Government to take steps on decision-making powers if Stormont not restored

NI Secretary Julian Smith speaking in the Commons
NI Secretary Julian Smith speaking in the Commons
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The government will take steps over decision-making powers at the “earliest opportunity” if Stormont cannot be restored before an October 31 Brexit, MPs have been told.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith signalled action would be taken, although he did not provide specifics, as he appeared in the Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Home Secretary Priti Patel during a visit to West Yorkshire, where he gave a speech about Brexit as he stood in front of lines of new police recruits.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Home Secretary Priti Patel during a visit to West Yorkshire, where he gave a speech about Brexit as he stood in front of lines of new police recruits.

Fears were also raised by Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley about the impact prorogation of Parliament may have on victims of historical institutional sexual abuse and people who were disabled in the Troubles, saying they needed redress urgently.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Smith said: “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.”

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd warned that senior members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service are “frustrated by their inability to make decisions”.

He added 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.

On the government’s plans to legislate for direct rule in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Lloyd asked: “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, Mr Smith said: “It’s not something I or my department was involved in. That was a matter for the Attorney General.”

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was today accused of abusing his power by speaking about Brexit as he stood in front of lines of new police recruits – one of whom became unwell and had to sit down while he spoke.

The Prime Minister was condemned as having used the officers as an “inappropriate” backdrop as part of a “political stunt” when he made a speech which ended up referencing a possible general election and criticising Jeremy Corbyn.

Around 35 officers had been standing behind his lectern, in front of an old-style police box, for at least 20 minutes before the speech at West Yorkshire Police’s operations and training complex in Wakefield began.

The West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Mark Burns-Williamson called for Mr Johnson to apologise.

Mr Burns-Williamson told the Press Association: “To use police officers as the backdrop to what became a political speech was inappropriate and they shouldn’t have been put in that position.

“It clearly turned into a rant about Brexit, the Opposition and a potential general election. There’s no way that police officers should’ve formed the backdrop to a speech of that nature.”

Asked if Mr Johnson should apologise, he said: “Yes, because he’s used the pretence of an announcement around police recruitment for mainly a political speech.”

Elsewhere, Conservative peer Lord Patten has warned that failing to get Brexit right risks people being killed in Northern Ireland.

He was speaking as peers debated proposed legislation aimed at blocking a no-deal exit on October 31.

The European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill, which has already gone through the Commons, requires a delay to the UK’s departure beyond the current deadline date unless a divorce settlement is approved or Parliament agrees to leaving the EU without one.

Speaking during the Bill’s second reading, Lord Patten, who served as a Northern Ireland minister, said: “We know perfectly well that there is a danger if we don’t get this right of people being killed. Not just businesses being destroyed, not just communities being devastated, but people dying.”