Labour MP for Rochdale called for immediate action on specific areas such as waiting times, which he said would not amount to direct rule.

He said: "In the past, previous Northern Ireland secretaries have taken specific action from Westminster – not direct rule, but specific actions in areas of great urgency.

"One, for example, has been social care in the past.

"I think looking for specific action now would show some sense that we are taking these constitutional issues seriously and this human crisis seriously.

"I hope she will reflect long and hard."

The legislation will give civil servants greater clarity over what decisions they can take in the ongoing absence of ministers; enable UK government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments; and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap assembly election.

While the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of power-sharing, and provide breathing space for the region's rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn are hoping to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.

Tory chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Dr Andrew Murrison agreed the north was "lagging well behind where it should be and increasingly so".

Speaking about his visit to a hospital in Belfast and praising the "deeply committed and dedicated" staff, he said: "I came away deeply depressed because it's very clear that Northern Ireland is not getting what it deserves, in comparison with the population of the UK key healthcare indicators are lagging significantly behind.

"That morning we heard from service users particularly in the fields of mental health and cancer care, key areas of healthcare. Were their experiences to be replicated in our constituencies I think we would be very upset indeed."

The absence of ministers capable of taking decisions for nearly two years was, he said, a "significant part of that piece".

The DUP's Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) went further, saying the bill was an "opportunity missed" as it failed to "compel decision-making" in the north.

He told the Commons: "It's not ambitious, it doesn't deliver good governance in Northern Ireland, it doesn't compel decision-making in Northern Ireland, it provides no legislative vehicle for issues that require legislation in Northern Ireland.

"But we do understand and accept the position that the secretary of state finds herself in – the constitutional barrier that she is wrestling with – but she knows that we are of the view that this place should be taking a much more interventionist approach into the affairs of Northern Ireland and that in that sense this bill is an opportunity missed."

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