Tory MP confronts minister in Commons chamber over Troubles legislation delay
A Tory MP confronted a Northern Ireland minister in the Commons after proceedings had finished – hitting out at the “utter farce” of delays to legislation addressing the Troubles legacy.
After Thursday’s sitting had concluded, former defence minister Mark Francois approached Conor Burns to vent his frustration.
Minutes earlier, during an adjournment debate questioning the Government’s plans for the legislation, a number of backbench Conservative MPs pushed for the minister to say when the proposed Bill would come forward.
After the debate finished and the House adjourned, Mr Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) could be heard saying “you call this a Government” and saying loudly that the situation was an “utter farce”.
He then marched up to the minister, who was still standing at his place by the despatch box, and said “that was a farce”.
Standing close to the minister, Mr Francois made another statement that was not audible from the press gallery and said “do something about it” as he walked off.
The incident took place after the television cameras had cut away from proceedings for the day.
Speaking in the debate, and explaining why the Bill had not yet come forward, Mr Burns said: “The Government published the command paper… in July. I joined the Government in September. There was a large amount of feedback on the back of that command paper.
“There has been a massive amount of engagement and the delay is to make sure that we get this right.”
Conservative former minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the Northern Ireland Secretary told him the Bill was “now sitting solely for sign off” and “it was ready to go before Christmas”.
Mr Burns said the “central point” that “it is important before the Bill is brought forward it achieves the Government has for the Bill”.
Conservative MP Julian Lewis (New Forest East) asked: “Who is blocking the Bill? The Bill is ready. Who is blocking it?”
The minister said: “No one is blocking the Bill. There is ongoing engagement across Government to make sure that the Bill, when it is brought forward… it is absolutely unambiguously, unequivocally, the commitment of the Government that this Bill will be brought forward and put before this House of Commons.”
Mr Francois shouted out: “You’ve already broken multiple deadlines. We don’t believe you.”
Deputy Speaker Dame Rosie Winterton intervened to say: “That is not acceptable.”
The minister closed by saying: “My right honourable friend is obviously and rightly angry.
“And I hope we will mollify him when we bring forward the Bill.”
It was then that the House adjourned and Mr Francois vented his frustration.
The minister did not give a specific time commitment on when the Bill would come forward during the debate.
He said: “There has been no briefing from the Northern Ireland Office, as far as I’m aware, to the press about a delay in the Bill.
“And I have not been in any conversation in the department with the Secretary of State or officials… I have not been in any meeting in the NIO where we have discussed delaying this Bill until after the Assembly Bill, or indeed any association with this proposed legislation and the timeline to the Assembly elections in May. That is not true.”
Conservative former defence minister Johnny Mercer, led the debate in the Commons.
He said: “I made it very clear to the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary that it would be fundamentally wrong to create two tiers of veterans in this country: those like me who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who served in Northern Ireland.
“One that would receive a degree of protection from law, and one that wouldn’t.”
Mr Mercer said he had been “forced to break promises I repeatedly made on the Government’s behalf to Northern Ireland veterans”, as no such Bill came forth at the same time.
Last year the Government published a command paper outlining its intention to introduce a statute of limitations on crimes committed during the Northern Ireland conflict up to April 1998 and would apply to military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries.
The proposals, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson said would allow Northern Ireland to “draw a line under the Troubles”, would also end all legacy inquests and civil actions related to the bloody period.