I join the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State in condemning the actions of those responsible for the incidents at Omagh and Londonderry. I also join my right hon. Friend in commending the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. More broadly, I commend the Northern Ireland civil service for its work in the absence of the Executive and the Assembly.
I welcome today’s Bill. Speaking from the Benches of a one-nation Government and a Unionist party, I am interested in the wellbeing of the entire United Kingdom. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s efforts to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved Administration, its power-sharing Executive and its Assembly and to put Northern Ireland’s financial situation on securer footing, giving reassurance to businesses, community groups, residents and others with an interest in Northern Ireland having a secure and prosperous future. I also share his determination to see the negotiations make progress and to get back to a situation in which Northern Ireland is self-governing once more.
I want to make three brief points in my contribution. First, I want to restate how important it is that a budget is secured for Northern Ireland tonight. I hope that the whole House will join me and the Secretary of State in supporting the Bill and will give it fair passage so that we can safeguard public services in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the Bill reflects the Secretary of State’s desire to act with circumspection. I do not believe that he is acting lightly; he is acting in a reasonable and balanced manner and has ensured that he has exhausted all other options, from extending deadlines to chairing a variety of negotiations, and this is the best solution. The alternative is no budget, with funds being distributed by civil servants, which is effective in the short term but unsustainable. Thirdly, this situation is neither direct rule nor a step towards it; this is about the machinery of government and ensuring that the residents and businesses of Northern Ireland have a proper, functioning financial settlement.
The provision of good-quality public services is one of our citizens’ most basic expectations of Government, so the Bill must be passed because it will allow the Government to fulfil their side of the social contract, ensuring that Northern Ireland’s residents receive the services that they deserve and, quite frankly, for which they have already paid. It is important that good government functions well. As the Secretary of State outlined, the situation in Northern Ireland has meant that for some months civil servants have been responsible for distributing funds in the absence of a functioning Executive. While that is clearly better than no access to public services and no funding, it is not a sustainable, long-term plan for the economy. I therefore commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s efforts to get this Bill passed tonight. That system of civil service spending is no substitute for a budget passed by an Executive. As others have said, the prioritisation and allocation of funds must be decided by a democratic authority.
I hope that self-government and a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland are restored, but this budget Bill is a positive solution in the meantime given the situation in which we find ourselves. The Secretary of State, his Minister and the entire Northern Ireland Office are determined to put it into effect and have tried for a significant amount of time to effect the restoration of a power-sharing Administration. To that end, he has hosted discussions at Stormont on numerous occasions and progress has been made, but there are still some issues outstanding on all sides. While the negotiations continue, however, we in this House must act and this Bill is the proper way of doing so. The Secretary of State is right to say that if this House is to act to help with the affairs of Northern Ireland, we should do so on what he calls a “glide path.” We should do only what is necessary when it is necessary—no more, no less, and no sooner. Tonight’s Bill is the appropriate resolution given the situation facing the House.
While discussing devolution and self-government, we should note that up until this year we had experienced the longest period of unbroken devolution in Northern Ireland for some time. That is a significant achievement, and this House should congratulate all the parties involved. I hope that we can continue with that objective after this budget Bill is passed.
The United Kingdom is stronger, more united and better off when all our constituent nations, including Northern Ireland, have a secure and prosperous future and a strong relationship with this House. I am confident that the Bill’s measured approach, as outlined by the Secretary of State in his opening remarks, will mean that the people of Northern Ireland receive the public services that they deserve, that there is a strong and effective financial settlement for them and, of course, that the negotiations continue. It is for those reasons that I am pleased to support the Bill tonight, and I wish my right hon. Friend, his Ministers and the whole team all the best in ensuring that Northern Ireland has the secure financial footing that it deserves.