Northern Ireland Budget Bill

Part of Miscellaneous – in the House of Commons at 8:01 pm on 13th November 2017.

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Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 8:01 pm, 13th November 2017

That brings me to my next point. The Secretary of State must be clear about Sinn Féin’s strategy. It prefers the chaos of having no Assembly and no direct rule. That suits it and its republican agenda. It is our preference to have Ministers appointed in Northern Ireland, but if we are not going to have that, we have to move towards a situation in which Ministers can take charge of the Departments in Northern Ireland and plan for the future, in the interests of good government and stability, and to ensure that Sinn Féin’s chaos theory of politics is not put into practice.

This is a challenging budget. There has been an increase in cash terms, but there is no real-terms increase. We accept that there have been difficulties in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that Northern Ireland cannot be totally exempt. However, we have put forward a good argument and been successful in highlighting the particular issues in Northern Ireland that need to be addressed, which are different from those in other parts of the United Kingdom. Some Labour Members argue that we need to spend more money on public services, but they seem to be reluctant to see it spent on public services in Northern Ireland. They must explain that inconsistency, however; I merely need to highlight it—[Interruption.] I see the Scottish National party’s spokesperson turning round. Her party makes exactly the same point, but perhaps its Members’ difficulty is that they are angry that they never got in on the act.

This is a challenging budget. I have posed a question to the Secretary of State, because I have experience of this. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has always somehow been exempt from reductions when it comes to budgetary decisions. Many people will find it incomprehensible, at a time when we do not have a First or Deputy First Minister, that the Executive Office should get a 32% increase in its budget. I imagine that most of the budget was drawn up by the Department of Finance, and it is also significant, at a time when the Department of Education is getting only a 1.5% increase and the Justice and Agriculture departmental budgets are going down, that the Department of Finance should be getting a 10% increase. One wonders what influences there have been. These are questions that could and should have been dealt with by the Assembly. We would certainly like to hear the Secretary of State’s explanation of why public-facing Departments such as Education and Agriculture are facing reductions in their budget allocations.

The amount of waste in the education budget in Northern Ireland was mentioned earlier. The 1.5% increase in the education budget will be challenging for schools. I know this from representations that I have had from headmasters in my constituency. We rationalised the administration of education by doing away with five boards and having one education authority, but that still absorbs a disproportionate amount of the education budget. More money is held at the centre by the Department of Education and by the Education Authority.

There is of course another approach that would not involve spending another penny. The Secretary of State and the Chancellor could address the £500 million that was allocated under the Stormont House agreement for a shared future in education. That is not new money, yet the Treasury has tied it up in such a way that it cannot be spent on that shared future. Take the big joint campus at Omagh, which would have allowed for a huge amount of expenditure on education in western Northern Ireland. There is no clearer example of a shared future campus, yet the £140 million allocated under the shared future agreement cannot be spent. There are schools in my constituency with a mixture of Catholics and Protestants that are crying out for expenditure. They are integrated schools in all but name, but as they do not happen to have the right title ahead of their name, the money cannot be spent on them under the shared future programme. I want the Secretary of State to take that up with the Treasury. As we have heard today, even when there is a big problem in the education budget, we still have huge number of school sites and a huge amount of land that are not being sold by the Department of Education, which could raise revenue that would be available to the public purse in Northern Ireland. We have a tough budget, and the Northern Ireland Assembly could have worked its way through it, but it has not. These are the sorts of questions that have to be asked.

As for the future, I know that the Secretary of State is reluctant to be the one who introduces full direct rule again, but we are going to hit the same problem next year due to Departments’ lack of ability to plan for spending if we do not have Ministers in place. If there is no Minister in place, how can Departments look at new initiatives that may cut expenditure or introduce efficiencies? They cannot. So what will we do? We will trundle along, spending money in the same way as we have always done, because that is all that the civil servants will be authorised to do. The Secretary of State will soon have to grasp the nettle and say that we need Ministers in place who can look through the programmes that Departments need to undertake, who can plan for the future, and who can tell civil servants that they can do things with ministerial authority.

We welcome the announcement that £50 million to deal with pressures in health and education will be available this year, but the hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure money can be spent only with planning, which can be done only if Ministers are in place. I tell the Secretary of State not to dally any longer. Do not hold out hope that the cowards in Sinn Féin will take the reins of government and make the tough decisions. They will not, which unfortunately means—we do not relish this—that decisions will be made by Ministers here.